He was on his way to rendezvous with Batman and Robin outside Arkham, when it caught his attention—the sounds of a fight, somewhere close by. He heard the unmistakable thud of fist striking flesh, and an ominous crack that might be a bone breaking. Nightwing paused before he threw his next grapple, and peered over the roof edge, where he saw four figures in the alleyway below. The light was dim, but they all looked male. Just a bunch of bruisers, he thought, annoyed at the distraction.
But...three of the four had the last poor bastard against the wall, and Nightwing could see a tiny gleam of light reflecting off something shiny. Knife.
He sighed, and he jumped down. Fine. A little justice detour, before the big show.
As he dropped lightly into the alley behind this week’s contenders, landing gracefully on two loose feet and one hand, he saw one of the three clutching at his right forearm with the left. Ahah. That would be the bone he’d heard snapping.
“Three against one,” Nightwing observed, in a cheerful voice. “Not very sporting of you, is it?”
On closer inspection, the guy against the wall was clearly just a kid. A teenager. Not very big, but very filthy. Homeless, Nightwing thought. Runaway?
“Get out of here, motherfucker,” one of muggers snarled, without turning around. “This ain’t your fight.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” Nightwing said, going for the one with the knife, before he’d have any chance to use it. “I’m making it my fight.” He twisted the knife arm until its owner cursed and lost his grip on the handle. Nightwing pulled it from his grasp, and threw it behind him, out into the street. By now, all three muggers had turned from their would-be-victim—although good on the kid, if he’d gotten in a solid enough hit to break a bone—and gotten an eyeful of the electric blue stripes.
Nightwing grinned, viciously.
“Shit!” one of them said, recognition clear as day in his eyes, and immediately started running. The one with the broken arm just stared for a few seconds, maybe a little shocky from the injury, as the other froze, and swallowed hard.
“It’s fuckin’, oh Christ, it’s fuckin’ Nightwing—” Broken-arm choked out, before he also bolted.
The kid took advantage of the remaining mugger’s distraction, jumping on his back and then full-on flipping him, bouncing the mugger’s head off the pavement as they hit the ground. Good form, Nightwing noted, approvingly. He didn’t regret intervening, but he was starting to wonder if it had actually been necessary. That flip wasn’t something you picked up in high school gym class; this kid clearly had some martial arts training under his belt.
The kid stood up carefully, backing away a little to study the man lying in front of him, who was groaning in pain. The kid visibly relaxed, evidently having decided the mugger was no longer a threat.
“Nice moves,” Nightwing told him.
The kid looked over at him, and his eyebrows furrowed just a little bit, but he didn’t respond. He looked down again at the mugger he’d taken out, and then he turned, and started to walk away.
“Wait,” Nightwing said. “Hey. Hey kid, are you okay?”
The boy didn’t respond at all. He kept walking away. He wasn’t running; he wasn’t scared of Nightwing, at least, but now that the threat was gone, he didn’t seem to care about what had just happened.
Nightwing glanced down at the man on the ground, and sighed. He pulled him up into a sitting position. “Look at me,” he instructed him. The man did. Nightwing tilted his head back, studied his eyes in the dim light of the street lamp around the corner, and decided he was probably okay. “Hi there, dipshit,” he said, pleasantly. “You should get to a hospital. Get your head checked out.”
“You...not gonna arrest me?” the man mumbled, dazed and just an eentsy bit confused.
“Not tonight,” Nightwing said, breezing over the fact that he actually had no legal right to arrest anybody, not wearing this uniform. “Lucky you. But if we ever—ever—happen to meet again in similar circumstances...buddy, don’t expect to be lucky again. Capiche?” He smiled. With teeth. Robin said he looked creepy when he did that.
The man went as pale as a peeled potato. “Capiche.”
Nightwing did look for the kid. Mainly, he wanted to make sure he wasn't hurt—he hadn’t seen any bleeding but not all injuries were immediately obvious—but also, if Nightwing’s initial read that the kid was a runaway was right, Nightwing didn’t want to leave him on the streets. Kid couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen.
But after twenty minutes without a trace, Nightwing had to give up. Per the last report Nightwing had gotten from Batman, neither the Bats nor the GCPD had so much as lead on where Two-Face had gone. And finding Two-Face was a much higher priority than Nightwing dragging a trio of unsuccessful muggers down to the station—and, unfortunately, also higher priority than looking for an apparently unharmed mugging victim who’d walked away from the scene under his own power.
Even if something about that kid did seem a little...off. Not to mention that it was impressive, to vanish so thoroughly in the scant minutes Nightwing had spent checking out the injured mugger.
Nightwing put it out of his mind, with an effort. Batman and Robin needed him, and that was what he needed to focus on, tonight.
He was back in Bludhaven, days later, jumping on the back of Ronnie “The Mountain” Ralston, and right in the middle of flipping them both over, he thought, huh.
He landed Ronnie, bounced his head off the ground, and while he was pulling back the man’s arms to zip-tie them, he blinked with the sudden realization.
Nightwing knew that move. He’d done it himself, a thousand times. Batman taught him that one. It was one of hundreds of moves Bruce had taught him, one so easily instinctive to Nightwing that he hadn’t registered that it was one of his.
That flip, that exact form of that flip—
It wasn’t common.
Nightwing pressed a phone into the the kid’s hand. “I’ll be here if you need me,” he said. He dove off the cliff, and the ocean roared underneath him, welcoming him. Dick fell into the ocean, and as he sank, he heard someone calling for him.
He swam frantically towards the voice, but the ocean was endless. He was thirsty, and he opened his mouth and drank, but no matter how much seawater he sucked in, the thirst was endless.
He woke, suddenly, to the artificial sound of bells clanging. His damn phone—he thumbed at it blearily; god, he’d only just gotten in. His limbs felt like lead, and he couldn’t even open his eyes, as he put the ringing phone up to his head, and fresh off the dream, he said, “Jason? That you?”
“Hello, cardholder!” the cheerful, false voice of the autocall said. “Our records show that you’re eligible for a credit increa—”
Dick cut off the the call, and looked at the clock. 9am. Ugh. He shoved the phone under the pillow, and went back to sleep.
He’s stressing, Robin had texted.
he always stresses about HIM, Nightwing replied, without explaining why Two-Face in particular invoked so much anxiety in Batman. He thought it was worse now than it had been when he was a kid himself; now Batman had actually endured that worst case scenario. Now he didn’t have to imagine what it would feel like.
I’m worried abt him
ill keep looking, Nightwing promised. we’ll find him
Nightwing found himself back in the same neighborhood he’d passed through before, on his way over to Arkham, through Park Row. He didn’t particularly care for it. It was depressing. There was an alley here where Batman’s parents had died in pools of their own blood, and something in him changed forever. It hurt to think of the man who’d raised him as that terrified, grieving child. It reminded him of his own worst day, and good lord he was morbid tonight.
Jason was born here, he thought, idly. Spent the first eleven years of his life in this hellhole. Nightwing leaned off a rooftop, looking around aimlessly. Poor bastard.
He closed his eyes. Batman tried, he thought. He tried to help you.
Batman had done a lot for that kid, but there hadn’t been any saving him in the end, had there—Jason had thrown himself into some kind of horrible end, because he couldn’t fucking listen to Batman. Tim would listen. Nightwing had listened, when he was Robin. That’s why he was still alive today: he’d listened to Batman.
Nightwing prowled across the Crime Alley rooftops, restless and strangely agitated. There’s something, he kept telling himself. He ought to go back home to Bludhaven. But there was something, and it made his teeth clatter and itch; it made his muscles and bones clench, for no reason he could name.
It was a complete coincidence, the second time. No fight this time. Nightwing had been in Park Row just to check in on a source, and he’d seen the kid again, hanging outside of a cheap Chinese restaurant. Same clothes, same…smell. Same distant look in his eyes. It seemed blindingly obvious, this time, that there was something very wrong with him. However he’d ended up here, it wasn’t good.
“Hey,” Nightwing called to him. “Hey kid! Remember me?” He took a few steps towards the kid, who was hugging the wall of the shop.
“Mister,” another, much smaller child said, tugging on Nightwing’s arm, “Leave him alone. He’s fine.”
“Oh yeah?” Nightwing said.
“He’s fine,” the little kid said. “Bàba will bring out the leftovers for him later. Leave us alone!”
“Do you know where he sleeps?” Nightwing asked.
The little boy’s face went funny, and Nightwing suspected he’d never thought to wonder. “Leave us ALONE!” he shouted, and then he disappeared inside the building.
Nightwing approached the teenager slowly. The kid eyed him warily, but didn’t move. “Do you remember me?” Nightwing repeated, softly, when he was close.
The kid tilted his head, and for the first time, he met Nightwing’s eyes—or tried to; a ripple of confusion ran over his face when he saw the whites of Nightwing’s domino. And then it passed.
Nightwing stepped past him, inside the restaurant. The little kid was clinging to an adult man, probably his father, who was leaning down to comfort him; there was an adult woman, holding a phone, her hand hesitating over the keypad. She saw him first, and her thumb stabbed down at the phone as she bit her lip.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Can you tell me what he likes the most?”
“He eats everything,” the little kid piped up, half-hiding behind his father. “But he likes pork noodles the best.”
“I’ll take two orders, then,” Nightwing said, with his friendliest smile. “If you guys aren’t closed. Don’t worry, I’ll pay.”
The woman hesitated a split second, and then she put the phone down. “We don’t take credit,” she said, turning towards the kitchen. “You have cash?”
Nightwing grinned. “I always have cash.”
The largesse of the couple who gave leftovers to homeless kids did not include letting him eat inside the restaurant, and Nightwing couldn’t entirely blame them. He did not smell good. So they sat outside the back, sitting on a closed dumpster, the silent mystery teen drumming his heels on it, waiting impatiently for Nightwing to open the cartons.
He was not, as it turned, good with chopsticks, so Nightwing ducked back into the restaurant to grab a plastic fork for him, and came back to find the kid shoveling noodles into his mouth with his bare hands. Nightwing sighed. At least they had napkins.
“Hungry, huh?” he said, and pressed the fork into the kid’s greasy hands. The fork, at least, he apparently knew how to use. Nightwing took his time with his noodles, chewing methodically, and letting his brain percolate.
There’s something about you.
“Where do you sleep?” Nightwing asked him again.
The kid looked up briefly from his noodles, but didn’t answer.
“You just don’t….talk,” he said. “Why is that?”
“He never talks,” the little kid from the restaurant told him, and it was all Nightwing could do not to jump, because he had not heard the kid coming. Where the hell was his brain at? “He’s nice,” the kid said, quietly. “Some people came in before and they tried to take all our money, but he was there and he stopped them. That’s why Bàba gives him the leftovers. But he can’t talk.”
“Where does he sleep?”
The kid shrugged. “Dunno.”
“Is he homeless?”
The kid shrugged again, and then wandered off, apparently content that Nightwing wasn’t going to hurt his friend.
“Thanks,” Nightwing sighed.
The teen sitting next to him had mostly polished off his pork noodles, and he was eyeing Nightwing’s. Nightwing handed them over without a word.
“Why,” he said, more to himself than the kid, “why, oh, why do I feel like I know you?”
Because you do, came the unbidden thought.
It couldn’t hurt to just...run some prints, could it? And this kid was really in no fit state to be on the streets by himself, even with the earlier display of surprising martial arts acumen. If there was anybody looking after him, it would be a hell of a surprise to Nightwing.
“Hey,” he said, hopping down from the dumpster, and then holding up a gloved hand. “Do you wanna come with me?”
Apparently food was the way to win this kid’s heart, because he took Nightwing’s hand, and jumped down next to him, the silent gaze now just a little bit trusting.
The kid didn’t like being printed, and Nightwing didn’t blame him. He dug out a bag of ancient M&Ms three fingers in, which stopped the irritating whining long enough to complete the whole set.
The kid did seem to like the twin bed—nobody could say where he had been sleeping, but from his pleased little sigh while he was curling up in bed, Nightwing had a notion it wasn’t as comfortable as even this bare-bones safehouse he’d brought them to. He hadn’t bothered to get very nice sheets for this particular place, but at least it had them. Just as well, actually. The kid still didn’t smell very good, but right now it seemed more important to do this than it was to try and wrangle him into a bath. They probably weren’t at that level of trust, anyway.
He changed into civvies, hiding the uniform in a chest in the closet with a false bottom, left the kid sleeping, and took the bike down to the BCPD, prints tucked safely in the inside pocket of his motorcycle jacket.
It was a quiet night, for once, and nobody pestered him, asking why he was at work on his night off. But the prints didn’t match anybody in the police database. Dammit. He ground his teeth. It didn’t mean anything, exactly; there was no reason to think his prints should have been on file...but it was still frustrating. He needed to go to the Cave, to Batman’s bigger and better database. He also felt completely sure that he needed Batman and Robin not to know why he needed the Cave.
Nightwing called Alfred. “Hey,” he said. “Can you tell me when’s a good time to swing by on the down-low?”
According to Alfred, Batman and Robin had rather obligingly left earlier in the evening, following up on a lead on Two-Face, so he ended up going straight over to the Manor from Bludhaven.
This time, he got results immediately. He blinked, and put them in again and again, and each time, it came back the same. Why do I feel like I know you?
Because I do.
Nightwing stared at the computer for a solid fifteen minutes, before he erased the input data and all traces of the search he’d run. Honestly, they were probably going to need it, soon, but right now, he couldn’t think of anything worse than Batman or Robin running across this, and getting...confused. Thinking that Nightwing had lost his mind, or worse.
He took the prints with him. No way in hell was he leaving these around where someone might get curious about them
He looked at the case, on his way out. The longer he was there, the more he risked running into Batman, maybe with questions Nightwing wasn’t ready to answer, but the glass gleamed, and the domino caught his eye, and he couldn’t help himself, he had to stop and look.
There wasn’t any saving you, he thought. Was there?
It was 9:57pm when he got to Lowe’s, three whole minutes before closing, and the cashier glared daggers at him, as she rang up his purchases. He smiled apologetically at her as he took the shovel and left.
After over two hours of digging, his hands were raw and bleeding, even with the work gloves he’d bought along with the shovel. He sat kneeling by the side of the grave he’d partially unearthed. Just enough to see.
To see the huge splintered hole in the coffin lid. And to see, as he shone his flashlight down through the hole into the coffin, what was conspicuously not there.
He’d been staring at that for at least half an hour, his brain even more uncomprehending than it had been with the prints.
No, he thought, helplessly. It’s too cruel.
However you ended up here, it wasn’t good.
This time he was reckless; this time, he didn’t check with Alfred, or adjust the camera footage. This time, he didn’t care if he got caught. He went in, he took what he needed. And then he went back, praying that the kid was still there, sleeping in the safehouse Nightwing where had left him.
The kid was still there, sleeping so peacefully that Nightwing hated to wake him. But he had to. He had to settle this for once and for all.
“Hey, c’mon,” he said, tapping the kid on the shoulder, until he roused. “Up and at ‘em, kiddo,”
The boy opened sleepy eyes, and stared at Nightwing. Was that…irritation, maybe? He wasn’t really equipped to tell.
“I have a present for you,” Nightwing told him. He just looked, silent as always, which was making him slightly insane, but—
Nightwing opened the box.
Jason made a noise Dick knew he’d never be able to forget, and then he lunged at the costume Dick had stolen from the Cave (from the case), and grabbed it in both arms, cradling it, hugging it to him. Jason wept, holding his lost colors, and when Dick put his arms around him, he didn’t push him away.
“Shh,” Dick said, holding Jason tenderly, as he shook. “It’s going to be okay.”
He would have called. Really, he would have. He imagined himself on the phone: Bruce, you need to get over here. Right now. He wouldn’t even have had to explain himself, just that would have brought Bruce running.
But he didn’t need to call. He’d stolen Jason’s suit right out of the case, and he hadn’t even tried to hide what he’d done. Bruce was going to be coming over here regardless, to ask him what the hell he thought he was doing, why on earth Dick had desecrated Jason’s memorial.
Just think what he’ll say when he finds out what I did to his grave, he thought, and it was so blackly funny that he couldn’t help but laugh, letting loose all the strange tension he’d been feeling since he first laid eyes on this kid, in the weeks his subconscious had wrestled with an impossibility.
He was still sitting on the floor, holding Jason, who was hugging a Robin uniform just like the one he’d worn in life, and then for a little while in death. Jason was still crying, but still not a single word from him, because something bad had happened, and now Jason didn’t talk.
I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, he thought, running his hand over Jason’s hair. He supposed Bruce had done that, with his son, when he found his cooling body in the rubble. I don’t want to imagine it. Dick had filled the grave back up, but he knew he’d never forget the sight of that torn-up coffin.
He was a detective, trained by the best. It was clear enough that Jason’s coffin had not been destroyed from the outside.
I used to hate you, once, he mused. He’d never had admitted it, but he had hated Jason a little for replacing him. For being adopted, suddenly throwing Dick’s own relationship with Bruce into doubt, because Bruce had never even mentioned it with him. He’d never needed to share before, and he shocked himself with how difficult it turned out to be.
Then Jason had died, in such a horrible way, and the hatred had turned to guilt. Guilt, for resenting a child, for keeping his distance, guilt for not making more of an effort to connect with him.
There was no saving you was the lie he told himself to keep the self-loathing at bay, to put rest to the persistent feeling that if Dick had been a part of Jason’s life, he would still have had one.
Dick heard the door creak open. All he managed was a half-hearted, “Hey.”
“Nightwing?” That was Tim. Interesting. Dick probably wouldn’t have brought Tim within a million miles of this, not if he’d ever suspected this. If Tim was here, it was because Bruce didn’t have the first clue what prompted Dick to steal Jason’s suit. Maybe he just thought Dick was having a breakdown. “Nightwing? What’s going on?” There was a heavy step from behind Tim; Bruce’s way of letting Dick know that he was here.
“Clark came back,” Dick told him, without turning around or letting Jason go. “Oliver came back.”
“Nightwing,” Bruce said, and he didn’t sound angry with Dick. Just deeply concerned. “What do you think is happening right now?”
Dick sighed deeply, and turned, to let them see Jason’s face, see the Robin uniform he clutched in his hands, turned over one of Jason’s hands, so they could see the ink on his fingers. “Hal came back, too,” he said softly. “I printed him and I checked them against your file. They matched. I dug up his coffin, Bruce. It was empty.”
“How,” Bruce whispered, and Dick could see the struggle in his face, naked disbelief at war with sheer longing. Jason whimpered, and pulled himself out of Dick’s arms, half-crawling towards Bruce.
Bruce dropped to his knees, and with a strangled cry he reached out both arms, and swept Jason into a crushing embrace. “Jason,” he breathed, and held him against his chest, while Jason made desperate, wordless sounds.
It made Dick’s eyes burn, to see the way that Jason clung to him, to see the tears tracking down Bruce’s face. I never wanted to see you hurt the way you’ve been hurting, he thought.
Jason was making a particular noise now, the very first time Dick had heard him make a noise that wanted to be a word, and it sent shivers down his spine.
B was a hard sound to make, Dick knew that. Much harder, physiologically speaking, than m. That was why babies learned to say mama or something like it before they got to papa or dada. Mmm was the sound you made in your throat when nothing else came out.
Dick leaned over. “B r u c e”, he said carefully, and the first time, Bruce actually looked up at him in confusion. But when Dick repeated himself, and reached out to touch Jason’s face, they both seemed to understand. “Bruce,” Dick said again.
Jason burrowed his head against Bruce’s chest.
But they all heard it, and Dick saw Bruce’s face, when Jason finally said his name.