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If Happiness Won't Come To Me

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He’s not where he’d normally be, is the thing.  There’re rumors of a new meta, a kid who’s started dabbling in shoplifting, joyriding – small, petty crimes – whose face no one can ever recall.  Normally, Jason’d let the Bat deal with it – what else is he good for – but Sandra, who works the corner across from his favorite dive bar in the Bowery, mentioned that the kid might be one of theirs. Jason has at least some sympathy for Crime Alley street kids, having been one himself, and anyone who Sandra worries about has to be at least halfway decent, so, reluctantly, he’s trying to find the idiot before Batman can scare them half to death or skip the possibility of redemption and just throw them in Arkham.

He wouldn’t wish Arkham on anybody, especially not some kid who hasn’t even hurt anyone yet.

But the point is, he’s way outside of his normal route, in a part of the city that’s poorer but still pretty quiet – lot of six-floor walk-ups full of working families, a couple of local storefronts – when he stumbles on him.  He’s hidden, tucked away behind the crumbling false façade of a building that somehow escaped destruction or renovation.  It’s a good place, a smart place, dark, out of the way, and Jason’s unsure if he even realized it existed before this moment. Is pretty sure he didn’t, or he would have used it before now as a place to stop and lick his wounds.

So he’s free jumping, roof of one apartment to the next, and ends up falling a few feet when the roof is most of a story lower than expected.  But he’s fine, rolls into it, and fetches up right next to, “Replacement? What the hell are you doing here?”

He’s in costume, curled into himself, shaking so slightly that Jason wouldn’t notice if his face wasn’t just a few inches from Tim’s side.  There’s something odd about his smile, a sharpness to it that seems wrong, too wide with too many teeth.  Tim’s smiles, what little Jason’s seen of them, are close-mouthed affairs, there and gone, mischief in the curl. 

“Seriously, you ok?”

Tim starts to giggle, and it’s wrong, wrong enough that Jason scrambles away almost as soon as it registers, and he’s halfway across the roof before he realizes why.

“Where is he?” Jason demands, looking around, weight on the balls of his feet, ready.  “How much did he hit you with?”

“No, no,” Tim gasps between laughs, and Jason hates Joker venom, hates the way Tim’s still smiling even through his panic, “It’s not – it’s not what you think.”

He reaches out, something in his hand, and Jason forces himself to step forward, still wary, still watching.  It’s a syringe, empty, and Jason’s not at all reassured.

“Is the fact that the antidote’s not working supposed to make this better? Cause it sure as hell ain’t.”

Tim’s still laughing, short little chuckles that sound more like choking than amusement, and Jason’s about thirty seconds away from calling for some kind of back-up when the kid starts trying to speak again. 

“Not – not th’antidote. Not Joker.  Mine.”

It takes a second, but the realization Jason comes to is horrifying.

“You dosed yourself. With Joker venom.”

Tim nods, still smiling, still shivering.  At least the laughter has tapered off, not that that really makes this better, not that anything could make this better.  Jason’s reeling, trying to decide between screaming – he’s not sure if at the kid or into the night would be better at this point – or punching something. Maybe the wall. Probably not Tim. 

He pulls out his current burner instead.  Tim goes pale – paler – as soon as he sees the phone, trying to scramble up and grab it, but he’s breathless from laughter and Jason’s fast, dancing out of reach. He dials one of the few numbers he keeps memorized, trying not to shudder when Tim whimpers through his rictus grin.

“What,” he hears, grumpy and slightly modulated, as he dodges Tim’s punch.

“O, it’s Hood.”  The next punch connects, stronger than he expected, and he grunts.  “I need N’s number.  Emergency.”

“What kind of emergency?” She sounds wary, and he doesn’t blame her, but he hasn’t got time, not with the way Tim went a little crazy when he mentioned Nightwing.  Jason’s taller and stronger and sober, but Tim’s quick and mean, and holding him off without hurting him when he only has one hand is turning out to be harder than he expected.

“Barbie, please.”  The giggles are back, and he’s not sure how much longer he can hear them without snapping, the green tingeing his vision only held at bay by the nausea in his gut.

She must hear something, either the giggles or his desperation, because she relents.  “I’ll patch you through.  Make me regret it and I’ll send blackmail material to Robin.”

“Thank you,” he gasps, jumping a leg sweep.  If he could just pin the fucker…

There’s a click followed by a too cheery voice. “N here, what’s up?”

“Get to Robbinsville. Trent Avenue, near 81st. Need your help.  Now.”  Tim gives up trying to grab the phone and bolts for the closest adjacent roof.  “Shit! Heading north, following Red Robin. Catch up.”  He hangs up, already in pursuit.  He can’t – whatever’s between them, he refuses to leave the kid alone while he’s dosed.  Even if he did it on purpose. 

He forgets how fast the kid is, and he knows the city, or at least this part of it, far too well.  If it wasn’t for the way he can’t quite seem to catch his breath, the slight clumsiness to his movements, Jason’s pretty sure he would have already lost him.  As it is, he’s getting way more of a workout than he planned for the evening, and can’t seem to shorten Tim’s lead at all.

At least, not until Dick pops up out of nowhere, right in Tim’s path.  Tim skids to a stop, and that plus the second of hesitation while he works out which direction to go is all Jason needs.  He executes an impressive flying tackle, turning in the air so he doesn’t crush Tim when they land, and then immediately rolling over on top of him for a crude pin. 

“What the hell?” There’s Dick.  “Get off of him!”

“Not –“  Tim tries to buck, but Jason’s got the advantage.  The kid’s laughing again, and this close Jason can feel the tremors.  He swallows down bile.  “Not until he quits trying to run away!”

“Hood…” Dick’s slipped into his threatening tone, all ice and promise.  Jason figures he’s got about ten seconds to explain himself before Dick throws him off of Tim.

“He’s on something!  Joker venom, I think, or something similar. Just listen.”

The awful, wheezing giggles are loud, louder than the soft noises of struggling bodies, and Jason looks up just in time to see Dick stiffen.  The knot in his belly unclenches, just enough, now that he’s got someone on his side.  Dick’s good at dealing with their fucked-up family, better than Jason is or ever wants to be.  He can pass Tim over, go home and drink until the Joker’s laugh stops ringing in his ears, until he can forget the sight of that syringe in Tim’s hand.

Dick’s crouching down now, a litany of reassurances springing from his mouth, “Hey, it’s ok, you’re safe, we’ve got you,” and “Come on baby bird, let us help,” as he pulls out what look like mini epipens, sorting through until he finds the right one, while Tim shakes his head, mumbling denials between bouts of laughter. “We need to get his cowl off.”

“Any booby traps I need to know about?”

Dick shrugs.  He’s gonna take that as ‘probably not’, and shifts his hold until he has a hand free, slipping it over Tim’s cheek until his fingers catch under the edge of the cowl, easing it up and off.  He pretends it’s too dark to notice the tears. 

Dick’s as gentle as he can be when he grabs Tim’s head to hold him still and sticks the needle in the back of his neck.  Jason knows he noticed the tears.  He does stuff like that, acknowledges emotion in other people instead of ignoring it. It used to drive Jason crazy, still does, most of the time, too used to equating sadness with weakness, even if these days he grudgingly admires the inherent honesty.

Tim goes limp as soon as Dick pulls away, shoving the used epipen into his boot to deal with later, still murmuring reassurances.

“Let him go, Jay,” he says after the laughing tapers off.

Jason complies, rolls off and away, and watches as Dick lays a careful hand on Tim’s back.  The kid doesn’t move, and Jason has a moment where he wonders if they messed up, if whatever Tim cooked up reacted badly with the normal antidote, but he shifts, lifts himself up to his elbows, then his knees, slow and controlled and weary.

“What happened?” Dick asks once Tim’s mostly upright, sitting back on his heels.  “Was it one of the Joker’s henchmen?  A copycat?” 

Tim doesn’t answer, doesn’t even lift his head.  The tears seem to have dried up, and Tim’s face looks thinner without the permanent grin, but there’s still something off.  Tim’s the best out of all of them at stillness, at waiting, but he’s always thinking, calculating, even while motionless.  Now he looks… blank.

“Tim?”

“He dosed himself,” Jason interrupts, desperate to get to the point so Dick can fix this.

Dick’s face flickers, confusion to horror to something close to anger, the domino hiding none of it, not that it ever has.  Of all their fucked-up family of vigilantes, Nightwing’s always been the most blatantly emotional.  It’s a weapon in its own way, one that Jason doesn’t quite understand, even if he admits to its effectiveness.

Tim still hasn’t moved, not even to brace himself.  There’s fog rolling in off the water, the smell of moisture in the air, smoke and trash and Gotham, and Jason considers slipping away, leaving these two to their problems, but something about that stillness holds him on the roof, a sympathetic lack of motion, a holding in of breath, as he waits for what comes next.

“Is that true, Red?  Did you do this to yourself?”  Tim nods, the barest dip of a chin.  Dick exhales.  “Why?”

Finally, finally, the kid looks up, his eyes dull, empty.  “It won’t hurt me,” he says, like that makes it better.

“Was it an experiment, one of those –“ Dick waves his hand, “ – tests you do?”  Jason doesn’t think about the cavalier way he says tests, doesn’t think about the kid experimenting on himself, Jesus… “Was this the first time?”

“Steph started classes today,” Tim croaks, “She called and told me all about it, she was so excited.” 

Dick opens his mouth to interrupt, put the conversation back on track, but Jason stops him.  He recognizes the shape of a confession, understands that sometimes you’ve got to wander, work your way up to it.

“Usually, I don’t, usually I’m not in costume when I – but sometimes it’s enough, the fighting, or I can distract myself, or – I can get close, I mean, and besides, I can’t just slack off patrol.  I’m not, not slacking, it doesn’t affect my work.  And I did tests, I can still fight, still run, just maybe not at peak, but it’s no different than being tired, or, or hurt, and we go out like that all the time.  But still, I don’t – it’s after, when I’m home, usually.  But today – it was quiet, and no one ever comes to that rooftop, most people don’t know it’s there, and I just – she was so happy, and I – I was tired of feeling nothing.”

Tim says all of this in an idle monotone completely at odds with the words.  Jason feels sick, again, or maybe the feeling simply hasn’t gone away.

“Is it just like that? Do other people just feel numb all the time?  Is that what this job does?  Or am I just not – not strong enough, not good enough?  I don’t –“ 

Which is when Jason decides he can’t do this anymore and runs.

***

Jason’s been twitchy since Tim started talking, so it’s not a surprise when he bolts back towards the Bowery, but it does have the unfortunate side effect of causing Tim to cut himself off.

“You don’t what, Tim?” Dick coaxes, burying whatever horror he feels at Tim’s confession as deep as it will go to be dealt with later.  After they’re off this roof.  After Tim’s safe.  Then Dick can rage and throw things and probably end up crying on his couch. Right now, he needs to be quiet and calm and not do anything that will drive his baby brother even further away.

Joker venom though, god, how can Joker venom – even in a modified form – be better than any other alternative? 

Tim shakes his head and refuses to keep talking.  He’s still kneeling on the dirty rooftop, hasn’t even tried to get up, and his posture is too loose, too uncaring, for it to read as right.  All the Bats understand body language, but it’s Dick’s second language, and he knows his family’s like favorite pop songs.  Tim’s song has dipped into a minor key without him noticing, and he wonders if he’s been that oblivious or if Tim’s just that good at hiding.

Dick sighs.  Basics first.  “When’s the last time you slept?  In a bed?”

“I don’t really sleep. There’s too much…” Tim trails off, drops his gaze back to the ground.

“Bed then.”  Dicks stops, considers.  Tim’s always been skinny, but maybe he’s skinnier now? It’s hard to tell with the body armor. “Food first, then bed.”

“We’re not going to talk about it?”  Dick can’t figure out if the wisp of emotion in Tim’s voice is hope or disappointment.

Either way, he can’t let that stand.  “Oh, we’re talking about it,” he says before walking over lifting Tim to his feet. “Tomorrow.  After we’ve gotten some sleep.  When we’re not in costume.”  When I’ve thought of what to say.“So come on.  Apartment. You got food, or are we picking something up on the way?”

Tim pulls out of his grip, and Dick barely suppresses the urge to pull him back, to keep him under his hands, where he’s safe.  He watches as Tim replaces the cowl and becomes Red Robin, calculating and assured without any hint of the awful blank uncertainty that came before.  It’s painful, in its own way, to see the person subsumed by the hero, to know that the cracks are covered but not healed, hidden so well that no one’s noticed how deep they run.

“We... we should pick something up,” Tim says.  “I don’t really cook.”

So he probably isn’t eating. Great.  Basics first, Dick reminds himself.  “Ok then, pizza or Chinese?”

They decide on Chinese, and Dick makes Tim come with him to get it, unwilling to let him out of his sight, even if they’re mostly pretending everything is fine, that Dick didn’t answer an emergency call from the Red Hood and find his little brother high on Joker venom.

Which reminds him, he’ll need to check in on Jason at some point, thank him.  Things are better between them, but mutual avoidance is a far cry from actual assistance.  And Jason… anything that even hints towards the Joker hits him hard.

The first view of the inside of Tim’s apartment makes Dick freeze for the barest of seconds.  The place is bland, sterile, looks more like a showroom than a home.  Dick remembers Tim’s room at the Manor, the way every surface had something on it, a book or half-dismantled gadget or computer piece, and shudders.  This, whatever this is, is wrong.  If he’s lucky, this room is just a front, a way to keep people disinterested, but if he’s not… He tries to remember if he’s ever been over to Tim’s place before, and is ashamed to admit that he hasn’t, even though Tim’s been living here at least a year, maybe longer.

He follows Tim down to the basement, a miniature Batcave with its own overblown computer set-up. It’s less sterile, but there’s still no sign of Tim here, and the buzzing fluorescents give him a headache almost immediately. 

They strip, Tim, throwing him sweats and a t-shirt from the stock of random clothes they all keep, and Dick sees out of the corner of his eye that he was right to insist on food, Tim’s muscles and bones too prominent, no layer of fat to smooth away the ridges. They all get like that sometimes, when cases pile up or there’s an Arkham breakout or some other kind of disaster, bodies pushed to their limits and not enough time to eat the necessary calories, but that doesn’t make it easier to see, especially when there’s no good reason for it considering how quiet it’s been lately.

It takes Tim slightly longer than Dick to change, traps to disable and extra buckles, but soon enough they’re back in the awful apartment, cartons of rice and beef and broccoli open in front of them.  At least here there’s no fluorescent light, and while Tim eats mechanically he is eating.

They don’t talk, just glance at each other when they think the other isn’t looking.  Dick’s head is curiously blank, determined to think only of the food in front of him and maybe, in flickers, getting Tim to bed. Anything beyond that gets shoved aside to deal with later.  It’s late, after midnight but before dawn.  Dick’s exhausted, more than he should be, or maybe not, considering, but Tim isn’t even yawning.

“Aren’t you tired?” Dicks asks, too abrupt.  Tim blinks at him.

“I’m always tired. But never tired enough.  Or maybe too tired?” He shrugs and takes another precise bite of broccoli.  “Sleep isn’t important.”

Dick opens his mouth, pauses, thinks about it, and decides to say it anyway, “We’re talking about that tomorrow, too.”

Tim doesn’t respond, but something flickers again, in his face, his body, and Dick has to stop himself from pursuing it.  Tomorrow,he reminds himself again.  When they’ve slept.  When he knows he can keep buried the screaming fear, the rage, that this is what they’ve come to, that none of them noticed.  Tomorrow, he’ll fix this.  Start to.  Something.

“Bed,” he says, once the cartons are empty and the forks in the sink.

Tim shuffles off to his bedroom, and Dick wars with himself over whether he should follow or not.  On the one hand, Tim’s an adult, and privacy is important, on the other… on the other he just discovered that his little brother is depressed and purposely inhaling Joker venom, so who cares about a little invasion of privacy.  He follows, ends up leaning in the doorway. The bedroom is a little better than the rest of apartment, bed unmade, a few things scattered around, but it’s still horribly impersonal and too clean, all the walls blank.

“What happened to all your pictures?” he asks, remembering black-and-white cityscapes, places familiar from standing on roofs and fire escapes across the city.

“Got rid of them,” is the too simple answer, muttered as Tim crawls into bed.  “Are you going to stand there all night?” 

Dick bites back his instinctive yes, says, “I’m thinking about it,” instead. 

“I don’t keep anything in my bedroom.” 

Dick closes his eyes, breathes out, controlled.  “Good to know.”  He can’t stay here and watch, he needs to figure out what the hell to do.  “I’ll be on the couch.  Sleep.”

His well-honed repression abilities are breaking down fast and he needs to get out, before he does something stupid like throw all of Tim’s nice suits on the floor just so there’s a mess, or wrap his brother up in the comforter and carry him to his own apartment and feed him until he stops looking so stretched thin.

He closes the door, far enough that light will be blocked, but not enough to engage the latch, and waits long enough to hear Tim’s breath deepen as he slips into sleep.  He sighs in relief, and turns around to find the Red Hood sitting on the couch.

He startles, but doesn’t yell, partly because he refuses to wake up Tim for any reason whatsoever, partly out of long exposure to sneaking Bats.  Jason – because it is Jason, even the domino off, probably folded next to the helmet gleaming on the coffee table – doesn’t look at him.  Dick’s not completely positive he knows he’s back in the room.

It’s shocking to see him here, considering Dick didn’t think he even knew where Tim’s apartment was, much less how to disable the security in order to get inside, but not as surprising as maybe it should be.  Dick doesn’t pretend to understand most of Jason’s motivations anymore, but he’s always held on to the belief that he cares, even if whether he cares about them is sometimes up for debate.

“How’d you get in?” he asks, and manages a small smile at the way Jason jumps.

“Like the punk Replacement could keep me out.”

“You called Oracle.”

Jason looks mutinous. Dick raises an eyebrow.  “I called Oracle,” he finally admits.

Dick sighs and sits down next to him.  “How much does she know?  No, wait, that’s a stupid question, how much did you tell her?”

Jason shrugs.  He’s still off, wound too tight or just unsure of his welcome.  “Just that something’s up.  I was vague on the specifics.”

They lapse into silence. It’s not… awkward, precisely, but it is fraught, heavy with the weight of the night.  Now that it’s time to plan for tomorrow, Dick’s at a loss.  There are a thousand ways the morning’s conversation could go, and so far, none of them end pretty.

Tim’s smart, the smartest person Dick’s ever met, even if he’s frequently so, so stupid about people. But he knows how to manipulate, to present, to twist his words into exactly what you want to hear, and leave you thinking everything’s just fine, he’s just fine.  Dick can’t let that happen this time, has to assume that Tim’s confession tonight, exhausted and shaking, is truer than whatever highly plausible story he spins tomorrow.

Dick trusts to Tim to make the right decision in the field, always, without question.  He doesn’t trust him with this.

Jason’s started fidgeting. It’s weirdly soothing, his inability to keep still.  Maybe because Dick feels heavy enough to never move again, exhaustion overlaying his bones.  That’s happening more often lately, the careless energy he exudes growing harder and harder to find.  He’s old, for a vigilante, and isn’t that a depressing thought.

Apparently, the silence is less restful to Jason than it is to Dick, because he interrupts it with a belligerent, “Aren’t you going to ask what I’m doing here?”

“Sure.  What are you doing here, Jason?” Dick asks, deadpan.

It’s obvious Jason doesn’t quite know what to with that, gaping at Dick before going back on the offensive.  “I was going to get drunk.”

That sounds like an excellent idea.  “I bet Tim’s got a bottle of something somewhere in this awful apartment.  We could open it.  It’s probably one of Bruce’s horrible Scotches, but still.” Jason stares at him.  “What?  I’d be stealing it or pouring it down the drain tomorrow anyway.”

“I don’t need to get drunk.” Jason shushes him when he tries to interrupt, because isn’t that why he’s here, but, “I went home and poured myself a shot of rotgut whiskey, the kind that burns, sharp, nothin’ kind about it, and I could still hear that laugh after I took it, and all that laugh brings is green, and if I’d gotten drunk like I wanted I probably woulda destroyed half my apartment.”  Jason laughs, bitter.  “Not that you’d know anything about that, Golden Boy.” 

“Really?”  Dick doesn’t get it, how Jason can still believe that after all these years.  “How the hell did you miss it?  You were there for plenty of my fights with Bruce, even if you shouldn’t have been, you know how angry I can get, and you think I don’t know?”

Jason snorts.  “The jaws of darkness do devour it up; so quick bright things come to confusion.”

“What?”  It’s a quote, that much is obvious, but Dick doesn’t get it.

“You were always a quick bright thing, Dickbird.  Even if occasionally devoured by the jaws of darkness.  Destructive rage has never been your MO." 

There’s a yearning in Jason’s voice, at odds with the way he rolls his eyes.  Dick can’t help but reach out, grab his shoulder, even if he immediately stiffens.

“And you?” he asks. “Weren’t you a quick bright thing too? You kept insisting Robin was magic, and I hated and loved you for it, because you really believed that.  I’d mostly just pretended.”

Jason shrugs him off and stands, back to Dick.  “Even if I was, I’m sure not anymore.”  He shakes his head, sharp, both negation and dismissal.  “What are we doing about the kid?” 

Dick wishes, well, a lot of things, but right now he wishes Jason hadn’t so deliberately changed the subject, a set to his shoulders that screams defensive, but he’s nothing if not adaptable.  Besides, maybe Jason has a better idea of what the hell to do.

“Oh, it’s we now?”

“Yes,” Jason growls, “I’m not super happy about it either.”  He turns back around, shoulders slumping, and runs a hand over his face.  “Look, I’m not sure how much help I’ll be.  I’m not – not good at this stuff.  I’ll – I’ll probably – definitely – run out again at some point.”

“Jason,” Dick asks, this time in all seriousness, because that – that was far more open and honest than usual.  “Why are you here?”

His smile is awful, more teeth than anything else, the kind of smile where you half-expect to see blood. He doesn’t answer.

***

Tim comes out of his bedroom the next morning with a sheepish smile, almost good enough to be real. He’s been up for a while, Jason heard him rustling around, but he guesses it took a time for him to figure out how to play this.  Jason doesn’t know why he would bother, but Dick insisted last night that Tim would attempt some kind of story.

His, “Hey, about last night…” supports that theory, but he stops whatever explanation he was going to attempt when he sees that it’s Jason and not Dick on the couch.  Jason wants to make fun of his terrible observation skills, but in Tim’s defense, he’d been lying down and it’s possible all Tim had seen was his hair, which is similar enough to Dick’s that it’s not a horrible lapse.

Normally, he’d still do it, but this morning is not normal.  For more reasons than Jason wants to think about.

“What are you doing here?” 

“Dick went to get food,” he doesn’t answer.  They’d come to an agreement last night, the two of them, across the void of the middle couch cushion and the coffee table when one of them felt the need to move, to pace back and forth across the soft carpet.

The agreement boiled down to helping the damn kid no matter how much he protested, so Jason wasn’t sure agreement was the right word so much as obvious course of action, but whatever worked.  They’d even shook on it.  They’d also agreed to only involve Bruce if absolutely necessary, even if Jason’s definition of absolutely necessary tended towards imminent death while Dick’s was more along the lines of any kind of bodily harm. 

Afterwards they’d fallen asleep on the couch, top to tails like they had as kids, and Jason had woken up to Dick making mournful noises at the lack of cereal – or any form of food, really – in Tim’s apartment.

“How did you know where I lived?”  Tim asks, the confusion and wariness forcing the mask to slip just a little.  He still looks exhausted, despite the sleep, and some of Dick’s too early muttering had been along the lines of too thin, and Jason can see it, now that the kid’s in PJs not Kevlar.

“Juice?”  Better to keep the kid off balance, if he can.  “We found a can of frozen orange juice in the freezer.  Don’t know why you have that and not eggs, but hey, whatever works.”

“Steph, margaritas,” he waves that away with a sharp sweep of his hand, “this does not explain why you are in my apartment.”

Jason ignores him and walks over to pull the orange juice out of the fridge.  It’s sort of terrible, but Jason’s had much worse, and any kind of nutrients they can get into the kid is probably good. 

“If this is about last night, it was just an experiment.  I know anything about the Joker is… difficult, but I thought if we could synthesize our own version of the Joker venom, we could make our antidotes more effective, and now that we’ve got a non-lethal form, we could even use it against the Joker, if we wanted.  Bruce might take some convincing, but if we tried…”

The kid’s good, Jason will give him that.  The story makes sense, and the ending is tailored to offer something he thinks Jason might want, but Tim isn’t the only one Bat-trained, and Jason can see the calculations flickering across his face, the way he changes tactics from demanding to pleading.

Time to maybe, if he’s lucky, turn the tables.  “So how long you been working on this?”

Tim shrugs, relieved. “A few months, on and off.” 

Jason makes sure to keep his tone even, nonchalant.  “And you’ve been testing it on yourself that long?” 

“It took at least a month to make sure it was safe, so I started trials sometime in the spring?”

This is way worse than he thought.  “It’s September.  You’ve been purposefully inhaling Joker venom for over three months?”  Tim blinks at the way his voice has gone dark.  He wants to shake him.  “No, nope, I am not doing this without Dick.  Stop talking.”

“It’s fine, it’s not –“

“It is not fine!” Jason bellows.  He needs to hit something.  “This is so very far from fine, you have no idea, and if you do not shut up– “

He’s interrupted by the front door swinging open, revealing Dick with two of those stupid reusable grocery totes slung over an arm.  It’s annoying how relieved he is at the sight.  Dick, of all fucking people, should not be a relief.

“I… brought bacon?” Dick looks between Jason, leaned over the counter with a glass that he never got around to filling in front of him, and Tim, stuck frozen in the middle of his obnoxious open plan main room, and decides that ignoring whatever he walked in on is the better part of valor.  “Also eggs, and cheese, and tortillas instead of bread, so we can make breakfast quesadillas.”

“You don’t have to feed me, Dick,” the kid says, all earnest wide eyes.  “I usually just grab a muffin or something on the way in to the office.”

“But, Timbo…”

“Yeah, yeah, real fucking domestic,”  Jason interrupts.  They don’t have time for this.  “Dickie, he’s been taking the stuff since the spring.”

What.”  Dick looks sick.  “It’s September.” 

Jason throws up his hands. “That’s what I said!  But Replacement over here –“

“Don’t call him that,” Dick interjects, and really?

“Not the point!  He –“ Tim’s started subtly shrinking, and Jason tries to calm down, “ – seems to think it’s fine.”

“It is fine!  It’s just an experiment!”  Tim’s trying for calm and reasonable, but Jason knows that trapped animal look in his eyes.  It’s been in his own often enough.

“Do you even hear yourself?” Jason runs a hand over his face, abruptly exhausted.  “You are purposefully dosing yourself with a drug that causes psychosis.  There is not a single universe where that falls under the definition of fine.”

“He’s right, Tim,” Dick says softly, before Tim can respond with whatever stupid thing he was about to say. “Let us help?  Please?”

“I’m –“ Jason growls, and Tim cuts off before he can say fine again.  He looks lost.  “Why do you care?  What does it matter?  You –“ he points at Jason, “ – tried to kill me.  You –“ Dick this time, “ – are busy with your own shit, and it’s not like you’d believe me anyway.”  Dick winces at that, and Jason makes a note to ask later.  “I’m handling it, on my own, just like I always do.  It doesn’t affect my work, either day or night, so why does it matter?”

He looks small, and young, and much too vulnerable, and Jason hates it.  He should’ve been the last, there shouldn’t be another teenager running around self-destructive, too in love with the mission to see anything else.

“Because, little brother, it affects you,” Dick says, a wealth of sadness in the words.

Apparently that’s the wrong fucking thing to say, because Tim’s shoulders go back and he glares, almost as well as Bruce, all that vulnerability hidden behind rage. Jason’s sort of impressed.

“I don’t matter,” Tim spits. And now Jason’s back to depressed. Dick doesn’t look much better. “All that matters is that the job gets done.”

Jason and Dick exchange glances.  Dick’s got his hands open at his sides, mouth opening and closing helplessly, and Jason knows he’s lost, struck dumb by the guilt weighing down his eyes.  Jason’s not much better, but guilt’s an emotion he’s pretty good at ignoring by now, and someone needs to say something, even if it’s the wrong thing.  In fact, knowing Jason, it’s almost guaranteed to be the wrong thing.

“Kid, Tim, you are worth way more than some fucking tights.”

Definitely the wrong thing, if the look of pure venom he gets is any indication.

“Don’t you dare take it away from me, not again.  It is the only thing I have and all people ever do is take it away!”

“Tim –“ Dick’s turn, apparently, thank god, “Tim, no one’s trying to take anything away.”

“Except the Joker venom,” Jason mutters.  The look Dick shoots him suggests that’s not helpful.  He doesn’t care.

“We just – we’re concerned, ok?  Whatever’s going on, and I’m not sure what exactly that is, but whatever’s going on, it’s not healthy.”  Dick breathes in and reaches out.  “Please, let us help.”

Tim skitters away from Dick’s hands, even if they’re halfway across the room.  “Why can’t you understand that I am fine.”

“No, you’re really not.” Jason steps around the counter and heads for Tim, a slow stalk that Tim backs away from until his calves hit the coffee table.  “Trust me, I would know.  Now,“ he stops just out of punching range, pretty sure the kid won’t go for a kick unless he’s feeling a lot more threatened than he is currently, “where the hell do you hide your stash?” 

“It’s not like that.” The kid’s got guts, Jason will give him that, backed into a corner and choosing to stand straight rather than cower. “This isn’t – isn’t some kind of – of  drug addiction, or whatever you think.  It’s… it’s just…helpful, sometimes.”

Jason’s about to reply with something scathing, when instead Dick asks, gentle like Jason can never be, “Helpful, how, exactly?”

Tim debates with himself, Jason can see it, but his quiet, “It reminds me I can feel things,” is the most honest he’s been all morning.

It’s fucking heartbreaking, the way he says it, all resigned and accepting.  Jason, at his worst, still had rage if nothing else.  The way Tim’s been talking, last night and right now, is like there’s nothing there.  The implications alone…

Dick’s been sneaking closer this whole time, until he’s shoulder to shoulder with Jason, hands still reaching out.  They’re shaking.  Jason’s not sure anyone else has noticed.

“Tim.”  There’s so much grief in Dick’s voice that Jason flinches. “You don’t – it gets better, I promise, just please, you don’t have to do this. I – why didn’t you call me, I told you I’d always listen, you should have – I wish you’d just – please, Tim.”

“Dick, no,” Tim says, horrified.  “This isn’t – this isn’t that, either, I’m, I’m fine, I’m not going to – I wouldn’t, I promise, it’s just, just easier, like this, sometimes, I need to remind myself what happy is so I don’t forget, it’s safe, I made sure.  I made sure.”

It takes Jason a moment before he realizes what they’re not saying, but when he does the sickness from last night is back.  It’s not – he knew this was a possibility, but the way they’re talking it’s been a possibility even before this, and that’s – not good.  At all.  Not that any of this is good, but he figured out the joy in understatement several traumas ago, and the habit’s stuck.

“Ok,” Jason snaps.  “I’m calling it.  Drastic measures it is.  Dick?”

“What?”  Tim’s bewildered now, instead of defensive, and Jason’s going to take as much advantage of that as he can.

“Sit down, Tim,” Dick says. 

“No.”  Tim crosses his arms.  “What are you talking about?”

“Congrats,” Jason says, “You’ve won yourself a permanent house guest for the foreseeable future, in the form of me or Dick.  But probably mostly me.  Also? Paired patrols.  Not negotiable.”

“And maybe consider talking to someone?  A… professional someone?” is Dick’s contribution.

No,” is the immediate, expected response.  “I’m – I’m not a kid, or, or some kind of security risk, or fragile or at risk or whatever else the two of you think!”

“Kid, you just said that you take Joker venom to remember what happy feels like.”  Jason had clocked that disturbing little tidbit, thank you very much.  “There is no way in hell you’re getting out of this.”

Tim glares and shifts his weight just slightly into a better position, stubborn until the last, and Jason tries not to remember how impossible it is to help someone who doesn’t really want it, tries not to remember the way his mother gave up every time, the way he found her dead on the floor.

Please,” Dick begs, and Tim softens, just enough for hope, before scowling and marching into his room, slamming the door behind him. Dick turns to Jason, haggard beneath the normal brightness.  “Well, that went well.”

Jason sighs.  There’d been a moment…  “You want the mini-Cave or the apartment?”

“Cave.”

They separate and start searching for where Tim hid the rest of the Joker venom.

***

The mini-Cave, as Jason called it, is still horrible, sterile and buzzing and with none of the echoing grandeur of the Batcave, none of the coziness.  Not that Dick would ever really call the Batcave cozy, but there’s shadows to hide in and trophies scattered around and well-worn gym equipment.  Tim’s version seems designed for maximum efficiency, every corner illuminated and every surface clear and gleaming, the ceiling low overhead, making Dick vaguely claustrophobic in a way he didn’t know was possible.

He’s already found two hidden caches, one of batarangs hidden only well enough that an enemy wouldn’t immediately spot it, the bat-version of a shotgun under the bar, and the other containing fake passports and cash from at least ten different countries.

“Overkill, much,” he mutters to himself as he sorts through it, rolling his eyes at the name Alvin Draper on the English passport.  There’s also a Saudi passport, and his gut clenches at the realization that he probably got it when he was… with Ra’s. 

The picture is just two glittering blue eyes, Tim’s hair covered, face slightly shadowed, on the very edge of being an acceptable identification photo.  He looks older, somehow, and more calculating, warier. Paranoia was never something Tim had to learn.  Instead, Dick had taught him fun, card games and two-player video games and tousled hair, and watched a quiet, wary young boy become a quiet, wary young man, but one with a smile lurking in the corner of his mouth.  He’d thought it was enough.  It seems he was wrong.

The next cache is, hilariously, in one of the vents, and locked in some kind of metal box besides, so he takes extra care picking it, rather than just forcing the thing open. He’s glad that he did when he finds the box lined with flash paper, a spark set to go off if anything is broken.

He lifts the first layer of paper, only to find a layer of white tissue paper underneath, and a picture below that, nothing remarkable, just Gotham, Wayne Tower in the foreground, splashed dark against the rising sun.  Then another layer of tissue and… Batman, silhouetted on a gargoyle against the moon, a shot that takes his breath away, one that deserves to be blown up and hung somewhere, with a wonderfully ridiculous name, something like “The Protector in Black Silhouetted on White”. 

There are a few more pictures of Batman, Robin, a few other vigilantes, but nothing hugely incriminating, though there is an achingly vulnerable one of Robin – Dick is pretty sure it’s Jason – cradled in Batman’s arms, blood dripping from his fingertips, barely noticeable in the dark.  There is nothing that justifies all the precautions, especially when it’s already hidden in Tim’s cave, where none of these photos would be out of place if found.

Then he pulls back the final layer of tissue, only to find several layers of flash paper and three more photos, facedown, each carefully separated by both white tissue paper and flash paper.  The first, when he turns it over, appears innocuous, just a photo of Bruce in a suit with his arm around a young Tim, until he notices that Tim’s half-in the Robin uniform, and that the blurry shape in the back corner is the Batmobile.

He isn’t sure when it was taken, or what was happening, but it’s probably a security still from the way they both look so casual, angled slightly away from the camera, walking somewhere out of frame.

The second photo is more recent, another candid from some movie night, all of them in the little home theatre, popcorn and milkshakes in their hands.  Even Cass is curled up on the floor, leaning against an empty seat, one that, Dick’s sure, Tim crawled into soon after he took this photo.

Because it must have been Tim who took it, everyone else is there, smiling and whole, and Dick honestly can’t remember the last time that’s happened.  He should make sure it happens again, and soon.

He’s tempted to steal it and frame a copy, honestly, but there has to be some reason it’s locked in this box, even if he can’t figure out why, some hint of a secret that they or Tim are trying to keep.  Maybe he’ll ask what it is.

He puts it aside and picks up the last picture, of Alfred in the Batcave stitching up a turned away Batman.  A Batman that, he notices after a blink, isn’t Bruce but him, slumped over on a gurney, and Damian, still in full Robin get-up, next to him, scowling, hand clenched on the metal side bar.  Alfred’s back is turned to the camera, his body blocking most of Dick’s face, and it’s, objectively, a terrible picture, a little blurry, dark, probably another security still.

But it’s creased, crumpled along the edges, looks like it’s been folded into quarters and shoved into a pocket or wallet, fingerprint smudges on the edges and along the faces. Dick slumps over the table he’s been spreading the photos across, abruptly sure that Tim carried this picture with him the whole time he was looking for Bruce after Dick all but kicked him out, refused to believe him, focused instead on the angry, terrified kid who he thought needed him so much more.

And he did, that much is true, but he wishes Tim hadn’t been caught so much in the crossfire, that he’d found a way to listen, to be there, when it was so clear that his brother needed something or someone to cling to.  Wishes he’d believed him.  Wishes… a lot of things.

He walks away, leaving the photos scattered across the table, and keeps searching, finding a similar box in one of the other vents, this one holding hundreds of negatives he can’t make himself look at.  He leaves the box on the table with the printed photographs, and sits down to search the computer. 

There’s something gratifying in the fact that it unlocks at his thumbprint, that Tim still trusts him that much.  He scrolls quickly through current cases, getting a feel for what’s going on in Tim’s territory, though he already has a general idea, and looking for anything out of place.

It’s not even really hidden, when he finds it, sitting in a folder labeled “Chemical Processes”, all the results of Tim’s experiments adjusting and refining the venom.

Of course, there are probably twenty subfolders in the main folder, each with more subfolders, all organized and labeled in a way that Dick’s sure makes complete sense to Tim, but isn’t comprehensible to anyone else.  So it takes him a few minutes to notice that Joker venom isn’t the only thing Tim’s been playing with.  He drops his head into his hands, numb and horrified and about two minutes away from calling someone, anyone, for back-up, because he can’t do this, he can’t, it was already bad enough…

Thankfully, Jason walks in right before he completely collapses in despair.  “Nothing upstairs, any luck down… Dick?” He hears Jason stop, but he can’t bring himself to look at him.  “You ok?”

“It’s not just Joker venom,” he says, trying so hard to keep the crawling horror from his voice that it comes out flat, dead, instead.  “It’s fear gas, too.”

What?  No, no way in hell, that’s – “ Jason stops, swallows. “That’s insane.  You don’t – Joker venom you can work through, if you have to, it’s – but fear gas, fear gas means you can’t see anything past your own shadow, it’s – are you sure?”

“He kept records,” Dick says, savage.  “Every time he used it.  Either of them.”

“How often?”

Dick glances back at the computer.  “I’m – I could be off, but I think it’s about once a month for the fear gas, once every two weeks or so for the Joker venom.  It – I think it’s been escalating, it wasn’t so bad at first.”

Jason’s fists clench, and he sucks in a breath.  “It never is.” 

Dick never forgets that Jason grew up in Crime Alley, that he lived on the streets for longer than anyone wants to acknowledge, but he does, sometimes, forget that his mother was an addict.  Jason rarely mentions her in the first place, and when he does, he tends to gloss over that part of her history, in a way that seems almost engrained, as if he went so long pretending that now he doesn’t know how to tell the truth.

“What do we do?”  Dick asks helplessly.  “I – it was bad enough before, but – Jason, what do we do?”

Jason’s silent for a long time.  “We watch,” he finally murmurs, bleak.  “We stay, if we can.  And we… hope. He – he has to want to fix this.”

“And if he doesn’t?” 

Jason shrugs, feigning indifference, but his shoulders are too tight, and he won’t meet Dick’s eyes. “We watch as he self-destructs. If we’re lucky, he won’t take anyone else with him.”

“He doesn’t,” Dick starts uncertainly, “he said he didn’t want to die.”

“Well,”  Jason glances over at the photographs Dick left spread across the table, and goes both soft and rigid at once, “At least that’s a start.”

****

Jason sorts through the photos while Dick keeps digging through the files, making notes.  He knows he’ll have to go over there eventually – he’s the better chemist of the two of them – but he can’t face it right now. The photos aren’t any less painful, but it’s a soft pain, almost cleansing.  Him in the Robin uniform all bright smiles, mid-flight, or curled on a rooftop, or throwing a punch, snapshots of a hundred different memories he usually keeps buried.

“Did the kid take all of these?” he asks, squinting at one to try and figure out where the photographer had been hiding.

“Hmm? Oh, Tim?”  Dick glances over.  “Probably.  He sort of stalked Batman and Robin for a while.”

“He’s good.  I’m surprised he didn’t end up dead.  This one –“ he gestures to a photo of Batman and Robin, back to back, mid-fight, “ – I know for a fact was in the Narrows. And he would have been, what, eight? Ten?”

“Somewhere in there.” 

“And how did we never notice?  I mean, he must have gotten pretty close, for some of these.”  Particularly the one that’s a close-up of Robin’s head and shoulders, seen from behind, staring out across the skyline.  Jason has to resist tracing the stubborn line of his own young shoulders, set in preparation for something he can’t remember.

Dick spins around in the computer chair, obviously willing to be distracted.  “He’s always been smart, and fast, and he was tiny as a kid, fit into all sorts of little nooks and crannies.  He showed me a few of them, later.  And he knows this city better than anyone, except maybe Bruce, and even then, there are certain parts of the city where my money’s definitely on Tim.”  Dick shrugs. “Gotham’s in our blood, we can’t escape it, god knows I’ve tried, but it’s in his bones.  Maybe even worse than it’s in Bruce’s.”

“Well, that’s depressing,” Jason mutters, trying to decide if the green and yellow blur in a picture is him or Dick.  He’s leaning towards Dick, if only because it looks older than a lot of the others.

Dick snorts.  “You’re almost as bad, you know.  No matter what you somehow end up back here, however many times you promise to leave for good.”

He’s not wrong, but Jason doesn’t have to like it.

“Fine, we’re all pathetic and codependent.  How’s the research going?”

Dick sighs and turns back to the computer.  “The good news is that whatever variants he came up with don’t seem to be addictive, so no withdrawal symptoms.  And it seems he was synthesizing each batch as he needed it, so not finding any sort of stash isn’t as worrying as it could be.”

“But?”  Because Jason is a suspicious bastard, and he knows that can’t be all there is.

“This second thing is definitely fear gas.  Or a variant, at least.”  Dick slumps again, and Jason feels a reluctant sympathy.  He looks exhausted.  “Still have no idea why he would take it.”

“We could ask?”  Jason offers.

“Yes, because that went so well the last time.”

“I don’t know, how much worse than ‘I inhale Joker venom to remember what happy feels like’ can we get?” Jason’s still caught up in the awfulness of that statement.  He’s pretty sure he will be for a while. 

Dick doesn’t respond, and when Jason glances over, he’s gone white, hands clenched on the arms of the chair. “Dick?”  Still nothing.  “Dick? You ok?”

“It can get worse,” he says, breathless.  “How does ‘I inhale fear gas to remember what fear is’ sound to you?”

“No.”  But it makes a sort of terrible, implacable sense. “That can’t – it is, isn’t it? That’s why he’s doing it.”

“That’s my guess,” Dick says, grim.  He runs a shaky hand through his hair.  “This is terrible.”

“You’re just now getting that?”  Jason asks, wild, savage, because every time he thinks this can’t get worse it does, and he wants to leave, run, but he made a promise staring at an empty shot glass last night that he would do what he could.  Even if it’s hard.  Even if it’s nothing but bearing witness.  “He’s… how long has this been going on?”

Dick grimaces. “Tim’s… had issues… for a while, honestly, but not this bad, or I didn’t think they were.  He – we– don’t talk about it all that often.  No oneever really talks about it.”

“By it, you mean the cocktail of psychological issues we’re all repressing?”  Jason asks, biting.

“The ones we channel into dressing up in spandex and leather and fighting crime?” Dick responds, giving as good as he gets, “Yeah, those.”

They lock eyes, part challenge, part acknowledgement.  Jason blinks first.  “God, I wish therapy had been around when we were kids – it might have helped.”

“It was.  We just – weren’t that kind of people, or Bruce wasn’t, and Alfred…” The smile he offers is wry, fond, and far too aware.  “Well, he’s stiff upper lip all the way.”

“He cared though.  He always cared,” Jason mutters.  It had been one of the defining truths of his time at the mansion, one of the few he never learned to doubt.

“Never said he didn’t.” Dick pauses, almost… cautious, fiddling with one of his sleeves.  “You could still do it, you know.  Therapy.” 

Jason can’t say he hasn’t thought about it, and Roy drops the occasional hint, but, “Who, Dick?  How do I explain… well, everything, without getting tossed in jail or an asylum?  I died. I came back.  People don’t do that. And our identities?  Yours?  Bruce’s? Everything’s so – entwined, I can’t talk about one thing without the other, and it would come up, you know it would, it’d have to.”  He sighs. “Besides, Gotham doesn’t have the best track record with psychologists staying sane.”

Dick nods, acknowledging the point, but, “It doesn’t have to be in Gotham.”

“Who else would get it?”

Dick hesitates,  “I… talk to Dinah, sometimes.  She’s… really good at listening.  Or, or Donna, when she’s around.  It’s… good.  Not perfect, but… it helps that they’re in the life.  That they live it, you know?”

“Yeah.”  He does.

“I guess they’re more just good friends, but it’s something?”

He’s not about to argue that.  You take what you can get in this life, and people who care aren’t to be disparaged. He’s had teams and pushed them away, and had them come back, and it’s always, always worse when you’re alone.

“Take what you can get,” he tells Dick.  Any kind of support system is a good support system.  Which, come to think of it, “Wait.  Who are the kid’s friends?” 

Dick has to think about it, which would be more awful if Jason didn’t so profoundly understand it. It’s hard, being a kid then teenage vigilante, to make friends with civilians, whose problems often seem so mundane, but friendships among other young superheroes have their own issues. As a Bat, there’s a certain pressure to be the best, the most prepared, the leader or at least second in command, and it’s hard as a kid to navigate the subtleties of friend versus teammate versus ally, even more so when Bruce is so against anyone knowing your civilian identity.

“He and Superboy were close, before he died, and he’s back now, but I don’t know if they’re still close or not.  And Bart was on his team, but he died too, but is also back?  Plus he and Steph dated for a while, and they’re still friends, but I don’t think he’s completely forgiven her for faking her death, and the whole friendship thing’s a little fragile still.  Oh! He and Cass are close, but I guess she’s in Hong Kong now. I might be forgetting someone?”

“Geez.”  Complicated doesn’t even begin to cover that spiel. “Safe to say there’s no one he’s particularly close to, though?”

“Yeah.”

“So who the hell is he talking to?  Even I’ve got Roy, and Kori, even if she doesn’t always get all the human stuff.  Sounds like he’s got no one.  Or… had no one?”  Jason thinks for a moment.  “They all died right around the same time, didn’t they?”

Dick shifts in the chair, looking oddly… guilty?.  “Yeah, right before Bruce was… presumed dead.  It’s – it’s part of the reason I didn’t take him seriously when he insisted Bruce was still alive.  He’d lost so many people, it made sense he couldn’t stand losing anyone else, especially Bruce.  I figured he was grasping at straws.” 

“And then he was right.” It had been a relief, even to Jason, whose relationship with him was and still is tense, to have Bruce back.  Even when he’d been dealing with the worst of the Pit rage, he’d never quite managed to convince himself he wanted Bruce dead. Hurt, yes, sorry, but not dead.

“He was right, and we went on like nothing had happened, like I hadn’t basically kicked him out, like he hadn’t spent a year running and searching and outsmarting that damn Ra’s.” Dick is grim-faced, quiet, too intense. “Did you know?  I caught him falling off a building, at the end, no grapple, no plan, unconscious.  He said he’d known I’d be there, but I’ve never… I always wondered.  If he’d just… given up, after finishing everything he said he’d do.”

Jason ducks his head, unwilling to keep meeting Dick’s eyes.  His gaze catches on a picture, one Dick set aside, a Robin bleeding out in Batman’s arms.

“He knew.  What this life was, is, how it hurts.  Why the hell did he decide to sign up anyway?”

Dick rubs a hand over his face.  “He kept insisting that Batman needed a Robin.  That he needed… what did you call me last night?”

“A quick bright thing,” Jason mutters, unable to look away from the photo, the rip in red cloth, the vulnerable bare legs.

“That.  He – he said Batman was a symbol, and the symbol was failing, was falling apart, or the person upholding it was.”  He walks over and stares down at the photo with Jason. “But Robin… Robin was magic.  And he could fix things.”  He covers the photo with a different one, this Robin mid-laugh, grinning, flying through the night.  It comes with a phantom feeling of wind and wonder, the joy of grappling across rooftops in the moonlight, flying just to fly.  “And he did.”

“He’s fixed a lot of things I broke,” Jason says, a faint, bitter jealousy welling up in his throat.

“He’s done that for all of us, not just you.  Guess it’s time to return the favor.”

Jason flips both photos over, tired of staring at something he’ll never have again.

“Guess it is.”

***

Dick leaves Jason to clean up and dig further into the files.  He needs to talk to Tim.  Apologize, ask some questions, make sure there are things he knows.  He still doesn’t know how that’s going to go, any more than he did last night. 

He’s taken the folded up picture with him, the one at the very bottom of the locked box.  It’ll be ok if it’s unsecured for a few hours, and he needs it, some kind of touchstone, maybe a way to lead in to the questions he needs to ask.  Maybe just a reminder of why he can’t give in.

Tim doesn’t appear to have left his room at all in the time Dick’s been downstairs, and it’s past noon now, which means he hasn’t eaten all day.  He detours to grab a bag of trail mix, something that he can convince Tim to snack on while they talk, or if not, at least leave it in there so he has food if he decides to hole up in his room again.  Which, considering how things are going, is likely.

He knocks. Waits.  Knocks again.  Is surprised by the quiet “Come in,” but when he pushes open the door, Tim, curled up at the head of the bed, scrolling through a tablet, greets him with a smile.

Dick mistrusts that smile, just on principle.

“You wanna come out? I’m making lunch,” he says, aware that now is probably not the best time to get into it, not with that lying smile on full display.

Tim hesitates, and it’s obvious he was expecting something different, but he answers, “Sure.  Can I request grilled cheese?”

“Course.  Five minutes.  If you show me where the pans are.”

He knows he’s just putting it off, but he can’t seem to stop himself, too willing to bask in this fragile semblance of normality.  Get some food in him first, he tells himself, everything’s easier when you’re not hungryso he doesn’t reach out when Tim brushes by him in the doorway, just follows him to kitchen, the cabinet with its perfectly stacked pans.

“Have you even used any of these?” he asks, pulling down the top one and answering his own question. “This one still has the sticker.”

“I told you I don’t cook,” is Tim’s non-answer.  “And when I do it’s usually soup or boxed mac and cheese.”

“Alfred never let us eat boxed mac and cheese,” Dick says as he peels off the sticker.  “Which means I ate it probably three times a week when I first moved to Bludhaven.” 

More, honestly, but everyone knows his first attempts at living alone had been a disaster.  At least he’d been eating, even if it wasn’t healthy things.

“And now?”

He throws Tim a grin. “Now it’s down to once, maybe twice a week.”

Tim laughs , like Dick had hoped he would, but it sounds fake, carries uncomfortable undertones of last night’s uncontrollable giggles.  Dick wonders if it’s some sort of unknown side effect.  He hopes it’s not permanent.  If it is, he guesses he’ll have to get used to it.

He didn’t externally react, he knows he didn’t, but maybe the non-reaction was its own kind of tell, because Tim shrinks a little.

“Dick…” he starts before trailing off, clearing his throat, trying again.  “Dick, I’m sorry.  You weren’t ever supposed to find out.  No one was supposed to find out.”

Tim’s never been great at figuring out what other people find reassuring.

“And if we hadn’t? What, you would have just kept doing it?”  He puts the pan down on the stove.  “That… that’s not a good solution.”

“It’s safe, I told you,” Tim’s quick to say, a tinge of desperation to the words.

“Tim…” He’s still not ready for this conversation, no matter how much time he’s had to prepare, but he’s not going to get a better opening than this.  He pauses to turn the stove on anyway, because it’ll be good to have something to do with his hands, an excuse to look away, and besides, if he gets distracted and accidentally burns something, it’s not like it’ll be the first time.  Or the last. “I don’t… maybe it is safe, I don’t know, that doesn’t mean it’s good, or, or healthy, and you can’t… whatever this is for, you can’t believe it’s a long-term solution.” 

The pause after that statement is ominous.  “You… were planning on this as a long-term solution,” Dick says flatly.

“Not exactly?”  Dick raises an eyebrow.  Tim winces.  When he keeps going, it’s quieter.  “It’s more that I wasn’t thinking of anything long term.”

That’s a bad sign. Dick’s pretty sure that’s a really bad sign, in fact.  He turns around and pulls out the bread and butter to give him time to get his face under control, but he must not quite manage it, because Tim collapses inward, stricken.

“Dick, please, I’m sorry, I didn’t –“ 

“Hey, hey!” He gives into the impulse he’s been fighting since last night, walks around the counter, and hugs his little brother.  “I’m not mad at you, promise, I never will be about something like this.  I’m just –“ he swallows “ – scared.  Terrified, honestly, that I’ll lose you, somehow, that’ll you go away somewhere in your head that I can’t follow, can’t pull you out from, and angry at myself that I wasn’t – wasn’t there when you needed me, that I haven’t noticed you’ve been hurting, and –“ he holds him tighter, a vice grip, but it’s ok, his face is buried in Dick’s neck and his hands are clenched in his shirt, and he’s safe, here, where Dick can hold him “ – Tim, please, don’t, I – I’m here, ok?  I’m here, and I need you to be too.”

He can’t have another casualty on his hands.

They stay like that, for minutes, hours, Dick doesn’t care, just holds on, before Tim finally lets out the faintest, “Ok.  Ok. I’ll try.”

It’ll have to be enough, and if it’s not, Dick will make it be.

“Come on,” he says, gently disentangling himself, “Let’s start with some grilled cheese.”

*** 

There’s a short, fierce argument that night before patrol, whispered between Dick and Jason while Tim’s in his room.

“Of course we’re letting him patrol!” Jason hisses.  “Did you not see him freak out earlier when he thought we might not?”

“One night off is not stopping him patrolling,” Dick replies between gritted teeth.  “I just want to make sure he has some time, to, to recover, to rest, before we send him back out there.”

Jason rolls his eyes. “We’re not sending him anywhere.  He’s going with or without us, I’m for fucking with!”

“Fine, yes,” Dick finally, finally, gives in, “but I still think I should be his partner, not you.”

“No.”  Dick’s going to try and coddle him, which will not go well, and besides, “We’re both looking for that new meta kid, it makes sense for us to team up.”

“But –“

No.”

“Fine.”  Dick pouts, but he concedes, and that’s all that matters, especially since Tim comes out of his room about half a second later.

“Um…” He’s still pale and drained, but Dick had gotten lunch into him and Jason had handled dinner, and he doesn’t look quite so defeated.  “I can go back and grab something if I need to?”

“No need,” Jason says, cutting Dick off before he can try out some completely unconvincing lie, “Dickbird here was just reminding me, again, that I have to use rubber bullets.”

Not just go for nonlethal shots with regular bullets.” He can follow a cue, Jason will give him that.

Unless I run out and someone’s life is in danger,” Jason says, just to see how far he can push it.

Judging by Dick’s narrowed eyes, not that far.  “Rubber. Bullets.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Jason turns to the kid.  “We’re going out looking for that meta anyway.  I’ve already combined our confirmed sightings maps. He seems to be staying pretty local, and he’s due for some kind of mischief.”

Jason can see the kid snap into mission mode.  It’s both disconcerting and impressive.  “We should stake out the corner of Hill Street and Murphy Avenue, there’s a decent bodega there and it’s close enough to the nicer part of town that you see some decent cars, but still in our meta’s normal target area.  I’ve calculated that it’s the most likely next target.”

“Then we’ll do that,” Jason says, trying not to gape.  He knew the kid was smart, but fuck. “Go get on your fancy stretchy outfit, I’ll meet you on the roof.”

It’s one thing to hear how good of a detective Tim is, how he thinks quicker than anyone, except, maybe, Bruce, but it’s another to see it in action.  His previous plan to just wander around hoping to spot the meta kid seems stupid now, and he wants to be angry about that.  Instead, he’s half-impressed, half-terrified, because there’s no way in hell he can keep up.  He’s not dumb, you have to have some level of smarts to survive as a vigilante, but despite how much he reads, he relies mostly on brute strength and street smarts to get through.  He lived in Crime Alley – he knows how people there think.  The kid – Tim – is on a whole other level, and that’s without the edge his hand-built technology gives him.

He forgets, sometimes, that Tim took on Ra’s and won.

He almost died doing it, but Ra’s had hundreds of years of training and an army.  Tim had only a handful of allies, Bat-training, and his own too-quick brain.  He should have died the first time he and Ra’s came to blows, not held his own long enough to turn the tables on one of Batman’s greatest enemies.  And yet…

Jason wonders why he’s interested in this meta kid, if it’s the kid itself or just his crimes that made Tim add him to an already heavy case load. 

There’s no way he actually sleeps, is the thing, between his cases and the cases he’s consulting on for Batman, plus the occasional request from the Teen Titans or a friend, plus his work at Wayne Enterprises. That’s actually scaled back some, recently, and Jason suspects the hand of one of the Foxes, either Lucius or his daughter, who he’s pretty sure is Tim’s personal assistant or partner or something. 

He pulls out the rest of his makeshift uniform from behind an air-conditioning vent and slips it on, trying not to think too much, dressed long before Tim and Dick make it up to the roof.

“Come on, kid,” he says as soon as they’re in sight, “let’s go.”

Of course, after three and a half hours stuck belly-down on a roof, he’s starting to doubt the kid’s brilliance.

“Maybe I should do a quick lap, just in case?” he whispers.

Tim gives him a look. He sighs, and reminds himself that he is the older brother, and he will not start whining like the demon brat. 

Though, since when is Tim brother?  Yes, he’ll sometimes think of Dick that way, even if he’d never, ever, admit it, but Tim’s always been more distant, somehow.  Maybe because he didn’t grow up with him. Probably because he tried to kill him once.

Though, he’d tried to kill a lot of people when he was in the early stages of pit madness, Tim shouldn’t take it personally.

He’s down to trying to quote as much of Romeo and Julietas he can remember to himself just to stay awake by the time something happens.  Tim, of course, hasn’t even looked slightly bored, just goes from steady awareness to concentrated awareness as a nondescript figure enters the bodega.

“There,” he breathes.

Jason frowns.  “How do you know?”

“I can’t see their face. It keeps… shifting.”

“Sounds like our meta alright.”  Jason starts to heave himself up.  “Come on, let’s go.”

Tim yanks him back down. “Not yet.  We need to wait for them to come out.”

“So they’re harder to corner?  That makes zero sense.”

“No.”  Tim pulls out some kind of… well, gun, even if it’s oddly slim and almost definitely not used for bullets, but Jason still grins at the sight.  “So we can tag them.”

“Please say I’m allowed to shoot whatever that is.”

“Tracker cannon. It –"

“No, no,” Jason interrupts, grinning because this is too good, “You’re calling that thing a tracker cannon?”

Tim glares.  It might be the most honest emotion Jason’s seen from him all day.  “Yes,” he says, all wounded dignity, “That’s what it is.”

“Sure,” Jason drawls.  “I repeat: Can I shoot it?”

Just then, the figure exits, and Tim pulls the trigger.  He’s got surprisingly good form, and the thing – it looks like a pellet from a bb gun – hits the person’s side.  “Oracle?” Tim whispers into his com, “Can you track bug 184 for me?  Thanks. Let me know when it stops moving.”

He settles back down into watchful stillness, gun-thing sliding back into some hidden pocket or pouch. Jason stares.  They should be trailing the meta, he’s pretty sure, keeping an eye on them, not waiting on Oracle.

“Are we….?”  He waves his hand at the figure just turning the corner a few blocks down.

“Oracle has it. Besides, we may be wrong.”  And goes back to staring at the bodega.

There’s such a marked difference between the Tim of now and the Tim of last night and this morning.  Here, he’s calm, collected, controlled, no cracks to be seen, the perfect, efficient vigilante, focused solely on the mission. The cowl hides his exhaustion, the body armor his thinness, and there are masks and there are masks, and he wonders how long Tim’s been wearing the latter.

It’s never good when you let yourself disappear too far inside the costume; Jason should know, he’s done it, let codenames and safehouses become his only existence. But he’d just pretended there wasn’t a person under the mask.  Jason’s not sure how much Tim’s pretending.  It’s like the mask is slowly eating Tim, leather swallowing him up until all that’s left is mission.

But forcing him to quit wouldn’t do him any good either, not if it’s the only thing keeping him going.

Well, he’s got another however long stuck lying on cold concrete to think of some kind of solution. He settles back in.

***

Dick doesn’t particularly want to leave Tim with Jason, but Jason was insistent, and Dick knew that if they all patrolled together Bruce would start asking questions none of them wanted to answer.  He reminds himself that Jason had promised, that they were in this together, before resolutely swinging off in the opposite direction.

He’s done the work long enough that an easy patrol like this is almost mindless, his body following training with little input from his brain.  That’s helpful when he’s dead tired or needs to work through something, not so much when he’s trying not to think.  He does an extra flip on the next jump and tries to start focusing on perfecting his stealth. 

He’s got one the folded picture tucked into a secret pocket near his skin, carrying it like Tim must have. It feels a little wrong, to keep it without Tim knowing, but he needs the reminder.

There’s a scream from a few blocks over and he gives up on the sneaking and runs, landing in an alley where some thug’s got a woman backed against the brick wall.  It’s a cleanish alley, for Gotham, but there are still dark marks on her light pink blouse where soot rubbed off the brick.  Dick shoves himself between the two, leading with a stomach punch, then a knee to the nose once the guy doubles over.  He obviously recognizes the costume, because he takes off before Dick can get a third hit in.  He lets him go, more concerned with turning to the woman, who’s shaken but not yet crying.  One hand clenched on the messenger bag against her hip, the other balled up by her side.

“Can I escort you home, ma’am?” he asks, always polite.

She takes a deep breath, forces her spine to straighten.  He’s impressed.

“No, no, I’ll be fine. I’m sure there’s someone else who needs rescuing.”  She walks towards the mouth of the alley, shoulders back, that balled up fist still shaking.  “Thank you, though.”

“Anytime, ma’am!” he calls after her, before taking to the rooftops and following her from above, just in case.

Then it’s back to his route, rooftop running interrupted by the occasional punch-up, and wow, Gotham really has been quiet lately, and maybe he should worry about that more, but he’ll leave that form of paranoia to Bruce.

Tim, and what they need to do, keeps intruding, so he makes a stop by Leslie’s clinic before it gets too late, sneaking in the window to her office.  It’s the usual amount of cluttered, folders stacked in random places, half a roll of gauze unspooling across the scratched desktop computer. It’ll take her a while to make it back, it always does, so he steals two advil from her desk stock while he waits. His shoulder’s bothering him again, probably because he slept on the couch rather than in a bed.  Despite that, Leslie’s office couch is calling to him. He perches on her desk instead to resist the temptation.

“If you’ve reorganized my drawers again…” Leslie threatens as she finally walks in, shutting the door behind her, completely unfazed by his breaking and entering.

“Nope!  Just your pens.”  He’s spent the time dividing them by color.

Leslie huff and shoos him off her desk so she can sit down.

“What do you need? You’re not hurt, I would’ve gotten a call, so is it information? Advice?  What?”

“A recommendation.” He hesitates, but he trusts her.  He has to. “For a psychiatrist.”

Finally.”  The relief in her voice is staggering, makes him want to flinch back.  “I’ve been saying for years that you – well, all of you, really, but you –“

“It’s not for me,” he interrupts, before she says something he can’t bear to hear.  “It’s – it’s Tim, I’m – I’m trying to convince him to talk to someone, and I – I thought it would be easier if I already had some names, people you trust, so that – well, he’ll want to vet them anyway, but it’s somewhere to start?  I’m – I’m fine, Leslie, really, it’s just Tim.”

“Oh.”  She hides the disappointment well, but it’s still there. “Tim, huh?”  He watches her rally, change focus, latch on to this new idea. “Does he want to go?”

He shrugs.  “He needs to.”

“Doesn’t mean he will. Dick…” She stops, sighs.  “People don’t always do what’s best for them.”

“I… I don’t know what else to do,” he confesses, tucking his hands under his arms.

She watches, eyes too knowing, long enough that he has to bite his lip to keep from spilling secrets at her feet, before drawing him into a hug.  It’s... nice, to be the one receiving the comfort for once.  She’s shorter than him, but her arms are strong, and she doesn’t let go when he buries his head in her hair and shudders, once, twice, before finally finding the strength to pull away. 

“I’ll get you some names,” she says, still watching him, even after her arms have dropped back to her sides.  “But think about using them for yourself, too.  You’re not fine, none of you are.  No matter how much you might pretend.”

“Leslie…” he tries, but he can’t get any farther than that, and turns to go.

“Tomorrow,” she calls after him.  “I’ll have it tomorrow.  In the morning, even, if you’ll stop by in civvies.”

He pauses in the window just long enough to whisper, “Thanks.”

Then he’s gone, back to rooftops and crime, soot and blood, her words echoing over and over in his head. Nightwing’s carefree grin, he’s afraid, is more pasted on than usual.

***

“Are you sure he didn’t lose it, somehow?”  Jason growls, staring at the tracker onscreen that’s been bobbing around an abandoned warehouse for the last two hours.

“If he had, it wouldn’t be moving,” Tim points out, far too reasonably.  He’s working on improving some piece of tech, Jason would have a better idea of what if it wasn’t in seventy different pieces.  “Did you clock gender?  I wasn’t sure.”

“No.”  Their perp had been weird, with absolutely zero defining features, not just a blurry face.  “I just refuse to call a person ‘it’.”

Tim opens a drawer, looks through it, and sighs.

“You could at least have put everything back where you found out.  I knew you were going through my stuff, but I expected a little more subtlety.”

“A, we weren’t going for subtle, or at least I wasn’t, and b, Dick pulled it all out in the first place, so I just made best guesses.”

“Next time, guess better,” Tim grumbles.  “Or ask.  I’d be better off spending the next hour reorganizing because I’m not getting any work done this way.”

“Considering our meta is still hanging out in this warehouse – maybe she sleeps there?  I’ve done the warehouse safehouse thing before – I’ll even offer to help.”

Tim just rolls his eyes and starts pulling things back out of the drawers Jason put them in earlier. Apparently the dull batarangs go with the sharpening kit – makes sense, now that he thinks about it – but’s he confused about why the industrial glue gun belongs there too.

Onscreen, the tracker is just wandering the warehouse, maybe going between floors some too, if he had to guess, and it’s not that late – not for them at least – but either this person’s a serious night owl or some kind of insomniac.  He groans.

“We couldn’t have just followed them?”

“Remote tracking is safer, less likelihood of the targeting spotting us, or getting nervous and moving on.”

Jason slumps forward on the desk.  If he has to keep staring at this dot of a person, he will go crazy.  Crazier.

“Seriously,” Tim mumbles. When Jason looks over he’s got a wrench between his teeth.  “You can’t tell me you don’t track people.  You have to.”

“Yes. In person. Where I can see them, assess body language, building layout, all the things I can’t see on this fucking screen.” He ignores Tim’s raised eyebrow at his whining and continues.  “You should understand.  You were the stalker back in the day.  I’ve seen the pictures.”

“Pictures?” Tim asks, removing the wrench from his mouth.  He’s trying for casual and not quite making it.  Jason picks up his head and squints at him.  “What pictures?”

“The ones you took of Batman and Robin back in the day?”  This doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal.  “When you apparently spent most of your nights following them around Gotham? Dick found some.”

Tim turns white, and whatever part he was working on shatters in his grip.  Jason gets ready to duck, even if this reaction seems way out of proportion.

“You had no right.” And wow, Tim has a Bat-voice. Good to know.  “Those are mine, they’re not – I can’t believe you would – how dare you?”

Jason throws his hands up. “Dick, not me!  Besides, what’s the big deal?  It’s not like they’re terrible!”

“What’s the big deal?” That may have been a mistake, but really, Jason doesn’t get it.  They’re just some pictures, and it’s not like they’re embarrassing.  At least, not embarrassing to Tim.  He did consider destroying the one with Robin tripping, except it might be Dick, not him.  “They’re my pictures!  Do you have any idea – no one was ever supposed to see them!”

“Listen –“ Jason starts, but is thankfully interrupted by some sort of alarm tone from Tim’s pocket before he digs himself further into whatever hole he’s stumbled into.  “You gonna get that?”

Tim growls, wordless, and answers the phone.  “Red Robin.” He stiffens, turns, and grabs for his discarded belts.  “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  So urgent, whatever’s going on.  “That’s the Titans.  I’ve got to go.”  He buckles on the rest of his uniform on the way to the elevator.  “Tell Dick, and keep an eye on that tracker!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jason grumbles as Tim disappears.  “I’ll watch the stupid dot.”

Which continues to wander around the warehouse until Dick gets in, several hours later.

Dick’s eyes are tired, and he keeps rolling his shoulder, but the first thing he does is look around for Tim, stiffening up when he doesn’t see him.

“Tim already in bed?” he asks, too casual.

“Titans called.  Some kind of emergency.”  Dick nods, wincing when it pulls something.  “You hurt?”

“Old injury.  It’s acting up.  Probably the couch.”  He comes to peer over Jason’s shoulder.  “Tim say when he’d be back?”

“Nope.  He’s pissed, though.  About the photographs.”

“What photographs? The ones I found? Why would he…” Dick trails off.  Jason feels his hand tighten on the back of the computer chair.  “Oops.”

Jason twists around to look at him.  “Gonna fill me in, Wonder Boy?”

“I might have done the equivalent of, well, um, reading his middle school diary?” 

“That’s all?”  Jesus, the kid made it sound like the world was ending.  “They weren’t even bad!  Most of’em were even good enough to hang somewhere, if he were the type to keep trophies.”

Dick sighs.  “I know.  If B wouldn’t disown me for it, I’d suggest some type of exhibition or something.”  He leans harder against the chair.  “Not that Tim would ever agree either.”

Jason’s tempted to roll the chair sideways and watch Dick go sprawling, but the exhaustion in almost every line of his body stops him.  He likes to forget that Dick puts in just as much, if not more, effort than the rest of them, mostly because Dick wants him to, wants everyone to, got stuck somewhere in this mindset that it should all look easy, effortless even, especially when it’s really, really not.

“Go to bed,” he says, gruff enough to hide any real concern that might leak through.  “The kid’s got a guest room.”

“’M fine,” Dick mumbles. “Your dot stopped moving.”

Finally.” Still in the warehouse.  Jason’s going secret base and insomniac.

“Tim making you do that remote surveillance thing?  Barbara’s all about it, too.  It sucks.”

“Completely,” he says, setting the system to record any further movements before getting up and stretching.  “What happened to good old-fashioned all-night stakeouts?” 

Dick, now draped completely over the back of the chair, head down, makes a grumbling noise, and fuck does he pass out fast.  Jason maybe should worry, but it’s sort of hilarious, an overgrown puppy who fell asleep upside down on the furniture.

“Seriously, bed.  Come on, Dickie.”  He hauls his brother upright, and just knows that Dick’s using it as an excuse to drape all over him.  There is no way he’s actually this loose-limbed.

“Shouldn’t we –“

An alarm goes off, nothing too loud or blaring, but an alarm nonetheless.  “Intruder alert,” Jason growls after a glance at the computer screen. Dick’s up and rushing for the stairs before Jason can blink, taking just enough time to snag his domino on the way. Jason’s not far behind.

Upstairs, they’re confronted with a sheepish Superboy cradling a passed out Red Robin, wearing civilian clothes and a domino.  He tries for a smile.

“Hi. Um.  I’m guessing the windows are alarmed or something?”

Jason’s “You’re lucky they’re not booby-trapped,” clashes with Dick’s “What happened to Red?” and yeah, it is a little weird that the kid’s still unconscious, and the way Superboy is holding him…

“Broken ribs, dislocated knee, lot of cuts and bruises, a few of which needed stitches, and one actual stab wound that definitely needed stitches,”  Superboy recites, shifting to pull Tim closer when he shivers.  “We were… sort of outnumbered, and Rob may have gotten knocked into a wall while stopping Cassie from getting maybe-crushed. After he got stabbed trying to fight like, three people at once.”

“And he is not in a hospital bed because?”  It sounds like a polite question, but Jason takes a subtle step sideways so he’s out of range.

Superboy sighs.  “He – he doesn’t like the Tower.  If he’s there, he won’t sleep unless he’s drugged and he hates the drugs so he fights them, not that they work on him that great anyway, and it just – he doesn’t heal, and he barely eats, and he ends up leaving before he should looking somehow worse.  So I brought him home.”  There’s a pause, Superboy half defiant, half-exhausted, before Dick relaxes. “He’s – he won’t wake up for a while, not with the muscle relaxers and stuff, so I thought –“

“His bedroom’s that way,” Jason interrupts, pointing.  “We need to set up an IV or any of that shit?”

Superboy shakes his head and walks towards the bedroom, Dick darting in front to get the door.  Jason listens as they get Tim settled, the rustle of sheets and thunk of dropped shoes, before appearing again in the doorway. It’s Superboy that shuts the door behind them, but Dick who cracks it open so they can still hear.  Superboy, Jason’s heard, inherited Superman’s advanced hearing, so it must not matter to him either way.

They reconvene, by unspoken agreement, in the kitchen.  Jason pulls out the ingredients for protein shakes.  Dick and Superboy claim bar stools.

“He’s – he’s not ok, is he?” Superboy asks hesitantly.

“No, Kon –“ that’s the kid’s name, right, “- he’s not.  Probably,” Dick swallows, “Probably hasn’t been ok for a while.”

The kid doesn’t look surprised.

“Thought so.  I – I tried mentioning it, but everyone just said he was like that now, that things had changed since – since I’d been dead.” Kon smashes his fist on the counter. “I know, I know things have changed, I am very aware that I missed things, that – that people moved on without me, but I don’t – were they really that blind?  He - ” his voice cracks, “ – he was doing better, I thought, after – after Batman came back, and then he got all weird and squirrely again and everyone acted like it was normal.  And I – I believed them, because what else was I supposed to do?  And now…”

“He’s too skinny, and too quiet, and too tired?”  Dick finishes in an awful monotone, his smirk self-deprecating.  “And we all missed it.”

“Yes,” Kon says, low and quiet with a strange undercurrent of rage, “Yes, we did.” 

There’s silence, broken by the whirring of the blender before Jason slides a shake to Dick and another to Kon.  Neither of them drink.

“I can pull out the alcohol instead,” Jason offers

“I’m not twenty-one,” Kon says.  Both Jason and Dick just look at him.

“I don’t care.” Jason’s always felt that if you’re fighting a war, of any sort, you should be entitled to alcohol-style compensation.  Besides, he’s pretty sure Dick poured the mostly-full bottle of tequila they found last night down the drain, so all in all it’s a moot point. 

Kon rocks his glass back and forth, balancing it on an edge for longer than should be possible.  It looks careless, but Jason notices the way the glass’s contents stay away from the rim.  They could use another ally, and Jason’s gut says this boy cares.

“We should tell him.”

“Which part?” Dick asks glumly, before throwing back the protein shake like it is whiskey, half the glass in one long gulp.

Kon’s eyes narrow. “Tell me what?”  Neither of them say anything.  Despite bringing it up, Jason’s not sure where to start, or how much to give away.  “What happened?”  Kon shoves away from the counter and stands, fists clenched, eyes glinting, with what Jason’s not sure.  “What happened.”

“Um, we’re sort of on unofficial suicide watch?” Jason offers.  Kon closes his eyes, and the glint, it turns out, is tears, because one escapes only to be wiped away fast enough that Jason might not have noticed if he hadn’t been watching.  Looks like his gut was right.

“It’s – it’s not quite that bad.  He’s – it’s not like he’s actively – well, he said he wasn’t, it’s just…”  Dick trails off, and that exhaustion is back, if it ever left.  “He’s been, um, self-dosing I guess, with basically knock-off versions of fear gas and Joker venom, so…”

Kon blinks at them, hands opening and closing helplessly, those tears still swimming, before sinking back on to the bar stool as if this is the first time he’s ever really understood gravity.  Maybe, in some ways, it is. 

“Today, Tim getting hurt, is that… do you think…” Kon’s voice is barely audible, face ducked to hide his expression, and he’s so young.  Jason forgets, or chooses to forget, a protection against the reminder of his own age when he feels a thousand years old.

“Don’t know.  But we have a legitimate excuse to pull him from patrol now,”  Jason tells him.  Dick starts to protest and Jason cuts him off.  “No, you didn’t see him.  He – have you ever been in your costume too long?  It starts – you forget, what it is to be a person, rather than – than some kind of symbol, or, or object, it starts to consume you, and if you get too deep… If he keeps going, he’s going to be just a mask, nothing else, worse than even Batman, I mean, have you looked around this fucking apartment? It’s a safehouse, not – not a home. You can’t – you can’t put everything into that identity, it’s not good, and he is.  He needs to – to take a break.”

Jason’s done that, lived it, become the Red Hood so completely that there wasn’t much else left, and he’s still not sure how he recovered.  If he recovered.  Or if he’s now just the Red Hood playing at being a person.  He doesn’t want that for Tim, not only because Tim has so little motivation to even try and pull himself out, probably doesn’t want to. 

Dick’s stricken expression says that he knows.  He swallows, reaches towards Jason before cutting himself off, hand dropping limply back to the counter with a dull smack.

“We – we can’t – he sees injury as failure, sometimes.”

Kon’s laugh is harsh and unexpected, torn out of him along with a dark, “He sees almost everything as failure.  If he’s not perfect, he’s failing.  It – he doesn’t understand.”

Christ, how messed up is the kid, and how did no one notice?  Or if they did, why didn’t they do something?  Though, you could probably say something similar about most of them. Vigilante life isn’t really meant for the sane.

“We’ll – we’ll figure it out.”  Dick’s voice is hollow, and Jason wonders how many times he’s said that, to himself and to all the myriad teams he’s had to lead, and if he ever believed it.

“Count me in,” is Kon’s contribution.  He’s pulled himself together, determination instead of tears filling his eyes. They’re going to need that optimism.

Jason focuses on the practicalities, as always.  “Come on, bed.  We’ll do better with some sleep.  Dick, guest room.  Superboy and I’ll split the couch.”

“You can split with me, if you want?” Dick offers.  “The bed’s plenty big.”

Jason hesitates, but he sees the way Dick’s hands are twitching, half-opening and closing, and remembers how Dick had glommed onto him earlier.

“If you kick me, you’re moving to the couch.”  Dick’s smile looks real, this time.  “And stay on your side.”  Not that he thinks that’ll happen, but he at least needs to say it.

Dick just keeps smiling, small but there, and it’s worth it, for that, even if Jason’s sort of disgusted with himself for feeling this sentimental.  He grabs a duffel bag from a dark corner and shuffles in to the spare room, claiming the side farthest from the window before Dick can.  He shucks off boots and jeans and crawls into bed, already dozing by the time he feels the bed shift.  He cracks one eye open, just to verify that it is Dick, and is out before he finishes settling.

***

Dick wakes up with Jason belly down next to him, arm slung over Dick’s side, and wants to laugh.

Jason’s still deeply asleep, and so Dick takes a moment to relax into the hold, snuggle just a bit closer, soak up the human heat that he’s been missing.  It had been easy, last night, to fall asleep with the warmth of someone he trusts at his back, easier than it’s been for a while.

And he does trust Jay, is the shocking thing.  Despite everything, all the fights, all the years, he trusts Jay at his back, knows the pattern of his sleeping breaths enough for it to be soothing rather than a threat.

He doesn’t know what time it is, but he told Leslie he’d be by in the morning, which means he needs to get up, face another day, so he wiggles out of Jason’s hold, gets dressed, and sneaks out into the living room. 

Kon’s still asleep on the couch, snoring lightly, and when he peeks into Tim’s room, he’s asleep too, even though his body is no longer the too-loose it gets when he’s injured enough to need muscle relaxers.

For the moment, his people are safe, if not all whole, and it brings a wash of relief, even if the ways he’s failed them makes that relief somewhat bitter.

But he’s determined to do better, and right now that means getting that list from Leslie.  And then convincing Tim to pick someone.  And actually go to a session.  God.  He reminds himself that he specializes in defying physics, and has as backup two people who came back from the dead, and that this is possible.  It has to be.  He’ll make it be.

At least the easiest step is first, and by the time he gets to Leslie’s clinic she’ll probably be there. He clicks on the coffeepot on the way out, figuring he’ll pick up donuts or something on the way back for breakfast.

He’s rarely out this early but he always appreciates it when he is, soaking up the weak sunlight and the calm way people move.  Gotham feels almost safe, this time of day, too early for most criminals to be up, and Dick finds himself ignoring alleys, even if he’s still alert to the sound of screams. 

It’s a small joy, but he’s learned to take those where and when he can.  Most of the joys, these days, are small.  He’s started to think it’s like that for everyone, not just Gotham vigilantes.

He strolls into Leslie’s office through the front door for once, greeting the teenage receptionist and noting that there are already a few patients waiting, even if the clinic isn’t supposed to open for another half hour.  After a brief phone call, the receptionist waves him through before continuing to sort files, biting the inside of her mouth in concentration.

Leslie doesn’t bother standing when he gets into her office, still cluttered, though the gauze has been re-rolled, just hands him two lists scrawled on large post-it notes.

“The red one’s a list for Tim.  The blue’s a list for you.”  He starts to protest, but she narrows her eyes and glares until he shuts his mouth. “Some of the names are different, because some of the people I think would work well with Tim wouldn’t work well with you, and vice versa.  All of them are discreet, take patient confidentiality extremely seriously, and are unlikely to go insane.  I would trust them with my secrets, and I believe you could trust them with yours. All of them.”  She gives him a pointed look.  He tries to look innocent.  Her muffled snort means he failed.  She drops the stern act between one blink and the next and suddenly he’s staring into pleading grey eyes.  “At least think about going.  Please.”

He clears his throat, tries not to notice how tired she looks, the extra lines on her face.  “I – I will. Thank you.”

She nods.  He makes himself leave, before he does something inexcusable like falling to his knees and weeping into her lap.  He just – he wants someone to hold him up for once, to be the rock he is for everyone else.  Leslie would be strong enough, he knows that, but she doesn’t have the time to deal with his issues, not when the shadows under her eyes never get any lighter, when she has a whole clinic to run with too few resources and too many patients. Besides, he’ll get by.  He always has.  And right now Tim needs him to be strong and whole and present, so that’s what he’ll be.  He’ll think about Leslie’s list after.  Maybe.

He puts a hand against the picture that has made its way into his jeans pocket.  It’s dangerous, to keep carrying it around like this, but he can’t seem to help it, just as he can’t seem to help the way his hand keeps straying to his pocket.  He doesn’t even pull it out, just checks that it’s there, reassurance of… something.

He should put it back, Jason said Tim was mad they’d touched the photos, and Dick gets it, abstractly at least.  There’s very little that is private, in the family, and a lot of those photos had a certain… intimacy.  Maybe that’s why he’s so drawn to them, felt the need to claim one for his own.

On a whim, or maybe a hunch, he pulls out his phone and starts looking up what it takes to make a home darkroom.

***

They spent the whole day not talking about it, which frustrates Jason on a number of levels.  He’s never been great at pretending everything’s normal when it’s very obviously not, but apparently Dick and Tim were in some kind of fucked-up contest to prove they were the best at it.  Kon, who is quickly becoming Jason’s favorite, plays along but makes it very obvious that he knows, and the two of them have been exchanging looks all day. 

He thought they might get somewhere when Dick had told Tim not to patrol until he was healed, but the flash of real emotion was there and gone in less than a breath.

So now he was out on the streets, fuming and restless, and hoping to take it out on some thugs. Preferably before he made his way to the warehouse that supposedly still contained their meta.

He stops a single mugging and checks in on a few of the girls who’d had some sleaze sniffing around trying to be their pimp, but the streets are oddly quiet, fog starting to roll in again and the air chilly.  He heads for the warehouse.

It’s quiet from the outside, obviously abandoned and decrepit, but he was a street kid, he knows the subtle signs that mark this crumbling concrete building as a sanctuary. The doors are boarded over, as well as any first-floor windows, but as he circles the building, he sees a small shadow nudge one of the boards aside just enough to squeeze through.  The subtle scratches on the building’s corner, barely four feet high, designate this as a place just for kids, and the narrowness of that opening agrees with that.  It’s… rare, for this good of a building to not have been taken over by adults or one of the gangs, and it makes Jason suspicious.  Their meta’s been hiding here, as far as they can tell, and it wouldn’t be the first time some young petty criminal tried to use kids to start their own empire.

Jason won’t let that happen, of course, but part of him hates that that may involve scaring kids away from a safe space, one with a roof and four walls, especially with how cold it’s starting to get.

Maybe, if he’s lucky, not that he ever is, he can quietly take the meta into custody and leave the kids alone.  Knowing his life, what’ll actually happen is a bunch of semi-brainwashed kids attacking him for taking away their leader.  Joy.

He sneaks in through a top floor window, high enough that no one bothered trying to cover it, high enough that the glass is only cracked rather than completely knocked out by punks trying to improve their aim.  It’s also not locked, an oversight he wants to lecture someone about, if he could just figure out who.

The window opens up over a ten-foot drop to rusty metal shelves, which explains why no one bothered to lock it, if any of the kids could even reach, but ten feet is nothing to someone like him, especially when he eases through the window and lowers himself so he’s hanging on by his fingertips.  He’s barely started falling before he lands silently on his toes, bending his knees as he lands so he ends up crouching, looking like one of the gargoyles that watch over Gotham.  If the gargoyles wore bright red helmets.  Actually, thinking about it, that’d be hilarious.  Maybe he should stick a few on the ones nearest Batman’s favorite brooding spots.  He bets he could get Kon to help him, if he presented it right.

Looking down, the warehouse is a dark tangle of abandoned equipment and broken pallets, rusty shelves like the one he’s perched on lining two of the walls and creating a maze of sorts near the back.  There’s a doorway to what is either an office or more storage at the end of the maze, and it looks like that area is divided into actual floors.

He doesn’t see any kids, but it’d be easy for them to hide in this place, curl up on shelves, burrow under pallets, so he’s quiet as he heads for that doorway, creeping shelf to shelf, eyes peeled and HUD switched to night vision. 

Unfortunately, the only way in is that singular doorway, and he considers going out and sneaking in a window on the other side of the building, before deciding fuck it, climbing down, and sauntering through like he has every right to be there.

No one is on the other side to see this display, so he goes back to skulking, feeling sort of stupid. The room’s nothing special, an empty box with one of those old tank-style desks in the corner, left behind because it was too heavy and bulky to move, and a hallway leading off into the rest of the space, one he’s at just the wrong angle to see into from beside the doorway.

He sidles over, keeping his back to the wall, and peers down it.  Still empty, and he’s getting spooked, sure he should have seen at least the presence of people, even if all the kids heard him coming somehow and ran. But there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go but onward, so he eases forward, knife in hand, peering through doorways as he passes them. 

Here, finally, are signs of life, tattered blankets, the occasional food wrapper or personal belonging, child-sized nests, several per room.  Still no sign of the actual kids, though.

Only one door is closed, at the end of the hall, a sign next to it that identified it as the stairwell. He peered through the crosshatched glass, saw nothing, and slammed the door open, only to have a kid dart from the shadows under the stairs to block his way forward. 

Jason blinks. Teenager may have been slightly more appropriate, the kid tall and skinny, the type that comes from too-fast growth, all elbows and knees.  He, she – Jason can’t tell, can’t seem to remember their face, and this must be the meta – has their knuckles clenched, fists shaking, and is breathing with the shuddery sound of fear, but is clearly not willing to move.

He may have to rethink a number of his assumptions.

“Kid,” he says, dropping his body language back to neutral, trying to look as nonthreatening as possible when he’s tall and built and obviouslya threat, “I’m not interested in hurting you.”

The kid doesn’t move, which, smart, but not exactly helpful. He tries again.

“You can drop the fists now. I just wanna talk.”

Leave,” the person growls, and it’s too high, too trembly to be any sort of threat.  Jason feels a reluctant rush of sympathy.  He’d been there, back when he wore short pants.

“I’m guessing you’ve been stealin’ to get food for yourself and some of the other kids here?”  The flinch is as good as a confirmation. “You don’t have to do that.”

“What the hell do you know?” they spit, and Jason’ll give ‘em points for sheer guts.

“Believe it or not, I was born around here.  Spent a few years as a street kid, after my mom died.”  Overdosed, but he’s not thinking about that, not right now.  “I get it, picked pockets for a while before I started stealin’ tires.”

The fists drop, just a little.  “Then why do you care?  It’s just small stuff, granola bars, some bread, stuff like that.  I’m not – we need it.”

“You’re too memorable, kid. A face no one can ever remember only works if no one sees it and tries to remember.  And Batman doesn’t like metas in his city.”

And the fists are back up. Shit.  “So what? You’ve – you’ve come to – to retrieve me for him?”

Jason laughs and the kid takes an involuntary step back.  Oops.  “I don’t work for the big bad Bat.  Came to give you a warning, ‘cause Sandra said you were a decent kid, and I’ve got an understanding of the difference between stupid kids and actual criminals. But this is a warning.  You can’t keep doing this, or the Bat will come.”

The kid’s jaw juts out and something across his-her face flickers, a moment where Jason can almost see, before it’s gone again. 

“So what am I supposed to do?  Let my kids starve?”  The kid sounds both achingly young and far too old, and Jason hurts.  “I’m – I won’t.  He – I don’t care if comes for me.  I’m not – I can’t stop.”

Guts.  Foolish ones, this obviously untrained kid is no match for the Bat, but Jason can’t fault the kid for being a headstrong idiot when he was one too.  Still is, depending on who you ask.

He starts to run a hand through his hair before he remembers he’s still wearing a helmet, and changes the gesture to tugging it off.  A sort of show of goodwill, even if he is still wearing the domino.

“Look, kid –“

“I’m not a kid,” the definitely-a-kid mutters.

“You gonna tell me your name?”  Silence. Jason thought so.  “Then deal.  You ever consider just asking for some help, instead of going for the nuclear option?”

“People don’t help street kids,” the kid says, slow and incredulous like Jason’s an idiot.

“They do if they’re former street kids,” he replies in the exact same tone.  His petty satisfaction dwindles as the kid keeps staring at him, still ready to throw their body in front of Jason if he tries to get past them. “Look, just –“ he pulls a few bills out of a pocket and thrusts them at the kid, who reaches out and swipes them faster than light “ – buy the food next time?  I’ll have something figured out within the next two days, and I know you don’t trust me, but talk to the street corner girls for a character reference, alright?  I don’t hurt kids.”  He puts his helmet back on and starts to walk away.  “And don’t bother moving.  This is a good squat, and I’ll find you either way.  Might as well save the trouble.”

He hears the kid growl again, but doesn’t bother turning around.  Just what he needed, on top of every-fucking-thing else, a martyr of a meta teenager who’s trying to feed and protect street kids.  He can’t not help, even if he has less than no idea of how. 

***

The semi-peaceful morning is broken by Jason swearing and hitting the tabletop.  Both Tim and Kon jump.

“That’s it, I’m done, we’re talking about it.”

Dick had been enjoying the quiet, curled up watching cartoons with Kon while Jason cleaned his weapons and Tim typed on his laptop, something about quarterly reports.

“Talk about what?” he asks, even though he knows, but it’s too soon, he’s not ready, and things have been going so well, sort of, and…

“Don’t give me that bullshit.  About the fact that you –“ he points at Tim “ – are so messed up you’re taking Joker venom and fear gas and so we’re all here to keep an eye on you and hopefully help except no one seems to want to talk about it.  And so we keep pretending that nothing is wrong and I’m fucking done with it.”

Tim gets whiter as Jason gets louder, but he manages a calm, “I’m fine.”

Jason rolls his eyes. “At least pick a better lie.”

“It’s not a lie! I’m fine! Everything was under control until you found me and freaked out, completely unnecessarily!”  There are red temper spots in Tim’s cheeks now.

“Rob –“ Kon starts, only to be interrupted by Jason.

“You were escalating! The drug usage was going up, you were being less careful about when you used, you were in costume for god’s sake! You think I don’t recognize the signs of addiction? Me?”

“I can stop whenever I want!”

Jason stares at Tim in disbelief.  “That’s exactly the sort of shit that addicts say!”

“I am not an addict!” Tim screams.  Time for Dick to intervene.  But before he can get more than one step towards the two of them, Kon’s arm blocks him. “I’m… I’m not.”

“Oh, kid,” Jason sighs, and then Tim’s sobbing, and Kon’s arm is gone because he’s wrapped around Tim. 

This is probably some kind of breakthrough, but it hurts, and Dick clenches his useless hands and throws a helpless look toward Jason, who returns it with a world-weary look of his own.

“Thank you,” Dick mouths at him.  Jason shrugs and turns away.

Tim’s quieting, the tears harsh but short-lived.  The next step is… the next step is… Dick takes a deep breath, he can do this, he’s good at leading in a crisis, he’s been on so many teams, and that’s all this is, a crisis he needs to lead his small, odd team through.

He walks over and puts a hand on Tim’s shoulder.  He pulls away from Kon, who lets him go just far enough that he can half-turn and look at Dick but never releases him completely.

“You need help, baby bird. Let us help.”

“I – I don’t know how,” Tim admits, minute tremors running through him, face still streaked with tears he hasn’t even bothered to wipe away.

The admission just about breaks Dick’s heart, and he grasps desperately for the right thing to say, that will comfort and reassure and bring his brother back to him, away from this edge.  He finds nothing, and that’s its own sort of breaking.

He does his best to muddle through anyway.

“Just – tell us.  When it hurts, when it’s too much.  When you – you promised to call me, once, if it got too bad.  That’s – listen, when we say we’re worried, or, or scared, or – just let us in. That’s all we need.”

“And stop with the drugs,” Jason mutters, almost inaudible.

Tim looks at them, assessing, as he curls the slightest bit closer to Kon.  Dick can only hope that he won’t find them wanting.

“It’s – it’s not that it hurts, though,” he says, quiet, dull, “I can’t – there’s nothing.  I don’t… feel, anymore.  Anything except tired.  I’m always so tired, but I can’t sleep, or don’t have time, or – but it’s fine, I can deal, I’ve been doing it for years, but it’s gotten so hard, recently, pretending I’m normal, so people don’t notice, won’t worry.  I’m not – it’s fine, they don’t need to worry, I’m not important, and besides, as soon as someone decides I’m not ok, they start taking things away, and then all I have is an empty house and suspicion, so it’s better to hide it, be what everyone wants.  I just – I don’t know when it got so heavy.”

So, so far out of Dock’s comfort zone, except for all the ways he recognizes himself in Tim’s words, ways he would really prefer never to admit to, for fear that everything he’s built would come crashing down around him. 

But maybe Tim is afraid, too.  Dick understands fear, has marched by its side for years, and here is finally on solid ground.

“We’re not going to leave. No matter what, we won’t leave.” 

“You already have,” Tim says, the ironic curl to his bitter smile turning it into more of a snarl. “I’m used to it.  Just – just don’t take away whatever purpose I’ve managed to scrounge when you go.”

Dick closes his eyes, recognizing the veiled hit.  It seems he’s misunderstood, again, and maybe that’s doomed to be his life, loving people until he drives them away because he does or says the wrong thing, again. He thought wisdom came with age, but all he’s got is exhaustion and sore joints.

“Tim…” he tries, giving up before he says something worse.

“Ok, what the hell?” Jason, who’s been watching them all with feigned disinterest, straightens from his slouch.  “What happened that got you two all messed up?” 

Dick wants to answer, but doesn’t know how to begin the list of his sins, all the things he did while Bruce was dead that he thought were for the best.

“He took Robin from Tim,” Kon answers for him, because even if he was dead he knew about that betrayal.

“Yeah, I know?  Thought it was kinda funny at the time, the Replacement getting replaced.” Jason eyes them, their silence.  “Wait, that’s what this is all about?”

“Among other things,” Dick says, forcing himself to acknowledge that there was more.  That he didn’t believe Tim, that he chose Damian, that he let him leave… One hand goes to his pocket, and the security still of Alfred stitching him while Damian looks on, the one that Tim must have carried for months.  “It made you angry enough.”

“Ok, yes, but I was Pit-crazy.  And there were… I wanted to be avenged.”

“And Tim wanted to be believed.”  That shuts Jason up, and Dick turns back to Tim.  “I’m sorry, that I didn’t – that I couldn’t – I just – I couldn’t afford hope, especially what I thought was wild hope, not and – not and do what I thought I had to.”

Tim watches him with wary eyes, and he remembers them younger, full of complete and utter faith, the surety that Dick could do no real wrong.  It was inevitable that he’d fail at some point, but he’d never meant to do it so spectacularly.  And now Tim has no one to trust.

“I don’t blame you,” Tim croaks.  “For not believing.  Not anymore. And… you wanted me to stay.  But I couldn’t, not – not when I had even the slightest chance of bringing someone back.” He swallows, a few fresh tears dripping down his face.  “I – I thought it would fix things, and it did, for a while, but now it’s worse, and I don’t understand.  I – I want things to matter again, but I’m so tired and there’s nothing and I don’t understand.

“Breathe, Tim,” Kon murmurs at the hitching way his breaths have sped, before pulling him closer and burying his face in Tim’s dark hair.

Dick sees the way Tim’s hands clutch Kon’s shirt and wonders, but he just shakes his head at Jason’s raised eyebrow and pulls Leslie’s list out of his back pocket.

“Leslie made me a list,” he starts, knowing Tim’s listening by the way he twitches at the doctor’s name, “Of people you could talk to, that she trusts.  They could help.  I – I think it would be good, for you.”

Tim takes a few more shuddering breaths before pulling away from Kon and wiping his eyes.  He already looks defeated.

“So I can get better at lying?  Or deal with Vicki Vale’s headlines about the Drake-Wayne heir’s mental breakdown? How’s that supposed to help?”

“These people, they’re all discreet, they won’t sell you out to the press.  And…” Dick hesitates, “I think you should tell them the truth. All of it.”

Tim turns white, and Jason starts laughing, a hysterical bark that makes Dick wince.

“I – I can’t, Bruce would – Bruce would –“ He can’t seem to finish the sentence.  Jason takes over.

“Disown you?  Throw you in prison? Beat you up?  Don’t worry, he’s done it all to me, and I survived just fine.”

“Not helping,” Dick grits out, throwing a glare at Jason, who’s still laughing.  He turns pleading eyes on Tim.  “If – if you agree to go, I will too.  Leslie even gave me my own list.”

That shocks Jason silent. Tim gapes.  Dick… hasn’t really thought this through, but he’s not going to go back now that he’s offered it.  Especially not if it works.

“I’ll even tell the truth, all of it, and if Bruce finds out, not that he will, I’ll deal with it.” And he would, would take all the blame, the shouting, anything and everything if it meant he could help Tim. “Please.  I – I don’t know what else to do.”

Tim’s eyes narrow, assessing, and Dick can only wait and hope once again that he’s not found wanting.

“You’ll really tell this person you’re Nightwing? Give up everyone’s identities, the ones you’ve kept secret for years?” he asks, skeptically.

“Yes,” Dick says automatically, before wincing when he realizes, “I won’t out everyone else, just me. I – they get that choice.”

This seems to meet with approval, as Tim nods.  “One session. And you have to have one earlier or at the same time.”

“Deal.”

He’ll panic about agreeing to tell all his secrets to a stranger later.

“I’m regretting letting you pour the tequila down the drain,” Jason says after a moment, rubbing his forehead.

“You’re the one who started this conversation!”  Dick points out hotly.  Jason flips him off.  Dick sticks out his tongue at him.

Tim giggles, soft, barely there, and this time it sounds nothing like the Joker.

***

After things have sort of calmed down and Dick’s gotten Tim and Kon researching psychologists at the kitchen table, Jason sidles up to him.

“I’ve got a question slash favor to ask.”

“Go ahead,” Dick says. He looks lighter, watching the two kids from where he leans against the counter, no obvious regret about the deal he made.

“What’s the Wayne Foundation doing for street kids these days?”

Dick throws him a sharp look.  “Who’s in trouble?”

“No one!  Er, yet.”  He debates how much to reveal, then decides he might as well go for it.  “The meta that Tim and I tagged?  Teenager, I’m pretty sure, protecting and feeding a bunch of street kids over in that warehouse I checked out last night. Won’t stop stealing unless they find another way to feed the kids.”

“And the joyriding?”

Jason winces.  “Forgot to ask about that, but there’s probably an explanation.  The kid – skinny, scrappy little thing, threw themselves in front of me so I wouldn’t get to the others.  It’s – hard to fake that level of desperate.”

Dick nods.  “The foundation, currently, is…” he thinks for a second, tapping a finger against the counter as he does, “…funding three women and children-only shelters across the city, donating to a couple different orphanages, and offering grants to after-school and summer programs aimed at kids who’d otherwise be likely to end up on the streets.  There might also be some money going towards playgrounds and parks.”

That’s… good, great even, but not exactly helpful in this situation.  He can’t just lead the kids to a shelter where they’ll be asked about parents and, even if reluctantly, entered into the system.  And after school programs aren’t helpful if they don’t go to school, which a lot of these kids probably don’t.

“Not helpful?” Dick asks, seeing his grimace.  “Yeah, that’s been a sort of consistent problem, the kids who don’t want to be in the system end up slipping through the cracks.”

“If I don’t do something, the big bad Bats is gonna hunt the kid down for stealing, and we’ll end up with another supervillain or something,” Jason groans.  It’s obvious Dick thinks he’s exaggerating, but he’s not sure he is.  Look at what happened to him.

“I could get the kid a job?” Dick offers.  “The coffee place I work is hiring.”

The job idea’s actually not bad, but – wait.

“You work at a coffee shop?”

Dick shrugs. “Yeah.  I mean, the police thing didn’t really work out, and after Bruce came back I didn’t need to run the company anymore, though I still do some of the Wayne heir stuff when he’s away on JLA business, and I wanted something to do. Barista-ing’s pretty great, actually. Flexible hours, interesting people, doesn’t really conflict with the night job.”

Jason blinks at him. He’s going to need more time to absorb this.  A lot more time.

Though he can sort of see it, Dick in an apron chatting with customers, while he pulls levers on one of those weird steam milk machines, offering advice on which pastries are best. It… fits, in a way he doesn’t want to think about. 

“Kid,” he hollers at Tim, “Did you know Dickie here’s a barista at a coffee shop?”

“Really?”  Tim’s brow furrows, then smooths.  “Oh.  Are you undercover?”

“No.”  Dick crosses his arms, sounding almost… mad.  “I just like it, ok?”

Tim eyes him, but must decide he’s not lying.  “Ok. Can you get me free coffee?”

“That’s not…” Dick gives up at Tim’s pleading look.  “You don’t need more coffee.”

Kon’s grinning at them like this is all hilarious, and maybe it is.  Jason’s sense of humor’s a little skewed.  He scowls at Kon anyway.

“So, this job,” he starts, trying to get back on track, “where is it?”

“About a block away from the Finger Street bus stop, so it’s not hard to get to, and if documents are an issue, well –“ Dick offers him a sheepish smile, “ – let’s just say this wouldn’t be the first time.”

“So not only do you work at a coffee shop, you work at a coffee shop that pays people under the table.” The more you know.  Christ.  “Are you sure you’re not undercover?”

Dick rolls his eyes.  “The boss has a soft spot for people in need. Hires domestic abuse victims, sometimes, and kids who just need that little bit of money, but don’t want someone to know they’re working, for one reason or another.”

Jason has a sneaking suspicion there’s a little more to the story, but he’ll do his own research later. No point in offending Dickie, who seems to genuinely like the place.

“Are you looking for a job for the meta?”  Tim asks. “It’s a good idea, if they’ll agree to it.”

“Ma always says a good honest job has kept many a teenager on the straight and narrow,” Kon chimes in.

Jason raises an eyebrow. “And does she consider fighting crime a good honest job?”

“No,” Kon drawls, “She considers it a mostly useless hobby, right up there with model train collecting.”

Jason snorts, not quite a laugh but close.  Kon’s grin is almost Superman levels of innocent, but there’s a mischief sparkling in his eyes that Superman’s never had.  Jason likes it, is glad that this boy is Tim’s friend.  The kid could use a little mischief.

“Well, tell’em to go to Honest Coffee and say Dick sent them, and we’ll see if we can get them that good honest job.”  Dick wanders over to the kitchen.  “Anyone want a sandwich?”

There’s a chorus of yes’s, even if Tim’s only comes after Kon bumps him with his elbow.  Dick’s been rigidly making sure everyone gets three meals a day, mostly because if they eat Tim eats, but he’s reaching the end of things he can actually cook.  It might be time for Jason to take over, unless he wants to eat a rotating series of about six meals for however long this takes.

Which is a whole other question that he’s trying not to think about.  They’ll stick around as long as the kid needs, and if something comes up… well, there’s three of them, they can set up some kind of rotation or something.  They’ve at least talked about it now.  Some of it. Even if Dick and Tim keep getting caught up in some sort of drama from the year Bruce was dead.  That he still needs to ask about.

“So,” he asks, wandering over to peer over Tim’s shoulder, “how’s the virtual stalking going?”

“It’s not stalking,” Tim tries to protest, but he’s got several social media accounts open, so Jason calls bullshit.

Kon’s fond, “Not yet, at least,” gets him a glare, but he blithely continues.  “There haven’t been any attempts to hack private servers.”

So Tim’s idea of stalking is Bat-level creepy, good to know.

“Kon, mustard?” Dick calls from the kitchen.

“No!” Kon and Tim both reply.  It’s sort of cute, and yet another thing to add to the list of shit to figure out.

***

Dick gains a stalker fairly early in his patrol, who he ignores until he finds a decently secluded rooftop and is pretty sure no one immediately needs him.

“Come on out, Robin,” he calls once he’s seated on the lip of the roof, feet dangling.

A hooded shadow lands just behind him and to the left, a holdover from when they patrolled as partners, Damian’s insistence on defending his supposed weak side coupled with Dick’s insistence that he stay slightly ahead to catch any sudden dangers.  Damian hesitates, but scrambles up to sit next to him anyway.  Dick bumps him with a shoulder, his personal compromise since he knows Damian won’t stand an arm around his shoulders while he’s patrolling.

“What’s up, baby bat?”

“I’m not a baby,” Damian grumbles, shifting on the cold concrete so he’s a bare inch closer.  “I wanted to inform you of a possible conspiracy.”

“Oh?”  For Damian, a conspiracy can be anything from Alfred hiding birthday presents to Ra’s planning something.  Hilariously, adorably, it tends more towards the former.

“The Hood and the Pretender appear to have allied.  A source saw them fighting together two nights ago.” He pauses.  “I feel we should investigate the possibility of mind control.”

“That’s not –“ Damian’s worried, about one or both of them, which makes Dick want to hug him. “ – there’s no mind control, promise.  And please stop calling Red Robin names.”

“How can you be sure? Such behavior is irregular, and both parties live alone, making them more susceptible to –“

Now he really wants to hug him.  He ruffles Dami’s hair instead.  Dami squawks and ducks away, glaring.

“If you insist on not taking my concerns seriously…” he starts, all offended dignity, and Dick has to interrupt.

But he realizes that he can’t tell Dami the truth, not yet, not when he’d take it as ammunition and probably tell Bruce as part of his constant efforts to win his father’s favor. Plus, he won’t betray Tim’s trust that way.  Kon is one thing, but Damian…

“They’re working a case together,” he decides, which is the truth, if only in partial.  “The suspect works in both their territories, and besides, they’re not as bad as they used to be.”

Damian huffs, the closest he’ll get to agreeing.  “Is that why you are covering part of Red Robin’s patrol route?”

“Er…” Right, Bruce doesn’t know, and now Dick’s wondering how often Tim gets hurt and just doesn’t tell them.  “No, it’s cause Red got hurt on a Titan’s mission and is out for a few days.”  Or as long as they can convince him to be. “I’ve been staying with him, so I said I’d cover.”

Damian stiffens.  “You know you are always welcome at the Manor. Unless, of course, it no longer meets your standards and the Pretender’s domicile is in some way superior.”

Back to the Pretender.  “No. No, Damian.  It’s not…” He keeps doing this, hurting one brother while he tries to help another, and yet he still doesn’t know how to stop it.  He sighs. “The Manor is fine.”

He’s not sure Damian believes him, but he can’t give his real reasons.  He wants to be open and honest, but secrets and lies were the bread he was raised on, and in this case, he has to eat.  However…

“You know, I’m starting therapy next week,” he tells Damian.  He and Tim had each made appointments earlier.  “Means I’ll probably be around more.  Want me to ask Bruce if you can join me for a patrol or two?”

Just like Dick hoped, Damian latches on to the second half of that statement.

“Well, since you are having to cover two patrol routes, it would make sense for me to assist you.” He, almost imperceptibly, snuggles closer again.  “Tell Father.”

Dick leans in so their shoulders brush and stares out at the city.  To this day, he’s not sure what he did to earn the love of this prickly, suspicious boy, but he’s desperate to keep it, to have one person he has not let down monumentally.

So far, it seems he’s done alright.

***

The warehouse is, sort of shockingly, not empty when he gets there, signs of residence even if there are no kids.  The meta, instead of waiting in the stairwell this time, meets him in that first office, still wary, still suspicious.  Still blocking the door.  

“How do you feel about a job?” is Jason’s opening salvo, and the meta’s clenched fists drop in shock.

“What? No one – I don’t have ID.”

“This place, won’t be a problem.”

And fists back up. “I’m not joining one of the gangs.”

“Relax, will you?” Jason rolls his eyes and leans against the old desk.  Coincidentally, it means he’s no longer blocking the exit.  “It’s at a coffee shop.  A clean one.  Owner’s just got a soft spot for kids in trouble.”

“A… coffee shop?”

“Yep.  Called Honest Coffee, of all the fucking ridiculous things.”

“They… they’ll really give me a job?”

The hope in the kid’s voice is painful.  Maybe Jason should find gainful employment for runaways more often.

“Quit stealin’, quit joyridin’, and yeah.”  The kid flinches, and right, he should ask. “What’s that all about, anyway?  The joyriding,” he clarifies. 

The kid’s quiet long enough Jason’s pretty sure they’re not going to answer, but he waits anyway. Nothing else to do.

“I – I talked to Sandra, about you.  She said you were – gruff, and too blunt, but you cared, and I – I could trust you.  At least this far.  Sandra doesn’t trust just any man over eighteen, so….” The kid ducks their head so low their shoulders come up around their ears.  “But I – I need you to promise that you won’t take me away.  I can’t – there are people I can’t leave behind.”

The kid’s winding up for some big confession, it’s obvious, but Jason’s instincts say it’s not a bad one, and he’s inclined to trust those right now, with another Crime Alley street rat shuffling their feet in front of him.  So he nods and hold out his hand.

The kid takes it, thin fingers and cold palm, the grip firmer than he was expecting, and they shake.

The glamour, the disguise, the meta-ness, whatever, drops, and Jason can finally see the kid’s face. She’s younger than he expected, maybe fourteen, light brown hair cut short and ragged, face and eyes wary. She’s too skinny, joints too sharp even for that awkward knees-and-elbows stage.  Jason understands, now, why Alfred kept trying to feed him sandwiches when he first got to the Manor, because he’d really, really like to give this girl one.

“You got a name, kid?”

“Leah,” she says, with enough familiarity that the name’s either real or a consistently used alias. “What – what now?”

Right, this was her big confession, though Jason has no idea what she thought it would change.  He raises an eyebrow, remembers she can’t see it through the helmet, and sighs internally.  “Still waiting for an explanation for the joyriding.”

“I – they’re johns, mostly. The – the not so nice ones.  If they spend the whole night looking for their car, they’re not – not looking for someone too desperate to say no to what they ask.”

Well, that’s depressing as hell, but it’s not like he can fault the kid for it.  Though… “Any of those johns come after you?”

She flinches, and that’s enough of an answer right there.  Jason’s going to strangle someone, though he’s not sure who yet. Even if they never actually touched her, they should know better than to go after someone so young.  He makes a mental note to start checking in on the girls more often.

“Next time,” because he’s not so naïve as to believe there won’t be a next time, “tell Sandra. She’ll get a message to me, and it won’t be their cars those men are missing.”

The kid – Leah – nods, and her shoulders loosen.  “So,” she asks, voice husky, “where’s this job?”

***

Dick truly, genuinely, likes the coffee shop he works at.  It’s busy enough to be interesting, but not so busy that he can’t chat with the occasional customer.  The furniture is all cozy, made up mostly of refurbished thrift store pieces, warm wood and cool-toned upholstery, a mix of fabrics and styles that works only because eclectic is in.  The ceiling is painted blue, a lighter shade than the walls, something about soothing vibes and preventing reflective heat that Dick is sure the boss made up on the spot.

His favorite thing though, is the old china cabinet in the corner where they keep the regulars’ mugs. Glass-fronted, full almost to bursting, it’s a kaleidoscope of mismatched mugs, from the almost bowl-sized one covered in constellations that belongs to James-call-me-Jimmy, up-and-coming stockbroker who preferred his coffee with honey rather than sugar, to Mrs. Seidland’s delicate china teacup that has pride of place in the center shelf on its own crocheted doily.

There’s history in every cup, a slice of personality, showcased to the world in simple ceramic, and to Dick it encapsulates the whole place, the sort of business the boss strives for.

Dick’s mug is Nightwing blue with an oddly blocky handle, half-hidden in the back corner of the highest shelves.  The boss gave it to him halfway through his second month on the job, smile too knowing. He said he’d found it at a yard sale out in the suburbs.  Dick couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so seen.

It’s also great that his coworkers are wonderful, a mix of middle-aged women and high school and college kids, from shy Doireen who brings her six-year old in to color at the corner table when she has an afternoon shift, to Len who’s studying physics and cracks the best jokes, all led by Helen who’s worked there for years.  It’s a community, a team, the same way he remembers the Teen Titans being in the beginning, and he loves it, had been craving it without knowing.

So the first thing he does when he gets in that morning is give Natalie, their newest college recruit, a high five and ask how her first week went.

The second thing he does is slip into the tiny office at the back to talk to Tom.

“Got another one for you,” he says once Tom looks up from his ancient desktop computer.  He’s in his late fifties, hair more grey than blond, enough muscle still on his frame to suggest the soldier he used to be. “Kid, probably a runaway.  Was stealing to keep some younger kids fed. Asked if she wanted a job instead.” Well, Jason asked, but close enough.

Tom sighs, but Dick knows by this point it’s the world he’s weary at, not Dick.  “I’ll stick around for the afternoon.  If and when she stops by, send her to me and we’ll get something figured out.”

“Thanks, Tom.  I’ll do this week’s books, if you want.”

“I’ll probably take you up on that.”

Dick leaves with a grin and a wave, snagging his apron off a hook on his way back to the counter.

He’s about to clock out when a girl sneaks warily into the café, brown hair that looks like it was last cut with safety scissors or a knife, wearing a worn green hoodie that matches Jason’s description of what their meta was wearing last night.

“Hi,” Dick calls across the room.  The girl jumps.  “What can I get you?”

“Um…” She sidles closer. “I – someone said you might have a job open?”

“Yeah.”  He smiles at her, the soft one he gives to small children and Damian when he insists he’s not scared, and points towards the office. “First door on the right, boss’s name is Tom.  He’s probably playing spider solitaire.”

She nods, jerky, squares her shoulders, and marches towards the office.  Dick simultaneously finds it adorable and is reminded of the too many times he’s watched friends march off to near-certain doom.  His stomach turns over at the conflicting mix and he reminds himself that it’s Tom, who understands better than most.

Thankfully, he’s distracted by a group of students tumbling through the door, most of whom want lattes. Then it’s a pair of middle-aged women, then a jogger, then Mr. O’Toole stopping by for his daily cappuccino, and by the time he looks up Tom’s ushering the shell-shocked teen out of his office so he can give her a quick tour.

He clocks out, knowing she’s in good hands, and grabs a bag of pastries for his patrol with Damian that night, making Natalie ring it up so she can “practice.”  He smirks when she glances around before giving him the finger.

It’s a good day, and that’s been hard to find recently, so he revels in it, whistling on the walk home, soaking in the spotty sunshine.

Only to drop his bag of pastries as soon as he walks through Tim’s front door at the sight of Bruce sitting on the couch, Jason glaring at him from the armchair.

“Um, hi?” he manages, scooping up the bag and depositing it on the counter.

“Dick.”  And that is not a good tone, that’s the growly almost-Bat how-dare-you tone, crap. “Damian said something interesting this afternoon.”

“Oh?”  He didn’t think he’d told Damian anything incriminating, he’d mostly steered away from sensitive topics, so what the hell…

Bruce raises an eyebrow, but Dick’s played this game way too long.  He’s not gonna start babbling just to the fill the silence, and besides, it’s not like he’s done anything wrong.  He crosses his arms and stares back.

Unfortunately, the stare-off is interrupted by the creak of the front door and the noise of Tim and Kon’s cheerful bickering.  Dick glances over just in time to see Tim stop dead in the doorway, blanching.  Kon nudges him far enough forward that he can close the door, and then takes up position at his left shoulder.

“Bruce.  What are you doing here.”

“Damian said something concerning.” Bruce glares at Dick.  “About therapy?”

You told?”

The betrayal is obvious, and Dick does his best to soothe and reassure, without taking his eyes off of Bruce.  “Just mentioned to Damian that I’d be starting therapy next week.  But I’d hoped he’d ignore it as the throwaway comment it was.”  Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Tim relax slightly.  He’d caught the subtle emphasis then.  Good.

Bruce is still glaring, but he’s aware enough to know he’s lost any advantage his silence might have given him.  He sighs and rubs a hand over his face, shoulders dropping.  Disappointed lecture time then.  Great.

“I’d prefer it if you’d tell me when you’re hurt, rather than having to hear it from my youngest son. If it’s bad enough that you need physical therapy, you shouldn’t be out on the streets.  It’s not safe, for you or anyone you partner with.”

Which is about the point when Dick realizes that they are talking about completely different things. He considers letting the misunderstanding run its course, let Bruce assume something bad but not life-changing, but he promised Tim.  He said he’d deal with Bruce, and if he confesses first…

“I’m not hurt,” he interrupts.  “It’s not – not that kind of therapy.”

“Then what –“ Bruce cuts himself off, unwilling to admit confusion.  Jason snorts.  Dick glances over just long enough to glare before looking back to Bruce.  Tim’s crept closer, Kon still watching his back, and it’s sort of sad that they’ve automatically assumed fighting poses. It’s even sadder how long it takes before Bruce’s eyebrows snap together in realization.  “You mean a psychologist.”

Dick shrugs, affecting carelessness.  “Leslie recommended some people.”

“Oh.”  Bruce obviously struggles for a moment to come up with something else, but talking is not one of the many things he is good at.  He retreats back to safe ground  “So, you’re not injured?”

“No.”

“That’s… good.”  He stands, uncomfortable now that he has no reason to be here, no task to carry out or mission to impart.  Dick, now that he thinks about, can’t remember the last time he talked to Bruce about anything other than the mission or Damian.  And the discussions of Damian are usually about Damian-as-Robin, not just Damian.  “Make sure this… therapist… signs an NDA.”

“Of course,” Dick says, but Bruce is already halfway out the door, Tim barely having time to step aside. The latch clicks and everyone exhales.

Dick’s sure dealing with Bruce used to be easier, even enjoyable.  One more thing that changed when he wasn’t paying attention.

“Never again,” Jason mutters from his chair.  “He was here for half an hour, just not talking, before you got back, Dick.”

“At least he came as Bruce, not the Bat?”  Dick tries, but concedes with a nod when Jason gives him a look.

“You didn’t tell.” Tim’s starting to shake slightly, and between one blink and the next Kon’s left the groceries on the counter and returned to grip Tim’s shoulder.

“Not my story to tell,”  Dick says firmly, trying to stay still and solid when his leftover adrenaline is telling him to move, to move now.  This can’t come off as careless, throwaway, it’s too important.  “When you want to talk to Bruce, I’ll be there, but you get to decide when that is if I have any say over it.”

“I – I can’t, I can’t, he already doesn’t really want me, if he finds out I’m broken, that – that I failed, he –“

“You’re not broken!” Kon seems to swell, get taller, looking more righteous Superboy than harmless farm kid, before he deflates at the look of pure despair Tim throws him.  “You’re not.  And even if you were, we could fix it, and if we couldn’t, it wouldn’t matter, because I’d still be here, ok?  And, and if the Bat gets all awful about it, I’ll tell Superman, or, or, Diana, and they’ll kick his ass.”

Jason snorts. “Useless threat.  They like him too much.  We’ll kick his ass.”

Tim turns towards him. “Would you?  Really?”

“It’s not like I need an excuse,”  Jason stands, like that’s all that needs to be said, like none of this means anything, and Dick wants to scream.  “Did you find the chilis in adobo sauce?”

“Yeah,” Kon says, but Tim must be experience a similar whiplash to Dick because he just splutters.

“That’s – that’s it? All you’re going to say?  It’s Batman.”

Jason rolls his eyes. “Kid, two things.  One, Batman’s just a man, and Bruce even more so.  Two, we’ve got your back.  Repeat that to yourself until it gets through your thick skull, kay?”  He starts rustling through the grocery bags.  Tim’s face is full of revelation, and Dick can’t believe it’s that easy. “Do people want spicy or burn-your tongue enchiladas?”

But apparently it is. Kon ushers Tim to the couch, lets him think, and goes to help Jason in the kitchen.  Dick, after a blink, retreats to a corner to do handstand push-ups.

After the first ten or so, enough space clears in his fuzzy brain for him to fully realize what he’s just admitted to Bruce.  And while Bruce was obviously lost and uncomfortable with the whole thing, he didn’t try and stop Dick.  Didn’t try to ban him from patrol, or suggest he might not be a good influence on Damian, or any of a hundred other things he could have tried, subtle or not.

It’s not acceptance, but it’s… something.

***

Jason badgers Tim until he agrees to go with him to Dick’s coffee shop.  The winning argument is, surprisingly, not the one about doing proper reconnaissance but rather the one about it being a great way to fuck with Dick.

Either way, he got the kid out of the house, distracting him both from the fact that Kon’s gone for the weekend, back with the Teen Titans, and the looming first therapy appointment.

They’ve managed not to let him patrol, a feat only managed by Dick finding lots of articles on overstressing knee injuries too early and Jason letting Tim reorganize and type up his mostly paper case files.

But it means he hasn’t really left the apartment, and that’s its own sort of problem.  So Jason figured out an excursion, and who cares if he also gets to annoy Dick with it, his motives are pure.  Ish.  He laughs at himself and pushes open the shop’s door.

It smells amazing, like warmth and vanilla and good dark coffee, and he zeroes in on a chair in the corner, with good sightlines, that looks sturdy enough that he won’t sink into it but still soft enough to be comfortable.  Tim’s already pushed past him to make a beeline for the counter with its glass jars of coffee beans.  He’s hiding the limp from the knee brace well.

It’s right after lunch, and there are only two other people in the whole place, both young and typing away on laptops.  Dick’s nowhere to be seen, but Leah is at the counter, still in that same awful hoodie with an apron thrown on over it.  She’s smiling, small, real, not a too-wide service smile.  Jason’s slight suspicion that this is some sort of front and Dick’s either oblivious or lying melts away, and he strolls up to the counter, snagging Tim on the way past.

“Can I get a chai tea, large, and an Americano?”

“Double Americano!” Tim says.

Single,” Jason stresses, but makes the mistake of glancing over at Tim’s big-eyed pleading.  He compromises.  “And a bag of those chocolate covered espresso beans.  Plus whatever pastry is the best.”

“That’ll be $13.47,” the kid says.  Jason hands her a twenty and drops the change in the tip jar.  She squints at him.  “Name?”

“Jason,” he tells her, not bothering with a false name.  As soon as Dick appears it’ll be a moot point anyway.  She hands him the espresso beans, which he passes off to Tim, and pulls a cinnamon roll out of the display case.  It’s smothered in icing, and the pastry looks soft like a proper cinnamon roll rather than the weird flaky shit so many places serve these days.

“Want it warmed up?”

“Um, yes.”  That sounds delicious.  Tim’s wandered over to that corner Jason spotted earlier, picking not the armchair but rather the table nearby.  “Has anyone ever said no?”

The kid shrugs.  “Not while I’ve been here, but it’s only been a few days.”

“Really?  Any chance you know a guy named –“

“Leah! Have you seen –“ Dick stops short at the sight of him, mouth dropping open.  Jason smirks. “What are you doing?”

“Getting coffee, bro.” Dick lights up.  The brother thing, probably.  “And a cinnamon roll.”

“It’s a cinnamon roll day? How did I not – Leah, can I –“

“Already saved you one,” she interrupts, rolling her eyes. Dick beams and pulls her into a half hug. The shocking thing is that she lets him, almost melts into it.  “You know this guy?”

“Yeah, Leah, meet my little brother Jason.  Jason, Leah.”

“Tim’s here too,” Jason says, just to see Dick light up for a second time.  “The caffeine addict in the corner,” he tells Leah.

“Timmy!” Dick calls, waving. Tim waves back awkwardly.  He turns to Leah.  “He’s my next youngest brother, after Jason.”

“How many siblings do you have?”

So maybe they weren’t so much fucking with Dick as visiting him at his place of work, but at least half of that was Dick’s utter inability to be unhappy at the sight of them.  The other half is this place, calm and such an obvious sanctuary that Jason is reluctant to disturb it.

Dick’s trying to explain his siblings to Leah while she stares at him like he’s trying to explain imaginary numbers, which would be hilarious except for the fact that Jason’s cinnamon roll still isn’t warmed up.

Normally he’d just interrupt, but he doesn’t want to be the horrible rude customer in the nice peaceful coffee shop, plus Leah, so he just stares at the abandoned plate soulfully, with occasional glances up at Dick.  When that doesn’t work, he gives in and pokes him.

“Hey!”

“Quit holding my food hostage.” 

Dick glances over at the plate.  “Oh. Right.”

“Are you sure you work here?”  Jason asks. Leah glares, huffs at him, and stomps off with the cinnamon roll, offended on Dick’s behalf.  “I see your charm still works,” he tells Dick.

“She’s a good kid. Works hard, learns fast.  Tom keeps making her close up so she has to take all the leftover food, too.  It’s… this is a good place, Jason.”

Jason’s not sure why Dick’s suddenly turned all pleading, what he thinks Jason’s going to do, but he doesn’t like the look in his eyes, the way he’s fiddling with his apron.  He changes the subject.

“What’s with the artwork?”

Dick’s shoulders slump, but he answers.  “It changes. Right now it’s stuff from last year’s AP Art class over at the high school.  Sometime next week I’m helping Tom change it over to a bunch of Katie’s stuff.”

“Katie?”

“One of the bakers. Not the one who makes the cinnamon rolls though, that’s Lola.”

Jason smirks.  “Lola, huh?  How’s she feel about strapping young men?”

Dick bursts out laughing. “Come by and find out.  Please. Just make sure I’m here to witness it.”

“That well, huh?” Dick doesn’t look as small now, with a grin widening his face and his head thrown back.  He might have to meet this Lola after all, if it brings Dick this much joy.

Though when did making Dick happy become something that he wanted?  They’ve been at each other’s throats most of their lives, death and jealousy souring too many of their interactions, but now… Maybe it’s living with him, sleeping in the same room, the same bed even, seeing him as human instead of vigilante for the first time in years.  Maybe it’s finally understanding how much he bleeds for other people, even if he does it with a grin and quip.  Maybe it’s that he’s tired of fighting against the obvious care, or that they have a common goal, or a hundred other reasons.

Maybe it’s that he stood up to Bruce and only spilled his own secrets.  There were barely-there fingertip bruises on his arm that night, from how hard he must have gripped it, ones Jason’s not sure Dick was even aware of. And still.

Leah returns with his cinnamon roll, now all melty, and he lets it distract him, thanking her and teasing Dick a bit more before he joins Tim at his corner table.

Tim who’s staring fixedly at a spot on the wall.  Who doesn’t move when Jason says his name.  Who flinches when he reaches out.

“Dick,” he calls, trying to keep calm, “can you come here?”

He doesn’t question it, thank god, just ducks around the counter and strides over to Jason.

“What’s…” he trails off, frowning at Tim, whose eyes keep getting wider.  “Tim?”

Still no response. They’re definitely entering freak-out territory, and Jason is tired of this.  Things were much easier when he didn’t care.

Tim whines, low, scared, almost inaudible, and the back of Jason’s neck prickles, the fine hairs standing on end.

“Tim…”

“What the hell?” Jason hisses, fighting the urge to punch Tim until he stops making that sound.  There’s a green tinge to his thoughts, something whispering that rage is much better than fear, but he clenches his jaw, pushes it down.  “What the fucking hell, Dickie?”

“Fear gas, it’s – I think it’s fear gas.”

Of course.  Of course it couldn’t be this easy, of course the kid would relapse.  “Where the fuck did he get it?  We tore that place apart, I thought…”

“It’s Tim,” is Dick’s grim answer.  “Hey, hey, baby bird, listen to me, ok?  It’s fine, you’re safe, whatever you’re seeing it’s not real, we’re in a coffee shop, the one I work at, it’s safe, breathe baby bird, come on, breathe.” Dick reaches down and pulls a skinny capped syringe out of his boot.  Jason doesn’t want to know when he started carrying what he assumes is fear gas antidote everywhere, but he’s glad of it.  “Hold him.”

Jason bear hugs Tim, tucking his chin over the top of Tim’s head.  He’s wire-tight, muscles hard as bone, but he doesn’t struggle.  So at least they’re probably not going to get called out for fighting.  Dick stabs him with the syringe before recapping it and stowing it away fast enough that even Jason didn’t see where it went.  They wait, two seconds, ten, twenty, before finally Tim starts to relax.

Slowly, it’s not like they know for sure what Tim took, Jason releases him, straightening up and glancing around to see Leah staring at their huddled group with wary eyes.  He hopes they haven’t scared her off.  It doesn’t seem like anyone else has noticed, at least.

Tim’s blinking up at them, frowning, eyebrows furrowed, seemingly unaware of the past few minutes.

“What’d you take?”  Jason growls, holding on by his finger ends. He thought he was prepared, he did, he told Dick that it wouldn’t be easy, but he isn’t, he isn’t at all.  He can’t watch someone do this shit, not again.

“W – what?” Tim stutters. “I didn’t, I – what, what happened?”

Dick looks sympathetic, but Jason is not letting this pass, can’t afford to.

“What.  Did.  You. Take.”

“Nothing! I – you’ve been with me all day.”

“Jason.”  Dick grabs his arm before he can reach out and shake some answers out of the self-destructive shit.  “I’m pretty sure he’s telling the truth.”

“I don’t know what’s going on!  I was just here, and then you’ve got me restrained and Dick’s hovering and I – I must have lost time, but I don’t know why or how much or what happened and none of my stuff’s supposed to do that, I’m not supposed to be, to be unaware, so it can’t – it’s not me!”

Jason takes a deep breath and shoves the rage back down, enough that he can grit out, “Take him home,” in Dick’s direction before he stalks away.

The kid’s not lying, or if he is he’s better at it than anyone Jason’s ever met.  You can’t fake that sort of controlled panic.  Doesn’t make it better or easier for him to come down. The fear’s still pulsing, sick-feeling in his gut, and he’s never been good at fear.

Dick stops to murmur something at Leah before shepherding Tim out, throwing a glance over his shoulder at Jason before he goes.  He doesn’t seem accusing at least, just sad, but Jason wants to snap at him anyway. He needs to… he has to…

“You should sit down,” he hears from behind him, and whirls around, teeth all but bared.

There’s a man behind him, far enough that he’s out of range if Jason lashed out.  He screams dangerous to Jason’s instincts, big heavy hands and slabs of muscle on a burly frame, even if his hair is mostly grey.  Jason could take him, no question, but this guy would get in a few hits.

“Sit down, eat your cinnamon roll, and let’s talk,” the man says, hands loose at his sides.  Jason doesn’t trust the calm in his voice or body.

“And you are?”

“Tom.  Dick’s boss.  Come on, kid, be a shame to let one of Lola’s cinnamon rolls go to waste.”

Dick’s boss, the owner, the one who got the meta kid a job.  The one that takes in all sorts of strays, apparently.  This guy is Dick’s boss?

“Ok,” Jason rasps, giving in.  “Ok.”

They sit, Tom first, his hands placed on the tabletop where Jason can see them, his back towards the door. He shifts his chair to the side, enough that Jason can see the exit past him.  He wants to hate Tom for that, for knowing, but it lets him drop an increment of his tension.

Tom glances down at the plate between them.  Jason pulls it toward him, takes a vicious bite, and freezes.  It’s delicious, cinnamon and icing and a hint of coffee, warm and soft and so, so good.

Good food, he realizes, has always equaled safe.

Tom smiles at his reaction. “I think I should tell you a story. About an angry kid who learned the language of fists far too young, who joined the army because he had nowhere else to go and there he was allowed his anger, his rage, praised for it even, for the fact that he’d never learned to quit when he should.  That kid got sent across the ocean, and he fought and watched men die, men he was friends with, men he hated, men whose names he barely knew. And he’d always been hard, but war made him harder, made him numb.”  He takes a deep breath.  “And then, one day, he got shot and they sent him home.”

“And then?” Jason’s been drawn in despite himself, a hungry fascination, a need to know if this angry boy ever discovered something better than the satisfaction of fists against flesh. His anger’s still pulsing, but it’s subdued, manageable, safer.

“And then I got a job at an all-night café, because the insomnia might as well be good for something, and bars made me twitchy.  Learned how to make halfway decent coffee, and when a woman with a black eye and her toddler walked in late one night, I gave ‘em two hundred bucks and let ‘em wait in the back room until her sister got off shift.  Turns out the sister was a spitfire who I’d know in high school. She said I was wasting my life, and she was right.  Realized I liked helping people, got half a counseling degree before I decided it was too formal for me and decided to open a coffee shop instead.”

Jason snorts.  “I feel like you skimmed over some steps there.”

Tom shrugs.  “There was a lot of work involved, and it took a while, but no one wants to hear about that.”

They lapse into silence. Jason takes another bite of his cinnamon roll, discovering all over again how good the fucking thing is.

“A coffee shop, really?”

Tom shrugs again. “All these cases, all these people I kept meeting, they needed counseling, sure, but they also needed someplace to work, someplace safe.  Sometimes they needed to be paid under the table.  I knew how coffee worked, and I knew I could make it… calm.  So I did.”

Another silence, another bite, and Jason’s stopped wondering why Dick stays.  There’s something soothing, something settled about Tom, something that reminds him a bit of Alfred and a bit of Barbara but without the bite of either.

“Why me?” he asks once the cinnamon roll’s gone and Tom still hasn’t made any move to either get up or continue the conversation.  “Why tell me?”

“How old were you when you first took a fist to someone’s face?”

“Too young.”

Tom smiles, knowing. “And how old were you the first time someone took a fist to yours?”

The answer can’t seem to make it out of his creaky throat.  Tom nods, but doesn’t push.

“Exactly.  Now, you want to tell me what’s going on with the kid who was with you and Dick?”

Not really.  “Trying to help him kick a drug habit.”

“And rehab’s out because?”

Jason’s laughter is too sharp for actual amusement.  “Do you know who Dick is?”

Tom actually rolls his eyes, much to Jason’s shock.  “Dick Grayson, or Grayson-Wayne depending on who’s asking when.  Grew up the son of acrobats, until they died tragically and he got taken in by that idiot up on the hill.  Tried college, didn’t last, was in Bludhaven for a while, New York for a while, who knows where for a while.  Sings Romani lullabies to Katie’s daughter and Helen’s son, taught Doireen’s kid how to do a cartwheel, knows the name of every employee here even if he isn’t on their shift. Loves Lola’s cinnamon rolls, loves anything sugary really, and makes a mean cup of espresso.”  He pauses, makes sure Jason’s listening.  “His mug is Nightwing blue.” 

Jason doesn’t react, even though he really wants to.  Does Dick know Tom knows?  Does Tom actually know or just suspect?  Should he confirm or deny?

“First time he came in here he was limping and his jaw was all puffy and swollen, even if he’d managed to hide the actual bruise with makeup.  Helen took one look, barged into my office, and demanded I offer him a job. I came out, saw the circles under his eyes, and decided then and there that it didn’t matter that I recognized him. Brought him another coffee, started chatting, and mentioned that I’d been looking for someone to pick up a shift here or there.  He jumped at the chance.”  He glances at Jason, who’s gone past speechless into frozen, and keeps going. “Couldn’t decide at first if he was getting abused by some kind of secret boyfriend or if it was a family thing. One of the more, er, aggressive high school kids asked once, and he said it was from krav maga, that he was studying self-defense but…  I put it together eventually.”

How?  I mean seriously, how?”  Jason tries to backtrack once his brain reappears.  “Not that I agree with what you’re implying of course.”

Tom chuckles. “Recognized the voice.  Some thug came in once when he was on shift, tried to start something.  Didn’t get far.”  He turns serious again.  “Keep an eye on him?  He’s… not as ok as he wants everyone to believe.”

Jason eyes him.  “I’m not exactly stable.”  None of them are, but he’d’ve put money on Dick being the most ok out of any of them.  Except maybe Alfred.  He’s the one who’s always watching out for everyone else, Bruce included, and maybe that’s the problem.  “But I’ll try.”

“All I ask.”  Tom seems reassured, which is honestly terrifying. Jason’s not meant to be reassuring. “Now, give me a minute to pack up Dick’s usual order and I’ll send you home.”

He stands, and he still screams danger, but Jason notices now the slow, careful way he moves, like the air is liquid and he’s doing his best not to disturb it.  Like he understands.

***

“Tim…” Dick sighs as soon as they get in the front door of his apartment.

“I didn’t take anything, I swear, I swear I didn’t, I don’t know what’s going on, please –“

Dick gives up on interrupting the stream of panicked babble and just pulls Tim into a hug.  He’s shaking, again.  Has been, on and off, for days, every time something big or stressful happens, and how blind was Dick not to notice before?  Because it doesn’t seem like a new thing.

“I believe you, ok?  I believe you.  But we need to go down to your mini-Cave and run some tests, just so we know what did happen.”

There’s a muffled ok against his chest.

Down in the mini-Cave, Tim sits quietly on a table, the closest thing the place has to a gurney. The lack of medical facilities is actually sort of concerning, but then again, Tim probably goes to Alfred or Leslie for anything major.  He hopes, at least.  Dick does a quick blood draw and starts his tests, looking for something that’ll explain the episode at the coffee shop.

And isn’t that a kind way of putting it, the episode, as if that can actually capture the way all his muscles tensed when Jason called his name with too much casualness to be real, the terrified whine, or the way Jason’s eyes went wide and white like a horse about to bolt. 

He’s still testing when Jason comes down, much calmer now, with a bag of Honest Coffee pastries. Tom must have caught him then.

“So?” he says, boosting himself up next to Tim.

“Still waiting.”

Tim starts to lean away, almost imperceptibly slow, but Jason just matches him until he grows bored of the game and slings an arm around Tim’s shoulders, pulling them both back upright.

“I – I didn’t –“ Tim starts, hunched under Jason’s arm.

“I know.  Jesus Christ, kid, you can’t expect me to act rational all the time.”  Jason grins, wolfish.  “I’m the crazy Robin.”

Tim’s smile is tremulous, but there.  “I’m not beating you yet?”

Dick was already convinced Tom was a saint, but now he might have to update that designation to miracle worker.  He’s never seen Jason brought out of a rage this fast or completely.

Then again, he’s usually fighting him through it.

The computer beeps. Dick wanders over to see if this test produced results.

“It’s some kind of reaction with your antibiotics.  Whatever you took, it lingered in your system and when you started back on the antibiotics, those built up and well…” He shrugs.  “It seems to have activated the latent fear gas?  That’s the best I’ve got at least.  Though aren’t you supposed to be on antibiotics all the time?”

Tim cringes.

“Why would you need –"

“Tim!”

“ – antibiotics,” Jason finishes.

“Because he doesn’t have a spleen any more, which makes him extra vulnerable to infection!”

He suppresses the flash of guilt he gets every time he thinks about Tim nearly dead in a desert, no friends anywhere.  It’s not helpful, and he can’t change it.  He can make sure Tim takes his antibiotics.

“Wait, wait, wait.”  Jason’s scowling, face flickering between thunderous and incredulous.  “When did you lose your spleen?  Why did you lose your spleen?”

“When I was looking for Bruce.  It’s not a big deal.” 

Jason stares at Tim, eyebrows up, throwing a quick glance at Dick to check in that he heard right. It’s sort of satisfying to see someone else just as horrified by Tim’s complete lack of care for his own health and safety.  Usually Dick’s only ally is Alfred, and Tim’s gotten too good at hiding injuries even from him.

“And what, exactly, counts as a big deal?” Jason asks.  “Inquiring minds want to know.  Your death? Does that count?”

Tim doesn’t answer. Jason throws his hands up and stalks to the other side of the mini-Cave.  Both Dick and Tim track the movement.

“Will – will it happen again?”  Tim asks once Jason’s stopped, leaning heavily on a counter lining the wall, his back to them.  “I – I don’t really have to take the antibiotics, they’re just a precaution –“

Dick interrupts before they can go too far down that rabbit hole.  “You’re taking the antibiotics.  You should have been taking them the past few months.”  He hesitates, knowing what he says next isn’t going to be welcome.  “And I don’t know.  It could. Until we can make sure all of the stuff is out of your system, there’s the possibility of… adverse reactions.” Tim nods, but he won’t meet Dick’s eyes. “I’ll run a few more tests, see how long it might take.  Until then…”

“I shouldn’t patrol.” The words are hollow.

He tries for gentleness. “Probably not, no.  It – it can’t hurt if you give everything more time to heal anyway.”

“Yes.  I – I’m going to head upstairs.”

Dick starts to follow the slump of his shoulders, but Jason stops him.  He waits until Tim’s steps fade completely before shoving Dick towards the computer chair.  It’s not an angry shove, but there’s a determination to it that Dick doesn’t feel like fighting.  He sits.

“What the hell happened when Bruce died?”  Jason starts pacing.  “I mean, it was a mess, all of it, but what happened between you and Tim?  You both keep dancing around something and every time I think I’ve got the shape of it something else slips out, but whatever it is seems to the root of at least half your issues.”

He doesn’t know how to answer that.  There’s so much, and a lot of that time is blurred, so much exhaustion and grief and fear that he can’t always separate things out.

But Jason’s glaring at him, waiting, so he’ll try.  “Bruce – Batman– died, and I – well, Alfred, actually, sort of, pointed out that he couldn’t, that the city still needed the symbol, needed something, and I – it seemed like the best option.  The only option, really.  So I put on the suit and –“ started to drown  “– managed as best I could.  But it wasn’t just Batman, there was Wayne Enterprises, and, and Damian, and Tim who was delusional, thinking Bruce was still alive somewhere, and everyone needing something that I didn’t know how to give.”  And through it all, the fog he couldn’t seem to shake, that he hid as best he could because he had to hold it together or the world would fall apart.  “Damian – he needed a purpose, and I could give him that.  I – it’s not that I thought it wouldn’t hurt Tim, but I didn’t know – didn’t want to know, maybe – how much.”  He rubs a hand over his face, stands, needing to move, to do something. “Then he ran off, and I should have gone after him, probably, but there was so much… I don’t think anyone knows exactly what happened, at least not all of it, but he ended up with Ra’s Al Ghul somehow and –“

“Wait,” Jason interrupts, “he was actually working with the League of Shadows?  What the hell?  Aren’t he and Ra’s mortal enemies or some shit?”

“Ra’s has a – a thing for Tim.”  The words taste dirty in his mouth, both understatement and not.  He knows what it is to be the object of obsession, and for Tim to be Ra’s’ terrifies him.  He’s tried mentioning it to Bruce, but he doesn’t understand, doesn’t get the difference between nemesis and stalker.

Jason obviously does, if his sickened expression is anything to go by.

“But he – Ra’s – decided it wasn’t enough, or something, to have Tim there, and tried to take over Wayne Enterprises for some reason, and Tim found out and stopped him, but there was a fight and it ended with Tim throwing himself off the roof.”  He’d already been unconscious when Dick managed to catch him, blood loss and exhaustion and probably malnutrition, the leather and Kevlar slick against Dick’s gloves.  “Thank god I was there.  I – he said when he woke up that he knew I would be there, would catch him, but I’ve never – I’ve always wondered – and then Alfred pulled off his uniform so we could start stitching up wounds and there was this half-healed scar across his stomach.”

He’d – just barely – managed not to reach out and touch it, a belated instinct to check and soothe. Red and puckered and tearing at the edges, obvious against Tim’s too-pale skin, the small silvery lines of older scars. Alfred had sucked in a sharp breath and carefully wiped off the weeping blood before covering it with a bandage and moving on to all the other, fresher wounds.

“I – I’m pretty sure the tearing was from where I caught him.”  His laugh comes out bitter.  “Even when I try to save him, I hurt him.”  And that such a statement is true of more than just Tim is the worst part.

Jason’s flexing his fists, face blank, and maybe he’ll throw a punch.  It’d be nice, the fight, or maybe he’ll just take the hit, that twisted absolution that’s all he ever gets.  He presses two fingers to his pocket and Jason’s eyes snap to the movement.

“Why,” he rasps, “do you keep checking your pocket?”

“It wasn’t that I took away Robin, or it wasn’t just that,”  Dick answers obliquely.  “I didn’t realize it then, but he – I took away the only place he felt he belonged.”

“Dick, what’s in your pocket?”

“I should have known better, I mean Bruce – when he – but everyone needed something those days and I – I’m not sure I actually slept those first few months, honestly, but that’s no excuse, I should have known–“

Jason’s suddenly in front of him and he flinches, instinctive.  His sight’s all blurry for some reason, but he can still see the pain and anger on his face.  The punch, when it comes, is more of a shove, and oddly gentle, and he finds himself sitting again, Jason leaning over him, clutching his shoulders, with no idea how they got there.

“ – on, you’re freaking me out here, breathe,” Jason’s saying, and so Dick does.  It comes out as a sob.  He covers his face and finds it already wet.  He can’t stop the animal lean into the warmth of Jason’s chest, but he remembers himself in time to jerk back before he completes the motion.

Jason swears and drags him in.  He swallows back the sob of relief, free hand reaching up to fist in Jason’s shirt.

“Dickie… god.  Just….”  He can feel Jason’s hands clutch at him, one moving up to the back of his head to grab a handful of hair.  “Just breathe for a sec, ok?  We’ll figure it out.  You don’t – it’ll be ok.”

He listens, breathes, tries to pull himself back under control, find again the lightness he does his best to project to the world.  Once he thinks he’s got it mostly together, he pulls away, rubbing his face to get rid of the dampness.

“Sorry.”  He pastes on a smile.

“Yeah, no.”  Jason still looks furious, but there’s a worry there he’d missed.  “You ever get tired of pretending to be ok?”

Yes.  But he’s been resigned to having no other choice for most of his life, so he shrugs.  They’ve all got their armor.

Jason doesn’t like that answer, but there’s not much he can do, and he’s smart enough to know it.  “At the risk of making you freak out again, what the hell do you keep in your pocket?”

Dick winces.  “I, er, may have taken one of Tim’s pictures?”  He pulls the battered thing out and passes it to Jason.  “I know I shouldn’t keep it, it’s pretty damning, but…  He must have carried it that whole time he was gone.  Maybe it’s my turn.”

He’s kept it folded in quarters, like Tim did, another homage, another reminder.  Jason’s careful with the unfolding, trying not tear the worn-out paper.  He tilts his head when he actually sees the photo and raises an eyebrow at Dick.

“It’s a pretty crappy security still.”

“That he snuck back in to the Cave to find and print off.”  Dick gestures, unable to encompass everything that means.  “It’s of three people he cared about that were still alive.  It’s… it was one of three photos that he’d taken extra care to hide, that would have been destroyed first if someone broke into that metal box in the vent, and the only one that looks worn.  That means something.”

Jason takes another look. “And you freaked when I asked you about it because?”

“That’s not – the two weren’t really related.”

Jason’s eyes are on him now, assessing, and he shrinks back.  The explanation had turned into more of a confessional than he planned, but at least it’s Jason, who usually ignores any sort of emotional rambling.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

Except now, apparently. “It kind of was.”

“No.”  Jason grabs his shoulder, shakes him.  “It’s not.  You did the best you could, ok?  Yeah, you made some mistakes, but we all did back then.  Stop blaming yourself.” 

If only it were that easy.

***

Trouble is never hard to find in Gotham, but it’s harder than usual that night.  It’s been quiet long enough that Jason’s starting to get nervous, but he will admit it’s refreshing to only have one crisis at a time.

Though, considering Dick’s near breakdown, it may be two crises.

He still doesn’t know what to do about that, though it’s increasingly obvious he needs to do something.

It’s the weather, maybe, putting a literal dampener on criminal activities, the harbor fog rolling in after the sun goes down, cold and unpleasant and almost sticky.  Despite the anti-condensation coating, the lenses on his mask still collect water droplets at the sides and edges. 

The street corner girls, when he checks in with them, are trying not to shiver.  He passes out a few of those chemical handwarmers, asking around for the local gossip, getting a lead on a possible drugs shipment coming in soon, trying to subtly figure out the names of the people who’d been bothering Leah.  He doesn’t get very far.

He’s leaning against an old air conditioning unit, helmet off so he can stuff a granola bar in his mouth when he catches movement a few rooftops away, a wisp of something in the corner of his eye, made visible only by the way the fog moves around it.  He swallows and stuffs the remains of his snack into a pocket, moving into a half-hearted guard position just as a purple-suited figure slides out of the mist.

“Hood.  Thought Red was supposed to be back tonight.”

Jason shrugs.  “Change of plans.  You looking for backup?”

She crosses her arms, cocks a hip.  “Just some information.  Said he’d look into something for me.”

He doesn’t remember any of Tim’s recent case files bearing her tag, so either she’s lying or Tim’s got a hidden file set somewhere.  Either is a possibility.

“You gonna give me hint?”

“How about a trade?”

The smirk’s firmly fixed, and everything in her body screams cocky insolence, but still… “Sure.  What do you want to know?”

“Where’s Red?”

He admires her bluntness. Doesn’t mean he’s gonna tell her more than the basics.  “His apartment.”

She rolls her eyes, he can feel it, even if he can’t tell behind the cowl.  “Why isn’t he patrolling tonight?”

“Nuh-uh, my turn.  Why are you looking for him?”

Her weight shifts on to the balls of her feet, just enough that he’d notice.  “If you’ve done something to him, I’ll make your life a living hell.”

He laughs at that, at the presumption that she could do worse to him than what’s already been done. “You,” he tells her, “know very little about hell.”

Her smirk turns into a feral baring of teeth, one that’s almost impressive.  “You know very little about me.”

Jason decides he likes this one.  “Relax Batgirl.  He’s getting over a stab wound.”  Which is technically true, if not exactly why Tim’s not patrolling.

“The one he got on that Titan’s mission, I know.  Something like that wouldn’t keep him off the streets this long.”

According to Dick, Stephanie and Tim aren’t particularly close anymore.  It’s looking like Dick’s wrong, which is… interesting.  He offers her a little more of the truth.  “He had a bad reaction to his antibiotics today, ok. My turn.  When did you last see him out of costume?”

That takes her aback. “Two weeks?  Ish?  We did our monthly movies and margaritas night.  Why?  What’s going on?”

Wait, hadn’t Tim said something about Steph and margaritas that first awful morning?  He maybe should have paid more attention.  “You’ve been in his apartment.”

“Yes?”  Her careful body language is breaking down, hands clenching, shoulders going up.  “And?”

Nightwing hadn’t even been in his apartment.”

“None of this explains what the hell is going on,” she growls.

He debates whether or not to tell her, and how much, but decides in this case it’s not his to tell. “Talk to Red.  See if you can get farther with him than me or Dick.”

She studies him, head tilted, gauging sincerity, before nodding once and bounding across the rooftops, throwing “Oh, I will,” over her shoulder as she leaves.

Seems Tim’s got more people on his side than he thinks, between him and Dick and Kon and Stephanie.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he wanted to get back to Tim’s apartment to find Tim and Stephanie yelling at each other.

Dick’s leaning against the counter not even trying to mediate.  Jason edges around the room until he’s standing next to him.

“This has been going on for at least half an hour,” he cheerfully tells Jason, who eyes him.

“And you’re happy about this because?”

“Tim’s fighting back.”

Yeah, the yelling seems to be mutual, but what does that have to with… Stephanie jabs a finger at Tim who responds with something sassy in Arabic, and Jason gets it.  Tim, it seems, despite his protests, can still feel things after all.

***

They’re overly familiar with working through sleep deprivation, but Dick still wishes they could have gotten to bed a little sooner the night before his and Tim’s therapy appointments.

But Steph and Tim’s fight had ended in an impromptu movie night, even if they barely managed half a movie before Tim and Steph fell asleep on the couch and Jason poked Dick back into wakefulness and into the guest bed.

He owes Jason for that, for not doing this both tired and in pain.  Or, in more pain than usual.  He’s honestly not sure the last time he hasn’t had at least one bruise somewhere.

Tim’s quiet in the passenger seat of Dick’s car, fiddling with his phone, some twitch game that Dick vaguely recognizes.  They’ve parked, but Dick needs a minute before he walks into that nondescript brick building.  He can’t decide if it’s good or not that they ended up choosing therapists in the same place. At least it means they can hold each other accountable for actually attending.

“You ready?”

Tim looks up, nods. Dick takes a deep breath and peels his fingers off the steering wheel. 

“Let’s go.”

He barely lasts fifteen minutes, long enough to get the nondisclosure signed and realize that the guy he picked has eyes that keep lingering on his biceps, the curve of his lips. It’s not – Dick could tell he felt bad about it, tried to repress it, was a consummate professional, but it still made his skin crawl.  There’s only so many ways he can be vulnerable to a person at once.  After ten minutes of small talk with his gala smile firmly in place, he apologized and excused himself.  He tries not to feel discouraged.  Maybe Tim’ll have better luck.

He’s texting with Helen about next week’s shift schedule and who might need a few extra hours and whether or not he should come in on Wednesday just to babysit Katie’s two-year-old when Tim climbs into the car.

“How was it?”

Tim smirks.  “I told her I was Red Robin.  Then I got to spend the rest of the time watching her pretend to believe me while trying to figure out what I really covering.”

The self-satisfaction in Tim’s voice makes Dick smile, even if he tries to hide it.  He’ll chalk this up as a success.  “So you’ll go back next week?”

“Yeah.  I mean, it’s sort of fun, shocking the civilian.”  Tim sounds confident, but he’s tossing his phone back and forth between his hands, too fast to be casual.  “How about you?”

“I, uh, I’m gonna to need to find someone else.”

“Oh.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m giving up, I said I’d go and I meant it, just… not this guy.”

Tim glances up at him. “He – it wasn’t anything bad, right? We don’t need to do damage control?”

“No, not –“ He doesn’t know how to explain it.  Isn’t sure he even wants to try.  “It wasn’t that.  Just didn’t fit, I guess.”

The look Tim gives him says he knows it’s more than that, but he’s not going to press.  Dick tries to feel good about the fact that he’s taking an interest.  Earlier last week, he wouldn’t have noticed at all.

“Tim?”

“Yeah?”

“Are we…” He swallows. “Are we helping or hurting?  I mean, we sort of barged in, and I won’t – can’t – apologize for that, considering, but… are we helping or hurting?”

Tim’s quiet for longer than Dick can really stand, long enough that he knows the answer and starts the drive to Tim’s apartment.  They’re almost there when Tim finally opens his mouth.

“It’s helping.”  His voice is hoarse, strained, and Dick clenches the steering wheel tighter.  “I – you’re still meddling bastards, but I needed that.  I didn’t realize – Jason’s so loud, and you never stop moving, and Kon is constantly in my space, but – I was alone, I’ve always been alone, and it only got worse, but I told myself it was fine, it was better, and then I hadn’t seen anyone outside of costume for three months.”  He stops.  Dick parks the car, doesn’t move, barely breathes.  “Thank god for Steph, who barged in one night with cheap margarita mix and some awful rom-com.  I had to at least pretend to be a person again, so I didn’t completely forget what it was like.”

Dick doesn’t know how they let it get this far, how no one noticed.  He should have been better, more involved, known at least where his own damn brother lived.  And now, he isn’t sure how to make it right, if that’s even possible.

“You – the three of you – I’m still pretending, most of the time, but now sometimes I’m not.  And, and, maybe if I do it long enough, I won’t have to pretend at all.”

Dick clears his throat, swipes at his eyes, everything tangled up inside him until he’s not sure what he feels, just that it’s strong.  “I’m – I’m here, as long as you want me.  And I’m sorry, for before.  For everything.”

Tim’s hand on his shoulder is light as a sunbeam but it’s there.

***

Patrol that night’s quiet again, but Jason’s decided to enjoy it while it lasts.  Whatever storm’s brewing will come when it wants, but for now he’ll let himself laze, swing from roof to roof without urgency.

He drops by the warehouse where Leah and her kids squat, keeping an eye out for anyone trying to move in on the territory.  He thinks he’s hidden, leaning in the shadowy corner of the old fire escape on the equally abandoned building across the street, but he’s there less than five minutes before Leah strolls around to the front of the building.

“You might as well come down.  We know you’re there.”

He swears but makes his way down, trying to spot their scout as he goes.

“What’d you want this time?” Leah asks, her face once again a swirl of forgettability.

“Just checking in. Keeping an eye out.”

Her hands are in her pockets and there’s a small smile on her face, none of the tension of their last two meetings present anywhere in her body.

“Thanks, but we’ve got our own scouts.”

Jason scowls.  “One’s I shouldn’t have missed.”

She laughs.  “We’re good at being overlooked.”

He remembers that, being able to fit in smaller spaces, dismissed as easy, no trouble.  It hurt, sometimes, but it could be powerful too.

“How’s the coffee shop? Working out?”

“Yeah.  I like your brother.”

He blinks, tries to play it off.  “Who?”

“The one who works at the coffee shop.  Does he know you’re a vigilante?”

“Um…”  There’s no way out of this, but at least she doesn’t know who Dick is yet.  He takes off the helmet.  “How?”

“You’ve both got a scar on the side of your neck.  Figured it wasn’t a coincidence.”

This is what he gets for mixing civilian and vigilante life.  Also, he should make sure his next jacket has a higher collar.  He sighs.  “Don’t tell him.”

“Wasn’t going to tell anyone.”  She lets him see her face, read the sincerity on it.  He nods in thanks.  “And the other brother?  The, the coffee addict one?  He ok?”

Jason thinks about it, how Tim and Dick had come in this afternoon with peaceful expressions, even if Dick’s eyes were red.  How they’d all laughed at Kon, recently returned from the Tower, when he’d set off the smoke alarm trying to bake a pie.  How there’s hope, even if they’ve got a long way to go.

“He will be,” is his reply.

Leah nods, decisive.  “Good.”  He turns to leave.  “Wait! I’ve – I’ve got a name.  If you want it.”

“A name?”

It’s impossible not to return her savage grin.  “Well, I’m not allowed to go joyriding anymore, right?”

The part of him that’s always loved the fight leaps in anticipation.  He cracks his knuckles.  “Oh, I’ve got a few better ideas.”