Something changes after Nightwing helps Robin save the Titans. Robin’s visits become far more frequent, which he finds he doesn’t mind at all. Apparently, he’s realized that Nightwing’s knowledge and contacts in their world go much deeper than he originally thought, and he spends three patrols straight pestering Nightwing with questions.
Mostly, he wants to know how Nightwing tracked down Brother Blood and figured out why the League of Assassins was after him, but his questions keep veering uncomfortably close into Nightwing’s past. Nightwing puts up with the questioning for a few days, giving very unhelpful answers just because he can. Robin asks him at one point if he was trained by the League of Assassins, and without breaking his rhythm as he swung over the rooftops of Blüdhaven, Nightwing shoots back, “Were you?” It isn't until he was back in his safehouse that night that he realized he’d actually enjoyed seeing the irritated look on Robin’s face.
Dick Grayson used to have fun. A very long time ago, before his master stole him and killed him and turned what was left into his perfect Apprentice, Robin had fun too. Nightwing spends the entire night making faces at himself in the mirror, practicing smiling for real. Those muscles around his eyes and in his upper cheeks haven’t been used in a very long time
because imitating humor is easy, but faking joy is nearly impossible when there’s nothing but empty-sad-tired, and it makes him sick to see how wrong a simple smile looks on his face.
After that, he’s done humoring Robin’s questions. To his credit, Robin realizes he’s gone too far and calls out an apology as Nightwing disappears off the rooftop and into the darkness.
Batgirl tracks him down the next day. He’s taking on a human trafficking ring, one that he’s spent months chasing with a vengeance that only comes from knowing what it is to have your life stolen, when a shadow drops in from above and begins attacking the traffickers alongside him.
They work in seamless unison, taking down the criminal scum like a deadly machine. She’s very good. Cain taught her well, and even though he’s seen her fight before, watching from right next to her
on the same side is unlike anything he’s ever done. Batgirl sees every motion, no matter how tiny, and she knows exactly what’s going to happen next. She might as well be psychic in the way she watches the world unfold around her.
Nightwing knows that if she’d ever seen the first Robin, Batgirl would know exactly who he used to be. He’s not sure if he’s relieved or disappointed that she came along after his time.
Quiet hangs in the air after Nightwing’s eskrima stick cracks into the last man’s skull, dropping him to the ground with the brutality he deserves. Batgirl helps him free the women chained within the warehouse, her hands gentle and her voice soft. Nightwing finds himself staring, marveling at the bloody past she has managed to put to rest. Batgirl would understand, if he ever told her. She could help him put Dick Grayson to a peaceful rest instead of the brutal end he met eight years ago.
But he’s long since decided the past needs to stay buried. It’s old pain, but he’s suffered enough for a hundred lifetimes. At the end of the night, once the police have taken the traffickers into custody and the women are safe, Batgirl joins him on the rooftop.
“Robin is sorry.” She says simply. “He is not… good with...”
“Boundaries?” Nightwing offers when she can’t find the word she wants, and she nods sharply.
“It’s okay.” Nightwing says with an easy casualness he does not feel.
“No. Is not.” Batgirl shakes her head. She’s wearing a full face mask, but Nightwing can still tell that there’s a scowl on her face. “You are sad friend. Not… make more sad.”
Nightwing watches the young woman who should have been his little sister, and there’s a voice buried somewhere inside him that screams for him to reach out. He learned a long time ago that listening to the voice only made his master angry, but Deathstroke isn’t here anymore. He’s been dead for a year and Nightwing can do whatever he wants now.
“How did you do it?” He asks. Batgirl tilts her head.
“There’s so much blood on my hands. How did you make yours clean?” He sounds desperate, and somewhere inside his head, the little voice rejoices because Desperate is a feeling and he hasn’t had one of those that wasn’t Tired or Empty in a very long time.
Batgirl thinks for a moment.
“Family. Not alone.” She reaches her hand out and Nightwing flinches back at the gesture full of kindness and trust. “Come. Not be alone.”
“I can’t.” Nightwing says.
“Can.” Batgirl nods, ignoring his denial completely.
“No.” Nightwing shakes his head. “Look, if you need my help, you have it. But otherwise… I just want you to leave me alone.”
“Lie,” says Batgirl. “Is okay. I bring friend. You like her.”
“Don’t.” Nightwing says, but Batgirl is already leaving.
Nightwing is on high alert for Batgirl and her friend so he can be sure to avoid them when they come, but after a few days, Blockbuster starts causing problems and Nightwing forgets all about Gotham’s vigilantes.
He’s perched on a crane overlooking the construction site that’s being funded by a shell company for Blockbuster’s operations, trying to eavesdrop on a secret meeting, when two figures land on the crane above him.
“Wow.” Nightwing places the voice immediately; Stephanie Brown, also known as the Spoiler. “He does have a nice butt.”
“Bad!” Batgirl reprimands her friend, and Nightwing stows away his binoculars before swinging away. He’ll get the intel another time; this lead wasn’t as helpful as he’d hoped. Annoyingly, the two vigilantes follow him across the rooftops of Blüdhaven.
Nightwing pulls a few fancy maneuvers, nothing like the kinds of flips and dives he’d been known for in his other lifetime, but good enough to lose his tails. Of course, that doesn’t stop Batgirl from finding him again in exactly four minutes and nine seconds.
“I told you to leave me alone.” He says. Batgirl and Spoiler land on the roof behind him.
“You say… if need help… have it.” Batgirl answers, her voice as sweet as sugar. Nightwing groans, remembering that he had in fact told her she could always come to him for help. Batgirl gestures at Spoiler and he can hear the grin in her voice. “Need help.”
“I’m Spoiler.” Spoiler holds out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Nightwing just glares at her. Spoiler seems to enjoy that, for some reason.
“Wow, hot and brooding! Anyway, I came pretty far out of my way, so can you help me with my case or not?”
Nightwing looks at Batgirl in surprise.
“There’s actually a case?”
Batgirl nods brightly. “That is why… I wait… waited.”
Nightwing thinks a few choice words to himself, but he made a promise, so he turns to Spoiler and lets her explain the case.
Spoiler talks a lot. It’s very different than his usual silent patrols, or Batgirl’s quiet to keep him company. And Nightwing… enjoys it. As much as he can enjoy anything. She tells him all about her case, but after she’s finished and they’re moving across the city, she talks about her old cases, then other times she’d been in the city, and by the time they make it to the suspect’s office, she’s pointing out her favorite tourist spots.
“Oh, that taco place makes THE best margaritas! Have you ever had one, Nightwing?”
Batgirl looks down at the restaurant and definitely makes a note of it.
“I don’t drink.” Nightwing answers, beginning to calculate their best angle of entry and the probable number of people inside.
“I see. Married to the job.” Spoiler grins and Batgirl giggles. Nightwing almost thinks about smiling… until Spoiler asks, “Are you married?”
“No.” Nightwing scowls.
“Ooh, are you single?!” She sounds far too invested in the answer, so Nightwing pointedly does not look at her.
“I don’t have time.”
“Right, with the night job. You know, you might be able to make something work with someone who keeps the same schedule.”
The tone in her voice is too suggestive to ignore, and Nightwing finally turns to look at her.
“Aren’t you dating Robin?”
“I didn’t mean me!” Spoiler backpedals lightly. “Just a friendly suggestion. Wait, how did you know that?”
“Robin told me.”
“See?” He can hear Batgirl giggling at him under her mask. “Family.”
“I told you, that’s not a good idea.” Nightwing turns away, his heart aching more than he can ever put into words. He sees Spoiler move behind him, but doesn’t stop her from slinging an arm around his shoulder. She has to stand on her tip-toes, and there’s no way it’s comfortable for her, but she seems happy doing it.
“Look, Mr. I-Work-Alone-Broody-Pants, you found me the first solid lead on my case in weeks, plus you’re cute and you make Batgirl laugh. There’s no way you’re getting rid of me that fast.”
Spoiler turns out to be very determined. Even more so than Robin, in some ways. He’s torn between his desire to stay away from
his family Gotham’s vigilantes, and happiness appreciation of another ally in his fight. Still, he thinks he’s gotten close enough and promises himself that he won’t get any closer.
“Robin says you’re good with tracking leads.” The Red Hood says by way of introduction, and all Nightwing’s careful plans to stay away go up in smoke.
“It depends.” Nightwing answers. He drops down into an alley between their rooftops and settles on a fire escape, watching the Red Hood follow. He’s a lot more coordinated than the kid Nightwing remembers. Most of the days during his seven years as Apprentice had been bad, but the day his master told him about the second Robin’s death had been one of the worst. And that was before he’d been punished for showing weakness.
“I’m looking for Floyd Lawton. You ever heard of him?”
In another lifetime, Nightwing would have laughed at the question. Yes, he has definitely heard of Deadshot. Considering how much Deathstroke hated the man, it’s amazing that he never sent the Apprentice to take him out.
“Why are you looking for him?”
“He’s in the wind. Someone hired him to bomb six blocks of my turf, and he’s going to tell me who the hell it was so I can make them pay.”
“Six blocks?” Nightwing asks, horrified at the implications.
“We stopped four of them from going off, but the other two? Rubble. It’s not pretty.”
“Empty buildings?” Nightwing knows that it’s a hopeless question even as he asks it.
Nightwing sees red.
“I’ll find him.”
His contact is surprised to hear from him, but passes along the information he needs anyway. Red Hood is waiting at the location he gives him, and together, they storm Lawton’s safehouse.
The security is good, hard to beat, but it turns out Nightwing isn’t the only one with tricks up his sleeve. Red Hood’s love of guns makes getting inside much easier, but he sees the way Nightwing eyes the weapons with distaste.
“You got a problem?” Hood challenges him.
“Just too much blood on my hands already.” Nightwing replies, charging into the safehouse before Hood can respond. They catch Lawton off guard and while he resists at first, they manage to make him talk. Nightwing takes a very large amount of satisfaction from cuffing an unconscious and bruised Lawton to a street lamp for the police to find.
“Thank you for your help.” Red Hood says when they’re clear of the scene, and Nightwing is more than a little surprised. “Look, I should’ve checked with you before going all guns-blazing back there. Robin warned me about it and I didn’t listen.”
“It got us in.” Nightwing shakes his head. “And I don’t care, as long as I’m not the one holding them.”
Red Hood watches him for a second.
“You know, you’re not the only one with a messed-up backstory." He offers cautiously, and Nightwing is very aware that this is not the kind of offer he makes lightly. "If you ever want someone to… bust some heads with, give me a call.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Red Hood never joins the rotation of Gotham vigilantes that drop by Blüdhaven, but Nightwing sees a lot more of him anyway. Still, it’s about a month after he rescues the Titans from Brother Blood that another
old new face appears in his life. Nightwing is heading back for his safehouse, about to call it a night after many long hours of patrol when he sees the small tornado barreling down the highway with a streak of yellow lightning chasing behind it.
“Great.” Nightwing mutters. Kid Flash throws him a grin when he swings down to intercept them.
“Hey, Nightwing! Long time, no see! Got a few minutes?”
The Weather Wizard isn’t nearly as much of a threat as Nightwing remembers, even if he has picked up a few new tricks over the years. Between the two of them, they take the Weather Wizard down in fifteen minutes, barely destroying any of Blüdhaven's highways in the process.
As Kid Flash puts cuffs on the dazed criminal and hauls him over his shoulder, he turns back to Nightwing.
“Thanks for the assist. I’ve been chasing him for hours.”
“No problem.” Nightwing replies.
“Seriously. Hey, let me buy you a pizza! I’ll zip this guy off to lockup and be right back. You like pepperoni?” His former
best friend teammate offers.
“Maybe next time.” Nightwing disappears before Kid Flash can respond. He should probably know better than to think the speedster wouldn’t show up a week later with four large pizzas and a few gallons of sugary soda insisting that it’s the least he can do in exchange for Nightwing’s help. He's surprised anyway
probably because he knows, deep down, the people he cares about will always abandon him and if he were able to express it, very happy.
He’s really going to have to put his foot down at some point
but he misses his friends so much and he’s becoming dangerously addicted to the way their smiles and casual touches and gestures of trust fill the void in his chest. At some point.
“Have you ever been to Gotham?” Robin asks him one night when they’re hanging out on the couch of his safehouse, eating Chinese food straight from takeout containers. Nightwing doesn’t know how the one-time event became a weekly tradition, but as much as it makes him anxious to have gotten so close
not that he ever wanted to stay away from his family, he doesn’t want think it needs to be stopped yet.
Robin has been much more careful not to ask invasive questions, although the young hero still clearly wants to. Nightwing knows that this question isn’t quite as innocent as it appears. For one thing, Robin knows very well that Nightwing was in Gotham on the anniversary of
his Dick Grayson’s death.
Batgirl wipes a streak of grease off Spoiler’s chin, and Spoiler laughs before trying and failing to push Batgirl off of her. They’re all still wearing their masks, even though the Gotham vigilantes have tried a few times to take that next step towards trust
and pain but that is one of the lines Nightwing will never budge on.
“Not in a long time.” He admits after a few minutes, debating how much is safe to give away, whether or not he can give away anything at all. He knows Robin is desperate to solve the mystery of Nightwing, as much as he is trying to respect the older vigilante’s privacy. They already know he has unfinished business in Gotham and it’s better to give them something small than risk having them become impatient. He’s sure they won’t find Dick Grayson in his past,
they never could before, and that was before they thought he’d been dead for eight years and left him to suffer alone, but they might find Renegade and he isn’t ready for that confrontation. If he gets any say in it, but he usually doesn’t they’ll never find out.
“You should come visit us sometime. It’s got great roofs for jumping off, plus lots of smog to sneak around in, and there’s plenty of crime to stop.” Robin says. Spoiler snorts.
“When you put it like that, Gotham sounds like a real tourist spot.”
Nightwing frowns. He misses Gotham, misses it like he misses whatever used to fill the gaping hole in his chest, misses it more than his
family friends will ever understand. But Gotham is too close. Gotham is where his father Batman is, and no matter loud the little voice in his head screams, it’s too late for him to go back. He betrayed his teammates, his friends, his family everyone. If they ever found out who he was, they would regret ever having given him a chance.
“I’m never going back to Gotham.” He replies, pretending the shattered remains of his heart aren't bleeding. “There are too many bad memories there.”
The three heroes are quiet, exchanging looks that he doesn’t have the right to try and read. He doesn’t let himself wonder what they’re thinking… and because of that, he has no idea what to think when they latch onto him.
He sits there completely frozen while his brain scrambles to figure out what they’re doing. It takes him a pathetically long time to realize; it’s a hug.
They’re on top of him, all three of them, and he can feel himself starting to panic. He feels trapped, and he’s spent too much of his life trapped by things he can’t control, things he can’t ever get away from. He needs… he needs to…
“Need to relax.” Batgirl says, her gentle voice breaking through the panic in his head with simple words. “Are safe.”
“When’s the last time you had a hug?” Spoiler asks in her usual brashness as she snuggles into his side, and Nightwing feels compelled to respond for reasons he can’t understand. He knows the answer immediately.
It was almost nine years ago, standing on top of Titans tower with Starfire. The memory rises back to the surface and he can almost hear the waves lapping against the shore, he can smell the breeze coming from the harbor, but mostly he can feel the warmth of Starfire’s arms around him as she pulled him close. For a second, he remembers what it was like to be Robin, to be Dick Grayson, a person with thoughts and feelings and desires and a life all his own. His throat feels tight and his eyes burn, but he had the tears beaten out of him a very long time ago.
“Ten years.” He hears the words come out as a whisper and hates himself for his weakness. He isn’t weak. He is… he was Apprentice, he isn’t meant to care about anything or anyone. He is… he’s not… he doesn’t know who he is.
“No wonder you’re so broody, that’s way too long.” Spoiler says wryly. He expects the pain from her words to hit him. Instead, he feels lighter. Batgirl pats him on the head with gentle hands.
“Safe.” She says like an indisputable fact.
Safe, the very small voice inside him agrees.
He knows the Apprentice is not gone. He knows that for all that Nightwing has done to remake himself, to become someone new from the ashes that were left behind, he will never not be Apprentice.
He’s figured out that the small voice is Dick Grayson, or maybe who Robin once was. Despite everything his master did to destroy him, Dick Grayson isn’t quite as dead as everyone
including Nightwing thought. He knows that the small voice is the reason he begins to stock his cupboards with the kinds of sugary cereals his master never would have allowed him; he knows that Dick Grayson is the reason he starts stopping for coffee on his way to work so he can practice charming people and smiling at them and pretending for a few minutes a day that he is the man he could have been; he knows that whatever is left of Dick Grayson is the reason he lets his family friends get closer despite having promised himself he’d stay away.
He knows that the small voice is the part of him that objects the loudest when he tells himself staying away is for their own good.
But if the splintered fragment of Dick Grayson is still inside his head somewhere, then so is Apprentice, and one of those parts of him is much louder than the other. Still, the days where his head and his heart are empty and the Apprentice patrols the streets of Blüdhaven are few and far between. The Apprentice’s presence is more sporadic, but when he falls into the grip of the
person weapon he was for seven years, he falls hard. One particularly bad day, he comes back from a grueling patrol to a messy safehouse and a blind panic overtakes him.
(“I will not tolerate a messy apprentice.”)
He cleans the safehouse from top to bottom, scrubbing until his fingers bleed and every single surface shines and there’s not a single mote of dust to be found anywhere, all the while feeling the complete panic and self-hatred at the thought of disappointing his master. When Nightwing finally returns to himself, he looks down at his bleeding hands and calls in sick to work the next day
in two hours. He spends the rest of the day sitting numbly in the same spot, reminding himself that his master is dead and he doesn’t have to do anything anymore. He still can’t get himself to move, to risk moving even a single thing out of place.
Batgirl can tell he’s shaken up the next time she stops by, and he can see Robin and Spoiler inspecting the still-spotless safehouse with worried glances. Nightwing flat-out refuses to answer their questions
Of course he’s not alright, can’t they see how broken he is and how broken he’ll always be? and jumps out the window to start his patrol.
They all back off for a few weeks; they must have said something to his other
friends acquaintances because Blüdhaven has a steady stream of visitors to keep him company. Red Hood does an acceptable job pretending he’s only there for a case, but Kid Flash tries to drag him into a pizza night and he almost throws up when Troia shows up at his door with takeout from the Thai place that Dick Grayson and the other Titans had gone to any time they were in Gotham. He can’t get her to leave.
“I was in the area,” she grins. He’s pretty sure that’s a lie.
“I can’t eat all this food by myself.” That’s definitely a lie, she can eat as much as Kid Flash when someone challenges her
and that was a bet Dick Grayson really regretted taking.
“You wouldn’t leave a poor, defenseless, lady outside on her own in the middle of the night, would you?” She feigns puppy eyes at him.
Nightwing thinks to himself, “Of course not, but where is the poor defenseless lady?”
He freezes, unsure where that thought came from. Slowly, his brain catches up to the fact that it was a joke. Regardless of whether or not he said it out loud, he just made a joke for the first time in eight years.
He lets Troia in after that, and at the end of the night, Nightwing feels a little more like a person and a little less like a weapon
even though that’s all he’ll ever be. He doesn’t know how he could have forgotten how close he and Troia had been, that spending time with her had been his favorite pastime a very long time ago. Dick Grayson and Donna Troy had never seen each other as anything more than friends, and neither of them would have had it any other way.
Life returns to normal. Nightwing’s version of normal means he gets up, goes to work, comes home, and then immediately hits the streets to patrol until he is too exhausted to be of help to anyone, and then he goes back to his safehouse and sleeps until he has to wake up for his shift.
He knows his friends are worried about his schedule, although he is very careful to make sure they never find out what he does for a day job, but he doesn’t care if they understand. This schedule is tiring sometimes, but for seven years, his life was a constant stream of exhaustion and pain and doing horrible, bloody things that he’ll never be clean of. He has chosen this.
That makes all the difference.
Even on Nightwing’s worst days, the knowledge that he does not have to do anything, not even taking another step, is always enough to make him keep going. Nightwing may not be completely whole, he may still have fragments of his past mixed together with the Apprentice and the emptiness that accompanies it, but he is his own person. Nobody owns him. He does not owe anybody anything. He is trying to wash the blood from his hands because he can. Because he, Nightwing, wants to help people.
For a little while, things are good again. The Titans ask for his help dealing with a mystical cult that’s spreading over multiple cities and he enjoys feeling useful again. He enjoys helping Robin. He enjoys working with the Titans, and it
feels right is satisfying to have them follow his lead and trust his instincts, especially when it stops them from triggering a doomsday trap. For the first time he can remember in all the days he was a hero, they stop the evil cultists before they can get around to summoning the ancient evil demon, saving them all the trouble of fighting, defeating and re-banishing an unspeakable force of chaos and evil.
“Is it just me, or does anyone else feel kind of cheated?” Cyborg asks at the end, while he finishes hog-tying the last of the unconscious cultists and Nightwing inspects the half-full bowl of ingredients before deciding they’re harmless without the sacrifice of a fifteen day old ram (said ram is currently lounging on Beast Boy’s shoulders and nibbling at his hair) and dumps them out on the ground where they are desecrated and no longer suitable for the summoning.
The other Titans take a vote and unanimously agree that, no, they’re perfectly fine not having to fight an eldritch being of pure malevolence. Nightwing can’t say he disagrees.
The Titans wrap up their final sweep of the cultists’ lair and find the remains of an old spell book, along with a full roster of all the active members across the country. Raven makes them both vanish to a safe place where she can examine them later, and then they all head for the surface.
Cyborg claps him on the shoulder as they walk, and Nightwing has become accustomed enough to Batgirl patting him on the head and Spoiler demanding hugs that he allows the gesture without complaint.
“Now that that’s over, we have this tradition where we go out for pizza after a mission. You in?”
Nightwing considers it. A part of him
the not-so-tiny sliver of Dick Grayson begs him to go, to join in for one more triumphant pizza party to celebrate their victory, but he knows it’s a bad idea. Helping them on missions is one thing; after all, Nightwing was created to help others, but going out of his way to spend time with them for no other reason than fun? He can’t.
“Maybe next time.” He slips out from under Cyborg’s arm and fires a grappling line at a nearby building.
Nightwing assumes the Titans will leave it alone,
just like they left him alone before, but Robin shows up at the front door of his new safehouse the next day.
“You left in a hurry, but we wanted to give you this.” Robin holds out a brand-new communicator, complete with the signature Titan’s T. Nightwing freezes, his body locking up as his brain tries to wrap itself around the idea that he is once again holding a Titan's communicator. Something that Dick Grayson longed for so many times in the dark of the Apprentice’s “room” before he’d been ground into ashes. Something that Nightwing had long-since accepted he would never hold again. And now, here he is, standing in the doorway to his safehouse, no one around but the friend who has just trusted him with it.
“I can’t.” Nightwing says, trying to push it back at him. “You don’t know what I’ve done. I don’t deserve this.”
“We want you to have it.” Robin says, forcing a falsely light tone into his voice. Nightwing does not want to try naming the emotions hidden under the surface. “Think of it this way, now we can call you if we need help instead of showing up in your city unannounced.”
Nightwing stares at the small, round, innocuous, infinitely valuable piece of plastic and circuitry in his hands.
“Thank you.” He whispers, and means it.
The voice in his head, the one that get louder every day, cheers for many reasons, one of which is that gratitude is another emotion that he has not felt in a very, very long time. He’s not totally sure, but he thinks today was a good day.
Of course, things returning to normal means that sometimes, he has bad days. During his shift, Officer Tennyson Dippery reads an in-memoriam article in the newspaper profiling the life of a prominent ambassador who had been killed a few years prior. Rashid Boulos (male, 5’11”, 165 pounds, 73 years old, had looked at him with very sad, wrinkled eyes and gurgled out a prayer for peace as he died
and he’d had to be dragged away from the corpse, all the bones in his right hand shattered after he’d refused to let go of the dead man’s hand) had been a great man, an unyielding proponent of peace in the Middle East. He’d convinced leaders from all sides to agree to peace talks, but peace isn’t profitable for the warlords or oil tycoons or scheming politicians who’d hired Deathstroke to make sure those dreams died in blood. Tennyson shakes his head and passes Malloy the paper, adding an offhand, “It’s a shame,” before going back to work unaffected.
Apprentice patrols the streets for a few days, and in the brief moments where Nightwing takes control back, he cannot bear the burden of all the blood on his hands. He has many knives and carefully selects one that he knows will do the job. The blade is light in his hands, a strange juxtaposition to the weight he is being crushed under. Nightwing allows himself a moment to position the blade, to bring it to just the right spot where one move will bring all of his pain to an end, and then lowers it. He still has far too much to atone for. And if he was capable of taking his own life, he would have done it a very long time ago when he was just a weapon for his master, certainly not now when he has regained control over his life.
He’s off balance and in pain and full of self-loathing for all the evil he has done. He was forced into it, but even so, all those people died by his hands.
It’s only a few days later, when Nightwing is barely starting to put himself back together, that a new visitor shows up inside his safehouse. He sees Robin through the open window and that’s become a normal enough occurrence he doesn’t think twice about swinging himself inside. Robin had mentioned being in the city for a few days and he knows the teen is excited to help him with his computer skills.
He just has no way of preparing himself to climb through the window of his safe house and come face-to-face with a wheelchair and a shock of red hair.
“Hey Nightwing!” Robin greets cheerfully. Nightwing feels numbness building in his toes, pins and needles climbing up his legs as the paralyzing wave of emotions rises. “Remember how you wanted to learn more about computers? This is Oracle, she’s the best in the world.”
Oracle is wearing a mask over her face, but there is no world where Nightwing doesn’t recognize her (Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl, female, 5'7", 126 pounds, computer expert
she’s known him since they were kids, she thinks he’s dead, she’s spent nearly ten years mourning him and now she’s sitting five feet away from him and smiling at him like a stranger).
(“Your friends abandoned you. They don’t care about you, Apprentice.”)
“Nightwing!” Robin (Timothy Drake, male, 5'1", 111 pounds, favors his left side while his right knee heals from a recent dislocation, severing the left posterior cruciate ligament would render him helpless) is shaking him.
(The blow landed hand, forcing him to double over as bile rose in his throat.)
“What’s going on?”
(Deathstroke stepped on his back, forcing his chin back by yanking on his hair until tears were pulled out of his eyes.)
“I don’t know!” Robin sounds desperate. Apprentice knows that is a tactical advantage, anxiety impairs judgement. He will be easy to incapacitate.
(“You are a weapon. You are mine.”)
“I’ll call Batgirl! See if you can snap him out of it.” Oracle orders. Apprentice watches the two for a moment before determining that they are no threat to him.
(“You are worthless. Being a weapon is the only thing you’re suited for.”)
His master is not present, has not given him any orders. There is a voice though, beyond the panicked words of the other two in the room. It is quiet, but he recognizes it. The voice wants to pull the mask off from his face and drop to his knees. The voice wants to beg for forgiveness. The voice is weak. Apprentice has not been given any orders, but he knows that his master always punishes him for listening to that voice. He squashes it down and turns, heading for the window.
He sees no reason to stay, not when the traitorous voice demands him to.
“Nightwing, where are you going?” Robin demands. “What’s going on?!”
Apprentice does not answer. His master has not told him to speak. He owes these people nothing. He is already showing them mercy by leaving peacefully.
But then the smaller one grabs his arm, and Apprentice reacts to the attack. He snaps his opponent’s wrist in one smooth motion, then throws him into the shelf on the other side of the room.
“Robin!” Oracle shouts in fear. The Apprentice takes the moment of chaos to slip out the window and disappear.
The Apprentice is being hunted. He has made an error, and his master will surely punish him for it. He should not have left those two alive to call for help; they may not have been threats to him, but his master demands that he is never seen, never caught.
But he had not been given any orders. The Apprentice is confused, even as he runs from the shadows chasing him.
He knows the two were not threats to him. He is sure they were not. Just as he knows the shadow that is doing its best to catch him is not dangerous, not to him. He is confused and does not know what to do, does not know what to think.
He should not think. He is Apprentice, he is a weapon.
But he has not been given orders. He does not know where he is going or what he is running from.
His master has never sent him out without orders before. The Apprentice does not understand what is happening, does not know why he is running, does not know why his master has not told him his mission.
The Apprentice clears a rooftop in a single bound and disappears down the side of an alley way. He jumps over a chain-link fence, propels himself off a dumpster and onto a fire escape, before pulling himself onto a low roof and continuing his escape.
His master is dead.
The thought makes the Apprentice stumble. He knows where it came from, can tell the treacherous voice is trying to make him mess up, to make him less than perfect. But as much as it is impossible, the Apprentice suddenly knows it is true.
His master is dead and there is nobody to give him orders. The Apprentice is a weapon, he does not think, he does not choose, he only obeys. But without anyone to obey, what is he? What is his purpose?
What is he supposed to do?
The voice inside him senses weakness and the Apprentice cannot force it silent any longer.
Do whatever you want! The voice shouts at him. You are a person, you can choose!
He can’t choose. He is not a person, he is a weapon. If his master ever found him—
His master is dead, the Apprentice realizes. He will not be punished for disobeying; not if there is no one to obey. He does not have to obey any longer.
But as soon as he thinks it, he spirals into panic. He cannot choose for himself, he does not have it in him. He does not know what to do and he doesn’t… he can’t…
Stop running! The voice yells at him.
The voice. The voice wants things. The voice can choose. The voice can tell him what to do, and now his master will never punish him for it.
He stops in the middle of the rooftop and the voice inside him cheers. The Apprentice discovers he likes the way it feels.
“Nightwing!” A woman calls, swinging onto the roof with a swish of purple cape. (Stephanie Brown, known as Spoiler, female, 5'4", 124 pounds, poor defense in hand-to-hand combat, FRIEND) The voice shouts the last part at him, and the Apprentice removes himself from his fighting stance.
Batgirl is next to her, and while Spoiler holds her distance, Batgirl approaches slowly.
“Here to help.” Batgirl assures him, holding her hands up where the Apprentice can most easily see them. “We are… friends. Your friends.”
The Apprentice considers her words, consults the voice screaming from inside his head, and can understand that it is the truth.
“Yes.” The Apprentice agrees.
Batgirl steps ever closer, never becoming a threat despite how dangerous the Apprentice knows her to be.
“You are safe.” Batgirl assures him. “Robin is okay. Not bad hurt.”
Something inside the Apprentice latches onto those words; Robin is okay.
“What… do… you… need?” Batgirl asks, and even though the words come out slowly he can tell that she practiced saying them. The Apprentice knows there is only one answer to this question
never mind that it is a lie.
“Nothing.” The Apprentice’s voice is empty and blank, as it should be.
“No!” Batgirl insists, frowning with every part of her body. “You hurt… you are hurt. Tell… tell me what you need.”
“I…” The Apprentice stops. “I don’t…”
His head is spinning and nothing makes sense and he feels so lost, and yet the voice is shouting at him, begging him not to stop himself.
“I don’t want to be this.” The Apprentice chokes out, and not even he knows where the words come from.
“Okay.” Batgirl says, gently gently gently picking up his hand. The Apprentice lets her. Nightwing lets her. “Who… you want to be?”
He looks down at his hands and he doesn’t know. He knows he’s not just Nightwing; he’s also Apprentice but mostly, he’s empty.
And Tennyson, the small voice inside him insists suddenly.
He’s so surprised by the thought that the Apprentice fades for a moment. Six days a week, he shows up for Tennyson’s nine am shift and wears the lie as a second skin. He doesn’t know when he stopped thinking of his job as an act; Officer Dippery is still serious but he jokes around with his partners. Nightwing doesn’t pretend to joke, Dippery just does it.
Sometimes Tennyson throws back his head at Malloy’s jokes or makes fun at his partner’s expense to the amusement of the rest of the precinct, and he secretly wonders what the difference is between lie and truth.
He is Nightwing, and part of him will always be Apprentice, but he is also Tennyson and whatever pieces of Dick Grayson are still floating around inside his head. But most importantly, he is himself, no matter what name is attached to it.
“What do you want?” Batgirl repeats slowly, deliberately. In that moment, Nightwing wants nothing more than to rip off his mask and grab her by the shoulders and shout that he was Dick Grayson and then Deathstroke killed him and broke him and now he’s tired of just being broken pieces. But he doesn’t really want that. Nightwing likes the way things are now.
He’s free, he’s starting to
love like Blüdhaven and its people, and he likes the way that his friends come out of their way to visit him as if there’s something about him that’s worth making the effort for. If they find out he really was, it would ruin everything. He doesn’t want to deal with any more guilt.
“I want to be whole.” He whispers and the flood gates come crashing open.
“I’m sorry,” someone whispers. It’s him. But not him, not Apprentice but also it is, because he is Apprentice but he’s also more and he’s also… he’s Nightwing. He is Nightwing and he is a person, and as Nightwing fully comes back to himself, he drops to his knees and breaks. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Batgirl’s arms are around him, holding him up and supporting him and catching him as he falls. Another set of arms joins hers, and then Spoiler is whispering, “It’s okay, you’re okay” into his ear and he can’t stop himself as he screams, tears joining the pain for the first time in years. Out of the corner of his eye, Nightwing can see the back of a red helmet as the Red Hood stands watch over all three of them.
Robin apologizes to him profusely for days after his breakdown. He brings him pizza and candy and sugary cereal and waits outside the closed safehouse door, begging Nightwing to accept his apology even while his broken wrist is set in a cast. He will not let Nightwing apologize for his actions, does not listen when Nightwing tells Robin it was his own fault that he lost control.
Oracle sends her apologies along via Batgirl and does not attempt to visit him again. Nightwing spends several agonizing days trying to build up the courage to ask her to come back. He has painful, complicated feelings but as much as it hurt to see her so suddenly, he cannot imagine a fate worse than never seeing her again.
After all, he has lived that fate for almost ten years.
They arrange to meet on neutral ground, at an outdoor café that Spoiler recommends. It is a very open space, one where he can both keep his back to the wall and have an easy escape if he needs it. Nightwing finds himself consumed by anxiety in a way that he is unable to handle—just because he is having feelings again does not mean he knows what to do with them—and has to cancel two times in a row. As the third date comes closer, he finds himself too distracted to even maintain Tennyson’s cover during his shift, and the Captain sends him home early to deal with whatever’s going on. Nightwing calls Oracle using the number Robin left him and asks to meet that day.
She and Batgirl are waiting for him at their pre-arranged table when he arrives, both wearing dark sunglasses and floppy hats and colorful scarves to conceal their identities from the world. Nightwing is so nervous he can’t breathe, but he forces himself to take one step after another until he’s sitting across from the two women.
“Hi.” Oracle offers after a long moment of tense silence.
“Hi.” Nightwing replies.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Barbara Gordon smiles warmly, and all the fear and worry and anxiety melts away. After that, lunch goes without a hitch and the two of them make easy conversation the entire time. She manages to tell him all about herself without giving away any of the details he has asked to keep secret, and that’s how he officially learns that she is a librarian with advanced degrees in Education and Research Methods. He also learns that he can listen to her talk about books for hours and hours on end.
Batgirl happily drinks her smoothie, watching the two of them with a big smile. He listens to Barbara talk about her latest research paper on the importance of the internet as a utility, and as he sits there, completely mesmerized by the passion in her voice, Dick thinks that everything just might be okay someday.
Red Hood does not mention his breakdown, nor does he mention standing vigil as his sisters comforted the older vigilante, but he does show up to join him a few times during patrol. Hood’s company is very different than the rest of the Bat vigilantes. Mostly because he has memories of Jason from before, and it is very hard to reconcile those with the person he has come to know.
He likes Hood, but he also makes Nightwing so, so sad. He remembers how full of fire and spite he was as a child, and he understands how his death and resurrection and the Pit madness have shaped him into the hero he is today. It is Jason’s own self-hatred that saddens Nightwing the most. He understands the need to eliminate monsters from the world; he only wishes that he could have distinguished between the ones that deserved it from the ones that didn’t as the Red Hood has always done.
Still, the Red Hood’s company is uniquely comforting. He is not afraid of Nightwing, never wary of him. At the same time, he’s not gentle in the way that Batgirl is.
The one time that Nightwing mentions it, Hood just shrugs.
“If you wanted me dead, I would already be in the ground.” Hood barks out a laugh that Nightwing does not like at all, especially when he adds. “You know, again.”
Nightwing adds convincing Jason to get a therapist to his list of priorities.
Cheshire is a woman that he has not seen in a long time, and he doesn’t mind that fact. He never cared much for her; they were both contract killers, but she did it for the money and the thrill while he had to be broken and beaten down and forced to drown in all the blood.
Nightwing is happy to swoop in and take her out with a well-placed kick to the back of her head. She hits the ground, as the Outlaws charge into view.
“Nice hit,” Red Hood slaps him on the back while Arsenal slings the unconscious assassin over his shoulder. Nightwing does not know what he sees in her, but he does know that they are on-again, off-again whenever they’re not trying to kill each other.
He will never, ever claim to be qualified to talk about mental health, but he’s pretty sure that’s a very unhealthy relationship.
“It is wonderful to see you again, the Nightwing,” Starfire beams at him, and all thoughts Nightwing had of making a quick escape evaporate into thin air. He can’t bring himself to leave. Not when Starfire is looking at him like his very existence is a reason to be happy.
“It’s good to see you too.” He answers, even though he knows he shouldn’t stay.
Dick thinks he’s a coward, but the pounding in his chest gets louder until he’s sure everyone in the city can hear it.
“We think Cheshire’s involved with a militia based out of Cape Good Hope,” Red Hood tells him. “We’re hoping she’ll be able to lead us to their weapons dealer.”
“Yes. And if we are very the lucky, we may discover the location of their manufacturing.” Starfire adds.
“Want to tag along?” Red Hood offers.
He should say no. It’s bad enough that he’s gotten so close to his family, but all three of them have had close encounters with Renegade, and even worse, they all were close to Dick Grayson. It’s far too risky to spend time around them all, particularly if they will need to get answers from Cheshire.
That’s what he should say. Instead, Dick grins at them and says, “Sounds like a fun time.”
It’s a rough mission. They have to allow Cheshire to escape without letting her realize it was intentional, secretly follow her through five states until she finally circles back to her employers, fight their way through a lot of hostile militants, and beat information out of any high-ranking officers they come across. They fight their way up the chain of command, working quickly to keep the element of surprise, until they finally make their way to the disguised munitions factory outside of Palm Beach. Nightwing does not sleep very much that week, and he is stressed beyond explanation at having to share close quarters with the other heroes in the brief periods of downtime they get, but when he’s finally standing at their side in the remains of the destroyed factory, he admits that it was a very, very satisfying experience.
“Well, that was fun.” Arsenal claps his hands together to clear off the ash and dirt and debris after slinging his bow over his shoulder. “Anyone up for some beach volleyball?”
“Ooh! Yes the please!” Starfire beams, and Red Hood laughs at his teammates. “I will be on friend Nightwing’s team!”
Nightwing steps back, shaking his head in alarm as his heart jumps to hear the… the
flirtatious enthusiastic tone of her voice.
“I need to get back to Blüdhaven. I’ve been away too long already.”
“Seriously?” Red Hood asks.
“They can last a couple of days without you. You deserve a break.” Arsenal snorts.
“I can’t. But have fun.” Nightwing says, truly meaning it. This was their mission, after all. He just provided the ground support and got them inside secret bases and tracked down a few loose ends when the trail started to go cold.
He’s grateful that they let him leave without complaining, but he’s very confused when there’s a knock on the window of his safehouse two days later and they’re all perched on the fire escape outside.
“What are you doing here?” He asks them, blinking at the cooler slung over Starfire’s shoulder.
“We couldn’t have done it without you, man. There’s no way we were celebrating without you.” Arsenal explains as he pushes past him into the safehouse. Nightwing blinks, trying to think of a reason to push him out again but he must take too long because Starfire and Red Hood follow him inside.
“Here,” Arsenal rummages through the cooler and pushes an ice-cold beer into his hands. Nightwing looks down at the bottle with a frown.
“I don’t drink.”
Red Hood snags the bottle out of his hand and replaces it with a wax-paper carton filled with nachos.
“Then eat your nachos and watch us be idiots.” His brother says. He can’t think of anything to say to that,
and Dick can’t think of anything he’d rather do, so he sits on his couch and watches them live up to their promise. He does make them clean up the next morning, and Dick can’t put into words the thrill he feels at telling other people what to do and having them listen.
“Before I tell you any more, this is a very casual offer and whatever you decide is completely fine.” Robin says by way of warning. Nightwing raises his eyebrow, but braces himself anyway. “Batman wants to sponsor you.”
“No.” Nightwing says immediately. “Absolutely not!”
“It’s not what you’re thinking. He’s not really good with words or expressing himself, so he usually just throws money at people to get his point across. Anyway, he thinks you’re doing a good job and wants to help. Like if you need money for equipment or a new uniform or just… want money.”
“I don’t need any money.”
“Are you sure? I mean, it’s a good deal. You could quit your desk job, finally have some time to relax instead of working 24 hours a day.”
Nightwing shakes his head, but he can’t shake the warmth in his chest at Robin’s words. Bruce thinks he’s doing a good job. Even if he’ll never be ready to face his father again, even if Batman never knows the truth about him, he can’t help but feel… hope. Maybe someday, somehow, he’ll see his father again.
He shouldn’t ask. He knows he shouldn’t. But the Apprentice has been quiet lately and the tiny voice in his head has been getting louder and louder with every day that there’s no master around to crush it. And Nightwing suddenly can’t find it in himself to hold the question back, to stop himself from getting an answer that he so desperately
wants wants. Nightwing wants to know the answer. He’s a person again; maybe not a whole person, but he wants to be. And someday, he might be closer. But for now, there is something he wants and he’s too tired to try and stop himself from getting it.
“What happened to him?” He asks Robin one day, when the two of them are sitting on top of Blüdhaven National, the tallest building in the city that houses both the largest bank and the most expensive condos. It’s Nightwing’s
favorite preferred rooftop, with plenty of exposed brick and surface features to climb on and swing a grappling line off of.
“To who?” Robin asks innocently, staring through the lenses of his binoculars. He’s looking for bats (the actual animal), not crime. Nightwing knows because Spoiler told him about the bet Robin and Red Hood made over whether or not Bat-themed vigilantes were appropriate for Blüdhaven.
Nightwing knows there are no bats in Blüdhaven, but the Red Hood has started to become annoyingly persistent about asking him to join to Outlaws, and so he is siding with Robin for this particular bet.
“Robin.” Nightwing replies, pretending not to notice the way Robin stiffens. “The first one.”
Robin stows his binoculars in his utility belt before running a hand through his hair.
“Uh… it’s not really a happy story. I don’t know if… I’m not sure it’s my place to tell.” Robin answers uncomfortably.
“You’re Robin now.” Nightwing reminds him. “If it’s anyone’s place to tell it, it’s yours.”
“Right.” Robin does not look happy to be told that. He fiddles with his utility belt, and for a second it seems like he will pull out his grappling gun and make a quick escape. Instead, he sighs, and his fingers drop away from his belt. “He was on the Titans before me. Ja--- I mean, Red Hood never joined the Titans, even when he was Robin. I just wanted to help where I could. And… sorry, that’s not really relevant. It’s just hard to talk about.”
Nightwing doesn’t say anything; if he was a better person, he might offer words of comfort or assurance. Instead, he waits. He needs this answer suddenly, needs it like he needs to breathe.
That’s about the only thing in his life he’s always been allowed to need. Food and water were privileges, pain was a guarantee, and safety was merely a joke to his master.
“Robin was on the original team. He helped found it, actually. He was their leader. He was amazing at it. I mean sometimes… I know they want me to be him. I wish I could be the kind of leader he was, but he was so much better with people than I’ll ever be. Everyone says he had this way of bringing people together; he could get anyone to put their problems aside to help others.” Robin swallows and the next words come out a lot more slowly. “But he could be… obsessive. It’s what made him so good at being a hero and bringing people to justice but it also…”
Nightwing can’t breathe.
He was Dick Grayson was obsessive. He almost forgets that his master didn’t seek him out, no, nothing that simple. He had been the one to chase Deathstroke down, to pursue every lead and every clue, letting nothing stand in his way until it led him straight to Deathstroke. Straight into the trap his master had set for him.
“There was a mercenary, he went by Deathstroke. The Titans say there was something different about him, something that made him the ultimate target. Robin, he… he did what he always did. He tried to stop him but it was all a trap. Deathstroke infected the Titans with these nanobots to force Robin to surrender himself. And when he did…”
Robin breaks off, unable to get any more words out. Nightwing stares, balancing on the edge of his seat and unable to pull any air into his lungs. He needs to hear the rest, he needs to hear his
brother friend say the words.
“Deathstroke killed him.” Robin’s voice is shaky, but it still carries through the chilly night air. “He was sixteen.”
“Was there a body?” Nightwing asks. He wishes that he could have stopped himself when Robin curls in on himself, his face tight with guilt and grief.
“I don’t know, Nightwing. I’m sorry, I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”
“Okay.” Nightwing backs off immediately. He wants answers, but he doesn’t want to hurt Robin. Keeping his
brother friend happy is more important than anything Nightwing will ever want. And he should know better than to want anything, look how much he’s hurt Tim just by asking a few questions.
It has been a year and six months since Deathstroke was killed. Nightwing has been a hero for sixteen months and he’s finally beginning to realize he is happy. He has become a regular at his usual coffee shop, and even though the baristas always have his order ready for him when he walks in, he always stays a few extra minutes to chat and fill their tip jars.
He burned most of Deathstroke’s empire, but he takes great joy in giving the man’s bloody money away to whatever frivolous things he wants. After all, it would have made him furious.
To the great enjoyment of his partner, Officer Tennyson has started to relax. He is happy to call Malloy his friend, quick to tease him when he overlooks something obvious, and has made a lot of friends in the precinct from his powers of observation and lack of arrogance. He still doesn’t drink, but Tennyson has begun to join the other officers at their usual bar for the weekly happy hours, and they welcome him with open arms.
Dick is beginning to regret his chosen career; although many of his colleagues want to protect and serve, he sees far too many abuses of their power, and just about no one willing to push against it.
The weekly post-patrol meals have expanded to include Red Hood, and either or both of the other Outlaws. Nightwing has continually refused their offers to join, just as he has refused the Titans’ offer, but he still enjoys their company. He knows that his promise to stay away from his family has completely fallen apart, but Dick can’t bring himself to regret even a second of it.
By far the highlight of his life has become the monthly dinners with Oracle. After intense negotiations, he agrees to split the difference and alternate between who makes the trip. He only agrees to return to Gotham in order to accommodate her mobility issues, but after the first trip to Gotham, he knows he’s home.
Dick knows he’s been an idiot when he takes the first breath of stale, smoggy, familiar air and a little piece of the void in his soul fills back in.
He knows things are not perfect. He still lives in fear of the day his friends connect the dots and figure out that he’s Renegade, and he knows that Batman must be watching him very closely considering how much time his children spend around an unknown quantity. But the bad days are becoming increasingly rare, and he finds out after one memorable event that his friends have put plans in place so that he is never alone when they do.
Nightwing has not felt alone in a very long time.
He blames his complacency when he realizes that he’s missed something important. Nightwing has lost touch with almost all of his contacts, which is the excuse he gives himself for not noticing that something in the Underworld is… stirring.
A body is found less than a block from his apartment
he doesn’t know when he stopped thinking of it as a safehouse and the results of the autopsy are disturbingly familiar. By all the evidence, it was a routine mugging, but the knife wounds are pristine. Nightwing couldn’t have made a cleaner kill himself, and he’s had a truly horrific amount of practice.
He has the uncomfortable sense that something is wrong, but it doesn’t hit him until his debit card is declined at an ATM. Those accounts should not be empty; he has been drawing from them for a year and a half and has barely even begun to scratch the surface. Nobody has access to them; he’s the only person on the planet that knows they exist. That’s when Nightwing knows that someone is leaving a trail for him and he has a very, very bad feeling about it.
Once he starts looking, he finds plenty of leads. As much he doesn’t want to follow them, as much as Dick knows that one way or another, this is certainly a trap, he can’t let it slide. Whoever is behind this is playing a very dangerous game and he will make them regret it.
He calls in sick to work, drives to the airport, and takes the next plane to Jump City. It hurts to be back in the city, hurts like a knife sticking out of his chest, but the sooner he can get through this, the sooner he can go back home and forget about all of it. The city is very proud of its heroes, and he flinches when he looks out the window of his gate and sees Titans’ Tower in the distance.
He turns away and heads for his rental car; he does not want the Titans to know he’s here. Driving through Jump City is familiar and he remembers many joyrides through the city on his motorcycle from his days as a Titan. He parks in a public lot two blocks away and changes into his costume before making the rest of the trip on foot.
He stands outside the ruined factory and stops. This lair has haunted his dreams ever since the day Deathstroke took him. Robin went inside one day and never came back out. Dick will never forgive whoever it was that dragged him out here. He’s ready for a fight.
Unfortunately, it seems like the lair is empty. Nightwing scours every inch, making sure to examine every hidden passage and secret hiding spot, but no one is there. Nothing is left in this empty husk of a base. It’s two hours later when Nightwing has become severely irritated and ready to strangle someone that something changes.
“They're in here!” A man announces and the sound is coming from right outside the door.
“Show yourself!” A second voice orders loudly. Nightwing tenses, but he knows both the voices. He can’t decide whether to stay or hide by the time the door bursts open and the Titans charge inside.
There’s a brief moment of pause.
“Nightwing?” Cyborg asks, hesitating for an uncomfortable moment before lowering his arm cannon. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question.” Nightwing answers, cursing whoever brought him here. He’s been here for two hours, there’s no way that the Titans would only show up now if this wasn’t happening by some outside force's design. Whoever brought him here clearly summoned the Titans as well.
“We have this place under constant surveillance. Anytime anyone goes in or out, we check it out. Now tell us what you’re doing here.”
“Someone’s been leaving a trail for me,” Nightwing tells them, hoping that they will be satisfied enough with his answer to stop looking so wary at the sight of him. “I was hoping I’d get some answers, but it just brought me to you guys. What is this place, anyways?”
Raven raises her hand suddenly, her eyes going cold.
“You’re lying." Her teammates look at each other before turning their attention to Nightwing with suspicion that’s never been there before, and he knows that it is too late to bluff his way out of this. “Or at least, you’re not telling us everything.”
Nightwing lets out a huff, shaking his head in annoyance
mostly at himself. “I should really know better than to trick an empath.”
“Nightwing, what’s going on?” Robin demands. Nightwing is definitely going to strangle whoever is behind this for making him do this in front of his younger brother. But his heart is sinking in his chest with the certainty that he is not getting out of here with his secrets intact.
He sighs and lets his shoulders drop.
“I didn’t lie, I just didn’t say everything. Someone led me here. And I know why they wanted me back here, I just don’t have any idea who’s behind it. There’s nobody in the world who should know the things they know and I have to find out what they want.”
The Titans looked at each other.
“Are you sure they wanted you here?” Beast Boy asks, looking incredibly nervous.
Nightwing feels the corner of his lip rise in a very unhappy smirk.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure.” His hands are shaking and once he starts talking, he can’t stop. “You know, I really hated this place. I hated everything about every minute of it. Of course, that was the point.”
His heart is pounding and he can feel himself trembling, but the Titans are all frozen in spellbound silence. They can’t stop listening anymore than he can stop talking.
“That was thing about belonging to him,” he says. “It was all the worst part. Every single second of every minute of every hour and day and week and month and year. Every single death. Every punishment. I was never good enough but there was no end. No way out. I was alone. I was nothing. Just… a weapon. His weapon.”
He takes a shuddering breath and tears himself free from the memories. He looks around as he does everything in his power not to look at them and he know it’s no coincidence that the Titans found him here, in this room. There’s no trace of the terrible history left in this room; Deathstroke had everything cleaned before taking him to another base, and he knows the various iterations of Titans and Jump City police have been over every inch. Still, every detail of that day is burned into his memory.
“That’s where it happened.” He points with a single finger at the exact spot. “Right there.”
The Titans tense, turning to look.
“Nightwing?” Robin asks, his voice so uncertain that it drives a spike through Dick’s heart.
“Did you know I was there?” Nightwing asks, his voice cracking with emotions. “The day he killed Robin? I couldn’t save him. He killed him right in front of me and there was nothing I could do to stop him.”
Raven’s hands jump to her mouth, tendrils of darkness leeching out from under her cloak. Beast Boy is staring at him in horror, but Robin just looks numb.
“You’re Renegade.” Raven realizes quietly.
Nightwing thinks of the burns on his forearm, the jagged scars on his side, the electrical burns along his wrists, the lump on his elbow, the slash along his ribs and the crooked set of his nose and remembers how much worse those injuries had all hurt because they’d come from his former
“No.” Nightwing answers honestly. The Titans look stunned.
“What?” Beast Boy asks. “But you said---”
“Renegade was just a code for the field. I wasn’t anyone. Just the Apprentice.”
Robin’s face bleaches of its color.
“That’s just sick.” Cyborg mutters.
“Is that what you wanted to know?” Nightwing asks harshly. “You have your answer. I told you that you’d hate me if you knew, don’t pretend I didn’t try to stay away.”
“We hurt you.” Raven says, staring at him with sadness and regret so strong it makes something very small stir in his chest.
“We thought you were evil.” Beast Boy frowns. “After everything Deathstroke did to us, after what he did to Robin… we thought anyone who worked for him must have been just as horrible as he was.”
“I told you.” Nightwing turns away from the people who were once his friends, the people that he would still lay down his life for in an instant. “If you knew who I was, you wouldn’t want anything to do with me.”
“No. That’s not what we’re thinking.” Cyborg reaches out and grabs Nightwing’s shoulder. Nightwing flinches at the contact, jerking himself away.
“The things Deathstroke did to you were not your fault,” Raven says. “He was evil, pure evil. We don’t blame you for any of it.”
“I don’t want your forgiveness.” Nightwing’s voice sounds so empty even to his own ears. “I will never forgive myself.”
Silence hangs in the terrible space.
“Deathstroke’s empire…” Cyborg asks quietly. “Were you the one who destroyed everything?”
Despite himself, Nightwing grins furiously. “It was all mine. For ten years, I wasn’t a person, wasn’t anything; I was just his weapon. And then one day he was dead and everything that was his became mine. I burned it all to the ground and walked away. And I’m going to do the same thing to this place. So get out, or you’re going to go up with it.”
He doesn’t know what he expects to happen next, but it definitely isn’t for Robin to charge forward and tackle him in a hug, gripping so tight that he can barely breathe.
The Titans drag him back to the Tower with them, refusing to take no for an answer. They seem determined to prove something, but Nightwing is far too tired to think about what it is. The Titans don’t press him when he insists on taking the first flight back to Blüdhaven, and he’s grateful that they leave him alone because he truly does not have it in him to cope with their guilt.
This is exactly what he wanted to avoid.
He finally arrives back at his apartment, sleeps for a full four hours, and then wakes up in time for Tennyson’s shift. He is about to walk out the door when his phone goes off with a text from an unknown number.
“You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you? You’re going to have to try a little harder.”
He sees red as he forces himself to go to work as planned. While Tennyson works his shift and puzzles through cases, Dick tries to figure out what he missed. He knows that whoever is taunting him wanted him to go to Jump, he knows they somehow arranged that entire disaster. But he can’t figure out who could possibly know enough to be so far ahead of him, so terrifyingly capable of manipulating the threads of his fate. Aside from Deathstroke himself, but the man is long-since dead and not even he could survive decapitation via Wonder Woman’s sword.
Two more bodies show up that day, with the same MO as the last one. This time, it’s clear the killer is showing off. It is a gruesome, terrible way to go and Nightwing is convinced that if he can solve the puzzle behind it, he’ll catch whoever is baiting him.
Nightwing does not care for the fact that his new stalker is apparently a serial killer.
Officer Tennyson studies the bodies until he goes green in the face and the coroner has to call for other officers to remove him. The Captain calls him into his office and orders him to take a few days off for his mental health.
Nightwing uses those days to throw himself into the search. He chases every single lead until it goes ice cold, then starts at the beginning and goes back through everything he knows. He’s even passed along some of the evidence to Robin and the Titans, who are desperate to make up for the past and do everything they can to help him.
It’s all for nothing. Nightwing can’t figure out what to do and the bodies are piling up.
In desperation, he texts the unknown number back one night, praying for the tiny chance that it isn’t a burner phone. Miraculously, he gets a response.
“I expected more from the great Nightwing. Very well, I’ll make things simple enough for you to understand, but I advise that you act quickly. I won't wait around forever.”
The message is followed by a codeword, and Nightwing’s heart stops. He knows exactly where he has to go, and he is not happy about it.
He doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going. This stalker wants him, and Nightwing intends to bring this farce to an abrupt, bloody end. It doesn’t matter that he hates the idea of adding one more body to his count; this monster must be stopped. And he flat-out refuses to let his friends see him at his bloodiest.
He enters another of Deathstroke’s bases, one of the very few that Nightwing left untouched, and braces himself. He still does not know who could have possibly known about this place, or the fact that Nightwing didn’t destroy it, but he doesn’t care. In a few minutes, they’ll be dead and he can leave this nightmare behind.
Nightwing grabs his sword, knowing his eskrima sticks will be useless for this execution, and then steps out into the open. He expects an unpleasant surprise. Instead…
…he comes face to face with his greatest nightmare.
He feels shock. That’s about it, but he’s sure that there will be plenty of other feelings later, if he can survive long enough to feel them.
“You’re dead.” He breathes the words out in horror. “I saw you die. They cut your head off.”
“Oh, my foolish apprentice. You should know it takes more than that to get rid of me.” His master says. Nightwing feels himself growing numb, the world spinning in dizzying circles around him. This cannot be real. Of course, it’s the only answer that makes sense.
No one else could have designed this trap, made a puzzle that pulled him in deep enough not to consider the most insane answer as a real possibility.
“You’re not real.” The words fall past Nightwing’s lips, and Deathstroke snorts. He begins to circle him like a shark, and despite the many, many months that have passed, the progress Nightwing has made, he feels helpless. He is at his master’s mercy, no matter the promises he’d made to himself that he would never be again. “You’re dead.”
“I admit, it was not a pleasant or simple injury to recover from. But imagine how… displeased I was upon discovering the in my absence, my loyal apprentice tried to destroy my life’s work.”
Nightwing swallows, trying to keep his breathing steady but his body doesn’t want to listen. He’s close to hyper-ventilating, and the very last thing he wants to do is pass out in front of this man.
“Look at you,” Deathstroke sneers. “Pathetic. I’d barely been gone for a week and you threw away everything I left you, all of your training, all of your potential. What a waste of my time you are.”
Nightwing feels something inside himself break, feels himself drowning in the waves of desperation. “No! Leave me alone! You're dead!”
The slap comes out of nowhere, brutally efficient and powerful enough to slam Nightwing to the ground. When his vision stops spinning, he realizes he is once again kneeling at his master’s feet. He tries to push himself up, but a knee barrels into his diaphragm while a hand yanks him up by his hair.
He struggles to breathe, bile filling his throat and pain running through every part of his body.
“Did I give you permission to speak?” Deathstroke’s voice is harsh and cold, no room for mercy. It does not matter how long it has been, how much progress Nightwing has made to become a person all over again. Nightwing cannot move, cannot breathe, cannot stop himself from falling into the waiting arms of the Apprentice.
“No master.” The Apprentice chokes out. Deathstroke’s eye gleams triumphantly and the hand in his hair tightens. The Apprentice does not struggle, knows that he deserves whatever pain his master wishes to inflict on him.
“Much better.” His master’s voice is approving. “Maybe there’s some use for you yet.”
The next thing he knows, he’s slamming into the ground, head ringing as it makes contact with the hard concrete.
“Get up, Apprentice. We have a lot of work to do to clean up the mess you made.”
The Apprentice’s arms shake and he falls twice before he can force himself onto his feet.
“Yes master,” he says, and follows him. He is Apprentice. He is a weapon. He has no choice.
(“Your friends will not come for you. They didn’t before, after all, and that was before they knew you were a monster. What makes you think this time will be any different?”)
He does not recognize the base his master takes him to, but he is very familiar with the punishments that await him there. Every time Nightwing claws his way to the surface, Deathstroke is waiting with pain, pain and more pain to drown him again. And each time, it gets harder and harder for Nightwing to return.
The Apprentice knows several things; he has been back with his master for a month, he is in pain, and he misses the voice. Also, the Apprentice is confused. He began to listen to the voice and there was no punishment for it. So why have the punishments begun again? He doesn’t like it; he is tired of being punished. He misses the city he has been watching over. He misses being the most dangerous thing in the night. Most of all, he misses the warm feeling in his chest when he listens to the voice. The warm feeling was his and he wants it back.
He knows that his master is angry with him. He is angry with his master too. He does not dare let his master know this, not when he knows what his has been done to… him. Not him. The other. The other that came after Apprentice and is him and is not. He does not know what has happened or where he has gone, but the Apprentice does not want to disappear too.
The Apprentice obeys. His is a weapon and he does not think, does not question,
does not hate his master with all his being, and slowly, the punishments become less harsh. This is good. The Apprentice is tired of punishment. He does not let that stop him from seeking out the voice each night when his master has finished with him.
It takes many days, but slowly, the voice begins to answer. Somehow, in between the punishment and the pain and his master’s demands for him, he figures out where the voice comes from. He is the voice. He is also Nightwing, whatever is left of him. He is Apprentice. And he does not want this existence.
That realization feels like a victory, even if there is nothing he can do with it.
He will wait. The Apprentice is a predator, he knows how to lie in wait. The voice approves of his plan, and begins telling him what his master wants to see. He improves faster, makes his master proud of him. The voice guides him as he sets the groundwork for something that may become his escape.
And one day the Apprentice realizes that every word the voice has ever said to him comes from his own head. He is not blank. He is not hollow. He is not just a weapon.
He is Apprentice but he is also Dick Grayson and he is not done fighting yet.
Once he’s figured this out, he realizes he’s still not complete. He needs Nightwing, needs the man who has healed once before to show himself how to do it again. He does not know how to find Nightwing, but he has time. He knows know how to act now, how to make his master believe he is nothing more than a hollow shell without ever truly being empty.
He has a plan. He will save Nightwing, defeat Deathstroke, and free himself.
His master deems him ready after the Apprentice has been back for one month and three weeks. They have been hired to dispatch a wealthy art collector who was stupid enough to cross his black-market dealer. The Collector lives in a fortress in the rolling hills of Northern California. The Apprentice is more than prepared for the chill after his weeks spent in a frigid dungeon, but even so, Dick decides he is going to spend a month at the Beach when this is finally over.
He follows his master through the trees, navigating through the weak spots in the ground’s security. They move, perfectly in sync with the patrolling guards, and infiltrate the building through the third window on the lower terrace. The Apprentice keeps his swords drawn, but the hallways are all empty. He is relieved that at the lack of bloodshed and very concerned that they are walking into a trap. There are a pair of armed guards outside the target’s bedroom, and his master dispatches them with two swipes of his sword.
Dick feels sick, and it is not much of a consolation for the Apprentice that he was not the one to kill them.
The Apprentice enters the room behind his master. It is an enormous bedroom, the biggest he has ever seen, which is especially impressive considering that Dick grew up in a billionaire’s manor. The target is sound asleep in bed; it is a very minor consolation that he will feel nothing as his life ends.
“Kill him.” His master orders, and the Apprentice steps forward. He has killed before, so many, many times, and yet, this feels so wrong. Dick knows that this is wrong and that he does not want to do it, but he can’t disobey Deathstroke now. He is still too splintered, too broken, too alone. He needs to be whole.
The Apprentice looks down at the sleeping target and whispers a silent apology before his sword slashes through the air.
And then his blade passes harmlessly through the target and bounces off the mattress. Before he can wonder what just happened, the sleeping man disappears in a puff of purple smoke.
“Sorry to ruin your plans, but you didn’t really think we’d let you get away with it, did you?”
Dick knows that voice. It’s Zatanna, one of the most powerful magic users on the Justice League.
Before he can respond, his master pushes him towards the window and barks, “Go! Now!”
The Apprentice does as he’s told, climbing out the window and launching himself at the trellis so he can climb to the roof. He’s memorized every escape plan and backup, and he knows that this is their best chance of escape. His master is right behind him and the Apprentice sprints across the roof like he’s been ordered to.
He stops short when a burst of green light flashes through the air and turns the night sky into day for a brief moment. Starfire hovers in front of him, her green eyes glowing with rage as starbolts burn at her finger tips.
“DO NOT MOVE!” She thunders, and the Apprentice freezes in terrified memory of how badly those bolts hurt when he realizes her anger is not directed at him. That’s the moment when Dick begins to realize this isn’t a trap at all. It’s a rescue.
Behind him, Deathstroke pulls out a gun and fires it at the Tamaranean, but as he shoots, a hand lunges forward to intercept the bullet.
“Try again,” Superman frowns as he crushes the bullet with his fingertips. A screech tears through the air as a pterodactyl circles the sky above them in tandem with a dark shadow. Beast Boy drops Cyborg onto the roof before landing and turning into a gorilla, beating his chest with a roar. Raven hovers in the air above them.
Dick turns his head to see Troia, Kid Flash, Arsenal and Aqualad standing together, boxing them in on the other side. In the distance, encircling the building on all sides, the Justice League stands ready to fight. The Green Lanterns raise their rings in unison, and a then glowing green dome encircles the entire property, trapping them all inside. His heart pounds in his chest, but it’s not until he fully turns around that he sees them.
Robin, Batgirl, Spoiler, Red Hood stand together, weapons drawn and poised for a fight. A drone buzzes above their heads, a blinking green light signaling that Oracle has part to play in this dance too. But that’s not who makes the Apprentice stop and stare.
Batman steps forward, pulling out a batarang.
“You will never. Ever. Touch my son again.” Batman growls, fury and hatred directed straight at Deathstroke.
“You came.” Nightwing whispers, shocked all the way to his core.
“You think there’s any way in hell we’re abandoning you?” Red Hoods shoots back.
“We made that mistake once.” Kid Flash says darkly.
“Never again.” Starfire growls, green flames burning even brighter.
He inhales sharply as the final piece clicks into place.
“They never abandoned me. They never... they never stopped caring.” He says, and Deathstroke looks down at him in fury. He doesn’t know why that’s the last piece he needs, but something changes. The Apprentice is no longer empty, Nightwing is no longer alone, and Dick Grayson is no longer in pieces. Body, mind and soul finally reunited after so long apart.
He steps away from Deathstroke and the man turns on him. Rage doesn’t begin to describe the look on his face.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
He rips the stupid, bi-colored off his face (he never wanted it in the first place) and throws it to the ground.
“Something I’ve been wanting to do for a long, long time.”
He draws his swords and his heart pounds. There was no climactic fight the first time, no rage of his own pumping through his veins, no dramatic pause as he stared down his enemy. But there is this time, and he is ready. And he is surrounded by his family and his friends and he knows they will let him have this moment of triumph as he frees himself.
“I will make you regret this.” Deathstroke promises.
“No. You won’t.” Dick stares him down. “You are never going to make me do anything EVER again.”
“Go Nightwing!” Beast Boy cheers.
The fight is brutal, and for all that he has improved and learned, Deathstroke is still bigger and stronger and faster. But Deathstroke is a desperate man at his breaking point, and he is a broken man who has pulled the bloody pieces of himself back together and he is fighting for everything that he has won back despite everything.
No matter how many savage hits Deathstroke lands, Nightwing never falters. And for all the hits he takes, Nightwing returns plenty of blows.
It's amazing, how much closer their fights are when Nightwing actually capable of fighting back.
Nightwing breathes heavily, staggering back to his feet.
"You're weak." Deathstroke snarls as their swords clash hard enough to shake the roof.
Nightwing's sword slams across the side of his mask, cracking the metal in half and sending Deathstroke to the ground. He stops, chest heaving as he watches the man with hatred and adrenaline burning through him. Blood leaks through the shattered metal and drips onto the rooftop. But Nightwing knows that the mercenary is not dead, not if he could recover from a severed throat and partial decapitation.
He points the tip of his sword at the man's face.
Deathstroke meets his eye and smirks. Nightwing realizes he has lost track of the mercenary's other hand. He realizes this when Deathstroke points a gun at his unprotected face and fires.
"No!" Someone screams. Nightwing has exactly one heartbeat between staring down the barrel of the gun and hearing the gunshot to be grateful that if he has to die, he at least died as himself.
The matching streaks of yellow and red shoot past, and that's about the time that Nightwing's brain catches up to the fact that Kid Flash has caught the bullet while the Flash ripped the gun out of Deathstroke's hand. Wonder Woman and Troia move at the same time, their lassos whipping through the air and catching Deathstroke before he can take more than a step. Coils of dark energy wind around him, holding him motionless. Surrounding them, every hero that Nightwing has ever worked with, ever known, even some he's never even met, aims their weapon at Deathstroke.
"You think you've won?" Deathstroke spits, looking straight at him. "You are nothing on your own. You never will be."
Nightwing steps forward, rage burning through every fiber of his being. Also, a tremendous amount of shaky, stunned relief that he is still alive.
"You know what I think?" He hisses, feeling his heart pound away inside his chest. Dick looks down at the man who has tortured him for the last ten years and grins the nastiest grin he has ever managed in his life.
“I think that you are going to go rot in a cell for the rest of your abnormally long life. And I… am going to take a long fucking nap.”
Then he slams his foot into the mercenary’s temple hard enough to knock a few teeth loose. Deathstroke slumps over, but his bonds hold him upright. Nightwing looks down to make sure he’s really unconscious, takes two steps away, then drops to his knees.
He’s not expecting the rush of people who race to catch him, but he knows the hands that are holding him.
“Let’s never do this again, please.” He mutters. Then he promptly makes good on his promise to take a long nap and passes out.
Dick wakes up in the bedroom of his apartment and his first thought is that someone has kept it clean while he was gone. He wants to close his eyes and try to wrap his head around everything that has happened in the last... month? two months?... but he knows that he is not ready to deal with any of it yet. The storm of thoughts raging in his head evaporates when he sees that there's a chair next to his bed, and judging by the way he looks, Bruce has not slept for even a second.
The look on his father's face is that of a desperate man, and Dick braces himself for whatever is coming next. He deserves it, after all.
"How are you feeling?" His father asks.
"I don't know." That's the only answer he can give. Not when there's so much he needs to know. "Where is he? What did they do with him?"
"Deathstroke has been taken to a supermax cell specifically designed to hold him. He's not going anywhere, I promise you."
Dick nods, feeling numb.
"How long have you known?" He asks Bruce.
"Nightwing." His father says by way of explanation. "I was there the first time Superman told you that story. Cass is the one who confirmed it, though."
Nightwing can only stare.
"You all knew?"
"No. Just Batgirl and I. We only told Alfred."
Dick flounders, trying to wrap his head around the fact that for almost two years, he has been terrified of his father ever finding out that had become a monster, has lived in fear of the day Batman tracks him down to bring him to justice, and the whole time, Bruce knew.
"You knew the whole time? And you didn't..."
"I wanted to. But I couldn't risk chasing you away. What would you have done if I'd shown up in your city unannounced?"
"Bruce, I'm so sorry."
"No. I'm the one who failed you, Dick. You have nothing to apologize to anyone for."
Dick doesn't know that he believes that, but Bruce says it like an indisputable fact in exactly the same tone of voice that Batgirl did that night on the rooftops of Blüdhaven. For a second, he can't believe that Batgirl is not Bruce's biological daughter.
"I... I don't know what happens now."
"I do." Bruce says, putting a warm hand on his shoulder. "I wanted to give you the space you needed, but if I'd known there was any way Deathstroke was still out there, I would have brought you back to Gotham in a heartbeat. I am not losing any more time with you. Please, Dick. Come home."
Officer Tennyson Dippery hands in his two-weeks notice and announces he is returning to Gotham to be with his family.
“Welcome home, Richard,” Alfred beams while grasping his hands tightly in the firm but delicate way that only a grandparent can. Babs reaches up and tugs his head down to press a kiss to his cheek, and then Jason slings an arm around his neck and messes up his hair.
Dick breathes in the smell of freshly baked bread and roasted meats and pastries dripping with sugar that Alfred has spent all day preparing. Just outside the glass doors, dozens of people lounge around the back patio, laughing and joking and waiting for him. Tim and Bruce are talking animatedly as they make their way outside, and Bruce moves a tree branch out of the way before Tim can smack his forehead against it. Kory and Roy are arguing with Vic and Donna about the remake of a movie that came out more than a decade ago. Wally is trying to convince his uncle to play some form of giant land darts, and Hal is dividing the rest of the league into teams for the game. They’re all mixed in together; old Titans, new Titans, Leaguers, Outlaws and vigilantes, all gathered together to celebrate his return. He understands now; his friends never gave up on him. They need him just as much as he needs them.
Cass is watching them from the doorway with a watery smile and tears brimming in her eyes. She meets Dick’s eyes and signs “Home.”
Dick smiles, feeling lighter than he can remember feeling in his entire life.
“It’s good to be back.”