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Chapter 1 – Jay / Tim

 

            When Jason wakes there are a few things he recognizes immediately as True.

 

            First, it’s Friday – the start of a special four-day holiday weekend for your average Gothamite working at a 9 to 5, and kind of an annoyance to the local capes who now have to deal with exponentially more raucous and crowded streets at night.

            Second, it’s Friday morning – which Jason had thought would’ve been little more than a distant memory by the time he woke up after the night he’d had…

            Third, something is really fucking wrong.

 

            His muscles ache. His whole body does; his joints and muscles and the sinew that connects them, all of it aches in a way that makes his jaw clench, a way that – while not exactly surprising or inexplicable after the night he'd just had, is still… alarming.

            And there’s something wrong with his head, something off – like his brain has gone all fuzzy or some bizarre shit. But the most pressing part of the head thing is the pain, something sharp and grating – with three distinct pinpricks acting as epicenters for the radiating grind of irritation: just above each temple and the worst one right between his eyes.

            Jason groans.

            The sound is an effort.

            It bubbles up his throat with a downright prejudiced resistance and when it hits the air, the fucking thing sounds more like a god damn wheeze than anything with vitriol behind it.

 

            Fabulous.

            Gotta check his fucking lungs out for whatever tear or puncture is leaking fluid into that shit and making his vocals go all wonky.

            Funny though.

            Doesn’t feel like he’s breathing under strain.

            Honestly, his lungs feel pretty damn good, considering the hell that is the rest of him.

            So lungs are low priority. Low-ish. They probably shouldn’t be but Jason decides to just fuck it and roll.

            Continuing his self-assessment triage, Jason twitches his muscles and rolls his joints – running through the ten point check B’d drilled into him way back when.

 

            Feet. Attached, sore – possibly a blister on his fucking toe.

            How the hell he got that one is beyond him.

 

            Ankles. Knees. Functional. Responsive. Attached to calves and thighs that fucking burn to move, but probably are not bleeding and most likely would hold his weight if he forced it.

 

            Hips. Not bad.

            The left one feels like he’d banged it pretty hard, which he doesn’t remember doing, but he also doesn't remember not doing – and both are functional and responsive, so no problem.

 

            Spine. Hella fucking sore at every point a muscle touches, and it pops and crackles ominously, but nothing seems like the kind of shooting pain he should be worried about.

 

            Neck and shoulders. Fucking god the muscles in his shoulders burn. But they move when he asks them to, and there isn’t any creaking or grating inside the joints themselves. Even his neck and the points where it attaches to his skull ache, but again they respond right away.

 

            Elbows. Wrists. Fingers. All working fine. All the muscles around them screaming in protest when he moves them but they do move.

 

            Without opening his eyes, because holy fuck is the morning bright beyond his eyelids, Jason cautiously investigates his surroundings by touch.

            Fingertips brush plush carpet. Back arches against warm blankets. Cheek nuzzles into a rough pillow – couch cushion, most like, repurposed when the ‘decision’ was made regarding how the effort of getting his ass to a real bed was not fucking worth it.

 

            He had just curled up on the floor where he’d sat last night with Tim to patch up the wound on his right shoulder – because Tim has deft little fingers and Jason couldn’t reach the cut to stitch it proper.

            The cut he basically couldn’t even feel anymore…

            Well, shit. Jason should get Tim to stitch up all his scrapes if he’s gonna do such bang up job with it. Legit. This is fucking great.

 

            Speaking of Tim, Jason thought the little fucker had curled up right next to him on the floor – But the tell-tale seep of warmth is absent from his side.

            Tim’s a fucking furnace, so it’s definitely not just Jason overlooking the sensation of warmth because the sun is bearing down so strongly.

            With a regretful huff at having to face the day, Jason rolls onto his stomach and berates his arms into pushing him partly upright.

            As he manages to sit up an enticing smell appears beside his face – dark, and rich, and sharp with a sweetness that curls up warmly in the back of his throat. He practically shudders at the incredible smell – hands reaching blindly, but with perfect aim, for the mug holding the deliciousness of fresh coffee.

            He’s chugged half the mug before it occurs to him that it should be too hot to drink.

            And too bitter.

            Jason likes to play the bad boy image up, and he can force down a dark roast black if that’s his only recourse for caffeine, but that doesn’t mean he actually likes the taste of it. And in this safe house he doesn’t even keep a reasonable roast – the only kind of coffee currently stocked on these shelves is Tim's unholy blend.

            But this… this is… glorious.

 

            Jason frowns, damn near certain that there’s something obvious – something important and obvious – flitting just beyond the reach of the brain cells finally starting to wake up inside his fucking fuzzed up head.

 

            “We have a problem,” Tim says grimly from somewhere by his shoulder. His voice is rough, husky – too deep in a way that makes Jason's wariness kick in. “A big problem.”

 

            Jason hears the trepidation in his voice – fucking feels the tension like it’s thrumming through his own body.

 

            Reluctantly, he cracks an eye.

 

            And the other.

 

            Stares blearily at his own face.

 

            Blinks.

 

            Yup. That’s his own fucking face, alright.

 

            The coffee cup in Jason's hands is nudged – reminding him of its presence. He drops his gaze to it, stares at the dark swirl of liquid… downs what’s left in four big gulps that he doesn’t even think to separate with any breaths.

            He's forced to suck in air afterwards, but the combined influx of caffeine and oxygen helps him get his head on straight.

            Sorta.

 

            “Tim?”

 

            His voice sounds weird – too high and almost keening.

 

            Another cup of coffee is placed into his hands, the empty one being pulled away without him being able to render any resistance.

            “Just drink that,” Tim whispers – still with that too deep, too rough voice.

            Jason can’t protest. He curls his fingers around his mug and sips the life-giving brew.

            Frowns.

            The coffee is delicious.

            The mug is warm where it's nestled in his hands – being hugged by too-pale fingers and set in palms smaller than Jason's have been for years.

            The headache is abating, which is fucking great but equally confusing. It means the headache is probably withdrawal… but Jason's careful with his caffeine. He tops off at like 4, maybe 5, cups a day, on average – usually tea, and frequently on the lower end of the caffeine spectrum. So, it just doesn’t make sense for him to be hurting this bad on a lack of coffee after just one night – 6 hours at most.

 

            Jason pulls his knees up and crosses his legs underneath him, trying to get himself into a position that better facilitates waking up for real. With how much his muscles hurt, he's not quite willing to stand yet, but he definitely needs to wake up more.

            Taking another sip of coffee, Jason looks up – still at his own fucking face – and says cautiously, “Define ‘problem'.”

            Jason's own face shoots him an apologetic look and holds up a mirror.

            “It’s easier to show you.”

 

            Jason is reluctant to look, too sure of what he’ll see, but he takes the mirror gingerly and angles it to reflect the face around his eyes.

            Sure enough, the pasty ass face reflected in the silver circle is Tim’s – complete with the bleary-eyed morning glare Jason has never seen him lose before his third cup of coffee.

            Jason heaves a sigh – heavy, but it sounds too light inside his too small chest.

 

            “Well, fuck.”

________

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 2 – Tim / Jay

 

            When Tim wakes up, it is immediately apparent that something is terribly wrong.

 

            The first indication is that he wakes up.

            Tim can’t remember the last time he woke up and actually felt awake before his second cup of coffee. It was years ago, at this point… he’d probably still been in middle school, at most.

 

            So waking up and feeling awake before he even opens his eyes is not normal – and while this seems like a good kind of unusual, Tim knows better than to think it's not potentially a problem. In their line of work, ‘not normal’ is usually quite closely linked to ‘not good’.

 

            It does not take long for his hypothesis to be proven correct.

 

            As soon as Tim opens his eyes and tries to wriggle out of the burrito of blankets he'd gotten himself rolled up in, he realizes that he no longer is rolled up. Another tick mark for the ‘unusual’ column. He’s laying sprawled out on the soft carpeting of Jason's safe house floor, with nothing but a thin knit throw to cover him, and he’s not cold.

            He’s able to push himself into sitting upright with almost no protest from his muscles – in fact, there’s only a vague soreness threading through his body, like he’d taken an entire afternoon off and then only done a basic patrol instead of running around all day and night for the last week to break open an illegal import case with Red Hood.

            Tim knows that yesterday had been incredibly successful and that normally after a night like that, he should be aching with the repercussions of exertion… but he's not…

            There’s a couple of hotspots on his limbs that are probably budding bruises, but nothing too painful. The worst souvenir of last night’s adventures in an itch on the back of his shoulder – the healing prickle of a cut sewn up with antiseptic glue and biodegradable stitches.

 

            Which Tim almost dismisses.

 

            If the kind of exhaustion he should have been feeling this morning was present, the oddity of it might not have even registered. Tim has gotten banged up more than enough for a new scrape not to be unusual – But being as awake and aware as he is currently… Tim can recall that his shoulder didn’t get scraped up last night.

 

            Jason's did.

 

            Jason's armor had kept the bullet from coming anywhere near the threshold of killing him, but being slightly-more-than-grazed by a supersonic lead projectile had still left a nasty split in his skin. Initially, he hadn’t let Tim know about it, but it affected how he'd grappled away from the scene of their little show down and it was bleeding rather profusely – enough to let the slickness shine under the low lights of Gotham's skyline. Enough to catch Tim’s attention.

 

            This working together thing is still pretty new for them, still pretty hesitant and fragile – fraught with unmarked boundaries.

 

            Tim hadn’t known how Jason would react to having him insist on seeing to the injury himself, but he also hadn't been willing to compromise – the wound was at an odd angle that would have been difficult for Jason to adequately care for on his own, and even a much smaller wound could still be fatal if not properly disinfected.

            To Tim's tremendous relief – and more than mild surprise – Jason had agreed to let Tim treat him. He'd led Tim to a safe house he maintained and let Tim stitch up the shoulder before promptly falling asleep on the floor.

            Tim had considered going to the real bed waiting for him in Jason’s guest room, but by then he'd already let his muscles cool down too much while he'd sat on the floor stitching up Jason. He couldn’t have made it to the guest room if his life depended on it.

 

            Fortunately, it did not and Tim had been able to wrap himself in blankets from the couch and curl up within the inviting bubble of warmth that existed against Jason's broad side.

 

            He wasn’t too overly worried about the fact that Jason would probably not appreciate waking up right next to the crazy little stalker / cling-on / side-kick that is Tim Drake, because he always woke up well before Jason did…

 

            Which is why he’s awake right now, awake and aware and noticing things that simply do not bode well.

 

            He's not hurting from last night's adventures, he’s not acutely craving coffee, he’s not cold, and it’s not his hip that feels injured like it should…

            Tim lets his gaze fall questioningly to land on Jason's sleeping form – except it’s not Jason curled up next to him. It's him. Ice shoots down his spine and dread pools in his gut as he looks at his own face peeking out from a bundle of blankets.

            Tim’s first thought is that he’s dead and staring at himself as a disembodied ghost – stranger things have happened in their line of work – and Tim’s second thought is that Jason killed him in some sort of Lazarus relapse and isn’t here because he’s run off.

 

            But the evidence doesn’t support that.

 

            A relapse would have made Jason destroy the apartment, but the place is pristine. And if Tim were dead, he wouldn’t hurt – wouldn't have stitches that itched… at least not according to Jason's account of the limbo he’d found himself in post-death, but pre-resurrection.

            Jason hasn't said much about that period of time, but Tim’s pieced enough together from what he has said to know that pain and soreness and itchiness don’t exist there.

 

            And neither does hunger – because that is what the gnawing ache is, clawing at him from beside the dread in his gut.

 

            Tim decides to deal with the hunger first thing after he figures his situation out – possibly as he figures it out, because it’s an ache like he’s never felt before and one that’s utterly impossible to ignore… it’s a scrabbling, grinding, chafing, need that feels downright motivating.

            Between the hunger and his shoulder, Tim is developing another hypothesis. It’s one he doesn’t like very much – well, he kind of likes it better than his initial theory, because most things are better than being killed in his sleep by the person he's idolized for over a decade, but at least the dead theory made sense.

 

            A body swap theory… does not.

 

            It’s almost too trite and ridiculous to believe, and if that is genuinely what’s happened, it’s just one more implausible thing to file under ‘reasons the dead theory seemed so sane'.

 

            But when Tim stands up – or rather attempts to stand up – the theory starts to feel less ridiculous. The limbs he is currently in control of do not behave like the ones he’s used to – for starters, the twitch response is much more dramatic, and far more easily triggered.

            Tim finds himself swinging wildly across the apartment – managing to stay upright, but only by the skin of his teeth as his muscles’ jerk reactions fling his limbs about as if he’s fighting phantoms. The ingrained fluidity of muscle memory is all that keeps him balanced.

 

            It’s a testament to Jason’s plush carpeting that he doesn’t wind up thundering about like a herd of elephants. Even so, Tim is rather surprised to find that Jason sleeps straight through Tim’s wild flailing and muffled yelps.

 

            It takes a minute – a long minute, to be honest – but Tim does manage to learn the tolerances of his new, hopefully temporary, limbs.

            He carefully makes his way over to the kitchen and peers into the mirrored hexagon tiles of Jason's backsplash. Where Jason's face blinks back at him.

 

            Frack.

 

            Yeah, this is gonna be a problem.

            On the upside, the theory that he’s dead is pretty much entirely disproved.

 

            At a loss of what else to do, Tim makes coffee.

            Because coffee always helps.

 

            There’s coffee in the cupboard above the coffee maker and Tim can reach it easily – with the advantage of Jason’s height to help him, the container is on a shelf just below eye-level.

            There’s plenty of his favorite brand stocked, even though Jason doesn’t keep this safe house very well supplied. Tim knows that it’s because of how public – relatively speaking – this place is: all of the Bats, and most of their friends, and a good portion of people they would never otherwise associate with outside the Cape Community know about this address.

 

            So it’s really just stocked with the kinds of thing the most regular visitors require: Tim’s coffee, Dick’s ridiculous cereal, hellfire spices for Cass, that superfood smoothie mix Babs and Steph accidentally got addicted to last summer, and extra clothes for all of them… but nothing Jason. Tim’s thought about it before, about how this place feels more like a hotel – or a time share at absolute best – than like a home, or even a safe house, to be honest.

 

            It’s like Jason’s personal pretend-house, a movie set he’s built to hold office hours with his friends and family before he can run off to be alone in a genuine safe house.

            Tim’s thought about it before, but he never really understood that Jason felt it too.

            Really, felt it – like a thrum of electricity, physical and tactile and intense.

            There’s a nervous energy running through the body Tim’s borrowing that tells him enough to know his body’s instincts make him feel out of place here. This is a safe enough space, but not a place his streetwise reflexes consider truly safe.

 

            The beep of the coffee maker pulls Tim from his thoughts.

 

            He fills a mug for himself and then one for Jason – because the Jason that is currently stuck inside Tim’s body is going to be waking up soon and he’s gonna be facing a killer craving that Jason’s mind is not at all accustomed to dealing with.

            Thinking of problems and Jason and dealing with issues, Tim realizes that he’s gonna have to find some way to figure out how to explain this to Jason – or at least to get him on the same page as Tim currently is… Because Tim doesn’t have an explanation of why, he just has observation of what has happened – but that’s gonna be tricky enough to explain anyway.

 

            From the bundle of blankets on the floor in the living room, Jason groans.

 

            Tim peeks over at him as he wriggles free of the blankets and begins working through the injury check that Bruce had drilled into all of the kids that had ever come under his care.

            As Jason groans again, Tim cautiously makes his way over, coffee cup in hand. He hasn’t even taken a sip of it yet – the smell alone is enough to wake him up and make it feel like morning, and yet it’s not at all tempting for him to taste. In fact, this body is not particularly fond of the idea of ingesting it… Jason’s stomach makes an ominous gurgle as the thought crosses Tim’s mind to just drink the coffee anyway.

 

            Jason’s body wants food before it will tolerate anything like coffee.

 

            But Tim’s body needs coffee. Right now.

 

            Jason has pushed himself quasi-upright when Tim arrives at his side. His hands reach blindly for the coffee he smells and Tim carefully transfers over the mug he’s still holding. Jason sniffs at it cautiously, a bit of his own mind recognizing that something’s not quite right before it’s overridden by the aggressive need of Tim’s body.

 

            “We have a problem,” Tim says quietly, trying to whisper to keep the shock of his altered voice to a minimum – it still sounds wrong to him. And to Jason, though his frown might be due to Tim’s words rather the voice saying them. “A big problem.”

 

            Reluctantly, Jason cracks an eye.

 

            And the other.

 

            Blinks.

 

            Frowns.

 

            Blinks again.

 

            Tim nudges the coffee cup in Jason’s hands. He’s not anywhere near being awake enough to deal with this yet.

 

            Jason stares down at the coffee like it holds the answers to the universe. As Tim watches him process out the fact that coffee will help, he’s reminded of the other cup he filled – still sitting on the counter in the kitchen. As Jason dives into finishing off his first cup, Tim darts back to the kitchen to grab him the second one.

 

            “Tim?”

 

            Hearing his own voice through Jason’s ears is a bizarre experience. Deeply unsettling.

 

            Tim switches out the empty cup in Jason’s hands for the fully one he’s brought over.

 

            “Just drink that,” Tim whispers – realizing that perhaps words are not going to be adequate explanation for their current conundrum.

 

            Tim darts away inelegantly again as Jason frowns into the second cup of coffee.

            He’s rummaging around in Jason’s bathroom as Jason struggles to wake up. When Tim makes it back to the living room Jason is sitting with crossed legs beside the bundle of blankets Tim had curled up in when they’d first settled down – only seven hours ago, at most.

            Jason is still frowning into his coffee when Tim kneels back down at his side.

 

            Jason lifts this coffee cup and downs half its contents in a few gulps. Tim watches his own face relax as the caffeine begins to truly hit him and suppresses a shiver at the eerie sight.

            Lowering the coffee cup just enough to stare suspiciously at Tim from over the rim, Jason demands, “Define ‘problem’.”

            Tim shoots him an apologetic look, and holds up the prize he’d seized from Jason’s bathroom: a handheld mirror.

            “It’s easier to show you,” he admits softly.

 

            Jason is clearly reluctant to look.

            It’s obvious that he’s put a couple of the incongruous facts together, drawn a few conclusions about what it all means that he’s not comfortable with facing… Gingerly, Jason takes the mirror and angles it at his face – at Tim’s face.

            Sure enough, it’s not surprise that begins to furrow Jason’s brow.

            He’s already thinking way beyond that – considering the possible how’s and why’s and what the frack they’re gonna do about it.

            Jason heaves a sigh.

 

            “Well, fuck.”

 

            The sentiment sounds weird coming out of Tim’s throat, but Tim can’t deny that it fits – that it’s a wholly appropriate response to the current situation.

 

            “Yeah,” Tim agrees, heaving his own heavy sigh.

 

            It sounds as strange as hearing his own voice speak Jason’s words – feels weird as it rumbles through a broad chest that’s over three times the size of the one he’s used to feeling.

 

            Jason is a really large human.

            Tim knew that before this, but like, wow. Jason is massive.

 

            “Okay, then,” Jason says, setting the mirror down and finishing off his second cup of coffee. He shakes his head a little and seems to accept the reality of their ridiculous situation without any childish resistance to the implausibility of it.

            Fixing Tim with a flat look that is just so Jason – and feels so strange to see on Tim’s own face – Jason says, “So, if I’m really stuck in your body, care to explain why it feels like you got hit by a fuckin’ truck last night? I mean, I wasn’t baby sittin’ your ass all night but I’m pretty sure you walked the fuck home on your own shit feet.”

            Stomach curling inwards, Tim pulls at the empty coffee cup in Jason’s hands and pushes towards his feet. “It’s fine,” he promises, making for the coffee to nab a refill. “I’m just sore.”

 

            “I don’t fucking feel fine, Tim,” Jason growls.

 

            He flails as he tries to get Tim’s limbs under control enough to stand. Jason wobbles a few times, but he gets the hang of it much faster than Tim had – which doesn’t make Tim feel at all inadequate or anything about being the subpar replacement Robin. He’s over that. He is.

            And it’s a thought that’s almost entirely true.

 

            Mostly, watching Jason relearn how to walk in only a few wobbly strides makes Tim even more impressed with Jason’s adaptability and resilience.

 

            Tim has another cup of coffee ready for him when Jason makes it to the kitchen’s island.

            He passes it over as quickly as he can without spilling a drop – a feat of control over Jason’s strength that Tim wouldn’t have been able to manage half an hour ago. He is improving, he is and he knows that… he’s just doing it slower than Jason did.

 

            Par for the course, really.

 

            Jason snaps his fingers – Tim’s fingers – in front of his face.

            “C’mon, Timmers, pay attention,” Jason growls between sips of coffee. “I’m askin’ why the fuck you hurt so bad. I’ve been sore before, you little shit, and this ain’t just sore.”

            With a sheepish wince, Tim admits, “It kind of… is…”

            “Tim,” Jason growls again, somehow finding a way to push something like his usual snarly register out of Tim’s smaller frame.

 

            Uncharacteristically fidgety, Tim nervously taps his fingers across the countertop and avoids looking anywhere near Jason as he confesses, “For me, it is just sore. And it’s normal, after a day like yesterday.”

            He can feel Jason’s glare boring into him still, and its silent push to make him say more.

            Tim can’t stop his mouth from running.

            “It’s fine, though,” Tim promises. “Long days happen and it’s fine. I’ve had to work a lot harder to catch up to the rest of you; I’ve had to fight a lot harder to keep up… It’ll go away.”

            Jason hangs his head and sips again at his coffee.

 

            “We’re not done talking about this,” Jason says after he’s finished draining the cup.

            Without giving Tim any warning – or any indication of his intentions – Jason pushes to his feet and strolls around to his usual side of the island as Tim shuffles backwards, doing his best to stay out of Jason’s way.

            “But you’re gonna need this soon,” Jason sighs. He reaches into the long skinny drawer just under the island’s countertop and pulls out a half-crushed carton of Marlboro Reds and a cheap little bic lighter. “I know you’ve never lit up before, but it’s not that bad.”

 

            Tim frowns. “How do you know I’ve never tried it, never even experimented?”

            “ ‘Cause you’re lookin’ at this shit like it’s gonna fuckin’ eat you,” Jason snorts. He pushes the carton and the lighter across the island towards Tim and adds, “Don’t think about it, just let the muscle memory do the work.”

 

            Cautiously picking up the pack, Tim slips a cigarette free.

 

            He peeks up anxiously to see if Jason’s watching him and finds with tremendous relief that Jason’s already turned his back – is currently digging through his cabinets, muttering curses. A waffle iron appears on the counter and a box mix that Jason scowls at like its existence is a personal offence.

            As he watches Jason gather the ingredients for breakfast – a concept that makes his mouth water and his stomach clench with anticipation – Tim picks up the lighter and tries not to be horribly awkward as he lights up the cigarette.

 

            Jason is right.

 

            He’s never tried this.

            He’s never been interested in trying it.

            Tim’s lungs are weak enough to make it unappealing, not to mention the fact that he already hardly eats as it is and coffee is at least a stimulant with calories attached. The lethargy and idleness associated with cigarettes had also been irksome to consider – the bland ‘euphoria’ of a hit of nicotine would make him lose time he could’ve otherwise utilized to accomplish something… to check off a bullet point on his never-ending to do list.

 

            Besides, the Drake reputation would make it inexcusable to develop the finger stains or a lingering smoke smell – or the requirement for sneaking off for periodic smoke breaks.

            Coffee was the only drug Tim could publicly invest in without tarnishing the Drake Family name, and he could manage it without taking any time or attention away from whatever else he was doing, with no obvious or socially unacceptable side effects.

            And coffee facilitated the doing of other things, rather than stood as an experience in and of itself – which Tim’s tight schedule certainly appreciated.

 

            So Tim has never smoked before.

 

            He has no idea what he’s doing aside from a vague understanding of the physics involved. The cigarette sits naturally between Jason’s fingers, fitting neatly into a subtle notch in the muscle and bone like a pencil sits in Tim’s hand. It seems straightforward enough but Tim fumbles the hold as he tries to raise the cigarette to his lips.

 

            “You’re thinking too much,” Jason says without turning around from the bowl of batter being created in his hands. “Just shut your stupid little brain off. I’ve been smoking for over a decade at this point, and a pack a day the last two years – my body knows how to fuckin do this shit. Just watch me attempt to make waffles with your scrawny little stick arms and zone out.”

 

            Tim tries.

 

            He does.

            He really does.

            And if he were in his own body, watching the real Jason command his way around the kitchen, he might’ve been able to do it… he’d never been able to zone out easily before he’d first encountered Jason – even when stalking Dick and Bruce through Gotham, waiting around for them to swing in had been a fairly active, conscious pursuit for him.

 

            It was only after Jason became Robin that Tim started to find himself so distracted with just watching Robin move that he nearly forgot to take the pictures he had gone out to capture.

 

            And once he’d started interacting with Jason… in the Drake kitchen, the Gordon living room, or any of the rooms at Wayne Manor, or anywhere they’d gone out on the town… Tim had started zoning out occasionally.

 

            Jason was just so… affecting. He commanded the attention of everyone in the room. His powerful influence was a mix of charming charisma and awe-inspiring aggression in a delicate, intricate dance – like a pair of figure skaters careening around a rink… controlled, yet not.

            And now that he’d been interacting with Jason again… post-death, post-Lazarus rehab… still with the extra slide unpredictability of the Pit’s influence, and the extra punch of vitriol and aggression, but also with more of the happy-go-lucky Robin confidence and a newer kind of self-assurance… Tim has recently found himself enthralled… on more than just the rare occasion.

 

            But he isn’t watching Jason cook.

 

            He isn’t watching the powerful muscles of Jason’s back shift beneath his shirt as he reaches for something in a high cabinet. He isn’t watching Jason absently twirl a spatula or juggle eggs or balance an impossible number of little bowls or anything.

 

            Instead, Tim is watching his own scrawny frame shuffle about the kitchen – looking as awkward and ungraceful as he always feels. It’s worse somehow, watching himself be a gangly mess, than it is to actually be the mess… he can see it more clearly as an outsider than when he is distracted by the effort of existing in such uselessness.

 

            Tim sighs.

 

            And doesn’t realize that he’s taken a long drag, or maybe two, on the cigarette until his hand is reaching for an ashtray he hadn’t even consciously noted was there.

 

            As he taps off the ashes, Tim realizes that some of the jittery anxiousness is gone from his fingertips – that some of the frazzled energy has calmed into something like focus.

 

            It’s nice, almost.

 

            Relaxed and peaceful in a way Tim isn’t really sure what to do with.

 

            But that question ceases to matter as a massive plate is set in front of him and every drop of Tim’s focus zeros in on the unbelievable, devastating deliciousness of food.

 

________

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 3 – Groundwork (Jason)

 

            It’s Tim’s face staring back at him in the mirror, and Tim’s long, pale fingers that are wrapped around his mug. And it’s Tim’s muscles that feel like they’re dying, like they’ve been kicked and beaten and run over by every antelope on the savannah.

            Jason can accept the body swap weirdness.

            Shit happens.

            Weird shit happens

            And a lot of that weird shit happens to him.

 

            Like, seriously.

            This time five years ago, Jason was dead.

            He was frickin’ worm food, six feet under and already halfway to forgotten.

            And now he’s not.

 

            So.

            Somehow being squished into Tim’s little body?

            Yeah. Sure. Totally plausible.

            Whatever.

 

            The how and the why and the what the hell do we do now parts of it were questions to be addressed after breakfast – except, Tim’s stomach churns unpleasantly at the vague mental mention of anything remotely food-like.

 

            “Okay, then,” Jason says, setting the mirror aside and finishing off coffee número dos before fixing Tim with a look.

            It’s weird to be throwing a flat glare at his own frickin’ face, but he can actually see the Tim-ness of Tim sitting inside his bone structure, the shyness and hesitance and headspace pull-back that means Tim’s mind is working fifteen miles a minute… so it’s easier than Jason anticipated to glare at him.

 

            Because he can accept the body swap thing.

 

            And he can deal with the weird ass anti-hunger strike Tim’s stomach is going on.

            But the fact that he hurts so much right now… the fact that he fucking died and woke up with less of this passive and evenly distributed aching.

 

            Yeah, no. That is being addressed right the fuck now.

 

            “So, if I’m really stuck in your body, care to explain why it feels like you got hit by a frickin’ truck last night? I mean, I wasn’t baby sittin’ your ass all night but I’m pretty sure you walked the fuck home on your own shit feet.”

            Tim – behind Jason’s face – pulls further inward, embarrassed and awkward and almost… ashamed. Jason’s spent too many years cultivating an automatic blankness for Tim’s emotions to show through perfectly clear, and Tim’s spent a lifetime building up his own mask, so Jason’s not entirely certain… but yeah, that looks a helluva lot like shame.

            “It’s fine,” Tim promises, pulling the empty coffee cup from Jason’s hands and then pushing to his feet. He skitters away – aiming for the coffee pot, Jason realizes – and avoids looking at Jason as he asserts weakly, “I’m just sore.”

            With an emphatic flail of disbelief that sets his muscles screaming, Jason growls, “I don’t fucking feel fine, Tim.”

            Tim does not respond.

            He doesn’t even look back in Jason’s direction.

            Which means Jason will just have to go to him.

            It’s hard to stand.

 

            Everything hurts, and Tim’s limbs are spindly and ridiculous – frickin Bambi on ice in action – but Tim’s worked very hard honing his balance and fine motor functions. It’s not natural, not an innate talent, but a consciously trained habit that his body knows how to facilitate. Jason thinks he must’ve been a clumsy kid, and worked hard to correct it – because Jason fuckin knows how graceful Red Robin can be, knows that even by age twelve the kid was slick enough to sneak around without attracting Batman’s notice. Jason has seen Tim tumble through existence with an elegance that looks effortless even when his brain is buried under the kind of exhaustion and coffee withdrawal that would kick most people six ways to Sunday.

            No natural habit or inclination could manage that.

            Dick fucking trips over his own feet when he’s too tired to focus, runs into frickin walls.

            This is a different kind of conditioning.

            This is muscle memory that goes beyond anything brain power could control or natural talent could facilitate, and Jason knows better than to fight it.

            He focuses on Tim – on where he wants to go – and just lets Tim’s body do what it will to get him over there.

            Tim is watching him when he reaches the island, passes a third cup of coffee to him by sliding it across the counter. He watches the mug slide smoothly into Jason’s hands with an expression that looks bizarrely sad, and equally determined.

 

            Jason doesn’t wanna dig into that one yet.

 

            The achiness is still the most pressing issue.

            Jason snaps his fingers – Tim’s fingers – in front of his face.

            “C’mon, Timmers, pay attention,” Jason growls between sips of coffee. “I’m askin’ why the fuck you hurt so bad. I’ve been sore before, you little shit, and this ain’t just sore.”

            With a sheepish wince, Tim admits, “It kind of… is…”

            “Tim,” Jason growls again, vehemence making the word rumble through him.

            Tim’s fidgety – more than usual, more than just sheepishness or anxiety. He taps his fingers across the countertop and refuses to make eye contact. The eye contact thing is all Tim, and so is the uncomfortable vibrate through the floor reaction, but the tapping… that’s…

 

            Oh. Fuck.

 

            Jason hasn’t had a cigarette in over eight, maybe ten hours, at this point.

 

            Tim is gonna need a hit. Soon.

 

            Fuck.

 

            Jason tries not to let himself be distracted by that, by the pained curl of guilt that strikes him at the thought of making Tim light up, and focuses on Tim as he draws a shaky breath.

            Still not looking at Jason, Tim confesses, “For me, it is just sore. And it’s normal, after a day like yesterday.”

            Jason’s stare turns into a glower.

            Because fuck no.

            This shit is not normal.

            And if it is normal for Tim after a night like last night… well, that’s a problem.

 

            Tim seems to feel the pressure of his silent stare and it sets his mouth running.

            “It’s fine, though,” Tim promises. “Long days happen and it’s fine. I’ve had to work a lot harder to catch up to the rest of you; I’ve had to fight a lot harder to keep up… It’ll go away.”

            Jason hangs his head and sips again at his coffee.

            “We’re not done talking about this,” Jason says after he’s finished draining the cup.

 

            But Tim’s started picking at his fingernails. Picking in a way that will make them start to bleed in the next twenty minutes if it’s allowed to continue. Mental anxiety and physiological antsiness are not a good combo.

            Jason pushes to his feet in an abrupt decision to get this over with.

            He’s gotten enough of a hang of controlling Tim’s feet to stroll around the island as Tim shuffles awkwardly back – like he’s worried about taking up too much of Jason’s space.

            If he wasn’t focused on what he was doing, Jason would snort at the sentiment. This place isn’t Jason’s space. This is just a safe house to stash shit in when he’s got a tail he can’t lose. There’s nothing here of his for Tim to crowd – even while he is in Jason’s body, which is like four times bigger than the body Jason’s in right now.

 

            Fuck.

 

            Tim is tiny.

            Like Jason knew that.

            But.

 

            Still.

 

            Tim’s faced down baddies that make Jason feel small. Like Killer Croc.

            Shit, Jason’s seen Tim face that freakshow down – knows he only comes up to Croc’s waist or so… but looking at the little guy bounce around from his usual height and looking up at Jason’s own body from inside that tiny frame…

            And god he’s gotta seem like a monster to Tim, gotta be one of the shadows that haunts Tim’s nightmares… because compared to Tim, Jason’s body is frickin ginormous.

            A viable threat just by its mere existence.

            And Jason’s tried to kill Tim.

            And nearly succeeded at it.

            Twice.

            And he’s just so much bigger than Tim.

            A simple unguarded swing of Jason’s arm could knock Tim clean off his feet.

            He knows that, has spent a while learning how to be conscious of it around Tim, but now that he and Tim have gotten more comfortable with working together, Jason’s kind of forgotten to watch himself. And Tim’s never noticeably balked at being dangerously close to Jason – who, from this angle, seems like he could very easily crush Tim by accident, let alone intent.

 

            Jason shakes himself, refocuses.

 

            Because Tim’s already anxious, and he’s still picking at his fingernails, and the need for a nicotine hit is gonna start grinding on him hard, and Tim’s not gonna know what the sensation is, let alone how to help mollify it.

            Jason still feels guilty about the idea of making Tim light up.

            It helps to think that doing so will help ease some of the obvious thrum of anxiety running through him, let the tension settle somewhat.

            “But you’re gonna need this soon,” Jason sighs. He reaches into the long skinny drawer just under the island’s countertop and pulls out a half-crushed carton of Marlboro Reds and a cheap little bic lighter. “I know you’ve never lit up before, but it’s not that bad.”

 

            Tim frowns.

            More of a pout, really.

 

            In other circumstances, it would be adorable.

 

            But now, Tim’s still curled in on himself. He’s still playing nervously with his fingers, but he’s quit the worst of it in order to project a flimsy bravado.

            “How do you know I’ve never tried it, never even experimented?”

            “ ‘Cause you’re lookin’ at this shit like it’s gonna fuckin’ eat you,” Jason snorts.

            It’s hilarious that Tim doesn’t think it’s obvious to Jason.

            For someone Jason knows has spent the last half a decade studying body language, Tim is still pretty damn oblivious about what his own body is projecting when he's stewing in his own persona, au naturale. Kid can don a mask and play it hard enough to trick the friggin’ al Ghul ass-hats, but as just himself, Tim can't lie for shit.

            Jason’s willing to give him a bit of leeway, considering that his current body isn’t actually his own body, but still – Tim’s always been pretty transparent to Jason, even in the recent years.

            Trying not to let it affect him, Jason pushes the carton and the lighter across the island towards Tim and adds, “Don’t think about it, just let the muscle memory do the work.”

            Cautiously picking up the pack, Tim slips a cigarette free.

            Jason turns his back and begins digging through the cabinets, trying to think of some breakfast item he can cook that won’t make Tim’s stomach do backflips on him.

            Half of his move to turn and examine his cupboards is meant to give Tim a semblance of privacy. Kid has enough pressure on him to be perfect on a day to day basis, no need to add more. And he's spent so long successfully living up to the hype that not being perfect at something has gotta chafe. And there’s no way he’s gonna be perfect at this.

            The other half is guilt. He doesn’t wanna watch Tim flounder, doesn’t wanna watch him smoke at all. Sure, it’s Jason’s body, but it still feels weird… some curl of brotherly responsibility or shit balking at the idea of making Tim do drugs…

 

            Nope, that line of thought is not helpful. In any way.

 

            Jason fixates on the problem in front of him, instead of the one behind him.

 

            And that means food.

            Which Tim’s stomach does not like the idea of ingesting. At all.

            Holy fuck, how is this kid still alive when his body literally rebels at the concept of food?

 

            Well, sugar sounds good. Sugar doesn’t make him feel queasy.

            What does Jason have for breakfast that involves sugar?

 

            Pancakes jump to mind, but the griddle he kept here broke last month and he hasn’t gotten around to replacing it yet, and hell if he’s gonna make a dozen pancakes one at a time in an actual pan. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

            But waffles use almost the same mix and his waffle iron makes four in a go. And he’s got whipped cream and syrup and butter and shit to add calories to keep both Tim and Jason alive for the next few hours of figuring things out.

            Checking his cabinets, Jason discovers that he’s out of the stuff to make the mix from scratch. Shit. He would’ve liked to have needed to expend a bit more focus on making breakfast, but Tim’s stupid crazy stomach is suddenly dead set on this waffle thing. Box mix it is.

            Because Stephanie likes pancakes, but anything more complicated than adding milk, eggs, and oil to a pre-made mix is way too much for her to handle. And there’s always a few spare boxes of the mix, because she burns half of what she attempts to cook even when it’s only got three steps to it.

            ( Side note that he’s totally not bitter about at the moment, Steph’s the one who busted up his griddle. )

            He’s still grumbling internally about it all as he gathers the ingredients. A quick glance in the mirrored backsplash proves a shock. Even having seen it in the hand mirror already, seeing himself in Tim’s little body is just as jarring as it was the first time.

            Over his – Tim’s – shoulder, he sees his own body looking upset and unsettled.

            “You’re thinking too much,” Jason says without turning around from the bowl of batter he’s bringing into being. “Just shut your stupid little brain off. I’ve been smoking for over a decade at this point, and a pack a day the last two years – my body knows how to fuckin do this shit. Just watch me attempt to make waffles with your scrawny little stick arms and zone out.”

 

            It might work.

 

            He’s gotta look ridiculous trying to wrestle Tim’s aching limbs into order.

 

            And Tim has never been the most focused person in the world.

            Well, he’s sorta focused, but he’s always been prone to over focusing – on shit that no one else can even see. It would be called daydreaming by a dumbass teacher, even at the fancy ass university Tim attends where the teachers ought to know better, but Jason knows it’s because Tim’s brain is working on a puzzle.

            Or obsessing over some dumb worry. He does that too.

            Which Jason doesn’t understand, but whatever. And Jason can usually tell the difference between figuring and freak out, so he knows which one to interrupt, so he’s not worried.

            Even when Tim’s expression takes on a sort of sad slant he can’t rationalize, he’s still not quite worried – it’s probably just that Tim’s brain is focused on the puzzle of what the frick happened to make them like this, and he’s upset at not being inside his own body.

 

            As Jason works methodically through the first round of waffle cooking, he snatches looks at the reflection of Tim behind him. Eventually, he does seem to let his mind wander enough to let the muscle memory ingrained in Jason’s body do the hard work and get the cigarette to his lips – get the nicotine inside it down to his lungs.

 

            Tim doesn’t even cough at the sensation.

            And a good chunk of the tension in his frame evaporates.

 

            When Tim’s arm reaches for the astray on autopilot it seems to surprise Tim’s mind enough to wake him to the moment. He looks panicked for half a second before settling into the calm of it, of letting Jason’s muscles do what they need to in order to make the twitchy feeling of a craving go away.

 

            And when Jason sets a plate of waffles down in front of him, Tim looks positively ravenous. Which makes sense, considering that he’s inside Jason’s body and Jason has never really gotten passed the part of puberty that makes kids like him vacuum up everything in sight that’s even remotely edible. He’s not sure if it’s a consequence of dying halfway through age sixteen, when puberty hadn’t yet been quite finished with him, or if it’s a lingering symptom of the Pit – that ravenous, vicious hunger for inflicting pain, that appetite of bloodlust, simply being funneled into a more traditional hunger.

            Or it could even be a consequence of dying and coming back, regardless of the Pit – even your most traditional zombie is a mindless eating machine, after all.

 

            Whatever it is, Tim is feeling it.

 

            He inhales the first round of waffles and digs into the second without any hesitation. It could be that Tim’s so focused on the food because it gives him time to think without having to talk, but feeling Tim’s own body shove up resistance to the idea of eating anything – feeling the battle it takes to keep food down first hand – Jason thinks it’s a lot more likely Tim’s just straight up overwhelmed.

            Jason thinks it’s pretty likely Tim’s never felt hunger like Jason’s before.

            Puberty’s been treating Tim pretty well, but not in a way that’s made him bulk up. He’s gotten a lot taller that he was at twelve, and broadened out a bit from when Jason knew him before he died, but Tim’s still built lean – still looks tiny compared to Jason, especially with how much more dramatic Jason’s own growth spurts. With the persistent leanness in his frame and with how there’s a veritable riot in his stomach as Jason considers forcing down a second waffle… yeah, Tim marveling at Jason’s appetite is highly probable.

 

            Jason gives him his peace.

            He decides to screw washing up for the moment – because Tim’s muscles still hurt, are still protesting to the rude awakening they got as Jason spent what little time he did with cooking, and because they have way bigger problems to focus on right now.

 

            Stashing all the dirty kitchenware in the sink, Jason comes around the island to the side Tim’s seated on – letting himself fall into the tall chair beside his own body. Tim’s feet dangle more than a few inches off the ground and Jason props them up on the middle chair’s cross brace to keep them from swinging like a kid’s.

 

            “Okay, so, any idea what the hell happened?”

 

            Tim shakes his head.

            “All I know is that it’s some sort of consciousness transfer, not an illusion or some sort of ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ hoodoo. Our bodies still need what they usually need, it’s just that the consciousness in control of those bodies has swapped. It had to happen between 6:00 and 10am, because I definitely stitched up the wound on your shoulder while it was on your shoulder. We went to sleep around sunrise, and since we got to sleep without being disturbed by any strange consciousness shifting sensations bothering us, it had to happen after that. I woke up around 10, maybe up to 10 minutes after, and we were already swapped, so it had to happen before that.”

 

            Jason nods. It’s a good rundown, a solid baseline to start working from. Whatever happened to them happened between 6-10am. It’s a 4-hour window, better than most time of death estimates they get on a good number of their cases.

 

            Unfortunately, a body swap is not as definitive a process as a body drop.

 

            Just because it happened inside a 4-hour window, doesn’t mean it was triggered inside that window. In fact, since they were asleep during the entire window, it’s highly improbable that the trigger and the occurrence have a reasonable time-frame link.

 

            “Working backwards from sunrise,” Jason says, thinking carefully, “The trip home wasn’t bad, considering the annoyance of minor injuries. And we didn’t see anyone else as we traveled, cape or criminal – couple civs, but nothing special.”

            Tim nods agreement.

            “And the bust wasn’t anything special either,” Tim comments. “More people than I’d thought would be there, but nothing truly excessive – nothing that says they were knowingly transporting anything more dangerous than antiquities.”

 

            Jason shrugs, fights a wince at the scream in Tim’s shoulder muscles. “I didn’t even know it was just antiquities until meeting up with you to brief yesterday,” Jason mentions, letting his thoughts roll over the intel he’d been operating on for this. “It’s your case, mainly, I’m just on it because I knew Ludwig Massimo was gettin’ his docks ready for some sort of special shipment. I thought it was drugs, honestly; drugs or some sort of human cargo.”

 

            “I was tracking Evgeni Zagitova. He’s an, um, ‘personal shopper’ type for the insanely rich all over the world, and most of what he ‘shops’ for is stuff to fill mansions up with unique pieces, and basically all of it is stolen,” Tim relays – he’d briefed Jason thoroughly last night, but it never hurt to hear it again when trying to evaluate new information, like a body swap.

 

            “If he’s a personal shopper, he must know a little something about the shit he’s shopping for… think he knows if one of his unique pieces is just a little extra special?”

 

            With a nod, Tim says, “Probably. Odds are he’ll at least know a story or something that we could use as a starting point. But he doesn’t have the local contacts to get out of jail so quickly, and because of that, he’s probably going to be actively in interrogation for a while yet… difficult to get to… Fortunately, he’s a bit of a bragger. He probably told Massimo all about anything interesting he was transporting.”

 

            “And Massimo, we can get to,” Jason connects – a wicked grin drawing across his face.

 

            “But first, we need to make sure we cover all our bases,” Tim warns. Jason’s brow furrows and he squints in silence to make Time elaborate, “I assume you don’t want to get Bruce or the others involved? Don’t want to even let anyone know what’s happened?”

            Jason snorts – all the answer he needs to give, and all that he could manage without getting riled up. Cursing out the Bats with Tim’s tongue might’ve been tempting, but Jason didn’t wanna risk pissing Tim off enough for him to go crying to Dickie bird.

            “Then we have to make sure that no one expects anything of us in the meantime,” Tim explains. “Since I doubt you want to just pretend to be me to maintain my appointments, I have a Wayne Enterprises luncheon to call out of, and I was supposed to meet Steph for a movie and some casework, not to mention the Family Dinner and Game Night scheduled at the Manor…”

 

            Jason shudders at the thought of suffering through a family dinner.

 

            He’s on pretty decent terms with the rest of the Bat brood at this point. And he’s perfectly able to be civil – well, more than civil, honestly, though still not quite friendly –  with Bruce on the odd occasion some horror makes a case into an all-hands-on-deck affair… or even if he decides he just needs to borrow the actual Batcomputer’s epic resources for a case. He’s got blanket open access to the Cave and Wayne Manor – doesn’t have to sneak or hack or anything.

            But the thought of sitting through a formal meal, with like seven courses or some shit, and nothing to use as a distraction or to make the conversation any kind of bearable…

 

            Yeah. Fuck that shit.

 

            At the expression Jason pulls, Tim sighs. “Yeah, I thought not. I’m just glad I don’t have school today or anything. Make-up work is the worst.”

            “Yeah, sure it is. The worst. It’s the kind of thing that just kills me.”

 

            Tim shoots Jason a flat look of disapproval at his sarcasm that makes Jason grin.

 

            Instead of rising to the bait of an old argument, Tim asks, “Don’t you have anything you have to make your excuses for this afternoon?”

            “Dude, I’m dead,” Jason replies.

            Tim blinks. “You don’t have a civilian ID?”

            “None that come with any obligations,” Jason scoffs.

            “What about the Outlaws, you need to check in with them or anything?”

            “Kori’s off world and Roy’s spending a few months babysitting Star City while Queen’s off with the League,” Jason explains. “I could check in, if I felt like it, but we’re not a hand-holding bunch. I mean, they’d get worried if they didn’t hear from me for months or if I miss a birthday or some shit, but unless I ask for help they’re not gonna nose into what I’m doing.”

            Tim blinks again. “Huh.”

            “It’s a sweet deal baby bird,” Jason sighs. “Very different from daddy Bat’s philosophy.”

            Tim is looking at him with Jason’s own frickin’ face and Jason can’t read it well enough to know what the little idiot is thinking.

            It’s frustrating.

            And Tim stays quiet long enough to make it irksome.

 

            Jason huffs.

 

            Huffs – and then abruptly realizes that a huff is all it takes to expel the built up energy of his low-simmering frustration. In the same second, he’s flooded with shock, awe even.

            Tim’s body has never taken a dip in a Lazarus Pit – bears none of the side-effects.

            So while Jason’s mind is still all kinds of messed up from his stupidly fucked up childhood and all the other issues from before he died, none of it’s been compounded or exacerbated by the burning acid of the Pit. Jason still jumps to anger way faster than a sane person should, but that leap doesn’t kick start a chain reaction of vitriol and violence.

            It’s… remarkable.

 

            “What?”

 

            Tim’s looking at him strangely, a mix of confusion and concern and… almost wariness.

            Jason has to wonder how much of a serial killer smile he’s showing – it’s gotta be unnerving for Tim to see that kind of manic glee on his own face. But Jason’s not too worried.

            He should probably explain the Pit’s influence, and the oddity of being without it, but he doesn’t think Tim will be as easily affected by it as Jason is – that natural devotion in him to rationality and logic and step-back consideration will keep a tight lid on the Pit’s whispers.

            And, to be perfectly honest, Jason’s not particularly keen on explaining that ongoing twist of struggle that the Lazarus Pit has left him dealing with…

            As far as Tim’s concerned at the moment, Jason’s only grappling with the lingering effects in terms of regrets and bad memories, maybe a few overly dramatic nightmares. Jason has carefully arranged it so none of the Bats can possibly realize how constant – how present and continuing – the struggle against the Pit is for him, even with five long years of ‘recovery’ time after being brought back by it.

            “I’m just thinking about how pissed off the Family would be if you swaggered into Game Night with me behind the wheel,” Jason says instead of explaining. He flashes Tim a vicious grin and adds, “You know, I could do a lot of damage to your perfect reputation. Might be fun.”

 

            Tim is not amused.

 

            But he’s also not suspicious.

 

            He heaves a resigned sigh and turns his attention back to wriggling out of his responsibilities for today. He pushes up awkwardly from his seat at the island and walks – with slow, but deliberate and easily controlled steps – over to the secure computer set up Jason’s got arranged on the edge of the living room.

            It’s a small set up, and not the most powerful thing in the universe, but it’s just about as secure as the Batcomputer in the Cave, and because it’s wired into everything important, courtesy of Oracle, the little alcove is pretty much the hub of the house.

            Watching him settle lets Jason relax enough to feel the screaming ache still gnawing at Tim’s muscles. He resists the groan pulling at his lungs and pushes to his own – hopefully temporary – feet, saying, “While you’re doing that, I’m gonna take a shower – see if I can get some of this totally not healthy soreness to work itself out.”

 

            “Your complaints have been noted,” Tim responds dryly.

 

            As Jason maneuvers down the hall, he grumbles under his breath about how he’s gonna have to find some way to knock some sense into this ridiculous idiot’s thick skull… Jason has a sneaking suspicion that this sense knocking is not gonna be pretty.

 

 

________

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 4 – First Steps (Tim)

 

            The breakfast sits strangely in Tim's stomach.

            Warm.

            And comfortable.

            Which is just so utterly bizarre.

 

            Tim’s relationship with food has always been complicated.

            He’s never felt hunger in the way that other people describe it – certainly not the way that Jason’s body felt it – and he’s always had to walk a delicate balance of forcing down enough calories to keep himself alive without shoving in too many, too quick, in a way that’ll just make him throw it all back up.

            He’s not sure what his own deal is with it all, and he’s not entirely convinced that this feeling legitimate hunger thing is really an objectively better state of being, but trying it out while using Jason’s body as a strange, first-person proxy is definitely enlightening.

            It’s not until the sound of Jason dumping dishes into the sink jars him back to awareness that Tim realizes they’ve both been silent for a long while now.

            Tim steels himself to refocus on the problem at hand.

            It’s not a small one, after all.

 

            Jason comes around the island to the side Tim’s seated on – letting himself fall into the tall chair beside his own body. Tim’s feet dangle a few inches off the ground and Jason props them up on the cross brace of the empty chair between them to keep the heels from swinging around like a kid’s.

            He folds himself over the cool granite of the countertop and directs his gaze to Tim as he casually props his head up on the heel of one hand.

 

            Tim has to blink a few times – processing the oddity that is seeing a posture that so clearly screams Jason … but seeing his own image doing it – like a mirror showing off the results of a creepy acting class where Tim’s required to imitate his family members.

            He knows them all well enough to pull it off, to perfectly, proactively imitate any one of them at the drop of a hat, but it’s still strange to see the probably fruits of such an effort from such a distinctly third person viewpoint.

            Jason’s voice knocks Tim’s brain back into the proper gear.

 

            “Okay, so, any idea what the hell happened?”

 

            Tim shakes his head. “All I know is that it's some sort of consciousness transfer, not an illusion or some sort of 'walk a mile in their shoes' hoodoo. Our bodies still need what they usually need, it's just that the consciousness in control of those bodies has swapped. It had to happen between 6:00 and 10am, because I definitely stitched up the wound on your shoulder while it was on your shoulder. We went to sleep around sunrise, and since we got to sleep without being disturbed by any strange consciousness shifting sensations bothering us, it had to happen after that. I woke up around 10, maybe up to 10 minutes after, and we were already swapped, so it had to happen before that.”

 

            Jason nods. It’s a good rundown, a baseline. Whatever happened to them happened between 6-10am. It’s a 4-hour window, better than most time of death estimates they get on a good number of their cases.

            Unfortunately, the fact that it happened inside a 4-hour window, doesn’t mean it was triggered inside that window. And, since they were asleep during the entire window, it’s highly improbable that the trigger and the occurrence have a reasonable time-frame link.

 

            “Working backwards from sunrise,” Jason says, expression screwed up in the way that Tim is aware shows he’s thinking carefully, “The trip home wasn’t bad, considering the annoyance of minor injuries. And we didn’t see anyone else as we traveled, cape or criminal – couple civs, but nothing special.”

            Tim nods agreement.

            “And the bust wasn’t anything special either,” Tim comments. “More people than I’d thought would be there, but nothing truly excessive – nothing that says they were knowingly transporting anything more dangerous than antiquities.”

 

            Jason shrugs and Tim catches a slight flinch in his expression – probably related to some twinge of soreness in Tim’s muscles. Tim really hopes he hides it better than that when he’s the one who’s actually inside his body – thinks he probably does, because the Bats are all observant and nosy and wouldn’t let it go if they saw him flinch like that on a regular basis.

            Tim can’t tell if he’s relieved that he must hide it well or embarrassed that he can’t hope to hide it from Jason anymore.

 

            Again, the sound of Jason speaking knocks some focus back into him.

 

            “I didn’t even know it was just antiquities until meeting up with you to brief yesterday,” Jason mentions, letting his thoughts roll over the intel he’d been operating on for this. “It’s your case, mainly, I’m just on it because I knew Ludwig Massimo was gettin’ his docks ready for some sort of special shipment. I thought it was drugs, honestly; drugs or some sort of human cargo.”

            Tim very carefully does not allow himself to get distracted by that, by the vehement promise of bloody retribution in Jason’s tone as his own thoughts flit over the outline of Ludwig Massimo’s smuggling enterprise.

 

            “I was tracking Evgeni Zagitova. He’s an, um, ‘personal shopper’ type for the insanely rich all over the world, and most of what he ‘shops’ for is stuff to fill mansions up with unique pieces, and basically all of it is stolen,” Tim relays – he’d briefed Jason thoroughly last night, but it never hurt to hear it again when trying to evaluate new information, like a body swap.

            “If he’s a personal shopper, he must know a little something about the shit he’s shopping for… think he knows if one of his unique pieces is just a little extra special?”

            With a nod, Tim says, “Probably. Odds are he’ll at least know a story or something that we could use as a starting point. But he doesn’t have the local contacts to get out of jail so quickly, and because of that, he’s probably going to be actively in interrogation for a while yet… difficult to get to… Fortunately, he’s a bit of a bragger. He probably told Massimo all about anything interesting he was transporting.”

 

            “And Massimo, we can get to,” Jason connects – a wicked grin drawing across his face.

 

            It’s the start of an inexorable tumble, Tim knows. And Tim wants just as much as Jason to go beat on the bad guy for a little while – to both dole out a little justice that the legal system in Gotham is still too warped to properly provide, and to set about getting answers about the current predicament he and Jason are facing.

            But a niggle of concern – that trained-in bite of awareness of his other responsibilities pulls at his consciousness, reminding him that he was never planning on having to spend the afternoon traipsing around the city with Jason.

            That he has already this time slot booked for something.

            For several somethings.

            And if this takes more than a few hours to get sorted out… he has plans for the evening that he would have to ignore as well… And even if he does get back into his own body before seven, Tim feels fairly confident in thinking that he will not be able to fulfill the role expected of him if he attempts to participate in the agenda he’d previously laid out for himself.

            Which means some things need to be handled before they can chase down Massimo.

 

            “But first, we need to make sure we cover all our bases,” Tim warns. Jason’s brow furrows and he squints in silence to make Time elaborate, “I assume you don’t want to get Bruce or the others involved? Don’t want to even let anyone know what’s happened?”

 

            Jason snorts.

            It’s all the answer he needs to give; and by the shadow drawing darkly across Jason’s expression, it’s all he can give without actively cursing out the idea of letting the Family help.

            Tim appreciates that restraint.

            He gets that Jason has… lingering issues with the Family, understands that those issues aren’t just going to go away, but he still isn’t fond of having Jason run off a rant of cursing at the mere idea of allowing himself to be more actively connected to the Bat Clan.

 

            “Then we have to make sure that no one expects anything of us in the meantime,” Tim explains, without giving away any of the sad tinge to his spiraling thoughts. “Since I doubt you want to just pretend to me be to maintain my appointments, I have a Wayne Enterprises luncheon to call out of, I was supposed to meet Steph for a movie and some casework, not to mention the Family Dinner and Game Night at the Manor…”

            Jason shudders at the thought, and Tim can see the motion ripple through his every muscle in a slow wave of utter horror.

            Tim manages not to frown.

            He likes their monthly Game Night – Babs initiated it, and it’s fun… sometimes.

            And while the weekly Family Dinner… could be less uncomfortable than it was sometimes, it was still good – nice, even, on the odd occasion that no one was in the midst of feuding over a particularly sore spot in their various, complicated relationships.

            But at the same time, he does understand where Jason’s coming from.

            His relationship with the Bats in general hasn’t been terribly smooth over the last few years – honestly, it’s only been a relationship in the last two, what with the unfortunate circumstances of the whole Lazarus Pit detox and the drama from immediately prior to it.

            Tim sighs as Jason’s lip curls into a silent snarl as he processes through some thought or other relating to the potential aggravation, and worse, that could stem from Family Dinner.

            “Yeah, I thought not. I’m just glad I don’t have school today or anything. Make-up work is the worst,” Tim plays off, trying to make it seem like wiggling his way out of the appointments he’s expected to keep is less of a trial than it really will be.

            Jason skips straight over any kind of concern like that.

            “Yeah, sure it is. The worst. It’s the kind of thing that just kills me.”

            Jason seems deeply amused by his quip, and that pleased expression only cements into place as Tim shoots him a flat look of disapproval.

            It still stings.

            Tim doesn’t want to let on about how the idea that Jason had died – had literally died – still hurts as much as it does. He doesn’t like it when Jason makes death jokes – which he does staggeringly often, likely as a strange way of coping that runs exactly opposite to Tim’s tastes.

            Anyway, Tim has no real right to stop him from making the jokes and no desire to argue about it when they have so many other problems to face.

            So instead of doing anything he might want to about the death joke, Tim asks, “Don’t you have anything you have to make your excuses for this afternoon?”

            “Dude, I’m dead,” Jason replies.

            It’s a flat, blanket statement that he seems to think covers everything Tim could possibly be wondering about. He’s dead and therefore has no responsibilities whatsoever.

            Tim blinks. “You don’t have a civilian ID?”

            “None that come with any obligations,” Jason scoffs.

            Tim knows that officially Jason Peter Wayne-Todd is dead. And he should probably remain so – since it will be an absolute circus to have the media informed about his return and that is exactly what Jason would not want. It would probably be enough to drive him off.

            But at the same time…

            Jason was alive.

            And living as if he weren’t.

 

            As if he had no desire to be alive.

 

            “What about the Outlaws, you need to check in with them or anything?”

            “Kori’s off world and Roy’s spending a few months babysitting Star City while Queen’s off with the League,” Jason explains. “I could check in, if I felt like it, but we’re not a hand-holding bunch. I mean, they’d get worried if they didn’t hear from me for months or if I miss a birthday or some shit, but unless I ask for help they’re not gonna nose into what I’m doing.”

            Tim blinks again. “Huh.”

            Jason seems… almost… proud of that fact.

            Like it’s an arrangement that he set up with them intentionally – laid out with as much care and attention to detail as any check in schedule Tim has ever created with the Titans.

            “It’s a sweet deal baby bird,” Jason sighs. “Very different from daddy Bat’s philosophy.”

            It is different.

            But it’s also the same.

            Instead of caring primarily for the physical well-being of the Outlaws, however, it protected their mental well-being first and foremost. Each one of them had good reason to want to be left alone – to deal with their individual heaps of issues in their own ways. It let them reach out for guaranteed support – with supporters that would know immediately that the check in wasn’t a flippant routine or an endeavor undertaken lightly – but only when they wanted it and were in a mental place where they could accept it.

            Which is a sophisticated and genuinely insightful twist of self-assessment.

            Tim is intrigued.

            An interest he keeps from showing on his face – which is something that seems to frustrate Jason as he first loses his smirk and then begins to frown in a slow progression as his eyes narrow and skim back and forth over Tim’s expression on Jason’s own face.

            And then the slow descent to a scowl is abruptly aborted.

            Dramatically reversed.

 

            Clearly, some thought had occurred to him.

            It had been a sudden transition, a revelation beyond any expectation.

 

            “What?”

 

            Tim doesn’t actually mean to ask the question out loud.

 

            Jason’s expression shutters closed instantaneously – windows sealed for the zombie apocalypse, or worse. Blacked out against any insight Tim might gain.

            That Tim suddenly realizes he wants to gain.

 

            Just before he realizes that he has no right in the world to claim the information.

            Usually, he has no qualms about prying into peoples’ lives to gather whatever intel he’s after in a given moment, but with Jason… it’s… it’s different.

 

            “I’m just thinking about how pissed off the Family would be if you swaggered into Game Night with me behind the wheel,” Jason says instead of explaining. He flashes Tim a vicious grin and adds, “You know, I could do a lot of damage to your perfect reputation. Might be fun.”

 

            The joke isn’t anything close to the truth, Tim knows.

            It’s Jason being gentle in saying that he wants Tim to keep his nose out of it.

            It’s probably the most polite version of the ‘fuck off’ sentiment Jason has ever iterated.

 

            Tim heaves a resigned sigh and turns his attention back to wriggling out of his responsibilities for today. He pushes up awkwardly from his seat at the island and walks – with slow, but deliberate and easily controlled steps – over to the secure computer set up Jason’s got arranged on the edge of the living room. It’s a small set up, but it’s just about as secure as the Batcomputer in the Cave, and the little alcove is pretty much the hub of the house.

            The computer, being as advanced and demanding of electricity as it is, takes a moment to start up and actually open the secure email program. While he waits, Tim is thinking over the exact phrasings he’s going to use – and trying to ignore the feeling of Jason’s eyes on his back.

            The chair at the island that Tim left Jason sitting in squeaks and Tim uses the shine of the computer monitors to watch him push up unsteadily to his feet – to Tim’s feet, which he can control better than Tim can manage with his, but he still looks like he’s struggling with Tim’s awkward and gangly limbs.

            “While you’re doing that, I’m gonna take a shower – see if I can get some of this totally not healthy soreness to work itself out.”

            “Your complaints have been noted,” Tim responds, feeling another pang of guilt that Jason has no such obligations to handle and feeling a fresh stab of indignant pride in the fact that he’s had to work so much harder, to push his body's natural limits so much farther, than the other Bats to earn his place in the Crusade and all that effort is able to be so easily dismissed.

            By the time Jason’s vanished down the hall, grumbling under his breath, Tim’s halfway through an email to Lucius Fox. He is going to owe the man one hell of a bottle of scotch for this.

            The Swedish Corporation he was supposed to be having brunch with was not used to being taken lightly. And they weren’t impressed by the teenager they’d been introduced to as the Wayne Enterprises’ acting CEO. Each one of the delegation sent to hash out this deal was at least twice Tim’s age, even the lowly secretary.

            Lucius could more than handle the meeting on his own, and he was entirely authorized to make such negotiations without a Wayne present, but that didn’t mean he wanted to handle the meeting… especially considering the fact that Tim was giving him about 97 minutes of warning… yeah. A very nice bottle of scotch was going to be hitting his expense report this week.

            The movie with Steph is easier to get out of… in some ways at least.

            The case they’re working on was scheduled to be handled tomorrow and the last minute practice session for the operation could be postponed to tomorrow afternoon without any legitimate detriment to the operation itself. Truthfully, the ‘practice’ was really just an excuse to watch a movie and goof off with Steph for an afternoon – something he hadn’t managed for a while, and something she insisted on reminding him was a vital part of living.

            He will have to make the goofing off up to her, with a movie tomorrow and something else fun and light hearted next weekend, but for now, he could get out of it. She might be concerned, but they’ve been working on establishing limits in their new friendship – their post break up, still loving but not in love friendship. Their complicated, sometimes painful, sometimes perfect, let’s be siblings, it worked for Dick and Babs, still evolving friendship.

            Tim could postpone, and Steph would let him. No immediate questions.

            Family Dinner and Game Night on the other hand…

            That would be something for which his excuses would be questioned.

            So, before he sent anything to Bruce or Alfred, Tim sends a note to Barbara – pleading with her not to question it and to run interference for him on the others’ questions. He would tell her everything once he got it sorted out – a promise that he intended to keep and also intended to simply not tell Jason about beforehand. He just had to wait until it was all sorted.

            Babs is good at reading a situation and she has always been kind and discreet.

            Then he sends an apology to Alfred, including a promise to make it up to him on Sunday with a full brunch and tea service. After that he sends a two line email to Bruce, informing him that he would not be attending, but the expected patrol of Red Robin’s usual territory would still be handled exactly as scheduled.

 

            Bruce will not be pleased.

 

            Tim is not particularly concerned, or sorry.

 

            He is, however, aware that they need to get out of this safe house soon or Bruce himself might drop by for an unannounced visit.

            Tim is just finishing up – hesitating to shut down the computer in case Jason does have an obligation to get out of that he just didn’t want to tell Tim about – when Jason comes back from his shower. His hair – Tim’s hair – is damp, the long strands are tousled, some hanging straight by his ears and some in lingering curls around his forehead, looped around phantom fingers that had pushed them back out of his eyes.

            He’s dressed – in a get up of suave business attire that Tim recalls having worn to a Wayne Enterprises brunch in early April, a brunch that took place near Red Hood’s territory in celebration of some campaign or other to clean up the worst parts of the city. Of course, the politician heading the official effort wouldn’t actually go all the way into Crime Alley himself, but even touching the edge of the territory was better than most would do to support a community that the rest of Gotham had already pretty much forsaken.

            It was a genuine effort; one that had apparently gotten the Red Hood’s attention enough for him to spy on it – and likely consider putting in a personal appearance – but it had been honest enough for Hood to decide to leave it alone.

            Jason had remembered though, remembered it enough to pair the light pink shirt with the dark purple tie. It was a bold choice that did not suit Jason’s style sense, so he had definitely not chosen it because he liked it – especially when complemented by the gray suit jacket and slacks, with its unique weave that caught the sunlight in a way that was striking and sliming in pictures but one that even Dick Grayson had hesitated to wear, for fear of looking like a zebra.

            The weave is elegant, expensive, and something only Old Money would appreciate and Tim knew there was no way Jason would willingly wear it in any other circumstances.

            Jason’s expression is shuttered on Tim’s face and Tim finds himself frustrated with his in ability to read what he’s thinking.

            Before the frustration can solidify, Jason asks, “Look enough like you to be seen on the streets without ruining some multibillion dollar deal you’ve got brewin?”

            “Yeah,” Tim replies immediately, a pleased smile breaking out at the realization that he’d been right about Jason’s clothing choices – about how he’d chosen and how intentional and careful those choices had been.

            Jason nods, and tosses over a red t-shirt and a hoodie Tim hadn’t noticed him holding.

            “Then put that on and let’s get going,” Jason huffs. “I wanna be back to normal ASAP.”

            “Agreed,” Tim replies, pulling the shirt over his head. He winces as the act of shuffling it into place tugs on his stitches. Jason’s body is still dressed in the black tank and dark jeans he wears under his armor as Red Hood and since his Red Hood costume is close enough to street clothes when he goes sans Hood, it seems that Jason isn’t patient enough to make Tim change into regular clothes before they head out.

            Tim doesn’t feel the need to protest.

            There’s only one thing he does mention as they step out into the sunlight and make for the Wayne Enterprises BMW Tim’s currently utilizing. He eyes his own body slipping into the driver’s seat and comments, “We’ll pick up coffee on the way to Massimo’s hideout.”

            “That is an unhealthy and delicious idea,” Jason grumbles. “How are you even alive?”

            Tim shrugs and maneuvers Jason’s long limbs into the car, still not quite in control enough to make the motion elegant or fluid – he has to move each limb one at a time, in a manner that probably makes him look inebriated.

 

            He kind of feels inebriated, so…

 

            Getting back to normal is definitely something he wants to happen sooner than later.

 

            Tim has enough intel on Jason's operations and casefiles to guess at where they're going – to know where Ludwig Massimo is most likely hiding out and where the nearest decent coffee shop is to that location. He doesn’t need to watch the route to know where they’re going so instead, he folds one of Jason's legs up under him – steeples his fingers across the knee and rests his chin on the thumbs. He spends the drive working over the manifest of the shipment – comparing it to the items and crates he'd actually seen in the warehouse last night.

            If he can narrow the gaps down to a few small questions, they should be able to get all the answers they need from Massimo.

            Tim is still attempting to isolate the most likely relevant inconsistency to target. They'll have to scout the warehouse over coffee, find a way in and out with Massimo kept pliant enough to be quiet and secure enough not to require masks to interrogate him.

            They should have everything they need in the trunk.

            The tricky part is going to be getting it accomplished quickly and then getting out to a safe house that none of the Bats know about – Tim is fairly certain that Babs will hold them off for a while, but eventually the others will come looking for him out of a very valid concern that something is wrong.

            The jolt of the car being thrown into a parking spot more abruptly than necessary wakes him to the moment as the arrive at a dicey little alley behind a tall, skinny Gotham Grind with a third floor terrace that looks over the still-unrenovated factory block of Old Gotham.

            Tim pulls his phone out of Jason's pocket and taps his way into the Gotham Grind app, lining up his usual order with the addition of a dozen scones (because Jason's body is somehow already hungry again) and a medium coffee with cream. He pauses on the final screen.

            “If I order through the app, Babs will know where we are,” Tim comments, adding, “Even with the phone's GPS disabled, I can do anything about the order’s geotag.”

            “So, then don’t order through the app,” Jason snorts.

            Shooting him a sideways glance, Tim says, “I would like to let her know everything is moderately okay. Do you have a safe house that none of the Bats know about close enough to here to get to there before they can come looking for us?”

            “Not while maintaining your perfect sterling rep,” Jason huffs. Then he grumbles, “But I got one we can use… Buy the coffee like a normal person. I'll scout the factory where Massimo is probably hiding and we'll meet back here in ten minutes. We use what’s stashed in the car to get in and out with Massimo knocked out – in and out fifteen minutes, all told. Stuff him into the trunk and get to a safe house where your fancy Batbrand BMW is off the streets and under the radar. I got that part covered. If you don’t want Babs to worry, shoot her another email. It’s been like five whole minutes since you sent the last one.”

            Tim shoots him a flat look.

            “Or, better yet, we could wear coms, I order through the app, you guide me in to nab Massimo, and then you pick the order up while I get our friend settled in the car,” Tim counters. “And we just get out of here in ten minutes, quick enough for the Bats to lose our trail.”

            Jason scowls and opens his mouth to retort, but Tim beats him to it with a sigh as he adds, “I appreciate the effort you went to in getting me dressed like a respectable CEO, I really do, but that suit costs more than this car and you are not splitting any of its seems in a tussle.”

            Jason's scowl deepens to a general glower. “I wouldn't have tried so hard to look right if I knew it was gonna get me sidelined,” he grumbles. “And if this suit is so damn expensive, why couldn't you afford to make it work for your other occupation?”

            “It was designed for me specifically, as a gift from the Fashion House directly, and I couldn't very well explain to the lead designer what I do after hours,” Tim explains, digging through the console's thick layer of decoy junk to access the hidden compartment with a few of the more frequently utilized Bat accessories. Among the carefully hidden boxes is a full flight of coms. Tim pulls out a pair of them and passes one to the still-grumbling Jason.

            The coms run on a localized Bluetooth connection, linked to the power pack inside the case being slipped into a pocket on Jason’s cargo pants – which makes the coms difficult for outside connections to hack into, buying them like five whole minutes of radio silence from Barbara if she notices the oddity of their current course of action and decides to investigate.

            As he secures his own com in his ear, Tim promises, “He's your asset, Jason, you get to lead the interview. There will be plenty of time for ass-kicking when we get to whatever safe house you feel comfortable holing up in while we get this sorted out. Just let me do the initial grab. I'll need you to guide me through the factory.”

            “Fine,” Jason grumbles. “But if you get my body killed, again, I am so taking yours to the nearest strip joint. See how your reporter friends like that shit.

 

            Tim ignores him.

 

            If he gets Jason's body killed, he could have no qualms about Jason doing his worst on Tim's rep – clearly, he would deserve it. But it’s a negligible concern anyway, as Massimo is not hard to handle in a fight, and Tim can take care of getting the smuggler knocked out and into the trunk even while working with his borrowed body.

            Instead of responding to Jason's jibe, Tim closes the console and leans over it – invading Jason's space. Flustered by the sudden proximity as Tim reaches up to run his fingers through his own hair, Jason holds perfectly still while Tim explains, “My hair is long enough to hide a com in daylight. You may as well actually use that feature as intended.”

            Jason doesn’t respond immediately. He maintains his perfect stillness until Tim withdraws his hand, and then he snorts, “Never realized your ridiculous fashion sense had a practical value behind it.”

 

            Tim ignores the insult.

 

            It’s more difficult to ignore the worry raised behind it but he does mostly manage to ignore the phantom pang of anxiety that he hasn’t lived up to Jason's expectations – that he still sits somewhere just above dust mites in Jason's hierarchy of esteem.

            “Just get me in and out of there with our soon-to-be new best friend,” Tim huffs, pulling away and stepping out of the car.

            He taps in the order on the app to distract himself from retroactively reacting to the fact that he'd just tousled Jason's hair – or rather, Jason's hand had just tousled his… both versions being scenarios he'd only very rarely let himself imagine.

            “Coffee will be waiting for you when you get me out with Massimo,” Tim says, already striding towards the factory as he hears Jason nab a discreet pair of binoculars before getting out of the car himself and heading into the coffee shop.

            “We are gonna have to talk about this painful substance dependency issue you’ve got goin' on here,” Jason returns, his voice coming through loud and clear over the com connection.

            “It's not an issue,” Tim retorts immediately. “It’s a socially acceptable habit and it's fine.”

            “The way you drink it is definitely an issue,” Jason fires back.

            His tone is mostly amusement, but Tim wishes he could see his face – not that seeing it would help much in their current predicament.

            “Jeez, you sound almost as bad as Dick does with the big brothering,” Tim huffs with a distinct tinge of amusement. “Stop being a worry wart and just tell me where the target is.”

            “Anyone ever tell you you’re kinda bossy?”

            “Well, regarding most of the people I interact with, I am quite literally their boss,” Tim quips smugly, “So it’s hardly an insult.”

            Jason allows himself to chuckle as Tim slips into the shadows of the alley leading up to the factory, but quickly refocuses.

            “Alright, looks like Massimo is on the third floor,” Jason relays. “I've got a visual on him and three goons, with three on the middle level, and then two more on the floor below. Nothin' else is warm or moving in there that I can see from here – and with Massimo runnin' a little light on the payroll this week, I’m surprised he’s even got that many friends.”

            Tim’s getting a better feel for how Jason’s body works and he’s able to hoist himself almost gracefully through a narrow window halfway up the side of the factory’s south wall. It’s a much tighter fit than he anticipated, and he can feel the window frame scrape at his stitches, but he makes it through and lowers his feet silently to the floor inside a small back office.

            With Jason in his ear to guide him through the layout and warn him of the goons’ positions, Tim makes short work of clearing the two lower floors.

 

            It’s easy.

 

            Being trained by the same person as youngsters means that the fundamentals of the martial arts styles they have ingrained in the fibers of their beings are the same. The icing on the styles is different, and Tim walks in feeling a bit lost without his bo staff – and his hands are itching to reach into the holsters currently absent from Jason's thighs – but he still fights with confident and fluid motions. More than that, with Jason's gut feelings driving the actions, he's making instinctual moves to target weaknesses without having to even think about it or even having to consciously process the information he’s picking up from the goons at all.

 

            And Jason’s body is so strong.

 

            The first time Tim punches out a goon with Jason’s fist and Jason’s full strength behind the blow, Tim drops the guy instantly. He just falls, like a gooey meat sack, and for three terrifying seconds afterwards Tim is absolutely positive that he just broke the Rule.

            The creed against killing, one of the lines that make the good guys good that made it allowable for Tim to force his way into the Crusade because it meant he could keep Bruce from crossing it and becoming something other than the hero Gotham needed… It’s the one thing Tim has every really gotten right in any this and now… he…

 

            But then the guy on the floor groans and Tim manages to breathe.

 

            He doesn’t think Jason notices his slip up – a small miracle and a tremendous relief – and Tim is more careful with the next few goons he drops.

            It’s almost pitifully easy for Tim to over power the last goon and then Massimo himself – taking out them both before they manage to turn around to glimpse their attacker.

            Though even if they had it’s not like ‘tall, handsome, vaguely Hispanic, twenty-something in a red hoodie’ is really an acceptably unique description of an assailant to get any results – particularly as Tim has kept Jason’s hood up to cover the white streak of hair in the fore of his dark curls that makes him slightly more identifiable.

            Jason’s strong enough for Tim to fling Massimo’s arm around his broad shoulders and saunter out of the factory like they’re just old friends, leaning on each other like one just told a really great joke or something. It’s smooth and easy for Tim to drag the unconscious Massimo to the BMW and tuck him into the trunk under the specially installed and modified storage bin.

            To the uninformed observer – even someone searching the car, save perhaps for the most observant and experienced DEA officer – the car looks entirely empty.

            Tim has finished up with securing Massimo and has just come to the conclusion that Jason has turned off his com for some unfathomable, idiotic reason, when Jason strolls out of the coffee shop with a Cheshire cat smile that makes Tim’s stomach do an odd flip.

            Jason’s hands are full of scones and coffee but he maneuvers his way into the car easily enough and Tim settles into his own seat – resolved not to ask about the com or the smile – and turns his focus onto the scones that Jason dumps in his lap.

            As Jason makes his way through one of Tim’s usual coffees – his fourth of the morning – and Tim chows down on his dense confectionaries, Jason drives them to a safe house.

 

            The same safe house they had stayed in last night.

 

            The one that every cape and cape associate in the country knows about.

 

            “Jason? I thought we agreed that we needed to get somewhere secure, somewhere that the other Bats won’t be able to find us,” Tim pushes. “This is the first place they’ll look.”

            “Uh huh, and they’ll find your car in the parking garage like it was when you parked it there when you came to visit as your daytime persona before patrol last night,” Jason explains, without explaining anything.

            Tim stares him down as he throws the car into park.

            Jason easily ignores him and gets out of the car. Tim hurriedly follows as Jason makes his way towards the trunk. This time, when Tim glares at him, Jason sighs.

            “Everybody knows about the apartment I lease here,” he says, “Only Babs knows I own the whole building. And even she’s in the dark about the Basement. It doesn’t have internet access, or anything. Hell, it doesn’t even have a phone line. It’s hidden on the grid, tacking the resources it uses like power and water onto the rest of the building’s utility gauges. The only access is a hidden staircase behind the vault-locked utilities closet. So it’s both the first place anyone will look, and the last place anyone will think of to actually find us.”

            “That’s actually pretty brilliant,” Tim admits.

            “I might not be any kind of boy genius, Timmers,” Jason huffs, “But I have my moments. And don’t forget that I’ve spent the last six years or so learning how to hide from Batman.”

            The thought makes something slimy swirl in Tim’s gut. “Yeah, I guess. But still, this is a really great plan. We’ll have plenty of time and privacy to get this all figured out.”

            “Damn straight,” Jason agrees. Then he asks, “You got a go-bag in the car somewhere? I don’t have anything that’ll fit you in the Basement and your clothing choices upstairs are all fancy ass suits and your Red Robin gear.”

            “Yeah, um, under the middle row seat behind the driver,” Tim informs him.

            “Cool. I’ll grab that, while you get our new friend here out of the car. I’d help you haul his ass downstairs, but I think the duffle is gonna be hard enough to carry,” Jason quips with a smirk that shows he’s mostly joking. The edge in his tone tells Tim it’s only mostly, though.

            Frowning as he refuses to give in to the familiar ache of inadequacy, Tim huffs, “I’m not that weak. I can carry a stupid duffle bag.”

            “Yeah? Well, I can fling Massimo there around like a rag doll for a couple of hours and I still won’t wake up tomorrow feelin’ like a pin at the end of a bowling alley on a Saturday night.”

            “It’s fine,” Tim huffs, a little more vehemently than he means to, “I can handle it.”

            Jason’s already moved on from the subject and before Tim’s even finished speaking, he’s digging though the junk under the seat in the middle row for Tim’s go-bag. “Just get our new friend outta the trunk. I wanna get him secured downstairs before he starts waking up.”

            Tim complies without hesitation – glad for Jason’s willingness to drop the point of Tim’s obvious weaknesses in favor of focusing on the more important things.

            Tim follows as Jason leads the way downstairs – grateful for both the faith Jason’s putting in him regarding the reveal of a very well hidden safe house (one that Tim hadn’t even suspected existed) and for the fact that getting here with Massimo in tow means they are one step closer to getting things back to normal.

 

            As terrible a term as ‘normal’ is for the ridiculous lives they lead, it’s still their normal.

 

            And Tim wants it back.

 

________

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 – Headway

 

            With Tim settled at the computer making his excuses for all the ridiculous obligations he has to weasel his way out of for a single day of detouring through crazy land (or at least through a slightly crazier than usual crazy land), Jason makes for the bathroom.

            He’s already got a shower started up and is midway through divesting himself of the soft athletic gear liners Tim wears beneath his Red Robin suit before it suddenly strikes him that this might be considered incredibly untoward and more than a little passed inappropriate…

            If not just straight over the line into perversion…

 

            Not that Jason ever cared much about that before, but like… still.

 

            He’s been trying so hard to be good these last few months.

 

            And Tim…

            Well, Tim’s hot.

 

            Jason's always thought Tim was an attractive little devil, even when he was more floppy baby seal than any sort of honed predator. It had taken a few years for the baby fat to fade and for his figure to adjust under the lean pack of muscle he'd put on with his Bat training, but the end result is definitely worth the wait.

            Tim isn’t the kind of universal bombshell of blunt attractiveness that Dick Grayson is, but he’s got a unique flavor with a very wide appeal. Fluid and clever, he’s not quite androgynous, but he’s close enough to count and ruthless enough to have invested in a skill set that can fully exploit every angle of that appeal – all of it elegant, calculated, and perfectly controlled. Unsettling, intriguing… gorgeous.

 

            Yeah. Tim's gorgeous.

 

            But unless he’s actively unconscious in a hospital bed, or being directly worked on under a doctor’s care, Tim’s always dressed in long sleeves and long pants. Always. Jason’s never even seen him work out in shorts or anything.

            Jason’s not really sure why that is… honestly, he’s never really bothered to question it internally, let alone to actually ask. But whether Tim is just body shy or something else, the last person he’d want to have sticking their thumbs under his waistband like it’s nothing is Jason.

            Fabulous.

 

            That just makes this whole situation even more awkward.

 

            It probably hasn’t even occurred to Tim, yet.

 

            He might be a genius and he’s changed as much as Jason has in the last five years, but he’s still a little robot and Jason doubts it’s occurred to him to think about what a temporary body swap means in terms of dealing with each person’s bodily functions.

            God damn it.

 

            Man can’t even take a piss in peace these days.

 

            Three cups of coffee in and Tim’s presumably tiny bladder is holding up like a champ, but eventually it’s gonna burst here, so Jason will have to deal with that eventually, but damn… the mere idea of seeing the dick attached to Tim’s slim hips while Jason’s locked inside of him—

            Fuck.

 

            Nope, nope, nope. That is the wrong phrase to use regarding this situation.

 

            Jason is suddenly so glad that he thought of this issue first, well before it could’ve possibly occurred to Tim, and only after having gotten away from Tim to do it… This way gives him time to come to terms with it all, and to calm the fuck down about it.

            There’s nothing they can do right now.

            And Tim’s body needs a hot shower or it’s gonna hurt all fucking day – which would not facilitate Jason in being much help to actually getting things fixed.

            And he’s already in the bathroom.

            Already half stripped.

            The hot water’s already running.

            So, Jason steels himself and strips off the pants and armor plated jock strap in one hurried motion before stepping straight into the shower.

            He lets the bliss of hot water cascading down his aching muscles distract him from the fact that Tim is naked beneath his fingertips – and dripping wet in all that glory of a pretty boy powerhouse he is – and starts to scrub himself clean.

 

            His resolve not to look down lasts all of twelve seconds.

 

            It’s not because of the undeniable temptation to look at what kind of tackle the baby bird has between his legs, but instead it’s because of the bumps and ridges unmistakably made up of scar tissue that Jason’s feeling as his borrowed fingers ghost over the skin.

            Tim has a lot of scars.

            A lot more than Jason thought he would.

            Far more than Jason thinks he should

 

            He tries not to catalogue them, but between his Bat training, his League training, and his own perverse fascination with grievous bodily harm… he can’t stop his brain from working through the injuries – can’t avoid processing the cause and effect of what created them.

            There’s a bite from Killer Croc on Tim’s hip that had probably come pretty damn close to taking Tim’s leg off entirely. It’s hard to tell where most of the others came from distinctly. He can feel them clearly, a gunshot here, a knife wound there, a probable tumble through some razor wire… but he can’t quite tell what caused them in terms of exact circumstances. As close as he’s been watching the Bats lately, Jason has to admit that he doesn’t know nearly enough about Tim’s case history as he would need to know in order to identify the injuries.

            There’s stab wounds, gunshots, shrapnel, and general scrapes; some stitched up better than others – and a good number left to heal without the proper care, worse than some of Jason’s early wounds, the less traumatic ones, at least… like Tim hadn’t just hidden them from B and Alfred and then tended to them himself later on, but like he had stopped the bleeding and then ignored them altogether.

            The truly serious ones all have excellent care, and most of them are more identifiable – the incidents that lead to them had been written up in the others’ casefiles, mostly the ones Dick and Bruce wrote up. Those are the deepest wounds, ones that did more than scar the flesh – though they had certainly damn near killed him and had to have left him floating on the edge of oblivion for weeks of recovery.

 

            And there’s this odd little divot in Tim’s abdomen, just inside the protection of his lower ribcage on the left side. There's a heavy knot of scar tissue, concave and surgical, and the float angle of his last two ribs is punched outward slightly in the strangest way… like they were pried back and held there a little too long during some sort of organ-focused surgery…

 

            It's an injury Jason doesn’t understand at all.

 

            One clearly serious enough that it should be in a report somewhere…

            That it should be in several reports as more than one Bat edged in on the case that so clearly came close to straight up, real death style killing one of their own.

            He makes a firm mental note to investigate it later – some time very soon after they get this immediate mess sorted out.

 

            There are, however, a few healed over injuries that Jason knows about far more intimately – and now that he’s thinking about them he can consciously feel the skin around the scars pulling slightly as he stretches. It isn’t quite enough to hurt outright – Tim had gotten careful medical care and diligent follow-up – but it’s still enough to make conscious awareness of the old wounds into a fairly constant thing.

            Awareness that Tim’s family had tried to kill him – had nearly succeeded in killing him.

            The deep slice across Tim’s right shoulder and the one through his left side were Damian’s doing, and both times the demon spawn had clearly caught Tim off guard rather than actually managed to best him, but still… those wounds were definitely mere centimeters from being irrevocably fatal. But they were direct, pointedly and almost delicately lethal.

 

            The deepest and most bluntly brutal wounds are ones that Jason knows better.

 

            They’re the ones that he caused.

 

            The batarang to the chest that he’d used to basically fillet the kid to get him out of what Jason had still considered to be his Robin uniform. The deep cut across his lower throat from piano wire used to hold him still and the twin slices down his back where Jason had planned to drag Tim’s lungs through his ribs to give him wings that fluttered like the bird he so badly wanted to be…

            Yeah, those are Jason’s doing.

            Tim has said he’s forgiven him, has demonstrated an absurd trust in the idea that Jason’s truly changed… But now that Jason can tell how much Tim can still feel the lingering effects of the life-threatening injuries he’d caused… how could Tim possibly forgive him?

 

            What the hell is wrong with that idiot?

 

            Jason steps out of the shower with a sour mood settling into place.

 

            He towels off quickly and makes for the guest bedroom where he knows Tim has stored some of his stuff – enough to make getting dressed in street clothes feasible.

            Unfortunately, all Jason can find of Tim’s in the expansive array of guest civies are the ridiculous suits Tim wears. While the kid pulls off the snazzy suit look better than anyone else Jason’s seen get stuffed into one, they aren’t exactly the kind of outfit needed for the ass kicking that Jason intends to bring down on Ludwig Massimo’s head.

            And honestly, Jason doesn’t actually know enough about the snub-nose high society freak show parade to know how to put together an acceptable outfit out of all the fancy bits and pieces he’s got on hand. He needs to do it right or Timothy rich-boy-squared Drake-Wayne will be on his ass about propriety and the fact that his outlandish outfit has ruined like ten different billion dollar deals for him…

 

            So, Jason just copies one of the things he knows he’s seen Tim wear.

 

            It’s a horrific clash of colors in Jason’s mind, but he distinctly remembers Tim wearing it sometime early spring – remembers that somehow the little fucker pulled it off, looking less like an easter egg than like the kind of sly badass that wore ridiculous shit specifically to dare the incompetent idiots who might comment to do so. Because Tim would deeply enjoy ripping them to shreds with his genius while flexing his bloodline of bone-deep superiority.

            Alfred had spent a lot of time attempting to help Jason learn the finer points of dressing, particularly in formal attire, and as much as Jason disagreed that suits were something special, he’d at least paid enough attention to the lectures to get himself into Tim’s ridiculous ensemble without much trouble.

            He can still feel the stretch and pull of the scar tissue beneath the finery.

            Jason carefully hides his thoughts behind a blank expression as he grabs a red t-shirt and a hoodie for his own body – more determined than ever to get things back to normal so he can address the shit load of problems that he’s tallying up regarding Tim’s apparent lack of basic self-care and his unreasonable refusal to accept the need to take a break now and then.

            Tim is leaning back in the chair at the computer when Jason steps into the main living area, clearly hesitating to log off. He looks up when Jason enters, scanning his face intently as soon as he realizes that Jason’s keeping his expression intentionally blank.

            Frustration starts to build immediately as Tim struggles to read what Jason’s thinking, but before that frustration can solidify into something that the Pit can work with, Jason asks with a sardonic twist, “Look enough like you to be seen on the streets without ruining some multibillion dollar deal you’ve got brewin?”

            “Yeah,” Tim replies immediately, a pleased smile breaking out across his face as he looks Jason’s outfit choices over. He clearly doesn’t remember the fact that the only clothes he’s stashed here are this sort of ridiculous suit, but Jason’s still gratified to have his imitation skills, and the effort he made to use them, well appreciated.

            Jason nods, and then chucks the balled-up hoodie and t-shirt in Tim’s direction.

            “Then put that on and let’s get going,” Jason huffs. “I wanna be back to normal ASAP.”

            “Agreed,” Tim replies, pulling the shirt over his head. He winces as the act of shuffling it into place tugs on his stitches.

            Tim is currently utilizing a specially modified Batbrand Wayne Enterprises smart BMW that Jason finds kind of ridiculous and excessive, but it is a pretty sweet ride and he slips into the driver’s seat with a grin.

            As they get settled, Tim mentions definitively, “We’ll pick up coffee on the way to Massimo’s hideout.”

            It’s not a suggestion, or anything remotely like one, and it makes Jason’s – Tim’s – mouth water immediately.

            “That is an unhealthy and delicious idea,” Jason grumbles. “How are you even alive?”

            Tim shrugs, a strange little frown on his face that Jason could probably read if Tim’s face was actually Tim’s face. His own face doesn’t really make that expression naturally.

            Tim goes really quiet after that.

            He folds one of Jason’s legs up underneath him and steeples his fingers across the knee.

            This expression, Jason knows well. This look means Tim’s thinking, carefully considering every possible angle of an operation. He’s obviously going over the details of the case, probably using that genius brain of his to cross reference the handwritten manifest of the expected shipment with the number and size and labels on the boxes he’d actually seen at the warehouse last night. Narrowing the gaps in his information to the smallest possible margin.

            If he can narrow it far enough – which Jason thinks he probably can, with that totally unfair and rather creepy, but hella useful eidetic memory of his – they should be able to get all the answers they need from Massimo in a few quick questions.

            And they should have everything the need to do it in the trunk.

            But with the both of them unmasked and dressed in civies, they’ll probably be better off dragging Massimo’s ass off to a safe house for a while – securing him in a windowless hole of an interrogation room where they can work on him with masks on…

            Slower, and not quite the immediate answer Jason had hoped for, but it’s gonna have to be good enough. He doesn’t want to risk the rest of the Bats finding out about this.

            They’re gonna blame Jason for this mess, he doesn’t have an iota of doubt about that.

            He would prefer to be back in his own body so he can skip town for a while and wait out the storm that will surely be breaking as those busybodies find out about it all.

            Because they will. Definitely. And sooner rather than later.

            So careful, quiet, as hidden as possible.

            The warehouse where Massimo’s 99% certainly hiding is very conveniently located almost directly behind an especially hipster branch of Gotham Grind, one with a third floor terrace that will almost certainly be vacant. Even with the sunshine, there’s a chilly breeze whipping roughly though the city that would dissuade all but the most determined and hardboiled of sun-starved Gothamites.

            Jason tries to focus on the convenience of that instead of on his own bitterness about the situation with the Family he’s supposed to be a welcome part of, but he can’t quite manage and he jolts the car into a parking spot slightly more abruptly than he means to.

            Tim doesn’t seem alarmed by it. Instead of commenting, he pulls his phone out of Jason’s pocket and starts tapping away – the bright green and bronze logo of Gotham Grind easily visible in the top left corner.

            He pauses suddenly just before the places the order.

            “If I order through the app, Babs will know where we are,” Tim comments, adding, “Even with the phone's GPS disabled, I can do anything about the order’s geotag.”

            “So, then don’t order through the app,” Jason snorts. Problem solved.

            Shooting him a sideways glance, Tim says, “I would like to let her know everything is moderately okay. Do you have a safe house that none of the Bats know about close enough to here to get to there before they can come looking for us?”

            “Not while maintaining your sterling rep,” Jason huffs.

            It’s not exactly true. He’s got a couple of places secured where even Oracle can’t find them that Tim could saunter into without making any kind of ripple, and a dozen others that are even more unreachable for the Family where seeing a Drake-Wayne show up would be the equivalent of a bag of money falling out of the sky… he just isn’t entirely sure he wants to show any of those safe houses to Tim.

            The kid’s been a good sport about an awful lot, but it’s taken Jason over a couples years here to set up these little hidey holes. He’s not too keen on burning one already.

            At the same time, Babs has always been cool with him and he does feel kinda bad about making Tim just blow her off… and it’s only between her and Tim being so… obnoxiously forgiving or just insane or some shit that Jason even has a sort of place in the Family again… so… Jason can burn a safe house for them.

            “But I got one we can use… Buy the coffee like a normal person,” Jason tells him. “I'll scout the factory where Massimo is probably hiding and we'll meet back here in ten minutes. We use what’s stashed in the car to get in and out with Massimo knocked out. Stuff him into the trunk and get to a safe house where your fancy Batbrand BMW is off the streets and under the radar. I got that part covered. If you don’t want Babs to worry, shoot her another email. It’s been like ten whole minutes since you sent the last one.”

            Tim shoots him a flat look.

            “Or, better yet, we could wear coms, I order through the app, you guide me in to nab Massimo, and then you pick the order up while I get our friend settled in the car,” Tim counters. “And we just get out of here in ten minutes, quick enough for the Bats to lose our trail.”

            Jason scowls and opens his mouth to retort, but Tim beats him to it with a sigh as he adds, “I appreciate the effort you went to in getting me dressed like a respectable CEO, I really do, but that suit costs more than this car and you are not splitting any of its seems in a tussle.”

            Jason's scowl deepens to a general glower. “I wouldn't have tried so hard to look right if I knew it was gonna get me sidelined,” he grumbles. “And if this suit is so damn expensive, why couldn't you afford to make it work for your other occupation?”

            “It was designed for me specifically, as a gift from the Fashion House directly, and I couldn't very well explain to the lead designer what I do after hours,” Tim explains, digging through the console's thick layer of decoy junk to access the hidden compartment with a few of the more frequently utilized Bat accessories. Among the carefully hidden boxes is a full flight of coms. Tim pulls out a pair of them and passes one to the still-grumbling Jason.

            The coms run on a localized Bluetooth connection, linked to the power pack inside the case being slipped into a pocket on Jason’s cargo pants – which makes the coms difficult for outside connections to hack into, buying them like five whole minutes of radio silence from Barbara if she notices the oddity of their current course of action and decides to investigate.

            As he secures his own com in his ear, Tim promises, “He's your asset, Jason, you get to lead the interview. There will be plenty of time for ass-kicking when we get to whatever safe house you feel comfortable holing up in while we get this sorted out. Just let me do the initial grab. I'll need you to guide me through the factory.”

            That does make Jason feel a bit better about the situation, but only slightly.

            “Fine,” Jason grumbles. “But if you get my body killed, again, I am so taking yours to the nearest strip joint. See how your reporter friends like that shit.

            Tim ignores him.

            Which is kind of a shame, because Jason’s actually pretty damn amused by the thought.

            He would’ve enjoyed ribbing Tim a bit more with it.

            Jason’s line of thought on the matter is abruptly cut off, however, as instead of responding to Jason’s jibe, Tim leans over the center console without warning and invades Jason’s personal space. The sudden appearance of Jason’s figure towering over Tim’s tiny one – something Jason’s never really considered possible while they’re both just sitting inside a rather small cabin of a car – gets Jason flustered, makes Tim’s muscles all lock up.

            The sensation of Tim running Jason’s fingers deftly through his hair sends odd sparks down the skin wrapped around all of Jason’s limbs. Trapped inside Tim’s body as it has a strange little freak out, Jason holds perfectly still – Tim’s lungs have totally forgotten what air is, let alone how to acquire any of it. Jason knew he was a bit touch-starved, and honestly touch-shy, to a certain extent, but this is a little more extreme than he’d thought it would be.

            The pulse in Tim’s ears is almost loud enough to drown out the explanation coming out of Jason’s mouth as Tim says, “My hair is long enough to hide a com in daylight. You may as well actually use that feature as intended.”

            Jason doesn’t recover from whatever is happening to Tim’s stupid little body fast enough to answer immediately. It’s not until a solid two seconds after Tim’s withdrawn Jason’s hand that he regains control over his voice – and with a snort to cover the breathiness in his tone, he spiels out, “Never realized your ridiculous fashion sense had a practical value behind it.”

            Like the jibe about the strip club, Tim simply ignores it.

            “Just get me in and out of there with our soon-to-be new best friend,” Tim huffs, pulling away and stepping out of the car. Already striding towards the alleyway just off to the side of the coffee shop, Tim says, “Coffee will be waiting for you when you get me out with Massimo.”

            Fully recovering his faculties, Jason nabs a slim line pair of binoculars from the hidden back panel in the dashboard compartment and heads towards the Gotham Grind front entrance.

            As he steps inside, the scent of freshly brewing coffee and small-batch roasts of espresso make Tim’s body shudder with an acutely needy excitement.

            Growling under his breath as he walks, knowing that the com will have no trouble picking up the words loud and clear, Jason says seriously, “We are gonna have to talk about this painful substance dependency issue you’ve got goin' on here.”

            “It's not an issue,” Tim retorts immediately. “It’s a socially acceptable habit and it's fine.”

            “The way you drink it is definitely an issue,” Jason fires back.

            His tone is mostly amusement, but there’s an underlying current of genuine concern he’s not entirely sure he wants Tim to hear.

            “Jeez, you sound almost as bad as Dick does with the big brothering,” Tim huffs with a distinct tinge of amusement. “Stop being a worry wart and just tell me where the target is.”

            “Anyone ever tell you you’re kinda bossy?”

            “Well, regarding most of the people I interact with, I am quite literally their boss,” Tim quips smugly, “So it’s hardly an insult.”

            Jason allows himself to chuckle as Tim slips into the shadows of the alley leading up to the factory, but quickly refocuses.

            “Alright, looks like Massimo is on the third floor,” Jason relays as he reaches a good perch on the vacant terrace. “I've got a visual on him and three goons, with three on the middle level and then two more on the floor below. Nothin' else is warm or moving in there that I can see from here – and with Massimo runnin' a little light on the payroll this week, I’m surprised he’s even got that many friends.”

            There’s a tight coil of something in Jason’s gut as Tim slips into the factory.

            It’s a sensation that’s hard to sort through, but is definitely rooted in worry. There’s something of his worry for his own body in there, but that’s gotta be negligible as Jason’s a reckless shithead on a good day when it’s his own skin and his own pain receptors feeling any injuries. And there’s also worry for Tim, which is definitely stronger, because Tim’s out of sorts being stuck in Jason’s body and that’s got to affect how he fights – even if Massimo’s goons are just pathetic little twerps hardly worth the Bats’ usual attention.

            But there’s something else too, something deeper that aches in Tim’s bones and Jason can’t unpack that one at all.

 

            The sound of Tim breathing easy over the coms is a small comfort.

 

            But there’s one moment, when it first starts, when Tim’s not breathing so easy.

 

            It’s the very first guy Tim attempts to take down – a single punch to the pressure points Tim usually targets drops the goon flat. Tim sucks down a shocked and shaky breath and very obviously teeters on the edge of a panic attack – one that the bottled up whispers from Jason’s dip in the Lazarus Pit will seize upon to leverage their way out to play with if it starts to spiral too much further.

 

            It’s the Rule, Jason realizes.

 

            Bruce’s creed against killing, the one Rule that he will never forgive a son for breaking.

            And Tim is absolutely convinced that he just broke it.

            The fact that it would’ve been an accident if he had done so is entirely inconsequential.

            Bruce would never look at Tim the same way again.

            Tim would never be able to survive that kind of change – he needs Bruce’s approval, Jason’s certain, needs it in a very different way than Dick or Jason himself ever did.

 

            Fortunately, for everyone involved, the goon Tim dropped groans heavily after a few seconds of stillness. A second later, Tim manages to draw a shaky breath.

            And then another.

            By the third, it’s evened out back into the meditational focus of the mission.

 

            After that Tim is more careful, moving almost gingerly. He takes two blows minimum to disable the guards, almost hilariously gentle jabs coming from Jason’s powerhouse figure. If Jason had been behind the wheel, they’d have been outta there in less than two minutes flat.

            Still, it’s almost pitifully easy for Tim to take out the last goons and Massimo himself, all without letting any of them catch a glimpse of their attacker.

            As soon as Tim slings Massimo’s arm over his shoulder to drag him back out to the car, Jason slips his away from the terrace railing. He makes his way downstairs to collect the coffee order that Tim placed from the app before they’d gotten out of the car.

            Reflexively, Jason taps off his com as he hits the main floor.

            He’s gotten too used to needing to keep busybodies out of his business for leaving it on when the mission’s over to register. There’s exactly zero hope of his staying connected to any of the Bats after an op without conscious reasoning proactively controlling his actions.

            He only intends to spend a few seconds picking up the order, but the girl behind the bar has a bolt through her eyebrow and a killer rack that makes itself known even under her ragdoll coffee shop uniform – and Jason’s never been one to resist an opportunity to flirt.

            The girl is eager to return his attentions. Because even if she can’t tell exactly how much money Tim has at his elegant fingertips, she can tell he’s a catch – handsome enough to melt hearts, rich enough to drop a big tip, and that Cheshire cat smile that could make anyone a bit weak at the knees. With Jason's long history of flirting, he’s honed the technique to an art and with just a few words he wins the girl's interest enough for her to slip him a folded up piece of register tape with her name and phone number on it.

            It doesn’t make his stomach – Tim’s stomach – do any flips, but it’s still a fun little diversion. And something about how Tim’s physiology doesn’t react to the fact that she lets her fingertips brush the underside of his wrist in a way that is totally and utterly unnecessary, makes Jason irrationally happy. He refuses to think about it.

            As he steps out into view of the car, he lets the satisfaction of the encounter settle into his bones and turns his mind towards the upcoming interrogation.

            Jason’s hands are full of scones and coffee but he maneuvers his way into the car easily enough. Tim settles into his own seat – with a weird little pucker of dissatisfaction giving a slight quirk to his expression that quickly dissipates – and turns his focus onto the scones that Jason dumps in his lap.

            As Jason makes his way through one of Tim’s usual coffees – his fourth of the morning – and Tim chows down on his dense confectionaries, Jason drives them to a safe house.

 

            The same safe house they had stayed in last night.

 

            Tim realizes immediately that something’s up.

            He seems hesitant to push, but he does say carefully, “Jason? I thought we agreed that we needed to get somewhere secure, somewhere that the other Bats won’t be able to find us. This is the first place they’ll look.”

            “Uh huh, and they’ll find your car in the parking garage like it was when you parked it there when you came to visit as your daytime persona before patrol last night,” Jason explains, without explaining anything. It still rankles him that he has to give this secret up, and he resists the need to fess up until the last second – waiting to spill the beans until he’s dragged into the inevitable while kicking and screaming.

            Tim stares him down as he throws the car into park.

            Jason ignores him and gets out of the car. Tim hurriedly follows as Jason makes his way towards the trunk. This time, when Tim glares at him, Jason sighs.

            “Everybody knows about the apartment I lease here,” he says, “Only Babs knows I own the whole building. And even she’s in the dark about the Basement. It doesn’t have internet access, or anything. Hell, it doesn’t even have a phone line. It’s hidden on the grid, tacking the resources it uses like power and water onto the rest of the building’s utility gauges. The only access is a hidden staircase behind the vault-locked utilities closet. So it’s both the first place anyone will look, and the last place anyone will think of to actually find us.”

            “That’s actually pretty brilliant,” Tim admits, like he’d never considered it.

            That sends a thrill of triumph down Jason’s spine, a thrill that’s almost enough to completely bury the resentment he bears at having to give the secret up.

            “I might not be any kind of boy genius, Timmers,” Jason huffs, “But I have my moments. And don’t forget that I’ve spent the last six years or so learning how to hide from Batman.”

            “Yeah, I guess,” Tim says, his tone stilted and odd. It brightens significantly as he gets back to the safe house, “But still, this is a really great plan. We’ll have plenty of time and privacy to get this all figured out.”

            “Damn straight,” Jason agrees. Then he asks, “You got a go-bag in the car somewhere? I don’t have anything that’ll fit you in the Basement and your clothing choices upstairs are all fancy ass suits and your Red Robin gear.”

            “Yeah, um, under the middle row seat behind the driver,” Tim informs him.

            “Cool. I’ll grab that, while you get our new friend here out of the car. I’d help you haul his ass downstairs, but I think the duffle is gonna be hard enough to carry,” Jason quips with a smirk that shows he’s mostly joking. It’s very definitively only mostly joking, though.

            With all of the distractions of executing the mission at hand, Jason’s been able to ignore the low throb of the constant ache in Tim’s muscles, but it hasn’t actually gone away.

            It’s hardly even abated in the last hour.

            Frowning with an odd sort of determined petulance, Tim huffs, “I’m not that weak. I can carry a stupid duffle bag.”

            “Yeah? Well, I can fling Massimo there around like a rag doll for a couple of hours and I still won’t wake up tomorrow feelin’ like a pin at the end of a bowling alley on a Saturday night.”

            “It’s fine,” Tim huffs, clearly a little more vehemently than he means to, “I can handle it.”

            He blinks in surprise at the tone.

            Jason knows that reaction. That’s the Pit starting to slip into the emotional pockets of his reactions rather than staying suffocated by the logical focus of the mission.

            This bizarre determination Tim has to run his body into the ground is an emotional thing – a consequence, not a choice – and one that runs way deeper than Jason ever imagined. It will need to be addressed again later, but only under more controlled circumstances.

            Jason leaps away from the topic for the moment, knowing that if Tim can slip back into a mode with mission focus as his primary thought line, he won’t notice the abrupt shift in conversation topics. “Just get our new friend outta the trunk. I wanna get him secured downstairs before he starts waking up.”

            Tim complies without hesitation.

            Tim follows as Jason leads the way downstairs – dragging Massimo effortlessly all the way as Jason clears through all the layers of security he has guarding this safe house.

 

            Inside, it’s a nice place. One of Jason’s nicer safe houses, to be honest – well furnished, decently stocked with creature comforts, it even has cable.

            Jason can feel Tim’s brain going into overdrive as he takes it all in. While he gives Tim a brief moment to rein in his attention, Jason ducks into the spare room. He never anticipated having guests at a genuine safe house, but this one had enough rooms to set up a kind of extra bedroom for the other Outlaws or in case something truly unexpected occurred.

 

            Like swapping bodies with a fellow former Robin.

 

            Jason hopes that it won’t actually come to having Tim spend the night here, at least not because he has to stay, but even if they do get back in their own bodies before it gets dark tonight, Jason anticipates that there’s gonna be some sort of side effect that would breed exhaustion at the very least. And Jason wants to stay hopeful about it all, but…

            Fixing things is definitely gonna be harder than just having a strongly worded conversation with Massimo. And even then…

            It’s likely that Tim will want to crash here even if they do fix things.

            Exhaustion and all that are things Jason knows Tim wants to hide from the Family.

 

            Jason had thought that he could see through Tim’s mask of ease and calm collectedness to tell when he was tired, but if this whole hit by a truck feeling is Tim’s fucking usual level of soreness after a night like last night… then Tim’s built up a façade that even Bruce won’t be able to see through. Maybe even Alfred.

            So, it’s very likely that Tim won’t want to go back right away, if only to give himself a little time to recover before he has to face the music with the Family.

 

            While Jason’s detoured to dump Tim’s duffle in the spare room, Tim has continued to drag Massimo down the main hall to the steel-doored room at the end that screams ‘holding cell’ to anyone with eyes and even a passing knowledge of action, adventure, or horror movies.

            Inside there’s a single aluminum chair bolted to the center of the floor facing the blank concrete of the back wall. There’s a secure cabinet built into the steel wall with the door that Jason uses his 10-digit code to open – and another 10-digit code to override the bioprint lock, fortunately enough paranoia does come in handy on the odd and awful occasion – revealing an array of handcuffs and implements to secure and question a less than willing subject.

            Jason’s not sure how torture-tolerant Tim is these days, so he uses his body to block the cabinet from view – or rather, he attempts to block it as best he can while Tim’s slim shoulders are all he has to work with. Working quickly, Jason pulls out a standard set of steel cuffs and connecter chains to secure Massimo upright to the chair, and a blackout head bag that conforms to the subject’s face with distortion filters over the ears and a vent for air that gets glued around the nose and mouth with almost as much immovable security as the Bats’ domino masks get glued down onto their faces as a last line of identity defense.

 

            Closing up the cabinet as Tim huffs with the relief of letting Massimo’s weight fall onto the chair, Jason turns and passes Tim the cuffs and chain to secure their guest while he focuses on getting the head bag settled into place.

 

            “It’s gonna take our new friend a minute to wake up here,” Jason acknowledges once they’ve got him entirely secure. “Why don’t you grab a snack from the kitchen while I go change into something more appropriate for head-bashing?”

            “It’s a conversation, Jason,” Tim sighs, confirming Jason’s theory of Tim being rather more torture intolerant than helpful at the moment. But he doesn’t say anything else to directly chastise Jason’s characterization of the upcoming interrogation and he willingly heads back towards the kitchen – allowing Jason peace and privacy to engage the security features on the holding cell’s vault like door.

 

            Jason appreciates that respectfulness – Tim doesn’t need to be so polite, after all, he could very easily linger and lurk and force Jason to compromise every last bit of this safe house’s security. But he apparently has no intention to do so and is carefully demonstrating that he trusts Jason enough to leave him with a few secrets.

 

________

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 6 – Research (Tim)

 

            Jason’s body relaxes dramatically the moment it crosses the threshold of the Basement safe house – the tension in the body’s muscles loosening up like it knows that this place is truly safe in the way the apartment upstairs has only ever pretended to be.

            Something behind Tim’s lungs – well, Jason’s lungs, and Tim’s not sure if the reaction is Jason’s physiology or Tim’s own psychology – aches at the thought of how he only feels safe here… in a Basement below an empty apartment where his Family thinks they can’t find him. Close to people who care about him, but somehow still far away from being close enough.

            Tim distracts himself from the thought by looking around Jason’s real safe house.

            Inside, it’s a nice enough place.

            Not as nice as the apartment upstairs, that one’s been furnished by a dozen different hands and it shows in how polished and put together and perfect it is.

            This one’s all Jason.

            It’s rather Spartan, if Tim is honest – Spartan, but not exactly bare. All the furnishings are utilitarian, and clearly well-loved and cared for exactly as they suit the purpose Jason intends them for… but there aren’t any pictures, or superfluous decorations, or aimless chairs set up for feng shui or balance or whatnot.

            It’s just stuff that Jason wants, directly for the use they provide.

            Tim thinks he kinda likes that idea.

            Nothing here has a place without a purpose.

 

            Jason darts away to toss Tim’s go bag into a spare bed room as Tim continues to drag Massimo down the hall. It’s obvious where Jason intends to stash him. At the end of the main hall there’s a steel-doored room that screams ‘holding cell’ to anyone with eyes and even a passing knowledge of action, adventure, or horror movies.

            Inside there’s a single aluminum chair bolted to the center of the floor facing the blank concrete of the back wall. There’s a secure cabinet built into the steel wall with the door that Jason uses a few lengthy codes pressed into a machine lock’s keypad to open.

            Tim sets Massimo down on the chair as Jason tries to block his view of the array behind the false wall of his embedded cabinet. The stuff he keeps there is stuff he knows Tim will disapprove of… and Tim tries to respect that, but his body’s shoulders are really scrawny and Jason doesn’t really know how to use what Tim has to work with properly to block an observer’s view – honestly, even Tim struggles to hide things from someone as tall as Jason, and he knows how the angles work best for it.

            Tim’s not sure if the kick to the gut he feels is from the fact that Jason feels the need to hide something specific from him, or from the fact that it’s so easy to see passed him that Tim looks without even meaning to do it. Or if it's because of what he sees.

 

            Torture implements.

 

            Jason’s got a cabinet full of torture implements. On hand. Gleaming and ready to use.

 

            Tim knows that Jason is the Red Hood, that he’s not exactly a hero in the same way that Gotham’s other capes are heroes, but he’s still one of the good guys. Right? He’s got the no killing thing nailed down. Mostly. It’s been 6 months since he killed anyone – an accident even.

            Which may not be the best track record someone could have in terms of not murdering anyone, but for Jason… it’s progress. Not great progress, but progress.

            Like how it’s been just over 9 months since the last near-ish, but distinctly not, fatal injury against a Bat. It was only even a close call because Jason reacted on instinct and then consciously pulled back on the reaction well before making contact.

            And Damian hardly counts, considering that the demon spawn’s goal in life is making his siblings try to kill him so he can prove that he can kill them better first. Tim was totally just collateral damage in the fight between the two of them. An accident.

            It’s fine.

            And Tim’s fine, having gotten back on the streets and back at work with Wayne Enterprises within a few, okay five, days of being sidelined.

            And Damian’s fine. He got back out on patrol after only a week.

            His own fault really. He’d tried to push it and tore his stitches and his wound up sidelined for another three days. That’s not Jason’s fault. Not at all.

 

            Tim knows he sounds like he’s making desperate excuses in some sort of bizarre, abusive relationship and maybe he is, but the Bat Family is not exactly a picture perfect example of steady mental health. They’re all a little damaged. More than a little.

            And hurt people hurt people.

            The Bats just take it all a bit more literally than most people.

 

            He loves his Family.

 

            Even if they’re all just a mess of violent, emotionally repressed screw ups.

            Tim doesn’t know if it’s Jason’s tools on hand that scare him, the easy and immediate accessibility of them, or if it’s the way they indicate he’s not exactly against torture in a manner far more direct than hearing of it second-hand that does it. Or if it’s the way he’s not entirely sure he cares that Jason is willing to torture scum-bags to help save the victims of their crimes.

            He can’t help but wonder if Jason’s ever had anyone stashed down here while he or the other Bats were lounging around upstairs, completely oblivious.

 

            Tim refocuses as Jason passes him some sturdy cuffs to secure their guest and sets about getting a fancy head bag into place while he lets Tim do the rest.

            Once they have Massimo locked down, Jason leans back with a satisfied sigh.

            “It’s gonna take our new friend a minute to wake up here,” Jason acknowledges once they’ve got him entirely secure. “Why don’t you grab a snack from the kitchen while I go change into something more appropriate for head-bashing?”

            “It’s a conversation, Jason,” Tim sighs – heavily, but trying not to let on how much it worries him that Jason can joke about all that. About his death and his dirty dealings and such.

            Isn’t quite sure why it’s bothering him so much more today than it usually does.

            He doesn’t say anything else to directly chastise Jason’s characterization of the upcoming interrogation. And he willingly heads back down the hall towards the kitchen – because somehow, he’s already hungry again – and he diligently gives Jason legitimate privacy to engage the security features on the holding cell door.

 

            When Tim makes it to the kitchen, he dives at a bowl of fruit – suddenly craving the bananas there that he didn’t even realize he’d noticed on the way inside as he’d moved Massimo toward the holding cell.

            He’s almost finished with his snack when Jason reappears.

 

            Tim nearly chokes on his last few bites of banana as he looks his own figure over.

            Jason’s dressed him in his own typical work out tights, but also in one of Jason’s tank tops – that drowns Tim’s skinny frame – with one of Jason’s endless arsenal of hoodies thrown over it. Tim’s brain blanks out for a bit.

 

**            He’s not sure exactly what does it.

 

            If it’s the shock of seeing his own figure decked in Jason’s clothes – Jason’s, of all people… like he hasn’t idolized the man since he was ten, like he hasn’t dreamt about how it would feel to wear one of Jason’s ridiculously soft shirts, just once, like he hasn’t ever imagined how one of Jason’s shirts would feel, would smell, would make him feel…

            Or if it’s seeing his own scrawny shape drowning in the fabric – his sharp collarbones sticking out at painful angles, his too pale skin showing off his utter lack of sun exposure, with some of his very worst scars in full view for anyone to see… And his hair… it’s twisted up in a ridiculous little man-bun that somehow isn’t ridiculous and it makes Tim’s face seem so much more like Jason’s than he would’ve ever imagined possible.

            Tim would never dress himself the way Jason’s dressed him.

            But it makes something stir in his stomach – something pleasant in a way Tim really doesn’t want to think about…

            And then it strikes him hard: Tim would never dress the way Jason’s dressed him – but Jason has dressed him. Which means Jason has undressed him.

 

            Holy frack.

 

            Jason’s taken a shower already – seen every inch of skin he hides beneath his thermals, likely touched it all as well.

            Tim’s vision goes a bit hazy – Jason’s heartbeat kicking up dramatically to pound in his ears with an obnoxiously loud thump-thump-thump that begins to spiral away. He’s mortified.

            Shocked and embarrassed and flat out horrified at what Jason’s seen of him – at what he must be thinking about poor little Timmy.

            Poor, weak and defenseless, little Timmy.

 

            The Robin that other Robins want to kill.

 

            He’s supposed to be a genius.

            How the hell did he not realize what would be involved with a body swap?

            That Jason would have to see beneath his clothes eventually?

 

            That fact alone is enough to set Tim’s head spinning, but beyond that thought is the idea that Jason couldn’t possibly like what he saw there – all of Tim’s scars and significant lack of muscle… unattractive on the best of days.

            And at the very least it would make Jason remember acutely how close he’d come to killing Tim once, not to mention how it would show him just how often other people nearly killed Tim – how all too frequently and regularly the near-killing took place...

            Tim was pathetic and weak and Jason had always stepped in to protect him – had always needed to protect him. There’d been that brief blip of time when even Jason had been trying to kill him, but it had been very brief. But so many other people had tried to kill him, and so many of them had gotten uncomfortably close… because Tim wasn’t good enough, even now, even after all these years of hard work and training and effort…

 

            And now Jason’s seen all that first hand.

 

            Seen Tim’s body stripped bare, revealing everything… and maybe Tim has fantasized about that once or twice, or maybe a bit more frequently that that… Of course, that would’ve been in slightly different circumstances. He’s idolized Jason forever, after all.

 

            And Jason is … well, he’s Jason frickin Todd.

 

            Gorgeous is a word for people like Dick Grayson, while Jason’s more… compelling.

            He’s built like a tank and somehow almost sexier in sweats and a hoodie than Dick is in those traumatizing, skin tight gymnastic shorts.

            The thought of Jason seeing him, touching him under the hot flow of water in the shower… it all makes Tim’s head spin with heady desire that hits him out of nowhere.

            He's better than this, had put the prepubescent pining part of himself firmly aside – pretended it away until he'd managed to out grow it.

            The thought of Jason seeing him though… seeing and disapproving of his weakness… because he is weak. He is and always will be.

            And now even Jason knows it plainly.

            A bubble of hysterical laughter threatens to escape from the closed up lungs trapped inside his too-tight chest. It’s ridiculous, irrational.

            A laugh echoes in his head. He’s not sure if it’s his or if it’s just a phantasm.

 

            And then suddenly Jason’s there – a hand on the side of Tim’s face and another on his shoulder; one squeezing and solid, the other light and gentle and supportive.

            “Tim? I need you to breathe for me, okay? Just breathe through it,” Jason tells him.

            The hand on his shoulder flits away briefly, goes to one of Tim’s balled fists. Jason lifts Tim’s hand and peals his fingers out of the fist. Places the flat of his palm against Jason’s own chest – against Tim’s chest, with his fingertips brushing pale skin. Sparking at the contact.

            It almost sets Tim off again.

 

            But the ritual is familiar enough to halt the advance.

            They’ve all had panic attacks, all learned how to help each other through them.

            All had way to much practice with working through it in real world circumstances.

 

            “Come on, baby bird,” Jason croons, hand back to squeezing Tim’s shoulder, “I know you can do this. Just breathe for me. We got all the time in the world to work it out, just breathe.”

            It’s slow going, but Tim manages to force himself to settle.

            It’s hard to stuff the insecurities back into the box he’s created for them, but with Jason standing by – concerned and patient – Tim manages to make himself fit back into propriety.

            He looks awkwardly away from Jason – who he’d been staring at directly, obnoxiously since Jason had first invaded his space to interrupt the panic cycle – and tries to pull his hand away from Jason’s chest.

            Jason doesn’t let him go.

            “Tim?”

            “I’m fine,” Tim promises. Sullen, embarrassed… guilty. “Sorry.”

            Jason hesitates. Pulls a breath in and slowly lets it out.

            “You don’t have to apologize, Tim,” Jason tells him, “Not to me, never to me. If anything, I should apologize to you.”

            “Jason,” Tim sighs, disheartened despite himself. “You’ve never meant to hurt me.”

            “Not that,” Jason says quickly, before Tim can get rolling on his usual argument. “I mean, yes, that… but not for this. I should’ve warned you… It’s not always immediate, and it’s not always obvious or loud or clear… but that… extra kick behind your panic? That’s the Pit.”

            Tim frowns.

            Evaluates what Jason’s saying with a clinical eye.

            He’s always been insecure – is still always worried about whether or not Jason thinks he’s a failure of a replacement. How can he not, really? How could Tim be anything but useless?

            Tim jerks back with a violent flinch as Jason squeezes his shoulder again. Hard.

            “That Tim. That’s the Pit,” Jason reiterates. “You can’t listen to it, even when it sounds like it’s nothing but the usual thoughts inside your own head. That’s the Pit and you can’t let it tell you what you’re thinking. Find the trigger point and move passed it. I know you can do it.”

            Trigger point.

            What’s the trigger point?

            His uselessness. That’s the trigger. Mostly.

            But it’s also that Jason has seen the hard evidence of his uselessness…

            But Tim has always been useless.

            He started out useless and got better.

            Not great, but better.

 

            Good enough.

 

            He’s never going to be as good as Jason could’ve been if he hadn’t died – or even be able to get as effortlessly good as Jason was before he died, because that kind of gut instinct for how a bad guy’s gonna move or what a victim needs from him just can’t be taught.

            It’s deeper than experience, an intuition that is just a part of the bone deep something that makes Jason who he is – that was enough to help Jason come back from the vengeful specter of the Red Hood that came out from the vile, corrupting depths of the Lazarus Pit.

            And he knows he won’t ever live up to Dick Grayson’s kind-hearted ease with people and the magical effortlessness of his movements, but he was never going to be able to compare to any of that to begin with. He didn’t measure up to either of them, never even attempted to delude himself into thinking that he could – not at any point in this, even from the very start.

            Tim knew that going in.

            He didn’t care.

 

            Tim had decided it didn’t matter that he wasn’t good enough. He was never going to be good enough, but being good enough wasn’t as important as trying hard enough and Tim nailed that bit. He’d fought his way to adequacy and earned his place in the Crusade.

            He did that.

            When everyone around him kept saying that he couldn’t.

 

            Tim might still be useless compared to most of the other capes, but he’s never let that stop him from being a hero – and he never will.

 

            So, yes, he is useless, but he doesn’t care.

 

            And maybe Jason has seen it now, but Jason’s smart.

            Jason would’ve never thought Tim was good enough. Maybe he hadn’t seen the hard evidence proving that before now, but Jason has always known that Tim was the weak link, the one that needed to be watched and looked after.

            It’s why Jason hadn’t killed him when they first ran into each other after he’d got back from the Pit – Jason had overpowered him easily, had cut him out of the Robin uniform, and then decided not to finish the job because he just didn’t need to do it.

 

            Tim didn’t measure up, and Jason knew that, even through the haze of the Pit.

 

            And that should’ve been obvious, because Jason had taken that shower hours ago… okay, maybe it was just two and a half hours ago, but still… plural hours ago … and he’d seen the evidence of Tim’s failure to be the kind of hero he was supposed to be – his failure to live up to the exact caliber of invulnerable vigilante he pretended to be – and he hadn’t reacted in any way to seeing it. He already knew, so seeing evidence wouldn’t change things.

            It wouldn’t make Jason treat him differently or think any less of him.

 

            Objectively, observably, it already hadn’t.

 

            If seeing his scars was going to make Jason treat him differently, Tim would already have noticed the effects of it.

            So… that means that everything is fine.

 

            Tim is useless. Jason knows it. Everything is exactly the same… it’s all okay.

            It’s not great. But very little in Tim’s world is great. So, it’s fine.

 

            Jason gives his shoulder another squeeze.

            “That’s it, Tim, just let it all go,” Jason tells him. “You’re doing great, baby bird.”

            Tim fights with his throat to force a swallow down.

 

**            “Jason?”

 

            This time, Jason is the one who looks away.

            He doesn’t relinquish his hold on Tim’s shoulder or let Tim’s hand fall from his chest, but he tilts back to put some more space between them.

 

            “The Pit isn’t gone,” Jason admits without looking at Tim. “The detox thing only kinda worked. It’s still there, waiting for some emotional spike to latch onto. I thought you might be… okay. You’re logical, less emotion-based than I am, so I just thought… Sorry, I didn’t warn you.”

 

            “Jason,” Tim sighs, trying to figure out how to word it delicately enough to get an answer when he has almost no right to hear it.

            He gives up and asks simply, “Are… are you okay?”

 

            “Nah, Timmers, I don’t really think I am,” Jason confesses. “And sad as it is, you’ve gotta deal with that shit until we get this sorted out.”

 

            Tim looks Jason over carefully – trying to read his own stupid face to parse out some emotive structure in the mask he’s spent a lifetime building up. He looks… sad. Remorseful.

            Like he really means his words and isn’t just saying that the Lazarus Pit is what’s behind Tim’s particularly ridiculous freak out here to excuse the excess of it.

 

            Jason’s been dealing with the Pit’s gnawing influence all alone – while the rest of the Family, Tim included, has been pretending that Jason’s been totally cured of it, like the anger and instability of the Pit was nothing more sinister than a mild heroin addiction or something.

            Methadone and done, because Bats are better than that.

 

            When it really was a constant, unending struggle… when it still is

 

            Jason clears his throat roughly and moves away from Tim with jerky motions.

            It’s hard for him to admit this, Tim realizes.

            Jason’s struggling all alone and the hardest thing about it is admitting that the fight goes on, despite how the Family has been thinking that he’d already won it.

            Getting the details that he has is already more than Tim has any right to have expected, so he lets Jason pull away – instantly misses the warm feeling of the contact between them.

 

            Clearing his throat again, Jason scrubs a hand over his face and makes a broad gesture towards the far end of the kitchen counter.

 

            “There’s a laptop over there hardwired into an internet connection tied to an empty apartment upstairs,” Jason explains in stilted bursts, “You can use it to do whatever research you think is necessary while I go talk to Massimo. I mean, you can come… if you want… to ask your own questions, but uh, there’s an intercom wired into the cell that connects to the laptop in case you want to just… wait here. You can use that to let me know if you think of anything. And it might be best to take it easy after… yeah. And, um, there's a pack of cigs and a lighter in the drawer under the laptop… it'll uh… help, kinda. So. Yeah…”

 

            Jason’s off and bustling away before Tim fully processes the jumbled thoughts.

 

            He wavers, knowing that Jason will likely be using a bit of excessive force on Massimo to work off some steam from the anxiety of watching Tim’s stupid panic attack. He doesn’t want to be a baby sitter, to make Jason think he doesn’t trust him, and he also doesn’t really want to watch Jason do his Red Hood kind of thing. Besides, being able to immediately research whatever new avenues of intelligence Jason’s conversation uncovers is highly appealing.

            And Tim thinks it might be best to take it easy, as Jason mentioned.

 

            At the very least, to keep a bit of distance between himself and Jason.

 

            Because Jason’s seen him naked now.

 

            This time, the thought doesn’t spark a spiral, but it does bring an embarrassed flush to Tim’s cheeks – a heat that crawls slowly up his neck in a display that would be mortifying if Jason were there to see it. Would be worse if Jason could understand it, could even guess at the feelings Tim wouldn’t have been able to hide behind it.

            Which is an entirely separate can of worms to weed through…

            Tim squashes all thoughts of Jason and nakedness and anything like that – turning his full focus to the laptop Jason had pointed out.

 

            And to the pack of cigarettes Jason mentioned.

            The twitchiness he feels – or at least the worst of it, he hopes – is the nicotine craving. It feels enough now like it did before breakfast to make him think his hope might not be ridiculous.

            Lighting up the second time is easier than it was before breakfast, but he still feels really awkward trying to manipulate the pieces… Tim is very glad Jason isn’t here to see him fumble.

            Tim is very glad Jason isn’t here at all right now.

            Tim has grown up, and he’s better than his teenage crush – knows better than to let himself fall back into old, bad habits like pining idiotically after something he can’t have…

            He's being ridiculous, and it needs to stop.

 

            The cigarette does help.

 

            Somehow.

            The zing of energy that trickles through him from the nicotine is calming – much like how taking tea instead of coffee at the end of a long day is for Tim when he's in his own body.

            There's still caffeine in it, and it still wakes him up, but gently and in a way that makes him focused and relaxed.

            And the nicotine settles his anxiety as well as his irksome fidgetiness.

            It allows him to think back over the panic attack. To think it over and analyze what happened with a clear and emotionally detached mind.

            Jason said it was the Pit that gave his panic extra kick, and now that he’s not actively fighting down the feelings and his old insecurities at once, he can admit that it might've been a more severe, and quickly escalating, reaction than he'd been expecting.

            Than he’d ever had before.

            And Jason said it was linked to his emotive response – said he hadn’t thought Tim relied so heavily on his emotions that the Pit's added influence would be impactful.

            Tim's not sure if that means Jason thinks he’s some sort of emotionless robot, and equally unsure if he should consider it a compliment or not.

 

            It makes sense of why his thoughts triggered the spiral, though.

 

            Tim makes a point to separate himself from his emotions, typically… but everything with Jason still hits him pretty hard – yanks on old, sentimental scars that are too much a part of why he is who he is to really set aside entirely. Even if he could pretend to want to.

            Jason seeing his skin be bared just hits him from so many different angles of angst… it makes sense for the Pit to exploit such a gaping open wound. Tim has already let it fester after all… and the blunt surprise of the realization, how it hit him all at once with no warning, no way to mentally prepare himself… yeah, it makes sense.

            Calmer now – because of a compounding influence from the nicotine, the physical distance between him and Jason, and the effect of cool headed analysis – Tim can actually focus when he turns his attention to Jason's laptop.

            It’s not much fancier than standard store bought tech – just enhanced with a few Bat-level security features – so it boots up nice and quick.

            Tim brings up the official manifest of the shipment they busted last night and unfortunately confirms that he has no idea what could possibly be special about it. There’s hardly anything even being truly smuggled – mostly it’s just stuff with forged papers from Egypt and that the goods were okayed by the government to allow their export. All of what Tim’s thinks actually came in to the US seems like it’s actually registered to come here.

            The buyers are harder to pin down, but a few private collectors with some pretense of exotic tastes buying up old oil lamps because they think it’s somehow makes them seem special are of no concern to Tim.

            The Gotham Natural History Museum on the other hand … that's a buyer worth looking into more closely.

            Tim researches who the current Director of Acquisitions for the museum's Egyptian Collection, and what other acquisitions she's made recently. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything intentionally shady going on – nothing outside of illegally removing artifacts from their home country, anyway… which frankly is hardly surprising considering how jaded the US is that England got to explore Egypt before they had a government in place to prevent them from just taking absolutely everything they wanted.

            London’s Natural History Museum has twice as much in its forgotten third closet than the Smithsonian has managed to acquire at all.

            Most curators aren’t abjectly vicious, or truly ill-intentioned.

            But they can be… overly zealous when the opportunity arises to exploit a grey area.

 

            Some of what's on the manifest is Assyrian, Tim notes, and the observation of how some of the artifacts could really be from a mix of contemporary cultures spurs him to consider calling up Hawkgirl… Shayera, and her past lives, have a direct experience with such objects.

            But there's a level of mistrust between the Bats and the alien demi-goddess.

            Not one that affects how well they can work together, but one that means Tim usually feels like neither side is willing to play all their cards – something he's never felt from any of the Supers or the Wonders, who’d be just as likely to know the answers. And this is a very personal issue – one that they can solve on their own unless proven otherwise after vigorous testing.

            Besides, it’s not guaranteed that Shayera, or the Kryptonians, or the Amazons, will have the answers. There’s a few other people in the cape community who might know, most even less trustworthy – immortals and such, like Constantine, Morningstar, hell even Ra’s al Ghul. Tim and Jason could contact about them it too, but truthfully there’s no reason to think any of them will have the right answer.

 

            And until they get truly desperate, Tim would prefer to handle this in house – and he knows Jason would agree without any kind of doubt.

 

            Tim refocuses on the Director of Acquisitions.

            Runs a deeper background check.

 

            Sighs when that one still comes up entirely clean.

 

            Since he can’t figure out what questions to ask Massimo, and he can’t immediately tell what involvement or personal motivation Director Anna Dyer has with the individual items she's acquired, unless Jason gets something spectacularly detailed from Massimo – which is possible, but unlikely – they will probably have to pay Ms. Dyer a visit.

            To facilitate that visit, Tim taps into the employee calendar – hardly even hacks to see it, honestly. It only has a mild encryption on it and it’s been left on the Cloud with ease of access for employees being made paramount. It means that Tim can get a copy of Ms. Dyer’s entire schedule, and because it's synced to her phone the schedule itself is linked to her private appointment app which gives him complete access to her life as she’s arranged it.

            If she had been the spontaneous sort, this technique wouldn't have worked nearly as well as it does, but Anna is a meticulous A Type and she had her days scheduled down to fifteen minute intervals. Tim suspects that level of meticulousness may be partly due to the fact that the default time frame for her day planner app is fifteen minutes, but still.

            It means that Tim knows exactly where she'll be all afternoon.

 

            If Jason comes up dry with Massimo, they still have an active lead to follow.

 

            Tim goes to voice his conclusion – he still has his com in, after all – only to realize that, while Jason may still have his com in, he hasn’t had it turned on since the coffee shop.

            A frown threatens as Tim wonders why he always does that, why his default move after completing an operation requiring coms is to immediately turn his connection off.

 

            Before he does anything to act on it by interacting with Jason, Tim decides to google it… he’s doing research anyway, after all. He might’ve been researching a shipment of Egyptian antiquities and the museum dealer that encouraged their acquisition by any means necessary, but research is research and google doesn’t mind abrupt topic changes.

            What he comes up with is enlightening.

 

            Substantially more helpful than his Egyptian research…

 

            The jump to being incommunicative isn’t new in Jason, but it’s still a symptom of PTSD, but likely an effect of his childhood in Crime Alley… it’s much harder to keep the parts of your life separated, keep the stories spun about them straight, if there’s someone looking or listening over your shoulder through everything. Keeping things separated, segregated, consciously and neatly compartmentalized… it’s more than an ingrained habit, it’s a coping mechanism.

            And after the Pit, after coming back as Red Hood… running up a list of hundreds more stories spun and truths nudged… and having done things he’s not proud of for a mix of good reasons and bad reasons and all the while knowing that nothing he could ever do could really keep Babs from spying on him if she really wanted to…

            Yeah, that wouldn’t help at all.

            So even if he knows that the com connection isn’t entirely cut when he turns it off, it’s at least a conscious signal he can use to say ‘back off’… and the fact that he usually leaves the com in – that if Babs does force her way in to say something, he’s there to answer – that’s a good sign, at least according to the internet.

            It’s an acceptance of connection, a willingness to accept the discomfort of being unable to escape entirely in exchange for being able to be there if one the Bats in the Family needs him as back up when things get hairy.

 

            Tim dives into the PTSD research, starts digging into trauma and recovery studies in reputable psychology journals.

            He knows Dick has taken classes on psych before, though his focus was mostly on criminal psych rather than recovery psychology. Wonders if Dick’s looked any of this up on his own to attempt to help with Jason… He probably has, but Tim thinks Dick might be the kind of guy who’d get stuck in thinking that needing psychological help means something’s wrong… not that Dick would ever mean to be ableist or counterproductive, but Dick would likely want to believe that Jason can handle his issues with nothing but the Family’s help.

            Tim should ask Babs for her more level-headed help.

            He knows there’s no way that she hasn’t done research on this.

 

            Tim resolves to meet up with her for lunch as soon as they get this body swap thing figured out – resolves to do more to truly help Jason. He’d thought it was enough that he’d managed to help Jason help himself in terms of reestablishing vague ties with the Family.        

            He’d thought that wanting to do more was just his crush talking – just that stupid little teenage twist of him clinging to any excuse to hang around his idol a bit longer.

            Tim has been phasing himself out – less dramatically than the first time he tried, and less completely. Tim is Red Robin, he owns that now and is going to continue to be the hero he can be for Gotham… but with Jason finally starting to come back into the Family for real… Tim knows that he’s the link in the chain that has to give.

            Tim is completely self-sufficient, financially speaking, and he’s the least emotionally dependent on Familial proximity. Someone has to back away to let Jason back in, and that someone should be Tim.

            Even so, Tim needs to help Jason, really help him.

            It’s not just his unwillingness to leave prompting that much, and Tim understands that now – and because of it, he can more effectively act both in helping Jason, and backing off enough to let him fit easily back into the Family. If it’s not just his crush talking, then he doesn’t have to back so far away that it stops talking… he can stay close enough to be involved and help Jason properly while still giving room.

 

            It’s good. Better.

 

            He shunts off a good load of data to a jump drive – not wanting to compromise the security of Jason’s safe house by uploading it directly to his private server. Even if it was through heavily encrypted channels, Babs could follow them back here.

            She probably already knows about this place, but on the off chance that she doesn’t…

 

            And then getting back to his original frustration… Jason and coms and the fact that he had news before he got distracted. Not good news, maybe, but news…

 

            The fact that the com in Jason’s ear is off means Tim can’t hear the interrogation. He doesn’t think that Jason’s being too rough, thinks the lack of coms is just making him think Jason’s consciously turned him off to keep him from hearing sounds of torture.

            He hopes, at least.

 

            Jason mentioned an intercom system.

            It takes a bit of poking around, but he finds it patched directly into the computer’s hardware… it’s both crudely attached – duct tape and a frickin’ paper clip – and yet still elegantly worked into the system, perfectly Jason in every hallmark of the handiwork.

            It’s a physical trigger, rigged to the escape key.

            With a paper clip.

            Stuck through a hole in the circuit board Tim’s fairly certain isn’t supposed to be there.

 

            Before he can question whether or not he should be wearing rubber gloves to do this, Tim presses the trigger. “Red Robin to Red Hood. Your intercom is a fire hazard. Turn your com back on or I will not be held responsible for when your safe house is literally burned.”

            A low bing sounds in his ear.

            Along with the tail end of a chuckle.

 

            “Embrace the danger, Red, live a little,” Jason returns easily.

            But Tim knows that little huff in the back of his own throat, knows that edge to his own tone because he’s spent years trying to hide it. That huff is relief.

            Jason left Tim out here to process, gave a means of communication and then backed off leaving the ball in Tim’s court. It’s fairly probable that Jason did not anticipate Tim being terribly willing to cross that bridge – even considering how circumstances make it unavoidable.

            Probable that he felt certain that even if Tim did cross the bridge, it would be with awkwardness or maybe even anger… that this joking and normality is good and unexpected.

 

            “I jump off buildings for kicks and sneak Batman decaf, I live plenty,” Tim shoots back, electing to completely ignore the fact that Jason’s ignoring his own anxiety enough to make it bleed through the cage Tim’s cultivated around it.

            They’ll deal with that later.

 

            For now, they have bigger problems.

            “You getting anywhere with our new friend?”

 

            “Oh, yeah, me and Viggy here are gettin’ real close,” Jason says, and Tim can hear the grimace. “Unfortunately, bugger’s got like two brain cells and nothin’ in between ‘em but air. Ran out of conversation before the salad course finished, so I’m looking to stuff the breadsticks in my pockets and get the hell out of this date while I can.”

            “Ask him about Anna first.”

            “Who?”

            “Anna Dyer, Director of Acquisitions for the Gotham Natural History Museum,” Tim elaborates. “Ask Massimo if Zagitova was especially proud of any unique items he’d managed to acquire for her. Evgeni Zagitova likes to flirt and Anna double majored in International Literature as well as Archeology and Museum Studies, she’ll like the stories attached to any special items and Zagitova will have been eager to provide.”

 

            “Will do,” Jason says, like he intends to click the com back off for the questioning.

 

            If he does, Tim will have to go check on him – really doesn’t want to have things come to that. He doesn’t care much for the comfort of criminals, but torture…

            More than that, torture hurts the participants on both sides of the exchange. While the victim is the worst off by any estimate, Tim doesn’t want anything else to impede Jason’s ability to recover from the Pit, especially now that he knows how constant the struggle to keep the Pit’s influence smothered is for Jason.

 

            Fortunately, Jason seems to rethink the action and leaves the line open.

 

            His questioning technique is not exactly friendly, but it’s also not any kind of brutal, and certainly isn’t the kind of rough that Tim thinks should be even mildly concerning.

            It’s cleverly conversational and quickly gets Tim exactly what he needs.

 

            The Heka Ariset.

 

            A mirror so old that Cleopatra revered it’s purported history. She kept it in a jewel encrusted gold and glass box. According to what Zagitova told Massimo, Cleopatra regaled guests at all her dinner parties about the ancient object’s magical history.

 

            Tim gets googling.

 

            Finds a few credible journals citing the story and validating that the object in question was probably a genuine artifact – some specific mirror that Cleopatra kept close for reasons other than its practical value.

            None of the academic journals he can find go into much detail about the exact legends surrounding the mirror’s history, or what the special powers Cleopatra claimed it had actually were, but they do validate that it was special, and that it was a real, lost object that could have the potential to be found.

            Anna Dyer’s on-going doctoral dissertation involves the influence of magical objects like the Heka Ariset, somehow linking them to both fictional mythologies and historical events of noteworthy political upheaval – at least according to the frustratingly vague blog post on the museum’s Staff Highlights page.

 

            She seems to claim that the romance of the mystique was a far more literal and impactful concept in social landscape of Egyptian Antiquity than previously believed.

 

            It means almost nothing to Tim in terms of practical leads on whether or not this mirror is responsible for what happened to him and Jason, let alone on the question of if finding the mirror will be enough to fix it…

 

            He doesn’t remember seeing a mirror the night before.

            Jason doesn’t either.

 

            And he’s officially run into all the dead ends it’s reasonable to explore with his interrogation of Ludwig Massimo.

 

            Jason sprays the thug in the face with a sedative and hooks him up to an IV to keep him sleeping and hydrated for the next few hours so they can go talk to Anna Dyer before they have to drop Massimo off with the police and a portfolio of more evidence to prove his involvement in the crimes he’s already walked away from jail for once today.

            With Massimo secured, Jason changes Tim’s body into his Red Robin gear (which does not drive Tim into another panic, regardless of the tight feeling in his chest that lasts as long as Jason spends out of his direct sight line) and throws sweats over the ensemble to make it street viable – he’s got a hat and sunglasses to cover Tim’s face and they will not be taking the BMW.

 

            Jason stuffs the red helmet that will make Tim’s current outfit a perfectly acceptable costume for Red Hood under his hoodie and then leads Tim out a that ridiculously well secured secret entrance and takes them back to street level – letting out discretely under the ramp of a parking garage’s first deck, where he’s got a beat up old bike stashed, a junkyard bike at best, albeit with a well-disguised but completely rebuilt and rather magnificent engine.

 

            Tim, in Jason’s body, takes the front, being that he knows exactly where they’re going.

 

            Having Jason, in Tim’s body, slip onto the bike behind him sends the odd sparks through his stomach that his long time crush on Jason has given him plenty of practice at ignoring.

            The late afternoon sun makes the quick ride across town feel dramatic, which Tim hopes can be taken to mean that they’re nearing the climax of this ridiculous adventure and they’ll be able to get themselves back to normal in time to take up their usual night time patrols.

 

            The logical side of him, the side that doesn’t give in to the keening drama of capes and action movie sunsets, is unfortunately certain that it isn’t going to be quite so easy…

 

 

________

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 7 – Dead Ends

 

            Jason spots the instant Tim tips over into panic.

 

            Hasn’t the foggiest idea of what triggered it.

 

            Watches as Tim’s eyes grow huge, and as his pupils dilate to swallow up his focus and as the vicious green flares up inside the slivers of his irises when the Pit begins to play.

 

            Feels the guilt claw though his organs like rusty old machetes as Tim begins to spiral away into the panic with absolutely no inkling of what’s happening or how to control it.

            It’s panic rather than rage, so it probably won’t turn destructive or dangerous like one of Jason’s episodes almost certainly would have, but still…

            Tim’s better than him, so much better… he should’ve been able to avoid this.

            Probably would’ve been able to recognize and handle it – to shut the chain reaction down completely before it managed to kick on the spiral – if Jason had just fucking told him about it…

 

            But he didn’t.

 

            And now Tim has… Tim has to deal with the very worst of what self-doubt can do to a person over years of letting it fester, with centuries the Pit’s victims compounding into it, all compressed into one all-consuming attack that he had no reason to expect might be coming.

            Jason knows that Tim’s not got the greatest self-esteem – has never understood why the little shithead doesn’t think he’s basically an epic earthbound god – but thinks that it won’t be impossible for Tim to recognize that, regardless of whatever specific doubt the Pit is playing with, the response he’s having to it is being blown way out of proper proportion…

            Tim might doubt himself a little, but only over stupid things, right?

            Things that he could work passed when he remembers that the Family needs him… when he remembers that he’s the only reason the Bats are still a Family at all, and the only reason that WE is still standing, let alone serving as a global powerhouse company. Tim is seriously the only reason behind so many important aspects of how the current reality came to be way less shitty than in any other alternative version of the god damn universe…

            But as Jason stands frozen in his hallway, he watches Tim spiral… hard.

            He’s not getting out of this on his own.

            Jason thinks he may not yet have even recognized that it’s happening at all.

 

            Standing frozen, totally unable to feel any of his limbs, Jason wills Tim to somehow miraculously manage to pull himself out of the rut – Tim can do it, Jason knows he can.

            But then a bubble of hysterical laughter gurgles up out of Tim’s restricted airways.

            It’s not a Joker laugh, thank god, but it’s still mocking and derisive, and it means that Tim is caught in the Pit’s thrall, without a doubt. There’s no way he can break this on his own, not without having prior warning of the potential need for him to fight his way out.

            Jason still doesn’t have any feeling in his limbs, but somehow he makes it over to where Tim is sitting – trapped in the throes of a waking nightmare.

            One hand goes to the side of Tim’s face – fingers wrapped around his nape, thumb brushing gently at his temple, palm cupped over his cheek. The other goes to his shoulder – squeezing hard enough to bruise, hard enough to nearly tear the stitches in the skin below his fingertips… hard enough to feel solid against the haze of the Pit.

            “Tim? I need you to breathe for me, okay? Just breathe through it,” Jason tells him.

            The hand on Tim’s shoulder flits away briefly, goes to one of Tim’s balled fists. Jason lifts Tim’s hand and peals his fingers out of the fist. Places the flat of his palm against Jason’s own chest – fingertips brushing the pale skin around his collar bones. Sparking at the contact.

            It makes Tim shudder.

            He chokes on an attempted breath.

 

            But this is a ritual they know well, one that Bruce has drilled into all of them for years.

            They’ve all had panic attacks, all learned how to help each other through them.

 

            “Come on, baby bird,” Jason croons, hand back to squeezing Tim’s shoulder, “I know you can do this. Just breathe for me. We got all the time in the world to work it out, just breathe.”

            Jason keeps his own breathing regular.

            Wishes he could force his heartbeat to slow just as easily, hopes that Tim can’t feel the erratic pound of it too clearly – hopes he focuses on the rise and fall around his lungs.

            Like Jason knows he is, Tim proves strong enough to push the worst of the panic away. It seems like one hell of a fight, but he manages to regulate his breathing, and then slow it down.

            His heart rate is still too fast though, Jason can feel it beneath the hand that’s slid down to rest against Tim’s neck – thumb brushing lightly at his cheek now as his fingers put a gentle, reassuring pressure on his nape, drawing them close.

            Tim tries to pull away before he’s genuinely calm – after the panic has settled, but well before it’s truly dissipated. Jason’s muscles lock up to keep Tim firmly in place.

            As much as Jason wants it to be that easy, he knows this isn’t over yet.

            “Tim?”

            “I’m fine,” Tim promises. Sullen, aggravated. “Sorry.”

            He’s still riding high on emotion, even if he’s pretending otherwise – too high, on emotion that the Pit can use to make the spiral drag him right back down.

            Jason hesitates. Pulls a breath in and slowly lets it out.

            “You don’t have to apologize, Tim,” Jason tells him with a deep remorse that he takes pains to keep out of his tone, “Not to me, never to me. If anything, I should apologize to you.”

            “Jason,” Tim sighs, sounding shockingly deflated and disheartened. Jason doesn’t understand why until Tim goes on, “You’ve never meant to hurt me.”

            Oh.

            He’s on about the other reasons he has to feel like an absolute asshole for everything he’s ever done to Tim – the big reasons.

            “Not that,” Jason says quickly, before Tim can get rolling on his usual argument. He hears what he said and course corrects, “I mean, yes, that… but not for this. I should’ve warned you… It’s not always immediate, and it’s not always obvious or loud or clear… but that… extra kick behind your panic? That’s the Pit.”

            Tim frowns.

            He’s not explaining it right.

            Jason knows that words aren’t quite his thing, especially not words about feelings and shit… and this thing with the Pit is hard enough for him to get right in his own head.

            He has to do better.

            For Tim.

            He looks Tim straight in the eye, trying to figure out what to say – how to say it…

            Notices the rapid twitching that means he’s thinking… hard.

            The flicker starts out normal, plain old regular Tim with his creepily hyperactive genius little brain, but then it stutters into something else… the thrum of vibration in his pupils blowing them wide and a glint of glimmering green rises back up as the Pit digs in again.

            Jason squeezes his shoulder again, giving it a firm shake that jars his stitches.

            Tim jerks back with a violent flinch as he gets yanked back to reality.

            Tim might think the panic attack is over, that the worst of the spiral has been halted, but Jason knows better – knows it all too well. This isn’t nearly over, not by a long shot.

            No matter how much either of them wants it to be.

            “That Tim. That’s the Pit,” Jason reiterates, giving Tim another gentle but pointedly emphatic shake. “You can’t listen to it, even when it sounds like it’s nothing but the usual thoughts inside your own head. That’s the Pit and you can’t let it tell you what you’re thinking. Find the trigger point and move passed it. I know you can do it.”

            Tim frowns again.

            His eyes do that flicker thing again, but this time the pupils stay small and focused.

            The green haze of the Pit doesn’t gleam around the edges of the dark blue gaze.

            His thoughts stay clear. Analytical.

            The frown deepens, the eyes narrow, the analysis keeps clicking onward.

 

            Jason gives Tim’s shoulder another squeeze.

            “That’s it, Tim, just let it all go,” Jason tells him, feeling the ache of being pummeled with relief. Tim’s almost free of the spiral, he’s getting out and getting it all under control so much more quickly than Jason ever could drag himself out of a spiral that deep.

            “You’re doing great, baby bird.”

 

            Tim struggles for a moment more and then swallows.

            Calmly and quietly, Tim meets Jason’s gaze and says his name with obvious question.

 

            This time, Jason is the one who looks away.

            He doesn’t relinquish his hold on Tim’s shoulder or let Tim’s hand fall from his chest, but he tilts back to put some more space between them.

 

            “The Pit isn’t gone,” Jason admits without looking at Tim.

            If he looks back at Tim, even for a second, he’s gonna lose his nerve. And he can’t do that, he can’t… Tim deserves better – needs to know what’s what so he can deal with it properly.

            “The detox thing only kinda worked,” Jason explains shakily, “It’s still there, waiting for some negative emotional spike to latch onto. I thought you might be… okay. You’re logical, less emotion-based than I am, so I just thought… Sorry, I didn’t warn you.”

 

            “Jason,” Tim sighs. Heavy, significant… not quite pity, but painfully close.

            Jason can’t look at Tim – feels his heavy stare too acutely to even sneak a glance.

            “Are you… are you okay?”

 

            Jason knows what he’s asking.

            If it were anyone else, or they were in even slightly different circumstances, Jason would jump straight to lying through his teeth. But that won’t help Tim manage the Pit’s influence for however long the two of them remain stuck in each other’s bodies like this and Tim doesn’t deserve to get blindsided again because Jason’s too proud to admit he’s not as nearly strong as he always pretends to be.

            “Nah, Timmers, I don’t really think I am,” Jason confesses roughly. “And sad as it is, you’ve gotta deal with that shit until we get this sorted out.”

 

            Tim’s got his focused stare skimming over Jason and it makes the inside of his skin itch in a way he doesn’t like one bit.

            Clearing his throat again, Jason scrubs a hand over his face and makes a broad gesture towards the far end of the kitchen counter.

 

            “There’s a laptop over there hardwired into an internet connection tied to an empty apartment upstairs,” Jason explains, hurriedly working his way to his feet and shuffling backwards away from the kitchen area.

            Tim’s clearly a bit behind on following the non-sequitur, but Jason barrels onward, “You can use it to do whatever research you think is necessary while I go talk to Massimo.”

            Jason falters as he realizes what he just said, how that could be construed as meaning something about Tim being too weak to handle an interrogation after one measly panic attack, which is not at all what Jason wants to say – even if Tim should try taking it easy, since the Pit’s spirals are in no way normal spurts of irrational panic.

            Stumbling over his words, Jason continues physically backpedaling as he simultaneously attempts to remove his foot from his mouth. “I mean, you can come… if you want… to ask your own questions, but uh, there’s an intercom wired into the cell that connects to the laptop in case you want to just… wait here. You can use the connection to let me know if you think of anything. And it might be best to take it easy after… yeah. And, um, there's a pack of cigs and a lighter in the drawer under the laptop… it'll uh… help, kinda. So. Yeah…”

 

            With that glorious exit, Jason wheels around and flees.

 

            He can feel Tim’s stare on his back all the way to end of the hall where he disappears behind the door closing off Ludwig Massimo’s cell.

            Jason has to spend a full ten seconds just trying to breathe before he can turn his attention to their guest – who’s already awake enough to be tense with dread and terror, even as he pretends to still be knocked out cold.

            When he gets himself back under control – which is easier than he’s used to because of how Tim’s body has never been in the Pit, but still harder than he thought it would be because of how high strung and wired Tim’s body is, how it seems to be naturally prone to panic in a way Jason’s never was – he doesn’t immediately turn his attention to the prisoner playing possum.

            Instead, he open up the hidden cabinet again.

            This time, instead of pulling out restraints, he goes for one of the extra vocal modulators he keeps on hand here and takes his time securing it to his throat before he taps it on.

            Then he slings an arm around Ludwig Massimo’s shoulders – making the idiot jump half out of his skin in fright as his charade of still being knocked out immediately falls apart – and gives an excessively rough, but still falsely congenial shake and squeeze.

            “Oh, Viggy,” Jason sighs sarcastically with a dramatic bite behind the sound, “Viggy, Viggy, Viggy… What am I going to do with you?”

            Massimo remains silent, save for an incoherent squeak that Jason isn’t shy about insulting. “You seem nervous, Viggy, afraid,” Jason comments, “Now why could that be? What’s got you so worked up and scared of your ol’ friend Red Hood? Hm?”

            This time, Massimo controls himself better – the strong arm of the docks finally getting himself in check after Jason so generously gave him a picture of who he’s facing. Jason wants him putting up the front, wants him to try blocking Hood from the information Massimo thinks that he wants – because Jason doesn’t actually know what he wants, and it’ll be much easier to figure out what he wants if he can watch Massimo attempt to steer him away from it.

            “See, you’ve been working with this Zagitova douchebag, transporting a whole bunch of old shit from the middle east and I wanna know what that asshat told you about what exactly you were moving for him,” Jason presses. As he talks, he releases Massimo’s shoulders and starts pacing around him with heavy steps around his captive. “About a certain, special addition to the mess of moldy archaic junk you were hauling.”

            “I don’t know what was in the box,” Massimo promised immediately.

            Bingo.

            Jason audibly sucks in air, letting Massimo know exactly what he’s doing despite the blindness of the head bag. “You know what, Vigster? I don’t believe you,” Jason tells his idiot captive brightly, “I think you know exactly what was in it. I think Zagitova tried to handle it himself, and I think it was just too shiny and tempting to resist… I think you peeked.”

            With a vigorous shake of his head, Massimo replies, “Nuh-uh, client privilege. I never look at what’s in any of the crates, to ensure I can’t rat a client out to anyone. Works to benefit both sides in an exchange.”

            “You stole a crate of Uzies from me, Vig,” Jason reminded, with an aggressively sardonic twist to his chipper tone, “I think you peeked.”

            Massimo squirmed.

            He’d always been a pretty simple sucker to interrogate.

            Jason leans in to get all up in Massimo’s face, blowing a hot huff of irritation over him to let him know that Jason was right there, and whispers, “So. Vig. What was in the box?”

            “Nothin’,” Massimo replies, in a voice just short of a terrified squeal, “I didn’t see anything. It was just a box. I dunno why the frickin cad was so excited about it.”

            “Come on, Viggy, don’t lie to your old pal,” Jason cooed. “He must’a said something. I know you only got one head that works right and while I’m sure it’s not the upstairs one, you’ve gotta have a couple brain cells between your ears.”

            “He didn’t say anything, I swear,” Massimo gives up, hearing the vicious edge behind Jason’s cooing tone that meant very clearly that Red Hood was losing his temper – a thing that usually indicated that some unfortunate idiot was about to lose an appendage or two. “He was just blathering on about some bitch, like the damn bastard thought he was gonna pretend to get some pussy for this shit. Fuckin’ faggot.”

            Jason’s fist connects with Massimo’s jaw before the echo of his words has died – hard and quick enough to make him bite his tongue and nearly take it clean off.

            “It’s not nice to use slurs, dumbass,” Jason says with a didactic lilt.

            Unfortunately, it seems like Massimo was telling the truth about the fact that he doesn’t know anything actually useful.

            Jason steps back and crosses his arms, considering his options.

 

            He really doesn’t have many.

 

            Before Jason can pin down any possible course for continued questioning, the intercom on the wall crackles to life.

            It scares the shit out of Massimo, and it even makes Jason jump slightly.

            He’d forgotten about Tim.

            Well, not forgotten exactly, but he’d more or less dismissed the idea of Tim ever voluntarily talking to him again, especially in the immediate moment. If their positions had been reversed, Jason would’ve been a mix of too angry at having been blindsided and too embarrassed over his reaction in front of Tim to even dream of talking to him without a good chunk of time spacing off the contact.

            Unless he’d found something hella important.

            “Red Robin to Red Hood. Your intercom is a fire hazard. Turn your com back on or I will not be held responsible for when your safe house is literally burned.”

            Snarky little shit.

            Still, it makes Jason almost smile and he taps on the com with half a chuckle slipping up his throat. “Embrace the danger, Red,” Jason returns, “Live a little.”

            It’s a relief that the banter comes so easy – that it’s not stilted or awkward because of what happened less than half an hour ago. It still could stumble that way, but if Tim’s contacting him, it’s likely that there’s a new lead to follow, so hopefully, they’ll both be able to focus on that.

            “I jump off buildings for kicks and sneak Batman decaf, I live plenty,” Tim shoots back, light and calm and teasing and focused. It almost makes Jason chuckle again. “You getting anywhere with our new friend?”

            “Oh, yeah, me and Viggy here are gettin’ real close,” Jason growls, leaking a bit of his exasperation at having hit a wall. “Unfortunately, bugger’s got like two brain cells and nothin’ in between ‘em. Ran out of conversation before the salad course finished, so I’m looking to stuff the breadsticks in my pockets and get the hell out of this date while I can.”

            “Ask him about Anna first.”

            “Who?”

            “Anna Dyer, Director of Acquisitions for the Gotham Natural History Museum,” Tim elaborates. “Ask Massimo if Zagitova was especially proud of any unique items he’d managed to acquire for her. Evgeni Zagitova likes to flirt and Anna double majored in International Literature as well as Archeology and Museum Studies, she’ll like the stories attached to any special items and Zagitova will have been eager to provide.”

            “Will do,” Jason says, reaching up to tap off his com out of habit.

 

            Something makes him stop before he does it.

 

            It takes a second for him to realize that he heard Tim pull in a harsh breath as he signed off – a breath that Tim’s apparently still holding.

            It takes another second to figure out why.

            Tim opened this line of communication, intentionally and vocally electing to use the earbud com over the intercom… Jason’s not entirely sure why he did it, but he did, which means that if Jason turns his com off again, he’s rejecting the connection…

            Which would be bad… probably very bad.

 

            Jason forces his hand to drop and turns his attention back to Massimo.

 

            His questioning technique this time around is a bit rougher than the first set, being that Jason needs to coax Massimo’s underdeveloped brain to remember every last detail it possibly can, but it’s still mostly a conversation that lets the idiot trip himself up.

            It gets Tim what he needs: the name of the artefact that Evgeni Zagitova was so proud of acquiring for Ms. Anna Dyer.

 

            The Heka Ariset.

 

            A mirror so old that Cleopatra revered its purported history. She kept it in a jewel encrusted gold and glass box. According to what Zagitova told Massimo, Cleopatra regaled guests at all her dinner parties about the ancient object’s magical history.

 

            Judging by the rapid sound of computer keys clacking away, Tim gets googling.

            Narrates under his breath as he goes.

 

            Jason learns about how Cleopatra’s attachment to the mirror was for more than its practical value – that there is historical evidence to support the idea of an actual, physical mirror existing some place in the hidden recesses of Egypt’s ancient empire.

            The it was a real object with the potential to be found.

            Anna Dyer is doing her currently on-going doctoral thesis on objects like the mirror, and the literal impact of such mystical objects on the practicalities of every day Egyptian life.

            It’s kinda cool to consider.

            But it means almost nothing in terms of giving Tim and Jason leads to follow.

            It’s still very unclear as to whether the mirror is the thing responsible for what happened to them, and it says nothing on the question of if finding the mirror will be enough to fix it…

 

            He doesn’t remember seeing a mirror the night before.

            Tim doesn’t either.

 

            And they’ve officially run dry on what it’s reasonable to explore with the interrogation of Ludwig Massimo. They’ve gotta find someone else to talk to, and Anna Dyer seems like the only plausible option to investigate.

 

            Jason sprays the thug in the face with a sedative and hooks him up to an IV to keep him sleeping and hydrated for the next few hours so they can go talk to Anna Dyer before they have to drop Massimo off with the police and a portfolio of more evidence to prove his involvement in the crimes he’s already walked away from jail for once today.

            With Massimo secured, Jason changes Tim’s body into his Red Robin gear (which does not drive Tim into another panic, and Jason very carefully does not notice how close a feat it is that Tim manages to keep his whirring thoughts tamped down so securely) and throws sweats over the ensemble to make it street viable – he’s got a hat and sunglasses to cover Tim’s face and they will not be taking the BMW.

 

            Jason stuffs the red helmet that will make Tim’s current outfit a perfectly acceptable costume for Red Hood under his hoodie and then leads Tim out his ridiculously well secured secret entrance that takes them back to street level – letting out discretely under the ramp of a parking garage’s first deck, where he’s got a beat up old bike stashed just around a subtle curve of concrete, a junkyard bike at best, albeit with a well-disguised but completely rebuilt and, if Jason does say so himself, rather magnificent engine.

 

            Tim, in Jason’s body, takes the front, being that he knows exactly where they’re going.

 

            Besides, he’s currently the bigger body of the two and it just makes driving easier.

            Slipping onto the bike behind himself is an odd experience for Jason and it makes odd sparks flit through his stomach – though Tim’s stomach.

            Jason isn’t quite sure what to make of that.

 

            Well, that’s not entirely true.

            He knows what the sensation is, and he’s felt it often enough when Tim’s slipped onto a bike behind him and pulled himself close enough for Jason to feel the heat of his body along every inch of his back.

            He doesn’t have any right to feel it, had thought he’d shut the idea down completely long ago – well after the rage had settled, had found its focus aimed firmly at Bruce and the fucking clown rather than on his replacement… around the time he’d started to be able to beat back the Pit’s lingering haze long enough to realize that any attraction he was feeling towards the new and improved ninja version of his god damn adorable baby seal was unbelievably inappropriate.

 

            But…

 

            Jason had flirted with the chick in the coffee shop.

            He’d thought, consciously, that the girl was hot, but the body he was in hadn’t reacted at all to the fact that she’d flirted back – hadn’t reacted even when she’d brushed the underside of his wrist with very clear intent.

            And just sitting behind Jason’s body is making Tim’s… pay attention…

 

            Jason forces any thoughts of attempting to mentally work through what that might mean out of his head.

            Tim dated Steph for a good long while, and while Jason doesn’t know anything about what happened between them – frankly doesn’t want to know – and while knows that Tim’s dating Steph, and even having sex with her, doesn’t necessarily mean Tim doesn’t bat for the same team, it certainly doesn’t clearly indicate he does

            Besides, Jason’s not allowed to think about it, and he’s certainly not allowed to fucking pursue it. So, there’s no point.

 

            The stupid swirl of thoughts he’s not allowed to have keeps Jason distracted long enough to make the trip across the city feel almost unbearably quick.

            He still feels unsettled as Tim tucks the bike into an alley and they disembark within the deepening shadows of early evening.

            Jason tries to chalk it up to the fact that it’s still hella early for a Bat to be out, but even as he manages to put up the right wall to block out the thrum of anxiety, he knows that he’s just ignoring something that will probably come back to bite him.

            Regardless, having something to do that lets him focus on the mission, instead of whatever else is going through his head, is helpful and he seizes fully on the opportunity. As he strips out of the sweats covering Tim’s Red Robin gear, Jason deftly kicks everything else aside.

            They’re in a camera blind spot at the edge of a loading dock. The dock is sunk into a squared off concrete U that accesses the first level of staff only basement areas at the Gotham Natural History Museum.

            Soon-to-be-‘Doctor’ Anna Dyer is a workaholic – obviously, since it’s not your average Joe Schmoe, even a salaried Joe Schmoe, that would be willing to work with someone like Evgeni Zagitova to criminally enhance their otherwise totally above board work place, especially when there’s no real profit to be made directly from the criminal engagement. The doctor in progress has scheduled herself for several more hours of work on her museum-funded doctoral thesis despite the holiday weekend.

            With Tim’s domino mask secured on his face, and his helmet fit neatly into place over Tim’s head, Jason guards their backs as Tim sets to work disarming the door’s alarm and bypassing the almost genuinely impressive lock meant to keep out the plethora of well-funded criminals who aren’t quite at Catwoman’s caliber. There’s no way to keep her out of anywhere and most museums in Gotham have made their peace with that, but they can do a damn good job of keeping almost everyone else out and they’re determined to prove it.

            Bats withstanding, of course.

            Tim makes fairly quick work of the lock, considering, and even though he makes a few quiet comments cursing the odd difficulty of trying to use his usual tiny-ass Bat-hacker gear with Jason’s much larger fingertips, soon they’re slipping carefully through the eerie silence of an empty museum’s wide marble halls.

            Jason’s always liked empty museums.

            He’s rarely had the opportunity to explore them at leisure, but a few of the times he’d happenstantially ventured out of Crime Alley in search of a respite that no street kid could really hope to ask for found him wandering into a museum like this on a fortuitous Tuesday or somethin’ when the place was practically deserted.

            Sometimes there were school tours or shit, but he’d gotten pretty lucky when he came, because way more often than not the place was near deserted.

            He liked museums because he could learn about cool shit there, without a nosy librarian coming over with all that creepy grandmothery niceness – that Jason is still totally convinced is all bullshit and bluff – asking about what he’s doing and if he needs help with it or if he wants to take any of this home with him, because he has a home, right? A ‘safe’ and ‘warm’ one so the ‘nice ladies’ at child protective services don’t have to get involved…

            Jason shoves his thoughts off that rail – finds doing so blissfully easy to manage without having to fight the Pit’s influence to get the whispers down – and skims his gaze over the halls behind them to keep their backs well-guarded.

            There might not be any particular threat against them at the moment or in this location, but no matter where they are exactly this place is still frickin’ Gotham.

            Tim knows exactly where he’s going, as usual, and Jason follows his confident strides without question. It’s harder to keep up than he’d thought it be – Tim’s legs are spindly and long compared to the rest of him, but he’s still pretty damn short compared to Jason.

            Jason will have to remember to watch that, to keep an eye on Tim and check his pace now and then, once they’re back inside their usual bodies. It’s a testament to Tim’s new found ninja skills that Jason’s never noticed the apparent effort it takes him to keep up before this.

            For now he just hurries his steps and keeps close enough to count as Tim leads them towards Anna Dyer’s office. Faced with a closed door, Tim shoots Jason a look – that he doesn’t quite realize can’t be seen beneath his helmet – and then gingerly raps twice on the solid wood.

            Tim is still clearly surprised at Jason’s strength. He nearly jumps at the harsh sound his supposed-to-be-gentle knocks create in the dead silent hallway.

            He has a moment to recover himself in the delay between his knocking and the moment Anna Dyer realizes that she should probably go see who’s out there.

            When Anna opens the door, pulling it open only by inches with a well-reasoned edge of caution, her gaze flits warily between Red Hood and Red Robin.

            With Hood in front, she directs most of her attention to Tim and asks, “Can I help you?”

            “We have a few questions, Ms. Dyer,” Tim explains, “Regarding some of the resource materials you’ve been acquiring for your on-going doctoral thesis.”

            Anna’s face is an open book.

            Her expression shifts from wariness to fear to something like excitement as Hood explains that they want to talk about her research.

            There’s still a cautious, guarded edge to her expression as she pulls the door open a bit wider – probably wary of what angle the capes are here to work.

            She’s at least moderately aware of how her acquisition methods have not been entirely above board, but she seems to believe enough in what she’s doing to suppose that while her methods are illegal, they aren’t definitively wrong.

            A bit like vigilantes in that way, a close enough comparison for her to feel a kinship with them rather than guilt or fear when asking, “What do you want to know?”

            “You’ve recently acquired an artifact,” Tim starts, trying to be gentle while edging into an accusation while being cautious of how any hint of aggression from the Red Hood could make her current willingness to cooperate with them instantly evaporate. “The Heka Ariset.”

            Anna shrinks slightly.

            “Look, I know it was probably illegal, but I really don’t know anything about how Evie got the mirror out of Egypt,” she said, jumping guiltily to explaining herself straight out.

            “Evie?”

            The question was Jason’s, drawing Anna’s attention to Red Robin as he steps up next to Red Hood with his eyes visibly narrowed behind the flexible white lenses of his domino.

            Evie was a rather overly familiar name for her to refer to a random black market antiquities dealer.

            “Evgeni Zagitova. He’s a friend of my mother’s,” Anna supplied with a shrug. “I’ve known him for two decades and he’s furnished like a dozen apartments for my family. He’s honestly one of the reasons I got so interested in Egyptology to start with.”

            Red Robin nods, accepting the answer – staying in character.

            Red Hood snorts. “You know that what he does is like fifteen kinds of illegal, right?”

            With another shrug, Anna explains, “I didn’t ask how he does it. I’ve never asked. Intentionally. I don’t really care, and I don’t wanna know.” She huffs and crosses her arms as she goes on, venting, “It’s just… It’s not even that those bastards in Cairo actually want the mirror, they just don’t want anyone outside of Egypt to have it.”

            With a sigh that shows she’s pleading with them to understand her predicament, and her reasoning for going to the dark side to get out of it, she adds, “They won’t even put it on display or anything – you have to get approval from the government six months in advance if you want to see anything from the collection of Cleopatra’s possessions. Superstitious idiots.”

            “Superstitious?”

            Jason’s question is light – probably sounds a bit too blatant and undisguisedly hopeful to Tim’s ears, but Anna doesn’t have any chance of knowing the quirks of Tim’s natural voice box, let alone how the modifier taped to his trachea alters it, to hear much beyond the lack of a threatening growl.

            She nods.

            “There’s a story about how looking into the mirror will fracture a person’s soul,” Anna explains, her voice taking on a very different tone – one of fascination and intrigue. “If the five parts of the soul aren’t realigned properly before the sun sets on the fifth day after the fracturing, then the soul will be forever split, the human body will begin to die, and the individual affected will never be able to arise in the afterlife.”

            “Is there any particular reason that the Cairo archaeologists believe the story is true enough to warrant the artifact being kept away from the public?” Tim asks with a sardonic twist edging into his dry tone.

            The distortion of the Hood makes it sound even more sarcastic.

            Dismissively amused rather than what Jason can guess is actually closer to exasperation.

            It makes Anna smile.

            She tips her head side to side in a reluctantly amenable gesture.

            “There was one guy who fell into a coma shortly after looking into the mirror,” she admits slowly, “He was on the team that found it. His coma probably has much more to do with the fact that he was using a lead based polish to clean it than any ancient curse, but try telling local goat herds that much… it’s honestly worse than those ridiculous nineteenth century British idiots trying to deal with the results of mold spores before anyone thought to take a proper microscope to the damn stuff.”

            She huffs and Tim lets the conversation lapse for a moment.

            Probably thinking over the plausibility of the details they’ve collected of the mirror’s story. It doesn’t seem like it fits the issue they’re facing – their souls don’t seem fractured… and Anna’s account of the legend doesn’t mention a consciousness swap… but it’s still the only lead they have on a mystical object that could explain their situation.

            And if it IS due to the Heka Ariset… they’ve got five days to fix things… or maybe four, depending on how mystical mirrors count the days… Anna said ‘sunsets’, specifically, so Jason’s hopeful that it means the modern technicality of calendar date is irrelevant.

            If it is, then tonight is their first sunset and they’ve got four more to fix things.

            It it’s not… then… tonight is probably their second night – even if they didn’t swap until this after 6am morning, it’s likely that they encountered the trigger before midnight last night.

            Yeah.

            Jason’s really banking on the hope that the sunset thing is important.

            Tim probably is too, but he refocuses on getting answers as quickly as possible – just in case they’re already down by almost two full days.

            They’re not even entirely certain this mirror is the answer to their question yet.

            “Tell us more about the mirror’s legend,” Red Hood says – his tone halfway between demand and suggestion in a way that clearly makes Anna think he’s truly interested in the research rather than her involvement in minor criminal activities. “You said the Heka Ariset splits a person’s soul into five pieces?”

            “Yes. It’s part of a fundamental concept within Egyptian religious ideology,” Anna explains, a slow smile growing. “Actually… if you’re really interested, it might be easier and more effective to show you.”

            Tim gives a nod and steps aside to allow Anna to step through the doorway as Jason mirrors the action. Tim barely seems to notice as Anna gives his elbow a gentle touch as she passes and gives a flirty smile, saying, “Follow me.”

            Jason notices it, though, more than acutely enough to make it distracting as they begin to follow her down the empty, darkened halls of the off hours museum.

            Anna is proactively flirting with the Red Hood now, letting her hips sway alluringly with each carefully confident stride she takes in her power pump high heels as Tim sticks close.

            Following from a few strides further back, Jason examines Tim’s posture.

            He’s focused.

            Hyper focused.

            But it’s his usual kind of internalized, meditational, problem solving focused – and not at all the externalized, interested, there’s a hot chick showing off her ass for me kind of focused that most guys would fall victim to in this situation.

            Tim likely hasn’t even noticed that Anna is actually a pretty damn fine and fuckable piece of tail – he definitely hasn’t noticed how Anna keeps using the reflections in the display cases they’re passing to check on whether or not Tim’s paying attention.

            Knowing Tim well enough to read his posture better than Anna ever could, and knowing how his Hood operates to aim his gaze, Jason can tell easily that Tim isn’t lending even a scrap of his attention the sexy docent in front of him – but from the way Anna bites her lower lip as she swings her hips around to lead them into the Egyptian Hall of Marvels, she thinks Tim’s gaze is glued to her ass.

            Jason bites back a laugh.

            As much as he hopes that this little endeavor will give them legitimate answers and a direct means of making things go back to normal, he’s also kinda hoping they don’t get those answers too immediately.

 

            Because this is gonna be frickin’ hilarious.

 

            Tim isn’t gonna have any idea what’s hit him.

 

            Oblivious frickin floppy ass seal… he might’ve grown up to be a ninja or some shit, but the dude is still a dumbass floundering around without feet.

 

            As Anna turns around and gives a bright smile as she gestures at a wall of hieroglyphics, Jason fights to keep his own grin under control and settles in to watch the train wreck.

 

 

________

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 – Discernible Progress

 

            “If you’re really interested, it might be easier and more effective to show you.”

            Tim gives a nod and steps aside to allow Anna to step through the doorway as Jason mirrors the action.

            He gives another nod as Anna begins to lead them down the hall, saying, “Follow me.”

            The walk is brief and quiet, save for the pound of Anna’s footsteps in her high heels.

            She guides them over to a stone façade built up against the museum’s drywall. The stone work is covered in the brightly painted figures of hieroglyphics. Tim’s linguistic studies have given him the barest background in deciphering the texts – frankly, all he can really do is recognize and pronounce a few names encased in the easily identifiable structure of a cartouche.

            Fortunately, Anna assumes they are totally ignorant without them having to say and she jumps right into explaining, “The Ancient Egyptians believed firmly in the idea that the human soul is comprised of multiple facets. Depending on who you’re talking to, and when you’re talking about, there are anywhere from five parts to nine parts.”

            Tim nods, laying the information out on the metaphorical sorting table of his mind.

            Anna directs his attention to the first panel, saying, “There’s the Khat, or the physical body as it is in Life, scars and all. And there’s the Sahu, or the spiritual body – the essence of the physical form, but without the scars or sun spots or otherwise life-inflicted alterations. There’s also the Sheut, or the shadow. It’s the approximate inverse of the Sahu, being almost exclusively a form made up of the life-inflicted alterations to the physical form – everything from sunburn and bruises to battle scars and organ transplants. All three grow throughout the person’s life and are attached to the soul, but experts are divided over whether they count as part of the soul.”

            As Tim gives another nod, Anna directs him to another panel. “Then there’s the Jb, or the heart. The Ancient Egyptians make absolutely no distinction between the physical heart organ and the heart as the seat of human emotion, will, and intention. And the Ka, or the vital spark… it’s a solid concept for the difference between alive and dead, and it’s also used in reference to the intangible wall between the division of body and spirit.”

            At this point, Tim notices Anna’s hand on his elbow as it squeezes hard enough to register the sensation despite the thick leather of Jason’s jacket. Tim resists the urge to yank his arm away as Anna uses her hold to guide him to another panel of hieroglyphics.

            “Then there was the Khu and the Sekhem, essentially a person’s higher intelligence and base survival instincts or the will to live,” Anna tells them, continuing, “They are united by the Ren, or the individual’s personal, given name. It’s their identity, their experiences, their memory in the space they leave behind – essentially, it’s the outline of a person’s inner personality as seen and rendered by their existence and its impact on others, as caused by the , or the self-created personality.”

            Anna steers him over to the wall’s final panel saying, “It’s largely accepted that the Ka and the are the most important parts of the Egyptian soul. They separate at the moment of death and dissipate into the ether with the other aspects until the funeral ceremonies awaken the inner being for judgement before Anubis. After the weighing of the heart, if a person is deemed worthy of entering the Afterlife, then the Ka and the reunite as the Akh, which is the entity most familiar to us, as it is almost identical to the modern concept of a ghost.”

            Nodding again as he sorts through all of the information, as he carefully evaluated what fit with his current understanding of their problem and what didn’t, Tim picks the most prominent question out of the nebulous ether and asks, “How do all those parts of the Egyptian soul interact with the legends around Cleopatra’s mirror?”

            “The Heka Ariset supposedly splits the soul like a prism splits light, with the material the light is passing through absorbing some of the wavelengths,” Anna explains. “The Sahu and the Sheut and a portion of the Ka remain trapped inside the mirror. The is loosed to the ether and binds itself to the Ren, while the Sekhem and the Khu fold up into the Jb, which gets slowly suppressed and pushed outside of the plain of existence without the other aspects to hold it steady inside the Khat… which begins to die as the other parts of the soul dissipate.”

            “And that process takes five days?” Tim asks.

            When Anna nods, he adds, “Do the legends say what triggers it? The mirror’s magic can’t possibly be activated simply by looking into it, or it would never have become a collector’s item for Cleopatra – assuming the Ptolemaic Queen still believed enough in the religion of the Old Kingdom to think the magics would still work.”

            Anna gives him a sly smile, clearly pleased with his knowledge of the basic Egyptian timeline. “Cleopatra did believe in it,” she explains, “Very much so. Even by the turn of the New Kingdom, the legends became very specific about a ‘disquiet’ soul being the trigger to activate its magics. In a person where the Bâ, Ka, and Jb are already held at odds, there’s enough potential energy to interact with the mirror’s effects – the more disquiet, the more energy, and the broader an area of an effect field.”

            “So there’s no discrimination, no way of conscious control… no means of aiming, if you will,” Tim presses, his attention pulling inward as the new variable came into play.

            “None at all,” Anna explains, elaborating, “Cleopatra kept it in her private chamber, partly to proclaim how set on her course and whole as a person she was, and partly as insurance against the treachery of false friends and the like.”

            Tim hmmed a response, his attention turned almost entirely inwards.

            Anna noticed.

            She kept hold of Tim’s elbow but swung around to face him, placing a flat hand on the plane of his chest – a sensation that felt unnerving without the shield of body armor covering his entire torso with the protective comfort of Kevlar.

            “So, why’s the big bad Red Hood suddenly so interested in Egyptian mythology?”

            Tim barely keeps Jason’s body from backing away – Anna is much closer than she needs to be and while Tim’s not terribly comfortable with it, Jason’s body is vehemently protesting.

            She has only managed to get so close because nothing in her body langue indicates any kind of threat – or even the ability to become a threat – but it’s still off putting to suddenly notice her acute proximity.

            And it’s making Jason’s stomach clench… a reaction that probably isn’t entirely resultant from Tim’s own mental anxiety.

            He’s felt this sensation before – this two edged stab of hormonal interest and fervent queasiness… Tim’s most familiar with it from the time right after he and Steph broke up and were still too raw to make a real try at the being siblings thing – when they were too tangled up in their emotions and each other to even try being friends.

            It’s a strange balance… a precarious unsettlement rocking between sexual attraction, hormonal disgust, and emotional distress.

            And Tim understands exactly why he felt it around Steph for so long, but he hasn’t the foggiest idea of why Jason’s stomach is doing the very same grinding flips… except for one hypothesis, maybe…

            Because maybe this is a symptom of their swapped consciousnesses.

            They haven’t felt something like this before yet, or at least, Tim hasn’t. Jason might’ve, but if he did, he didn’t tell Tim. But for Tim, he knows he hasn’t felt the dysphoria of a split because there hasn’t been a moment when body and mind disagreed so dramatically before.

            Tim has zero interest in Ms Anna Dyer.

            He’s been attracted to girls before, but Steph and Barbara are different.

            They’re Batgirls. Kick ass in a way that makes them stupidly attractive beyond sense.

            Diana Prince falls into a painfully similar category, and Donna Troy, both fortunately older enough to be definitively out of the range for Tim’s practical consideration (though Tim is not above admitting he may have taken a bit of vicarious pleasure in watching Dick and Donna flirt for a while, without the pressure of a genuine relationship behind it).

            Hell, his own team of Titans has a roster of girls who could probably level cities if they put their minds to it properly. Everyone’s habit of light flirting with Cassie comes to mind…

            Even Tam Fox has a sort of hell cat vibe that can make grown men in charge of Fortune 100 companies quake in their designer shoes like school boys in detention.

 

            Anna Dyer is not that kind of cool.

 

            She is visually appealing, though, sort of… Not Tim’s type exactly, but maybe Jason’s?

            Would that explain the relevant body’s physiological reaction?

            Maybe, the opposition of body and mind probably could do it… but it seems like Jason’s body on its own – leaving Tim’s brain out of the equation altogether – is caught between a mixed reaction of interest and repulsion… there definitely a swirl of something in his gut, and an interested twitch of perking up below the belt, but there’s also a mild bite of … bile or something hot and vile in the back of his throat… so Tim doesn’t understand.

            He darts a glance at Jason – using the reflection in the glass of a nearby display case to check his own body’s expression. Under Jason’s control, Tim’s face is too blank to make any definitive sense of what he’s thinking, especially beneath Red Robin’s full cowl, but there’s a slant to his not-quite-smile that might indicate a degree of amusement…

            So, Jason probably knows what’s happening, knows what Tim is currently feeling, and he’s laughing at Tim’s resulting discomfort. Obviously.

            Because that would just be such a Jason thing to do. Asshole.

            Tim’s stare goes flat, and he doesn’t hold back from rolling his eyes in exasperation behind the shielding of Jason’s Hood.

            The Hood is pretty cool like that, Tim can admit… It lets him express and process his emotional reactions while simultaneously concealing the entire occurrence from view.

            It’s nice, even if it means he can’t quite interact with victims in the way that Robin is expected to… Jason isn’t Robin anymore, and with the lingering influence of the Lazarus Pit surely sending waves of unexpected and unwarranted emotional turmoil through him… being able to hide all of that and just brush it away has got to be helpful.

 

            Anyway… Tim getting so broadly side tracked is not helping anyone.

 

            Anna Dyer is still too close and Red Hood still hasn’t answered her question.

            “We’re interested in Egyptian mythology because of the mirror itself,” Tim explains, attempting to take a step away. Anna simply steps with him as he goes on to ask, “Evgeni Zagitova did not successfully make his delivery last night, did he?”

            Anna blinks and frowns, and after a moment, she shakes her head.

            “We’re concerned that a darker criminal enterprise than his has heard the stories and obtained the mirror for purposes of nefarious intent,” Tim lies easily, seeing as accusing Anna of being one of the criminals will not be conducive to utilizing her knowledge in order to fix the current problem he and Jason are facing.

            Anna’s eyes go wide and she pulls herself slightly closer, her fingertips sliding around to find a hold on the inside of Jason’s elbow.

            “It’s just a story, though,” Anna comments.

            “We’re thinking that it may not be just a story,” Tim comments, adding, “There have already been victims, though we have sequestered them out of the way from any further harm.”

            With a silent nod, Anna dissects the information – brain processing the information better and faster than the average civilian, but still nowhere near quickly enough to actually impress Tim on any level. He reflects again on how it’s very nice to hide his blip of boredom behind Jason’s Hood while he waits for Anna to connect the important dots.

            “But not even the stories suggest that the mirror could be intentionally utilized like any kind of active weapon,” Anna mentions, at last reaching the right conclusion to ask the most important question. “Why would a villain want it?”

            “We don’t know,” Tim says, continuing to spin his little fiction. “But it is a comfort to know that it can’t be actively used as a weapon. Hopefully, there won’t be too many more victims before we can recover the mirror. However, we will still have to deal with the victims that have already been subjected to the Heka Ariset’s unique effects. Is there any way mentioned in the legends to ‘cure’ the soul splitting condition before the whole coma leading to death thing?”

            Anna is sufficiently distracted by considering his question for Tim to slip back a step without allowing her to immediately follow. He steps far enough to make her hold on his arm less than perfectly comfortable – but with her attention focused inward, she doesn’t consciously recognize the moment her hand slips entirely free and moves to rake through her long hair.

            With his arm freed, Tim takes another step back – towards Jason, who he can feel staring directly at the back of his head. If they were alone, he’d probably be cackling right now; hacking up a lung and rolling on the floor in his amusement at this apparent hilarity. Har, har.

            “Assuming the legends pan out like they do in the stories,” Anna murmurs, turning back to skim a glance over the wall of hieroglyphics explaining the parts of the Egyptian soul.

            “What needs to happen to repair the damage is that the different aspects of the soul need to be reconciled, their varied innate goals must be achieved in a way that allows the innermost desires of the united soul to be acknowledged, expressed, and accomplished…”

            She trails off and flicks her gaze back towards the vigilantes waiting patiently to hear her conclusion. They need her to give them a hint, after all, some indication of the proper direction to walk in towards finding the solution, and it seems that she’s aware of what they want from her without having to explicitly spell it out.

            With a sigh and a slight frown, Anna continues, “The closest thing I can think of to compare it to in modern lore would be a ghost with ‘unfinished business’ being held back from crossing over. What you would need to do in order to help the victims of the Heka Ariset, essentially, would probably be similar to what needs to happen to deal with a modern ghost’s unfinished business and cross them over – but instead of heading into the light, they’d head back into their still quasi-living bodies.”

            Tim nods.

            Anna looks like she’s still thinking, so he restrains from speaking immediately.

            “You would need to have some way to ensure that all the parts of the soul are at least in a reasonable proximity of physical space,” Anna cautions. “If the mirror really worked, it’s likely that the Akh has united outside of the Khat already, so you need to make sure that body and mind are in the same room, but the mirror itself has theoretically trapped at least a part of the soul inside it, so you’ll need to recover the Heka Ariset as well. Do you know what villain has it?”

            Tim gives another nod.

            “We have means of liberating it already being planned,” Tim assures her. “Carefully planned, as I am assuming that it can affect anyone who comes within its field of effect?”

            “Yes. And people with deep secrets and double lives are likely extremely susceptible to the influence,” Anna cautions, shifting slightly closer to Red Hood with concern – though her gaze has gone back to being significantly warmer than a gentle concern and the heated interest in her eyes makes Jason’s stomach do another flip.

            Tim, now actually paying attention, manages to step back before Anna gets another hand in physical contact with any part of him.

            It was, admittedly, a closer call than Tim would’ve preferred.

            He can feel Jason mocking him behind Red Robin’s cowl.

            Still, he eluded capture and his brain is already fixated on planning their next steps.

            The Heka Ariset is a plausible lead, with a reasonable story and enough respected lore behind it to give credence to the myth made real hypothesis. They are gonna chase this lead down ASAP and they are gonna run it hard.

            Neither he nor Jason are much for waiting around and now that they have a direction to search in that doesn’t scream ‘dead end’… they aren’t gonna pause for anything.

            Their exit is swift and their farewells rather cursory, dismissive.

            It would probably bother Tim more if Jason weren’t swinging at his side with a clearly amused smirk spread plain across his face as they make their way towards the GCPD evidence locker – where the crate with the Heka Ariset inside is currently hiding.

            Tim choses to focus on their heist rather than on whatever silent mockery within his thoughts have made Jason so amused with Tim’s struggles… He’s just not mentally built to combat the more than friendly overtures of a flirtatious Egyptologist. Whatever.

            He is built for sneaking into places he is technically not allowed to visit.

            Breaking into the GCPD Evidence warehouse isn’t even a pretense of challenging.

            With Oracle being the main security system backing GCPD’s alarms, the Bats basically have a key to their own private front door (or rather, a welcoming back window in a seldom used storage room with big enough access points to get a car in and out unnoticed, if necessary).

            They pause long enough to check the GCPD records to ensure that none of the officers involved with the collection of the evidence crates have reported any strange sensations, that none of them have even called out of their shifts or even just failed to show up or anything. With the officers confirmed as unaffected, the vigilantes move quickly to identifying the correct box.

            It’s not a big one, but it’s double crated and very well cushioned.

            The outer crate is too unwieldly to fit back through the window and then be carried home across the Gotham skyline, but the inner one is just small enough to be hefted between them without causing significant obstruction to their aerial progress.

            With a careful sling assembled out of nets from Red Robin’s utility belt, Tim and Jason can carry the thing between them as they swing back to the Basement safe house. It takes careful coordination to manage the feat, but Tim’s spent years watching Jason move – and he knows how his own body moves, and can guess easily how Jason’s style would adapt that movement.

            And Jason’s paid enough attention to him over the last few years to know his own quirks pretty well – granted, most of that attention was definitely ‘how to kill’ recon, but still.

            It’s useful.

            They work well together – surprisingly well… less surprising because of how they’ve already managed it a few times now on joint cases, but still… Tim definitely jumped into fight mode when he first needed to meet up with Jason for this case and Hood’s reaction to his sudden appearance in the living room of his safe house was a cocked Glock aimed at his knee… it was his knee, and not his head, though, so that was good… and now they’re no more awkward with each other in a body swap than they would be on any other, normal, case.

 

            So, Tim’s ready to call that a win.

 

            They’ve almost made it back to the Basement when something crackles inside the Hood – the tell-tale sound of someone patching into the data connections contained by the Hood’s complex circuitry… of someone establishing a direct line into his ear.

            “God damn it, Hood,” Barbara’s voice snaps, still rather obscured by static. “When I said your tech was almost impressive enough to keep me out, I did not mean for you to take it as a challenge. Does this helmet even have GPS? I thought we talked about this: it’s not surveillance, it’s just a safety precaution. I mean really, blatant stalkery is just how us Bats show we care.”

            Babs seems perfectly content to go on with her rant without any feedback from Tim – which is fortunate, because he’s barely managed to maintain his hold on his grapple gun, let alone on the sling containing the crate with the priceless magical mirror that’s apparently crucial to ensuring that he and Jason get back in their own bodies sans coma leading to death.

            Jason notices his near fumble and gestures that they should cut their lines and drop to street level – they’re only a few blocks away, after all. He seems to guess pretty quickly that the reason behind Tim’s sudden unsteadiness is Babs’ voice popping up inside his ears and he doesn’t make a sound as he signals for them to just walk the rest of the way.

            With an agreeing nod, Tim keeps silent himself.

            They make it half a block before Barbara comments on the fact that she already knows something is wrong. “Hood? Are you okay?”

            Tim hesitates half a second, but steels himself and snarks in as close an imitation to vaguely irritated Jason as he can manage, “Lay off it, O, I’m fine.

            There’s a beat of disbelief.

            With an edge in it that Tim doesn’t quite understand.

            “Is Red Robin with you, at least?”

            The edge in her voice is sharper than the one in her silence.

            “Yeah, he’s here,” Tim admits, forcing himself to add, “Haven’t killed him yet, if that’s what you’re worried about – just a gentle maiming. Between brothers, you know.”

            “Hood,” Barbara sighs with admonishment, and some very real relief in the space around her word. “He went dark, canceled all of his appointments… he even missed game night.”

            “I thought he called out sick of that shit,” Tim retorts, annoyed that all the effort he’d put into making his excuses feel legitimate apparently amounted to very little.

            What is the point of calling out sick, if no one ever believed him enough to just leave him alone like he very specifically asked them to?

            “Red has walked into work at six in the morning, riding a fifty hour sleep deficit with a 104 degree fever and two broken ribs, to face down a Chinese board of directors that made Batman need to bribe the Fox into making a tag-team event out of it when he had to meet them four years ago, and they’ve only gotten meaner since,” Barbara snaps.

            “He was fine,” Tim snipes back. “And he made the deal.”

            There’s another beat of silence – this one distinctly… surprised.

 

            Oh, frack.

 

            Had he ever told Jason any of that? Would Jason have stalked him enough to know it without being told about it directly? At the very least, Option B seems more plausible…

            “What? You didn’t think I was keepin’ tabs on our little Baby Bird? Gimme a break,” Tim huffed in Jason-mode, trying not to look at the man he was pretending to be as he could feel the weight of Jason’s glare boring into his shoulder.

            “I’m just surprised that you would admit to it,” Babs replies.

            “Well, since stalking is apparently caring for the Bats…”

            Another pause.

            Tim’s Jason act is clearly not as convincing as he’d hoped it would be.

            “Be real with me, Hood, for just a few seconds,” Barbara pleads – genuine begging in her tone. “Red’s there, right? And he’s really okay?”

            “He’s fine – well,” Tim hesitates.

            He’s not fine. He’s stuck in the wrong body. But he’s unharmed… and lying to Barbara never worked out well in the end – even if Tim was the one person on earth who could get a lie straight passed her bullshit meter.

            “He’s not hurt, but he’s not ready to leave my safe house, just yet,” Tim explains, “He’s gonna need another sick day.”

            “What’s wrong?”

            “The case we’re working… got a little complicated,” Tim admits.

            Barbara sighs again.

            “Can we help?”

            The defensive growl that claws up Tim’s throat is all him – no Jason act required. There is a bite behind it that Tim doesn’t quite mean to put there… but the Pit, if that's what is causing it, is only pushing on his genuine feelings rather than slipping its own array into his head.

            “We’re fine.”

            This time the pause is confusing, a sort of halting… hesitation.

            Whatever it is, it’s very unlike Barbara.

            “We want to trust you, Hood, to help you,” Barbara starts, her voice quiet and heavy with an unexpected seriousness, “We are all so glad you’ve come back to the Family… But this is very unlike Red. We’re concerned. I can keep B at bay for another day, but ‘Wing’s gonna be seriously bugging out in about twelve hours. Batgirl is already antsy, she’s trying to be respectful of Red, but she needs something from him… tonight.”

            “Blondie’s a big girl, O, she can deal,” Tim returns as they step up to the edge of Jason’s safe house. “Look, I gotta go. Case stuff. Nice chattin’, though.”

            Tim taps off the com in Jason’s Hood before Barbara can reply and looks over to his own face to ask, “You’ve got like super duty signal blockers in there, right?”

            As Tim offers Jason his own hand for the biorecognition locks that secure his door, Jason snorts and snipes, “Can’t believe you’d doubt me on that shit, Red. I hid from Batman for six months, remember… I hid from you. All while actively being hunted after making a massive ass outta myself. Oracle’s an all-knowing bitch of a nanny-goat, but there are some things you just can’t hack – even her. Couple feet a’ lead is one of ‘em.”

            It makes Tim feel better about slipping inside.

            He’s hidden from Oracle himself before, but only briefly – usually because he was doing something she considered ill-advised and overly risky – so it’s kind of a relief to remember that Jason’s managed it better than anyone else alive.

            It hurts to remember that too, hurts somewhere deep down in the back of his mind, but right now it’s helpful and he proactively chooses to focus on that side of it.

 

            He and Jason make their way to the inner sanctum and the tension slowly filters out of Jason’s frame in a physical, draining, wash. They get settled into the area that counts as Jason’s living room with the box containing the Heka Ariset gingerly perched on a coffee table that looks like it’s been through a few wars under Jason’s boots.

            Jason peels out of the Red Robin armor, but leaves the body suit under it all in place and makes no move to go change out into something more casual.

            The observation fills Tim with a brief, but powerful, wave of relief.

            Tim sets the Hood on the kitchen counter and shrugs out of Jason’s leather jacket.

            Both of them circle the crate on the coffee table with a sort of hesitation that is not purely wariness of its potentially magical properties. Part of it is that neither of them have any real idea of what to do with it now that they have it laid out in front of them.

            Tim is the one that eventually takes the initiative to unpack the crate – gingerly pulling out the bejeweled glass box inside it and laying it across the coffee table with care. The mirror is deceptively simple – its shape visible through the glasswork, despite the fogginess of antiquity.

            “I don’t think this box is Egyptian,” Tim comments, aloud, but absently as his brain ticks through the possibilities. “Probably a Victorian repackaging of some sort, though… Anna said it hasn’t left Egypt before now… Maybe it was found, though, and repackaged with intent to be shipped out to the British Museum. But before it left the country…”

            With a nod that Tim catches in his periphery, Jason adds, “the British explorers succumbed to the ‘Curse’, and the locals made sure it got left off the shipping list, buried it all over again. First with dirt and then with red tape.”

            Tim gave his own nod. “Plausible.”

            Then he gingerly lifts the lid and peers cautiously into the mirror.

            He blinks at what he sees: his own face – his own real face, not the face of the body he’s currently wearing – staring back at him in the hazy surface of the ancient polished copper.

 

            “Whelp, we can be sure that it’s the right mirror,” Tim sighs.

 

            He feels Jason frown at his shoulder, deeply suspicious of Tim’s immediate confidence in what seems like an irrational assertion. Tim doesn’t blame him, fake antiquities is a booming, billion dollar business and sometime the fakes are more believable than the genuine article.

            “How’s that?” Jason asks, stepping closer with his arms crossed over his chest.

            “Take a look,” Tim suggests, moving to one side.

            Jason, in Tim’s slight figure, slips forward to peer into the mirror himself.

            “Well, hot damn.”

            Tim murmurs an agreement, though a strange chunk of his attention has caught on how easily his body slid into the bubble of personal space around Jason’s body. They’re currently standing closer together than Tim’s ever seen Jason stand next to anyone – barring exceptional circumstances, such as injury or conflict or some other immediate intervention that clearly excuses direct bodily contact.

            Otherwise, Jason’s bubble is a god damn wall – not even Batman can come close to sneaking up on him anymore. Jason can tell when the Demon Spawn so much as enters the room, something even Tim’s still working on. Tim can’t officially confirm that Jason’s skin prickles when someone gets too close to the bubble’s boundary, but having spent most of the last few years stalking him with the intent to get him to reintegrate into the Bat Clan… Tim’s observed how Jason will tense and shudder when people get close.

            And he doesn’t feel any of the queasiness he felt when Anna got too close – though admittedly, her intentions were very different and painfully obvious in a way that would’ve made Tim feel queasy even in his own body… but still. That his frame gets no kind of defensive reaction from Jason’s instincts is… odd.

            It’s a bewildering observation to note that Jason’s muscles seem no more tense than they’ve been all day – still not quite relaxed, but more so than when they were still in the apartment upstairs and just waking up to find themselves swapped.

            Now that Tim’s noticed their proximity, there’s a thrum of nervous energy that zings through all of Jason’s muscles, the kind of thing that he could quickly go crazy with trying to analyze if he’s given the chance to sink into the spiral of sensations and half-thoughts, but he’s not given even another ten seconds to examine the wash of feeling.

            Jason draws Tim’s thoughts back to their intended track, saying, “Soooooo, now what?”

            With a huff to refocus, Tim says, “Well, Anna said that being in the presence of the mirror should be enough to trigger the reset… so long as the souls were repaired enough to want to go back. That whole ‘unfinished business’ deal. You have anything unfinished?”

            Jason rocks back on Tim’s heels, gaze still locked on his reflection in the Heka Ariset.

            “The only thing that’s coming to mind is the fact that we’ve still got our good pal Viggy trussed up in my lock room,” Jason settles on explaining.

            Tim nods. “Other than that, I’ve got a few casefiles still in progress and a project or two at WE, but that’s not unfinished business exactly. Those deadlines are still impending, and that’s just how life is these days,” Tim mentions, adding, “Besides, if that was what this mirror is counting as ‘unfinished business’ then every single police officer in the evidence depot should’ve been affected – I’m sure they have mountains of unfinished casefiles on their desks.”

            “True,” Jason agrees. “So, that probably doesn’t count. Good for us. But then, what’s with the unfinished bit? I don’t even have anything other than this case on my plate, not even an overdue library book, so why did we get swapped in the first place?”

            “Hm. And why did we get swapped at all?” Tim pressed, explaining, “Anna seemed to think the most likely scenario from exposure was for the victim to fall straight into a coma.”

            “I guess we Bats are just special,” Jason reasoned.

            Tim hmmed thoughtfully, unwilling to agree with such limp logic, but equally unwilling to deny that the conclusion had merit – five years ago Jason was dead, after all, and three years ago had seen Bruce lost in time… ‘Weird shit’ barely registered as even odd to them anymore.

            With a heavy sigh, Tim comments, “It’s getting pretty late, so I don’t think we can do too much more to be productive tonight. We still need to gift wrap Massimo for GCPD and I apparently have to contact Steph before she’ll give us any peace to think in… I think it might be best if we wrap up for now and think about the ‘unfinished business’ possibilities before coming back fresh in the morning. I don’t know about you, but this body swap thing has me feeling pretty beat. I can’t even tell if it’s my own tiredness or yours.”

            Jason snorts emphatically. “Well, mine is mostly yours,” he complains, hand going to rub at Tim’s sore shoulders. “But I can take Viggy out to his new friends in the fuzz on my own. I got a couple places I wanna stop by to check up on anyway, since we’re not patrolling. You just bitch out Blondie and get that big brain of your working on how to get this shit fixed up, a’ight?”

            Weighing the possibilities with a carefull look to gauge Jason’s genuine feelings on the matter, Tim gives a reluctant nod. He gets that Jason is probably chafing with the constant company of having Tim right here, and that he probably needs a bit of time to himself to process the full scale of this mess – but still… an odd tightness pulls at his chest, not quite worry exactly... but something uncomfortably close.

            “Don’t stay out too late,” Tim nannies, tone hiked up to be mockingly reminiscent of Dick’s in mother-hen mode rather than half as serious as he wants it to be. Jason won’t listen to him anyway, and he’d be even less likely to be careful if Tim pressed him seriously on it.

            “Yes, Dear,” Jason snarks right back.

            They move quickly after the plan has been decided. Jason wriggles back into the Red Robin suit, pulling the full cowl back up over his face. Then he gets Massimo into a wheeled box with air vents that rolls smoothly and silently when pushed, they’ve used many different kinds of apparatus like it to transport special cases or move crooks when they’re exhausted or alone – so it won’t be too unusual for Red Robin to show up at some GCPD precinct HQ with a box of trussed up bad guy, complete with a stack of evidence and topped with a literal bow.

            Tim, meanwhile, takes a seat at the computer again – this time to set up a secure chat connection, direct to Spoiler’s gauntlet.

            Jason’s vanished out the door before Tim’s established the connection, and he basks in the solitude for a moment before typing out a hail.

            It’s hard to tell if Jason’s body likes being alone as much as Tim’s brain does, or if it misses Tim’s proximity… Or vice versa, with Jason’s body wanting the alone time and Tim’s brain creating an itch of worry strong enough to irritate his borrowed muscles.

            Either way, the moment of solitude is odd, but still more comforting that not, and Tim uses it to steel himself for the necessary conversation with Spoiler.

 

            Red Robin to Spoiler -> O says you need to talk.

 

            She responds almost immediately. Voice chat?

 

            Busy. He shoots back. Sound sensitive case work.

 

            Steph takes longer to choose her words this time. Stakeout? B.fest after?

 

            RR: BUSY. Case complications.

 

            S: U w/ Hood?

 

            RR: Shared case.

 

            S: …

            S: U OK?

 

            RR: I called out sick, I didn’t flee the county.

 

            S: Still. U don’t DO that.

 

            RR: I do when I’m busy. This case got complicated.

 

            S: Complicated how?

 

            RR: Just complicated. Nothing to worry you guys about.

 

            S: …

            S: Hood stable?

 

            RR: Has been for weeks.

 

            S: But like. Really? U 2 r good?

 

            The burn of frustration at not being taken seriously makes Tim bite down hard on his molars. He can actually feel the slither of the extra oomph of the Pit’s whispers and this time he’s not blindsided by the rush of furious thoughts. He sits back and breathes deeply for a moment.

            It’s not Steph’s fault that she’s a touch over protective, and she’s faced enough of an abusive relationship with her father to worry that Tim’s just making excuses for his crush like she did for her dad – Steph is the only person who knows about Tim’s little crush. Even Kon and Bart don’t know who he’s been pining for since he was a little kid.

            (Cass might know, but she hardly counts because she knows all the Family’s secrets, and she won’t tell a soul anyhow.)

            With that thought line to inspire him, Tim decides to risk going out on a limb.

            It’ll be an easy lie to get caught in later if he doesn’t play it just right, but right now he’s not particularly keen to care and he knows his track record is pretty damn flawless.

 

            RR: We’re good. Better than good.

            RR: We’re…

            RR: Finding out that we know each other better than we thought.

 

            Like Tim hoped it would, his phrasing and apparent hesitance piques Stephanie’s keenest interest as it pricks up all her juicy gossip sensors. She won’t tell anyone (except maybe Cass, but again, that’s fine because Cass) but she’s a sucker for a salacious story.

 

            S: Oh? Reaaaaaallllllllly, now?

            S: U tell him ur in luuuurve, or what?

 

            RR: Nothing so dramatic. Just circumstances.

            RR: The case made us see things from a new PoV and…

            RR: Got complicated.

 

            S: So it’s THAT kind of complicated. (ಠ‿↼)

 

            RR: Not quite. But…

            RR: Closer.

            RR: The case itself is actually complicated too.

 

            It’s unfair to Jason for Tim to use his mere existence like this, and unfair of Tim to exploit Steph’s genuine, heart felt interest in his well being like this, but damn it, Tim has shit to do today and this little ploy is going to ensure that this irksome tangent quickly runs its course.

            He needs to wrap this up so he can focus on his actual problem right now.

 

            S: Need backup?

 

            RR: Not yet.

 

            S: Sure ur not just sayin that cuz u wanna be alone to bang ur bro?

 

            RR: I’m sure. & geez, we’re not in HS. Grow up.

 

            S: If being grown up means I can’t tease you

            S: esp. about wanting to ride those thunder thighs off into the sunset

            S: then Imma move to Neverland. Young forever, boyfriend. Sucks for you.

 

            Tim groans audibly in the privacy of Jason’s empty safehouse, seriously regretting whatever bout of prepubescent weakness had ever prompted him to tell Steph about his very mild and perfectly manageable crush in the first place.

            At least it’s currently proving to be a useful, albeit uncomfortable, distraction.

            Before Tim gets himself together enough to think about edging out of the conversation, Steph sends another message.

 

            S: We still on for Hologram?

 

            RR: Of course. It’s our case, S, & I promised.

 

            S: Good.

 

            RR: Stay safe, S.

 

            S: U 2. (ಠ‿↼)

 

            Tim groans again and barely resists the urge to slam his forehead against the counter as Spoiler cuts the connection. When Tim recovers, he wipes the records of the chat, thoroughly clearing out any references to his crush to ensure that even Oracle couldn’t rebuild the slagged data bits without devoting a super computer and several long hours to the task.

            Oracle might already know. But Tim’s not gonna risk it.

            Actually, Oracle probably already knows. But Tim’s gonna make sure that they can keep pretending to each other that she’s ignorant.

            Because oh my god, he is not okay with the idea of talking to Babs about it…

            As soon as Tim finishes destroying every bit of data he can manage without destroying Jason’s system, he laces up his fingers and swings his arms over his head in a lingering stretch.

            It's been a conscious habit for too long to let it go now, even though Jason's shoulder muscles haven't gotten half as stiff and sore as Tim's used to having them feel.

            The reminder of their situation is an unnecessary prod of motivation to get his brain fired up and focused. The need to let his mind fixate makes him crave a strong cup of coffee – and when Jason's stomach makes no immediate protest to the idea of having one, Tim makes his way over to the kitchen.

            He gets all the way to the point of having a mug out and ready before he remembers that Jason is a tea drinker. The apartment upstairs has Tim's favorite blend of coffee stocked because the place is practically a public venue. But the Basement is Jason's private haven – stocked with nothing at all that Jason doesn’t personally use every single day.

            Which is going to be a problem tomorrow morning if they don't switch back sometime in the night – Tim wants to be optimistic, but to say he doesn't come by such self delusion naturally would be a grossly excessive understatement. Tim’s very glad he's thought about it now, instead of forgetting until it inevitably comes up in the morning – now, he can sneak upstairs and grab what he needs under calm conditions instead of having to battle through a morning inattention fog and risk having to make two trips.

            He doesn’t think Jason will make it back before he does, but Tim scribbles a note to let him know where he’s gone and leaves it on the counter before carefully slipping out the door – which he leaves propped open by a single quarter stuck in the latch, with half a player to any deity that's listening in hope that no one notices.

            Trying not to think about how Jason will probably actually kill him if he gets the Basement burned, Tim slips silently up the fire escape to the public apartment. Getting inside is slightly more difficult than usual, being that the action is so familiar but the body he’s performing it with is so much bigger than what he's used to maneuvering.

            Once inside, Tim sets to his task immediately – well, almost immediately.

            There is apparently a savory loaf of cheese bread on the counter that Jason's stomach remembers being there and it demands that Tim tear off a junk to munch on while he works.

            Since the stomach is allowing him to have coffee at all, Tim feels the act of appeasement is well worth it. The bread is tasty, too.

            It's nice and chewy, and over all extremely satisfying, as he collects the supplies for grinding and blending and brewing up tomorrow's coffee, bundling everything up inside a table cloth he finds under the sink. He doesn't even forget to bring the machine itself – something that seems like it should be obvious, but would probably be the first thing he forgot if he’d waited until the morning.

            Tim is just finishing up with his packing, turning to survey the kitchen for anything else he might've forgotten (and debating whether or not to take the cheese bread with him when he heads back down) when every alarm in the place goes off.

            He doesn't quite jump out of his skin, but his hands are definitely reaching on autopilot for the ceramic knife apparently hidden behind the toaster. The alarms shut off after less than five seconds and every screen in the room glows Oracle green with a running count down and a simple message in white text: N incoming. South side.

            Oh, Shit.

            Dick's on his way – less than 20 seconds out – and Tim is not ready… he can’t possibly to face him right now, not while he's stuck in Jason's body, and when he's been caught off guard...

            Vowing to get Babs a very nice bottle of wine as thanks for the warning, Tim grabs his bundle of coffee supplies (and snatches up the loaf of cheese bread for good measure) and then awkwardly finagles his way out onto the fire escape – tucking himself up under a ledge he knows will hide him from view for anyone inside.

            It won’t hide him well, but it should be enough. He's just grateful that the fire escape is on the building's north side.

            Tim has barely gotten settled and silent when he hears Dick shout a hopeful greeting inside. “Tim? Jason? You guys here?”

            ‘I already told you they'd left’, comes Oracle's familiar, mechanized voice – somehow able to convey sassy exasperation as well as any human voice.

            “But the lights are on,” Dick whines with a deeper curl of frustration born from a potent kind of real concern – a worry that’s not just his typical smothering big brother complex.

            ‘They're on a timer,’ Barbara supplies – a perfectly legitimate explanation, but one that Tim strongly suspects is not true. ‘Now get out of there. If they realize you're there, all it's gonna end in is a fight.

            Dick breathes out a heavy, almost pained sort of sigh.

            “I just wanna know that they're okay.”

            ‘They are. Ask Steph. She was just talking to Tim.’

            “But only texting,” Dick complains. “I know it's not likely, but I’m just worried that they got into a fight and Tim got hurt and Jason bolted and now Tim's covering for him or something. He does cover for him, you know… And he does it, way too often.”

            Indignation rises hotly in Tim's – in Jason's – chest, and he barely resists the urge to huff audibly. He waits for Babs to defend him, but she doesn't even address the statement when she responds, ‘I spoke to Jason less than an hour ago. Their case hit a complication, but they want to handle it themselves.’

            Dick sighs again, reluctant and worried.

            “Jay didn’t want to take this job, you know,” he admits gravely, “When Tim first suggested they team up, Jason asked me if I was free to partner up with him instead.”

            A beat of quiet is all the hint Babs gives to reveal that this is news to her.

            ‘Did he say why?’

            “Just the usual BS about having other stuff on his plate and not wanting Tim to get in the way,” Dick reports. At the prompt of Barbara’s silent pressuring he goes on, “I think he's aware of how volatile he gets around the Family … and with the…  anniversary looming, and how he doesn’t want to talk about any of it… and I think he knows Tim can be oblivious and that if he notices something off, he'll keep pushing buttons until he gets an answer… and with the human trafficking case we've still got open getting under his skin… I think Jason was worried from the outset that he was going to snap, I think that he was trying to do the right thing because he thought he might overreact, and possibly hurt Tim again…”

            Barbara's answer doesn’t come quickly enough to convince Tim that she wholeheartedly believes it. ‘I’m sure you're overthinking things, Dick,’ she tells him, promising, ‘I’ll keep a close eye on them for you, but they asked for space and you need to respect that.’

            Dick spends another few moments wavering, but eventually he blows out a breath and admits defeat. At Barbara's firm instruction, he submits to heading out – and to giving Tim and Jason a full 18 hours to sort themselves out in peace.

            Tim breathes a sigh of relief when he hears that. 18 hours isn't a lot, but it's more than he had thought worth hoping for with Dick being so proactively concerned.

            As soon as he's reasonably sure that Dick has left, Tim scrambles back down to the Basement and slips inside, carefully securing the door behind him. He deposits his coffee haul on the kitchen counter and gets it all set up while he finishes off the loaf of cheese bread.

            Then, with a fresh cup of coffee in hand, he sits himself down in front of the Heka Ariset to meditate on the question of what exactly it wants from them.

            Unfortunately, he has to fight for his focus – his mind keeps drifting over Dick's words: Jay didn’t want to take this job.

            Tim doesn't know if it's the Pit's influence that means he takes the comment so personally, or if it's something else entirely… but, regardless, he doesn’t manage to accomplish much between the time he sits down to think and the moment Jason drags himself back inside.

 

 

________

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 9 – A Walk in the Dark

 

 

            There’s a pretty significant difference between being nervous and being anxious; and Jason can feel that difference in every hotwired fiber of Tim’s body as he walks the Gotham streets at ground level while taking Ludwig Massimo out to GCPD’s door step.

            It’s different than the tension he’s used to feeling when he’s vulnerable – less a pointed fear and more a cyclical rut of constant, painfully affecting doubt.

            Jason’s not exactly sure what he’s got doubt in, but it’s definitely not something that could be soothed by any measure of skill or strength, or by any push of practice.

            Jason thinks it might have something to do with being out here alone – not that Tim’s body thinks it’s too vulnerable when operating without comrades close by (if anything, Tim’s always been the most independent of the Robins), but some sort of uncertainty in whether or not he’ll be able… or allowed, rather, to return to the group… because it’s not the being out here that’s making the inside of his muscles itch, it’s the thought of wrapping up and heading home.

            It’s probably something Jason should investigate more thoroughly, but he’s got a fair few other things to handle at the moment, and the mind boggling labyrinth of Tim’s deep seeded self esteem issues is a project just a bit too big to tackle on a whim.

 

            For now, he focuses on wheeling Massimo right up to the GCPD's door and making sure that they take careful custody of the sleaze ball. As soon as he's certain they're taking proper care with the creep, Jason zips off into the shadows in the direction of his usual beat at the heart of Crime Alley – keeping to ground level to give a break to Tim’s poor, clearly abused shoulders.

            He gets as far as the corner of Pax and Adler, looking towards the old foundry district before he remembers that he's not out as the Red Hood and needs to act accordingly.

            Red Robin wouldn't be anything but cautious in setting foot in a back alley like this, not in Hood's territory. The people here are as likely to trust an invading Bat as they are to invite the Commish on a red carpet drive by in whatever gang war might be the flavor of the week.

            And even if he's got a BS sounding excuse that Hood sent him, Jason can’t have Red Robin getting too comfy on his turf or folk'll start to talk – and the Red Hood can’t abide by that for even a single hot second. He might be getting’ pretty cozy with the Bats (far cozier than he ever meant to, even), and that might be public knowledge at this point, but Red Hood still runs by his own code and rules over his part of town with an unwavering authority.

            Jason's not particularly keen on having to beat the baby bird up again to prove he's still got the hard ass edge that carved out his private swath of Gotham's shadows to start with.

            So instead of strolling in with his usual swagger and calling straight out for Cinna like he owns the whole damn place (because he does, obviously), Jason slinks into the old Jamieson Smeltworks like a Bat outta bounds who knows he doesn't belong.

            He finds the Jamieson pack of working girls gathering in the lounge at the back of the foundry, relaxing with each other as they wait for the last few stragglers to make it back to the den. They’re a close knit community, sharing tips and stories and building up a collective pool of resources to take care of their own when the nights occasionally, but inevitably, run lean for some of ‘em – or when one of the girls gets hurt or sick and needs a night off the prowl.

            It’s a neat system, one they’ve worked out almost entirely on their own, with Jason’s help as Red Hood only going to keeping the greedy, grubby hands of would-be pimps off their beats.

            A few of the less appalling scumbags – i.e. former pimps turned wage run promoters and public affairs peeps – have been allowed to stick around, but Red Hood’s vigilance is a constant, legitimate threat that keeps them all on their best behavior.

            Once he’s circled them lounging in their group, and once he spots the group’s leader laying out on a chaise and is confident that they haven't spotted him moving in the shadows (because baby bird’s got some mad stealth skills, being so tiny and all, which is way more fun than it should be), Jason steps into view without ceremony and simply waits for them to notice.

            It takes a moment (again, mad stealth and tiny figure), but soon – and far sooner than it would be in any other part of town – the girls' chatter falls silent and they all level distrustful glowers at Red Robin, forcing him to break the silence first.

            Just like he taught them.

            “I’m looking for a Miss Cinnamon,” Red Robin declares, voice perfectly clear and quietly calm, utterly free of any defensive edge – and polite by force of instinct Jason can’t drown out.

            Jason feels Tim's muscles twitch, though, as the girls eye him with aggressive smirks… Even as the muscles all stay loose and relaxed, Jason feels Tim’s fingers drifting towards the bo staff that should have been attached to his back – Tim had made it more than muscle memory to ensure he never underestimated any potential assailant and, honestly, Jason finds himself a bit more impressed by the paranoid diligence than he probably should.

            “Well, lookie you, Pretty Bird,” a warm voice purrs with a thick amusement and a low Gotham lilt. She chuckles and adds, “ain’t you just the sneakiest little bastard in the bunch?”

            Cinna stands in the center of the group, arms crossed and posture strong, but a smile spreading easily across her face. She’s still on guard, but clearly impressed with Red Robin’s stealth – and with the gall he has to just stroll on up in here like this.

            And she knows Red Robin by sight and knows his rep by countless gossiped stories.

            “Are you Cinnamon?”

            Red Robin always keeps his bases covered, and that means getting concrete answers.

            “ ‘pends on who’s askin’, and why.”

            Cinna grins as she speaks and then in a gesture like a shrug for her, she pushes up on the tight coils of her hair – the scarlet dye job would look gaudy on most girls, but on Cinna, it’s actually a nice compliment to the warm undertones of her dark skin. As Hood, Jason has spent more than just a little time admiring the effect – and how Cinna plays it up with how she moves and dresses – but inside Tim’s bizarre little body, he doesn’t even feel a niggle of distraction.

            “Red Hood sent me,” Jason says, mimicking that annoying thing Tim does when he answers a question truthfully without actually giving anything away. He never introduces himself and Jason’s half convinced the only reason anyone in Gotham knows Red Robin’s name is that they’ve heard the other capes shouting the stupid thing while chasing after him across the skyline. “He asked me to come by, to check on Sugar.”

            The girls rustle as a group for a moment, nerves and personal worries or something getting the better of them for a few seconds before they still and defer to Cinnamon’s judgement.

            They all know Red Robin, know he’s one of the good guys – he’s a pretty popular cape in Gotham, hovering somewhere around third place as the brute friendliness of Nightwing and Batgirl bowl over all resistance to their garnering affection. And besides, Hood’s talked about his dealings with the Bats enough for them to know that even among true gold-heart good guys, Red Robin is probably the most particularly trustworthy, and certainly the least judgmental.

            Cinna smiles and accepts Red Robin’s presence enough to levy an amused question.

            “Why not drop by himself?”

            “He’s a little laid up at the moment,” Jason explains, adding quickly, “He’ll be fine. He just took a few hard hits and needs to nap it off. But he said he needed to check on Sugar before he could actually get any rest. I volunteered to do it for him.”

            Cinna’s smile stretches.

            “You drug him?”

            Jason cracks his own wicked smile, the gritty ruthless one that always makes Tim look like he’s two steps from turning super villain. The Dark Side has the darkest coffee, after all.

            “Why would you think that?”

            With a warm chuckle, low in her belly, Cinna says, “Hood likes you for a reason, Pretty Bird, and it ain’t just because you’re cute – though do I have to admit, Hood’s got better taste than I’d’ve guessed. You’re pretty damn adorable up close.”

            That causes a bizarre flutter in Tim’s chest and Jason has to fight the unexpected feeling to keep his breathing smooth and even. It’s the anxiety again, not quite the same as the feeling from when he first set off alone, but similar enough for Jason to connect the two – some strangely specific awareness of Tim’s own social awkwardness, hard-wired and instinctive.

            Kid can stare down fucking Ra’s al Ghul with a bored calm at the predictability of his semi-seasonal kidnappings, but a god damn compliment is what’s gonna end up killing him.

            Typical stupid little alien robot idiot.

            Jason’s gonna have to talk to Dick about this shit eventually – as soon as they’re back to normal and Jason has a few minutes to think up some excuse for it – because if there’s anything Big Blue likes doing, it’s smothering his family with love and praise. If Jason frames it right, he should be able to get Dick hell bent on breaking Tim’s resistance to being called out for something he should understand is positive.

            But.

            That’s for later.

            Right now, he’s gotta find a way to focus while Tim’s stupid little body tries to throw every drop of blood it has into the ridiculous blush clawing at his face.

            “Aw, you’re even cuter when you’re flustered,” Cinna comments, way too pleased about the effect she’s having. “Bet he likes that bit about ya, bet he likes it a whole lot.”

            Admittedly, Jason couldn’t really deny Cinna her fun.

            Or her words.

            Tim was… distractingly hilarious to tease – and it was always so easy to draw a reaction out of his usually stone cold stoic demeanor that it was an impossible temptation to resist.

            “Now, I wonder… You get all pretty and pink for just any old comment calling you cute, or is this whole schtick just ‘cause it’s Hood that thinks you’re so adorable?”

            Jason feels Tim’s heart rate kick up again, and he’s not entirely sure if it’s his own indignation or if all of it is Tim’s weird ass ridiculous reaction rising up in him.

            With plenty of words coming to mind for Jason to snap back at Cinna, he finds his chest too tight and strained for oxygen to make any comeback slide out smoothly… And more than that, before he’s able to get his tongue under any kind of control, the deeper implications of the words work their way into his brain.

            “I’m not— he’s not— You don’t— I. No. Nononono, no, no— You just—”

            Cinna just about cackles herself silly at his struggles.

            “C’mon, Pretty Bird,” she coos with wicked delight, “The Big Bad Hood is smitten with you. Boy’s got it bad, honey, and don’t you tell me you haven’t noticed it, at all. Hood’s always yappin’ on about that big ol’ brain a yours, about how you’re just so good at solvin’ all them tricky puzzles you crazy capes deal with, and Hood ain’t that hard a puzzle.”

            Tim’s body is still frazzled to the point of making any attempt at communication utterly ineffectual, so he chooses not to even try to protest Cinna’s claims. And beyond that, Jason’s mind is reeling from upset at the possibility that he’s been so transparent about his regard for Red Robin. He’s known the Bat Clan’s baby bird had always had a special draw for him, but between his general asshole-er-y and the consequences of his bout with Lazarus Pit Mania, the vague possibility of his wanting more from Tim had been shut down completely… long before Jason came to fully rationalize the nuanced differences between his feelings for Tim and the feelings he had for the rest of the Family.

            As soon as he figured it all out – figured out that he’d not only lost his chance, but that even if he’d ever had one, Tim deserved better, deserved stable and safe and sane – Jason had clamped down on his insane notion of winning any smidge of the former Robin’s affection.  

            The idea that Jason’s been so transparent… that other, more observant people, might have some inkling of his ridiculous feelings… It’s altogether an unnerving thought.

            He’s not as worried about Tim knowing – that idiot is oblivious to social circumstances on his best day, ironic as that may be when talking about the only Bat to have a truly successful daytime career (and social skills that have been repeatedly lauded by all of the nation’s hottest gossip rags)… But still...

            It’s… possible that Tim knows and simply has been too polite to tell Jason to shove his selfish stupidity so deep down in hell that even a Lazarus Pit couldn’t revive that shit…

            That thought, Jason knows, is a bit irrational – Tim doesn’t hold his tongue with Batman, let alone with someone so much less worthy of his respect.

            That’s just Tim’s own natural proclivity to anxiety kicking up (the kid is apparently kind of a god damn wreck of a semi functional human being in that way), and Jason can tamp the worst of it down after having gotten so used to fighting down the whispers of the Pit.

            But the other worries, the idea that the other Bats might know… that they might be holding back one last trump card to hit him with when he screws up badly enough for the rest of them to want him gone for good… that’s a bit too close to plausible to be easily swallowed.

            Either way, there’s nothing much he can do about it now (except be very grateful to his own paranoia for the part it played with insisting that Jason come do this himself, instead of simply sending in Tim to do it in Jason’s body… though, this conversation would’ve probably played out very differently if the Red Hood had shown up himself…).

            Regardless, Cinna is still smirking, and Tim’s frazzled nerves are doing their damndest to cut off all hope he has of getting any oxygen to his brain.

            Working through the breathing technique designed to yank himself out of a panic attack, Jason gets Tim’s body to cease and desist its riot.

            Cinna is still smiling when he looks back at her after forcing a measure of calm into his borrowed body, but her expression is softer – sweeter.

            “Come now, Pretty Bird,” she croons, “You’re a fun one to tease, but I didn’t mean to get you all crazy worked up. Makes a bit a sense outta how Hood’s been holdin’ back, though. He’s one the good ones, you know? Just tryin’ to do right by you… Boy might be a bit rough around the edges, but he’s all heart underneath.”

            Jason’s not sure he appreciates that sentiment, and certainly isn’t keen on having it become any kind of public knowledge, but even he can’t quite deny that it’s entirely inaccurate.

            Roy and Kori have called him their gun toting teddy bear too often for that much.

            Choosing to refocus on the mission instead of dwelling in the uncomfortable space where human feelings dig under the corners of the daily domino, Jason clears his throat and manages to force a few words out, “He’s all heart enough to want to know how Sugar is faring.”

            Cinna’s smile pulls a little wider for a second as she shakes her head gently. Then she sobers and asks with a loose curl of edgy suspicion, “Hood tell you what happened to her?”

            “No.”

            “Good,” Cinna accepts. “Suga’s gonna be fine, eventually. She’s still sleeping things off. She won’t be up and about for a few more days, and while I’m sure she’d get a kick out of you being here, I’m not about to make her come out to chat… You should drop by again though, maybe bring Hood with you and we’ll make a proper party of the introduction, eh?”

            Tim’s body stiffens with the instinctive resistance to being lightly dismissed, but Jason knows that Cinna wouldn’t be anything but straight with him – and he knows that once Cinna’s put her foot down about visiting hours being over, trying to push back won’t do anyone favors.

            Jason forces the muscles in Tim’s neck to nod.

            “I’ll, um – Hood’ll be by to keep you all updated on the case,” Jason manages to say as he feels an odd swirl building in his belly. It’s a roil that’s not exactly unpleasant, but it is impossible to ignore and it only gets worse as Jason farewells Cinna and the girls and heads stiffly back out onto the streets.

            The feeling ignites an itch in Tim’s veins that makes his muscles twitch and his heart race – a disquiet that’s worsening with every step away from Jamieson Smeltworks.

            He’s back on the corner of Pax and Adler before he figures it out.

 

            It’s the lack of confirmation.

 

            Cinna said that Sugar is recovering just fine, but without seeing it first-hand… there’s still no technical proof that Cinna’s account is truthful. Jason trusts her completely regarding her assessment, but he knows that Tim is a paranoid little data freak who fact checks Batman.

 

            On the regular.

 

            It’s apparently part of the kid’s DNA to be suspicious and need his own, personal confirmation of fuckin’ everything. Jason tries to ignore the itch, tries to just shut it down like it’s the Pit’s whispers making him twitchy, but he only gets another block out before the roil in his gut makes him have to lean against a wall to stay upright.

            It's that anxiety again – a sort of physical nausea that comes about like seasickness, sneaking up on a victim as the landscape shifts around them so as to make them have to doubt their very senses because the various pieces of sensory input they are receiving simply don’t agree. The inner-ear says the body is moving, but the eyes say it’s not… the brain struggles to sort out a solid reality from the dissonance…

            No matter how confident Jason is in the idea that Cinna would be straight with him, he also knows how badly she was hurt, and the only way to be sure about the truth if it is to go see for himself. And the idea of bringing back unverified information about a vigilante case, where the health and safety of his Family members are on the line, makes Tim’s body physically ill.

            If Jason got bad info, he would blame the informant… but Tim clearly blames himself. And Jason can’t untangle how much of the physical response is mental conditioning and how much is natural instinct – though, either way, they’ve clearly been underestimating Tim's continuing proclivity toward self doubt and insecurity.

            Jason has always known the baby bird is one hell of a perfectionist, but this is still pretty damn alarming.

            He can't go back to the Basement without checking up on Sugar himself – he can’t even make Tim’s body walk another five feet without losing his lunch – so Jason decides to stealth mode his way into confirming Cinna's story. It shouldn’t be too hard – Sugar’s room is on the third floor, at the east side of the building, and she likes to feel the sunrise on her face so she usually leaves her curtains open.

            Checking up on her personally won’t be difficult and it will make him feel a lot better about everything, so honestly it shouldn't even be a question.

            The instant he decides it, Tim's stomach settles.

            He scrambles up a fire escape and makes his way back to the Jamieson Smeltworks via rooftop. It's even easier to check on Sugar than he had guessed: because Cinna's gone up to bring her some food and regale her with the story of Red Robin's visit, so the light in her room is on, and she's up and talking.

            The lenses on Red Robin's cowl zoom in with disturbingly fantastic detail – almost as much HD quality as the ones on Jason's Hood – and he has an augmented listening system in one of his utility pockets that folds out into an impressively powerful directional mic.

            Jason can see and hear everything happening in Sugar's room from the next roof over just as well as he could from being right with them in the room.

            They’re being regular girls about the whole thing, goin’ all gooey and coo-y and sweet.

            Jason ignores that bit and tries to focus entirely on assessing Sugar’s condition.

            She looks… well, she still looks bad, but she looks better than she had when Jason had first found her after she’s disappeared two weeks ago. She’d gotten herself involved in that child trafficking case the Bats still have open, entirely of her own volition – she’d just been in the right place at the exact moment an urchin got nabbed off the streets and she’d felt compelled to attempt to intervene – and… it hadn’t gone well for her.

            Her perfect china doll face still bears a few bruises, but they’re yellowing out at this point and soon her pale skin will be just as smooth and perfect as it used to be. The bruised ribs will take her longer to get over, but seeing her sitting up here soothes most of Jason’s worries on that matter. It’s the fact that she didn’t manage to save the kid that Jason’s really worried about.

            Jason doesn’t know much about Sugar’s story, has no idea how she got to working nights on the darkest corners of the Gotham streets, but he knows she’s not a native Gothamite and that she’s always been far too soft and sweet for the turns her life had taken to make her wind up here. She was as sweet a soul as her name implies and the fact that she lost the kid to whoever the fucked up asshole is that’s snatching them… won’t be something she’ll get over easy.

            Jason’s never asked, but… he’s pretty sure she’d had a kid of her own once, long before her name became ‘Sugar’. However she lost that kid… whelp, it ain’t playin well with the fact that she’d lost this random one to human traffickers.

            The observation that she’s cooing with Cinna over Red Robin, the implication that the cooing is distracting enough for Cinna to con the walking tragedy of a working girl into munching on some sort of snack, makes the last of Jason’s tight concern relax – and it makes the thrum of anxiety itching in Tim’s bones ease.

            Which makes him remember how much all of Tim’s muscles currently hurt.

            It’s been so easy to forget about it when he’d been climbing up the side of the building and leaping over rooftops in order to get to Sugar, but the prospect of heading back down makes Tim’s shoulders throb in dismay. And his thighs… and all the rest of his muscles…

            Whelp.

            That at least explains a little bit more about why Tim’s body is so frickin’ sore.

            Goddamn idiot can just forget how much he hurts when he gets focused on an objective, and then do stupid shit that just makes him hurt way worse… And Jason even starts to understand the dismissive, ‘fuck it’ mentality Tim had when describing this impossible soreness as his usual, because getting back to the Basement is either going to require a long slow walk at ground level, or a quick but excruciating swing through the skyline.

            Jason picks the skyline route, if only because he’s eager to get back and check in with Tim to see if that idiot’s ridiculous little genius brain has figured anything else out about how to set a course on solving their current situation.

            He’s hurting like a mother by the time he touches down outside the hidden alcove that accesses his Basement, the kind of hurting that would make him cranky and cantankerous and put him in dire need of a cigarette before he could even pretend to be a remotely sociable creature if he were in his own body. In Tim’s body… well, the niggle that he’s coming to understand is Tim’s coffee craving is starting to kick up again.

            There’s also something else, something that surprisingly doesn’t make his stomach churn when Jason thinks about the salmon fillet he knows he’s got stashed in the freezer. He’s maybe even got a bundle of asparagus and a bit of lemon and garlic and basil… and Jason’s got a plan for dinner that Tim’s stomach is miraculously unopposed to by the time he drags himself through his door.

            The coffee smell that hits immediately makes him perk up to an irrational, downright irresponsible degree. It’s about 2am at this point, so still pretty early to be wrapping up completely for a night of active casework, but Tim’s body shouldn’t be feeling quite so exuberant about the potential of a caffeine boost giving him the ability to push through like six more hours.

            He spots Tim on the couch – hunched over himself in Jason’s massive figure.

            There’s a cup of coffee balanced on one knee and his hands are folded in a contemplative mudra as he stares at the box containing the Heka Ariset.

            He doesn’t look up when Jason comes in and Jason takes advantage to slip into the kitchen to pull the ingredients of his plans for supper out onto the counter and start preheating the oven before he even pulls Red Robin’s cowl off his face. (Tragically, he has no asparagus, must have used that up with the pork tenderloin from last week, but still, the salmon will be good enough for an immediate, emergency nutritional boost.)

            Then he trips into the spare room and rushes through the motions of changing into the sweats he’d thrown on earlier – very carefully not thinking about the process or anything related to it as he goes. Tim’s still staring at the box with the shitty old mirror inside it when Jason steps out while tying up Tim’s obnoxiously soft and silky hair with one of Roy’s elastics.

            “I’m making salmon for dinner,” Jason announces, heading back to the kitchen.

            He hears the couch creak as Tim finally looks up and shifts position. A moment later the couch creaks again as Tim stands and shuffles over to the breakfast bar. Jason doesn’t look up from what he’s doing to prep the salmon right away.

            It’s a shame to cook a fillet like this straight from frozen, but he’s gotta put food in Tim’s stomach while that stomach isn’t about to riot, so speed is of the essence. A little bit of foil, and an awful lot of butter, and the fillet will stay nice and moist despite the rush job.

            Then he sits down across from Tim, who’s still silent as he stares – though he offers an olive branch of sorts in passing over a fresh cup of coffee to match the new refill he’s produced for himself. Tim transitions to staring at his new coffee, looking reluctant to down much more of it, but like he might force the issue for spite.

            Jason meanwhile, drains the whole of his own cup in a few long sips without even a pause to come up for air. The caffeine shudders into his bloodstream with the kind of needy ease that Jason can only compare to the heady jolt of nicotine.

            It’s only after he settles from that rush that Jason looks over at Tim straight on – it’s still utterly unnerving to be looking at his own god damn face.

            Unnerving and annoying.

            Between Tim’s own careful practice with keeping up a façade and Jason’s own ingrained and automatic blankness, it’s still frustratingly difficult to get any kind of genuine read on what Tim’s actually feeling right now.

            If Jason hadn’t spent several years at this point learning how to read Tim through an almost infinite series of masks layered on him via expressions and mannerisms borrowed straight off the faces of people he respected, seeing through Jason’s face to read the Tim in Tim’s expression would be utterly impossible.

            Even so, it’s tricky to guess at whether Tim’s silence is productive preoccupation where his genius IQ is wrapped up tight and comfy in solving their problem, or whether it’s a symptom of it’s own problem. Jason’s leaning towards the thought that it’s a separate, building issue.

            He’s proven right when he levels a forceful stare he knows Tim can feel and Tim lifts his eyes enough for Jason to spot the shimmer of green flitting about the edges of his irises.

            It’s not an uncontrollable spiral, but it’s also not a pleasant plateau.

 

            Well, fuck.

 

            Asking what’s wrong will only make it worse – acting like a trigger to unleash the flood.

            Jason doesn’t like it, but he knows himself well enough to know he ought to wait.

            Tim’s body really doesn’t like it. Fluttering anxiety makes breathing difficult right away.

            Jason has to bite Tim’s tongue, quite literally, to hold it.

 

            His control’s about to snap as Tim finally finds words he content with using and says darkly, “You didn’t want to take this job.”

            Jason blinks.

            Whatever he might’ve been unconsciously expecting, it hadn’t been close to that.

            “With me,” Tim qualifies, reiterating with elaboration, “You didn’t want to take this job, with me… You tried to pass it off onto Dick.”

            There’s clearly no use in attempting to deny it, so Jason doesn’t bother. “How’d you find that shit out? You been talking to big bird tonight?”

            Tim shakes Jason’s head – still, wicked eerie enough to distract Jason for a split second – and then gestures to the coffee maker on the counter. A coffee maker that Jason used without thinking just moments ago, but one that definitely wasn’t there when Jason had left him alone here just a few hours before this.

            “You’re going to need coffee right away in the morning, so I went upstairs to grab that before it became an emergency,” Tim explains. “Nightwing showed up as I was slipping out and he had a little chat with Oracle while I was stuck on the fire escape.”

            Jason nods, sorting the information into place.

            “So, if you didn’t want to work with me, why did you agree to do it?”

            With an eyebrow raised dramatically, Jason asks, “Shouldn’t you be asking why the hell I wouldn’t want to in the first place?”

            Tim shrugs. “That’s a longer list of possibilities.”

            “Still probably the more important question,” Jason counters.

            “Not really,” Tim retorts, “Since your reason for doing it anyway clearly won out.”

            That’s fair enough, Jason supposes.

            But still...

            Jason thinks there’s something more to it.

            He doesn’t have much right to push it though, so he just shrugs and tries to let it go – tries to focus on giving Tim an actual answer to his question.

            “You needed back up,” Jason tells him simply. When Tim squints at him suspiciously, he adds heavily, “And the reasons I didn’t want to weren’t worth not getting you that.”

            “Why didn’t Dick take it off your hands,” Tim asks.

            “Because he’s being an idiot and overworking himself,” Jason explains. “He’s got three solo Bat cases open and at least twice as many for his work with GCPD and BPD. He probably would’ve done it if I’d really pushed him, but like I said, my reasons weren’t worth it.”

            Tim continues squinting at him, trying to eek out any tiny bit of data he can scrounge from the void of his own blank expression.

            Jason squints back, his own suspicion growing and that earlier niggle of disquiet rising.

            “Why won’t you ask me why I didn’t want to?”

            “It doesn’t matter,” Tim dismisses, curt with a slide of something more.

            “Seems like it does. You care why, so why won’t you ask?”

            “Caring is a matter of opinion, nothing of actual relevance,” Tim replies sharply – an oblique admission that he does care.

            The Pit’s beginning to play with the turmoil and Jason grits his teeth to pull himself back from asking anything more. It’s clear that Tim’s aware of what’s happening this time, and that he can work himself out of it without Jason’s help (so long as Jason stops actively poking at the sore spots), and Jason’s spent the last year trying to be genuinely helpful.

            Trying to rebuild some semblance of a relationship with the Bats, with Tim in particular.

            Sending the baby bird into a psychotic break would not forward that goal.

            At all.

 

            Besides, they have a case to work.

 

            With a heavy sigh – well, as heavy as Tim’s tiny ribcage allows – Jason transitions to a more immediate topic, “You think up any brilliant new plans to try to get the mirror to work?”

            Frustration that the Pit can play with switches over in a blink to a more scientific sort and he latches onto it. “Unfortunately not,” he relays, “The only thing I can think of is maybe sleeping out here… To both be closer to the mirror, because Anna said it works on proximity, and to more closely replicate the circumstances of the first switch.”

            There’s a harshness to the way that Tim close’s his mouth, a suddenness to it, that makes Jason think the Pit’s fighting to get back in – making Tim want to bite out a question of whether or not he’d rather pass on the idea of sleeping so close to Tim like he had wanted to pass on working so closely with him.

            Jason lets it go.

            “I got more blankets and pillows than I know what to do with down here,” Jason mentions, “May as well put ‘em to good use while I’ve got an excuse for it. But we’re eating dinner first. You need the calories, my physique is not maintained by air, coffee, and energy drinks like yours seems to be. And I wanna get some good fats and protein into your blood stream before your lack of nutrition makes me fall off a roof.”

            “I’m fine,” Tim grumbles. “I’ve got at least two more weeks of running on literal empty before you’ve got any chance of that happening.”

            Jason really does not want to know how Tim has that time frame so quick on his tongue.

            “Also, I had food,” Tim mentions with an offhanded sniff of offense, “There was cheese bread on your counter. I just finished off the loaf.”

            Pinching the bridge of Tim’s nose as he struggles to understand how someone so damn smart could possibly be so fucking stupid, Jason declares, “A loaf of bread is barely a meal.”

            “It’s sustenance,” Tim returns, utterly unapologetic. “And it was tasty.”

            “It was bread, you don’t just eat bread,” Jason grumbles, qualifying, “On its own, it’s good enough, but it’s supposed to be eaten with things. It makes both aspects taste better.”

            Tim gives a flippant shrug. “I thought it was tasty.”

            Jason just shakes his head and checks on his fish, suddenly wishing he had a fresh reef of spinach or asparagus or something to so this idiot what a real meal is supposed to taste like.

            A thought strikes Jason suddenly, and horrified revulsion streaks down his spine.

            “I swear to god, if you drink any of that Soylent shit…”

            Tim meets Jason’s growl with a blank stare and another off-handed shrug. “I don’t drink it often, but it’s not something I throw off the table. I mean, it’s pretty bland, but some days when I need a meal, I would way rather spend ten minutes drinking liquefied oatmeal than waste an hour of my life getting something else.”

            Jason just shakes his head in utter defeat and promises, “I am going to kidnap your scrawny ass the second we switch back. You need like a month of forced vacation in Italy, god damn it. Soylent is not food.”

            Tim just shrugs again.

            He gives one last, almost mournful, look at the mirror on the coffee table, and then turns his attention to the TV’s remote control sitting beside it.

            “So, since we have to eat dinner before we turn in, anything you want to watch?”

            Jason shrugs.

            “It’s been a helluva long time since I watched Avatar: Last Air Bender,” he mentions.

            Tim nods agreeably. “Is that on a streaming service or is this safe house permanent enough for you to have media storage on this TV?”

            “Media storage,” Jason admits, feeling oddly calm about the side step confession – he’s never told any of the other Bats that he even had semi-permanent safe houses, let alone showed any of them where to find one.

            According to the other Bats, the apartment upstairs is the only place he’s maintained for longer than three weeks and because of it’s point in being a semi-public sort of venue, an accessible bolt hole for any cape caught in Crime Alley, it hardly counts for anything.

            Extraordinary circumstances, extraordinary actions, Jason supposes easily as Tim hands over the remote without a drop of hesitation.

            Jason punches in his unlock pattern, brings up the show, and gets it rolling as they settle in to wait for the fish to finish.

            It doesn’t take too long for the food to wrap up and Jason delivers two plates to the table, giving Tim in Jason’s body a solid pound of it. He himself is planning on forcing at least half a pound into Tim’s body, but he’s not deluded enough to think he could ever get more down.

            The fillet is massive, so he’ll still have leftovers even if they both eat more than expected – which will hopefully mean that Jason can force a bit more of it into Tim’s stomach without protest when they wake up in the morning.

            It’s only well after that thought strikes a pleasant chord of hope inside him that Jason realizes that if he CAN follow through, it means he’s still gonna be stuck in Tim’s body… which would mean that Plan A failed, and that they’re running down a deadline with no clue how to fix things… but even so… Assuming Timmers’ got a couple back ups in that big ol’ brain of his, maybe one more day in Tim’s body wouldn’t be awful… especially not if it means he could get a bit of self care started on the stupid little seal.

 

            Jason keeps all of that closely to himself, and simply falls into the mildness of the moment – savoring his fish and distracting his worries with Sokka’s epic one liners.

 

            The evening is pleasant enough and when they decide that they should go to sleep (trying to keep the timeframe of their unconsciousness as close as possible to the original swap), it’s not half as uncomfortable as it could be to intentionally build a nest of blankets and pillows on the floor and snuggle down beside each other.

            It’s the closest Jason’s ever slept to someone outside the Outlaws without utter exhaustion, and very little conscious choice in the matter, being the driving factors of it.

 

            Over all, it’s an odd sort of not uncomfortable and Jason drops into sleep far more easily than he’s ever been able to since he first came back to Gotham.

 

 

 

________

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 10 – Demands of the Job

 

 

 

            When Tim wakes up, he’s not so groggy that he’s forgotten the events of the night before, which is, unfortunately, more than enough to confirm to him – even before he attempts to open his eyes – that the plan of replicating the scenario where they switched while in proximity to the Heka Arriset itself has not worked to switch them back to their own bodies.

            Whelp, back to square one.

            Or, at least, square one point five…

 

            Tim opens his eyes with a labored sigh and pushes up enough to crawl out of the cozy nest of blankets he and Jason had created.

 

            He’s gotten better at controlling Jason’s limbs, and figured out how to work with his lower center of gravity, so getting over to the kitchen to make coffee isn’t half the trial it was yesterday morning. Jason’s stomach still isn’t a fan of coffee before food, though, so Tim settles at the island and munches on an apple – one that Jason’s hand apparently found somewhere on his counter top out of muscle memory.

            Tim’s not quite mentally awake enough to care, though his brain and body are firing on all cylinders already. Tim needs coffee before he can fully acknowledge that it’s morning.

            While he’s focused on the strangely pleasant feeling of the pulp and the juice sliding over his tongue and then settling into his stomach without a fight, Tim lets his thoughts wander.

            They’re still switched.

            It would be problem enough if figuring out how to switch back was the only thing on the agenda today, but with the constant, pressing rush of the chaotic lives they lead, Tim estimates that they have about four hours to focus on fixing their body swap issue before they have to give up for a moment to focus on getting prepped for case work.

            He promised Stephanie he’d be there.

            Tim refuses to let her down.

 

            Besides, if he’s a no show, the perp will get away.

            And his place on Franco Basilli’s staff, his place in the nightclub’s lineup of particularly elite dancers, is the only lead they have on the recent string of human trafficking cases that’s been keeping all of Gotham’s less than super fortunate anxiously on edge.

            It’s the only thing they have that could possibly get them close to Zhen Li.

            It’s a good lead too, one that’ll get them close enough to do something—something real.

 

            So. Tim has to be there.

 

            And if Tim is still stuck in Jason’s body when the rendezvous comes up… then Jason will just have to be there for him. It’s part of the job and Tim is reasonably sure that Jason will do it.

            Well… at least be willing to consider doing it.

            Tim really hopes they figure out how to switch back before they have to consider the possibility of having Jason work Tim’s case with Steph.

            Because Tim is not looking forward to explaining their plans to Jason…

 

            There is a reason he and Steph had kept it out of their notes on the Cave server.

 

            They hadn’t been irresponsible about it; they’d made note of a delicate undercover operation that could require back up and immediate extraction – requested that at least one of the others be on immediate stand by in the area.

            But they certainly hadn’t specified and of the particulars…

 

            Swallowing down an especially over sized bite of apple, Tim reminds himself that fretting over the possibility won’t help him avoid it.

            Instead, he turns his thoughts to figuring out why they switched in the first place…

            Anna Dyer said that the closest comparison was to a ghost with unfinished business to attend to before it can cross over.

            It’s an uncomfortably easy parallel to see for Tim, being that Jason had literally died and come back with unfinished business – namely, killing Tim to get back at Batman. There’s a niggle of concern that rises in him at the thought… not so much concern for the idea that Jason could kill him and thereby probably resolve his unfinished business, but more for the fear that if Jason does resolve it… that he might die again and, this time, he’d cross over.

 

            Jason… Jason cannot die again.

 

            It nearly destroyed the Family the first time, and that was when they were all a lot less world weary than they are right now…

            They would not survive that same trauma a second time, even if the circumstances of its happening were gentled up dramatically – and met with a genuine promise of peace in eternity.

            It could not be allowed to happen again, in any scenario… at least not for many, many years, and well after they had some sort of viable plan to proactively adapt, support each other, heal, and move past it. (Tim’s been working on several, but none have yet achieved an acceptable percentage in their chances of successful viability.)

 

            Of course, even if they don’t wind up with Jason finishing his business and then literally crossing over, if they don’t figure out something else to do to get them to switch back, it’s very likely that both Tim and Jason will die anyway, in approximately 4 more sunsets.

            So, while the idea of Jason killing Tim and likely being rendered ghostly himself is not the optimal plan, there is a chance that it won’t immediately kill Jason… so it still has to be on the table. One of them still dying isn’t great, but a 50% survival rate is still better than some of the outcomes he’s been previously forced to consider moderate victories.

            It is, however, perhaps a possibility he would be well off with waiting to tell Jason about.

            Tim cannot see Jason taking it well… especially with how hard he’s worked these last few years with proactively not killing Tim.

 

            With that tabled, Tim moves on to considering his own ‘unfinished business’.

 

            Anna said that both souls had to be unsettled for two bodies to be affected. She hadn’t mentioned a swap, but still, the clear implication is that he has something pressing to deal with as well… likely, something to do with Jason.

            It would almost make sense of the swap – being that if each one was fixated on the other, when their souls were pulled out of their bodies, they could reasonably have been expected to forcibly take root in the husk of the person who held their fixations.

            But Tim… doesn’t have unfinished business with Jason. Not really.

 

            He has finished business with him.

 

            Tim’s whole thing with obsessing over interacting proactively with Jason was focused on getting him to come back to the Family, with getting the Family to accept him back, and with getting both sides to realize how important it was to have Jason inside the Family.

            A complicated goal, but still...

            That was the end Tim had aimed for, and it was the end he’d achieved.

            Essentially.

            So, it isn’t quite as calm and securely settled as Tim had hoped to make it, but that would come eventually. It’s now just a matter of time.

            But, in all seriousness, there’s no real way to consider that as his unfinished business.

 

            He doesn’t really have anything else.

            At all, really, but especially where Jason’s concerned.

 

            Well, there’s the secret crush he’s been harboring since he was like 10, but there’s no way that ancient Egyptian magic would consider a prepubescent infatuation something dire enough to warrant a frickin’ body swap, right?

            How would he even finish that business anyway?

            Confess?

            Because that is pretty much not happening.

            Tim is a creepy, obsessive stalker and he owns that.

            But he refuses to explain the extent of it to the primary object of his years of stalkery.

 

            Maybe. If they can’t figure out anything else. And they hit the end of their time frame.

            And if it doesn’t work, they always have the plan where Jason kills him on the table.

            Yeah.

            Sounds great.

            Two awful ideas, right there.

            Perfect.

 

            But Tim still doesn’t have any actually reasonable ideas in the air.

 

            And Jason’s already starting to wake up— Tim can hear him starting to shuffle and groan as the achy morning stiffness he always feels begins to war with the acute need he has to fetch a cup of coffee before the craving kills him.

            Tim moves to his side with a mug of steaming deliciousness, coffee is the elixir of life and Tim will suffer no foolishness about it. Jason’s adapted enough to Tim’s body that his blind reach for the mug is executed flawlessly and the abrupt motion doesn’t even surprise the man.

            He’s downed half the mug before he glares up at Tim.

 

            “Yeah, Timmers, this shit ain’t okay,” Jason growls, somehow making Tim’s slim chest produce a rumble close to his usual snarling register. “Between the substance dependency you got goin’ and this fuckin’ train wreck you feel like you got hit by… You and me gonna have some serious conversations when we get this switch back thing figured out.”

            Tim glowers.

            “I’m fine,” Tim retorts automatically, moving to his feet and steering Jason’s body back over to the kitchen. He grabs another apple and takes a bite, admittedly petulant, as he refuses to look Jason in the eye.

 

            Jason grumbles something incoherent and downs the rest of his first cup of coffee.

            Then he struggles to his feet, more stable than yesterday, but still unsteady with his borrowed body. He makes it to the breakfast bar and Tim keeps his eyes on the counter as he refills Jason’s cup of coffee.

            He can’t help but think over their conversation from last night, regarding how Jason didn’t want to take this job… About how Jason didn’t want to tell him why he didn’t want to, despite all the prompting he’d made to get Tim to ask about the reasons directly.

            There’s far too many reasons Jason could have for not wanting to work with Tim and knowing exactly which reasons had motivated Jason’s wavering would not be helpful. To anyone. Jason’s prompting had been nothing but a reason to pick a fight.

            Tim’s glad he didn’t give into the urging last night, but now… now it actually gives him an idea about how to go about testing their ‘unfinished business’ with each other.

            “We should try sparring with each other,” Tim blurts.

 

            He blinks up to assess Jason’s reaction and realizes that he may have interrupted Jason trying to say something. He flinches hard at the realization, but manages to keep the reaction contained enough as Jason choses to just roll with it instead of restating whatever he’d been going on about before Tim had spiraled off on a side track.

 

            “Sparring? What makes you think that would help?”

 

            “The ‘unfinished business’ thing,” Tim explains slowly. He continues cautiously, “I’m guessing it has something to do with business we have with each other, because there’s no other reason to have switched like this unless the unsettled pieces of our fractured souls were focused on each other, so that when we got ripped out of our own bodies we jumped into the empty vessels of the person we were fixated on.”

            “Or it could just be that we jumped into the nearest empty body,” Jason counters, adding, “Unless you’ve got some beef with me you ain’t been sayin’ straight over the last year.”

 

            Tim steels himself and meets Jason’s gaze.

 

            “If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been pretty focused on you for the last few years,” Tim allows. “I’ve been trying so hard to get you back into the Family that maybe it’s carried over a bit, so even though you are back in now… I might just be conditioned to fixate on you. And you did have a major fixation on me for replacing you when you first got back, and regardless of how you’ve gotten past that… we still definitely have issues. With each other. Maybe having it out here and leaving it all on the mats to clear the air will be enough to resolve them— and fix this.”

            Jason, behind Tim shuttered expression, is obviously reeling.

            Tim can’t see the real him clearly enough to guess at what he’s thinking.

 

            “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea, Timbo,” Jason drawls eventually.

 

            “Why not?”

 

            “It just— I mean, I just…” Jason pauses as he struggles to pull the words he wants to say into order. He takes a breath and says, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to have it out… It’s just… if we… You’re still getting used to the Pit’s influences, and I’m still trying to adjust to how much your muscles always seem to hurt… If we try a spar, odds are pretty good it turns into a real fight... and without someone to intervene…”

 

            Jason’s been trying so hard to be good, Tim knows. And he’s been managing it better than most of the Bats would have ever imagined that he could.

 

            He doesn’t want to hurt Tim again, especially without someone there to prove it wasn’t an intentional act. Even if it’s Tim in Jason’s body who loses control, Jason doesn’t want to hurt him. It makes Tim’s chest constrict with some complicated and warm emotion, even as the bite of indignation rises through his lungs.

            “You’re a good enough fighter to be able to use my muscles effectively, and you should know by now that I’m good enough to fend you off,” Tim retorts hotly.

            He feels the Pit stir this time and bites down the vehemence of the words he wants to add before it digs its claws in. He takes a breath and adds with forced calm, “I’ve fought you off after getting a rib cracked by a goon with a lucky baseball bat, I can fight you off after two days of almost nothing but rest. And you’ve taught me enough about the Pit to keep it in check, besides none of my emotional problems have any reason to make me want to hurt you, so it should be fine enough to manage a little sparring.”

 

            Jason’s got his teeth ground together.

 

            He doesn’t say anything as Tim begins to notice the itch from one of the other new feelings he’s had to adjust to in Jason’s body: the craving for a cigarette.

            While Tim sets about methodically getting a cigarette lit, Jason chews on a response.

 

            The throat hit is harsh enough to make Tim’s consciousness want to gag, but his current body is well used to it and the strike soothes the antsy bite of energy in Jason’s body.

            And the concentration it takes to suck the smoke deep into his lungs before letting it slide out in a controlled stream allows Tim to refocus.

 

            “I don’t have another game plan, Jason,” Tim confesses.

 

            Jason snorts. “Like I’m ever gonna believe that bull crap. You always have a plan.”

 

            Rolling his eyes, Tim admits, “Fine. I’ve got a few other ideas, but they all involve one, or even both, of us dying for real before this is over. This is the only plan I’ve got that might work out well enough we both live through it.”

 

            Jason squints at him, clearly suspicious.

            Taking another drag on the cigarette, Tim leaves himself as open as he can figure out how to make himself be.

 

            It doesn’t make Jason any less suspicious.

 

            But he does relent, blinking with a labored effort before he finishes off his second coffee of the morning. Tim reaches to pour the mandatory third for him as he sighs and says, “Fine. I guess we’ll keep it on the table, but not until at least tomorrow. I’m not sure why you’re doubting that big brain of yours to come up with something else here, but I don’t wanna try this fight plan until it really looks bad.”

            “What part of ‘my other two plans both involve at least one of us dying’ doesn’t look bad?” Tim asks, askance with exasperation.

            “We’ve got four more sunsets before one of us dying looks better than both,” Jason returns with a snappy crossness. “And I’m not convinced the sparring thing won’t also end without at least one of us kickin’ it for keeps.”

 

            Tim chews down a toxic response.

 

            Then he rolls his lips over his teeth and forces himself to focus on the priorities, because Jason’s right, they’ve got four— well, Tim’s only really comfortable with calling it three— more sunsets before this problem becomes truly life threatening.

 

            But there is another problem that they have to deal with today, and that one is life threatening— though the lives at risk are mostly not Bats, saving innocent civilians is kind of in their job description and this op has been on the books for weeks now.

            “Fine, if we’re not gonna do that now, we should at least discuss what that means,” Tim lays out with only a touch more sass than absolutely necessary.

            That makes Jason frown and Tim can admit to feeling a burst of satisfaction from seeing it. He makes Jason stew until he has to ask, “What do you mean?”

            “I mean that the Zagitova case is not the only one I’m working,” Tim explains. “I can sort of wiggle my way out of the social obligations I’ve put on myself, but I refuse to let my casework fall by the wayside because of a stupid little soul scramble. I suspect you might be particularly understanding of that, especially when it’s about child trafficking.”

 

            Jason’s frown pinches slightly, pulls a little squinty tightness at his eyes.

            “You’re on that?”

 

            “I was on it before they started on kids,” Tim confirms. “I was on it when it was just the odd undocumented immigrant disappearing from my run of Chinatown. They’ve expanded, merged with another group that likes their take a lot younger than these guys’ usual, but they’re getting paid with something that makes the risk worth it to them. I’m guessing a new string of club drugs, that weird thing leaving traces of opiate uppers of some sort in the OD victims.”

            Pulling in an irritated breath, Jason huffs, “And this isn’t logged on your list of Actives on the Cave server because?”

            “It is, it’s just still listed as a minor missing persons’ case centered around a nightclub in Chinatown called Hologram,” Tim informs him. “Steph’s got a drug case focused there, too, so technically, all the details are accurately recorded on the Actives board. It’s not our fault if no one reads the details carefully enough to connect them.”

 

            Jason has to pinch the bridge of his nose and look away for a long minute.

            “You’re a fucking asshole, you know that?”

 

            With a sly smirk tugging at his features, Tim gives a noncommittal half-shrug.

 

            “Lemme guess, you have a suspect, and some actionable intelligence,” Jason supposes in a frustrated growl. “And a limited timeframe.”

            “Yep,” Tim confirms, making the plosive pop dramatically. “Steph and I are moving tonight on Zhen Li. He’s the fifth son of the Taipei Textile Lis, in town for one night only to check on the East Coast American operations. If this doesn’t work, we’ll lose him for six months and when he gets back to the States it’ll be a strictly West Coast visit and I’ll have to take the case up with the Titans. Besides, in the interim… I’d estimate we’d lose at least 100 kids.”

            “Not an option,” Jason snarls.

            “Agreed.”

 

            He tips his head at Jason to gently push the issue, while letting him come to the right conclusions in his own time.

 

            “So you need me to pretend to be you, so that you and Steph can put the fear of Bats into this Li asshole, preferably even fear enough to make him shut down American operations altogether,” Jason manages, nailing the goal perfectly.

            Tim nods with an approving and vicious grin. “And with the Titans to help me follow up on things after we drive the operation out of Gotham, I’m pretty sure we can get this whole thing shut down completely. And as Timothy Drake-Wayne, I’ll be able to cripple the Li’s textile operations if the family doesn’t agree to use their resources to proactively mitigate the harm they’ve caused. It’ll be the biggest blow against US drug and human trafficking in decades.”

 

            Watching Jason carefully, Tim allows himself to feel the warm pulse of satisfaction bubbling up in him at the possibility of doing something so concrete to benefit the greater good.

 

            It won’t resolve the issue of the human trafficking industry basic existence, but it will be a major dent in the functionality of any systems meant to foster its economy. It’ll make continuing to risk reprisal a lot less appealing for the other operations in the game, for a while at least. The power vacuum that taking down the Li family’s sideline enterprises will open up space for a new player, but it’s likely that the various syndicates that attempt to fill the gap will be spending a while distracted with each other instead of focused on ruining innocent lives.

 

            It’ll be a good day for law enforcement.

            A very good day.

 

            But first there’s got to be a few vigilantes taking action on a very long night.

 

            And if there’s anyone who could guess that it’s not going to be half as easy as Tim just made it sound, it’s Jason.

            “A’ight, so your little song and dance here got me interested— and just to be clear here: I am not a fan of all that mind game psycho-manip crap, but it worked well enough and I’m a sucker on your line,” Jason harrumphs. “So. What’s the catch?”

            Cutting straight through the bullshit, because Jason needs him to give a straight answer here, Tim admits, “The mission plan involves going undercover. It’s a honeypot gig.”

            Seeing Jason stiffen makes Tim’s throat tighten up, but he forges on to explain, “I’m set to go under as Ruby, a new hire working girl at Hologram, saved from the streets by the Li Family’s local managers and selected for the honor of ensuring that Mr Li himself enjoys the full scale of what the Gotham operation has to offer. I’ve been working Ruby’s connections for over a month now, getting her in places to make sure she’s noticed and it worked. The meeting is set.”

 

            Jason draws a shaky breath that Tim very tactfully ignores.

 

            “Any specifics I need to be aware of? Conversations, inside jokes?”

            “Just a few names and faces, the ranking officers and such,” Tim soothes. “Steph’s got the dossier at her place, but I could pull the files up if we log onto the Cave’s server.”

            “Oracle’ll be up our asses in a second if we try, though,” Jason huffs, his retort coming only a scant beat after it would have had he not been so thoroughly shaken.

 

            Again, Tim pretends not to notice.

            They both know he does notice, however.

 

            Tim’s too observant not to notice, and he’s been fixated on Jason too long for either of them to really think he hasn’t memorized every twitch response he makes—even stuck in Tim’s body, that part that’s Jason is something Tim knows how to see.

            And Jason knows Tim well enough to see him as well, to see the careful pretense of ignorance he’s wearing like armor.

            Knows him well enough to guess accurately at the reasoning behind the façade.

            Tim keeps his eyes down, focused on his apple core, as he waits for Jason to get angry.

 

            It doesn’t come.

 

            The anger doesn’t rise like Tim expects it to, the shouting doesn’t start… Jason has every reason to be angry. To be pissed at Tim for doubting that he could handle this kind of a mission with the baggage from his particular history

 

            Instead of shouting down imagined doubts, Jason sighs.

 

            “You know, don’t you?”

 

            Tim flinches. Nods.

 

            “How in the hell… dude, Oracle encrypted those files, I couldn’t even get in and it was biosealed to my signature,” Jason huffs.

 

            Wincing, and reattaching his gaze to the apple core being rolled between his fingers, Tim confesses, “I borrowed Oracle’s phone. And I copied your DNA signature from the archives and I synthesized a pint of blood by rearranging fragmented nucleotides from Willis Todd’s denatured genetics in a perversion of the Sanger sequencing method. It wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough to fool the computer, especially in concert with B’s override codes.”

            “Which you have because?”

            “Because when Bruce ‘died’, Dick took over. And Dick can barely lock a door, let alone a computer half as complicated as the Cave’s,” Tim answered easily, falling into the complacency of the sarcastic gesture enough to hazard a glance up.

            Jason’s got his eyebrows cocked askance; incredulity plastered bluntly over his expression with a lopsided smile tugging at his lips.

            “You are somethin’ else, Timbit,” he sighs.

 

            The pause that settles is a pleasant one, albeit brief.

 

            Soon enough, Jason sobers and sighs again. “I ain’t proud of what I had to do to stay alive out on the streets before B got me, but I ain’t so ashamed of it or scarred by it that I can’t handle myself if I have to put on the mask again. I still know how it all works.”

            “I just don’t like the idea that you have to do that,” Tim replies.

            Jason shrugs. “Demands of the job, Timbo. You know how it is.”

            “You deserve better,” Tim insists.

 

            Because it’s true. It’s so true.

 

            Even without the whole dying and Lazarus resurrection thing, Jason’s past is pockmarked with a kind of darkness no one should have to bear. And forcing him to retrace any one of the steps he took through that hell he’d managed to survive is just… cruel.

            With a snort, Jason counters, “And you don’t?”

            “I don’t have the same kind of baggage weighing on this particular operation.”

 

            “We all got baggage,” Jason retorts, leveling a stare at Tim. “Don’t even pretend you ain’t got any. Bein’ as okay with putting on a mask as you are… even without pokin’ into the particulars, there’s somethin’ there that ain’t alright in your stupid little genius brain. It ain’t fair that any of us have to do shit like this, but we do and it’s crap but it needs to be done.”

            Flustered about the prod as his being ‘not alright’, which Tim knows is an understatement of epic proportions, Tim only manages to squeak, “Still. I’d always rather it be me than anyone else. I can take it.”

 

            Jason grumbles something in Spanish that Tim doesn’t quite catch.

 

            He gets more audible as he grumbles, “Stupid, self sacrificing, idiot. God damn, Replacement, you’re almost as bad as B.”

            The vitriol in the tone makes Tim flinch, but some little niggle in him wants to take the words themselves as a sort of compliment – a backhanded compliment to be sure, but more of a compliment that Jason’s usually willing to give him.

            It should be surprising—how much that affects him—but, at this point, Tim is rather tragically underwhelmed by the little flutter in his lungs.

 

            With another groan, and another few curses in Spanish, Jason refocuses.

            “Right, so, your little honeypot mission,” Jason transitions forcefully, “What’s the plan?”

            “I go under as Ruby, Steph hangs back as a club patron to be close just in case, I get Zhen Li alone in a back room and knock him out, call in Steph, sneak out the back with our new friend and convince him to change his ways,” Tim lays out with a viciously amused little grin. “Simple.”

            “That plan is nearly as slipshod as the ones I come up with,” Jason huffs.

            Tim shrugs. “It’s flexible. Requires very few tactical achievements to be a success.”

            “One of which being that you get him alone,” Jason points out. “How exactly are you supposed to make that happen.”

            “Ruby’s already set to be a gift for him, that gets me in the room,” Tim leads. “And even if there are other girls, or even boys, on the list of possibilities… I can make them less relevant.”

            “You’re that sure you’re Li’s type?”

 

            Tim gives him a look with a sassy cant to his brow and a confident cock to his smile as he replies, “I can pretty much be anyone’s type.”

 

            The look Jason gives him at that is one he can’t interpret half as well as he wants to.

            It doesn’t seem repulsed.

 

            And it doesn’t seem like he’s dramatically against the possibility of playing the whore more thoroughly than just to gain an initial turn of interest from Li.

 

            Jason might actually be willing to do this.

 

            He has the experience and the people reading skills to pull it off, Tim knows, and he’s got a body that’s been perfectly conditioned to be adaptable and alluring.

            If Jason can take the strain, mentally, and he lets Tim’s body react properly to his conscious observations of their target’s body language… they could definitely manage to pull this off. Even while they’re still switched.

 

            It’s enough to make Tim’s protests settle.

 

            The priority here is the Mission. If their being switched would derail the possibilities for success in this entirely, getting back to normal would be the most important thing. But since they’ve got a few more days before their lives are at risk due to the switch, and since they should be able to handle this operation as they are… The switch needs to be moved to the back burner.

            And who knows, taking his focus off of the issue might allow his brain to come at the problem from a different angle. It might be just what they need to give them a new lead on how to get themselves switched back to normal.

 

            “We’ll need to get you briefed for it fully in the next hour or so and we’ll have to get over to Steph’s place pretty quickly if we don’t want Oracle nosing her way in and figuring out what’s happened. She’ll call the Hologram Op off if she knows,” Tim cautions.

            Jason gives a nod and then asks, “Think we can hold your little girlfriend off from calling it quits on us? I mean, I can fake your mannerisms pretty well, but not indefinitely…”

            “Ex-girlfriend,” Tim corrects firmly. “And we’ve got boundaries set up because of the dating thing that actually work in our favor right now. Even if you as me seems a bit off to her, unless you do something dramatically out of character, she’ll only ask if I’m sure I want to do this one time. We’ve both agreed to avoid pushing. Besides, she’s not our biggest problem.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Babs got Dick to give us 18 hours of peace,” Tim sighs. “That was just over 8 hours ago, which means that he’s gonna on us by the time we’re going under at Hologram.”

            Jason’s eyes narrow as he works through the implications and possibilities for mitigating the worst influences of them. “We’ll have to leave the hand-off and primary interrogation to Steph, then, while we disappear again for a bit.”

            “Steph’ll get it done, she wants it bad,” Tim promises. “She won’t accept anything less than a promise for a total and immediate shut down, and she’ll get intel on where current victims are being kept prior to transport so we’ll be able to get them back safely. And she’ll be able to leverage her connection to Batman Inc to ensure they understand that WE and DI will be crippling their operations if there’s any hint of non-compliance. Give it two days and Gotham will be completely free of their influence; a month, and most of the US will be too.”

 

            It’s clearly tempting to Jason.

 

            But he’s also still hesitant.

 

            “Dick is gonna be on us like a pit bull,” Jason comments. “We’ll have to go deep.”

            “I can handle that, besides, if we drop this case into his lap, he’ll be distracted enough to let us get out clean,” Tim assures him.

            There’s a solid minute of silence as Jason considers all the options. They don’t have many good ones, but there’s an awful lot of bad ones to sort through and evaluate before they can really be dismissed.

 

            “Alrighty, sounds like a plan,” Jason relents eventually.

 

            He pushes up from his seat at the counter, gaze involuntarily drawn to the coffee pot as he moves to get ready to head upstairs. With a heavy sigh, he pulls a travel mug out of the cabinet over the fridge and fills it to the brim. The last dregs in the pot get poured into the mug he’s still got by his elbow and downed immediately.

            To Tim’s relief, he doesn’t grumble about Tim’s body being too dependent on the caffeine to be natural, and Tim takes the opportunity to finish off his cigarette and tamp it out in the ash tray at the far edge of the counter.

            Then they pack a duffle with their vigilante uniforms, adjust the casual clothes they’ve got on already to make sure that nothing’s so out of place they’ll blow their cover in a second if Dick dropped a hidden camera on his little unauthorized visit, and then head upstairs with a solid game plan in mind.

 

            They get the files brought up on Jason’s upstairs computer and run through them as quickly as they can manage while being appropriately thorough.

 

            After a full scale run through, Tim copies the data to his phone and they rehash the briefing until Jason knows it by rote while they make the walk across the city to the safehouse that Steph is set up in on the outskirts of the Fashion District.

            With Jason adequately prepped, getting to the apartment and letting himself inside should feel like business as usual, but Tim’s got an odd swirl of trepidation curled up in his gut.

            He can’t tell if the feeling belongs to his own anxiety over the need for success in this case, or if it’s because of Jason’s distinct lack of enthusiasm when it comes to working with the other Bats. Tim can certainly feel that Jason’s skin is crawling as they step across the threshold, after all, and that sensation drags sharp claws over his shoulders as he realizes on a gut-instinct level that Steph is not the only one in the apartment.

            Unfortunately, the super sense of having someone extra present only allows him to stiffen up before said spare body slams into him. It does not give him quite enough warning to dodge the blow and he quickly winds up with his back pressed against the wall and Cass’s forearm pressed over his trachea—not crushing, but definitely firm with acute warning.

            She squints hard at him, tipping her head to the side, and Tim is suddenly filled with dread that she can see straight through their body swap…

 

            Of all the Family members they could’ve run into, Cass is the least likely to believe any of their bullshit. But she is also the least likely to rat them out.

 

            Cass is already starting to drop the pressure from her arm on Tim’s borrowed trachea when Steph demands, “What the hell is he doing here?”

            “Our case got complicated,” Jason replies in a convincing show of Tim’s usual exasperation. “I had to jump ship in the middle to get here on time, so Jason’s here to make this go as smoothly as possible so we can get back to what we were doing. Besides, we could use the backup and at least we know Jason won’t got whining to Bruce about this on us.”

            Steph squint at him, but Tim can’t see passed Cass well enough to determine what’s going through her head as her suspicions over Jason’s motives get weighed against Tim’s answer. He can tell that she’s probably not going to be satisfied.

            A breath later, Jason realizes that same thing and attempts to drive the conversation forward with his own question, grumbling, “What the hell is Cass doing here?”

            With a frustrated huff as Steph is slammed with a clear discomfort, she switches gears entirely to defense. “I asked her in as extra backup,” she admits. “I still don’t feel too great about letting you go under deep like this with only me as backup onsite… and with how fuckin’ squirrely you’ve been the last two days… I’m worried about you, and I need my moral support ninja to be on this with us if you don’t want me to pull the plug.”

            By now, Cass has completely released her hold on Jason’s body and Tim fights the urge to cough as he gets air back into Jason’s lungs. Cass is now consumed with squinting at Jason in Tim’s body – he’s got his arms crossed and his weight back on one heel, just like Tim does when he’s anxious and being cornered by his Family.

            But there’s a cant to his shoulders that Tim-Tim doesn’t have, a sort of defensive strong-front that Tim’s learned to see as Jason’s street-kid conditioning. Tim can see it because he’s looking for Jason specifically inside his own familiar frame. Cass might see it because she’s Cass.

 

            There’s a moment of tension, but then Jason uncurls and grumbles, “Fine. But Jason gets to stay too, no complaints.”

            “Fine,” Steph returns, rolling her eyes and throwing herself down on the couch as Cass steps forward to perch on the sofa’s arm. “Just go get changed, your shit’s on the bed. We’re almost running late as it is, so don’t take forever with it, a’ight?”

            Jason shoots a snide ‘yes, dear’ in her direction and then stalks off towards the little flat’s sole bedroom. It makes Tim tense and has Steph squinting after Jason, but she soon lets it go with a huff and moves on to studiously ignoring the presence of Jason’s body behind her.

 

            Tim’s instinct is to stay by the door and just let her pretend him out of existence for the moment – and Jason’s body is thrumming with a disquiet tension that wants him to skedaddle entire, to just jump out the nearest window and bail.

            But Tim knows Jason’s personality, knows that despite the discomfort he feels he’d stay – more than that, he’d act like he’s unbothered and find a way to make everyone else feel even more uncomfortable than he does.

            So, to keep their covers as close to intact as they can while Cass’s epic ninja gaze is watching, Tim huffs and marches Jason’s body right over to the couch where Steph is sitting and throws himself down beside her.

            She continues to ignore him; but the ballsy move did its job and while she stiffens at first as Tim sits down, she quickly moves on to a more benign resignation.

 

            Eventually, she allows her worry to push through her annoyance.

            “So. Tim briefed you on this Op?”

 

            Tim nods, not taking his eyes off the Parks & Rec episode Steph’s got rolling on the half-assed attempt at a television set on the cabinet in front of the couch.

            “It was already stupid dangerous before you got involved, so you better make an effort not to be distracting to him,” Steph grouses.

 

            Fortunately, Tim doesn’t have to think up an appropriately Jason-esque response to that because Jason himself remerges from the bedroom, just then – with Tim’s body clad in the alluringly gossamer pink and red and gold ensemble they’d devised for this mission. It’s not quite a dress, but it’s also not just an oversized shirt—its shape is based loosely on the folds of a Tang Dynasty Hanfu with a lot of skin left visible, even through the covering of sheer fabric.

            It compliments his shape in an undeniable manner, making him androgynous enough to aggressively alluring for all genders on the spectrum without his even batting an eye.

            His dusting of make-up, too, is sheer enough to be revealing while still carefully tantalizing and gender-neutral in a way that can make an observer see exactly what they want to.

            Tim knew Jason was good with make-up, they all have needed to gain the skillset to ensure that any bruises at inopportune locales could be completely covered up, but he copied the test photo Tim had packed into the kit with his clothes more perfectly than expected.

 

            The entire look combines to make something swirl deep inside his gut, an uncontestable warmth low in his belly that assures Tim that the get-up is doing its job damn well.

 

            For Jason’s base instincts to give such clear reaction…

 

            Though, admittedly, with Tim in the driver’s seat, there’s a lot less mental baggage for the body to get over when considering the blunt sexual appeal that Ruby’s presence currently represents. Without Jason’s hatred for Tim complicating things, it just be that he can see Ruby as the powerfully attractive object her persona was designed to be.

            But…

            But Jason’s body didn’t react like this with Anna Dyer…

 

            Tim can’t even begin to unpack the nebulous potential implications of any of that because Steph is already clambering to her feet with a heavy sigh of ‘Alright, let’s get this freakin’ show on the road’. Cass has popped up elegantly beside her with a determined nod.

            So, Tim, in Jason’s body, rises up to loom behind them, following them silently towards the door. As they pass by it, he snatches up a black Henley stitched with internal scales of Armortec and Jason’s reinforced leather jacket.

 

            He feels much more focused and at ease with the armor on, both in mind and in body.

 

            Hologram is a high-end club, just Asian-edged enough to feel dramatic for it’s placement in the Diamond District instead of Chinatown, but just naturally enough non-Asian to make the idea of it being in Chinatown seem rather incongruous.

 

            Cass and Tim are backup, dressed in clothes for sneaking and hiding rather than those of actual club patrons, so they split off from Steph and Jason early on in their trek across the Diamond District to avoid drawing attention.

            Ruby and Steph will split up closer to the club itself, but Tim and Cass dart ahead to sneak their way inside from the roof and conceal themselves in the rafters.

 

            Steph arrives first, looking a careful mix of non-descript and snazzy, blending into the club-going crowd perfectly with the black and purple—eggplant— dress she’d had concealed beneath her thermals at the safehouse. Tim had worried it might be a little on the nose and obvious about Bat-involvement, but Steph had pointed out that her colors had become all the rage as a certain sort of feminist statement wear, particularly for the personalities that partook in getting drunk in the decidedly not risk-free environment of night clubs.

            Sure enough, she’s not the only blonde in black and purple, and Tim spies several other patrons of varying hair-colors and genders bearing some edgy allusion to Batgirl’s getup.

 

            And then Ruby arrives and is quickly shuffled into place on a performance platform by the Hologram staff. It’s not Ruby’s job, strictly speaking, to perform like a stripper, but Tim knows that Zhen Li would want to see a sample of what his present could do before indulging in such talents for his own pleasure, so he’d had Ruby volunteer.

            They all knew well how to work a dance floor, and Jason was one of the most naturally suited to the task among them—second only perhaps to Steph… though, as Tim watches Jason work, he begins to reevaluate to put the pair of them on an even par.

            (Cass doesn’t wholly count for the assessment, because it’s not so much a skill to her as a language and she would never be coerced into abusing something so sacrosanct to her for this.)

            ((Though… Tim has to wonder if the same courtesy should be extended to Jason…))

 

            Jason breathes the music, lets it sink straight through his skin, allows Tim’s muscles to do most of the work while letting his conscious mind simply interpret the music to send his body signals of what motions would be most appropriate.

 

            It’s an intense experience to watch.

 

            In body and mind.

            Tim’s consciousness is being overwhelmed with a self-flagellating sort of awe for his predecessor, being battered with reminders of why exactly he’s always found Jason so utterly enthralling as a person.

            And Jason’s body is throwing out some major vibes of incontrovertible interest, the kind that make his pants feel far too tight and all his muscles zing with an electric yearning to move and touch and taste.

 

            For song after song, watching Ruby dance consumes every drip of Tim’s existence.

 

            He can’t focus.

 

            Can’t keep his attention on the mission like he should be, and it surprises him when one of Hologram’s upper level managers appears to escort Ruby back to the private room where Zhen Li is waiting.

            Tim didn’t see him show up to observe Ruby at all, let alone see enough to catch him heading to the back—he has no idea how many guards the crime lord has with him, or how heavily armed any of them are…

            It’s a misstep that he should never have made, an egregious error that he has no excuses for and that feeling of guilt and inadequacy sours all the bubbly warmth in his gut until he feels almost like he needs to puke.

            Even sneaking into place in the air vent opposite the one where Cass is hiding, the thought of watching Ruby dance again turns his stomach rather than arouses interest.

 

            Fortunately, he is watching close enough to see the subtle move Jason uses to turn on the comm pushed deep in Ruby’s ear canal. Hears the softly grunted, ‘stage 2 is go’.

 

            Unfortunately, while Zhen Li was alone in the room prior to Ruby’s arrival, two of his highly armed henchmen follow Ruby’s escort inside. When the manager leaves after giving Li a formal introduction to his prize, the guards don’t move a muscle.

 

            Which means that this hooker game is going to get a lot more hands on than optimal, but they have to make Li send his guards away. They know he’s not quite an exhibitionist when it comes to sex. He’ll let his people enjoy the view for a lap dance, but once things progress far enough for him to pull his dick out… the intel the Bats have on him indicates that he should send the guards away pretty quick.

 

            If they get that far, that is…

 

            Jason is expertly maneuvering Ruby’s hips to keep Zhen Li from getting too handsy with any exposed skin—keeping him from using the points of contact Jason has allowed from exposing any additional skin.

            Seeing it makes Tim’s gut clench.

            Makes his teeth grind.

 

            Because Tim knows his own body, can read the tensions in his lines.

            And this is not a PSTD, mental shuttering, sexual repulsion thing… it’s a propriety thing, a sense of not shyness but modesty or something… a sort of protectiveness, almost, like Jason doesn’t want to let Zhen Li touch Tim’s body—for Tim’s sake, rather than his own sanity.

 

            It digs into Tim’s cache of frustration and lets the Lazarus Pit slip a little slack in the leash Tim’s been keeping—though he manages to keep quiet by biting his tongue hard enough to make it bleed.

 

            “Only one guard outside the door,” Steph’s words come through over the coms in a panted whisper that speaks of exertion. “The ones at the club’s back exit has been dealt with and I’m about to get this one out of the action.”

            “Two inside,” Cass cautions.

            Steph gives a rankled huff, just as aware of what that means for Ruby as the rest of them but even less resigned to it than Jason.

            Her agitation feeds into Jason’s own and makes it clear to Tim that he won’t be taking the most important step in this operation without prompt.

 

            “Let him touch,” Tim growls, just loud enough for the coms to translate the vibrations in his throat into intelligible words. “You said you were okay with this, so let him touch.”

            “You don’t have to, Tim,” Steph counters immediately, tone strained with a tamped down fury. “If you want out, Cass and I can take the guards. You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with for this. We’ll hail a bus preemptively incase the guards get a gunshot off, and we’ll just grab Li and run like hell.”

 

            Tim stops himself from screaming out a vicious response, but it’s a near thing.

 

            And his self-restraint is tested further as Stephanie plows onward.

 

            “No matter what else you have going on with him, no matter how badly you want to prove yourself to any of us, Jason doesn’t have any kind of say in this,” Steph asserts. “It’s all about what’s best for you… about what you need.”

 

            It makes Tim’s control snap.

 

            “This fucking is what’s needed here,” he hisses, far louder than intended—but fortunately still quiet enough not to alert the guards, distracted as they are with watching Ruby grind down on their bosses stilled-clothed lap. “It’s my fucking body, and I’ll do whatever the fuck I want with it. And god damn it, Jason, I will fucking gut you here and now, if you don’t follow through like you said you could.”

 

            There’s a tension in Ruby’s shoulders now, an edge of building anger.

 

            “It’s my body and if Li wants to stick his dick up my ass you will fucking let him, so that he gets his guards to leave and then you’ll dose him as we planned,” Tim reaffirms, seeing green and barely able to hold himself back from leaping down argue his point face to face.

 

            Jason doesn’t need to fucking protect him… protect his ‘innocence’…

 

            They both knew what a honeypot mission might entail, and god damn it, Jason agreed to do it. And he is clearly okay with all of this himself and he’s just getting tripped up over some stupid qualm he has with it being Tim’s body in the line of sleezebag groping.

            But Tim would fuck the Joker if it meant saving innocent lives, particularly children’s lives… letting the comparatively inoffensive Zhen Li dip his fingers into dark places isn’t enough to even rank at all on the list of Tim’s limits.

 

            A sudden crunch of metal makes Tim jerk out of his spiraling thoughts.

 

            Makes him realize that he’s been pushing on the confining wall of the air vent he’s squeezed Jason’s massive frame into… That’s he’s pushed so hard the metal’s bent…

 

            Makes him realize that their cover is now completely blown.

 

 

            “Oh, fuck.”

 

 

            With a wince so fierce it makes his face ache, Tim rolls his jaw, and then tries to figure out an appropriate course of action to take in the aftermath.

 

            Diving in head on seems to be the only option.

 

            He’s not the first to have come to that conclusion.

 

            His curse drew the guards’ attention to his hiding place and Cass has used to opening to crash into the scene already. He uses her commotion to cover his own entrance, and a beat before his boots hit the floor, Stephanie bursts through the door and snaps it shut behind her.

 

            The shock and confusion and straight up feral attack ‘plan’ the Bats are running with means that the bad guys all end up on the ground and out cold in a matter of seconds.

            A gunshot was fired in the chaos, three of them, actually; and it seems like alarms are going off. The roar outside indicates that people are beginning to panic in the main club area, but no one is pounding at their private room’s door just yet.

 

            In here, it’s eerily silent and Tim can barely tell that it’s a genuine hush and not just that he can’t hear anything over the rush of blood inside his ears.

 

            Stephanie has a gun.

            She picked it off the goon that Cass dropped.

            Cass herself has a Batarang out, and a weighted bola ready on her wrist.

 

            Cass is angled towards Jason/Ruby/Tim where he’s frozen on his knees on the bed over Zhen Li’s unconscious body.

 

            Steph has the gun aimed at Tim in Jason’s body.

            And he has never seen her look quite this pissed.

 

            It makes another wince yank on Jason’s features.

            Which makes Steph’s glare inexplicably soften, disbelief edging in around the fury.

 

            She squints at him. Tips her head to the side, and the motion is so familiar that Tim can’t stop himself from twitching the muscles in Jason’s neck to follow suit in resignation.

 

            Steph blinks. “Tim?”

 

            Tim’s heart just about stops dead in Jason’s chest.

 

 

            Fuck.”

 

________

 

 

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 11 – Full Contact (Pt. I)

 

 When Jason first begins to wake, the fact that he can't fix his thoughts onto anything but how badly he needs a cup of coffee is enough to niggle at his awareness that something's wrong.
 Still wrong.
 Even in this haze of such an acute coffee craving, Jason can connect the dots.

 He's still stuck inside Tim's body.

 Jason's gotten accustomed enough to the feel of Tim's aching muscles to only need a few slow seconds to make a grab for the offering of coffee Tim appears with as he forces himself semi-upright. He downs half the drink in a few desperate gulps.
 Then he turns a groggy glare on Tim.

 "Yeah. Timmers, this shit ain't okay," Jason growls. "Between the substance dependency you got goin' and this fuckin' train wreck you feel like you got hit by... You and me gonna have some serious conversations when we get this switch back thing figured out."
 He can feel the searing glower Tim levels back at him.
 "I'm fine," Tim returns.
 It's an automatic response, largely petulance.
 No one in the history of vigilantism has ever legitimately been fine, especially not when they use that phrase exactly to assert it.
 Tim moves away from Jason's side and Jason watches his progress back towards the kitchen—where he grabs an apple and starts chowing down as Jason struggles up to Tim's feet.

 Jason grumbles about how stupid and useless this whole damn Family is and downs the rest of his first cup of coffee. He's still a bit unsteady in his borrowed body, but he makes it over to the breakfast bar well enough. Tim keeps his eyes down as he refills Jason's cup of coffee.
 He can't help but let his thoughts drift back over their conversation from the night before... regarding how Jason hadn't wanted to work with Tim.

 It's hard not to wonder why Tim wouldn't ask him straight out what the reason was behind his hesitation. Jason doesn't exactly want to explain to Tim's face what's been going on inside his head... He's not keen on having to explain it, but... 
 Tim deserves to know that it's been getting harder and harder for Jason to remember where acceptable boundaries are with him—that he's been forgetting to police his actions and his thoughts in ways that might make him hurt Tim accidently even without the Pit's lingering influence rearing up... He doesn't want to explain that, even with everything Tim has done for him and everything that's happened over the last few years to help the Family mend fences with Jason, Tim is still a major trigger point for him... and he really doesn't want to explain how the Pit's vile waters are just like the ocean in how the tidal shifts are yanked on by the moon, the closer they creep to July's close approach, like a full moon on the waves, the more volatile his temper gets—and the more tenuous his control over it becomes...
 Tim deserves to know, but Jason was too chicken to spit it out without his direct question to make the prompt more pressing.
 Hell, he's still too chicken.

 But he does need to make sure that Tim really is okay with working him.
 Tim had said so, said that the reasons he didn't want to weren't concerning so long as his reasons for doing so regardless of not wanting to were strong enough to keep him here.
 But still... Jason thinks it's important to ask, just to make sure, now that the Pit's volatility is less present in Tim's mindset.

 Tim's expression is still pretty dark, but it's just his normal angsty frustration, so Jason opens his mouth to ask if this whole thing is really okay (well, at least, as okay as possible).
 Before he gets more than a few uncertain syllables out, Tim blurts, "We should try sparring with each other."

 Tim blinks up to assess Jason's response, but Jason's mouth is still hanging half open as he tries to process Tim's suggestion.

 Giving in to the urge to jump onto any other topic, Jason rolls with this one, perplexing as it may be. "Sparring? What makes you think that would help?"

 "The 'unfinished business' thing," Tim explains slowly. There's an uncharacteristic caution in how he proceeds, saying, "I'm guessing it has something to do with business we have with each other, because there's no other reason to have switched like this unless the unsettled pieces of our fractured souls were focused on each other, so that when we got ripped out of our own bodies, we jumped into the empty vessels of the person we were fixated on."
 "Or it could just be that we jumped into the nearest empty body," Jason counters, logic automatically kicking in for him—god damn Bat conditioning. It means there's a solid stone of dread sinking through his gut as he adds warily, "Unless you've got some beef with me you ain't been sayin' straight over the last year..."
 It could easily be true.
 Tim has plenty of reasons to have issues with Jason, and an even bigger spread of reasons to feel the need to keep those issues quiet.

 Jason braces himself for the worst as he see's the corners of Tim's eyes twitch with a wince. Then he steels himself and meets Jason's gaze.
 "If you haven't noticed, I've been pretty focused on you for the last few years," Tim points out. He keeps his face smooth, and even though his gaze is wavering he maintains his eye contact with Jason. "I've been trying so hard to get you back into the Family that maybe it's carried over a bit, so even though you are back in now... I might just be conditioned to fixate on you. And you did have a major fixation on me for replacing you when you first got back, and regardless of how you've gotten past that... we still definitely have issues. With each other. Maybe having it out here and leaving it all on the mats to clear the air will be enough to resolve them— and fix this."

 Jason's got his own face shuttered.

 Because he doesn't know what might be showing on his face and he's pretty sure it's best not to risk revealing just how far Tim's little ramble has sent him reeling.
 Because Jason's been under the impression that Tim's only been kinda fixated on him for the Family's sake and that his obsession with getting Jason back into the Family was about the Family not about him...
 Because Jason is... well he's not over the fixation he's got with Tim. He's been able to shift it away from his obsessive need to kill Tim, away from the urge to hurt Tim to hurt Bruce, and away from the hate and the hurt and the anger... but not away from Tim.
 Jason's still very fixated on Tim.
 Very fixated.
 Not in a way that's overtly harmful, but in a way could be harmful... that could be brought out of line with tragic ease. Intent to do good has already twisted once or twice, in a few big ways. He's beaten into Tim for his own self-abuse more than once.

 And there's a certain easy fluidity in sparring that makes Jason feel reckless, like he's on a looser leash than usual. He's fought Dick on the mats, sparred with him in a way that turned into a real fight. Dick walked away from it without any broken bones, and they did clear the air, but it was a near thing... very near.
 Dick had asked him to be cautious with sparring with anyone else.
 He and Cass could take it, Bruce too (but neither of them entertained the possibility that Jason might want to spar with Bruce). But Damian and Steph might get seriously hurt, and Tim... well, that was a can of worms no one felt would be wise to poke.
 While Tim could (probably) hold his own against Jason's onslaught if the spar turned into a fight, he might just not... He has a track record that speaks strongly to that danger.
 And if Tim chose not to fight back, Jason's odds of letting the Pit run free tripled.

 So he and Tim have never sparred. Not in the After.

 And Jason's quite inclined to keep it that way.

 And while they're switched like this? Too much about it is unpredictable. Jason has no idea how to work Tim's muscles in a real fight, no idea how to use Timmy's strengths to their full extent against the straightforward brutishness of Jason's skill set.
 And Tim's still struggling to keep himself wholly separate from the Pit.

 Eventually, Jason drawls, "I'm not so sure that's a good idea, Timbo."

 Utterly baffled, Tim asks, "Why not?"

 Words leap of Jason's tongue, "It just—I mean, I just..."
 Pulling back, Jason pauses.
 He fights to parse his thoughts out into intelligible sentences.
 "I don't think it's a good idea if we just have it out," Jason states after a moment. "It's just... if we... You're still getting used to the Pit's influences, and I'm still trying to adjust to how much your muscles always seem to hurt... If we try a spar, odds are pretty good it turns into a real fight... and without someone to intervene..."

 It's certainly not the eloquent persuasion Jason might've hoped for... but he can see by the tilt in Tim's expression, by the slight deflation of his posture, that Tim gets enough of what he's said to understand the problem.

 But instead of just accepting it, Tim huffs, "You're a good enough fighter to be able to use my muscles effectively, and you should know by now that I'm good enough to fend you off."
 Jason can see the moment the Pit begins to stir, and he can spot the moment Tim realizes it too—can spot the moment when Tim pulls back and forcibly separates himself.
 He takes a slow breath, and settles slightly.
 His calm is still rather forced as he adds, "I've fought you off after getting a rib cracked by a good with a lucky baseball bat, I can fight you off after two days of almost nothing but rest. And you've taught me enough about the Pit to keep it in check, besides, none of my emotional problems have any reason to make me want to hurt you, so it should be fine enough to manage a little sparring."

 By the time he's finished, he has successfully made the Pit settle.
 Jason can concede that point. 
 But tamping it down in an argument and tamping it down in a fight are two very different actions.
 Jason's got his teeth ground together to keep himself from blurting that out...
 Simply telling Tim that he can't handle the difference yet will just make him that much more determined to force the issue. And it will make accomplishing the feat without the Pit gaining any kind of inappropriate foothold just that much more difficult.

 While Jason works to chew on an appropriate response, Tim starts to fidget. He notices extremely quickly that it's the way that Jason's body is trying to say it needs a cigarette and he moves to acquire one with none of the awkwardness of his attempts from yesterday.
 The sight still makes Jason feel a bit queasy, but he pours his focus into the important task instead of letting it linger on his failing.

 He doesn't manage to find the words before Tim speaks up again.

 "I don't have another game plan, Jason," he confesses, eyes downcast.

 Jason snorts.
 "Like I'm ever gonna believe that bull crap. You always have a plan."

 Rolling his eyes, Tim admits, "Fine. I've got a few other ideas, but they all involve one, or even both, of us dying for real before this is over. This is the only plan I've got that might work out well enough we both live." 

 Jason squints at him, deeply suspicious.
 Taking another drag on the cigarette, Tim seems to make a conscious effort to leave himself open to Jason's examination of his motives.
 It doesn't make Jason any less suspicious. 
 In point of fact, it makes him more suspicious.

 But it really doesn't look like Tim is lying.
 And if he is, there might be a damn good reason for his not speaking up about these other plans he's got cooking.
 Jason himself can't say he's got any better ideas, so... maybe...
 At the very least, it's not an issue that's worth pushing just now.

 He blinks away from starting at Tim with a labored effort, and then finishes off his second cup of coffee. Tim reaches automatically to pour the mandatory third cup and Jason watches the steam rise as he sighs, saying, "Fine. I guess we'll keep it on the table, but not until at least tomorrow. I'm not sure why you're doubting that big brain of yours to come up with something else here, but I don't wanna try this fight plan until it really looks bad."

 Tim almost cracks a smile, askance with exasperation, as he asks, "What part of 'my other two plans both involve at least one of us dying' doesn't look bad?"
 "We've got four more sunsets before one of us dying looks better than both," Jason returns sharply. "And I'm not convinced the sparring thing won't also end without at least one of us kickin' it for keeps."

 Tim bites down on a response and the Pit makes Jason's blue irises flare green.

 When the green slides away, Tim rolls his lips over his teeth and forces himself to refocus and seems to shift around a few priorities in the black hole of infinite information that's always cached behind his eyes. His mouth quirks into a slight frown.
 "Fine, if we're not gonna do that now, we should at least discuss what that means," Tim lays out with a sassy tilt to his head.

 That makes Jason match Tim's frown. "What do you mean?"

 "I mean the Zagitova case is not the only one I'm working," Tim explains. "I can sort of wiggle my way out of the social obligations I've put on myself, but I refuse to let my casework fall by the wayside because of a stupid little soul scramble. I suspect you might be particularly understanding of that, especially when it's about child trafficking."
 Jason's jaw grinds down.
 "You're on that?"
 Nosey little asshole, of course Jason should've suspected that he's probably all up in everybody's business.
 "I was on it before they started on kids," Tim confirms, relieving some of the tension Jason feels at the presumed invasion of privacy that is Tim nosing into his cases. "I was on it when it was just the odd undocumented immigrant disappearing from my run of Chinatown. They've expanded, merged with another group that likes their take a lot younger than these guys' usual, but they're getting paid with something that makes the risk worth it to them. I'm guessing a new string of club drugs, that weird thing leaving traces of opiate uppers of some sort in the OD victims."

 Unfortunately, while Tim's first statement relieved some of Jason's tension, all of what he said after it has made the strain redouble.
 Pulling in an irritated breath, Jason huffs, "And this isn't logged on your list of Actives on the Cave server because?"
 "It is, it's just still listed as a minor missing persons' case centered around a nightclub in Chinatown called Hologram," Tim informs him. "Steph's got a drug case focused there, too, so technically, all the details are accurately recorded on the Actives board. It's not our fault if no one reads the details carefully enough to connect them."

 Jason has to pinch the bridge of his nose and look away for a long minute.

 Stupid, stupid, stupid little fucker thinks that's just okay?
 Thinks that running into something this big and this dangerous will just turn out alright if he technically includes the required details in the casefiles he's obligated to write. Sure, it's a pain having Oracle and the Bat reading every detail of his cases, and yeah, Jason's been known to push a few edits through... but this? This is not okay.
 Not even close.

 Eventually, Jason manages to push his fury down enough to keep his voice level as he says, "You're a fucking asshole you know that?"

 With a sly smirk tugging at his features in a way that is all Timmy-bird even under Jason's cheekbones, Tim gives a shrug.
 If Jason were in his own body, if he had to fight down the urgings of the Pit, he's pretty sure he would've punched that smug little psychopath right in the nose.

 Hell, he still kinda wants to.

 Especially if the nebulous thing he's thinkin' might be on the table actually is what's up.
 "Lemme guess, you have a suspect, and some actionable intelligence," Jason bites out with his frustration coming clear. "And a limited timeframe."
 "Yep," Tim confirms, making the plosive pop.
 It doesn't help his case against being punched in the face.
 "Steph and I are moving tonight on Zhen Li. He's the fifth son of the Taipei Textile Lis, in town for one night only to check on the East Coast American operations. If this doesn't work, we'll lose him for six months and when he gets back to the States it'll be a strictly West Coast visit and I'll have to take the case up with the Titans. Besides, in the interim... I'd estimate we'd lose at least 100 kids."
 "Not an option," Jason snarls.
 He mostly means it against the thought of losing kids, but... but part of it is hesitance on behalf of letting this idiotic op go through.
 But Tim only hears the first half. "Agreed."
 He tips his head at Jason, applying pressure in the gentlest way he can to allow Jason to move things along at his own pace.
 "So you need me to pretend to be you, so that you and Steph can put the fear of Bats into this Li asshole, preferably even fear enough to make him shut down American operations altogether," Jason manages.
 Tim nods. His grin full of vicious approval.
 "And with the Titans to help me follow up on things after we drive the operation out of Gotham, I'm pretty sure we can get this whole thing shut down completely. And as Timothy Drake-Wayne, I'll be able to cripple the Li's textile operations if the family doesn't agree to use their resources to proactively mitigate the harm they've caused. It'll be the biggest blow against US drug and human trafficking in decades."

 It's a neat little plan.
 It sucks and it's stupidly dangerous, but it's a well made scheme.
 Debilitating to the human trafficking industry in a way almost nothing else Jason's ever imagined could possibly be.

 It sucks, but it's happening.
 And derailing now will just cause even more trouble.

 "A'ight, so your little song and dance here got me interested— and just to be clear here: I am not a fan of all that mind game psycho-manip crap, but it worked well enough and I'm a sucker on your line," Jason harrumphs. "So. What's the catch?"

 Cutting through the bullshit, Tim admits openly, "The mission involves going undercover. It's a honeypot gig."

 Jason stiffens.
 Because, for some unfathomable reason—despite everything he knows about Bats and birds and Tim in particular—he never imagined that the others... that the ones who joined the Family after him would ever... could ever possibly... 
 That they might have dug into the dead birdy's past life.

 That they might think to want to tread lightly around the subject of dubious consent with him, to avoid the topic altogether.

 Tim pretends he wasn't planning to spare any details as he forges on, "I'm set to go under as Ruby, a new hire working girl at Hologram, saved from the streets by the Li Family's local managers and selected for the honor of ensuring that Mr Li himself enjoys the full scale of what the Gotham operation has to offer. I've been working Ruby's connections for over a month now, getting her in places to make sure she's noticed and it worked. The meeting is set."
 Jason draws a shaky breath that Tim very tactfully ignores.
 "Any specifics I need to be aware of? Conversations, inside jokes?"
 "Just a few names and faces, the ranking officers and such," Tim soothes. "Steph's got the dossier at her place, but I could pull the files up if we log onto the Cave's server."
 "Oracle'll be up our asses in a second if we try, though," Jason huffs, pushing himself fully passed the shock of realizing how exposed he was right now... how obvious his failings had to be to Tim, so many more faults than he'd realized were visible.
 Again, Tim pretends not to notice how shaken Jason currently is.
 They both know he does notice, however.

 Tim is far too observant not to notice.
 And with how nosey he is, and how he's apparently gotten to comb through every single fucking detail of Jason's whole life... Tim's definitely noticed.

 But the question isn't so easily dismissible, because the fact that Tim has noticed that Jason's been thrown for a loop is one thing, but the why behind it is still up for grabs. Jason's mostly reeling out of embarrassment and mortified shame for having Tim know that part of his life. But Tim... Tim's acting guilty and shy and... and sad in a way that doesn't mesh.
 Like he's waiting for Jason to get angry.
 Like he's waiting for Jason to yell, to refuse to partake in this thing—to react like it's Tim's fault he has to do it, like he hates Tim for forcing it on him... maybe even for doubting that he could handle going through with it.

 Jason won't stand for that.

 But he does need confirmation on the base issue before they try moving on.

 "You know, don't you?"

 Tim flinches. Nods.
 Keeps his eyes down.

 "How in the hell... dude, Oracle encrypted those files, I couldn't even get in and it was biosealed to my signature," Jason huffs. Truth be told, if he weren't so ashamed on the things that Tim had learned from reading that file, he'd honestly be pretty damn impressed.

 Tim refuses to look up as he confesses, "I borrowed Oracle's phone. And I copied your DNA signature from the archives and I synthesized a pint of blood by rearranging fragmented nucleotides from Willis Todd's denatured genetics in a perversion of the Sanger sequencing method. It wasn't perfect, but it was close enough to fool the computer, especially in concert with B's override codes."
 Of course.
 Of fucking course.
 Tim has B's override codes.
 "Which you have because?"
 "Because when Bruce 'died', Dick took over. And Dick can barely lock a door, let along a computer half as complicated as the Cave's," Tim shoots back smugly. He hazards a glance up and seems to take heart in Jason's incredulous half smile.

 "You are somethin' else, Timbit," Jason sighs.

 He shakes his head and refocuses, sobering to say, "I ain't proud of what I had to do to stay alive out on the streets before B got me, but I ain't so ashamed of it or scarred by it that I can't handle myself if I have to put on the mask again. I still know how it all works."
 The statement seems to gut Tim.
 He looks stricken as he says, "I just don't like the idea that you have to do that."

 So Tim does think it's about whether Jason can handle the pressure, whether Jason's pissed about his ability on that count being doubted.

 Jason doesn't see it that way and shrugs.
 "Demands of the job, Timbo. You know how it is."

 "You deserve better," Tim whines, sounding like it's killing him to consider having Jason step back into his streetwalker shoes.
 Like it's nothing for Tim himself to step into the role, when his innocence is still plausibly in tact. Jason had to turn hook to survive. Tim's willing to do it for the Mission.

 If Bruce knows how willing he is to take that step... if Bruce approves...

 Jason has never been so glad to be swapped as he is right now. It was marvelous to first note that the Pit didn't have its claws in him, but right now... The fact that he's in Tim's body is the only reason Jason isn't at the point of breaking furniture.

 "And you don't deserve better?" Jason grits out.

 "I don't have the same kind of baggage weighing on this particular operation," Tim says.

 "We all got baggage," Jason retorts, leveling a stare at Tim. "Don't even pretend you ain't got any. Bein' as okay with putting on a mask as you are... even without pokin' into the particulars, there's somethin' there that ain't alright. It ain't fair that any of us have to do shit like this, but we do and it's crap but it needs to be done."

 That gets Tim flustered.
 He rallies valiantly to squeak, "Still. I'd always rather it be me more than anyone else. I can take it."

 "Puto gilipollas," Jason mutters, "Ardilla con muerte cerebral..."

 He gets more audible as he grumbles viciously, "Stupid, self sacrificing, idiot. God damn, Replacement, you're almost as bad as B."

 The vitriol in the tone makes Tim flinch, clear enough an indication that Jason can cause plenty of damage without the Pit making him break things physically.
 And then the worst bit is that Tim gives a fluttering little smile at the end of it... like he thinks the fucking thing about B is supposed to be a compliment.

 "Qué demonios voy a hacer contigo?" Jason mutters inside a frustrated sigh.

 Then he manages to focus.
 "Right, so, your little honeypot mission," Jason forcibly transitions, "What's the plan?"

 Tim leaps at the opening for a new conversation topic.
 "I go under as Ruby, Steph hangs back as a club patron to be close just in case, I get Zhen Li alone in a back room and knock him out, call in Steph, sneak out the back with our new friend and convince him to change his ways," Tim lays out. "Simple."
 "That plan is nearly as slipshod as the ones I come up with," Jason huffs.

 Tim shrugs, proud and utterly unrepentant. "It's flexible. Requires very few tactical achievements to be a success."

 "One of which being that you get him alone," Jason points out. "How exactly are you supposed to make that happen."
 "Ruby's already set to be a gift for him, that gets me in the room," Tim leads. "And even if there are other girls, or even boys, on the list of possibilities... I can make them less relevant."
 "You're that sure you're Li's type?"

 Tim gives him a look with a sassy cant to his brow and a confident cock to his smile as he replies with a solid splash of sass, "I can pretty much be anyone's type."

 And damn doesn't Jason know how that much is true...

 Tim doesn't have the blunt magnetism of Dick Grayson, but the subtle appeal he has is far more disarming. And with how skilled he is at adapting his image, at making the most of how clothing and make-up and body language can completely alter the impression he makes... Tim could draw the keen attentions of even the most sober and wary onlooker.
 Big blue eyes, perfect pale skin, elegant features balanced on the edge of delicate and dangerous... He'd always been a gorgeous little thing, but now with a lean pack of muscle on him and an acute awareness of what affects could instill desire?
 Baby bird was damn near lethal for his looks alone.

 The look Tim is give him is calculated but edged with concern as Jason spirals off into his appreciation for how well the god damn floppy ass baby seal he'd once known had grown up.

 Tim manages to shake off whatever niggle of concern has him hesitating before Jason manages to draw himself out of his inappropriately admiring stupor.
 Jason almost misses the transition, but he claws his way to focusing as Tim says, "We'll need to get you briefed for it fully in the next hour or so and we'll have to get over to Steph's place pretty quickly if we don't want Oracle nosing her way in and figuring out what's happened. She'll call the Hologram Op off if she knows."
 After an acknowledging nod for Oracle's stance, Jason asks seriously, "Think we can hold your little girlfriend off from calling it quits on us? I mean, I can fake your mannerisms pretty well, but not indefinitely..."
 He can admit that he's been following Tim's activity quite closely ever since he got back, and this last year he's been watching especially carefully. The term 'stalking' would probably be an appropriate label, but it's mostly just been passive observance from a distance.
 Basically, it's just a bash of pathetic pining driving him to appreciate Tim in every facet of his daily activities... but it means that he knows how Tim moves well enough to perform a half decent imitation of it.
 But Steph was Tim's girl friend for a while there, a long enough while of close enough intimacy to make attempting to fool her into a serious risk for Jason.

 Tim doesn't seem worried.
 "Ex-girlfriend," he corrects. "And we've got boundaries set up because of the dating thing that actually work in our favor right now. Even if you as me seems a bit off to her, unless you do something dramatically out of character, she'll only ask if I'm sure I want to do this one time. We've both agreed to avoid pushing. Besides, she's not our biggest problem."

 While he's pleased (and fairly impressed) about Tim's plan to manage Steph, the dark curl of his tone at the end of his statement has Jason's shoulders pulling tight with unease.
 "What do you mean?"
 "Babs got Dick to give us 18 hours of peace," Tim sighs with a heavy resignation, "That was just over 8 hours ago, which means that he's gonna be on us by the time we're getting out from wrapping up at Hologram."

 Jason's eyes narrow as he works through the implications of that, and through the limited possibilities for mitigating the worst influences of them.
 "We'll have to leave the hand-off and primary interrogation to Steph, then," he surmises after a moment spent really hoping he'd be able to stay directly involved. "While we disappear again for a bit."

 "Steph'll get it done, she wants it bad," Tim promises. "She won't accept anything less than a promise for a total and immediate shut down, and she'll intel on where current victims are being kept prior to transport so we'll be able to get them back safely. And she'll be able to leverage her connection to Batman Inc to ensure they understand that WE and DI will be crippling their operations if there's any hint of non-compliance. Give it two days and Gotham will be completely free of their influence; a month, and most of the US will be too."

 It's so tempting to just dive in with it.
 They could do a lot of good here.

 But if they spend the next 8-10 hours focused on this case, that's half a day they won't be working on the swap. And, like this op already proves, Tim's got a lot on his plate to dodge if he wants to keep working with Jason while keeping things quiet with the Family.
 "Dick's gonna be on us like a pit bull," Jason comments. "We'll have to go deep."

 "I can handle that," Tim waves away. "Besides, if we drop this case into his lap, he'll be distracted enough to let us get out clean."

 There's a solid minute of silence as Jason considers all the options. They don't have many good ones, but there's an awful lot of bad ones to sort through and evaluate before they can really be dismissed.
 "Alrighty, sounds like a plan," Jason relents eventually.
 He pushes up from his seat at the counter, gaze involuntarily drawn to the coffee pot as he moves to get ready to head upstairs. With a heavy sigh, he pulls a travel mug out of the cabinet over the fridge and fills it to the brim. The last dregs in the pot get poured into the mug he's still got by his elbow and downed immediately.

 It's ridiculous and worrisome how dependent Tim's body is on this caffeinated nonsense, and it's far too acute a craving to be at all natural, but now is not the time to rehash that conflict.

 Then they pack a duffle with the mask and armor pieces of their vigilante uniforms, adjust the casual clothes they've got on already (to make sure that nothing's so out of place they'll blow their cover in a second if Dick dropped a hidden camera on his little unauthorized visit), and then head upstairs with a solid game plan in mind.

 It's not much, but it's better than what they've had.

 

________

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 12 – Full Contact (Pt. II)

 

 

 

            They get the files brought up on Jason's upstairs computer and run through them as quickly as they can manage while being appropriately thorough.

 

            After a full scale run through, Tim copies the data to his phone and they rehash the briefing until Jason knows it by rote while they make the walk across the city to the safe house that Steph is set up in on the outskirts of the Fashion District.

 

            Getting to the apartment is a snap, but Jason’s wary as they step inside. Tim’s got some real lousy instincts for the bounds of personal space and it’s only Jason’s own mental habits of scanning a room for all possible threats that lets him spot Cass darting around his shoulder to move on Tim in Jason’s body. While Tim’s skin doesn’t crawl at the sensation of an unexpected body inside his bubble of space, Tim’s reflexes are sharp enough to have him reacting in the same millisecond as Jason’s conscious awareness notes the extra presence.

 

            He’s on his guard, fists clenched, duffle dropped by his feet as Cass slams Tim against the apartment’s wall. She’s got her head tipped to the side quizzically in a way that makes Jason ache with the worry that she can see straight through their body swap.

            Tim’s muscles seize up with the panic.

 

            Of all the Family members they could've run into, Cass is the least likely to believe any of their bullshit… But she is also the least likely to rat them out.

 

            Remembering that allows Tim’s muscles to unclench as he forces himself to swivel around to face Stephanie Brown as she demands, “What the hell is he doing here?”

 

            “Our case got complicated,” Jason replies with a convincing show of Tim’s usual level of exasperation at having to explain what he feels ought to be obvious.

            He knows Tim wouldn’t typically volunteer more unless pressed, but they don’t really have time for an interrogation here and if Jason pushes the beleaguered sigh, he feels that he can get away with shortcutting to the explanation:

            “I had to jump ship in the middle to get here on time, so Jason's here to make this go as smoothly as possible so we can get back to what we were doing. Besides, we could use the backup and at least we know Jason won't got whining to Bruce about this on us.”

 

            Steph squints at him.

            She doesn’t like the explanation, or that Tim gave it so willingly, but she doesn’t have the grounds to push any of it. And she does concede the point where Bruce is concerned.

 

            A breath later, Jason’s got room enough to nudge the conversation forward by asking his own question, grumbling, “What the hell is Cass doing here?”

 

            With a frustrated huff as Steph is slammed with a clear discomfort, she switches gears entirely to defense. “I asked her in as extra backup,” she admits. “I still don't feel too great about letting you go under deep like this with only me as backup onsite... and with how fuckin' squirrely you've been the last two days... I'm worried about you, and I need my moral support ninja to be on this with us if you don't want me to pull the plug.”

 

            There’s a moment of tension, but it’s only a superfluous unease.

            Soon enough, Jason feels things wind down enough to say, “Fine. But Jason gets to stay too, no complaints.”

            “Fine,” Steph returns, rolling her eyes and throwing herself down on the couch as Cass steps forward to perch on the sofa's arm. “Just go get changed, your shit's on the bed. We're almost running late as it is, so don't take forever with it, a'ight?”

 

            Jason shoots a snide 'yes, dear' in her direction and then stalks off towards the little flat's sole bedroom. There’s a spread of clothes already laid out, and a make-up kit, too. And to make things even easier on him, there’s a selection of photographs depicting the test-looks they tried out on ‘Ruby’ with the one they decided on circled in red.

 

            It doesn’t take Jason long to get ready.

            He hurries through the clothes-change with a special attention to keeping his gaze from catching on any of Tim’s excess of scars.

            The costume is a sexy and luxurious imitation of a Tang Dynasty Hanfu and it slides over Tim’s skin in a way that makes a pleasant shiver run along his muscles.

            Jason has to work very hard not to let himself sink into considering that.

            And then he has to fight all over again when he spies Tim’s reflection in the room’s full length mirror. That battle is one he’s only a smidge ashamed to admit that he looses.

 

            Tim is… even without the make-up he’s got planned, Tim is gorgeous in this get up.

 

            Androgynous in just the right ways to make him utterly alluring, the visible slips of skin and the brush of sheer fabric over them are utterly tantalizing, and the touch of wealth and exotic good breeding that it showcases could make anyone weak in the knees.

 

            Jason’s already too far gone for Tim to pretend the sight doesn’t make his mouth water.

 

            He lingers in front of the mirror for a solid minute passed what might be considered the extent of acceptable, but he can’t bring himself to regret it.

 

            When he does, finally, pull himself away, Jason gets to work on his make-up. Tim’s crafted a design that makes him even more aggressively appealing, but it’s a look that remarkably doesn’t take a thick crust of creams and colors to construct. It’s a simple and mostly sheer design with just the slightest nudge of contouring and a subtle hint of sparkle.

            It doesn’t even take ten minutes to paint on.

 

            Jason takes one last look in the mirror before he heads out, searing the image of how Tim’s body looks right now into his mind. He never gets to see Tim look anything like this up close after all, so he might as well indulge while he can.

 

            When he steps out into the main room, his gaze finds Tim’s instantly. There’s an intensity in his eyes that makes Tim’s stomach swoop with nerves.

            Jason knows that his glower can be penetrating, but he never realized how keyed to his attentions Tim apparently is—though it makes perfect sense with how often Tim has been on the bloody end of a snap in that tension of live-wire focus.

            He knows, logically, that Tim’s probably just irritated, probably with himself for not being able to fix things with the swap in time to handle this himself, but it makes an anxious, fight ready zing of hyper-awareness jolt through Tim’s muscles.

 

            Jason also knows that his own body is likely amped up on a subconscious level by seeing Tim’s body like it looks now, and he stalks closer to the couch where the other three are waiting with a desperate hope that his real body won’t be popping a boner as they get things rolling.

            Because that would just be a god damn treat to have to explain…

 

            Fortunately, they don’t have to linger as Steph starts getting to her feet the moment Jason appears. “Alright, lets get this freakin’ show on the road,” she huffs, marching towards the door in an admirably no-bullshit sort of acceptance.

 

            Jason follows wordlessly and simply tries to keep his distance from Tim.

 

            The trek out to Hologram is calming.

 

            Cass and Tim peel off early and run ahead via rooftops to get themselves in place among the night club’s darkened rafters.

            Halfway through the Diamond District, just a block before she’s scheduled to split away from ‘Ruby’ to make her own way to the club, Steph grabs Tim’s arm and pulls him into an alley.

 

            “I need to know you’re still okay with this,” she says seriously.

 

            “I am,” Jason confirms, resisting the urge to huff and yank his arm away. “I promise.”

 

            Steph keeps her gaze focused on him, searching for any sign of deception despite how she has to know it’s futile. Tim’s poker face in times like this is impenetrable. Add to that the fact that Jason is legitimately okay with the plan and she’s got no hope of finding any hints that something deeper might be wrong.

 

            “Just don’t let it go too far this time, okay? If you feel like it’s too much just signal and we’ll get you out,” Steph says, reaching into her pocket to pull out a box of coms.

 

            She fits a normal one into her own ear and then steps way up into Tim’s personal space to slide a clear stealth-com deep into Tim’s ear canal. It startles Jason, mentally, but Tim’s body is too used to Steph’s sudden bursts of close contact to jump at the feeling.

 

            Steph’s still got a frown on her face as she steps away.

            “I don’t like Jason being here,” she admits. “I think he’s a distraction for you and I don’t want you to behave any differently because you know he’s watching.”

            It makes sense.

            She has every right to be afraid of Jason’s presence being a dangerous distraction.

 

            Jason’s felt first hand how keyed into Jason’s attentions Tim still is, despite how long it’s been since Jason last actively tried to hurt him.

 

            Her concern is valid and for a second, Jason wants to soothe it with the promise that Tim’s as safe as he could be and won’t be facing any pressure from antagonism from Jason… but that would blow their cover—not least of all because of how it’s not what Tim would do.

            “The Mission is the priority,” Jason says, knowing that it’s perfectly in character.

 

            It seems to settle most of Steph’s concerns.

 

            She peals out of the thermals she’s wearing to reveal a club-appropriate dress in her Batgirl colors, and Jason can’t help but crack a smile at it.

            “Lookin’ good,” she tells her, only just managing to keep the ‘blondie’ on the tip of his tongue from tacking onto the end of the statement.

            It makes Steph grin back. She winks and says, “You too, boyfriend. See ya inside.”

 

            She doesn’t wait for Jason to nod. Instead, she whirls around and marches off into the warm summer night.

 

            Jason takes his time to calm down and give Steph a head start before he resumes his own walk. He doesn’t head for the club’s main door, but angles for the alleyway where the staff come and go from. ‘Ruby’ is met by a bouncer and a middle manager, both very obviously drawn in by Ruby’s aggressively adaptable sexual appeal.

            The manager looks like he wanted to chastise Ruby for being late, but a few starstruck blinks as Jason bats his big eyes over a seductive smile and he soon forgets his ire.

            He simply guides Ruby inside, his hand sitting lower on Jason’s lower back than strictly appropriate, but nothing Jason’s deems worthy of breaking fingers for.

 

            Jason is guided to a performance platform and told that Zhen Li will be arriving within the next half hour. Tim apparently already agreed to showing off the goods to sweeten the anticipation before Zhen Li gets to enjoy his present. It was in the briefing, but reading about the groundwork and feeling how deep this cover runs in person are very different processes.

 

            Shaking off the disquiet of that realization, Jason settles into his cover as a dancer. He’s always liked to dance, and he certainly liked it better than working a corner when he could ear a few bucks and a free hot meal from a few hours letting loose on display.

            Jason sinks into the music and allows Tim’s body to handle itself.

 

            The guy’s a great dancer in his own right, Jason’s spotted him letting off steam on darkened dance floors more than once over the last few years, and his faith in that skill makes it easy for Jason to trust in his ability to work the floor—even while stuck inside a borrowed body.

 

            He’s not sure how long it takes for Zhen Li to arrive, but he feels the slimy slide of attention for a long few minutes before the managerial type from the door in the alley comes up to inform Jason that Ruby’s presence has been requested in a private suit.

            Jason ignores the manager trying to reinforce the idea that while Hologram normally has rules for onsite clients and a look-don’t-touch policy, Zhen Li is special and gets whatever wants.

            Whatever he wants…

            While the manager is rambling on about the Li Family’s importance, Jason uses a subtle motion of running a hand through his hair to bump his com to life.

            “Stage 2 is go,” he grunts in a barely audible string of syllables.

 

            The plan, since Li’s got two burly henchmen inside the room with him, is to get him so worked up that he wants to send his guards away so he can fuck the whore without an audience.

            Jason’s done a great job of getting him interested, but now he has to tip it over into something that will seal the deal—without allowing Tim’s body to actually be molested. It takes a bit of doing, but Jason keeps Li’s hands from roaming too far as he steadily works up the pressure in the ganglord’s pants.

            He estimates he’s about halfway there when Steph whispers over the coms, “Only one guard outside the door. The ones at the club’s back exit have been dealt with and I’m about to get this one out of the action.”

            “Two inside,” Cass cautions.

 

            Steph gives a rankled huff, just as aware of what that means for Ruby as the rest of them but less resigned to it than optimal.

            Jason redoubles his efforts to keep Tim from being groped on by the sleezebag, sure that letting such a vile bit of scum have any slack won’t win any points with Stephanie.

 

            It won’t win any points with Jason either.

            Because Tim’s body is alarmingly nonreactive to the grossness of having a sweaty hand slide up the back of his thigh.

            He’s downright immune to the hideous sensation of this deplorable excuse for a human running wet waves of hot breath along the curve of his neck.

            He doesn’t even shiver or start when the hand not on his thigh attempts to slip inside the silk around his ribcage.

 

            That deadened reactivity is terrifying to Jason in a way he can’t spare a thought for while in the midst of a Mission.

            But it brings up Steph’s words from the alley, highlighting a few words Jason had originally missed when she’d said them:

 

            Don’t let it go too far this time.

 

 

            This time.

 

 

            Like there have been other times… Like there have been times when gentle coaxing and suggestive nudges weren’t enough and Tim decided that the mission was more important than his sanity or self-worth.

 

            Like it’s looking this operation might go.

 

            He’d been doing pretty well with keeping up the progressive build of tension, but now it seems like things have hit a plateau. Zhen Li is still amused rather than affronted by Jason’s efforts to thwart his explorations, but he won’t remain that way for long.

            If they want to work him up so high he needs to pull his dick out, they’re gonna have to accept this sleezebag getting more than just topically handsy with the baby bird’s body.

 

            And Jason…

 

            Jason can’t

 

            If it were his own body on the line… maybe, he could… he’d done it often enough before, but this is Tim’s body and his brain is already screaming at him to get this fucker’s hands off his damn Replacement... Screaming at him to break every bone in his hands and wrists and maybe even snap his clavicle for good measure…

 

            There is no way in hell he’s gonna let this scum sucking slime ball touch anything of Tim that should be kept intimate.

            Dubious consent in the face of survival is one thing, as a choice for the Crusade? It should be off the table. But as a choice while he’s not even the one inside his body?

            Yeah, not happening.

 

            Not if Jason has a fucking say in it.

 

            He’s just about to drop an audible to signal that he needs the others to throw down an intervention when the sound of Jason’s voice growls across the coms when Tim demands with a disturbingly vicious certainty, “Let him touch.

            There’s a beat where nothing happens and Tim expands, “You said you were okay with this, so let him touch.

            “You don’t have to, Tim,” Steph counters immediately, sounding strained with the kind of fury that will soon be calling for his blood. “If you want out, Cass and I can take the guards. You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with for this. We’ll hail a bus preemptively in case the guards get a gunshot off, and we’ll just grab Li and run like hell.

 

            There’s the echo of a groan like Tim’s just managed to stop himself from screaming.

 

            Like he’s fighting down the Pit and failing to keep his cool.

 

            The sound just makes Steph plow forward with reassurances, “No matter what else you have going on with him, no matter how badly you want to prove yourself to any of us, Jason doesn’t have any kind of say in this. It’s all about what’s best for you… about what you need.

            Jason’s probably the only one who hears the tight little intake of breath that means Tim’s control has snapped—he barely registers it and he’s specifically listening for it—but they all hear what happens as a result.

 

            “This fucking is what's needed here,” Tim hisses, vicious with a searing venom. “It's my fucking body, and I'll do whatever the fuck I want with it. And god damn it, Jason, I will fucking gut you here and now, if you don't follow through like you said you could.

 

            Jason’s frozen in his act of grinding down on Zhen Li’s lap, but none of the guards have noticed anything amiss. Even Li seems to think it’s just more teasing.

 

            “It's my body and if Li wants to stick his dick up my ass you will fucking let him, so that he gets his guards to leave and then you'll dose him as we planned,” Tim grits out.

 

            And then the metal of the air vent that Tim’s squeezed Jason’s frame into give a sudden crunch as it finally fails against the strain of holding up against the pressure Tim’s apparently been applying while he’s talked. Pressing against the walls around him to keep himself from launching into the room to beat Jason to a pulp, most likely.

 

            When the sound registers to Tim's Pit-distracted brain, he swears.

 

            And then things begin to happen very quickly.

 

            Zhen Li’s hands tighten on Tim’s body and Jason leaps into action—reaching for the chem patch full of sedatives meant to knock him out and wrestling his way into applying it to the scumbag’s throat. He then fends off  Li’s attempts to fight back.

 

            The pathetic lump of sex drive is not impressive, but Jason has to work to subdue him because he’s distracted by the chaos of Cass and Steph and Tim bursting into the room, of the guards attempting to fight back—firing off three shots before things settle down.

 

            By the time Jason gets Li slumped onto the bed securely enough to climb off of his nasty frame, the room has become deathly silent.

            Stephanie has picked up a gun from one of the goons she downed and is pointing it at Tim in Jason’s body. She looks entirely ready to shoot him, on principle alone, but her expression is twisted with a deep confliction.

 

            Cass is poised to lay Jason out flat if he decides to attempt putting up a fight, but his attention is entirely fixated on Tim.

 

            And the cringe he makes as he sees something problematic in Steph’s furious expression.

            That wince is all Tim, the kind of thing that is just so typically Tim that it makes Jason half-forget in seeing it that Tim is not inside his real body.

 

            Seem Steph sees it that way too.

 

            Her posture suddenly softens and she tips her head to the side.

            Moving out of habit, Tim does the same.

 

            It just confirms the difference for everyone.

 

            Steph blinks in disbelief and asks, “Tim?”

 

            Tension thrums to life in Tim’s figure, Jason’s body hunching over itself as it fights down the Pit’s vicious biting urge to react.

            “Fuck,” Tim says to himself in hollow, belated realization.

 

            All the slip of cursing does is wake everyone to the moment.

 

            “What the hell is going on?” Steph demands, torn between lowering her weapon and firing the whole damn clip.

 

            “We don’t exactly know,” Jason admits, raising Tim’s hands in complete surrender.

 

            Tim huffs, and Steph takes a shot over his shoulder.

 

            “Don’t move.”

 

            “We have to move,” Tim counters without missing a beat. “The target is unconscious on a sedative that will only last two hours, shots have been fired and enough alarms have been raised to summon both the Li’s personal security forces and the GCPD. We have to move.”

 

            Kid has a point, even though it sucks, and Jason sees as Steph begins to waver. She shoots a glance at Cass who nods encouragingly.

 

            “Fine,” Steph eventually grits out. “But my place is the closest and you both are wearing meta-proof handcuffs until we get this sorted out.”

 

            Before Tim can even voice a protest, Cass has Jason pinned to the bed—arms wrenched behind him until she fits the specialized restraining mitts over his hands. Steph keeps the gun trained on Tim in Jason’s body until Cass has him secured as well.

            She even keeps it aimed at him after, realizing that Cass is gonna have to carry the unconscious body of Zhen Li, leaving Steph to keep the pair of other prisoners secure by herself.

 

            Jason doesn’t bother offering to help Cass, and he knows that Steph won’t accept any promises from him about not running off.

            She cuffs the pair of them together with a set of standard handcuffs, the kind meant to secure a prisoner’s feet to their hands, so it gives them just enough slack to walk side by side.

            A blanket wrapped around their shoulders hides the cuffs from people on the street.

            Cass disguises Zhen Li by tucking him into the wheel chair they’d stashed outside the club for just this purpose and they start their trek to one of Steph’s Chinatown safe houses.

            Her nearest place with a secure room capable of holding Zhen Li while they deal with the other issues Jay and Tim are dealing with is only ten blocks away—close enough that they’d have risked being clocked by Hologram’s security before going undercover if they’d prepped for the operation from there.

 

            It’s awkward. And slow.

            But it works well enough.

 

            And Jason feels a few hundred times better the moment they get behind a locked door with reinforced Bat-grade security keeping things contained.

 

            This shit storm is going to be hard enough to weather as it is, and Jason resigns himself to it as best he can before things get started.

 

            Not a word was spoken as they walked.

            Nothing gets said as Zhen Li is secured in Steph’s hold-room.

            And then blondie kicks off her heels, takes a seat on the floor, and commands that everyone else do the same.

 

            Once they’ve all joined her in this little pow wow, she uncocks the gun, turns the safety back on, and sets it down beside her—slides it into the far corner.

 

            “Talk.

 

            Tim simply glowers. So, Jason explains.

            Everything.

 

            It takes over an hour, because Jason gives the details like it’s a report to B himself. The whole experience is deeply uncomfortable, but at least it’s not punctuated with the kind of looming, judgmental silence than any real report to Bruce would be.

 

            To anyone else, the little huffs of frustration and escaped emotion that Steph can’t stifle would be enough to cow the speaker from explaining. But for Jason, the noise populates the room in a way that lets him keep talking.

            The absence of the Pit’s cloying fog in his brain helps with that too.

 

            Aware of exactly how much relief he feels at not having to suffer through the Pit’s whispers, and distinctly aware of Tim’s natural tendency to self-blame, Jason keeps a close eye on Tim’s evolving state. Fortunately, it seems like he’s reached a plateau.

 

            He’s angry and unstable, but so long as no one attempts to poke the bear in the next few minutes, as long as they’re able to move passed this and get straight to focusing on what’s next, Tim should be able to keep the Pit under control.

 

            Jason knows that optimism isn’t a good look on him, on anyone really—except maybe Dick, but that’s an entirely separate issue.

            However, Jason also knows how important it is to Tim that he keep a solid smidgeon of the Family’s esteem. Regardless of how much he deserves all the respect in the world, the Family’s not exactly great at displaying their full feelings on the matter—they pretty much just display the anger on the surface of things like fear and disbelieving admiration.

 

            And Tim isn’t one to look below the surface on that front.

            In everything else, he won’t stop digging until he gets down to the subatomic level and understands every facet of a thing’s existence.

            But when it comes to the Family and their opinions about his place among them, Tim stops looking closer as soon as he glimpses the big blinking billboard of disappointment.

 

            It’s not sustainable, and with the Pit’s whispers digging into his psyche, Jason knows that even with the ridiculousness of optimism… this situation is not gonna go well for long.

 

 

________

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 13 – Ruffled Feathers

 

 

            Tim is staring at his knees—at Jason’s knees—as Steph attempts to process everything Jason just laid out for her. He’d recapped everything that had happened since they’d met up to head out for the raid on Zagitova’s warehouse at the start of all this nonsense.

            Tim is irked with the outcome of this operation, mostly at his failure to keep his cool against the coaxing of the Lazarus Pit. He’d blown their cover against the Li’s, and blown their pretense of being normal with Steph and Cass… He’d screwed up. He’d screwed everything up.

            He should’ve been better, and it doesn’t take the Pit’s whispers to make him feel bad about his part in what happened.

 

            They certainly don’t help, but now that he’s not yelling at Jason, he’s been able to beat them back down nearly to silence.

 

            It helps him stay calm as Steph draws in breath to ask with a grating volume and obnoxious disbelief, “You fucking morons got body-swapped two god damn days ago and you didn’t think to mention it to anyone?”

 

            “We’ve been handling it,” Tim huffs in reply.

 

            “Handling it?” Steph repeats at a screech. “How is going undercover without telling us who exactly we have as back-up supposed to be you ‘handling it’?”

            Cass agrees with her, saying, “Risked much. Risked us. Not good. Disappointed, but also… also worried. We can help you.”

            “We had to get Zhen Li,” Tim counters, adding, “If we’d told you beforehand you’d’ve called the operation off and we would have lost him, possibly forever.”

 

            “For good reason,” Steph huffs. “He’s not worth losing you.”

            “We didn’t die, and we have a few more days to get this all figured out,” Tim returns.

 

            Steph hangs her head and pushes her fingertips against her face to forcibly move the skin around and squish her eyes in—an attempt to get some feeling back, if not some sanity.

 

            “We have to tell the rest of the family,” Steph huffs eventually.

 

            “Out of the question,” Tim returns in a vicious bark, clenched fists tightening on his knees until his knuckles are deathly white.

            He can’t stomach even imagining the disappointment on Bruce’s face if they go to honestly confess what happened to them...

            It’s not least of all because they’ll also have to confess that their honeypot mission at Hologram was a lot more dangerous than the reports made obvious.

            It’ll be a three-fold disappointment at best, and all of them will end up bearing the consequences of that dissatisfaction at failure in one way or another.

 

            Tim cannot let that happen.

 

            The only reason Tim actually has for being part of this whole Bat Family machine is to maintain a certain level of harmony between the other members. He’s the oil in the gears, picking up the slack when something hits one of them hard, and easing the blow’s reverberations through the Family.

            He helps Steph land with enough oomph to convince the others to trust her on hard cases, helps her close them without having to worry about biting off too much at once.

            He helps Jason liaise with the rest of them by connecting dots between cases, ensuring that they all realize how mutually beneficial the ongoing relationship is—how much the continuing improvement of that relationship is helping the Family overall.

            Tim helps.

            And he can’t let that role dissolve away because he fucked up here.

 

            His hands are shaking on his knees as his brain works through the possibilities.

 

            And then Steph is talking again, quiet which Tim barely manages to hear well enough above his own internal screaming to parse.

            “Dick is not gonna let it go,” she says. “He’s gonna dig his heels in and fight you on this. He’s still pretty shaken up about everything that happened over the last few years to get Jason back involved with us at all… And with the little monster settling in a bit more, you’re the most damaged little brother in his eyeline, and you know kicked-puppy little brother is his crack.”

            It’s an attempt at Robin-esque humor—making light of something serious to keep it from crushing their morale, but it doesn’t make her words less painful to hear.

            Tim knows he screwed up with getting Jason back involved, knows his efforts to mend those ties are still being scrutinized with an absurd amount of suspicion, but he’s been right about everything that he’s pushed. He thinks he honestly should have earned a little credibility back, by now. Maybe not enough to be taken at face value, but enough to be taken seriously…

 

            “I will hold him off for 12 more hours,” Steph declares, suddenly sounding exhausted.

 

            It makes Tim look up, makes him fully process her words.

            Steph is going to help him.

            She’s really going to help him.

 

            Tim’s not quite sure what to do with that, he feels floaty and untethered.

 

            He thinks the reaction is all him, maybe with a little of Jason’s physiological response to having the Pit’s whispers silenced in a single swoop.

            Shaky, but unbearably grateful, Tim manages an almost-smile as he forces his gaze up to meet Steph’s glare.

            “I’m not doing this because I think you’re right,” she states, glare boring into Tim at full power as she makes an obvious effort not to yell. “I’m doing it because I think Dick will just make it worse and make things take ten times longer than they need to—and right now, you two are on a deadline that can’t absorb that kind of delay.”

            “Focus,” Cass chimes in, agreeing with Steph on the idea of how dealing with the body-swap should be their main priority at the moment.

            Steph nods, saying, “I’ll call Dick to deal with out friend Li. You and Jason will go back to your place with Cass and start figuring out real options to get you switched back.”

            Tim nods stiffly, not trusting himself with words as his anger flares at being ordered around and chastised for something he’s both already aware of and already working on.

            It’s annoying, but not something Tim should snap at her over.

 

            The boundaries they’ve established are meant to work both ways, after all.

 

            Tim stays silent as the others shuffle about. He doesn’t even get up off the floor until Cass puts a hand on his shoulder to indicate that they’re ready to go.

            They all know where his Chinatown apartment is, so Tim doesn’t have to participate actively in the process of leading them to it, and since it’s one of the most obvious places to look for him, it’s one Dick won’t imagine Tim is going to use while he hides out.

 

            The part that Tim’s thoughts catch on is how his Chinatown apartment has a training room, with space enough to spar. And with Cass here, too, they now have a referee to ensure that Jason’s previous protests to the idea of trying to hash it out in the ring are dismissible.

            Tim brings it up as soon as they’re inside, breaking the stiff silence that had enveloped them from the moment Steph stopped talking at her place.

 

            Even so, Jason tries to rehash his argument—still steadfastly against the idea.

            Tim can’t even begin to fathom why and he doesn’t hesitate to shut Jason’s reasoning down with all the aggressive words he feels like spewing.

            That just makes Jason dig his heels in.

 

            “The Pit is messin’ with your head, idiot,” he huffs. “It’s not a good idea to indulge it.”

            “It’s not indulging the Pit! It’s the only idea I’ve got right now for something that might actually be able to fix this mess,” Tim whines, barely holding himself back enough to not shout.

 

            Cass is watching the exchange with her expression screwed up in squinty evaluation—looking past the faces on the surfaces and straight down to the person underneath.

            She speaks up after a few minutes of listening to Tim and Jason’s increasingly circular argument, and Tim is just glad that one of the people involved is able to see things objectively.

            “Spar to settle heartache? Settle heartache, switch back, maybe?”

            Tim nods, elaborating, “We have issues, we all have issues; Jason and I just have an especially long and rocky history. If we can settle a few things in the ring, maybe it’ll let us ease the tension between us that pulled us into each other’s body to begin with.”

            With a beat of consideration, and with her expression still scrunched up in that way of hers that would’ve been adorably comical if not for how she could kill everyone in the building with a plastic spoon (before half of them even noticed what was up), Cass huffs, “Won’t work.”

 

            Unable to restrain his whine at being shut down, Tim gives into every childish urging and wheezes petulantly, “But Ca~assss, it has to work.”

            Tim is summarily ignored, his whiny griping buried under Jason’s darkly triumphant huff of, “Thank you, at someone here still has enough sense to shut a dumb idea down.”

 

            “Not dumb,” Cass chastises firmly. “Miss… put? Misplaced. Misplaced. Tension not ease by spar. Tension snap… possible. Not switch back. But still… still helpful.”

 

            “What?” Tim and Jason speak in flabbergasted unison.

 

            Cass gives a firm nod and looks between them. “With me first. Check control. Then each other. Not switch back. But… still important. Show… show Truth.”

            Neither Tim nor Jason can find a reasonable response to that.

            Tim can barely process it.

            Cass was very clear about how she thinks it won’t achieve the primary objective Tim’s aiming at with it, but she somehow still thinks it’s a good idea. Tim decides that objecting to her support of his current plan won’t serve to grant him any benefits.

            With Jason glowering at the possibility of being outnumbered, Tim decides to let Cass do the final bit of pushing to get things started.

 

            She doesn’t delay or hesitate.

            Instead she nods firmly, reasserting the idea in her head without verbalizing it.

            Just confirming it all for herself.

 

            With a glance between the pair, she isolates Tim in Jason’s body and grabs at his shoulder. She yanks it hard in the direction of Tim’s dojo, the contact brief enough not to rile Jason’s automatic muscle responses too severely. It still makes his hand pop up to brush her off, but by the time he gets it up, Cass’s hand has already whipped away.

            Cass strides into the dojo without looking back to see if the others are following.

            Tim, obviously will be, but he’s not as confident that Jason will trail along after them until he watches his own body make a few shuffling steps in the right direction.

            Once Jason’s fully committed to the course, halfway down the hallway without stopping, Tim follows—makes it into the dojo after a long enough pause to let Cass shrug out of her jacket.

 

            She’s in the middle of limbering up when Tim makes it there, and with her sharp glares prodding them on, both Jason and Tim follow suit—despite the weight of clear reluctance that’s hanging heavy in the air between them.

 

            It’s a practiced ritual for them all at this point, they can warm up their muscles and stretch them out and ensure they’re ready for anything without a single second of conscious thought controlling their movements. It’s the only time Tim’s really felt in total control of Jason’s muscles since they first switched.

            It feels good.

            Good enough to be giving him a steady push of confidence in his idea that this whole sparring thing will help them switch back.

            It’s enough to block out most the constant drone of the Pit’s whispers—still digging into his consciousness at the back of his mind, railing at how pathetic and stupid he is for having blown their op with Zi.

            Despite Jason’s misgivings—which he still doesn’t agree with—and despite Cass’s declaration that it won’t be enough—which he thinks is fair, but still doesn’t have any better ideas to attempt—Tim feels good about this.

            The kind of good that dares the world to try to prove him wrong.

            Because regardless of the fact that this might very well do nothing to switch them back immediately, he’s certain that a big part of why they switched to start with is their unfinished business with each other. And if they can work any of it out here… well, that can only improve their chances at successfully switching back when they stumble across an idea that might actually prompt the mystical happening to initiate.

 

            That solid, comforting certainty strikes up a new idea. It makes Tim think of a new plan, well, the beginnings of a plan, at least.

 

            What if, instead of trying to switch back, they simply attempt to catalyze the soul-splitting reaction again? If instead of trying to switch back, they split it up into a two-stage process, the first being to get out of their current bodies?

            They don’t necessarily have to find a magical solution to switch back. If they can find a way to just get themselves untethered, and consciously aware enough while they are detached from physical form to enact any kind of intentional action, they could just manually reinsert themselves into the correct bodies…

 

            It might work.

            And it will definitely work better if the air between them is a bit easier to breathe in.

 

            So, Tim keeps his mouth shut at he squares off with Cass for the first part of this sparring session. She clearly wants to make sure that Jason and Tim can each control their current bodies well enough to make sparring something that actually safe.

 

            Cass lets him find a steady stance, and she even allows him to work from a position of strength by taking on the role of making the first move. She still beats him into the floor, summarily kicking his ass like he’s twelve years old again and fighting Bruce (though she is markedly less gentle than even Bruce was in those first grief-filled months).

            Within five minutes, Tim’s back hits the floor three times.

            Even in his regular body he only ever manages to hold out for ten minutes, so Tim chalks the spar up as a pretty decent success. Cass is just an insane opponent. He’s a pretty damn good fighter, he’s been trained by the best, after all… but Cass is the best.

            So, no one in the Family, except maybe Bruce on the odd occasion, feels any pressure to keep on par with her combat abilities.

 

            As Tim takes a breather after his trio of quick defeats, he watches Jason face off with their actual ninja of a sister.

            Tim’s body is the one between them that’s better suited to countering Cass’s style. He’s small and fast in the same way she is, and while he doesn’t have the padding or brute strength that Jason does, he has the agility and balance to strike from odd angles in a way that can get blows in from unexpected places.

            But Jason’s own fighting style clashes with how Tim’s body wants to move.

            He’s got control over Tim’s muscles, but there’s just this little hint of delay in how he gets everything to move.

            It’s less of a severely noticeable blip of slow down than how Tim still is with Jason’s muscles, but it’s not enough to keep him on his feet while facing Cass.

            He adapts to Tim’s body far better than Tim has adapted to his, starts making obvious use of Tim’s honed reflexes, and by the end of his three rounds (five and a half minutes, Tim notes distantly as he ignores the Pit’s mutters about his inadequacies), he’s fighting almost as well as Tim can in his own body, albeit on some of his more worse for wear days.

 

            And then finally, Cass looks them both over, and steps back against the far wall with a nod to approve of the next step.

            Jason’s still clambering back to Tim’s feet as Tim takes his place across the dojo facing him. Watching him get his feet back underneath him, Tim suddenly feels a bit less confident.

 

            It’s like Jason’s skin suddenly feels too tight for his frame.

 

            There’s a low roar echoing inside his ears, and Tim can’t quite tell if it’s the Pit screaming to the point of incoherency or if it’s just the punch of his pulse.

            As he faces down his own body, there’s a thrill running through his muscles. Anticipation. Eagerness. An excited, antsy energy.

 

            He bounces on his toes, and as soon as Jason’s stable on his feet, Tim launches at him.

 

            Jason’s muscles are so strong, so attuned to the possibility of a brawl, that he wildly miscalculates his speed and the motion of his attack sends him careening around the room as Jason in Tim’s body uses the weight of Jason’s body to redirect his force.

            Jason keeps hold of his own wrist as Tim’s attack slides passed him, twisting underneath the limb and wrenching it around to keep himself well outside of Tim’s range. He keeps a hand on Tim’s back, right between his shoulder blades, and follows the movement as Tim twists around to attempt landing a blow.

            It’s a pretty faultless defense, one of the first things Tim had mastered in his training with Bruce to become Robin. He was never going to be able to overpower most opponents, and that stood as an especially stark risk during his early days in the suit, so Bruce had focused on giving him the tools to keep himself alive in a fight long enough for help to arrive.

            This technique of follow, guide, and dodge wasn’t one that would allow Tim to take down an opponent, it wasn’t an offensive strategy in any measure, but it was one that was almost guaranteed to keep him from getting hurt—to ensure he didn’t lose before someone else showed up to actually take down the target. Most villains, even the most basic of back alley brawlers and street thugs, were egotistical enough to let the distraction of being thwarted keep them from making any legitimate strategic in-roads to taking Tim down while he controlled their dominant hand and kept his own attached to their back.

            But Tim knew his fighting style, knew how Jason could take advantage of his awareness of that training. And more importantly, he’d been studying Jason’s abilities for almost a decade.

 

            Tim knew exactly what Jason was capable of.

 

            His body wasn’t as flexible as Tim’s, but considering the bulk of muscle pack onto his broad frame, he could move with startling ease.

            And since Tim knew his own body, and the tactics Jason would be using with it, Tim was able to twist around and slam Jason’s elbow into his cheekbone.

            Following Jason’s instinctive intentions, Jason didn’t fully commit to the attempt to duck under the blow and Tim manages to make contact—hard enough to bruise. Jason in Jason’s normal body would have been able to ignore such a love-tap, but Tim’s always been especially sensitive about injuries to his face. He has a reputation to maintain, after all, and while he’s skilled enough with make-up to ensure that any lapses in judgement can be effectively covered over, he’s trained a special sort of muscle memory into his bones to mitigate the worst of the risk—allowing his body to flinch away from blows to his face without any sliver of higher cognition needing to get involved.

            The blow Tim lands isn’t quite enough to stun Jason, but the unexpected yank of nerves as Tim’s body attempts to flinch out of the blow’s course surprises him enough to let Tim get a foot pushed back far enough to sweep under Jason’s forward leg.

            With Tim’s heel dug in right against the instep of Jason’s other leg, the action of sweeping out his other leg draws Tim’s body flush against his back.

            The contact sends a zing of alarm through Jason’s body—Tim can’t tell if it’s panic at the idea of being slammed from behind in general or if it’s a discomfort unique to having Tim’s body, specifically, latch onto him like an irate koala bear, but it’s a distracting enough sensation to make his next move falter slightly.

            Instead of using Jason’s grip on his forearm to yank his off-balance body over his shoulder—a move Tim knows Jason’s frame is more than strong enough to facilitate—Tim just manages to sweep Jason around him like a complicated dip in some convoluted tango.

 

            Jason keeps Tim’s face smooth and unreadable, but Tim thinks he can discern a touch of surprise laced inside the careful expression.

 

            Staying tight up inside Tim’s guard, Jason manages to dig his heel into the back of Tim’s—Jason’s—knee, grinding hard against an old injury that still lends itself to current weakness. It’s nothing significant enough to have made it into any files, and since no one else knows about the injury, no fight has ever seen it be exploited. Until Jason needed to use it.

            Just like Tim is, Jason’s using everyone of his possible advantages.

 

            And with Tim’s inability to fully control Jason’s bulk, it means that Jason’s back hits the padded floor shortly after that—as he falls to one knee and then is pushed off his axis by Jason slamming Tim’s full weight against his off shoulder. Jason ends up sprawled across Tim’s chest—Tim’s lean frame dwarfed by Jason’s bulk to the point of making it difficult for Jason to maneuver his way into getting Tim’s body off of his own. He has to push up with his elbows, until he’s straddling Jason’s midsection, and then use his hands to walk himself back far enough to get his feet back under him at an angle adequate to step up.

 

            The moment feels oddly distended to Tim.

 

            His heart is racing and his sense of time distorts, and it almost feels like his hands are shaking, but he balls them into fists before he can reach out to claw at Jason’s—at Tim’s—thighs like he would have to if this were a real fight instead of a simple spar.

            Here, the fight’s over as soon as someone hits the mat—unless otherwise specified, directly and clearly, with confirmed agreement on what holds are barred.

            But Jason’s body evidently doesn’t recognize that.

 

            And why should it?

            Jason’s only been back with the Family for a short while, barely 2 years of attempted non-aggression… Attempted being the keyword. Things are still pretty tense between them all.

            That Tim knows of, only a few of their unscheduled get-togethers have resulted in any kind of tussle, but when such smack-downs strike a blow, they always hit hard.

            Hard enough to keep Jason’s body keyed up and ready to fight like the fight is real.

 

            Tim’s feeling pretty shaky as he hauls himself up to Jason’s feet.

 

            Jason’s not looking much better than Tim feels—swaying on Tim’s feet with an alarmingly noticeable tremor running through his muscles.

 

            “I knew it,” Jason mutters, expression dark.

            Tim frowns, a wary prick of nerves pulling tight across his shoulders with a weight sinking through his gut. It’s a visceral thing that strikes him when Jason lifts his glare to bore into Tim directly. There’s anticipation there, but Tim can’t tell if the blow up he’s anticipating is fueled by guilt or fear or righteous fury.

            Whatever it is, it makes Jason’s fist ball up and his muscles tremble—tensing to attack.

 

            “I knew you were still fucking scared of me,” Jason snarls.

 

            It’s so unexpected an accusation that confusion cuts through the haze of whatever vitriol is building in the back of Tim’s mind—propped up by the Pit’s haranguing.

            “I’m what?”

            “Scared, asshole,” Jason spits. “Your still so fucking scared of me that your body can’t stop shaking when you’re anywhere near close enough to me that I can reach you.”

            Tim blinks again, aghast at the nebulous possibility he’s considering.

            Jason’s not done with his rant, declaring viciously, “It’s making your reflexes slow as shit, and your muscles and joints are all so stiff you’d never be able to defend yourself against me if I ever actually cracked—if I came at you full force. Even on the other side of the room, even after having successfully separated from you… your body is freaking out on me.”

            “I’m not scared of you, Jason,” Tim attempts, feeling his eyes widen fractionally and his chest constrict. He’s never appreciated Jason’s Hispanic heritage and his significantly lessened blush responses than he does right now. He’s actually grateful, sort of, that they’re switched.

 

            Of course, if they hadn’t been switched, they wouldn’t be in a position where Jason could ever experience how much like a live wire Tim’s physiology feels when he’s near Jason.

 

            He’d forgotten that little side effect of his stupidly pathetic child-hood crush.

            Or rather, he’d so successfully ignored the crush that he’d legitimately forgotten about how viscerally some things about it affected him on a chemical, physiological level.

            Tim’s stuck in a mortified spiral of attempting to figure out some means to explain away the physical reactions his traitorous body is giving in regards to proximity to Jason—utterly unable to move beyond the horrifying possibility that he may have to explain things outright.

 

            “No. Nuh-uh. None of that bullshit,” Jason snaps back.

 

            That yanks hard on something inside Tim, something that ignites his fury all over again as he fights down memories of how often his viewpoint is dismissed as mere opinion and nonsensical drivel, despite being honest, well-researched Truth.

            “It’s not bullshit,” Tim retorts.

 

            Jason glares at him, but his mask is shaky. Tim plainly can see the stab of hurt he’s apparently feeling leaking through its attempted smoothness.

            “C’mon, man,” Jason almost whines. “I get it, okay? I get that you can’t stand to be in the same room as me. I get that your muscle memory is hard wired to think I’m gonna kill you.”

            Tim tries to interrupt, but his teeth are ground too firmly together, and his throat’s closed up too tight, to let even a wheeze escape.

            “What I don’t get,” Jason goes on, his gaze falling away to glare at the floor as the fists he has clenched at his side begin to shake, “is why you are so dead set on lying to me about it.”

 

            “Enough with the pity party,” Tim snaps, something in him breaking. “I’m not scared of you, Jason, and I’m not lying to you about it. If my body is freaking out on you right now, it’s got nothing to do with anything like that. It’s probably just the same thing making your body freak out at needing to fight me.”

            That made Jason’s thoughts jerk offline with such force that he pulls his head back on Tim’s shoulders with a slow and stuttering revulsion.

            “I’ve got the frickin’ Lazarus Pit trying to make me kill you when you’re so much as in the same room,” Jason huffs darkly.

            “Not unless you actually still want to kill me,” Tim bites out in return, feeling the visceral swirl of green urging him to close the gap between them—to use his new-found bulk to pound a little lesson into Jason’s head about how rude it is to ever assume he understood what Tim was thinking, to assume that psychology was ever so black and white that the Pit could control him forever without any regard to his actual thoughts.

            It was like a drug addiction, as Jason had compared it, but it was also not.

            It wasn’t even like the anxiety or depression Tim was familiar with.

 

            The Lazarus Pit was a leech.

 

            It pushed at a person’s weaknesses, played with their darkest thoughts, and it thrived off the energy it riled up inside the host.

            It yanked and clawed and burned its way through a person’s head, but it didn’t put any thoughts there to begin with. It simply amplified the host’s own inner-voice of doubts.

 

            So, Tim was safe.

            He’s currently safe and has been safe, as safe as plausible ever since Jase had detoxed.

 

            Unless the almost entirely cordial relationship he’d developed over the last year with Jason was built on the same lies Jason was accusing Tim of telling.

 

            Tim shrugs, a half gesture he can’t quite fill out completely.

            “See, I get it, too,” Tim confesses. “You’ve got plenty of reasons to still be pissed at me, more than pissed enough to, at least, want to knock my teeth out. But unless you still want to actually kill me, I’m not at risk of anything from you but a few more bruises.”

 

            As Tim lets his words sink in, his gut clenches with trepidation.

            Because Jason’s body is keyed up.

            It’s on high alert in a way it definitely wasn’t when Tim was fighting Cass.

 

            Jason’s got ingrained muscle memory where Tim’s concerned, but instead of the butterfly shakiness of embarrassingly keen attentiveness that is the physiological response to Tim’s enduring crush, Jason’s body is keyed to grab, and hold, and pin him down. If Tim had actually managed the feat of getting the upper hand—of slamming his own back against the floor in the process of defeating Jason—Tim’s not entirely certain he would’ve been able to step back without conscious restraint against more aggressive action.

            Even now, Jason’s hands are itching to grab at Tim’s body.

            Tim can feel the hair trigger they’re riding on.

            The instant he gives the muscles his mental permission, they’ll explode at his opponent.

 

            “I don’t wanna kill you, Tim,” Jason confesses, voice tight enough to nearly crack.

 

            With a firm nod as he forces all thoughts of the still-looming possibilities aside to artificially diffuse the situation, Tim asserts, “I didn’t think so.”

            Then he takes a deep, centering breath, and says, “Now, since we’re both apparently feeling unsettled… did you feel this way when you were fighting Cass?”

 

            That gives Jason pause.

            Warily—clearly alert to the fact that Tim apparently has a hypothesis—Jason admits slowly, “No. It felt almost normal with Cass.”

            Tim gives another nod. “For me, too,” Tim explains. “Maybe the sparring is working better than you thought, regarding the switch-back thing. A soul being yanked out of its body has got to be a pretty unsettling sensation, maybe what we’re feeling is just our displaced souls loosening up their holds on the wrong bodies.”

            Giving a few seconds of consideration to the possibility, Jason grumbles, “Sounds like bullshit to me, but whatever. If you think so, maybe it’s legit—but I still ain’t convinced.”

            Tim shrugs. “Well, it won’t hurt anything to give this a few more rounds, right?”

 

            With grudging agreement, Jason gives a sigh and then a nod.

            “So, let’s go, then,” Tim prompts.

 

            They look to Cass, just to make certain, and when she nods, they step up to circle each other, far warier than they were during the first round.

            This time, they are each paying acute attention to the way their borrowed bodies felt in the midst of close quarters combat with each other. The second round lasts a lot longer than the first one, as they focus more on how they feel during the fight than how to win.

            Tim could feel the compounding zing of energy that struck each time he managed to get a point of contact between them. There wasn’t… an overt malice in the feeling.

            But each time Tim landed a blow, he had to hold himself back from reaching out to grab.

            And when he allowed himself to grapple, to try to physically topple Jason by using the superior strength in Jason’s body to overpower his own defenses completely, it felt distinctly like Jason’s hands wanted to grab too tight—tight enough to keep Tim from ever slipping free.

 

            Tim actually wins their second round.

            He got lucky with getting one of Jason’s arms wrapped around his own ribcage and he managed to keep his stance steady as Jason attempted to kick his way out of the hold.

 

            They end up on the mats with Tim’s back on the ground, Jason’s figure crowding in above him with both of Tim’s wrists pinned up over his head by one of Jason’s massive hands.

            It’s an unbearably heady sensation to be so utterly in control over him.

            Tim can feel the seep of victory in every one of Jason’s muscles, his mind feels the echoing triumph even as his free hand drifts towards his own body’s throat as he takes a moment to pant with the exertion.

            Hauling himself away before Jason’s hand acted of its own accord—before entertaining the possibility of allowing it to close on Tim’s throat—is a titanic effort.

            His fingertips still tingle where they’d brushed Tim’s collarbone as Tim had pulled away, even as he maneuvers Jason’s body to the far end of the dojo.

            Both he and Jason are panting hard after this one.

 

            “Feel anything different?” Tim asks, voice a touch more strained than optimal.

            “Not especially,” Jason returns, sounding just as tightly wound as Tim. “Your body is still quaking like a shake table set to ‘San Andreas’, though.”

            “Yeah, well yours is getting lightheaded,” Tim grumbles back.

 

            It’s obvious that Jason wants to speak up—probably to take another stab at arguing to call this nonsense off—but he bites his tongue.

 

            “Give it one more go?” Tim asks, cautiously, generously—giving Jason an out.

            Test matches like this are supposed to go three rounds.

            Stress sparring or legitimate training can go longer, and fights sparked with too much emotional involvement can get called off early, but typically, something this casual should involve exactly three rounds before they break to assess.

            If Jason really hates this, Tim will let him quit.

            But, obviously, he’ll hold it against him forever.

 

            That fact is clear enough to spark Jason’s competitive spirit. “One more go,” he accepts, statement laced with the firm intention of it being only one more round.

 

            Tim can accept that, and with another glance at Cass to confirm, they charge again.

 

 

________

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 14 – Raised Hackles

 

 

            Jason doesn’t say a word while Steph and Tim fight.

            Everything between them is their business, and he’s got no reason to be involved with any of that high strung relationship drama.

 

            Most of their spat is just relationship drama. There are a couple valid points about Tim’s lackluster self-preservation skills, but mostly, it’s nothing but a bash of couples’ bickering that makes an uncalled for ugliness kick up in Jason’s gut.

            Cass chimes in a couple times to keep them relatively on track.

 

            Jason just stays quiet.

            He keeps watching Tim, curled up inside Jason’s own body, but still so distinctly Tim in all his unconscious mannerisms.

 

            Especially when he sulks.

 

            Tim’s not just sulking here though, he’s furled up inside himself and shut down completely— shut everything else out completely. He’s spiraling into one of his self-loathing phases, and it’s plain as day to everyone who knows him.

            Cass and Steph exchange a few worried looks as they shuffle about with prep to handle Zhen Li’s interrogation and to get Dick involved without alerting him to how Tim and Jason have spent time in the safe house tonight.

            They throw a few worried looks Jason’s way, too, but nothing overly bothersome.

 

            Neither he nor Tim move until Cass declares it time to leave.

            Tim has to be tapped on the shoulder and told directly before his feet begin to move.

 

            They all know where his Chinatown apartment is, so Tim doesn’t have to participate actively in the process of leading them to it, and since it’s one of the most obvious places to look for him, it’s one Dick won’t imagine Tim is going to use while he hides out.

            He certainly won’t think that Jason’s still with him while he hides there.

 

            It’s a good enough plan for the moment to let Jason feel almost confident in their ability to claw out a few hours of peace as they step inside.

            Well, at least until Tim breaks the stiff silence that had built around them – bringing up his ridiculous idea about having them spar through the tension between them. Tim thinks it’ll settle whatever lingering issues they have with each other well enough to let them switch back…

            Jason’s pretty damn sure it’ll be more than enough to make them actually kill each other.

 

            Especially right now.

 

            Because it’s not just the lingering resentment Tim has for Jason’s attempts on his life that’s pulling tight between them. It’s not even just frustration with all the slip ups and stupid stunts Jason’s pulled over the last year or so.

            Tim is still just barely not suicidal in the eyes of the Family.

            Between the Pit’s whispers messing with his head, Tim’s perceived screw up with the sting against Zhen Li, and the fact that Jason’s body hyperactively attuned to Tim’s existence – keyed up with the undercurrent of energy Jason can’t bear to name, from a piece of their history that he has no business copping to now.

 

            All of those factors are compounding in Tim’s consciousness right now, exerting undue influence on his combat abilities.

            And while he’s stuck inside Jason’s body, he could do his own serious damage.

            But Jason can’t just say any of that out loud.

            It’ll just add fuel to the fire.

            Which, while it might validate Jason’s concerns, it will definitely put Tim on a warpath – and probably send him running off on a self-destructive spiral.

 

            When Tim tries to push it, Jason digs his heels in.

 

            “The Pit is messin’ with your head, idiot,” he huffs. “It’s not a good idea to indulge it.”

            “It’s not indulging the Pit! It’s the only idea I’ve got right now for something that might actually be able to fix this mess,” Tim whines, barely holding himself back enough to not shout.

            His fists are balled and he’s clearly got green glowing inside his eyes.

 

            Cass is watching the exchange with her expression screwed up in squinty evaluation—looking past the faces on the surfaces and straight down to the person underneath.

            She’s always been the best of them at stepping back and seeing the big picture. She speaks up after a few minutes of listening to Tim and Jason’s increasingly circular argument, and Jason is just glad that one of the people involved in this is able to see things objectively.

            “Spar to settle heartache? Settle heartache, switch back, maybe?”

            She’s not agreeing, just asking to clarify Tim’s position on the subject.

            Because it’s a ridiculous position and needs clarification to be a believable plan sprouting from the super genius brain of usually (over-aggressively) sensible Tim Drake.

            Tim nods at her, looking inordinately relieved as he sets about elaborating, “We have issues, we all have issues; Jason and I just have an especially long and rocky history. If we can settle a few things in the ring, maybe it’ll let us ease the tension between us that pulled us into each other’s body to begin with.”

            With a beat of consideration with her expression scrunched up in that way of hers that would’ve been bluntly adorable and utterly comical if not for how their lives were all usually in the balance of her clear-sighted decisions, Cass huffs, “Won’t work.”

 

            Unable to restrain his whine at being shut down, Tim gives into every childish urging and wheezes petulantly, “But Ca~assss, it has to work.”

            Tim is summarily ignored, his whiny griping buried under Jason’s darkly triumphant huff of, “Thank you, at someone here still has enough sense to shut a dumb idea down.”

 

            “Not dumb,” Cass chastises firmly. “Miss… put? Misplaced. Misplaced. Tension not ease by spar. Tension snap… possible. Not switch back. But still… still helpful.”

 

            “What?” Tim and Jason speak in flabbergasted unison.

 

            Cass gives a firm nod and looks between them. “With me first. Check control. Then each other. Not switch back. But… still important. Show… show Truth.”

            Neither Tim nor Jason can find a reasonable response to that.

            Jason can barely process it.

 

            ‘Show Truth’ ?

            Cass thinks that, somehow, having things out between them, getting all their issues laid bare when neither of them are quite enough in their right minds to deal with any of it, could possibly be a good plan?

            Giving her the benefit of the doubt, and giving credit to her epic ninja skills for reading people at their core, Jason thinks that maybe she’s under the impression that having Jason openly and undeniably admit to his truth of not bearing Tim any real grudges would be helpful.

 

            And it probably would… if that were all there were to it…

 

            If Jason had just grown passed his Pit Rage psychosis and gotten over himself about being replaced and he was fully able to just be friends with Tim… to maybe even be Family…

            But that’s not the end of it, and Jason’s pretty damn sure Tim won’t take kindly to hearing that the only reason his two-time murderer (plus the perpetrator of a few dozen other assaults and batterings against him) has stopped trying to kill him is that said perpetrator is nursing a deeply unhealthy and utterly inappropriate childhood crush on him.

 

            Yeah. Not a terribly bright idea there…

 

            But… Cass was very clear about how she thinks it won’t achieve the primary objective Tim’s aiming at with it… which is still something. Tim looks like he wants to protest, to argue for how it will effect a bigger change for them, but he swallows his words in recognition of how arguing now might lose him Cass’s support in pushing for this course of action.

 

            With Jason glowering at the possibility of being outnumbered, Tim simply lets Cass do the final bit of pushing to get things started.

 

            She doesn’t delay or hesitate.

            Instead she nods firmly, reasserting the idea in her head without verbalizing it.

            Just confirming it all for herself.

 

            With a glance between the pair, she isolates Tim in Jason’s body and grabs at his shoulder. She yanks it hard in the direction of Tim’s dojo, the contact brief enough not to rile Jason’s automatic muscle responses too severely. It still makes his hand pop up to brush her off, but by the time he gets it up, Cass’s hand has already whipped away.

            Cass strides into the dojo without looking back to see if the others are following.

 

            Tim hesitates to follow, watching Jason carefully with dark eyes and an unreadable expression. Jason can see the shadows of the Pit moving in his brain and really wishes he could make a reasonable argument against Cass’s decision.

            But nothing he could say now really could impact anything.

            Unless he spills his guts complete, but even then, Jason’s pretty sure Cass will insist on fighting it out – at least with her to ensure they have enough control over their borrowed bodies to allow them to remain free outside the Cave.

            If they don’t manage to convince her they’re stable enough to spar, it’s likely she’ll decide to drag them back to the Cave and all the Bat’s medical monitoring tech without their input being given any consideration.

 

            Tim waits to move until after Jason does.

            They don’t make it to the dojo until Cass has already shrugged out of her jacket.

 

            She’s in the middle of limbering up when Tim makes it there, and with her sharp glares prodding them on, both Jason and Tim follow suit—despite the weight of clear reluctance that’s hanging heavy in the air between them.

 

            It’s a practiced ritual for them all at this point, they can warm up their muscles and stretch them out and ensure they’re ready for anything without a single second of conscious thought controlling their movements. It’s the only time Jason’s really felt in total control of Tim’s muscles since they first switched.

            It feels good.

 

            It’s calm and centering, in exactly the way the routines were designed to be.

 

            Tim’s body takes to it even more aggressively than Jason’s own, sinking into the automatic movements like a machine—gears oiled to perfection with obsessive care.

 

            It’s not quite enough to make his gut settle as he catches the grim smile that Tim’s sporting. It’s not just a sort of aggressive determination, but a predetermined vindication, like he’s been wanting to pick this fight all day—likely for reasons other than the idea that it’ll actually switch them back. Cass doesn’t think it’ll work, so it probably won’t.

            Jason’s on the same page as their ninja sister, but Tim still looks like he’s already won as he maneuvers Jason’s frame to face off with Cass. Jason stands off to the side, his arms crossed over Tim’s slim chest with the tightness of nerves pulling at his sore shoulders.

            If he were in his own body, the Pit’s whispers would be itching at the back of his mind—making him grind his teeth and crack his neck and forget how to breathe. The absence of those whispers means he doesn’t get lost in his spiraling thoughts, but Tim’s own anxiety means his lungs still clench up enough to make breathing difficult.

 

            Jason gets why he doesn’t want this fight.

            There are just too many reasons things could go wrong.

 

            What he doesn’t understand is why Tim does want this fight.

            Unless there’s some underlying issue Tim’s got with him, some beef he hasn’t mentioned that the Pit is playing with, there’s no reason to take this kind of risk.

            There’s certainly no reason for Tim to look as satisfied and victorious with it.

 

            Cass lets Tim find a steady stance, and she even allows him to work from a position of strength by taking on the role of making the first move. She still beats him into the floor, summarily kicking his ass in the way that only she can against Tim. Jason’s never even seen Bruce win so easily against the kid—Batman still does win, admittedly, but the take downs are drawn out affairs and there’s a conscious gentleness in both of them during sparring matches.

            If Tim fought Bruce for real, if it were life and death and they were both willing to do more than maim… Jason’s money would all be on Tim without question.

            Within five minutes, Cass makes Tim’s back hit the floor three times.

 

            Tim bows after Cass helps him back to his feet and sidles off for a breather as Jason takes his turn to face their adoptive sister.

            Tim’s body is the one between them that’s better suited to countering Cass’s style. He’s small and fast in the same way she is, and while he doesn’t have the padding or brute strength that Jason does, he has the agility and balance to strike from odd angles in a way that can get blows in from unexpected places.

            But Jason’s own fighting style clashes with how Tim’s body wants to move.

            He’s got control over Tim’s muscles, but there’s just this little hint of delay in how he gets everything to move. He tries to sink into Tim’s instinctive responses, but without anything of grave consequence on the line, it’s hard to let go of his upper cognition.

 

            Jason’s on the floor three times just as quickly as Tim had been.

 

            And then finally, Cass looks them both over, and steps back against the far wall with a nod to approve of the next step.

            Jason’s still clambering back to Tim’s feet as Tim takes his place across the dojo facing him. Watching him get his feet back underneath him, Tim suddenly looks a bit less confident.

            It’s only because Jason’s been fighting the Pit’s influence for so long now that he can recognize the zing of eager energy making his shoulders flex and his hands shudder. He wants this fight—so badly that the Pit hardly has to push at all for it.

 

            He bounces on his toes, and as soon as Jason’s stable on his feet, Tim launches at him.

 

            The muscle memory in Tim’s body is more than enough to allow Jason to counter without any conscious effort. He uses the weight of his attacker to ensure the blow slides passed him without making any significant contact.

            Jason keeps hold of his own wrist as Tim’s attack slides passed him, twisting underneath the limb and wrenching it around to keep himself well outside of Tim’s range. He keeps a hand on Tim’s back, right between his shoulder blades, and follows the movement as Tim twists around to attempt landing a blow.

 

            It’s a pretty faultless defense, one Jason’s seen Tim use countless times.

 

            This technique of follow, guide, and dodge wasn’t one that would allow Tim to take down an opponent, it wasn’t an offensive strategy in any measure, but it was one that was almost guaranteed to keep him from getting hurt—to ensure he had time to enact the Robin side of crimefighting to get the criminals frustrated and talking.

            It kept Tim perfectly safe, wore Tim’s opponents down until they dropped, and managed to pump them for information, all at the same time.

 

            And against Jason… it was normally incredibly effective.

 

            In his own body, especially when the Pit was up in arms and swirling toxic mist inside his head, Jason could hardly ever even touch Tim if he got close enough to try this.

 

            But with them in each others’ bodies… their usual tactics don’t combine well with their current situations. A circumstance complicated by how well they know themselves and their fighting styles, their own secret weaknesses are currently their best weapons.

            It means that when Tim whips around, twisting Jason’s torso as far as it will go to aim an elbow at his own face, Jason’s blindsided by his current body’s aggressive flinch response. His own aggression keeps him from ducking fully under the blow and his surprise means that Tim manages to make contact.

 

            The blow isn’t heavy, hardly enough to bruise, but it sends shock waves through Tim’s nervous system that catch Jason completely off guard.

            In his normal body, Jason wouldn’t even blink at such a love-tap, but in Tim’s…

 

            Jason reels backward.

 

            It takes him a moment to recall how Tim has always been sensitive about blows to his face. When Jason first came back to life, he’d made snide comments about how the pretty bird’s perfect little porcelain face was a bit of art worth preserving. He’d fantasized about turning that smooth porcelain all black and blue on more than one occasion—imagined cracking Tim’s perfect veneer in all manner of ways.

 

            As the Pit’s influence got more bearable, as he learned to beat it back, the impulse to upend Tim’s perfect blankness lingered.

 

            That only eased in him as Jason began to recognize why Tim was so sensitive about his face. He has a reputation to maintain, after all, as the very public figure he makes as the executive face for the boards of two major companies. And as a genius, with undeniable good looks, and more money than god… Tim would be a celebrity of world wide renown without any press conferences required. With his frequent spotlights in the news, Tim’s pretty face could be insured for more money than anything else Jason’s ever touched.

            And while Tim is skilled enough with make-up to ensure that any lapses in judgement can be effectively covered over, he’s trained a special sort of muscle memory into his bones to mitigate the worst of the risk—allowing his body to flinch away from blows to his face without any sliver of higher cognition needing to get involved.

            The blow Tim lands isn’t quite enough to stun Jason, but the unexpected yank of nerves as Tim’s body attempts to flinch out of the blow’s course surprises him enough to let Tim get a foot pushed back far enough to sweep under Jason’s forward leg.

 

            With Tim’s heel dug in right against the instep of Jason’s other leg, the action of sweeping out his other leg draws Tim’s body flush against his back.

 

            Tim’s body reacts violently to the contact—a thrum of jittery energy rushes through his muscles and Jason loses the little bit of control he’d maintained while borrowing this body. He can’t tell if it’s a unique discomfort to being body slammed by Jason or if it’s a general panic related to the simple oddity of being knocked off his game, but whatever it is, it yanks hard on every defensive instinct Jason has.

            Things get worse as Jason determines that it is definitely a Jason-specific reaction as Tim’s body goes utterly limp when Tim reaches around and manages to make a split second of eye-contact. As soon as their gazes meet, Tim’s body gives up.

 

            It seems to make Tim’s control of Jason’s muscles falter, as well.

 

            Instead of using Jason’s grip on his forearm to yank his off-balance body over his shoulder, Tim simply sweeps Jason around him like they’re caught in some strange dance.

 

            Jason’s face is smooth with shock as his brain attempts to connect the dots he’s facing here, and the blankness Tim’s wearing beneath Jason’s own face is impossible to read.

 

            Staying tight up inside Tim’s guard, Jason manages to dig his heel into the back of Tim’s—Jason’s—knee, grinding hard against an old injury. The tendons had been cut clean through on his first day in that warehouse in Ethiopia and left to rot and fester as the week of beatings had dragged out. Apparently, even the Lazarus Pit couldn’t knit that kind of injury back together perfectly. It still caused Jason the occasional stab of latent pain when the weather turned cold and, if hit directly without the benefit of armored support, Jason’s knee gave out.

 

            Tim doesn’t expect the weakness and it means Jason is able to floor him easily.

 

            As Jason’s knee gives out and Tim begins to sink, Jason uses Tim’s full weight to body slam him off his axis.

            Jason ends up sprawled across Tim—Tim’s lean frame dwarfed by Jason’s bulk to the point of making it difficult for Jason to maneuver his way into getting Tim’s body upright. He has to push up with his elbows, until he’s straddling Jason’s midsection, and then use his hands to walk himself back far enough to get his feet back under him at an angle adequate to step up.

 

            The moment feels oddly distended to Jason.

 

            Tim’s hands are shaky, and his breath is coming in short bursts—the tightness in his lungs having nothing to do with exertion.

            Tim’s whole body is a mess of nerves and numbing shivers. His heart is racing, and his sense of time distorts—inches away from a full blown panic attack.

 

            Here, the fight’s over as soon as someone hits the mat—unless otherwise specified, directly and clearly, with confirmed agreement on what holds are barred.

            But Tim’s body evidently doesn’t recognize that.

            It wants to put as much room between itself and Jason’s body as physically possible.

 

            And why shouldn’t it?

 

            If this weren’t just sparring, if this were a real fight—their track record has a long and sordid history of real fights, fights in which Jason proactively attempted to murder Tim—the fight wouldn’t be over just because they hit the floor.

            He’s obviously still terrified of Jason, viscerally pained by the concept of being physically close to him. Tim’s body is in meltdown, blood draining from his brain and limbs going shaky.

 

            Honestly, Jason gets it.

            Tim has no reason not to be terrified of him.

            Jason’s only been back with the Family for a short while, barely 2 years of attempted non-aggression… Attempted being the keyword. Things are still pretty tense between them all.

 

            So, he gets that Tim’s scared.

            What he doesn’t get is why Tim’s been so adamant about declaring that he’s not scared.

 

            Over the last 2 years, Tim has systematically lied to everyone in the Family about how he feels regarding Jason’s company. He’s lied to fricken Bruce about it.

 

            He watches Tim clamber to Jason’s feet as his thoughts swirl with deepening gloom.

            Tim’s not looking much better than Jason feels—shaky as he stands on Jason’s feet.

 

            “I knew it,” Jason bites out, unable to keep silent.

            He can’t keep his eyes on Tim and lets his gaze fall to the floor as he balls Tim’s fist to keep the building tremor in them from spiraling out of control.

            “I knew you were still fucking scared of me,” Jason snarls.

 

            Trying to pass it off, blasé as always, Tim asks, “I’m what?”

            “Scared, asshole,” Jason spits. “Your still so fucking scared of me that your body can’t stop shaking when you’re anywhere near close enough to me that I can reach you.”

 

            Tim doesn’t speak up to protest, silenced by direct confrontation with the truth.

 

            It just fuels Jason’s rant. “It’s making your reflexes slow as shit, and your muscles and joints are all so stiff you’d never be able to defend yourself against me if I ever actually cracked—if I came at you full force. Even on the other side of the room, even after having successfully separated from you… your body is freaking out on me.”

            “I’m not scared of you, Jason,” Tim attempts, voice almost squelched to silence by the squeeze of desperation in the lie.

 

            “No. Nuh-uh. None of that bullshit,” Jason snaps back.

 

            “It’s not bullshit,” Tim retorts, with the heat of genuine vehemence in his tone—though Jason suspects that might have more to do with the Pit than with him being any kind of honest.

            Jason glares at him, but his mask is shaky. Tim’s staring back with that artful blankness he always wears; the impenetrable, calculating callousness that makes him so effective at inspiring terror in those he interrogates—be they thugs on the street or cads in the boardroom.

            Lungs tight with hurt and desperation, Jason softens.

            Walks himself down from the fight and the hate and the anger…

 

            Because as much as he hates it, Jason understands.

 

            “C’mon, man,” Jason almost whines. His chest is so tight that his blatant pitifulness doesn’t even embarrass him. “I get it, okay? I get that you can’t stand to be in the same room as me. I get that your muscle memory is hard wired to think I’m gonna kill you.”

            “What I don’t get,” Jason goes on, as the fists he has clenched at his side begin to shake with fervor, “is why you are so dead set on lying to me about it.”

            “Enough with the pity party,” Tim snaps, something in him breaking—the edge of high bravado from the Pit cutting through his tone. “I’m not scared of you, Jason, and I’m not lying to you about it. If my body is freaking out on you right now, it’s got nothing to do with anything like that. It’s probably just the same thing making your body freak out at needing to fight me.”

 

            That made Jason’s thoughts jerk offline with such force that he pulled his head back on Tim’s shoulders… He’d never imagined that his body could be freaking out, too.

            There’s fewer possible reasons behind any reaction his body might be having.

            Either it’s purely the Pit—which means that Tim’s resentment for Jason runs a lot deeper than Jason’s even imagined—or it’s… it’s the thing Jason refuses to acknowledge still exists.

 

            The crush he’d had on Tim as a kid… it had never really gone away, even when he was trying to kill the idiot. It had been buried under so much hurt and hate and selfish fear that Jason couldn’t see straight enough to shoot himself, but it had still been there.

 

            And… now…

 

            With Jason’s reintroduction to the Family—a circumstance brought about almost entirely by Tim’s determined hand—the feelings he doesn’t deserve to have are beginning to bubble up again. Jason’s been trying to tamp them down, but… it hasn’t been half as effective as he’s been pretending to himself it’s been.

 

            But… even so…

 

            Those are just feelings. He’s never let even his most asinine imaginings get the slightest bit physical—not that way, not in the After.

            His body has no reason to be freaking out on Tim because of that.

            Physical contact with Tim over the last year hasn’t made his brain jump to the gutter, but it has made a streak of terror zip through him at the notion of his body acting on its urge to wrap a hand around Tim’s throat and squeeze.

            That’s the only thing Tim could realistically be feeling.

 

            Jason grits his teeth and huffs darkly, “I’ve got the frickin’ Lazarus Pit trying to make me kill you when you’re so much as in the same room.”

            “Not unless you actually still want to kill me,” Tim bites out in return, the visceral bite of green rage clearly coloring his tone.

            Tim hunches Jason’s shoulders forward, his posture going soft and scared in a way that Jason’s body can’t accept. Tim shrugs, a half gesture he can’t quite fill out completely.

            “See, I get it, too,” Tim admits. “You’ve got plenty of reasons to still be pissed at me, more than pissed enough to, at least, want to knock my teeth out. But unless you still want to actually kill me, I’m not at risk of anything from you but a few more bruises.”

 

            “I don’t wanna kill you, Tim,” Jason confesses, voice tight enough to nearly crack.

            He can’t get enough air into his lungs to actually address any of the issues Tim’s raised.

 

            With a firm nod as he accepts the response at face value, Tim moves to artificially diffuse the situation by asserting, “I didn’t think so.”

 

            Then he takes a deep, centering breath, and says, “Now, since we’re both apparently feeling unsettled… did you feel this way when you were fighting Cass?”

 

            That gives Jason pause.

 

            Warily—because Jason knows a verbal trap when he walks into one but clearly, Tim has a hypothesis worth hearing—Jason admits slowly, “No. It felt almost normal with Cass.”

 

            Tim gives another nod. “For me, too,” Tim explains. “Maybe the sparring is working better than you thought, regarding the switch-back thing. A soul being yanked out of its body has got to be a pretty unsettling sensation, maybe what we’re feeling is just our displaces souls loosening up their holds on the wrong bodies.”

            Giving a few seconds of consideration to the possibility, Jason grumbles, “Sounds like bullshit to me, but whatever. If you think so, maybe it’s legit—but I still ain’t convinced.”

            Tim shrugs. “Well, it won’t hurt anything to give this a few more rounds, right?”

 

            With grudging agreement, Jason gives a sigh and then a nod.

            “So, let’s go, then,” Tim prompts.

 

            They look to Cass, just to make certain, and when she nods, they step up to circle each other, far warier than they were during the first round.

            This time, they are each paying acute attention to the way their borrowed bodies feel in the midst of close quarters combat with each other. The second round lasts a lot longer than the first one, as they focus more on how they feel during the fight than how to win.

            Jason can feel the dramatically compounding zing of energy that strikes each time he manages to get a point of contact between them. There isn’t really… an overt malice in the ache behind the tingling feeling, or even anything that feels like abject terror.

 

            Tim’s body is simply hyperactively keyed up by the proximity of Jason’s.

 

            But now that Jason’s expecting the sensations that pummel through him every time they so much as brush against each other, none of what hits him is too debilitating.

 

            Even so, Tim actually wins their second round.

            He got lucky with getting one of Jason’s arms wrapped around his own ribcage and he managed to keep his stance steady as Jason attempted to kick his way out of the hold.

 

            They end up on the mats with Tim’s back on the ground, Jason’s figure crowding in above him with both of Tim’s wrists pinned up over his head by one of Jason’s massive hands.

            Jason’s brain goes blank as Tim’s body goes limp.

 

            The main thing he notes is that Tim’s muscles aren’t paralyzed by fear.

            This stillness is just that… stillness.

            It’s a wash of complete surrender.

            And while Jason can’t quite pin down what it is that’s making Tim’s muscles so suddenly pliant, he can tell that it’s definitely not fear…

 

            Tim hauls himself away, the motion looking like a titanic effort—hands shaking at he resists the whispers of the Pit urging his muscles to act on some violent impulse he hasn’t yet openly admitted to feeling.

 

            Or it could be that there really is some merit in Tim’s hypothesis.

 

            Because both he and Tim are panting hard after this round, and Jason can tell that it’s not just from the exertion. Tim’s body feels like a live wire as Tim puts distance between them, the muscles all tight and jittery while his bones feel limp and leaden.

 

            “Feel anything different?” Tim asks, voice a touch strained.

            “Not especially,” Jason returns, sounding just as tightly wound as Tim. “Your body is still quaking like a shake table set to ‘San Andreas’, though.”

            “Yeah, well yours is getting lightheaded,” Tim grumbles back.

 

            Jason bites his tongue before he can snark like he would to Roy that there are plenty of reasons he might be lightheaded around Tim—such a comment would have to dodge any explanation of the teasing Roy’s made a habit of, trying to nudge Jason into accepting his idiotically inappropriate fantasy of allowing his lingering crush on Tim to become physical.

            Even in his wildest flit of imagination.

 

            “Give it one more go?” Tim asks, cautiously, generously—giving Jason an out.

            Test matches like this are supposed to go three rounds.

            Stress sparring or legitimate training can go longer, and fights sparked with too much emotional involvement can get called off early, but typically, something this casual should involve exactly three rounds before they break to assess.

 

            If Jason really hates this, Tim will let him quit.

            But, obviously, he’ll hold it against him forever.

 

            That fact is clear enough to spark Jason’s competitive spirit. “One more go,” he accepts, statement laced with the firm intention of it being only one more round.

 

            He doesn’t want to do this, not exactly, but he’d already signed on to the match and matches like this are supposed to go three rounds.

            And the feeling in Tim’s body is odd enough to warrant a little more investigation.

 

            With another mutual glance at Cass to confirm she still believes another round is something she believes will not spin out of control, they charge each other again.

 

            This time, both of them are a bit too wobbly on their borrowed feet to make the spar look pretty. Jason wins it, by a hair—and only because Jason’s instincts manage to override the limp surrender of Tim’s body when Tim in Jason’s body gets a hand around Tim’s own throat.

 

            Tim’s body has gone still again, completely pliant.

 

            Jason can feel the zing of energy in his muscles, the tense… anticipation lingering inside his bones—preparation for a desperate last stand the instant Jason gives an inch and a distinct awareness that a chance to move will never come.

            In Jason’s body, Tim seems to be feeling it too—more than just the Pit, it’s that certainty that letting go will release something too important to free… too precious, too dangerous, too much a part of Jason himself to dare being parted. Tim has a lot of trouble dragging himself away from Jason this time. He doesn’t even fully make it to his feet, just pulls back far enough to collapse onto his haunches as Jason pushes up to half sitting with stiff elbows extended out and locked straight behind him.

 

            “So, no change back,” Jason pants.

            “No,” Tim agrees, resigned and almost pained. “But I still think the way we feel unsettled is probably a step in the right direction.”

            Unable to embrace the painful ache of optimism, Jason couldn’t bite back his tongue to keep him from commenting, “Or it could just be the first stage of our souls disintegrating all together before dissipating into the abyss.”

 

            Tim’s immediate glare feels a little bit like victory.

            It’s another crack in Tim’s perfectly smooth shell of aloof indifference and Jason has always enjoyed being one of the very few people capable of peeling off bits of that veneer.

 

            Before either of them recover enough to say anything else, the secure communicator hung at Cass’s hip goes off with a piercing howl. The electronic siren settles quickly, but it’s been enough to let everyone know that Oracle means business and she is in no mood for games.

 

            “Batgirl is keeping Nightwing busy for now, I estimate three hours before they wrap up with Zhen Li,” Oracle reports. “Meanwhile, you three better get your butts over to the Clocktower, ASAP, to brief me on everything before I sick Agent A on you. This has gotten way out of control and I expected better from you. All of you.”

            With that, she disconnects and leaves the others in the ache of sudden silence.

 

            But no one openly defies Oracle.

 

            Tim’s managed to sneak around her a few times, Jason knows, and he himself has had a few good runs of blocking her out—though, admittedly, that was all when he was far more psychotic murder-spree drug lord than actually cognizant, Bat-adjacent anti-hero.

 

            So, no matter how much like utter defeat it feels… Jason moves right along side the others as they all clamber to their feet and move to head out.

            Cass drives and the ride over is sullenly silent.

 

            Confessing to Babs isn’t half as tense an affair as explaining it to Spoiler had been, but Tim’s whole body thrums with a sort of pins and needles ache as he physically recoils from even her softest look of admonishment. Jason watches Tim as they let Cass speak. The indomitable spirit of Red Robin is no where to be seen and Tim’s so wound up with shame that he’s somehow managed to make Jason’s over sized frame look small as he curls in on himself.

 

            His expression is dark and stormy, but from what Jason can see, the Pit’s whispers are still as silent as could possibly be hoped for… But with this, with Tim having to watch his schemes unraveled before his eyes by the few people in this world he actually harbors any measure of genuine respect for… Jason knows it’s not gonna be an easy thing to let go of here.

 

            He just hopes that Babs insight can provide enough of a new lead to mitigate the worst of the feeling of failure that Tim is obviously struggling to swallow.

 

 

________

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 – Family Matters

 

Hearing Cass explain everything that’s gone on for the past few days to Babs is physically painful to Tim—his psyche recoiling with every word and Jason’s body feeling the sting of disappointment in a way that’s reminiscent of Tim’s own typical physiological response.

It’s awful.

But at least it’s not nearly as openly antagonistic as when they’d had to explain it to Steph… or rather, when Jason had needed to explain it to Steph because Tim couldn’t push the vitriol in his throat down far enough to say a single civil word about this mess.
He still can’t quite contribute, can’t summon the verve to speak up, but at least he isn’t stuck in a loop of forcing down any unhelpfully vicious retorts.

“Oh, boys,” Babs breathes when Cass is finished.
She looks them both over with genuine sympathy, the kind that only she can mange to express without a drop of pity souring the sentiment.
“I understand why you wouldn’t want to come to any of us about this,” she tells them softly. “But you still should have come to me. You know me better than to think I’d ever push this without your approval, and we could have worked together on solving it.”

Chastened, neither Tim nor Jason speaks up.

“You had five sunsets, according to Anna Dyer,” Babs confirms, looking for Cass’s nod before she continues, “Last night was probably one, assuming that the night you were actually switched doesn’t count, and tonight’s was two. You’ve already wasted at least 12 hours on the Zhen Li case because you wouldn’t tell us what was wrong.”
This time, Tim is pitifully compelled to make excuses.
“We couldn’t afford to lose Li,” he protests. “We’d never get another chance like this.”
Babs’ sympathy sharpens into a slight glare for a beat. “Yes, I can admit that. But it would have been safer for everyone if Cass and Steph knew what they were walking into, and I could’ve been doing research in your stead during that time, so we wouldn’t be running so short on time right now. Even if you’d just told me, leaving Cass and Steph blind would’ve been manageable… We’re just being backed further into a corner with every minute we waste arguing about all of it. There’s less than ten hours between right now and your third morning…”

Tim knows she’s right and simply glowers at the floor.

“It’s my fault,” Jason says, voice crinkly as he forces it through his tight throat. “Tim didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want the Bats involved.”
“I wouldn’t have said anything even if you hadn’t asked,” Tim retorts immediately.
He meets Jason’s glare head on as he counters, “Because you know I wouldn’t want them involved even if I didn’t ask.”
“Because I wouldn’t want them involved because Dick and Bruce and Damian are all being judgmental pricks and I’ve made enough mistakes in front of them this month that one more would’ve been the last straw,” Tim half shouts.

“Boys,” Babs huffs, pulling their attention off each other by force. “It doesn’t matter anymore who’s to blame or why they did it. What matters is that we’ve only got three sunsets left to deal with this. What matters is that it affects the whole Family and because we’re now so short on time to fix things, we have no choice but to get the rest of the Family involved.”
Aghast in mutual horror, Jason and Tim both stare gape-mouthed at Babs as she pushes up her thick-framed glasses with one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose.
A moment later, her other hand reaches out to press the wide-broadcast button that allows announcements to push through their coms network across all possible frequencies.
“I’m calling a Family Meeting. You all have fifteen minutes to get your butts in the Cave before I start shutting down all your equipment and auto-recalling everything,” she states.
A slew of wary acknowledgements meets her demand.
Even Bruce grunts a low sound of grudging acceptance.

With that accomplished, Babs looks again to Tim and Jason.
They both know that getting out of this one is impossible, and they follow, mostly docile, as Babs leads them down to the basement-level secure-access garage she maintains for her caped compatriots. They pile into a sleek sliver Audi and speed across the city in silence.

It takes a distended minute for the modified driver’s seat to slide Babs’ wheelchair back to the ground, but she’s wheeling her way up to the Batcomputer before Tim manages to build up enough resignation to step out and follow her. Cass shoots him a sympathetic look, but she doesn’t wait around to walk up with him.
Jason’s in the same boat, lingering on the far side of the car until Babs calls the others to order where they’re assembled around the primary mission table on the main floor. Bruce and Damian both still have their masks on, but Babs demands they remove them as Tim and Jason finally skirt close enough to be officially included in the discussion.

“Two nights ago, Jason and Tim encountered a magical object,” Babs begins in her typical perfunctory tone. She leaves no room for protests or questions as she goes on, “It appears to have made their souls switch bodies. As far as we can tell, they have three more sunsets before the swap becomes lethal.”
Babs lays out the situation with minimal details, no blame, and absolutely no tolerance for any further bullshit from anyone. Her words caused pained ripples of reaction in her audience, but no one dares to interrupt her.
Tim can feel their eyes on him, however—Bruce’s disapproval, Damian’s disdain, Dick’s overwhelmingly sappy concern… It makes his blood boil, and with the Pit’s venomous whispers riling him up further, it’s all Tim can do to stay silent.

When Babs finishes her SitRep, the inevitable flood of questions rises, but Babs controls the tide skillfully. “Nothing matters but how we fix this,” she concludes, shutting down all further inquiry after the first burst of queries settles.
There’s a moment of grumbling malcontent and acerbic glares, but the pause soon passes into a more productive focus.
Bruce, obviously, feels compelled to take command.
“Jason and Tim are benched. You both must allow Alfred to run a medical check on you to assess what, if any, physical effects are manifesting aside from the apparent… body swap.”
Tim gets a mild kick of amusement out of hearing Bruce falter over the word. The amusement dies before it settles as Bruce continues, “You then must remain inside the Cave until further notice, in isolation. Stephanie will fetch the necessities for an overnight stay while Dick makes up a room for each of you. Cass, meanwhile, will retrieve the artifact from Jason’s safehouse. I will be contacting the Justice League while Damian uses the data you’ve already collected to begin researching a cure. Understood?”

A chorus of ‘yessir’s echos, but Jason snorts.

“You can’t just sideline me and Tim, this is our problem. We’re not diseased, and we’re not bleeding out,” Jason growls. “And if you really think the Bat Brat’s got anything on Tim’s research skills, you really are goin’ senile.”
“Jason,” Bruce chastises, but Jason isn’t having it.
“Nuh-uh,” he retorts. “I ain’t a stupid kid anymore, B. You can’t tell me what to do.”
With a stabilizing breath, Bruce sighs, “If it comes to sedating you, I will do whatever is necessary to ensure your safety in this circumstance.”
That makes a dark chuckle escape from Jason, a staggeringly super-villain-esque sound coming from Tim’s chest and higher vocal register. He draws breath to make another biting comment, clearly ready to poke the bear until it mauls him enough to make a martyr.
The flare of fury that rises up in Tim isn’t just the Pit’s influence, but the rush of green certainly doesn’t encourage restraint as Tim snaps, “Jason. Enough. Bruce is right. My judgement is compromised, and for all we know, my research abilities are as well. Don’t make this any worse than it has to be.”
Jason’s glare strikes Tim to the core. Jason’s body is already on edge because of all the (clearly judgmental) people gathered around in close quarters, and he’s antsy from simply being inside the Cave to start with—that fight or flight sensation Tim clocked when they were in Jason’s public safehouse is back in full form, ten times as potent as before. He’s got a heading coming on hard and his muscles are still achy and tingly from whatever weirdness developed as a result of their sparring session.

All Tim wants right now is a hot shower, a plate of French toast stacked as high as his head, and a nice quiet corner where he can snatch a nap.
Turning his back on the gathering, Tim shouts a vague grumble of his intentions and makes for the showers without checking to see if anybody even cares.

He’s so caught up in his riotous thoughts that he barely registers the implications of being swapped as he strips off his grimy two-day old clothes and steps into the hot stream of the Cave’s state-of-the-art luxury showers.
Tim’s managed to handle the physical needs of a human body by sheer force of willpower and extensive mental preparation keeping his focus on the biological functions of it.
And by resisting the need for bathroom breaks until he’s as close to bursting as physically possible so that all his mind focuses on is the relief of release and not the process of it.

But without careful meditation on the need for blunt expediency, and the direct focus on cause and effect of his actions on the body as a physical object, Tim’s left to be startled into an appreciation for the human form as his fingertips scrub over Jason’s sculpted physique.
Washboard abs…
Biceps like Adonis in stone…
Thighs a man could climb… with his teeth…

Not even in Tim’s wildest and most inappropriate fantasies had he ever imagined Jason’s body could’ve been so… ugh… Tim doesn’t even have words for it, any of it—doesn’t have the capacity of finding words for it…
To make things worse, Jason’s body is not just a textbook rendering of perfection. It’s covered in scars—wounds from shrapnel, bullets, knife fights, and countless other sorts of brawls and beatings. The healed flesh creates endless divots and convexities for fingertips to explore—and the differing sensations that rise from such explorations of scars and clean flesh are so much more engrossing than they’d ever been in Tim’s perusal of his own body.
It’s a map of the stories that make up Jason’s life, that make up the past that’s shaped him in both mind and body…
Tim’s not sure whether that is a side effect of the Pit, a consequence of being switched, or even just his own fixation with uncovering what makes Jason tick.

Whatever it is, Tim loses at least ten minutes in just marveling.

When he comes halfway back to his senses, Jason’s at a few ticks more than half-mast and Tim’s brain is just about ready to let his hormones have at…
It’s a demonstration of significant willpower that gets Tim to pry his hands of Jason’s body and focus on the task at hand.

Still, his shower lasts another forty minutes.
Most of that is spent systematically working through his anger, separating what his issues with this confrontation are from what the Pit wants them to be.
The last few minutes of it are spent under a harsh, cold spray, attempting to banish the remains of the irksomely persistent boner he popped because of Jason’s overwhelming sexiness assaulting his awareness so unexpectedly.

When he turns off the water, Tim realizes that his was the only shower still running, but it’s currently not the only faucet dripping.
Jason must’ve come in to take his own shower—rushed through it like Tim should have.
The brief blip of thought that Jason had been naked only a few feet away from where he had been naked nearly brings that boner back, but fortunately, Tim’s already focused on the job again (and his mortification at his mental weakness spurs an extra burst of attentiveness to keeping that focus firmly in its proper place).

Mind steadfastly slogging once again through the information they have available about this ridiculous swap, Tim gets dressed in loose black sweats, a black tank top, and a red hoodie.
It’s enough like his own usual post-patrol attire that Tim feels almost like he can relax.
Which is a good thing as he steps out into the corridor that leads to the main Cave and finds Steph kicked back against the wall waiting for him. It lets him keep calm and quiet.
The corridor isn’t entirely closed off, but it’s still sheltered from the Cave well enough to make the privacy they feel in the isolation real in most regards.
Tim waits for Steph to explain herself.
The rest of the Bats know they’re here, but the only bugs are emergency audio—tuned low enough to only register shouts for help and such.

“That was the longest shower I’ve ever seen you take,” she starts, voice soft with the worry that would’ve manifested as soon as her anger at his lies had thawed.
She knows about his crush, knows enough about it to have teased him about how distracting Jason’s blatant sexiness could be… Tim should feel bad about nudging the truth of course with her—especially after having straight-faced lied to her so recently—but instead of guilt, Tim only feels the ease of practice as he cocks a half-smile and admits, “I was a bit distracted by the novelty. These abs are fucking ridiculous, they put He-Man to shame.”

Steph doesn’t even blink, let alone crack a smile.

If anything, his stab at distracting her has made her curl up even tighter into herself.

“Jason’s taking a nap,” she says. “He’s been settled down for fifteen minutes already and I think he’s actually sleeping. He hasn’t even asked for coffee yet.”
Tim frowns—attempts to smoother the reaction as Steph flicks her gaze up from the floor to meet his with an achingly deep concern in her eyes.
“I know a physical dependency addiction when I live with one,” she continues, speaking in almost unbearably soft tones. “Coffee is your cocaine, and if Jason’s feeling that addiction, he is not showing it. You both just spent more than 20 minutes in the shower—you spent over an hour. I’ve never known either of you to take more than five minutes, max. And your hands are shaking—Jason’s hands… whatever… It’s just… You’re not okay.”
Tim shoves Jason’s hands into the pockets of his sweats. He hadn’t noticed the tremor until Steph had pointed it out, but now that she has, he realizes it’s quite severe. It’s an alarming and significant escalation of the local paresthesia pins-and-needles sensation he’d been feeling ever since they’d sparred.
If he weren’t so distracted by his anger and his stupid crush and his stupid hyped-up hormones and his pathetically over-active sex drive, Tim would’ve noticed it.

“You’re not okay,” Steph sighs, this time her sadness being swallowed by a seal of resignation. “But… how’re you holdin’ up?”

“I’m—”
Tim finds himself unable to answer—utterly unable to lie and too unused to trying out the truth to speak it.
“I’ll be fine,” he manages eventually.
It’s a nothing statement, a mantra—a wish from the kid he’d been, a promise from the vigilante he’d become, a habit of determination not to be a burden that he’d honestly never really felt the urge to quit. It’s worse than a lie, and both he and Stephanie know it.

“Tell me what you need,” she urges.
It sets a flare off in Tim’s chest—Jason’s chest.

Pride. And satisfaction.

This is a routine Tim stole from Jason.
He’d picked it up when he’d gone a little overboard with inciting an incident designed specifically to pull Jason back into the Family.
He may have used his brief access to Jason’s helmet in the aftermath to dump every recording it had made of the entire debacle onto his private server so he could review it for his own information. The helmet had been recording even when Jason wasn’t wearing it and Tim had borne witness to this little ritual between Roy and Jason.
It was remarkable, and it was obviously one of the reasons that Jason was so proud of his relationship with the Outlaws—the teamwork magic that he’d been responsible for engineering.
Tim had been impressed with it, had researched the psychological principles behind it.
And then, because it’s the only thing he’s really good at, Tim had commandeered it—tweaked it, and adapted it for his own use. Implemented it with the Titans first, let Steph in on the secret carefully—only after extracting a promise of secrecy, of course.

And in this…
In this… Tim can make himself suspend the leap of habit that makes him lie.

“I dunno what I need, Steph,” Tim admits. “I really don’t. I thought I knew how to fix it, but it seems like sparing made it worse. Or maybe it did work, and now our souls are unsettled and ready to go back. Or maybe they’re unsettled and ready to dissolve into the ether. I—”
Steph puts a hand on his chest, without looking away and without saying anything.
It’s a gentle pressure and the interruption halts the panic spiral in its tracks.

Tim takes a moment to breathe.
“I think—” Tim breaks off with an anxious swallow “—I think, right now… I think I need a nap. I’m too wired to get any work done. I feel like I haven’t slept in a week.”
They both know he’s not exaggerating.
They both know he’s not estimating, either.

Steph can’t say anything to that.
She can help him to bed, but that’s almost as bad as just admitting defeat.

And that’s not what Robins do.

Robins make inappropriate jokes to lighten the atmosphere and relentlessly dig away at any problem they encounter until something in it gives way.

So, Steph curls her fingers—gives Jason’s pec a firm squeeze.
“Dude, you were so right about his muscles, man… like wow,” Steph marvels. “I had no idea that your beaux was so fit. When you finally get around to fucking each others’ brains out, he is gonna destroy you. Ugh. I can’t believe I’m this jealous of you, Boyfriend.”
She give’s Jason’s pec one last squeeze and then drops her hand.
Her face is a solid attempt at an imitation of her usual, shamelessly teasing expression.
“I demand details,” she declares. “All the goriest, filthiest details you can remember in the aftermath of what’s sure to be an epic sex haze. Call me the instant you’re conscious.”
Tim flashes her a weak smile.
Retorts, “You only want my details because you haven’t bothered to get yourself a new boytoy. You could just as easily be caught up in an epic afterglow if you went clubbing on one of your nights off instead of cuddling up with nine blankets, a mug cake, and whatever nonsense is still airing on Bravo.”
She grins back at him, slightly closer to real normal. “Careful there, boyfriend. I let your coffee addiction slide, so you should know better than to mess with my Queens and all the other craziness that surrounds them. There’s one show where Bravo’s version of ‘normal’ people are put through challenges like they’re James Bond. I’m even getting Cass to laugh watching it.”

This time, it’s a real smile that tugs at Tim.

He’s not sure if they’ve really noticed it yet, but Steph and Cass are a textbook case of trope-y goodness straight out of their soaps: friends-to-lovers and whatnot.
Tim could speed things along, but honestly, he likes watching it happen as it will—seeing the slow motion of their gravity pulling them inexorably closer together.
(He’s sure Babs knows it, she’s got a bowl of popcorn at the ready these days to munch on while observing the pair of them patrolling together. She’s offered to share it with Tim.)

“I’ll take your word for it,” Tim accepts, closing the conversation gracefully.

Steph shrugs and attempts to sling her arm around Jason’s shoulders like she normally would with Tim’s pitifully smaller frame. It doesn’t work at all, but the comedic effect is heartening enough to make up for the difficulty.
Steph gives up before they reach the main Cave, holding on just long enough to sort-of steer Jason’s feet in the direction of the medical bays, where two cubicles have been converted into isolation cells. Jason’s already bedded down in one of them, lost in a mess of blankets with his mattress on the floor in case the Fear gas or Joker venom of the week causes seizures.

As they cross the Cave, Tim catches sight of the JLA gathered on the Batcomputer’s screens. None of their expressions bode well for how the rest of this trial is going to go.

It’s going to be humiliating.
And Tim is going to be benched forever.
Any claims he might still have to Titan leadership will be revoked.
Any credit he’s built up as sane and stable within the Family will be stripped away.

Tim sighs.
He’s still working off his ‘dragging Jason back into the Family’ side-eyes.
He’d just gotten the leeway to open cases on his own without anyone nosing in on them with irksomely aggressive ‘friendliness’ every five minutes.

He’s not even gonna be at square one after this.
He’s gonna have to start at square zero, if he’s lucky.
Negative fifteen, if he’s not.
And Tim is never lucky.

So, this is gonna suck.
But if the Family and the JLA’s input gets this swap wrapped up well, it’ll be well worth the costs of gaining their input.
Tim would’ve had to call them in later today, anyway.
If they’d handled the Li’s as planned, and they’d gotten out clean with no one the wiser about the swap, then Tim’s timeline would only have about 12 more hours in it before he gave into the obvious truth of being out of his depth and called it in himself.
To be honest, this method was probably the less humiliating of the two.

Steph escorts Tim to the isolation cell set up for him, but he hesitates at the door.

A lot of it is Jason’s body seizing up, joints locking into place with fearful resistance to the idea of being put inside a cell.
But some of it is Tim, his thoughts catching on something to nebulous to name for a moment. Eventually, he does manage to parse the data.
“I don’t think I should be kept so separate from Jason… from my body,” he explains after a beat to ensure the words own give away any of the tension in Jason’s figure.
Steph frowns, considering.
She eyes Jason, in Tim’s body hidden by blankets.
She eyes Tim, in Jason’s body and stiff as a board.
And then she eyes the currently empty isolation cell.

“Fine. Help me grab this shit and sneak it over to the one Jason’s in, we’ll white out the walls to keep them from noticing,” Steph sighs.
Working together, the shift is quick and no one in the Cave notices.

Steph hits the button for privacy mode, changing the polarization charge of the high-tech polymer these cells were built out of from clear to milky why, and watches Tim as he stakes out a corner. He’s still deeply unsettled about being in a cage and it takes a while for him to find a way to make peace with settling down.
It’s better, being closer to his own body, but his heartrate is still voicing protest by kicking up into an unsteady rhythm at high speed.

Steph notices enough of his discomfort to worry.

“Is Jason’s body still all ‘Pit rage, out to kill yours’?”
This, Tim can refute with confidence. “No. It’s fine. It’s just… tense. I think it’s part of the switch. I feel kinda seasick, dizzy and nauseous, when we get close together… but when we get too far apart or are completely cut off like we’d be if we were separated into different isolation cells… I get… numb. It’s easier to get… lost, like that… I don’t feel as solid. And that’s something I think we should be more worried about than this.”
Tim takes a deep breath, feeling Steph’s intent gaze skimming over him.
“This is just… tension, like—” Tim sweeps a hand though Jason’s hair as he flounders, “—it’s manageable, I promise. I have… jitters, basically. Nothing to worry about.”
She gives him one last squint and then sighs.
“I have to lock you in, you know,” she informs him, adding, “Comms work, I tested them myself while you were taking your sweet ass time in the shower. Anything changes, just shout.”
Tim gives her as reassuring a nod as he’s capable of giving.

She nods, lingering an extra half heartbeat, and then spins on her heal and slips out the door—sealing the airlock behind her and setting the locking mechanism up to keep it closed.

It makes a violent shiver wrack Jason’s frame.
Violent enough to force a gasp from his lungs.
Which, in turn, is loud enough to wake Jason—bolting upright with a gasp of his own.
Light sleeper as he is, Tim’s honestly more surprised the low tones of his conversation with Steph hadn’t woken him sooner.

“Sorry, everything’s fine,” Tim assures as Jason struggles to get his eyes to focus in the odd glow of the sealed off isolation cell.
It’s too late though; Jason’s awake, and he sits up in his nest of blankets.

His glare is mild as it assesses their new situation.
It’s too late to do anything about them being together if he has some protest to it, but he glares at the comm unit by where the door has sealed itself into seamlessness like he’s considering ratting Tim out.
Then he drops it and adjusts a blanket by Tim’s shoulder.
“You run scary cold, you know that?”

Tim shrugs. “It made insulating the Red Robin suit against thermal scan detection that much easier. And the temp control coils I’ve got rigged up to enhance the insulation effect are powered by kinetic batteries so I can use it to keep warm in the winter and cool in summer.”
The arch in Jason’s eyebrow screams that he’s unimpressed, but he doesn’t say anything.

“How do you feel? Other than cold.”

Jason huffs. “Still sore. Exhausted. Like I’m stuck on the side of a hangover where puking it out is really the best option.”
“You’re nauseous, too?”
“Too?”
Tim nods. “Started after we sparred, I think. I can’t be sure it’s not just because of how humiliating all of this has been, but I’m still feeling it now, so...”
The cubicle suddenly feels quite small.

“Part of the switch?”
Tim shrugs in response.
Jason sighs into the weighted quiet. “So, now we just wait?”
Tim shrugs again, admitting, “So, now we just wait.”

“I smuggled your laptop in here,” Jason mentions after a beat of sullen quiet.

Something white hot and glorious flood through Tim, relief and joy and appreciation and gratitude and l— And Tim just can’t for a moment.
A long moment, apparently.
Tim blinks and Jason’s right there, hand on his chest like he’s leaping up to arrest a panic attack despite the fact that Tim is certain what he’s feeling isn’t panic.

A second after he realizes that Jason’s trying to avert a panic attack he isn’t having, Tim realizes—quite suddenly, with a startling clarity—that he feels Jason’s hand on him like it’s a live wire, a white hot point of contact with tingling spurts of static rippling outward over his whole body. It’s a very different sensation to Steph doing the same thing only a few moments ago.
Tim isn’t sure if it’s different because it’s the body that his soul belongs in touching him, or if it’s the fact that he’s not actually panicking (and that shower is still fresh enough in his memory to have a few lingering shadows of a fantasy where his hands are all over Jason’s body), but he’s not given time to puzzle through any of it.

Tim’s laptop beeps.
A rapid pattern of three short, thee long three short, one sustained for three beats.
It’s an SOS from the Teen Titans.

Tim doesn’t think before he grabs his laptop and flips the lid.

“Finally,” Bart huffs, vibrating so violently he sounds like he’s shouting through a fan. The camera can’t even pick his image up quite correctly. “We’ve been trying to ping you for hours, man. You, like seriously, can’t do this to us. Like, ever. You’ve never not answered before, like never not answered before, so why the hell did you not answer?”
“Bart.”
Cassie’s bark is enough to make the speedster’s rant fall silent, but he keeps up the vibrating thing that shows he’s gotten really worked up. Tim’s impressed that he’s still in the Tower instead of right outside and banging on the impenetrable interstellar-alloy of the Cave’s fifty-foot-thick door.
While Cassie steps aside with Bart to force him into a more stable resonance, Kon takes over the video-interrogation—blue-eyed glare glowing just a touch red with the hints of laser vision straining at the loose leash of his quick temper.
“You’ve dropped off the map, Rob. That doesn’t happen without a reason.”
“Everything’s fine,” Tim huffs without thinking.
The heat in Kon’s glare multiplies by magnitudes. “Wasn’t talking to you, Zombie.”

Jason smoothly takes over, abruptly realizing how critically he needs to.
“Cut it out, Kon,” he snipes. “Jason’s right, everything’s fine. It’s just a Family thing.”
“You know how we feel about your ‘Family’,” Kon returns.
Jason expertly rolls his eyes—a perfect imitation of Tim’s own typical exasperation.
“Yes, yes. You think they’re a ‘problem’ and ‘unhealthy’ for me,” Jason prattles off, quoting directly from an argument Tim has rehashed with Kon countless times—he didn’t think any of those arguments had been in front of any camera a Bat could hack, but it’s honestly impossible to know for certain with how often these tensions have come up in the last year.
“They take advantage of you, treat you like dirt, an—”
“And they don’t repeatedly try to shame me out of a decision I’ve made,” Jason retorts.
Kon swallows the rest of his sentence, bitter and furious but thoroughly cowed.

“Seriously, though, Rob,” Cassie says, coming back to center. “What’s up?”
“It’s a Family thing,” Jason repeats.
“You have to give us more than that,” Cassie insists, holding firm like the true-born leader she’s growing well into being. “You can’t just ignore an SOS for a ‘family thing’ without it being an emergency on its own. And if it is an emergency, we ought to be informed.”
“You can’t help.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Cassie gripes, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re one of us and that means you owe us a reason. You need to let us decide if we can help.”
“Fine.”
Jason’s grumble only buys him a few more seconds and they tick by with painful starkness in the silence.
Tim takes over for him, knowing his teammates better than Jason ever could. He spins a story that they’d be able to swallow. “It’s the kid,” he drawls. “The Brat Wonder got exposed to something and it’s not pretty. Replacement here just can’t bring himself to openly admit to being worried about the little monster.”
“Damian? He’s… hurt?”
“Gassed with something, I think,” Jason picks up. “But he’s… being nice.”
That’s enough to make the others pause, disbelief in the idea that Tim would make such a statement candidly making it easier to barrel though the hesitation to accept the reasoning.

“So, why are you with the other one who’s tried to kill you,” Kon asks, still fixed on the least important detail in the mix.
Tim doesn’t want to grant that question the dignity of an answer. If he were still holding the laptop, he would’ve closed its lid immediately.
But Jason doesn’t know about all the different layers of insult and argument that Kon’s packed into the question. Jason doesn’t have any reason to know, so he can’t dodge the trap.
(Which, if Kon were a more astute arguer, would be a red flag on the body swap issue.)
“He’s gotten better, he’s over that,” Jason replies. He’s projecting enough strength to fool the Titans, but the façade isn’t strong enough to fool Tim.
Jason isn’t sure.
He’s not certain that what he’s saying is true.

Which probably means that it’s not true, not entirely… that the notion is apparently not as utterly ridiculous as Tim believes. Or maybe just wants to believe.
Apparently.
And it’s not just a Pit thing, or Jason’s soul in Tim’s body wouldn’t have any reason to be unsure about it right now.
It’s apparently a Jason thing.
They’ve been civil for a while now, friendly even.
They’ve been working well together and they’ve almost been behaving like genuine friends during this ridiculous body swap—almost like how they’d used to be… before. Well, not quite like before… before Jason died Tim had mostly been a hinderance, but at least they’d actually been friends. Now, they’re almost-friends, but Tim’s actually pulling his own weight.

Or… Tim had thought they were almost friends.

But the nearly undetectable tremor is still there in Jason’s voice when he says, “I mean it. Guys, seriously. Jason is not going to hurt me.”
“So, why don’t you wear short sleeves when you go back ‘home’ to Gotham,” Kon asks through gritted teeth. “So, why do you still wake up screaming his name? Why does your heartrate kick up by ten every time a report comes in that he’s back on-planet?”
Jason’s too shocked to do more than maintain the aloof, indifferent façade.
And even that begins to falter as Kon takes the opening Tim’s never been stupid enough to give him in any of their arguments: “If you’re really so sure he means it when he says he’s not gonna hurt you anymore, why are you still so afraid of him?”

Tim snatches up the laptop, pulling it out of Jason’s hands.

“Chill out, beefcake, I get that you’re like four years old, but some of us have the emotional maturity to understand that physiological response latency is not indicative of genuine sentiment,” Tim snipes mercilessly. “And I’m sure if you ask nicely, the big kids at the Tower will explain what all those big words mean while we go back to trying to help our vicious weasel of a little brother, now. M’kay? Ciao.”
He slams the laptop shut and skips straight to the ‘ripping out the battery’ level of Kdrama histrionics to get his point across about not wanting to be disturbed.

Tim manages to stop himself from throwing the thing against the wall of their cell, but it’s a near thing and when he relaxes enough to attempt setting it down gently, his knees give out and he collapses—falls straight into the blanket nest Jason had abandoned only a few brief minutes ago. He sets the laptop aside, laying it gently on the floor, and then he snags the corner of a blanket and yanks it with him as he rolls over.
“We’ve probably got two hours before they give up trying to hail me, so the laptop’s gotta stay off for a while,” Tim growls. “We may as well try to get some rest in the meantime.”

He doesn’t hear Jason move right away.
And he can’t quite keep track of how much time is passing.
But eventually, he feels Jason nestle back into the wild pile of blankets—close enough to reach, but only just…

A wave of exhaustion hits him as Tim wonders how long it’s going to take him to dig his way out of the hole he’s just been pushed into regarding Jason’s ability to ever trust him again.
He should spend a while formulating a strategy, a PR report and press release—find a way to get a handle on this before Jason even gets the idea to ask him any questions.
But the exhaustion’s hit hard, and the lure of a few hours of oblivion—where he won’t have to conscious acknowledge that he’s a complete and total screw up—is too tempting to make resistance a reasonable option.

He’s entirely out before he’s even fully resigned himself to the inevitability of it.

 

________

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 16 – Family Fissures

 

 

            Coming back to the Cave like this is… not how Jason would’ve wanted to do it.

 

            He’d just started feeling comfortable enough to spend a few hours at a stretch in the venue without an emergency case that requires all hands on deck to keep him here—well, at least he’s been feeling not-uncomfortable enough not to be chased out by his own nerves when he wants to take a few turns about the mats with Bruce’s state of the art training dummies.

            He’d even spent a few afternoons goofing off, sometimes with Steph, and sometimes with Dick, and always with Tim—always, Tim—just playing around on the obstacle course, shooting the shit and messing around and daring each other to perform high style feats of epicness.

            Sometimes they’d even have a few drinks together.

            Sometimes more than a few.

 

            It had finally, finally started to feel like something other than a trap.

 

            But if the dark glares being sent their way by the others as Babs leads them up to the main tac table, Jason’s pretty damn positive that he’s not gonna be welcome back for a while.

            A long while.

 

            Babs lays it all out, cool and clinical like.

            Tim is seething beside him through it all.

            Jason just feels tired.

 

            Scratch that, Jason feels exhausted.

 

            He can’t remember when his last hit of caffeine was, but his body is so desperate to chip away at his ridiculous sleep debt that he can’t even sense a craving.

            No one interrupts as Babs talks.

            No one jumps to say anything after she finishes.

 

            It’s only after a long pause—which would probably be awkward if Jason could bring himself to care at the moment—that the silence breaks because Bruce manages to wrangle the situation into a mission that he can divvy up and control.

            The moment he states, ‘This is now our top priority’, the flood of questions erupts.

            Babs controls the tide of it, skillfully keeping things calm enough to give genuine answers to the queries that she has any answers for.

            It buys Bruce enough time to make a plan.

            As soon as the flood is stemmed, Bruce takes command, doling out orders like an evil Santa Claus giving out candy canes. It’s hard to tell whether the analogy shouldn’t be as funny as it is, or if half the reason it’s funny is because it’s too creepy to really suit the scene.

            Either way, Jason takes a moment to marvel at the lack of bitter bile clawing up his throat as Bruce gives out his judgements.

 

            “Jason and Tim are benched,” he says. Voice flat and cool as ever.

            The words hit like physical blows.

            Jason’s not sure if it’s his own crumbling self-worth that makes him feel like bleeding out from shrapnel spray might be more fun, or if Tim’s hard wired for self-hatred. But with Family like this, who really needs a toxic kind of cultural norm to make a kid consider cutting back on breathing for a bit?

            The news that he’s officially disappointed Batman enough to get himself benched is such a harrowing blow to weather that Jason doesn’t even hear the others’ assignments.

            He just hears the somber chorus of ‘yessir’s that echo when B’s finished.

 

            A snort escapes unbidden.

 

            But the pause that follows presents an opening that Jason can’t resist.

            “You can’t just sideline me and Tim, this is our problem. We’re not diseased, and we’re not bleeding out,” Jason growls. “And if you really think the Bat Brat’s got anything on Tim’s research skills, you really are goin’ senile.”

            “Jason,” Bruce chastises, but Jason isn’t having it.

            “Nuh-uh,” he retorts. “I ain’t a stupid kid anymore, B. You can’t tell me what to do.”

            With a stabilizing breath, Bruce sighs, “If it comes to sedating you, I will do whatever is necessary to ensure your safety in this circumstance.”

            That makes a dark chuckle escape from Jason, biting and vicious and desperate in a way that’s almost terrifyingly sinister when coming from Tim’s higher register.

            He draws breath to make another comment, but Tim beats him to speaking.

 

            “Jason. Enough,” he snaps, voice cold in a way that is all Tim behind the icy burst of blisteringly well-contained temper. “Bruce is right. My judgement is compromised, and for all we know, my research abilities are as well. Don’t make this any worse than it has to be.”

            He sounds so defeated at the end there that Jason can’t help but glare right through him, to turn the fight inside his veins on Tim because Tim’s clearly already in the ring with himself.

            But Tim storms away before he can speak up—heading towards the showers.

 

            Jason stares after him, feeling that exhaustion creeping back up behind his eyes.

 

            He can feel the Family’s stares on him.

            Lets his eyes fall closed as he waits it out.

 

            Dick breaks the stillness first—punching through it somehow to mutter, “I’ll get the rooms set up.”

            “I’ll grab snacks and soft things and a change of clothes that should fit,” Steph says afterward, voice a little bit stronger than Dick’s.

            They both move off and then Cass disappears, Alfred heads upstairs, and Bruce moves with Damian to face the Batcomputer.

 

            Jason still doesn’t move.

 

            He doesn’t move for a while yet, even after the others move off.

 

            When he does move, it’s towards the showers. He doesn’t rush, but he only lingers because his muscles feel like cement in the final stage of curing.

 

            It must not be too long though, because Tim’s shower is still running when he steps out—clad in some of Tim’s usual thermals, a towel around his neck to catch the drips from his hair.

            Still, it’s been long enough for Dick to get two cubicles of the med bay swapped over into isolation cells. Void of anything but a mattress and blankets—all settled on the floor in case whatever landed a Bat in here to start with leads to seizures or something equally dramatic.

 

            Dick’s just finishing up with finishing touches on the cells, piling on a whole basket’s worth of the blankets Steph dropped off into the room probably meant for Tim—well, Tim’s body. It’s barely been two minutes since he stepped out of the hot steam of the showers, the water in Tim’s hair hasn’t even lost its residual heat, and yet Tim’s body is already shivering like he’s standing naked in the snow.

 

            His appearance startles Dick.

 

            “You shouldn’t be wet, Tim,” he says on autopilot, frowning with concern. “You know— or, Jason. Jason. Sorry. You, uh… you need to dry Tim’s hair off. He gets sick easy.”

            Dick’s already fondling the towel, already all up in Jason’s space—almost frantic as he scrubs at the moisture in Tim’s hair. He barely manages to make himself step back when he realizes his mistake—hands hovering worriedly until Jason’s own take up the task.

            “Why does Tim get sick so easy?”

            Jason barely realizes he’s asked the question out loud until Dick’s face scrunches up as she struggles to figure out how to answer it.

            “He um…” Dick’s eyes dart down to a spot under Tim’s shirt. Jason’s hand rises unconsciously to rub at the weird little divot in Tim’s side where one of his ribs sticks out oddly above a particularly deep scar. Dick’s body language collapses as he spots the gesture.

            “He’s got a compromised immune system,” Dick confesses. “He’s missing his spleen.”

            Jason frowns. “What happened to it?”

            Heartbreak clear on Dick’s face, he says, “That’s not my secret to share. If Tim didn’t tell you on his own… I—”

            “You don’t think he wants me to know, I get it,” Jason huffs with a shrug.

 

            There’s a tense pause between them.

 

            But Jason can’t move on without asking, “Was it me?”

            Dick softens at that, and Jason can’t bear the weight of pity in his gaze—but he has to hear the answer or his throat is going to close up and choke off his air.

            “Oh, Jay,” Dick breathes—probably not meaning to say it out loud. Intentionally audible, he says, “No, Little Wing. It wasn’t you. I promise. The damage that you did healed. Most of it didn’t even scar. And Tim… Half the reason I’ve been angry at you for any of it is that Tim never was, not even a little bit.”

            Jason’s suddenly not sure if that answer makes him feel better or worse.

            If any answer would’ve made a difference.

 

            “It’s gonna be okay, Little Wing,” Dick promises, moving in cautiously for a half hug. “We are gonna figure it out in time, get you switched back, and everything’s gonna be fine. Nobody’s in trouble either. I just wish you felt like you could come to me… I thought we were doing okay.”

            It’s a lot to unpack, and Tim’s body has seized up on Jason at Dick’s cautious contact—frozen in place, but aching to lean into the warmth of his shoulder. The kid is so damn touch-starved, it’s got even Jason feeling sorry for him…

            Especially as he feels the thrill of fear slide down his spine.

            Tim needs a hug like most people need air, but it’s like the only air he’s got available is mostly methane and just as likely to kill him as save him.

            Jason’s familiar with the sensation—from reactions in his own body.

            But Jason was a kid in Crime Alley. He got beat on as a child.

            Tim… he’d never figured out Tim’s whole deal when they were kids—regrets that now.

 

            The sensations in his borrowed body is grounding rather than distracting—its familiarity allowing Jason a piece of confidence in his ability to parse through all this.

            The switchback thing is fine. Ish. He’s willing to bet on the Bats at this point, with all of them involved it’s only a matter of time before this puzzle’s cracked. He is a little worried because of how emphatically insistent Dick was in asserting they’ll fix this.

            In time.

            That’s the tricky part.

            Still, smart money’s on the Bat Brood.

 

            The ‘nobody’s in trouble’ bit is what gets Jason.

            He knows Dick knows he needs to hear it, he’s always needed that assurance, but what odd is how severely Tim’s body reacted to hearing it.

            This level of visceral relief is not natural.

            Like the touch-starved thing.

            The exhaustion thing.

            The coffee thing…

 

            “Tim is not okay,” Jason blurts eventually.

            Dick stiffens. Then forcibly relaxes himself.

            “How so?”

            Ignoring the question, Jason word-vomits, “When you get us switched back, you gotta take better care of the kid. Okay? I know Dames is your priority, but Tim needs you Dick.”

            “What about you?”

            “I don’t need your help,” Jason replies in a huff, thoroughly thrown.

            Dick, absurdly, almost chuckles. “I know that, Little Wing. I was talking about Timmy, why don’t you look out for him when you get switched back?”

 

            Jason can’t answer that.

            Can’t admit out loud the he knows he’s not gonna be allowed to hang around here much after this, that he’s probably not gonna be allowed within fifty feet of Tim ever again.

 

            He shrugs out of Dick’s hold.

 

            “I’m tired, Dickwad, so shove off, eh?”

            Dick looks wounded, but he forces his usual level of brightness into his voice as he says acceptingly, “Sounds like a plan. Comms are online. I don’t have to lock you in yet, but shout if you need anything and don’t disappear on us, okay?”

            Jason grunts an affirmative.

            And burrows into the pile of blankets Dick deposited on his mattress.

 

            He settles down and tries not to think about how hurt Dick sounded when he said ‘I thought we were good’.

            Because they were good.

            Jason had finally gotten comfortable with Dick again, as comfortable as he’d ever been with Dick growin’ up. It had been more than Jason had ever dreamed plausible.

            He couldn’t explain to Dick that the reason he couldn’t come to him with a problem like this was that he couldn’t bear watching as the new faith Dick had in him—the faith he’d had to fight for with every ounce of goodness still left inside his shriveled zombie heart—faith he knew he still didn’t really deserve, wilt and crumble and erode back into the bloody mistrust it had been when Tim first pulled him kicking and screaming back into the Family fold.

            Jason tries so hard not to think about it that he avoids thinking about anything.

            Falls asleep before he realizes it might be possible.

 

            He doesn’t dream, but he feels the shadows of something dreamlike moving through his mind as he lets the comforting numbness cradle him.

 

            The not-dream turns suddenly, at the sound of his voice—his real voice, from his own body. The sound of it sets Tim’s body on high alert, though it doesn’t quite pull him from his almost dreams well enough to wake him.

 

            And then he hears a pained gasp slide out on his own body’s throat.

 

            That wakes Tim’s body like a shot.

            He’s bolt upright and staring wild-eyed at milky white walls before he’s fully processed the idea of trying to come awake.

            “Sorry,” he hears distantly. “Everything’s fine.”

            The assurance is warm, earnest.

 

            Jason blinks the sleep from Tim’s fuzzy eyes and focuses on his own face—sitting in the cell across from him, leaned up against the far wall.

            They’re sealed in to the isolation cell.

            Together.

            Probably a bad idea, though it’s too late to do anything about it now.

            Jason weighs the merits of punching out on coms to get Tim moved into his own cell—decides against it when he sees Tim tense up like a rabbit out of the corner of his eye.

 

            Dropping his gaze, Jason searches for something to start a conversation that won’t have them at each others’ throats in the next few minutes.

            Adjusting a blanket by Tim’s shoulder as a shiver threatens to make him shudder, Jason huffs, “You run scary cold, you know that?”

 

            Tim shrugs. “It made insulating the Red Robin suit against thermal scan detection that much easier. And the temp control coils I’ve got rigged up to enhance the insulation effect are powered by kinetic batteries so I can use it to keep warm in the winter and cool in summer.”

            He doesn’t say anything in response to that, barely able to swallow how matter of fact Tim’s answer had been. Not even a millisecond’s pause to flinch away from how cold gets him sick because he’s missing an organ that he doesn’t want to tell Jason about.

 

            A beat of silence later and Tim surprises him.

            “How do you feel? Other than cold.”

 

            Jason huffs.

            He doesn’t have the energy needed to project a strong front.

            He settles for honesty. “Still sore. Exhausted. Like I’m stuck on the side of a hangover where puking it out is really the best option.”

            “You’re nauseous, too?”

            “Too?”

            Tim nods. “Started after we sparred, I think. I can’t be sure it’s not just because of how humiliating all of this has been, but I’m still feeling it now, so...”

            The cubicle suddenly feels quite small.

 

            “Part of the switch?”

            Tim shrugs in response.

            Jason sighs into the weighted quiet. “So, now we just wait?”

            Tim shrugs again, admitting, “So, now we just wait.”

 

            “I smuggled your laptop in here,” Jason mentions after a beat of sullen quiet.

 

            It had been an unconscious act, an automatic muscle movement. He’d snatched it off the lip of Tim’s workbench as he passed. Dropped it in a half full basket of blankets when he’d stepped into the cell and realized that Dick hadn’t yet spotted him.

 

            Across from him, Tim lights up—face going slack and blank as what looks like awe washes out the rest of his possible emotions.

            Jason can’t guess at all what Tim’s thinking.

            For a minute, he thinks it might be… good.

            But it doesn’t slide way, or dissolve into a small smile.

            It just stays shock.

 

            Jason can tell it’s not quite a panic attack.

 

            But he can’t tell enough about what it is to know how it should be handled, so he falls back on treating it like panic.

            He’s across the room before he consciously makes to move.

            His palm is flat on Tim’s chest—Jason’s own chest—and he’s muttering nonsense even he can’t understand about how Tim is gonna be just fine, how Jason’s gonna make sure of it himself, how things are gonna be better.

            Promises.

            Tim doesn’t hear any of it.

 

            But then his laptop screams at them, Morse code. SOS.

 

            Tim clearly reacts on ingrained instinct, grabbing the laptop and flipping open the lid.

 

            “Finally,” the speedster kid huffs, vibrating so violently he sounds like he’s shouting through a fan. The camera can’t even pick his image up quite correctly. “We’ve been trying to ping you for hours, man. You, like seriously, can’t do this to us. Like, ever. You’ve never not answered before, like never not answered before, so why the hell did you not answer?”

            “Bart.”

            The Amazon chick makes her speedster shut up, but he’s still worked into a pretty solid panic and she has to step aside to make him calm down.

            When she moves away, the Kryptonian clone-boy steps up, glare glowing red with the kind of blindly sanctimonious fury Jason’s very familiar with facing down.

            “You’ve dropped off the map, Rob. That doesn’t happen without a reason,” the Kryptonian accuses, a sinister glare in his eyes as they bolt away from Jason wearing Tim’s face to Tim himself behind Jason’s face in a painfully blatant leveling of blame.

            “Everything’s fine,” Tim huffs without thinking.

            The heat in Kon’s glare multiplies by magnitudes. “Wasn’t talking to you, Zombie.”

 

            Jason smoothly takes over, abruptly realizing how critically he needs to.

            “Cut it out, Kon,” he snipes. “Jason’s right, everything’s fine. It’s just a Family thing.”

            “You know how we feel about your ‘Family’,” Kon returns.

            Jason expertly rolls his eyes—a perfect imitation of Tim’s own typical exasperation.

            “Yes, yes. You think they’re a ‘problem’ and ‘unhealthy’ for me,” Jason prattles off, really hoping he’s quoting from an argument he’d eavesdropped on from conventional camera hacks and not his backdoor into the Tower’s mainframe.

 

            “They take advantage of you, treat you like dirt, an—”

            “And they don’t repeatedly try to shame me out of a decision I’ve made,” Jason retorts.

            Kon swallows the rest of his sentence, bitter and furious but thoroughly cowed.

 

            Seriously, with friends like this… Jason doesn’t know how Tim’s still sane, let alone alive.

 

            “Seriously, though, Rob,” the Amazon says, coming back to center. “What’s up?”

            “It’s a Family thing,” Jason repeats.

            “You have to give us more than that,” the Amazon insists, holding firm like the true-born leader she’s growing well into being. “You can’t just ignore an SOS for a ‘family thing’ without it being an emergency on its own. And if it is an emergency, we ought to be informed.”

            “You can’t help.”

            “Doesn’t matter,” the Amazon gripes, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re one of us and that means you owe us a reason. You need to let us decide if we can help.”

            “Fine.”

            Jason’s grumble only buys him a few more seconds and they tick by with painful starkness in the silence.

            Tim takes over for him, knowing his teammates better than Jason ever could.

            “It’s the kid,” he drawls, spinning a story like the goddamned genius he is. “The Brat Wonder got exposed to something and it’s not pretty. Replacement here just can’t bring himself to openly admit to being worried about the little monster.”

            “Damian? He’s… hurt?”

 

            “Gassed with something, I think,” Jason picks up. “But he’s… being nice.”

            That’s enough to make the others pause, disbelief in the idea that Tim would make such a statement candidly making it easier to barrel though the hesitation to accept the reasoning.

 

            “So, why are you with the other one who’s tried to kill you,” the Kryptonian asks, still fixed on the least important detail in the mix. Clearly, it’s not the least important to him…

            Jason knows the look in the clone boy’s eyes.

            That’s a fury that’s not just protective.

            That’s possessive.

 

            “He’s gotten better, he’s over that,” Jason replies, struggling to gage how valid the Clone’s assertion is that he’s got some right to being Tim’s sole protector. Jason knows that Tim would attempt to defend him—he always has before, to both the Titans and the Family—but would he do it to the Clone if it were just the two of them, alone?

            Would he still want to?

            Would he even have to?

 

            If… if he and the Clone are intimate… if they’re partners

            Tim might let himself doubt his conclusions about Jason that he so vocally asserts to the Family. With someone that he really trusts… Tim might not feel the need to lie.

 

            It’s crushing, to see the Clone’s vehemence.

            It’s almost as disheartening to see how no one else is at all surprised by it.

            Tim’s gone stiff beside Jason, but in a more embarrassed kind of way than a scared or angry way… Like even Tim is fine with this Supers’ clear claim on him.

 

            A sliver of him—stupidly, ridiculously—rejoices.

            He’d thought for a long while that Tim wasn’t interested in guys at all. He’d only dated girls in public, after all. Jason heard rumors of a fling with the Clone, but until now he hadn’t seen any real evidence of it.

            In one fell swoop, Jason realized his boyhood fantasies of possibly romancing Tim into his bed had not been entirely idiotic—and also realized that while Tim might now consider him an option, he was already off the market.

            Of course, he was.

            Like, how could he not be?

            Tim Drake is the richest man on the planet under the age of 40 and he’s hot enough to slay without even trying. He’s a fucking genius, personable, snarky, frickin’ hilarious and just so unbelievably, obviously perfect that there’s no way he’d ever be without a mate to warm his bed if he wanted one.

            And while Jason personally finds the Super pretty damn pretentious, he can admit the Clone’s got a decent leg up in looks. And being a Super meant he could protect Tim in a way Jason could never hope to compete with. He’s also probably an awesome lay.

 

            Wrenching his mind away from his wallowing, Jason shores up his defense of his own character. He knows better than anyone alive that he won’t hurt Tim.

            The he could never hurt Tim.

            He thinks he keeps the tremor of defeat out of his voice as he concludes, “I mean it. Guys, seriously. Jason is not going to hurt me.”

            “So, why don’t you wear short sleeves when you go back ‘home’ to Gotham,” the rotten Kryptonian asks through gritted teeth. “So, why do you still wake up screaming his name? Why does your heart rate kick up by ten every time a report comes in that he’s back on-planet?”

            Jason’s too shocked to do more than maintain the aloof, indifferent façade.

            He knows Tim needs him to maintain the pretense, so he does.

 

            But his mind is reeling.

 

            He’d known that the friendliness between them had always felt a bit forced, but he’d hoped it was just lingering tensions—a habit of being on guard that would fade eventually. If Jason ever managed to really prove himself…

            But as the fuckin’ Clone rears back to deliver what he clearly feels is a killing blow, Jason realizes that he’s probably just been kidding himself this whole time.

            “If you’re really so sure he means it when he says he’s not gonna hurt you anymore, why are you still so afraid of him?”

            The Clone’s glare shifts towards a triumphant smirk as his eyes bore into the man he believes is Jason Todd—hovering over his boyfriend’s shoulder. In fact, all the Titans are looking at Jason, which is good because it means that none of them see Jason’s façade crack.

            Beside him, Tim’s apparently also starting to break. Though how and why his mask is failing are questions Jason can’t begin to ask.

            But clearly, something in him snaps as the Clone’s smirk bears his teeth in threat.

 

            Tim snatches up the laptop, pulling it out of Jason’s hands.

 

            “Chill out, beefcake, I get that you’re like four years old, but some of us have the emotional maturity to understand that physiological response latency is not indicative of genuine sentiment,” Tim snipes mercilessly. “And I’m sure if you ask nicely, the big kids at the Tower will explain what all those big words mean while we go back to trying to help our vicious weasel of a little brother, now. M’kay? Ciao.”

            It’s a vicious closer and Jason’s feels his own smirk twitch to life.

            At least until Tim slams the laptop shut and rips the battery out.

            Until he sees how Tim just barely manages to stop himself from throwing it against the cell wall and letting it shatter into a million pieces.

 

            Until he watches Tim half collapse into the pile of blankets Jason himself had vacated only minutes ago, gingerly setting the laptop aside and curling up with an obvious air of defeat.

            “We’ve probably got two hours before they give up trying to hail me, so the laptop’s gotta stay off for a while,” Tim growls. “We may as well try to get some rest in the meantime.”

 

            Jason doesn’t respond to that.

            He doesn’t move, either.

 

            He doesn’t find the will to move until he sees Tim’s breathing even out and slow like he’s fallen asleep at long last.

            When he’s pretty sure Tim’s out cold, Jason crawls into the blanket pile as close to him as he dares to get. It breeds a guilt that eats away at him, but Jason wants to take this moment to be close to Tim—closer than he’d normally dare.

            Once they get switched back, Jason will disappear—go off-world again, maybe, for a while, at least. And then he’ll stay as far away from Tim as Gotham’s city limits allow.

            He’ll work on getting Dick to do better with him, but Jason himself is obviously very bad news for the poor kid. He doesn’t just technically endanger Tim, he terrorizes even his dreams.

            Tim’s still actively afraid of him, and just pretending not to be.

 

            Jason had figured that much out on his own, but for some reason the realization hits a lot harder when coming in the form of accusations from Tim’s friends. Seems like he’s told them enough of what bothers him about Jason for them to know without a doubt what Jason’s only barely managed to prove.

            Knowing Tim’s afraid of him, even knowing he has every reason to be afraid, is a very different feeling than being told that Tim’s afraid.

            Than being told that other people know how Tim’s afraid and that those people blame Jason for it, unequivocally.

 

            Jason’s lungs are struggling to pull enough air in to keep him conscious.

 

            It’s hard not to connect the hurt back to Dick’s own confession… ‘I thought we were good’ he’d said. Jason had almost felt bad for him, but only almost. He’d been too caught up in thinking it was just Dick’s usual overbearing care-giver nonsense pulling on his heartstrings.

            But this… this hurts like a kick to the throat.

            Jason had thought he and Tim were good.

            Jason had apparently been very wrong about that…

 

            He struggles to fall asleep, Tim’s body keeps giving feedback to his brain with twitches of nervous energy and every time he manages to fall into a fitful doze, something jars him back to wakefulness. It’s not just insomnia, it feels like it’s habit almost… Like Tim’s trained himself to keep himself away from sleep without something very specific triggering the fall.

            He’s got the start of a coffee craving clawing at the back of his brain, but that’s still something he could ignore if he knew how to make Tim’s brain shut down and stop replaying a rundown of the data they have on their current situation—or even if he could keep the parts of him that are Jason enough to be replaying the conversation he had with Dick or the Titans.

            It seems like Tim’s trained himself away from overthinking the social dynamics of his continuing (and still rather adorable, despite how many years its been) ineptitude with talking to people. Instead of overthinking the conversations, every time Jason’s thoughts drift that way, Tim’s brain supplies and intrusive burst of data from their case—interrupting the spiral before it can start in a constant cycle of distraction.

            For all its worrisome implications, it’s still kind of a genius solution to prevent him from falling into the same trap of perpetual angsting that Dick and Jason tend to fall victim to… It is a bit too close to B’s solution to feel comfortable with observing it, but it doesn’t feel like an utterly insurmountable problem. Not yet, at least.

 

            Being in physical contact with Tim helps, too.

            He’s not sure it’s entirely because of the switch’s influence.

 

            It’s like Tim’s whole being just short circuits a bit when his skin brushes Jason’s—probably would react the same with anyone’s skin because of how starved for physical contact Tim clearly is, but the reaction’s severity is probably augmented by the change, and how Tim’s body is desperate to be closer to his mind.

            Just the back of Tim’s hand brushing against Jason’s exposed forearm is enough to make Timmy’s brain blue-screen itself into a relative calm.

            When he curls close enough to feel the warmth of Jason’s back through the pile of blankets he’s wrapped up in—curls closer than Jason would ever otherwise allow himself to be, especially considering all the new information he has about Tim’s outside circumstances, Tim’s being settles down enough to allow him to catch a few hours of reasonably decent rest.

 

            It’s not enough to make much of a dent in Tim’s sleep debt, but it’s something.

 

            When Jason wakes next, the white walls of the isolation cell have turned dark grey as the Cave was powered down into its daytime standby mode.

 

            Unable to bear the feeling of being trapped, a sensation made worse for how separated they are while stuck in a bubble kept almost outside reality, Jason taps off the privacy setting, dropping the polarization and turning the polymers clear again.

 

            The Cave is lit by the dim blue glow of its lowest power setting, with a bit of additional light pouring off the screens of the Batcomputer as it runs a data crunch, probably analyzing the DNA samples the others had no doubt snagged from them for any inconsistencies with the profiles already logged for them. The lack of an attentive audience tells Jason that no one is expecting the computer to come up with anything truly useful.

            Still, due diligence and all.

 

            And the Cave isn’t completely empty, Dick’s there using a secure tablet to video chat with the Teen Titans from what Jason can see. They’re not Tim’s Titans—not at first. Dick’s got Zatanna on the line, and Raven. He’s obviously going the black magic route to see if they’ve got any avenues with which to help his body-swapped brothers.

            By Dick’s expression, things aren’t going well.

            And then the call gets interrupted by another group of Titans, the ones currently residing in the Tower on active duty.

            Seeing just the caller ID makes Jason seize up in half-fury, half-panic.

 

            The only face on the screen when Dick accepts the call is the Amazon’s—Cassie Sandsmark. She looks grim. Jason can’t hear what they’re saying, and he’s not quite good enough at reading lips to get more than a basic understanding of what they’re discussing.

            Apparently, Cassie herself has had some interactions with the shade of the woman who was once Cleopatra—has been attempting to interrogate her on Themiscrya. The shade doesn’t seem to recall many specifics about the enchantment on her mirror, but she was able to confirm that the key to keeping the mirror’s magic at bay was knowing exactly what you wanted and going after it with everything you had. She also states explicitly that the swap is unusual, but honestly understandable with how obviously fixated on each other Jason and Tim have been.

            With Dick facing away from him, Jason can’t tell how his almost-brother replies.

 

            And suddenly, he can’t quite bear that circumstance.

 

            The isolation cell is set up as a medical containment unit at the moment, not a genuine imprisonment. It’s the way it’s usually set up for Bats who come back with some sort of mental incapacitation—a drug altering their ability to discern reality. Between Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Joker, and a few other (lower rent) Rogues, there’s more than enough people with poison as their primary weapon around to keep the Bats in constant need of a place to detox.

            The isolation cell has a prisoner mode, meant to keep people inside at all costs.

            Jason is one of the very few of the Bats to have had the distinct displeasure of personal experience with that mode—he’d only escaped because Batman had failed to ensure he was fully sedated before opening the door to collect a blood sample. It was a horrible memory and his desperate run towards the secure freedom of Crime Alley had been nightmarish, but it was years ago and Jason is passed it. Mostly.

            He knew the Bat Brat had been a guest of the Cave in one of these cells set to prison mode, as well—right when he’d first arrived on the Gotham scene. Damian had never escaped. He’d been released after his story’s details had been confirmed.

            Jason’s pretty damn certain that not even Bruce could really get out of here if the settings were adjusted appropriately.

 

            But the cell isn’t in prison mode.

            It’s in medical mode.

            And when drugged up vigilantes come down from their toxic, reality-altering highs, medical mode has an escape option—so the Bats can limp their way upstairs in the aftermath.

            There’s a pass code, and the occupant needs to submit their hand to a scanner that checks that their heartbeats are steady and within normal parameters. There’s also a finger prick blood draw to test for elevated levels of any hormones or any lingering traces of known compounds.

            With clean blood, steady vitals, and the pass code of the week, the medical mode of these isolation cells can be escaped.

 

            Jason hadn’t wanted to escape, not really.

            He was pissed at Bruce for benching him, but even that hadn’t been anywhere near enough to make him truly want to blow his chance to have the Bats input on getting this fixed.

            Even now, he doesn’t want to run exactly…

            But he needs to hear how Dick responds to Cassie’s opinion of their mutual obsession.

 

            Jason’s out of his cell in a heartbeat. He’s drifted halfway across the Cave before he even consciously realizes what he’s doing.

            He’s close enough to hear that Dick sighs in response to Cassie’s statement—heavy with the weight of too much understanding.

            “Jason doesn’t want to hurt him, Cassie, I can promise you that—on my honor as a former leader of the Teen Titans, as Nightwing, as Robin, as Dick Grayson, even,” Dick swears to her. “Whatever you need to believe me, Jason doesn’t want to hurt him.”

            “That doesn’t mean he won’t,” Cassie returns, voice soft enough to make the blow of a logical conclusion cut as little as it can. “Tim’s scared. He’s not okay, especially not with Jason. I know he’d never admit it, because he’s so convinced that he has to be certain, but what Kon’s been saying about him is true. He gets nightmares and wakes up screaming Jason’s name. He won’t talk about them afterwards, but we’ve all heard it. And Kon reports an alarming uptick in all his vital signs when Jason’s name is even mentioned off-handedly.”

            Dick lets out a pained noise.

            “He… he doesn’t sleep here,” Dick admits eventually. “When he’s in Gotham, at least since his scheme to get Jason to come back worked, he’s only stayed a week or two at a time—unless Jason’s off-world. And he doesn’t sleep at all while he’s here, certainly not inside the Manor. He’ll catch a nap in his Nest, but otherwise… And he won’t expose any skin, he’s always in his thermals—covered to his wrists and ankles. Which you’ve said is unusual?”

            “Highly. He’s too lazy for real clothes half the time here,” Cassie asserts. “And since it’s warm, he’s usually wearing compression shorts and an open zip-sweatshirt. Sweats and a hoodie if he’s just showered or something. Maybe a tank top and an oversized sweater falling off his skinny ass shoulders. Most of it he steals from the rest of us as desired. You’ve said he doesn’t even touch what isn’t his while he’s out there—we honestly didn’t believe it the first time.”

            “I don’t know,” Dick admits, sounding utterly defeated.

            There’s a quiet moment as Cassie lets him pull himself together.

            “I don’t know,” he repeats, quiet but more collected. “He believes in Jason, I know he does. And Jason is the last person in the world who wants to hurt him.”

            “How can you be sure of that?”

            “I just… You have to trust me on that,” Dick asserts.

 

            And suddenly, with all the abruptness of a plane crash, Jason realizes that Dick knows.

            He knows about the stupidly inappropriate crush that Jason’s still harboring from when he and Tim were just kids—from before everything got so screwed up.

 

            A strangled noise escapes Jason as abject horror boils its way up his throat.

 

            It makes Dick straighten, head tipped to listen for any hint of more—but whatever echoes reached him weren’t quite enough to make him need to look around for the sound’s source.

            Jason takes the opportunity to center himself while he waits for Dick’s attentiveness to relax again as he stands down and turns back to focusing on Cassie.

            “Just believe me when I tell you Jason won’t hurt him—that he’ll do everything in his power to prevent it,” Dick says. He’s not quite begging, but it’s a very near thing.

            Cassie makes a huff, expression going cross with a flutter of reluctance, but she stays silent in the end—visibly swallowing down a protest.

            It spurs Dick on enough to add, “And if Tim’s still scared, it’s not because he wants to be—not because he really feels that way. It’s just the underlying muscle memory of it. If he’s lying to us all, it’s only because he doesn’t want the lingering limbic response latency to confuse the issue when he knows that Jason won’t hurt him.”

            “How can you be sure that he really knows that, though?”

            “Tim’s always believed in Jason, always,” Dick declares. “Even when they were kids, if he and Jason fought, he always assumed that he’d done something wrong to trigger it.”

            Cassie’s frown only strengthens. “That’s not exactly healthy, either.”

            “Yeah, we know that. But it is a separate issue. It’s not fear,” Dick counters. “Tim would walk through hell for Jason without a beat of hesitation. He already has. And with what happened with Ra’s al Ghul when he needed help to get you guys and Bruce back… Nothing’s really been okay for him since then, since long before then, honestly. I wouldn’t be so sure that Tim’s dreams are about him dying… even the ones where he wakes up shouting Jason’s name.”

            “You haven’t seen him after them, though,” Cassie says, imploring.

            “You’re right. I haven’t. I have no proof for you, nothing I can say to convince you, but Tim has never doubted Jason and Jason would die before he let himself hurt Tim,” Dick says with an air of definitive certainty.

            The statement effectively closes the argument.

            Cassie sighs and promises, “I’ll keep investigating. I’ve got some books here from the Themiscrya archives that might have something in them that can help.”

            “Thanks, Wonder Girl,” Dick breathes.

            “You know us Titans,” she responds. “We’d do just about anything for our Robins.”

 

            They say their farewells and Dick blacks out the screen—lowering his head to the desk before him as he sets the tablet entirely aside.

            He groans into the crook of his elbow. The muffled sound is still filled with enough anguish to make Jason’s knees—Tim’s knees, really—tremble with a bolt of weakness.

            In order to stay upright, Jason has to stagger forward half a step.

            The motion scrapes across the Cave floor—flip flops being excellent shower-shoes, but fairly wretched stealth equipment.

 

            This time, the disturbance makes Dick’s head shoot up, and his eyes fall immediately onto Jason’s frozen form.

            “Jay? What’re you—”

            Jason doesn’t give Dick the time to properly formulate a question, let along to voice it.

            His own voice sounds like a strangled cat as he professes, “I can’t be here anymore.”

            “Jason, no,” Dick pleads.

 

            But it’s too late, Jason’s spun around and charged away—heading towards the garage area. He’s leapt aboard the nearest bike before Dick has made it to his feet.

            He’s gone before Dick makes it to the edge of the garage bay.

 

            Dick’s words still echo down the tunnel after him, audible despite the roar of his bike’s vicious growling engine.

            “Jason, wait,” he cried. “Please don’t run away from me, Little Wing.

 

            I want to help.

 

            I love you.

 

            I understand.

 

            Jason can’t bear to even think about the conversation he would have to have with Dick if he stayed. He wouldn’t be able to stay quiet about his supposition that Dick knows about his crush on Tim—and if he brought it up, Dick would have to confront him on it.

            And with all the details of why the way he still feels is just so wrong, Jason can’t imagine that explaining himself will be at all survivable.

 

            Jason’s not really aiming for a destination as he roars away from the Cave, he just knows that he needs to get away.

            The shadowy rooftops of Gotham’s skyline sing out like a heavenly beacon of safety to him and Jason lets go of any hesitation he has to loose himself in the intricate grid work of it.

 

            He streaks into the vibrant colors of the sunrise and lets his mind go numb.

 

 

            He honestly can’t say whether or not he plans on ever coming back.

 

 

 

________

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 17 – Night Terrors

 

 

            Tim always sleeps well when he’s back home in Gotham.

            Too well.

 

            It lets him delve into the darkest recesses of his dreams—accessing the fodder for his nightmares in a way that’s so much more visceral than anything he ever suffers though while he’s sleeping somewhere far away from home.

            While he’s been inside Jason’s body so far, it hasn’t been too bad.

 

            And even now, while he’s riled up and angry enough to be distracted from his usual bedding down mental rituals, he can feel Jason right beside him—he can feel the skin of his arm brushing Jason’s and can feel it as Tim’s own restless body curls up as close as Tim has ever let himself be. He’s so pathetic that his body’s own muscle memory exploits Jason’s drowsiness—using the mental incapacity to maneuver itself close to the warmth of Jason’s body.

            It should be awkward—embarrassing.

 

            But Tim can only find it calming.

 

            It’s calming enough to let him drop into a sort of sleep that’s not just black oblivion as unconsciousness drags him down to pay his sleep debt off at last.

            It’s a healthier sleep; a genuine, restful sleep.

 

            A sleep that lets him dream.

 

            He dreams—as he all too often does—about Jason… about Jason dying again. At the hands of the Joker, at the hands of some other Rogue, by some mistake of Tim’s own making…

            Jason always dies.

 

            Sometimes he comes back.

            Those dreams are even worse than when Jason stays dead.

           Because unlike reality, in Tim's dreams Jason only comes partly back— mostly, he comes back to kill Tim, and as soon as he succeeds, he dies again himself.

           Or... or just like in reality, when Jason comes back, and then 'gets himself right', and starts the process of rejoining the Family... Tim does something or says something or just exists in a way that makes Jason give it up, makes him bolt, makes him run away for good... And nothing Tim can do will be enough to bring him back.

 

           Those are the very worst dreams... the ones where Jason has to face everything alone, where it's Tim's fault he feels he has to be alone...

 

            It’s Tim’s own fault they are.

            He did it to himself.

            He asked Ra’s to show him the Lazarus Pit—to show him what it looked like when a person was immersed in it’s toxic green waters. What it looked like when one came out.

            Tim now had very explicit imagery to work with in imagining the horror Jason faced.

 

            And with the actual residue of the Lazarus Pit itself running through his veins while he resides in Jason’s body… everything about the reaction is that much worse.

            Visceral in a way that threatens to kill him outright.

 

            He wakes up screaming—wakes up fighting.

 

            Shreds the blankets he’s ensconced in.

 

            His eyes scan frantically for Jason, knowing he had not been alone when he’d fallen asleep—knowing that he shouldn’t be alone now, not with how they’re supposed to be on lock down… but the isolation cell is empty but for him, the privacy walls returned to clear and the door itself gaping open with what feels distinctly like an accusation.

            Jason’s body is moving before Tim’s mind can even register it—hating the way it feels like he’s still locked inside a cage, made more aggressively unbearable by the lingering panic of his nightmare’s deep rooted barbs of psychological issues he won’t deal with.

            Tim doesn’t even know where he gets the phone—doesn’t even know if it’s actually one of Jason’s own burners or one he just pulled from the pile—but it’s in his hand and he’s dialing a number that Jason’s body knows by force of carefully trained instinct.

            “Jason?”

            The voice belongs to Roy Harper.

            “What’s wrong?”

 

            “I—” Jason’s throat is closed up too much to speak, even his breath is struggling to escape in more than strangled gasps of panted wheezing.

            “Another nightmare?”

            Tim makes an effort to push out some sound of assent.

 

            It works well enough to communicate it to Roy.

 

            “Anyone in the crossfire?”

            The shock of realizing that the question is asking if Jason’s sleeping with anyone, the shock of realizing it’s a necessary question—a normalized question—which, in turn, means that Roy thinks Jason has a bedmate often enough for it to matter, makes the fight flood out of Tim.

            “No.”

            “Look, man, I know you don’t think it’s safe for anyone, but you have to know by now that things are better when you sleep with someone,” Roy huffs. “And with someone in the Life, you’re much less likely to hurt them when this happens. Look at how you always are with us.”

            “I don’t—I can’t…” Tim is utterly unable to articulate anything, particularly why Roy should not be having any conversation half this intimate with him right now.

            “Seriously. We both know there’s no way that sweet piece of ass would ever turn you down, even for just a kosher bit of cuddle-time if you’re really still too uncomfortable with the idea of more without me and Kori there. You should just go for it with—”

 

            Tim hangs up before his brain connects the dots—his body knowing at a base instinct level that he cannot handle hearing about Jason’s sex life.

            His love life, apparently... at least, if Roy’s implications of a crush are correct.

            Knowing that Jason’s had regular sex with men and women who far outclassed what Tim could ever offer, knowing that Jason’s got his eye on someone for more than just sex…

            Knowing it, rather than just suspecting, is already enough to wound.

 

            Knowing who… well, that might just be enough to kill Tim.

           

            The phone in Tim’s hand beeps with an incoming text message.

            Unknown Number: I’m giving you three hours to cool off. Then we gotta talk it out.

 

            Tim doesn’t reply, and he’s comforted by knowing Jason probably wouldn’t either.

 

            Panic settled enough to let him look around some more, Tim realizes that the empty isolation cell isn’t the only emptiness that’s strange.

            The Cave is deserted.

            The Batcomputer’s screens are still working through their given tasks.

            The one running the DNA analysis has finished, and it’s citing a dangerous level of DNA destabilization, but they already knew that was happening. It doesn’t offer any other information. Which… Tim expected, but he still finds himself disappointed.

            But his eye is quickly drawn to a different screen, one tracing the Bats’ patrol trackers.

 

            Everyone’s out.

 

            Bruce is at WE with Damian, and Babs is at the Clocktower, as expected. Everyone else though… they’re out and about in places they are not supposed to be.

            Dick’s in Crime Alley.

            Steph’s in China Town.

            And Cass is in the City Hall District.

 

            Jason’s gone, and they’re out looking for him—checking out both Tim’s favorite haunts and the places they think Jason might’ve gone.

 

            With a sudden punch to the lungs, emotion causes Tim to seize up. It’s something between guilt and terror and regret. It makes his throat constrict and his eyes burn.

            Which… it shouldn’t.

            Tim really ought to have guessed that something like this was coming.

 

            Honestly, it was more surprising that Jason had stayed as long as he had, especially after the rest of the Family had gotten involved.

            Tim had enough trouble himself in dealing with the feeling of being cornered, Jason was even less likely to find the situation bearable. And even with an understanding of the fact that the Family would be much better able to resolve their current situation, the judgement of having them involved… the pressure to be right and have that rightness validated inherent in having the Family be party to resolving any issues… it was suffocating to Tim on a good day.

            It would have to be a thorny, strangling vine around Jason’s throat.

            Whatever had been the impetus that finally pushed Jason into leaving… it didn’t really matter. It wouldn’t have been something avoidable or anything that Tim could’ve effectively countered had he been awake to try—though the roil in his gut and the hushed whispers in the back of his mind were desperately attempting to convince him otherwise.

 

            If anyone could find Jason, and bring safely and cooperatively back to the Cave, it would be the tag-team of Dick, Steph, and Cass.

 

            Meanwhile, Tim should probably deal with the impending threat of the Outlaws descending on Gotham City to protect their friend.

            The easiest way to do that would be to preemptively call them on a line they feel confident in believing secure—one directly wired in to one of Jason’s established safe houses. He needs to get to Crime Alley to make use of one, but with everyone out of the Cave, it won’t be a difficult feat to manage a brief escape. Besides, he plans on being back before anyone else gets in, so he likely won’t even have to explain himself to the others.

            Tim grabs a comm and syncs it to his usual tracking signals—so that, on the very far off chance that someone came down to the Cave and noticed him missing, he could be easily tracked and contacted for a check in—and then he slips on a helmet and leathers, grabs his daytime street bike and peels out into the weak light of Gotham’s midmorning.

 

            He makes it over to the Alley in less than 20 minutes, blatantly ignoring any and all speed limit suggestions in way that makes good use of the arrogance assumed by his rich-boy upbringing and the skills gained by his nighttime occupation.

            The safe house Tim targets is another one of Jason’s more publicly known hide-holes but it’s not one that invites visitors. Tim picks the five deadbolts Jason’s installed on the apartment’s front door and slips cautiously inside. The tension he can feel in Jason’s shoulders relaxes significantly as soon as he relocks the door behind him—stress melting away as that last bolt slides home. It again draws Tim’s awareness to the exact degree of how physically uncomfortable Jason is inside places that should be locations he considers ‘safe’.

            It’s just sobering enough to prevent Tim from putting off his video call.

 

            Tim starts up Jason’s computer rig and puts out a broadcast hail to the Outlaws.

            All five screen on Jason’s work space light up. Three frames remain empty, one that links to what looks like a dorm on a space station, one showing the inside of a half-decent apartment that Tim doesn’t recognize, and the last depicting a plain white wall like the camera has been turned deliberately away. Tim can’t tell if they’re simply disused contact points maintained by the formally known Outlaws, or ones populated by the crew’s lesser-recognized affiliates.

            The other two screens have figures in them.

            One looks out on a workstation, with Arsenal and Starfire in view—both of whom quickly leap to attention and settle themselves visibly in-frame.

            Artemis and Bizarro are visible in the other one, sitting in some sort of mostly metallic environment—probably another space station locale.

 

            “Red Him!” Bizarro’s exclamation draws Artemis's attention, and soon both of them are huddled by the screen like Starfire and Arsenal.

            “It’s about time we heard from you,” Artemis grumbles.

 

            The others look set to chime in with their own thoughts, but Tim raises a hand to hold them back— collecting himself a moment before his confession.

            “Before any of you say anything further, I have to tell you something: I am not Jason Todd. I am Timothy Drake. Due to a strange arrangement of circumstances, Jason and I have temporary swapped physical bodies,” Tim explains. He steamrolls on over the burst of disbelieving noises and sounds of protest to say, “We have this situation under control. There is no reason for the Outlaws to get involved. Doing so will only complicate matters in terms of keeping things calm with the Family— serving to distract rather than to aid.”

            The declaration is met with silence.

            Mostly confusion, but it’s laced with no small smidge of frustration and animosity.

            “Red Him not him?”

            “Yeah, bud, that seems to be what’s up. Jason’s not Jason, right now. It looks like him, but that guy is Tim Drake—Red Robin,” Artemis confirms.

            “Pre-Birb?”

            There’s a distinctly hopeful lilt to Bizarro’s question.

            “Pretty Bird’s the problem, right now, not the solution,” Artemis huffs.

            Bizarro huffs back, “Pre-Brib always sol-mu-tion.”

 

            Tim’s gut is curling uncomfortably as the short exchange runs its course.

 

            It’s one of his worst fears to be faced with any of his Family’s outside friend-groups. He barely fits in with the Titans and he’s been their leader more often than not over the last five years. He can’t match Dick rapport with most of them, especially the former members, and even the little demon spawn has friends among their number. Steph and Jason make friends like they bring a basket of puppies everywhere they go, and Babs is Babs—socially well adjusted and legitimately sane and extremely friendly in all things.

            Cass doesn’t even talk to people most of the time and she’s got at least as many friends as Tim does, both in the Community and outside of it.

            It hurts like nothing else to be left out of the loop during a conversation that he’s supposed to be actively participating in…


            “Biz, Artemis, why don’t you guys stand down for the moment? You’re too far away to get to Gotham in any kind of reasonable time and we sent you out there for a reason. Keep up with your mission and if anything changes, we’ll ping you to come home.”

            The suggestion is voiced by Arsenal, in a way that makes it clear Roy is not suggesting anything. There’s not exactly a strict hierarchy in the Outlaws, but Tim knows from experience that there is a certain level of authority in precedence. Starfire, Arsenal, and Red Hood pretty much do whatever they want, but Red Hood is more or less the leader. And in his absence, that role falls to Arsenal. Starfire’s a loose cannon; but unless she truly feels strongly on a topic, she’ll defer to Roy and Jay for instruction. Scarlett, Bizarro, and any other associates they work with always play second fiddle to one of the first three.

            By choice and respect rather than direct enforcement, however.

            Artemis looks huffy, but Tim can easily see the relief below the emotional mask.

            She’s out of her depth and she doesn’t want to be needed here—Roy hasn’t benched her, he’s given her an out. She casts one last look and Tim in Jason’s body and then signs off.

 

            There’s a moment of silence in which it feels like everyone resists the urge to sigh.

 

            Then Roy asks, “You’re Tim?”

            “Yeah,” Tim admits fully. “I’ve been in Jason’s body for about three days. It was his muscle memory that had me calling you after I woke up from the—the night—”

            “The nightmare,” Roy finishes. His expression is shrewdly thoughtful as he continues deliberately, “You had a nightmare in Jason’s body. Your own nightmare or his?”

            “Mine, definitely mine,” Tim assures. At Roy’s raised eyebrow he adds, “I’m sure of it. This nightmare is a recurring one. It involves the deaths of people Jason’s never been involved with—people I’ve already lost once and refuse to put at risk again.”

            Roy holds his gaze evaluatively for a moment before giving an accepting nod.

 

            A beat passes and then Tim stumbles through saying, “I’m glad he has you. That he can call you when something like a nightmare happens while he’s here. I’m glad he’s not alone.”

            Roy nods again, but his expression drifts towards something cross.

            “He sleeps better with someone and he knows it,” Roy sighs. “He shouldn’t be alone at all, especially when he’s stressed. Having us available for a phone call in the aftermath is a band-aid, at best. It doesn’t fix anything and it’s barely a patch job.”

            Tim blushes and looks away as the heat rises in his cheeks. With Jason’s olive complexion, it would’ve likely been unnoticeable had Tim not felt compelled to look away.

            He doesn’t understand why Roy’s telling him this.

            “Where is our Jason?”

            Starfire’s question is light, non-concerned for all immediate intents.

            “He’s in Gotham,” Tim promises. “But he’s taking a breather away from the Family. I don’t know where he is exactly, or when he plans on coming back.”

            “Then how do you know he hasn’t left the city,” Roy asks immediately.

            Tim winces, even though Roy’s voice is not accusing.

            “I’m not currently permitted to leave the city without direct oversight to my destination and a clearly established and recorded reason to leave,” Tim manages to grate out. “I conceded to have a subdermal tripwire beacon installed on the back of my left arm. It only goes off if my body leaves the Gotham City limits without prior notice, so we can’t track it, but it hasn’t been tripped which means my body is still in Gotham.”

            Roy blinks, but blessedly doesn’t speak a response.

            Kori, however, has no such human qualms.

            “You conceded to this measure because you are a risk to your own safety, yes? Jason has been concerned of such,” she states.

            With a wince, Tim clarifies, “It’s only partly due to the apparent risk of active self-endangerment. The goal of my excursions has never been to harm myself, but the last few times I’ve left the city, voluntarily, it was to seek out Ra’s al Ghul. And the last few times I’ve left involuntarily it’s been with agents of the League acting on direct orders from him.”

            “So, it’s a reasonable cause for concern?”

            Tim answers Roy with a shrug.

            It’s a precaution, and it makes enough sense that Tim couldn’t form a good argument against it, but Tim is still hard pressed to consider it reasonable.

            The only real reason he managed to accept it was that if it were Jason in his place, if it were Jason being accused of going off the rails, he would want to go to any extreme to prove that it wasn’t simply a bout of madness causing the apparent derailment. Tim would want to prove that Jason could be reasonable, could provide explanation and demonstrate forethought. If the beacon was triggered, it would only be because Tim had failed to do himself what he would want to prove that Jason could.

 

            Swallowing down his emotional responses, Tim presents calmly, “The important thing is that we know Jason hasn’t left the city with my body. And I’m confident that he’s only taking a brief break from being in the Cave. It’s intense there, hard for anyone to bear, and if I had to take a break… Jason… Well, it’s not like this could be any easier for him.”

            Kori sniffs, almost dismissive.

            Tim can’t quite interpret the sound’s intended meaning.

            “Jay hasn’t called us, not in your body, at least,” Roy asserts. “So, you’re right. It doesn’t seem like he’s having any serious issues, not by his estimate anyway.”

            “His estimate is skewed,” Kori snipes, voice surprisingly mild considering the sharp barbs laced through each of her words.

            Roy side eyes her, communicating something on a level Tim can’t hope to intrude on, and then he turns back to Tim, asking, “Is this body swap thing something we should be concerned about? Any side effects or potential dangers you know of?”

            It’s automatic for Tim to lie, he’s halfway through drawing breath to spout off nonsense about how everything is under control—like he did when Artemis and Bizarro were still on the call—but he bites his tongue. Roy and Kori deserve better than that, and Jason deserves for him to have tried harder to make sure that his friends get their due.

            “There’s apparently a time limit,” Tim acknowledges. “The artifact that switched us is part of an ancient Egyptian mythology. We have two more sunsets before the switch kills us.”

            “Oh, is that all?” Roy growls. “How are you supposed to unswitch?”

            “We supposedly have unfinished business with each other,” Tim explains. “According to the legend, if we deal with that, resolve it, then we should just switch back immediately.”

            Roy and Kori share another impenetrable look, communicating volumes about what they gleaned from Tim’s comments in a way that discussed the issue as thoroughly as a dissertation.

            Their conclusion was clearly palatable enough to settle the issue for the moment.

            Kori shrugs and slides out of frame, leaving Roy to wrap this up alone.

            “I need you to give me a number or something that you think Jay might have on him,” Roy comments. “I need to get in touch with him, even if it’s just to reconfirm what you’ve said. I believe you, Tim, I do, but I need to hear it from him. And to discuss your ‘unfinished business’.”

            Tim nods, prattles off three numbers to burner cells he’s stashed inside his hoodies. He can’t remember which one Jason was wearing, but one of them should work.

            He hesitates to sign off the call, though.

            Roy can clearly tell, because he doesn’t move to do it first—even though he definitely has all the information he needs, and he’s got the pressing concern of contacting Jason on his mind.

 

            Patient as anyone Tim’s ever seen, patient as the kind of parent he knows Roy wants so desperately to be, Roy waits for Tim to gather the nerve needed to speak his piece.

            “That business… do you know what Jason’s issue with me is?”

            Roy’s expression contracts with sympathy.

            “Tim… I can’t tell you that,” he says, thickly apologetic.

            “But if you tell me now, I’ll have time to strategize,” Tim blurts. “If you tell me now, I’ll be able to plan for how to fix it before I go see Jason about it directly. If I know what I need to change, I’ll be able to go in to discussing it with him prepped with strategy options for him to choose from… in case… in case the first solution I come up with doesn’t work for him.”

 

            Roy sighs.

            It’s a sound that’s noticeably absent of any edge of pity.

 

            “Tim, I won’t break faith with Jason, even if you’re making it really difficult to remember why not while you’re wearing his face like that,” Roy remarks.

 

            Tim looks down, feeling the defeat weigh heavy on Jason’s shoulders.

 

            “You know, Tim, I can’t tell you Jason’s secrets, but you could always tell me yours,” Roy mentions, calmly serious despite the casual lilt Tim would normally associate with those words.
            “I don’t have any issues with him,” Tim answers automatically.

 

            Roy gives him a flatly unimpressed look.

 

            “I don’t,” Tim promises. “I—really, I don’t have any issues with Jason. Any issues I have that might be relevant are… are just my own problems.”

            Roy arches an eyebrow.

            Tim pulls in a few harsh breaths.

            And then, because it’s Roy, because it’s not the Family… not someone that Tim’s invested in making have a good opinion of him and it’s someone Jason’s body feels utterly relaxed around… because of all that, Tim finds he can elaborate.

            “It’s… really, it’s just me,” he says heavily. “Like, I’m still scared of him, on a physiological level, but it’s not his fault and I don’t want to be afraid, but I’m still on edge with him because his repeated attacks— even though I know they weren’t his fault— have trained a habit of fight readiness. But that’s not something I’m holding against Jay, that’s just my own mind I have to blame for it.”

            “That’s true enough,” Roy sympathizes. “But there’s nothing else? Nothing you think makes a direct connection to Jason feel acutely necessary?”

            If Tim were not entirely certain that Roy was taking this very seriously, he’d have to consider the possibility that Jason’s best friend was teasing him.

            But he knows how deeply Roy cares for Jason, and vice versa.

            They’d never let something like this become a flippant joke between them.

 

            “Yeah, Roy, that’s it. Nothing else is even significant enough to affect how well we can work together, or even just hang together off the clock,” Tim tells him firmly.

 

            “Just because it’s not enough to alter your behavior doesn’t mean it’s not significant somehow,” Roy counters, just as insistent. “Even small feelings have big ripples, and I somehow doubt that anything you can Jason could possibly feel for each other would be ‘small’.”

            Roy leaves off with that strange assertion, letting the discussion fall to silence. And then moves entirely away from whatever point he was making. He doesn’t try to press for more before he laces his fingers together behind his head and says, “I’ll connect with Jay, and ping the Cave with anything big that comes up. You or Jason need to check in with us in 24 hours. If you’re still not switched back, Kori and I are heading to Gotham, no protests. A’ight?”

            Tim concedes that he’s in no position to negotiate here.

            “Fine,” he acknowledges. “Understood.”

 

            With that, Roy signs off.

 

            Tim shuts Jason’s computer system down and rises to his feet.

            He stands, undecided, in the middle of the room for a solid five minutes before he recognizes that he has no idea what he wants to do next.

 

            He could go back to the Cave, but no one’s pinged him yet… And with Jason still on the run, and the sun still less than halfway through its circuit… there’s not much merit in being confined again to the Cave’s dark quarters.

            He could also head out to get coffee, or to the library to do more research… or he could just camp out on Jason’s couch—maybe even play an hour or so of a video game…

 

            Tim can’t focus enough to make a well thought out decision.

 

            He winds up heading for the roof.

 

            Things are always better when he’s on a rooftop, the breeze through the sky’s skyline always makes it easier to clear his head.

            So, he heads up to the rooftop and relaxes into the freedom that such an isolated spot represents for him.

 

            He gets over an hour on his own—maybe even two, of being safe and comfortable and calm, before anything changes and the time away is almost indisputably pleasant.

 

________

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 18 – Complications

 

 

            When Jason flees the Cave, he’s not exactly sure where he’s aiming to go.

 

            Wherever he thought he might end up, it certainly was not the rooftop of a swanky high rise packed with luxury condos in the Diamond District.

            The building was one chock full of an epic posh swank, with a rooftop garden enclosing a bar fit for a Wayne Gala cocktail hour—an elegant, overdone luxe that strangely did not make Jason’s skin crawl. Probably because Tim’s skin was used to it, this kind of pricey backdrop was the foundation of Timmy’s silver spoon childhood. It wasn’t just not-abrasive to Tim’s skin, it was under it—in his blood, in his bones, in every breath he breathed.

            It was just another example of the reasons behind why Jason and Tim didn’t belong anywhere near each other’s orbits, let alone in the tight circles of Family they’d fallen into with their feet trapped in the sinkholes of responsibility and affection and everything else that Family implied. Even before Jason had died, before he’d come back… even Before

            Jason and Tim had had no business being in any way associated.

 

            With everything that had happened After

 

            Jason barely deserved to look at Tim, let alone ever dare to serve as his backup on a case… ignoring completely how Jason wanted nothing more than to slot himself into an even more compromising role within Tim’s life.

 

            Refusing to think more on it— on any of it, what he wanted or how inappropriate it was or how impossible it was— Jason hauled himself up on top of a wisteria covered pergola. He was on his back in the full glare of Gotham’s weak, broad daylight sun but he’d never felt calmer or more well-hidden… Especially since he’d gotten stuck in Tim’s body.

 

            As Jason let the warm breeze— nipped with the chill of altitude found at sixty stories up—caress Tim’s face, he realized that Tim’s body had been on edge the entire time they’d been swapped. He hadn’t been able to tell because of how utterly permeating the feeling had been, but now that it was gone… It was a decidedly uncomfortably thing to have borne.

            He’d only felt close to this level of relaxed when he’d been turning in the evidence needed to keep Ludwig Massimo locked up with GCPD after their interrogation. While he’d been slipping through the city’s backstreets with a clear direction, a straightforward goal, and utter anonymity. The feeling then had been complicated by his anxiety over their swap, over not knowing what to do about it, and over Jason’s own worries about how the girls under his protection were faring.

            But now, he just felt free.

 

            He probably gets half an hour to fully enjoy it, maybe even a whole 45 minutes.

 

            But then the plants around him start to shift, and vines that aren’t wisteria writhe up and envelope Tim’s figure, lifting him off the pergola and depositing him— surprisingly gently— onto the shady rooftop below.

            Tim’s body doesn’t even tense as the vines wrap around him, not even when Jason’s own mind began to panic at the awareness that he’d been cornered unawares by Poison Ivy— out of costume and out of touch with any of the Bats who might back him up.

            That panic develops and even sharper edge as he realizes that Pamela Isley is not alone on the rooftop. Selina Kyle is with her.

            Neither of them look terribly pleased to see Jason—to see Tim

 

            Jason knows that Selina has always had a mild soft spot for Tim, and he knows that Tim and Pamela has a sort of mutually respectful accord… And Jason himself has never run too far afoul of either of them, even when he was actively hunting them down as Robin…

            But still, it’s hard to stay calm in the face of their clear disappointment in finding him hiding out on what was probably the private roof of their penthouse condo—well, Selina’s penthouse. Where Pamela clearly stays an awful lot, despite her continuing disdain for how modern structures fail to adequately integrate and preserve the wild environments they wreck while being constructed.

 

            “Hello, Miss Kyle, Miss Isley,” Jason spews, acting on nothing but Timmy’s muscle memory as his tongue articulates the greeting.

 

            “Hello, Timothy,” Selina sighs with the kind of fond resignation Jason almost remembers from the one time he’d seen Selina and Tim together while he was Robin.

 

            There’s a beat of quiet.

            And then Pamela sighs heavily. “Well, I’ve got a movie date with Harley. It was nice having lunch with you, Sel, but try not to need me for the next few days? Hm? Your Bat entanglements have no business threatening my current endeavors.”

            “Don’t kill anyone at the Vienna Summit and they won’t have reason to care,” Selina slides back at her, dropping her hand away from her temples and lifting her gaze to stare evaluatively at Jason in a way that makes Tim’s body want to curl up with self-consciousness.

            Pamela hums an accepting farewell, produces a big white flower from one of her vines, and tucks it into the short dark hair that brushes Selina’s ear as she saunters away. She’s still humming as she disappears into the building.

 

            Another beat of quiet hangs in the air when Pamela leaves.

 

            Selina’s still staring at Jason, and Tim’s body is still trying to shrink its way out of existence. It’s not a fear kind of shrink away unnoticed impulse. It’s more of an embarrassed and skittish and shy kind of response.

 

            “You haven’t been around in a while,” Selina mentions calmly. “Why don’t you come downstairs and have some milk and cookies?”

            Jason finds Tim’s body nodding automatically and his feet walk him along behind Selina as she leads the way down the elegant curve of wrought iron staircase that leads into the main penthouse—an apartment that’s even swankier than it looked like from the outside.

            It’s not exactly homey, too sparse and bare, and black and white, to make it feel very lived in, but there’s a few clear touches of love: a blood-red throw blanket that looks like it was hand-woven by an expert craftsperson for some branch of Prussian royalty, a Ming Dynasty tea set still steaming with the dregs of a fresh use, a top of the line Roomba trying desperately to climb a low stair while a pair of cats look on in haughty amusement…

            It seems like as much a home as Selina knows how to make it.

            And Tim’s body is completely at ease setting itself onto the plush black curve of the living room’s velvety couch.

            A tall glass of whole milk with ice and a generous plate of massive chocolate chocolate-chip cookies is set before him before he’s finished staring at the apartment’s décor.

            “Don’t worry,” Selina comforts, nodding at the cookies. “Harley made them.”

            She seems to think that should make Tim more inclined to eat them.

 

            Jason reaches out with an ingrained habit of politeness forcing Tim’s muscles to move. He nibbles cautiously on the treat and is pleasantly surprised to find the cookie utterly delicious—in a way that Tim’s riotous stomach doesn’t launch a protest against.

            He gets through a whole cookie while he and Selina half-watch an episode of Our Planet in crystal clear HD on a truly ridiculously massive tv before she tries to nudge the conversation towards a pointed query.

            “As nice as it is to have you dropping by more often,” Selina starts, oddly hesitant, “I have to wonder what has prompted this particular visit.”

            Jason forces the last bite of cookie down Tim’s suddenly uncooperative throat.

            “I—um… It’s just—just ah, a um, a Family thing,” Jason manages— focused more on trying not to let Tim choke… or puke… or possibly cry.

 

            “Of course, it is. It always is,” Selina soothes. The sound of her sharp tone is aggressive, pointed, and yet it’s not at all accusing in a manner than sets Tim on edge.

            She blames the Family, clearly and without compunction.

            And that leveling of blame is an easy lob that doesn’t cause Tim’s body to react at all, which indicates that it’s an old argument— one that’s hardly worth arguing any more.

 

            It makes Jason wonder what she means, makes him wonder how many times Tim has come here after a spat with the Family that leaves him feeling undervalued and unappreciated and useless in a way he never ever should… a way he knows Bruce specializes in eliciting.

            “If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine, as always,” Selina huffs—equal parts abrasively dismissive and warmly supportive in a way that makes Tim’s body shiver like he’s been hugged by a parent after a few years lost in the empty wilderness.

            Jason forces Tim’s body to nod—swears he hears the joints inside his neck creak with the resistance they present against the action.

            “But while you’re here, I do have a few presents for you… I’ve been meaning to get you to try the new suit on,” she says as she looks at Tim with a sultry and conspiratorial smile.

            When Jason can’t get his blank expression to shift beyond a baffled blink, she goes on to say, “I know, I know. You don’t want to play Stray on the streets, but you have to admit the few times you’ve gone out with me have been fun, right?”

            Tim’s body nods without Jason’s input, leaning slightly forward with the apparently powerful muscle memory of how obviously wonderful it felt to run the rooftops alongside the sleek shadow of Catwoman.

            “Just try the new costume on and we’ll go from there, hm?” Selina presses, adding, “You never have to go out with me, but you need to know the option’s always there for you.”

 

            Jason finds himself being shuffled into a guest bedroom—one populated with pictures of the Gotham City Sirens clearly photographed by Tim’s own hand and stocked with the kind of tech and comfy clothes from Tim’s own safe houses. While Jason’s mind is still reeling from the level of closeness he’d never quite realize Tim held with Selina Kyle, the woman in question is bustling about, collecting bits and pieces of black leather and armortec to assemble an outfit that she spreads across the bed.

            She’s gone and the door’s clicked closed behind her before Jason manages to refocus.

 

            His gaze lands on the outfit on the bed that he’s supposed to be trying on and his focus zips right on out the window again.

 

            It’s Stray.

 

            Stray.

 

            Not just an uncreative pet name given out to all the little kittens and proteges she’s ever adopted—either with intent to keep or on a temporary basis—but a focused, singular call sign to the one kid she’d ever expressed any kind of interest in…

            Selina Kyle had found Timmy Drake adorable.

            Catwoman had found him useful.

            Both sides of the morally grey independent operator had decided to mold the kid into the Stray she counted as an occasional sidekick and respected counterpart, to imbue him with all the grace and confidence and pride that he deserved to feel.

 

            Jason had encountered Stray before—several times.

 

            He first met the Cat’s new kitten while he’d been dressed in civies, drugged up on a visitor’s own special formula of super steroid—a villain from outside Gotham and a new sidekick on the scene Jason had no reason to think might know his face or the mask it usually wore.

            The whole encounter is still a bit fuzzy to him.

            Pretty much all he remembers is being unquestionably attracted to the kitten—drawn in by his bluntly sexual appeal and pulled into him further by the lure of his competence and confidence and that oh-so effortless charm.

 

            The other times remained more distinct inside his memory— if no less distracting and fragmented by the onslaught of pure sensation that his brain recorded from them.

            Rooftop flirtations and adrenalin high chases and quiet moments by the water…

            Holding each other at arms length, but spinning inwards towards each other like magnets on a shake table… Oh hell… Tim had been that kitten in the tight black spandex and armortec with the ass Jason wanted to bite bruises into…

            And Tim knew exactly who was hiding beneath the Robin mask when Jason was being crass and crude because he couldn’t keep a straight face trying to be sensual… because he wanted so badly to pull off flirting with an imitation of confidence.

            He’d flirted cautiously with Tim, too— as Tim— but he’d never let himself get close to dreaming up the fantasies that he’d imagined with Stray.

 

            But that was all Before

 

            When Jason almost believed that he might actually deserve to be happy— to love and be loved by a bombshell like Stray or a sweetheart like Tim…

 

            In the After

 

            While Jason had been trying to kill Tim, he’d openly propositioned Stray. Said a good fuck would be fun—do wonders for a kitten’s tight wound nerves.

            And that was his politest opener.

            He’d never pushed to forcibly satisfy the urges of the intense interest he bluntly professed, but he’d made it very clear that all that had truly caught his attention where Stray was concerned lay in the slinky black shadow’s most obvious and physical assets.

            Stray had never seemed the least bit ruffled.

            Had never shied away.

 

            Jason realizes now that Tim had used the Stray persona to get close to Red Hood and confirm his identity as Jason Todd without tripping any of Jason’s Bat alarms…

            He could’ve been just as uncomfortable as Jason had tried to make him, but had ignored even the very worst of it for the sake of finding answers—for the sake of finagling a course to draw Jason back into the Family.

 

            Jason had only ever really crushed on two people. Three, if you count the confusion of deep respect and gratitude he’d felt for Roy when they’d first become real friends.

            Neither Dick nor Kori counted.

            (If someone says they’ve never crushed on Dick Grayson, they’re obviously lying and probably just insecure in their own notions of sexuality.)

            ((And Jason had never met a person—human, alien, zombie, etc—who could even pretend not to be bowled over the sheer awesomeness of the actual goddess that was Kori.))

            Jason Todd had only ever fancied himself attached to Tim Drake and possibly Stray, and now he was confronting the idea that perhaps those two semi-serious attractions were one in the same—and that the attraction he felt was doubly powerful for it.

            And so much more contestably inappropriate to pretend at possibly pursuing now…

 

            Jason… Jason can’t stay here.

            Even as a small sliver of him wants to change into the kitten’s suit and feel the way the leather hugs his shape and take this one second he has to embrace the idea of holding Tim himself—in Stray’s outfit or any other—Jason knows he can’t give into the urge…

            Jason can’t stay, not another second.

 

            He’s halfway out the window before he even realizes consciously there is a window to escape through. There’s no fire escape, but Tim has clearly run this way before.

            His body moves on habituated instinct—clinging to the elegant molding, tiptoeing along the ledge, squiggling down the building’s intricately decorated corner until he reaches a wider landing. It’s a lower level rooftop bar, one that’s not private to the penthouse above, but only accessible to those residents of the lofty floors.

            There’s no cameras, because rich people like their privacy, and only basic security on the door—leaving most of the security intended to keep this floor isolated to the complicated computers in the elevators.

            But that security is designed to keep people from going up, not from going down.

 

            Tim knows that much too well, far too well…

 

            Jason hasn’t had to make a single conscious motion the entire trip back to the ground, meaning that Tim’s run the route enough times for the muscle memory to sink through to his bones. It’s as automatic to him as a commute to Wayne Tower from the Manor.

 

            For some reason, it’s easier to think about that—about the way Tim’s spent too much time with a super villain to stomach well— than it is to let his thoughts brush over the reality of Tim’s alternate secret identity as Stray.

 

            He’s all the way back home to the Alley, hauling himself up a fire escape to one of his favorite rooftop hideaways, before he gets anywhere close to screwing his head back on straight.

            Honestly, Jason probably wouldn’t be able to screw it truly straight on his own, but that doesn’t make the bite of being interrupted from his thoughts sting any less as a cautious Dick calls quietly, “Jason?”

 

            “The fuck you want, dickhead?”

 

            He doesn’t quite manage to focus his gaze on Dick, but the brief look he snatches shows Dickie-bird sidling over to him like he’s approaching a rabid dog in a back alley.

            Hell, he kind of is

            Even Jason can’t deny it—can’t even bring himself to try.

 

            “Jason? What happened?”

            Jason snorts half heartedly. “What? Hearing you chat with your tight Titans pals about how I’m just short of a raging lunatic ain’t enough to send me runnin’ off? As I recall it, took a lot less than that to make me hit the bricks back in the day…”

            “That’s different,” Dick dismisses immediately—not incorrectly.

            It must be pretty obvious that he’s unsettled in a way that’s not his typical kind of frustrated and angry.

 

            It certainly feels obvious.

 

            And he hasn’t the foggiest idea of how much of what he’s feeling is showing up on Tim’s face—blank little bastard that he is, when he does express something, it packs a wallop.

 

            “You’re my brother, Jason,” Dick states, apologizing, “And I’m sorry I keep failing to defend you to the Titans like I should. I’m sorry I can’t make myself let go of the last of this uncertainty. And I’m sorry that I’ve ever let you doubt me.”

            Try as he might, Jason can’t pretend the words don’t affect him.

            In his own body, he might’ve swayed—possibly fallen to his knees.

 

            In Tim’s… he collapses almost outright.

 

            He’s on his hands and knees as Dick crouches down and edges closer.

            Dick’s close enough that Jason can feel his heat radiating against Tim’s shoulder, but he’s not touching—though by the shaking in the fist that Jason can see on Dick’s knee, it’s basically killing him to keep his hands to himself.

            “C’mon, Jay… gimmie something, huh? What happened?”

            Jason picks out a bit of gravel on the roof between his hands—stares at it like it might start talking about the Truth behind the Universe’s biggest questions. He takes a deep breath, repeats the action until it’s more smooth than stuttered.

 

            “I wound up in Selina Kyle’s penthouse,” he manages eventually. “She gave me—gave Tim—some milk and cookies.”

            “She’s always had a soft spot for Timmy-bird,” Dick commiserates shakily.

            “He’s got a room there, Dick,” Jason chokes out. “He’s got his own closet.”

            Dick maintains that same attempt at providing some sort of comfort when he himself is in way over his head. “Full of oversized sweaters and big soft hoodies, I’m sure.”

            “And armortec. Black leather. High tech goggles… Dick, he’s Stray.”

 

            That makes Dick rock backwards—stunned as Jason was by the revelation.

 

            But his surprise has a far less visceral protest attached to it than Jason’s… and he rocks right back up close to Jason’s shoulder. “That’s quite a shock, Jay,” he agrees. “You’re sure?”

            “Yeah. Selina wanted Tim to try on the catsuit—she’s added something to it recently and wanted to hear Tim’s thoughts on the change,” Jason rambles.

            “You didn’t take her up on that? I know you’ve still got a thing for the kitten, the way you tried to flirt with him was one of the things that made me really think it was you under the Hood when you first came back to Gotham,” Dick coos, still sounding shakier than not.

            It prompts Jason to twist, to glare up at Dick’s innocent and deeply worried expression set only inches away from him. “Dick. I—I can’t… couldn’t… Dick, it’s Tim.”

            “Yeah,” Dick agrees, half a strangled chuckle slipping from his lungs. “You’ve always had a thing for him, too. You hid it pretty well, but big bro always knows.”

 

            Jason recoils, forcibly enough to make his right side collapse entirely.

 

            He tries to push away from Dick, ends up scraping a few inches across the rooftop before he gives up and just settles in to lying on his back.

            It’s a moment later that he feels Dick scooch in next to him, shoulders just barely touching as Dick lays down on his own back—keeping their heads on an even line even though Dick resolutely keeps his face pointed at the cloudy sky.

            They stay that way in silence for a while, a long while probably—though Jason’s not quite thinking clearly enough to count it out by the second.

 

            “That one looks like a dinosaur,” Dick says suddenly, tone low enough to pretend he didn’t hear if Jason doesn’t wanna cop to it. His arm is raised to point at the cloud he’s referring to, but if Jason had his eyes closed he wouldn’t be able to see that. “The duck face one.”

            “A hadrosaurus,” Jason murmurs back, as close as he can get to agreeing.

            “That’s the name,” Dick replies in thanks.

            Another moment passes in silence.

            “What does that one remind you of?” Dick asks eventually, voice still low enough to ignore, arm still low enough to pretend he doesn’t see.

 

            But he does see, and the cloud in question is distinctive.

 

            “It’s that ‘62 Cadillac you attempted to Bat be-dazzle with black sequins when you came home from college that last summer,” Jason snorts. “God, you were a nightmare, that poor car did not deserve such abuse.”

            “It was a cool car!” Dick defends playfully.

            “And you ruined it,” Jason retorts—not quite playful in turn, but as close as he could ever be expected to get… closer than he’d ever imagined, certainly.

            “I gave it more personality.”

            “It didn’t need more personality, it was a jet black sedan Deville with 12-inch wings, black and white leather detailing, and white-wall tires! Bruce gave it a laser canon! You made Lisa fucking Frank cry,” Jason snipes back at him. “That was the first time I ever felt better after watching a ’62 Cadi get torched by Firefly.”

 

            The two of them share a laugh, more open and free than they’ve managed in years.

 

            Even in this calm bit of now that’s come after the After… they’ve had a few good moments, a few truly fun ones, but nothing this… this raw and honest…

 

            When they fall silent, Dick gives things a moment to settle.

            Then he props himself up on one elbow, just enough make himself wholly visible to Jason—to make eye contact.

            “You and Tim,” he starts seriously, softly—slow enough to make it obvious that he knows he needs to give Jason time to tense and work himself down from it.

            “I can’t say I don’t have any reservations about it,” Dick tells him. “But the biggest one is probably that you’re both my baby brothers and I do not wanna know any details.”

            Jason frowns at him. Grits his teeth.

            Tries to find the words he needs to say to make it clear what’s wrong with Dick’s blasé attitude about this spiraling disaster.

            Dick beats him to speaking, though.

            “When you’re hurting, he makes it better. And when he’s hurting, you make it better,” Dick tells him soberly. “Beyond that, I don’t know that I’m really allowed to have a say right now. If something happens… if either of you start to spiral… Until proven otherwise, I think you’ll each be the best one to help work the other down. Unless you can give me a reason, I’m going to support you in this like I should’ve been doing with you and the Family. Okay?”

            “Okay? No, Dick. It’s not okay,” Jason huffs, distraught but not purely a reaction of baseless anger. “You wanna reason? How about I tried to kill him? Huh, wow’s that work?”

            “You did kill him, and then you saved him.”

            “It doesn’t just cancel out.”

            “No, no it doesn’t,” Dick agrees—still fully somber and intent. “But it still counts. I do have doubts, okay? I can admit that. I am honestly terrified that something might go wrong, but you’ve earned the right to be trusted and I need to let myself accept that. You deserve it, you both deserve it. I haven’t been half as trusting of Tim lately as I should be, either. Thinking that he was suicidal… I still haven’t let that go, I’m still treating him like a risk—like kid. But that’s on me and I don’t want this to be another misstep—not when it has the potential to be good.”

 

            Jason squints at him—utterly disbelieving.

 

            “Good? You think it could be good?”

            Dick nods and dares to show the slightest curl of a smile.

            “I think it could be very good,” he promises. “You were always good for each other as kids. It made you a little too daring, a little too reckless… but you’re both such train wrecks on that front already, now, so it really can’t get worse. And everything else about it? Even when you wouldn’t ever think about confessing, you took care of him, Jay, and I think you still can.”

 

            Jason pulls in a ragged breath.

 

            “But why on earth would he let me?”

 

            Dick clearly doesn’t have an answer to that—obviously, since Jason knows he can’t.

            But then Dick surprises him, again.

            He lets his smile slide a bit more into the open.

            “I honestly don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet it’s probably the same reason that you’d rather burn all your bridges with us than let him run himself ragged,” Dick tells him.

            His expression clouds slightly, turns black with a brief struggle of anguished fear and enduring guilt, before he whispers, “Probably the same reason you’d rather beat him to a bloody pulp by your hand directly than to see him killed off by his own. The same reason he’d rather turn to you when he’s bleeding out than to put his own ride on the autopilot he designed for it.”

            “He’s not alright, Dickie,” Jason says, reiterating his point from last night. “He’s still killin’ himself, just slower—keeping all the signs too hidden for even Bats to see the change. I mean it. His muscles all ache like he’s been hit by a car, he’s got scars as fresh as three weeks ago that’ve never made it into a report, and the way he’s actually addicted to coffee—the way he can’t sleep at all unless he’s half dead—none of it’s okay.”

            “You care, Jay, you really do,” Dick asserts. “So, I honestly think it’ll work out.”

            Jason snorts. “Seriously?”

            “I’m not sayin’ there won’t be rough spots, but, yeah… Seriously,” Dick affirms.

 

            The quiet slides between them again, but easily this time—comfortable.

 

            And then Dick has to turn it awkward.

            “So, my darling baby bro, how you gonna ask him out? I hear there’s a new cat café opening up on the edge of Chinatown—you could use the date as a segue into letting him know that you know about Stray?”

            Jason’s face flames up with embarrassed heat.

            He shoves Dick away from him and curls up on his side, groaning into his hands.

 

            “Ugh, I can’t just tell him,” Jason whines as Dick starts poking at his shoulder like the prodding little pest he is. “God. He’s gonna think I’m such a fuckin’ creep.”

            “Hate to break it to you, bro, but we’re all creeps,” Dick howls with a hearty laugh. “And I can tell you right now that your sweet Timmy-bird? He set a whole new bar of creep-tastic, when he was twelve, and he’s only gotten better at the creeper game since.”

 

            “Oh, god, Dick… what if he already knows?”

            “Knows you’re a hound dog in love with him or knows you know he’s Stray?”

            “Both,” Jason wails. “Fuck it. Either. What if he knows and has been pretending that he doesn’t so that things don’t get any more awkward?”

 

            That makes Dick cackle.

            “Dude. Tim’s even worse with managing his own emotions that Bruce is,” Dick pants out eventually. “I don’t think he could recognize a crush without someone else pointing it out to him! You know he’s never actually asked anyone out, himself, right? That he’s always been asked? Saints blessing to Steph for having the presence of mind to actually spell out the fact that she wanted to be his girlfriend for him. Even his fling with the Super was more fumbling and surprise in those first few days than any kind of proactive pursuit on Tim’s part.”

            It takes Jason a moment to parse all of that—another moment to make sure he actually understood what Dick was getting at with it.

            As he works it through, his own face curls up with a smile.

            “Yeah, he is pretty much shit with being a human, stupid little robot,” Jason rumbles, words coming out halfway under his breath.

 

            A moment passes, and Jason’s grin curls away. “He likes guys, though, right?”

            “Yeah,” Dick affirms. “He’s never been shy with admitting it—serves as a big time advocate for spectrum acceptance. It wasn’t until the Super that he found someone male he liked enough to actually date, but he’s had his share of casual flings—again, I’m not sharing any secrets here, the string of boy toys has been documented in all the gossip rags. And he’s told me some details in confidence that I can’t share, but I can promise lean well in your favor.”

            Dick’s salacious smile immediately makes Jason want to punch him, or jump off the roof, or throw Dick off the roof… or just something.

            “Fuck you, Dickface,” Jason moans, mortified. “I thought you didn’t want details.”

            “Oh god, oh god, I don’t—I don’t, I regret everything, I—hngh, no, Doamne Dumnezeu, I can’t un-think some of this…Timmy’s just a sweet, innocent little baby… a crazy-hot, hella kinky, sweet little baby—oh, my eyes,” Dick wails, clawing at his face as he melts down in something caught halfway between a wanton sex dream and horrified alter boy on the wrong laptop.

            “Serves you right, asshole,” Jason huffs, giving Dick a hard enough shove to make him roll away on the rooftop.

 

            When they manage to finally calm down from that unexpectedly cathartic outburst of awkwardness, Jason keeps his gaze averted to admit, “I don’t wanna go back to the Manor, yet.”

            “That’s fine,” Dick accepts. “I radioed the Cave when I found you, so they’re not out looking—they’re focused on researching this body swap thing. I’m not much help with that part of it, so why don’t you hang with me? We can do a little more digging into why Zhen Li suddenly decided to start kidnapping kids when his Empire had been doing pretty dang well without ‘em.”

            Jason nods and chances a glance at his older brother—sees nothing but an honest warmth and genuine suggestion in Dick’s expression. He’s not offering a ride-along just to babysit him in the aftermath of whatever this was, he’s truly stuck on why Zhen Li started taking kids. And honestly, Jason agrees. It is weird.

 

            They take the rickety old fire escape down to street level, stroll around the block to the bike that Dick abandoned when he’d spotted Tim’s figure scrambling up the building.

 

            It’s an easy ride—a comfortable ride—back across the city to Chinatown.

 

            They start at the club, rifle through all the paperwork and come up empty. They tap on all the walls looking for hidden rooms kept off the blueprints.

            Nada.

            They spend a few hours in a fruitless searching the club. There’s a few hints of something in the works, a few signatures that look wrong and symbols that look familiar, but nothing substantial enough to use. Just before they give up Dick finds the keycard to Zhen Li’s hotel room inside one of his falsified accounting ledgers.

            They’d known about the hotel, but thought the purchase was just perfunctory—something that needed to show up on a credit report as part of Zhen Li’s cover story for being in the city to start with. But finding the key to that room tucked inside a crucial ledger?

            Maybe it was more important a locale than they’d believed.

 

            The hotel was just across the street, so it was more than worth a thorough checking out, and neither Dick nor Jason felt the slightest twinge of hesitation when they glanced at each other to suggest heading over right away.

            They made their way up to his room, only beginning to move with caution as they opened up the door onto a dark interior. Maids leave the lights on, and there hadn’t been a do not disturb sign hanging on the door when they’d opened it up.

 

            Half a step inside, and suddenly, they realized it didn’t matter whether or not they’d moved with Bat-level stealth—the person waiting for them would’ve had them outclasses in any interaction and they’d never had a chance at pulling off a surprise.

 

            Ra’s al Ghul.

 

            Ra’s al Ghul was standing in the middle of the suite.

 

            “Detective,” Ra’s purred, pleasure laced with malice—and also… annoyance? “What an unsarcastically tardy arrival of you. I honestly expected your return to the nightclub hours ago, and that search should’ve taken you mere minutes. To have required use of the dead man’s key? It’s beneath you. I can only assume you’re acting to rebuild your adoptive brother’s fragile ego.”

            Dick and Jason both blink, side eye each other as they desperate seek a few more details to the story unfolding out before them.

            “Zhen Li isn’t dead,” Dick states, deciding to step as cautiously as possible until they get a little more information to work with.

            “Tell him, Detective, I’m sure you’ve checked on him. After all, I laid the breadcrumbs out for you so nicely this time,” Ra’s simpers.

            “You killed him,” Jason supposes.

 

            Something about the answer makes Ra’s squint.

            “You sound surprised.”

 

            “Disappointed,” Jason tries to current, schooling himself into Timmy’s coldest stance of utter indifference. It’s the only armor he’s got right now.

 

            Ra’s tips his head slightly to the side, still squinting.

 

            “Tell me, Detective,” Ra’s purrs again, this time the title of Ra’s odd respect for Tim coming off his tongue like an accusation. “Why have you been associating so closely with the nitwits you’ve embraced as Family? We all know they don’t deserve you. And this week you’ve hardly left their sides.”

            Tim would have a snarky retort ready.

            Something sweet and poignant, and somehow simultaneously alarming, about the importance of Family and sacrifice…

            Jason can barely maintain the icy cool calm of Tim’s special ‘serious face’.

 

            “Tell me, Detective,” Ra’s repeats, squint turning full-blown glare. “That is, if you can… which may be truly difficult for you, seeing as you are not the honorable Timothy Drake, are you? No… You… You are the mindless wretch my daughter took an interest in, the soldier she let slip away. Your soul in his body… Fascinating. Though, not quite enough to make up for Timothy’s missing out on the real game I had intended to lay. Perhaps you will prove a tempting enough bait to draw the true guest of honor into play.”

            “What?”

            Dick and Jason barely get in another glance at each other before Ra’s turns away with a dramatic sweeping motion that splays the layering of his robes.

            “Dispose of the stupid one, handle Timothy’s body with care.”

 

            Before Jason can even process the command, his whole world goes dark.

 

 

________

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 19 – Crisis of Conscience

 

 

 

            What shatters Tim’s otherwise pleasant afternoon—his downright lovely afternoon considering the circumstances—is a phone call.

            Not one he makes or one he receives, but one that he’s missed.

 

            A call from the Teen Titans.

 

            They hadn’t taken his hanging up on them well, but Dick and the others had managed to smooth things over well enough for them to settle down through the night—some standing back in a holding pattern with preparation to launch into action and some focused on doing research that might contribute to correcting the issue as explained in only the most abstract terms.

            But then Tim hadn’t responded to any kind of hail in the morning.

            He hadn’t even acknowledged receipt of such hails before proceeding to ignore them.

 

            He’d simply vanished.

 

            And with the Bats likely having to admit that he wasn’t in the Cave, with them having already been out and about in Gotham looking for Jason… it wasn’t a stretch for the Titans to assume that Tim was missing too, and very likely with Jason.

 

            Kon took that revelation with particularly poor grace.

            Like the barely six-year old child that he truly was in some deeply relevant and objectively critical ways, Kon had thrown a tantrum.

            One that caused him to disobey the direct orders of his Team Leader—that caused him to violate a legitimately written rule regarding Supers invading Gotham unannounced (one that Bruce actually worked into the formal bylaws of the Justice League)…

            That caused the emotionally stunted super-clone to fly his ass across the country, use his Supers’ abilities to search Gotham City for Tim and Jason, and—upon finding that he was unable to locate Tim’s heartbeat for some reason—seek out Jason with the brash idea of bloody vengeance behind what moved his hand.

 

            Tim has every faith in Cassie that she really did try to hold Kon back from his chosen course—Bart didn’t show up alongside him, so clearly she had taken direct and aggressive actions to ensure that her team stayed put until the issue could be addressed through the proper channels—but Tim is still hard pressed to respect her attempt as valid when Kon appears on the rooftop he’s been lounging on.

            There’s no real warning.

            Just a slight flutter of heavy fabrics and a slight breeze from the wrong direction.

 

            If Tim hadn’t been conditioned to be aware of what those subtle signs implied about the arrival of one of his very best friends, it’s fairly plausible that the foot Kon stamps down towards his chest—towards Jason’s chest—could have crushed his unarmored ribcage beyond repair.

            As it stands, Tim manages—just barely—to roll free of where the blow lands.

 

            In all likelihood, Kon wasn’t consciously trying to kill him.

            He probably wanted to rough up the man he blamed for Tim’s disappearance, probably wanted very much to injure him in a way he would remember for years to come, but Tim feels it was a decent bet that Kon wanted to interrogate him. It’s plausible that he only wanted to interrogate him prior to killing him, but still, that first blow likely wasn’t meant to kill.

            That doesn’t change the fact that it would have killed him if it had landed well.

 

            “The hell are you doing, asshole?” Tim screams at him, frustration and insulted pride mixing poorly with the adrenalin rush of a very real burst of terror.

            “Saving my best friend from the punk who murdered him,” Kon snarls back, taking a wild swing at him. The inelegant move wouldn’t have had a hope for hitting any of the Bats and, even with his fighting skills being muddled by his being stuck in Jason’s body, Tim easily side-steps. He pushes on Kon’s forearm as he dodges, a move that would send most opponents tumbling to the ground. It meets the iron resistance of Kon’s muscles like Tim’s pushing on a wall—as it always does and always will, but Tim will keep being frustrated by it because no matter how hard he tries to break the habit of hitting back, honed instinct won’t let him.

            “I’m not—Tim’s still alive, you idiot,” Tim shouts back, barely remembering himself enough to explain it in a context Kon would understand. “Tim’s fine.”

            “Then why isn’t he answering his hails? Where is he?”

            “I dunno, I’m not his keeper,” Tim returns, dodging another wild throw of Kon’s fist.

            Kon’s glare only deepens. “The last time he was with you, he got hurt and hid it from us for two weeks. He’s with you for two days and suddenly falls off the grid again? There’s no way it’s not related and I’m tired of having to clean up the bloody, broken mess you make of him.”

            “I don’t—he’s never… What? I don’t have any idea what the hell you’re talking about.”

            Kon’s glare intensifies. He attempts to use his TTK, but it’s never been very effective on Jason’s body for reasons they’ve never managed to fully isolate or explain.

            His pupils light up with red as he considers using his laser vision, but even in the throws of a tantrum Kon knows on some level that doing so would cross a line he’s not prepared to face the consequences of… Instead, he grits his teeth and clenches his fists at his sides.

 

            “Every time,” Kon pants, nearly shaking with the force behind his sustained frustration and fury. “Every time he comes back from Gotham he’s half dead with sleep deprivation and malnutrition. He’s even dehydrated. He’s always sporting new injuries, even when he tries to hide it. And his hormones… haywire. ‘Depression’, barely starts to cover it.”

            “Hormones? How do you know anyone’s hormone levels?”

            The rest, Tim can almost give him—he does run himself especially ragged when he comes back to Gotham. None of that is on Jason, but it’s almost reasonable for Kon to be concerned by it all. Tim can address the issue of his blaming Jason for it later.

            But the hormone thing… that’s… new.

 

            Kon blinks—sideswept off his main track and unable to reset himself.

 

            When Tim repeats the question, the authority of the Teen Titans’ Team Leader bleeding into his voice, Kon winds up explaining, “I’ve always been able to sense the chemical changes in most human bio-systems, and with the sensors and readouts Oracle installed last year, I’ve been able to connect the different changes I can sense to assessments from the computer.”

            Well, then…

            Tim apparently needs to have a conversation with Babs about this.

 

            He’d have guessed she was responsible even if Kon hadn’t named her.

            She’s the only person who could installed a new subsystem in Titans’ Tower’s monitoring array without Tim noticing it.

 

            “C’mon, man,” Tim whines as he processes through the implications of what Kon’s said about the new development in his abilities. “We’ve talked about this! Privacy. I don’t care that you’re worried about people, especially me, you can’t just act on things you learn without my telling you about them. If I wanted you to know, I’d tell you.”

 

            Kon blinks again.

            His effort to maintain his anger is weak in the face of his confusion, but it’s still successful enough to make his words come out as a growl when he accuses bluntly, “We have never talked about that, about anything. You wreck my best friend and then he lies about it.”

 

            His voice is rough, and his anger runs deep. But, even so, he’s calm enough for the tail end of his statement—the part that would normally be the most bitingly vicious—curl off into an almost defeated hesitance.

            It’s a status that encourages Tim to confess the truth of the situation—a status that forces him to acknowledge that hiding it will only make things continue to get worse.

 

            “Kon, I have to tell you something, and you have to listen to it,” Tim says seriously.

 

            Kon doesn’t react directly, but the non-reaction is enough opening for Tim to continue, cautiously explaining, “I’m not Jason Todd. I’m Timothy Drake, your old Robin, Gotham’s Red Robin, and the former leader of the Teen Titans. Jason and I ran into a magical object that somehow displaced our souls. Fortunately, instead of dying immediately, we wound up trapped inside each other’s bodies. We’re trying to find a way to fix it, but we kept it quiet because it’s the kind of Family distraction that a Rogue would love to exploit.”

            “Why should I even pretend to believe you?”

            The question shows he’s already halfway to fully believing the absurdity of the truth. If Kon didn’t recognize that the Jason he was facing wasn’t the Jason he had fought so often before, they’d still be throwin’ blows.

            “Because I’m pissed at you for being obnoxious,” Tim huffs. “Because I’ve told you a thousand times that I can handle everything in Gotham with my Family. And because I would have no other way of knowing that the only part of your stupidly buff and impervious Kryptonian body that’s ticklish is that small strip of skin on the inside of your thighs.”

            Kon gets flustered at the way Tim lays out the last one with such easy nonchalance and a flaming red blush crawls a slow path up his neck to the tips of his ears.

            His aggressive posture melts into an embarrassed, defensive one.

 

            Tim lets him have the time needed to collect himself.

 

            Standing patiently with his arms loosely crossed over his chest as he makes an obvious step back from being actively fight-ready.

 

            “Tim?”

 

            “Yes?” The answer is sarcastic, accompanied by an eyeroll—and that’s what seems to finally convince Kon of the truth in it.

 

            “Why wouldn’t you tell us?”

 

            This time, it’s Tim’s turn to blush—and he’s extremely grateful for how Jason’s olive tinted coloring means the visible reaction isn’t noticeable. It lets him ignore the fact that Kon doesn’t need to see it to know it’s there. From his heartbeat jumping up in pace to the sudden fluctuation of heat signature from the skin on his face, Kon undoubtedly knows.

            But still, Tim can ignore that.

            “It wasn’t anyone’s business,” he defends. “Besides, Jason and I thought we could fix it ourselves without making any kind of incident out of the issue.”

            “So, you didn’t even tell the rest of your Family,” Kon surmises.

            Tim evades, “We told them when it became apparent that not doing so would be both ineffective and of more detriment than aid.”

 

            Kon shot him a flatly unimpressed look.

            “They figured it out when you did something stupid and you had to cop to the fact that you’d already been lying to them for stars know how long,” Kon assumes.

            Cowed, Tim sighs, “Yeah. Yeah they did.”

 

            “How stupid?”

 

            “I botched an investigation of a world class asshole of a human trafficker so badly in nearly got us all shot,” Tim explains with a pained wince. “And I did it in front of Cass and Steph, so there was no way to just pretend I screwed up in a more normal way.”

            “You still caught the guy?”

            “Of course,” Tim scoffs.

 

            Kon is still tense, still angry. But with the target of his anger apparently removed from his line of sight, Kon’s more able to actually discuss the situation.

            “You hid the problem because Jason told you to, didn’t you?”

            “No, Kon,” Tim huffs—exasperation building. “I hid it because I thought we could fix it without making ourselves look like complete fools. I hid it because I didn’t want to be benched.”

 

            “You should be benched,” Kon replies, just as huffy. “You should be benched when you get caught by a stray bullet, even if it’s not a serious injury. For something like this? You should definitely be pulled off the job.”

            Tim grumbles, but honestly… at this point he knows better than to disagree. He screwed this up, big time. And he should’ve realized that soul displacement was not a minor injury he could hide while still performing up to par.

 

            “So…. How do we fix you?”

 

            When Tim exhales in a long, slow slide, he lets a lot of the tension drip away as well. If he’s learned anything about their situation in the last few days, it’s that he has no idea what’s happening or how to fix it or how to go about figuring it out.

            “I don’t know,” Tim admits.

            He faces Kon’s sharp look of suspicion with an honestly contrite expression.

 

            “You don’t know,” he repeats. “Do you even know if this can be fixed?”

 

            “We think it can, have reason to believe that the artifact is meant to make the proper reordering of soul fragments possible,” he explains. “Some theories even suggest that it might be the artifact’s original magic intention.”

            “To make family reunions that much more awkward?”

            “To make people with spilt identities and fractured lives face their problems, you know? Make them choose who they want to be,” Tim tells him.

            Kon responds with a heavy silence Tim doesn’t quite know how to swallow.

 

            Then Kon mutters, “Why were you even working with that guy?”

            He won’t look at Tim in Jason’s body as he asks it.

 

            “Our cases lined up, it only made sense to work together,” Tim informs the alien.

 

            Still grumbling in an almost inaudible mutter, Kon pushes, “Yeah, sure. I’m totally confident that this time—like it has been for the last thirty cases you’ve worked on with him in the past year—the reason your cases lined up has nothing at all to do with the ridiculously risky behaviors that your inappropriate crush on that psychopath encourages.”

            “Your totally offensive sarcasm has been noted and filed under the appropriate heading of the trash receptacle,” Tim snipes, meeting Kon’s glare with his own.

            “Why can’t you see how dangerous he is?”

            “I think I would know better than most people how dangerous he is,” Tim returns. “And I would know exactly why he’s not as dangerous as everyone keeps saying he is.”

            “So, either you’re delusional or negligent,” Kon fires back. “Because, yeah, you should know. And we all know you’re not stupid. Which means you’re just ignoring the truth.”

            “I’m not ignoring anything.”

            “You are. You’re ignoring everything about how unstable he is, how often he’s hurt you, and how your stupid crush lets you make downright stupid choices where he’s concerned.”

            “I do not,” Tim brushed off.

            That tips Kon temper over the edge. He leaps at Tim, grabbing him by Jason’s broad shoulders and giving him an involuntary shake as he retorts, “Yes, you do, Tim. You’ve asked him to beat you up—more than once. You’ve asked him to stab you.”

            “I only asked him to stab me because I knew he wouldn’t and I needed to shock him—to make him wake up to the moment,” Tim growls back, pulling out of the Super’s grasp with a sharp, instinctive movement from Jason’s body. “And I would always rather he beat me up than somebody else. I can take it better than any civilian could. It’s not his fault the Pit makes him lose track of who deserves the blame for things and we all know that enough of his hatred for me is valid so as to give his bloodlust actual satisfaction—let him get it out of his system.”

 

            “Tim, that is not okay.”

 

            “It’s not normal, but damnit, Kon, it’s the only thing we have,” Tim screams back at him, surprising himself with his vehemence. It’s the Pit, he realizes belatedly, it’s been snaking its way into his conscious thoughts from the moment Kon landed.

            Restraining himself, swallowing back the venom, Tim squeezes his eyes closed and tries again—realizing in the back at a detached part of his brain that Kon’s fallen silent and is letting him take a excessive pause to find the right words.

            “Jason doesn’t want to hurt people, to hurt anyone,” Tim explains. “It eats at him. But the Lazarus Pit… it’s monstrous, Kon, absolutely vile in a way I… I can’t—and feeling it, being in Jason’s body to experience it first-hand… I don’t know how he’s carried on with it.”

 

            Tim’s voice threatens to break on the last bit, his throat closing up around the words.

 

            “I can help him, Conner, really help him,” Tim goes on. “And I can fight well enough to make sure it doesn’t cost me much. It’s worth it. Objectively, it’s worth it.”

            Kon is still waiting, leaving him room to speak—hoping he still has more to say.

            “I’m a hero; if I can help, then I have to… and I can do this—I can help Jason recover, maybe even move fully away from the worst throes of the Pit Rage,” Tim summarizes. “The crush is just me being childish. That isn’t what complicates it. The fact that he’s Family is what complicates it. The fact that he was part of the Family and died and came back lost and hurting.”

 

            It seems to placate Kon somehow.

            “Look, Tim… I get that you really believe this is the right thing. But you have to listen to your friends when we tell you it’s not healthy.”

            “We’re superheroes,” Tim mumbles petulantly. “Nothing in our entire lifestyle is at all comparable to healthy.”

            Kon continues as if his super hearing didn’t pick up Tim’s muttered whining. “Cassie thinks we have to let you ‘make your own choices about who you associate with’, but I swear, if Jason ever hurts you again—accidentally or intentionally—I’m gonna kill him.”

            “No, you’re not,” Tim says shortly, tone clipped with the edge of uncertainty. “You’re one of the good guys.”

            With a snort, Kon concedes, “Well, I’m hauling his ass out into deep space and leaving him to float until some one from the Lantern Corps. takes pity on him.”

 

            It almost draws a chuckle out of Tim.

 

            Kon lets the moment settle, lets the tension relax, before he reasserts, “I still don’t like him. And I don’t like him for you.”

            “Nothing about him is for me,” Tim counters, flustered. Hands flapping uselessly, he forges on to say, “You just don’t know him like I do. Beneath the whole Red Hood façade, he’s a really good person, Kon. He is. He’s a total softie, a massive lit geek, and I think you two would have a lot to talk about if you ever take a look under the hood of a street racer together. You know he built his bike himself—got the frame from a junkyard and customized everything on it.”

            That tugs at Kon’s interest.

            But he maintains his resistance, grumbling, “I still think you’re biased.”

            “And I think you’re just jealous.”

            Kon gives another snort, shoves his shoulder against Tim’s—Jason’s. “What on earth would I have to be jealous about?”

            “I dunno,” Tim says, shoving back. “Maybe the fact that he’s got 40 pounds on you? Or that he’s more flexible with a broken rib than you’ve ever been?”

            “40 pounds is being generous—biased, even,” Kon huffs, stretching out his spine slightly to stand just a few centimeters taller than Tim in Jason’s frame. “I’m way bigger than he is. Any extra weight he’s got is just emotional baggage.”

            Effortlessly, Tim straightens up, too—keeping them at an even eye level.

            “He’s bigger, Kon; you might be a Kryptonian, but he’s built like Bruce,” Tim counters.

 

            A beat passes.

            “We could measure.”

 

            Tim chokes on his tongue.

 

            It makes Kon flash a suggestive grin. “I’m just sayin’, while you’re ridin’ his skin an’ all… we could take the guess-work out of it.”

            “No, Kon, I—” Tim’s still struggling to breath, coughing up Jason’s lungs as he’s forced to lean on the Super for support. “You can’t really—so inappropriate… I can’t even…”

 

            “Have you even considered testing him out? Maybe it would get you over your stupid little crush,” Kon suggests—as genuinely philosophical as Tim has ever heard him. “I mean, he might be flexible, but I can fly… and you know I’ve got to have more stamina.”

            Tim’s ability to breathe is further compromised with every word out of Kon’s mouth.

            “He wouldn’t even have to know. You’d get to prove to yourself that he’s a terrible lay and then when you get switched back you can just let go of your thing for him,” Kon concludes.

            Tim just wheezes for a few seconds, eyes screwed up in horror.

            “God, Kon, I won’t even be able to look him in the eye once we switch back as it is,” Tim wails. “I don’t think I could possibly survive being in the same room as him ever again if I…ugh.”

            Kon tips a suggestive look in his direction—clearly indicating that the scenario is win-win from his perspective on all fronts.

 

            Tim sobers slightly at that. “Besides, it doesn’t work like that. I could ignore him if it was just his sex appeal. It’s everything else about him. He’s sweet and funny, and he’s just so kind… he— he’s amazing, Kon. I…”

            “So, you don’t think he’s sex on legs with thighs you want to climb?”

            Groaning into his hand, Tim laments, “I cannot believe I let you and Bart ever get me drunk enough to tell you that.”

 

            “That is your problem,” Kon lobs back.

 

            “It is, though,” Tim groans again, rubbing roughly at his face. “He’s sexy, Kon, so sexy. I mean look at this guy… How the hell am I supposed to ignore this?”

            Kon gives a noncommittal shrug. Still too jealous of the fact that he and Jason are similar body-types, but Tim clearly prefers the slight differences in Jason, to admit much.

 

            “I can’t ignore it. It’s not possible,” Tim admits. “If we’re on a job I can focus on the important things, but… as soon as there’s no immediate danger, ugh, I’m like a drooling fanboy mess of an idiot. Jason’s probably just pretending to be cool with me because it’s too awkward to tell the kid you keep trying to kill that his obsession with you is creepy.”

            “It is creepy,” Kon enforces unhelpfully.

            Tim just lets his knees give out as he yanks at his hair in utter mortification.

            “I am so fucking lame,” he whines.

 

            “Yeah, but you’re also scary competent and pretty fucking hot, too,” Kon points out supportively, stepping into Tim’s personal space.

            Jason’s body reacts immediately—shoulders drawing up and tension scraping down his back in icy waves. It’s such a blistering sensation that Tim can’t even snark at Kon’s flattery.

 

            A moment later he steps back, though Tim’s too caught up in pushing down the dizziness of having been so close to him (while in such a vulnerable position) to speak up.

            By the time he finds his voice again, Tim’s spotted that Kon has his head quirked.

 

            He’s listening to something—using his Kryptonian hearing to catch the distant words.

 

            “Tim… is there some reason your brother, Dick, might have for yelling your name into his phone right now?”

            “Maybe he’s panicking because I forgot to tell him I left the Cave?”

            Kon makes a distracted noise of non-agreement.

            “How about a reason someone might wanna get hold of your body—without you in it, somebody called… ‘Ra’s’, I think?”

 

            Dread kicks Tim in the throat.

 

            “Oh, fuck.”

________

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 20 – Laws of Attraction

 

 

            Jason wakes up tied to a chair.

 

            It’s actually, a little cliché, he thinks—very gauche for a super villain of the Demon Head’s highly esteemed caliber.

            His head hurts, his hands are numb from his wrist restraints, and he can’t feel anything below where his knees are attached to the outside of the chair’s legs.

            He’s also dying of thirst.

 

            There’s a dark hood over his head when he first dares to crack an eye, light enough material to allow his breathing to flow easily. It’s impossible to tell how much time has passed. The light filtering in through the hood’s weave is wan, on the white side of the spectrum. That could mean it’s still close to midday and they’re hiding some place where natural light can reach them, or they could just be in a very well-lit basement somewhere.

 

            Either way, he can tell he’s being watched very closely, despite the silence hanging heavy in the air around him.

            It’s more than just the eerie feel on the back of his neck that senses the attention. It’s the fact that within seconds of him coming to, even though he’s working hard to keep his breathing slow and steady while forcing his aching muscles not to move, a low voice hums a word in Arabic: “ 'iinah mustayqz.”

 

            He’s awake.

 

            There’s still no sound, but the energy in the room changes.

            A tension in the quiet builds and releases in a few distended heartbeats.

 

            The hood is yanked roughly free of his head.

 

            A steaming cup of tea is presented to him by one of Ra’s minions—a ninja Jason doesn’t recognize on any level. They all have shaved heads and dead dark eyes and the same multitude of murky brown-black layers of clothing that make body shape impossible to determine.

 

            Tim’s body leans forward towards the offering of tea— desperate for a drink.

 

            Jason holds himself back at the last second, wondering with no small distraction why Tim wouldn’t have developed the instinct of avoiding drugs and poisons where tea from Ra’s al Ghul was involved.

            The ninja presenting him with the tea frowns, takes a sip themselves in a vain attempt to prove the tea is not contaminated.

 

            Jason doesn’t buy it for a second.

 

            Ra’s wouldn’t hesitate to place an over-arching kill-order on his goons, to make them ingest poison themselves to ‘prove’ a substance was clean. They probably had even built up enough of a tolerance to whatever shit Ra’s laced the tea with to keep standing for a good few minutes before they wound up dropping dead.

 

            Jason keeps his mouth closed— his lips pressed tight together.

 

            The attendant dislikes the reaction immensely.

            With a stern frown, the ninja proffers up the teacup again— aggressively enough to nearly spill the contents.

            When the silent encouragement fails, the ninja attempts a low whisper.

            “Shurb.” Drink.

            The frown strengthens as Jason leans away.

            “Shifa' nafsak.” Heal yourself.

 

            It doesn’t make sense.

            It’s too obviously a lie to be a reasonable story to concoct for the purpose of deceiving a Bat—especially one as smart as Tim.

            But maybe that’s the point.

            Maybe it’s designed to make Tim doublethink himself into drinking it because the lie is too stupid to make sense. It still wouldn’t be rational though…

 

            And Tim’s body is still strangely keen on accepting the offering.

 

            “Take the drink, child,” purrs the chilling voice of Ra’s al Ghul himself from somewhere behind Jason in the large room.

 

            He’d been so distracted with fending off the ninja with the tea that he hadn’t taken a moment to get his bearings once the hood had been swiped off.

            The room is quite large, with high, pitched ceilings without rafters, tall windows, and no furniture that Jason can see aside from the chair he’s strapped to and the low table where the ninja’s set the tray for the tea.

            The interior is white, like it was built to be a church or something but never got far enough along for anyone to get around to painting or carving any icons.

 

            “It’s a healing tonic, to repair the rough treatment required for your capture,” Ra’s goes on, remaining well out of sight behind Jason. “While your acquisition was terribly easy due to your current predicament, you must still be nursing a few aches.”

            “Why should I believe you?” Jason grits out— trying to buy time more than anything.

            “I would like to keep the Young Detective’s body in good form; obviously, that means healing it of any injuries it acquires—whether self-inflicted or accrued on account of others. While you are squatting so above your station, that means healing you for the moment,” Ra’s intones dramatically. “The tea will do you no harm, as damaged goods would do me no benefit.”

 

            The statement makes Jason want to shiver, but Tim’s body is disturbingly calm.

 

            He hesitates a moment longer but then gives in, nodding his ascent. The ninja kneeling at his hip looks genuinely relieved— though, Jason still isn’t sure if that relief is from getting out of having to drink more of the poison themselves or from an actual concern for Tim’s well being.

            The tea is lukewarm and bitter, with an astringent tang lurking in the back of the aftertaste that feels… familiar in a way Jason can’t place.

            Maybe Tim has submitted to drinking this tea before, often enough to develop a distinct familiarity with the complicated flavor palate it presents.

 

            Within seconds of downing the first small cup, Jason’s extremities begin to tingle. A second cup is presented to him and he accepts this one with less reservation.

            The tingling intensifies, crawls in from his limbs and crawls up his neck—alleviating his headache almost instantly and relaxing out the painful knots of tension in his shoulders. It also seeks out a few bruises on his ribcage that Jason hadn’t noticed in the face of more dramatic injury and tingles them into nonexistence as well.

            When the sensation fades into a vague itchiness, the bindings holding him fast release him from the chair—they remain secure around his wrists, knees, and ankles, however. They could be magnetic, high tech things that even the great Red Robin can hack, or they could be bindings of a magical nature. Jason can’t tell and, unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to effectively do anything about either sort of restraint.

            As soon as he’s free to move, Jason attempts to stand.

            The effort fails spectacularly.

            Jason falls forward, knees collapsing in a bout of unsteadiness the renders an escape attempt utterly and obviously impossible.

 

            The tea could be responsible, or the lack of blood flow, but regardless, Jason’s not getting out of here on his own— even if it weren’t Ra’s al Ghul that he’d need to fight off to escape, he currently couldn’t make it ten yards under his own power.

 

            Predictably, none of the ninja surely lurking in the shadows moves to help him stand—not even the one that offered him the tea.

 

            It’s not graceful or elegant, but eventually, Jason gets Tim’s feet balanced underneath him well enough to stand and turn around to face the Demon’s Head.

            Ra’s is watching him with a bland expression laced with a faint disgust.

 

            “I would offer you the dinner I prepared to have with the Young Detective, but I don’t believe your table manners could handle the effort,” Ra’s comments dryly, adding, “And certainly, you couldn’t possibly appreciate the exquisite flavors as Timothy normally would.”

            The insult strikes Jason as odd, casual in a way that sends a different sort of chill down his spine than the shiver of general creepiness that Ra’s elicits.

            “ ‘normally would’?” Jason questions, squinting at the Demon’s Head as he struggles to keep Tim’s unsteady legs of shaking so badly that he sways.

            Ra’s doesn’t respond with anything more than a mild lift in an eyebrow—forcing Jason to spell out his question with explicit directness.

            “How often have you kidnapped Tim like this?”

            “Oh, on and off, you know,” Ra’s simpers. “It’s fluctuated over the years and the Young Detective is no longer as willing to play my games unless the stakes are unbearably high—important enough for him to feel the need to handle matters personally. I believe we are reduced to quarterly engagements at the present moment.”

            There was no doubt in the statement, no matter how Ra’s phrased it to pretend a fuzzy ambiguity of memory. He knew exactly how many times a year he enacted a scheme to snare Tim, like remembered every single tiny detail of every instance he’d ever done so— possibly even in every version of the scenario as it filtered through all iterations of the multiverse.

 

            Ra’s al Ghul kidnaps Tim four time a year. Currently.

 

            Four times a year, now, down from who the fuck knows how often in previous years.

 

            And no one in the Family knew anything about it… As far as Jason knew it was only once every two years, if that. He’d known the old bastard had a thing for Tim, the whole Family knew that much… but this… the Family sure as hell didn’t know this…

            At least, none of them knew enough to be able to submit a report on it to the Bat Computer’s archive files… It’s possible some of them knew something. Even Jason had realized that Ra’s was oddly attached to Tim— calling him ‘Detective’ and such for starters… But knowing that he respected Tim on a level that was at least equal to his esteem for Bruce, probably even greater, wasn’t quite enough to be report-worthy, even by the most over-cautious standards.

 

            “Why such an interest in him? I mean the dude’s scary capable and all, but you usually like the kind of psycho you can brainwash into being your mindless little minion,” Jason pushes, ignoring the insulted sniff from the ninja with the tea set. “I don’t think Timmy-bird’s sassy ass company is worth expending all the resources needed to nab him, especially since you’ll never turn him to your side of anything.”

            Ra’s gives a shrug— convinced enough to prevent him from protesting directly, but still holding out a perversely resilient optimism on the matter.

            “Regardless, Timothy’s company is worth all sorts of elaborate and otherwise excessive expenditures,” Ra’s comments. “An opinion I believe you share.”

 

            That makes Jason wobble.

 

            To have his dangerous and inappropriate fixation ousted so easily by someone of the villainy prowess of Ra’s al Ghul…

            It was one thing for the Outlaws to have figured it out. They knew him better than he knew himself, and Jason had flat out confessed to it more than once when getting drunk with each of them on the Island.

            It was quite another for someone like Ra’s to pick up on it without any of Jason’s fumbling input to be used in solidly confirming any possible suspicions.

 

            Jason’s first thought is that Ra’s had been able to pick up on Jason’s interest in Tim from the last few minutes alone of observing him.

            But, reflecting on those minutes, Jason could see that even someone with an incredible skill of observation wouldn’t have been able to tell too much from their limited interaction. And Ra’s had been watching Tim —creepily closely watching him— for years.

            He would have been plenty able to observe Jason’s interactions with Tim for far longer than the past few minutes. It was even possible that he’d put Jason himself under surveillance—for any number of reasons, as Jason was a Bat, a Crime Lord, and dramatically entangled with Tim’s delicate emotional state. All of which were things that Ra’s had a reason to be interested in observing.

 

            It takes until Ra’s begins speaking again for Jason to realize that the Demon’s Head had paused to give him space to swallow the realization that he knew of Jason’s attachment to Tim.

            “Your fascination with Timothy’s allure is understandable, if not of as sophisticated a depth and breadth as my own,” Ra’s leers with a haughty cant to the tone. “After all, there is always an innate intrigue found in being easily and utterly bested by an unknown player who, by all apparent rights, shouldn’t have the means or capabilities to accomplish such a feat.”

 

            Creepy as it is to hear Ra’s make any sense while discussing his clearly deep-rooted infatuation with Tim, Jason found he couldn’t disagree.

 

            What first drew him to Tim when they were kids had been his stupidly impressive level of competency at things that should’ve been impossible— that and the fact that Tim’s stupidly impressive abilities were so frequently being put to use in ways that endangered him. Jason had felt compelled to protect him— as both a heroic reflex and a deeper sort of protectiveness.

            “Beyond that,” Ra’s goes on fluidly, “Timothy, of course, has a certain base appeal in his physical form that no one subject to such base human responses a you could truly ignore, even after having the Lazarus Pit remove most influences of such impulsiveness.”

            At that, Jason can’t resist a snort.

            “The Pit removed my impulsiveness?”

            “It removed the impulsiveness of the hormonal responses from the body you belong in, a simple carnal attraction is not enough any longer to get your body to engage an arousal response adequate to act on,” Ra’s lays out with medical coolness. “You typically require far more, now, to even notice a vague interest in a prospective lover than you used to. Indeed, your body now requires far more intimacy to incite a physical reaction than merely the brief look at a pretty face that more chemically simple humans of your age and virility would respond to with full arousal.”

 

            Jason’s eyes fall closed to ward off the dread of any potential imagery spawned by such a creep-tastic explanation.

            Fortunately, it seems that enough of Jason’s fore-brain was confused enough by the question of why his body had seemed less engaged—less preoccupied, rather—with sex than it had been before he’d died to focus on the satisfaction of an answer rather than parsing the details of Ra’s words. Jason had mostly chalked it up to being a randy teenager at the time he’d died and having grown up and past all that by the time he’d come back into his own conscious mind, but he knew how easily Roy’s attentions could be derailed by input from his downstairs brain and Jason’s own distraction responses had never even been comparable.

            He’d never really noticed, because whenever he’d actually wanted to have sex, whenever he’d had the time and inclination and a person he enjoyed enough to want it, nothing had registered as even a slight delay in his physical arousal responses.

 

            And around Tim… he’d definitely been easily distractible—even if it had never been to quite the extent that Roy displayed, it was enough to be noticeable. Enough to be detrimental.

 

            “Timothy is certainly well formed and shapely enough designed to encourage interest in even the most resistant of bodies, especially when paired with the delectable prowess of his intellect and the engrossingly dedicated effort he’s put into honing his physical abilities,” Ra’s drawls on, a clearly admiring pleasure curling up inside his voice.

            Still no shivers from Tim’s body, Jason notes distantly as his own mind begins to wonder how on earth he’s managed not to puke at this shpeal.

 

            “Your attraction to the Young Detective is entirely reasonable,” Ra’s summarizes. Still in that eerily perfunctory tone, he adds, “Your reticence on expressing such to him, is far less so.”

 

            Jason blinks, fucking sure he heard wrong.

            The stare Ra’s has leveled at him remains even with haughty indifference.

 

            Giving an incredulous snort, Jason asks, “What? Life’s so boring after a thousand years of assassin-ing that the dreaded Demon’s Head has decided to play matchmaker with idiot, work-aholic teenagers?”

            “You think I might truly consider you to be an adequate match for Timothy? Certainly not. You’re even more foolish than I’d already believed,” Ra’s counters.

            Jason doesn’t exactly disagree, but hearing Ra’s say so rubs him wrong.

            He grits his teeth and his lip curls into a snarl as he asks, “If you think I’m so bad a match for him, then why are you saying that I should confess to him? You think it’ll just be a fun show for you to see him shoot me down? Hate to break it to you, but Timbo’s a right gent, and with how many fanclubs he’s got devoted to him now, he’s kind of an expert at the soft letdown.”

            Ra’s gives a dismissive sniff.

            “I’ll admit, Timothy is far too soft to adequately dissuade the pale of flippant suitors he faces, but I don’t suggest you tell him of your attraction simply for my own amusement,” Ra’s explains. “In fact, I don’t even suggest it on the thought he might turn you down. Rather I believe he may actually accept your oafish advances.”

 

            Rearing his head back with a deep suspicion, Jason blurts, “What?”

 

            “Indeed. It makes very little sense, on the face of it, but all indications point to Timothy’s proclivities lining up with what provisions you can offer.” Stalking closer in a deceptively innocent, predatory way that makes Jason take a few steps backwards, Ra’s goes on, “Timothy deserves to have a pet, of course. And if that pet can keep his physical urges fully sated, so much the better. Particularly if that pet is bent towards playing rather rough.”

            The low rumble of Ra’s voice, the calm and confident suggestiveness of it, and the way he towers over Tim’s slight frame— looking down on him with a distinct and vibrant hunger in his dark gaze— makes an involuntary swirl of warmth spin up inside his abdomen as Jason can’t help but to imagine his own figure in the place of Ra’s.

 

            He still manages to take another step backwards as Ra’s moves further inside his bubble of personal space, but the step isn’t half as firmly deliberate as it ought to be.

 

            It’s not enough to get him out of reach from Ra’s hand as it snakes out to grab Tim’s chin in a vice-hold that makes Tim’s muscles instinctively still.

            The reaction is reminiscent of the way Tim’s body stilled in the sparring ring while it was under the indomitable control of Jason’s body, but it’s not quite the same. That was a sensation one of soft pliancy, something almost pleasant in comparison to this…

            This feeling is more akin to a battening down of the hatches, not a hide kind of prey-response stillness, but a prepare kind of statuesque pause.

 

            It’s a response that makes the ancient eyes of Ra’s al Ghul glitter.

            “Even with such a weak-willed occupant, Timothy’s body has been honed to respond with grace,” Ra’s purrs, thumb stroking over Tim’s cheek.

            Jason can feel the automatic blankness of Tim’s usual unnerving indifference settling over his features like a truly physical mask. It’s a comforting sensation, even if Jason’s own hindbrain knows it won’t help deflect much of the interest Ra’s is showing.

            Unfortunately, it will probably only make matters worse in the long run.

            Because even Jason has developed a distinct preoccupation with finding ways to make that blank mask crack… though, perhaps Tim’s considered that. Keeping Ra’s intrigued, keeping him bent on playing the long game to win Tim over rather than simply having his way to force an immediate reaction… perhaps that is the safer play in all the short term contingencies…

 

            “As I’m sure you’re aware, Jason— it is Jason, is it not?— There is nothing quite like the sensation of provoking a sweet response from Timothy, aloof and restrained as he is while under the scrutiny of the public eye,” Ra’s says, his deep voice a deceptive, velvety drawl.

            The Demon’s Head slid sideways, keeping his hand on Tim’s chin as he shifted around to stand behind the slight figure of his captive— free hand brushing along the back of Tim’s shoulders before it gripped onto his upper arm. The hold on Tim’s arm was used to forcibly maneuver him a few more steps to the side, to point him at an expansive plane of mirrored glass.

 

            The reflected image of Tim staring back at him makes Jason’s breath catch. He’s still standing tall and poised, effects of muscle memory that Jason’s managed not to screw up while riding his skin through this encounter, but his expression… Tim’s face is still looking placid enough to fool the most casual of passing observers, but to anyone who knows him— knows him even in passing or from the obsessive camera work of his paparazzi stalkers— Tim’s expression is a riot of underlying emotion.

            The careful mask he’s crafted is cracking because Jason can’t hold it together here; and in seeing it displayed right in front of him, Jason feels something in him collapse into infinity.

            Because Tim…

            Tim is gorgeous.

            And seeing him coming even the least bit undone… even for something as awful as having Ra’s al Ghul invading his personal space… it’s affecting. Worse—It’s rewarding.

            It validates the worst of what Jason’s ever done to him in a light he’d never wanted to admit might have serious bearing on why he continued to beat on the kid well after he’d mentally come to terms with the fact that Tim Drake was not a genuine target for his rage.

 

            And when Ra’s moves his hand from Tim’s chin to his throat… when he begins to squeeze… a sizeable portion of blood in Tim’s body floods south.

            Ra’s face is pressed close to Tim’s, the immaculately manicured gray bristles of his ancient beard folding along Tim’s shoulder—the hot-running muscles of his immortal bulk a solid shape of strength and heat pressing into Tim’s back.

 

            And Jason feels it.

 

            He can’t quite tell if it’s Tim’s body reacting to Ra’s, or the overlay of his own fantasies causing sensation to develop, but Jason feels the tension of this moment and how it’s tipping towards something utterly unthinkable.

 

            “He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?” Ra’s purrs in Jason’s ear. “Alluring in every way and so clever and together that it can hardly be pondered what he looks like having come completely undone.”

            At this point, Jason’s not getting any air into Tim’s lungs.

            Though whether that’s because of Ra’s, as his hand continues to grasp restrictively at Tim’s throat, or because of how he’s simply forgotten how to breathe is a quandary up in the air.

            But Jason is hyperaware of every divot in the fingers Ra’s has on him, aware of every single miniscule twitch in the muscles holding those fingers in place.

 

            “You know,” Ra’s muses with a venomously philosophical tone, “I’ve never quite managed to figure out if Timothy has an inclination for being asphyxiated in spite of you and your boorish advances… or if perhaps his proclivity began because of you…”

 

            And doesn’t that just do it all to mess with a guy’s head?

 

            Jason can’t quite see straight at this point, vision going black around the edges as air remains elusive and his blood’s oxygen levels reach critical depletion.

            He can’t be sure he really heard right.

            But he also can’t make himself dismiss the stirrings caused by having heard it.

 

            To have possibly affected Tim on such a level… to have had his most intimate impact on Tim be the result of something so awful he can never hope to make up for it… to have the aggressively immediate picture of what that effect had resulted in being paraded right before his eyes—to be aware of all of that while so woozy that the sight before him blurs to a scene where it’s Jason holding Tim and making him look like this, red-faced and wanting and wholly inappropriate for any sort of public venue…

 

            Jason’s pants are too tight, and his abdomen is too warm, and his lungs are pinched with a gloriously blissful burn…

 

            And then air floods back into his system as Ra’s releases the hold on his throat.

            It makes Jason black out a beat, makes him sway dangerously in a way that lends to his falling backwards against the stable support of solid muscle Ra’s provides.

 

            When he manages to get his eyes refocused, Ra’s has a hand on Tim’s hip— tender in a way that’s dizzyingly unexpected and possessive in a way that’s predictable enough to almost cancel out the surprise of the clear affection.

            Jason’s still too stunned to move much, and the oxygen deprivation is still making his limbs all leaden and t00 tingly to command well, but he does try to pull himself away.

            Ra’s simply tightens his hold, tipping Tim’s body back against his own.

            It makes a swirl of something roil in Tim’s gut— makes him want to vomit even as a heady warmth ripples through the tightening muscles of his abdomen.

 

            The sensation rocks Jason, but he doesn’t have time to attempt extricating himself again before another black-clad ninja-goon appears at their Master’s elbow.

            “Your guest has arrived, Master,” the ninja says simply.

            They offer a chain to him with their head bowed and Jason can’t quite make sense of the gesture until Ra’s is nearly finished with securing the chain to the cuffs still fastened tight around his wrists. The feeble attempt Jason makes to interrupt the process doesn’t even cause Ra’s to pause in his conversation with the ninja goon.

            “Has he brought friends?”

            “Yes, though he has instructed them to remain outside and not to interfere with his negotiations at your table,” the ninja says.

            Ra’s hmms, as if pandering to a classroom of unruly five year olds. Honestly, the comparison is probably not far off from the Demon Head’s perspective.

            “If the Family decides to disobey his commands, allow them inside, unimpeded. Once they breach the main sanctum, however, I want them detained. Chain them up along the perimeter to allow them to witness their betters in the midst of a civilized discussion.”

            “Yes, my Lord,” the ninja accepts.

            They disappear from Jason’s view as Ra’s finishes up securing the chain to his wrists.

 

            Before Jason can move in any way, Ra’s gives a nod and someone Jason can’t see begins to tighten the slack on his restraints— hauling him up the remaining stairs of the unfinished dais of the partially abandoned church. There’s no alter, but there are brackets in the floor clearly meant to brace the large construction of a sanctified table, and Jason swings free between them as the chain tightens up enough to lift him off his toes.

            He’s still swinging on his chain as the door at the far end of the nave.

 

            Jason’s own body strides through the doors and Ra’s al Ghul practically purrs with delight at just seeing him.

 

            “Good afternoon, Detective.”

 

            “You have something of mine, Ra’s,” Tim growls, using Jason’s deeper register to its utmost advantage. “I want him back.”

 

________

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 21 – Damsel in Distress

 

 

            Kon flies Tim to the Cave fast enough to have beat Dick and the others back there.

 

            Jason’s body handles the strain of being flown at super speed surprisingly well, all things considered— but, upon reflection, Tim realizes that with Kori in his crew, it’s actually very likely that Jason’s probably been flung around by a super powered flyer at least as often as Tim himself has been. Possibly, more even, since the Outlaws are rather famous for their slipshod extractions and piss poor planning skills when it comes to arranging safe escapes.

 

            Regardless, Tim in Jason’s body gets delivered quickly to the Cave’s beach side entrance in wonderfully brisk time. He uses his override code to allow Kon access to the Cave and leads the way up to the main Bat Computer, setting about running a variable comparison algorithm that should help them isolate where Ra’s is currently hiding.

            There should’ve been clues in some of their most recent cases, particularly in Tim’s cases, but with the body swap taking precedence over everything, Tim hasn’t been paying enough attention to pick any of the clues up out of the background noise of information. But he knows what to look for and he’s programmed a short cut into the analysis set to look for the proper hallmarks of League involvement.

            Kon’s still edging over towards him when he sets the program free to run. The super is exceedingly cautious with being inside the Cave. He talks a big game, but he knows that he is at a huge disadvantage in Gotham, period, and on this ground that’s especially true.

 

            With no polite niceties about it, Tim directs Kon to stand off to the side of where the Cave’s main computer faces—keeping him out of sight for when the inevitable video calls come in from Barbara and Bruce.

            Damian’s current occupation as a middle school student usually means that he can remain thankfully ensconced away from his grandfather’s worst meddling, but with summer break allowing him to accompany Bruce to Wayne Enterprises, it’s unlikely Tim will be able to keep him out of the conflict this time— unless he blatantly lies to Bruce about the situation.

            And with Ra’s al Ghul behind the reins of whatever mess is currently evolving, with the stakes raised even higher as the Heka Ariset’s body swap deadline looms… Tim can’t afford to keep Bruce out of this one.

            Besides, he’s already in hot water for only sort of lying to the rest of the Family, so making active moves to directly mislead them would definitely not improve his standing.

 

            So, when Bruce connects to the Cave’s mainframe, Tim accepts the call immediately and doesn’t try to sugar coat anything. He does wait until Barbara also connects, and until Dick and Cass and Steph all return, but that moment comes only a smattering of seconds Bruce and Damian appear on the Cave’s main screen.

            The delay provides another benefit, allowing his search algorithm to complete its analysis of the possible locations where Ra’s al Ghul could currently be hiding.

            When everyone’s appropriately assembled, Tim lays out everything he knows— including his supposition that the primary reason behind why the Li Cartel suddenly began abducting kids was that Ra’s was angling for a recruitment drive. It’s not exactly good news, but it does mean that most of the kids are probably still alive and that, if they handle this negotiation properly, they might be able to get most of them back— as safe and sound as possible, considering.

            Predictably, no one is terribly happy to hear any of it, but on the bright side, no one is actually angry, either— at least, not at Tim.

 

            Bruce declares that he and Damian will make their excuses and leave Wayne Enterprises within the next ten minutes; they’ll use the emergency vault below the office building to suit up, and then head straight to the warehouse across the street from the church where Tim believes Ra’s is holding Jason captive. The others are instructed to hurry into their own costumes and to meet Batman and Robin there without delay.

            Tim is not initially included in that instruction, but when he points out that Ra’s kidnapped his body and that he likely did it specifically to capture Tim’s attention, even Bruce can’t mule kick his way into stubborning Tim out of the operation.

 

            It makes getting dressed with the others a quiet, especially awkward affair, but really, Tim couldn’t make himself care about that if his life were in the balance.

            Tim dons Jason’s Hood, but forgoes the domino underneath it. He’ll need to talk to Ra’s without a mask between them after all.

 

            Bruce and Damian will have a car capable of transporting Jason back to the Cave, even if he’s injured (which Tim firmly believes he is not), so Steph and Cass double up on a bike while Dick takes his own, Tim takes the only one Jason’s parked here, and Kon simply flies.

 

            Bruce is not happy to see the Super.

            Tim cannot pretend to make himself care.

 

            “I need fifteen minutes alone with Ra’s,” Tim declares instead of addressing Kon’s presence or allowing Bruce to be the one to start the planning breakdown.

            Bruce isn’t childish enough to protest the statement with an outburst, but he has no need to do it himself when Dick is here to do it for him.

            “What? No, Tim, you can’t do this to us. We can’t let you go alone,” Dick whines.

            “I won’t be alone, Jason’s already inside,” Tim counters.

            “He is likely incapacitated,” Damian announces, being uncharacteristically ginger about the sentiment. Tim is certain that most of the Family is fairly well convinced Jason’s teetering precariously on the edge of death right now.

            Tim gives a snort and responds harshly, “Jason’s fine. My body is something Ra’s values, so he won’t have harmed it. And using drugs to keep him unconscious counts as harm. If anything, Ra’s used a knockout drug to contain Jason, initially, but he then allowed the drug to wear off and likely even offered a counter agent to ensure the drug completely left my system.”

            “You speak with more confidence than your officially recorded experience suggests you should have,” Bruce states, closer to a direct accusation than he’s come in years.

            With a heavily resigned sigh that he forcibly keeps away from sounding irritated, Tim explains, “Most of that experience is from a time before any of you actually cared. And I have been logging my usual quarterly meetings with Ra’s al Ghul, I just haven’t been logging them as kidnappings— because, at this point they aren’t kidnappings, they’re merely rather abrupt appointments with some unconventional chauffeuring involved.”

 

            That silences most of his audience completely.

 

            Upon reflection, Tim recognizes that he may have been a bit harsh with his criticism of the other Bats’ involvement (or rather lack thereof) in his well-being where Ra’s is concerned.

            While technically true on all counts, it’s never been his prerogative to rub salt in old wounds— especially for something as silly as the spite of it. Tim would feel significantly worse about it if were it any less effective at haranguing his audience into acquiescing to his plan.

 

            “I still think you should have back up,” Dick says eventually. He’s always the second to recover, after Bruce, and his voice still sounds a bit shaky as he speaks— but Bruce would never voice something so obviously close to concern and that motivates Dick to find his words quickly and to spit them out before he’s fully centered enough to speak them without wavering.

            Through the com line she has connected to all of them, Babs agrees firmly, “You need at least one of us to go in with you, but the others can stay as far back as the block’s perimeter.”

            It’s a moderately fair trade off.

            “I’ll take Robin,” Tim declares, again silencing his audience— this time with surprise.

 

            The shock hits them on two counts: first, that he relented to having been forcibly attached to another Bat for immediate backup, and second, that he voluntarily selected Damian as the Bat to join him inside.

            While Bruce will eventually figure it out, Tim doesn’t really require any of the others to genuinely understand his reasoning and he doesn’t plan on explaining it.

 

            If they understood anything at all about his relationship with Ra’s, they’d know that bringing Damian is a significant gesture of good faith between them— an apology, almost, for having failed to play the game the Demon’s Head had laid for him because of his distraction with the whole body swap fiasco.

            Capitulating here, admitting that Ra’s has won because Tim wasn’t playing with a full deck, will do a lot to mitigate the possibility of Ra’s trying to provoke another response from him before the season shifts. And bringing Damian will be a clear sign of that apologetic surrender.

            Ra’s has more than spies enough to have diligently followed the progress of Damian’s training, but it’s a rare few encounters a year that sees Ra’s in the same room as his grandson— and while no one would ever accuse Ra’s of being very familial in mindset, or even deserving of consideration for any grandfather-y privileges, Tim knows that Ra’s harbors an odd twist of affection for the boy who’d been bred specifically to be his heir. The fact that Tim had usurped the role by the current estimate of what esteem Ra’s has placed on the pair has only served to strengthen his affection for Damian— being that his approval of Damian’s existence is no longer contingent on his ability to live up to any outlandish expectations of his deserving to be the Demon Head’s successor.

 

            Tim glances at Damian, tipping his head in the barest edge of question.

            If Damian doesn’t want to see his grandfather, if he indicates even the slightest hesitation in accepting the task before him, Tim will reconsider.

            But out of all the Family assembled here, Damian is the most likely to understand Tim’s goals where Ra’s is concerned— and he’s the least likely to get hung up on the petty sentimentalities of fretful disquiet around worries for their immediate safety.

 

            “Drake is correct, surprisingly,” Damian cedes after a few seconds to consider the options. He doesn’t sound pleased to be reaching the conclusions that he has, but that could just as easily be due to his distaste for admitting that Tim might have a legitimate point in regards to anything— let alone to admitting such in defense of him before the Family. “Grandfather will be much more inclined towards lenience on the subject of Drake’s negligence here if I am there to serve as a foil of comparison.”

 

            That statement actually makes Tim rock back on his heels.

            It’s a direct admission of understanding that Ra’s al Ghul considers Tim a more worthy candidate to sit successor to the Demon’s Throne than Damian could ever measure up to being.

 

            “Thank you, Robin,” Tim acknowledges brusquely, making sure not to linger on the brush of warmth any longer than he has to in order to convey genuine gratitude.

            It’s still enough to make Damian obviously uncomfortable, but Tim ignores the signs of it and moves the conversation along quickly enough to hide how Damian’s keen to squirm from the others. “Robin and I will go inside from the South; through the front entrance, as proper guests. Nightwing should take the north window, at the top of the nave, behind the main dais at the apse— that’s where Ra’s will have secured Jason.”

            Steph snorts. “For dramatic effect, obviously. Frickin asshat.”

            “A flair for the dramatic isn’t exactly an unusual indulgence in this city,” Tim points out, so Damian doesn’t have to, his side-eyed smile lets Steph know that he finds it all hilarious too.

            When the moment passes, Tim continues, “Batgirl and Black Bat should take the east side and Batman the west. None of you should move to interfere until Robin or I signal you with the usual distress beacon or Oracle calls an audible— there’s no direct camera access, but you’ll get visual from our dominos as soon as we enter and Ra’s will not have set a signal disrupter.”

            “That sounds like a reasonable plan,” Babs accepts, cementing the plan Tim concocted at the one the team will be following.

 

            It eases a knot of tension in Tim’s chest.

            Allows him to focus on the tactical goals laid out before them.

 

            “We’ll need ten minutes of absolute radio silence,” Tim declares finally.

 

            He’s looking at Bruce for that one.

            It’s a short battle of wills before Bruce remembers that he’s in no position to push his agenda on any of Tim’s current activities. Oracle may have even said something to that effect inside a private line to his ear— or possibly even Alfred.

            Either way, it’s only a moment before Bruce nods.

 

            Tim turns another glance towards Damian and prompts, “Let’s move.”

            Damian gives a short nod and follows as Tim leads the way out into the quickly building shadows of Gotham’s late afternoon.

 

            They don’t knock, but even if the noise of pushing through the massive double set of oak doors into the nave hadn’t been loud enough to announce their presence to anyone inside the eerily empty space, Ra’s surely has plenty of lookouts to inform him of their arrival.

            The Demon’s Head is waiting for them in the church’s transept.

 

            He graces them with a smile as they near the crossing point that expanded the potential audience for a Mass and made the church’s floor plan into a facsimile of the cross.

            “Good afternoon, Detective.”

 

            “You have something of mine, Ra’s,” Tim growls, using Jason’s deeper register to its utmost advantage. “I want him back.”

 

            Ra’s lets his smile broaden slightly, tips his head in acknowledgement.

            “Yes, he’s a unique specimen, that one,” Ra’s allows. “He doesn’t do you any justice, you know. He may be roaming about in your skin, but he’s still the hulking street rat he always was— none of your natural elegance or nobility. But he has been a rather amusing toy to play with.”

            Tim sighs with a dramatized display of boredom.

            “We both know you haven’t hurt me Ra’s,” he points out.

 

            “Ah, but physical pain is but one means by which a man of such proclivities as myself might take a bit of pleasure from a conveniently intriguing little captive,” Ra’s retorts. “While you pet is not, himself, as worthy of my attentions as you are, there are… shall we say, certain viewpoints of relevant things we seem to share.”

            The statement begs the question of what exactly those common views are, and Tim’s horrified curiosity immediately wants to ask it, but he knows Ra’s would probably be more insulted by success on such a soft lob then he would be eager to monologue about his reasoning.

            Besides, Tim is about 98% certain he does not want to know what Ra’s means.

            Clearly, it’s more than a shared sense of how killing is often more than excusable, particularly when the finality of bringing death to such insurgents as criminals is the only way justice and true safety can be assured.

 

            Trying to move things along, Tim shrugs.

            “As entertaining as you might find all of this, I am on a bit of a time crunch,” Tim explains. “Unless you’d prefer to have Jason and I switched forever, you’d best let me have him back so we can return to what we were doing about solving this little problem of ours.”

            Ra’s clearly considers it; displays an arched eyebrow to openly expose his thoughts on the matter. Having Tim’s body at his mercy without Tim’s mind involved is tempting, as it would be for any ancient creeper. But Tim’s mind is what makes him dangerous enough to be a legitimately challenging persona in Ra’s circle— what makes him interesting enough to be truly engaging. Having Tim’s body would be a treat for a few days, but Ra’s would quickly grow bored.

            And the looming threat of ‘death by ancient cursed mirror’ impending by the week’s end is something Ra’s is likely well aware of…

            Meaning that if Ra’s does keep Tim’s body and allows his mind to remain separated, he will have to find a new heir to creepily attach himself to (not that Tim has any legitimate intentions of allowing himself to rise to rule the Demon’s Throne)…

            ((Still, Ra’s doesn’t believe that… He’s still firmly of the opinion that Tim will, eventually, join him in the Palace at Nanda Parbat as first a consort and then, several centuries down the road when Ra’s has passed beyond care for any mortal quandaries, sit as his successor…))

            Ra’s lets his gaze slide to Damian, standing still and silent with his spine painfully straight and his chin kept on a determinedly even keel. As his grandfather’s judgmental gaze drifts over him, Damian succeeds in keeping his façade in place, but Tim knows the little demon doesn’t truly believe he’s fooling anyone with such a mask. It doesn’t take centuries of experience to read the kind of desperation to be considered a valid existence that any child has in them, and in one raised to be such a prince— one promised to greatness and stripped of the possibility of ever truly earning the place he was created to fill— it would be obvious to almost anyone worthy of associating with him that Damian was only steps away from tears.

 

            It makes Tim’s chest swell with gratitude for Damian’s willing presence here.

 

            Allocating an extra push of resources towards the sector of Wayne Enterprises responsible for the animal shelters and pet welfare programs that Damian manages makes itself a new priority for Tim to handle as soon as they manage to get this switch figured out.

            Possibly even before, as Ra’s withering gaze hides no small amount of disgust for the idea that Damian shares his blood. As long as Damian is not slated to be his heir, Ra’s finds a smidge of heart left in his rotted old soul— enough to engender a mild affection— but as soon as Damian’s being heir slides back on the table… Ra’s would sooner kill Damian himself than allow ‘such an inferior subject’ to inhabit a place of such requisite esteem.

 

            Ra’s looks back to Tim, lingering a moment before jumping again to Damian— softer now with the clear decision to aid Tim’s endeavors allowing Damian to exist as nothing but an example of how Tim has daily interactions with the trainings of Nanda Parbat and has managed to improve upon the techniques in ways that centuries of Masters had failed to do.

 

            Such thoughts are enough to nearly generate another smile.

 

            “Fine. You may have your associate back,” Ra’s allows eventually. “However, I cannot bring myself to simply give him to you, though I will allow the challenge to be minimal in light of your disadvantageous circumstances. I trust your priorities will be properly aligned to correct the current conditions. Farewell, my dear Detective, until our next engagement.”

            With that, Ra’s turns his back and makes for a side door at a stately pace.

 

            Damian remains motionless while Tim darts for the apse.

            Tim’s only made it two thirds of the distance when half a hundred or so ninja burst out of the shadows to stop him. Ra’s disappears long before the rest of the Family joins the fray, and while Tim and Damian have held their own against greater odds before, none of the Family can bear to leave them to their own devices— nor could they take on Ra’s alone.

            So, as always, Ra’s gets away without trouble, but his ninja lackeys are more easily subdued. Only the trio of ninja commanders Ra’s left to coordinate the battle escape. The rest of them are disabled and zip-tied for GCPD pick-up, though no one believes they’ll be kept contained for more than a few hours, if that.

 

            Tim only faces a half dozen as he fights his way towards Jason. Dick’s entrance through the apse window quickly allows him to focus on freeing Jason rather then on fending off the ninja around him— which is especially helpful as Tim finds Jason’s body rather unwieldly in the aftermath of facing down Ra’s.

            And when he gets within arm’s reach of Jason, when he notices how Jason’s strung up in his body all helpless and open to attack, Jason’s body registers it as a shock enough to make the muscles in his limbs weak and shuddery. Tim can’t tell if the sensation is muscle memory from Jason’s admittedly frequent attempts to kill him, or if it’s conditioning that Jason’s worked into his own behaviors to prevent himself from killing Tim at the Pit’s urging. The way Jason’s throat is tight enough to choke off his air and how he can barely manipulate his fingers well enough to undo Jason’s restraints leads Tim to believe the later.

            As soon as Jason’s freed, Tim’s body begins to collapse— his knees giving out after a bare few seconds of bearing his weight. Jason isn’t expecting the weakness that always comes after facing down Ra’s, especially when rescue from the Family is imminent, so he can’t effectively counter it with the willpower not to appear weak in front of the others Tim usually draws on.

            Before Jason can do anything to address it himself, Tim uses the absurd strength in Jason’s body to scoop his own frail form up into his borrowed arms.

            Dick and Oracle handle the arrangements of getting GCPD on the scene as Batman zips off to search for Ra’s in vain. They all know Ra’s is long gone, but it’s a better excuse than most others for Bruce to avoid confronting them about this ridiculous screw-up just yet.

 

            Tim focuses on that and not how Jason’s body feels all trembly and feverish in the wake of meeting Ra’s. He has to wonder if it’s a secondary side-effect of the Lazarus Pit, something about meeting another person who has made use of those deeply polluted waters— facing someone who has willingly partaken of such corrupting imbibements for centuries longer and more often than any human ought to dare.

            Whatever the sensation is, it makes Tim in Jason’s body cling tightly to his own— holding Jason in his body close to his chest in a way that Tim’s mind can’t help but note has been a key feature of some of Tim’s very best dreams.

            Well, sort of… he didn’t quite like the needing to be rescued aspect of some of the dreams where a moment like this was featured, but there were plenty of instances that came up when Jason simply scooped him up into his arms for no reason other than the fact that he could.

            Kon had done so often enough.

            It had gotten annoying with Kon, because half the time he did it, there was a childish possessiveness behind the action, and that began to grate on Tim eventually, but still, even when it had been annoying there had still been a piece of Tim that enjoyed it.

            And with the idea of it being Jason’s arms around him… Tim had found himself feeling a lot less complaint at the notion. For starters, Jason wouldn’t be as childish about it.

            If Jason decided to pick him up like this for no reason, it wouldn’t be to kidnap him away from someone he jealously felt was unduly occupying Tim’s attentions. It would simply be because Jason wanted to be in physical contact with him.

 

            The distraction of that allows Tim to avoid thinking about anything on the trip back to the Cave— and to avoid confronting Jason about any of it.

 

            For his part, Jason himself seems uncharacteristically quiet.

 

            Tim’s so distracted that he doesn’t even notice that part until they make it to the Cave and find Kon pacing the main floor as he waits for them.

            As soon as they drive into the garage area, Kon flies over to meet them.

            He’s obviously torn between wanting to punch Tim and to hug him— a torn feeling that’s doubled by how he very much wants to punch Jason, but hitting Jason’s body will hurt Tim currently, and hitting Jason will directly attack Tim’s more fragile body… It’s a no win situation for him from every one of a dozen angles.

 

            “Kon, go home,” Tim sighs as he steps out of Redbird and fights not to slam the door behind him. “You can’t do anything to help directly and your being here is a distraction.”

            The Super looks like he might protest, but he gets a ping from Cassie at the perfect moment to stop him from doing more than opening his mouth.

            While Cassie reams the Super out for having disappeared, and then for having flown across the country in spite of direct orders to stay put, Tim makes his way up to the Bat Computer. He takes a quick minute to log the encounter with Ra’s and type up his account of it in as simple terms as he can manage.

            Kon flies over as he finishes to say, “I’ll head back to the Tower for now, but I’m gonna be keeping an ear out. If anything else happens to you here, I’ll hear it.”

            They both know that’s not entirely true. There are too many places in Gotham that have been specifically shielded against Supers, the Cave and the Manor above being prime examples.

            But instead of pushing the issue, Tim nods.

            Kon fires off one last glare at him, sends another one towards Jason, and then flies off at super speed out the main vehicle exit. He’s just in time to leave before the other Bats return.

            They note Kon’s exit without comment.

 

            The others strip their masks off before heading up to join Tim and Jason, even Bruce.

 

            “Leaving the Cave was incredibly irresponsible of you both,” he starts off. He tosses half a glare Dick’s way to silently level blame for their actions against the oldest brother as well.

            Dick is cowed and ducks his head, but Tim and Jason both keep their chins up.

            “Sunset is in less than an hour and we are no closer to figuring out how to switch you both back to normal,” Bruce elaborates. “This is the third sunset you’ve spent like this, which means that, at most, you have two more before this situation claims your lives.”

            “Excellent nut-shelling, Bruce,” Tim drawls. “But unless this speech includes a plan to do something about it, I’m heading upstairs. Jason’s body needs food and another nap, because being body-swapped is actually pretty exhausting. So, let me know when you have something actionable to work with, alright?”

            Tim normally wouldn’t be so brazen about his dismissiveness, but Jason’s stomach is clawing at his attention and a nap truly does sound wonderful.

            And Bruce seems taken aback by his temerity— enough to let him escape unscathed.

            He’s made it halfway across the main floor before Bruce speaks up, “I’ve had Black Bat retrieve the Heka Ariset from your safe house. It’s in the Library. I’m going to ensure its full specs have been properly loaded into the Bat Computer’s analysis systems while the rest of you clean up and get something to eat. We’ll reconvene in the Library in two hours.”

            Tim didn’t stop walking when Bruce began to speak, but he nods when the others do as Bruce finishes— accepting the orders for what they are.

 

            When Tim makes it fully upstairs, he finds Alfred in the kitchen.

            The butler, like the truly incredible gift from god he is, has already prepped a veritable mountain of food. Lamb gyros are the main feature of the spread, with dates and avocados and pine nuts and feta to make them so tempting that Tim takes a plate piled high with four of them (along with a pile of rice to accompany them on the side).

            And then nabs a fifth to eat immediately as he struggles to find the right words to thank Alfred with anything close to his due.

            Alfred smiles like simply watching Tim eat is thanks enough and it rattles Tim enough to send him scurrying away.

 

            He heads directly to the Library.

            He’s finished the gyro in his hand before he even makes it there— leaving that hand free to pop the floorboard where his stash of energy drinks occasionally goes unraided for a few days at a go. Today, he finds that most of them have been replaced with water bottles, but there’s still two that have enough caffeine to replace the cup of coffee he can’t make Jason stomach.

 

            By the time he’s set up on a couch with a view of the table where the Heka Ariset has been settled, with his laptop in front of him as his system raids the Cave’s analysis data, he’s finished another gyro.

            Tim pokes around the data as he eats, finding little of legitimate interest.

            It had been an outrageous hope that there was anything that any array of computer sensors could pick up that might explain how the mirror had caused the body swap to happen, let alone that it could tell the Bats how to fix any of it.

 

            Dick finds him as he starts on his last gyro, hair still wet from his shower with his own plate piled high with food in hand. He spots Tim and pulls a weak smile as he sits down in the chair closest to the couch where Tim’s camped— close enough to be within arms’ reach, but far enough to give him space.

            “We’ll figure this out, Timmy,” Dick promises. He doesn’t wait for Tim to accept or deny the empty platitude before he goes on to ask, “How’re you holding up with all of this?”

            “I’m fine, Dick, barring the obvious,” Tim replies.

            Predictably, Dick isn’t satisfied.

            “I mean it, Timmy,” he pushes. “I want to know how you’re feeling. Jason’s told me that you’ve had to deal with the Lazarus Pit, that its influence isn’t as distant or subdued as we’d been thinking with how well he’s managed to control it lately.”

            Tim’s gaze flicks up to meet Dick’s with suspicion, but he doesn’t see any hint of deceit.

            With Jason’s reluctant reticence on the matter to start with, Tim feels it’s a good bet that Jason did tell him— and willingly, at that.

 

            “It’s a present influence,” Tim admits. “But it’s not my place to tell you any more than that if Jason doesn’t want me to. I’ve been handling it just fine.”

            That last bit is a blatant untruth, but other than that one Zhen Li incident at Hologram, nothing too terrible has come of it.

            “I’m not asking because I want to spy on Jay, I’m asking because I’m worried about you.”

            Tim arches an eyebrow.

            “Okay. I do want a little insight on Jay, but I know better than to expect you to just give up anyone’s secrets like that, especially his,” Dick confesses. “But I do want to help you deal with all of this, if there’s anything I can do. I don’t think it’ll hurt to talk about it. Honestly, it seemed to help Jason earlier.”

            With a heavy sigh as Tim swallows down his last gyro and moves to scrape up the last few nibbles of rice, he says, “Talking is good for Jason. He only keeps things bottled up because he’s afraid of how those around him will take what he says. He doesn’t believe his worries are valid enough to merit real concern from the Family.”

            Dick nods sagely, as if Tim has actually revealed anything he didn’t already know. If Dick weren’t so pig headed about some things, he’d actually have some of the best social skills of any of the Bats. Which means that nothing Tim just said is really news to him.

            But the connection Tim is about to make is, and Tim can only bear to explain it because he knows that Dick truly wants to help.

            “It’s different for me,” Tim admits. “Talking makes things worse. Talking about a weakness I know is valid does nothing but cement the reality of it into immutable space. I know you know that this is hard. But explaining why won’t help me deal with it. I just want to focus on the next thing, on something we can do about any of it.”

            Tim sets his empty plate aside, but he still can’t look up to face Dick directly. He watches Dick’s feet curl up under him on the armchair’s plush cushion as he twirls the dregs of his energy drink in its slim electric yellow can.

            “Saying it’s hard is one thing. I do know that it must be difficult,” Dick manages. “But… There’re a lot of reasons that could be behind how it’s hard, and I can help with some of them. Jason has every faith in your ability to manage the Pit, so I do, too. But you’ve got a long history with Jason and I want to know what part of it is what you’re thinking about every time you see him walking around in your body.”

 

            Tim blinks at Dick’s knees.

            Decides he needs to see Dick’s face to really parse that one.

 

            “What do you mean?” he asks, forcing his eyes up to meet Dick’s gaze— forcing himself not to flinch away again immediately at the wash of concern he sees there.

            Dick keeps his smile small as Tim fights to maintain the eye contact, taking pains not to overwhelm him. Normally, even that much would still have forced Tim into a desperate retreat—send him squealing away to, at the very least, bury his face in the pile of pillows he’s accrued on the couch beside him.

            But…

            Not this time…

            Somehow, it’s fine… well, almost fine.

            It’s definitely easier to bear in Jason’s body. He’s not fighting the ingrained muscle memory of anxiety carved habit to look away, he’s just fighting with his own mind. And Jason’s habit when threatened like this is clearly confrontational— putting up a strong front is second nature enough to the muscles in his neck that Tim can keep his head up easily.

 

            “I mean… that when you see Jason in your body, I don’t think you’re seeing yourself as he sees you, not properly, at least,” Dick explains.

            “I know better than anyone how Jason currently sees me,” Tim retorts hotly, tired of this stupid argument— especially after having already had it with Kon earlier today.

            Dick nods, so appeasing that Tim’s actually surprised he doesn’t lift his hands in open surrender. “I know you know how he sees you,” Dick promises. “And Jason knows how you see him. But he’s not seeing that you right now, not while he’s looking at you in his body. He’s… he’s caught up in older history, much older. From way before… well, from Before…”

 

            It seems obvious that Dick’s struggling not to spill a secret.

            But Tim’s invasively combed over every single detail of every one of the Bats’ lives.

            He knows about every detail of all of Jason’s secrets, from every embarrassing moment he ever had in middle school to the exact body count his exploits came to in South America.

            Dick knows that.

            So what Dick thinks he could possibly know about Jason that Tim doesn’t already know just as well… is not just a bit baffling. But whatever it is, he truly believes Tim doesn’t know it and that Jason wouldn’t want him to confess it on his behalf.

 

            The distraction is easier to push down than it would be in his own body, again the lack of anxiety’s rote reactions having been ingrained into his bones means he doesn’t have to fixate in order to keep his food down. Ignoring his worries doesn’t send a riot of queasiness through him, doesn’t even make the ridiculous amount of food he just ate sit at all uncomfortably in his gut.

            He even manages to down the last gulp of his energy drink.

 

            “How much older,” Tim asks, returning his gaze to meet Dick’s again.

            “Much older,” Dick swears. He pauses and then settles on saying, “He keeps thinking about how you were as kids. When he looks at you and sees himself, he sees the kid you thought he was and hates himself for how he hasn’t managed to live up to those expectations you had.”

            “But… he did, he’s more than lived up to— I never, he shouldn’t think—”

            “Tim. He didn’t live up to what you thought he could be,” Dick interrupts firmly. “I know you believe in him, and he knows it too, but he didn’t live up to everything all three of us know you thought of him then.”

            When Dick pauses, Tim opens his mouth with a hot slide of breath through his teeth, but he bites his tongue as he registers Dick’s expression.

            There’s a pain in his face, and a soft nostalgia.

            “I accept who he is now, I do. I trust him as my brother, and I’m getting better at keeping my stupid fear responses from clouding that,” Dick goes on after a long moment. “I love him and I forgive him completely. But even I never looked at him like you used to. You’ve never even looked at me like that. You thought the world of him, Tim, it was obvious to everyone from the moment you met him— from before you met him. I’ve seen the pics you took of him before you introduced yourself properly. He’s not that boy anymore, hasn’t been in years. And he feels that every time he looks at you— every time your body sees his and the anxiety hits like a panic attack, hard enough to make him freeze and quake at once.”

            “I have anxiety, he can’t blame himself for a physiological disorder,” Tim huffs.

            “He doesn’t blame himself,” Dick assures him. “Jason doesn’t blame himself, but you had anxiety as a kid too, and you feel asleep on the couch with him back then. Now..? Tim, he’s not sure you can actually fall asleep at all while he’s in Gotham.”

            Grumbling, Tim mutters petulantly, “It’s not that bad.”

 

            Dick doesn’t respond verbally. He simply tips his head and lifts his brows.

 

            “Okay, fine,” Tim whinges huffily. “It’s bad. But it’s not just Jason’s presence. It’s everything that being here means. I’m only ever here these days when it’s an emergency, so I’m in emergency mode for everything about it, especially when we’ve got as many open cases and active issues to deal with, here. I can sleep here. I swear. I just need a few days when nothing is actually in the middle of a meltdown.”

            “A rarity, in Gotham,” Dick accepts.

            “To put it mildly.”

 

            They both heave a sigh in the silence that follows.

 

            Dick lets Tim turn back to his laptop, for a while… lets him get elbow deep in new research in body swap lore from Assyrian archives and some bits of Persian mythology that predates the Egyptians by a thousand years.

            It’s not until half an hour later, when Tim’s logged a few new leads and pushed them off to the Cave’s main servers, that Dick speaks up again.

 

            “Please, Tim,” he says as Tim leans back from his mild success. “Tell me how you feel.”

 

            Tim almost refuses.

            He wants to, both because he wants to and because Jason’s body is still with alarm at the brush of Dick’s permeating worry.

            “I don’t know how I feel,” Tim admits. “I know I don’t like what I’m realizing about Jason. He doesn’t feel safe here, Dick, not the in Cave, not in the Manor, not with any of us in the safe house he lets us use. He really just does not feel safe, not even like uncomfortable, but flat out not safe. And that bothers me… but looking at me? I don’t really feel anything.”

            “Really?”

            “Nothing solid. Nothing identifiable,” Tim clarifies. “I think it’s just the disquiet of being switched. I mean I feel weak and tingly around myself, and I keep feeling Jason’s muscle memory urge to grab when my body is too close, but that’s really it. I’m not caught up in thinking about the me from Before, or anything like that. I promise.”

            Dick nods, slowly and with his attention drifting out to left field.

            Whatever he’s thinking about has him thoroughly occupied.

 

            Tim takes what he can get and goes back to his research— surprised to find that he actually feels a fair bit better than he did before Dick made him speak.

 

            It spurs Tim on to do better with his research, to prove he’s worth the effort.

 

 

________

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 22 – Knight in Matte Armortec

 

 

            Tim’s arrival in the church where Jason’s being held makes Tim’s body’s react with all the sensations of nerves Jason had been waiting for since he’d woken up strapped to a chair.

            “Good afternoon, Detective.”

            Hanging limp in the apse, Jason feels his stomach do flips as Tim responds in a vicious growl, using Jason’s deep vocal register to its utmost advantage, “You have something of mine, Ra’s… I want him back.”

            It could be the possessiveness of the statement, it could be the rumble of it through his bones, it could be just hearing the echo of something Jason’s wanted to say every time Tim had gotten himself captured in the last year or so, but whatever it is, it makes Tim’s muscles tighten in his abdomen— Jason’s own inappropriate interest somehow overpowering the push of anxiety that had been threatening to drown him alive.

            Jason can hear the smile in Ra’s voice as he responds to Tim’s demand, “Yes, he is a unique specimen, that one. He doesn’t do you any justice, you know. He may be roaming about in your skin, but he’s still the hulking street rat he always was— none of your natural elegance or nobility. But he has been a rather amusing toy to play with.”

            Tim sighs with a dramatized display of boredom.

            “We both know you haven’t hurt me Ra’s,” he points out.

            “Ah, but physical pain is but one means by which a man of such proclivities as myself might take a bit of pleasure from a conveniently intriguing little captive,” Ra’s retorts. “While you pet is not, himself, as worthy of my attentions as you are, there are… shall we say, certain viewpoints of relevant things we seem to share.”

            There’s a curl of a particularly obvious lechery in his voice at that, making Jason realize exactly what views he’s talking about: the ones he took pains to expose to Jason about how deeply attractive an undone Timothy Drake promised to be.

 

            The statement begs the question of what exactly those common views are, but Tim’s got a blank expression on that seems determined not to register any curiosity.

            As impossibly nosy as he is, the only way Tim could possibly survive not getting that question answered when Ra’s is offering it up so temptingly is if he already knows the answer.

 

            That thought makes a cloying curl of shame drip through Jason.

 

            He’d let Dick convince him that Tim was too oblivious to know anything, but with this new evidence to weigh… it’s clear that Tim knows about Jason’s inappropriate obsession, and has simply neglected to inform the Family of it.

            It’s probably been a kindness, not just to spare Jason the humiliation of Tim spelling out why such infatuation could never be returned, but because if the Family knew, they’d probably move to directly intervene.

            They might truly believe that he won’t kill Tim anymore, but assault and battery? That’s practically just another Tuesday for them… And the line between assault and sexual assault isn’t so dramatic as to make the Family believe that Jason would sooner kill himself than ever touch Tim against his will like that… Even at his worst, and even when Stray seemed to encourage his sexualized attentions, Jason was raunchy and suggestive and took a few liberties with where he let his hands rest, but even when he pinned Stray against a wall, he left the man an out and stepped down at the slightest curl of discomfort.

            Knowing now that it was Tim behind Stray’s mask adds an uncomfortable color about the possibility of Tim’s having lied through his teeth to push encouragement for contact he didn’t truly want, but if Jason lets himself sink into that spiral of woe, he might actually bite a bullet for this mess… assuming they get switched back, at least, and killing himself won’t kill Tim along with him… Though… the thought of facing Tim again, knowing that he knows

            If he were currently body swapped with anyone else on the planet…

            Jason knows he would not be seeing his next sunrise.

 

            Or, no… because he’s worked hard to conquer this.

 

            He would call Roy. And Roy would help.

            And with Roy on the line… Jason could hold himself together.

            Even in Tim’s body, even with his refusal to do this body any more damage than necessary, Jason knows that he’s gonna need to call Roy before he has any hope of facing Tim.

 

            Well, he’s gonna have to face Tim here, because Tim’s in the midst of rescuing him, but hopefully he won’t actually have to talk to him yet.

 

            Tim’s next words, spoken in Jason’s growling deep baritone, wakes Jason to the moment—reigniting that unfair curl of interest.

            “As entertaining as you might find all of this, I am on a bit of a time crunch,” Tim explains. “Unless you’d prefer to have Jason and I switched forever, you’d best let me have him back so we can return to what we were doing about solving this little problem of ours.”

            Ra’s clearly considers it.

            His whole posture tips towards Tim in Jason’s body, weighing the delights of his brilliant mind against those of the delectable body his mind usually inhabits.

            Jason’s surprised he’d even consider it.

            The part of Tim that makes his body so attractive is the mind he’s used to build it. He has a natural, highborn grace and obvious good breeding, but it’s his brain and his will and his conscious control over his whole being that makes Tim truly awe-inspiring.

 

            Jason’s so focused on Tim that it surprises him when Ra’s gaze cuts to the side, where it lingers on his grandson for a long and painful moment of disappointed judgement.

            Jason hadn’t even spotted Damian with how fixated his attention had been on Tim, but seeing him now, Jason feels for the poor little demon. The kid’s a right prick, but mostly, that’s not his fault. And Jason knows what it feels like to be unwanted… to be outright disdained…

            He feels for the kid, he really does.

            It’s just not his call to address the kid’s issues, especially while he’s still been trippin’ on such rocky ground with the Family. It’s been all he can do to just give gentle nudges to have them help keep Tim moderately well alive, so Damian’s been entirely out of reach.

 

            Before Jason kicks it, or at least before he blows town for the next six months, Jason’ll have to tell Dick how he can do a little more to better manage the brat’s moods.

 

            His new track of thoughts distracts Jason from what Ra’s is doing, so the Demon’s Head next move surprises him.

            “Fine. You may have your associate back,” Ra’s drawls blithely. “However, I cannot bring myself to simply give him to you, though I will allow the challenge to be minimal in light of your disadvantageous circumstances. I trust your priorities will be properly aligned to correct the current conditions. Farewell, my dear Detective, until our next engagement.”

            With that, Ra’s turns his back and makes for a side door at a stately pace.

 

            Which allows Jason’s attention to find Tim again— who’s already charging in his direction despite the incursion of a ninja horde that utterly shatters the relative peace inside the church. Damian holds his own well enough for Tim to not worry about him, after looking back to check on him twice as he move forward, Tim lets the Bat Brat be as he faces his own opponents.

            He makes his way through a dozen of them with ease, utilizing Jason’s full strength to drop them with a confident lack of mercy, certain of their ability to survive physical abuse.

 

            Watching him mow through the ninja makes Jason practically melt.

            He’s always admired Tim’s ability to move through a fight like nothing more strenuous than a stroll through a museum— always respected how he fought with ruthless precision that only failed to kill every thug he ever engaged because he chose to leave them breathing.

            With his own limbs all strung up, and the numb weakness in his muscles leaving him almost entirely helpless, Tim’s approach makes his abdomen clench around a heady warmth.

            Jason can’t even process what he’s feeling, can hardly begin to wonder how his thoughts have managed to so thoroughly infect Tim’s nervous system, before Tim’s freed him from his shackles. He only stands up under his own power for a few seconds before his knees give out.

            The reaction of utter infirmity is distressing, both to Jason’s mind, and to the thrumming anxiety in Tim’s body— made more unsettling for how Tim doesn’t seem surprised by it, or by Jason’s inability to counter it. Using Jason’s strength, Tim scoops Jason up before he even falls.

 

            It’s not Tim’s fault that Jason’s own history makes Jason’s muscles wrap a touch too tightly around Tim’s frame— that Jason’s age old fantasies of swooping into to save the day and carry Tim off into the sunset like the hero of some high octane drama have recently pervaded far too many aspects of his conscious mind.

            But it is likely Jason’s fault that Tim’s body doesn’t respond like it should to the edging on pain of Jason’s arms around him. It’s probably very much Jason’s fault that, instead of stiffening or fighting back or even freezing with a wash of terror, Tim’s body melts into utter complaisance. He goes limp and open and flushed with a warmth that fogs his brain enough that he could probably bear the worst without having to face it straight.

            Being murdered by Jason, being assaulted— enticing sexual engagements, both as Stray with Jason, and possibly with countless others for the sake of the Mission— being held like this by someone he believes has so little reason to respect him… It tips Tim’s body over into like a fugue state to preserve his sanity.

            Maybe.

            Jason can’t quite tell.

            The smell of his own aftershave has caught in Tim’s nose and is distracting him to an utterly unfathomable degree.

            Jason can’t parse it.

 

            He spends the entire ride back to the Cave attempting to feel out the edges of the feeling, to find the lines that make out walls meant to keep an unpleasant matter bearable… But he can’t quite find them… all he finds in a permeating bubbliness, it can’t be a giddy sensation, not truly, but Jason can’t disentangle that sensation from the others to find the disgust in Tim’s overloaded, touch-starved little brain is feeling as Jason’s body manhandles him into familiar territory— first, the passenger seat of his own Redbird, and then, into the Cave itself.

            The disgust is definitely there, but Jason can’t figure out exactly what it’s anchored to.

 

            They get to the Cave faster than Jason expects, and the slam of Tim’s door surprises him.

 

            “Kon, go home,” Tim says as Jason scrambles to refocus. “You can’t do anything to help directly and your being here is a distraction.”

            Kon’s glaring at Jason as he gets out of the converted car-version of Red Bird, hatred apparent in the gaze. Jason’s used to hatred, so he doesn’t think any of the anger that rises in Tim at seeing the Super is being pushed by Jason’s own distaste. Jason doesn’t really like the Supers, even Clark is a little too country-boy naive for his taste— and Jason dislikes this Super in particular, for obvious reasons like his criminally less than worshipful appreciation of the attention Tim lavishes on him; stupid, pea-brained hunk of muscle.

            But still, in Tim’s body, Jason expected to feel relief at seeing Kon.

            Relief, or satisfaction, or even a simple burst of happiness…

            Honestly, Jason was even braced to feel a rush of desire, adrenalin washing out into the kind of life-embracing relief that makes people fuck like bunnies in the wake of almost dying.

 

            While Jason’s gotten distracted again, Kon’s been contacted by the Amazon currently in charge of leading the Teen Titans. Whatever she said while Jason wasn’t listening sends Kon racing back out of the cave—though not without leveling one last glare at Jason.

            He so clearly wants to punch Jason, but he’s torn with the desire not to harm Tim’s body.

 

            Kon zips out, urges still frustrated, as the other Bats make it back to the Cave.

            Tim’s long gone, already wrapping up his report of this debacle on the Cave’s main computer as Jason cautiously makes his way up to the main floor.

 

            Jason stays on the peripheries of the group as Tim yields the chair to Bruce.

 

            “Leaving the Cave was incredibly irresponsible of you both,” he starts off. He tosses half a glare Dick’s way to silently level blame for their actions against the oldest brother as well.

            Dick is cowed and ducks his head, but Tim and Jason both keep their chins up.

            “Sunset is in less than an hour and we are no closer to figuring out how to switch you both back to normal,” Bruce elaborates. “This is the third sunset you’ve spent like this, which means that, at most, you have two more before this situation claims your lives.”

            “Excellent nut-shelling, Bruce,” Tim drawls. “But unless this speech includes a plan to do something about it, I’m heading upstairs. Jason’s body needs food and another nap, because being body-swapped is actually pretty exhausting. So, let me know when you have something actionable to work with, alright?”

            Tim normally wouldn’t be so brazen about his dismissiveness, but it would always be him to make the first move against Bruce with an argument the big bad Bat can’t win.

            Jason runs off like a wounded dog when he and Bruce clash, but Tim beats the man down with a firm hold on the upper hand.

            Even with the riot in Tim’s stomach at the stabbing disappointment Bruce has leveled at them, Tim’s body doesn’t register any of the fight or flight instincts that Jason’s usually does. If Tim weren’t feeling the push from Jason’s muscles urging him to flee, Jason thinks Tim might’s camped out in front of the computer and dared Bruce to frickin’ move him.

            As things are, Jason’s body probably IS starving, and with Jason’s muscles itching for an exit, Tim’s halfway across the Cave before Bruce even replies.

            The reply is capitulation, as Jason expected.

            Seriously, if Tim ever turned evil… they’d all be doomed, and they’d probably end up thanking him for it when he managed to arrange world peace under his dictatorship.

 

            “I’ve had Black Bat retrieve the Heka Ariset from your safehouse,” Bruce informs the retreating teenager. “It’s in the Library. I’m going to ensure its full specs have been properly loaded into the Bat Computer’s analysis systems while the rest of you clean up and get something to eat. We’ll reconvene in the Library in two hours.”

            Tim hadn’t stopped walking when Bruce began to speak, but he nods when the others do as Bruce finishes— accepting the request with a cordial kind of grace.

 

            Of the ones that stay behind, Dick’s the first to recover. Bruce is busy ignoring them all to input his own report about this terrible incident, and Dick manages to shake himself free of the daze resulting from Bruce leaving them all in the lurch.

            He shoots the others a forcefully cheered-up grin that helps them break free and mentions that a shower and a snack should be on everyone’s to do list.

 

            A shower is very firmly not on Jason’s to do list.

            He is quite convinced that he could not possible hope to survive the act right now. Even the vaguest thoughts of putting hands on Tim’s naked body under the hot spay of water in the Cave’s showers inflames that curl of desire that Jason’s gutter-bound mind has allowed to take root inside Tim’s nervous system.

 

            So, Jason’s lost.

            Because he can’t go upstairs yet, his odds of running into Tim are uncomfortably high at the moment— and because everyone else IS taking showers, no one else will be up there yet, to force the interaction between Tim and Jason to be a little less awkward.

            And he can’t take a shower, for reasons already angsted over— reasons that Jason has to work very hard to keep himself from rehashing…

 

            So, he ends up drifting towards the exit to the Manor— winds up lingering in front of the display case with his old uniform in it, the one from when he was Robin.

            It’s still lit up like a memorial, but the area around where it’s been moved to is shadowy and cut off from the main Cave. It’s a decently private little spot, which is probably why Tim picked it for the memorial’s new home and probably why Stephanie Brown seeks him out there.

            Her expression is stormy with conflicting feelings, but it’s clear she’s sought him out to talk— even if she doesn’t push a conversation right away.

            Instead, she sidles up to Jason and takes her own moment to look over the old uniform.

 

            Eventually, she says, “Losing you destroyed him, you know?”

            Her tone is so low it’s hardly a whisper, but the words are spoken with an oddly lilting lightness behind them.

 

            “Whelp, sorry for dying, Blondie,” Jason mutters, letting his bitterness show its bite. “It wasn’t exactly my choice, ya know.”

            Stephanie nods slowly, letting the vitriol slide off.

            “That’s the part the wrecked him,” she confirms. “He’s never wanted anything from you but whatever it was you wanted. Even now… he’s only ever here because if he really goes AWOL the Family’s gonna blame you— even though we should really know better.”

            Jason’s not sure what to do with this little speech, so he decides to hold his tongue.

            Bites it, hard, to make sure the reaction bubbling up Tim’s throat stays stuck.

            Waits for Steph in the shuddery silence.

            “And he’s here for you— well, because of you,” Steph adds after a moment. “He’s better because of you. He almost believes in himself again. He likes himself more when you’re around. He takes better care of himself and he even believes he deserves it. I think you could take care of him, maybe even make him want to be taken care of, if you were given a real chance at it.”

            Steph’s words had been coming so slowly that Jason’s guard had dropped, lowering enough to make him want to believe in the truth she thinks the statements hold.

            It lets that last point sneak up on him.

 

            Ice shoots down his spine as the implications hit him.

 

            She knows.

 

            Hell, she’s basically giving Jason her blessing, here— giving her permission for Jason to pursue his inappropriate attraction to Tim… she’s doing it far less directly than Dick had, but still, there’s little question of what she’s alluding to here…

 

            Jason doesn’t think Dick talked.

            He can’t quite rule it out, but he doesn’t think Dickie bird would backstab like that, especially mere hours after being told something in confidence.

            This time two years ago, Jason would’ve immediately assumed that Dick spilled the gossip the second someone asked. Hell, this time two weeks ago—or even just a few days ago—just with him in his regular body, the Pit’s whispers would’ve tried to convince him that Dickie talked… he might possibly believe it wasn’t out of malice, but he still would’ve assumed it was his fault for trusting Dick with a secret.

 

            But now… Tim’s body doesn’t have the same leap to doubt that Jason’s does.

            He’s got killer anxiety, and its screwing up his lungs with the strain of possible consequences bearing down on him, but Tim doesn’t have doubt.

            And honestly, Jason doesn’t either.

 

            Dick didn’t talk.

            Steph figured it out.

 

            She’s smart enough to have managed it.

            She’s people smart, to start with, and she’s specifically Tim-smart… and Tim’s suitors smart. Steph was one of the first people Tim ever dated. She’s watched him date everyone else he’s ever been interested in enough to pursue.

            If there’s anyone on earth who knows exactly what it looks like to be crushing on Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown is that person.

 

            And Jason’s never been the best with being subtle.

            The only reason he’s gotten this far along without being outed is that most of the Bats are just so far beyond oblivious that neon signs wouldn’t tip them off about human feelings.

 

            Jason’s so caught up with his own thoughts, with the leap to panic Tim’s body is trying to make, that he nearly misses Steph’s next quiet words.

            “He wants it to be your choice, all of it,” Steph sighs. “I get that he doesn’t want to feel like he’s pushing anything onto you, but still… He trusts you with everything, I don’t get why he won’t trust you with—”

            She cuts herself off and bites down something of vehemence.

            It takes a moment for her to get herself back under control, but her words are even quieter than before as she looks down at the fingers she’s twining together roughly, like she means to break them all at the joints.

            “You… your history is rocky, and— and it hurts that it’s you… but… I think you do deserve him,” Steph tells him. “I think… I think he deserves someone who truly knows him like you do, can support him in ways no one else ever could.”

 

            At this point, Tim’s body is attempting to vibrate through the floor.

            Jason couldn’t speak his name if it would grant world peace via miracle.

            And yet… somehow, a wheeze makes it up Tim’s throat to escape through the hush…

 

            It seems to startle Steph, who freezes up and squints at him warily.

            It’s not a jump to defensiveness, not alarm in that way. But she knows this reaction, has provoked it in Tim often enough to understand what’s happening… and she’s concerned.

            About Jason.

            About what her words are doing to him, about how his reactions reaching the surface mean that the underlying angst is roiling with acute aggression.

 

            Another long minute— that was probably more like a few distended seconds— limps along in silence.

            When it passes, Jason’s enough under control again to ask, “How long have you known?”

            He doesn’t fully know why he asks it.

            There’s no possible way it could help the situation at all.

            But it’s the question that gets pushed out, the mere asking of it lets Tim’s panic settle slightly—like it’s both an admission and confirmation in one, and like the act of oblique confession is enough to relieve the panicky pressure of secrets on the brink of open exposure.

 

            Steph frowns, her worried squint contracting sharply as she scans his face.

            “Well—uh, I mean… How long have you…?”

 

            Her question isn’t laced with a sappy sympathy, but Jason still feels the thick of it dripping like acid through his lungs.

            “You weren’t around… you, uh… well, Before…” Jason admits slowly, the confession coming so much harder with her than it had with Dick, despite the fact that Jason honestly expects Steph to understand it so much better. Even from what she’s already said about it, she gets what Tim needs… she gets what Jason wants to give him… and she’s already said that she believes he could actually provide it—a miracle in its own right if Jason’s ever seen one.

            Jason’s gaze is fixed firmly to a scuff on the boots of his old uniform.

            Steph’s gaze is boring into the side of his face.

            “It didn’t go away, exactly…” Jason tells her. She deserves his honesty, after all, deserves to know just how fucked up it is that Jason still has feelings for Tim. She wants to protect him, and if she thinks it’s okay for Jason to pursue any part of this, it’s his duty to show her exactly what is wrong with that assumption— even if it kills him to undo the progress with gaining her trust that he’s apparently made over the last year.

            “In the After… it was still there. Always. Even… even when I hurt him,” Jason tells her solemnly. “And after the After… I dunno… It just, came back… back to the surface, I guess.”

 

            In Jason’s peripheral vision, Steph nods.

            It’s a slow, stilted gesture… the movement a distracted surface reaction to far more frenetic thoughts deep below the skin layer.

            “He’s a weird little bugger,” Steph comforts distantly. “Liking him is something that just sorta sneaks up on a person.”

            The statement is actually a real help to Tim’s frazzled nerves.

            It’s enough to allow Jason to turn his head, to look over at Steph and meet the earnestly concerned gaze she’s trained on him.

            “Everything is gonna work out, Jason,” she promises.

            It’s an empty assurance, but there’s a relentless confidence in it that proves she’s always had the right credentials to be a great Robin.

            “I’mma go grab a shower, now,” she informs him. “I just wanted to check in. Jason… it’s not just Tim who wants you here. You’re part of the Family. I doubt you’ll believe me saying it’s true for the others, but I, for one, like having you around.”

            Jason nods and Steph makes an exit, hand leaping up for a swift knock to his shoulder—the kind of ingrained, habitual motion they’ll probably never out-grow. Tim’s body is more than ready for it, his shoulder pushing back against her shove and his off hand whipping up to gently smack her other shoulder.

            It’s not a hug, nor a handshake, but it’s somehow far more intimate than either.

            And awkward… at least in light of the body swap shifting their perspective.

 

            Steph is gone before either of them have to address that factor.

 

            Jason just breathes into the relief of it… somehow feeling markedly better than he had before they talked, despite knowing that one more person now knows exactly why Jason shouldn’t be given as many liberties within the Family as he already has…

 

            He feels better enough to face talking about it all again, with Roy this time.

 

            Cautiously, Jason pokes his head out of the alcove with his old suit. Tim’s workbench isn’t far, and no one’s in the main Cave with a sightline on the space, so Jason edges out towards it. He keeps his guard up, but nothing significant occurs and Jason manages to seize hold of a phone from the bin of discarded (but still functional) electronics perched beside the desk.

            Jason slips back into the alcove with his old suit and punches in the numbers he knows Roy will be monitoring.

            He picks up on the first ring.

            “Speak.”

            The stress is apparent in his voice, even to Tim’s body without interference from Jason’s brain to interpret the sound.

            Jason can parse it calmly, because of course Roy is stressed right now— there’s no way he hasn’t heard about what’s happening by now. But Tim’s body doesn’t like it, interprets it immediately as anger— freezes up like a scared little bunny rabbit at the notion.

            “Yo.”

            It’s the closest thing to his normal, overly blasé greeting that he can manage at the moment as Tim’s chest constricts on him in a pained assumption of guilt.

 

            “Jason?”

            “Yep,” Jason huffs, Tim’s body finally relaxing as Roy’s tone shifts towards relief. “I take it you’ve got some idea of what the hell is going on right now?”

            “Yeah,” Roy barks out. “It’s about frickin’ time you called, bitch. Biz and Scarlett have been freaking out here for two days already. You’re just lucky that Artemis was too busy to pick up the phone with all of us. Kori and I are just about ready to launch an invasion. How in the hell did you not call us about this?”

            “We thought we could handle it,” Jason huffs.

            “What made your dumb as bricks ass think that?”

            Jason shrugs, knowing Roy can’t see it, but guessing he can assume how Jason’s responding. Then he asks, “How did you find out?”

 

            There’s a beat of almost imperceptible hesitation.

            “Tim had a nightmare,” Roy admits. “Your muscle memory had him call us.”

            “Oh.”

 

            Thoughts drifting over the accusations of the Super, and the silent agreement with them from the rest of Tim’s Titans team, Jason asks, “Did he say what it was about?”

            “Not you,” Roy assures. “He said he gets nightmares a lot; I mean, we all do, but he specifically mentioned that this one wasn’t about you.”

            “All that means is he had a reason to expect people to ask if it was me,” Jason grumbles.

            “Well, we all know he’s got plenty of reasons to have nightmares about you.”

 

            There’s an unspoken question there, a nudge. Roy knows this track came up for a reason and he doesn’t think he needs to push it, but if Jason wants to talk, Roy’s made sure there’s an opening for him to use for it.

            “The Titans says he wakes up screaming my name on a pretty regular basis,” Jason admits heavily. “It’s one of the big reasons they disapprove of his coming back to Gotham.”

            A pause.

            “It could be a sex dream,” Roy suggests flatly.

            That joke wouldn’t fly even with Jason in his regular body, in Tim’s he almost chokes.

 

            Coughing through a rough recovery, Jason changes tack—the nightmare thing won’t go away even if they hash it out, and they’ve got bigger problems.

            But there is a niggle of anxious curiosity he can’t just dismiss.

            “You said you’ve known for two days,” Jason says. “Why didn’t you come to Gotham if you’ve been this worried for that long?”

            “Tim said you hadn’t left the city, gave us good reason to believe it,” Roy admitted. “We decided that if you hadn’t left, we wouldn’t be help so much as a distraction. If you left we’d go to you immediately, but if you didn’t, we’d wait to hear from you.”

            “How’d he know I hadn’t left? It’s kind of my M.O. …”

 

            Another beat of hesitation.

            “Tim says he’s got a subdermal tripwire in his arm, goes off if he leaves Gotham without the trip being on his shared schedule,” Roy explains.

            Jason goes very still in Tim’s body.

            A tripwire alarm?

            Whose idea was that?

            How in the hell did that person convince the others to accept it?

            Who the hell even knows?

 

            Jason feels up the back of Tim’s right arm, finds nothing.

            Transfers the phone to the other hand and searches the meat of his left arm—finds a subtle bump that shouldn’t be there… that’s harder than any natural scar tissue would be.

            Jason half wants to hunt Tim down to confront him on it.

            But…

            Again, it’s a problem that won’t go away, even if they hash it out right now.

            Blowing out a resigned groan, Jason lets it go.

            “So, what exactly do you know about what’s up with us?”

 

            “Tim gave us the lowdown,” Roy confirms. “The Heka Ariset, body swap, things on a lethal deadline, the unsolvable riddle of your ‘unfinished business’… all the kickers. I’ve had Artemis digging through her Amazon contacts to see if there’s anything helpful in the archives.”

            “Tim give you any hints on what his beef is with me?”

 

            “Not in so many words, but I got yours pegged,” Roy returns. There’s another beat of hesitation, but before Jason’s forced to ask, Roy goes on to say, “You should fuck him.”

 

            The straightforwardly certain way in which Roy drops that line makes Tim’s body convulse and Jason chokes again—swallows air and feels the creep of saliva in his trachea.

            He coughs like he just drank the ocean, going red and wheezy as he fights to reorient himself to breathing air. Roy’s not laughing, and that just makes it worse.

 

            When Jason quiets, Roy just pushes the point again.

            “Seriously, Jay. Fucking all of Pretty Bird’s brilliant brains out is basically the only thing you’ve ever really wanted and yet resisted doing; that sounds like ‘unfinished business’ to me.”

            “I would rather die than do that to him,” Jason snarls.

            “Sounds like you’re going to die anyway,” Roy retorts. “May as well at least confess.”

            “You can’t be serious.”

            “Dead serious.”

 

            There’s an impasse at that, an impenetrable wall of silence—the kind he’s never even once run into with Roy before.

 

            “Look, Jay,” Roy says when the silence has stretched out to somewhere well beyond awkwardly oppressive. “Tim woke up with a nightmare and ended up having to confess one hella big fuck-up to us… and the only thing he wanted from us was tips on how to help you. I don’t think he’ll turn you down if you confess to him, bro, I really don’t. And I don’t think you should die without getting that shit off your chest.”

            “I can’t do that to him, Roy, or the rest of the Family,” Jason wails. “If I am gonna die, I don’t want the last thing I do to undo all the progress I’ve made in the last year.”

 

            Roy apparently can’t find anything to say to that.

 

            Eventually, he says, “You get one more day to handle this on your own, Jason. If you’re not back inside your own skin by tomorrow night, Kori and I are coming down to Gotham, and if you don’t have any better ideas to try by then… we’re gonna handle this confession ourselves.”

            Jason’s response is strained and garbled, and Roy ignores it anyway.

            “I know you don’t want to risk undoing all the progress you’ve made to get their trust, but you were my best friend when you were a psychopathic drug lord and you’re still gonna be my best friend if the Bats kick you out for being a sappy ass RomCom hero,” Roy explains. “I like Tim, I do. But I’m not about to let you die to protect his feelings.”

 

            With that, Roy hangs up—leaving Jason more unsettled than he’s been in years after a phone call with Roy… They’ve almost never fought like this.

            Even in the worst days of Roy’s early attempts to kick his drug habits… even when withdrawal was killing him and he’d hand out a black eye to Jason with a venomous snarl that showed he felt not even the most withered edge of remorse.

            It was always Roy and Jason against the Problem.

            Never against each other.

            Even when the Problem wasn’t something they could really fight.

            When it was Roy’s addiction or Jason’s anger or just the brutal reality of an unfair world, it had always been the two of them against it.

 

            This is disquieting.

            Still, it is what it is, and Jason’s still got a day left to figure out a better solution.

 

            Settled as he can be, Jason heads upstairs to the Manor. He makes a pitstop in the kitchen to find that Alfred’s made gyros.

            His first thought is to grab half a dozen.

            Then Tim’s stomach dry-heaves with such a viciousness that Jason actually leans over the sink from the worry that he might actually puke.

 

            The feeling settles eventually—helped along by the scent of the coffeepot beside the sink, bubbling through the final phase of producing a fresh carafe.

            Jason grabs a mug and fills it, just breathing in the scent until Tim’s stomach truly settles down. Then he takes a sip, keeping his eyes firmly down.

            When the sip goes down alright, he takes another, and then another.

            Then he dares to glance up at the food.

            It makes his stomach clench, but there’s not another round of heaving.

 

            One.

            Jason thinks he could nibble on one… but just one, and just a nibble… tiny bites spread out over the next two hours, at least. And accompanied by another cup of coffee.

            Jason nabs a plate and slides one gyro onto it like the foil-wrapped deliciousness might actually explode if handled without care.

            Then he refills his cup of coffee.

 

            As he pours, he spies Damian lurking in the shadows of the kitchen’s far doorway—the hallway leading towards the main staircase.

            His expression is haughty, but darkened with the tint of unreadable emotion.

            He doesn’t want to talk and Jason knows better than anyone that trying to push him won’t prove any help at all, so he simply finishes his pour, collects his plate, and gives a nod.

            Then he turns in the other direction and stalks off towards the Library.

 

            He finds Tim camped out on a couch near-ish to the Heka Ariset. There’s a laptop in front of him, a pile of pillows beside him, and a spread of papers haphazardly arranged in a circle around him on every moderately horizontal surface available.

            Dick’s in the armchair closest to him, his own spread of books close at hand.

            Dick looks up and smiles when Jason enters. Tim hasn’t even noticed.

 

            Tim only does notice when Jason picks up the file balanced precariously on the pile of pillows, moves it to the coffee table, and then dumps the pillows to the floor.

            Jason throws himself down beside Tim without further ceremony. He even dares to take a bite of the gyro. Tim looks alarmed by his presence, but after a few startled blinks pass without a word, Tim turns back to his research.

 

            Jason settles in beside him.

            Pulls a couple files from Tim’s pile to peruse himself as he nibbles on his attempt at food.

 

            Sunset passes into night with as much soft comfort as could ever be expected, considering the circumstance of the moment.

 

            It’s not good, exactly, but Jason can’t say that it feels too terrible either.

 

 

 

________

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 23 – Sharing Spaces | Steph

 

 

            Tim had been acting squirrely for a week before things went sideways.

 

            She’d gotten used to how this particular sort of squirrely meant that Tim was working a case with Jason and he still wasn’t used to the fact that he could just say that to the others yet; that he could talk openly and candidly about working with Jason because the Family finally knew better than to criticize him for any of it.

            Steph had worried the first few times, but by the time this case rolled around, she’d found the whole thing old hat. There was a little splash of… giddiness in him this time, though, that wasn’t usually there—a thing Steph took to mean it was going especially well between them.

            Which is why she’d been so taken aback when it went sideways.

 

            When Tim called out of Family Dinner, it was odd—but things happened, and with his Wayne Enterprises work, his Bat brand casework, his thing with Jason, and the shiny extra icing on top that was schoolwork (because, of course, that idiot is still shelling out thousands of dollars, voluntarily, to do work he’s already smarter than deserving of, to make a bunch of old white guys give him a stupid piece of paper to certify what everyone already knows about his obvious genius)… Family Dinner is a more than infrequent casualty to over-scheduling.

            When Tim called out of Game Night… again, odd, but not unreasonable.

            It was certainly concerning, but nothing worth a tizzy fit.

 

            But then Tim called out of work at Wayne Enterprises.

            Out of a meeting he’d been complaining for weeks about how stupidly hard it had been to schedule the damn thing to start with… that he’d been almost openly excited about being able to use as a vehicle to forward some grand social-good plan of his while simultaneously shutting down the idiocy of the old gasbags that ridiculously believed someone his age couldn’t possibly run this company. Tim could do it with his eyes closed and always enjoyed the drama of big moments that proved his point (not related to Bruce, Steph’s ass. After Jason, Tim’s easily the one of them most like the big guy…).

            But he called out…

            And he called out with, like, 20 minutes notice—at least according to the furious email that Tam Fox had sent to his iPad (that Tim had set specifically to give a preview of his missives so that Steph could snoop without going 100% stalker on him, or tattle-telling to the other Bats).

 

            And then… then he called out of Movie Night with Steph, herself.

 

            That was the line where Steph called bullshit.

 

            Movie Night wasn’t really necessary for a case, it was just a final review of the plan and a bit of letting loose to ensure that the stress build up over the last month wouldn’t cause a blow up of tensions during the undercover op they were embarking on the next night.

            It was a thing they’d established after they’d broken up and after they’d realized that their first attempt at being friends again had failed because they were still so much more than just friends. It was a thing they’d come up with to help them figure out how to be siblings.

            It was not necessary, exactly…

            But it also wasn’t quite optional

 

            So, Tim calling out of it… that was unsettling.

 

            Dick was already crawling the walls with worry. He knew Tim and Jason were working together on their own case as well, and, apparently, he had his own particular reasons to be worried about it this time… He’d been refreshing the report file for it in the Cave every five minutes after Tim had called out of Game Night.

            Babs was running interference, but by the time they’d gone out for Patrol… Dick was halfway ready to call in the cavalry.

            The Family could no longer criticize anything Tim chose to do with Jason, but the Teen Titans still had the leeway to whine at him for any risks he took with it.

 

            Steph was halfway to calling them herself when Tim reached out to her on the oldest and most secure com channel they had between them, built from scratch by a 14 year old Tim before she’d been Batgirl and before he’d been Robin.

            He’d called himself Red Robin then, too, because Steph knew Robin—in passing, at least —but, well enough to know that Tim was not Robin. And even when he actually became Robin, she knew he was not the old Robin… so he’d called himself Red Robin because his uniform was more red while Jason’s had been mostly green.

            On this back channel, kept extra secure by just how dang old it was, they were still Red Robin and Spoiler.

            Tim was probably using that kick of nostalgia to disarm her, but being aware of what he was doing didn’t really make it any less effective.

 

            Red Robin to Spoiler -> O says you need to talk.

 

            It hits her with a kick to the heartstrings and she nearly falls of the building she was swinging up to land on as she struggles to respond immediately.

            Voice chat?

 

            Busy. He shoots back. Sound sensitive case work.

 

            Like Steph buys that for even a second. He’s probably only even contacting her because Babs knows they’re all getting hella worried about whatever’s happening with him and Jason.

            Oracle probably gave them an ultimatum: reach out voluntarily, or Babs would sick the full force of the worry-wart Bat-clan on them.

 

            Steph takes longer to choose her words this time, pretending she buys his bullshit excuses. Stakeout? B.fest after?

 

            RR: BUSY. Case complications.

 

            S: U w/ Hood?

 

            RR: Shared case.

 

            S: …

            S: U OK?

 

            RR: I called out sick, I didn’t flee the county.

 

            S: Still. U don’t DO that.

 

            RR: I do when I’m busy. This case got complicated.

 

            S: Complicated how?

 

            RR: Just complicated. Nothing to worry you guys about.

 

            S: …

            S: Hood stable?

 

            RR: Has been for weeks.

 

            Steph knows that, she does. And it’s comforting that Tim’s witty responses are coming without pause or hesitation, but none of that really eliminates the possibility of problems.

            Especially between two such massive idiots as Tim and Jason.

 

            S: But like. Really? U 2 r good?

 

            RR: We’re good. Better than good.

            RR: We’re…

            RR: Finding out that we know each other better than we thought.

 

            Well… that’s unexpected.

            If it means what she thinks it means, at least.

 

            S: Oh? Reaaaaaallllllllly, now?

            S: U tell him ur in luuuurve, or what?

 

            Because Tim has been crushing on Jason for years now. Like ye~ars. Long before Steph ever even joined this little costume party.

            It’s been the only constant about him that Steph’s really known.

            But it had been such a back-burner thing that she hadn’t even been bothered by it while she and Tim were dating. That’s how integral to Tim’s character the crush has always been.

            She’s been trying to push him to do something about it ever since Jason proved himself to be not-evil last year. It’s been slow going.

            Like, bacteria could run a marathon faster than she’s been making progress.

 

            But rabbit, turtle, all that jazz… She’ll wear him down eventually.

 

            RR: Nothing so dramatic. Just circumstances.

            RR: The case made us see things from a new PoV and…

            RR: Got complicated.

 

            S: So it’s THAT kind of complicated. (ಠ‿↼)

 

            Coming from Tim, ‘complicated’ could mean anything. They maybe stood too close together in a hidey hole for like ten seconds and Tim’s having a little nerd-brain freak out… Or they could’ve straight up fucked their tension out once and for all…

 

            RR: Not quite. But…

            RR: Closer.

            RR: The case itself is actually complicated too.

 

            So, not a straight up fuck-fest worthy of a porno… Well, it was a reach.

            Steph’s still hoping that there may have been a kiss involved, but she’s also pretty dang sure that even that much is still way beyond them…

 

            S: Need backup?

 

            RR: Not yet.

 

            S: Sure ur not just sayin that cuz u wanna be alone to bang ur bro?

 

            RR: I’m sure. & geez, we’re not in HS. Grow up.

 

            S: If being grown up means I can’t tease you

            S: esp. about wanting to ride those thunder thighs off into the sunset

            S: then Imma move to Neverland. Young forever, boyfriend. Sucks for you.

 

            She will wear him down eventually… Steph is not exactly a patient creature, but damn it all if she ain’t the most stubbornly determined of the bunch when she gets a hankering.

 

            There IS still one thing she needs to make sure of, though…

 

            S: We still on for Hologram?

 

            RR: Of course. It’s our case, S, & I promised.

 

            S: Good.

 

            RR: Stay safe, S.

 

            S: U 2. (ಠ‿↼)

 

            The sign-off was soothingly normal enough to make her think that the Hologram op could still work, to make her believe that the weirdness with this is progress not a problem…

            She calls in her convo to Babs as soon as she ends it with Tim.

 

            Steph goes about her patrol as normal, feeling like things are perfectly fine. At least fine enough to go about her usual business.

            She does call Cass before she wraps up. They grab ice cream and watch the sunrise from the bay bridge together in perfect comfort.

            They crash in Steph’s safe house and stick together through the playful prep for the op that Steph had wanted to perform with Tim—enjoys the movie and the tipsy play-acting as a hooker at least as much with Cass as she would’ve with Tim.

            It’s a different kind of fun with Cass, but just as thoroughly affecting.

 

            Steph asks Cass to stick around for the op when they eat breakfast (or lunch, because it’s after noon when they finally wake up), and Cass accepts without any confessions of suspicion.

            They’re not worried about Tim and Jason, even when they unexpectedly show up at the safehouse together and they both act all weird about it, they’re just being cautious and showing a bit a well-deserved chagrin for being given the run-around.

            Cass gets a bit over-reactive in a way she doesn’t usually, but it’s probably just because Steph’s been pulling on her hard with her own anxieties. Chalking it up to a fluke, and setting about with her own prep, things fall into an acceptable almost-normal.

            Steph still thinks that things are going as well as they could be and that their op is set to go just as swimmingly. It’s a risky thing, but it is gonna be hella worth the reward if it works.

 

            She maintains that warmly mild optimism until things blow up in their faces as the sting at Hologram goes straight to hell.

 

            It’s awful.

            Hearing Jason’s voice egg Tim on to let Zhen Li fuck him like a piece of meat, dealing with the fallout of the Bats’ presence being unexpectedly revealed to the bad guys, realizing that something more dramatic is not right about the whole situation…

            Getting back to a safe house is rough.

            Tense to the point of painful.

 

            But then hearing Jason explain it.

            Hearing Jason use Tim’s voice, as he sits there in Tim’s body, explain what’s happened to them like it’s just a normal SitRep in the Cave… while Tim in Jason’s body sulks with the kind of petulance that was all Tim, despite seeing Jason’s body perform the actions…

            It’s trippy.

            And awkward…

            And utterly maddening…

 

            Steph wants to punch Tim so hard as Jason talks.

            It doesn’t get any better as she fights with Tim over it.

 

            The one thing she does agree with him on is that, at the moment, getting the rest of the Family involved, mainly Dick, probably won’t help.

            She takes custody of Zhen Li, transfers him to a different—still very secure— safe house, using the walk to make herself cool off a bit, and then calls Dick.

            As expected, he agrees immediately to help her with Zhen Li. It’s clear that he can sense she’s upset, even over the phone, but he doesn’t push it right away. He’s coming over to help with the interrogation anyway, so they both know he’ll have an opening to broach the subject with her eventually. Giving her this moment to settle herself will allow that opening to come easier and generate a better dialogue.

 

            While Steph waits for Dick to show, she texts Babs about what happened. She can’t quite bring herself to fully explain it, but she gives a run-down of the planned Hologram op, a few bullet points on what went wrong, and names the exact time of Jason’s full confession and the address of the safe house he gave it in. Babs can hack the security feeds to see his admission for herself—it’ll be a clearer and more convincing explanation than anything Steph could manage at the moment anyway. She signs off with a promise to keep Dick distracted for a while.

            Babs pings her back with a funny supportive-friend cat meme and then with all the mercy a girl could ever ask for, Babs leaves Steph to her own devices.

 

            Steph manages to calm down before Dick arrives.

            She even manages to hold it together through the mission recap briefing (which she tells with several glaring alterations and omissions in the mix), and the interrogation itself. They get Zhen Li on the ropes even more easily than Tim predicted they would.

            Dick and Steph extract all the right promises, acquire all the right tidbits of information to ensure a solid case of blackmail against the entire crime family to ensure those promises are kept, and arrange for Zhen Li to be picked up by his own people—while making sure they are very distinctly aware of the circumstances that their organization is now facing.

            Zhen Li gets handed off, and his associates get a good scare from meeting Bat Girl and Nightwing in person, within three hours of taking him away from where she left Cass in charge of Tim and Jason. It was efficient and clean and so perfectly planned it could only have been Tim behind the crafting of the scheme.

            It would’ve been great if she hadn’t been so upset with him at the moment.

 

            “This was a dangerous case for you to take with just Timmy with you,” Dick mentions after they head to one of Dick’s safe houses for a snack while they make their formal reports on the case details for the Cave’s records.

            “We called in Cass for back-up and Jason came, too,” Steph excuses. She knows she’s giving Dick his opening to talk about Tim and Jason, but talking about their recklessness is a thing that is slightly more bearable than talking about her own.

            “Tim and Jason have been working together a lot lately,” he mentions. “This makes three cases in the last month alone.”

            “They’re a good team,” Steph says on autopilot.

            “They are,” Dick agrees. “They keep each other in check, usually. I’m just worried this time because… well, July is rough for Jason. He… he came back in July. And being around Tim around the same time… It’s a stressor.”

            Steph nods, absorbing the new details with an oddly distant feeling.

            “How did they seem to you?”

 

            “The seemed… they seemed good,” Steph tells him, surprising herself. “They… well, something’s happened, a… a problem’s come up, but they’re on the same side of it.”

            “Problem? What problem? Are they okay? Do they need help with anything?”

            “I don’t know if they need help, I… I don’t even really understand what’s happening, to be honest. But… whatever it is, they’re working together to fix it,” Steph says, feeling the realization settle over her. It’s taken this long for her to process it all, but now she can really be safe in saying that nothing they’ve done or hidden occurred out of malice or even fear.

            They really thought they had a handle on it.

            They were working together so effectively and competently, like a real team—like real friends—in such a way that all they wanted to do was protect that fragile bubble a little while longer… adding in anyone else from the Family would’ve been a complication, would’ve added friction between them that threatened their bubble and also threatened to distract them away from solving the actual problem.

            Especially with the Family’s track record of handling things between Tim and Jason with exceedingly poor judgement…

            From a few steps back, their choices looked utterly idiotic.

            But from inside the thick of it? Most of their decisions made a fair bit of sense…

 

            “Steph… please. What can I do to help?”

            Blinking up at Dick as her brain draws a blank, Steph struggles to finagle a response.

 

            Before she manages to find an acceptable answer, every digital, net-connected device in Dick’s safe house lights up with an alarm from Oracle. “I'm calling a Family Meeting. You all have fifteen minutes to get your butts in the Cave before I start shutting down all your equipment and auto-recalling everything,” she states simply.

            It’s an ultimatum that Steph has no doubt is coming in response to what Babs discovered about how Tim and Jason have apparently switched bodies.

            She and Dick ping an acceptance immediately and move quickly to make their way back to the Cave. The hush that envelopes them is not comfortable, but it’s easily bearable.

            Better by far than the silence they meet inside the Cave.

 

            Steph can meet Babs’s gaze as the group coalesces around the main computer, but a small flicker of a grateful smile is all she can stand to see. She can’t bear to look at anything above the other’s shoes while Babs explains the whole sordid affair in succinct and sanitized detail—giving just enough to ensure adequate understanding of the situation.

            Predictably, Bruce attempts to take control.

            And, equally predictably, Jason takes issue with that.

 

            Jason’s fighting on Tim’s behalf. It’s doubly comforting that Jason’s fighting for him in light of how Tim just rolls over, belly up and willing to die. Tim’s statement ends the fighting, but his obvious self-loathing makes Jason bristle defensively on his account.

 

            Tim leaves the pow wow to grab a shower while the others fall into awkward silence. In another minute, Jason slinks off to grab his own shower. With his exit, the others manage to move onto accomplishing their own assigned tasks.

            Having stayed mostly on the peripheries of the argument, Steph is one of the first to move out. Her task is to nab the necessities for an overnight stay and it’s a simple thing to manage. Both Tim and Jason have rooms in the Manor. Tim’s is more frequently utilized, but even Jason’s has enough stuff in it to suffice.

            And because they’re both paranoid idiots who pick fights with their friends, they each have a go-bag already packed and waiting for them to make a quick escape.

            Even while working at a downright leisurely pace, Steph has everything she needs to keep Tim and Jason comfortable overnight in the Cave before ten minutes have passed.

            She heads back downstairs to find that Dick’s already finished setting up one of the isolation rooms. She drops the bags off by the doors of the little glass cubicles and hauls out an extra basket of blankets for them, and then makes her way towards the showers.

            Steph doesn’t want one for herself, but she does want to catch Tim before he talks to anyone else. She hangs out in the sheltered little hallway to wait for him—dodging out of sight for a moment when Jason appears. When he’s passed her, Steph slips back into the hall and leans against the wall—zoning out to the soothing sound of Tim’s shower.

            It’s a long shower, even by Steph’s measure (and she’s been known to fall asleep under the spray), long enough for her to duck out to the main Cave to check on things there. But Tim’s never been one to waste the precious seconds of his day indulging in the Cave’s spa-like luxuries.

 

            When Tim at last appears, he kicks back against the wall opposite Steph and waits for her to explain herself in her own time.

            It takes a minute.

            Spilling her worries to Jason would’ve been unimaginable before, but it’s just so clearly Tim inside Jason’s frame here… Steph has to wonder how she didn’t see it immediately.

 

            “That was the longest shower I've ever seen you take,” she starts, voice soft with worry.

            Tim flashes a sad smile, apologetic for everything he lied about, before he forcibly cocks a cheerier grin and says, “I was a bit distracted by the novelty. These abs are fucking ridiculous, they put He-Man to shame.”

 

            Steph doesn't even blink, let alone crack a smile… even though she wants to. She thinks it’s probably a true statement, too. She knows about how Tim’s been crushing on Jason forever and even she has to admit that Jason is built… but, Tim’s quip is too normal.

            It’s normal in a way that makes the things that aren’t normal hurt all the more acutely.

 

            “Jason's taking a nap,” she says. “He's been settled down for fifteen minutes already and I think he's actually sleeping. He hasn't even asked for coffee yet.”

            Steph’s gaze flicks up to meet Tim’s—spies him trying and failing to smoother a frown.

            “I know a physical dependency addiction when I live with one,” she continues, barely able to make the words audible. “Coffee is your cocaine, and if Jason's feeling that addiction, he is not showing it. You both just spent more than 20 minutes in the shower—you spent over an hour. I've never known either of you to take more than five minutes, max. And your hands are shaking—Jason's hands... whatever... It's just... You're not okay.”

            Tim shoves Jason's hands into the pockets of his sweats. He clearly hadn't noticed the tremor until Steph had pointed it out. Steph doesn’t think that could possibly bode well, but she knows better than to spew out unhelpful observations without proposing any solutions.

            “You're not okay,” Steph sighs again, this time forcing her sadness being down by a seal of resignation to deal with the actual problem. "But... how're you holdin' up?"

 

            Tim struggles to find an appropriate answer.

            “I’m— I… I’ll be fine,” he promises.

            It’s not an answer.

            It’s worse than a non-answer.

 

            It’s a platitude.

            A meaningless phrase from a motivational youth group poster of a kitten on a rope.

 

            “Tell me what you need,” Steph pleads with him.

 

            It sets off the flare of a small smile on Jason’s face. Steph can’t tell if it’s Jason’s body reacting to his own technique, or if it’s Tim reacting to her use of it.

            Either way, it’s probably a positive sign.

 

            “I dunno what I need, Steph,” Tim admits. “I really don't. I thought I knew how to fix it, but it seems like sparing made it worse. Or maybe it did work, and now our souls are unsettled and ready to go back. Or maybe they're unsettled and ready to dissolve into the ether. I—"

            Steph puts a hand on his chest, without looking away and without saying anything.

            It's a gentle pressure and the interruption halts the panic spiral in its tracks.

 

            It’s easier to spot in him while he’s in Jason’s body. Easier to abort, too.

 

            Tim takes a moment to breathe.

            "I think—" Tim breaks off with an anxious swallow "—I think, right now... I think I need a nap. I'm too wired to get any work done. I feel like I haven't slept in a week."

            They both know he's not exaggerating.

            They both know he's not estimating, either.

 

            Steph can't say anything to that.

            She can help him to bed, but that's almost as bad as just admitting defeat.

 

            And that's not what Robins do.

 

            Robins make inappropriate jokes to lighten the atmosphere and relentlessly dig away at any problem they encounter until something in it gives way.

 

            So, Steph curls her fingers—gives Jason's pec a firm squeeze.

            "Dude, you were so right about his muscles, man... like wow," Steph marvels. "I had no idea that your beaux was so fit. When you finally get around to fucking each others' brains out, he is gonna destroy you. Ugh. I can't believe I'm this jealous of you, Boyfriend."

            She give's Jason's pec one last squeeze and then drops her hand.

            Her face is a solid attempt at an imitation of her usual, shamelessly teasing expression.

            "I demand details," she declares. "All the goriest, filthiest details you can remember in the aftermath of what's sure to be an epic sex haze. Call me the instant you're conscious."

            Tim flashes her a weak smile.

            Retorts, "You only want my details because you haven't bothered to get yourself a new boytoy. You could just as easily be caught up in an epic afterglow if you went clubbing on one of your nights off instead of cuddling up with nine blankets, a mug cake, and whatever nonsense is still airing on Bravo."

            She grins back at him, slightly closer to real normal. "Careful there, boyfriend. I let your coffee addiction slide, so you should know better than to mess with my Queens and all the other craziness that surrounds them. There's one show where Bravo's version of 'normal' people are put through challenges like they're James Bond. I'm even getting Cass to laugh watching it."

 

            This time, it's a real smile that tugs at Tim.

 

            He’s been trying to set her up with Cass, she knows. She’s told Cass about it. They both think it’s hilarious. Especially, now that they’ve discovered that Babs is getting in on it, too.

            They aren’t quite a couple, aren’t quite dating in any official capacity… but, they’ve talked about it a little. They know that what they have is precious and special and doesn’t have to be rushed in any way… it doesn’t need to be made formal or official or public to be real.

            They’re content to let it ride.

            And to laugh at their friends playing matchmaker.

 

            Transitioning into thinking about Cass allows their talk to end on a positive note and Steph escorts Tim over to the isolation rooms feeling good about their standing.

            Tim hesitates at the door.

            "I don't think I should be kept so separate from Jason... from my body," he explains.

 

            He’s so stiff he’s easy to read.

            Tim’s pining. There is some logic to what he’s saying, but it’s mostly pining.

            Steph frowns, evaluating the risks of giving into such emotional drivel.

 

            In the end she shrugs. They haven’t killed each other yet, and Tim deserves a little indulgence on the odd occasion. God knows he never asks anything for his own sake.

            "Fine. Help me grab this shit and sneak it over to the one Jason's in, we'll white out the walls to keep the rest of them from noticing," Steph sighs.

            Working together, the shift is quick and no one in the Cave notices.

 

            Steph hits the button for privacy mode, changing the polarization charge of the high-tech polymer these cells were built out of from clear to milky why, and watches Tim as he stakes out a corner. It’s actually pathetically adorable how RomCom cute he is about trying to settle down.

            He wants to curl up right next to Jason, cling to him like a favorite stuffie.

            But he also kinda wants to run away to Australia for the next ten years.

 

            Steph waits until Tim’s found a medium; laying down within arms’ reach of Jason, but not quite close enough to touch him accidentally.

            A thought strikes, and Steph asks, “Is Jason's body still all 'Pit rage, out to kill yours'?”

            She doesn’t think so, but she still thinks it’s best to be safe.

            Tim’s confident response is genuine enough to soothe her as he says, “No. It's fine. It's just... tense. I think it's part of the switch. I feel kinda seasick, dizzy and nauseous, when we get close together... but when we get too far apart or are completely cut off like we'd be if we were separated into different isolation cells... I get... numb. It's easier to get... lost, like that... I don't feel as solid. And that's something I think we should be more worried about than this."

            Tim takes a deep breath, feeling Steph's intent gaze skimming over him.

            "This is just... tension, like—" Tim sweeps a hand though Jason's hair as he flounders, "—it's manageable, I promise. I have... jitters, basically. Nothing to worry about."

 

            Steph can’t quite tell if he’s really so thick skulled that he can’t recognize unresolved sexual tension when he gives its textbook definition, or if he’s playing ignorant on purpose.

            She gives him one last squint and then sighs.

            "I have to lock you in, you know," she informs him, adding, "Comms work, I tested them myself while you were taking your sweet ass time in the shower. Anything changes, just shout."

 

            A wicked cackle gets caught in her throat as she both finds deep amusement in the implication and almost regrets making the suggestion so painfully obvious.

 

            She heads up to her own room feeling almost alright.

 

            That feeling persists even after she gets Dick’s text that Jason’s skipped out on them.

            Honestly, that he stuck around this long was pretty miraculous, considering.

 

            She finds Cass in the kitchen and lets her know the deal. Then she downs a super-food smoothie and heads out to China Town to search for Tim’s scrawny little body playing tough-guy gang lord under Jason’s directives.

            Her day is long and fruitless, but not unpleasant.

            And when Dick calls it in that Jason’s been found (when he says that Jason only ran because he needed some air and then didn’t come back because he couldn’t face the music after having run away), Steph actually stays out in China Town and does a little shopping for herself.

            Retail therapy is great.

            It’s even better with Bruce Wayne’s pretty little black card buying up her baubles.

 

            She’s come back to the Manor of her own accord before Dick calls it in that Tim’s body has been kidnapped by Ra’s al Ghul.

            It’s a blind siding announcement.

            And yet, it’s also the most obvious thing in the world.

 

            Who on earth would want to poke at Tim’s body in the midst of a body swap fiasco more than that creepy old geezer?

 

            Steph stays out of it as much as she can. She’s never been comfortable facing Ra’s al Ghul, or any of the League of Assassins. They just strike her especially wrong… like she’s so far out of her depth she can’t quite get her bearings with them.

            Nothing with them is ever black and white.

            They’re the biggest reason that a crime free planet earth is an impossible goal. And yet, by Tim and Bruce’s own estimation, Ra’s himself is one of the key players in the game of maintaining a close-enough version of world peace to keep the global economy up and running.

            The favor-trading, the politicking, the creepy kind of ‘compliments’ they give…

 

            Yeah, Steph would rather pass.

 

            She keeps to the peripheries and gives no suggestions of her own; does nothing but follow her orders to the letter.

            They get Jason in Tim’s body back without much fuss—allowing for Ra’s ninja horde.

            The return to the Cave ends in an argument, as always, but again, it’s not a bad one… just a ‘ Tim is too tired to give a damn about politeness’ sort of spat. It’ll be forgotten by the morning.

 

            With Dick fording the icy waters of the silence for them, the others all begin to drift off.

 

            Tim’s long gone upstairs and Jason clearly wants to follow, but he doesn’t seem to want to risk running into Tim on his own. It’s a worrisome reaction to being so dramatically rescued.

            They were on great terms before the kidnapping.

            They should be on even better terms now…

            Probably.

            It’s not until that moment that Steph wonders why Jason left.

 

            If Tim made a move or something (not that Steph really thinks he would have) and Jason reacted badly to it (again, unlikely)… it might explain this attempt at keeping his distance now.

            Or it might have something to do with whatever Ra’s did while he had Jason on is own…

 

            Steph makes her way towards the alcove where Jason ended up.

            It’s the spot where Tim moved the memorial case with Jason’s old costume in it.

 

            Jason acknowledges her arrival by sidling over to give her space beside him at the display case. She steps into the opening and takes a moment to consider all the tears that Tim spilled at the foot of this case, all the grief he kept hidden until he could confess it here in private.

 

            "Losing you destroyed him, you know?"

            Her words are nearly inaudible, but there’s a heady wistfulness in them.

            Jason’s been an obsession for Tim, one that’s caused him to take deeply unhealthy risks over the years… but he’s also been the main thing behind what’s motivated Tim to take better care of himself over the last year. He’s been the thing that’s allowed Tim to stay human despite the hardships he’s lead them all in facing.

 

            Jason is the problem, but he’s also the solution.

            Tim didn’t tell him about the crush, Steph’s sure of that much.

            What she doesn’t know is why he hasn’t… not anymore, not with all the looming deadlines and the explicit knowledge that life is short (especially in this business) and Tim needs to act on his feelings before it’s too late.

 

            While she’s gotten lost in thought, Jason’s worked up the ability to articulate a response.

            “Whelp, sorry for dyin’, Blondie,” Jason mutters with an unbridled bash of bitterness behind the words. “It wasn't exactly my choice, ya know.”

            Stephanie nods slowly, letting the vitriol slide off.

            "That's the part the wrecked him," she confirms. "He's never wanted anything from you but whatever it was you wanted. Even now... he's only ever here because if he really goes AWOL the Family's gonna blame you— even though we should really know better."

 

            The really should… but even Steph wouldn’t be 100% certain right away.

            But more than that, Steph knows that Tim only comes back to Gotham because Jason’s here. Without Jason, he wouldn’t have an anchor.

            His hero-ing could be done in any city on earth.

            So could his CEO-ing.

 

            But if Tim didn’t have a home base, it would be unlikely that he’d find the kind of motivation to actually do anything. He’d drift aimlessly.

            If a case fell into his lap, he’d solve it.

            If an abuse from big business came to his attention, he’d obliterate it.

            If a new video game came out, he might get around to playing it…

            But he only attempted to actually live when he had a home to do it in.

 

            Even his time in California was pockmarked with a despairing listlessness. An ennui that couldn’t be conquered even by the weight of the responsibilities found in command. In fact, the guilt of failure just compounded the lack of motivation.

            The worst year of Tim’s life that Steph had witnessed wasn’t the year Jason died, though that was a close second. It was the year his dad died. The year he let the titans down. The year Bruce got lost in the time stream.

            He’d already been wasting away before then— was barely recognizable to her when she went out west to visit him.

            Each loss had compounded the tragedy until he snapped.

            If he hadn’t come home, if he hadn’t sought Jason out… If Jason hadn’t accepted his invitation and been lurking on the edges of Bruce’s funeral… if Tim hadn’t seen him there and then found some will to move forward…

            Tim wouldn’t have snapped, he would have broken.

 

            Steph can hardly bear imagining it.

 

            Every time that Tim comes home to Gotham, he comes to find Jason— even if it’s just to check on him from a mild distance. And every time Jason lets him get a little closer with a little less effort going into the dance of it… Tim gets better.

            Tim’s started eating snacks between meals—healthy ones too, because Jason insists on keeping a bowl of fresh apples in every single safe house he owns.

            He’s started sleeping more often, taking cat-naps two or three times a day instead of pushing through whole weeks at a time of running up a debt. It’s because Jason insists on getting in a few naps of his own and Tim runs into a wall of non-productiveness, where the most useful thing he can do is snatch a few Z’s of his own.

            He’s staying better hydrated because water bottles just pop up around him when Jason’s nearby. And he’s cut back on coffee slightly because the water makes the coffee more potent, particularly when combined with the extra naps.

            He still pushes himself too hard when he spends time in Gotham, and he still takes it in small doses, but Tim is doing better. And every time he comes home, it’s because of Jason.

 

            "And he's here for you— well, because of you," Steph says, trying to put her thoughts into words that sound mostly reasonable. "He's better because of you. He almost believes in himself again. He likes himself more when you're around. He takes better care of himself and he even believes he deserves it. I think you could take care of him, maybe even make him want to be taken care of, if you were given a real chance at it."

 

            It really is a shame that Tim won’t tell Jason about his crush.

            Steph gets it, kind of… After all, Jason’s a flighty little bitch some days, and scaring him off is literally Tim’s worst nightmare. But still

            "He wants it to be your choice, all of it," Steph sighs. "I get that he doesn't want to feel like he's pushing anything onto you, but still... He trusts you with everything, I don't get why he won't trust you with—"

            She catches herself before she spills the secret, but it’s a near thing.

            Her fingers twine together roughly, ripping at themselves to keep from digging at her scalp in frustration. Jason’s tried to kill Tim, repeatedly, and Tim’s fine with it… but the idea that confessing his crush might send Jason running to his mysterious ‘Island’? Deal breaker.

 

            Steph is so caught up in her own musing that she doesn’t quite notice that Jason’s stiffened up dramatically until he takes a step away from her.

            He’s tensed up like kicked puppy, ready to run at the slightest hint of her anger.

 

            "You... your history is rocky, and— and it hurts that it's you... but... I think you do deserve him," Steph tells him, trying to soothe the fear. "I think... I think he deserves someone who truly knows him like you do, can support him in ways no one else ever could."

            It’s not her secret to share, and she’s way too close to the line to be fair, but she can’t stop her mouth from running.

            She bites down on her tongue to stop herself from saying more.

            The seconds labor onward in distended, awkward rolls—like the stupid yellow wheels on a beachfront ice cream cart all have floppy flat tires.

            Eventually, Jason speaks up—with Tim’s throat clearly feeling tight enough to nearly choke the words off altogether—and asks, “How long have you known?”

 

            Steph frowns, her worried squint contracting sharply as she scans his face.

            She can’t tell anything from his carefully blank expression… Tim’s artful smoothness combined too perfectly with Jason’s brand of affected nonchalance.

            "Well—uh, I mean... How long have you...?"

 

            If Jason… if Jason knows…. Jason knowing about Tim’s crush and refusing to act in any way at all regarding that knowledge adds a new dimension to this mess.

            One Steph isn’t sure she likes.

 

            "You weren't around... you, uh... well, Before...” Jason admits, the confession coming slowly like he finds the admission physically painful.

            Jason's gaze is fixed firmly on the boots of his old uniform.

            Steph's gaze is boring into the side of his face.

 

            Because… this is… not what she expected.

 

            Sure, Tim’s had his crush since he and Jason were just kiddies in a puppy tumble, but Tim’s only gotten worse about keeping his feelings quiet. That Tim could’ve felt strongly enough to show his attachment without even recognizing it for what it was… It’s possible, but Steph doesn’t think Jason would’ve been able to see it…

 

            "It didn't go away, exactly..." Jason tells her. His whole being is curled up, aching with the weight of grief and pure honesty. He goes on with that same solemnity, “In the After... it was still there. Always. Even... even when I hurt him… I—uh, I just... And—and after the After... I dunno... It just, came back... back to the surface, I guess."

 

            Holy FUCK.

 

            Jason thinks her allusions to a wishful-thinking relationship being smothered before it’s allowed to have a chance to start is due to one-sided pining on his side of things.

            Jason thinks this is about him

 

            Jason has as big a crush on Tim as Tim has on Jason.

 

            Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck fuckity fuck. HOLY fuck.

 

            What is she supposed to do with this utterly game-changing revelation? Steph is not designed to handle things with delicacy. Or subtlety. Or legitimate social propriety.

            She’s people smart, sure, but the intricacies of human politics span several sweepingly dispersed arenas and she is not prepared to navigate this particular venue.

 

            "He's a weird little bugger," Steph comforts distantly, mechanically. "Liking him is something that just sorta sneaks up on a person."

            Jason sighs like the words are actually a genuine balm to his frazzled nerves.

 

            "Everything is gonna work out, Jason," she promises.

            It’s a useless, empty, ridiculous assurance, but it’s all that Steph can manage right now with such overwhelming giddiness threatening to burst out of her chest.

 

            "I'mma go grab a shower, now," she informs him awkwardly. "I just wanted to check in. Jason... it's not just Tim who wants you here. You're part of the Family. I doubt you'll believe me saying it's true for the others, but I, for one, like having you around."

            Jason nods and Steph makes an exit, hand leaping up for a swift knock to his shoulder—the kind of ingrained, habitual motion they'll probably never out-grow. Tim's body is more than ready for it, his shoulder pushing back against her shove and his off hand whipping up to gently smack her other shoulder.

            It's not a hug, nor a handshake, but it's somehow far more intimate than either.

            And awkward... at least in light of the body swap shifting their perspective.

 

            Steph is gone before either of them have to address that factor.

 

            She doesn’t even realize that she never asked Jason what Ra’s did while he was kidnapped until she’s halfway up the stairs to the Manor. Even then, she can’t really bring herself to care while her thoughts are already in such a tizzy-ed tangle.

 

            She runs straight to Cass.

            Babbles aimlessly at her for a solid minute in the privacy of Cass’s bedroom, pacing the full span of the area rug in a boxy crisscross pattern as Cass rubs a towel through her hair from the comfortable perch of her bed.

 

            “Cass,” she manages eventually. “I think I know what’s wrong with Tim and Jason. I mean, I think I know why they’re switched.”

            Cass nods, blinks encouragingly.

            “It’s the crush! Tim’s crush on Jason… But… it’s not just his crush, is it? No. I mean, I knew, like obviously Jason cared for him—loved him more and better than any of us, really, but it’s better than that, Cass. It’s perfect.”

            Cass tips her head to the side.

            “Jason likes Tim back.”

            Cass blinks, then nods—like she’d known that all along. She probably had, honestly.

            But Steph shakes her head, “Nononono no, Cass. Jason’s crushing on Tim, pining. And he’s not any closer to telling Tim about it than Tim is to telling him. It’s mutual pining.”

            Cass nods again, more slowly—sensing that there’s an element of culture here she’s aware she’s not familiar with coming into play.

 

            “All they have to do to switch back is confess! It’s like a frickin’ anime.”

 

            Steph is elated here, utterly confident that she’s right.

            “Not our secret,” Cass points out. “Cannot share.”

 

            “Right,” Steph says deflating slightly. “They have to do this themselves. We can’t push to directly. First of all, they’ll never forgive us for it, even if it does work out well for them… But also because it’s probably part of the magic’s rulebook…”

            Cass nods in agreement, on both counts.

 

            “So, we just have to engineer a meet-cute kind of thing, something awkward and intense enough to make them actually spill the beans,” Steph lays out.

            “Tried.”

            “What?”

            Cass shakes her head. “Tried… to arrange. Tried sparring. Failed.”

 

            Steph pauses, takes the few steps over to Cass’s bed, and then lets herself drop down beside the ninja—leaning up snug against her shoulder. “So… then, now what do we do?”

 

            Cass sighs. “New plan.”

            Hanging her head with a groan, Steph asks, “But what?”

 

            “You shower, go think,” Cass instructs. “I find us food. Find boys. Assess.”

            “Are you telling me I stink?”

            Cass grins and then scrunches her nose up as she nods. “Shower. Cleans. Lets think. Good for both. Also. Feel better. Important, too.”

            “True enough.”

            Cass kisses Steph’s forehead and then gives her a shove out of bed.

            As Steph stumbles away, making for her own room, she says, “If there’s anything chocolate in the kitchen nab me some, will you? I think Alfred’s hiding Oreos somewhere.”

            “Will find. Promise.”

 

            “Thanks, Cass,” Steph returns. “You’re the best.”

 

            She doesn’t see it, but she knows in her heart of hearts that Cass nods—taking full and unabashed acceptance of the title—and knowing that makes Steph smile.

 

 

________

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 24 – Sharing Spaces | Cass

 

 

            People were puzzles to Cass, and she was normally very good at solving them.

            But…

            Some people were harder puzzles than others to solve.

            Like her Family. They were the hardest of all.

 

            Her Family was special—in so many ways, many of them rather sarcastic—but the most peculiar thing about them was that she couldn’t read them the way she read most everyone else.

            Well, that wasn’t exactly true—strictly speaking, Cass could read them just as well as she could read anybody. But knowing what they were feeling and knowing why they were feeling it were two very different things…

            And knowing how to help them best feel better…? Well, that was a mystery of such mammoth proportions that Cass could spend a dozen lifetimes trying to unravel it.

 

            Tim was always… odd when he was working a case with Jason.

            That much Cass expected, anticipated.

            She even knew it well enough to understand the ripple effects it had on her other Bats.

 

            Dick’s anxiety, Damian’s irritability, Babs’s lingering grief… She knew they were coming and she could mitigate the worst of the bad feelings easily.

            Even Bruce’s mixing guilt and pride, and Alfred’s anguish in his overly aggressive acts of demonstrating his affections, were things that Cass could handle.

            She’d even gotten pretty good at corralling Steph’s worry and the haunting remnants of her jealousy. Even Cass’s own jealousy could be tamed. A year of change and practice made a difference that could be felt in every aspect of the way their lives all entwined.

 

            But mitigation never fully solved the problem.

            And even though Cass had gotten good at keeping things from tumbling downhill and wildly out of control… she still hadn’t quite managed to prevent the problems to start with.

            So, even when she thinks she knows what’s happening, Cass stays alert to the possibility that she might still be missing something rather important.

 

            Like Steph (but unlike Dick), Cass doesn’t worry about Tim when he