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Red Robin barely has a second to spare, not even enough time to dismount from his bike before he can hear the distinctive sound of the Batmobile's driver-side door―slamming shut with excessive force.

On the other bike, Tim doesn't miss the side-eye Jason gives him either, his elder slipping off the red hood and shaking out his hair until that one ridiculous streak of white is front and center.

Dick is somehow already standing nearby, hands on hips and a consternated frown on his forehead. Tim doesn't know how he manages the stare of disapproval so well, but then again he's had so much practice on Damian―the often smug and quarrelsome Robin. Now though, strangely enough, Damian isn't looking so self-satisfied. Actually, he's looking part-way disturbed and half perplexed. There's something else in the fine lines of the boy's crinkled eyes, but Tim can't believe for one second that it's genuine concern.

Bruce though.

As soon as Tim's eyes fix on the man, broad shouldered, twice his height, anger written plain upon his face, he can feel himself bristling.

Batman, cowl down, comes to a halt barely two feet from him. Bruce's towering form looming over him in that way that acutely reminds Tim of his own short stature. He knows Bruce would never hurt him, would never lay a hand on him, which is probably what emboldens him enough to stand his ground and harden his gaze.

The first furious question is exactly what Tim is expecting. Their argument is like a tennis match and per usual, Bruce serves the first shot. He always fires the first shot.

What kind of stupid stunt was that?! What were you thinking, Tim, going after Scarecrow alone!?”

Tim counters with his own forehand. It's not as powerful as Bruce's, but his logic, his accuracy and his aim makes the return sound practically sensible.

I had him in my sights,” he shrugs, non-affected. “He was practically an easy target by the time I made it to him. Besides, it's not like I was expecting much—it's not like Crane is much of a physical fighter, he's no Bane—and I had my re-breather on. He took me by surprise is all. Decided to play dirty.”

Bruce's next volley is also logical, a strategic ploy to match Tim's own, though his words aren't as detached as the man would like them to seem. Something about that makes Tim's heart clench. A reminder that, even though they're arguing, Bruce still cares. It makes him want to lower his defences. Half of him wants too; wants to curl up in his dad's arms and apologise until he is forgiven, but his pride prevents that.

I told you to take it easy,” Bruce says, a hint of fatigue creeping into his voice, weary from worry. “I specifically told you not to engage alone.”

A ragged, calloused hand comes down over the older man's face, the heavy sigh finally betraying his façade of anger as anxiety and concern, his voice dropping into something much quieter and sadder. The next words are a low blow, the ball just barely making it over the net; he isn't quite ready for it.

We just got you back, Tim. You're still not completely healed from that kidnapping attempt two weeks ago and your case load is much larger than I'd like it to be. On top of all that, you decided tonight was the night to take a tazer to the chest and I know I saw Crane get in at least a couple of good blows to your ribs.”

Possibly sensing that Tim is having to run for the ball, playing catch up in a league of guilt-tripping that he's not ready for, Bruce presses on whilst he still has the advantage of Tim's floundering.

You swore to me that you'd take it easy tonight, you promised you would let the rest of us take the hard hits,” he huffs, laying a hand on Tim's shoulder. For some reason, Bruce's hand always feels like both a heavy blanket and a metal vice—comforting, but impossible to move under.

But you didn't do that,” he continues, gaining the slightest edge to his voice. “You decided to throw yourself into the fray like you weren't beaten almost senseless a fortnight ago and you're lagging in your response times because you're obviously overworked—both as Red Robin and as Timothy Wayne.”

The ball is now at the baseline and Tim is at the net. He runs for it anyway, making one last-ditch effort to salvage what he can of this set he's already lost.

We got him didn't we?” he tries, maybe sounding a little too manic to be persuasive. “We dropped him with the Commissioner—neat and tidy and wrapped up with a little bow and everything.”

Bruce's face pulls in at the corners, making his frown look pinched.

You know that's not the point I'm making,” he says, the hand gripping his shoulder tightening slightly. Maybe it's meant to be a reassuring squeeze, but it feels more like he's trapped by a restraint. “You… you need some time off, Tim.”

For one heart-stuttering moment he thinks he's heard incorrectly.

You're benching me?” He squawks incredulously, his voice reaching an octave it hasn't been anywhere near since he was prepubescent. “You can't—! I'm not Robin, I'm not your sidekick anymore,” the word comes out as a sneer and he quietly thrills in the way he gets a rise out of his younger brother, the smaller Wayne's hackles bristling. He only laments that Dick lays a hand on Damian's back to stall him in whatever argumentative quip he's got prepared on his tongue.

I'm Red Robin,” he continues, lilting forward to glare up at Bruce's hardening expression. “You can't bench me.”

The lob of Tim's argument miraculously makes it over the net, but he can see all the holes in his defence and by the angle of the lines on Bruce's face, he can tell this is match point.

Yes,” he agrees slowly, carefully articulating his words so that Tim has the time to take each one in individually. It annoys Tim to no end that he hasn't worn through Bruce's patience yet. The man is usually as explosive as one of Jason's guns—a landmine when treading through the war zone of his children's emotions. “Except you're not infallible and you're spread too thin. I saw the blows you barely avoided, the awkward and dangerous angles of your grapples… not to mention the fact that if you were on top of your game, Crane never would have been able to lay a finger on you. You're better than him, Tim, but you're exhausted and going out like you are now is only going to cause trouble.”

A second hand pulls Tim's cowl off gently before coming to rest on his other shoulder. Without it, he can more clearly see the slight pleading look in Bruce's eyes. It's not enough to stop the bright and incandescent rage bubbling up inside him, but it does stall his reply long enough for Bruce to get another hit in.

I don't want to see you get hurt, that's all,” he mumbles, managing to sound awkward, sincere and worried all at once. “You're my son.”

Somehow those few words sum it up. You're my son. They ring through Tim's head like a church bell before a Sunday service.

Except the rippling wave of fury and hurt that's been rolling through his chest hasn't dissipated at Bruce's words. Somehow the over-protective parent act is only making him feel angrier.

And that gives you the right to take Red Robin away from me?”

The words aren't heated like the fizzing anger in his chest. They are cold, detached, made all the more poignant when Tim deliberately shakes off Bruce's grip.

He doesn't hear whatever the man says next. Tim pulls the cowl back up over his head and gets back on his bike, leaving four shocked family members in his wake as he tears out off the cave without a second glance.

This is a tantrum, he already knows it, but he's hurt and angry and maybe just a little overworked like Bruce says. It won't hurt to blow off a little steam elsewhere. He'll come back in a few hours. He'll apologise to Bruce and allow himself to be benched for a week and the man will forgive him, but for now he just needs to cool his head.

An hour or two won't hurt anybody.

The remnants of the wispy memory fade into smoke and die, vanishing along with everything else from the very second he decides to be conscious again, from the moment he lets the world in.

Blinking open his eyes, a disturbing white and too-bright light fills in around him. This reality is much too clear and brilliant for his kind of person.

If only he could remember what kind of person he was.

A walloping pain makes itself known around the back of his head as he searches his brain for answers and clutches at disappearing straws. Blinking hard against the pounding in his brain, he makes a valiant attempt at beating back the belabour beast pulverising his skull from the inside out, but it is in vain. He is nothing more than a dreamer hoping to hold the waves upon the sand.

Squinting against the sun, he realises with a wash of nausea that everything feels disturbingly off-kilter. It is as though vertigo has overtaken and is now throwing him sideways off a bridge without his consent. It feels like trying to see through tones of sepia, colour breaking at the edges of his sight. Accompanying all of this, there's also a second drilling headache trying to violently bore its way through his temple, squealing so loudly beside his ear that he doesn't realise he can't hear anything outside of his own breathing until it stops a few long moments later.

When it does eventually subside, it quickly becomes apparent that he isn't alone. Next to him there's a shuffling noise and he stiffens as it alerts him to a hand on his shoulder, a person he doesn't know.

“Hey,” the someone beside him says on a shaky exhalation, accompanied by the feeling of a hand tapping his cheek lightly, shaking him from unconsciousness forcefully. “Dude, are you alright?”

Slowly, carefully, he manages to drag himself into a sitting position, letting out a winded cough in the process which steals all of his energy.

It surprises him that he's in civvies—red hoodie with white toggles, black pants, dirty grey sneakers, grey socks, a puce undershirt and a well-loved, brown leather watch—but then he wonders why that surprises him. What else would he be wearing? The answer to that slips away like sand through his fingers, but he doesn't have time to dwell on it because the person beside him is speaking again and his head isn't quite working right just yet so it takes all his concentration to focus on the words and then make sense of them.

“That doesn't sound too good,” says the other voice sympathetically, a boy, he sees, brow pinched with concern, even though a lengthy mop of dark brown hair obscures most of it. “And by the looks of it, you got beat up.”

There's the hint of a question in there, but he has no response for it. There's a space in his mind where the answer is supposed to be. It certainly feels like he got beaten up.

“What's your name?” The other boy tries again. “Where do you live?”

Those are definitely questions he's supposed to know the answer for… but he doesn't. It raises an alarm bell in the back of his brain, but it's muted in such a way that it sounds like it's coming from behind thick glass, the same way it does when one has a concussion—and the thought that he can recognise a concussion but doesn't know his own name is just more information to be filed away for evaluating later.

“I don't know…” he tries, pausing at the rough, gritty sound he hears. He sounds like a chain smoker, or as though someone has scraped his voice box raw across broken glass and gravel.

T–Terrance? He thinks, shaking his head even as the name passes through his head. No. Thomas? No, that's not it either. Travis? Tucker? Jake? Jackson?

The name Jackson sounds familiar. It feels familiar too, rolling off his tongue easily as it escapes past his lips.

“Jackson, huh?” Says the other boy, looking him over with a raised eyebrow and an assessing gaze, like he's genuinely worried but trying not to be too weird about it. “Well, my name is Sidney, but you can call me Sid.”

Under the mop of dark brown hair, Sidney has sun-kissed skin, a smattering of freckles and a concerned gaze that watches him with green eyes, tiny speckles of brown in them. The boy is dressed in a faded denim jacket with obvious holes in the elbows, a plain white T-shirt peeking out from underneath and on his lower half he wears beige shorts, grey socks that come up over his ankles and a pair of off-white trainers, the left of which has a developing hole on the side.

There's a beat where the boy's face contorts into something that Jackson can't read, but then, with a wince and a twist of his lips he says: “I think you need to go to a hospital, kid. You look like shit.”

What comes out does so almost as a hiss. “No!” He baulks, “No hospitals.” He doesn't know why it's the automatic reflex, but at least the other kid doesn't seem too disturbed by the weird outburst.

“Alright,” the other kid shrugs, raising two placating hands. “No hospitals, I gotcha. How 'bout this: my mom is a nurse and she works night-shift at Gotham Central. She can patch you up real good. I'll tell her no hospitals, she's usually pretty good about that sort of thing.”

“You want me to go home with you?” He hears himself ask, sounding distinctly dubious.

“I know, I know,” sighs the other kid. “Stranger danger in Gotham and all that, but I promise, I'm just trying to help. This ain't a great part of town to spend the night in and you're not really in any condition to be staying here past dusk anyway―that's when The Bats and The Crazies come out.”

Jackson weighs up the other boy's words and thinks carefully on them.

He doesn't know what the other boy means by A Bat, but by Sid's tone he can only assume it's nothing good.

“Um, okay,” he mumbles, still feeling disorientated and as though there's some vital part of the puzzle he's missing. “Thanks.”

The other kid―Sidney―gives him half a smile in return and a nod to accompany it.

Sidney takes them down roads and streets and back-alleyways, twisting and turning through Gotham with the prowess of someone who's lived there their entire life.

To Jackson some of the streets look almost familiar, some of them don't. Some look fuzzy in a way that makes him think he's been here before, but in a different time―a different life. Which is a stupid feeling and he hates it. He hates that he can't remember a single detail about who he is or where he comes from. There's a gaping hole where his memories are supposed to be and it is wide enough for sadness to come crawling in, even though he has no idea what it is he's supposed to be mourning.

By the time they make it to a row of red-brick apartments on a curvy little street called McAllister Avenue, he wonders just how long they've spent traversing across the city. It's almost dark now. The sun had set a little while ago, its final rays dying as it carried on its journey across to the other side.

Jackson's still unsure about the kid who seems to have taken a shine to him, but the bedraggled mop of dark brown hair bouncing along in front seems nice enough.

“Hey, Sid?” He ventures carefully, watching the other boy react by kicking back on his sneakers and spinning around, turning on the heel of a single foot.

“Yo,” he says with only mild curiosity, walking backwards as he replies. “What's up?”

The question pushes past Jackson's tongue before he can filter out any of the tense nervousness in it. “Where are we?”

God, he sounds like a scared little kid.

Sid tries not to let the wince of sympathy show on his face, which Jackson is grateful for, even if the attempt is unsuccessful.

“East Gainsly,” says the brown haired teen. “See that house over there―?” The other boy spins back around and falls into synchronised step with him, pointing a finger at an apartment that looks just the same as the ones either side of it. “That's my house. My mom should still be home. C'mon, let's get you fixed up before she has to go for her shift.”

With Sid leading, they make their way up the steps to the house and the boy quickly unlocks the door with a key hidden under the flower pot by the bottom step, dropping back into its hiding place once he's done with it.

Sidney calls from the hall, slipping off his trainers and giving Jackson a moment to evaluate his new surroundings. “Mom, I'm home!”

The apartment is nice. Narrow and a little dusty, perhaps on the smaller side, but it's two stories and furnished nicely. It is the kind of place that anyone would feel cosy in, not out of place at all. Jackson likes it.

“Mom!” Sid calls again, a little louder, and this time a woman in pale blue scrubs appears at the top of the stairs.

Sidney Robert Eaves, what on earth are you shouting for―oh!A woman appears at the top of the stairs, but she cuts off her reprimand the moment she sees Jackson.

The woman looks as though she could be in her mid-forties and she's short, shorter than him even. She has a length of wavy brown hair that sits just past her shoulders, the same colour as Sid's own unruly mess, and she has dark-brown eyes that remind him of hazelnut cocoa in winter.

She takes him in―evaluating him, whilst he does the same, noting her sun-kissed skin and the faded freckles that dot across it until they are hidden away by the pale blue scrubs that she wears.

The woman looks kind, he thinks, a tentative but warm smile growing on her features. Jackson doesn't feel as though he's being scrutinised, nor does her tone imply that she is unimpressed by what she sees, but he shrinks in on himself regardless as she turns to Sid and asks, “Who is this―a friend?”

Pressing into the upper flesh of his neck, Jackson can feel phantom fingernails digging into his spine, the whisper of an old memory; a woman's voice hissing at him to stand up straight and smile. Neither Sid nor his mother seem to notice the odd flinch he gives at the haunting of the memory.

Sid just turns to give him a quick, bright, boyish smile and a nod of acknowledgement before turning back to the woman.

“Mom,” Sidney begins, in a tone firm and strong and serious, gesturing towards him whilst maintaining eye-contact with his mother. “This is Jackson.”

The woman blinks at him and Jackson's not sure she's aware of it, but a tiny wrinkle appears between her forehead as she descends the stairs to greet him properly. Meantime, Sid turns back to him and says, “Jackson, this is my mom, Narelle.”

Before he can greet her, or even listen to the deeper, spiteful phantom voice in his ear that is telling him to introduce yourself, boy, don't just stand there like a loon!Sidney is pushing on with apparently more pressing matters, delivering an explanation.

“I found him passed out in an alleyway, Mom,” the teen frets, once again turning back to his mother, but sparing a perturbed glance his way. “Looks like he got beat up real good and I was wondering if you could take a look at him?” There's a beat where Sid looks to be debating something, but a second troubled look apparently dashes his reservations. “He―he said no hospitals, so I figured it would be safer to bring him here and have you look at him, rather than have him go off on his own.”

Jackson is quick to catch the look of concern which flits across the older woman's face before she smoothes it over and her gaze softens.

“You had a rough day, huh?” She smiles solicitously, her words warmer and kinder than a random stranger such as him deserves.

The feminine phantom voice is quick to remind him that he should answer the woman politely now, go on, but instead he just shrugs and wraps his arms around himself, trying not to look too defensive about it. He doesn't know what to say—whatever happened to him, he doesn't remember it.

Narelle seems to understand though, if her wince of sympathy and considering nod is anything to go by.

“Come on then,” she hums understandingly, speaking to the both of them, but glancing across at her son and communicating something with her expression that Jackson doesn't quite catch. “Let's get you upstairs to the bathroom, I've got a med kit in there.”

Narelle doubles back the way she came, climbing the stairs with Jackson following, being gently nudged behind by Sid who's bringing up the rear of their trio.

The stairs have a little landing before they twist and reverse direction, the upper half of the house coming into view before they quite make it to the top. There is a hall and Jackson can see the bathroom immediately to the left, which is where Narelle leads him, but he spies two more doors further down―a door with posters all over it further down on the left side and a plain white door on the right. He can guess which room belongs to who.

Narelle directs him to sit down on the edge of the old cream bathtub whilst she bends onto her knees to reach the bottom medicine cabinet. Sidney takes up residence on the toilet lid in the corner, bringing both knees up to his chest, keeping them out the way and watching silently.

“Okay,” she says conversationally, the tone of her voice changing into something calm yet professional. It's not off-putting, but it does make him want to sit up a little taller and straighten his spine. “Does it hurt anywhere in particular?”

Jackson takes a moment to think, then, “Um, my head was really hurting earlier?” It comes out as more of a question than a statement, but she smiles and nods at him politely anyway, a tiny blue flash-light soon blinding him in one eye and then the other.

Narelle assesses him and as she does, the small crease between her eyebrows deepens into a fully-fledged frown.

When the flash-light is finally switched off and returned to the medical kit, she announces with a solemn certainty that he has a concussion.

“You must've hit your head pretty hard,” she fusses, growing obviously more anxious as she sits back on her heels. “Can you tell me what you last ate?”

He blinks at her for a moment and then soberly replies, “No. I… no.”

Her lips pull into a tight little line before she speaks again.

“Okay.” She tries for a second time, “Can you tell me when your birthday is?”

Again he thinks, trying to remember, but nothing is forthcoming. Slowly he shakes his head. “No, sorry. I'm not sure.”

“That's alright,” she smiles at him, though it is rapidly morphing into something more concerned with each passing question she asks. “Here's an easy one: can you tell me your full name, please.”

With a shuttering inhalation that feels almost like a sob rising in his chest, he knows he can't answer that question either.

“I… I'm not sure…” he agonises, gaze darting to the tiny white tiles that line the bathroom floor. “I don't remember…”

Narelle sighs, but otherwise doesn't show any sign of being outwardly affected.

Jackson's affected though.

How is it that the only thing he can remember about himself is his name? Even that he isn't quite sure of. 'Jackson' feels familiar in his mouth, it rolls of his tongue with ease, but it doesn't feel quite right either. It doesn't really feel like his name. It feels more like an old friend's name, or a mother's maiden name, or a middle name… not his first name.

Sid, meanwhile, is looking at him like he's just grown a second head. Comforting.

However, Narelle is a canopy of composure that is keeping him sufficiently grounded for the moment. He makes the decision to focus his attention to the dark freckle just left of her eye in order to escapethe fear of the unknown is bubbling up inside of him, pressing right up against his throat and making it hard to swallow. Concentrating on the older woman, he manages to keep calm enough so that the fear is not completely overwhelming.

“Alright, here's what's gonna happen next,” she says firmly, already reaching for a pair of cheap surgical gloves. “I'm going to check your head―with how hard you seem to have hit yourself, I suspect there will be a fairly obvious impact bruise already.”

Jackson catches himself before he flinches at the sound of the gloves snapping tight around her wrist. Thankfully, neither Narelle nor Sid are watching him too carefully as the nurse goes on.

“You need rest too, that means not exerting yourself physically and avoiding screens and loud noises, like television, phone, that sort of thing.”

Jackson agrees easily and Narelle takes this as the go ahead to check his head, latex clad fingers gingerly combing through his lank length of sable coloured hair. The touch is exceedingly gentle, but he still hisses when her fingers brush across the throbbing bruise she is searching for.

“Well that's no good,” she says at once to the room and no one in particular at the same time. “Looks like whatever knocked you out is going to leave one heck of a mark―looks like it trails down your back too.”

Narelle sits back on her heels once more. This time, however, she looks up at him with a pitying gaze.

“I'm sorry to have to ask this of you, sweetheart,” she murmurs warmly, flashing a commiserative smile. “I want to check how extensive the bruising down your back is. Do you think you'd be able to take your shirt off for me?”

Jackson gives a single nod and efficiently removes both his red hoodie as well as the puce shirt underneath in two swift motions.

When Narelle sees his exposed skin, her compassionate demeanour finally cracks into something almost heart-broken, her face crumpling along with it.

If before her expression was a visor of composure and stoicism, now it is as though her kabuki mask has cracked through the center, revealing her true thoughts underneath. The quiet gasp of horror pierces the air with the weight of a scream and, sparing a glance down at his chest, Jackson can see why.

His entire torso is riddled with wounds, bruises and scars―all in various stages of healing; some very old, some awfully new. It's a mosaic of bright blues, greens, yellows, and dark reds and purples.

“Oh my god,” Narelle breathes, a harrowed note in her voice despite the lack of true sound, her inadvertent and seemingly unheard alarm―to her own ears at least―echoing Jackson's own thoughts precisely.

He doesn't dare look in Sid's direction, but he suspects the other teen is as similarly paled as his mother.

“What―how…?” the woman chokes out, looking evermore upset the longer her eyes flit between the numerous injuries. She appears quite distressed, her eyes glistening, horrified.

Jackson wishes he had an answer for her, or even just for himself, really.

“This―this is a bullet wound,” she says, unthinkingly reaching out a finger and touching one of the wounds on his upper shoulder, apparently unaware of her actions. When she snaps back to herself the movement is obvious, like a rubber band. Her eyes jump up to his own as she proclaims, “Jackson, you've been shot!”

It's old though, they can all see that, just a ring of scar tissue to compliment the smattering of other discoloured lines that haphazardly criss-cross all over his torso. One of the deeper looking scars resembles a knife wound he acknowledges distantly, simultaneously ruminating upon the knowledge that, for some inexplicable reason, he knows what kind of an outline a stabbing leaves. There's another larger scar beside it―some kind of sword maybe? Then, below that there is a surgical scar on the right side that wends all the way around the back and next to it there is a yellowing bruise, obviously an older contusion but still noticeably vast across his abdomen.

The woman struggles to regain her previous equanimity from before, but she schools her features into stolidity as she retracts her hand and checks in with him verbally to see if he's willing to allow her to look at his back. Jackson gives her the go-ahead, finding an odd relief at being asked to turn around on the edge of the bathtub; at least this way he can't see them openly gawking at the marks littering his chest.

If either of them are shocked by what they find, neither of them allow their shock to pass their lips, which he is grateful for. Narelle does her assessment and then he hears her uncapping something before a cool lotion is applied carefully with gentle fingers.

“I think you're going to be in a lot of pain for a while,” she says a moment later, liberally applying gel to his back where the newest injury is. “But so far as I can see, it's just some serious bruising.”

Jackson nods to show he's heard and then thanks her when she tells him it's time to pull his shirt back on. He complies with the order and finds her disposing of her latex gloves in the bathroom bin when he turns around once more.

Narelle's face is drawn and serious when he looks carefully at her again and notes that she has settled on a wooden, detached expression by the time she's ready to look him in the eye again.

“Jackson,” she begins anew, forcing a blankness into her tone that is belayed by the concerned timbre it attempts to hide. “These are not your regular injuries, honey. Injuries like these are very serious and I'm quite worried about you.”

Jackson doesn't know what to say to that, so he swallows with some difficulty and waits for her to continue. When it becomes obvious that he isn't going to interject, Narelle pins him with a piercing stare and continues, her words growing softer now that she believes him to understand the gravity of the situation.

“If all of these were fresh I'd say that some lucky punks just caught you on the wrong side of town at the right time, but they're not.”

There's an implication in her words that settles in his stomach like a stone, dread dropping like a dead-weight.

“Some of these wounds are months old,” she carries on, ignorant of the sickening, twisting feeling that's curling in his stomach. “There are scars on you that I'd wager have been there for… maybe even years―and bruising like that doesn't happen unless there is intent to inflict pain.”

He doesn't want to hear her say it; he wants to cover his ears and pretend she's not insinuating what he already intrinsically knows she is.

“I think,” she sighs heavily, emotion heavy in her exhalation, “someone has been hurting you, sweetheart, for quite a long time.”

Jackson wants to deny it, but he can't because the evidence is scribbled all over him like he's a graffitied sign flashing: Abuse Victim.

“And I also think you've been really good at hiding this for equally as long, possibly because you dearly love whoever is doing this to you.” Narelle grimaces. “I understand that, I do. When I was your age I made excuses for my mother―I used to think it was okay that she did the things she did. I thought it was okay because she loved me, she loved me and therefore it was okay, because she did those things out of love.”

What she's telling him is difficult for her, close to her heart and personal. When she speaks her bottom lips trembles and for just a moment, Jackson can see in her eyes that she's back to being that sixteen year old child; scared and alone in facing whatever she'd gone through. Part of him feels guilt for bringing this up inside her. Narelle shouldn't have to comfort a child who is not her own, especially one who cannot even remember when or how or even who gave him all the abrasions and traumas that stand out like contrasting colours across his ivory white skin.

“But it's not okay,” the woman pushes on, dragging herself out of her memories with steely determination. “The fact is you look about the same age as my Sid. You're still a child.”

Jackson gets the strange feeling that he hasn't been a child in a long time, but he ignores that odd thought as it passes through.

“Whoever has done this to you, regardless of whether or not you love them still, is a monster,” she says, wearing a resolute façade of purpose which is unfalteringly stoic. “Loving someone does not mean allowing them to hurt you, physically or emotionally, but it can be hard to get away from that sort of environment―especially at your age.”

Her eyes crinkle at the edges, but the gaze that lingers on him is too sad to be considered hopeful.

“I want to help you, kiddo, but I need you to tell me who did this. Who has been hurting you?”

Jackson shakes his head, willing the tears back. He isn't going to cry over something he can't even remember, nor is he going to cry over the fact that he can't remember it.

“I'm sorry,” he says, her hand coming up to grip his in what is obviously meant to be reassuring. “But I really can't remember.”

Narelle doesn't look surprised, but she still smiles at him with sympathy and gives his hand another brief squeeze.

“That's okay, honey,” she reassures. “Why don't we start with the small stuff for now then, huh?”

Narelle's knees crack as she goes to stand, betraying her age. Sid is on his feet just as quickly, helping Jackson up from the edge of the tub.

“You can stay here for tonight,” she smiles softly at him. “We can figure everything else out in the morning.”

Jackson tastes ash in his mouth. “Are you going to call the police?” He asks quietly.

Narelle halts and hesitates by the bathroom exit.

“I've got too, sweetheart,” comes her eventual reply, looking as though her answer is going to emotionally hew her in half. “As much as I wish I didn't. I know how rough the system can be, but I promise you that things will be better.” She gives him a small nod. “Sidney will set you up on the couch.”

Then Narelle disappears out the bathroom and Sid taps his good shoulder kindly, careful not to be too rough.

“Come on,” the other boy says, a toothy smile warring with the subdued crease between his brow. “I'll grab you some blankets and get you settled. Mom will be off in a minute so I'll make us some grub.”

Jackson opens his mouth to thank the taller teen, but Sid is bouncing back down the hall before the first syllable even croaks out of his mouth, so he quickly snaps it shut again and follows after.

The world feels suddenly overwhelming and confusing to him at the moment, but for now he seems to have stumbled into a bubble of something. This family is small with just the two of them, but it's cosy and there's love here.

With all the scratches, scars, wounds and injuries covering his body he has to wonder, what kind of love did he have in his life?

By the time he arrives downstairs, Sid has piled up the couch with various blankets and several pillows. They look soft, homey. Jackson doesn't linger though, he follows the other boy into the kitchen where he is pulling crockery and ingredients out to make the two of them some dinner.

Narelle darts in seven minutes later with keys in her hand and a handbag over her shoulder, quickly pressing a kiss to her son's temple and departing with a soft goodbye to both the boys in her kitchen.

Jackson hears the car engine start up a few moments later as Sid animatedly describes the narrow win of the Central City Stars over the Gotham Knights and how much he wishes he could've seen the game live―even though the home team had lost―whilst moving about the room and throwing pasta into boiling water, before pulling out a jar of instant tomato sauce.

Once the meal has been cooked, eaten and the dishes have been washed, the two of them retire to the living room to play board games for the rest of the night, or at least until it is time for bed.

Sid bids him a goodnight as he makes for the stairs and Jackson thanks him for everything before settling down under a quilt, laying his head on a pillow―barely three minutes before he's out like a light.

That night he dreams of bats.

Chapter Text

Red Robin dismounts from his bike and kicks up the stand like he is delivering the blow to a particularly taxing rouge, although, unfortunately, it doesn't do much to quell his ire. The elevator receives similar treatment when Tim punches at the penthouse button with a curled fist, metal groaning and protesting under duress.

There's a moment when Tim nearly sags against the wall of the lift, but then he remembers that Bruce already has unfettered access to the cameras and footage in all parts of the building except for his apartment. So he doesn't, not willing to show weakness when he knows the man could very well be watching him currently.

Tim's not an idiot.

He's furious, sure, but he's not stupid―he knows he's exhausted, overworked and still recovering from the kidnapping two weeks ago. Red Robin isn't on top of his game and he's fully aware of it. The bruising on his arms still hasn't gone away completely and the punches Crane landed on his ribs tonight are only compounding the pain from the―slowly healing―stab wound the kidnappers left him with.

Except it infuriates him that Bruce thinks he can just snap his fingers and bench Tim like he's still just a kid―like he's still Robin.

It's all so easy for Bruce to conveniently forget the shit they went through without him―what Tim went through without him―but he just can't forget. Maybe everybody else has already put that part of their lives away in a neat little box with a neat little label and buried it eight feet underground, but any semblance of childhood Tim had been clinging to up until that point died when Robin was stripped from him. With Bruce's back turned, he'd been shot, stabbed, manipulated, drugged, and all the rest! Tim isn't a child anymore and Bruce doesn't get to waltz back in and treat him like one.

The minute that he makes it into his apartment he angrily shirks the suit with an irritated sneer, leaving it in a crumpled pile on the floor to sit as a reminder of his fury. Tim goes off to change and makes himself a cup of fresh coffee, succumbing easily to the comfort of a warm drink to settle his simmering wrath, relishing in the smell of ground coffee beans that permeates the air and slightly soothes his choler, taking the edge of his irascibility at the very least.  

With coffee brewed, he takes his long black and makes his way to his study desk where one of his laptops awaits him, current case files ready for analysis.

There's a new drug on the streets and it's enough of a mystery that it should keep him occupied long enough for his anger at Bruce to fizzle out―he needs to re-work the code in his program to include hits on a drug called 'Starshine' and that could take him all night.

 The 7:00am alarm on his phone jerks Tim out of unconsciousness, pulling him awake to the realization that he fell asleep in a rather uncomfortable position last night, sprawled out across and slumped over his desk. The joints in his back and shoulders are the first to protest when he drags his head up and squints at the offensive sun, burning through the roof to floor glass windows that occupy the entire east-facing side of his apartment.

Tim swallows hard against the parched desert inside his mouth and attempts to unstick his tongue before proceeding on to blinking away the blurriness in his vision, hindered by the gritty sensation behind his eyelids that tells him he hasn't had anywhere near enough sleep.

With a ping, his phone goes off again―to which Tim realizes it wasn't his alarm that woke him up at all. Habitually, he reaches for it, expecting, mostly, his office, or even perhaps Cassandra, who has been regularly checking in with him since her plane landed in Hong Kong last week.

Surprisingly, it is neither.

Will you be in the office today? The text message reads. I need to pick up some documents from Lucius around lunchtime. ― B.

Tim has to reread the message twice just to be sure of its existence. It's so plain and uncomplicated, which is, perhaps, what makes it stand out the most. There are no demands being made of Tim, no questions of any real importance. It feels almost as though Bruce is trying to get a read on him. Tim almost doesn't dare think it, but his speculations cannot come up with anything else to conclude;

Bruce feels guilty, or maybe that's the wrong word, but it's an akin feeling.

The thought sends Tim reeling.

With the way he left things, speeding out of the cave last night and throwing a temper tantrum to rival one of Jason's, it shouldn't be too surprising that the man is a little concerned.

Bruce does guilt well, he could easily be classified as the conscience-stricken type; if someone gets injured or something goes wrong, he puts on the blame like a heavy winter coat. Except usually, he stews in it, settles himself amongst the rubble between regret and responsibility. He doesn't reach out and attempt to fix the problem, not unless the problem can be solved with his fists.

Tim's grip on the phone tightens slightly and then he releases a long, drawn-out exhale as he taps in his passcode.

The message is still there, somehow made all the more real by the keyboard hovering in the forefront, waiting for him to type back a reply.

Yes, his thumbs tap in quickly. I have a meeting with Tam first up and then I need to review the preliminary projections for the yearly outcomes the finance department sent me. He sends it before he can get too nervous and delete the whole message, but then he rereads it four times and wonders if it maybe sounded too harsh.

The text bubbles have barely appeared when the response follows through immediately.

Okay, I will see you at lunch then :)

Tim can't help but feel a little pang of regret strike through his own heart.

He needs to apologise.

Later, he will tell Bruce he is sorry and the man will forgive him with that all-knowing gleam in his eye without Tim ever specifying what it is he's exactly apologising for. Tim will do his time, he'll sit out and rest and recover under Alfred's watchful eye, if only to ease Bruce's concerns.

Who knows, maybe he and Bruce will make up by the end of the day.

Jackson feels like he's got jack-jumpers in his knees, what with the way his leg bounces nervously against the linoleum flooring in the kitchen. The dinning table chair is, unfortunately, just the right height for it. Maybe he should have asked to do this in the living room―at least there he would have several blankets to wrap himself in.

Detective Espinosa has the type of face with a lot of sharp edges, but over time she's clearly learned how to school it into something soft, even if the rest of her is still all clean lines and harsh corners. Her dark hair is pinched back into a low bun at the base of her neck—slicked back with gel and hairpins to make it stay in place, and across her olive-toned skin she has several beauty spots and a crinkle in the corner of her eye that never truly goes away when her smile disappears. Children and woman are more likely to confide in female police officers, his brain supplies helpfully from out of nowhere. Though he doesn't know if that is entirely true, he doesn't have any contradictory information to counter it and she's speaking to him now anyway.

“So, Jackson,”―call me Maria, says. “Can you tell me what you remember? Every detail is important, so don't think it's too small to leave out.”

Next to her, Detective Espinosa's partner―blonde hair, slim nose, square jaw and white teeth―is poised to take notes; the slightly younger man watching him with a keen eye and a professional interest. He looks new, inexperienced, overly helpful and too eager to impress.

“Don't mind Detective Flynn,” Espinosa says, and Jackson's eyes jump back to her without his even realizing they'd drifted. “Just focus on me, alright kiddo?”

He clenches his jaw, but gives a her a nod anyway. Jackson tracks her deliberate movements, the way her body language opens up when she realizes how uncomfortable he is. The idea that he can read her movements like anyone else would read a book is a bit disconcerting, but he doesn't have time to question how or why he knows how to do these things—after all, this sort of thing seems to be becoming a bit of a theme in his life.

“Good,” she smiles, a little too widely to be genuine, but it's meant to be reassuring so Jackson doesn't call her out on it. “Alright, let's start with your name and we can go from there.”

In the corner, Narelle shoots him an encouraging smile of her own, but the worry lines by the sides of her eyes betray her. Though she's changed out of her work clothes into a well-loved grey tracksuit, she looks just about as uncomfortable as he feels. Sid is up in his room for the time being, but Jackson wonders if Narelle really should have sent him there—she appears as though she could use a familiar face right now. Or at least a hand to squeeze.

He swallows hard and returns his attention to Detective Espinosa. “Jackson,” he says quietly. “My name is Jackson.”

Detective Flynn takes this down quickly as Espinosa continues her line of questioning.

“Jackson, great. You got a last name, Jackson?”

“No, I―I don't remember,” he admits, gaze jumping to Narelle again as his hand comes up to unconsciously rub over the bruise under his hair. It hurts slightly less than yesterday. “I hit my head.”

Espinosa nods solemnly, looking as though she is already aware of this. The two detectives have already spoken with Narelle personally, but he's not sure what else she told them over the phone this morning.

“I heard,” Espinosa winces sympathetically, her face softening further. “You must've taken one pretty nasty tumble. You don't have any idea how it happened?”

Jackson shakes his head and drops his eyes to the glass of water slightly to his left. The atmosphere in the room still feels stifling, despite the good detective's attempts to make it lighter.

“That's alright,” Espinosa tells him, giving another small smile. She's trying to bring him out of his shell, but there's nothing in him to bring out―he's an empty husk; there's nothing to call upon.

“Let's go back a bit then,” she ventures anew, patiently guiding the conversation. “What is the first thing you can remember?”

For the first time, it feels as though somebody has asked him a question he can actually answer.

“I was in an alleyway,” he begins soberly, the memory of Sid's face already swimming into view. “I woke up. I had a headache. Sidney was there, he found me.”

Across from him, Detective Flynn is scribbling furiously on the note-pad in his hand.

“What happened next?” Espinosa prompts not unkindly when he lapses into silence for a moment too long.

He remembers the suns rays being low in the sky, sitting up, Sid speaking to him as the ringing in his ears died away.

“He asked my name,” Jackson continues, casting his eyes to where his hands sit clasped together and resting upon the table-top. “I wasn't sure at first… then he said I should go to a hospital. I didn't want to go.”

For some reason, Espinosa fixates on this and her eyes narrow slightly as she carefully chooses her next question. “Why didn't you want to go to a hospital?”

He ruminates silently on the question, searching for an answer in the recesses of his brain that he already knows he won't find.

“I don't know,” he inevitably replies, shaking his head, but staring dedicatedly at the hangnail peeking out from the side of his right thumb. “I… I don't like hospitals.”

The detective nods, but thankfully doesn't push any further. Instead, she prompts him to continue with his recount and Jackson has to take a steadying breath before he continues.

“Sidney then said his mom was a nurse. He asked if I wanted to go home with him, get bandaged up here instead. At first I wasn't sure. I didn't trust him.”

Detective Flynn smiles at that, though there's something sad about it as his tenor timbre interjects: “A true Gothamite, through and through.”

He shrugs in acknowledgement. “I followed him home anyway. In the end.”

Nobody chastises him for that, though his instincts tell him he took a massive gamble when he chose to trust Sid. Even now, part of him sits on edge. Gotham's a hard city, harder than it used to be, the deep voice of a memory supplies.

“Narelle patched me up,” he finishes, dismissing the gravelly memory. “Put some balm on a few of my bruises before she went for her shift. She let me stay the night.”

Espinosa's smile goes wonky at the sides, making her look far more upset for his situation than she really has any right to be. She's too kind to be a policewoman in Gotham, he thinks, but at the same time he can't help but feel glad she's here anyway.

“You're very lucky, kiddo,” she tells him. “Most people in Gotham aren't the friendly or helpful types.”

“Yeah…” he sighs, believing every word. The conversation stalls a moment and he reaches for the glass of water on the table so that he has something to do with his hands.

Out of nowhere, Narelle takes advantage of the silence, the tremor in her voice indicating that she's been struggling to pluck up the courage to ask her question for a little while.

“What is going to happen to him now?” She asks, turning worried hazel eyes on the more senior detective and wringing her own hands nervously.

The pitying, sympathetic look makes it's way back across Espinosa's face for a second time.

“I wish I could say,” she answers, looking moderately sorrowful. “First we'll try and locate parents, but that might take a few days given how little Jackson can tell us. We'll check missing persons, but in the meantime, given his age, Jackson will need to go into the system. We'll try and find a good foster placement for him. Once we find his parents… well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there. Given the evidence of abuse you provided us with, we will first need to ascertain an explanation for his injuries.”

Jackson had already known that Narelle had taken notes on his every visible injury, but hearing Espinosa categorize it so frankly sends a surprising jerk down the muscles in his back. Was he really being abused?

Narelle nods, but she doesn't look comforted. Her reply is blunt, at best.

“The system is over-full and the carers are overworked as it is,” she grits out, looking distressed and upset, “and his choices are currently between a rock and a hard place.”

The reaction is stronger than he expected, it startles him a little with how fiercely she defends him. Maybe it's because she's a mom, or maybe it's because she's a nurse, or even perhaps because she's seen his wounds first-hand, but more likely it's a combination of all three. Maybe there's even a little part of him that she sees in herself, drawing parallels between them.

“No. I won't see him go into the system,” she continues, clenching and unclenching her hands into fists in her lap. “I've been there myself. I won't see Jackson go through the same thing. The boy has obvious evidence of abuse and on top of that he has amnesia!

Espinosa's carefully constructed expression nearly cracks at Narelle's words, but Jackson sees the moment her police training kicks in and she manages to school her features into something more immovable, an expression carved from stone.

“I'm sorry, Ms. Eaves,” the detective sighs unhappily, though her face shows no outward signs of being affected. “There's nowhere else for him to go.”

A few seconds of deafening silence leaves the air in the room cold and brittle, but Narelle's voice is firm when she interrupts it.

“I'll take him,” she asserts, leaving no room for argument. “In Gotham you're not likely to find a placement for him in one day anyway—there are just too many kids and not enough homes.”

Surprisingly, it's Detective Flynn that baulks at the idea. “Ms. Eaves that's not really proper, we can't just leave him in your care!”

Jackson is waiting for Detective Espinosa to back her partner on this new turn of events, but she doesn't. Instead, she lets out a long exhalation and grimaces.

“You're not wrong,” she agrees, acquiescing, as if her partner had never said anything at all. “If we aren't able to find a placement for Jackson today, he will be spending the night in a cell.” Her eyes dart back to him and in them he can see how doleful that confession makes her, especially when she addresses her next words directly to him. “A kid like you shouldn't have to see from behind bars so early in life.”

There's a determined resolve in Narelle's voice as she interjects again, bringing Detective Espinosa's attention back to her.

“Then let me take him,” she volunteers, tone slightly pleading. “Until you can find a suitable home, at the very least.”

Flynn's mouth hangs agape as Detective Espinosa shrugs and concedes.

“Alright,” she approves. “For the time being he can stay here. We'll check in with you once daily via telephone call, Ms. Eaves, and I'll have a social worker sent around as soon as one becomes available. Likely the day after tomorrow, given how busy and understaffed they are at CPS.”

Espinosa rises from the table and Flynn follows shortly after, the two of them thanking Narelle for her hospitality before fixing their police caps to their heads and bidding Jackson goodbye and good luck.

They're gone in just under twenty minutes of having arrived.

Narelle goes to see them out the door and Jackson is left feeling oddly adrift until he turns into the hall and sees Sid―who apparently hadn't been in his room after all―lurking by the bottom of the stairs.

“Pigs…” the other teen mutters under his breath, scowling, the venom in his voice truly shocking.

“You don't like the police?” Jackson blurts, coming to stand close by as Narelle ambles outside to finish speaking with the officers on her front step.

Sid just shrugs, a sneer directed at the front door.

“Corrupt,” he explains. “The lot of them. Not just in Gotham, either.”

Slowly, Jackson lowers himself onto the bottom step to sit in solidarity, not expecting an explanation of such rancour, but not altogether surprised when the other boy offers one anyway. There is hurt in him, Jackson can see it in the bitterness leaking out of Sid's eyes like puss from a rancid wound.

“My mom was sick a few years back,” Sidney eventually begins in his own time, brown bangs flopping into his eyes when he draws his knees to his chest. “Like, really sick. She couldn't work. My dad, Robert, he was laid off a couple months before—a mechanic, a really good one; could fix anything.”

The boy takes a deep breath before continuing, pain evident by the shuttering exhalation and rigidity of his posture. Remembering this, dredging up the past, is clearly difficult for Sid.

“Anyway, Mom had some illness for a while and I dunno what it was because they never talked about it in front of me, but one night dad comes home and he sits mom and me down at the table and says he's found work. Of course, I'm thrilled. Mom… she's… not so much. I didn't get it at the time, but after that it didn't take long for shit to hit the fan.”

Sid is worrying his bottom lip with his teeth, but there's something about it that stops Jackson from offering comfort. It's not wanted.

“Is… is that why he's not around now?” He tries instead.

“Yeah,” Sidney nods in reply, eyes glazing over as his memories draw him in deeper. “You gotta remember that dealing drugs and buying 'em is kind of a common thing around here; this ain't the slums or Crime Alley, but we're not a rich neighbourhood either.

So my dad, he got himself ahold of a supply and started dealing to those who would buy. Then, a week later, seven people almost died. Turns out the supply he got his hands on was Joker made.”

That name tickles something in the recesses of Jackson's brain―part of him flinches almost violently, but he doesn't get the opportunity to delve.

“Long story short,” Sid goes on, spite in his tone. “Batman got involved. Arrested my dad and handed him to the police. We didn't have the money to bribe the cops like they wanted, so they convinced the judge to hand out a tougher sentence and he got ten years.”

The other teen seems to sink into himself then, dropping his head to his knees.

“I'm so sorry, Sid,” Jackson breathes, feeling the weight of Sidney's grief settle like a stone in his stomach. “I can't imagine what that must have felt like.”

“Yeah, well,” Sidney swallows, sounding tired now, more than anything else. “Let's just say I'm not gonna be a cop when I grow up.”

Jackson doesn't think anyone would begrudge him of that.

“We're still paying back Mom's medical bills after all this time. I help out where I can, but paying back the interest on the loans alone is a struggle some months. Usually Mom has to decide between gaining some ground on those bills or making sure we have electricity or food that month.”

This new information suddenly makes Jackson feel more guilty than ever.

“She… she offered to take me in though,” he strains, confused. “Why would she do that? I'm only a burden to you. Had I known, I―I wouldn't have―shouldn't haveagreed to stay here. I should've said something when I had the chance!”

Sidney looks up and over at him then, his expression contorting into something that makes Jackson feel kind of stupid for spilling such thoughts out loud, though he's not sure why.

“You idiot,” Sid begins, reaching across and flicking Jackson between the eyebrows. Sidney ignores the short 'ow' and rolls his eyes. “She's not gonna give you up to the system, she knows what that's like. I wouldn't let that happen either.”

Jackson doesn't get it. He doesn't understand why they would feel such obligation towards him―he isn't their problem, or shouldn't be at least. He's just some kid Sidney brought home, like one might do an injured bird with a broken wing.

Except he doesn't get the chance to ask either, because the sound of the front door closing pulls Narelle in view a moment later.

“Well, that didn't go as awfully as I'd expected it would,” she yawns, coming to a halt by the base of the stairs, hands resting on hips and staring down at them with a tired, but satisfied smile. “Come on you two,” she says, tapping Sidney on the shoulder. “Let's have some breakfast. I need some food in me before I go to bed.”

As ordered, Jackson and Sid rise from the bottom of the carpeted staircase and proceed to follow her into the kitchen, seating themselves on the stools by the breakfast bar and watching as she pulls out several eggs from the fridge before cracking them into a bowl and beating them with a whisk.

“I'll call up Principal Burnard later,” she grunts as her wrist furiously whips the whisk, her brow furrowed in concentration. It becomes clear who she's speaking to after a moment. “Get him to enroll you in the same classes as Sidney for now.”

Jackson nearly starts out of his seat. “You want me to go to school?” He ejects with surprise.

Her eyes flick over to him. “Of course,” she asserts with a nod. “You still need an education, Jackson.”

“Don't worry about it,” Sid elbows him with half a smile. “My friends are cool, they'll like you.”

“Shouldn't I be pulling my weight somehow?” he asks, still feeling horribly guilty about burdening the kindly woman. "Maybe I could get a job?"

Narelle shoots him an almost dirty look.

“Absolutely not!” She baulks, setting the bowl down upon the cupboard with a huff and staring him straight in the eyes. “Kids your age should be focusing on study, not work.”

Sidney claps him on the back in solidarity.

“It's alright,” he sighs. “I already asked Mom that too. Got the same reaction.”

Narelle sighs and seems to sag as she picks up the beaten eggs again and scoops them into the hot frying pan.

“I understand that you both want to help,” she deflates, moving the liquid egg around on the stove. “But you're both still children; you shouldn't have to work. You should be able to enjoy your youth while you're still able.”

Nobody says anything more on the subject during breakfast and the fluffy scrambled eggs are soon inhaled by the ravenous three, like dying men thirsting at a desert oasis. It's only afterwards, once Narelle has gone up to bed and while Sid and Jackson are washing and drying the dishes together that the topic comes up again.

“Did you mean what you said before?” Sidney asks, quite deliberately scrubbing at a non-existent spot on the plate he's washing to avoid eye contact. “About getting a job? Pulling weight and all that?”

Jackson doesn't even have to think on that before affirming.

“Yes, of course,” he nods emphatically. “Anything I can do.”

Without Sid and Narelle, he shudders to think what might have happened to him by now.

The teen gives him a strange look, side-eyeing him as he asks, “Do you know what a Run is?”

Even before Jackson can reply, Sidney realizes what he's asked. “No, of course you don't,” he answers himself with an eye roll.

“What is a Run?” Jackson interrupts, finishing with the plate in his hand and reaching for a soapy glass next.

Sid's expression closes over and his gaze deflects back to the bubbles in the sink as he hesitates over his reply. In the end, the other kid tentatively sucks in a wobbly breath and drops his voice into a low, quiet register before replying, “So a while back, couple of months ago, a new gang started to move into Gainsley. They call themselves the Black Bulldogs. I think they moved in from down-town and then started snatching up territories all over the place; made their way up through The Narrows and pushed themselves into the Midtown region.”

Jackson has to lean in slightly to catch all of Sid's words, each new sentence coming out quicker than the last.

“Well the gang who claim this side of Mid-town didn't like that too much. They call themselves the White Chrysanthemum Society, think they're much more sophisticated than the rest of the Gotham underbelly—I even saw their symbol once, guy had this tattoo on the inside of his pinky finger. Little hollow flower. Super discrete.

Anyway, the WCS control everything east of South City Park, but their buyers are in West Harlow. I'm pretty sure their stuff gets shipped out from the China docks, but I don't know where it goes after that.

So, like I said, few months ago the Black Bulldogs started snatching up territory and now the route that the WCS used to use to smuggle their goods or whatever is controlled by the Black Bulldogs. Any WCS member would get shot going through The Narrows, but that opened up an opportunity for the rest of us.

A friend of mine knew this guy who was pretty chummy with the WCS. Had no tattoo, so he could come and go through The Narrows without hassle. My friend, Alicia, she got me and a couple of us in on it. We run the supplies through The Narrows and it's one-hundred bucks a pop. You and me together could easily make eight-hundred in a night.”

“You're not worried about getting caught by the Black Bulldogs?” Jackson asks, gripping the all but forgotten glass in his hand just a little too tightly.

Sidney shrugs. “We're kids. Nobody suspects kids.”

Jackson unfortunately believes that.

“What do you do with all the money?”

Sid leans against the counter and thumbs the edge of the knife in his hand. “Try and put it toward something useful, like water and gas.”

“Your mom never gets suspicious about bills just getting paid?”

Sidney just shrugs again and goes back to scrubbing at the silverware in his hand.

“I think she's too relieved about catching up on her medical bills that she doesn't even stop to think about all the other stuff that just disappears into the aether.”

Honestly, he can't blame her.

“Alright,” he agrees, finishing with the glass this time and going for a dripping fork. “I'm in. I'll do it.”

Sidney looks at him really carefully for a moment, but barely a second passes before his expression melts away into a grin.

“I knew you were cool,” he huffs, the sides of his mouth irrepressibly curling into a smirk. “Well, I guess that means you'd better meet the team.”

The team, it turns out, are three other kids that they meet up with in a skate park later that afternoon.

There's a dark-skinned girl with bubble-gum pink hair who wears a lot of rubber wrist-bands that say things like: 'Cool Dudes Drive Safe,' each brightly coloured bracelet with a different numbered hotline on the inside. When she introduces herself as Alicia, Jackson quickly understands that this is the friend Sid had been speaking about earlier―she's not at all what he had initially imagined. With the amount of badges on her baby-blue backpack and pastel on her person, Jackson soon finds himself in awe of her utter dedication to personal style. It's clear she puts in a lot of effort.

However, where Alicia's personality is bubbly and bright, her smile blindingly friendly, the girl next to her―Jasmine—is unnervingly sharp and suspicious. With skin almost as pale as his own, Jasmine's dark and liberal rings of eye make-up accentuate the sharpness of her cheekbones and emphasize her striking appearance.The several piercings in her ears, nose and lips serve only to underscore the unladylike image she's carefully constructed, and the graffited-by-stickers skateboard she clings to tops off the painstakingly crafted persona. Everything about her delivers the mien that she might have once been the type of person to shop exclusively at Hot Topic, even though her dyed black hair has since long grown out enough that soft, brown roots are peeking through at the crown of her head.

Lastly, there is a boy in a bright yellow tee-shirt, the shade similar to that of boiled egg-yolk, which is somehow made almost as blinding as Alicia's 100-watt smile when contrasted against his dark skin. The holes in the knees of the blue jeans he wears appear as though they might have purposefully been cut out.

The boy is the first to step forward to enthusiastically introduce himself as Milo, stealing Jackson to his side with a devilish little grin flashed in Sidney's direction.Jackson just barely catches the long-suffering grimace and eye-roll thrown back at Milo as Sidney begins to explain Jackson's story to his three friends, giving just enough information to elicit understanding, but not pity. Jackson is grateful that Sid has the foresight to tell them about the amnesia, but deigns not to mention about the bruises and half-healed lacerations that mark his upper body.

For a Sunday afternoon, the skate park is surprisingly empty, devoid of all life with the exception of the five of them―allowing for plans to be discussed openly and without fear of being overheard.

The concrete is hot on the back of Jackson's legs and he's sure he is watching his skin burn just a little bit in the heat of the sun, but more than anything else he's fascinated by the way Alicia goes from bright and bubbly to all business when she turns the topic of conversation—previously Milo's curious interest about Jackson—to the upcoming Run.

“—they've moved forward their timetable,” she says, watching absently as Jas picks at a peeling sticker on the underside of her skateboard. “They want the stuff gone by tomorrow night.”

Milo's head jerks up and his eyes flash with panic. “Tomorrow?”

Alicia shrugs apologetically, but then says: “They're willing to pay extra.”

At that, Sidney's eyes narrow. “How much extra are we talking?”

Alicia's attention turns to him, skipping over Jackson who is seated between the two other boys.

“Extra fifty per bag,” she grins. “This new stuff, it's called Starshine, or so I'm told. It's a hallucinogen or something. I think was originally meant to be a psycholytic for Arkham incurables, but someone messed with it and got it out onto the streets. Now, it's meant to be a party drug. It lowers inhibitions, makes people temporarily neglect or not care about where they are. Makes you lose your sense of self for a little while, apparently. It goes for a lot of money on the market, but the Bulldogs got into a stash of it when they were ripping up territories a while back. They made a boat-load of money off the stuff and I think the WCS are worried the same thing will happen again unless they can get the stuff out quick.”

Sidney doesn't hesitate.

“We're in,” he says, flashing a quick grin at Jackson, who tries to ignore the wrong feeling bubbling up in his chest. “We'll be there.”

“Eleven-thirty,” Alicia warns, pinning Sid with A Look. “South City Park. Don't be late again.”

Sidney just turns his smile on her and blinks innocently. “Don't worry, I'll make sure we're on time. Jackson has to make a good first impression, after all.”

Alicia's eyes jump over to Jackson then, her gaze leaving him with the distinct impression that she's scrutinizing his small stature. In the end she moves the conversation on and agrees with a clipped, “Sure.”

Discussions about the Run soon die after that, especially when Milo brings up his failing English grade and then the crotchety old English teacher he has, Mrs. Waters―who earns a collective groan from the group. From there, the topic moves on to lighter things, such as which teacher at Gotham East Park High School is the absolute worst and then onto rumors circulating about which student deflated all the tires on the deputy vice-principal's new car.

Jackson lets the conversation wash over him and eventually Jas grows bored and heads off to use the skate park for its intended purpose.

It's almost lunch time when Alicia declares it's time for her to depart for home and Jasmine quickly volunteers to walk with her.

The two girls wave their goodbyes and head off in the opposite direction as Sidney picks himself up off the concrete and brushes the dirt from his pants with an out of the blue, “You ready for this?”

The question brings to mind the uncomfortable feeling in his chest from earlier and goes unanswered for a long moment as Jackson dwells on it.

In the end though, his answer is neither yes or no.

“I guess I'll find out soon enough.”

Chapter Text

Tim is fully expecting the knock on his office door, but it doesn't stop the peculiar jolt of adrenaline that spikes through him when he looks up and sees Bruce standing there with his hand half raised and a pinched smile between his cheeks.

Can I come in?” The words are hesitant, the half-strangled timbre bizarrely tentative. It's so unlike Bruce that, momentarily, it shakes Tim, forcing a reorientation before he squares off and nods stiffly.

It's your building,” he replies, clipped, pushing away from his desk and mentally berating himself for the antagonistic tone the moment the words are out. Don't go about picking a fight, he admonishes himself, not before you've even made up from the last one. The words are immature and not befitting of a person in his position anyway, he regrets them immediately; they sound childish to even his own ears.

Bruce doesn't say anything as he closes the door to Tim's office with a soft click, and the younger hopes the noise is not analogous to a bell's final toll.

A crease appears between Bruce's eyebrows as he makes his way over and drops into the chair opposite, giving Tim a long, contemplative look before wetting his lips, leaning forward slightly and speaking again, this time with a little more weight in his voice.

Do you want to know what I think my single greatest fault is?”

Tim frowns and purses his lips, narrowing his eyes at the offbeat question, possibly even designed to throw him off the pulse. This already isn't going at all how he thought it would.

Still, despite the fact that he isn't really sure he does want to know, he humours the man anyway and nods at Bruce to continue. Absently, he notes how dry his mouth has become, the roof suddenly like sandpaper.

Bruce shoots him a humourless smirk that doesn't reach his eyes.

I'm really good at pushing people away.”

Tim nearly snorts and deridingly wonders when the man figured that out. But Bruce isn't finished quite yet, and Tim reminds himself that he doesn't want to pick another fight today anyway, so stifles the noise, bites his tongue and waits.

It's what irrevocably changed my relationship with Dick,” he admits ruefully, rubbing his palms together in a manner that might have looked like nervousness on anyone else. “It's why Jason and I struggle to speak civilly even on good days. Why Damian has that crippling need to seek my approval—because he thinks I'll reject him the moment he gives me a reason.”

Bruce swallows and the sound is like a pin dropping in the quiet space. Every line on the man's face speaks of a different regret, but his eyes shine with something more than just remorse.

It's as though the more I hold on, the harder people struggle to get away. Being a parent I… I never thought it would be easy, but I never thought it would be this hard, either.”

Tim closes his eyes for a moment and beats back at the exhaustion in his mind long enough for him to form words.

What are you trying to say to me, Bruce?” He sighs, so tired that he doesn't even bother to conceal how drained he currently feels, the words more like a reluctant statement than a question.

A beat of silence passes between them and when Tim opens his eyes again, Bruce's developing expression looks at once almost shy and simultaneously wrung out, but genuine nonetheless.

I'm not good at this, Tim,” he says plainly, rubbing his palms together again and dropping his gaze to Tim's stapler, sitting on the edge of his desk. “I know you know that.”

Tim waits, surprised by Bruce's candid words and infinitely more awake because of them, but he doesn't respond as the older man sucks in an apprehensive breath and then continues, pressing on.

You kids are the light of my life, but there are days that I look at you and for a moment I see myself reflected. You are so much like me, but you are so much your own people as well. I just want you to be happy and safe and healthy.

I'm scared for you, Tim. I'm worried that you're running yourself into the ground. I don't want that for you, but I don't know how to stop it or how to help you.”

Tim knows he is openly staring, but he can't remember how to stop, not even when it feels like his eyes might bug out of his head. His mouth vacillates between hanging open and snapping closed several times, until he can't take the indecisiveness anymore and locks his jaw, clenching his teeth together. In his ears he can hear his own heart-beat and he fixates on its steady rhythm in lieu of feeling centred himself. The whole world might be crashing and burning around him for all that Tim is aware of it.

The silence goes on long enough that Bruce eventually sighs.

I guess I just wanted to… explain myself,” he says, starting to stand and shooting a doleful look at the door. “I didn't like how we left things.”

Nothing feels fixed between them, Tim realises, but suddenly things don't seem broken, either. This has to be one of the strangest conversations he's ever had with his adoptive father, even if it was entirely one-sided.

Seeing Bruce stand inspires him to rise as well, but the younger has to take a moment to steady himself against the office desk in order to clear his vision of the little black dots that dance manically at the edges.

Bruce apparently doesn't miss the subtle sway.

The man purses his lips and huffs. “You really shouldn't be at work.”

Tim's not having this argument again, rehashing the same old words even if he can―and does―acknowledge the truth that rings in them.

Quickly, he shakes his head and then regrets that idea immediately. “I'm fine,” he lies, and then instantly betrays himself by stumbling awkwardly to the left in his haste to shoo Bruce from his office.

Bruce seems to move around the desk in the space of time it takes for Tim to blink, because the man is suddenly standing in front of him and patiently holding his elbow.

Let me take you home,” he coaxes lowly, in a deep voice that might have been used for bedtime stories when Dick or Jason were much younger―Tim sometimes likes to imagine that Bruce would have read him bedtime stories if the universe had ever given them that chance.

Reluctantly, he admits to himself that there's no point in fighting this battle anyway. Bruce will get his way in the end, just like he always does.

Okay,” he gives in simply, easily, and earns that coveted smile from Bruce. The one that reaches his eyes. “I guess I really could use a few hours.”

 Bruce bundles him into the Porsche, throws a suit jacket over him as a makeshift blanket and, while Tim doesn't fall asleep in the car, sometime between long-blink number two and three they arrive at his apartment.

Ushered into the elevator, he feels a supporting arm wrap around his shoulders. He doesn't know if it's because Bruce actually wants the closeness or if it's simply because Tim looks ready to keel over, but the gesture is nice nonetheless.

I really don't think you should patrol tonight,” Bruce's deep, low voice vibrates gently, the rumble like a soft lullaby to Tim's ears, soothing him. The arm around his shoulder squeezes tighter, prompting Tim to realise the delay in his response.

The younger man waves him off lightly. “I'll be fine after a few extra hours, Bruce.”

The other man doesn't release his hold around Tim's torso.

I'm sure,” he says pensively, not really sounding as though he really believes it. “But please, just take tonight off, for me?”

Tim is too tired to argue.

Fine,” he lies again easily. “I won't go out tonight.”

He will, but if it allays Bruce's concerns now, he'll say it.

Thank you,” huffs the older man, relaxing infinitesimally. His hand rubs Tim's shoulder and once again he muses on how nice it feels. Is this the kind of attention Dick and Jason used to get at the manor when they lived there with Bruce? Is this the kind of attention Damian is getting now? Tim pushes those thoughts aside quickly, not wanting to dwell on things that would surely make him jealous if he knew the answers.

They reach the penthouse, but the moment the elevator doors open, Bruce's forehead furrows into a frown as he spots the Red Robin suit―haphazardly shucked in the centre of the room.

Tim,” he chastises, moving to pick up the vigilante suit off the floor. “You know not to leave your suit out in the open. Anyone could see it. Someone could steal it or worse.”

Tim shrugs. “No one is getting past my security system. Oracle and I designed it together.”

Still,” Bruce sighs, scooping it up and holding it tightly for a moment. “Just because it's improbable doesn't mean it's impossible.”

Tim shrugs again and starts for his bedroom. If he sleeps now, he'll be wide awake by the time he needs to go out again.

Bruce catches his arm on his way through, stalling him with a grip still gentle enough to be called patient and possibly even fatherly. “Sleep well, Tim,” he says with a soft smile, giving his arm an almost imperceptible squeeze before releasing it.

G'night, B.”

 “You want to know which celebrity you'd be most likely to date?” Alicia asks the next day to the table at large, over the raucous sound of the student populace filling up the cafeteria at lunchtime.

For his first day at school, Jackson thinks he is doing alright so far. The first half of the day had comprised of a quick meeting with Narelle and the principal, Mr. Burnard, and then about ten minutes in—after a perfunctory greeting from the man—he was ushered from the room by a receptionist, leaving the two adults to talk. The receptionist, a stiff lady, staunch in her mannerisms, had shoved a school map and a timetable at him before kicking him out of the front office.

Luckily, Sid had been waiting for him outside. A wide grin on his face, ready to drag him to American History, Digital Media and Mathematics, respectively.

Alicia, chomping on her celery stick, snaps him out of his wandering thoughts.

The hall is abuzz with plenty of gleeful students eager to be out from their previous classes, but Jackson picks up the plastic fork on his tray to poke at his Caesar salad and zeroes in on the conversation at his table, ignoring the growing crowd.

“No,” Jas snorts, rolling her eyes and taking a bite out of her pizza slice. “Why do you even read those gossip rags? They're so trashy.”

“Betrayal,” Alicia spuriously gasps, heaving a melodramatic, faux sob as she sets down the latest edition of the Gotham Gazette. “If I can't discuss Vicki's juicy scoop on Sheridan Lowe's new fiancé with you, who can I talk to?”

“I'm with Jas,” Milo pipes up around a mouthful of pasta, glancing at the offending magazine like it personally insulted his grandmother. “The Gotham Gazette is for rich, middle-aged socialites who get their kicks from the news that their next-door neighbour is being accused of having an affair with the pool boy.”

Alicia sniffs and goes back to her magazine. “Victoria Vale is an artist,” she proclaims with an air of righteous dignity, never lifting her eyes from whatever article has caught her attention. “It takes more than just hard work to make people admit the sordid parts of their lives, she's got a talent!”

“A talent for making people highly uncomfortable, sure,” Milo scoffs. “I, for one, would hate to be under the scope of her magnifying glass.”

“She'd never want to interview you anyway,” Alicia rolls her eyes haughtily, gaze jumping to him. “She goes for the rich and mysterious types, like Bruce Wayne. You're neither rich nor mysterious.”

Jackson feels his brow furrow as the name rings some faint recognition in the back of his brain.

“Bruce Wayne?” he asks, suddenly feeling as though he should know why the name is important to him, but ineluctably only pulling at strings of frustration as he searches the shadows where his memories should be.

Alicia flaps a hand at him and turns excited eyes his way. “Yeah, he's like, a billionaire―really popular with the ladies back when my mom was a teenager. According to her, every girl fantasised about marrying him because he was like, pretty hot back in the day, and suuuuper rich. Anyway, then he went and adopted five or six kids and became a single father or something like that. It shocked everyone because he was a notorious playboy way back when.”

“It's a bit creepy how obsessed Vicki Vale still is with him though,” Jas pitches in, stealing one of Alicia's celery sticks. “There's always something about him or one of his kids in almost every article she publishes.”

“That's not true!” Alicia quickly defends before turning on the comment. “Besides, how would you know?”

Jas just shrugs nonchalantly and takes another bite of her pilfered celery. “I like to read the sealed section. I borrow your magazines sometimes when you're done.”

Alicia looks indignant. “You called it a gossip rag not moments ago! The utter hypocrisy that spills from your mouth!”

Jasmine looks completely unfazed and reaches over for a second celery stick to chomp down on, pointing a finger at whatever page Alicia has absently turned to.

“I'm right though,” Jas smirks, directing Alicia's attention to a page. “About Vale. This time it's just straight up a whole article on that Wayne kid who's a CEO. I don't even think she's trying to disguise her bizarre compulsion anymore.”

Alicia stops listening and starts hastily reading the page, intrigued, the conversation falling silent as she skims through the article.

Jackson personally doesn't see the appeal in reading about other people's lives. Especially people he's never going to meet or care about.

It's Jackson who breaks the casual lull in conversation this time.

“What's our next class like?” he asks, turning to Sid. “English, with Mr. Mason, right?”

Sid swallows down a mouthful of juice and nods as Milo slumps onto the table and interjects with the lamentation, “I just don't understand what I did to get Mrs. Waters over Mr. Mason this year!”

Sidney just ignores him.

“Mr. Mason is really cool,” he grins. “We did this whole combining music and English unit last year and came up with our own beat poetry―it was awesome.”

“Mrs. Waters just gets us to read Shakespeare out loud,” Milo interrupts again with a slight wail. “It's so boring. I don't want to hear about Macbeth or King Lear ever again!”

Jas pokes him in the side just as Alicia interrupts the conversation unexpectedly, throwing them all with the slight non-sequitur; “Oh my god, he's missing!”

Milo's head lifts from the table, eyes narrowed even though he humours her. “What are you going on about now?”

“The CEO, I mean, the Wayne kid!”

Alicia pushes the magazine to the center of the table so they can all see the gritty photograph of a boy dressed in a suit staring at them from across a street. It's not a very good photograph, though, it's taken from a distance and it's a bit grainy, as if it were an illicit picture taken by the paparazzi.

Timothy Wayne, formerly Drake―adopted son of well-renown businessman Bruce Wayne―was reported missing three days ago when he failed to show up for a board meeting at Wayne Enterprises, where the sixteen-year-old is currently employed as CEO,” Alicia reads out loud for them, captivated by the article.

Many are speculating that the young Wayne has once again found himself the victim of a kidnapping, of which the sixteen-year-old is no stranger to. Having been the victim of multiple attempted and successful kidnappings both before and after he ascended to his current role at Wayne Enterprises, Timothy Wayne was last kidnapped only a mere two weeks ago—a ransom of ten-point-five million US dollars issued for his safe return. However, the ransom was never paid and the sixteen-year-old was safely returned to his family thanks to Gotham's caped crusader, Batman.

In this new case, however, there have been no ransoms made of the Wayne family, leading some to believe that Timothy Wayne has flown to Europe in order to escape the mounting pressures of being America's youngest CEO.

Surrounded by his other four children, a visibly shaken Bruce Wayne released a press statement yesterday, urging anyone who knows anything or has seen Timothy Wayne since the time of his disappearance to speak with the police. A reward of eleven million dollars has been offered for his safe return.”

“Poor guy,” Jas sympathises, stealing and cracking open the sealed juice off Milo's tray this time. “Two kidnappings in three weeks, that's rough.”

Sidney pushes the magazine back to Alicia as she says, “Just glad it isn't me.”

“At least he's got experience in it?” Milo adds, receiving raised eyebrows from the rest of the table. “Silver lining?”

“He looks a little bit like you, actually,” Jasmine contributes, quirking her whole head slightly to the left like a bemused owl, inspecting Jackson through squinted eyes. “Same cheekbones, I think.”

Jackson just drops his eyes back to the grainy photograph of the boy, but doesn't bother disagreeing. Honestly, the only identifiable feature he can clearly make out is that the boy has black hair―that's it.

“I think I'm on board with Alicia,” he replies instead, with a note of humour in his tone, nodding slightly in her direction. “I'm just glad it isn't me. Being a CEO sounds stressful enough, getting kidnapped so frequently… well, let's just say I wouldn't blame the guy if he really did fly off to Europe after this.”

The others all murmur their agreement just as Jas takes the unopened sultana packet from Jackson's tray and the end-of-lunch bell goes off.

“Are you ready?”

Sidney shoots him a quietly concerned look as they enter the dimly lit park that night, the air cool and eerily still.

There's no trace of a breeze, not even the faintest whisper through the leaves on the trees, smog and soot clinging to their dark greens, making the world seem heavy and dull, and the slight haze that hovers in the air around them might look like fog to anyone not standing in it, feeling the choking effects of the pollution on their lungs. The taste of the taint is both disgusting and sickening, but in a strange and almost indescribable way, its faintly reminiscent scent makes Jackson feel like he's somehow come home. The befouled Gotham air makes him think of woodsmoke slipping under windows on a cold winters night, of warmth and a sense of belonging. The pieces are impossible to put together, their relation still unknown to him, but it oddly relaxes him all the same―despite what they are about to do. A weird juxtaposition in that his mind is racing with all the things that could go wrong, but his body is settling down and stretching out like a cat, muscles coiled.

“As I'll ever be,” he returns, puffing out a breath and releasing the gathered filth inside his lungs back out into the Gotham night once more.

Although it contrasts his wired thoughts, Jackson's body feels more like his own than he's ever felt it before―there's an electric current running through his chest which makes him feel more human and more alive than ever―in spite of the weight of his backpack, which already feels heavy, though it hasn't even got anything illegal in it yet.

The words don't seem to reassure Sid, whose concerned frown only deepens with the barest trace of panic, a line of it like a gold vein hiding just under the surface.

“Don't chicken out on me now,” he demands sternly, a vein in his jaw twitching, which Sidney probably isn't even aware of.

Jackson shakes his head as an initial response and then adds, “Don't worry, I won't.”

Sid huffs out a breath of his own, but the conversation goes no further as they refocus their gazes toward the mist that partly conceals the path ahead, lightness in the fog to be found only when a dim park light bounces of the vapour.

They stay silent for a long time, right up until the reach a large oak and a figure detaches itself from the shadows there.

Sidney tenses for a long moment and Jackson stiffens until the deadened footsteps on the grass come close enough to reveal a familiar face.

It's Jasmine.

“Jackson. Sid.” She acknowledges, stepping onto the path. “Good to see you turned up on time.”

Jackson thinks her guise of irritation might be enough to fool anyone else. On the outside she looks calm and confident, ready to tackle whatever the night throws at her, but he can see the way her hands minutely tremble and hear how her voice pitches up, hiding the way her tense throat closes over with every hard swallow. She's nervous, frightened; she'd waited for them to get there so she didn't have to go alone. Jackson makes a mental note to stay close to her tonight, because despite her tough exterior, she's clearly afraid.

“Said we would be, didn't I?” Sid grumbles in reply, though he too is too anxious for it to actually sound good-natured.

Jasmine seems satisfied enough by his answer.

“Shall we go?” She asks instead, motioning toward the path with one hand and readjusting the straps on her own backpack with the other.

Sid just nods, and the three of them proceed further into the park, deeper into the darkness.

It isn't until they're almost at the center of South City Park that they finally see Alicia and Milo, huddled around a lamp-post along with some older guy―late twenties, scruffy appearance, neurotic in character, weedy and lanky and too-thin, with dark circles under his eyes that could rival even Jasmine's eye make-up.

“You're not late this time,” says the reedy man, turning a critical eye on Sidney before his gaze jumps over to Jackson in surprise. It quickly narrows into suspicion. “Who's this?”

“Jackson,” Alicia supplies for him with a roll of her eyes. Out of all of them, she seems the least visibly anxious. “Remember? I told you about him before.”

The dark eyes only develop into slits. “You cool?” Asks the man in a gravelly, low timbre.

It is Jasmine who intercedes on his behalf this time, partially stepping in front of him and saying: “Of course he is,” just as Jackson goes to nod.

Scruffy guy shrugs, seeming pacified, or maybe he doesn't really care all that much.

“Alright,” he shrugs. “Truck's this way, follow me.”

Alicia takes the lead, trailing only a little after the man, who leads them down a path to their immediate right.

It turns out that the path intersects a little service vehicle lane halfway through the park, an inconspicuous black van parked by the only street light on the road.

There is a man there, waiting for them. He is large, muscular, covered in tattoos, his face is lined in shadows.

When they reach him, Alicia makes a gesture. Milo, Jasmine and Sidney all reach for their backpacks, unzipping them so the tattooed man can look inside and nod. Jackson follows their lead and does the same.

The unpleasant, unkempt man disappears for a moment and then comes back with an armful of white stuff wrapped in plastic. If Jackson didn't know better, he would think it to be chalk.

After several trips of this, their bags are soon full and hoisted once more onto their backs, weighed down and so heavy that Jackson feels as though he might be hauling around pounds of sand.

“Half now,” smirks the shabby and dishevelled geezer. “Half once the goods are delivered.” The yellow, toothy smile makes Jackson feel nauseous.

Alicia nods and Sidney coldly remarks: “We know the drill.”

For some reason, this only broadens the grotty grin. “Just making sure,” he says sleazily. Jasmine looks as though she's trying very hard not to overtly shudder.

“Oh, and kids,” the weedy man continues, almost as an afterthought. “Here, you could use some protection. After what happened last time and all…”

Jackson forgets to ask what happened last time, because before anyone can protest, the man has yanked Sidney's arm forward and is pressing something into his palm. “Just don't forget to turn the safety off when you use it.”

The gun shines brilliantly, even in the low light, the silver flashing brightly—a coruscating warning that pricks something unpleasant in the back of Jackson's brain. This shouldn't be happening, says a voice inside him, unlike any of the other previous whispers of memory that have caught him off guard before. This voice sounds too much like his own and for that reason alone, it frightens him.

Sidney's pallor goes white, unhelped by the moonlight illuminating only half his face, nodding his head and stowing the gun away in his backpack along with the drugs.

No one dares to ask where it came from, but the collectively held breath releases the moment the gun disappears out of sight.

Alicia looks visibly upset, but she turns away so quickly that Jackson almost thinks he imagined the expression.

They collect their cash and go, without so much as a look back let alone a goodbye, but unlike the rest, Jackson doesn't allow himself to relax even a little once the van is out of view.

“He's so creepy,” Jasmine finally says, wrapping her arms around herself and shaking her head, the first to speak again. “I'm not sure I ever want to know how you met him, Alicia.”

Alicia just shrugs in response, not looking particularly bothered. “You meet a lot of unsavoury types in the diners that stay open 24/7. Plus, when I was little, Daddy used to take me with him sometimes when he visited the Iceberg Lounge on business.” Her face turns sombre then, grief filling muscle. “That was before, y'know… before.”

Jackson feels a pang of sympathy for her―reading into both her body language and the undertone in her words and coming to an understanding. Maybe he even feels a twinge of jealousy; he doesn't know anything about his own family, after all. In truth, he doesn't even know if he has a family, but it is obvious that Alicia cared for her father deeply―still does.

“I'm sorry for your loss,” he says carefully, sending her a soft, albeit cheerless smile.

She smiles back, although it doesn't reach her eyes. “Thanks,” she responds. “But it was a long time ago. Momma always says that she loved him, but he was an idiot for falling into crime.” Alicia shrugs again and directs her gaze to the ground. “… I guess that makes me an idiot too,” she finishes quietly.

No one says anything for a good while after that, they just keep walking, winding their way down streets and keeping their eyes open for dangerous characters. Aside from Jackson, all the teens seem quite knowledgeable on which roads are more dangerous than others and which route they should take in order to avoid getting mugged. It's almost impressive with how complicated it is, and Jackson remarks on this even as he takes mental notes of his own.

“It's Gotham,” Milo responds offhandedly. “If you don't know what's safe and what isn't by the time you get to Elementary school, you're gonna get kidnapped and sold off to god-knows-where. Only the street smart survive.”

The rest of the group murmurs their agreement.

When they reach Waxmouth road they stop.

“Our gateway into The Narrows,” Sidney explains, handing Jackson half a bottle of water, which he downs gratefully. “Both the fastest and safest way in and out again.”

“One o'clock,” Jasmine remarks on the other side of him, squinting at her phone screen, which is lighting up her face with blue and white light. “We're making good time.”

“Oh good,” Milo says with a happy smile, brightening amongst the gloom. “I might even get back before Gran wakes up.”

Alicia snorts. “What does she think you're doing so early in the morning when you don't make it back in time? It's not like this is your first Run…”

Milo flaps a dismissive hand and his smile morphs into a grin, flashing sparkling white teeth her way. “Usually I tell her I went for an early morning walk. It's not a complete lie, plus it serves as ammunition whenever she tells me I don't get out of the house enough.”

Sidney laughs and it's genuine, whilst Jasmine shoots him a withering look.

The five of them soon make their way into The Narrows, wending through streets that feel faintly familiar and hazy around the edges. The whole place makes Jackson feel nervous, but if the others notice, they don't comment; everything here makes him feel like a stranger in a strange land, but also as though he's treading steps so familiar they might as well be leading him down his garden path.

They're crossing a broader road, Lexington Drive, a street wide enough for the moonlight to breech past the closely compacted buildings, when a distinctly cold feeling sweeps down the length of Jackson's spine and curls in his stomach.

Why does he know this feeling…?

Oh. There's a shadow behind them.

“Guys,” he says lowly, interrupting a quiet debate between Milo and Jas regarding sweet versus savoury croissants. “I―I think we're being followed.”

Even under the white light of the moon and the few flickering street lights, Alicia seems to go pale. Next to him, Sidney grips the straps on his backpack over his shoulder slightly tighter and Jasmine presses up to his side whilst Milo's eyes dance around, looking for signs of movement.

“Aw, shit,” growls a distorted voice, a figure dropping down to street-level from the rafters of a boarded up bank, flyers littering the interior windows and graffiti tags decorating the outside. “You caught us.”

Suddenly, into their view steps a man in what appears to be an odd Halloween costume, but from Sidney's sharp inhalation and the way Jasmine physically tenses beside him, Jackson can tell they're not dealing with a adult playing dress up.

The broad shouldered man is almost twice Jackson's height—sporting sturdy grey boots, form-fitting cargo pants and knee-pads on his lower half, along with twin pistol holsters resting against his upper outer thigh. Grey kevlar covers his torso, the symbol of what appears to be a bat squarely in the middle, acting almost like a target with it's vivid red colouring. Over the top of this, the man has donned a brown leather jacket and wears the collar turned up, as well as a pair of black gloves that cover just over his wrists. Most strangely of all, he wears a bright red helmet and the attitude of someone more dangerous than a stick of dynamite.

“You can come down now, Big Bird!” the man in the red helmet calls, his voice sounding peculiar through the distortion. “They know we're here.”

Jackson hears the tell-tale sound of someone landing behind them and spins to find an altogether different costume standing before him.

This new person is garbed in what seems to be a single piece of fabric, with no visible seams or accessories apart from two large excrima sticks that poke out from behind his shoulders. The kevlar is darker this time, the shade closer to black than grey, but there is still the outline of a bat in flight across the chest―although it is larger and in blue this time. Streaks of cerulean blaze down the length of each arm, all the way to the fingertips. This new person doesn't cover their entire face with a helmet, so Jackson can see tousled black hair atop this man's head, a similar shade to his own. A domino mask is the only thing that obscures his identity from the world.

“Well dang,” says the blue bat. “I was hoping you'd lead us right to them.”

Beside him, Jasmine is shuffling her feet in a motion that looks like she's getting ready to run, and the red bat must see it too because he raises two mollifying hands. “It's alright,” he says. “We're not going to hurt you.”

Blue bat does the same thing, even as Sidney curses under his breath, “Fuck. It's Nightwing and the Red Hood.”

“We just want to talk, okay?” Soothes the blue bat―Nightwing. “We already know what you're carrying in your bags. We just want to know where you're taking it. Who's the buyer?”

Jackson isn't expecting the burst of movement when Jasmine bolts from his side, booking it left as Sidney snatches up his wrist and exclaims, “Scram!”

The group splits almost instantly, Milo sprinting off with Alicia to the right and Jasmine dashing left down a laneway by herself. It is only the painful grip of Sidney's hand secure around his wrist that kicks Jackson into gear and forces his brain to catch up with the idea that, yep, they're running now.

Unfortunately, it is Jackson's lag that makes them the easiest target for Nightwing and Red Hood, who both curse and take off after them―their feet pounding the pavement as Sidney takes them down alleyways, racing to shake the two groupies on their tail.

The adults are bigger and faster than them and everything that happens subsequently goes by so quickly that Jackson nearly misses it.

When Sidney's hand slips off his wrist and the other teen barrels left, Nightwing seizes the opportunity to cut off Jackson's chance to follow, forcing him down a narrow street where the buildings all seem far too close together. He's not sure where Red Hood comes from, only hears the sound of something whizzing past his ear and then sees him standing at the exit of the alleyway, blocking Jackson's only route to freedom.

“We aren't going to hurt you, kid,” Nightwing huffs behind him, sounding slightly out of breath. “We promise.”

Red Hood nods in agreement and takes several steps towards him before jerking to a halt in the odd kind of way that makes him look like a puppet being manoeuvred by strings.

“Tim?” says Red Hood unexpectedly, actually sounding strangely shaken considering he was the lunatic that haunted The Narrows at night and followed teenagers in the dark. “Holy shit! Tim! What in the actual fuck, kid, don't you know how worried everybody's been about you?!”

“Tim?” parrots Nightwing behind him, stepping around Jackson to stand beside Red Hood―looking puzzled, then surprised, then worried and then relieved, a painfully strained smile breaking across his lips. Hands reach out toward him, almost as if the man is just attempting to reassure himself that Jackson really is standing right there. “Oh my god, Tim, where have you been!?”

Jackson does not know what is going on. These people know him? His heart is still pounding in his ears, even as his confused mind starts to whir with possibilities, but before he can physically react, Red Hood is launching into a tirade.

“Why didn't you call home?” the Red Hood is scolding, bizarrely making his head spin with how unreal everything suddenly seems. “Why didn't you call Dad? You've been missing for three days and he is losing his mind―he thinks you've been kidnapped again―everyone has been pulling double runs all over the city trying to find you! You fucking disappeared! Seriously, Baby Bird, give us one good reason why we shouldn't drag your ass back home right now and have Dad bench you until the end of all days!?”

The two vigilantes are staring at him equal parts furious and equal parts relieved, but there must be some kind of mistake, because:

“Who is Tim?”

Chapter Text

Tim doesn't feel at all well rested when he awakes.

For a minute he gives weight to the idea of listening to Bruce for once and staying home for the night, but then he shakes that selfish thought off and rolls himself out of bed―catching his weight just before the floor does. The movement stretches out his sore and complaining muscles in an entirely unpleasant way, but Tim shakes that out too and takes a deep breath in through his nose and yawns it all out again.

The people of Gotham need him out there, he knows that. There's a new drug, Starshine, and it's putting people at risk. Red Robin might not do very much tonight, but at the very least he has to start putting his ear to the ground in order to find out more on this new and reclusive narcotic.

Wearily dragging himself past the coffee machine, grabbing a double-shot on his way through, Tim swings himself into his computer chair before opening up the Gotham Police Department's log of recent arrests. He doesn't even have to hack into the system anymore, thanks to the fact that he developed and created the program himself―a generous gift from the Wayne Foundation for all the hard work the Gotham Police Department did every day―now all he has to do is use the back door entrance he created specifically. Dick often laments that Blüdhaven's system isn't anywhere near as comprehensive or easy to navigate, which makes Tim feel a quite smug, if he's being honest.

Quickly, he clicks through all the cases labelled 'Starshine,' 'narcotic,' and 'drug,' but nothing new pops up, which, he supposes is good on the crime front, but kind of annoying personally―though feels a just little proud when he scrolls past Crane, Jonathan in the logs.

Tim exits out again with a sigh and takes both his coffee and himself over to the couch, flopping onto the sofa and reaching for the TV remote in the process, switching the channel to something bland and non-intellectual so as to give himself permission to zone out.

In the corner of the screen, the digital clock reads just past nine-thirty. If Tim left now he'd certainly be edging on the earlier side of patrol, but that would also reduce the risk of running into Batman, who usually waited until the city residents were starting to settle in for the night. Weighing up his options, in the end Tim decides to have his coffee then suit up―perhaps patrol around Crime Alley for a bit and maybe meet up with Red Hood if he's around. Because even if Jason stands in agreement with Bruce on the issue of Tim versus Overworking, he isn't likely to tattle. Jason's need to be a thorn in their father's side is too great for that.

That's the great thing about Jason.

Dick would sell him out without even batting an eyelid and call it Looking Out For Him and Damian would do the same, but at least he'd be honest in admitting to doing it for his own demented glee.

Jason is still the wild card of the Bat-bunch. A perfectly balanced set of scales where one end is wanting to do the exact opposite of what Bruce wants him to do and the other being a desire to look out for his family. Tim knows that the scales do tip more one way than the other depending on when Bruce last stuck his foot in his mouth, but one only has to know how to read the fine lines in Jason's expressions to know which it will be that day.

Tim likes to think he's getting better at understanding the nuances of his older brother, even if Jason does still call him 'Replacement' on his foul days. Though those are getting fewer and farther between.

Today, though, Tim will throw the dice and hedge his bets. If Jason tells Bruce to come a-running, he'll be irritated, but not too surprised… he supposes he'll just have to convince Red Hood before it gets to that.

Tim swallows down the last of his bitter black coffee as he stands, rinsing out his mug at the sink before moving to his locked closet to retrieve his Red Robin suit.

The sight of it momentarily gives him pause as he remembers Bruce storing it for him only a few hours earlier. A pang goes through his chest at the memory of Bruce's open candidness at the office and Tim will admit that maybe feels just a little bit guilty when he pulls his suit on and secures the cowl over his head. It takes him another second to blink away the memory and steel his resolve, striding over to the window with the confidence only the suit can give him.

Red Robin feels the quiet rush, the thrill, as he jumps out into the night, sending adrenaline to every muscle as he free-falls before the line goes taut and arcs him through the city haze, guilt inducing memories falling away like gravity.

Tim is almost past the hot dog place that does those great, spicy chilli dogs that Cass likes when there's movement in his peripheral.

The proximity is too close for it to be Spoiler―she would never get this close to him without Tim noticing long beforehand―and it isn't Red Hood either, Jason would either be on top of him by now or else disappearing into the shadows, choosing a new route to patrol.

Immediately, he drops down onto an old apartment block roof, silent as he lands and settles into a crouch, ready to determine which of his bat-themed family is following him. Briefly, he entertains the hopeful idea that it could be Batwoman or Nightwing, but he has an apprehensively anxious suspicion that it's Gotham's Dark Knight himself―probably with Tim's annoying little assassin brother in tow.

Foreboding notions are confirmed a moment later when leather wings block out Red Robin's view of the moon during Batman's descent from the tall city skyscraper less than a block away.

Busted, his brain declares, sounding entirely too much like an amused Dick.

Heavy combat boots land on the roof, jerking Tim out of his crouch like a Pavlovian response, ready to obey orders like a good Robin would. It's a mentality that neither he nor any of his brothers have ever really been able to break, not even Jason, though he pretends. Unfortunately, Dick's had time to put distance between himself and such a response, Jason's got an insufferable need to disobey everything anyway, and Damian's just too damn stubborn―they're all so much better at feigning what they pretend is a non-existent need to scratch the itch that is Batman's direct orders. Tim, on the other hand, has never denied the urge and therefore has no practice. Moreover, for the longest time, his mentality was always that if he was obeying orders he was needed, and if he was needed he could stay.

Batman said jump, Tim asked how high.

There's no soft landing beside Batman, heralding the arrival of Robin―which Tim will take as a small win because at least Damian won't be here to loom smugly at him whilst Bruce chews him out.

You're up early tonight,” Tim tries, already attempting to deflect the annoyance he feels radiating from behind the cowl. “No Robin either?”

Apparently, Bruce doesn't have the time. He gets straight to the point.

You said you would stay in tonight,” he growls―and to the untrained ear, Batman sounds angry. The hairs on his traitorous arms even stand on their end for a moment.

Red Robin has no answer that will satisfy, but he tries anyway.

I changed my mind,” he returns with a shrug, as if he didn't know it had been an order and pretending as if he isn't disobeying it. They're back to their usual tennis match, but Tim is literally just saving every ball by the skin of his teeth, deflecting with zero amount of skill or grace. “But for it being so early, you're pretty far from home… did a rogue get loose from Arkham or something?”

I told you to get some rest,” Batman interrupts, sounding glacial. “I told you Red Robin was benched.”

Tim nearly snarls. Like a child, he wants to shout: you're not the boss of me, but he doesn't. Instead, he grits his teeth together and grunts out, “Fine, but fifteen minutes into my patrol and you're already on my tail? That's fast, even for you.”

For a split second, Bruce looks partly chastised and it's the single ounce of guilt in the man's expression that suddenly has the pieces falling together even though Tim feels stupid for it even taking him this long.

Batman looks as though he plans to say something more, but Red Robin beats him to it, a furious scowl affixing itself to his features underneath the cowl.

Of course,” Tim scoffs, slapping the side of his head lightly, just for theatrics. “This wasn't just some happen-stance, random encounter was it? To get here so quickly you would have had to have known exactly where I was, wouldn't you? You―you put a tracker in my suit, didn't you?!”


Oh, I'm such an idiot. You put it there when you put my suit away, after you drove me home―I can't believe you! And after everything you said about trusting me. Have you been manipulating me?! Is that what that whole act was?

Suddenly, Tim is finding it impossible to swallow.

Bruce's next words are like bullet wounds directly to the chest, they are said in anger and Tim nearly stops breathing as they register.

Well if you hadn't gone back on your promise tonight, maybe I would be more trusting of you,” he shoots back. “I'm not going to let you fight crime when you can't even stay awake at work! You're going home.”

Tim briefly squeezes his eyes shut and, oddly, wishes Dick or Jason or even Damian was here beside him. They're not the most emotionally competent brothers, but at least when they shoot him or stab him or wound him they do it with actual guns and knives instead of just their words and actions.

Fuck you!” he manages to spit out, the vitriol like a balm he can feel cutting off the fuel for the utter despair.

Batman looks more than just little surprised, but beyond that, Tim can't really tell what other emotions are hiding behind Bruce's cowl. Right now, he can't even bring himself to care.

Tim knows this behaviour isn't like him at all. The lashing out? That's Jason's style, but he's so sick of being thrown through the emotional wringer. One minute Bruce is loving, caring, telling Tim that he is trusted―the next minute his actions disprove his words!

I am taking you home,” repeats the icy reply, no hint of Bruce within the words, only the cold and calculating growl of the Batman as he smuggles away the surprise.

Red Robin assumes a fighting stance without hesitation. Inside, he feels a little manic.

Surprise blooms across Bruce's features again―maybe there's hurt there too, Tim can't tell―but he schools his expression quickly, reluctantly taking up a stance of his own.

Tim knows that, realistically, he stands no chance against Batman, not even on a good day, but he's furious and seeing red and he's going to make Bruce question every parenting decision he's ever made before Tim lets him get his way. He's going to make Bruce feel this. Literally and figuratively.

Nightwing stills to the point where Jackson is almost sure that the man has altogether stopped breathing, each tense muscle thrumming with a bewildering number of emotions―confusion, caution, hesitation, doubt, uncertainty, concern.

Behind him, underneath the helmet, he is sure the Red Hood's face would read similarly, if the rigidity of his person is anything to go by.

Nobody moves for several long moments and Jackson's eyes flick fearfully between the two broad, muscular requiters of justice.

Distantly, in a dark, shadowy, unconscious corner in his mind, he recognises that the way he's mirroring their stillness and actions is something so habitual that this cannot possibly be their first meeting; they seem to know him―they look to him with a mystifying familiarity that underlies the emotion crowding the surfaces of their body language.

Yet, at the same time, whilst some part of his logical mind is filing all this information away for later, adrenaline―still strangling every shallow breath he takes with desperate need to get out―is commandeering all ability to think straight. The panic is like vertigo, it twists and turns until the ground is an unholy demon that would love nothing more than to swallow him whole. Except, like a rabbit caught in headlights, he physically cannot unstick his feet from the asphalt. It holds him in place with the surety of cling-wrap and the tenacity of super-glue.

Then,Nightwing moves. The older vigilante shakes off some version of initial shock and settles back into his own skin with a deliberate slowness that strangely terrifies Jackson as he watches the lines on the other man's face smooth out into something definite and neutral and full of forced calm, obscuring the emotions hiding beneath.

Cerulean streaked fingers reach out for his shoulder, closing the infinite gap between them with an urgency no longer found on Nightwing's face, hidden behind unnatural composure, and Jackson's world shifts down to swift motions and sure muscles that move without his conscious thought or input.

What his body does next―which involves seizing the other man's wrist with both hands, spinning and stepping backwards to brace himself and then hauling Nightwing over his shoulder―Jackson takes a back-seat to. He uses all of his body weight to launch the vigilante onto his back and sends him sprawling to the ground, landing dazedly.

The movement is over before Jackson even knows he's done it, remotely and detachedly aware―(in some back corner of his mind)―that the move never would have worked had Nightwing been prepared for it.

However, even as such thoughts with no context flicker in and out of his brain, like passing images in a twenty-four frames-per-second film, the rest of him is already turning to the still off-guard Red Hood, who is barely more prepared for him than Nightwing was by the time Jackson goes for a knee, feints to the left and then dives to the right.

Suddenly, a movement up ahead catches his eye and a terrified shriek from the other end of the alleyway jerks Jackson out of his back-seat haze. He looks up to see Sid, the boy looking ready to sprint away again at a moments notice, but still undeniably there.

Sidney came back for him.

There's a second where he almost laughs with relief, despite the fact neither of them are out of danger just yet, but then that same shriek makes it's way out of Sidney's mouth again and Jackson recognises it this time as his name.

The other boy makes a leftward gesture and takes off around the corner of the alley, out of sight and obviously expecting Jackson to follow. He doesn't need to be told twice.

Jackson books it at a speed he hadn't known he was even capable, and almost misses Red Hood's creative string of curses and confused but colourful series of expletives that the vigilante flings out behind him, followed by: “Tim?! Wait―what the fuck is going on―fucking, wait! TIM!”

The wall he sharply darts around cuts off all sound, as well as anything else that either of the masked men shout out; the brick wall immediately deadening all noise.

Almost immediately he sees Sidney just up ahead of him, relief melting across the other teen's face at the sight of Jackson following, even with the knowledge that the two vigilante's won't be too far behind.

Sid quickly doubles back to his side and steers Jackson down a second, skinnier vennel that seems to be more of a gutter than a road. They slide past several dumpsters and more than one pile of garbage beside them as they take a left under a foot bridge at a break-neck pace.

Although the night is quiet, aside from their rapid, jarring footsteps battering the ground and occasionally causing a quiet splash from whenever one of them accidentally steps in a puddle, inside Jackson's head, the world is anything but.

Internally, his universe is a whirlwind of colliding thoughts trying to keep up with the conflicting barrage of overwhelming feelings and the shortness coming more frequently with each hollow breath.

Jackson's heart feels like it's in his throat, thundering there like a thousand racehorses desperate to reach the finish line as each rider whips their steed to ensure victory. It hinders his ability to breathe as the fear and blurring vision chops viciously at the already non-linear series of questions that assault him on every side, blood rushing past his ears in a way not dissimilar to that of standing up too quickly and having everything hastily tilt to the side. It feels like he's choking.

They looked at him like…

Sidney takes another left and they turn onto a bridge that soon opens up to a wider road, where the other boy leads him around the side of an office building and drops to the ground with shoulders heaving as he attempts to catch his breath.

“Fuck,” Sidney swears on a laboured exhale, wiping away the few beads of sweat that have gathered under his hairline. “That was too close, man.”

Jackson cannot help the bubble of relieved laughter that escapes him as he falls to the ground and leans back against the stone building himself.

“Yeah,” he agrees, watching a smile slide onto Sidney's face as well. They're in the clear now, they've lost Nightwing and Red Hood and they'll count their lucky stars until the day they die.

“If I never see another vigilante,” Jackson continues, still panting, but unable to help the grin that settles itself onto his features that Sidney's smile soon matches. “It'll be too soon.”

Except, even as he says it, the relief in Red Hood's voice and the concern on Nightwing's face surfaces in his mind like a stab to the gut.They looked at him like…

“Holy shit!” Milo exclaims, jogging over to Sidney and pulling him into a one-armed hug before repeating the process with Jackson. “You guys are alive?!”

Their catching up to the rest of their group is entirely unexpected. They run into to Milo, Jas and Alicia at the edge of Harlow Park, just before they reach the meeting place where their contact is supposed to show.

Jasmine rolls her eyes, but also looks far too reassured by the sight of them for it to look like anything except relief. “I told you they would be here, didn't I?” she scoffs in Milo's direction, flapping a wayward hand at him.

“Yeah,” the boy says, turning to her once more and rubbing the back of his neck with one hand, looking half-heartedly sheepish about the words that exit his mouth. “But it was Nightwing and Red Hood―that guy kills people!"

“Only bad guys,” Alicia supplies helpfully from where she is crouched, stowing away her water bottle into her backpack.

“Uh, we're carrying drugs. I don't think he would be seeing us a good guys,” Milo quips, then asks, sounding slightly awestruck, “How did you get away?”

“I'm not sure it wasn't just dumb luck to be honest,” Sidney shrugs, stepping into sync with Milo just as Jas falls in with Jackson behind them and Alicia bringing up the back. “They followed us for a bit and then we got separated―I freaked when I saw Jackson wasn't behind me. I didn't see what happened exactly, only that Jackson was dodging Red Hood when I found him again.”

Jasmine turns a blatantly curious eye on him, blinking with astonishment. “You took on the both of them?!”

Jackson feels a little awkward under her piercing stare. “I wouldn't say 'took on',” he mumbles weakly, refusing to feel bad about the lie when he's still not entirely sure what happened himself―he'd felt trapped at the back of his brain for the entire sequence anyway. “Sidney came back for me soon enough and it distracted them enough for me to get away.”

“Still,” says Alicia, sounding similarly amazed. “That's pretty impressive. You two make a good team.”

Up in front of him, Sidney preens a little at that and throws over his shoulder at Jackson, “Yeah, we do!” with a boyish laugh. Milo fist-bumps him.

The five of them follow the main path through the park until they reach the designated drop point by the ice rink in the center―shut down during the off-season.

The person they're supplying to is already waiting when they get there and he's not at all what Jackson was expecting.

With lank, greasy hair the shade of shale that falls in uneven layers around the man's rectangular wire glasses, and dressed in a tie and grey cardigan, he looks more like an academic than a gang leader.

Alicia is the first to step out of the shadows, though no less uneasily than the rest of them do, which in turn causes the unknown man to sharply turn his head and immediately narrow his eyes as they land on the group.

“Ah, right on time,” he smiles, all yellow teeth and sadistic delight. “You can put the goods over there by that bench.”

Sidney stops anyone with a subtle hand before they move to comply.

“Our money first,” he demands, jutting out a chin defiantly.

The man's upper lip curls, but he nods and pulls several rolled bills out of a pocket. Jackson almost misses the way those pale cheeks twitch with a neurotic twinge.

“Satisfied?” The unhinged man asks, tossing them across the distance of the rink. There's something crazed about the way he barely blinks, the way he stares, like he's not all there one-hundred percent of the time.

Maybe no one else notices it, but Jackson sees the tiniest tremble of fear as Sidney goes to nod again. It makes him wonder about who the man is. Sidney seems to know.

Jackson studies the man again closely and decides he doesn't like the prickling of fine hairs at the base of his skull.

The five of them drop the drugs by the park bench, which is far enough away not to be overheard.

“Who is that guy?” Jackson whispers, unpacking his bag, but staring at Sidney the whole time. The rest of the group studiously focus on unpacking their own backpacks. “You know him?”

Sidney looks disinclined to answer for a moment, but eventually he huffs out an answer as he picks up his now-empty bag.

“No really,” he answers. “He… he's a dangerous man, that's all you really need to know. Last I'd heard, Batman had put him away in Arkham a few days ago. I guess that was just a rumour. Otherwise, the Arkham escapees are literally walking in and walking right back out again.

Milo snorts quietly. “Don't they anyway?” he says, diligently unloading. “That place is a joke. They don't call it the revolving door asylum for nothing.”

Jasmine silently agrees with a sombre nod and Alicia stands, already done unpacking her backpack. Jackson joins her as soon as he's done as well and the two of them collect their money before rejoining the rest of the group, who have moved away to the other side of the rink where a lamp illuminates the hard ground.

“Excellent,” they hear the man with the manic glint in his eye exclaim as he checks the pile of drugs with an unbalanced smile spreading wide like a stretched elastic. “Just excellent. This should be enough.”

Jasmine and Alicia are already turning away, preparing to slink back into the dark safety of the park and Milo is half turned to follow whilst Sidney has his hand firmly clasped around Jackson's wrist again, maybe to be sure they won't be separated for a second time.

Except the deranged lunacy in the maniacal man's voice severs the remote connection to any kind of fear Jackson has, at least temporarily.

“Enough for what?” He asks, a hard steel in his voice that seems to bubble up from a place he hadn't known existed.

The rest of the group freeze behind him, their breath so quiet and still that he wouldn't have known them to be there if Sidney's hand wasn't still curled around his wrist. It tightens in warning the moment the question is out.

The unhinged academic shoots him a curious look, confused and questioning before the sanity is smuggled behind a burst of loud, hysterical laughter. It sets everybody's teeth on edge and Sidney's hand squeezing tight, now practically bruising, is the only warning he gets before the loopy lunatic is crossing toward them.

“You're a very bold one,” he giggles, too high pitched and too smug to sound anything but utterly mental. It's a disturbing sound to hear from a grown man's baritone. “That's rare in Gotham. I think you might go far one day, child, if you don't get killed for your insolence, that is.”

Jackson stares up at him and works very hard not to flinch as the man comes to a standstill, barely two feet away, a hand resting on his hip, looking Jackson up and down as though he is an interesting zoo creature.

“But, it would be ill-mannered of me not to answer your question, for I am nothing if not a gentleman. For your troubles, a word of advice,” the maniac says with a grin, leaning in. Jackson can smell notes of acrid mouthwash and repugnantly aromatic cheese, a combination that nearly has him gagging. “Bottle your water along with your impertinence, because this city is about to learn what it's like without Batman.”

It's as though crossing the threshold into the house is some kind of catalyst, breaking Jackson's resolve like crumbling clay, piercing through the bubble of silence between them as he forces the elephant into the spotlight.

“We have to tell someone.”

The words come out as barely more than a breathy whisper, only just making it past the suffocating constriction in his throat, as though someone has their hand directly enveloped around his wind-pipe. It's almost inaudible, even to himself, but Sid's poorly concealed flinch is enough to let Jackson know that the other boy has heard.

The reply is short and glacial. “No, we don't,” Sid snaps back icily, removing his shoes by the front door and waiting for Jackson to follow suit before warming his tone a degree and softening the harshness in his tone. “We know. Isn't that enough? We'll tell mom the plumbing is broken and we'll shut off the water. It'll be fine.”

Apparently water supply threats were par for the course in Gotham.

For a moment, Jackson kind of wishes he was still outside where he could get a lungful of cold night air and allow its unfriendly, bitter temperature to clear his head. Unfortunately, even with that fervent wish and the self reminder not to retort back too hotly, his words, like verbal nettle, still retaliate more stingingly than intended.

“What about the rest of the city?” he hurls back, only curbing his blunt tone by a margin when he sees Sidney twitch at the force of his intensity. “Whatever this guy is planning isn't an innocent prank. You know that as well as I do.”

Sid's face turns down into a grimace as his eyes drop to the floor, acknowledging the clear and obvious truth in Jackson's words, but unwilling to take on responsibility for them.

“We should tell the police.”

Sidney's eyes jump back to him immediately at that, more fire and ruthlessness than Jackson has ever before seen in the other teen's gaze. The severity of it is nearly enough to cow Jackson onto the back foot, but he holds his position at the last second, unwilling to step back from this. Not when so many people could get hurt, not when he can stop it from happening.

“Fucking brilliant plan,” Sidney snarls, “and what are you going to tell them, exactly? When they ask you what it was you were doing in a park on the other side of town in the middle of the night?”

“I'm not suggesting we tell them the truth!” he huffs back, gesticulating wildly, throwing his hands toward the ceiling and then toward the floor.

“Then what?”

Jackson bristles at the needling, provocative sneer Sid sends him, but he bites down on his tongue before he can say something he might really regret. The beat of silence that passes between them is adequately long enough to cool both their heads. The regret that follows it is almost tangible.

Jackson drops his eyes to the floor, balls his hands into fists and then unclenches them again in a steady, rhythmic pattern. Whilst, across from him, Sidney sighs loudly and runs a hand through his dark locks before dragging it down across his face.

“Look,” Sid says next, squeezing his eyes together tightly for a brief second before opening them again, the once-fire there now cooled into a pool of contrition. “I understand how you feel, I do, but you and me, we're just ordinary people living in Gotham. Shit like this happens every other month and people get by. It's why there's a flourishing vigilante business here after all―you gotta leave the hero-complex to them.”

Jackson sucks in a slow, silent breath through his teeth but doesn't say anything, the fight partially draining out of him bit by bit as the reality of Sidney's words truly sink in.

“The Crazies? They'll make a comeback, they always do. They do the bad shit and then the vigilante's swoop in and save the day, but if Batman himself happens to be the actual target? Well, you won't catch me mourning him.”

Jackson gets it, he understands Sidney's resentment, but it doesn't stop the gut-wrenching feeling or the drilling sensation driving down into every strung nerve that tells him it isn't right.

“I can't allow an innocent man to walk to his death, I just can't, Sid,” Jackson begins, words leaden yet deliberate. “I might not know what will happen, but I can't just allow Batman to walk into a trap when what we know could save his life or the life of someone else in Gotham.”

“He's not innocent!” Sidney growls back hotly, flinging his arms out and almost toppling the little vase that sits upon Narelle's quaint side-board. “Don't you get it? He's not! Batman is the reason my father is in prison, he wouldn't be there if it wasn't for those damn vigilantes!”

The air around them stills once more, the house faintly shuddering from the breeze outside, the wood creaking lightly.

Sidney takes a few deep breaths and blinks himself back into the conversation, no longer completely blinded by his own hurt, though it still dwells there. Jackson can see all the pain there, written along every line in his face. Yet, although the next words are hard to say, scraping along his voice box as he breathes them into the space between himself and Sidney, they ring and they feel true.

“I'm sorry,” is all he can say, the apology feeling heavy on his tongue. “I won't let Batman die just because he hurt you. A second wrong can't make the past right and you won't get justice by condoning revenge, Sid.”

For a millisecond, Sidney looks as though he might have been slapped across the face―anger and hurt blooming there like a stain―but he recovers quickly and stuffs all his strong emotions behind a façade of steel.

“I'm sorry too, then,” he replies, unnaturally still and unreadable behind the thick walls he's thrown up, cutting him off completely. “Because whatever insanity you're planning? You're on your own.”

At those words, Jackson suddenly feels as though a chord has snapped between them, the recoiling whiplash more painful that he thought it would be.

“So be it, then.”

Chapter Text

Neither of them speak a word to each other as Tim hobbles into the apartment clutching his side, Bruce following in soon after.

A tense hush has fallen over the pair of them since the fight―one which was ended swiftly by Batman after barely more than four short minutes. It didn't matter how many times Bruce had knocked him down, Tim's hurt and anger and pride had always forced him back to his feet with renewed resistance and belligerence.

Now, however, everything just hurts. Inside and out.

Hand it over,” Bruce orders, almost the moment they reach Tim's living room. The words are brittle. A warning. Don't fight me again on this, Tim, is what he means to say. You won't win.

With a sigh, Tim starts taking off his cowl and kevlar whilst Bruce disappears into the bedroom, returning with a change of clothes.

With the armour off, the damage across his ribs is already starting to make itself known. Bruises and large, red welts angrily mar his torso. Bruce makes the mistake of glancing over once and his face almost crumples, leaving Tim with a sick sense of satisfaction.

Taking the proffered clothes, he slips into them without word of protest, his Red Robin gear in a neat pile by Bruce's feet.

Then, the quiet finally breaks. “I'll… be back in the morning.” Bruce sighs tiredly, managing to look defeated. “I'll pick you up for work.”

There's something unspoken in there, but Tim realises too late that it's an olive branch.

Don't bother,” he snarls back in return instead, already heading for the door. Bruce may have barred him from patrolling, but Tim can't stand to be in the same room as the man right now. He needs some fresh air.

Bruce doesn't ask where he's going as he leaves and Tim doesn't supply anything, only watches the sadness bloom into something regretful and unhappy as he disappears out of the man's view, the elevator doors closing behind him.

Bruce doesn't follow.

After less than three hours sleep, Jackson reawakens that same morning groggily, with tired muscles that protest all movement when he shifts stiffly into a sitting position on the sofa. It's the belated realisation that it was the sound of the doorbell which woke him, followed by the soft pattering of Narelle's socked feet toward the door. Jackson's pretty sure she hasn't slept at all yet. He doesn't know what time she got in last night, but it was certainly after they did.

Despite his desire to eavesdrop on Narelle and whoever is paying them a visit at this ungodly hour of the morning, he keeps dozing off unintentionally, lilting and jerking upright over and over. He's too tired to really listen, so he misses large chunks of the conversation, and some time between zero point five seconds and an eternity later, Narelle's face appears around the corner of the living room wearing a tense, but kindly expression.

“Mornin' kiddo,” she murmurs softly, clinging to the doorframe with her nails as she studies him a moment, a little crease forming between her eyebrows as she looks him over.

Jackson figures his sleep deprivation must look pretty plain―even to Narelle, who has no idea her son and current charge were feloniously running around Gotham last night―because apparently the sight of him is enough to inspire a moment of diffidence. It takes her a minute to shake the uncertainty off before she moves to sit by him on the couch, giving a tight, sympathetic smile in the process.

Jackson scoots over as she parks herself on his left.

“You've got raccoon eyes…” she tries for humour, even though her lips twist into something concerned as her gaze flicks between his left and right eyes, giving her worry away. “Looks like you didn't get a great amount of sleep last night. Nightmares?”

Jackson just nods. Grateful for the lie, easily supplied.

Narelle pats his knee once, expression falling, the lines on her face drooping. “I understand,” she empathises, voice not devoid of pity either. “I still get them sometimes too.”

Silence falls between them like the closing of a curtain on this largely one-sided conversation, mostly because Jackson doesn't know what to respond with. The exhaustion weighs too heavily, making him feel as though he is attempting to wade through honey. The quiet in the lounge makes room for the sound of the radio, an 80s pop ballad coming from the kitchen. It's both familiar to him and not at all, like every second experience he has seems to be―he knows all the words to the song, but doesn't know the name.

Narelle takes compassion on his fatigued plight, rescuing the stale conversation anew with likely what she has been meaning to say all along.

“There's someone here to see you, Jackson,” she begins unhurriedly, waiting and watching for his reaction. “She'd like to talk to you, she's… from CPS.”

If she notices the slight hitch in his inhalation, Narelle is nice enough not to say anything. Then, after a juncture of thick silence in which he can hear the radio in the other room for a second time, he slowly, nervously agrees, “…okay.”

Amid everything that had happened since Sunday, he'd all but completely forgotten the police had mentioned an interview with a social worker. Thrown so sharply in contrast against the events that transpired last night, Jackson suddenly feels as though he's somehow missed a step descending down a flight of stairs and has just now caught himself just before face-planting straight into the floor.

Narelle eases herself off the couch steadily, rising inch by inch in a way that echoes his own somnolent yearning, but he pushes up on tired palms and shrugs off the heavy quilt he'd not quite sloughed.

Jackson follows after her as she leads the way to the kitchen, stumbling in with a shiver against the slight bite of coolness in the air and half wishing he'd now brought the blanket with him. The radio is more audible now, that same 80s pop tune reiterating the chorus with a newly modulated key change, its incongruence to his own emotions making the world feel asymmetrical and bizarre. It almost feels as though he has alighted from a spinning cup ride at a county fair, the circular motion still spinning about his head though the world has come to a standstill. Jackson knows his feet are on solid ground, but the vertigo manipulates his mind.

At the dinning table sits a tawdrily dressed woman who might as well be the fortune teller at his carnival fete, such is the manner of her clothing and make-up. Her crocodile skin loafers tap idly to the beat of the song―green, yet a mismatch for the colour of her oversized linen shirt, which is chartreuse in shade. The bright purple eye-shadow makes for an even more alarming combination when underscored by large, rectangular glasses with clear frames. Beyond all this, however, is the large perm of orange hair which looks as though it might have been the wig of a circus clown originally. Jackson half expects her to break out a deck of tarot cards, but then feels guilty for judging her based on image, even more so when she stands and shakes his hand with a genuine, merry smile wedged between her powdered cheeks.

“Hello, you must be Jackson,” she greets him cheerily, smile impossibly widening as he nods. “It is lovely to meet you. My name is Nancy and I'm with the department of social services.”

“Hello,” he greets back shyly, giving her a short nod as she gestures to the chair opposite her own. “Nice to meet you too.”

Behind him, Jackson can hear Narelle bustling about in the kitchen and a moment later the smell of pancake batter hits his nostrils, making his mouth water. Briefly he wonders if Sidney is up yet, maybe sitting just outside in the hall. A pang goes through his chest at the thought of the other teen as Jackson remembers their argument from before the twilight hours of the morning, but he shakes that thought away quickly and refocuses on Nancy, who's now saying something about how his case is a bit different from the usual types she deals with in Gotham.

A clipboard appears to magically make its way into her hand without him seeing where it comes from as she says, “Just answer what you can for me, okay?” Then, she scribbles something down with the pen that seems to have popped out of thin air also.

“The police already came,” he huffs, still half distracted, trying not to sound overly annoyed or anxious towards her. “I have to do this again?”

Nancy's face pinches in sympathy and she looks a little bit like Narelle when she does it, her head bobbing up and down with a nod as she replies, “Yes, unfortunately. You understand that, right?”

Jackson's eyes flutter shut as he sighs and wills away the physical and emotional fatigue that comes from performing this circus routine again.

“Yeah,” he acknowledges a moment later, forcing himself to blink away the sleep that sits in his peripheral and focus his gaze on her. “I understand.”

Nancy readjusts her clipboard as she says, “Good. We should get started.”

The first few questions are glossed over, Nancy seemingly informed of his amnesia. Instead of his full name, she tells him that she puts down 'Jackson' and they leave the middle and last names section blank.

“Is there any thing else you can remember?” she queries, just managing a single glance up over the rim of her glasses before she pushes them back into place over the small hook in her nose. “Nothing has come up since you spoke with the police last? It might help us locate your parents faster if there's anything more you can recall.”

The radio on the breakfast bar behind him breaks the silence in his thoughts and the scent of cooking keeps the world from going too still. The 80s pop ballad dies, the chords fading into nothingness to be sharply replaced by the sound of the morning news bulletin. Jackson manages to tune out the anchor for a moment, thinking deeply and recalling the few little things over the past few days. Seemingly, all he can dredge up is the mostly unimportant things, like how he likes the smell of coffee and how he recognises some streets like one might faintly recall the passageways of ones home, but then the reporter mentions the word 'Batman' and Jackson's attention shifts wholly.

“―seen last night in the Downtown area up to the Narrows. The amassing of vigilante's last night has unnerved citizens and whilst police are yet to release a full statement, Commissioner Gordon has reassured the public that there is no reason for alarm or overreaction at this stage―”

“I'm sorry,” Nancy interjects, clearing her throat and speaking loudly enough to be heard by Narelle at the stove. “Would you mind it if we turned the radio off?”

Narelle jerks as she flips a pancake, surprised by Nancy's attention. “Oh, of course,” she nods and twitches an amiable smile their way before switching the dial off and returning to the stove.

The sudden silence feels unnerving and in it―though afterwards he silently chastises himself for conjuring such self-important drivel―he cannot help but wonder if the convergence of vigilante's upon The Narrows has something to do with him. The thought possesses him like a vengeful spirit and, slowly, he can feel himself start to clam up, despite the part that says it isn't helping him any as the questions start to blend into one another and time begins to lose all cohesion.

Eventually, Nancy leaves just after Narelle collects Sidney from upstairs. Jackson sees his case worker to the door where she hands him her card and tells him to call if he needs anything before Narelle steps outside to speaks with her.

Jackson lingers long enough to just overhear Nancy announce her intent to expedite Narelle's foster application and the words get lodged in his ears, making it suddenly hard to swallow past the new-formed lump in his throat, even though he's not entirely sure why. There's something in his heart that can only be described as bittersweet, a side of longing and heart-ache buried under the rubble of nothingness that he's used to finding when scratching with stunted nails througha past which no longer exists. Some part of him feels terribly sure someone is out there missing him, but then again, maybe that is just wishful thinking.

Sidney is in the kitchen, already tucking into jam covered pancakes when Jackson slides into the seat alongside.

Neither of them say anything, not to begin with.

Jackson keeps his eyes studiously fixed to his plate, fully aware of the uncomfortable, darting gaze that shoots quick glances his direction. Sidney doesn't say anything, but his tense muscles start to relax after a minute and Jackson feels himself eventually following suit.

It's an unspoken truce.

Neither of them like how things ended between them last night and neither of them are willing to budge, but the chord of rope that binds them together still remains unsnapped, tethering them to safety as they dangle precariously over the precipice of No Turning Back.

“Are you still planning to… do it?” Sidney asks. It's a hushed sound, tinny and hollow and mumbled around a mouthful of pancake.

“Yeah,” Jackson replies lowly in a volume to match. “I am.”

Sidney doesn't seem to notice his disquiet. Instead he huffs, “There is really nothing I can say to make you see reason?”

Jackson shakes his head. “No, this is… something I have to do.”

A long, drawn sigh, escapes the other teen and in his peripheral, Jackson sees a head drop just the minutest amount, a detectable trace of defeat in the looseness of Sid's frame.

“I get it,” Sidney whispers back, sounding far more understanding than Jackson has any right to ask from him. “I just… be careful, okay?”

Running off to save the life of the vigilante directly responsible for putting Sid's father in jail is never something they'll see eye to eye on, yet in spite of it, not all is lost between them.

“I don't want to lose anyone else,” Sidney finishes thinly, sounding partly choked of air. “I don't want to lose my brother.”

Jackson's breath nearly hitches, but for just a split second, something else inside takes over his airways and forces out the last of his exhalation.

“You won't,” he returns, finally glancing up at Sid's face for the first time. He's not sure the other teen is aware of it, but there's a myriad of emotions written all over him. The voice he uses is a carefully constructed one, something Jackson might use to soothe a crying child or someone in distress. It's a warm and genuine sound, he hopes, as he tries to wheedle something forcibly relaxed into the tone as well. “I will come back. I promise.”

Sidney doesn't look particularly comforted by Jackson's attempt at inspirited reassurances, but an anxious smile appears on his face and Jackson takes it as a win, because it is a smile nonetheless.

The plan is a simple one. Almost too simple, if Jackson is being realistic. Most of him reviles at the idea of going out so unprepared. No back-up plan? No part B or C or D or E? Or one, two or three? That's so unlike you, a jovial voice laughs in his ear, a distant memory whistling past like the wind.

Jackson knows where he is going. He will head to The Narrows, locate Batman, deliver the information then get the hell out of there. Hopefully not die in the process. It seems stupid when he says it out loud, which is why he deliberately avoids explaining the lack of specifics to Sid, whose attitude splinters more every hour that creeps closer to the ultimate school bell.

There's no guarantee Batman will be there, of course. There's no guarantee any of the vigilante's will be in The Narrows tonight, but he has to try anyway.

After the day is over he packs a bag, a light one―a water bottle, flash light and a map. Narelle cheerfully leaves for work, leaving only himself and Sidney, who shoots him silent side-glances with increasing frequency as the dusk drifts closer to dark. It's clear he's keeping his mouth shut deliberately and Jackson appreciates the effort.

Yet, when the time eventually comes, Sid sees him to the door despite all his misgivings. Neither of them say anything. It makes for a quick departure―an exchanging of nods and thin lips pressed together so tightly they go white, foreheads fixed sternly in their anxiety. Then, Jackson turns his back and hikes his grip up on the straps of his bag, beginning his journey to The Narrows with a short jog down the front steps. There's half an expectation that Sidney will say something then, but he doesn't. There's no noise made, except for the sound of the front door shutting, sealing the silence between them.

Jackson is on his own now.

The thought settles as a heavy weight in his stomach and he swallows hard to rid himself of the taste of bile on his tongue.

He really is doing this.

Taking a deep breath he renews his resolve, marching forward in a stride aimed at banishing his own apprehension. It doesn't take very long for him to hit a good pace, navigating the same route from last night as though it has been proverbially etched into the back of his hand.

It kind of hurts, in its own way, that the Gotham streets are more familiar to him than his own mind. Skirting down back-streets and alleyways like a bird might circle updraughts, his feet lead him where the echoes of his broken psyche refuse to go.

The city's haze is only slightly thinner tonight, making it easy to see the slight glittering of the few stars whose shine can be seen in Gotham. Only the brightest get through the light pollution, only the strongest survive. It's the type of city where lost souls go, not to find their dreams or be found themselves, but to disappear forever. It's odd, but in a way Jackson feels as though he's already vanished, swallowed up by the city―a ghost in every manner except for his living flesh. The person he's sure he once was haunts the streets in search of the memories he has lost, but Jackson cannot help but wonder if that person has all but faded away. Maybe that's a good thing, but… although it's something can never admit to Sid―hell, he's not quite he's admitted it to himself yet―that buried, suffocating part of him is still dying for resolution.

It's not like he doesn't want to stay with Sidney and Narelle, he does. Jackson already loves them like family, but he cannot discount the idea that maybe there is someone out there desperate to find him, waiting for him to come home.

Perhaps it was never about saving Batman at all, a selfish part of him taunts, rearing its vile and ugly head. Maybe it was always just about you and your stupid quest for answers you're not even completely convinced are something you should know.

After all, the vigilantes had called him by another name, but there was still recognition in their eyes when they looked at him. And Jackson could read every tense muscle in their bodies, the parts that gave themselves away, the parts that couldn't lie. Nightwing and Red Hood had angled themselves towards him, they'd let their guards down and their frames had read confusion and guilt, but also overwhelming relief preceding their tightened fear as he'd unwittingly dispelled their illusions of who he wasn't.

The vigilantes have answers, of that he's sure, but saving Batman comes first.

It's unsurprising really, that when he allows himself to relax, to ignore his own doubts and fears buzzing about his brain like flies, it's easy to get his feet to stumble in the right direction. They take him right to Red Hood.

Jackson is on the verge of The Narrows, clinging to the shadows and tucking himself into the tight spaces where light refuses to go when he sees the tall vigilante and briefly freezes. Every muscle in his body throbs with its own rigidity, sharp and jagged like ice.

The tall vigilante doesn't see him to begin with and Jackson is quiet, light on his toes. Part of him knows how to melt away, how to become nothing more than a shadow, a creature of the night. But he doesn't ask himself or wonder why, he just accepts it as one of the many things he may never understand or remember.

Perched on a precarious looking series of roof shingles, the Red Hood puffs out a concentrated lungful of cigarette smoke into the night air, the striking red helmet sitting beside him, within arms reach. Over the ledge his feet dangle, holding still―the man seemingly not worried by the height of the building. As Jackson creeps closer, he can make out a red mask still obscuring the vigilante's identity from full view, but the faintest glint of the moon in the sky allows him to make out a single streak of starlight silver in his otherwise midnight coloured hair.

Below where the Red Hood is reclining lazily on the building's roof, Jackson spies the window to an apartment open, a light on inside. It appears as though the idle vigilante must have crawled out of it in order to heave himself out for his current smoke and the ember tip of the tab is slightly visible with every draw the man inhales, making it easy for Jackson to pinpoint his location even through the inky blackness.

Thankfully, the buildings in The Narrows are close enough that their shadows stretch widely, spreading the gloomy umbrella of darkness through the mild haze and blocking out the gloaming of the moon.

Jackson takes his time creeping along the street, taking deep and forcibly steady breaths as he ventures closer, all the time keeping at least one fixed eye on the unaware vigilante. His steps never scuffle on the pavement and he stays light on the balls of his toes and feet as he moves, stealing ever nearer.

In the face of such direct proximity to Red Hood, all traces of composed self-possession abandon him, leaving him with little more than icy desperation sliding through his veins. There's no turning back now though, not when he is so close to finding the Batman.

Jackson knows he should settle in for the long wait. The Red Hood doesn't seem inclined to move any time soon, but he'll have to report back sometime. When the vigilante does, he'll be ready to follow…

Except an aching wanting, a yearning for all his questions to be answered takes ahold of him instead.

The Red Hood knows something about him, or at least about the person he was before. It would be stupid to confront him directly, he recognises that, but the open opportunity to glean information is too accessibly obtainable and easy for him not to do something.

In the end, there's little hesitation between what he knows he should do and what he wants to do.

Jackson silently darts up the dark green fire escape of the complex, fingers and feet touching cold metal but never applying enough pressure to make it creak as he ascends to the top floor. The door at the top isn't much of a challenge either, the lock has been broken before, possibly by thieves, but maybe even by the Red Hood himself.

Jackson applies pressure and the door swings inward with the tiniest groan of protest, the noise stealing his breath out of fear. After a moment of pause and a silent prayer, he relaxes an iota. No shuffling or scraping sounds comes from the roof above him.

The room inside is revealed to look more like a cosy loft, albeit there's very little in the way of furniture inside―not enough for Jackson to be convinced this is the Red Hood's real home, anyway. No, this is just a safe-house, he deduces. There's dust and cobwebs decorating both the ceiling and the floor, an uncomfortable looking olive sofa with deep gouges that appear to have been made with a knife, several dead pot plants about the place, a fridge, an unplugged television that might not have been moved since the eighties and little else aside from a rattling, old fridge in the corner and a coffee table wedged between the sofa and the TV.

Only the coffee table shows true signs of recent life, two unwrapped cartons of cigarettes sitting neatly on top, next to an orange lighter, a silver knife―large and serrated on one side―and a burner phone, or the remnants of one.

Jackson's eyes roam all over the apartment for a second time, noting shadows on the walls where pictures once hung, a landline cable in the corner that probably hadn't seen any use in at least fifteen years or more and pointlessly looking for clues even as his hopes begin to shrivel up like a dried raisin.

This is stupid, he's not sure what he even expected coming in here. There was never going to be anything useful. Maybe it was all just a subconscious ploy to sabotage himself and his wretched thirst for answers. There was no need for this, he could have waited safely outside and left such curiosity well enough alone, remaining unsatiated.

Demoralised, but resigned, Jackson is already turning to go when a movement seizes his awareness like a ghostly hand jerking him backwards.

With helmet back on, the Red Hood looks up, already halfway through the window before he seems to notice Jackson just standing there like an imbecile, not moving because he feet are suddenly super-glued to the floor.

“Shit!” the vigilante swears, pulling the last of his body into the room gracelessly. “Tim?” The words come out distorted, wrong. Terrifying.

Jackson's mouth goes dry, his legs turn to jelly.

He can't do this! What the ever-loving hell had he been thinking? This is the Red Hood. '―That guy kills people!' the quiet memory of Milo's voice supplies, echoing around his head like a soft chime in the wind, somehow barely audible under the clamorous noise of blood whooshing past his ears.

He never should have come here. The single thought inspires his legs to move without his conscious input, making ready to sprint for his life.

Apparently, Jackson gives himself away, for the Red Hood taps something nearby his ear on his helmet and says, without missing a beat, “Oracle, send out an alert. I've got eyes on Tim.”

Whatever is said after that, Jackson doesn't know. His feet fly out the door, taking him back down the fire escape and onto the street, Red Hood giving chase shortly after.

Jackson leads them down twisting streets, the thorny brambles of Gotham city, wending through The Narrows without stopping to think where his feet are leading him. Occasionally, when he makes a sharp turn he'll hear a slew of profanity behind him as the Red Hood loses sight of him, but no matter how hard he tries, he never truly loses the vigilante.

Jackson takes a flight of steps down to the waterfront, fleeing past the vile, noxious river. It doesn't take him long to realise that Red Hood has the advantage on flat ground, the man's shouts sounding horrifyingly close. Cutting a left, he races back toward the safety of the murky shadows that the various building structures cast, scrambling down a vennel not much bigger than the width of his own body. For a second he thinks the Red Hood won't fit. He spares a frightened glance backwards to find the Red vigilante vanished, but a smaller, somehow more sinister figure in his place.

Jackson is too late to bite down on a faint, but audible, shout of strangled distress as the black-clad figure all but slithers after him, moving at almost twice his speed. Above him, a loud clang of two feet landing on a weathered fire escape alerts him to the position of his original pursuer; the Red Hood shooting upwards like a dart to run along the rooftops.

There's no thought behind Jackson's movements and he's out-numbered now. Even if he stopped to fight them off, he would lose… and probably earn a bullet between the eyes, if Milo's warnings proved correct.

He hurtles down a slightly wider alley, more than a little desperate to get away from whatever other thing is chasing him, but he realises a moment too late that they're corralling him―straight into a dead-end alleyway.

The passage is wide, more of lane than a street, but still much bigger than before. Certainly large enough for the Red Hood and the smaller, but more terrifying vigilante clad all in black―bar the symbol on her chestto stand apart behind him, blocking the only exit.

At the end of the alley is a dumpster, so full to the brim with trash that the lid doesn't even come close to closing. A few rats scamper off at the abrupt sound of his shoes skidding to a halt. Above him, several scuffling noises alert him to the presence of more vigilantes; the violent, upwards jerking of his neck treating him to the sight of them standing atop the surrounding buildings. He recognises Nightwing up there from the blue streak of cerulean, but there are others too―a blonde girl and an angry looking child.

His panic ratchets up to a ten, gasping breaths as loud like jet engine as they ricochet off the red brick. The metallic tang of blood lingers after each laboured pant. There are more of them than he realised.

Jackson's brain scrambles. Competing sides of himself arguing he should find a way out of this mess before berating himself for getting into in the first place. Then, out of nowhere, there is a heavy noise behind him. A deadened sound and the slight fluttering of fabric.

A single cry of terror is snatched away, stolen by the darkness. Jackson turns, with dread already filling the space between his ribs.

And there, standing almost within arms reach, is Batman.

Chapter Text

Pulling the hood of his red jacket up and kicking the ground with his already scuffed canvas trainers, once white but now a dirty grey colour, Tim moves through the city with the swift surety of someone who isn't sure where they're going, but is most certain that it won't be in the direction they've been. Maybe Bruce will stay at his apartment all night waiting for him to come home, maybe he won't and will instead do as he said: return to pick Tim up for work in the morning. Either way, Tim can't go back there right now.

Briefly his brain stumbles past the non-sequitur of wondering whether Bruce handed him civvies in his Red Robin colours on purpose, or if just by unhappy accident. Regardless, the bright red hoodie sticks out in the dark streets of Gotham like a sore thumb, so Tim chooses to take the obscure routes that few know.

The anger is still there―the righteous fury, the hurt―but the physical distance between Bruce and himself is now a large enough gap for the guilt to start seeping up like groundwater, trickling in through the crevices like it always does. Sometimes he wishes he could just… not care what Bruce thinks. Like Jason does, or like Dick has learned to do. Or maybe that's a lie and they really do care, they're just better at pretending than he is.

Tim might not have physically managed to hurt Bruce, but in his rage he had still attacked him. The memory, tainted by the edge of white hot hurt, inspires regret. As Bruce had held Tim back―never once striking any number of truly crippling blows that Tim knows the man capable of―he'd looked… pained. Not a single one of Tim's blows landed, but the man's features had fractured into woefully troubled and unhappy as though each thoughtless punch had connected powerfully with his sternum anyway.

Sagging onto a bench outside a twenty-four hour convenience store, Tim drops his elbows to his knees with a heavy sigh, hunching over to stare at the cracked concrete beneath his feet. Tiny weeds grow up from the ground, breaking up the monotonous grey that Gotham wears like a truly horrendous overcoat.

The edge of the wind is cold, like the chill of a knife against his neck, but Tim doesn't notice it until it sends an unwanted shiver down his frame. It's stupid to beat himself up over Bruce's feelings, he knows. Some days it's even hard to imagine the man has those, but tonight was one of those rare nights where the hurt had been physically thrown about.

Tim wraps his arms around himself as he sits more upright, a vain attempt at holding in the warmth, perhaps. But maybe more of a way to hold himself together. He feels as fragile as crumbling clay. When his siblings fight with Bruce, do they feel this way too?

Dick would have been the very first. It is common knowledge that he and Bruce had fought frequently when Dick shed his spring feathers and flew off to Blüdhaven, but that type of arguing between them is hardly ever seen now―these days it's more playful ribbing and teasing smirks, especially in front of Damian who cannot stand it when the two people he loves most argue.

Jason and Bruce sometimes still fight, but Bruce always inevitably gives in to his second son. Out of guilt, Tim knows. Maybe they had fought proper a long time ago, before Jason's death wrapped a cloak of guilt around Bruce like a smothering blanket. But these days, if Jason pushes real hard, he'll usually get his way.

Damian is a stranger case. Maybe it's a sign of Bruce's age, or perhaps it's the years of parenting experience that the man already has, or maybe it could be that their personalities are too similar, but regardless of what it is, Damian and Bruce hardly ever fight in the usual way. Often one or both will go off to sulk for a while when they don't get their way, returning a few hours later with their heads cleared, but it rarely ever comes to blows.

Cass, on the other hand, seems to have some silent understanding with Bruce that Tim will never make sense of. So if they've ever fought, he's never seen it.

When Tim stands again, sighing, his feet move of their own accord, taking him west, toward the industrial sector of the city. He walks and walks and walks until he doesn't know how long he's walked for and until his skin feels brittle from the cold, ice to the touch. His teeth are chattering, but he doesn't know how long they've been doing so. It isn't even meant to be this cold, summer is supposedly on its way. Spring's fangs must be making one last attempt at reminding the citizens of the city just what hell hole they decided to make their home in.

He stops at a quiet intersection and distantly recognises two of the three roads he could take.

One will take him south, down town, out to the old quarter of the city. If he walks far enough, toward the bay, he might even be able to make out Blackgate through the heavy, perpetual smog that sits between the shore and the penitentiary island.

In direct contrast, the other road will take him north. Up through Crime Alley, maybe towards the reservoir, through dirty, unclean streets. If he walks north-east toward the stadium until he works holes into his shoes, he'll eventually reach the old apartment on the edge of town his parents used to own. The house is probably still in his name, the furniture likely untouched since white sheets were thrown over everything after Jack Drake's death. He'll hold onto it for a couple more years. Maybe sell it when he turns eighteen or twenty-one. Turn it into a symbolic gesture that will mean nothing to nobody but him. Aside from himself, nobody is likely to notice either.

In the end, after lingering at the cross-roads for long enough to potentially summon a demon just by aimlessly standing there, Tim chooses neither north nor south. He takes the third road, the straight road. The one that continues west. Logically, he knows if he follows this path he'll eventually reach the Liberty river that divides the city from the mainland, but what lies between here and there remains to be seen. This is not his territory. He's probably been here a handful of times before as Robin, but flying across rooftops is vastly distant from seeing things at ground level and Tim doesn't care to think, all he wants to do is walk.

It's not safe to be out at night in Gotham. Any elementary school child could tell you that. With no gear on, no phone and no wallet, Tim knows he should either turn around and go back to his apartment, or find a safe house to crash in for the night and choose to brood in solitude there. But the fresh air somehow makes it more bearable to be in his own skin, so he dismisses logic and moves through Gotham's quiet side-streets until he hits the motorway.

Taking the dilapidated footbridge over the main Gotham highway, he looks down at the bright, blinding headlights zooming past at one-hundred miles below, caged in by wire that prevents untimely deaths. Someone's taken wire cutters to it at some point, evidenced by the newer type of wire that is latticed over top. At this height, the wind whips fiercely at his hair and tears at his clothes, so Tim keeps moving until he's made it safely all the way across.

He follows the highway for several blocks, only moving on from the sound of the roaring traffic when he hits the East Harlow rail line just a little north of Stevensburg, where he promptly decides to follow that instead. Tim spends a good amount of time walking along the sleepers that line the tracks, wincing only a little when the tiny stones manage to dig into his feet through the soles of his shoes.

The traffic grows less again after he crosses Cottley bridge and makes it into the west side of Reatton. The lights in houses are starting to shrink in number, so Tim figures it must be late.

Tim is close to the industrial sector near the Sheal Docklands, by the time a sharp bang―like that of a gun misfiring―punctuates the silence. The sound is so loud that it might as well have gone off by his ear. The noise is followed immediately by a blood-curdling scream and Tim's world spins for a minute, disorientating him as his muscles tense in panicked memory, readying for fight or flight. The source of the noise he pinpoints to the pharmaceuticals building to his left, a window open on the top floor allowing for such clarity of noise through the night air and a very faint blue light on inside, lighting up silhouettes like indistinct shadow puppets.

Tim takes off at a run, already reaching for his comm and looking around to identify his location when he remembers with the sting of a sudden slap that it isn't there. The earpiece is with the rest of his Red Robin gear, all likely on its way back to the manor and therefore the cave, where Bruce can keep an eye on it. And his phone was left at home too―so there's no calling for backup if he needs it, which he probably does since he's not clad in bullet proof kevlar. Tim fails at cussing as eloquently as Jason, but he gives it his best shot as he sprints toward the building without a grapple or body armour or anything entirely useful at all.

For a moment he wants so badly to believe the scream was just the wind, the gunshot just a car backfiring out of his view, but with the way his stomach plummets and his instincts scream, he intuitively knows what he's running into.

Forcing himself to take a steadying breath before entering the building, he doesn't permit his lips to tremble or his hands to shake. Instead, he steels himself, putting his personal problems aside as he prepares himself for whatever kind of situation he's running into.

The chemicals hit both his tongue and lungs with an acrid taste, a disgusting and no doubt toxic compound. There are broken beakers all over the floor and Tim doesn't trust them not to have held something noxious, but the best he can do is pilfer a surgical mask from a fallen box he sees on the floor and sling it around his face.

The workspaces look as though someone has come in and deliberately upturned everything. Plastic tubes, beakers, syringes and other miscellaneous equipment all lie broken and unusable underfoot. Tim tries not to step on any smashed glass, he doesn't want it ripping through the sole of his shoes and cutting the underside of his feet. Combat boots would be really nice right now, he thinks.

There's a staircase next to the lifts, so he takes it, leaping up steps two at a time with the silence and grace of an owl. The upper floor is no clearer than the lower, but there's faint light up here―blue light reflecting off glass and illuminating figures in the centre of the room.

Tim makes sure to pull up his hoodie and check the surgical mask on his face before creeping forward, spine stiffening slightly at the sight of a gun in the hand of a man whose back is to him.

Between low benches Tim manages to crawl close enough to catch the conversation as his mind races to think of a way to disarm the man without anybody getting hurt. There's a man on the floor, blood seeping onto his white lab coat, and a woman next to him who looks like she's terrified, but still applying pressure to the wound. They must have been working late.

“―where is it?” a familiar voice snaps, pulling Tim up a little short, neck almost aching from whiplash. It's an enraged sound. The gun jiggles in the man's hand as he yells. It's still pointed at the man bleeding out on the ground and the woman whimpers fearfully as Tim sees her cower further.

Disbelief floods him as he dares a look toward the gunman’s face, because it can't be… it just can't be…

I-it's not here,” replies the woman, trembling, blood slick between her fingers. The man on the ground isn't unconscious yet, but he's pale enough with blood-loss that it looks to be a near thing. “It was all moved three days ago―I don't know where!”

Tim almost can't believe it, but it is.


Then who does?!” The rogue roars, so close to the woman now that he might as well be pressing the barrel of the gun right up against her temple. “Those ridiculous gang hooligans stole my entire supply and sold it all for a tidy profit, so now I need more! Where can I get more!?”

I don't know,” the woman sobs, tears spilling from behind tightly closed eyes. “I don't know! Please, I have to call an ambulance―he's losing too much blood!”

Tim doesn't understand. The questions fizzing about in his brain defy all logical explanations. Red Robin apprehended Scarecrow just last night. Tim remembers taking him to the Gotham precinct and waiting for the police to take him inside, still bound in Batman issue handcuffs. The rogue should be in Arkham by now…

So why is Crane here and not in Arkham?

It is somewhere between spring and summer. In any other place, a time when the weather might be balmy and mild. But not in the dense and narrow streets of Gotham where the frigid winds blow in from the bay.

The sharp southerly breeze bites at Jackson’s skin viciously. Glacial teeth sinking in maliciously between every upright hair on his arms, malevolently whipping at his sweat-lined clothes with what seems like a violently personal vendetta. Then again, perhaps the sting of ice is just the dreadful fear, sprinting through his veins as the adrenaline chases after it―vision tunnelling around the edges as the blood rushes from his face.

Either way, the gooseflesh rises on his exposed skin like individual mountain peaks. There is nowhere to run now, nowhere to hide. Yet, ironically, this is what he had wanted.

In a deranged and demented sort of way, Jackson wants to laugh at his own lunacy. How pathetic and stupid it all seems now, surrounded by the silhouettes of vigilantes on all sides―the ever watchful that sneak through the shadows; these horrifying creatures. Not myth or legend, nor completely human either. Something in between. Risen out of Gotham's marble and stone to be made real. As if a few of the gargoyles that sat atop the buildings in the old town quarter had decided to come to life.

How foolish he feels for wanting to meet the Batman. For wanting to warn him that his life could be in danger from some scrawny academic who'd looked as though a strong breeze might knock him over if caught off-guard. The Batman cannot die. What does the Batman have to be afraid of? What does the night itself fear?

The ever present scent of oil and pollution drifts past his nose on the wind, a malignant odour that clings to the city like a pernicious cancer. A weather change must be blowing in, for the constant Gotham haze―one which had started out so thin when he began his journey to The Narrows―is coming in slightly thicker now, like a filthy, invasive fog.

Along with the slight stench of foul garbage and disgusting bay water, the wind carries away the sound of his overwrought lungs, still heaving hard, laboured. Albeit not from running several blocks through the city with nightmares pursuing him, but from the raking anxiety clawing its way up his throat.

Except, other than himself and the faintest whistling of the wind, there is no sound to be heard. Not a single vigilante appears to be breathing, almost as though they have all turned to iron, each watching like a literal bat in the night, silent in their piercing stares. All, but the Batman.

Jackson can feel his heart-beat in his throat and the sound of blood in his ears; his chest like a cavernous pit, his stomach bottoming out. There's a nauseous wave, a sick feeling, like bubbling acid sinking into every cell in his body.

The shadow before him looks as though it could melt away into the darkness again at any second. A ghost or a spectre ready to vanish. Perfectly stoic and deftly sure, the phantasm wears an expression that looks as though it could have been painstakingly carved from ice, but then the figure speaks and the darkness comes to life. Suddenly, the revenant becomes more than just an inky mirage.

“You’re alright,” the Batman murmurs lowly, deliberately calm and measured, unhurried, in spite of the bizarre undercurrent of perturbation.There's a desperation in it that cannot quite be smothered, but Jackson doesn't know or understand why it's there.

“It’s okay. We’re not going to hurt you.”

The gravelly tone is like distant, rolling thunder.

Frozen, a rabbit caught in headlights, not a single coiled muscle in Jackson's body moves as the Batman begins to approach slowly. Gauntlet clad palms rising in an attempt to soothe and mollify as he moves to shorten the already close distance between them. Faintly, Jackson recalls those words as familiar―the very same as the first few assurances the Red Hood had made to him when he skulked into The Narrows with Sidney and the others. It seems so hard to believe that had only happened last night. Even the gesture is the same: two placating hands elevated to prove there is no threat. Jackson knows better than that though. Something in him knows that Batman is deadly even without a weapon.

Inch by inch the Batman creeps forward, every shuffle intentional and careful, telegraphed.

“Do you know who I am?” the dark shadow asks evenly, still edging closer as Jackson resists the urge to step back.

All he can do is nod mutely, then stammer, “Batman.”

Initially, a smile comes by way of answer. It is fleeting, but in it Jackson just barely catches a myriad of expressions. Relief, understanding, reassurance, heart-break, sadness. Yet just as quickly as all those emotions appear, they're wiped away again. Replaced with a clean, blank slate.

“That's right, I'm Batman,” the vigilante confirms, although the answer leaves Jackson feeling oddly tight in the chest. “Do you know your own name, chum?”

'Chum' is an odd word, he thinks before replying, “Jackson.”

Helplessly he observes as the uncovered parts of the vigilante's face crumple in grief. Somebody shuffles behind him on a rooftop, but he doesn't dare tear his eyes away from the spectre before him―who, for the most part, looks largely distraught.

Although he's not entirely sure what drives the next words out of his throat, Jackson can only assume it is a combination of his own desperate desire for answers and the wretched devastation etched across the man's face that forces the question past his lips. Each syllable burns on its way out, tearing up along the roof of his mouth and turning his tongue with the taste of cinder-ash.

“Did you know me?” He asks tentatively as he slides forward a half-step and reconciles more distance between them, powerless to stop the heart-ache and longing that fills his words. “Who I was… before?”

The Batman regains some composure, but the lines on his face stay soft.

“Yes,” he says, hands twitching strangely by his thighs, as though trying to restrain himself from reaching out and reaffirming that Jackson really is standing there. Not a ghost of his own. “We've been looking for you.”

I've been looking for you too, he wants to blurt out hastily, though the words never make it past his tongue. Instead, he swallows hard and takes a deep breath.

“Who…? Who was I to you?” he asks softly, the question punching straight up through the mountain of more pressing and relevant things he should say. It fights its way through his defenses before Jackson has time to stop it.

Batman's façade of composure cracks. Shattering like brittle glass, breaking apart into a million pieces of immeasurable distress. The vigilante shoots forward suddenly, swiftly closing the gap between them, arms flashing past, wrapping themselves around Jackson's torso without a moment of hesitation.

The next words are spoken to him and for him alone, almost inaudible even though the man's mouth is now right by his ear, the words choked and broken and wet.

“You're my son.”

It feels as though the blinders peel back from his eyes, the tack falling away. For so long he has been seeing only the path forward, never able to look behind, but now Jackson can see what has been there, but out of sight, this whole time. The tunnel vision clears. As though his brain has been hyperventilating this entire time, narrowing his focus to only the present. A strangely fight or flight response from his mind. There is more in his proverbial peripheral than he ever could have possibly imagined.

It is almost a complete one-eighty, the way he feels about the vigilantes shifting in the shadows. The pieces of the puzzle slotting together without any effort on his behalf, snapshots returning to him frame by frame. Faces, names.

Surrounded by the scent of oil and aftershave and leather and home, he doesn't fight the onslaught of memories. Batman's―Bruce's warm arms tighten around him impossibly and a single, disbelieving word falls from his lips.


There's second, unbelievable wet sound from beside his ear, along with another desperate noise―a choked out, “Tim.”

Calloused fingers dig roughly into his scalp as the man cups the back of his head and repeatedly cards his fingers through the short crop of hair, but it's not painful. This feels like a dream.

“Tim,” he just about gasps again, in a tone barely louder than a whisper, clinging like he could still turn to smoke and slip away on the cool breeze at any given moment. “I thought I'd lost you.”

Tim doesn't know what to say to that. Instead he buries his face into the kevlar clad shoulder and inhales the scent of home again, smelling the lingering dampness of the cave, aftershave and Alfred's favourite washing powder this time too.


They stay like that for a long minute until Bruce's fingers brush gently past the shell of Tim's ear, pulling back to look him in the eyes as his hands move forward to cradle Tim's face. They cup his chin and cheeks, the calloused pads of Bruce's thumbs resting high upon his cheekbones.

“No one had any idea where you were! I… I imagined the worst. I thought I'd never see you again―” Bruce begins, distraught, though he never manages to finish the final sentence. Instead, he manoeuvres Tim under his chin and tucks him back against an armoured chest, twisting his whole body until Bruce is cocooned around him. Tim, where his ear is pressed up against the suit, listens to the steady, soothing sound of Bruce's heart-beat.

Closing his eyes, he waits, sucking in several steadying breaths as he wrestles with the sheer wall of varying emotions that threaten to crumble and collapse down upon him.

After everything, even after the fight they hadthe unanswerable and unwanted memories floating toward the surface of his thoughts like toxic brine―Bruce still… he still cradles Tim in his arms like he is something precious and loved.

The salty tears spill hot and unbidden down his cheeks, escaping out from beneath his tightly sealed eyelashes like there is no barrier there at all. Saline trails carve wending streams down to his chin, silent in their journeys when they drop from his chin and land a short distance away on Bruce's impenetrable, bullet-proof armour.

In an effort not to give cause for Bruce to worry further, Tim tries to keep his voice level as the apology trips out from between unmoving lips, but the slight tenor crack exposes him anyway. A hiccup in his otherwise uniform tone.

Bruce simply hushes him and drops a soft kiss to the crown of his head, arms tightening almost painfully around his torso and shoulders for half a second before releasing into something more comfortable again.

“You're alright,” Bruce reassures for a second time, this time into Tim's tangle of short sable tresses. “We've got you now, you're okay.”

How had Tim managed to forget this? Even before his memories had truly been lost. How had he forgotten what Bruce meant to him? What his family meant to him?

What they mean to each other.

Finally, after another long minute, Bruce reluctantly extricates Tim out from the embrace and claps a hand on his shoulder as his awareness of the rest of the world slowly files back in.

Dick, Stephanie and Damian are all street-level now, much closer than before, but still far enough away that it is obvious they are giving Tim and Bruce space.

Stephanie looks wary, like she's not quite convinced yet that Tim has recovered all his memories―which is… fair enough. He isn't even sure of that himself yet, but Stephanie more in a way that makes her look like she's preparing for a second round of Tag through the streets of Gotham. Dick, meanwhile, looks very much the opposite and is wearing his trade-mark 100-watt smile, a hand on Damian's shoulder. The youngest boy is attempting to scowl and look unfazed, but Tim knows well enough now what relief looks like on Damian.

At the other end of the alley, Jason and Cass have moved in closer too. There's a small smile playing around the edges of Black Bat's mouth and Red Hood stands with his weight all on one foot, a hand resting on his hip and looking relaxed. They both look relieved as well.

No one but him notices the third figure standing behind them until it's too late.

For a split second, Tim believes he must be hallucinating, because he knows that face, but it's like seeing through two mirrors and trying to distinguish between the real and the reflection. When Tim stares into one mirror, Jackson looks back. And Jackson is no less real than Tim. Then his brain jerks to a complete stop and the two mirrors reflecting each other both shatter at the same time, leaving no reflection at all, only the stark reality that they are one and the same.

Immediately, the universe grinds to a pace so slow that Tim imagines this must be the reality Speedsters face every day. It won't matter if he calls out and tells Bruce to: “Get down!” or “Move out the way!” because he's not fast enough, he never will be.

At the other end of the alleyway there's a familiar glint of silver, the memory from a lifetime ago running through Tim's… Jackson's? Tim's head in less than a scintilla of a second――“Oh, and kids,” the weedy man continues, almost as an afterthought. “Here, you could use some protection. After what happened last time and all…”. The gun shines brilliantly, even in the low light, the silver flashing brightly. A coruscating warning――before terrified words ring out into the night, snapping him out of the memory like a rubber band.

With a strength he didn't know he even had, Tim manages to simultaneously shove Bruce roughly to the side and push under the larger man's arm to stand between him and on-coming fate. The panic drives him forward, unthinking. Logic does not factor in at the sight of the weapon.

With hands shaking like a leaf, Sidney's hysterical, terror-stricken voice bounces off the bricks and echoes loudly in the silent night, “What the hell are you doing to him?! Step away from my brother!”

The sound of the gun going off is the loudest noise Tim has ever heard in his life. He knows the bullet is meant for Batman, but it never connects with its intended target because Tim deliberately steps into its path.

Suddenly, the world catches up again, time returning a tempo.

There's a blossoming stain spreading across his red hoodie.

When he glances up again, there's an abject look of horror on Sid's face as the gun in his hand clatters to the ground. A distant rumble of pure anguish pierces into Tim's ear, a noise that he is abstractly aware must be Bruce.

A small “oh” leaves his mouth and he glances down to see deep crimson wetting his fingertips.

Chapter Text

The taste of the air brings up bile in his throat, the surgical mask doing little against the horrid stench of chemical fumes, but it's not the smell of toxic death that has Tim on an edge as thin as the blade of a knife.

Crane's index finger is curling dangerously tighter around the trigger of the gun, barrel still pressed up against the laboratory technician's temple. Terrified sobs heave their way out from her chest, bursting like bubbles in the eerily dark room still illuminated only by the blue light of idle industrial equipment. Saturated in scarlet, her bloody hands don't come up to swipe at the unstoppable rivulets flowing over her cheeks, they stay right where they are, staunching the wound as best she can.

The last grains in the hourglass are falling through. A faint whisp of a half-formed plan is all that Tim has, but there's no more time for schemes or strategies. There are lives on the line.

Tim's fingertips catch on a few tiny shards of glass as he stands, but he hardly notices as he draws himself to full height and watches with grim delight as Crane notices him, face filling with startled surprise.

Crane,” he says, feeling utterly naked without the cowl and bow-staff in hand. “Let them go.”

The gun whips around before the man himself does, the surprise blooming into recognition.

Red Robin,” the rogue says and then laughs, a demented sound that sends shudders down Tim's spine. The barrel of Scarecrow's weapon is pointing directly at his sternum, but better him than the two innocent lives in the room―he's sure that says something about his mental health, but that's not important right now. “Did you forget to put on pants this morning or is this a new change in costume?”

Tim has to actively work to keep his muscles from jerking at the taunt.

This isn't Arkham, Crane,” he states, not dignifying the question, but returning with a quip of his own. “Did you miss the turn off yesterday? Maybe I should escort you there personally, at least then I know you won't get lost.”

It grates on his nerves when the man laughs again, the sound ringing throughout the cold room.

Escaped!” he cracks with a loony smile and then makes a disappearing gesture with his free hand, the one not pointing a gun at Tim.

Tim breathes in slowly through his nose, a controlled breath, just like Batman taught him.

How?” he questions tensely, almost through gritted teeth. “I dropped you with the police only last night. How did you escape so quickly?”

The laughing is really beginning to grind Tim's nerves, but Crane appears to be in a talkative mood because he answers, “Oh, don't worry Red! They won't even miss me―they don't even remember me being there in the first place!”

Eyes narrow, but Tim's not used to everybody being able to see it. He really misses his cowl. Right now he'd even settle for a domino mask.

What do you mean?” he probes, careful with the interrogation and considerate of the weapon in Scarecrow's hand.

A cackle rings throughout the air, then, “There were drugs, Red. They were going to test something new on us, but of course you know how I feel about drugs. I had to get my hands on the stuff. Truly delightful name, too. Starshine―or at least that's what I hear they're calling it on the street. These types of drugs tend to make a splash among the clubbing scene in Gotham, you know.”

Well… shit.

Arkham was almost fun that time around,” Crane continues, smirking and looking far too pleased with himself. “I had a new toy and an unlimited supply of test subjects, but you know, Arkham didn't have my equipment. Naturally I needed my equipment. I knew I could make the drug better and, you know what, Red, I did. I made it so much better!”

There's ice skating through Tim's veins, chilling him to the bone as each thought battles the previous once for dominance in the forefront of his mind. Tim's muscles itch for movement, but his frozen bones won't allow it.

Starshine by itself was fun, at first. It made my test subjects compliant, but there was untapped potential in it so when I saw the opportunity, I took it. Neither Batman nor any of you Bat-Brats noticed I was missing until I ran out of my supply and had to get more. I hoarded the stuff, but then those stupid gangs had to fight a turf war and all my stuff was stolen and sold off!

It made me so angry, Red. I only had a little bit of the drug left, but what I did with it, oh! I made it into something marvellous! At first I didn't know what treasure I had created, but before I could test it, you stumbled into my path. I was so close to creating something wonderful and then you threw me back into Arkham! It wasn't a problem though, a blessing really. I ought to thank you, Red. You gave me the most perfect opportunity to test my hard work.”

Tim forces back the bile in his throat with a hard swallow, but his mouth is dry and tastes papery.

The scelerat staff at Arkham proved to be excellent guinea pigs. I didn't think the improved version of Starshine would work so well, but not only were their wills compliant to my demands, their memories were too. After an injection of my carefully crafted work, their short-term memories were erased. The police brought me into Arkham, but I was out again within eight hours because the staff simply forgot I had even been there in the first place!”

Tim's jaw is hurting from how hard he's been grinding his teeth together, but through a combination of well-ingrained training and sheer force of will, he somehow maintains an even, level-headed tone.

That's how you escaped,” he nods, understanding. “You simply drugged them all and walked out of there. They never thought to call the police and report your escape because they weren't even aware you had returned to Arkham.”

Precisely,” Crane grins, reaffirming the direction of the gun and placing it back against the laboratory technician's hairline, earning a single sob from the traumatised woman. “But you see, the fun cannot be allowed to stop here. I won't allow it.”

Don't hurt her,” Tim urges, taking half a step forward and trying to keep the pleading out of his voice but only partly succeeding. “Leave her out of this, she's innocent.”

On his face, the grin only splits eerily wider, but with his empty hand Crane reaches inside the breast-pocket of his coat to retrieve a syringe filled with white liquid.

How about I make you a deal,” he sneers, delicately placing the object on the bench directly to his right, taking no more than two steps away from the woman before rebounding back. “Inject yourself with that―” his index finger points toward the needle, “―and she lives. Or, do something stupid and she dies.”

Starshine,” Tim deduces, dropping his gaze to the syringe and eyeing its contents scrupulously. He takes tiny half-steps toward the bench, going slow and signalling each movement so as not to spook the rogue as he reaches, stretching for the item. “Isn't it?

Indeed,” Crane agrees, delighted. “With my own special twist―new and improved, of course.”

Tim's hand stalls halfway to the needle, jerking to a halt.

You see,” says Crane, revelling in Tim's hesitation. “I didn't have much of my modified creation left and I knew I wouldn't have enough to break out of Arkham a third time. So, instead, I combined what little remained and upped the potency. A last ditch attempt, if you will. The plan was to test it on Batman, but I guess you'll do.”

Tim rolls up the sleeve of his red hoodie, trepidation making his head pound. Uncapping the needle, he lines it up with the vein in his arm and pushes the bevel against his skin, piercing it like he's done similarly a hundred times before, both on himself and for others. There's a slight pinch and some pressure, but the needle slides in smoothly.

The best part is that you won't remember this conversation,” Scarecrow laughs, hauling the woman to her feet, her bloodied hands shaking violently as she divides horrified glances between Tim and the man on the floor, near enough to unconsciousness now. “You won't remember me, or her, or him. I would love to stick around to find out what a concentrated dose will do to a vigilante, but alas, time is wasting.”

Under Crane's watchful albeit unhinged eye, the white liquid goes in as Tim pushes on the plunger, emptying the contents. Once the barrel is empty, he takes a step forward and places the hollow syringe back on the bench, not feeling any different, or at least not immediately anyway.

Now, you have two options,” the rogue smiles gleefully, still gripping the arm of the woman tight. “Call your beloved Batman for help and save his life―” every gaze in the room drops to the man on the ground, skin pale as a ghost and colourless. The ruby stain marring the front of his shirt and the once-pristine lab coat drawing all eyes. “―or follow after me and she dies.”

With a jerky movement and a tiny yelp of fear, Crane shoves the woman in front of himself, presses the gun up against the base of her skull and tells her to start walking.

They're halfway to the emergency exit by the time Tim remembers how to coordinate his limbs again, dropping to his knees on the floor and crawling over to the man, breathing shallowly, but miraculously still conscious.

You've… contacted… ambulance?” asks the man, looking hopeful as Tim places his hands over the center of the red bloom and makes an attempt at stemming the flow.

The man's face falls before Tim manages to get out a single syllable, shaking his head and blinking rapidly as his mind muddles through Robin training and instinct, trying to find a solution to this seemingly impossible situation.

I don't have my comm,” he rasps out, starting to feel a little light-headed as the taste of metallic iron hits his tongue. “I don't have my phone.”

There's… there's a phone box, in the street,” gasps the man, wincing and groaning through the pain. The unsteady, grasping fingers around Tim's wrist go slack. “It… it still works.”

Where?” Tim demands. “Where is it?”

Out the back,” he wheezes. “Downstairs, in the alley.”

There's nothing else for it.

Stay breathing, alright?” He commands sternly, placing the man's own hands where Tim's were before. “I'll be back as soon as I can.”

Time, as a concept, is a strange thing, Tim muses light-headedly. His entire life circularly wrapping around him like the punchline of a joke, the set-up finally making sense. At once, no time passes. And, at once, all of eternity passes. Several pairs of arms reach for him, grabbing hold, catching him as he goes down. Tim doesn't even feel the bullet, not really. Not until his knees buckle and he collapses weightlessly, as though paper-thin and barely there.

The city breathes with emphysemic wheezes, gasping through the pollution in her waterways and air. She breathes the light breeze that tickles at the ends of his hair, tousling it in a manner that might have been called familiar if the caress had come from an actual hand. Much like Batman, Gotham's fingertips are calloused and rough, weary with age. The city has seen enough death to become numb to the mundane stabbings and shootings it sees every day.

There's a fuzzy feeling in the tips of his fingers and toes, part of his mind losing its lucidity as it begins to shut down from a combined effort of shock and blood loss.

His world goes blurry at the edges, vision scoping with bursts of clarity in one direction and then another, but nothing stays comprehensible for very long. Tim's coherency fades with every thump of his hammering heartbeat, the sound overwhelming in his ears as the blood rushes past.

Nothing feels real, not at first. Vaguely, Tim is aware of his own hands coming up, blinding following the reflexive instructions all of his Robin training has drilled into him as he pushes down unthinkingly around the bizarrely tight skin, searing pain like a burning blister shooting through him from the moment his fingers make contact.

Quickly, faster than he can process with how the world is still distorting around him, firmer hands than his own knock Tim's out the way and apply stronger pressure to his abdomen, sending a lance of white hot pain through his side like a piercing needle penetrating his flesh.

Tim is helpless to the cry of agony that escapes into the night, his own slick, wet fingers grabbing and scratching uselessly at the hands pinning the pain in place.

Hold on, Tim,” someone says, syllables measured and controlled. “Don't pass out on me, okay?”

Although he glances up, he never manages to figure out from who the words come. Instead, his eyes get snagged part way up, on a twisted face filled with panic and a great many other emotions he's sure he would be able to identify if his head didn't suddenly feel astoundingly floaty, as though it might fly away.

Sidney...” he says, reaching for the other teen, a bloody hand―his own hand―rising into his vision like something from a zombie apocalypse film.

Tim wants to reassure Sid, to declare how everything will be alright, but Sid is too far away and there's an ache settling in that he can't describe.

Though his mind rebels against the idea, his eyes close of their own volition. Don't hurt him, he wants to add to whomever is roughly carding their fingers through his hair, he didn't mean it. But the words never make it past the dry, stale part of his throat. His tongue gets stuck to the roof of his mouth and the most he manages is a whine, which receives a fuzzy response in return that he never hears.

Tim wakes up in a hospital. He knows this because the walls are too white and the sheets are pressed just so around his form and the entire room smells sterile and scrubbed top to toe with disinfectant. Through the half-open blinds he can see it's almost light outside, the dawn touching the outline of the city's skyscrapers. Little dust motes swirl about in the air, visible through the faint beams of sunshine just starting to emerge.

Tim feels groggy in a way that's synonymous with good quality painkillers, despite the heavy weight that pushes back with every inhalation he takes. There's a cannula in his arm, hooked up to something just out of his sight. Somehow, during the night, it looks like he's managed to hook it under the bedsheets and presently it is making it hard for Tim to tuck his elbow into a more comfortable position.

The small movement of adjusting the tube wakes somebody on his left.

He hears the haggard voice before managing to drag his bleary eyes upwards to match it to the face, a worn sound, fatigued and exhausted, but relieved nonetheless.

“Don't play with that,” Dick instructs quietly but firmly, fussing anxiously, but keeping his voice low as he readjusts Tim's arm for him. His gaze remains fixed on the delicate task. “You might accidentally pull it out.”

Just barely, Tim manages to break apart his dehydrated lips and force his heavy as stone tongue to form the man's name, the word barely coming out as a breathy whisper, cracking halfway through as their eyes meet at last.


Deep blues―framed by a myriad of sentiments and barely contained emotions―crinkle at the corners. The façade of composure quickly crumbles as their gazes lock.

Timmy,” his older brother manages to sniff in answer, looking worryingly watery around the edges despite the smile tugging at the edges of his lips. “Welcome back.”

Tim returns the small smile as best he can before there's a face-full of midnight locks tickling his nose and obscuring his vision. Where Dick's hugs are usually tight and inescapable like a vice, this one is deliberately careful and obviously mindful.

When Tim finally figures out how to string a sentence back together, the timbre of his regular tenor sounds like a defunct chainsaw coughing up the last of its surviving serviceability.

“Where… where is Sidney?” he rasps urgently into the mop of dark hair still clouding his sight and restricting his movement as he unavailingly tries to push himself upright. There's a spike of discomfort and a lance of pain which leaves his side throbbing mercilessly. “Where's B―Bruce?”

Immediately, a gentle palm is pushing him gently back into the pillows with embarrassingly little effort. “It's alright,” Dick pacifies, easing Tim back slowly. “They're alright.”

Tim's mind rallies at the conciliating line, demanding answers and the truth because he just cannot bring himself to believe in such obvious fiction. Except Dick is already hushing him, pressing a gentle kiss to his temple and drawing back with soothing platitudes.

An urgent adjure for honesty gets lodged in his throat by the interruption of a second voice, alto in register and this time to his right.

“Do not smother him,” Cass dictates from a rather uncomfortable looking leather and wood chair on the other side of his bed, turning Tim's head until he can see her shrewd stare. “We only just got him back.”

Dick does not look penitent at the chastisement as he reclines in his own chair, which is a bold move in Tim's opinion.

Cass is watching the exchange between them with a slight, left-ward tilt of her head, astutely surveying him as though she is reading an interesting book and has stumbled across an intriguing paragraph.

Whatever it is that she finds seems to mollify. The narrowness around her eyes loses its edge and like Dick before her, she too sends him a careful smile. There's just enough relief in it to balance out the hesitation, but she softens and directs his glance toward a third chair.

In the largest seat in the cramped hospital room sits Jason, owlishly blinking himself awake with Damian curled up on his lap, sound asleep and softly snoring into Jason's neck.

“How… long?” Tim asks the room at large, although it is once again Dick who answers him, dragging his attention back to his left with the speed of molasses.

“Surgery had complications,” he begins, deliberately slow. “You've been completely out for nearly a full twenty-four hours. Doctor is also worried about infections, due to your lack of spleen. We… haven't left.”

Dick's fingers slide between his own, palm against palm. It's a grounding gesture, but for himself or for Dick, Tim isn't sure as of yet.

Damian makes a snuffling noise in Jason's lap and derails Tim's train of thought. Through the haze of painkillers he's on, it takes him a long few minutes to finally form words again.

“Why here…?” he asks, leaving enough room in his voice for the unspoken question to wriggle through―why a hospital and not the cave?

Dick and Cass exchange an indecipherable look whilst Jason blinks at him three times in rapid succession and then goes utterly silent and still.

“You had already lost a lot of blood,” Dick says reluctantly, words wavering in uncertainty. “We didn't want to take you here, but we didn't have much choice.”

It was a close call, he hears as translation in Dick's reply. We were losing you. You were dying. There was no time to call Leslie, there was no time to get you home.

Cass goes rigid for a moment, losing herself temporarily in a memory. To an outsider, it's something that would likely go unnoticed. Jason takes a deep breath in and although there's no sound Tim sees it catch.

Dick's eyes pinch and squish―squinch?―in at the corners from what looks to be a combination of concern and exhaustion, but there's something else in there too.

“Dad was… real worried when you disappeared.” Intertwined fingers give his own a quick squeeze before Dick adds, “Beside himself, really.”

Tim doesn't have to imagine it.Bruce, the epitome of stoicism, visibly appearing as though his self control has been wrested from him―Tim was there when the tips of rough, calloused fingers dug into his scalp, pressing him into the Batman armour as though he was irreplaceable and cherished. In a way, the memory feels kind of like a dream.

That thought must be the something that flits across his face, because when Dick speaks again his eyes are unsettlingly wide and compelling even as his voice drops into a shade more subdued.

“I know he'snot good at showing it,” comes the sentence like a plea, muted but forceful, like he is trying to convince Tim of the truth with his last drawn breath. “But Bruce loves you fiercely. We all do. Not knowing where you were, what had happened to you… that really did a number on us, Timmy.”

“We were worried,” Cass pitches in quietly on his other side, all open eyes turning her way. Tim feels a pang of guilt strike through him as he notes the dark circles under her eyes, glassy gaze looking similarly sleep deprived as Dick. “The night you two fought. He came home very upset. I could tell. He didn't sleep well.”

“When you weren't at work the next day, he called me,” Dick says, his mouth falling at the edges. “We looked for you in all the obvious places and then I called Jason in for back-up and he couldn't find anything either. There wasn't any trace of you, Tim. B went ballistic. Haven't seen him like that in a long time. I thought he was having a panic attack. Maybe he was, I'm still not sure. It was scary to watch, it freaked us out.”

It's like they're trying to―

“Do not put us through that again, Timbit,” Jason says, finally cracking open one eye from where they've fluttered shut again. Then, more softly, adds, “Please.”

“You know we love you,” Dick murmurs, wearing a frown that furrows his entire brow. “You know that right?”

Wait, wait a minute―

Cass nods and glances at Jason, who does the same. She comments, “It took Bruce less than a day to contact the Commissioner.It was―he was not good.”

Tim's eyes fall shut as his brow pinches together, brain muddling through both the onslaught of new information along with the overwhelming feelings accompanying it.

Jason sounds annoyed, but also somewhat hollow―like an empty barrel drum―when he speaks next.

“We love you, Timbo. Next time, do not fuckin' disappear off the face of the planet.”

On his lap, Damian wriggles a little in his sleep, but doesn't wake.

The way he says it makes Tim feel like an idiot. He doesn't miss the withering look Dick shoots Jason either, to which the latter shrugs and pets Damian's back soothingly a couple times, looking unremorseful.

It's almost like they think―

Tim's tongue darts out to wet his cracked, dry lips. “I didn't disappear on purpose,” he croaks thickly with emotion and, wow, when did his voice turn into an old coffee grinder. “I didn't mean for it to happen. It's not like I ran away.”

By the glances exchanged, he deduces that that is exactly what they'd concluded.

“Dad thought you'd been kidnapped,” Dick says. “But…”

“… we weren't so sure.” Cass finishes for him.

“With the way B was acting, we knew something had happened between the two of you, we just didn't know what.”

“Everyone needs their space now and again,” Jason shrugs. “We get it.”

“But then we ran into you and…”

“… and you didn't even recognise us, Baby Bird.”

“―so, what did happen?”

They're all speaking so fast, cutting in over one another whilst Tim is trying to piece together each sentence like the pieces of a puzzle that don't belong.

It's a long time before his mouth catches up with his brain and when it does, his scratchy, unused voice harshly pierces through the silence that he's neglected to notice has settled over the room.

“It's… it's kind of a long story,” he begins, wondering where to even start.

“We've got time,” Cass says, not unkindly as Dick draws his chair minutely closer.

“Yeah,” Tim sighs and glances down at his hands, noting the tiny bits of dirt under his nails as he thinks back to the beginning. Bruce should hear this too, he thinks, before realising the thought has slipped out.

The quiet in the room changes into something brittle. Tim looks up to see a pained look worming it's way into Dick's features and how suddenly uncomfortable Jason now appears.

“That's gonna be… sort of complicated,” his older brother discloses with an uncomfortable edge in his voice that sends Tim's stomach plummeting.

Dick's hand gives his another reassuring squeeze, but it does nothing to help. “The staff won't let him in to see you. He's… he's under investigation. From CPS.”