Dick’s phone starts ringing and doesn’t stop, which is how he knows it’s Babs. She’s got this thing rigged where it’ll hang up and then reconnect on the third ring, so it never goes to voicemail and never fucking stops. It’s a warning, in her own way. Make contact now or suffer escalation.
He picks up. “I’m fine.”
“Richard Grayson,” she hisses venomously. “Put your affairs in order.”
“Take the hint, Babs,” Dick advises. “I need a minute.”
“It’s been two weeks,” she says, her voice wavering it does when she’s so furious it’s making her teary. “I’ve been checking morgues.”
Dick winces. “I’m sorry,” he says, because he is. “I just--I--”
Her tone noticeably gentles. “I know.”
“You don’t,” he snaps, and then winces again. There’s a short, off-footed pause.
“Come home,” she pleads quietly.
Dick leans his head against the brick wall of the alley he’s loitering in. He presses his palm against his thigh, one of the nasty bruises Blockbuster gave him that’s lingering even now. “Everyone forgets,” he murmurs, “that I’m not actually from Gotham.” That he’s not actually Bruce’s.
“Gotham can rot. Come home to me.”
Dick inhales. Babs smells warm, like the shampoo she uses and the coffee she drinks. But all he can smell right now is the dumpster in the corner and the sharp scent of coming rain--the combination makes his stomach roll. He gags weakly, swallowing down the bile. I will not vomit. I will not.
“Dick? What was that?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
They breathe quietly for a moment, in sync. It settles Dick a little, the most peaceful he’s felt since he fled Bludhaven, choking on the ash of his failures.
“I’m tracking your phone,” Barbara admits.
He smiles. “I know.”
“You won’t be there by the time someone gets there, huh?”
“Drop a dime on me sometime, wontcha Boy Wonder?” Her voice is wavering again. “And... I love you. Always.”
“Always,” he echoes, eyes shut and fist clenched. “Me too.”
He leaves the phone in the alleyway and boards a bus going anywhere.
The days blur. He feels outside of himself sometimes, but he thinks he’s okay because he can still plan, and weigh his options and pick out a route and as long as he can do all that, he’s fine. That’s what Bruce taught him.
At some point he ends up in Detroit, which is oddly fitting. He gets off the bus at the county line, ignoring the cursing of the driver and the annoyed yelling of the other passengers and touches the sign, the hot metal against his fingers under the midday sun. You are now entering Wayne County. He hovers over the W, and walks the last two miles into the city proper.
He’s starting to get a little grimy, been sleeping rough under highway overpasses and darkened store fronts, wrapped in his jacket and using his rucksack as a pillow. It’s enough that he’s starting to get side-eyes from the passerby, looking less like a college student on a roadtrip and more like someone maybe the authorities should be aware of.
So he burns the last of his cash on a halfway decent hotel room, smiling his most brilliant Wayne heir smile and spinning a story on the check in clerk about the airplane layover from hell following his spiritual backpacking trip across the country. It works like a charm, like he’s a born liar, and he beelines for the shower as soon as he’s got a room.
There’s a tub, but he’s feeling the dirt and sweat on him like a bad rash and he cranks the shower as hot as he can stand it and stays under it until his skin prunes, scrubbing himself with the washcloth and watching the grey swirl around the drain slowly grow clear. Eventually his head clears too, enough to shampoo his hair three times and work out the worst of the snarls with his fingers. Then he pauses, staring sightlessly at the white tile, frowning. “Just to see,” he says to no one, and turns the temperature down down down.
The water against his back goes icy and he can smell it--the rain on the concrete and the gunsmoke on the air. Her whisper in his ear.
He throws up in the tub.
He leaves it running, to rinse out the bile, and rubs a hand towel across the mirror to clear enough space to help him groom. He doesn’t feel up to taking the tiny scissors from the sewing kit to the shagginess of his hair, but he looks much more respectable shaved clean and showered.
He turns on the television and draws the curtains, then unpacks his bag, laying everything out on the bed. He tosses the clothing into a pile, to be washed later in the tub, and finds a granola bar at the bottom. Dinner retrieved, he flops onto the bed and props his arm behind his head, looking up at the popcorn ceiling and the smoke alarm and listening idly to the background rumble of an infomercial.
Lying on the pillow next to him, his emergency burner phone suddenly lights up, turning itself on. Dick flicks an eye to it, then away. Babs does it, once every few days, tracking him. But no one’s come looking, as far as he can tell, so he hasn’t tossed it into a river yet. His story is sabbatical, not exile, and if he’d tried to leave without a way for someone to call him in on an emergency situation there’s no way they wouldn’t have dragged him back and demanded answers.
It rings; that’s new.
“Hello?” he answers cautiously.
“Dick,” Bruce rumbles.
Dick’s heart flips and he sits up. “What’s wrong?”
“Funny,” Bruce says, and if he isn’t launching into clipped orders then the world isn’t on fire. Dick relaxes, scrubbing a hand through his hair and stifling a yawn. “That’s what I called to ask you.”
Dick leans back against the headboard. “Gotta say, you’re not the one I thought would call first.”
“I beat Barbara?” Bruce sounds surprised. Not noticeably, except Dick’s spent his whole life studying how to read Bruce’s emotions from the smallest micro-fluctuations in his voice.
“I start counting after Babs.”
“I see.” There’s a short silence. “Dick.”
Dick forces his tone flippant. “Bruce.”
“Blockbuster,” Bruce says, and Dick flinches. He doesn’t respond. “You haven’t signed your report.”
“I’ll do it when I get back.”
Bruce’s tone is pointedly disapproving. “You’re a League member. Someone was killed.”
“I know,” Dick snarls. “I tried to admit responsibility.”
“False guilt,” Bruce snaps. “We threw your confession out on its head.”
“I failed. That’s what my report said.”
“You recommended yourself to be imprisoned for murder.”
“For manslaughter,” Dick corrects. “Don’t start lacking specificity now, it’s not on brand.”
“The League cleared you, and you’ve been away for longer than the recommended probation sentence.”
“Hooray,” Dick faux-cheers, his voice dripping in sarcasm.
Bruce growls. “I want you back in Gotham.”
“Yeah, well, I want a pony.”
“Dick,” Bruce snaps, his patience frayed, “you’re back in Gotham within the week or I’ll come get you.”
“Don’t you dare,” Dick retorts, leaping to his feet and starting to pace. “You have no right--”
“If you won’t come in yourself, then I’ll do it for you.” The words rap out like bullets, fast and clipped and burning red-hot. “If you don’t want to be treated like a child, you could try not acting--”
“Fuck you,” Dick yells, his voice cracking with the strain of it. “Fuck you Bruce, you’re not my father, you’re not my family, you don’t know a goddamn single thing about it--”
“About what?” Bruce asks, and his voice is even again, just like that, just like flipping a switch. It stops Dick dead in his tracks, the fury draining away, and he exhales, kicking himself. Played again, you’d think ten plus years of practice would make him stop falling for it, stop letting his hand slip to Bruce’s preternatural detective senses. “What don’t I know about, Dick?”
“Nothing,” Dick says, his mouth suddenly dry and his heart pounding. He never would have picked up the phone if he knew it was Bruce, Bruce is too dangerous. “I--I put everything in the report.”
Nausea turns his stomach. “If you try to track me down,” he says, quiet and cold, “you’ll never see me again.” It’s a promise he hasn’t thrown at Bruce since he left to found the Titans.
He shoves his clothes back into his bag, dirty and smelly as they are, and slings it back over his shoulder. He’d been stupid, dropping so much on a room, and now he’s not even going to get to enjoy the bed in it. He can make out Bruce shouting at him over the phone, lying abandoned but still connected on the mattress, and even though he can’t understand the words, he’s pretty sure he’s got the gist. There’s no giving ultimatums to the Batman.
Barbara will be pissed, but that’s not new. Dick leaves the phone behind.
He dreams about Catalina.
The early days, the laughter. The bright hot fire of how bad she wanted to make a difference, how eager she was to learn, what it felt like to have someone at his back again.
He wakes up because it’s raining, and he’d fallen asleep on a bus stop bench. He’s dizzy, sick to his stomach; he hasn’t eaten in two days and hasn’t slept more than three hours at a stretch since--since Bludhaven. Since Catalina.
He can smell the lightning before he sees the blur, but by the time he’s blinked twice Wally West is standing in front of him, wearing a raincoat and a pinched expression. “Dick,” he says, “you unbelievable asshole.”
“Walls,” Dick greets, wiping a raindrop out of his eyes. “It’s been a while.”
“You look like shit.”
“Thanks, buddy.” Dick grins, but it must look as hollow as it feels, because Wally’s face gets more worried, not less.
“Jesus Dickie,” he says, and moves in for a hug, and Dick could kick himself again because of course that’s what Wally does, of course that’s what he thinks Dick would want, because it’s what he’s always wanted, what he thought would never change, a universal constant: Dick Grayson is touchy, tactile, affectionate. He always has been.
Except Wally’s palm skims his shoulder and he flinches, skittering backwards without a hint of his usual grace. He falls into the plastic side of the bus stop, wincing, then gets his feet back under him.
Wally is standing there, stock still, arm still half outstretched, looking poleaxed. “Are you--you’re hurt!”
“No,” Dick denies, but Wally is frowning, a stubborn set to his jaw. “Not here,” Dick says, changing tactics, and Wally hesitates. “I’m cold,” Dick adds, and Wally sighs.
Dick tenses when Wally scoops him up, but there’s no sudden lurch in his stomach; he doesn’t taste the phantom rain. “We could piggyback,” he complains, because Wally will expect it from him. The fact is he’s so relieved to feel normal about the whole thing he practically cuddles himself into Wally’s chest.
“Not if you’re hurt,” Wally says. “Close your eyes.”
Dick rolls them instead. Like he hasn’t been hitching supersonic rides with Wally since he was eleven years old.
Wally takes them to his apartment in Central City. It’s small and a little ratty and Wally is immensely proud of it. He drops Dick onto the couch and Dick lets himself bounce with the movement, crossing his legs and fluttering his eyelashes. “Oh Kid Flash, you’re so fast.”
“Shut up and take off your shirt.”
Dick mock gasps, hand to his mouth. “Baby, what about Artemis.”
“You’re such a shit,” Wally complains, trying to yank Dick’s hoodie off with superspeed. He only frees one arm before Dick gets a grip on him and then they’re just scrapping, flopping around and grunting as elbows hit soft places and their heads knock against each other.
Dick’s laughing goodnaturedly until Wally’s hand accidentally slips up his shirt, skimming his ribs. Then all the air leaves his chest at once, like it’s been punched out, and he goes rigid. “Get off,” he snaps, all the playfulness gone, and he can see Wally’s smile melt away into confusion.
“Get off,” Dick snaps, and knees Wally in the gut.
Wally yelps, recoiling, and as soon as his weight is gone Dick rolls onto his stomach, disrupting the memory tugging at the edges of his brain. If there’s one thing he’s been practicing his whole life, it’s compartmentalization.
He slips off the sofa, standing with a hand pressed to his ribs where Wally had touched him. He’d planned for this. “Ribs,” he lies with a rueful smile. “Nothing broken, just tender.”
“I knew it,” Wally says, looking pissy again. “Why’d you try to lie?” He stabs a finger in the air in Dick’s direction, “And what the fuck is this month and a half of radio silence about, huh?”
Dick shrugs. “Thought you were retired.”
“I’m retired, not Amish shunned. You know how many people blew up my phone about you? Bruce showed up to my campus. Three people in my gen ed philosophy course think he’s my sugar daddy, and one of them is the professor.”
“Gross,” Dick comments. He holds out a fist. “Suspected sugar baby club.”
“That’s gross,” Wally says, but he bumps his knuckles against Dick’s. “Seriously, man, I… I was worried. I am worried.”
“Really? That’s what you got for me?”
Dick tilts his head, thoughtful. “You should eat something.”
Wally stares at him for a long dragging moment. Then he sighs, giving in. “Only if you do too. You look--”
Roy Harper kicks down Wally’s front door. “Good,” he says, when they both jump, dropping into fighting stances. “You got him.”
Dick scratches at the back of his head, sheepish. “Heya, Speedy.”
“What the fuck Roy,” Wally complains. “You have a spare key.”
“Heya Speedy,” Roy mocks, ignoring Wally completely, “I should kill you myself.” His eyes narrow. “Why are you holding your ribs.”
“They’re hurt,” Dick says. He leans over very slightly to sell the injury.
Roy’s still squinting at him. “Prove it.”
“Prove it,” Roy repeats. “Pull up your shirt.”
Wally frowns between the two of them, then looks at Dick. “Just show us, dude.”
“He’s lying,” Roy says. “He’s playing you.”
Dick shrugs again, caught out. He straightens, letting his arm drop from his side. “Are we going to eat or what?”
Wally sighs like a put-upon mother of five. Then he makes three frozen pizzas; Dick and Roy split one and leave Wally the rest. They eat scrunched up on the sofa, Dick planted between them. Everytime he shifts his weight they tense like they’re ready to pin him to the floor rather than let him leave again.
“Where’s Artie?” Dick asks when he’s on his third slice.
“Conference up north.” Wally leans over to the coffee table, retrieving his phone and unlocking it with a flick. He shows Dick a text thread. “From her.”
Tell that little troll he should have stayed gone, because I’m going to create a very special arrow, just for him, and then I’m going to take that arrow and I’m going to-- the text cuts out at the bottom of the screen, but Dick gets where it’s headed. “All of you express concern in the most touching of ways.”
“Boo hoo,” Roy says, elbowing him in the shoulder. “Shut up and turn on the television.”
Halfway through an episode of Scooby Doo, Wally puts his plate down and stands, clearing his throat awkwardly. “I’ve uh, got a quick thing, if you guys don’t mind.”
Dick and Roy look at each other. “What is it?” Roy asks.
“Just an errand,” Wally says, pinking slightly and refusing to look either of them in the eye. “Won’t take more than half an hour.”
Dick grins. “Is this errand… up north?”
Wally refuses to respond, tugging on his sneakers and pulling on a jacket.
“Half an hour, huh?” Roy asks. “That’s a shame. Artemis deserves a little more time and attention, don’t you think?”
He and Dick high five. Wally throws a spare shoe at them both. “Shut up, it’s not a booty call. We just like to say goodnight in person, when we can.”
“I think that’s beautiful,” Dick says, tone solemn. “I think that’s just the most beautifully touching thing I’ve ever heard, ever in my life, the most--”
“I hate both of you,” Wally informs them. He points at Roy. “Villainess assassin.”
“She’s literally your girlfriend’s sister,” Roy mutters. “I wouldn’t start pulling at that thread.”
Wally points at Dick. “Don’t even get me started on you, ‘Hunk Wonder’. You’re a dog.”
It hits Dick like a sucker punch, but he makes sure his smile only flickers for a millisecond. He turns his attention back to the television, but his attention is frayed and his appetite gone.
“You can relax,” Roy says after Wally’s left, without looking away from the cartoons on the screen. “I’m not going to ask.”
“Ask anything.” Roy turns, leaning his head back on the sofa and studying Dick with quiet eyes. “That’s not you and me.”
“Nope.” Roy reaches over, retrieving a blanket and tossing it into Dick’s lap. “Don’t get it wrong, if you wanna talk I’ll listen, but I’m not your best friend. Not anymore.”
Dick sucks in a breath. “Roy--”
Roy shakes his head. “Too much in the past for it, Dickie, and there’s no point in resentment.”
Dick spreads the blanket across his legs, kicking his feet up on the coffee table and nudging the plates out of the way with his toes to make room. “I always looked up to you,” he says off-handedly. “I still do.”
“Jesus,” Roy says, “don’t talk like that; it makes me think you’re gonna off yourself.” He sets his own plate down. “When we were kids, before--just before everything, you know?”
“I guess I decided you were like my little brother or something stupid like that, I don’t know. Your fault for being looking so pathetically orphaned and tiny.”
“I’m fun-sized,” Dick says earnestly, and it makes Roy laugh. He shoves his shoulder against Dick’s goodnaturedly.
“It stuck, I guess, because I never do grow any sense.” He touches Dick’s hair, gentle, the light drag of the calluses on his fingers against Dick’s scalp. It’s so tender it hurts, a razor so sharp you don’t feel it until you’re already bleeding.
Dick’s breath catches. He can’t really remember the last time he and Roy just hung out, or didn’t end a team meeting arguing over operation logistics, or even worked together in the field, but he thinks he gets what Roy means, because even when Dick is doing deep breathing meditation exercises to press down the need to punch those stupid douchebag sunglasses off Roy’s face he still wouldn’t hesitate to back Roy up if he needed it.
“I went to Blackgate,” Roy says, and it’s only the careful way he says it that prevents Dick from standing and retreating. “I talked to Catalina Flores.”
“Did you,” Dick says, and he’s so tense it aches, every muscle tensed and trembling. He has half a dozen ways to spin it, but he doesn’t want to commit to one before he knows what Roy knows. His hand is still cupping the back of Dick’s head. “Just you?”
“Yes. And she won’t be taking more visitors, we made a deal.”
Dick does stand then, dragging a hand through his hair to chase Roy’s touch away. “A deal? What did you promise her?”
“You don’t want to know what she told me?”
Dick’s heart is pounding in his chest. “So you know that we--we had sex. So what? It’s not like you can throw stones.”
Roy growls, low in his throat. “Cheshire is a lot of things, and none of them good for me, but she’s not Catalina Flores. Not that way.”
Dick refuses to drop his eyes. “Not what way?”
Roy stares back, unblinking. “If you need me to say it, I will.”
Dick’s bravado crumbles. “No,” he says, stepping back, his fingers trembling. “Don’t.”
“Okay.” Roy picks the blanket off the floor where it had fallen. “Sit down before you fall down.”
Dick perches on the arm of the sofa instead of the cushions, fidgety and tense. “Whatever you promised her,” he says quietly, “I’ll get you out of it. I’ll see her tomorrow, set it straight.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Roy says flatly, “you’ll never see her again.”
“Roy, she’s--she’s dangerous, don’t let her inexperience trick you, she--”
“I know,” Roy says coldly, “exactly what she is.” He sighs. “But you won’t drop this, will you?”
“No,” Dick says, even though he when he thinks of seeing her again, talking to her, hearing the way she says his name, it makes him dizzy with a sick feeling in his belly, something that sinks deep into him and rots.
“I promised to give you this.” Roy reaches into a pocket and retrieves a single sheet of paper, creased and folded up.
Dick swallows. What could she possibly have wanted to say to him so badly she agreed to never take a visitor again? He reaches out, hiding the shake in his hand, and his fingertips have no sooner closed around the paper when Roy yanks it away, and in the same motion strikes a match with his free hand. He lights the paper on fire and drops it onto the plate to burn.
Dick gapes at him.
“What? I said I’d give it to you, not that you’d read it.”
Dick sputters at him. “What if I wanted to read it?”
Roy’s expression closes. “There was nothing in there you needed to see.”
Dick’s stomach churns and he presses a hand to his sternum, rubbing absently. Just a folded piece of paper, not a sealed envelope. Roy read it, and he doesn’t think Dick should. “I--yeah. Okay. Thanks.” He flows over the arm of the sofa onto the cushion, tucking himself against it and huddling under the blanket.
“Jesus,” Roy mutters, and Dick figures he must look pretty pathetic, but he also remembers that he got rip-roaring drunk for the first time at fourteen, and Roy was the one he called when he was throwing up outside a classmate’s house at two in the morning with one shoe off and lipstick smeared across his collar. Relatively speaking, this isn’t worse than that, even if it is more shameful.
Roy’s hand settles onto his ankle, atop the blanket, a slight warm weight. His thumb strokes, slow and steady, over and over.
Dick falls asleep. He doesn’t dream.
When he wakes up, he’s still on Wally’s couch. Roy is gone, and there are soft murmurs coming from the kitchen. He keeps his eyes closed, drifting under the teasing rumble of Wally’s voice and the fond exasperation of Artemis’. Wally always smells a little bit like the speed force, a crackle of ozone fading away, and Dick is so used to it that it’s comforting, to smell it on the blanket and the fabric of the couch.
There’s something that might be bacon sizzling on the stove, and Dick’s stomach growls. He sits up, stretching until his spine cracks. “Hey,” Artemis says, coming over to lean on the back of the couch and peer at him. “Your hair looks stupid.”
“Thanks,” he says, unbothered. “Aren’t you supposed to be fifty miles away right now?”
She shrugs. “Conferences are for nerds.” She starts to reach for him, then stops. So they’ve had enough time to catch up, her and Wally and maybe even Roy. Dick’s stomach clenches--he’d thought he hadn’t needed to extract a promise of silence from Roy, thought they’d had an understanding. Stupid, to trust his instincts when they’re what’s gotten him into this whole mess.
Dick opens his arms. “You gonna hug me or what?”
“Or what,” she grumbles, but she leans over just a little farther and she’s solid in his arms, warm and strong and she squeezes him once before releasing. “Had me worried for a second.”
He pouts at her. “Only for a second? I bet I can do better.”
She smacks him across the back of the head. “Don’t you dare. Come eat something, you’re skinnier than you were a decade ago.”
“Yeah, yeah, no shrimp jokes.” He drags himself into the kitchen, feeling oddly wrung out for how long he managed to sleep, the most sleep he’s gotten since he’s been on the road. Wally hands him a plate and they eat like that, leaned up against the counters and muffling yawns into their hands. “You call Bruce?”
“No,” Wally says, lifting his head in a slight challenge. “He’s not the boss of me.”
“You called Babs,” Dick surmises.
“She called me,” Wally mutters, dropping his plate in the sink. “That girl is scary.”
“Listen Dick,” Artemis says, bumping Wally aside with her hip to quiet him and catch Dick’s eyes. “You say the word, and I’ll get you on a bus going anywhere you want.”
“Artemis!” Wally protests. “That’s the opposite of what we want!”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Artemis says, ignoring the interruption. “And except for that time I died, no one lets me in on a damned thing. Roy never answers a direct question if he can help it. But I know you, and if that’s what you really need, I’ll give you a couple hundred bucks and a ride to the bus station. Say the word.”
Dick hesitates. Then he closes his eyes. What’s his play, here? To sleep rough between Greyhound rides until he passes out from hunger or Bruce loses the last of his respect for Dick’s free will and locks him in the Batcave until he breaks? Or stay here, crashing Wally’s normal life with his vigilante bullshit? He doesn’t think Roy said--said what’d happened, there’s no way Artemis and Wally wouldn’t have given it way by now if he had. But he doesn’t know how long that’ll last, if Wally gets an idea of just how bad Dick is cracking around the edges.
“I would like a ride,” he says slowly, and Wally starts to vibrate, anxious and unhappy. “To Gotham, if Wally doesn’t mind.”
Wally hits him in a hug at super speed, slumping into it as soon as Dick catches him. “This is good,” Wally says, clutching at him. “It’ll be okay, Dick, I promise.”
Dick tightens his arms. “Okay, Wally,” he lies. “I believe you.”
Wally lends him some sweats (seriously dude, your clothes are rank) and drops him just outside the Manor’s front door. “Get your phone back and charge it,” he orders. “I want a call within the next twenty four hours or I’m combing the planet for you. Again.”
“You got it,” Dick agrees. They hug again before Wally zips out of sight.
Then it’s just Dick and the door.
He tries to inhale and his lungs freeze within him, refusing to inflate. His eyesight has gone jagged and sharp, his blinks feel too slow and out of sync with each other. He lays his hand flat on his chest, on his sternum, and digs a knuckle in, rubbing hard. The pain punches through the fog in his brain and he sucks in one breath, then another.
“Get it together, Grayson,” he mutters, and raps the brass knocker.
Alfred answers promptly, which is unusual. He generally finds it improper to answer the door too quickly. “Master Richard,” he breathes. “My dear boy.” His voice very nearly wobbles.
What it takes to make Alfred lose his stiff upper lip; Dick immediately feels like the worst person on earth. “Sorry Al,” he mutters shamefully, staring at the ground. “I uh, I just…” he shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“That’s alright,” Alfred says gently. “That’s quite alright.”
He ushers Dick inside, does him the mercy of ignoring his suddenly wet eyes. Sets Dick in a chair in the kitchen and takes his bag from him with a wrinkle of his nose. “Thanks,” Dick says, and he’s hit by a sudden wave of exhaustion, because he forgot how the kitchen always smelled like fresh bread and he forgot the way the marble felt under his feet, and damn it all, every little thing, because none of the nastiness between him and Bruce ever stopped the Manor from feeling like the only real home Dick has left.
His bones settle.
He wakes because someone’s watching him, the prickle on the back of his neck. He blinks, disoriented, and fumbles for a weapon, finding nothing but the empty pocket of his borrowed sweats, too long in the leg and dipping on his slim waist. It’s an indictment of how much weight he’s dropped too quickly; he and Wally used to be about the same size there, even if Wally’s always been taller.
He’d fallen asleep at the kitchen counter, slumped into a chair with his face pillowed on his arm. There’s drool in the crook of his elbow.
Bruce is watching him, sipping at a mug. It’s got the Superman symbol on it in shaky paint, glazed in a middle school’s kiln. Dick had given it to him as a joke on Father’s Day when he was thirteen. “Good morning,” Bruce greets, like Dick’s just crashed after a late patrol and not shown up out of the blue after fleeing the city with his tail between his legs and a sickness in his soul.
“Morning,” Dick mutters. “Any coffee left?”
Bruce slides the mug over until it’s within reach. When Dick sips he finds it sweetened to his liking, not black the way Bruce takes it. “Damian has missed you.”
Dick pauses, then snorts. “That’s low.”
Bruce twitches a shoulder, acknowledging but not apologizing. “I am glad,” he says, stilted the way he gets when he tries to express himself emotionally. “That you have come home.”
Dick shrugs. “You offered, and all.”
Bruce’s fingers flex where they’re resting on the tabletop. “You don’t need an invitation to come here.”
“Don’t I?” His tone is mild, for how the words cut. He remembers crashing on Clark’s couch, in Barry’s extra room, the ache of never wearing his family’s colors again sharper than any bullet wound could ever be.
Bruce’s face goes stony. “No,” he says shortly, “you don’t.”
Dick swallows, then sips again. “Yeah,” he says, because he’s too wrung out for everything else. “Okay.”
He texts Wally, which he thinks is good enough even though he’d promised a call, and drags himself up to his old room. His old old room, the one Bruce gave to Jason. The door isn’t locked and there isn’t any dust on the shelves; the bed is neatly made, with fresh linens. Alfred grieves in his own way.
He touches the dog-eared book on the bedside table, something Dick doesn’t recognize, a stamp from a second hand bookstore on the inside front cover. Just another thing Jason never got to finish.
Dick goes two doors down to his current room, identical to the guest quarters except for the stuffed elephant propped against the pillows. Faded with age and threadbare, but he tucks it in the crook of his arm and shoves his head under the duvet like he’s twelve again, plagued with nightmares of baseball bats and Two Face, thinking that’s the worst it’ll ever be, the worst it could ever get. A child’s certainty in the world.
He doesn’t sleep, but he drifts, quiet and disconnected from himself. He doesn’t cry, though, and that puts him one up on his twelve year old self. Gotta take his victories where he can.
“Grayson,” Damian says from the doorway. “Pennyworth demands your presence at supper.”
Dick sits up in bed, forcing a smile. “Dami. You can just say that you missed me.”
“I miss no one and no thing,” Damian says sharply. “Father, however, was beside himself.”
Dick’s mouth twitches into something more genuine. “Was he.”
“Yes. It has been most embarrassing.”
“My apologies,” Dick says gravely. He stands, slow and deliberate, and can feel his bones creaking. Feels like he’s on the return end of a transformation spell, clumsy and aching in his own skin. “I will--” he lunges, scooping Damian up into his arms even as Damian tries to squirm away. “Rectify the situation immediately.”
“Unhand me at once,” Damian demands hotly. “Grayson, I will kill you!”
“Kill me,” Dick says thoughtfully, making his way down the hallway towards the stairs. “Aren’t you afraid Bruce will suffer conniptions without my sunny spirit to brighten his day?”
“We should be so fortunate to be free of your so-called humor,” Damian hisses. He tries to bite Dick’s wrist, so Dick shifts him into a fireman’s carry with a grunt of effort, wobbling as Damian does his level best to throw his balance off.
“Ouch,” Dick mock winces. Then he bounces lightly on his toes. “Deep breath, kiddo.”
Damian’s eyes go wide. “No--”
Dick vaults the railing. It’s a little tricky, with the added weight atop his shoulders, but he’s a Flying Grayson, isn’t he? They somersault once, ungainly but controlled, and land clumsily but safely on the bottom floor. “Perk up, lil D,” he says cheerfully. “If you were really mad about it, you’d have stabbed me by now.”
“I am not permitted knives out of uniform,” Damian says sulkily, from within Dick’s grip.
Dick enters the dining room, finding Bruce already sat at the head of the table. “Bruce,” he says gravely, “I found a growth in the shower.”
“As if I would ever step foot in your bathroom,” Damian mutters, but he’s no longer flailing for freedom. “Your hygiene disgusts me.”
“Everything disgusts you.”
Damian must conclude being compliant similarly revolts him because he knees Dick in the back of the head. Dick drops him on the uncovered butter dish in retaliation. Damian yowls like a wet cat, butter smashed along the back of his shoulder, and pulls a thin dagger from his boot.
Dick points at him. “Knife!”
“Don’t be a tattle-tale,” Bruce says without looking up from his newspaper. He extends a hand. “Damian.”
Scowling, Damian relinquishes his blade. He plops himself into a chair and glares. “I will have my revenge.”
“Aw,” Dick coos. “Say it again, Boy Lisper.”
Damian’s hand closes around a fork with intent.
“Stop it,” Bruce says, snapping the newspaper shut. “Both of you.”
“But Grayson,” Damian protests.
“Is goading you into not asking him about why he left.”
Damian’s mouth shuts with a snap. He looks at Dick with narrowed eyes.
Dick shrugs. “Don’t look at me like that. Who do you think I learned it from?”
“Father,” Damian chides.
Bruce sighs. “Yes, this, as all other inconveniences in your life, is my fault.”
“Grayson is not an inconvenience,” Damian snaps, “and if you didn’t treat him as such, perhaps he would not have disappeared for months on end.”
Bruce blinks, taken aback.
“Damian,” Dick cuts in, “this wasn’t--Bruce and I didn’t fight. It wasn’t that.”
“Dick is not an inconvenience.”
“I know that, Bruce, c’mon.”
“None of my children are inconveniences,” Bruce says, and it stops Dick short. “I’d like to have dinner with two of them now, if they’re finished swearing blood feuds over dairy products.”
Dick and Damian share a look between brothers. Bruce rolls his eyes.
Alfred arrives, carrying a platter. Crab stuffed mushrooms, Dick’s favourite. Dick coaxes Damian into an impassioned rant about the state of American education, using his own classes as a case study, and makes sympathetic noises in the right places. He pretends not to see Bruce’s assessing looks.
Dessert is a peanut butter chocolate protein shake, which is about as pointed as Alfred ever gets. Dick drains it to show his acquiescence to the point. “Grayson,” Damian says impatiently, drawing Dick’s attention back to the here and now. “Did you hear what I said?”
Damian sighs, put upon. “I said, don’t drink too much of that, I don’t want to hear your complaining on patrol later.”
Patrol. The word hits Dick like a bucket of ice water. He drops his hands beneath the table to hide their sudden shake. “You’re just worried you can’t keep up with me.”
Damian scoffs, his tiny chest puffed up with pride. “During your idiotic absence, I bested every one of your records with those Titans of yours.”
“All of them?” Dick asks, eyebrows raised, “even the--”
“All of them,” Damian declares. “It was hardly difficult.”
“Damian,” Bruce says, “go get changed. We’ll meet you down there.” Damian scampers off, if one can scamper while being full of rage and the inability to express childlike excitement.
Dick waits for Damian to get out of earshot. “What records?”
“Kori told him you were top of all the training records at the Jump Tower in an effort to redirect his energy. I gather he was becoming intolerably vocal in his disdain for giving you your space.”
“Kori,” Dick mutters guiltily. That’s another phone call he’s not looking forward to.
“You,” Bruce says, and then stops. He clears his throat. “You don’t have to come out, if you need to rest.”
Dick hesitates. This could be a test. Dick has gone out with broken bones and punctured organs.
“Wally mentioned your ribs were bothering you,” Bruce says mildly, and it’s totally a test.
“Just having him on,” Dick says breezily, resolving to send a pissy text later about Wally and Bruce’s apparent newfound friendship. He thinks if he puts his mind to it he can work in a sugar baby reference. “I’m good to go.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Bruce says, satisfied.
Under the table, Dick’s hands tremble.
It’s not the same suit, because Dick had left that in ashes on the border of the ‘Haven. But it looks the same: the design he chose, the name he picked, the brilliant blue markings. Something he made, something all his own; he remembers being so proud of it.
He can hardly stand to look at it.
But Damian’s waiting, and so is Bruce, waiting for him to slip. So he puts it on. For a second, it helps; he feels himself in a way he hasn’t in weeks and weeks, feels less fragile and less flayed open with the tight armor weave across his chest and augmented gloves on his hands. Feels less like everyone can see it painted on his face--I’m ruined, she ruined me and didn’t do me the mercy of putting me down afterwards--when he’s got the domino hiding his eyes.
Then he sees himself reflected in the mirror of the locker room and his knees buckle. He catches himself on the wall, digs a knuckle into the center of his chest until he can feel it bruise.
“Richard?” Damian is standing in the doorway, looking young and unsure.
Dick straightens. “Damian. Ready to patrol?”
Damian doesn’t move, frowning. This his face clears, his chin rising. “Take off the suit.”
“Huh? I just put it on.”
Damian strides over, pulling a medical kit off the wall as he goes. “Your ribs are injured, Father said so. They need to be wrapped for patrol.”
Dick hesitates. Then he peels the top half of his suit down and lets Damian wrap his ribs.
“I went to the Titans,” Damian says, his hands careful as he smoothes the bandages. His voice is so quiet Dick can barely make out the words. “Because I missed you.”
He is only saying it because they are alone; because he trusts Dick won’t tell anyone that he said it. Dick brings his hand up, curling his fingers around Damian’s wrist in a barely-there touch. “I understand.”
They walk out of the locker room together.
It’s a quiet night--Dick suspects Bruce is still watching, still waiting, picked a milk run to see how bad Dick’s head really is.
It’s a clear night too, as clear as it ever gets in Gotham, and Dick leans into the freefall, not firing his grapple until the very last second. He turns as it pulls him upwards, enjoying the wind in his hair, and is surprised to see a black shape swoop past, closer than Bruce has tailed him since he was ten years old.
Dick lands on a rooftop, in a shoulder roll just because he feels like it, and springs lightly to his feet. “You’re gonna trip on my heels, old man.”
Batman grunts from the shadows. “Take Robin along the river.”
Dick tenses. “While you do what, exactly?” Dick won’t be benched like a child.
“Oh.” Dick relaxes. “Okay, yeah, sure.” Then he sighs. Monitor duty, and Bruce went out just to make sure Dick didn’t what? Immediately ditch Damian to fend for himself? “I’m fine, B.”
“No,” Bruce says, “you’re hiding something. I’m going to find out what it is.” He steps off the roof before Dick can respond, his cape flapping as he disappears into the night towards the nearest zeta tube.
Dick exhales, jagged and rough. Behind him, Damian lands on the ledge, perched with his head tilted. “Nightwing?”
Dick touches the grip of one of his batons, grounding himself on the thrum of the electricity. “Along the river,” he orders. “And maybe play a little rooftop tag on the way back, whaddya say?”
“I look forward to embarrassing you,” Damian says, tone prim; his eyes gleam.
Three hours later and Dick’s swinging low to stay out of Damian’s sight, fully planning on arcing high and dropping down on his little brother to stick a wet willy in his ear--when he sees it, nothing he’s not seen a hundred times before: two dark figures and a third, cowering.
He alters his course. It’s a mugging, a fight so quick it’s barely a fight at all, three hits each and they’re on the ground. He poised, waiting just a heartbeat longer to make sure they stay down, and then jerks back as a brick sails towards his face. The edge of it cuts his cheek, from his jaw up to his mask.
“Woah,” he says, hands up and backing away. “It’s okay.”
The girl is crumpled against the wall, but she’s also got another loose brick in her hand and a wild look in her eye. Fight or flight, and she’s picked where she’s going.
Dick crouches, making himself look small and nonthreatening. He turns his comm off and keeps his hands spread out where she can see them. “Hey. Alright.”
“Don’t move,” she orders.
Dick nods, slow and careful and exaggerated. “I won’t.” He leans his back against the brick wall of the alleyway and slides down slow, into a crouch with his hands held open and still. “Do you need a doctor?”
“Shut up,” she says, and she’s trembling, violent and ragged. Her top is torn, the straps dangling, and the waist of her skirt twisted. “Just--stay over there.”
“I will,” Dick promises. He sits on his haunches and hums tunelessly, just enough to be heard over the wind and the distant sounds of intermittent traffic. He can hear her breathing, hitching and too fast. “In through your nose,” he prompts gently, “out through your mouth.”
She glares at him, eyes red and wide and terrified, but she syncs to his breathing, maybe despite herself.
“Do you hear that?” Dick asks. “There’s a plane coming in. Sounds like a 747, you can tell by the hum.”
She blinks at him. “W-what?”
“The plane,” Dick says, slow and calm. “Can you hear it?”
She doesn’t say anything, but her eyes flick up to the sky; her head jerks in a nod.
“It’s easy to tell them apart when you look at them,” Dick says, like they’re chatting at a coffee shop instead of a filthy alleyway. “So I like to challenge myself and just do it by ear.”
“That’s,” the girl says shakily. She swallows. “That’s kinda weird.”
“I had an unusual childhood.” Dick hums a snatch of song, some jingle he heard on the radio earlier. He lets it fade out. “What do you hear?”
There’s a long silence, and he waits it out without further prodding. “Sirens,” she says finally. “I can hear sirens.”
Dick cocks his head. “Yes,” he agrees. “I can hear it too.” They both listen until the sirens fade into the distance. “Firetruck,” Dick clarifies.
She blinks at him. “You can tell by the noise?”
Dick taps his left ear with a gloved fingertip. “We all have our skills.”
She puts the brick down. “I know who you are,” she admits. “I was just… I don’t know. Sorry.”
Dick shrugs. “Men in masks are never reassuring.”
“Thanks, for, you know.”
“Sure,” Dick agrees. “I’d like to walk you home, if that’s okay.”
“And if I say no?”
Dick shrugs again. “Then I wish you luck. And maybe I suggest an alternate route home.”
She’s quiet for a second. “You can walk me a little ways,” she decides, her shoulders squaring. “Until we’re out of this district. Don’t call Batman or anything.”
“I think we can handle a few blocks,” Dick says mildly. He stoops briefly to retrieve the brick, offering it to her. “If it makes you feel better.”
She almost smiles. Then she holds open her purse and he drops it in.
“Swing for the head,” he advises, and then set off down the sidewalk.
“What about them?” she asks, jerking her head behind them.
Dick casts a brief glance over his shoulder: one of the men has started to crawl towards the sidewalk, fumbling at him pocket with his left hand. His right arm hangs awkwardly at an unnatural angle; Dick had broken his wrist and dislocated his elbow. “They’ll live.”
The night is crisp, the breeze light and pleasant, and it’s just on that cusp of far-too-late and far-too-early for anyone else to be out and about. They only come across one person on the street, who blinks twice at them and then shrugs. There’s enough capes around, Dick figures, that’s it’s just not that weird anymore to run into them during the witching hours.
He slows as they reach the edge of the district, the shops suddenly more upscale, the graffiti disappeared and replaced by fancy wooden signs and paint that isn’t peeling away. “Still okay from here?”
“They didn’t,” she says suddenly. “But they almost, you know? I think they would have.”
Dick’s breath catches.
“I always thought it’d be,” she starts, and then stops again. “The articles say it’s more likely to be someone you know. Last time it was somebody I knew.” She frowns, almost smiling, but it’s too flat and frayed at the edges. It reminds Dick, suddenly and awfully, of Harley.
Dick’s knees buckle. He catches himself, stumbling back, then takes a deep breath, trying to pull himself back together. She’s stepped towards him, eyes wide and almost concerned. “Don’t,” he says sharply, when she reaches out, then winces when she flinches back. “No,” he says quickly, forcing his tone even again. “It’s fine, I just wasn’t expecting--it’s fine.” He tries for a reassuring smile.
“Sorry,” she says, and then like she can’t stop saying it. “Sorry, I’m sorry, Christ, I’m--”
“Listen,” Dick says, interrupting. He tilts his head and points a finger at the sky. “Hear that?”
She tilts her head, mirroring him, her breath hitching again. Her brow furrows. “What is that?”
An hour before the sun even starts to creep over the horizon, when everything is damp and cold and alone, the quiet whistle chirping from under all that darkness. Dick smiles. “It’s a robin’s song.”
She exhales, long and slow. Her hand, fisted into the fabric of her shirt, unclenches. “Another part of your childhood, huh?”
“You have no idea.” Dick produces a card from a hidden pocket, blank except the burner phone number printed in standard black font. “I’d like to give you a number, if that’s okay. It might take me a day to get back to you, but if you need something--”
“No offense,” she says bluntly, “but I hope I never see you again.”
Dick flicks his fingers and the card disappears. “Ta-daa,” he says, and it surprises a smile out of her.
“You’re smiling again. You’re good at this.” She narrows her eyes at him, thoughtful. “You do know, don’t you?”
Dick’s smile freezes, then melts away. “I,” he manages, and stops. It’s stuck in his throat.
“I live near the hills,” she tells him, “on the corner estate, two blocks east from the mango stand. You know it?”
“I thought you never wanted to see me again?”
“I didn’t invite you to dinner,” she says sharply. “I was, um, gonna tell you how they smelled. Is that not how it works?”
“It works,” he tells her simply, “however it works.”
“I like that.” She retrieves the brick from her purse. “Would you put this back for me?”
He nods, taking it. She takes a step away before pausing.
“You should say it,” she tells him, without turning around. “You’ll feel better.” She doesn’t wait for him to respond.
He watches her until she turns the corner and disappears out of sight.
Damian is waiting for him by the cave entrance, scowling, already changed into sweats, his tiny arms crossed in displeasure. “Grayson,” he says, and he couldn’t look or sound more like his father.
“Cutie,” Dick coos, and then dodges the batarang Damian flings at his face. He faux-pouts. “I thought you missed me.”
Damian purples. “Silence!”
“Dick,” Tim greets from the main monitor, which explains Damian’s fury at being called out for experiencing normal human emotions. He’s never more prickly than when Tim is present.
Dick shoots Damian an apologetic glance, followed up by a ruffle to his hair that makes Damian jump backwards, hissing like a cat. “Heya Timmy,” he says. “On a case?”
Tim’s head jerks in acknowledgement, even as his fingers tap away at the keyboard without pause. “There’s a Bludhaven connection, if you don’t mind assisting.”
“Grayson,” Damian says impatiently. “We have yet to debrief.”
“Did you ask Bruce about it?” Dick asks.
Tim pauses. He turns to look at Dick, eyes sharp and brow slightly furrowed. “You want Bruce in Bludhaven?”
“No,” Dick says, and his hesitation isn’t more than a microsecond but he knows Tim caught it. “Just surprised he’s letting you out on your own,” he adds, with a teasing smirk.
Tim puffs up, indignant, then rolls his eyes, returning to his screen. “You want to take a look or not?”
“Grayson,” Damian says, more insistently and a touch nasally. He never sounds more like a little brother than when Tim is around, either.
“Go upstairs,” Dick tells him, “we’ll do the reports tomorrow.”
Damian frowns. “Father--”
“Isn’t here,” Dick says cheerfully, barreling over Damian’s objection. “It was a light patrol anyway.”
“You went off comms for nearly half an hour.”
Tim’s head whips around. “You did what?”
Dick flaps a hand at both of them. “I walked someone home.” Tim is frowning at him, so Dick walks over gives Tim the same hair ruffle he gave Damian. “Cheer up, buttercup. Three mugs of hot chocolate, how does that sound?”
Tim darts a narrowed eyed glare at Damian, who’s glowering right back. “Whatever,” he mutters grudgingly. “If the Demon Spawn doesn’t care.”
Damian sniffs haughtily. “Nothing you do affects me in any way,” he declares. “I will start the milk.”
“I want tiny marshmallows,” Dick says.
Damian sighs. “You are an infantile embarrassment.”
“But you will take down the tiny marshmallows?”
“Obviously,” Damian snipes, and trots off.
Dick watches him go. “I wish you wouldn’t call him that.”
Tim scoffs. “You should have heard what he called me before you got here.”
Dick frowns. “I’ll talk to him again.”
“Don’t,” Tim mutters resentfully. “I can handle it.”
“Okay,” Dick acquiesces. He doesn't have it in him to fight with Tim on top of everything else, all that unsaid baggage teetering precariously under the weight of the lightest conversation, nevermind one centering around Damian. “A case, you said?”
“Yeah.” Tim slides his chair sideways, making room for Dick to lean over the monitor. “Drugs running over to Metropolis; Clark asked us to take a look.”
Dick raises an eyebrow. “Clark did, huh?”
Tim pinks. “He said I could call him Clark.”
Dick ruffles his hair. “Baby’s growing up,” he croons, and snickers when Tim slaps at his hand.
“Shut up. Are you going to help me or not?”
Dick makes an agreeable noise, frowning slightly as he concentrates on the casefile Tim pulls up for him. It’s surprisingly sparse for a file Tim’s put together; the only one more thorough than Tim is Bruce. “This is all you have?”
Tim’s mouth twists unhappily. “I could use the help.”
Dick hums, straightening and stretching his shoulder out with a pop. “We’ll swing out to the ‘Haven tonight, if B can spare you.”
“He can spare me,” Tim says, and the confidence makes Dick ruffle his hair again. “Dick,” he complains, swatting at him, and Dick withdraws, grinning.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll tell Bruce we’re splitting off tonight.”
“You should eat something too,” Tim says absently, attention redirected back to the computer screen.
Dick pauses. “Oh?”
“You’re down fifteen pounds,” Tim says, still distracted.
His tone finally permeates Tim’s concentration, his fingers slowing and then stilling on the keyboard. He half turns in his chair, face carefully blank. “I don’t mean to nag.”
Dick’s jaw tightens. “Not on you to keep tabs on me, Timmy.” He’s trying not to be angry, but he doesn’t think he’s managing it.
Tim’s tense, his face inscrutable but his posture knotted up and his muscles clenched. “Well--” he starts, tone rising before smoothing out again. “You are,” he says, holding his ground. “Did you honestly think we wouldn’t notice?”
Underneath the stubbornness, he’s uncertain, eyes a little too steeled, spine a little too stiff. Despite himself, Dick softens. “You’re spending too much time alone with Bruce,” he says, risking a featherlight touch to Tim’s shoulder.
“Who else would I spend it with?” Tim asks, and he’s more wry than accusing, but it cuts all the same. “Damian?”
“I know I haven’t been around,” Dick says, through the guilt. He forces levity into his tone. “But I'm back now, and we’ve got a case! Working together again, it’ll be good.”
“Yes,” Tim says, and he’s relaxed into the touch but his eyes remain averted, shadowed by the dim light of the cave. “You’re back now.”
“B,” Dick says, sticking his head into the top floor corner office the following day. “You busy?”
“I’m always busy,” Bruce says, and it’s with that brightness, that cloying fakeness he puts on when he’s Brucie Wayne, the lost boy who won’t grow up. “But never too busy for you!”
Dick hides a grimace. It’s a particularly uninspired showing of Brucie, which means Bruce is actually in a terrible mood. “Hiya fellas,” he says, with his own rakish charm, carefully calculated since his first ever Wayne Gala, aged eight.
The two men in business suits look unimpressed with his sudden appearance at Wayne Enterprises. The third, in a much fancier suit, is Oliver Queen, and his face is inscrutable.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” Bruce is saying, and his tone is politely easygoing, but his jaw is too tense, his eyes too sharp. “Let’s reconvene tomorrow at the club for lunch?”
Oliver lingers as the others file out of the office. “It’s good to see you again, Dick,” he says, and reaches out like he’s thinking about patting Dick’s arm. Then he winces, dropping his hand and following the rest of the men into the elevator.
Dick watches them go, bemused. “What was that about?”
Bruce makes a dissimissive noise, Brucie’s mannerisms falling away and leaving him hunched up in his fancy ergonomic office chair, brooding out the massive floor-to-ceiling windows. “He’s trying to be more responsible.”
Bruce grunts. “And Lian, this time, I think.”
Dick hums agreeably. “There are worse reasons to put in an effort.”
Bruce’s eyes focus on him, sharp and thoughtful. “I agree. Do you need me?”
Dick blinks. “What?”
“Do you need me,” Bruce repeats. He doesn’t smile, but his mouth softens at the corners. “I can’t remember the last time you came here of your own volition.”
“Oh, right.” Dick grins, flopping over onto the king sized plush couch against the far wall. Bruce’s offices are always so cushy. “I didn’t want you to think I’d ever be a good candidate to take over the company.”
Bruce snorts. “Lucius would resign on the spot.”
“And you’ve got Tim now anyway.” Dick fishes his phone out of his pocket, starting up Candy Crush and cranking the volume.
Bruce’s eye twitches when the theme song kicks on. “Tim has done good work at the company,” he offers stiltedly, and Dick cranes his head around, swinging his legs up to drape over the back of the sofa as he lies upside down. “Damian’s grades are sufficiently high.”
It almost sounds like Bruce is trying to make small talk. Dick blinks at him. Then he flickers the fingers of his left hand, hanging down from the sofa, in a deliberate gesture. It's a code and a question all in one.
Bruce's expression goes even more pinched. "There’s no security breach," he answers directly. “You can speak freely.”
“You’re the one acting weird.”
Bruce’s mouth twists into a scowl, which is much more standard. He stands, abrupt, and stalks for the door. “You’re helping Tim tonight.” It’s said as a statement, which is Bruce’s preferred method of asking a question.
Dick pokes at the screen of his phone, half-heartedly swiping his way through the level. “In the ‘Haven, unless there’s something up tonight and you need us.”
Bruce grunts, lingering at the doorway. Then he scowls again, more directly.
Dick doesn’t look up from his phone. “Use your words, old man.”
Dick looks up. “What?”
Bruce is still scowling, that odd half-pinched one that means he’s feeling awkward, his shoulders hunched up and his posture painfully rigid. “Lunch, Dick. I’m inviting you to lunch.”
“Oh. Yeah, sure.” Dick closes the game with a flick of his fingers; he does a handstand on the way to his feet, just to make Bruce relax a little, roll his eyes and sigh heavily. “You can adopt the boy out of the circus and put him in knife-resistant tights, but you can’t take the circus out of the boy.”
“You chose the tights,” Bruce reminds him as they walk towards the elevator. “When I had Alfred make you pants you threw them and the designs into the chasm.”
Dick waits for the doors to shut. “That’s your own fault for having a chasm in the first place. Who has a chasm in the basement?”
“Where else would you hide your post patrol carrots?”
Dick grins again. “Ah, so you did notice.”
“Everyone noticed, you were shockingly unsubtle.”
The doors ding and they stroll out into the lobby, Bruce smiling and nodding as they pass various employees. “I thought the bats would eat them,” Dick murmurs lowly out of the corner of his mouth.
Bruce’s smile, plastic and uncanny valley fake, cracks around the edges. “Of course you did,” he says quietly, and his hand is fond on Dick’s back as he guides him through the front doors to the parking lot. He spins a keyfob around his index finger, then offers it to Dick. “You always had an eye for Porsches.”
Dick’s eyebrow raises. “You’re not going to ask me to go undercover again, are you?” Bruce looks disgruntled. He starts to withdraw his hand and Dick snatches up the keys before they’re out of range. “I’m surprised you remember,” Dick says cheerfully, running a fingertip over the edge of the plastic. “What’s one case of your ward joyriding when you fight the forces of darkness every night?”
“I have an excellent memory,” Bruce says, drier than anything, and it is that special brand of trying that pokes up out of the general… Bruceness that Dick misses, when he allows himself to miss anything about Batman.
“Oh yeah,” Dick says, sliding into the driver’s seat and turning the engine over to feel it thrum to life beneath him. “Is there anything better?”
“I’m partial to the Cadillac,” Bruce says mildly. “It’s a classic.”
Dick rolls his eyes. “Even at thirteen I knew better than to steal your old man’s car.”
Bruce doesn’t start, because he very rarely outwardly exhibits surprise when he isn’t deliberately doing so, but his eyebrow twitches up. “I never told you that was my father’s car.”
Dick pulls out into Gotham traffic, the start and stop of it keeping him occupied on the clutch. “Don’t you know yet, B? It’s always been about what you don’t say.”
Bruce is quiet all the way to the restaurant.
“Uncle Dick,” Lian screeches, with the full decibel power of a little girl’s lungs, and undoes her carseat with two presses of her fingers before flinging herself out of the car window while it’s still moving.
Dick leaps the distance from the front steps to the driveway, catching her midair and swooping her around. “Hey, you little gremlin, you’re gonna kill your dad with that one of these days.”
“Goddamn it,” Roy screeches in the background, flinging the driver’s side door open as he slams the car into park. “Lian!!”
Lian giggles into Dick’s neck, then leans back to pat his cheek with her small palm. “But if you don’t catch me, mommy will kill you.”
“Well,” Dick says, charmed despite the threat, or perhaps because of it. “I’ll just have to make sure I never miss.”
“Dick,” Roy grumbles in greeting. “Thank you for saving the fruit of my loins.” He scoops her out of Dick’s arms, turning her upside down as she giggles. “Gremlin.”
“I brought cake,” Dick tells them as they start walking up to the door. He picks up the white takeout box from where it’s sitting on the stoop. “From Lucio’s.”
“Lucio’s,” Lian crows, making grabby hands for the box. “That’s where Grandpa Ollie goes when Dinah yells at him.”
Roy bats her away from the box, turning her upside down again to distract her while he gets the door open. Then he sets her gently on her feet. “Go wash up, munchkin.”
She pauses, eyes narrowed. “And then cake?”
“Dinner,” Roy says indulgently, smoothing her braid. “And then cake.”
“Cake,” Lian cheers, and races off down the hallway towards the bathroom.
Dick smiles, watching her go. “No ‘Grandma’ Dinah?”
Roy snorts. “Try it and see how fast she hands your ass to you.”
“Gothamite,” Dick reminds him cheerfully, “I was fighting Granny when I was shorter than Lian.”
“Yes,” Roy says, in an odd tone, “exactly.” He goes into the kitchen, Dick trailing, and takes down three plates from a cabinet. “What do you want?”
“Can’t I just drop by and see my goddaughter?”
Roy does laugh then, genuine, and he throws a bag of bread over his shoulder without looking, knowing Dick will catch it. “Pull the other one. You know you’re not her godfather.”
Dick gasps, dramatically betrayed. “Oliver?”
Roy rolls his eyes. “Make yourself a sandwich and cut the cake, Boy Blunder. We’ll talk after Lian goes to bed.”
“She’s a good kid,” Dick says, after Lian’s had her cake and her face washed and two stories and then one more and has finally passed out cold, lying upside down on her bed with one leg dangling off the edge.
Roy tucks the pillow under her head, gently lifts her leg back onto the mattress and tucks the blanket up around her chin. “The best.”
They creep out of her room, leaving the door open a crack and the hall light on, and slump onto Roy’s couch, shoulder to shoulder. “I’d offer you a beer,” Roy says, “but it’s a dry house.”
“What you said,” Dick says suddenly, “about--about how we don’t…” he trails off, searching for the words he’d planned out.
“Show up to each other’s houses for dinner and a hangout?”
“We used to.” Dick tips his head back onto the back of the couch, sighing at the ceiling. “Remember?”
“Sure. Alfred was always a better cook than whoever hadn’t quit after extended contact with Oliver.”
“Aw,” Dick says. “I thought you and Ollie were good now.”
Roy shrugs. “Yeah, sure. That doesn’t mean I won’t call him out. Dinah says we keep him humble.”
“I saw him, earlier. Bruce and I did lunch--Oliver was at the offices.”
“Ah,” Roy says. “Now I get it. You saw Ollie, you had extended normal time with Bruce, you ran here to process your feelings because I get it.”
Dick cranes his neck around, faintly sulky. “‘It’?’
“Mhm, it. You know any other people who grew up wards of rich socialites with emotional issues?”
“I have like, six siblings.”
Roy rolls his eyes. “So go bother your basement goblin.”
“Hey,” Dick says loyally, “Tim’s alright.”
“But you did know I was talking about Tim,” Roy shoots back. “Out of your established cheaper-by-the-dozen batbrood, you knew exactly who I was--”
Dick tackles him off the sofa and they scrap on the floor like they’re twelve again, fingernails and dirty hits and playground insults. “Tim’s,” Dick grunts, “already graduated college, which is more than I can say for either of us--”
“Ooh,” Roy mocks from where Dick is grinding his face into the rug. He throws an elbow into Dick’s solar plexus, unbalancing him, “A prodigy college grad, that’s so incredibly cool and not at all nerdy--”
Dick regains his center and does something clever and anatomically improbable, flipping Roy onto his belly and sitting on his back. “Say Uncle Clark.”
Roy flails. “Never, circus freak, not all of us needed secondary father figures.”
Dick scoffs, then licks his index finger and sticks it into Roy’s left ear.
“Gross,” Roy complains. “Get off me, not everyone is desperate to--” His jaw snaps shut, wincing as he feels Dick go still and tense above him. “Dick--”
“It’s fine.” Dick rolls off, onto his feet.
Roy sighs, then sits up but doesn’t stand, arms looped loosely around his knees. “Dick.”
“I let myself in, earlier.” Dick shifts on his feet, uneasy and hiding it poorly. “Your sink needed snaking, and there was a racoon out back--”
Dick stops. “Excuse me?”
“Lian calls him--her, maybe, I don’t know--Mr. Sneakers.” Roy squints at him. “What… did you do?”
Dick looks shifty.
“Unbelievable,” Roy grumbles, “I can’t believe I have to make up some story about a racoon farm out in the country, all because you got hopped up on Boy Scout and--”
“I didn’t kill it,” Dick protests. “Just relocated.”
Roy sighs again. “Sure, of course, because bats don’t kill.”
Dick is silent; his hand, dangingling at his side, trembles as he curls it into a fist. “Right,” he says distantly, eyes glassy. “Bats don’t kill.”
“I should go,” Dick says, but he doesn’t move. “I’m meeting Tim.”
“Sit down for a minute,” Roy says carefully. “Lemme get the rest of that cake wrapped up for you.”
“It’s for Lian,” Dick says, still in that same awfully flat voice. “I got it, I got it for her--”
Roy slips to his feet, hand gentle on Dick’s shoulder. “Sure, okay. But still, let’s sit for a second. Tell me about where you’re meeting Tim.”
“Timmy,” Dick mumbles, but he lets Roy guide him gently back into a sitting position on the sofa. “We’re going into the ‘Haven tonight.”
“Are you,” Roy says sharply. “That’s--” he stops himself. “Interesting. You haven’t been back since…?”
“Yes.” Dick breathes: in through his nose, out through his mouth. “There’s a case, Tim asked me to help.”
“Ah, I see.” Roy crouches in front of him, eyes sharp. There’s a buzzing in Dick’s ears, starting low and getting louder. “And then Bruce took you to lunch. Did he rent out a room?”
“No, we went--to Batburger.”
Roy’s eyebrow raises. “Batman likes Batburger?”
“Batman hates Batburger.”
“Right,” Roy says, “that makes more sense. But he took you, so…” he trails off.
Dick is silent.
“Hey,” Roy says, reaching out and gripping Dick’s knee. “Gimme something here, not all of us are the world’s best detectives.”
“He let me drive,” Dick clarifies. “The Porsche.”
Roy is quiet for another minute. “I understand,” he says finally. “And you knew I would.”
“So you came over with Lian’s favourite cake and you cleaned out my sink and de-verminned my yard and waited for me.”
“Jesus,” Roy says with a sigh. He stands, scrubbing a hand over his face. “And now you’re going back to Bludhaven.”
Dick’s fingers clench again. His ears aren’t buzzing so bad anymore, it’s no longer difficult to understand what Roy’s saying. “I have to,” he says, and a quiet calm slips over him, stilling his fingers and his quicksilver thoughts. “There’s a case; Tim needs me.”
He stands, feeling in control, if slightly outside himself, and is surprised when Roy grabs his elbow hard, yanking him close and getting right up in his face. “You listen,” Roy says, “you’re not her godfather but you better not walk into my daughter’s house and read her bedtime stories and promise to come back with pictures from the circus and--” Roy makes an inarticulate sound, furious. “And tell me you wish we’d---you don’t get to do all that and then walk out the door to die in the ‘Haven.”
“I wish we’d what?” Dick asks. His tone is calm, and even, just like his head. He likes it, likes it better than the swimming vision and the nightsweats and the shaking hands and his trembling voice, and if being hollow is the trade for all the weakness burning out, that’s alright. He can take it.
Roy blinks. “What?”
“What you said that I wished we’d… what? What do you think I came here to tell you?” Dick spreads his hands out, puzzled. “I can’t bring your kid some cake? I held her the night she was born.”
Roy’s mouth twists, ugly and unhappy. “So that’s how it’s gonna be.”
“Roy,” Dick says, still in that flat calm affect. “If I overstepped, I--”
“Shut up, Dick,” Roy snaps. “And get the hell out. Come back when you’re done lying to yourself.”
Dick goes. He shuts the door carefully behind him.
It’s a cold night in Bludhaven, and the air is thick with damp. It seeps through the material of their suits, chilling their skin and making the wind bite sharper. Tim hasn’t complained, but he’s tucked underneath his cape more than he usually might be, and Dick knows he only has another few hours before he starts visibly shivering himself. His hair, unlike Tim’s, lacks the covering of a hood, and it’s limp, falling into his eyes.
He’d expected Tim to take the lead--Tim’s always been possessive of his cases, and only more so as he’s grown older and self-assured--but Tim hangs back once they hit the factory district, letting Dick lead them over the rooftops to the first location.
Dick curls himself around a dilapidated smokestack, slowing his momentum. He hears Tim land behind him with a gentle thump, soft-footed but not as cat-quiet as Bruce or Cass. “Tell me why?”
Tim draws closer. “Why what?”
“Why here, that’s why. Talk it out, explain it to me, you’ll hit something you missed before.”
“You sound like Bruce when you do that,” Tim grumbles, but he huddles closer to Dick’s body warmth. “Drugs,” he summarizes.
“Be specific.” Tim cuts him an unamused look and Dick grins. “Just giving you a hard time.”
“Drugs,” Tim repeats, his tone deliberately vague, and Dick smiles again. “Superman is handling them on the receiving end, but he asked me to take a look at the supply chain running back through Gotham and the ‘Haven. The Lieutenants carry tablets, laptops, and we’re hoping a hack on one can give us some higher ups in the organization.”
Dick cuts him a sharp look. “Superman asked you directly? Not through Bruce?”
“Yeah.” Tim squints at the crumbling buildings in front of them. “This is the hottest spot in Bludhaven?”
“Bristol-born sob,” Dick sighs, and Tim rolls his eyes under the lenses of his hood. “And yeah, it is, although to be honest the working factories in the ‘Haven look about the same.”
A piece of brick crumbles from a far wall and lands in the river with a splash.
“Charming,” Tim says dryly. “Thoughts?”
“It’s Thursday,” Dick says, thinking aloud. “Not a bad day for play, but not the hottest either, not this time of year.”
“I do hope you didn’t drag us out here in this weather just to look at the river.”
Dick loops an arm around Tim’s neck, dragging him close and watching their breaths puff out white and fluffy into the cold air. “You need to make some friends of your own, kiddo. That was Agent A straight from my childhood.”
He’s expecting more eye-rolling, maybe a lighthearted brotherly shove, but instead Tim jerks away from him, almost violently. “Jesus Christ, Dick, would you just cut it out already?”
Dick blinks, nonplussed. He’s so surprised he doesn’t even admonish Tim for names in the field. “What--”
Tim scoffs, glaring. Then he drops off the roof, firing his grappling gun in the same motion and swinging away.
“Somehow,” Dick muses to himself, “I don’t think this is the usual little brother ennui.” He goes up on his toes once, cracking his spine, then follows Tim’s route into the dark.
“Two on the back, three in the front in the SUV,” Tim says, as soon as Dick finds him lurking in a shadow near the waterfront.
“Is there,” Dick responds dryly. “So we’re not going to talk about it?”
“I’d love to talk about it,” Tim says tartly. Then he throws himself forward. “Let’s go.”
“Right,” Dick says to the empty spot where Tim used to be. “Not talking right now though, I guess.”
He lingers just a smidge, hangs back just a little, lets Tim take out his apparent frustrations on a few low level drug smugglers. Tim goes good work, such a difference from the small hunching boy with moppy black hair who turned up on Dick’s doorstep and begged him to be Robin again. Feels like a lifetime ago, Dick thinks. Maybe even two.
“We’re done here,” Tim snaps, smashing the window of a nearby SUV. He reaches through it and retrieves a laptop, tucking it against his side. “Let’s go.”
“You’re the boss,” Dick says evenly, and Tim shoots him a little snotty glare, pure teenaged anger.
“Whatever,” he growls, and grapples away.
Dick follows close on his heels, turning into the swing of his arc, effortless against Tim’s careful control. “You sound just like him when you say that,” he says, and Tim throws the laptop at him mid air. He catches it, then does a somersault in midair just to see Tim glower at his flourish.
“So,” he says carefully, after they’ve reconvened back in the Batcave and he’s hooking up the laptop to the main computer. “I’m sensing some unresolved tension between us.”
Tim, hunched glumly against a nearby stalactite, sighs. “I’m sorry,” he says grudgingly. “I didn’t mean to let it show like that.”
“Nobody’s Bruce,” Dick offers, shifting his body to make room for Tim to stand closer. Tim hesitates, lingering out of reach. Dick pulls his saddest puppy face, and Tim folds with a sigh, shuffling in and tucking his shoulder under Dick’s arm. Dick pulls him closer with a fond tug at Tim’s cape. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” Tim says, after a pause.
Dick waits, patient.
“It’s just,” Tim starts, barely two seconds later, “do you remember when you took me train riding?”
“Yeah,” Dick says, tone going fond. Tim two feet shorter than he is now, the quiet mop haired slip of a boy swallowed up by the Robin cape, trying so hard just on the strength of his belief that Batman needed him. “You screamed real cute.”
“Fuck you,” Tim says, without heat. “Do you remember what you told me?”
Dick hesitates. He remembers Tim’s shining eyes the first time he stuck a landing on his own, the way his smile transformed his face. But the actual words? Dick was running on three hours of sleep, four active Titans crises, a two hour screaming match with Bruce, and his own drowning guilt about Jason. “I drop a lot of wisdom on the younger generations, Timbers, you’re gonna have to get more specific.”
“You told me not to be afraid to ask for help. That it was a showing of strength, not weakness, and any Leaguer worth their membership knows we’re stronger together.”
That, Dick actually does remember. He’d been thinking of Jason, run off to the desert by himself because he didn’t trust anyone to go with him and watch his back. “Good advice. I stand by it.”
“Do you follow it?”
Dick steps back, letting his arm fall and the contact break. “Okay, Tim, enough. Either air it right now, or bury it.”
Tim’s shoulder’s square. “Fine. Let’s air it. What the hell is wrong with you?”
Dick blinks. “What? Nothing--”
“Shut up,” Tim snaps. He scrubs his hand over his face. “I’ve been reading your mission reports going back eight months, I’ve been hacking your communications with Barbara--”
“You’ve been what--”
“And it doesn’t add up, none of it adds up.” Tim yanks his cowl off, letting it fall, and drags a hand through his hair, the cowlicks staying stuck up in its wake. “This isn’t how you’ve responded to trauma before, it doesn’t match any of the aftermath of bad Titans missions, or even death--”
“Tim,” Dick says, but Tim just gets louder.
“There’s little data on the Two Face incident, but I haven’t ruled out childhood trauma resurfacing, the problem is that you had so much--”
“Tim,” Dick says firmly, and takes him by the shoulders. “Snap out of it, kid. You’re not making any sense.”
“Ten months ago,” Tim says, slow and steady, not looking away. “Haly’s Circus burned down while you were in attendance. Barbara broke up with you, your apartment building exploded, and Blockbuster was killed by your Bludhaven protege.”
Sweat trickles down Dick’s spine, cold and pricking. “Tim,” he says warningly.
“You went off the grid, during which there was a two week period where Oracle was convinced you had died, before returning with textbook PTSD symptoms--”
“Okay,” Dick says, hiding the shake in his voice and forcing a lightness into his tone. “That’s not fair, we all have PTSD symptoms. Damian was born with PTSD symptoms. Hell, he was conceived by them.”
Tim jerks out of his grip, frustration writ across his face. “I just don’t understand,” he says, and he doesn’t sound like he’s rattling off facts anymore, he sounds like that teenager who hitchhiked to Bludhaven just to find Dick, like the little kid who asked Dick to sign his program the night his parents died. “I don’t understand why you won’t let us help you.”
Dick blinks again, blindsided twice in a ten minute period. “I…” he trails off helplessly. “Tim, it’s…”
“Tim,” Bruce says, from the shadows near the stairs. “Go upstairs.”
Tim’s face twists, mulish. “I’m not done.”
“Now,” Bruce says sharply, and Tim only glowers for another second, fists clenched, before storming up the stairs, his shoulder knocking hard against Bruce’s as he passes.
Dick spares Bruce a single look, assessing, before he bends over the computer, fingers tapping away at the keyboard.
“He’s right; it’s gone on long enough,” Bruce says from behind him, but Dick doesn’t turn or acknowledge him. “It’s time now, Dick.”
“Tim’s just like you,” Dick says, navigating through directories with rapid clicks. “But not as practiced yet.” He finds it, hidden behind three false walls and a redirect virus: a single file, unnamed. “No one remembers I was the hack before Babs came around, huh?”
“Tim started a file because he was worried about you,” Bruce says, sidestepping the tangent and going straight for the source. “Because he can tell something is wrong with you.”
“Maybe there’s something wrong with me,” Dick snaps back, “because a house of detectives is keeping secret files on my emotional state.”
“That’s always been true, and you've never acted this way before.”
Dick stops, straightening. He presses his hand flat on the desk until it creaks from the pressure. “No, Bruce. That hasn’t always been true.” He didn’t always live in Wayne Manor, he didn’t always have a black credit card for emergencies and didn’t used to have nightmares about clowns.
“Of course,” Bruce says quietly, after a short pause. “I apologize.”
Do you Dick thinks meanly. Sometimes it seems like Bruce only understands trauma if it directly mirrors his own.
“Damian’s noticed too,” Bruce continues, and Dick scowls. So much for backing off.
“So explain it to him.” Dick clicks the file, opening it, and starts to skim. A lot of it is summary, and he’s used to reading Tim’s notes, practiced at following his thought patterns. Something niggles at his brain, something missing, and he turns it over in his brain, picking at it like a scab.
Meanwhile, Bruce is still talking. “--looks up to you, depends on you.”
“Then maybe you should try raising him,” Dick says shortly. “Since he’s your son, and I’m not.”
It shuts Bruce up long enough for Dick to finish reading the file, and to realize why something about it isn’t quite right. “You,” Dick says quietly, and then swallows. “You bastard.”
Bruce doesn’t pretend to misunderstand him. “You’ve always adhered yourself to responsibility.”
Bruce meets Dick’s fury without blinking, face expressionless and voice ruthlessly calm. “I told you I would resort to underhanded means if you didn’t--”
“I did,” Dick explodes, throwing his hands wide and spinning on his heel. He drags his hands through his hair, hard enough to hurt, then shades his eyes with his palm, frustrated and exhausted and strung out too far, stretched like taffy and snapping instead of regaining shape.
It's hard to dredge up the anger when Dick is feeling mostly hollow, but if anyone could do it, it's Bruce. Making up a case--with a connection to Superman to lend it credulity--it's exactly what he should have suspected, and yet he finds himself blindsided once more. “I came back, I did what you wanted, what you asked for.” He slumps against the wall, tired to his bones. “I always do what you ask.”
Dick blinks, jarred out of his melancholy by confusion. “What?”
“Lucille Aguilar, junior at Gotham Preparatory Academy, six arrests for underage drinking and use of a restricted substance. She threw a party you attended. During patrol. In costume.”
“Oh,” Dick says, because of course, how quickly he’s forgotten. Without his job on the police force or friends outside the cape community, he feels more and more like Dick Grayson doesn’t exist. The realization chills him: if Dick Grayson is faded away and Nightwing is useless, what else is there? “You remember,” he adds unnecessarily; Batman always remembers.
“You took a selfie with the mayor’s nephew.”
Dick’s lips twitch, despite himself, remembering watching Bruce see the picture posted online. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a human actually turn purple before. Not without a little help from Ivy or something, anyway.”
Bruce’s eyebrow lifts almost imperceptibly. “Clark called to question my competency as a legal guardian.”
Dick doesn’t physically startle, but it’s a near thing. “What?”
“You were twelve, Dick, and I’m Bruce Wayne. Of course Clark called. He lectured me on the rise of vaping in the nation’s youth.”
“Oh,” Dick says, another memory coming back to him. “I traded my autograph for cartridges. My--my mom… she hated smoking, I would never.”
“I didn’t know that,” Bruce says, as mildly as he ever gets. “My father smoked, occasionally: cigars. I remember him telling me it was a secret, just between us.” He pauses. “A secret between father and son.”
Dick is silent, breath held, deliberately still. Bruce so rarely talks about his father, and it’s so strange, this conversation, its twists and turns. A confrontation flipped back and forth, and now childhood reminiscing and all the minefields it holds for people like them.
“He said doctors are the worst liars, about their health.’
“Nah,” Dick says. He’s known how to soften Bruce’s quiet expressions of hurt since he was nine years old. “It was genetic, that’s all. Matches oughta thank him.”
They share a smile, almost more surprised than mirthful, the quiet depth of their understanding. When’s the last time, Dick thinks, that he teased Bruce like this, without a darker undercurrent. He’s not sure--he thinks maybe it was before Jason died, but maybe not even then.
“I never,” Bruce says, thoughtfully and carefully, like he’s trying to be kind, “should have asked you to be Batman.”
In a way, Dick thinks suddenly, it would have been kinder if Bruce had shot him. He wouldn’t have heard it coming.
His right hook cracks across Bruce’s cheek, the outside of his knuckle bruising against the edge of the cowl. Bruce doesn’t raise his hands to block the blow, but he retreats before Dick can punch him again, slipping out of distance just a hair faster than Dick is closing on him. “Dick!”
I never should have asked you to be Batman
Dick shifts his stance, going for a series of low kicks followed by a handspring into an armbar. It’s sloppy, enough that he notes it, distantly in the corner of his mind that’s still thinking clearly. Too frenzied, too telegraphed, fueled entirely by rage and emotion and none of what Bruce’s spent a lifetime teaching him.
“Dick,” Bruce says again, his voice raised beyond his normal furious growl. He’s still only blocking, retreating, moving out the way of Dick’s attacks rather than returning or diverting them. “Stop.”
“Why?” Dick asks, and he barely recognizes his own voice: it’s come out flat, horribly so, listless and unanimated, entirely disinterested and disconnected from the rest of him. “Isn’t this what you want? Azrael instead of Nightwing?”
It’s enough for Bruce to meet his next punch directly, moving into an armbar that Dick has to flip off the wall to escape from. Bruce grabs him by the collar, reaching up as he ducks into an aerial somersault over Bruce’s head, the thick blunt gloved fingers of his gauntlet digging into the fabric of the Nightwing suit. He throws Dick across the room and Dick turns into the momentum, landing in a controlled slide.
He stands, fists clenched, chest heaving. “Should have been him, right? Should have left him that video will instead of me, should have left him to raise your son and wear your cowl and own your city.” He tilts his head. “He did try to kill Tim, but why should that be a deterrent? Should have let Jason wear the cape, if that’s the common thread. Tim can take it.”
“That’s not what I said,” Bruce snaps, visibly furious. “Stop this at once and talk to me.”
Dick laughs, jagged and broken; an ugly sound that makes almost makes Bruce flinch. “What’s there to talk about?” He spreads his hands. “I’m not your Robin anymore.”
Bruce does flinch, then. Distantly, Dick thinks he ought to feel more about that than he does.
The keys to Tim’s bike are lying on a desktop just within reach. He snatches them up, triggers all three smoke bombs he carries on his utility belt, and roars out of the cave before Bruce can stop him.
Dick sits atop a skyscraper, legs dangling over the edge. Slowly, the buzzing in his ears fades away. He’s out on the edges of Gotham, but too tired to ditch the suit and the trackers within. If they want to come find him, it won’t take them long.
His comm clicks twice, speak of the devil, and he sighs. “I’m fine, O.”
Barbara makes a disbelieving noise. She’s probably already viewed the footage from the Cave.
“You got a case for me?”
Barbara’s silence is so pointed it could draw blood. Dick winces. “You’re in no condition to be out,” she says finally. “Are you going to come back or do I have to make you?”
Dick sighs. He looks down at the drop, stories and stories high; he hasn’t had a stomach flip from height induced vertigo since his first time out after his parents died. His mouth is fuzzy, dry and sour, and there’s a headache pounding at his temples and behind his eyes. His back hurts where Bruce grabbed him.
“You’re no good like this,” Barbara says, and she means it gentle but it makes Dick flinch.
“Okay,” he says quietly. “You’re right.” He’s no good like this, no good for Gotham, no use to Bruce. He’s thinking about Detroit again when Barbara starts to hum. It takes him a few seconds to place it. “Careless Whisper? Not exactly what they’d play at the Delphi.”
“I’m not up on my Ancient Greek chants,” she says dryly.
“B is, I heard Diana correct his accent once.”
“B can stuff it,” she says tartly. Her tone softens. “Come over tonight, Boy Blunder. Take a break from the Bat.”
Dick half-smiles, chuffing out something that’s almost a laugh. “You know better than that.”
She scoffs. “Let him try. I got your back.”
“You always have.” Dick pushes off the ledge, enjoying the drop of the free fall. He turns lazily onto his back to watch the clouds, the wind whipping through his hair. “You got a remote lock on my grappler?”
“Do I need to?”
Dick waits another second, then one more. His grappling gun, in his left hand, beeps, a red light blinking as Oracle’s software boots up. He smiles. “No.” The gun barks as it fires, and he turns into the arc and to swoop sideways between two office buildings. Almost like flying, just like he remembers it except no one’s waiting to catch him.
He takes the landing hard, shoulder rolling on a rooftop and bouncing to his feet. He’ll bruise later from it, but only just. For now the impact feels good, smarting and solid and fading to a comfortable ache. He stretches, finding the position that hurts and holding it until his muscles spasm once and then relax. “I’m on my way.”
“ETA?” she asks, and her voice is tight and thinly constrained.
He tilts his head. “You okay?”
“Oh shut up, Dick,” she says, and hangs up before he can scold her for names in the field.
The clock tower is dark from the outside, like it always is, but he crawls through the roof access and into the gentle glow of Barbara’s screens. The security system beeps, recognizing him, and he finds Barbara in the kitchen. There’s a microwave meal steaming from its black plastic container at the seat across from her, but he lingers in the doorway, uncertain.
“Step out of the shadows,” she tells him, “you look dumb as hell just standing there.”
He smiles. “What would my confidence do without you?”
“The world will never have to know.” She turns in her chair, letting the wheels rock her slightly. “Come eat something.”
“See,” he says, perching in the chair on his feet instead of sitting regularly. “If we’d ended up together we’d have gotten sick of Stouffer’s and starved to death.”
“Be it that Stouffer’s would be the extent of our issues,” she shoots back.
“Mm,” he says, exaggerated. “Mac and cheese. My favourite.”
“Hm,” is all she has to add, but she watches to make sure he’s eating and not just moving the noodles around. “That’s not why,” she adds, after he’s choked down half of it.
“Not why we’re not together.”
Dick winces. “I know.”
“Do you want to talk about the real reason?”
Dick stabs the fork into the side of the dish, moody and not bothering to hide it. “Not really.”
“Okay.” She props a tablet in her lap, her fingers flicking across the touchscreen.
Dick pauses. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” she says without looking at him. “Not if you’re not up for it.”
She’s serious, Dick realizes. She has no intention of pressing the matter, of making him talk, of asking him questions he’s not ready to answer. The relief swamps him, overpowers him. He sways in his seat.
Barbara looks up. “Dick?”
“I…” he swallows, jagged and harsh; an unforgivable tell. “I,” he starts again, and then melts, flowing off the chair onto the floor.
He hears her chair squeak, and then whir. Her tone shifts to alarmed. “Dick?”
He stumbles to her on his knees, his fingers curling around her thin ankles, his head against the inside of her leg, back bowed. He feels her hesitate, and then her fingers, careful and gentle, running through his hair. “I got you,” she murmurs.
“Gotham can rot,” he chokes out, and presses his cheek against the stiff denim inseam of her jeans.
“Yes,” she agrees softly, and it is a lie, Dick knows it is, if it came down to his wellbeing or the greater good of the city she’d pick Gotham every time. So would he.
But that doesn’t matter, not in this moment, and he leans his temple against her knee and breathes, in and out, until the trembling in his muscles eases and he’s left wrung out and exhausted, crumpled on the concrete floor.
“Come on,” she says quietly, and curls her fingers around his, raising his hand and kissing the inside of his wrist. “It’s time for bed.”
Her sheets are clean and the pillow smells like her shampoo and she lets him curl up into a little ball on the mattress under a fleece throw. He sleeps deeply and doesn’t dream.
Cassandra watches him cook breakfast. “I forgot you got one of your own,” he says, flipping the eggs over in the skillet.
Barbara, already three cups of coffee deep into hacking the Pentagon at the kitchen table, snorts. “Don’t start.”
“Just saying. You’re taking the Batmentorship more seriously than the rest of us. And you’re younger than Bruce was when he took me in.”
“Obviously,” she says, looking up with a sly sort of smile playing around her mouth. “It was to show dominance.”
He laughs, barefoot and shirtless and tipping scrambled eggs onto three plates. “Kid,” he says, and Cassandra’s eyes sharpen on him. “First pick.”
She surveys the three plates solemnly. Then she reaches into a cupboard and retrieves a box of cereal. Her pajama pants flutter when she crawls out the window.
“Harsh,” Dick comments. He grabs two of the plates and ambles to the table, dropping one to the side of Barbara’s laptop.
“She likes to eat on the roof.” Barbara closes the laptop with a snap and pushes it aside. “Hey,” she says, and her smile eases something inside him. “Look at this. No Stouffer’s.”
“Not for my best girl.” Dick passes her the ketchup. “How long are you gonna let me hide out here?”
“How long are you going to keep your shirt off?” She winks at him.
He grins at her with his mouth full, and it’s almost normal, her wrinkle-nose of disgust and her rolled eyes and their elbows knocking together. “B blow up your line yet?”
“No one blows up my line unless I let them.” She spoons the rest of her eggs onto his plate. He shoots her a look. “I don’t go for the waif-look, Robin. Eat up.”
“Anything to look good for you, B.G.” Despite the teasing, warm and familiar and home, he’s only able to eat a few more bites before pushing the plate aside. He sees her eyes track it, but she doesn’t comment.
“The night,” Barbara says, and her voice is calm and even and sure. Dick tenses. “That night, at my apartment.”
“Shut up, I’m talking now.” She sighs. “I told myself I wouldn’t push you, and I won’t.” The ‘for now’ echoes in the silence between them, understood. “But there’s things I have to say.”
Dick exhales, scratching a fingertip against the tabletop. “Okay.”
“I’m sorry I kicked you out.”
Dick shakes his head, refusing. He knows she’d never, if she’d known the whole of it instead of the jagged pieces Catalina was feeding her. If Dick had realized he’d been being played like a fool since the start. “I understand--”
“Still talking, not done.”
Dick’s mouth snaps shut.
Barbara’s silent for a few seconds. “Actually, this is awkward, I think I was done.”
Dick’s smile breaks like a sunrise, slow and creeping and then wide and flooding. He pulls his plate closer again, and starts eating. He can hear the birds outside, the rumble of the trains. Barbara’s fingers on the keys of her laptop, click click clicking away.
He’s down in the gym, training, when Stephanie drops from the ceiling and tries to knee him in the junk. He flips her over his back without pausing, slamming her onto the thin mats.
She groans. “Sexy sadistic Batman.”
Dick blinks at her, sweat making his hair flop into his eyes. “Huh?”
“Nothing. Just regretting all the choices that have led me to this point in my life.”
“I know the feeling.” He offers a hand up and she accepts, bouncing lightly once she’s on her feet. “Any particular reason you tried to drop on my head and eliminate my odds of having biological children?”
“Trying to save your hypothetical children from having Bruce as a grandfather.”
Dick exhales, crossing the room to drain a bottle of water. “So he didn’t send you.”
“As if he could send me anywhere,” Stephanie scoffs. She tosses her hair. “I’ve turned over a new leaf. It’s called ‘the bats can suck it’.”
He tilts his head at her. “Fight with Tim?”
She exhales, her expression tight. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay.” Dick pulls a towel off a hook on the wall and scrubs at his face, the back of his neck.
“He’s so like him,” Stephanie continues without pause. “I just want to--” Her hands claw at the air, like she’s strangling an invisible enemy. “Except he probably will see it coming, because he probably planned it along with whatever other ridiculous melodramatic plot he’s masterminding.”
Dick makes a commiserating noise. He’s not particularly feeling up to defending Tim’s machinations, not at present.
“I was moping in the rafters, eating Cassie’s cereal and thinking about calling Kara for a good old fashioned vent when I saw you moping down here on the mats. Thought we could mope together.”
She’s shifting on her feet, only very slightly, but enough for him to notice and frown. Nervous darting eyes and all her muscles tensed up. Because she’s playing him? Then she scuffs her foot against the mat. “Forget it; you’re probably busy.”
Oh, he thinks, and softens. He reels her in with an elbow and gives her a noogie, ignoring her retaliatory bite to his forearm. “Offering up sidekick services?”
“Fuck off,” she squirms, stomping on his toes and making him yelp. “You’re my sidekick, if anything.”
“Girl power,” Dick agrees, letting her go. “I’ve got a thing to do today, if you don’t mind venturing out in civvies.”
“Civvies? Do you lot even hear yourself?”
“I need to shower,” he says. “Meet me in the garage in twenty?”
“Whose shower?” Stephanie asks innocently. “Locker room?”
He points at her. “Don’t start.”
“Babs’s private room? She’s got a big tub up there.”
He throws his towel at her face.
“So,” she says, twenty minutes later, dressed in jeans and lazily straddling a motorcycle. “A civilian thing.”
“Yup.” Dick twirls his keys around his forefinger. “They still happen, once in a while. You don’t have to come.”
“Shut up, I’m coming.” She hesitates. “If you want, I mean. I can always try to find Cass instead.”
“I don’t mind the company if you don’t.”
He tosses her the keys. “You wanna drive?”
Her eyes go wide. “Seriously?”
He shrugs. “Why not?” He swings a leg up behind her, settling back onto the seat. “Don’t take the corners too fast with all this added weight.”
“Are you calling yourself fat?”
Dick crosses his hands over his stomach. “I’m self-conscious.”
Stephanie snorts. She guns the engine to life under them. “Don’t be afraid to hold on tight, old man.”
He leans forward, his chest pressed against her back, and curls an arm around her waist. He brushes his nose against the back of her neck. “New shampoo?”
“No nuzzling,” Stephanie orders. “Save it for Oracle.”
“What if Tim’s watching?”
“Totally fine,” she agrees swiftly. “But he’s not watching now, so.”
Dick leans back. “You know that burger joint Daminan’s not allowed in anymore?”
“The one by the Starbucks or the one by the sex store?”
There’s a short pause. “Starbucks,” Dick says, choosing his battles, and they roar out into the sunlight.
“It’s a little early for lunch,” Stephanie says, parking by the curb and cutting the engine. “But I could go for a milkshake.”
“Milkshake,” Dick agrees. He orders vanilla, just to hear Stephanie’s snort dissolve into giggles, and then another vanilla to go along with Stephanie’s chocolate.
“Ooh,” she says. “Secrets.”
“Not for long,” he says cheerfully, and links their arms together. “You’ll see soon enough. I don’t want to… spoil it for you.”
“Disgusting,” she tells him, and he blows bubbles in his milkshake at her.
They walk six blocks into a residential neighborhood, sunglasses on and shoulders bumping. “A hint,” Stephanie requests, slurping at the last remnants of her drink. “It’s too hot to be hiking like this.”
“I like the heat,” Dick says. He’s stripped his jacket off, slung casually over his shoulder, and there’s a light sheen at his hairline and the hollow of his throat.
“Sure,” Stephanie mutters, “because you actually look good all sweaty.”
“You’re glowing,” Dick says solemnly. “Absolutely shining.”
“Fuck you,” she tells him, and smashes her paper cup against the side of his head. A little dribble of chocolate drips down his cheek and he catches it with a finger, licking it away with a grin. “God,” she says, looking at him with a fond expression. “You really can’t help it, can you?”
“Guess not.” He squints at the street sign on the corner. “Almost there, this way.” He waits until they turn the corner to speak again. “Do you really think so?”
“That I can’t help it.” Dick keeps his tone light and his eyes ahead, slightly squinted against the sun. His voice comes out flatter than he intended, more distant. “Is that what you think?”
Her hand slips into his, her palm slightly sweaty, her purple painted nails. “Can you?” she asks.
Dick chews his lip. “I don’t mean it like that,” he says. Then he frowns. “I don’t think I mean it like that?”
She’s looking at him, something odd in her face. “No,” she says suddenly, more fiercely than he expected. Her grip tightens before disengaging. “No, I don’t think that at all.”
They walk in silence for another minute.
“Steph,” Dick says carefully, “when you first started… coming around at night. I wasn’t the most welcoming.”
“You were a total dick,” Stephanie says bluntly, and smirks when he rolls his eyes at her. “But you didn’t, you know, trick me into risking my life just to stick it to Tim, so you’re still ahead in the Batrace.”
Dick knows a little bit about being replaced out of spite, but when he moved on, it was to a neighboring city, not a different continent without any of his old friends and family. So he just makes a quiet commiserating sort of noise. They all have their separate bones to pick with Bruce, but all the bones are from the same skeleton. “I was wrong,” he says, “and so was he.”
Stephanie swoops in, up on her tiptoes, and kisses his temple. “I missed you,” she says, “but if you need to leave, I know something about faking my own death.”
Dick turns, lightning quick before she can withdraw, and licks up her cheek, grinning when she squawks in disgust and flails out of his reach. “I was faking my own death before you put on a mask.”
“So you’re old and gross,” Stephanie mutters. She slows in front of the house on the corner. “Do I get to know yet?”
“Maybe,” Dick says vaguely, and makes his way up the driveway, slow and careful and hunching himself over just a little to seem less bulky, less potentially threatening. There’s a little flag stuck in the lawn advertising home security that looks brand new.
“Dick,” Stephanie says, but it’s softer, pitched low and hushed, like she’s talking to herself but he’s meant to hear it. “If you need to leave Gotham, you can. But I can tell you that I tried, and it didn’t help. I will always be from Gotham, but it’s just a place. I came back because Gotham’s where my family is.”
Dick is silent, unacknowledging, and she doesn’t press it. In fact, she turns half-away, humming quietly to herself to give him privacy while Dick makes his way up the driveway to the front steps, waiting on the sidewalk by the street.
The paper cup is sweating as the milkshake melts, condensation dripping onto the brick front steps. Dick leaves the cup in the middle of the welcome mat, and flicks his eyes to the camera just above the peephole in the door. Looks brand new; someone’s recently sunk some money into home security and peace of mind. Carefully, slowly, in view of the camera, he tugs his earlobe once, and winks.
Then he turns and walks away. “Hey,” he says, slinging an arm around Stephanie’s shoulders, “you like mangos?”
They buy mangos fresh and whole and eat them sitting on the stoop watching the traffic go by, the fruit soft and giving when they tear into them with their fingers. “Like this, rich boy,” Stephanie teases, the juice dripping down her wrist. “Get those lily hands dirty.”
Once, Bruce had taken him on vacation. When he was young, to Greece, a full week of beaches and sand and the sun on the sparkling water. It’d been brighter, the colors sharper, than even the circus; the most beautiful place Dick has ever been. He’d turned golden, then dark, then even darker. Hadn’t ever burned, but looked at himself in the hotel mirror and realized just how different his tan looked compared to Bruce’s pink splotches. He’d stayed in the resort for the last three days, wore a hat and long sleeves.
In the present, Dick just smiles at Stephanie, the flush across her cheeks from the heat so different from the light dusting of freckles across the bridge of his own nose. He’s been a lot of things, done a lot of things, but he’s never been lily white, and that’s a win, he figures.
“Circus brat,” he reminds her, and peels the skin away with just his teeth.
Lian likes tres leches from fancy bakeries; Roy’s got a thing for those little shitty cakes they sell at gas stations and convenience stores, the ones wrapped up in cheap cellophane, full of processed sugar and preservatives.
“They were a treat,” he’d told Dick once, when they were young and hopelessly stupid and he still wore a feather in his cap. “On the Rez, I mean. Plenty of people could bake, but I wasn’t--” His face twisted, rueful. “I was different, it doesn’t matter. My first year with Oliver he gave me my own black AmEx; I bought twenty of them, all the flavors I never tried before, and I ate them until I threw up. Best birthday I ever had.”
So Dick buys sixteen of them, loading his backpack up, and crawls through Roy’s window at four in the morning.
“Seriously,” Roy gripes, lifting his head off his pillow to glower. There’s creases on his face from the linens, and his hair is stuck up on one side and flat on the other. His hand, disappeared under the mattress, emerges empty, but Dick doesn’t doubt it was curled around a weapon before he realized who it was who’d come calling. “You have a phone, we’ve spoken on it before.”
Dick slings his backpack off his shoulder and tosses it at Roy’s face. “I didn’t want to wake Lian.”
Roy sits up, stifling a yawn, and unzips the bag, shoving a hand inside and feeling around blindly. He comes back up with a single twinkie clutched in one hand and blinks at it, bemused. He looks into the bag, the plastic wrappers crinkling against each other, then looks up at Dick, quiet and serious, eyes shadowed by the dim lighting. “You remember what I said about coming back here?”
“Good.” Roy tosses him the twinkie and rummages around for another. “A hell of an apology gift, Grayson. What’d you do, hold up a Pic n’ Pac?”
“Paid for, I promise.” Dick unwraps the snack cake and sticks the entire thing into his mouth, chewing obnoxiously.
“I’ll have to compensate Bruce,” Roy quips dryly. He takes a smaller, more reasonable bite of his own cake.
“Nah,” Dick says, swallowing and wiping the crumbs away with the back of his hand. “Take it as a gift.”
“My birthday’s in January.”
“No it isn’t,” Dick says distractedly, reaching forward and pulling the bag towards him to pick out another snack. Roy’s papers got all messed up when Oliver’s lawyers tried to fix his guardianship status, listed his birthday totally wrong. Something about his situation on the reservation being highly tenuous and lightly documented. Roy said he never cared, never even celebrated it before, not really, but Dick remembers being horrified when he learned, remembers the cold drop of dread in his belly thinking about one more connection between he and his mother so bluntly and clumsily severed.
When he looks up again, Roy is watching him. “You remembered,” Roy says. He sounds surprised, genuinely so, and a wave of sadness swamps Dick, taking his appetite with it. He flops back onto Roy’s bed instead, looking blankly up at the ceiling.
“Do you remember,” he says, carefully casual, “when we were kids, and we used to sneak out onto your rooftop and eat candy and talk shit about our weird billionaire dads.”
Dick shrugs, spreading his hands out. “The good old days come ‘round again.”
“Good old days,” Roy echoes. The plastic crinkles as he takes another bite. “I still went up to the roof, after--after everything, after I left. Didn’t feel the same without you.”
Dick’s breath catches.
“Took the bottle with me, and that was alright, for a while. Took a needle with me and that felt good until it didn’t anymore. Shoulda stayed at the kid’s table; shoulda gone to rehab the first time you told me to.” Roy shrugs, then lies next to Dick, their shoulders bumping. His leg dangles off the mattress. “See how easy it is, not to lie to yourself? Comes with practice.”
Dick breathes, long and slow and controlled. “I don’t--I’m not.” He falters. “I don’t try to lie.” His head tilts. “Except for Batman stuff.”
Roy snorts. “That’s what your problem is, and you’re too close to see it.”
Dick turns his head to watch Roy look out the window. “Good thing I got you around to keep my head from swelling.”
Roy sighs. “I thought we talked about this: no lies in the reformed Harper Home.”
“I’m not,” Dick argues. “I’m not lying to myself, I’m… I’m just not sure how to be truthful.”
“That’s my issue,” Roy tells him. “My issue was never with Batman and Robin, it was always with Bruce and Dick. What Batman expects of Robin that’s… well it’s not great to me either, to be honest, now that I’ve got Lian, but I get it. What Bruce asks of you, as Dick Grayson, that’s different.” He frowns. “It’s always rankled me.”
Dick shrugs. “It’s just the way he is; he’s not gonna change.” It comes out limp, unconvincing, and he remembers the way Bruce said it I never should have asked you to be Batman, the way he could hear the truth in it, the way Bruce looked surprised when it cut Dick so deeply. “It’s weird,” he continues suddenly. “How some people who know you the best don’t know you at all.”
“He knows,” Roy says. “I’ve thought about this a lot, more with Ollie, but I think… I think they know us, but they try to fix it like how they try to fix themselves.”
“Throwing money at the problem and hoping not talking about it means it’ll go away.”
“Oh right,” Dick says, “that.”
They lapse into a comfortable silence.
“Donna?” Roy asks.
“Yeah,” Dick says, blowing out a long breath. “I think so.”
Roy nods. “A good start. She and Walls will see you through.”
Dick winces; Roy notices.
“You… you have told Wally, right?” Roy sits up. “Oh for Christ’s sake.”
“He’s retired,” Dick mutters.
“He’s gonna kill you,” Roy counters. “But through like, sad puppy eyes and sad floppy hair and the whole sad Speed Clan making you terrible potato salad.” He groans. “I thought you’d already told him, best friends forever and all that gross shit.”
DIck crosses his arms over his chest. “Donna first.”
Roy sighs. “We all hoped your codependency would fade after the wonder years at Titans Tower, but I guess it was for nought.” He shoves all the wrappers into the backpack and zips it up. “You staying over? I can do like four different pancake shapes now, my robin’s getting pretty good.” He leans over the side of the bed and shoves the backpack underneath, out of sight. “Don’t tell Lian these are in here.”
Dick holds his arm out, hand extended. They pinky promise.
Later, back to back and the lights turned off, Roy suddenly rolls over. “It was easier,” he says, “to let myself break rather than admit I couldn’t fix it by myself.”
Dick breathes, in and out. Through the baby monitor on the bedside table, he can hear Lian’s soft sleep snuffles, the creak of the mattress springs as Roy shifts, the faint sounds of traffic from outside. “I think,” he says slowly, “in the morning I’d like Dinah’s card.” He’s worked with her before, when he was Robin, but this is different. This is Dick Grayson, asking for her civilian card. Asking for therapy.
Roy exhales, stark relief in the way his body suddenly relaxes. “Yeah,” he says, slinging an arm around Dick’s shoulders and tugging him close. “We can call her together. It’s a plan.”
When Dick was a kid in a cape, cartwheeling over the rooftops of Gotham, he used to like to squeeze himself into the footwells of the biggest nastiest gargoyles he could find. He’d crouch, tucked into the shadows, and wait for Batman to find him. It’s the kind of hide and seek Dick’s played with Tim and Damian a hundred times, the kind that wove fun into the lessons that would save their lives eventually, how to avoid detection and make yourself small and still and silent.
He’s too big, now, to fit in those little nooks and crannies, but he remembers his lessons all the same. And he’s secure enough to admit that sometimes all he wants to feel small and still and quiet, tucked into the shadow of something bigger. He used to feel safe, when it was winter out and Bruce tucked him under Batman’s cape to save him from the cutting wind.
When he was older all he could feel was the fabric on his shoulders, the dark damp weight of it.
Even so, he still likes far up heights and little squeezed in spaces, and he finds both in the old clock tower. It’s warm too, since Barbara moved in and installed heating, so while it’s a drafty old building, it’s still warmer than the night air outside. Dick climbs up into the rafters and perches against the wall, letting his legs dangle.
Then he lies back, hearing the beam creak as he leans his weight against it, along his spine, making minute adjustments until he’s perfectly balanced. He’s got a great view out the upper windows, the cracked glass and the gleaming night stars above. It’s a clear night, for Gotham, and he pillows his head on his arm, resting his phone against his chest as it dials.
It beeps twice when Donna picks up, and a light blue beam of light erupts from the camera before flattening out, rippling once until it focuses. Donna, projected out into the air, squints at him. “I can barely see your dumb face. Why is it so dark?”
“I’m keeping on theme. Where are you?”
“Dagobah,” Donna says, and it makes Dick smiles, his eyes crinkling up at the corners. “I don’t know, some galaxy with far too many consonants in its name. At least modern Greek understands the importance of a good vowel or two.”
“Or three,” Dick says wryly. He exhales, soft. “Tell me about the mission?”
Donna pauses, just enough to let him know she’s caught his odd vibe but is choosing to give him space, then launches into a mostly bemoaning account of the Titans mission she’s leading off world, three whole galaxies away. “Ever since you and Wally and Roy and Artemis all left me, do you know who I have to hang out with?” She leans in close, her image slightly distorted by the odd angle. “Kon, Dick. Kon is all I have to hang out with.”
“Kon the super clone with super hearing?”
“Yeah,” Donna says dismissively. “That dork. Don’t worry, he’s not eavesdropping.”
“He knows better?”
“That and he’s busy.” Donna fixes him with a steady look. “Tim called, and he’s been holed up in his quarters ever since.”
Dick winces. “Oh.”
“Yeah, ‘oh’. Very strange, your calling me so soon after. Some might find it suspicious.”
“Some?” Dick jokes weakly. “But not all, yeah?”
Donna is quiet for a minute, her eyes distant and unfocused. “It’s hard,” she says suddenly, “to be so far from you. There’s been moments, I…” she trails off. “I’ve wanted to ask for advice,” she admits. “Leading the team, it’s--it’s incredible, don’t get me wrong. I’ve just never not had you to lean on.”
She might as well have flown over in person just to punch him in the face. Dick can feel his face crumple, even as Donna’s eyes go wide in surprise and worry. He curls in on himself, shaking so violently his muscles flex and strain to hold him in place on the support beam. “I’m sorry,” he manages to grit out. “I-- I let you down, Donna, I--”
“It’s alright,” she says softly but firmly, leaving no room for argument. “I’m okay.”
“You are?” he asks desperately. He can’t take it if Donna needs him too, fifty million lightyears away when he can barely reach out to Babs sleeping less than a foot apart from him. “Promise?”
“I do not lie,” she says, and her eyes are flecked with gold.
His breathing calms. He exhales, shuddering, and goes as limp as he’s able to do without falling to his death, staring blankly up at the sky. The stars have clouded over, murky and hazy grey, and he’s no longer sure he ever really saw them at all. He clears his throat, his voice rasping out rusty and tore up. “Does your lasso work on yourself?”
“Of course,” she answers readily. “Diana meditates regularly using it, when she feels doubt. To ensure she’s still worthy of its truth.”
“How does it feel?”
“You’ve felt it,” she responds mildly, then keeps going, sensing perhaps that Dick needs this right now. Needs her, needs a distraction. Needs someone to give it to him without him having to ask, without making up a case and taking notes on him like he’s just another task, another burden, one more level to the mission. “It’s warm,” she says thoughtfully. “I don’t fight it, and it doesn’t hurt or burn. It’s familiar, comforting. It supplies conviction when I lack it.”
“That’s nice,” Dick says softly. “That… sounds nice.”
“You can try it,” she offers, “upon my return. We have a lot to catch up on.”
“Yes,” Dick agrees, wincing. “I, um.” He takes a breath, deep, and holds it until his lungs creak. “Donna,” he says, “I have something to tell you.”
He’s quiet after, his hand resting on his chest and his phone warm against his palm, the battery light blinking from how long they talked before saying goodbye, dried tears on his cheeks. He doesn’t feel tense or locked up anymore, and he’s only now aware of the ache in his jaw from where he’s been clenching his teeth since Haly’s burned.
In the long dusty shadows above his head, something pricks his ears, air moving oddly against something. Someone. “It’s not polite,” he says, “to drop eaves.”
Cassandra melts out of the darkness, backlit by the dim glow of the moon. She weaves through the wooden beams and over the scaffolding against the wall, making her way down to him, and it reminds Dick of nature documentaries, the way she moves. Like her eyes should glow in catslits, a jaguar prowling. It’s the promise, he thinks, the assuredness. There’s no one more present in her body than Cassandra Cain.
“Not… drop eaves,” she says, the halting stop-drag of her speech pattern reminding him of what she’s paid in service of becoming the best. “Eavesdrop.”
“Bratty,” he tells her, and her teeth flash, a glint of white before her hand comes up to cover her smiling mouth.
“Yellow,” she says.
Dick sucks his lip between his teeth and worries at it, thinking it over. It’s hard to pinpoint what Cassandra is trying to communicate, once you’ve figured out that she’s actually trying to communicate instead of just reflecting back what she’s picking up. “Happy?” he offers, as a guess. Last he checked with Babs, Cass was working on pairing words with emotions, often a hit-or-miss endeavor.
“No,” she says, drawing closer and crouching by his head, peering down at him. She tucks her chin against her knee, her bright curious eyes and the faint scar through her eyebrow. “Yellow,” she repeats, and taps his phone. She makes a motion with her hands, like she’s curling up a lasso. “Yellow.”
“Gold,” he corrects. “Donna, yeah. You heard?”
She touches the curve of her ear. “Ssh,” she murmurs.
“Yes,” he agrees, “you’re quiet.”
She points at him, then pokes his earlobe, a clear question: How’d you hear me?
Dick presses two fingers up by his temples, like they’re bat ears. “Practice.”
She looks a little grumpy about it, which makes this the first time he’d ever deign to describe her as cute in the traditional way, rather than the way he’s become accustomed to thinking about after prolonged exposure to Damian. “Practice… more.”
“You’ll be sneaking up on me in no time.” Dick braces his foot on the wall, rocking himself idly on the four inch beam he’s lounging on.
She crabwalks a little closer, still crouched up small, her knees tucked under her chin and her hair started to grow into her eyes. “I’m,” she starts, and then visibly struggles. “Was here first,” she tries, and he can see the frustration swell in her eyes when he doesn’t immediately understand.
Dick reaches out, tapping the thin white line of her scar, suddenly daring. He smoothes his fingertip over it, the fine tickle of her eyebrow. Maybe she didn’t understand his words, but she definitely understands his body language. He’s probably been broadcasting it since she laid eyes on him. He just can’t tell if she’s trying to apologize for sneaking around on him, albeit accidentally, or straight up telling him she knows why he’s such a fucking mess all of a sudden.
Dick wonders if she overhead him all those months ago, when she first came to Babs and Dick raised objections about it. Guilt flushes his system. “Secret for a secret,” he tells her, turning his palm face up in a symbol of acceptance. “Those are sibling rules.”
Her head tilts, breaking the contact between them and he backs off, letting his arm rest on his chest. She links her thumbs, fanning her fingers out to either side. “Help,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” he tells after, after thinking about it. “I don’t understand.”
Cass growls, frustrated, then drags a fingertip across her chest, sketching the outline of a bat. “Help,” she insists.
“It’s complicated. We--we’re fighting, sort of.”
She blows a raspberry, face scrunched up, startling a laugh out of him. She giggles when he tugs playfully on a lock of her hair. “Brother,” she says abruptly.
“Yes,” he agrees.
She pats his shoulder, hesitant at first and then more confidently. “You… talk too much.”
He laughs, head tipped back and eyes shut. When he opens them she’s lying beside him, curiously peering up through the top of the tower. “Cloudy,” she says in a sleepy voice, then yawns.
He stretches, cracking his back, and rests his arm around her shoulders. She lets him, tucking her head against his bicep. She’s small, a slip of a thing compared to his bulk (and he runs leaner than Bruce and Jason) but there’s no mistaking the strength in her. Dick’s a good liar, but it’s nice not to have the pressure. It’s also nice to sit with someone who not only doesn’t want to hear Dick admit he has issues, but probably wouldn’t understand him even if he did.
Something tickles his nose; he cracks one eye open, surprised he felt secure enough to close them at all, to find Cass’s fingertip hovering over his forehead. She tickles his eyelashes with her nail, then presses lightly into his eyebrow, the same place he touched her. Then she drags two fingers down her sternum, to her side, pointing her fingers like a gun and digging into the fabric of her shirt.
“Father,” she explains. With her free hand, she touches his chest, near his left armpit, above the puckered bullet scar that still aches when it snows. “Bang.”
Before he can fully process the statement and become enraged at the spectre of David Cain, she flicks the tip of his nose, then opens her palm. A single fruity pebble lands on his cheek. “Cereal.” She smiles at him, the furrow between her brows from the effort of speaking and the hopeful shine to her eyes.
A secret for a secret, he’d told her, and she’d managed it, just because he said she could call him brother. Dick tips his head sideways and catches the cereal between his teeth, crunching once. He thinks Cass would like riding trains in a way neither Tim or Damian ever did. She’s the only one centered enough to like it the way Dick does, Tim too caught up in his own head and Damian’s emotions burning too bright and hot to use the blindfold.
He thinks: I should take her train riding next week, just as simple and easy as that; the first time he’s made a plan for the future and felt the warm glow of anticipation rather than dread.
Bruce is waiting for him under the big ‘W’ atop the Wayne Enterprises skyscraper. “Do you remember,” he asks as soon as Dick touches down on the rooftop, his grapple still retracting back into its casing. “When you used to wait here?”
“Oh come on,” Dick says, trying for lightness and nearly succeeding. “It wasn’t that many times.” When he was Robin, if he and Batman got separated, and Robin was in trouble or injured, he was to find his way to this building, this rooftop, and wait for Batman. He knows Bruce picked it because it’s always lit up, blazing against the jagged cut of Gotham’s skyline, but he always thought it seemed right, the big ‘W’ calling him home to the promise of safety.
“Once was too many times.” Bruce leans against the side of the scaffolding, looking out over the city. The rain runs down his cowl in rivets. “And it was more than once.”
Dick draws slightly closer, hesitant. “I’m sorry. About swinging at you.”
“It’s nothing you need to apologize for.”
“Gotta do it,” Dick says, tone slightly more cheery, “it’s how they tell the two of us apart.”
“I think there might be other clues.”
Dick reaches up, hooking his hands on a railing and testing his grip in the rain before pulling himself up in a controlled somersault over the bar, landing lightly above Bruce’s head under one of the sharp points of the ‘W’. “Thanks for not chasing me.”
“Both times, not just last night.” Dick frowns absently at nothing in particular. “Although maybe… I don’t know. Maybe I should have come back right away, after...” he swallows. “After Bludhaven.”
“I should have,” Bruce starts, and then stops. He sighs. “Cassandra threw a book at my head.”
Dick’s eyebrows shoot up. Cassandra practically worships the ground Bruce walks on, if you can worship something and see straight through its bullshit simultaneously.
“I followed you to the clocktower,” Bruce clarifies.
“Are you going to apologize?”
“No,” Bruce says, after a short pause. “I would do it again.”
“And the League might get us confused, if you go around acting like a real human person.”
“Right,” Bruce agrees. “Not to mention your penchant for bright colors and bad puns.”
Dick exhales, scooting forward until his legs are dangling off the edge and he can slump against the cold wet dirty metal of the support poles. “You make it real hard, you know that? You always have.”
“What do you see,” Dick asks suddenly, changing gears. “When Crane gets the drop on you, the fear toxin. What do you see?”
“You,” Bruce says immediately, “Jason, Damian, Alfred, Clark--” He stops. “Sometimes all there is the fear.”
“I thought you’d say your parents.”
Bruce shakes his head, infinitesimal but noticeable. “There would be no weight,” he says, simple for how heartbreaking the admission is. “I’ve relived it myself too many times.”
Dick tucks himself under the small overhang, the crackling hum of the neon and the rattling of the rain. “I think,” he says slowly, “that next time I might see something different from the usual.”
“Something new,” Bruce says, his voice heavy. “The thing you’re hiding.”
“I’m not hiding,” Dick says defensively, and Bruce just looks at him. “Fine, I’m hiding a little.” He leans his chin on his bent knees. “I’m allowed to hide a little.” Here, in the crook of the Wayne name, a metaphor too heavy not to be at least a little true.
“Dick,” Bruce says. “It’s time now.”
“Yes,” Dick agrees, but still he hesitates. “I thought about it,” he says suddenly, “I thought about it, and I don’t want to be buried at the plot with my parents.”
Bruce blinks, the shuttering darkness behind the white lenses of the mask, his mouth open like he’d started to respond but couldn’t figure out where to start.
“It was--I appreciate it, what you did, but I would,” Dick stumbles over his words. “Prefer to be cremated, if possible.”
Bruce is silent for a long time, nothing to hear between them but the rain. “Why?”
“It’s customary, for--my mother.” Dick scratches at the back of his head. “I look like my dad, I think, except around the eyes and when I tan, and he didn’t care much for customs either way, but Mom…” he trails off, shrugging. “I don’t remember much, but a few things have stuck around.”
“You never said. I could have--” Bruce stops. “You never said.”
Dick shrugs again. “Had other things on my mind, I guess.”
“Of course,” Bruce allows, shifting slightly on his feet in apology. “I didn't mean to accuse.”
Look at the two of them, Dick thinks with distant amusement. They haven’t been this polite since his sixteenth birthday, when Alfred reamed them both out, separately and then together, and sat them down elbow to elbow to have fancy mushroom pasta and fancy cake. They were avoiding then and avoiding now, and avoiding the same damn thing a decade apart. It’s time Bruce has said, twice now. Three is a compelling number, Dick doesn’t need to have dated Zatanna as a tween to know that.
“Dick,” Bruce says, and Dick sighs.
“You’re talking about your death and funeral.”
“You tried to turn yourself in for murder.”
“Coulda let me,” Dick mutters. “Save us both this conversation.”
“Barbara called me, at five twenty seven in the morning. I’d been awake for sixteen hours.” Bruce says, “She said ‘I think Dick’s dead’.”
“So no, I don’t think I could let you throw your life away.” Bruce’s voice rises sharply at the end of the sentence and he calms himself with a visible effort. “In fact, I will not allow it.”
Bruce shifts, the wet drag of his cape on the battered concrete, the water running between his gloved hands and dripping off the edge of the roof. “I could… call Clark.”
An ache in Dick’s chest, a yearning. For when Bruce smiled easier and there was no one else to share his attention with, for when Clark’s cape was brighter and less worn. They used to get milkshakes and garlic fries and talk about all the things that made Dick feel grown up. “No,” he says simply, “I’d rather it just be you.”
Bruce’s arm lifts, awkward and unsure, hovering like he’d intended to touch Dick but lost his nerve halfway through. His hand starts to drop, then comes up again, something that’s not quite a flourish, not like how Dick would do it, but something painfully earnest instead. It’s not something Dick’s ever been able to manage genuinely, there's just too much performer in him.
Bruce offers him a penny. “For your thoughts,” he clarifies. “Think of it as an I.O.U.”
It’s such a fucking dad joke, Dick thinks, staring down at the penny in Bruce’s palm, comically dwarfed by the gauntlets of the Batsuit. He’s offered Bruce a variety of things for the big penny in the cave, ever since they acquired it, ranging from the musingly joking to the ludicrously fantastical, but this is the first time Bruce has made the joke back at him. Of course, this is the first time Bruce has tried to make the joke back at him. “That’s such a bad joke,” he chokes out, and almost falls off the building crawling into Bruce’s hug.
Doesn’t matter how awfully himself Bruce is being, even when Dick is spitting mad at him, specifically all he really wants is for Bruce, for Batman, to swoop in and fix it. Dick’s elbow clips Bruce’s ear in the cowl, jerking his head awkwardly sideways, but he doesn’t seem to notice, his cold fingers closing around the back of Dick’s neck and pulling him closer. He may not be the warmest member of the Justice League, emotionally, but Batman’s bulk has always been comforting, even more so because Dick knows Bruce can be soft if no one else is looking.
And every time, stumbling half dead out of a bomb strapped to his chest or twelve years old waking from a nightmare, Dick’s never felt safer than under the Bat’s cape. “Bruce,” he says wetly, his cheek scratching on the emblem across Bruce’s chest. “I don’t--you’ll think less of me.”
“No,” Bruce promises, grip tightening to painful before evening out again. He’s steady, standing tall and rooted in the rain and the wind, Dick half draped over his torso. “I could never.”
Dick pulls back, curling in on himself, and Bruce only resists for a second before obliging, releasing him and letting retreat back to his perch. “You do know,” Dick asks, resigned. “Don’t you? I could never keep anything from you when it mattered.”
“I won’t do that,” Bruce says, and it’s so unfair how even he’s keeping himself, when Dick is practically weeping into his chest in the fetal position. So unfair how he knows Dick wants him to say it, so Dick doesn’t have to. “Not even for you. You have to choose it.”
You should say it. You’ll feel better.
Choose it, Bruce says, like it’s as simple as that, like he can just open his mouth and let it all tip out.
“It was raining then, too,” Dick says, and Batman goes still, that noticeable kind, where not even the air seems to be moving around him, breath held and motionless. “It’s funny--I used to like the rain, you know?” He tries for a laugh but it withers, cracking in the middle and fading away into the night, discordant and unsettling. “I used to…”
Batman is still silent, still watching.
Dick clears his throat, looking down at his hands, the blue streaks shot through the black. In the myth, Nightwing flies at sunbreak to herald the dawn.
“I wanted to help her,” he says, and after all this--the weeks and the drama and the panic attacks--it comes out smooth, unbroken, unstuttered. Like he’d practiced a speech for weeks instead of spending every night swallowing compulsively to keep it inside. “The way you helped me.”
The whole torrid story of it, one bad choice after another, every stacked mistake until the powder keg lit and blew Bludhaven to smithereens. He tells Bruce all of it, doesn’t spare a detail. He makes it almost all the way through without faltering, but he finds himself blanking out, the words drying up on his tongue and leaving him with a mouthful of dust.
“I--said no,” he manages to choke out. “I did, I swear it, I--”
“Dick,” Bruce says, and his voice is awful, like nothing Dick has ever heard, and then he’s lifting himself up, the metal groaning with his bulk, and crawling into the small underhang with Dick.
“I should have,” Dick gasps, fingers grasping weakly at Bruce’s shoulder. “I could have--”
“No,” Bruce murmurs, and by all rights he shouldn’t physically fit in the space he’s squeezed himself into, but he’s the goddamn Batman, and he’s making it work. He pulls Dick into his lap, cradling him close, and hushes him softly, wrapping them both up in his cape.
“My fault,” Dick says listlessly. “I let her. Let her do it all.”
Bruce has Dick’s cheek in his palm, the rough drag of the bullet-resistant, super-reinforced material against Dick’s chilled bare skin, the edge of his domino. “No,” he says quietly, “the fault is mine.”
Dick manages a snort, weak and uninspired. “You can’t control my life, B. We’ve been over this.”
Bruce shifts over him, moving to block as much of the rain as he can. “Think of your Robin,” he rumbles. “And say you don’t understand.”
Dick thinks: Damian, so young and so desperate to be unafraid. He thinks of Catalina and Damian and his sternum heaves, rebelling. Bruce just turns him, like a child, and rubs his back until he spits to the side and curls up again, panting.
“I thought of my mom,” he says limply. “During, I remembered-- isn’t that messed up?” He tries to laugh and retches again, gagging to the side. He drags his mouth across the back of his wrist, then spits weakly.
Bruce shifts minutely under him, adjusting Dick’s position. “I think of my mother,” he says, “On Yom Kippur.”
It’s such an unexpected statement, so different from anything Dick thought Bruce might say in response to his confession, that it startles him out of his cycling thoughts. “What?”
“She was Jewish,” Bruce explains. “More culturally than religiously. I wouldn’t claim it, but--sometimes, on some Yom Kippurs. Alfred used to make honeycake.”
“I don’t remember honeycake.”
This close, Dick can see the flutter behind the lenses of Bruce’s facemask, his blinking. “He stopped a long time ago.”
“Day of Atonement,” Dick muses with an almost-halfway smile. “God, you’re thematic.”
Bruce’s fingers are moving minutely on the back of Dick’s head, gentle and soft. “I’m old money, Richard. We take branding seriously.” Dick does smile then, cracked lips and all. Bruce is too built to really be comfortable to lie on, but Dick wouldn’t move for the whole world.
It’s wet, and cold, and the wind is still whistling, the sirens still wailing in the distance. It’s still Gotham, and nothing has truly been resolved.
But Dick feels better anyway.
Later, they stand on the edge of the rooftop, their toes hanging off the edges. Dick feels wrung out, a tube squeezed empty, but there’s a lightness to it, too.
“Will you come home tonight?” Bruce asks.
Dick shakes his head. "Restless.”
“The work,” Bruce says, faltering more than Dick has ever heard. “It’s--how I.” He stops. “I did not mean to make you feel like a task,” he says stiffly, “rather than my son.”
Dick’s breath catches. He looks out over the city, the jagged splash of neon carving out Crime Alley, where Jason and Stephanie grew up, the glow of the harbor lights through the fog over the water. “Just the night.”
Dick winks. “You raised a gentleman, B. I don’t run around and tell.”
Bruce’s face twitches in a way that could herald vague and distant amusement. “And Dinah?”
“We’re having a special moment,” Dick tells him, voice quiet and tired. “Don’t ruin it by being yourself.”
“Hm,” Bruce says, and grapples away. His cape is still draped around Dick’s shoulders.
Dick hadn’t planned on visiting Jason, exactly, but he’d felt Bruce shadowing him like an unpleasant ache between his shoulder blades, and no manner of reminding himself of the great amount of growth and restraint Bruce has shown tonight, considering, has managed to make Dick less pissy about being followed.
So he cuts sideways, through the Narrows, and up through the old factory district. Bruce peels away as soon as he hits the edge of the junkyard fields, Outlaw territory, and Dick smirks as he slows to a trot, crouching atop an old tractor to catch his breath and survey the area. Out of the corner of his eye, light flashes.
He turns; there’s a light flashing through a cracked dirty window, in a nearby warehouse. Too measured to be sporadic or accidental, not measured enough to be on a timer. He slips through the shadows, winding his way around junked cars and hunks of unidentifiable rusted metal.
Jason leans through the window, squinting down at him. “It is you.”
“Stop cussing me out in Morse Code.”
“Stop lurking around my safehouses,” Jason shoots back.
Dick props his hands on his hips, craning his head back to meet Jason’s glower with one of his own. “Are you going to let me up or not?”
“Not,” Jason says snottily. “Don’t let the night hit your ass on the way out.”
Dick rolls his eyes, but he’s privately relieved. Jason is a minefield on a good mental day. “Fine, whatever.” He turns, meaning to do another loop of the city to tire himself out before creeping back to the clocktower.
Something whistles through the air by his ear; a throwing star embeds itself in the dirt two inches from Dick’s foot. “Bring that with you,” Jason says from above him, and the light goes out.
Jason’s safehouse looks shitty from the outside, but it’s not half bad once you get through the six inches of dust and scattered rat traps. The loft is clean, and carries the pristine organization of a neat freak; Dick remembers how even when Jason was a kid he kept his room just the same, so neat you almost couldn’t tell somebody was living there. Looking back, he thinks Jason was scared of leaving evidence of his own existence, like they’d throw him out if they remembered he was there.
In the present, he casually knocks over a potted plant with his toe and drapes himself over the couch, displacing the throw pillows to the floor.
“What?” Dick hooks his hands behind his head, kicking his feet up. “Throw pillows, Jay? What would Roy say?”
Jason pulls his cellphone from his jacket pocket and flicks at the screen. “I think Dick’s gonna kill himself,” he reads. “Please advise.”
For a second, Dick’s heart stops. Then he scowls. “That’s not funny.”
Jason throws the phone at him, and his aim’s too good for it to be a slip that it almost nails Dick in the nose before he snatches it out of the air. He pulls up Jason’s messages. Then he swallows, and puts the phone facedown on the floor. “He didn’t say ‘please advise’.”
Jason has his arms crossed across his chest, face like a thundercloud. He couldn’t look more like Bruce if he tried. “Fuck you, Dick.”
“I’m not going to kill myself.” Dick leans back a little further, frowning at the ceiling. “Is that asbestos?”
Jason punches him in the ankle. “I’m not looking after the Demon Spawn if you croak,” he threatens, “whoever’s doing it is.”
“Oh no,” Dick says dryly, still squinting at the water stains where the wall meets the ceiling. “What will Damian do without your positive presence in his life?”
Jason pauses, apparently considering the counterargument. “If you die,” he adjusts, “I’ll take him on as my personal protege.” He smirks, triumphant. “Little Hood. Got a ring to it, don’t it?”
“Oh,” Dick agrees, “absolutely. Please pitch it to him the next time you see him. Actually, wait for me to be there too, I don’t want to miss anything.”
“Whatever,” Jason mutters, either unable or unwilling to keep the joke going. “Like me predeceasing you will solve anything.”
“It didn’t before,” Dick says, and handsprings up while Jason’s spluttering. He ambles towards what’s clearly a makeshift kitchenette, a small electric water kettle and a few packages of instant noodles. He picks one up, sniffing at it, then rips the plastic open with his fingers.
Jason is still glaring.
“What? You’re the only one allowed to make jokes about your death?”
“Yes,” Jason grunts.
“Okay,” Dick acquiesces. “That’s fair, I guess.” He goes back to the couch, smashing his fist into the ramen before plopping down and tilting his head back, shaking the dry noodles into his mouth.
Jason makes a disgusted noise, and Dick sighs.
“I’m tired,” he says quietly, and doesn’t look up. “I don’t want to fight with you right now.” He rubs a hand over his face and realizes he’s still in the suit, chafing at his joints and the creases of his legs. “I can’t fight with you right now. If you need to fight, I can leave.” He does look up then, Jason’s face, naked with surprise at the vulnerability on display. Jason always seems a little shocked when he isn’t angry, like he’s lost without the rage. It makes him look young again, the Jason Dick remembers from snowboarding vacations and afterschool sparring matches.
Then Jason turns and walks away.
Dick slides down into the couch, slumping into the cushions and wondering idly if Jason carried the thing in himself. He oughta tell Jay that in the morning before he leaves, he thinks, even if it earns him a yelling and a scrap, tell Jason that he’s grown up even taller than Bruce. Dick remembers when the Robin costume was too big on him.
A balled up t-shirt sails through the air, smacking him in the back of the head. He turns, startled, and drops the ramen to catch the second projectile: sweatpants.
Jason sticks his head out of a dilapidated doorway, scowling. “Stop eating those dry, you fucking heathen. Go take a shower while I heat some up.”
“Oh shut up,” Jason says, and he won’t meet Dick’s eyes, pink in the tips of his ears. “I promised Roy I wouldn’t throw you on your ass, that’s all.”
“Sure,” Dick agrees, after a pause, and some of the tension bleeds out of Jason’s posture. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” Jason mutters. He disappears from sight.
“I think,” Dick says, showered and changed and his bangs held out of his face with a few sparkly butterfly clips left behind in Jason’s jacket pockets after Stephanie borrowed it for two days, “that you might be a ramen wizard.”
“Gross,” Jason mutters. He pours more broth into Dick’s bowl. “All the wizards we know are ugly.”
“We know Zatanna,” Dick protests. “And Constantine.”
Jason makes a face.
“Yeah, but he’s not ugly.” Dick slurps up some noodles, then puts his bowl down with a content noise, curling up with a yawn.
“It’s just instant ramen,” Jason says gruffly, standing with only the faintest creak of his knees. “Don’t get hung up about it.”
“Mm,” Dick says agreeable, already half-asleep. A hand nudges his ankle; he opens his eyes to see Jason standing there, holding out a bottle.
“Non-alcoholic,” Jason explains. “They’re Roy’s.” He fidgets, then visibly steels himself. “The other Bats, you got… got claims on ‘em, that’s different.” He shifts, then sets his shoulders. “You and me, that’s not us. If you need a secret keeper…” he trails off with a shrug. “It’s not like they'd believe me even if I went spilling secrets.”
“They would,” Dick says immediately, and Jason just glares again. “Your face is gonna get stuck like that.”
Jason wiggles the bottle at him impatiently. “Stop playing stupid, Dick, you know what I’m talking about.”
“I do,” Dick admits, standing. Jason rocks back, but doesn’t retreat, face mulish and stubborn. “But I’m not going to tell you.”
If Dick didn’t know better, he’d say Jason looked hurt. “Fine,” is all Jason says, and on his way out he kicks a wooden crate, the steel toe of his boot punching through it.
Dick lays on his back and looks at the ceiling. “It’s definitely asbestos,” he says, and it definitely isn’t, but there’s no one there to hear him lie, so it doesn’t really matter, does it?
Dick dreams about his mother, what he can remember. It’s like thinking in negative space, remembering her contrasted against all the things that have faded away. He can’t recall what her voice sounded like, but he remembers she was the first voice he heard every morning, waking him and calling him to breakfast. Her face is blurry when he’s lucky to dream of it at all, but every so often he’ll stop dead on the street, someone wearing just the same perfume passing by.
He wakes, slowly, drifting up. It’s never a good dream, the one about his parents, but he’ll miss them fiercely when they’re gone. So he breathes, thinking about his mother, the song she used to sing him before bed and the white chalk powder in the creases of her palms, and he wakes, slowly.
Then he slips off the couch--barefoot, sneaky Jason must have waited until he’d passed out before pulling his boots off--and goes looking.
Jason is asleep in what is functionally the hallway, sprawled out on a foam pad he must have dragged in from somewhere. There’s a space heater plugged in nearby, full blast, and Dick notes it away for future reference: Jason must run cold. His face flickers when Dick draws near, sensing someone in his space, but he doesn’t wake until Dick crouches just out of reach and murmurs his name.
“Yeah,” he rasps, his voice sleep rough and his eyes squinched up. “You leavin’?”
His accent, thick and groggy, the bleary tilt of his mouth and the way his jaw cracks when he yawns; Dick licks his own palm and smoothes Jason’s cowlick down, retreating before Jason can realize what he’s done and react with extreme prejudice. “Fuck off,” Jason grumbles, lines across his cheek from where he slept at an odd angle on the sleeve of his jacket.
Dick hesitates. Dinah’s card in his pocket, Roy’s promise around his finger, Bruce’s quiet attempt at understanding, Tim’s well meaning machinations, Cass’s genuine understanding. Stephanie’s company and Babs’ love and Donna’s everything, and Roy and Wally and Artemis and Clark and Kon--
“I can’t tell you,” he says suddenly, “because however you feel about it, you’re my little brother and I look out for you. That’s just the way it fucking is.” He takes a breath. “But I’ll tell other people, and I’ll--I won’t let--.” He shrugs, helpless. “I’ll figure it out.”
Jason is just looking at him, hair still stuck up on one side, the cowlick slowly escaping to maximum height. Jason’s eyes are always greener when he’s just woken up; Dick remembers when they had eyes so blue they almost matched. Dick’s little brother, dead in the ground two months before Dick knew anything had happened, clawing his way out of his own grave two months after that.
Jason swallows. When he blinks some of the green fades away. “I’ll give you a ride.”
“You oughta talk to Tim,” Jason says abruptly, while they’re winding up the driveway.
Dick, head propped lazily on Jason’s shoulder, opens one eye. “You talk to Tim?”
“Yeah,” Jason says, and he’s trying to play it off but Dick’s got a great look at the faint flush on the back of his neck. “A guy can’t exchange memes with his own replacement?” Something ugly twists across his face at the word, his fists clenching around the handlebars of his bike. Something green flares in his eyes.
“I don’t know,” Dick says airily, cutting through it before it can take hold, “I’ll have to send you one sometime and test it out.”
Jason blinks. Then he laughs, head tipped back into the wind and body relaxed again. “He’s taking it hard, the argument, you taking off again. Figures it’s his fault.”
Jason turns the bike, braking hard, and shoves his elbow back into Dick’s gut without warning. Dick grunts, automatically withdrawing from the blow, and topples off the bike into midair. Fortunately, it’s not an unfamiliar or unwelcome feeling; he turns into it and does a backflip into a front handspring, finishing with a gymnast’s salute and a bow.
Jason flips him off, still straddled across the idling motorcycle. “You’ll talk to him?”
“Of course,” Dick agrees. He looks over his shoulder; Wayne Manor rises against the backdrop of the sky like it’s in a Victorian novel. “Stay for dinner?”
Jason laughs. “Fuck you, Big Bird.”
“Mm,” Dick acknowledges. He’d be more surprised if Jason did stay. He turns and looks again, the big bold double doors and the brass knocker, the wreath hanging from its hook. Inside is warmth, food, family. Dick shifts, uneasy in his skin and his borrowed clothes.
“You could,” Jason says hesitantly from behind him. “I got a few safehouses, if you need…” he trails off, the offer hanging awkwardly in the air between them.
Dinah’s card in his pocket, a League tracker in his phone. The fading of his mother’s voice and the sound his father’s body made when it hit the ground. The crack of the bullet when the Joker shot him and the sing of the crowbar through the air before Jason died beneath it. Dick closes his fist slowly, feels the ache of healed breaks and old scars, the promise of the violence in his knuckles. Catalina Flores and a rooftop in the rain.
“Why do we fall, Jason?”
Jason is quiet, nothing but their breathing and the birds in the trees. “I don’t know,” Jason admits finally. “If I figure it out, I’ll call you.”
The gravel crunches under his boots when he walks away, his bike still running. After another minute, Dick goes over and turns it off, leaving the keys in the ignition. Inside the Manor, the lights are on, the hearth lit. Movement flickers in an upstairs window; Damian has caught sight of his approach.
When the door opens, it’s not Alfred.
“Hey,” Dick says, trying a smile. “You eat yet?”
“No,” Tim says stiffly. “We were waiting for you.”
“Everybody,” Tim mutters, scuffing his foot against the front step. “Steph and Cass and O, everybody.” He lapses into silence, darting guilty little looks through his bangs at Dick’s face.
Dick pulls him into a one armed hug. “I’m thinking about taking Cass train riding,” he says. “You wanna come with and show her how it’s done?”
“Please,” Tim scoffs, but he’s smiling. “She’ll wipe the floor with both of us.”
“Probably,” Dick agrees cheerfully. He ruffles Tim’s hair. “Go on ahead; if we go in together Damian will lose his damn mind.”
“But I did greet you first,” Tim says smugly, and scampers off. More and more like a brother every day, Dick thinks, and then Bruce steps into the entryway.
Dick straightens. “You should apologize to him for putting him up to playing me.”
“I didn’t put him up to it.”
Dick pauses. “Oh.” More like Bruce than any of them had feared. He sighs. “That kid’s gonna be a lot of trouble when he gets older.”
“There’s isn’t a child alive who isn’t trouble to their parents.” Bruce shifts, more awkward in a button up shirt and slacks than he ever is in a giant batsuit. “Are you--” he cuts himself off, shaking his head sharply. “I would prefer--” he stops himself again, visibly frustrated.
“Wow,” Dick says, watching him with eyebrows raised. “How long did you and Clark practice this?”
“Hours,” Bruce mutters sulkily. “Diana took pictures.”
Dick smiles, easy and bright, and watches the harshest of lines around Bruce’s eyes fade away at the sight. It’s easy to think about everything Batman does to piss him and everyone they’ve ever allied with off, but Dick never thinks about all the things they do to keep Bruce up at night, in his own way. Everything in his own way.
Bruce’s eyes flick to Jason’s bike; his face freezes, twists, then smoothes out completely. “He might come in when he gets back,” Dick offers gently. “Went for a walk, that’s all.”
“He won’t,” Bruce says simply, and stares out at the edge of the trees. It’s too far and too dark to see anything, even for the Batman, but Dick watches him look anyway.
“Bruce,” he says abruptly, and Bruce’s eyes snap to him, all the focus and intensity of the sun. “Why do we fall?”
Inside, Damian’s shrill shrieking interspersed with Stephanie’s high cackled laugh and Tim’s lower-toned shouting, the smells of dinner and a roaring fire trickling out into the foyer. Bruce’s face, familiar and expressionless, the minute furrow between his eyes. Jason, alone out in the cold, trying to figure it out.
And then, like a rubber band snapping, everything eases. Not resolved, not fixed, just… eased.
“So we can learn to pick ourselves up,” Bruce says quietly, and rests his hand on Dick’s shoulder. They walk inside together.