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Life's But a Walking Shadow

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Dick doesn’t know where he is.

Well, that’s not completely true. He’s sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, somewhere in the middle of Gotham. There’s not a lot of people, but the weak sun is still occasionally breaking through the clouds, so Dick thinks it must be before rush hour. The people around him give him a wide berth, but Dick hardly notices. He keeps getting distracted by the shadows in the corner of his eye. He could have sworn he saw—

No. Batman doesn’t come out during the day. Not unless there’s an emergency. And Dick can’t think of anything that’d be classified an emergency when it seems so calm. Actually, Dick’s having trouble thinking at all.

But he knows for sure that it’s not Batman. Can’t be. He wouldn’t be scared of it if it was, right?

There’s—something. Something he’s supposed to remember. Something to do with Bruce. He thinks that maybe he should find Bruce. Or call him. Maybe it’ll help him remember, think. He’s supposed to tell Bruce about—about—

Something to do with water. Other than that, he can’t grasp it. He can’t make his thoughts form anything coherent.

There’s another—it’s not a flash. It’s more a growing embodiment of fear and darkness on the edge of his vision, creating a dark mass that catches his attention. But when he turns his head to look at it, it’s gone. Nothing there. Poof.

Unease grows in his stomach, and Dick thinks that maybe he should get up now. There’s something seriously wrong, and he needs to get to Bruce to tell him about the water. He hopes that the shadow doesn’t follow him all the way home. Dick doesn’t know how to get rid of it, so if it does, he’ll have to risk exposing his family to the danger of it.

That thought makes him slightly sick, and Dick makes no move to get up. People pay him no attention besides a cursory first glance. Dick watches the shadow creep closer, morphing and contorting as it makes its way towards him.

When his phone rings, Dick barely hears it. He keeps his eyes on the shadow, but it starts to feel like he’s falling apart. Like his grip on reality is slipping and sliding all over the place, and it takes a few more minutes for Dick to realize that he is literally shaking apart.

He’s sitting on the sidewalk, shaking and sweating as he watches a shadow he can’t take his eyes off of, and his cell phone rings. There’s something wrong. He just can’t figure it out.

Dick picks up this time without looking. “Hello?”

“Dick!” a voice says, and behind the distortion, there’s relief. Dick listens to the voice babble on about something before he realizes that whoever’s on the line is trying to talk to him. “—are right now and I’ll come get you. We can get pizza and eat our hearts out to drown out whatever’s on your mind, bro.”

“Wally?” Dick asks, his forehead crinkling in confusion. Why is Wally calling him?

“Yeah,” Wally says, his words a beat slower this time. “Yeah, it’s me. You okay, man?”

Dick thinks about that for a minute. He licks his lips and thinks about the growing shadow he can’t stop tracking. He thinks about the bad feeling in his gut. He thinks about how he can’t tell whether he’s shivering or shaking. He thinks about the need to get to Bruce and tell him about the water, but the absolute fear of bringing the shadow into contact with the people he loves. And then he thinks about how absolute none of those pieces seem to make any sense when he tries to fit them together. It’s like they don’t even belong to the same puzzle, though he’s sure that he’d gotten them from the same box.

“I don’t think so,” Dick says, and he’s feeling a little dizzy now, too. Light-headed. Everything but the shadow has gone fuzzy around the edges, and finally—finally—it clicks into place what’s happening to him. “I think I’ve been drugged.”

Wally sucks in a sharp breath, blows it out, and speaks slow enough that even Dick, in his hazy, drugged state, can follow.

“Okay,” Wally says. “Okay, first things first. Do you know where you are?”

“A street,” Dick tells him. Easy question.

“Which street?” Wally asks.

Harder question. Dick doesn’t know. And he doesn’t get to answer before he’s shuffling back from the middle of the sidewalk to press his shoulders against the wall of the building behind him. The shadow—the one morphing and contorting and growing—shoots out a tendril and almost curls around his ankle but—he jerks it away at the last moment, and the shadow retreats for the moment.

He’s left with his lungs feeling tight. Like he can’t get enough air. Wally’s small and tinny voice sounds from the phone still clutched in Dick’s right hand, but Dick can’t pay attention to him right now. He’d just talked to Wally for a second and the shadow had made a grab for him. He has to watch for it, make sure it doesn’t try to—

Wally’s in his face in a moment, shielding him from the shadows, and Dick blinks. Wally’s hands are like steel as they grip his upper arms, and Wally’s presence is just so much. Like a hot bath after sleeping in the snow. It’s overwhelming.

“Breathe,” Wally orders, and Dick does. Wally doesn’t seem satisfied, though. “Again.”

Dick tries to suck in another breath, but his chest hitches and his eyes screw up and his hands grip the front of Wally’s jacket and there’s just too much. Any moment now, Wally is going to move and the shadow will come roaring after him. It’ll grab him and drag him into the unknown, and he doesn’t think he can handle that.

Not after it’d already practically consumed him last time.

Wally cups Dick’s face in his hands. “Hey, hey. Hang on, Dick. Bruce is on his way. He’s going to fix whatever’s wrong with you.”

“Water,” Dick manages to choke out. “It was—water. Bruce.”

Shaking his head, Wally brushes away tears Dick hadn’t even realized were falling. “Dick, I don’t—I don’t know what that means.”

“Move,” someone else says.

Wally’s head snaps up, but when Wally’s eyes go wide and he makes to pull away, Dick shakes his head and grips Wally’s jacket harder, whispering, “No. No, no, no,” over and over again, until Wally covers Dick’s hands and squeezes, shuffling to the side to make room for the new person who—oh.

Bruce is here. Dick thinks that maybe he’s going to cry in relief, but then he remembers that he’s already crying.

“Hey. Look at me,” Bruce says, his voice low and calm and gentle like it is in his memories and those quiet moments just after a life or death situation. Bruce’s eyes don’t waver, and Dick focuses on his dad’s face, his fingers uncurling from Wally’s jacket to reach instead for Bruce’s. Bruce pulls him in slowly, gently, and Dick falls forward and buries his face in Bruce’s chest, closing his eyes against the dizziness.

He can’t remember what’s happening, but he knows—just like he’ll always know—that he’s safe here. He’s okay. The shadow—it can’t get him as long as Bruce is here.

“Let’s get you home,” Bruce says quietly, and he pulls Dick to his feet, supporting his weight when Dick’s feet threatening to collapse out from underneath him. Bruce’s arms are around him, Wally’s hand is on his back, and Dick keeps his head tucked Bruce’s shoulder as they lead him towards the street.

Dick still feels dizzy and light-headed, and he can’t put the puzzle pieces together very well, but he manages a sharp breath and a quiet, “The water, Bruce.”

And Bruce tightens his arms around Dick and says, “I know. Tim’s taking care of it as we speak.”

And, of course, that’s when Dick collapses, darkness taking over and the echo of his name in his ears.

When Dick wakes up, it’s slow. And when he opens his eyes, it’s hazy. But not the fuzziness he can hardly remember from before, full of shadows and monsters and puzzle pieces that don’t seem to fit as he sits on concrete in the middle of the sidewalk. All alone and scared of something that’s not actually real.

Well, in a sense. He knows what those shadows represented in his head, and just the thought of them make him unbelievably tired and world weary. So he doesn’t think about it anymore.

Dick’s lying on a medical cot in the Cave. He’s attached to an IV, and Dick wonders just how long he was out. He feels bone tired. Exhausted in a way he hasn’t been since maybe the day he’d been strapped to a bomb and had to stop his heart in order to stop said bomb.

“Hey,” a soft voice says, and Dick blinks at the redhead sitting at his bedside. Wally doesn’t look so hot, either, and he’s looking at Dick with wary eyes. “How are you feeling?”

Dick hums, and croaks out, “Tired.”

Wally chuckles. “You should go back to sleep.”

“The water?” Dick asks instead of acknowledging that last statement. He’ll go to sleep when he knows that everything’s okay. “Did Bruce get to it on time?”

Wally blows out a sigh and leans back in his chair. “You know, I still don’t know what that means.”

“It means,” Bruce says before Dick can even open his mouth to answer, striding into the medical wing of the Cave in sweats and a T-shirt, “that Scarecrow was trying to drug the city’s water supply, and the only reason that he didn’t was because Dick had enough sense in him to activate the tracker at the plant and alert Tim into checking it out when we couldn’t get a hold of him.”

“Tim okay?” Dick asks.

“He’s fine,” Bruce tells him, standing on the other side of Dick’s bed, across from Wally. He looks hesitant about something, but he finally sighs and drops a hand in Dick’s hair, sweeping a thumb across Dick’s forehead in a rare show of comfort. Dick closes his eyes under the ministrations. “You, on the other, are not.”

Dick frowns, but doesn’t open his eyes. “I’m okay.”

“You weren’t,” Bruce says, but it’s Wally that elaborates since they both know that Bruce won’t.

“We almost lost you a couple times,” Wally tells him softly, and Dick feels Wally grab his limp hand and squeeze. “It was—well. Terrifying. We’re just lucky that Bruce and I managed to isolate the new component in Scarecrow’s new toxin when we did.”

“Thank you,” Dick whispers, but no one responds. There’s silence for a while, and Dick feels himself floating away, back into a doze. He only hums when Bruce moves his hand from Dick’s hair to Dick’s shoulder and drops a gentle kiss on Dick’s forehead, like Wally isn’t sitting right there.

“Get some sleep, Dick,” Bruce says.

And Dick, already seconds away from floating back into slumber, lets himself relax. With Bruce and Wally here, and everything okay, he’s safe. No more shadows or monsters or puzzle pieces. Just his dad and his best friend. So, he sleeps.