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deep roots (are not reached by the frost)

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If Dick were here, Tim reflects, he would’ve made some remark about the middle kids being let out into the wild.

Of course, had Dick been here, it wouldn’t be the middle kids; it would just be ‘the kids minus Damian’.

Right now, though, Tim doesn’t feel particularly happy with either Jason or Cass, because (firstly) they still won’t tell him the full story of the night they rescued Dick, and (secondly) it seems that Jason’s projection of what he thinks Cass thinks is influencing how he acts around her, which in turn affects how Cass acts towards Jason. It’s going around in a circle and Tim’s sick of it, because he hadn’t even experienced this in high school, of all places.

That, and the fact that Tim had thought that he and Cass were close enough to tell each other everything.

When he glances up from the cockpit of their plane, it’s to frown in irritation at the quiet figures of his siblings as they sit, faces buried in the briefing files. He knows that they’ve both already gone through it. Besides, Cass prefers audio recordings of anything important.

“We’re about fifteen minutes away,” Tim reports, finally breaking the silence. “So I figure we should run through our plan of attack.”

Two heads snap upwards.

“Who made you the leader,” Jason mutters, arms crossed.

A year or so ago, Tim would’ve seen this as a snarky comment; now, he shoots Jason a withering look.

“I flew us here; ergo, I lead,” Tim says.

“You flew us here because, for some reason, Bruce thinks you’re responsible,” Jason counters.

A munching sound starts up just as Tim is about to respond, and he flicks his gaze towards Cass, raising an eyebrow.

Cass shrugs, but doesn’t stop munching on the bowl of food in her hands. Where had she even gotten a bowl, Tim wonders?

“Rule one of crime fighting,” Cass says with a full mouth. “Never go in with an empty stomach.”

“You ate a whole chicken before we got here,” Jason says incredulously.

Cass chews loudly in his direction, open mouth and all, and that, for some reason thaws out the plane faster than any ice breaker activity Tim’s ever tried to do at WE.

“Okay, so there’s this great mountain peak overlooking the base,” Tim begins, pulling up maps on the screen. “It’s going to be light for about twenty minutes after we arrive, so I figure, perfect time for reconnaissance.”

Cass nods. “I have the binocular prototypes,” she says. She forms the latter two words just slightly slower than the rest, her pronunciation absolutely textbook.

Tim nods. “Great,” he says. He's been looking forward to using those for weeks, but so far, nothing has happened in Gotham to warrant it.

Jason cuts in. “I looked up the missing people reports over the years. From that, there’s sort of a pattern…” He taps a few buttons, and then the screen is mirroring his tablet. “And coincidentally, this happened three nights ago.”

“Missing people reports spike in the middle of every month,” Cass says, frowning at the data. "For the last five years."

“A lot of people aren’t reported missing, a lot of people no one would notice go missing,” Tim lists, “but those are pretty damning figures.”

Jason nods. “So what I’m saying is—”

Cass rolls her eyes. “We won’t leave any hostages,” she says, the duh in her voice loud and clear.

 


 

Tim wouldn’t have overheard them speaking if he hadn’t had to double back because one of his shoelaces snapped. He freezes at the door of the Batplane, slinking back to try and melt into the plane’s dark frame as much as possible.

He’s lucky it’s a verbal discussion.

“…blame you for it,” Cass is saying. “You did what you had to. He’ll be fine.”

Tim hears Jason sigh, and his voice is lower than Cass’ when he speaks. Combined with Jason’s rumbling tone, it’s harder to piece together what he’s saying. “…if I were him…through a lot, and all this… with Bruce, too... really ties the knot, y'know...”

This is getting juicy, Tim realises, and he steps closer to the doorway, practically lying beneath the ramp. It’s only slightly an improvement. He turns up the hearing aids in the mask as much as he can.

Jason is still speaking. “…better in the open, obviously,” he’s saying, “…dunno, Cassie. And I know you don’t really—we’ve never really had the chance to click, y’know? I know how you feel about my ‘methods’, and—”

Cass interrupts him. “I talked with him about you,” she says, and Tim can practically hear Jason blanch at the thought. “I’m… I don’t. Approve. But you’re my brother. And my friend, too, I hope. Or getting there. I’m okay with it on the same terms. Talking with him about it helped, a lot.”

Fuck,” Jason says in relief, the word muffled against something. “I thought…”

Tim thinks that perhaps Jason really does trail off this time, because Cass says, “That was you projecting,” in a voice that immediately lightens the conversation.

Jason lets out a barely-there chuckle, and Tim only has a millisecond to throw himself out from where he’s been eavesdropping before Cass walks out.

She raises an eyebrow when she sees him; even the blind would be able to read Tim like a children’s book right now.

“You guys ready?” he asks hastily, darting in to look through their spare supplies. He yanks out another pair of black boots, neatly removing the laces and replacing his own.

Jason joins them then. “C’mon, twerps,” he says.

“We’re all almost the same age,” Tim says. “You can’t call us that.”

Jason shrugs. “Yeah, I can. Twerp.” Any signs of the emotional conversation he and Cass just had are completely wiped away. 

They can’t get into a scuffle now, but Tim will make sure that Jason knows who it was when he next attacks his digital footprint.

It’s only about a kilometre or so to the base. Darmania is… well, it’s humid as hell, firstly. Tim isn’t a fan of this weather – he’s accustomed to Gotham winters, to staying awake during cold nights in cold houses, sleeping in the dark empty corners. It’s hard to break habits like that, even though he’s been living in the Manor for about five or six years now.  

But it makes for alright scouting, he supposes as they near the peak they chose from above. Though what he had called a mountain is practically a rocky hill.

This is about as close as they can get to the base, which isn’t at all what comes to mind when Tim thinks of evil villain hideout. For starters, it’s a one-storied building, and the external panelling is entirely wood. There are no paved roads, and through the binoculars, he can make out signs that warn off hunters; for all intents and purposes, this could be an environmentally aware science lab. Perhaps even an eccentric billionaire's island hideaway. It's not really Lex Luthor's style, but Tim is sure Bruce has a few of them around here and there.

From their blueprints, there are exactly two exits. For a building this massive, it’s a little terrifying. Only one of the exits is advertised openly – there are large shutters, opening up into what Tim assumes is a garage of some kind. There’s another ‘shutter’ at the end of a dirt road, but the blueprints show this as a solid wall.

“Movement,” Cass says. “Eight o’clock.”

Tim turns his binoculars to the left, observing as a truck drives up to the garage. He zooms in, safe in the knowledge that his helmet is recording everything. The truck’s numberplate looks like one of those newfangled digital ones, and as Tim watches, the numbers flicker and disappear.

“That’s not suspicious at all,” he mutters, spinning the dials to zoom further in. He wants as much of a view of the inside of the garage as he can get.

These new binoculars are a treasure. He's got to look for a good enough case when they're back in Gotham for a chance to test out all the features.

The shutters open, and a man in grey slacks and a spotless white shirt comes out. Tim has never seen him before; the second he gets home, he’ll add facial recognition software to the ski masks they’re using for this op. Maybe the next binocular upgrade could have that, too.

Tim forces his gaze away from the man, knowing that Cass will have eyes on him. He zooms in as far as he can to get a look inside the building as the shutters open, letting out a frustrated curse when the only thing that’s visible in the gloom are the walls.

Cass bumps her foot against his lightly; Tim takes a breath and focuses.

There are more people outside now, loading crates into the truck. The crates are completely unlabelled, all apart from the ‘FRAGILE’ that’s printed on all sides. Tim isn’t completely sure they're drugs, but he’s pretty sure they’re drugs.

“Going dark for a second,” Tim mutters, pulling out his tablet to get the facial recognition software up and running.

Jason grunts in affirmation. Someday, when the comparison won’t seem as bad, Tim’s going to tell him that he’s turning into Bruce. Just not anytime soon.

“David Attila,” Tim says. “The driver. He works at a convenience store. Social media account is relatively clean… private account is alright… private private account has a tonne of drugs, nudes that I really didn’t need to see… he’s got multiple posts about vandalising buildings.”

“Dumbass,” Jason says from beside him. “Hey, truck's moving.”

“Batgirl,” Tim says, and Cass is moving at a fast sprint to catch up to the truck.

Tim goes back to watching the compound, but now there’s a niggling in the back of his mind because one third of their team is separated from them, and who knows what could happen. After Dick being captured, and still feeling those repercussions, he can’t really curb the weight that’s settling in his stomach at Cass going off into a new country with no backup.

Tim takes a breath and tries to remember that this is Cass. If Cass can beat Shiva, she can beat whatever a truck driver and foreign country can throw at her.

“Fuck,” Jason mutters. “I think they spotted us.”

“What?” Tim doesn’t move his body other than to flick the binoculars around. “How?”

“Don’t fucking know.” Jason’s voice is strained, and his body is a live wire beside Tim. And then he shoves Tim. “Move!”

Tim rolls away on instinct, and only a second later, there's a whistling sound and the hill they’re on shakes slightly. The ledge where they had been gives way, dirt and rocks crumbling down in a mini, controlled avalanche. Tim grabs on to the tree trunk beside him, waiting for the earth to settle.

There's a stillness in the air, and that's when Tim loosens his grip. He holds his breath and hopes the slight upturn hides the two of them; Tim glances at Jason for only a moment, and sees him mirroring Tim on the other side of the fissure.

Had they fired a grenade or something at the two of them?

Who even did that, Tim thinks with not a small amount of irritability. They could’ve been anyone, from a local hiker to a tourist. What did it mean if they weren't cautious about covering their tracks or stragglers going about reporting weird behaviour here?

They needed to go through town and question locals, Tim knows.

“They’ll be coming to investigate,” Tim says. “We need to go.”

Jason’s moving almost before he’s spoken. On their hands and knees, they mess up any signs of human presence, scuffing up footprints and refilling the little holes their elbows have dug into the pliant soil.

The way back down the slope is the longer path, the one they’d plotted out for when they were going to be infiltrating the actual base itself. But this is the only other route they know reasonably well, and the one they’d taken on the way up is now filled with loud footsteps, in perfect sync.

Tim and Jason crouch behind a scraggly twig of a tree and peer at the group of people all donned in uniforms of security guard slash army personnel. Their footsteps are loud enough to imitate a horde of elephants.

“Crazy stupid idea,” Tim says as they’re continuing back down, “but this is the perfect opportunity to break in.”

Jason makes a noise. “That’s—fuck, I can’t believe you’re making me be the voice of reason here.”

“The door is right there, we have all the tech and gear we need, and there’s a giant group of people out right now which means less on the inside. The only thing that would be better is if we had BG.”

“We’re down a person, arguably our strongest. I’d say that’s a pretty big fucking reason to not go now—”

“I’m going whether you like it or not,” Tim hisses.

They’re at the base of the hill, which extends to the electric fence that surrounds the facility. Tim hunches behind a bush and glances towards the security camera; within seconds, he’s into their system and relieved beyond words that it’s all connected through their intranet. He hates when people don’t update their cameras.

“One minute blind spot,” Tim reports, not looking at Jason, “in three, two, one—”

He makes a wild dash forward, grabbing the fence and climbing up as fast as he can. The barbed wires at the top make getting over a little bit tedious, but their clothes offer more protection than civilian gear.

Tim’s more than a little relieved to see Jason beside him as he lands. It’s not like this would’ve been his first op alone, but it’s always better when he has a partner with him.

They make it to the garage unseen – or so Tim hopes. The room is still about as interesting as it had seemed from a distance. It’s obviously a loading dock of sorts; there are forklifts along the side, empty crates stacked along another.

Tim would’ve darted to the door leading inside had he not been yanked over to a supply closet by Jason.

“Change,” Jason says shortly.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Jason’s probably pissed at him, but Tim can deal with that after all this.

They don’t bother with changing their pants – they’re generic enough, and it would take too long to move everything that’s in their pockets. The two of them slip on the long white labcoats and do up the buttons to hide the fact that they have Kevlar beneath it.

The worst part of this is taking off the ski masks, because they won’t be able to come back for them. They grab the comms units out from inside them, and set the helmets to self-destruct. The helmets implode quietly inside the giant chemical waste bins as Tim jogs over to the door, plugging up his codebreaker to it.

The door swings open. Now all they have to do is blend in until they’ve scoped out this place well enough. Hopefully Cass won’t need backup anytime soon.

The door opens in a long hallway. It isn’t nearly as creepy as Tim had been envisioning it; there are even little plants by every doorway. The floors are carpeted, which makes Tim think that they’re probably in more of the admin side of things.

“Maybe there was another door to the main building,” Jason murmurs, evidently thinking the same thing.

Tim’s mind flicks to the blueprint. “Two lefts and a right, and we should be on the other corner of the compound,” he says.

Jason nods, not saying anything more. He’d found a hairnet and is wearing it in an effort to make the white streak in his hair less visible – Jason has been using a wig on undercover missions, Tim knows, because so far any dye he’s used to cover it up has just melted straight off in a matter of minutes.

They can’t run through here, no matter how much Tim wants to. They take a turn into what seems like a mess hall of sorts – perhaps for staff? – and quickly continue on their way, but not without receiving some looks.

“We need to hurry it up,” Jason says under his breath, voice strained.

“I know,” Tim shoots back.

Another few steps and it’s becoming clear that someone’s following them. Tim risks a glance behind him, feigning tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. Behind them is a woman wearing exactly the same thing they are, but with a swipe card hanging from her neck.

“Bathroom up ahead,” Tim murmurs in the middle of the very loud and very fake conversation they’re carrying on.

Jason’s words don’t give any indication that Tim has spoken. They arrive at the bathroom, neatly entering inside. Jason hides behind the door while Tim stands in front of the lone basin. Not even a second has passed before the door opens once more.

Tim glances up to look at her in the mirror, and then feigns a surprised jump. But before he can say anything, the woman speaks.

“Who are you,” she demands. “You don’t work here.”

Tim looked at her with wide eyes, imitating the new employee terror he’s seen on so many faces. “It’s my first day,” he stutters. “Am I doing something wrong—is this a senior bathroom? Am I not supposed to be in here?”

Tim knows from one look on her face that she isn’t buying it.

I’m the one who hires new people,” she says, looming closer and closer to Tim.

“Huh,” Tim says, facade disappearing. “You ever think that maybe they replaced you?”

A look of outrage fills her face but she’s unconscious before she can say anything more. Tim leaps forward to catch her before she falls. They remove the card from around her neck, Jason putting it on.

"Should we just put her in a stall?" Tim says. 

Jason shrugs, but helps him lug her unconscious form inside. She's already stirring; they don't have long.

They dart through the building now, walking as fast as they can without drawing unwanted attention. The place isn’t brimming with employees, but it’s far from empty.

“Maybe we should just set off the fire alarm,” Tim suggests.

“Last resort only.” Jason glances at his watch. “We’ve been in here eight minutes.”

The main server room has two employees in there, sitting on opposite ends of the room with headphones in. Jason enters first, and Tim carefully shuts the door behind him.

One of them takes off her headphones. “Who are you?” she questions, a frown on her face. “No one’s allowed in here but us.”

“We’re the new recruits,” Jason says as he steps closer, and before Tim can blink, his hand whips out and delivers a precise blow to her head. She’s out immediately.

The only issue is that her hand falls on the giant red panic button and alarms begin blaring instantly.

Tim takes care of the other employee just as fast while Jason shoves the woman away from in front of the monitors, frantically typing to try and turn off the earpiercing sirens that are going off. Tim doesn’t even bother trying to disable the alarm. He jams a USB into the nearest computer and starts transferring data while giving their system a virus.

“We need to get out,” Jason says. He snaps, “Red!” when Tim keeps typing.

“One second,” Tim murmurs.

His fingers are a blur over the keyboard, gather as much information as he can. He needs another minute, just one. He needs to do this, needs this mission to be successful and to get this data to analyse and suss out the rest of this godforsaken group. His actions can't have ruined this whole operation; he won't let that happen.

“Red,” Jason growls now. “Five fucking seconds.”

Tim yanks out the USB. “Done,” he says. “C’mon, hit that fire alarm button.”

“There isn’t one in here,” Jason says. “We just gotta make a run for it.”

They’d examined the schematics of this place before they’d left Gotham. The sewage system was abysmal; it was a wonder the pipes didn’t get clogged up every week. But more importantly, the vents were too small to crawl through. That’s all that’s running through Tim’s mind as he and Jason walk as calmly as they can out of the main server room. There’s absolutely no crawl space that they can exploit.

There’s a burst of static in Tim’s ear, and then nothing. Frowning, he presses a hand to the comms unit – rookie move right there – and finds no response from the other end.

“BG?” he tries anyway.

“No signal in here, I don’t think.” Jason’s voice is grim, and Tim can practically feel the waves of anger rolling off him.

Tim’s about to respond, when they turn a corner and are suddenly faced with a wall of security guards.

“Guess they finished searching the hill they blew up,” Tim says, glancing at Jason.

“Run,” is all Jason says, and Tim bolts in the opposite direction.

Tim’s built for speed in a way that Jason’s body isn’t. From the look on Jason’s face, it’s clear that he can tell Tim is holding back to make sure they aren’t separated. But Tim refuses to run off and leave Jason behind.  

They round a corner and there’s suddenly another approaching wall of security guards. These have absolutely nothing against lethal force. Tim comes to a jolting halt, skidding a little on the tiled floor. Jason is at his back, but they both know they can’t fight their way out of this like they normally would.

The ground beneath their feet shakes ever so slightly, but the chances of an earthquake now, in this season, are abysmally low. Have they shot another one of those grenades? Surely not at their own facility.

“We surrender!” Jason yells in Darmanian. “Don’t shoot!”

Had Tim not been in this game as long as he has, he would’ve immediately spun on his heel and shot Jason a look. But as it is, he understands; there’s no way they can fight out of this, not without bringing way too much unwanted attention onto themselves and onto the other base that Bruce and his team are hitting.

They have the information, though. Tim clings to that, even as he wishes that he’d placed the USB stick somewhere a little harder to find.

A gap is created amongst the soldiers, and one of them walks up to Tim and Jason.

“Come with me,” he says, absolutely no inflection to his rigid Darmanian words. “Try anything, and my people will shoot to kill.”

Tim gulps as loudly as he can, widening his eyes and nodding his jerkily. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Jason mirroring him. Maybe this is why Bruce and Alfred had encouraged Jason’s Shakespeare habits so much. It isn’t easy to make someone with the bulk that Jason has cower, but Tim has to admit that Jason’s acting is convincing.

They’re handcuffed and led down the hallway. The blinking red lights of the panic alarm are still going off. As they pass another window, Tim can see a stream of what appears to be employees exiting the building. They go along one of the dirt tracks, disappearing somewhere into the woods.

Tim doesn’t know whether that’s a good sign. He doesn’t look at Jason, because Jason is steadily not looking at him.

They pass through another three doors – each unlabelled – and Tim tries to follow along as best as he can with the map that he’d memorised. They’re somewhere in the east of the compound right now; that’s the area with the big labs – or so they’d assumed, based on the chemical showers that had been indicated on the blueprints.

This place is clearly for research and production, though. He doesn’t know whether the majority of the staff here even know what their work is going towards, especially in a facility like this where there are posters on walls with smiling employees and a campy message about an inclusive workplace.

Now there are more doors labelled with Darmanian writing. Tim can somewhat read them, but it’s clear to anyone in possession of even half a braincell that it says ‘KEEP OUT’.

Finally, they’re shoved into an interrogation room. Two of the guards come up to them and pat them down. They didn’t come here with the intention of getting into a fight, but they have their typical equipment on their persons, and didn’t put much of an effort into hiding anything.

Tim watches the piles of guns and knives grow, and the frown on the head soldier’s face get deeper.

“Who are you?” It’s not even a question, really, more of a reaction to the amount of weaponry they have.

“Look, man,” Tim says. “Some kids dared us to break in here and carve our names into the walls and steal a bunch o’ shit for proof. We’re here on a vacation.”

“Really.”

Tim’s shoved into a chair, hands cuffed behind him. They clearly don’t think much of him and Jason, because they haven’t even attached the cuffs to the chair. The bright white light glares into Tim’s eyes as he stares up at the man.

And then someone punches Jason in the stomach.

Hey!” Tim protests, jerking forward in his chair. “We promised we’d cooperate!”

“You can cooperate,” the air rushes out of Tim’s lungs as he’s now delivered a blow to the gut, “by telling us what you know about Dherain.”

“Dherain?” Jason wheezes. “Look, dude, we’re uni kids. We’re just here backpacking through with a few of our friends. All we know about Dherain is that it’s somewhere north of here.”

“For every answer you are unable to provide, you will be punished.”

Tim breathes through the flurry of blows that rain down on him. The good thing is, these guys don’t think they know anything. Darmania is just dodgy enough that it isn't too uncommon to be carrying around so many knives. The bad part is, there’s no way they’re letting him and Jason out of here alive.

That’s when the door of the room is kicked open, and Cass leaps inside.

She’s accompanied by Bruce.

“Oh hey, look, those are the friends that dared us,” Jason says.

In the time it takes for the three men in the room with them to wrap their minds around this new development, Cass and Bruce have knocked them out.

“We got your distress signal,” Bruce says, coming over to Tim to free him as Cass goes to Jason.

“Distress signal?” Tim says with a glare towards Jason. “We were fine.

Jason doesn’t say anything to Tim, just clenches his jaw. “Are N and Robin here, too?” he asks, rising with a wince.

They’ve both got bruised ribs, for sure.

Cass nods. “They’re outside.”

“The entire compound is empty,” Bruce says to them as they cautiously head outside. It’s a question as much as it is information.

Tim nods. “Yeah, we accidentally set off a panic alarm and they all evacuated.”

Bruce noticeably refrains from responding to that. Maybe he’s just waiting until they’re out of here, Tim thinks. It’s hard to ream someone out about a mission when you’re still in enemy territory.

“We need to go back to the main server room,” Jason says. “We can’t have all this on their databases. They’ll know it’s us.”

Cass nods. “I’ll go with you.”

Jason looks at Bruce and Tim. “Evacuate anyone else and get yourselves out. We’ll be out in seven.”

Bruce looks like he’s about to protest. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he warns them as they near the intersecting hallway. “Seven minutes. Comms on.”

 


 

Running with bruised ribs isn't as bad as running with broken ribs, but it's still no picnic. Jason raced down the endless passages and doorways, Cass trailing only half a step behind him. Bruce had been right: this place is eerily empty now. Wherever Dick and Damian were, they were doing a good job at keeping the remaining occupants busy.

Jason skids to a halt in front of the server room, racing to the one side of the room. He ignores the waves of déjà vu he’s getting at being here with Cass, making another decision to make that’ll change things for them, for better or worse.

“What’re you thinking?” Cass asks. Her words are non-judgemental, genuinely wanting to know. She isn’t assuming anything; or at least, she isn’t letting on to Jason that she’s made assumptions. 

“This place is chock full of drugs that they’re dealing,” Jason says distractedly, typing away. “Cass. C’mon. You know what I’m thinking.”

“How,” Cass says this time, stepping forward so she stands next to him. And then she sees the series of keys he’s pressed.

Jason had honestly discovered it by accident when he’d been impatiently waiting for Tim to be done. But now he’s relieved, because this is the fastest, most efficient way of taking care of all their current problems in one fell swoop.

The employee had held down the panic button, but not before showing Jason the other options that had flared up in the millisecond before the alarms had started blaring.

Jason glances at his watch. “We have two minutes left,” he says.

Cass changes the channel on her comms unit. “Status?” she says. After a moment, she relays to Jason, “Everyone’s evacuated.”

“Tim has the data,” Jason says, mostly for his own benefit. And then he presses the button.

Immediately, a countdown of thirty seconds shows up on every monitor in the room. Jason watches, almost transfixed, as it goes down.

Cass yanks him by the sleeve. “Come on,” she says forcibly.

It’s easier to run through the building now that it’s completely empty. Cass is faster than Jason, and there’s no way in hell that Jason’s going to be the reason she gets blown up with him, so he pushes himself to the absolute maximum he can.

Even then, they just barely make it the barbed fence before the entire compound explodes. The two of them hit the ground immediately, arms over their heads. That’s not enough to stop Jason’s ears from ringing as he pants against the dirt, elbows digging into the ground to have space to breathe.

He spares a glance to the side to make sure Cass is alright, and sees her looking right back as she says something over the comms. Jason tries for a smile, and all he receives is an exasperated look in return, making his smile wider.

This is the second building they’ve blown up together. As far as bonding goes, it’s not bad.

When there’s finally silence, Jason shakily rises to his hands and knees, waiting until the headrush is under control before making it the rest of the way. Cass is holding onto the fence and breathing methodically; when she sees him standing, she grabs onto the fence and starts climbing.

“Thanks,” Jason says. He knows he says it almost as a shout, but Cass’ ears are probably just as bad as his are. “How’d your side of things go, by the way?”

His voice is slightly winded as he tries to take in shallow breaths of air. Climbing the fence with his ribs is definitely not fun.

“He got home and fell asleep. Really asleep. So I drove his truck back to where we parked the plane. We can go over everything when we get back.”

Jason lets out a relieved breath. “Glad we have one win, at least.”

Cass shoots him a look. “You turned off the security protocol before blowing it up,” she says. “They won’t know what happened. Tim has the data.”

“Yeah but, when have things ever gone that right for us? And for this to be hit after whatever the others did to the Dhernian one? They’ll definitely connect them.”

Cass is quiet. Then she signs something, almost too fast for Jason to read. We took one of their research labs off the grid. That has to count for something.

Jason sighs. “Yeah, Cassie. It does.” But it doesn’t feel like it. Nothing about this case feels enough, not after what happened – is still happening – to Dick.

The rest of the team are waiting at the Batplane. Beside it, there’s the second Batplane and also the truck that Cass stole. The moment they’re within sight, the door to their plane opens and out comes Tim.

“You guys blew up another building?” is the first thing he says, eyes scanning them from head to toe.

“Yup,” Cass responds. “We need an exploding backdrop to walk away from.”

Tim pouts slightly. “I want a cool exploding backdrop to walk away from, too.” He looks at Jason, but Jason doesn’t make eye contact.

Instead, he walks onto the plane; he’s thirsty as hell. Jason rummages through the supplies and fishes out a water bottle, downing half the contents in a single go.

And then he notices that the ship is entirely empty. “Hey,” he calls, sticking his head out. “Where’d the others go?” Normally, they pile onto one plane to debrief.

And that’s when Tim looks uncomfortable. “Dick had… a migraine, we think. They’re in the other plane. It had more space.”

“You think it’s a migraine?

A million thoughts about serum side effects go through Jason's brain, and he's out of the plane in a flash, before he can even register his movements. He's about to enter the other plane when he realises that loud noise and bright light might not be the best for someone with a migraine.

The door opens automatically for him. Jason enters immediately, and he can hear the soft footsteps of the others as they step inside behind him. It's going to be a little cramped; the maximum capacity for these planes is four people – and even then, the fourth person either has to be a child or someone with the physique of Tim.

But the plane is empty except for Dick. He's propped up against the wall, sitting upright on one of the cots. His forehead’s crinkled up slightly, the only indication of any pain.

The alarming part are the bright red tear tracks down his face.

“Is that blood?” Jason asks.

Dick’s eyes open into slits. “Oh hey,” he says tightly. “You guys made it. B was about to have an aneurysm.”

“You’re the one who looks like he’s had the aneurysm,” Tim says, stepping closer with a look of clear horror on his face. “Was that from the explosion?”

“And where’re B and Damian?” Jason adds. In a space this big, it’s impossible to hide. There’s only one bathroom onboard.

“Was what from the explosion?” Dick asks. He opens his eyes a little bit wider, and Jason winces at how red they are. “The others went to check out the truck Cass stole.”

Cass huffs. “I didn’t steal it,” she says. “Technically, it wasn’t his.”

Jason, in the meantime, has gone to the bathroom to wet a towel. He can’t handle seeing the blood as it run down Dick’s face.

“Here,” he says now, handing it to Dick.

Dick stares at it with an amused look, and then rubs his eyes with it. It’s only when he draws it back that he does a double take. “Holy shit,” he says, fingers going to his face and coming back red.

“Yeah, you look really freaky,” Tim tells him, a frown on his face.

“So this is a new development?” Jason demands more than asks.

Dick shrugs. “Apparently I got knocked out during a fight. They dragged me a little bit before I woke up with a killer headache. But this… yeah, it’s new.”

Jason glances at Cass. No, luck is definitely not on their side.

 


 

It’s four hours later that Jason slumps back into his seat on the Batplane and closes his eyes. They’d run the tests that they could on Dick with the limited supplies they had here, concluding that he didn’t seem to be dying, at least.

Bruce, Dick, and Damian had gone back to Gotham, leaving Jason, Tim, and Cass to go find the rest of the delivery men and stop the drugs from hitting the streets. Jason can hear Tim tapping away rapidly on the laptop he brought along, can hear the huffs of breath as Cass sleeps. He knows that he and Tim should be asleep, too, if they’re going to be functioning tomorrow.

They had gone through the contents of the truck, but it was much more of the same. Crates of drugs to be delivered to suppliers and then sold on the streets, names of particular clients who were chosen to receive Aqua specified with each batch.

“Why’re you mad at me?” Tim says absentmindedly, gaze still on the screen in front of him. “Because I went off the plan?”

Jason’s mouth twists. “I’m not mad at you,” he begins.

Tim shoots him a withering look. “Sure you’re not,” he says, and doesn’t elaborate.

“Look,” Jason says. “There’s a fucking reason we were supposed to be here doing recon. We weren’t supposed to leave nearly as much of a mark as we have. These are people getting turned into kids and then sold. Because the buyers have a fucking age requirement and these sick fucks found a creative way of always having exactly what they want on tap. You going rushing in just because you felt like it was a dumb move and it nearly sent this whole thing undercover. Our deal was that we'd rescue hostages.”

Tim looks at him intently. “That’s it?” he says.

Jason bristles. “What, that’s not bad enough?”

Tim shrugs. “Well, no, you’re right. But I had a hunch and…” He chews his lip. “Look, I know what I did could’ve ended badly—”

“No, you don’t get it.” Jason sits upright. “Last time it was Dick who had the harebrained idea and went undercover in my place because he thought I wasn’t well enough for it, and look where that got him. He was—” Jason clamps his mouth shut and stares down at his hands, willing the green in his vision to die down.

“He was what, Jay?” Tim asks softly. When Jason doesn’t say anything, he presses on. “You guys have kept something to yourself this whole time. We deserve to know.”

Cass stirs from the bunk. Jason hadn’t noticed her breathing patterns change; had she been asleep at all?

“He was dead,” she says. “Or close enough that there was nothing we could’ve done. He had no heartbeat when we found him.”

Tim gapes at her. “What? But you said—”

“They’d given him only like half the serum when we arrived. On top of physical torture. He was covered in blood. We couldn’t even tell where the injuries were,” Jason says emotionlessly.

Jason can picture it as vividly as though he was there all over again, standing beside Dick’s still body. He’d been strapped to a table, his costume ripped into scraps. There had been five syringes beside him; one had been injected into his arm just as Jason and Cass had burst in.

“One of the scientists there said he’d live if we finished the dose,” Cass says.

Jason’s head jerks up at her at the use of 'we'. She looks back at him steadily.

“Wait,” Tim says. “Wait. So you guys are responsible for the regression?”

“It was that or let him die,” Cass says fiercely. “What would you have done?”

Tim replies after a long pause. “The same.”

His face shows guilt, but his words are steady. And Jason understands. He just hopes that this second chance that Dick's getting at life isn't anything like his own.