Chapter 1: Shall I Grieve?
The circus is on fucking fire.
They hadn’t even been inside when it happened. The Daring Dangers, half of them anyways, along with most of the stage crew and performers, were gathered round a collection of grills and a sizeable bonfire— laughing together, tasting honey-golden fried fish and spiced vegetables skewered onto wooden spikes, listening to stories of old from the legacy families, breathing in the scent of burning pinewood and feeling a smile grow as everything clicked into place and he was home —when the main tent burst forth with flames.
It sent them flying. Robin hit the ground hard, feeling a wave of heat wash over his skin, popping and crackling all the way. His ears were ringing, somewhere to his left he heard the muffled sound of Artemis calling to him. But he couldn’t make out a word.
He could only hear the thunderclaps of wood collapsing in on itself and the roar of scarlet ribbons eating up yellowed canvas tents, lighting up the darkened grounds and drowning out the stars. The big top was the worst of all. While the storage cabins stood smouldering, the performance tent was a wall of orange and red. Ashes were already raining down, staining his clothes and dotting over his hair like a paintbrush covered in grey.
He slowly propped himself up on his forearms and froze, unable to push himself up, not with the blinding ache that settled into his skull.
Frantic, clumsy footsteps of dozens crashed all around him, dulled by the hum buzzing through his head. From the corner of his eye, Robin could see people running, picking up the young and dashing away, shouting at one another to head for the valley.
His eyes stayed trained on the ever-growing monument of heat. The skin on his face was already peeling, but he couldn’t move. He just lay there, crumpled into a heap and choking on blisteringly dry air, arms shaking beneath him, staring in a horrified trance as the timber folded.
He was violently torn from his awful reviver by Artemis— thank god —grabbing his arm and hauling him backwards.
Oh. That’s right.
He’d been close to the tent, hadn’t he.
Maybe that’s why he could smell the stench of burning hair.
“Hey, Robin. You okay?”
She had dragged him a good few yards back, Conner hovering close by. He blinked blearily, trying to remove the glare that adorned his vision, surrounding her in a shaky halo. “Yeah.” He push himself up, “Yeah, I’m good. Let’s get out of here.”
She gave a relived smile, and nodded.
The three of them began to quickly trudge towards the collection of people huddled together. Robin didn’t say a word when Conner slipped an arm around his shoulders.
The world was tilted too far on its axis for him to be stubborn.
Most everyone was already gone, save one or two elders being helped along, and half of his team. Roy and M’gann had turned in early and, as far as he could see, the trailers were empty and untouched by the flames. So that left them out of harms way. He did his best to ignore the heat crawling over his back, and the sounds of crackling wood the burrowed into his ears.
The silhouettes in the distance were pulling into focus like a telephoto lens when his feet stopped moving.
Artemis kept pushing onwards, she was focused and rushed, but as Conner’s arm slipped away, he stopped and turned.
His head was clearing and a realization slammed into him like a freight train.
Those shadows, the dancing outlines of people he knew. They were all so easy to pick apart, to tell whose who. And Robin knew— Dick knew —that someone was missing.
“Robin?” Conner called, moving cautiously towards him. Each step crunching through the frosted grass, creating a little trail.
They stood side by side, Conner staring at Robin, Dick staring his childhood as it burned.
There was some level of understanding that dawned on the young clone.
There was another voice calling for them to hurry as Dick took a step forward, as though in a daze.
Then another. And another.
A hand on his shoulder stopped him from breaking into a jog.
Conner’s grip was tighter than it needed to be, would probably leave a little bruising.
“I know. I know.” Conner wrapped his arm protectively around the smaller boys chest.
He’s voice was steeped in a frustrated type of fear, one Dick was quite familiar with. “We can’t. Not now, buddy.” Conner’s grip tightened slightly, not enough to hurt but enough to punctuate his words.
“Come on, it’s not safe.” He tugged Dick back, his feet catching in the snow and grass as he took stumbling steps backwards.
The same hand was back on his shoulder. More urgent than before.
Dick tore his gaze from the fire to look at Conner, who was apparently unaware of how tightly he was squeezing the smaller boys collar.
He sounded off, even in his own ears. He sounded so tired and resigned and like a liar.
It was good enough though, because a wavering smile lit up Conner’s face as they shuffled to the collection of carnies and acrobats.
Artemis rushed up anxiously, “I didn’t know you stopped.” She sounded apologetic before concern melded onto her brow and worked into her lips, pulling the corners down.
“Are you okay?”
Robin stayed silent, staring into the group of flickering outlines with glazed eyes, hands shaking at his sides.
The taste of ashes was heavy on his tongue as he ticked off a mental attendance list. In essence: he didn’t even hear her.
Her eyes fluttered over Robin helplessly before turning to Conner.
“Is he okay?”
He shrugged, “Not sure. He just sorta... froze up.”
Artemis looked over her shoulder, her hair flicking gold and yellow like sparks in the wind. “We can find M’gann and— and she can link us up. Sometimes people can’t talk if they’re in shock.”
Conner said something in protest, but it brushed past Robins senses like it wasn’t there at all. He felt himself fading and drew in a deep breath. The world went quiet except for the hissing and screaming of wood and flame. Dick opened his eyes, lightless and full of premature regret. The two were deep in conversation, each gesturing frantically.
The world fell away and Dick ran.
Towards the pillars of suffocating smoke and splintered fingers of red grasping all around the make-shift structures. Towards his home. Towards Jack Haly.
No one else has seemed to notice that the man had been missing. They were frenzied and scared.
So Dick ran.
He refused to lose any more family in his own home.
His legs were wobbling and there was a shout from behind him. He didn’t spare them a glance. Instead he snagged a discarded tarp as he pitched forward, willing his shocked body to move faster. Soon heat was shivering its way across his arms and face, driving soot up his nose and surely staining his face with blisters. There was a little opening, one that the fire had yet to claim. Dick covered his shoulders and head with the tarp, then dove into a hell-scape.
Some part of him registered someone screaming his name behind him.
His eyes burned and watered. Dick skipped and danced around ambers and collapsed canvas doorways. Every inch of the world was dyed red and burning. He pushed on, trying not to choke on the growing wisps of smoke floating around his head like a crown. It was a morbid scene from a fantasy. An act that he might preform one day, right now the audience was unseeing. His eyes roamed every crack and crevice.
There was nothing. Nothing.
No one was here. Maybe Haley was already— no.
No. There was no way in hell he was getting beat by this. A fiery beam disagreed, groaning as it tipped towards Dick.
It grazed his shoulder and he ducked away. He clutched the wound, seething and spiting swears to make a sailor proud.
None of it mattered.
He’d drag Haley’s soul back from the afterlife if he had to.
Otherwise, Dick promised to curse the selfish old bastard for dying. Especially while he was there. Of all the times! Inconsiderate, honestly.
He almost wanted to laugh, but two steps later his legs gave out.
Dick sat there on his knees, heaving and gasping. This isn’t fair.
His eyes were still burning.
Life’s not fair. A voice told him, it sounded tired and gentle. Pleading, almost.
Blood slipped from his cracked lips.
He spat and shook.
“Please,” his voice was hoarse and strangled.
“I can’t do this. Not again.” He didn’t know who he was talking to. Maybe the fire. The voice in his head, perhaps.
“Give me something.” He squeezed his eyes shut and pretended it was just the burning heat that made them spill tears.
He breathed in hot air and screamed.
Maybe he was too stubborn for his own good. Maybe he was just too exhausted to tap into a sense of self-preservation. Maybe death had waltzed into his life and laughed too many times. But he couldn’t leave. He wouldn’t.
Eh. Probably the first one.
Somehow, miraculously, he heard an intake.
His head snapped up.
A shadow was bent over, wheezing into their jacket. Dick surged forward, catching Haley as he stumbled. “Who..?” He breathed out, looking down at Dick blearily.
“I know a way out.”
God his throat hurt. Like razors had been slipped into his food along with heaps of lemon and salt. Breathing was getting hard, the dead weight on his shoulders wan’t helping.
At least Haley was conscious. He was standing on his own two feet, leaning heavily on Dick. Debris was raining down, some spiked with flames and some shrapnel. Sparks left constellations of burns over Dick’s back, he could feel blood dripping from his head, down his temple and off his jaw.
Must’ve gotten knocked by something heavy… not that he could remember; everything was blurring.
The scorches and slices and bruises grew in sync with his lightheadedness.
How were they even alive? This shouldn’t be possible.
He wondered if this was just a dream he came up with to settle into death. It was a quickly squashed thought.
The still unmarked entry stood proudly as the two staggered on.
“We’re here. We made it.” He was covered in sweat and ash and blood, but a smile plastered over his lips.
Life’s not fair.
Hah, yeah. Well, this time he made it fair.
They collapsed a few yards away from the exit into a heap of coughs and burns.
A rasping laugh burst out.
“Take that fate.” He huffed, hardly caring that his mouth was a mess of splits and dark red. They weren’t dead.
Dick wanted to holler and shout into the sky. They weren’t dead.
Instead he let the comparatively chilled air kiss his feverish skin and lull him back to his senses.
The pain was seeping back in through his shoulders, all the way down to his feet where his shoes had melted halfway off.
That was gonna suck to get off.
Suddenly there were voices. A ring built up around his ears as cries grew louder and a dark figure (figures?) came rushing up.
Hands were turning him over, dragging him away from the fire that licked at the ground. Blessedly cold hands.
A gasp from overhead and a blinding ray of light filled his sight.
Quite a bit, actually. But he didn’t have the energy to pull away or even close his eyes.
Besides... they were probably trying to help.
Might as well let them do what they need to, right? Yeah.
His eyes fell shut for only a moment.
They opened to empty space beside him where Haley was and more shadows spinning around him, speaking in muffled tones.
Maybe it had been more than a moment.
Something cool was pressing against his head. No, that wasn’t right… it wasn’t a physical touch. Like a passing thought that wasn’t his, urging him to stay awake.
He shooed it away, blinking hard to rid his eyelids of a searing, fiery afterimage. The thought poked at him again and something actually was pressing against his head.
Dick only knew because, this time, it hurt. A lot.
Like ice was being used to weld the gash on his temple shut with all the gentleness of a jackhammer. He was suddenly very awake, and very resentful of whoever was freezer-burning his face. He glared at the offending shadow, haphazardly raising a hand to the spot on his shoulder that had started to feel hot. His hand was batted away and the cold feeling migrated down from his face to hold against what he assumed was a burn. Someone was very rudely beating at this ankles where heat was tickling over his clothing. Maybe he’d caught fire at some point, who knows.
Dick’s face twisted in discomfort as cold spread down his arms in response to blistered skin. He blinked and the sky was different, the light from the fire was dimming.
Did he pass out? That’s twice now. Probably not a good sign.
There were less people around him. Just a presence at his side—he knew because they were poking into his thoughts and whispering reassurances—and someone with rough, calloused hands holding something damp to his shoulder and carding their fingers through his hair.
Breathing was getting harder, like Dick’s throat had been stuffed with cotton. A softer pair of hands touched his forehead and black floated into the corners of his eyes.
Dick blinked. He could feel his chest heaving and his lungs were somehow shot full of holes and unable to take in anything substantial.
He laid there, drawing in shallow breaths as flashing filled his peripheral vision.
There were lights in the sky, purple and blue and red.
The Northern lights would’t be here, right? It’s too far south.
The lights were flashing and pulsing and searing Dick’s vision.
The sky was moving. The stars shook, spun, and shivered and— wait no, he was moving.
Someone was moving him. The smell of rubber filled Dick’s senses and suddenly there was a mask being fastened around his mouth and nose.
Breathing was getting easier. His head was against something soft and the lights were dimming.
Dick let his eyes fall shut.
Chapter 2: Shall I Hope?
Trigger warning: Brief descriptions of injuries and disassociation.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“We can find M’gann and—and she can link us up. Sometimes people can’t talk if they’re in shock.”
She was trying not to panic, but the glaze over Robin’s eyes was admittedly unnerving.
“She’s not here, she would’ve linked us already if she were!”
Conner told her, gesturing to the crowd. “But—!”
Conner held up a hand, signalling for her to lower her voice. “Roy probably got her away from the fire.”
Artemis huffed, “We just have to be civilians right now, then.”
She briefly wondered why he was so calm about this. He had anger to spare but wasn’t familiar with fear and panic... he was probably on autopilot. Going through the motions, so to speak.
She turned towards the crowd of circus folk. “We should head for the highway, someone will stop if we block the road. We can call for help—“
She almost didn’t hear him. It wasn’t loud, the voice hardly sounded like the boy she knew.
“Sorry for what?”
Artemis turned and her blood stopped pumping.
Robin was gone. Vanished from where he stood.
He was barreling toward the fire.
“Wha— wait!” She cried, pitching forward as she rushed to catch up.
Adrenaline filled her limbs. She could hear Conner running just behind her.
Her feet were being weighed down by the heavy boots she wore and the heat clogging her lungs made her want to cough. The slick frosted grass betrayed her, sliding out from under her feet. Artemis stumbled, breaking her fall with her hands enough to stay upright before scrambling up and hastily chasing after Robin.
He was nearing the fire and he wasn’t slowing down.
“Robin!” She shouted as he disappeared into the tent.
She called again as she nearing the big top. Artemis was ready to dive straight into the flaming skeleton and drag the boy wonder back out. She was ready to haul him back to safety and scream at him for doing something so stupid but a hand grabbed her shoulder and yanked her backwards.
She whirled around, hoping desperately it was Conner so she could at least have something to punch. It wasn’t him.
It was a tall women, her hair swept to the side and caked in soot. Artemis tugged at her arm fiercely in an attempt to break free, but the woman held fast.
“What are you doing?!” She demanded, glaring with every inch of her person.
She heard a familiar shout from behind the women.
Lo and behold the strongman was (somehow) holding Conner back. “Keeping you from running into fire!” The woman snapped, leading Artemis away. The light flashed over the woman’s face and Artemis felt recognition.
She was one of the silk aerialist. Lori, a Ukrainian woman/ She had been at dinner.
“But—! He, Dan, he just ran in there,”
Artemis felt frantic trying to explain why she needed to run into a death trap.
They would probably think she was out of her mind.
“And?” Lori was beyond angry. “One person does something stupid so you follow him?”
She’d dragged the archer to where the strongman now had his hands on Conner’s shoulder, talking to him like someone might talk to a child having a tantrum. “He’s my friend.” Artemis said sternly.
Lori’s face went soft, “I know chado. I know. But you’ll die in there.”
She released Artemis’ arm, placing a calming hand on her shoulder instead.
“You can’t go after him. Trust that he knows what he’s doing.”
A crash came from the tent. A beam had fallen from the top of the canvas.
She flinched at the sound. It sent up a shower of sparks to mingle with the constellations.
A small part of Artemis, a part that the rest of her wanted to smother, could only think how pretty the golden starlets looked among the silvery sky.
Her face only reflected horror.
“It,” she started, looking to the older woman helplessly, “It doesn’t make any sense. Why did he go in there?”
Lori shook her head.
“It makes perfect sense. That boy has been waiting his whole life to run into burning big top.”
Artemis blinked, unabashedly puzzled.
She opened her mouth to ask what the hell she was talking about, when more people crowded around.
Lori looked down at her, “We’re going to circle the parameter. We don’t know where he might come our but he’s going to need help when he does.”
Artemis and Conner shared a look, each of their expressions hardened into determination.
Secrets be damned, they weren’t losing a teammate.
The weren’t losing a friend.
With the tilt of her head, Conner headed in the opposite direction. The more ground covered, the better. Besides, they knew him more than any of the cast and crew of Haly’s. He’s gonna need familiar faces if he—when he comes out.
When, because Artemis knows the boy wonder is far too stubborn to go out like this. She would never let him forget that this was a dumb way to die. An insurmountably stupid way to die. Idiotic. Brainless. She was running out of synonyms.
About a dozen people were making their way around the edge of the flame, Artemis was careful to stay a few feet away from them so they wouldn’t pick up on her muttering to herself, trying to rationalize why Robin suddenly had a death wish as opposed to his typically precise, if flippant, reactions to crisis.
She thought back to when the reds had attacked at Mount Justice. He was frighteningly calm the whole way through. He didn’t flinch when fire blasted through the vents or when Artemis herself was openly panicking, instead calculating each move they made. Even afterwards when he admitted to having nearly drowned, he was cavalier and glib.
This was arguably a smaller event than the reds; everyone had been out of the tent or in their trailers, the biggest risk was the grass catching fire. Even then, the ground was covered in snow and ice.
She racketed her brain for an answer. All the people here were safe.
Unless, of course, he had gone in because someone wasn’t safe and there had been people inside the tent.
But if there was, then why didn’t he say anything to them?! Conner, though not fire-proof, was infinitely more durable compared to non-metas, and Artemis has as much experience with search and rescue as Robin.
And then there was the golden question: How the hell would he have known that someone was missing?
He seemed to be in shock before her ran off, not really in the state to do a proper head-count. The crowd had been large and chaotic. It was a blur to the (mostly) coherent Artemis. That left her with… nothing. No explanation, or logical mindset.
She folded her arms, hugging herself both to stave off the cold, biting wind, and prevent her from chewing her nails off. Artemis looked up at the fire, its flames licking at the moon like a monster pulled straight from greek mythology. A mouth of fire, teeth of embers and a tongue of ash. Maybe that monster was eating her friend alive right now.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
No, that wasn’t going to happen. Robin was untouchable. Practically immortal, in the hero world. He’d been to hell and back. This cannot be what take him down. It’s too… trivial.
The brat would stumble out of there with, like, some little girls stuffed animal or something like that.
Yeah, he would look at her and Conner, all smug and mirthful and brush off their worry and scolding.
She was deep in thought when a shout sounded from the distance. She whirled around, suddenly realizing that she had gotten far too close to the burning circus.
The voice continued, sounding frantic.
Without a second thought, she ran back the way she came, rounding a sharp corner to where a figure was waving their arms and crying out. Artemis neared the person, fear mixed with hope tangling in her head.
There was something beside them. For a moment, Artemis thought it was debris.
Her stomach dropped when she got closer.
It was Robin.
Robin and the ringmaster. Crumpled in a heap on the ground, singed and unmoving.
The ringmaster, Haly—Jack? Pretty sure it was Jack—was unconscious and covered in dust. His breath was laboured and accented by harsh coughs, but there weren’t any visible burns. His arm was draped over the much smaller frame of her teammate. She averted her eyes, instead grabbing an arm full of limbs and hauling them back, away from the flames. The person who called her there was at her side, taking the weight of Haly and helping her pull them back from the brink. More hands joined as the pitiful little search party reconvened. A few flashlights lit up the pale faces of Haly and her teammate, but she was too busy watching at her footing to see.
Together they brought the two a good few hundred or so yards away from where they presumably left the big top, settling them each on the ground.
Artemis stole a glance at Robin and felt sick.
There was dark red blood smeared along his face, a gash on his temple still bleeding sluggishly. His jacket was torn, burnt, and his shoulder was smouldering. Everything was blanketed in soot, dark lines streaking down his face. Worst of all, his eye were open.
Glazed and dark but open. He was still conscious. She wanted to throw up. Instead, Artemis dropped to her knees and held a hand to his throat. She breathed a sigh of relief feeling the thrum of his pulse, too fast but not fading.
Conner was beside her (when did he get here?) breathing hard. “Here,” she slipped off her own sweater, tossing it to him without looking, “Tear that into strips.”
She hunched over Robin and, with as much care as possible, peeled off the jacket he wore. What was left of it anyways.
The sheer helplessness that washed over her when the jacket no longer obscured her view was overwhelming.
The skin of his shoulder was a mess of blisters and torn flesh. Thankfully, the scrape wasn’t particularly deep, but he was alarmingly feverish. Conner knelt on the other side of Robin, looking lost and unsure. He handed her the ripped fabric. “M’gann and Roy went to get the ship. When the—when they heard the fire start. For an evacuation. They’re coming soon. ” He paused to push back his hair. “She’s trying to keep him…” He gestured weakly, “Here.”
She had never heard him sound this breathless. She didn’t even know he could get winded. Nevertheless, Artemis nodded sternly. “Help me with him.”
Conner gingerly lifted Robin’s head and shoulders off the ground, allowing Artemis to clean the cut on his head, swiping the grime and blood away with the help of a water bottle, and wrap it as best she could.
The cloth quickly turned dark. She bit her lip, holding back a grimace. Head wounds bleed a lot, she reminded herself. This is normal.
To her utter surprise, Artemis was being glared at by the kid.
Very half-heartedly, she would admit, but he was looking at her with just the hint of a frown.
“Sorry,” she muttered to him, hoping that he could hear her, “I’m sorry.”
Patching up his head must’ve shaken him up a bit, though she couldn’t tell if he recognized her or not.
She saw his hand twitch, then drift up to his burned shoulder. Artemis swatted it down, snatching the water bottle and carefully pouring half of it over his shoulder.
Robin’s breath hitched, his body tensed, hands clawing at the dirt. “I know, I know, I know.” Artemis told him, chasing the shake from her voice. She heard a gasp from Conner, who was suddenly tearing off his own coat and using it to smother the smaller boys feet.
“His shoes.” He looked at her wildly, “It’s his shoes. They’re—“
Artemis quieted him with a pleading expression. “One thing at a time, okay?”
She turned back to Robin, who had shut his eyes tightly, a look of exhaustion and pain flittering over his features.
It was only a few moments before he went slack, unconcious and out of his misery. Yes, it was only a few moments, but Artemis wanted to scream.
Maybe tear all her hair out. Punching someone in the nose would work too. But she was stuck here waiting for back up while the circus folk looked over their ringmaster and gave them a blessedly wide berth. They hovered, but stay paces back, merely looking on with worry.
Artemis doused a strip of her mangled sweater, using what was left in the bottle. She gently draped it over the burn, hoping that it would cool the area at least a little.
She and Conner tended in what ways they could to the smaller cuts and burns, busying themselves with it. Hesitantly, Artemis shuffled toward Robin’s feet. She… she needed to assess how bad it was.
She was suddenly very grateful that Conner had been pre-programmed with first aid knowledge, otherwise this would be a hell of a lot more scary.
One look at his shoes and she was ready to burst.
God, she could smell the burnt rubber. They were melted onto his skin, fused through heat. There was no way to safely get them off. “How far are they?” She demanded, tearing her eyes away from the gruesome sight. Conner blinked, seemingly dazed.
“I, they said…” Her face twisted with desperation. “They’re gonna be here soon, right?”
His brow creased in agitation, “I don’t know.”
Artemis sat back on her heels, her shaking hands clenched tightly in her lap. “There’s nothing else I can do. They need to be here now.” She said through gritted teeth. Conner looked at her helplessly, “They said they would be back soon.”
He was reaching for a reassuring tone, trying to be like the Boy Scout himself, but it faltered into a plea.
So, they waited.
It felt like hours, the circus folk offered what they could—a cold compress, a blanket, replacement sweaters for the duo—but all they could really do was wait.
She heard from somewhere behind her the voice of the ringmaster. It wasn’t the booming commands she had grown accustom to hearing, but he was awake. It was a small blessing that at least one of them was conscious, even if he’d gotten a good amount of smoke into his lungs.
His voice was rough and intercut with coughs. Artemis couldn’t make out what he was saying, but counted his coherence as a win. There needed to be some kind of silver lining here or she would snap.
She arranged and rearranged the blanket over Robin’s form, careful to avoid the makeshift bandages. Conner simply watched, unsure of what to do or what to say. Each minute dragged on, every moment felt like far too like.
Time slowed to a crawl.
It was excruciating.
A siren sounded in the distance. It might as well have been an angles chorus.
Artemis nearly collapsed with relief. She watched at four emergency vehicles sped into the lot. Three fire trucks and an ambulance. The vehicle apparently knew where they were, heading in their direction without being waved down and suddenly a familiar feeling wormed into her head.
We’re in the ambulance.
She felt a weary smile tug at the corners of her mouth. M’gann. She had completely forgotten that the bishop’s appearance could be altered, never had she been more thankful.
A team of paramedics came from one of the firetrucks, tending to Haly while the back doors of the bioship flung open to reveal a physically altered M’gann and mask-wearing Roy. A medical mask, to be precise. Artemis had to physically restrain herself from hugging them.
The paramedics signalled that they could take care of Haly. A part of Artemis wondered if M’gann was influencing them some way so that their cover wasn’t completely blown. It didn’t matter.
What did matter was that she saw soft inflections on the younger boys face.
Robin’s eyes cracked open, clouded by a sleepy haze. M’gann dropped down beside her. “I’ve been trying to keep him from slipping.”
M’gann nodded, “He’s pretty out of it. I didn’t… you’re not supposed to sleep when you’re injured. I heard some people don’t wake up.”
That wasn’t true. Sleeping was okay. Artemis didn’t say a word about it though, she suspected M’gann was watering down the severity. Slipping sounded more like what someone would say in reference to deep shock or a coma. She was covering the worst of it. Trying not to induce panic.
A bit late for that, but the thought was nice.
Artemis turned her attention back to Robin, gingerly brushing his hair back from where it clung to his face. He stared up at nothing, drawing in slow, heavy breaths that made her want to wince. The ship had been back up as close to the three teens as possible, Conner hastily bringing Roy up to speed on the situation. M’gann placed a hand on Robin’s forehead, his eyes slipped back shut. Artemis elected to ignore the contradiction to what M’gann had said moments before. Instead she focused on helping get him into the ship safely.
The fake ambulance moved at breakneck pace, surely defying some laws of physics as they rushed to some unknown destination. Artemis assumed they were going to a hospital or zeta tube, whichever was closer.
No one spoke. The ride itself was a blur of mutely dressing the smaller scrapes and bruise that littered Robin from head to toe, cleaning off access dirt and ash and untangling his hair where it was matted with blood. There was no proper medical equipment on the ship, and, in spite of her urge to do so, she knew that asking M’gann to conjure up something useful would do nothing. She can only alter the appearance, not magically create technologies she hardly knew about.
She registered Roy speaking into a comm, addressing someone that sounded like Canary.
The sound of a zeta tube turning on. Conner opened the back doors of the still disguised bioship. The bright lights of Mount Justice were blinding. Apparently the ship could fit through the zeta if it was altered a bit.
The more you know.
Robin was spirited away the moment they arrived and Artemis promptly tried to erase the memory of his strangled breathing and sightless gaze.
The remaining teens stumbled blearily towards the common room.
She collapsed onto one of the couches and fought back the urge to scream.
M’gann, who had mindfully placed herself next to the archer, looked between her and Conner timidly, chewing her lip.
Roy was doing the same. They’d probably gotten the briefest of explanations through Conner—Robin’s hurt, come quick—and were at a loss.
To her shock, M’gann was the one to break the silence.
Artemis stared back at her blankly. “I haven’t the faintest fucking clue.”
Oh, swell of you to come again! Hope you're enjoying your stay. Massive thanks for all the kudos and comments on the first chapter, hearing what you guys think gives me motivation. Lil shoutout to Starculler (one of my favourite writers) for being nothing but enthusiastic about this story! You made me smile. Come talk to me on tumblr!
Chapter 3: Shall I Fall?
Trigger warning: discussion of injuries
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Waking up with a tube down his throat was definitely in Dick’s top three worst ways to wake up.
The other two being due to illness and kidnapping. Which was a frustratingly common occurrence for Dick.
Or wait, was it Robin? Which was he right now again?
The statement is true for both. Different reasons, same oh-so joyous experience.
Who doesn’t love broken fingers and in-over-their-head obnoxious thugs?
He tried not to gasp or gag, instead cracking open his eye to see if someone was nearby. He was greeted with the off kilter homeyness and sterile stench of a hospital. On a totally, completely unrelated note, why were people so quick to talk about hospitals as being bleached white? There’s no hospital on the planet that would have sufficient funding to uphold that and besides it would simply make patients for uncomfortable—wait, what was he doing in the hospital?
Crap maybe he had been kidnapped again.
Everything felt fuzzy and wrong. Also there was still a tube in his throat.
He glanced at the ceiling, realizing that this didn’t really smell... correct.
There was a hint of something earthy, like how freshly turned dirt smelled or the aura of the cave.
Oh. That made more sense. He was at Mount Justice. Likely in the infirmary but he didn’t quite trust his head to tell him truths at the moment.
Dick really hoped he wasn’t somehow muttering any of this aloud. God that would be hard to live down. Though he could probably blame it on the pain killers he could see being fed into his arm.
His hand felt its way to the rubbery plastic that vanished behind his teeth.
The impulsive part of him wanted to pull on the tube until he could breath correctly. The logical part was high off its ass from sedatives and shrugged as impulse took the wheel. He gave a tug and nothing happened.
He tried again.
Dick’s vision grew muddled. If pins in needles could happen in your eyes, this it what it would feel like.
A hand circled his wrist before he could make a really stupid decision. It led his hand back down to his side. Dick struggled to find details to latch onto.
It was a small hand, softer then his by a stretch. He tried to think of who it might be.
Defeintely not Conner, the hand way too small for that. Same would go for Kaldur, who was probably still in Atlantis on security detail. Couldn’t be Roy or Artemis, they both have calluses upon calluses from all the archery. Tornado was made of metal.
Wally was… not there? No, he wasn’t on the mission.
That left M’gann and Black Canary. If only he could see two feet in front of him. This should be easy! M’gann is shorter!
Also green, but that’s a less notable feature in his personal (correct) opinion.
Someone was speaking to him, looking down at him. Their voice was reverberating around the room. It was like they were talking through molasses.
Dick wondered if they knew he hadn’t a clue what they were saying. God, he desperately wanted to know who it was.
Logically, it was a doctor or Canary, M’gann was probably recovering from the brush with heat. But then again, logic was sitting in the corner of his brain, completely baked.
There was a sharp, cold sensation sliding under the skin of his forearm.
He briefly wondered what it was, before his conciousness slipped away.
The next time he woke up, it was slow. Like, really slow. His patience was non-existent as his eyes fluttered against the weight of exhaustion pushing them down.
He fought like hell for what felt like hours, biting his tongue to keep from passing out. It more or less just ended up with him tasting metal run through his mouth and wishing he could have a glass of water or something to wash the blood from his teeth.
Eventually he pried open his eyes enough to see that he was still in what he assumed was the infirmary.
Unlike his last brush with consciousness, this time his vision became decipherable. It was blurry beyond belief, but he could see. He could also feel a lot more this time. There was a chill settled over the room, making him wish that there was a thick comforter in the vicinity. Dick turned his head to the side, glaring down at the needle in his arm. It wasn’t painful, per say. But it was just uncomfortable enough that he wanted it gone. His other arm felt a lot stiffer then it should, a consistent pressure accompanying it. Muffled footsteps cut through the buzzing in his ears. They were heavy. Dick tensed and waited for someone to enter his field of vision. A dark head of hair slid into the curtained room and wow, Dick’s vision was more hazy than he thought because he couldn’t distinguish any other features besides a black shirt and pale skin. He squinted at the figure, watching a red smudge come into focus. Conner. It had to be.
No one else wore their own merch other than him.
His suspicions were confirmed when Conner noticed that Dick’s—wait, no. Not Dick. He was at the cave. It was Robin. Conner only knew Robin—eyes were open. He spoke in the auditory equivalent to a blur. Robin was at a loss.
He should say something, right? Say he’s okay and not worry his friend?
In theory, yes. That is what should happen.
In practice, his jaw locked shut and his brain went blank. Instead, he watched as Conner’s profile pulled back and dashed out of the room.
That was an impressively graceless awakening. The world was snapping into full colour, details sharpening with the rest of his senses. Save for his hearing, which was still dampened by a steady ring.
There was breeze tickling his face. Which made absolutely no sense because he was not only indoors but also underground. Robin wrinkled his nose, feeling something rubbery brush his skin, shifting over his cheeks and winding behind his ears. The breeze was accented by a hint of plastic and antiseptic.
Nasal cannula. That... wasn’t a very promising sign. Though it was infinity better than intubation.
Okay, mental checklist time.
He was at Mount Justice.
In the infirmary.
Conner was there.
Blurry vision and ringing is his ears.
He had an IV in his arm.
And he was being fed oxygen.
Almost everything could be explained by a concussion. Everything but the cannula.
The last thing he remembered was being at Haly’s. Eating with the cast and crew after setting up stages all afternoon and—
There was a fire.
Memories slammed into him like a freight train.
The explosion of heat, the burning that crawled over his skin, diving headfirst into flames and, above all, the paralyzing, agonizing terror of losing another part of his family in his own fucking home.
He sat up with a choked gasp, feeling the tug of the needle under his skin. Suddenly he didn’t much care about identity or whether he was Dick or Robin.
What had happened to Haly?
He gripped the side of the bed and swung his legs over the edge, tossing caution to the wind like one might toss trash because he needed to know what happened.
Dick knew it wasn’t a smart move as soon as he pulled off the rubber tube that ran across his face because the air instantly grew thicker. He drew in a shuttering breath and pressed on like the true concussed, self-blaming idiot he is.
His feet touched the ground. The pins and needles that flared up made him cringe. He took a step and found his balance skewing hard to one side. Dick braced himself against the wall and blinked away the fog from his vision. Something was wrong. He could feel it in his legs—no, it was his feet.
From the top of his shin down, he couldn’t... he couldn’t move.
Holding onto the wall as his a weight on his chest began to press down mercilessly, Dick tried not to lose his grip on reality.
He felt along the wall until his hand hit the edge of the cot he’d been on and then he, as carefully as possible, fell back onto it. Through some miracle, he managed to stay upright. There were a pair of shoes making their way towards him, the soft taps reading like grenades in his mind. The world became too loud and scarily still all at once.
You can’t walk.
You can’t breathe.
You didn’t save him.
Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t panic.
Dick squeezed his eyes shut.
Conner swept back into the room followed by… Dr. Leslie Thompkins?
That was, well, not unexpected. She’s his doctor, after all. But for her to be here seemed wrong. She was out of place.
Her grey hair and soft brown eyes, watching him critically from behind her glasses, simply didn’t match anything he had associated with Mount Justice. She was part of his life in Gotham, not here.
Yet, somehow, Conner looked even more misplaced than she did, his very appearance clashing with the passive undertones of the infirmary. Conner took a step towards him, “Robin! Are you—“
“Where’s Haly?” He demanded, his voice feathery and hoarse.
“What happened to him?” Dick’s words were laced with his laboured breathing.
Leslie calmly walked forward, “Lay down, hun.” Dick looked at her with wide eyes. “Is he—“
“He’s fine.” She assured, placing a hand on his uninjured shoulder. “You, on the other hand, are about to faint if you don’t lay your stubborn ass down and listen to what I say.” Despite her words, Leslie’s tone remained fond and unchallenging.
Dick relented, allowing her to prop him up and fit the nasal cannula into place. He almost sighed with relief when he was able to take in a proper lungful of air again. Conner stood awkwardly need the entrance, watching the scene before him with a mix of worry and discomfort. Dick opted to ignore him, tuning out the oddness of the whole situation as best he could. Part of it was pride.
With his spinning head and ragged breaths, Dick felt a terrible sense of helplessness. He didn’t want his teammate, his friend, to see him struggling to take in air or stand on his own two feet.
Yes, part of it was pride, but he also didn’t want to traumatize the young clone. If he pretended he was calm it might help the temperamental nature of his friend. Thankfully, Leslie picked up on the air of nervousness from both of them. “Conner?” He looked up at her expectantly, “Could you handle crowd control for me?”
Conner frowned, “Crowd control?” She nodded encouragingly, “Your friends are probably waiting outside. Keep them from barging in, will you?”
“I—okay.” With that, he was gone. Dick felt some inkling of awe at her ability to calm people. The sugary sweet tone she used with Conner was the exact same one she would use with him when he was younger. But that candy-coated exterior was breaking away in the absence of an audience. She sighed wearily, removing her glasses to glare at the sheets with an intensity he rarely saw from the woman.
“I don’t know how you manage to do this.” She told him. Her expression was grim, immovable like stone.
“How bad?” Dick asked tentatively.
“Bad enough that half your team has been sleeping outside the infirmary waiting for you to wake up.” He felt like he’d been punched.
Yeah, he’d assumed it the prognosis wasn’t great, but the fact that they were camped outside his door make a spike of anxiety slowly push through his chest.
“Wait, how long was I out?” Leslie, with the practice ease of a veteran, checked over all the bandages that wreathed his body, including the ones he hadn’t even noticed. “Just over thirty-two hours.”
She touched the gauze plastered over his temple, earning a wince. Dick stared at nothing, taking in the information she had just bluntly handed to him.
A day and a half.
Guilt welled up in the pit of his stomach, climbing to his throat. He nearly bit his tongue trying to push down the cold sensation. “And Bruce…?” Dread and apprehension threaded through each syllable. The shake in his words was hardly concealed.
“Still off-world. They’ve gone radio silent indefinitely, so you won’t have to worry about explaining yourself too soon.”
Dick looked down at his hands, gripping the fabric beneath. Leslie’s hands brushed over his shoulder, then moved to his feet.
She sat down at the foot of the bed, “Other than the concussion, you’ve got second and third degree burns over your left shoulder and both feet. Your shoes had melted to your skin so most of it was grafted. You’ll need to keep the oxygen for a few more days.”
He felt the air grow heavy again. “I can’t walk.”
She smiled apologetically, “Not at the moment, no. It’s from the scarring.” She leaned over, pulling sheets off his lower body to reveal the matching braces on his feet. Leslie pointed to his ankle. “The joints get trapped in the scar tissue, it makes movement difficult. With the severity of yours… It’s nothing physical therapy can’t fix, but it’ll take a while.” The sheets where returned to the place covering his legs.
“How long?” Dick set his jaw and hoped for the best. “Six to eight weeks.”
He deflated. Two months?
This was going to knock him on his ass for two mouths?
Dick let out a frustrated groan. Leslie chuckled sympathetically, “I know, Dick. This won’t be fun, but you always pull through. Like a damn perennial flower, I swear.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face, “I can’t hide this from him, can I.”
“I’m afraid not.” Her hand was on this shoulder again, squeezing in a gentle manner. He met her eyes, frowning, uncertain and exhausted.
“When can I start PT?”
The circus fire had gotten a good amount of coverage and tapping into Interpol’s database was easy enough. They’d dropped the investigation. Going after a tragedy-striken group was already in poor taste, but new evidence had been found that proved the circus was clean. Reports ruled out the fire as an accident: There was the carcass of a zippo lighter and traces of kerosine running from end-to-end of the big top.
The fire department was able to put out the blaze whilst police did head counts. There was only one person missing. A roustabout who just so happened to be a known smoker and carried a lighter wherever he went. No body was recovery from the wreckage, making him the prime suspect for both arson and theft.
Dick leaned back against his headboard, still looking at the screen in front of him. Perhaps he was turning into a workaholic (thanks Bruce) but he simply needed to know what had become of the case. The detective inside him had been itching to know the moment he’d been left to his own devices the day before.
Yet, with half his brain running a mile a minute, trying to keep itself busy, part of him was just relieved.
Haly’s Circus was innocent.
He smiled to himself.
Damn right they are.
He shut the screen off, folding his arms contently over his chest and letting his eyes close.
He breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth. Just as he had been advised too.
Breath in, breath out.
Dick’s eyes flew open, glaring at the ceiling with an unimpressed frown. “Well, I’m bored” He informed the empty room.
Predictably, there was no response. His gaze wandered to the door, willing it to open with someone on the other side. Anyone. Literally anyone. It had only been a few hours since he’d woken up and he was already stir crazy.
What’s worse is that he would be stuck like this for at least four more days. Not necessarily in bed, thankfully, but having to basically avoid anything mildly fun or entertaining.
He hadn’t seen anyone other than Conner and it was painful. He just… he needed to get the initial reactions out of the way. The shock, the yelling, the scolding and tears and whatever else they came up with, he just wanted it to be done and over with so he could actually talk to them.
Dick tugged at the blankets and glanced over at the clock perched on the wall. Six-thirty-two. AM.
He suppressed a groan and settled for yanking one of the spare pillow out from under his head and burying his face into it.
The whole being-cripplingly-bored thing sucked, but what’s worse was the fact that, despite his exhaustion, he’d already woken up twice. After Dr. Thompkins told him that he was condemned to banality for the next while to the tune of angry protests, she’d left.
Apparently, Dick had decided to return from the depths of a place he liked to call concussion hell in the evening. Late evening. Like, quarter to midnight. After a long conversation about what would happen in the coming months, Leslie had quite sternly told him to go to sleep.
Never in his life had he passed out so quickly without an anesthetic. He’d been woken up once by some ambiguous threat in a hazy dream, though sleep dragged him back soon enough. The second time, it was clearer. The dream was the same, he was sure of it. Of course, it was nonsensical and incoherent, but it had him sucking in precious air with fevered panic the moment he was back in the land of the living.
It was just fire. Everywhere. It spoke to him in a dull, buzzing hum, asking if Dick wanted it to eat the world. Instead of heat, the flame that curled up his body felt cold. The kind of cold when your nerves get overheated and can’t process the feeling correctly.
He was up for good this time, sleep ignored his attempts to slip back into its grasp.
Dick grumbled in annoyance, lazily pulling the pillow off his face. The blank walls stared back at him. “If only you could talk.” He said wistfully to the pillow.
He looked at it expectantly. Sadly, the pillow didn’t say a word. Not even a pity chuckle. The nerve!
Dick hugged the pillow to his chest and turned onto his side, careful not to pull out the IV (again) and, for what felt like the millionth time, tried to rest.
It wasn’t working, but he stubbornly kept his eyes closed.
A prickle of sound reached his ears. Dick stayed as he was, telling himself it was an old pipe or something as to not get his hopes up. The sound came again, more firm and clean. He heard the click of the infirmary door opening and the padding of bare feet going across the floor.
Dick had a little space to himself curtained off, similar to a shared hospital room. He couldn’t see whoever had just entered, but he watched the shadows carefully as they shifted. To his absolute delight, the person slipped through the wall of drapes and eased themselves onto the chair beside Dick’s bed.
In all honestly, Dick didn’t really know what he was expecting, he was just eager to see someone. And yet… the fact that it was Roy sitting there in the awkward little wooden chair came as a surprise.
Dick stayed still, taking stock of the clearly exhausted archer that was slumped forward with his head in his hands.
Roy clearly didn’t know Dick was up at all, the room was dark, after all, and the only reason Dick was able to see was that he’d had a solid hour for his eyes to adjust. There was an intense argument in his head on if he should say something or not. Not saying anything would be the kinder option, Roy had probably just come to settle some anxieties and then be on his merry way to make a smoothie or whatever the angsty teen did in the morning. On the other hand, speaking up would cure the insufferable boredom Dick was currently steeped in, plus the dreaded first reaction for at least one person could be out of the way.
Boredom won out.
Dick had never seen someone move that fast in his life. The chair Roy was perched on nearly tipped over at his sudden leap backwards.
Roy managed to steady the chair before he was sent tumbling, and Dick was trying not to choke on his laughter. “Are you alright?” He asked, propping himself up against the headboard. Dick was biting his lip to keep from letting loose a bought of snickers. “I didn’t know you were up.” Roy said in an uncharacteristically sheepish way. He ran a hand through his messy looking hair. One side was plastered to his head, but Dick decided to let the older boy keep a little bit of dignity.
“Yeah, I noticed.” He said with an impish smile that Roy couldn’t even see. It was in the tone though, the little teasing jab was carried in his voice alone. “What’re you doing here?” Dick dropped the underpinning of jokes and settled into something more conversational. Roy picked absently at the callouses adorning his palms, “I... couldn’t sleep?”
Dick raised an eyebrow. Lying wasn’t he strong suit, apparently.
He saw the archer cringe at his own statement. “Also no one’s seen you since you woke up. Not really.” He admitted hastily. “None of us could sleep. We were on shifts before, keeping an eye out and it was my turn anyways.”
Dick tilted his head, “How’d you know that they couldn’t— wait. Mind-link. Right.”
Roy gave a curt nod.
They lapsed into silence.
Roy continued to mess with his hands and Dick just sort of waited for a response. One that didn’t ever come. Who knew a living breathing person could be less talkative than a goddamn pillow. He tried not to become too self conscious of the cannula and wealth of bandages when he notice Roy looking him up and down. It was instinct and concern, he knew that it was. There was no ill intent from the action but it made Dick want to squirm. The feeling of being examined was never pleasant.
“Are you feeling okay?”
Dick blinked in surprise. “I mean, I guess so. About as okay as I can be right now.” He shrugged with one arm. A sloppy gesture but one that could be recognized in the low lighting.
It had recently escaped Dick how awkward Roy was with conversation. When it wasn’t to do with a mission or his constant tirade against Green Arrow, he seemed to become a lot younger. Stumbling his way through smalltalk with all the grace of a toddler.
It was kinda charming, actually. “That doctor filled us in on some of the complications. We’ll help you with moving around till you’re back up on your feet. If you want help. No pressure.”
Confusion reflected on Dick’s features. Absolute and utter confusion.
Where was the shouting? The fear and angry and all the other million things he’d expected to face?
Why wasn’t Roy doing anything.
He’d expected Roy to be the worst of them: He could handle concern and scoldings from the other three, he could reassure them if they cried or wanted answers. But Roy had a temper to be reckoned with. Conner did too, sure, but his was more built in frustration and actual triggers, not the natural simmering rage that Roy never seemed to be without.
Yet here he was, clumsy and uncertain, trying to make small talk. It made Dick’s anxiety increase tenfold. “That would be... yeah. Thanks. I won’t be able to use crutches till this mess heals up.” He gestured to his bandaged shoulder, trailing off weakly.
Roy was looking at him with more clarity now, Dick assumed his eyes were getting accustom to the low lighting. He let out a heavy sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Can you just... can you cut the crap?” He snapped with a bit more acid than necessary. Roy stared at him with glassy, baffled eyes.
“W-what? I‘m not—“
“Not what? You’re here, aren’t you?” Dick interrupted, glaring down at the archer, “You’re so calm and—! I just...” He slumped back, “I don’t wanna be in a fight. Can you just get the shouting match over with? Please?”
Roy looked at him for a long moment. He seemed confused, unsure. It wasn’t an expression at really suited the older boy. Not at all. A cocky grin or determined scowl looked far better. His face had softened, eyebrows tugged upwards in an emotion that Dick couldn’t place.
“Robin. I wasn’t going to yell at you. I’m not mad, scared half to death, sure, but not mad.” He reached out hesitantly and put a hand on Dick’s arm.
“So... you don’t want to talk about what happened?”
He leaned back, sounding skeptical and just a little hopeful. Roy paused to think, pulling his hand back to settle restlessly into his lap. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Dick was stuck, watching the archer with wide eyes and a twist in his lips.
“Not really, no.”
“Then we don’t have to talk about it.” Roy said with a shrug. A casual gesture that made the whole thing feel blissfully mundane.
Roy stayed with him through most of the day. Dick wasn’t particularly keen on dragging a tank for oxygen around the cave so he settled for the company of the older boy.
It was discovered that Dick’s sunglasses were absolutely hell on his eyes and his mask wasn’t any better.
Which was fine, honestly. The chances of anyone recognizing him was super low.
Roy lived across the country and only knew the name Wayne through the grapevine. He wouldn’t spot the kid he might’ve seen once in a tabloid four years ago and Dick Grayson tended to be shielded from the press, thankfully.
Conner has little knowledge of the outside world. He barely remembers who the president is.
M’gann is literally from mars. The only problem might be with Artemis, but Dick had to give himself a little credit. Preforming was in his blood and he was pretty careful about separating his hero identity from his civilian one. Plus there was gauze covering damn near a quarter of his face.
She’d never learned his name and in turn, after snapping a picture, he’d avoided her.
So, no glasses.
They’d seen his eyes through the circus mask anyways.
After the attempts at identity discretion, the day passed with relative ease.
The two played cards and talked about stupid stuff. Dick destroyed his opponent in every round of black jack, leaving Roy with dinner cleanup for the next month, though he probably would’ve done it anyways.
At least now Dick wouldn’t feel bad about it.
Dick was treated to several stories about Green Arrow that could certainly be used for blackmail and returned the favour with a charming anecdote about Batman’s grappling hook leaving him dangling in front of a group of police officers.
It was fun. Eventually Roy got shooed out by Leslie, who’d returned to go over some of the finer details of his recovery and prod him about returning home.
Dick very maturely turned down her suggestions with an eloquent “Nah.”
Then he was alone again.
It wasn’t nearly as bad as before. One day down, three to go!
He’d be able to at least move from room to room in just a few days. Maybe not on his own, though he could surely pester Roy into giving him piggyback rides to the common room.
He didn’t want to reacquaint himself with the mind-razing boredom of the previous night, but at the same time he was scared to leave. He didn’t ever like hospitals or infirmaries. They smelled funny and the air alway felt cold but this felt safe to him. It was keeping him separate from his friends and he didn’t want that but... what were they gonna say?
Roy had been surprisingly sensitive and respectful of the whole ordeal but he hadn’t been there when it happened.
Artemis and Conner were there.
A vague memory of M’gann struggling to keep his consciousness above some proverbial water. Her voice desperately coaxing him back from a pit of relief.
He wanted to see them with an unbelievable intensity. Really, he did.
But dear god was the anxiety brutal.
He glanced at the clock and silently hoped that it was broken and it was late enough that he could try going to sleep. He could just take a nap, sure. But Dick wasn’t really wanting to waste his daylight hours, the ones where he might get some company, on letting his brain dig for nightmares.
He picked at the meal Leslie had left for him.
His appetite had gone on vacation, leaving him with trays of mostly untouched food. He hummed to himself, wondering if those shifts Roy had talked about were still in effect.
Dick hoped so. And also he didn’t. It felt like he’d swallowed something rather unpleasant and it was twisted up in his gut, making him feel dread and loneliness all at once. Maybe... if someone who wasn’t as volatile as he assumed Artemis and Conner would be. Maybe then the squirming in his stomach was falter. M’gann would be a welcome guest. She might be upset, mad, even. But she wouldn’t be cold. She wouldn’t threaten to slap him silly or demand answers or—
There was a knock.
It came from a door beyond Dick’s field of vision, obscured by the curtains separating him from the rest of the infirmary.
Dick blinked, “Uhh. Come in?”
Low and behold, an antsy-looking M’gann had appeared at the foot of his bed. A smile tugged his mouth upwards while the martian made her way to the single chair in the room. Dick breathed out a huffed, disbelieving laugh.
“Have I ever mentioned how much I love that you’re a telepath?” She looked taken aback, eyebrows pinched together. “What?” Dick shook his head and waved off the question. “Nothing. What brings you to my neck of the woods?” He offered a grin. She didn’t return the gesture.
Would you look at that! A red flag!
He let the smile wither into neutrality, tensing as she chewed at her nails.
“We didn’t know Dr. Thompkins had left.”
Wow. She was really dedicated to not looking him in the eye. “It’s… it’s fine.” He started cautiously. “You don’t have to stay, you know.” Dick mentally slapped himself.
Impeccable tact, dumbass.
“Wait, sorry. I mean, if you don’t want to be here you don’t have to.” He stumbled his way through the explanation, wondering if he could somehow pin his insensitivity on the darling little needle filling him with painkillers. But M’gain shook her head. “No, I chose to come. Technically Artemis was supposed to be here, not me.” It was his turn to be surprised.
“Oh. Um, thanks? I appreciate the thought.”
He fiddled with his hair awkwardly, watching the girl as she clasped her hands tightly together and clenched her jaw hard enough to hurt. Something was off. She wouldn’t even glance his way, keeping her gaze trained on her feet while her lips were wrenched into a frown. “How’re things in the outside world?” His joking tone fell flat on its face. “Anything I should—“
She bowed her head and only then did he notice how her shoulders had begun to shake.
She was gonna cry.
“M’gann…” He started with all the softness he could muster.
“You’re so selfish.” She told him with more vitriolic rage than he’d ever heard in his life. Dick recoiled, wilting against his little pile of pillows that kept him upright. Like an anvil, the realization that her shaking was from anger and not tears dropped on his head. Her eyes finally meet his and Dick felt like he was looking at a stranger.
“You’re selfish and cruel.” She spat. His lipped pressed into a thin line. “I—“
“No!” She shouted, standing from her chair. “You don’t get to make excuses right now. You’re going to listen to me.” Dick’s mouth snapped shut. Her eyes were like flint. He’d never been intimidated by M’gann, not even nervous in the way one might get when meeting someone new.
That was beginning to change.
Her arms shivered at her sides, form tense as her voice rose higher.
“Did you even think about the position you were putting us all in?! What if a support beam killed you or you died of asphyxiation?” M’gann paced frantically, her arms rising to grasp at nothing.
Guilt clung to his skin like tar, heavy and thick, but he refused to be pulled down by it. He owed her that much. Just let her get it out of her system.
She pressed on.
“It’s not—Robin you can’t just do something like that.”
She rounded in him, her accusing gaze burning holes into his head.
“Not ever. I don’t care that you were trying to save someone. I really don’t because I—I didn’t know what was going on! The only information I got was from Conner. He thought you were dead and—and…”
She deflated. Dick bit down on his lip to keep from speaking. He so badly wanted to explain to her what happened. That he didn’t have a death wish and that it was because his family was about to die again and he just couldn’t go through all over—
“I thought you were dead.”
He was shaken from his thoughts at the sound of her voice breaking. If you listened close enough, he was sure one could’ve heard the exact moment his heart was split down the middle.
There were tears threatening to spill from her eyes. Hot, angry tears. That he caused because she... she thought he’d died.
Understanding was a fickle, poorly timed things. But it fell over him in that moment.
She thought he’d died.
“I don’t care if you did it for a reason because I almost lost my friend and you chose to do that!”
He did, didn’t he?
“You left us.”
“You vanished and I couldn’t feel you. Conner couldn’t hear your heartbeat and I…”
She finally stepped back. Her face crumpled as she fell back into the ever-uncomfortable chair. M’gann covered her face with her hands, drawing in a deep, stuttering breath. Her hands fell to her sides uselessly.
M’gann was a fiercely emotional person. Dick knew that. She’s an empath. She feels everything. That knowledge didn’t help when her jaw set and her bloodshot gaze locked on him.
“I’ve never felt a consciousness disappear and come back like that. It was awful.” The quiet admission was stiflingly loud. He looked away.
“No you’re not. You’re not sorry. If you were you would regret it.”
Dick shrugged helplessly. “Sorry.”
His gaze snapped up. Her eyes were still hard. He matched them best he could.
“I’m sorry that I don’t regret what I did and I’m sorry I made you feel like that. But you’re right. I’d do the same thing if I had another chance.”
Blessed, horrible, silence. This was unbearable.
Dick cautiously searched face for something other than anger.
“Are you still mad?”
He frowned and scanned the room like a proper response would be written on the walls.
Shocker, it wasn’t.
“Damn. Okay, well, what can I do? I can’t be sorry and I can’t go back in time so what do you want from me?” M’gann fixed him with an uncharacteristically steely look. Some part of Dick’s mind heard the click of a door shutting.
“Get better. Prove all my anxieties wrong and get better.”
“Alright. Deal.” He tried for a smile but was quickly shot down by her sharp look. M’gann let the expression drop, looking almost apologetic. In the corner of his eye, Dick caught a glimpse of a figure standing vigil.
“Robin I swear... if you pull something like that again I’m going to smack you.”
She swept out of the room, holding a hand over her face to obscure the fact that she was dangerously close to crying. The figure pulled into focus. Conner, looking nervous and dumbfounded, shuffled into the room and watched the martian leave.
Huh. She did threaten to slap him. Maybe he didn’t have as good a handle on her as he thought. Or maybe his head getting knocked around was messing with his insight.
Either way, he’d been wrong.
Dick frowned and decided that the feeling or being wrong was, in fact, unpleasant.
The act of being wrong was equally unpleasant but... it was helpful.
Conner’s voice cut through his train of thought.
Dick blinked, his brow creasing slightly in thought.
Physical or mentally? The answer for both was inconclusive. He breathed out a sigh anyways and let his mouth quirk up into a ghosting, exasperated smirk.
“Yeah. Think so.” He looked to Conner with trepidation. A tired feeling wrapped around him.
“You gonna chew me out too?” Dick asked, sounding resigned.
Conner choked on a laugh.
“Oh, no. You’re fine. It was stupid and reckless but... you know. Pot, kettle?”
Fire, fire and, what a surprise, more fire.
It surrounded him, choking out his voice and turning his vision muddy.
Like some kind of macabre blanket made up of flame and ash.
Do you want me to eat the world?
His lungs refused to take in air. He was suffocating. He couldn’t breathe.
He woke up.
With quite a start, actually. He nearly flinched his way off the side of the mattress. Dick caught himself before he could topple over the side, saving himself from a lecture from Leslie. Harsh, frantic panting filled the silent room. He sat with his he pressed against his knees for however long it took for his pulse to slow.
Dick looked around the room for something. An explanation. A reason for the dream. Twice was a coincidence, three times was a pattern.
So what was the common denominator?!
There was no source of heat. Nothing to obscure his breathing. The nasal cannula was still securely resting on his face.
Not even a whiff of smoke or spark of light.
Dick curled in on himself as far as his shoulder and feet would allow.
It was him, wasn’t it?
Dick’s hand was swatted away from his head. “Hey!” He protested, wincing slightly at the newfound pressure over his temple. “Oh hush, you’re fine.” Leslie chided as she finished re-wrapping the gash on his forehead. She shook her head, exasperated. “Honestly, you’re almost as bad a patient as Bruce.”
He held a hand to his chest in mock offence, complete with an unnecessarily loud gasp, “I’ll have you know I’m an excellent patient!”
A barley restrained snort escaped the woman. “You tried to set up a dart board on the wall yesterday.”
Dick nodded with a smug, enthusiastic grin, “A worthy endeavour.”
Leslie was at her wits end and he couldn’t help but feel a little bit of enjoyment in teasing her a bit. Everything was so tense that her flexibility and willingness to humour him was a godsend.
Her hands fluttered around his feet, undoing the braces to look at the damaged skin.
He’d been avoiding looking at them directly, knowing just from her expression that it was a nasty sight.
It felt awful too. Like there was layers and layers of sand-coated tape, chuffing and rubbing his skin raw whilst keeping it it painfully still.
Two days. Only two days left.
Then he could get out of the infimry. He could make it.
Leslie poked and prodded him, asking a million questions.
Can you move this? Can you feel that?
The answer was always no. He wanted to deny it, he wanted to put his faith in the miracles of Leslie Thompkins, but a sliver of his mind still mumbled into his ear about how there was a chance he wouldn’t regain mobility. He shook it away each time, reminding himself that it was unlikely to begin with, and even if there were complications, this wasn’t a jail sentence.
It was simply... change.
He was a creature of adaptation.
“Stop messing with your IV.” She snapped.
He tilted his head, feigning innocence, “Only if you let me put up the dart board.”
She cradled the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “You’re going to be the death of me.”
The rule was that he wasn’t to get up to retrieve the darts. That was the only rule. Dick raised his eyebrows in amusement but agreed. He’d just have to come up with a way to get them back without getting up.
Would she tolerate a grappling hook for darts...?
Artemis’ was the most unceremonious of all.
She sauntered in, pizza in hand and nothing but socks on her feet
“Dumbass.” She declared.
“Artemis.” He responded without missing a beat. She sprawled out casually beside him on the bed.
“You owe me an explanation for nearly sending me to an early grave.”
“Sending you… what?” The sudden fear that maybe she’d actually followed him into the fire shouted loudly at the forefront of his mind.
“Nearly gave me an aneurysm, jackass.”
He slumped back. “Thanks for returning the favour.”
“Don’t mention it.” She smiled cheekily, resting her head on his stomach.
“Seriously though, what gives?” Artemis asked with her feet half dangling off the edge of the mattress. He momentarily considered pushing her off the bed altogether.
But that would be a tad mean-spirited though, wouldn’t it?
Instead, he shoved her off his stomach playfully and considered his options.
He could always tell the truth, right?
I grew up in that circus and have a cripplingly fear that the rest of my family will die like my parents did?
Doesn’t really roll off the tongue. “If I say instinct, will you drop it?”
She seemed so unbothered. It was bizarre and... well, kind of freaky. Her casual demeanour and very Artemis teasing, all felt surreal.
A nice change if pace from the all the scolding he’d gotten from their resident martian and one Leslie Thompkins.
Looks like he’d miscalculated on everyones reactions this time. “Probably not. Feel free to try though.”
Dick nodded, masking his face with an obvious facade of stoicism. “It was instinct.”
Artemis poked him in the ribs. “Bullshit.”
He glared at the ground. “Damn it.”
Artemis swung herself upwards, sitting cross legged at the end of his bed. Dick stared past her at the newly installed dart board, complete with a return system he liked to call Bugging My Friends To Do Things For Me.
It worked wonders, and was also the only option Leslie would allow. Which was a real shame because Dick thought that the stick-with-a-magnet idea was quite creative on his part.
“Duck.” Artemis hunched down as he chucked a dart.
Thirty points! Not bad. A hand reached over and snatched a dart from his grasp.
She tossed it like it was second nature, barley glancing at the wall before turning to him with a smug grin.
A goddamn bullseye.
Dick grumbled and crossed his arms. “Cheater.”
“Question dodger.” She shot back, stealing to last dart and matching her previous aim. He threw a pillow in response, crossing his legs awkwardly.
He was only halfway through processing that she was here.
After spending, like, three days avoiding him like the plague, she comes in without knocking and starts dragging him through the proverbial mud.
Did she come here just to make fun of him?
“Did you come just to make fun of me?” She shrugged noncommittally. “Did you come here just because you messed up your feet?”
Dick grinned. Artemis blanched, realizing her mistake immediately.
“Who’s dodging questions now?”
She drew back a pillow in an almost menacing manner. Besides the fact that it was, you know, a pillow.
Her glowering was truly impressive nonetheless.
“I will suffocate you. No one’s here to stop me.” She inched forward as Dick tried to contain a snort.
He tilted his head and put on the best damn puppy eyes he could.
“Not even your conscience?”
“Nope.” She deadpanned with a shake of her head. “Killed that pesky voice ages ago. My moral compass is a roulette wheel.” The pillow found a home crashing into his face and knocking him off balance enough to rock backwards. He resurfaced with a raised eyebrow and a stubborn smile that refused to die down.
“Wow. I’m scared.” His performed fear was impeccable. No criticism would be accepted.
Artemis finally broke into a laugh.
“You should be. The answer is no, by the way. Your turn.”
His face fell just a little. She wanted an explanation. That wasn’t as simple as she probably thought.
Should he lie? He could probably come up with something plausible on the spot but if he messed up the details later she might call him on it. Also, Dick would feel bad.
Technically he did lie to her, like, all the time. But it wasn’t to her face. It was a lie of omission. Completely different.
It’s not like she’d ever asked if he was Dick Grayson. It’s not like she knows who Dick Grayson is. Now would be too direct.
Could he stall? She is as stubborn as he is, no way she’d lay off without some kind of answer.
Now there was a wild card. Would she even believe him? It sounds sort of made-up, in all honestly. There was a lot of tragedy in the world but Dick was certain there wasn’t any quiet like his.
He did trust her. A lot. And it was sorta unfair the he knew her secrets but she would oblivious to his. This wasn’t how it should go though. On his own terms, with warning and a way to keep Bruce from finding out... one day.
So, a partial truth? Yeah.
“So?” She prompted, poking his leg a few times.
He tried to sound casual. “I noticed Haly was missing. I wasn’t really thinking straight but I didn’t want him to die.”
He paused. Her expression had sobered to one of sincerity. The lighthearted air didn’t leave, but it dulled to a whisper.
“I worked on a case for that circus a few years ago. A family was killed. They—the circus folk, they’re good people. They’ve had enough tragedy and don’t deserve go through that kind of loss again.”
Artemis studied him for a long moment. He, for what felt like the millionth time, was now very away that he had a charming little tube to help him breathe properly and bandages crosshatching their way across him limbs. She wasn’t looking at them though. She was just staring at him. Dick blinked at her in bemusement. Eventually, Artemis nodded curtly. Her feature shifted back to the more sly, playful half smile.
“I see you’ve ditched the glasses.”
He was grateful for the change in subject.
Part of him worried that he gave away too much. But he did have a way out if she did manage to do some sleuthing.
Are concussions fun? No. Absolutely not. They suck.
However, they are also convenient excuses to give a pissed-off Bruce after Artemis inevitably puts the pieces he handed her together.
“Wearing sunglasses indoors was dumb anyways.”
Her agreement rang clearly. She propped her feet up on his legs and leaned back before launching into what sounded like a prepared rant about his bad eyewear choices. “Did you practice this?” He asked her incredulously, bucking her limbs off his own. She replaced them as soon as they’d been removed. “In the mirror, every day.” She told him.
Dick honestly couldn’t tell if the archer was joking or not. Her sense of humour was drier than a desert and stuffed with more second meaning than a victorian stage play. It would be cool if he wasn’t so competitive about who had the best jokes.
So, in response he narrowed his eyes and, again, kicked her legs away, much to the protest of his burned feet.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Dick asked, swatting at her when she tried for the third time to use him as a footrest.
“I’m on winter break right now, actually. So I can hang around and be a menace to you all week.” She drawled.
Her smile was one of tomfoolery and mischief. Any other day he would be thrilled to see her in this particular mood, as it’s when they would have the most fun and get to be agents of chaos, terrorizing all with an endless arsenal of awful puns and impromptu bits.
Now that it was directed at him... he finally understood why Wally never stayed for team sleepovers.
“Oh joy.” Dick scrubbed half-heartedly at his eyes as Artemis retrieved the darts from across the room. She handed two to him and flattened herself against the bed while he took aim.
“What about you?” She inquired, “Got an excuse lined up for being missing from classes?”
“We go to the same school, actually”
“I wasn’t supposed to say that.”
She gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, “If it’s any consolation, I hardly know anyone at school anyways. Your secret is probably still safe.” He never could’ve expected she would take that so well. Dick was sure, had the situation be any different, she would demand more clues or an outright confession. He was a little disappointed, is her was being honest. It would’ve been a silly thing that he could dangle in front of her nose for a while, a bargaining chip for her to slip him snacks and other things while he was confined to moving much slower. But he simply shrugged with a nervous smile. “If you figure it out just, like, don’t tell anyone, please? I don’t really mind if you guys know but Bats is a bit of maniac about secretes.” She nodded. Her dart found its way just outside the red centre. His managed to land beside it.
“Do we have any classes together?”
Finally! The day had come! After four and a half days of sitting in bed with a needle jammed in his arm and a tank of oxygen keeping him from leaving the room, he would be released.
A long sentence, he had faced. Truly.
Leslie entered the infirmary the way she always did: Without a sound and scaring the crap out of Dick when she materialized beside him. She’d scanned over him, making notes about him arm and the scarring around his ankles. According to her, his shoulder was healing up nicely and should be good for use in about a week. Which meant he could get around on his own. “Don’t go trying to get up just yet,” She warned when she saw his eyes light up at the news, “It’ll be functional, but not completely healed. No acrobatics, no training.” He scowled at her, raising a fist dramatically, “Alas, my plight continues.” She rolled her eyes and pushed now his hand, much to Dick’s amusement. He discovered that Leslie was, in fact, capable of laughing at his jokes, but only the really weird ones. For some reason, the woman found middle-english quite funny. He’d managed to coax a few chuckles out of her through the use of words with far too many syllables and a touch of theatrics.
What was the saying? You could take the boy out of the circus…
Leslie rounded on him, placing his hands behind his ears and lifting the cannula away from his face. “Freedom!” He cheered. He’d be able to move into one of the spare rooms at the cave, despite Leslie nagging him to go home. That was a bridge he would only cross when absolutely necessary, and until then he would happily meander along the riverbed. He felt sort of bad for leaving Alfred out of the loop, but he’d told the older man he would be staying at the cave during winter break anyways to cover for his absence while undercover. It wasn’t really a lie, but at the same time it definitely, totally was and his guilt had almost persuaded him to call the manor and at least explain the situation. He beat back the impulse with a stick.
“I’ll be checking in every other day. If I hear that you’re doing anything you’re not supposed to, I’m dragging you to a proper hospital for the next month.” He saluted with his good arm. “Yes Ma’am!”
A moment passed and he began to fidget. “So… I can start in a week, right? PT. You said before once my shoulder was okay…” He trailed off, glancing up at her hopefully. She gave one of those painfully sweet smiles, the ones reserved for the kids who came into her clinic and Conner, who she’d taken quite the shine to. “In a week, yes. Until then, you need to let your friends help you.”
The spare room was bland and characterless. It was infinitely better than the infirmary because, for one, he could lock the damn door. The walls weren’t seventy precent curtains. he hand access to books and food and he wasn’t having to constanly worry about accidentally pulling his IV out. Best of all, there was a chair. With wheels. A simple office chair, but one that didn’t require his legs to be full-functioning. He never would’ve guessed he could be this excited over the prospect of a rolling chair. Dick closed his eye and breathed in, relishing the absence of sanitizer and plastic.
Just one week.
So I feel like people might find M’gann OOC here... which is why I kinda wanna explain? She's an empath, other peoples states of mind impact her and she’s been shown in canon to lash out when she’s panicked or fearful. I imagine with something this traumatic, she’d be not only terrified but furious that she was put in that position.
Basically, my explanation is that, surprise surprise, M’gann gets angry sometimes too! Especially when it comes to her friends. Anyways, comments and kudos are always appreciated, hope y’all don’t mind this chapter being both late and really long. Talk to me on tumblr!
Chapter 4: I Prefer to Sing
Trigger warning: Brief descriptions of injuries and depiction of nightmares.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Getting aquatinted with the floor had become a common occurrence for Dick, much to his dismay.
“Try it again.”
Leslie stood to his left, watching him critically. He could practically feel her eyes burning into him.
“Nope. I live here now. The floor is my home.” He said, using every available ounce of patience to hold back a more scathing remark.
This was the third time he’d fallen. It hadn’t even been half an hour yet. “Dick,” Leslie prodded, walking into his line of sight and kneeling to eye level.
He looked away with a grumble, then slowly began to push himself onto his knees and look up at the woman. Her glare was a mix of genuine frustration and the hidden undertones of sympathy. She had warned him that this would be hard, and she had promised not to sugar coat. That knowledge didn’t make him feel any better though. Dick reached up, grasping the parallel bars above him and heaving himself up.
He draped an arm, the one that was fully functioning, over one of the rails and balanced precariously on the heels of his half-healed feet. It hurt to move them. Each flex and twitch felt like his skin was being torn and pulled like the stitches of an old shirt being yanked apart.
They’d spent the first fifteen or so minutes on a series of stretches that, while simple and easy, were agonizing in practice. Dick was worried he might’ve actually ripped his own flesh open by the time they’d finished. Leslie offered to stop for the day, or even to take a break.
But his stubbornness was a force to be reckoned with.
Leslie gave him an approving nod. “Two steps.”
He grasped the other bar and stared down at his bandaged legs. He was still refusing to look at the burns themselves, only re-dressing them when needed and allowing Leslie to take care of any antibiotics necessary. Apparently burns are highly susceptible too infections.
He carefully lifted his left foot off the ground, almost completely holding his weight on the twin railings instead of the actual limb. He could barely force it a centimetre above the floor. Dick’s jaw was locked shut in concentration, he could already feel the tension building into a darling little headache. It helped him concentrate though and a headache could easily be dealt with.
Though weak and shaky, he managed to take a single step. There was sweat tracing its way down the back of his neck. With equal care, he dragged his other foot forward.
He wobbled dangerously before righting himself.
Dick grinned fiercely at Leslie. She smiled in turn. Dick promptly let go of the railing with trembling hands, flopping gracelessly onto his back. Still, he beamed at the ceiling.
“I am… beholden to no gods.” He gasped through his breath, though the confident tone was undercut by the fact that he was nearly panting. A lick of laugher came from above him. “Sure you aren’t. Let’s see you do three.” Leslie challenged. There wasn’t any bite to it though, and Dick knew she hardly expected him to improve that quickly, but it sure as hell got him back up.
He managed to take four steps by then end of the hour Leslie allotted to his rehabilitation. Dick, frankly, didn’t really care that it was comparatively meager to everything he was normally capable of. He took four steps and it hurt more than he would ever care to admit, but he did it on his own.
That felt great.
After being immobile for a week and a half, four steps was more then enough. He could spare some patience for this. He allowed himself some time to catch his breath, waving a perpetually exasperated Leslie out with a reassuring smirk. Her exit made the room feel ten times bigger.
They’d taken to using small gym where the team could normally work on weight training and conditioning. It was closed off from the rest of Mount Justice so they could have a little more privacy but still large enough to accommodate the set of parallel railing Dick was using. He took his time stretching before he left, trying to regain some of the flexibility in his shoulder, as well as the typical, egregiously contorted forms that would earn a shriek from anyone who saw.
Dick clambered his way to the door, a crutch wedged under each arm.
See, it wasn’t that he couldn’t stand, so long as he was balanced and didn’t do it for too long, it was relatively simple. It was the actual joints that were the issue: They were wrapped up in scar tissue and tight-pulled skin grafts, like a shoe that had yet to be broken in.
On the one hand, it meant that he could get around with crutches. Hooray! Independence!
On the other hand, it also meant that the process of walking was taxing and… unpleasant. That is to say, walking felt like every ounce of blood had drained from his legs while phantom pins would push into his skin without mercy.
Manageable, but painful.
He tried not to wince at the all to apparent clicks from his crutches as he made his way towards the common room. He really missed being able to sneak up on people.
Artemis, true to her word, had stuck around for the week and kept him company, whether he wanted it or not, complete with her appearing out of nowhere to announce her newest theory on why Dick had swan dived into an explosion, each more absurd then the last.
His personal favourite was when she speculated that he was a robot in disguise that thought fire couldn’t harm them until it was too late. How she managed to keep a straight face while spouting comedic gold, he would never know.
He had gotta a taste of his own medicine ad nauseam, being startled by her sudden presence. Much to her delight and to his frustration.
Needless to say Dick was looking forward to regaining his stealth. Payback was coming her way.
His thoughts were interrupted by the deafeningly loud little creak of his crutch. It wasn’t really that loud but it might as well have been a cymbal crashing. Dick slowly rounded the corner, nearing his destination. He only half expected someone to be there: Roy and Artemis had, after a long and tedious discussion, relented to Dick’s nagging and went home. Conner had mostly kept himself busy with Wolf and M’gann, though no longer mad, had mostly left him alone.
So it came as a bit of a shock to see Wally leaning against the kitchen counter with his nose in a a bowl of cereal. That shock was quickly replaced with dread. He’d been vehemently avoiding this since the first call from Wally.
He’d had been at some kind of retreat, a class trip, for much of Dick’s recovery time thus far, or at least that’s what Artemis had told him. No reception, no zeta tubes, no leaving without permission. It was a stroke of luck because the inevitable conversation with Wally was one sure to be rich with discomfort and awkwardness. He’d ignored every text and call from his friend, internally justifying it with the notion that they should talk face to face.
He was regretting that decision.
Dick was considering slipping back into the hall and maybe hiding in the vents when Wally set down his bowl. He froze upon seeing Dick standing there, wide-eyed and panicked. “Hi, Rob” Wally said, rather unceremoniously.
He stared at the red-haired boy with a sense of loss. “Uh, hey.”
Wow, very elegant Grayson.
Wally, to his relief, didn’t come any closer. He instead hoisted himself onto the island countertop and eyed the space for a moment, then turned his gaze back to Dick. An invitation. That was… more mature than he’d expected. Dick made his way to the island that housed a few stools, easing himself onto one. Wally studied him all the while.
It was quiet, save for his stupid crutches.
The silence was broken suddenly, “You ignored my calls.” Wally said plainly. He didn’t sound angry, just curious and maybe a little sad. Like he’d only just realized he was doing a puzzle with missing pieces.
Dick shrugged helplessly, “I didn’t know what to say.” The speedster snorted and some of the tension melted, “Oh, I don’t know,” He started, “A hello would’ve been nice.”
He sighed, “It’s okay man. I was just worried.” Though he hadn’t moved from his perch, Wally was leaning forward, trying to peak under the mess of hair that was obscuring the younger boys eyes. “Why…” Dick winced internally. Here it comes.
“Why didn’t you take me with you?” Yep. There was his resolve, a little puddle on the ground, dissolved by Wally’s disarming, innocent concern. Oh, to be young and guileless.
He felt a cynical laugh push up through his throat at the thought. His friend was years older and yet Dick felt like their roles had been reversed. “I didn’t want you to do that… that thing!”
Wally looked at him quizzically, “What thing?” Dick groaned settled his head into his hands. “That thing where you look at me like I’m made of glass.” He pulled a hand through his hair, scanning the room for something else to look at. “I don’t hate that you do it, I know it’s not on purposed but it I just—I couldn’t have it on a mission.” He explained, hesitantly meeting Wally’s eyes.
“Yeah, the mission that you made up.” He shot back with all the fierceness of a rabbit. His face way shinning in a special sort of way, the teasing little tilt of his lips reaching all the way through his expression.
It was a bit relieving to know that, no matter what, Wally was a constant. He was loud, tactless, and forever considerate. It was wonderfully infuriating.
“Dude,” An incredulous tone coloured Wally’s voice, “That’s my job. I’m your friend. I’m going to worry.”
“Yeah, I know.” The admission was close to a whisper.
The speedster shifted, hand hands fiddling with a loose string. Silence stretched for a moment, a long one. Then Wally’s face fell, if only by an inch. “I wish I’d been there.” He looked at his hands, willing his fists to loosen enough that colour returned to his knuckles. “Yeah,” Dick breathed softly, “Me too.”
He stared down, expecting more stifling quietness, when Wally spoke up.
“I talked to that doctor.” Dick looked to him in surprise at the sudden comment, “I ran into her as when she was headed out. I’d just gotten here and… she told me you haven’t talked to Bats yet. Or Alfred.”
“He’s off world,” Dick said hesitantly. “—radio-silence indefinite, I know.” Wally interrupted gently.
Dick made a mental note to address Leslie as a traitor from here on out. Handing out vital information without his knowledge was, admittedly, probably the best decision, but it didn’t dampen the sting any less. “Rob, why haven’t you gone home?”
Dick fumbled with his crutches for a moment before standing. Wally held out a hand, ready to protest before he caught the subtle jerk of Dick’s head, motioning for him to follow. The older boy slide from the counter and trailed after Dick as he calmly made his way towards the exit located at the base of the mountain. He didn’t fail to realize how Wally was walking slower, taking steps that seemed to drag along the floor. He did, however, elect to stay quiet on the matter.
“You gonna tell me where we’re going?” He asked hurriedly, to which Dick only huffed. “Okay, okay. Patience is a virtue, I get it.” Wally’s hands went up in surrender. He sped up his pace, walking backwards so he could see the younger boy’s face as they went.
Half of Dick wanted to wait it out until his friend tripped or ran into a wall, while other half was cursing the fact that he couldn’t simply pull some acrobatic feat and land himself in front of his painfully persistent friend. His attention was snapped back to reality when Wally caught his gaze, “Seriously, Robin.” He fully stopped, placing a careful hand on both of Dick’s shoulder to keep him still. “You should at least call Alfred and tell him what’s going on. He deserves that much, right?”
A frown crawled over Dick’s lips, “Did Leslie put you up to this?”
What a spectacular lie it was; Wally could be read like a book. Dick wretched his eyes up to look past the mix of greens and reds that made up his friends profile and stubbornly pushed on.
High treason, he declared internally.
Leslie Thompkins was dead to him. A traitor and a scheming jerk who, once again, was right to go behind his back. Not that he would ever tell her that.
“So what if she did!” Wally kept pace with him easily, trying to block his path in what ways he could. He was doing everything short of picking Dick up, though the thought had no doubt crossed his mind. “I mean, she’s got a point, right? You need to talk to them eventually and staying here isn’t doing you any favours.”
Dick didn’t falter.
Wally suddenly looked much more tired than he previously let on. Every feature softened, his brow creased and his mouth pulled shut into a stiff line. “Robin,” His voice was stern and absolute. “Talk to me, man. Please.” They’d nearly reached the exit carved into the side of the mountain, it was just a few dozen yards away.
The urge to escape the growing claustrophobia of being in a literal cave was overtaken by a defeated sigh, pure and simple. “If I go now I’ll have to do it twice. I already had to explain myself to everyone who was on the mission. It’s exhausting and… and if I can just wait until Bruce is back, then it’s two birds, one stone.” He gripped his crutches, his balance swaying just a bit. “I’m not ready yet. I know it’ll come eventually and I know it’s selfish, but I don’t have the energy to keep telling people I did a stupid thing that I don’t even regret doing.”
He kept his eyes trained forward to where the outline of the exit stood. Dick really didn’t want to look back and see whatever expression Wally was wearing, because it would probably just make him feel worse. Whether it was pity or disappointment, even a smile would feel like a punch to the gut.
“If that’s what you want to do, then alright.” Wally clapped a hand on his good shoulder, his face made up in neutral acceptance.
“Wait, seriously?” Dick asked skeptically. No way it was that easy, right…?
Well, maybe it was. This is Wally, after all. A constant, grounding presence. “Yeah. It’s not my choice to make anyways and I’m sure you’ll have enough people bugging you about it anyways.” He gave a noncommittal shrug.
“Gee, thanks Wally. Very encouraging.” Dick playfully swatted at the hand still resting on his shoulder. “I’m right aren’t I? Like always.” He rolled his eyes as Wally chuckled breezily, offering up the same lopsided smile he always brought out when he was content. He smiled like that often.
Dick drew in a deep breath, blowing it out in a single huff. He nodded to the exit, glancing to his friend with a familiar glint in his eye. “I’m bored out of my mind. Wanna be my accomplice for some slight criminal activity?”
Do you want me to eat the world?
Dick wanted to scream.
A mouth made of splinters and eyes of ember stared down at him, flames writhing around its horribly humanoid face. It was smiling at him, glee radiating from the grin that spit across the misshaped checks.
Do you want me to eat the world?
It asked him again. Dick’s mouth gone. It was literally gone, stolen from him and replaced with a seared wound as though it had been a cauterized slash.
He wished to scream out. No. Don’t touch anything.
Dick knew it would make no difference anyways. The fire was spinning madly on like a hurricane, bringing ruin to the mismatched settings—the backyard of the manor, Happy Harbour’s boardwalk, the common room at Mount Justice, a snow kissed field, a trailer car that he remembered from when he was young—and there he sat in the centre.
Stuck in the eye of the storm, his feet already having failed him, his arm and head throbbing. He felt cold.
There was fire all around him and all he felt was a biting wind cutting through his skin. His arms were trembling beneath him. The face twisted, distorting its features into something much more familiar.
Dozens of people appeared in the flames.
Bruce was there, a mocking laugh on his tongue that wasn’t his. Then it was Haly, sneering down at him with sparks flying from the hand that formed from ashes. It was Wally, screaming. Alfred simply stared at him. M’gann and Artemis’ features were mashed together in a perverse way that Frankenstein would’ve surely been jealous of. It sifted through the faces of classmates, friends, family, even the people he’d saved as Robin. He couldn’t move.
The dizzying array of people stopped without warning.
It was him.
That was his face.
The monster smiled with the mouth it had stolen from him. Dick’s hands flew to the burn over his lips and began to tear and rip at any inch of flesh his nails found purchase in.
He could almost taste the blood that spilled over his lips. The flames peered down at him, teeth chattering together in anticipation while Dick spat red into the blazing void. He dragged himself up on blistering feet, the scorched soles nearly crumbling away when he threw his weight onto them.
Do you want me to eat the world?
If this monster would wear fire then so would he. Dick breathed in bloodied gasps.
The ground exploded.
Somehow, Dick had gotten outside.
The voice still rang in his ears and the image of his friends (his family) smiling with a face made of flames sent him reeling.
He remembered waking up, panicked and dizzy. He remembered grasping for his crutches and the familiar tugging, burning sensation around his feet when he walked. And he remembered falling onto the sand and trying to catch his breath.
He sat with his knees under him, one hand gripping the fabric of his shirt desperately looking out over the water of Happy Harbour.
It was such a beautiful night.
Dick hated it.
The moon bleached the sand silver and coloured the waves lapping at the shore. Theres was an ambient hush around the scene that Dick was disrupting. He inched closer to the water, trying to find something in its depths to latch onto. Something that was dull and cold and not a ball of fire floating through space. He could feel the stars glaring down at him. He was shaking, breathing only in gasps and trying not to throw up. His eyes stung so he buried them into his arms.
Every part of him longed to scream.
Not at anyone or for anything; he had nothing to say. Dick wanted to scream because there was nothing else he could do. His breathing began to slow along with the thrumming of his pulse, but his mind raced on. The backs of his eyelids showed him the same images from his dream
They played like a shadowbox on loop, forcing him to watch everything burn and burn and burn—
A cool—wet?—pair of hands pressed against his back, pulling him sharply from his thoughts. He could feel the filmy web between the fingers that gripped him and he lifted his eyes from the water. Kaldur was kneeling beside him, dripping with star-washed droplets. About thirty questions came to mind, the first of which was just… seriously?
What are the chances? Dick was in the middle of his very own mental break and somehow Kaldur had shown up. One in a million odds. Or something like that, he’d do the math later, right now his head was still pounding.
“Are you okay?” Was the first thing out of the older boy’s mouth. God this all felt so ridiculous. A bitter laugh slipped from his lips before he could shove it down. “Take a wild guess.”
Some of the concern melted from Kaldur’s face, “What happened?” He pulled his hands away, remaining by the younger boys side. His ever-calm eyes looked just slightly troubled. Dick just felt tired and sick.
He’d already done this. How many times would be enough? He held his stare against Kaldur’s own piercing gaze, smiling weakly. “Who’s to say.” His voice was brittle and glib. Kaldur looked away, a shadow of what could only be called shame fell over his face, though why was unbeknownst to Dick.
“M’gann contacted me. She told me what happened.”
“Did she now?” Dick mused, forcing himself to straighten where he sat and unclench his hands from his collar. He was getting a bit fed up with constantly being watched and studied.
It was one thing for Leslie to prod him like a specimen, at least she knew that when he snapped and told her to buzz off the it wasn’t really directed at her. At least she knew to brush it off and he wouldn’t feel like a jerk later because he knows she gets it.
Most people don’t get it.
Such as Kaldur. Unflinching, compassionate Kaldur. He was looking at him in the same way everyone else did and it made him squirm.
“She did.” He admitted, bowing his head ever so slightly. Dick hummed in response, continuing to let himself unfold from the curled position, cramming the thoughts that were running circles in his head into a corner of his mind where they wouldn’t bother him.
“May I ask a question, Robin?” He was walking on eggshells, Dick could tell from the inflection in his voice. Or at least he thought he was walking on eggshells. Said proverbial eggs and already been trampled to hell and long since learned to grow a thicker skin and now… the metaphor was running away from him. He didn’t need to be handled with kid gloves and was, again, getting real sick of everyone doing it. Dick held back what felt like his millionth sigh of the day, “Shoot.”
“Was it a nightmare?”
Dick was tempted to ask if he was clairvoyant or just freakishly good at reading him. He almost hoped it was the former because if it wad the latter then his mask had been slipping more than he’d realized. Or maybe Kaldur was always able to look at him and see the truth, no matter how many layers of lies it was covered by. Who knows? Who cares.
“Can I stay?”
“I don’t own the beach.” Dick said with a rather pathetic shrug. Kaldur fixed him with a more stoic expression, “Apologies, I’ll rephrase. Do you want me to stay?”
He raised an eyebrow at the older boy, an almost invisible hint of bemusement striking through his face. “I could use the company.”
He fell back, sprawled out with his head tilted to the heavens, Kaldur soon following his example curiously. They laid there, staring at the fire in the sky and listening to the ocean slowly swallow up their feet.
Not that Dick could really feel it. He could tell that it was cold, any other time it might’ve been refreshing. But with the layers of bandages upon bandages wrapped up to his shin, nothing could actually touch him. Maybe this is how the tin man felt, with his hollowed out skin and lack of nerves.
He stretched his arms up to be pillowed under his head, the dull shine of the moon flaring in his vision like a halo. Dick squeezed his eyes shut.
“You know the stupidest thing about all this?” He asked aloud, “No one was supposed to know. We would’ve been in and out, find the culprit and be back before anyone knew we were gone. It should’ve been so easy.”
Kaldur sat up. The soft light accented the crease in his brow and reflected in his eyes like a mirror. He looked down at Dick, practically towering over him with both hands buried in the sand.
“Why didn’t you ask me to join you?” He asked, a tempest hissing at the back of his throat while Dick could hear the crumbling of damp sand between his fingers. He wanted to stay quiet, but his conscious stubbornly refused. He outlined constellations with a heavy breath pulling into his lungs. “You’re way to observant. Would’ve seen right through me.” The weight beside him moved. Kaldur looked otherworldly with tinfoil waves crashing behind him. His eyes were soft as ever, “It’s okay to be upset, Robin. It’s okay to cry.” Dick grit his teeth and shook his head.
A larger hand grasped his own and suddenly Kaldur was half-carrying him towards the water. “What’re you—?!” He didn’t dare squirm out of the older boys hold. “You can swim, can’t you?”
Dick looked vaguely offended, “Of course I— I’ve been swimming with you before!” Kaldur just nodded, seeming to not notice how the shore was quickly disappearing under their feet and water climbed past his waist. “Then it shouldn’t be an issue.” He was sharp and confident in a way the didn’t leave room for argument.
Naturally, whether he was Robin or Dick, there was always room for argument. “Does this really seem like—“
“A good idea? Yes.” The waves nipped at their shoulders and Kaldur loosened his hold. “Kal, I can’t walk.” He tried so very hard to get across what that meant. He didn’t want to explain that he was still like a house of cards ready to be blown down because he still had a sliver of pride damnit, but he didn’t seem to get that.
“No, you can’t.” Dick was taken aback. Kaldur let the arm that had been strung around his middle slip off as his brow creased in a sort of determined expression. “But your legs aren’t broken and the water is nice.” He held onto Dick’s forearms.
“It’s pretty cold, actually.” Kaldur fixed him with a raised eyebrow, “Does it matter?”
He couldn’t help but laugh. A quick, light laugh that hadn’t shown itself in a while. “I guess not.” It was up to their chins now. The shore blended in with the water, all of it dyed a metallic hue. He allowed Kaldur to guide him, experimentally treading water as his feet left the sand.
He felt almost giddy at the fact the he could keep his head above the meek waves. Granted, Kaldur was doing most of the work, but he was already smiling wildly. “Ready?” Kaldur let his frame drop close to the surface, silently asking for confirmation. “Yeah.”
He shut his eyes and let himself be pulled under.
It was like a cool embrace, the current tugging at his hair and trailing over his face. Kaldur’s hands never left. He slowly cracked open his eyes. The joy was bubbling in his stomach again. Gravity had taken a rain check and it left Dick feeling better than he had in ages. He didn’t even realize how much pain he’d been in until the constant pull of everything was gone.
Though it was murky, Dick could see soft greens and blues floating through his blurred vision. He twisted upwards slightly to watch the moon spin and ripple. He wasn’t feverish or surrounded by flames. It wasn’t the same type of burning cold he’d felt before.
He was able to identify the outline of Kaldur’s head and shoulders, though his lower half disappeared into shadows. He could see a pair of silver eyes flashing at him. This was the closest Dick had gotten to defying physics in a while, a pastime which he was sorely missing.
When they broke the surface, Dick couldn’t even hope to contain the gleeful laugh that burst out between gasps. The air was comparatively warm, its touch rewriting the tangle of emotions that had been weaved into his person through the past few weeks.
Dick was most certainly not alright. Nothing was right. He was facedown on the floor with a mouthful of blood and a split lip. There were bruises trailing from his elbow to his wrist and a nasty migraine was building behind his eyes.
A shadow blocked out the harsh lights above. His breaths came in ragged heaves as Leslie crouched into view. He pushed himself up and spat the blood pooling behind his teeth while the world tilted dangerously on its axis. “Breathe, Dick.”
“Yeah, thanks. I almost forgot.” He snapped. She tucked her hair behind her ear, tapping her pen anxiously against the clipboard that seemed glued to her palms.
“I know you’re frustrated but—“
“Frustrated?” He barked out a laugh, shoving himself bodily up to sit on his knees. “What would’ve given you that idea? Is it the fact that I can’t walk a few feet without falling over?” His eyes were hard like the iron bars of a prison. It could’ve been intimidating if he didn’t look so tired. She wordlessly offered a him a hand. He allowed her to haul him up and realign his arms with the railings running beside one another.
His posture fell, “I’m sorry,” She shook her head, “It’s okay. You have every right to be angry right now.”
He was angry. Not at her, or at anyone really. Just angry.
An unprecedented, unexplainable feeling that welled up in his gut every time he stopped for a moment to consider the situation, to reflect on how much harder this was than he’d expected. The thought of relearning to put one foot in front of the other made him feel a simmering rage that he could only ever remember feeling a few times in his life.
It made him feel tainted and sick, like the fury was leaking into his blood and twisting up his veins. In short: He doesn’t like to be angry.
Yet he was stuck with it. Like a farmer stuck with a field of sand, he was stuck with hate.
“You’re doing better than you think.” She sounded so assuring. It’s a shame he’d already heard her sound like that a million times before, because otherwise he would’ve believed her. “Dick. It’s been less than two weeks since you started PT. Be patient.”
“For your information, I’m going to write a very strongly worded yelp review after this.” Dick said curtly. “I’m sure you will. Do you want to give it one more try?”
He nodded, letting a hopeful smile slip out. Several moments later, he was on the ground again.
Dick wanted to cry. He wanted to punch something hard enough to split his knuckles and let the torrent of emotions that had been building since that night at the circus out. He was sitting on a powder keg of white hot frustration with a lighter in one hand and the fuse in the other.
Leslie was helping him up again, saying something about his balance. He nearly shouted again. He knew how to balance. He’d learned to walk on a tightrope for crying out loud!
“—one day at a time,” He grit his teeth a knocked away her hand. “I’m done.” He snatched up the crutches that leaned against the railing, luckily close enough for him to grasp, and headed towards the exit. “Dick,” She called out warily, but he was already letting the door fall shut.
He considered going to the room he’d taken over, but quickly shot the idea down. A closed space with little to do? Not exactly what he needed to distract himself from… everything.
Dick was tempted to settle himself among the shelves of Mount Justice’s library—newly constructed, since the unplanned demolition via Red Tornado’s nasty cousins—where he could lose himself in some type of research. No, that wouldn’t help. He’d be alone.
Common room then. He was a social creature, after all.
It was Artemis and Roy, of all people, who he found among to couches, pouring over newspaper clippings, police files, and what looked like a book of medical records. Wally was sprawled out over three of the island stools, somehow looking comfortable in a terribly impractical position. An apple was held loosely in one hand as he watched the two archers study their findings.
He didn’t bother with any fanfare, not even an announcement or greeting, he simply shuffled into the room and tossed himself onto one of the empty couches with a muffled thump.
“Very graceful.” Artemis hardly looked up from the book she was holding. “Thanks, I’ve been practicing.” Hah. If only she knew how true the statement was. Roy had managed to pull his attention from whatever document he was reading to regard Dick with a questioning frown as Wally traded his awkward stool-bed for a place sprawled out on the floor beside the sofa Dick has launched onto, still gnawing on the apple.
“So,” He swallowed down another bite, “How’d it go today?” Dick ducked into a throw pillow with a groan. He heard Artemis’ airy laugh and felt her poke at his shoulder blades. “That good?”
Dick lifted his head stubbornly, glaring at nothing in particular, “This is stupid.” He discarded the pillow, slouching further into the cushions while Artemis shrugged, “Maybe you shouldn’t’ve walked into a burning building.”
She didn’t even have the decency to sound accusatory. He huffed, “You’re just full of helpful advice, aren’t you?”
“She’d got a point,” Roy tucked away the paper he held before reaching for another, “You didn’t exactly avoid this.” Dick scowled at them, “Roy, buddy, you’re on thin ice. I am not above beating you with my crutch.”
The hollow threat hung in the air, greeted with a few more friendly jabs. Apparently his stunt had been deemed fair game for teasing material, and it was a thousand times better than having to wade through conversations being pulled down by an air of danger. Dick was glad they’d moved past that. He peered over Roy’s shoulder at the paper her held
The sheet looked like a photocopy of police records. A case from a few years back where a young boy had vanished for a week only to be returned by, you guessed it, Batman and Robin.
“What’re you two doing?” He leaned against Roy’s side, skimming through the familiar details of the event. He remembered finding the kid, along with about a dozen more, hidden away at Amusement Mile, all of them asleep. None remembered how they got there or recalled anything that happened.
“Sticking their noses where they don’t belong.” Wally called out with a smug smile. A crumpled piece of paper pelted against his cheek, courtesy of Artemis, but the grin didn’t waver.
Dick turned to the archers, “So! What’s with—“ he waved his hand at the cluttered table “—all that?”
“We’re trying to find out who you are.” Dick blinked at Artemis. Then he scoffed in disbelief, “Wow. Not even trying to hide it, huh?” It was Roy’s turn to be catastrophically casual. “Well it’s not like you can tell us.”
He was right. Dick honestly sort of wanted them to know.
Sure, having anonymity was cool, but it was also a novelty. It had grown old after about a month, but Bruce was steadfast about keeping it a secret. Which was both understandable and a bit silly. Like sure, it’s for security reasons. Kidnapping, mind reading, what have you. But considering how unlikely it was in the first place, even in their crazy line of work, Dick couldn’t help but wonder why all the paranoia. They were the covert team! Most people didn’t know they existed anyways.
Besides, who were they gonna tell? A classmate? Good luck getting anyone to believe that Robin, the Boy Wonder, is actually spoiled sob story Dick Grayson. He silently cheered at Roy’s breezy admission.
“Yeah!” Artemis cut in, “We figured that you’d be in less trouble if we figured it out on our own.” She looked quite confident that they would, in fact, figure it out. It was a fifty-fifty chance. Like snow in April: Very possible, but not entirely expected. He gave the two an approving, noncommittal nod.
“Fair enough. Try not to traumatize yourselves.”
“Thanks, that’s not cryptic at all.” Artemis retorted. He grinned back at her, “Happy to help.” Wally sat up with a jerk, giving the researching duo a sideways glance, before his eyes fell to Dick with uncertainty. He leaned forward, “Dude, seriously? Isn’t Bats gonna be pissed?” Dick swung his hand down to gently smack the top of Wally’s head. “Bats is always pissed.”
Wally gave him an unimpressed look, Dick waved aside his concerns. “Relax man. It’s my funeral anyways. You guys are safe.” He paused in thought, “Probably.”
“Do you know what you’re gonna say to him yet?” Roy inquired, trying (and failing) to mask his curiosity. He was skimming through another case file, this one about a string of murders involving a hotel staff. Thankfully the rather graphic pictures had been omitted. “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”
“You could just apologize for going behind his back?” Wally offered with blissful naiveté.
“I don’t think that’s really gonna cut it this time.” Dick picked at the soon-to-be removed bandages that peaked out from his collar, absent mindedly considering Roy’s question. He had no idea what he was gonna say or how he would explain what happened. Every time he tried, it had resulted in a dizzying array of bad case scenarios. “In a perfect world, it might.”
Dick snorted, “In a perfect world the circus wouldn’t have caught fire.”
Wally held up his hand placatingly, “All I’m saying is that you had your reasons! It’s not like he hasn’t done that to, like, literally everyone in the Justice League on multiple occasions.” Both Roy and Artemis looked up from their mess of research to listen, both sporting an agreeing half-smirk.
Wally held the core of his apple like a Shakespearian skull. “That man is the king of secret plans and is a hypocrite when anyone gives him a taste of his own medicine.” He tossed the core into the trashcan, which stood twenty feet away. He hissed out a triumphant “Yes!” While Dick begrudgingly applauded. Artemis rolled her eyes hard enough that parents across the world surely felt their sass-sense tingling, Roy pretended not to have noticed.
It was such a normal scene in the midst of absurdity. It could almost be forgotten that Wally had super speed.
That Roy and Artemis were vigilante archers examining official records of homicides and robberies.
That Dick was struggling to walk after dragging an innocent man out of a blazing fire.
Dick listened to the petty squabbling of Wally and Artemis, shouting like the kids that they are about something trivial and traced shapes on the stone ceiling. A vaguely defined face looked down from the cave walls with a splitting smile.
Do you want me to eat the world?
As always I super appreciate any kind of feedback, whether it's throwing a kudos, commenting, or dropping by on tumblr, all are welcome! We're nearing the end, folks. But fear not! I had planned this ending from the start so hopefully it's satisfactory. I'll see y'all then!
Chapter 5: I am, I am, I am
Trigger warning: Nightmares and discussion of injuries
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dick nearly knocked himself out when it happened.
He’d been peacefully skimming through a book he’d borrowed (stolen) from Wally, sitting in the hangar beneath the wing of some decommissioned plane, the metal catching the top of his hair when he shifted. A small light brightened the space he occupied with a blanket cocooning his shoulders. It was the very respectable time of three thirty-six AM when a voice echoed through his head.
He tried to stand so quickly that the metal wing rung upon collision with his head. Dick ended up sprawled on the ground, half-leaning against one of the landing gears. He held a hand to his head, fumbling for the light and wondering if he’d imagined the ghostly whisper of if Mount Justice was haunted. At this point, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was.
“Sorry,” The voice came again and he sagged with relief. “You scared the crap out of me, M’gann.” He projected the thought to her, chased by a bemused sigh. “What’re you doing up anyways?”
He had half a mind to chastise her for popping into his head like that, he would’ve a few months ago. But she’d explained it to him once that she doesn’t really do anything to make the link happen, rather it takes more of a conscious thought to make it stop. Both human and martain brains usually shut down at night, so there needn’t be worry about seeing someone else dreams, but while she’s awake, M’gann keeps her thoughts tucked away. It’s not hard, she had told him as much. Said it was like remembering to blink.
Dick’s hand brushed against the fallen light as he listened to M’gann fumble for an explanation. “Well I… I’d just been going to get um,” Dick smiled sympathetically in the barley-lit room. Since when were all of his friends this bad at coming up with lies? “Getting water…?” She finished hesitantly. He considered giving them all lessons in how to make stuff up. Then quickly abolished the idea upon remembering that M’gann might be able to hear what he wasn’t purposefully projecting. “I wasn’t trying to bother you. I just felt that someone was up and you were thinking really loud.”
“Uh huh.” He settled back against the old plane, staring into the dark, comforting mass before him, book in hand.
Most people feared the dark, but Dick found it charming and warm; a blanket in a storm. Or maybe he was just projecting what he associated the dark with. Who’s to say! Certainly not him.
“Where are you?” He asked, arbitrarily glancing around where the light fell. “Hallway by the kitchen. Why?”
“I’m in the hangar, if you wanna drop by.”
He felt her hesitate, practically seeing a flurry of incomprehensible thoughts wiz by, just beyond his reach.
“Give me a second.” He waited, patiently running his fingers along the worn and tattered cover, wondering what caused the nicks on the books spine. Maybe she would try density shifting and drift up through the floors. Dick wouldn’t put it past her: She’d been practicing the technique obsessively for a while now and, with a lot of concentration, she’d found a bit of success.
He found himself just a little disappointed when the door creaked open. It was soon overtaken by curiosity as he heard two sets of footsteps making their way toward him instead of one.
Before Dick was able to run through the implications of that, two figures stepped into his little circle of sight, standing boldly against the rest of the dark room.
M’gann shifted awkwardly, a hand wrapped around her middle with Conner by her side.
“Evening.” He said plainly. Conner nudged M’gann forward, giving Dick precious seconds to figure out what was going on.
She looked nervous, in the way she usually did when she was keeping a secret. Conner had a hand on her elbow, guiding her ever so slightly forward, his lips pressed into a thin line that somehow managed to look like a smile.
Would you look at the clock! It’s time to jump to conclusions.
Dick’s immediate thought was that Batman was back from being off-world and ready to break the cardinal No Killing rule. Or perhaps he’d done something that upset her... again.
Did she think he’d been avoiding her the past few weeks? Dick had been letting her take time to get over the experience but maybe she hadn’t wanted, or needed time. Maybe she’d just locked herself out of her room again.
Her mouth opened and broke apart all three theories.
“I shouldn’t have yelled at you when you were in the infirmary.” She held his gaze for a half second, “I’m sorry.”
He stared at her for a moment, tracking her once again downcast eyes and taking note of how Conner seemed rather pleased.
Dick shot her a lopsided grin. “Nah, I had it coming. It’s fine.”
“But—“ He shook his head, “If you hadn’t, someone else would’ve. You had every right to be upset.”
She tugged at the hem of her shirt, frowning at her feet. “I apologized.”
“You did...” He agreed carefully, “Am I missing something here?”
“You didn’t say you forgive me.”
He blinked, “Oh,” Conner had backed out of the area where they spoke, blending into the shadows. He was probably trying to give them some semblance or privacy while still being there to encourage M’gann. The effort was tainted by the fact that Dick could practically feel his stare.
“Do you?” M’gann seemed much smaller than she had previously. Dick nodded with the most sincere smile he could muster.
“I mean, yeah. Of course. I forgive you.”
“Really?” She must’ve really been fretting over this, based on the hopeful note in her voice. He felt a mix of sympathy and guilt well up in the pit of his stomach. Logically, he had no way of knowing M’gann had been feeling like this, and yet he still felt like he should have noticed.
“Thank you. Sorry.” He chuckled at their shared clumsiness.
“You already said that,”
“No I mean about earlier. I lied. I wasn’t getting water I just... wanted to talk to you.”
“Yeah I know.”
Conner was nowhere to be found. M’gann bowed her head for a moment, smiling at him weakly. Then she was gone.
Dick returned to his book and was found in the same spot by Wally hours later, eyes still glued diligently to the pages.
Dick wished he could return to the mindset he had while stuck in the infirmary. The eagerness to get back up and start rehabilitation as quickly as possible. He wanted that intense drive and motivation back, because now, with his entire body trembling and still ten feet left to walk, he wanted nothing more than to sleep.
Leslie had been traded out for anyone who was willing to be a spotter while he worked. She had a clinic to run, after all, and he felt bad that he’d started taking up so much of her time. She insisted it was alright, that her nurses were more then capable of handling things for a few hours each week, but he was steadfast. Dick stubbornly told her to lessen her visits for the sake of people who needed her more.
After about twenty minutes of deliberating, she relented on the condition that he wouldn’t do PT alone. Mostly it had been Kaldur who stayed with him, politely reading or making use of the endless sets of weights, only really intruding if Dick had lost his footing, or to offer a hand when he stumbled. It was nice to not have someone watching his every move.
This time, however, it had been Artemis who volunteered to keep him company.
She had largely followed Kaldur’s example, situating herself to the left of the twin railings with a filing cabinets worth of paper and folders spread out like a flower mid-bloom.
Dick had graduated from hanging off the parallel bars to having his hands merely ghost over their surface as he moved, as well as upgrading to a simple cane. Which was a severely underrated device, dispute Wally’s teasing that he was like an old man. Little did he realize, Dick could bonk anyone over the head with it or trip someone who wasn’t paying attention.
Artemis glanced over at him curiously while he stood still. His muscles had once again betrayed him and choose to seize up. He was stuck.
“You good there, Robin?” She called, though any genuine concern was lost to the way her eyebrows had lifted towards her hairline. “Just peachy.” He ground out. Dick rested his hands more firmly on the bars and lifted the offending foot a few inches off the ground.
“Your foot get all cramped up again?” He sighed, glaring down at his current moral enemy. “Yep.”
The archer pushed herself up from the floor and casually leaned against the opposite end of the bars. She blew a stray out of her face before focusing on Dick with a somewhat unimpressed frown. “Just sit down and relax for a bit. There’s no point in busting your feet twice.”
“Your suggestion is being reviewed by our committee. Please hold.” Artemis rolled her eyes with all the might of a bull. “Let go.” She told him sternly.
He was temped to shoot the words back at her. He knew that the main reason she was even here with him was because she and Roy had reverted back to being their old antagonism. Their alliance had fallen apart almost as fast as it had come together when the shared goal of finding out who Robin was proved more illusive than expected. Tensions had been rising amongst everyone, actually.
The suspicions of a mole had resurfaced and now Kaldur seemed to be the only other person at Mount Justice who wasn’t accusing treason at the drop of a hat. Even Wally had been touched by the sickness of mistrust. There’d been a mission to track down Cheshire. It was a trap. Dick had been able to assist remotely (thank god for drones) but the fact remained that someone must’ve tipped her off.
And with Roy now officially a member of the Justice League…
Dick was just hoping Artemis would tell the team about her family and have a little more faith in them. They weren’t so shallow to blame her for her family’s actions.
Heh. You first, Artemis.
Dick dutifully kept his thoughts to himself as Artemis picked at the chipped wood. He finally shrugged, “Fine. Trust fall!”
“What?” He promptly lifted his hands from the railings and let himself tilt backwards. Of course, he knew how to fall without actually getting hurt, especially if he knew it was coming, but it still spurred the archer into action.
With an indignant yelp, she lunged forward and grabbed his wrists, yanking him back up, holding most of him upright just with her own arms. He wasn’t sure if that said more about her strength or his weight.
Nevertheless, Dick grinned at her. “Aw, you do care.”
She scowled back, “Asshole. I’ll drop you.”
His back hit the floor faster than he’d expected. “Ow.”
She crossed her arms and plopped down among her hurricane of paper. “Serves you right.”
He hummed in response. There was a tug in the very back of his mind, a voice telling him to get off the floor.
Shouting at him to get off the floor.
Screaming at him to get off the damn floor.
“I wanna quit.”
The words tumbled from his mouth before he could swallow them back. Dick’s stomach dropped the second he heard it out loud because suddenly he knew it was true.
The ceiling was much too familiar to him now and he wished it wasn’t.
Artemis scoffed, the shuffling of folders flittering across the open space. “Stop being so dramatic.”
He didn’t respond. There was a small crack in the ceiling that he followed instead, tacking its path from one light fixture to the next. From the corner of his eye, he saw her jerk up. He couldn’t see her face but he could feel every ounce of worry in her voice. “You’re serious?”
Dick slowly got his elbows under him and propped himself up, though eye contact had become a foreign concept. He breathed in sharply, hand curling uncomfortably into fists while time began to crawl. “I’m just so tired of this.” He manually pulled his legs into a crossed position, prodding mindlessly at the ever-present and utterly damning bandages that scored his skin.
Artemis shuffled closer, silently urging to to say more. It was a pretty big bomb to drop, in all fairness. Then again, it was one he didn’t even know he had.
“It takes so much energy just to walk and I’m sick of it.”
“So, what, you’re just gonna stop?”
“No!” He chased the snap from his words with a huff, “Of course I’m not. I just want this to be over is all.” She was beside him now, close enough to hear the rustling of clothing. Artemis’ hand hovered by his arm for a split second before retreating. Dick busied himself with the strengthening stretches he’d worked on with Leslie. The ones that focused on his ankles and hurt enough to make him bite down on his lip till it split. It was an excellent distraction from the uncomfortable situation he had just manufactured though.
Artemis interrupted his thoughts without preamble. “I talked to one of the performers when the fire happened.” He stole a glance at her, everything from her brow to her posture was stiff with earnestness. “Lori, you remember her right?”
Loriana. Dick bit back the name, refraining from correcting her. “She said something sort of strange. That you’d been waiting your whole life to run into a fire.” She strained to meet his eyes.
“Listen, I’m not going to pry. Hell I drop it now if you want but—“ Artemis finally touched his wrist, gently turning him towards her, “—but could just throw me a bone here? Why would she say that?”
“Martyrdom is pretty appealing, you know.” He told her calmly. She pulled back, studying him.
“You don’t really mean that.” She said with uncertainty, so much so that Dick nearly mistook is for an honest question.
“Robin!” Something clattered to the floor—a pen, empty files—and Artemis was in front of him, eyes stormy as ever while her grip rapidly grew too tight on his shoulders. He winced when her knuckles dug into the still tender burn.
“Do not joke about that! It’s not…” He stared at her, wide eyed.
Oh, hello guilt. Glad you could make it.
Artemis sat back on her heels, her hands fisted into the fabric of her pants. “Screw you. That’s not funny.”
“I’m… sorry.” Dick wasn’t sure if he should leave her be or offer some kind of contact. Artemis was a bit of a wild card when it came to interaction. This was proof of that: He’d expected her to smack him upside the head with a snide remark.
Dick grasped for the right words. “I didn’t mean to scare you and I can’t say why Lori said that, I never even talked to her while we were there” A half lie. He hadn’t talked to her on the mission. That was to say nothing about years prior when their trailers sat next to one another. “Maybe she was just freaked out. People like ascribing meaning to actions when theres a simpler explanation. It makes them feel less shitty.”
She pulled at her hair, giving him a frown that spoke louder then any words. I don’t believe you.
But true to her word, the archer didn’t press him further. She stood up, striding across the room and snatching up the cane he’d taken too using. “Hey!” He began to protest. She paid him no mind. It was a bit insulting, actually. “I’m going to grab snacks. You’re taking a break.”
He gapped, “Can you at least leave the—“ Artemis yanked open the door, the un-oiled hinges cutting him off with a squeak. “Nope. This is my insurance that you won’t leave.”
“At least I’m not lying about important stuff.” He shoved down a loud laugh. Oh that was rich. Of all people to say that… had she no self awareness? She shrugged as the door started falling shut. “Maybe you’ll be ready to actually talk once I’m back, you cryptic little dick.”
She was so close it was actually painful. This was killing him.
Under the thin layer of mirth he still caught the worry. And the anger. And frustration. He’d really put his friends through the wringer on thing one, didn’t he.
Fire was viral. It catches and leaps. It hiccups in sparks and cries in ashes. It had clung to Dick’s dreams for three weeks now.
Stubbornly leering at him with one question springing from its set of charred lips carved into a jagged line.
Do you want me to eat the world?
No matter how many times he’s woken up gasping, feverish and scared, his answer had never changed. Each time he would dig his nails into his own flesh until his mouth wasn’t sewn shut by burns and cry out, “No.”
A pitiful, monstrous bellow that stemmed from the trembling terror in his head. The ordeal was agonizing and so trivial that he couldn’t even bring himself to tell anyone about it.
He was starting to wonder what would happen if something were to change. If maybe the repetition was the problem. So when a wall of toothy flames came blazing through his subconscious for the thousandth time and Dick peeled the skin from his lips to shout, it spoke.
Do you want me to eat the world.
He stared back at the changing face settled amongst smouldering memories. He waited until the expression it wore faltered by just an inch. It breathed its words again. A thumping drummed up from his chest, fierce and starkly contrasting to dull roar that surrounded him. Dick listened to the beating of his bruised and battered heart, for once letting it say what it wanted.
Green bursted up all around him. Trees. As saplings sprouted under his feet, the trees washed away the scorched ground and smoke-filled skies. He could breathe. In came the scent of something far cleaner than flames and soot.
He could breathe.
Dick looked around at the sun-speckled giants with branches for arms and he was so grateful to be in a world with sun-speckled anything.
For the fist time in weeks, he didn’t wake up gasping. The fire stopped visiting his nightmares.
He dreamed of green.
Wayne Manor was the same. Of course it was. Why wouldn’t it be? The world keeps turning even when he’s absent and there was no way Alfred would let anything fall out of place.
Yet the familiarity still gave him a little shock. Dick was walking now. Running, occasionally. It had been a lot of tedious work but the first hurtle had been the highest the clear. After that, things got easier. The second he had been able to walk without assistance, it was a literal hop skip and jump to start with light sparring and joyously mundane strolls down the boardwalk.
Bruce had conveniently decided to return from his (oddly long) escapade in space.
Dick didn’t know where he had been or what he’s been doing. It was classified and no matter how many firewalls and encrypted files he busted through, he couldn’t find any hints. Dick had gotten a message on the private line he shared with Bruce and Alfred.
Be back at 2pm.
It was curt, devoid of personality and so very Bruce. So, here we was. After a month of stalling and stalling and stalling, he’d come home.
Through the cave, of course. He figured thats where Bruce would be stationed anyways, staring at his obnoxiously big computer monitor, waiting to spin around in his chair and launch into a record-breaking lecture.
Leading up to his return, he practiced a simple apology. A quick one that was polite and sincere enough that he wouldn’t have to run though all the details for the hundredth time. Dick manicured the false acceptance and forcefully beat back the urge to defend himself with a stick.
He was sure he could handle getting chewed out for running off.
He was used to that.
Dick was more then a little surprised to find the place empty. The screens were all shut off and the lights had been turned down to their power-saving mode. It was dim and the cave suddenly was a lot bigger then he remembered. Nonetheless, Dick climbed to stairs leading to the main floor, easing open the old grandfather clock that hid the entrance. He wished he could say he found the theatrics silly, but the novelty just never wore off.
Dick meandered around, poking his head into Bruce’s study, the drawing room, two living room-esk spaces that he knew were favoured by the other occupants of the manor, before he finally landed in the foyer. Alfred was standing near the door, his back to Dick. Oh right.
He was probably expecting Dick to come through the front door. Dick opened his mouth to speak but Alfred turned to him before he could say a word. The man didn’t look the slightest bit fazed and the possibility surfaced that Alfred had been facing away just to mess with him.
He nodded politely to Dick, “Welcome back.”
Dick’s brow furrowed in confusion, “Uh… Thanks Alfred. Where’s Bruce?” The butler gestured to the set of stairs that led to the second and third floors. “In his room. He should be awake by now, go on up.”
In his room? What?
Dick stayed frozen in place, staring up at Alfred with a questioning look. Alfred remained totally and completely neutral despite the scrutiny, instead clapping a hand onto Dick’s arm and lightly guiding him to the stairs. “You haven’t got all day. I’ll speak to you later,” Dick blanched. Two lectures in one day. Hooray. “But for now Master Bruce is the one you need to see.”
The hallways of Wayne Manor were like a labyrinth. Even after four years, Dick still relied on the telltale nicks and chips in Bruce’s doorframe to differentiate it from the rest.
He knocked twice and waited.
“B?” He called hesitantly.
Screw it. Dick silently slipped into the room, carefully clicking the door shut behind him. When he turned, his jaw hit the floor.
“Language.” Bruce muttered.
Dick nearly started to laugh at how absurd it was: Bruce was half-propped up in bed, an IV in his arm and covered head to toe in bandages. It started at his neck with a thick brace and weaved down the rest of his body until it made way for a heavy cast over his right leg, all the way up past his knee.
“You look like you got hit by a bus!” Bruce sighed, “Thank you for that, Dick.”
“What happened on that mission?” Dick sobered, padding across the floor to drag one of the chairs that sat by the window over to Bruce’s bedside.
“I could ask you the same thing.” Bruce replied, the first hints of anger seeping into his voice. Dick winced at the tone, but straightened quickly. Bruce didn’t wait for his answer, “You took your teammates on an off-books personal mission to Haly’s and nearly died. Do I have that right?”
“You endangered not just your own life, but theirs as well, to solve a crime spree that you had nothing to do with.”
“And you didn’t come back here for a five weeks after the mission.”
“Five weeks and three days.”
Bruce glared at him.“You’re not helping your case.” What a shame he’d become immune to that look, because it could’ve been scary. Dick leaned forward, resting his elbow on his knees, “I don’t have a case. I went behind your back and messed up. Guilty as charged.”
Bruce gave him another hard, stiff look. Which was just a nice way of saying he looked pissed. “Why?”
He reigned in the urge to tear his hair out, “You know damn well why.”
“And you know damn well you can’t just run off like that to defend whoever you please!”
Dick’s politeness mask was being chipped away at. He knew Bruce knew exactly what he was doing. Pressing him for answers he already had, but wanting what? The satisfaction of Dick saying it out loud?
If he wants a storm, then he’ll fucking get one.
“So what?! I should’ve just let him get arrested for something he didn’t do?” Dick stood, momentarily looming over the older man with a glare sharp enough to break skin. Bruce scowled, “That’s not—“
“You would’ve done the same if it was Alfred.” Dick cut him off unapologetically.
“How? How is it any different?” He challenged, all remains of patience having been swept away along with the pretty little apology he’d been carefully preparing. Good riddance. If he could, Dick was sure Bruce would’ve been curling his hands into fists. “It’s not about that,”
“Then what is it about? That it was a personal mission? We’ve established that.” He ticked off a finger, “That is was dumb, reckless, and dangerous? Check. That I got hurt?” He was still standing over Bruce, his voice rising with each word, “As though that doesn’t happen every night.”
“Dick!” Bruce ground out. It was that same gravelly tone that he used to reprimand him when something went wrong. Dick sincerely considered punching a hole in the wall. Alfred would be mad…
He instead went dangerously still, eyes matching Bruce’s in a way that they just shouldn’t and his tone dropping down to a clam drawl. He might as well have been a loaded gun.
“You don’t get to be mad at me right now. I saved someone and that is all the justification I will ever need for everything I did. What’s your excuse?”
Wally’s words echoed in his head.
King of secret plans and a hypocrite when anyone gives him a taste of his own medicine.
King, huh? Heavy is the head then.
Bruce wavered. The untrained eye would miss it, but Dick knew better. The slight twitch in his face and the way his breathing became just a bit less controlled. Dick bit his tongue.
He was done apologizing. He was done explaining himself.
If Bruce wanted to figure it out so badly then he should put those alleged detective skills to work instead of trying to yank it out of him like a toddler with a loose tooth.
Dick spun around and marched towards the door. Bruce called after him, demanding that he turn around.
“We’re not finished here!”
He pulled the door shut with a shuttering slam, not caring how the doorframe trembled or the angered shouts grew louder. He walked faster, reaching a jog by the time he got to the stairs. Alfred was waiting there, looking rather shocked. He probably heard them talking… arguing. The man was practically omnipresent, of course he heard them.
Dick brushed past him, nearing a sprint as he tore open that ornate clock that reeked of wood stain and lemon cleaner. It felt good to be able to move like this. To simply leave when someone was knowingly putting him in a bad spot.
And that was the worst part, wasn’t it? At least at Mount Justice, his teammates had a reason to prod him for answers, they didn’t know what may or may not hurt. None of it was intentional, not really. This was.
Or, at least, it felt like it was.
He was lost in thought. Repeating the conversation while his blood boiled and burned in his veins. He didn’t know how long he was like that for, but Dick eventually found himself striding through a familiar zeta tube and into an open space. Standing there, facing a computer was… everyone.
M’gann and Conner stood side-by-side, flanked by Artemis, Wally and Zatanna while Kaldur rattled off the list of villains who’d been at the last attack, Raquel peering over his shoulder. A very mild hint of offence washed through Dick’s mind.
They had a meeting without me. Bold move.
“Robin?” M’gain notice him first. Maybe he’d been thinking too loudly or something.
The rest turned toward him, each looking at him with varied levels of surprise and confusion. Wally’s eyes caught his first, a frown creeping over his features, “I thought you… left?”
Dick glared at the ground with a shrug, “Well I’m back now.”
“You were barley gone an hour.”
“We have things to do.”
He marched forward and waited for the now hesitating Kaldur to continue the meeting. The tension was thick, and he knew it wasn’t just his late arrival that caused it. Look’s like he’d be getting a storm too.
More than one confession. M’gann was a white martian. Conner accepted help from Lex Luthor. Artemis told the truth. A full month of nothingness and rehabilitation. Of course all the excitement just had to wait until the very end.
Dick was back on his feet just in time to get knocked down by a brainwashed Justice League. His luck was truly something to behold.
The Justice League nearly killed them on New Years Eve and Roy was the mole.
A clone, apparently. He’d run off to do god knows what while everyone on the team was still in recovery mode. Save Dick, of course.
He was alone on a plane heading east, a one person tent and a duffle bag filled with clothes and a metric ton of blankets were buried in the planes storage. He’d gotten permission to leave this time, with Bruce even offering to charter a privet jet and maybe put together an escort. Dick politely informed Bruce that he was being overbearing and bought himself a ticket with nothing but personal savings and tutoring wages.
Before he left, Bruce apologized. Wether it was for beating the crap out of him or for being an ass, Dick had no idea.
It turns out that an injured body can fight just as well under mind control, so dear Ol’ Batman wasn’t even out of commission for the fight. What a joy.
But still, he actually apologized. That was enough.
The plane wasn’t anything fancy. He was surrounded by people who were either sleeping or severely zoned out, save for the young man next to him scribbling in a notebook.
It smelt of hand sanitizer and stale air. He was only forty minutes into the seven hour flight and already he was feeling twitchy.
Dick peered out the window, resigning himself to boredom and jet-lag before allowing time to slip away.
In other words, he fell asleep.
He got a lot of questioning looks in the airport, mostly from the people at security. They’d see him and blink, then look past him. They would scan the area before their gaze settled back on him with a puzzled expression.
“You here alone?”
Dick smiled and ignored the shock in their voices.
Rouen was touched with frost and bright colours to tug away the gloominess of the older architecture. Streamers from New Years were strewn around street-lamps, confetti had yet to be swept away.
The clashing aesthetics had him eyeing up every street he wondered along, bags in hand, but he never stopped.
Well, he stopped once.
Dick had managed to find the only florist within six blocks (the one he’d marked off on a map hours earlier) and walked away with a bag full of seeds. He made it the the edge of the more urban area by the afternoon and stood at the side of the road, thumb stuck out and a wary smile on his lips.
Yeah, yeah, hitchhiking is dangerous and he could get hurt and blah blah blah… It was the easiest way to travel without a taxi and there was no way Dick would walk all the way to his destination. He’s Robin. If someone tries something, he has ten way to knock them out with one hand and a canister of pepper spray. If anyone was in danger, it was the drivers.
Dick was glad he’d continued practicing the languages he grew up on, otherwise the whole everybody-speaks-french thing might’ve been a problem.
A middle-aged lady with dark brown hair and darker skin invited him into her van, the crows feet around his eyes crinkling when she smiled at him. She was going past where he needed to be anyways. They swapped stories about the most ridiculous things. She—Dani—wished him luck and told him to be careful. She was dropping him off in a rather strange spot, he supposed. Enough reason for her to be a little concerned. He hoped she didn’t worry too much.
Dick thanked her and wandered past the line of trees that cut off the open valley from the highway and train tracks that ran parallel to it. There was a path meant for cars the meandered through the thicket, the dirt kneaded into distinct grooves where tires had cut through.
It was lucky for Dick that the little meadow was a no mans land—that’s why the circus had been there in the first place, no permission or fees required—and damn near everyone was oblivious to it’s existence.
The clearing looked about how he’d expected: barren, burnt and a little charred around the edges. The remains of the circus had mostly been carted off by wind and rain, but there was an ugly scar stretching across the grass where it once stood.
He set up a little camp at the edge of the woods and got to work.
It took weeks.
First he’d mapped the area into four sections and drew lines where he would dig. A combination of strings and stakes kept him on track. It was gruelling, dirty and exhausting, but it didn’t stop Dick from dragging himself up to greet the sun as it waved over the horizon and ready himself for another day of mud-covered boots and blistered fingertips.
It was worth it though.
One night it began to rain. A thunderous rain that poured down, inflicting a wrath of all the oceans in the span of an afternoon. He watched, entranced but a sense of awe. It was almost Biblical. His feet carried him out into the field amount the dozens (hundreds) of holes he’d created. The razed ground was beneath his feet.
The one’s that had been damaged so badly that he couldn’t walk. (It’s okay to be upset, Robin.)
The smoke wasn’t in the air anymore, it had been whisked away weeks ago, but he could still taste it. (It’s okay to cry.)
From head to toe, he was drenched in rainwater, letting it banish the phantom heat that threatened the scars on his shoulder, whispering at all the little burns that were scattered around his body. (Maybe later.)
In the middle of the blackened ground, while thunder roared through the valley, he breathed in with lungs that had been poisoned.
It was later.
So, he cried. Harder than he had in years, raindrops mixing with tears as they watered the cursed earth he stood upon. He cried until his head was pounding and his knees betrayed him, leaving him kneeling in the mud. It was for everything. For the loss of his home, for the month he spent relearning how to stand, for the crippling terror of nearly loosing Haly. For himself.
This was his tragedy and he could cry as long as he liked. So, he cried.
And the thunder echoed.
The next morning was the fifteenth day of working, he looked out at the storm-soaked valley, a bright golden haze spread against the ground. His bag of seeds was empty.
He dreamed of green.
He’d bought as many as he was allowed at the little florist shop. Dick didn’t have the energy to care that he’d taken their stock. They were sturdy trees. Tall, proud and uncaring about soil conditions. They could thrive just about anywhere. Even if someone was stuck with a plot of sand, Jack Pines would find a way to grow taller than houses.
All that was great, but it wasn’t the real reason he’d searched for this particular tree.
They weren’t just a clever nod to Jack Haly or easy to grow. They were fire-proof.
The bark was thick enough to protect the inner layers of the tree, and if that failed, they had a failsafe. Their cones would survive and re-plant themselves into the soil.
In a week, there would be saplings. After that, he would go home. He would sit with his battered friends and smugly refuse to say where he’d been.
Dick would leave knowing that this time, the whole valley would be pyrophytic.
PLOT BULLSHIT: Just to clarify! I did, in fact, mess with the timeline. In the show they go to the circus in December. Here, the went earlier. Mid-November. I’m not sure how it is in other places, but at my school we had exams in November then a week off from exams, THEN Christmas break. It’s a lot of time off! I belatedly realized some people might be like “Hey why was Artemis and Dick off school that early” but I didn’t think about it cause it’s how it was for me. I also realized I hadn’t clarified the timeline yet! This is why they weren’t in Bruges at the time of the fire, they’d been in Rouen instead, a city in France a couple miles from the English Channel that is much less urban. The circus tour seemed to be following the English Channel so I just chose the one that best fit the geography I wanted.
Anyways... thanks for sticking with me! I really hope you enjoyed this, as I had a blast writing it. It started as a very personal story and I wanted the ending to reflect that.
Hope it's satisfactory! Thanks again. I love y'all.