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deep roots (are not reached by the frost)

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THIS FANFICTION IS HOSTED ON ARCHIVE OF OUR OWN, WHERE YOU CAN READ IT FOR FREE. IF YOU’RE READING THIS ON A DIFFERENT WEBSITE, IT WAS POSTED THERE WITHOUT THE AUTHOR’S CONSENT.

 

Dick feels wrong in his skin. That’s the first thing he notices when he comes to (wakes up? no; the feeling is much too abrupt to be given that phrasing). It’s not as though it’s an entirely new sensation, though. It’s just that this time, it’s a different sort of itchy.

He doesn’t belong here.

Dick maintains his breathing, opening his eyes into tiny slits before letting out a tiny huff of air, almost as though he were sleeping. But it’s fine, it’s just the Manor—

Oh.

He isn’t supposed to be here anymore, is he? Dick doesn’t try to control his breathing any longer, eyes snapping open. This is… well, this isn’t his bedroom, but that’s his poster on the wall there, and Dick thinks he can see the glint of his telescope behind a screen.

There’s an IV drip attached to him, and his limbs have that lethargic feeling that comes from not moving around in much too long. Dick sits upright, careful not to disturb the IV line and the heart monitor, because he needs to leave here undetected, and Bruce always has a signal that goes to the Cave - and other various parts of the Manor - when any of the monitors are disturbed.

His leg is still stiff and aching, and when he winces at the feeling of moving it, he has to bite down a gasp as the bruise on his cheek pulls. It abruptly reminds him why he can’t be here anymore.

Dick’s cane is nowhere in sight, and he doesn’t relish the thought of having to hobble out of the Manor. He’s just pulling himself over to the nightstand, where there’s a glass of water with a cover placed over it, when there are voices outside.

Dick panics. There’s no other way of putting it. The monitor picks up the change and the beeps increase in speed, and before Dick can do anything more than turn around to face the door, it swings open.

“Who’re you?” The question is out of Dick’s mouth before he can think to stop himself. Does he even want to know the answer? The last time someone unknown had shown up after Dick was kicked out, it’d been a replacement Robin.

The thought of Jason makes something in Dick spasm, and he has to squeeze his eyes shut and breathe for a moment.

When he reopens them, the man is stepping closer, arms raised in front of him and conveying every move he makes.

“It’s okay,” the man says, and suddenly Dick can’t breathe again. “You’re safe. You’re in the Manor.”

“Who are you.” The words come out choked. It’s no longer a question, because now Dick wants to know even less than he did before.

The man comes closer, and Dick backs a step, stumbling into the nightstand in his haste to move away.

“Dick?” Jason says with a frown. “Look, I’m not going to hurt you. I work with Bruce. I’ll get him—”

“No,” Dick wheezes before his legs give out and then Jason is launching himself forward to try and catch him.

Dick crashes to the ground before he can get there, but now he can see Jason’s face properly, and it confirms it.

The Jason in front of him has a white stripe in his hair, and there are scars and wrinkles on his face that Dick’s Jason – the dead Jason, the one who’s been dead for months that he only found out about yesterday – doesn’t have. He’s big, too, big in a way Dick associates with Bruce and Clark and heavy hitters.

Jason is saying something to him, but Dick can’t process it through the buzzing in his ears. “You’re dead,” he whispers. He doesn’t even know if he says it aloud, but Jason’s mouth shuts with an audible sound.

Dick raises a hand and brings it to Jason’s arm, the body part closest to him. It’s solid.

You’re dead you’re dead you’redeadyou’redeadyou’redead—

 


 

The next time Dick wakes up, there’s a fuzziness in his mouth that comes from being given sedatives. He brings a hand up to scrub at his eyes, uncaring of the various monitors he’s no doubt attached to. Bruce knows he’s here by now; there’s no way to get around another confrontation if Bruce wants one.

“Dick?”

Dick jolts, heartrate spiking. He didn’t expect it to be Bruce’s voice, not here. He thought he’d at least have time to collect himself. He didn’t want to have this conversation at all, not if he can help it, but he’d prefer to be sitting, at least.

Dick slowly pushes himself upright, not looking at Bruce seated in the chair by his head. It’s a familiar armchair, one that Bruce (and often Alfred, as well) would sit in when he read to him before bed, or even when he was sick and someone would be in Dick’s room for the night.

Dick takes off the clip on his finger, an alarm going off instantly. Bruce doesn’t stop him. He does, however, put a hand over Dick’s when Dick goes to take out the IV drip. Dick stares at it for a moment before moving his arm away.

“Hey,” Bruce says, in that rumbling tone of his. It’s strange; normally Bruce wouldn’t be this calm. It just goes to prove the theory Dick’s gradually been building in his subconscious. “Are you with me?”

“Where is he?” Dick says instead. Thinking of this as being Bruce only makes things worse. It’s better to consider him as a different person, because then the longing, the confusion, hurts less. “The man who was here when I woke up before. Jason.”

There’s a moment of silence before Bru—Batman—answers. “He’s in the kitchen.” His voice is careful. “We thought it best he wasn’t here. You seemed…upset. At his presence.”

Dick digested this information quickly and efficiently, just as he’d been taught. “Where am I?” he asked next. Emotions could wait.

“You’re in the Manor. Your bedroom.” Batman’s voice is even. This is a practised answer.

Dick cracks a humourless smile. “Nice try. This isn’t my world.”

Dick can feel Batman’s gaze on him, but he continues to stare at the thin blanket covering his lower body. He wonders what answer they’ve devised. Dick’s been in parallel universes before, most of them not very pleasant. It’s always a matter of time before everyone’s true colours show through the façade, and that’s what he’ll wait for.

“You’re almost right,” Batman says finally. “This is your world; it’s just the wrong time. Judging from your reaction to Jason, I’d say you’re somewhere between five to seven years in the future physically and mentally. But all the tests we’ve done show that you’re of this world.”

At that, Dick glances up with a frown. Had he not already been bracing himself for looking Batman in the eye, his eyes would’ve widened at how much older he looks now. Just like with Jason, there are scars, albeit thinner ones – Bruce did have a very public persona to maintain, and large, disfiguring facial scars didn’t work well with it. There are strands of grey in his hair, hairline beginning to recede.

Dick had always told him he’d go bald from the cowl. A distant part of him would feel the glee of being proven right, but he’ll never be familiar enough with Bruce again to be able to justify a feeling like that.

“You’ll want to see all the reports and tests,” Batman says. “That’s fine. You won’t trust them, though. I know you.”

Do you? Dick wants to ask. What had happened to him this far into the future, that would make Bruce say something like that? Had they reconciled? He can’t see Bruce taking back his words, but he supposes that Jason returning from the dead would change things.

“I want to see Jason,” he says instead.

Batman’s face doesn’t change. He pulls out a phone from his pocket and taps a few buttons. “He’s on his way.”

Dick nods, turning away to face the wall ahead of him. The two of them sit there in silence. Dick wants to ask Batman to leave, because his skin is prickling with the awareness of Bruce being there every moment that he’s sitting there beside Dick, as though he wants to be there, and he doesn’t know what to make of it, and he hates the part of him that wants to talk to Bruce, to know what happened between them in his future.

But most of all, he hates the part of him that’s happy to have Bruce there.

The door opens quietly this time, and Jason’s new bulking form takes up most of the doorway. “Hey,” he says. A hand goes up to do an awkward wave, and Dick can’t help himself from staring at him, subconscious trying to find the pieces of the Jason he has in his mind’s eye.

At the lack of another breakdown, Jason steps inside, nudging the door shut behind him. “Uh,” he says, “you texted?”

“Dick asked for you,” Bruce says. He doesn’t get up from the chair, and Jason stands at the foot of Dick’s bed, hands going to his pockets. “We still have some questions we need to ask. And then you two can talk.”

Dick swallows down the wave of… a feeling he doesn’t want to name. “I go first,” he says, relieved when his voice doesn’t betray any of the things that’re churning around within him. “What happened?”

His eyes are on Jason, so he sees when Jason’s eyes flick to Batman for a moment before they apparently come to a decision. He doesn’t know what to do with the knowledge that they know each other well enough to be able to understand the other silently, communicate with a single glance. Jason and Bruce in his time were getting to that stage, to that awareness of the other that had to exist between a well-functioning Batman and Robin.

Jason clears his throat. “We were tracking an organisation called The Company,” he begins. His lips quirk slightly as he says the name, almost as though it’s a signal to someone else. Like muscle memory, perhaps, because when Dick continues to watch him without a change in expression, his face falters, and he continues with the narrative. “We shut down their human trafficking sect a month ago, but they still had a smaller drug trafficking system that worked as a separate branch. The fuckers actually have a bunch of individual branches, but anyway, not your concern. You went undercover in my place and got caught and held prisoner for a few days before we got you out and took them down. That was three days ago.”

Dick’s surprised at how much of an answer he’s just received. That is, if this whole thing isn’t a sham created to throw him off what’s really happening. “I woke up like this?” he questions.

Jason’s mouth twists, and this time it’s Batman who responds.

“We found you like that, in the Nightwing costume. From the track marks on your skin, it seems to most likely have been as a result of a series of injections you were given.”

Lovely. Dick almost prefers being a rabbit over a guinea pig. “But you can undo it, right?” he says. “You said you took them down. So you have their documentation. Their notes.”

“There were…complications,” Jason says, weight shifting to the other foot, “when we were rescuing you.”

“They somehow blew up the building you were in,” Bruce cuts in. Dick can practically hear the glower he’s giving Jason, and he doesn’t know whether the ‘they’ used is referencing Jason, or the group they were after. “Most of the reports and formulae are gone. You’re our only living sample of the solution you were given.”

Dick shuts his eyes for a moment. “Of fucking course I am,” Dick mutters. There’s a snort from Jason, which eases how tired Dick feels with this whole situation already. It’s really all just an addition to the weight that’s already been on his chest since he found out about Jason.

“Now,” Batman says, shuffling in his chair. “We have questions we’d like for you to answer.”

“Stop using ‘we’,” Dick mutters. “Just say ‘I’ like a normal human.”

Jason sniggers, coming to sit at the foot of Dick’s bed. He sprawls a little, resting on arms stretched out behind him. “I think I like this version of you,” he says to Dick.

Bruce ignores both of them. “What date is it for you?” he asks.

“Wednesday,” is the first word out of Dick’s mouth, almost before he can even think. “Eighth of July. [Year*].” His internal clock has mostly never proven him wrong, and it holds firm even through time travel, it would seem.

Jason’s eyebrows rise. “Huh,” he says. “That’s like three months after I died. Sorry for freaking you out?”

“Not your fault,” Dick tells him. He finds his eyes scanning every inch of this new Jason Todd every time he looks at him, never able to drink in the sight of him entirely. It’s akin to looking through a funhouse mirror, the reflected image distorted almost beyond recognition. “I should’ve…” His voice trails off, and he shakes his head a little, mouth quirking ruefully.

Batman clears his throat. “What was the last thing you remember doing?”

It’s been seven years, Dick tells himself. That’s why he doesn’t remember. Would you remember the shit you did seven years ago? But there’s a part of Dick that had hoped he’d mattered enough to Bruce that he would remember this date, because the events of that day sure as hell are imprinted in Dick’s head.

But doesn’t it make sense that it would be insignificant to Bruce if he and Dick had ended up reconciling at some point in the future? He doubts Bruce remembers each time he’s fired Dick, or when Dick has run away. He’s probably just overreacting, in the big scheme of things.

“Uh.” Dick doesn’t know how to answer him without giving away things he doesn’t want to think about ever again. “I got back with the Titans from a mission in space at some point on Sunday, found out that Jay—” His throat closes up. He can’t say it. But they know what he means, so it’s fine, right?

“Hold up,” Jason interrupts. There’s something in his face that Dick can’t decipher. Maybe not fine, then. “How long were you gone?”

“The mission? We left in March.”

Dick glances towards Jason, and is surprised to see the man’s jaw is clenched hard enough to look like it hurts. He’s glaring at Bruce – Batman – with a look of absolute fury in his eyes.

“Jason,” Bruce sighs, “not now.”

“I can’t fucking believe you,” Jason spits out. “You’ve been there when I’ve gone off at him. And you never said a goddamn word? He has a fucking martyr complex and that I can understand but how the hell could you stand there and—”

“Jason.” Batman is standing, movement silent and swift. Distantly, Dick wonders how he can manage that with the sort of clothes he’s got on. “Enough. We can discuss this later. If you can’t control yourself, you need to leave the room.”

Jason’s eyes promise to hold Batman to that, even as he crosses his arms and looks back at Dick. Dick has absolutely no idea what the argument was about, but he knows he won’t get any answers at this moment. Clearly, it was about him, that much he can make out.

“Continue,” Batman says, nodding his head towards Dick.

“I came to the Cave to see you,” he doesn’t add any details, and monitors his face so he doesn’t give anything away, but the bruise on his cheekbone seems to throb as he speaks, “and then went back to the Titans. Last thing I remember is going and taking a nap.”

Batman gives him a disapproving look. “Those were the barest bones of events. I thought I taught you better than that.”

Dick huffs a breath. “Maybe I don’t trust you enough to tell you more,” he says. “Got any other questions? Or can I see the reports now?”

Batman looks at him for a moment, assessing him, and then stands and walks out of the room.

Dick can feel himself relaxing automatically now that Batman is gone; there’s no longer any reason to be quite as vigilant as there was a moment ago. It’s not that he trusts Jason entirely, but combined with the increased mental stress of having to put up a front when Batman is here? He’d take dealing with Jason being resurrected, any day. At least there's a reason for him to act out of sorts around Jason; he doesn't want to give anyone reason to think anything happened between him and Bruce. 

And besides, Jason’s his younger brother, despite this version of him looking as though he could easily knock Dick out without breaking a sweat.

“You hungry?” Jason asks.

Dick’s head lifts up, looking directly into Jason’s eyes. He could’ve sworn they weren’t this colour before, but he can’t quite recall the exact shade that were Jason’s irises, and that realisation is another punch to the gut, another vivid emotion he quickly boxes up.

He’d expected this to be a typical good-cop-bad-cop routine, and so far, they weren’t doing anything to prove him wrong. “Not really,” Dick answers honestly.

“Tough. Come on, we’re going to the kitchen.” Jason stands with a stretch.

As his shirt rides up, Dick can spot countless scars criss-crossing his skin. There’s one that’s a long line just down the centre of Jason’s torso, but before he can figure out why it looks so eerily familiar (and wrong), Jason’s pulled down the thin sweater he’s wearing and beginning to undo the various machines from Dick.

“Alfred’s here?” he asks. He hasn’t seen Alfred in months.

Jason nods. “Yeah. He doesn’t know you’re awake, I don’t think.”

Dick goes to stand, limping towards the nightstand as he waits for his body to wake up properly. He doesn’t want to ask Jason for a crutch or a cane, but he knows he won’t be able to get downstairs in one go without one—

“Hold on,” Jason calls. “I’ll grab you a stick.” Jason is back within the minute it takes for the pins and needles in Dick’s legs to run their course, handing him a cane.

“Thanks.”

Dick follows Jason out of the room, deciding that sliding down the bannister is much healthier for him in his current state. He doesn’t miss the huff of breath coming from the pillar of muscle that is Jason as he skips down the staircase beside Dick, but doesn’t acknowledge it.

“By the way,” Jason says. “There might be…other people there.”

“Other people?” Dick repeats. “Like Clark?”

“Other kids.”

“Oh. Batman’s?” Had Bruce replaced Jason as well? He'd seemed adamant about having no partners when Dick had spoken to him (an understatement, if Dick was being honest), but he could see how Jason returning would change that. Having Jason back was an event that he couldn't even mentally process the reverberations of on himself, let alone for Bruce.

Jason’s face scrunches up a little at Dick’s use of Batman. “Yeah.”

“Were—Are they…” He doesn’t know how to finish the sentence, but luckily for him, Jason understands.

“Two out of three have been Robin,” he says, voice gentle.

Dick can’t help his eyebrows shooting upwards. “He got three more kids?” he says incredulously. The conflicting thoughts of I have four siblings now and are these even my siblings find their place in his head.

Two more Robins. Had Bruce really gone through two more Robins in the time since Jason had been resurrected?  

Jason shrugs. “Yup,” he says, popping the ‘P’. “And those are the only ones legally tied to him. Technically, there were a whole bunch more. And what do you even consider Barbara to be.”

Dick can’t help the instant horror he feels at the thought of Barbara being considered one of Bruce’s kids. At the look on his face, Jason laughs.

“I forgot you two had your thing,” he says.

“Wait,” Dick says. “What?”

Jason blinks, steps faltering. “Spoilers,” he amends.

“I don’t wanna know, honestly.” Because what does something in his future with Babs mean with him and Kory? Dick’s world has been upended enough without him having to think about losing yet another anchor. “Aren’t you worried all this information is going to mess up the timeline?”

Jason shrugs. “Since it’s not magic, and from the shittonne of tests, we’ve mostly concluded that this you isn’t going to go back in time and replace your past self. Your past self already exists, and this you is…” he waves his hand around at Dick. “So there’s no real danger in telling you anything.”

Dick nods a little uncertainly. While it’s true that this has never happened to him – or anyone he knows about – quite in this manner, Bruce is right: he won’t trust anything they say until he gets a look at those reports and runs a few tests himself.

Alfred is standing at the stove, humming something under his breath as he stirs. Dick didn’t expect the intense wave of homesickness to hit him like it does; there’s a giant lump in his chest that’s slowly inching its way up to his throat, and if he doesn’t do something now, he’s going to start tearing up and maybe even cry a little and that’ll be absolutely mortifying.

“Hey, Al,” Jason says, unaware of the war raging within Dick. “Guess who’s finally awake.”

And then Alfred turns around, and his face is so much older than Dick’s Alfred, but it’s still Alfred, and he still looks mostly the same. “Ah, Master Dick,” he says warmly. “Marvellous timing. I was just—”

Dick limps forward the few steps separating them and yanks Alfred into a tight hug, the cane clattering to the floor as he lets go of it. Alfred jumps a little, surprised, but his returning embrace is just as firm and steadfast as it’s always been.

Dick hides his face in Alfred’s shoulder, drawing back when he can finally maintain a controlled expression. “Sorry,” he says with an embarrassed laugh, bending down to pick up his abandoned cane. “It’s been a while. Since I’ve seen you.”

Alfred’s gaze is scrutinising, but he looks at Dick the same way he always has as he pats his upper arm. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen you as well, dear boy. This version of you, anyway.”

“Yeah, apparently I’m old now.” Dick lets a cheerful grin sweep across his face, stepping over to the barstools where Jason’s sitting. “Almost thirty. The horror.”

Jason snorts. “Yeah, real shocker you lived that long.”

Dick shrugs. “Hey, if B can survive.”

There’s a moment’s silence, a beat that’s off in the conversation, before Jason finally says, “B’s too damn stubborn to die properly.”

Dick files the moment away in his head, attention instead going to the bowl of warm stew Alfred places in front of him. Another wave of homesickness hits him as the smell registers; he hasn’t had Alfred’s cooking in so long. Despite the typical feeling of his body in its vigilant mode until he can be sure it’s safe to relax here, Dick finds himself devouring a second helping.

 


 

Jason has to go at some point. He leaves Dick in the living room, seated in front of the couch, with a promise that he’ll be back later that night. Dick finds it a little silly of himself to be so attached to one person, but he can’t help the tiny increase in stress when Jason disappears.

Especially when another tiny boy comes along at around midday. He’s wearing a Gotham Academy school uniform and has a generic backpack on, which marks him as a normal student, but there’s something in the way he carries himself that makes Dick’s brain tingle. That, and his appearance – what is it about him that’s so familiar?

“Grayson,” the boy says, clearly surprised but trying to hide it. “You’re awake. Pennyworth didn’t tell me.”

“Only woke up a few hours ago,” Dick tells him. He doesn’t say who’re you; he’s waiting for the child to introduce himself.

Instead, the boy huffs. “Good,” he says. His feet are shoulder width apart, a centring stance, and one of his hands clench the strap of his backpack tightly. He turns without another word, immaculately polished shoes squeaking on the floor.

“Wait,” Dick calls. “What’s your name?”

Damian spins around once again, and this time there’s a heavy frown on his face. His brows are bunched tightly. Dick internally winces at the frown wrinkles he’ll no doubt have as he grows older.

“Damian Wayne,” he says.

Dick blinks. “So you’re…” But now that he’s said his name aloud, it’s clear what that familiarity was: Bruce’s genes. Dick can now see the traces of Bruce in this tiny face, and the echoes of Bruce’s frame from photo albums reflected in this body.

“I am the blood son, yes.” Damian’s voice is impatient; his arms are now crossed over his chest. There's a slight accent to his words, and definitely more of a British influence than American.

Dick really wants to know who his mother is, but that’s going to have to be a question he asks literally anyone else. “Nice to meet you,” he says instead.

Damian sniffs. “I’d say the same, but it wouldn’t be honest.” And with that, he exits the room.

Despite everything, Dick finds himself starting to get a little fond of the prickly cactus of a biological kid Bruce now apparently has. He wonders what their relationship is like in this time. Damian had called him ‘Grayson’, so they likely aren’t close.

The thought of that makes all the problems Dick’s left behind in his own time rise to the foreground of his mind, and he pushes himself up off the couch, leaning around the coffee table to grab at the cane.

He woke up in just his socks, and has been walking around in a borrowed pair of slippers that looked like they’d fit him. Now, he grabs the slippers in his spare hand (he’ll need them for when he’s wandering around the freezing Cave) and steps lightly through the hallways as he makes his way to the grandfather clock.

No one has told him that he can’t be in here – if they had, then Dick would’ve waited until Bruce went to work the following day to sneak down into the Cave. But as it stands, he isn’t breaking any rules, and Batman had told him he could read the reports. Clearly, they trust him – that either means that they’re being honest and he is who they say he is (and they are as they claim to be), or they’re scheming megalomaniacs and he should try to uncover their evil plots as soon as possible.

Dick’s encountered the latter a few too many times to truly rule it out as an option.

There are new trophies scattered around the Cave. That horrific case with Jason’s Robin outfit is still up, and it steals Dick’s breath the moment his eyes land on it. He freezes there for a moment as he looks at it, wondering how on Earth Jason can stand it there, a permanent reminder of his death, and why the fuck is it even still up? How can Bruce look at it, a constant reminder—

Ah. There it is, Dick thinks. Because it’s perfectly in line with Bruce’s personality to keep it up, to serve as a painful reminder of what he probably considers his fault.

Dick steps past it, not looking at the rips and stains on the clothing. He holds his breath because his subconscious is trying to tell him he can smell blood coming from the uniform. Dick’s eyes scan the rest of the costumes in the Cave. Most of them he doesn’t recognise – hell, the Batman one alone is probably hundreds of versions ahead of the suit he knows – but there’s one particular costume that has a familiar blue.

He can’t believe he gives up the Nightwing suit he currently wears for this. This... this is so boring. The whole purpose of that suit was the tribute to his father, the unused costume that was supposed to debut in their next show. This is barely an echo of it – the blue is the only thing, really, that remains.

Dick hopes it was his own decision to change his costume this time round. Maybe it got too flamboyant – the collar he knows isn’t the most practical (and the neckline means he’s cold on stakeouts, even though the amount of skin he has out is nothing compared to his Robin days). But he’s fond of that uniform, and he’s at home in it in a way he hasn’t been since his early days of being Robin.

And sue him, he likes the flashiness. 

Dick tears his eyes away from the suits, knowing that pondering over the future when he has absolutely no context is a pointless exercise. He makes his way over to the Batcomputer, eyeing the upgrades.

Hopefully his voice hasn’t changed dramatically in the last (next?) few years.

“Computer, show files for ‘Grayson, Dick’. Codename ‘Nightwing’.”

“Voice recognised: Nightwing,” the computer says.

A series of windows open; Dick knows that older files will show if he prompts the computer to do so. There are a variety of reports and documents that show up, including the usual patrol reports that he writes, reports from the rest of the family when he’s joined them on a case, medical examinations.

There are files that are locked, and some little inaccessible voids that he feels like the Dick of now might know the contents of. He doesn’t go in to check, because at that moment he finds what he’s after. Whatever thing his future self (or Bruce, more likely) might be hiding can wait.

There’s a separate folder titled with the date, his civilian initials, and a few other letters and numbers that Dick takes to mean something to Bruce now. Bruce in his time… Dick can remember their entire filing system because it’s been drilled into him so thoroughly, but it’s definitely changed since then.

Dick first pulls up a medical report. It gives a thorough overview of his body and his current condition, all of which he already knows. There’s nothing particularly different about it, nothing that would suggest magical tampering. His bloodwork is the only part that’s of interest.

It’d probably be dismissed by most doctors and medical practitioners, but because Bruce isn’t most (and because Dick has been de-aged), he did extensive examining of the slight change in Dick’s blood.

The main issue, from what Dick can see, is that the serum in his system has interacted with it on an infinitesimal scale, the change too grand to reverse-engineer it without at least a basic understanding of what the formula was. Batman, it seems, doesn’t yet know what the purpose of the serum even was, or whether or not this was intentional or a side-effect.

Dick moves on to the reports of the rescue. He’ll have to backread and get to details on this group later. Batman’s system of filing reports is intricate to the point of tangled and obscure, but it’s relatively simple to find the documents he’s really looking for.

He looks up Jason, because Jason has confirmed he was there, and finds other shorthand in place of names.

RR. R-V. O. BG.

Dick would’ve assumed BG to be Batgirl, but Barbara… Barbara hasn’t been Batgirl in a while. So unless it’s a different moniker, someone else has taken up the mantle. He wonders whether this assignation happened anything like the Robin mantle, then dismisses the thought, pushing it to another corner of his mind as he continues reading.

To summarise, the vigilantes split into three teams – RH and RR, B and R-V, and BG on her own. One group came in through the roof, providing a distracting for the rest as they entered through the front door of the warehouse. As they drew all the firepower, BG travelled through the building first in search of documents, and for Dick.

It’s a little bit surprising to find that Jason stated it like the first priority was finding Dick, when Dick – and the rest of them – know that the lives of civilians come first. Batman trusts them to take care of themselves; it’s why they work together so nicely—

But that had been before Jason, hadn’t it? Perhaps this Bruce has changed.

This is yet another thought that Dick places carefully in a different corner of his mind, a dusty trashcan of a corner, and refuses to look at it. If things continue like this, his mind’s going to be insanely cluttered by the time he gets out of here.

They had found him in the basement, a large room adjacent to the science lab they had built under there. According to Jason, who had moved downstairs while B, R-V, and RR took care of the rest of the goons above, they had large vats of an odourless and colourless substance, almost like water had it not been for a thicker consistency.

Dick cracks a smile at the joke about lube.

It’s strange, to be reading something that he knows is Jason’s writing, but for it to sound so different to the boy he knows—knew. Jason’s reports had improved in leaps and bounds, as had his English schoolwork, far quicker than any other of his subjects. The more Dick reads, the more he thinks he can see pieces of his Jason showing through this older, stockier man who can grow facial hair.

Dick’s apparently finally getting to the interesting parts of the report, because this is when the sentences get choppier, the detail to certain areas drawing away what he feels is Bruce’s attention from the parts where there’s less elaboration.

For instance, the events that led to the explosion of the building and the destruction of all the vats of liquid, and all the documents and devices in the building, is possibly the most convoluted wording he’s ever seen in a report.

Dick thinks it’s Jason’s way of flipping Bruce off, and the thought of that makes him smile.

He’s just started looking for the reports of BG when he hears the sound of a clearing throat somewhere behind him. It’s only years of Batman doing the same to him that stops Dick from jumping. His heart leaps in his chest as it is; he’s glad he doesn’t show any visible signs of being startled. 

Dick glances behind him. Despite having braced himself for it, he almost flinches at the sight of Bruce with the full Batsuit on, cowl up.

Jason’s trailing behind him with two other people that Dick doesn’t know.

“Time for patrol already?” Dick asks, subtly leaning his weight off his bad leg and onto the counter.

“When I said you could read the reports, I didn’t mean come here yourself and read them.” Batman’s voice is chilly.

“Then you shouldn’t have made is so easy for me.” Instead of waiting for a response, Dick nods towards the rest of the group who have gathered around the Cave. “Do I get introductions?”

Jason’s the one who speaks this time. “That’s Tim. He’s Red Robin now. And that’s Cass. She’s Batgirl. They’re the kids I was telling you about.”

“Batgirl, huh,” Dick says, a million questions flitting through his head. 

Cass is tiny when standing beside Jason or Batman, but taller than Tim. She’d probably be taller than Dick, too, although that isn’t saying much, considering Dick’s body is built completely to suit acrobatics. Despite the confidence in her body, the way she walks and holds herself, that marks her as dangerous, there’s a wide curiosity in her eyes and something open about her that makes Dick take to her almost before she even speaks.

“Barbara gave it to me,” Cass says simply. There’s no way she could’ve known just how those words would affect Dick, but they do, and her smile becomes a tad shyer, a lot more relieved, at something she sees in him. “She says hi, by the way.”

Dick’s smile is genuine now, albeit small. “Tell her I say hi back, if you see her before I do.”

Tim had walked around the rest of them to the Batcomputer as they’d spoken. There’s a constant stream of keys being tapped by Dick’s ear, much faster than Bruce’s. There’s also a constant stream of Tim muttering under his breath that Dick imagines has definitely earned him a glare or ten from Batman at one point or another.

Sounds echoes spectacularly in the Cave.  

“Huh,” Tim says suddenly, straightening.

His back cracks with a series of sounds, and Dick winces a little as he turns to look at the screen from where he’s standing. Tim has brought up a bunch of police reports and transcripts from calls they’ve received lately.

“What?” Bruce comes over instantly, and the two of them hunch over the keyboard in almost the exact same position.

“A bunch of people have called 911 claiming they or someone they know has been de-aged,” Tim says.

Bruce is still skimming through the rest of the information that Tim has just summarised. He taps a few keys, the locations of each call being sent to the Batmobile.

“There are nine of them,” he says. “I’ll take Robin. The rest of you, pair off. We need bloodwork.” Turning to Dick, he adds, “Your time here might’ve just gotten cut in half.” He probably means it to be reassuring.

Dick doesn’t know how he feels about that.

Chapter Text

It’s been a while since Jason had worked with the rest of the family on a case like this, something that required long stake-outs and researching, nights of hacking and following money trails. They’d been after The Company for months now, and Jason is ready to shoot someone in the face.

Bruce and Damian have left, getting a start on patrol, and Tim and Cass are poring over the list, pulling up as many faces and details as they can in the next hour so they can go door knocking. Jason has busied himself cleaning his guns, but really, it’s a way to scrutinise Dick without seeming overly obvious about it.

He’s strange, this version of Jason’s older brother. Bruce can attribute the subdued personality to grief over Jason’s death all he likes, but there’s something else that Jason can feel is off with him, and he intends to find out what it is. Part of it is out of a morbid sense of curiosity, questions that have been lingering in the back of Jason’s mind ever since he found out that Bruce had apparently kicked Dick out of his home and taken Robin from him in one fell swoop; but there’s another part of him that genuinely wants to help Dick stop looking like stepping in someone’s shadow will bring on the apocalypse.

And, of course, there’s that other part that knows he would’ve been the one who got reverted to a younger self if Dick hadn’t jumped in his place without telling the rest of them, and he can’t help the guilt and how responsible he feels for making sure Dick comes through this in one piece.

Especially not after their botched rescue.

“Oi, Dickface,” Jason calls, knowing the nickname will be familiar, “you just gonna sit there looking pretty all night, or are you gonna come help?”

Dick’s gaze had snapped away from the Batcomputer to Jason at his words, and now he immediately jumps to action as he steps closer. Jason waits for a reaction to his weapons of choice, and is only half disappointed.

“Guns, huh,” Dick murmurs. He pushes himself up to sit on the benchtop, cane resting against the leg of the bench. “Bet he loved that.”

Jason snorts. Does Dick think that his use of guns is a rebellion strategy? Because… while he’s not completely wrong, it’s a little funny for his motives to be minimised into something so childish.

“He’s learned to accept it,” Jason says with a shrug.

Dick nods, accepting this. His hands are methodical as they clean and check each piece, slow from lack of regular practise.  

“That from the mission?” Jason asks, nodding towards giant bruise covering a massive chunk of Dick’s face.

Interestingly, Dick freezes before there’s that plastic look on his face that he's been wearing ever since he woke up. “Yeah,” he says, turning his head a little so it’s no longer as visible to Jason as it was before. “Same as when I got this.” He lifts his leg slightly, hands not faltering in their action.

Jason hums a little. He isn’t sure why he wants to know so bad – they have accidents during training all the time, and patrol can go a whole range of ways – but there’s something about it, and Dick's behaviour, that he can’t quite put his finger on. Something eerily familiar.

“So you’ve seen the reports,” he continues. “You trust us now?”

“Trust you enough to give you an unabridged version of the last week?” Dick asks. “Maybe.”

“What I don’t get is,” Jason peers into the chamber, frowning a little before continuing, “why you stopped sending reports to the Cave. We pretty much carbon dated you, y’know, and I went and checked the records and there’s nothing there, even though it’s one of B’s biggest rules,” he huffed a little, mostly for show so Dick, this Dick, would know how he felt about Bruce’s rules, “and there’s no mention of your entire space trip.”

Jason himself only sort of knows what he’s getting at, but it’s interesting to see the reactions in Dick align with what he’s assuming.

“I, uh,” Dick clears his throat. “We had a falling out, when I went to see him after I found out about you. There are actually a lot of reports I don’t think I filed in the Cave’s system, even before that trip.” There’s a bitter quirk to his mouth that makes Jason think there’s more to this story.

Jason snorts. “And here I thought child death made relationships stronger.”

He regrets it the moment he says it, because Dick flinches, and there’s a naked grief in his face as he stands up, whirling around to finally face Jason.

Don’t talk about it like that, like it meant nothing just because you didn’t stay gone. I don’t know how you came back or when, and maybe you and he think I’m overreacting about it, but—don’t talk about it like it was a ploy for him to make the rest of us still alive closer. You think Batman, the most emotionally constipated person we know, would take you—” he chokes a little on the word and then obstinately goes around it, “what happened to you as a way to make bonds stronger? This is fucking Bruce we’re talking about, who still has that damn case up, not—” He waves his hand around a little, evidently at loss for an example of someone more attuned to their feelings.  

Jason listens to this outburst without a word. Frankly, he's a little surprised Dick feels so strongly about it, but then again, he did only find out about Jason a few days ago. He just doesn't know if that's all there is. Bruce didn't handle his death well, he knows, even though he hadn't ever been interested in the details.

Finally, he says, “He kicked you out,” and the way Dick’s face goes blank and loses some of its colour confirms his words. Fucking Bruce, he curses, because this would have to be the second time he’s done so to Dick.

Dick doesn’t say anything, but his breathing picks up. “Why would you think that,” he says, the words barely audible.

Jason looks at him for a moment, hoping this will be a step forward and not infinitely backwards. “There was a weird case a while ago, and you told me then that he pretty much fired you as Robin and kicked you out.”

Dick doesn’t deny it, and all of a sudden, Jason’s eerily aware that Tim and Cass are still in the Cave, probably doing their best to be as quiet as possible and not interrupt them. He wonders just how much of this they know about, whether they knew any of it. And then he feels a wave of guilt hit, that this conversation is happening in such public a place, where there are cameras accessible by anyone in the family.

He shouldn’t have brought any of this up here. He should’ve waited until after patrol, when the rest of the family had gone to bed or disappeared into their individual nooks.

Dick sits back on the bench. “So I guess we got closer after you came back,” he says flatly. “It makes sense. I had – have – a fucktonne of regrets.” He huffs out a humourless laugh. “Jay, I—”

The abrupt shift in conversation to Jason now makes him blink a little, and all of a sudden the sheer discomfort hits. He doesn’t want to hear Dick’s apologies, his regrets. It prickles at his skin in the same way that that look on Bruce’s face does sometimes, when he knows that the other man is seeing someone who’s no longer there.

He holds out a hand, stopping Dick. “Look,” he says, grimacing, “I get that for you, I died like yesterday, and you’re grieving, et cetera, but can’t you save all this shit you’re about to unload for when I come back in your proper timeline?”

Dick snorts a little and mutters something under his breath about hypocrisy. But despite it, Jason can’t bring himself to wish he could take back his words, because he really doesn’t want to hear them, to be confronted with Dick’s grief.

“Uh,” Tim’s voice sounds from the other end of the Cave. He stops a little as Jason and Dick turn to face him, Dick chewing his lip with a fervour that grosses Jason out. When Tim stops a little, Cass nudges him forward from behind, and Jason can only guess that Tim lost the round of rock-paper-scissors for who had to interrupt the two of them. “We have pretty much everything we need.”

Jason nods, leaping from the bench and stretching slightly. “Great.” He doesn’t have to look to know that Dick’s following him to the computer.

Tim’s now in his element, having gotten past the awkwardness. Jason has the urge to pinch his cheeks. “They’re all from the lowest socio-economic areas of Gotham,” he begins, and already, Jason knows how this story goes. “Most don’t have family or aren’t in contact with them, and don’t seem to have very many close friends. The calls to the police were either from their roommates or friends whose place they were couch-surfing at.”

“Does it say anything about where the cops are holding them?” Jason asks, squinting at the screen. Regardless of whether he needs glasses, he knows that Tim will sooner rather than later if he keeps reading pages of notes like this with such fucking tiny font.

“They released them all,” Cass says from Jason’s other side. “Probably not enough resources to hold them, and no reason to.”

“Figures.” Jason leans back from the computer. “So, blood samples?”

Tim nods. “It’s early enough that most probably won’t be asleep,” he offers.

Jason checks his supplies for empty test tubes and syringes, confirming he has enough. “I’ll head out, then,” he says. It’s past time he normally leaves for patrol, and tonight he’ll have to put it off a little longer to get round to make these house calls. Jason grabs his helmet, calling out behind him, “Send me the addresses.”

Tim mutters something behind him that sounds a lot like asshat, and Jason flips him off without looking.

Before long, Jason’s driving out of the Cave. He hears the sound of a tiny ping as the addresses come through, and he opens them up on his GPS.

Jason’s brows furrow as they all show up in his section of Gotham, and then the anger sets in: someone’s out there fucking around in his territory, messing up the lives of the people under his protection. It’s one thing to go after Dick – that’s always a risk in their line of work, even if it wasn’t meant to be Dick – but it’s another to get innocent people caught in the mix.

It’s a change to be knocking on a door, particularly when Jason isn’t anticipating a fight from the other side. It’s a grungy neighbourhood, made to look worse by the flickering lamps that are the only light source. Bikes are chained to porch pillars, as opposed to going down a few blocks and seeing them strewn around on front lawns. Jason gets hissed at by a cat as he peers around.

The door opens slightly, chain still holding it in place. Jason can make out a teenager on the other side, baggy hoodie and bare feet. Jason takes off his helmet in an effort to be more approachable, standing only in his domino mask.

“What’re you here for?” comes the overly fierce voice. “I haven’t done anything, I swear—”

“Calm down, kid,” Jason says. “You’re not in trouble. I’m here to help.” Remembering the state of Dick’s memory, he adds, “I work with the Batman.”

There’s a pause, and then Archie’s voice comes in, a little incredulous. “You work with the Batman?”

“Yeah. ‘s why I have this.” Jason opens up his jacket a little, showing off the red design on his chest.”

“How come I’ve never seen you round before, then?”

“You've gotta know by now that you aren’t in whatever year you think it is.” Jason raises his arms slowly. “I’m only here to listen to whatever you last remember and see if you need anything, a'ight?”

The door closes, and then Jason hears the sound of the chain jingling before it reopens fully and Archie stands to the side, giving Jason permission to enter.

Jason hates entering houses with his shoes on, especially his work boots – who knows what he’s tracking in? – but he hates the thought of being caught barefooted even more. He wipes them as thoroughly as he can on the wiry doormat before following Archie.

Archie leads Jason into the kitchen. The entire room (and house) is plain, the only splash of colour the bright tablecloth with sunflower patterns. There’s a dying plant on the countertop, and a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. Breadcrumbs litter the tiny counter space beside the sink, and there's a used knife with bits of butter on it still laying there.

“Geez, kid,” Jason says. “I get you got thrown in the deep end a little, but at least take care of the place.”

Archie eyes him critically. “Look, man, I don’t know you, and looking at your life choices, there’s no way I’m taking advice from you.”

Jason exhales a long breath. “Point,” he says. “Now, care to tell me what you remember?”

Archie shrugs. “Nothing outta the ordinary. Woke up. Went to school. Came home, did my homework, went out with a couple friends. Got home when it started raining. And then I went to sleep. It wasn’t anything memorable.”

Jason grimaces; he’d hoped for something more useful. “What year is it, for you?”

“[Year],” Archie answers.

“So you’re about a fifteen years into the future," Jason says, mostly for his own benefit. "Which you’ve probably figured out already.” Jason gets out a notebook and pen, scribbling down a couple of numbers. “Do you have a phone?”

Archie hesitates. “The landline’s been cut off.”

“Have you seen something that might look like this?” Jason pulls out his phone, thin and black.

Archie tilts his head at it, disappearing into the house. A moment later, he re-emerges with a smartphone. “It was plugged in,” he says. “It said it was charging.”

Jason nods. “Yeah,” he says. “It should last about a day or so before you have to recharge it. Can I see?”

Archie hands it over wordlessly, watching as Jason fiddles with it and then takes out a smaller device from his pocket to break through the password barrier.

“Set a passcode you’ll remember,” he tells Archie, turning it around. He watches as Archie types out six digits. “Great. It’s pretty simple to use, so I’ll let you fiddle with that. I’ve made sure you have unlimited calls and texts.” Jason slides over the notebook. “The first number is mine. Call me if you remember anything, if you need anything, all that jazz. I’m serious. Even if you think it's unimportant. Maybe you shit purple that day. And the second is if you can’t reach me.”

He knows Cass won’t mind Jason giving out her emergency line.

“Thanks,” the boy says, taking the sheet of paper and eyeing the digits on it. He folds it and puts it in his pocket, to Jason’s relief.

“Don’t worry about rent or food,” Jason says. “I’ll cover those and someone'll bring you groceries. And try not to leave the house.”

"What, like a sugar daddy?" Archie says, but there's relief in his eyes. 

"Yeah," Jason says in deadpan. "The fucking Batman is your new sugar daddy. I need a sample of your blood, by the way."

“What for?” Archie’s instantly suspicious again. Frankly, Jason would’ve been worried if he hadn’t been.

“To see if we can find whatever it is that made you like this in your system,” he says.

“You can fix me?” Archie asks. It’s the first time Jason can see how young he really is. “Send me back?”

“I can try my best,” Jason says honestly. He pulls out a syringe and test tube, nodding Archie over.

 


 

Damian isn’t happy. Bruce can tell that much from how he’s been stewing this entire drive into Gotham. Damian isn’t talkative the way Stephanie and Dick, and even Jason, had been, but he’s never normally this quiet.

Before, Bruce would’ve let him stew, telling himself that if Damian really had something to say, he would go ahead and say it. But now, after over a year of therapy sessions, that doesn’t sit well with him.

“Is something wrong?” he asks, voice rumbling with the Batmobile’s near silent engine.

“Of course something’s wrong,” Damian snaps. “Grayson is a child. Why aren’t we tracking down the others affected by this and fixing him?”

Bruce should’ve guessed. He exhales, taking his time to go over his words before he responds. “We still need more information on them,” he tells Damian. “We can’t go in there with only police reports and addresses. And we have a responsibility, too. We can’t let the rest of Gotham suffer.”

Damian’s scowl deepens. “So we should let Grayson stay like this, because a few thieves and—”

“Damian,” Bruce interrupts. “We aren’t letting him stay like this. The rest of the family are out following up on the leads, and we will be as well after one sweep through of the city.”

Damian isn’t entirely satisfied, but he doesn’t say anything more, and the rest of the drive into Gotham is as quiet as it had been before Bruce had spoken.

It’s not that therapy has fixed everything. But it’s helped more than Bruce had expected it to. He’d only gone in to begin with to convince Jason and Tim to see a therapist. They had stopped a few months in, now only appearing sporadically – or so they had said – but Bruce had maintained his weekly (and often bi-weekly) sessions.

The beginning had been frustrating; if it hadn’t been his deal with the boys, then Bruce would’ve probably quit two weeks in. He’d been to therapists before, as a child whose parents had just died, as a pre-teen displaying asocial behaviour, as a late teen with a penchant for getting into fights. But this time was different: for starters, he’d made sure it was someone trusted both by Bruce and the League. He'd told her his identity, and it was surprising how much of a difference that made.

Bruce stops the Batmobile, and he and Damian exit the car fluidly and silently. They grapple to the rooftop of the nearest building, landing with only the barest of sounds. As Bruce gazes out, looking at the Gotham skyline, he allows all the lingering thoughts of Dick and their open cases to fade into the background of his mind, breathing in the dingy air freely.

“Father, come,” Damian says impatiently. “We haven’t got all night.”

Batman's lips almost smile, and he follows Damian.

Damian is apparently under the impression that the quicker they finish patrol, the sooner they can track down their leads. Bruce doesn’t correct him, knowing Tim will get to him with the necessary files and information in the next half hour or so.  

There’s a deal going on in an alley below. Bruce pauses on the rooftop above, shielded by the shadow cast from the neon sign that flickers dangerously. Damian settles beside him, tiny body poking out farther than Bruce’s needs to in order to see.

“Should we interrupt?” Damian murmurs.

“Depends,” Bruce says, taking out a tiny device from one of his infinite pockets. He positions it on the ledge in front of them, aiming it downwards to catch the rest of the conversation between the dealer and client.

“…really summat special, love,” comes the sleazy voice of the dealer. He’s got a cigarette in his mouth, and from the sound of his drawl, it’s likely he’s drooling around it. “Jus’ fer you, ‘cause yer such a special client o’ ours.”

“What is it?” A female, though you wouldn’t know it from the massive coat she has on with the hood drawn up. There’s no way to determine any recognisable features or body shape. One of them will have to follow after her, if this really is the beginning of another drug trafficking organisation trying to sink its claws into Gotham.

The dealer shrugs. “Depen’s,” he says, letting out a cloud of smoke.

Damian wrinkles his nose, burrowing his face deeper in his hood. Bruce can’t blame him – the wind has blown the smoke directly towards them.

“On what?”

If the audio quality from the cowl recording is good enough, then perhaps they’ll be able to track her by her voice. It’s very gravelly, the sort that comes from being a chain smoker, and has a husky quality to it.

“It’ll give ye the time o’ yer life. Whatev’r that means f’r ya.” The man chortles a little.

There’s a pause, where Bruce thinks that maybe she won’t accept the deal, will go off with whatever is in the bag he’s given her. And then she nods and Bruce exhales out of his nose, mouth a grim line.

“Gotta take it here,” Bruce hears, drawing his attention back to the scene at hand.

It isn’t unheard of, for dealers to make a demand like that, but it does make the deal a whole lot shadier than it had been before.

“Why?” she asks, but she’s already opening her mouth and popping it in.

Bruce can’t make out what the drug looked like; he’ll have to go over the cowl footage later and hope it’s distinguishable. Damian shifts beside him, moving his weight off one foot and onto the other, but is otherwise silent. Bruce has to hand it to him – this time a year or two ago, he would’ve been gnawing at the bit.

“’s not fer everyone,” is all the dealer will say. He leans against the wall, watching as she takes the pill and swallows it dry. “You g’nna be with anyone?” he asks, seemingly casual.

She shrugs. “Maybe.” Handing him over a small envelope, the woman tugs the coat tighter around her. “Thanks,” she says, before walking away.

The dealer stands there for a moment, going through the contents of the envelope. Then he takes out a phone from his pocket and types something. Bruce, aided with his enhanced cowl, can hear the whoosh as a text sends.

“Robin,” he says. “Follow the woman. See where she goes and the effects of the drug. We may have something new on our hands here.” It was best to keep as on top of things as possible, particularly when they’d been so busy with The Company lately. It was time to see what new horrors Gotham had concocted while their attention had been elsewhere.

Damian complies without a sound, a rustle of wind the only indication when he grapples to the adjacent building.

Bruce stays where he is and watches the dealer. He waits in the alley for another ten minutes, finishing the cigarette, and then he heads in the opposite direction of the woman. Bruce follows him silently.

“Batcave,” he says into his comms.

“Yes, Batman,” Alfred responds.

“Agent A,” Bruce says, a little surprised. It's Cass' night off, but he supposes that they all want Dick back as fast as possible. But that doesn't mean he won't make her take another night off this week. “I need you to run facial recognition from the cowl cam.”

“Of course, sir.” Alfred is silent for a moment or two as the software does its job, and then he says, “The quality of the image is too low to be certain, but there are three potential results. Any information to narrow it down?”

“He’s dealing drugs,” Bruce says bluntly, knowing that Alfred will understand the sort of criterion that might also suggest. “About as tall as me, and a British accent. West Country.”

“Then you’re most likely following a Mr Lennon Doyle, sir,” Alfred tells him. “Born in England, moved to America as a child when his parents migrated. They moved around the country depending on Mr Doyle Senior’s work in marketing until his mother died and they settled in Gotham.”

“Thanks, Al,” Bruce murmurs. He can’t see Alfred’s expression on the other end, but he imagines it’s the same thinly veiled surprise that it’s been ever since he began verbalising his appreciation.

Bruce wants to ask Alfred whether he’s seeing things, or if this really does feel like another operative of The Company. He doesn’t entirely trust his own judgement on this, not so soon after they took down the organisation, especially not when so many of their documents were lost. Not for the first time, he grimaces at the thought of how that last mission had gone down, with all of their emotions far too involved for anyone to be making rational decisions.

Bruce still doesn’t know the entirety of what happened, because the story that Jason and Cass have told him is far too solid for it to be true.

“Batman,” Robin says through the comms. “The woman went straight home and proceeded to fall asleep.”

“Alright, Robin,” Batman says. “Good work. Watch her for another few minutes, then resume patrol. I’ll join you shortly.”

The only response Bruce receives is the click of Damian’s comms unit, indicating that he’s flicked it off.

Bruce trails Doyle until he’s at his house. Doyle has lit another cigarette and stands on the porch as he finishes it, the smoke the only movement in the night.

Batman drops down in front of him from the roof, and Doyle leaps backwards, cigarette flying to the ground.

“Jesus,” Doyle gasps, back against the wall and a hand over his heart.

“Lennon Doyle,” Batman says. “I’ve been following you.”

“Oh, yeah?” Doyle bends to pick up the cigarette, but Bruce steps on it with a heavy boot and crushes it beneath his heel.

“Who’s your supplier?” Batman growls, taking a step forward.

“Look, ya got the wrong guy!” Doyle’s voice is now a squeak, and he keeps glancing nervously at the door beside him as he speaks. “I don’t know nothing!”

“I’ll decide that,” Batman says. “Tell me about the drug. The special drug.”

“I-I can’t.”

“They’ll kill you?” When Doyle nods, eyes round and wide and a little watery, Batman takes another step closer. “I’ll make sure you have protection from them.”

Doyle shakes his head. “Look, I just got one more round to do, an’ then I’m done. Or they’ll come for me, an’ them.” He jerks his head towards the house.

“Tell me about the last round,” Bruce says, “or you’ll find me even less agreeable than your employer.” He accentuates his words with another growl, letting the light fall on him to show Doyle the tips of the ears on his cowl. People always seemed to be afraid of those.

Doyle’s breathing picks up, and he says, in a shaky voice, “Like I said, I don’ know much. The days they wan’ me ta work, they text me an address in the mornin’, and ‘round noon there’s a delivery of the goods.”

Bruce stares him down, and Doyle looks away before he mutters something.

“I didn’t catch that.”

“There’s a name, too,” Doyle repeats. “On the delivery. Started week or so ago. Says that certain clients d’serve to be given special deals.”

“You’re given names?”

Doyle nods. “They’re all regulars, people who’ve been buyin’ for months.”

“What if they say no?” Bruce questions.

“No?” Doyle frowns, as though surprised by his query. “Why would they?”

Bruce can think of at least ten reasons off the top of his head, but he knows what Doyle is insinuating. They work a relationship with their regular clients in order to be able to do this. That, and specifically targeting certain people based on their mental health and support networks.

“What does the drug do? Does it have a name?”

Doyle shrugs a little. “’s called Aqua. S’metimes they call it Jailbait. No clue what it really does; they give us a line ta say ta sell it,” he says. “They jus’ want confirmation the client took it, an’ tha’s it.”

Bruce looked at him assessingly for another moment, watching Doyle sweat.

“’s that all you wan’ed?” he asks.

Bruce only nods his head once. “You and your family will be watched,” he says. It’s both a threat and a confirmation of protection.

 


 

Bruce sends Damian home at the usual time, but he himself stays out longer. He doesn’t want to admit it, but he’s avoiding the Manor and the Cave alike.

He’s avoiding Dick, because something about his son at this age and with eyes haunted and grief heavy sets off something deep in him that Bruce has kept buried ever since Jason died. He doesn’t want to confront it. He wants to keep ignoring it and hoping the situation will fix itself, despite those two things being specific emotions he's been working on to stop doing.

It’s around five in the morning when Bruce heads home. The Cave is mostly empty at this hour, which he’d been hoping for.

Tim’s the only one still down here, a row of blood samples in front of him. He’s got his head down over a tablet, and he doesn’t look up when Bruce enters.

“Tim,” he greets.

“Bruce,” Tim says in the same tone.

Bruce pauses at the out of character response. “Everything alright?” he asks, instead of questioning about the results first.

“Fine,” Tim replies shortly.

Bruce waits another breath to see if Tim will say anything more. When the silence continues, he asks, “The results?”

Tim exhales a long breath. “Same as Dick,” he says. “So small no one would normally pick it up.”

Bruce leans closer. “But now we can begin working on an antidote.”

Tim shuffles a little. “We should be able to,” he says. “But there’s a chance that it’s irreversible. Or that trying to fix it will cause more harm than good.”

Bruce refuses to accept that. “We have to try,” he says, and Tim nods, still not looking at him. “Have you gotten sleep?”

Tim’s forehead crinkles into a frown. “Don’t start,” he says, but where those words, uttered by Tim regularly whenever Bruce asks him this, would normally be light, they’re now snappish.

“Tim,” Bruce says, gentle but firm. “Get some rest. I’ll read over your notes and keep—”

“I’ll go to bed when I want, Bruce.”

“I’ll call Alfred in if I have to.”

Stay calm. Don’t yell. Get him to understand first, and only resort to more extreme methods if that doesn’t work. Whatever you do, don’t get angry and shut him down. The words are like a mantra in Bruce’s mind, and they come more naturally to him now than they did even a month ago.

“I told Alfred I’d go to bed once I’d finished analysing the bloodwork entirely.”

“I’ll help, then,” Bruce says steadily. “That way we can both go to bed.”

Tim doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t tell him to go away, either, so Bruce picks up another tablet and finds Tim’s notes. As he skims through the familiar shorthand, he can hear Tim tinkering and typing across from him.

“This is good work,” he says. Always praise them. Praise shouldn’t be impossible to attain, especially not from their father.

Tim normally beams whenever Bruce compliments him, but this time he just twists his mouth a little. The two of them work in silence, methodically going through each of the samples and recording their findings. It’s repetitive work, and Bruce allows himself to get lost in the analysis.

“That’s the last one,” he says finally, straightening from the bench. The next stage is up to the computer, and it'll at best take a couple hours.

He raises an eyebrow at Tim, but instead of an eye-roll, Tim’s face is carefully neutral as he begins to pack away the equipment. Bruce doesn’t bring up the matter of sleep, instead joining Tim.

“Did something happen on patrol?” he asks.

Tim shakes his head. “No.”

“Your friends?” God knows Tim’s lost enough people that this sort of question is necessary.

“Everyone’s fine. For the most part, anyway.”

“Tim.” Bruce waits until Tim turns and looks at him. Make yourself approachable. Bruce leans against the bench so he’s even slightly nearer Tim’s height. “Please.”

Tim’s eyes are looking anywhere but him now, and his fingers are twisting the cuff of his sleeve viciously. “It’s… hard to say.” He takes a couple deep breaths, like he's forcing himself to calm down.

Reassure them. “That’s okay. Just start somewhere.”

“Don’t tell Dick that I know, okay?” Tim says in a rush. “This one and our one.”

Then he leans past Bruce and types something, commands on the Batcomputer that are faster than Bruce’s eyes can follow. And then he’s gone, and the Cave is empty with the exception of Bruce and the bats.

Bruce looks at the screen, frowning. Tim brought the Cave’s camera logs, but these date back years… Realisation strikes him, and Bruce sucks in a breath, pressing play on the particular camera recording that Tim has opened.

It’s the day that Dick said he visited the Manor.

 


 

Bruce doesn’t stay in the Manor. Instead, he takes one of his more conspicuous cars and goes on a drive, finding himself an hour later parked in a dead-end road on a detour towards Gotham. There’s grass everywhere, all around him, which is probably why he, even subconsciously, chose this spot.

It’s nearing six in the morning, which is what Bruce is waiting for. He sits there, mind completely empty, as he wonders just how he’s going to fix this. Whether he can fix this.

No wonder Dick’s been acting so skittish around him. It’s a wonder he’s still letting Bruce in his life, after—

But Bruce has studied too much psychology to not know the answer to that. Children are quick to forgive and excuse parents, often justifying it and shifting the blame to someone or something else. Often shifting the blame to themselves. Victims can't always leave, because of the form of emotional abuse. And the thought that perhaps the only reason Dick is still in his life is due to a chain of emotional and physical abuse makes him nauseas.

Bruce stares at the phone in his hand, the screen displaying his contacts list. She told him he could call her whenever he needed to, but Bruce has never taken her up on it.

But their appointment is days away, and this can’t wait. It’s not about him, anymore.

That had been one of the most important things that Sarah Cassidy had told Bruce. It’s not always about you. It had seemed simple to Bruce, in the beginning, because what sort of a narcissistic, arrogant fool would he be to think that? No man is an island, and all.

It went a lot deeper, as it turned out.

Sarah picked up just as Bruce is contemplating hanging up and perhaps going to the office or even the penthouse. He has computers there that are connected to the same network as the Batcomputer; he’ll be able to work on the results when they finish in about a half hour.

“Bruce,” Sarah greets, her voice solid and anchoring. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, Sarah,” Bruce responds automatically, etiquette ingrained in him. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“You know I get up much earlier than this,” Sarah says easily, and Bruce can picture her smiling as she speaks. “What’s up?”

Bruce hesitates. He doesn’t know how to say this, to verbalise what he did, to acknowledge it to others outside of the safety and barriers of the Cave walls. If he says it aloud now, then it’ll be in the open, and he’ll have to face it.

And then he thinks about Dick, about how he deserves a better parent than Bruce has been to him, and he takes in a breath.

“I did something,” Bruce clears his throat, “to my eldest. Actually, I think I did a lot of things, but it’s specifically about this one thing.”

One of the things he's liked about Sarah since their first session is that she isn’t afraid to push him into speaking. It’d been something that a lot of the therapists he’d seen before hadn’t quite gotten, that balance between listening and demanding that works for him. Maybe it comes with the territory of working with superheroes. Maybe it has to do with the knowledge that Bruce is Batman. Or maybe it's that he'd actually given this particular go of therapy a real chance.

This time she waits, and Bruce is glad, because he can feel a vice grip around his chest. Everything he tries to say comes out defensive; even without intending to, he’s trying to justify his actions, and he hates himself for it.

“This particular incident happened when he was about nineteen,” Bruce finally says aloud. “I—” Hit him. Punched him. Threw him out of his home and told him to never return. Bruce can’t say it. He has never felt more selfish.

After a whole minute of silence has passed, Sarah says, “What are the facts, Bruce? Lay out the scene for me.”

Batman takes over, more or less. “It happened a few months after Jason died. I was…” Another minute or so of silence as Bruce tries with increasing frustration to not say I was in a bad place or I wasn't coping well or even I didn't remember it exactly until I watched the recording because those few months were a haze. He won't allow himself to minimise this with excuses.

“Bruce, say it however it sounds. I am not here to condemn you.”

“That’s easier in theory, Sarah.”

“I know.” There’s a shuffling sound from the other end of the call before it fades. Bruce knows that Sarah does yoga in the morning after she wakes, and he imagines her attempting to find peace and tranquility as he tells her about how he's a child abuser. “What about in writing? Write it down and read it out to me, if you don’t want to send it.”

It feels like taking the easy way out, and Bruce doesn’t want to take that. He wants – needs – for this to be painful for him, for it to hurt, for—

Penance? Is that what he’s looking for? Is that what he feels is more important than making sure he’s can help Dick and ensure that this never happens again?

Bruce gets out a writing app on his phone and proceeds to type out the series of events, a jumbled jargon combining both current and past happenings. It’s so unlike him to be messy about writing, when it’s one of the things he’s meticulous about to get details down in a precise and orderly manner. He normally hates written documents like this.

Bruce clears his throat. “Alright,” he says, and begins reading.

Chapter Text

The Manor is asleep now, the only time it truly ever sleeps, but there’s an irritating itch in Dick’s leg and his brain is tiredly buzzing just a little too much for him to join them. After lying in an unfamiliar bed staring at a ceiling that contains new cracks to explore, Dick finally sighs and slides out from beneath the sheets.

Dawn will break in about ten minutes or so. The room he’s in right now is apparently his own – he doesn’t know what happened to his for him to move, but he’s noticed that there have been other minute changes to the Manor’s infrastructure, things that aren’t typical to a normal renovation.

For one thing, the floor plan, of all things, is the tiniest bit different, as though the Manor has literally been rebuilt.  

The aesthetic remains the same, though, and there’s still something about it that feels like home. What Dick wants to do (has wanted to do for the last few days, really) is go and sit under Bruce’s desk like he’s done so many times in the past, to draw comfort from the feeling of solid oak around him, the cushy high-backed chair blocking the only real entrance to his spot.

He hasn’t tried to hide under there since he was fourteen.

Dick doesn’t know anyone here, not really, so he can’t say for certain which areas of the house are going to be deserted enough for his current mood. Instead of picking a destination, he leaves his room and picks a direction to walk in.

Despite the probable recreation of the Manor, the creaky floorboards are still the same ones. Dick can hear Jason’s voice in his head, scoffing at the unnecessary expenditure it would have taken to redo something so precisely, and he digs his nails into his palm until the vice grip around his chest releases.

Dim lights in the hallway stay on overnight in the inhabited parts of the Manor, but here, in the branching wings, the air is still and dark. Dick trails a hand along the wall as he goes, and no dust comes off.

If he keeps going straight, he’ll be nearing the greenhouse, where he once spent a whole summer recognising various plants by touch alone. Dick takes a turn, and stumbles down a different passage.

Dick’s in a living room now. Even if he’d had memories attached to it before, they fade at the ones this room is drenched in. There’s a TV screen standing atop a cabinet with shelves stocked messily with gaming systems and DVDs. Two discs sit with the shiny side up atop the cabinet. One of the walls is entirely a bookcase, the bottom half stacked with board games. They’re mismatched - if there'd once been an order to them, it's gone now, sorted most likely by popularity alone.

Speakers are placed around the room; the surround sound in this place must be great, even though Dick knows that Bruce has a theatre that’s better than anything they could do in here.

There’s something so lived in about this room that Dick, after a moment of silent studying, turns and walks back out, retreating down the hallway.

The wall is full of portraits. Dick is used to the portraits and paintings around the Manor, accustomed to how the more public parts of the house have the expected artwork for someone like Bruce, all of the professionally taken photos that indicate and show off wealth and status. Dick’s least favourite wall in this place is the one with all the creepy commissioned paintings of Bruce’s ancestors.

The fact that he has a least favourite wall is something Jason had found in equal parts hilarious and horrifying.

This wall is probably the opposite of that. Dick’s eyes linger on the first photo, a simple frame around what’s very obviously a candid photograph of a massive group of people. Dick recognises the Kent farm in the background, and he can see all the additions to the family he’s met, but there are so many more faces that he has never seen before.

Then there’s a photo of… a group of animals. A cow, a dog, a cat, and… Dick squints at the giant red creature in the background that didn’t quite make the shot. He blinks at it, and then shakes his head and moves on. He’ll save that particular question for the future, maybe. He already has so many.

Tim and Bruce on the courthouse steps, Tim’s face so much younger than the person wandering around in the house now. Cass and Bruce on the courthouse steps, Cass’ smile shy but bright. Dick’s breath catches at the one with Jason and Bruce, and he hurriedly shifts his eyes from Jason’s haunting grin. This is the first time he's seen this photo outside of newspaper headlines.

It may have been painful to look at Jason’s face, but the way his breath stutters in his lungs when his gaze land on the final photo in this little cluster isn’t any better. Because this time it’s him and Bruce.

Dick focuses on his own face so he doesn’t have to look at the document in their hands. His face hasn’t changed much, and it seems like he’s had his last growth spurt, but his smile reminds him of his mother and he can’t stop staring.

And then he flicks his eyes towards Bruce, at the genuine happiness on his face, and he wonders what changes. Because he can't physically conceive even the mere thought of Bruce ever speaking to him again, let alone adopting him.

How do you come back from a fissure like the one they now had? He doesn’t know what he would do if Bruce called him the next day, apologies spilling from his mouth and wanting to make it up with him, telling Dick it was a mistake and he would never do anything like that again and that he understands how Dick feels because he lost Jason too and of course—

Dick jerks his gaze away from the picture frame and continues down the hallway. He doesn’t look at the remaining photos, the colours flitting past him through the corner of his eye.

He doesn’t know how long he walks, taking turns at random, but then he passes by a giant window and sees the sunlight streaming through it. It’s now well past dawn; Alfred, he knows, will most likely be getting up now. His schedule has been the same for as long as Dick’s known him. He doesn’t know what it’ll have to take for Alfred to not be the first person to wake, and he doesn’t want to find out.

“Grayson.”

It’s Damian Wayne, the tiny copy of Bruce. Dick hope his face doesn’t look as tired as he feels, and tries to smile.

“Good morning,” he greets him.

“Good morning,” Damian responds shortly. His posture is absolutely textbook, spine straight and arms at the small of his back. “Pennyworth said to tell you to come down to breakfast if you’re hungry.”

Pennyworth. Dick has never known anyone – especially not family – to refer to Alfred like this.

“I’ll be right there,” he says.

Damian turns without another word and disappears from the room. His footsteps are quieter and more measured than most assassins thrice his age, and Dick wonders yet again.

He only pauses to wash his face in a bathroom, gargling water to get rid of the musty taste in his mouth. His eyes are red from being up so long. Dick doesn’t look at the mottled side of his face.

In the kitchen, it’s only Alfred and Damian. A cat is stretched out on a sunny windowsill by Damian’s elbow.

“Morning, Alfred,” Dick greets.

“Good morning, Master Dick,” Alfred says. “I see you have not slept.”

Dick smiles in lieu of response, and takes a seat a few down from Damian. Alfred places a plate in front of him, and there’s an array of breakfast foods on the counter. Dick picks a couple of pancakes and pours maple syrup over them. He glances beside him to see Damian methodically eating his way through a pita bread and hummus.

“Would you boys care for tea?” Alfred asks. He’s already got a teapot and cups set on a tray.

“Only if you have some with us,” Dick responds, just like he always does.

Damian’s hand stills for a moment, but Alfred’s smile grows fond.

“I think I shall,” he says.

“None for me, thank you, Pennyworth,” Damian says. “I left Drake to monitor something from last night that I need to check on.”

Alfred’s eyebrows rise. “Finish your breakfast before you go, Master Damian,” he tells him. “If Master Timothy is asleep, it would be best to give him a few more minutes.”

Damian glares down at the plate, and Dick senses that the only reason he isn’t speaking his mind right now is because he’s here.

“So, Damian,” he says, “you go to school?”

“Yes,” Damian responds tersely.

This is going to be a harder egg to crack than Dick had anticipated, but that’s not going to stop him from at least making small talk with the kid. “What grade are you in? Gotham Academy, right?”

“Ninth grade. And yes, Gotham Academy.” Damian’s short responses can’t hide his obvious disdain for the school.

Finally, something Dick can work with. He lets out a low chuckle. “Yeah, I never really liked it there either.”

Damian frowns, obviously not believing him. “You told me that school is good for me and that I needed to spend time with my peers. And Father says you were in practically every club there was.”

That draws Dick up short. “Uh,” he says, mind short-circuiting a little bit. And then he does the mental maths quickly – if Damian is about fifteen right now, then the Dick of this time is around a decade older than him. Maybe he’d gotten less cool and more adult-y about school when he got older? “School is good for you. And I liked clubs. Those were cool. And some of the classes and teachers and kids. But other stuff wasn’t as fun.”

Damian makes a low clicking noise and stands abruptly. His plate has been entirely wiped clean. He places it in the dishwasher and heads off.

Dick watches him go, taking small bites out of his last pancake.

“You’ll have to forgive Master Damian,” Alfred says. “He’s taking your predicament hard.”

Dick frowned as he sopped up the last of the maple syrup. “I didn’t think we were close,” he says. “He calls me Grayson.”

He can’t see the look on Alfred’s face at his words, but when he straightens from placing his own plate in the dishwasher, Alfred is heading into the living room with a tray in hand. Dick hastens to follow.

“That’s just Master Damian’s way,” he explains. “It’s not a reflection of your relationship. The two of you are… extremely close.”

There’s a lot that Alfred isn’t telling him, and Dick doesn’t know if it’s because the future is too complicated to explain, or if it’s another matter. He accepts the teacup from Alfred and is content to sit there in the sunny living room as they talk.

 


 

Damian’s pace speeds up as he nears Tim’s room. He rarely goes in here, but recent events have made it a sort of meeting space for them. Jason isn’t in the Manor consistently enough for them to invade his room, and Cass is an absolute nightmare before noon, so Damian has, against all reasoning (except the reasoning he has) chosen Tim’s.

He doesn’t bother knocking, knowing Tim will most likely be asleep.

So it really isn’t his fault when he has to duck the flying batarang at the last minute, the weapon embedding itself into the doorframe a metre above his head.

Drake,” he snaps, pulling it out and tossing it back. “You were the one who wanted the truce. And your aim is terrible.”

Tim had begun apologising since he’d realised who it was. He catches the batarang out of the air when Damian throws it back, tucking it under his pillow. He’s sitting in bed, pillow upright against the headboard. There are two laptops open in front of him and a stack of papers littering every surface – even the ground – within arm’s reach.

“I thought you might be Bruce,” he says, rubbing a hand over his face.

Damian frowns. He has no idea what his father did to annoy Drake now – probably sent him out of the Cave to go to bed – but he dismisses it entirely. They have more important things to be worrying about now, like fixing Grayson.

“Have you gotten up the monitoring devices I asked for?” he says.

Tim yawns massively as he taps a few keys on one of the laptops and then slightly tilts it in Damian’s direction.

It’s still past an absolute sea of paper, and there’s an open packet of biscuits there too. Damian would like to stab whoever didn’t teach Drake how to be tidy, because now he has to carefully tiptoe to actually get to the laptop that’s plugged in to about three other things, one of them probably being a charger, and the other a hard drive that sits whirring at the foot of Tim’s bed.

He thinks Tim dozes off by the time he actually makes it to the device.

The screen shows a few different camera angles. There’s a street that’s rapidly filling up, from the doorway of an apartment. Another shows its inside lobby. The last is a camera in the elevator of the building.

“Has anything interesting happened?” Damian asks, even as he flicks through the few hours of footage that Tim has recorded.

“Um,” Drake mumbles intelligently. “I don’t think so? I know she hasn’t appeared on any of the cameras again.”

Damian huffs impatiently. “Move,” he mutters.

“Get your own spot,” Drake mutters, turning over and burying his face in a pillow. “It's my bed.”

Damian ignores him and wriggles until there’s magically space for himself in the tiny little nook that Tim is occupying. It’s warm in the bed, and the urge to just fall asleep suddenly becomes very present in his mind. Damian ignores it, sitting as forward as he can until Tim elbows him in the stomach for dragging the sheets off of him.

Watching security cameras is boring, but it has to be done. His father told him that they needed to watch this woman, to be on top of Gotham’s drug scene, and Damian knows that he won’t be allowed to focus on Grayson’s predicament until he completes this task and turns in a decent enough report.

Not that Damian doesn’t care about drugs in Gotham. He just cares about Grayson more.

And he doesn’t like this younger version of his oldest brother, who only smiles when someone’s looking and says things he’s supposed to but doesn’t really mean, who doesn’t know Damian and speaks to him like he’s any other kid. And then sometimes he acts like the real Grayson, and it somehow makes things even worse, because it's the illusion that he's back but he isn't, and Damian...

He had hoped that Drake would have the same issues, hence a mutually beneficial partnership, but it seems like Tim is too busy moping around about something or another. It’s fine, though; Damian is used to working for Grayson’s best interests alone.

He sits there for about half an hour, position going from a straight back to slumped against the sleeping backside beside him. Occasionally, he takes his eyes off the laptop screen to glance around the room.

Damian’s probably spent the least amount of time in here, for obvious reasons. Personal rooms tend to be for when they need to be alone. A closed door means do not disturb or fucking else, and he assumes the others also adhere to this unspoken rule (unless dire circumstances call for dire action).

He’s a little unsure of what exactly constitutes as a dire situation, because only last week, Drake had burst through Cain’s window because he was out of peanut M&M's.

Damian knows, from when he’d catch glimpses of the room back when Tim was still Robin, that the posters that are up on Tim’s walls have been there since before he left. There are a whole bunch of some band called The Clash. A few animated elves and mythological creatures dot other spaces. There’s one promoting a Young Justice reality TV show.

Like everyone else’s rooms in the Manor, there’s a giant bookcase along one wall and a desk to accompany it. Tim’s desk is stacked with papers and other strange strewn bits and pieces that will eventually be made into something or be scrapped in the bin right beside it.

“Y’r elbows are f’ckin’ pointy,” Drake hisses from beneath Damian’s elbow.

In Damian’s defence, he’d thought that Drake was far more asleep than he evidently is.

“Your side flesh is weak if it can’t stand my elbow,” he counters, but relieves the pressure a tiny bit. It won’t do to aggravate Tim, not when he’s using his laptop for his monitoring.

“Side flesh?” Tim repeats, sitting up a little.

“Why aren’t you still asleep,” Damian snaps.

“Because you keep poking me and moving around.” Tim lets out a massive yawn. “Anything interesting happen yet?”

Damian shakes his head, eyes on the screen. Then he glances at the clock, because he has school to attend, and Drake will most likely kick him out when he has to leave for WE.

It’s seven in the morning. Damian still has about an hour or so.

Damian watches the faces of people on the street walk by. The woman – Stella Winston – lives on the third floor; chances are she’ll take the stairs down rather than waiting for the elevator.

Handfuls of people head out, each walking their individual path. Damian watches as some hold the door, while others are in too much of a hurry to notice. He finds himself watching a stray cat lingering on the street just by the alleyway entrance, no doubt hunting for scraps.

And then the strangest thing happens, because a young girl walks out of the building. She’s older than Damian – probably in her late teens. A lot of people her age have left since Damian came into Tim’s room to watch the feeds, but this one draws his attention.

“Drake,” he says. “Can you ID her?”

Tim stirs from beside him, and his fingers work on the keyboard as though they’re separate from his brain. “You even have to ask?” he murmurs, voice a thin croak.

If Damian had been paying more attention, he would’ve thought that Tim had been getting allergies, judging by the way his eyes and nose are red. The colour isn’t as obvious on Tim’s brown skin, but it’s still a notable difference to its usual shade. Besides, his eyes have that watery look about them that Damian associates with hay fever.

“Um,” Drake says after a moment. “Either we’re onto something, or both of us are sleep deprived.”

“Why,” Damian says with a frown, more a demand than an actual question. He leans closer to the screens. “You think she’s the same woman?” It all clicks now. “The drugs?”

Tim nods. “We won’t know for sure unless we can question her and be entirely sure.”

“Todd is in Gotham,” Damian says.

“So’s Cass,” Tim mutters. He’s flicking through his phone. “Wait, it’s like seven in the morning. Never mind. Jason it is.”

Damian waits impatiently, watching the cameras even though there’s little point now. If they’re right, then this might fix Grayson. They might finally be able to create an antidote to reverse the effects of the serum he was apparently injected with. Damian has never been more relieved to have followed instructions, though he suspects this isn’t going to be a recurring feeling.

“He’s on it,” Drake says, finally hanging up. “She lives like fifteen minutes away from him. He’ll update us when he has more information.”

Tim falls back against his pillow, but his eyes don’t close. He stares up at the ceiling, and the only movement that comes from him is his chest as he inhales and exhales deeply. Damian recognises a meditation technique when he sees one.

He’s about to get up and this time leap across the horror of a workspace and onto the hardwood floor, when Tim speaks.

“I didn’t think about what he’d be like, y’know?” he begins, and Damian freezes. He doesn’t want to talk about Grayson with Drake of all people, but he’s rooted to the spot. “Like. I became Robin because Batman needed one. But I was only seeing half the picture. I didn’t think about shit like… what happened before I got there. Fuck, I didn’t think about Dick and how he was a real person and that Bruce was a real person outside of Batman and that of course it would’ve impacted them as well and now I can’t stop thinking about—”

“Drake,” Damian snaps. “You aren’t making a lick of sense. Shut up and maybe stop trying to think. Grayson will be back in no time and then it won’t matter.”

Tim turns around onto his stomach, burying his face in the pillow. He doesn’t seem to care about the layout of the bed as the sheets scatter the pages, despite the number of times he’s yelled at Damian for moving something the tiniest centimetre.

“Of course it’s gonna fucking matter,” he says, words mostly incoherent. “It never stopped mattering. I—”

“Todd is alive now.” Damian has no idea what Drake is on about, and he’s mostly just annoyed at him for wasting Damian’s time. “Once we get Grayson back, all the grief will be—”

Tim, who had been shaking his head at Damian’s words, comes to a frightening still, as though he's just realised something. “Of course,” he says mechanically, head lifting in an effort to not have to breathe and speak through the thick pillow. “You’re right. I’m being dumb. We’ll get Dick back and it’ll be okay.”

Damian is seconds away from gaping at Drake, because… what? When has Drake ever given into something so abruptly, particularly to Damian? It makes no sense, just like Drake hasn’t made much sense all morning.

Damian suddenly can’t stand to be in this room anymore. He didn’t need this right before—

And now he’s running late for school.

“You’re obviously sleep deprived,” Damian says. “If you continue behaving strangely, I’ll have to tell Father or Pennyworth.”

He stands from the bed, making sure to spill as many documents from the bed onto the floor as possible as he gets up. Next time he needs help, he’s going to wake up Cain no matter how many knives she throws at him.

 


 

Alfred has left to drop Damian off to school and pick up a few groceries by the time Bruce returns home. He skulks into the Manor like a teenager sneaking back home after a night out, taking the long way to his office from the garage.

The trip becomes even longer every time he avoids a hallway filled with the more personal photos hanging on the walls, because right now Bruce can’t look at those.

He makes it to his office without running into anyone. Once he gets there, he fishes out his phone and sends a quick email, saying that he’ll be working from home today.

Bruce needs to fix Dick so he’s back to his normal age. It’s the only thing he can focus on right now, because there are so many thoughts swirling around inside his brain about this Dick, the one that’s probably asleep right at this moment, so many regrets and questions about what to do next, that he would be at a standstill if he didn’t focus on a relatively fixable problem.

It really says something about their lives, Bruce muses, that his easiest problem to solve right now is his de-aged son.

With that thought comes the more intrusive ones, like it’s only a problem because you made it one and if you’d been better this wouldn’t be happening.

Bruce firmly shuts the lid on those as tightly as he can, because as true as they may be, they aren’t helping. Then he opens up the reports from patrol, gathering all the accounts of the age regressed individuals that the rest of the family followed up on.

After about half an hour of reading through them, Bruce has to stand and pace for a bit, because they’re all the same. No one remembers their present (future?) selves – they only remember who they are at their current age.

Nevertheless, Bruce writes up his observations based off the reports and files it. Then he opens up the analysis of all the bloodwork. This is the thing that he’s placed all his hopes on. If this doesn’t show even the slightest hints of something, then they’re at a dead end once again.

Bruce first skims through the document, eyes scanning each line methodically. There is something… it’s the same discrepancy that they found in Dick’s bloodstream. The software has a list of suggestions explaining it, but those are all based off of known formulae. For all they know, this could be entirely new. Bruce refuses to sacrifice any lives before they find the correct one.

There’s a ringing over the intercom on his office phone. Bruce holds down the button.

“Yes?” he says.

“Master Bruce,” Alfred says from the other end. “Need I remind you that breakfast was five minutes ago?”

Bruce’s stomach does a flip to remind him exactly how it feels about food, but Bruce tells Alfred he’ll be there anyway. Regular meals and a decent amount of sleep are both things he’s agreed to maintain at all (most) costs. Food wasn’t too difficult, just a matter of drinking less caffeine and eating more solid foods. Sleep is another matter altogether.

So instead of skipping breakfast like he would’ve done before, Bruce puts his computer to hibernate and heads towards the kitchen.

He’s just in time to see the tail end of Tim’s jacket as he flits out of the room, and something akin to a stone sinks into Bruce’s gut. It’s not unexpected, though. Of course Tim would be avoiding him, after what he’s done. He has no reason not to.

“Master Tim was running late,” Alfred says, jerking Bruce’s gaze away from the door. “He says he’ll only be at the office until Master Jason relays some findings to him, though.”

Bruce nods, sitting on a barstool. “Did he say what Jason was looking for?” Alfred the Cat lifts his head from where he’s lying on the windowsill, and Bruce absentmindedly scritches his tiny head. The tiny feline begins purring at a volume that rivals their ricecooker.

“He’s chasing up the woman Master Damian followed last night,” Alfred tells him. He sets down an omelette in front of Bruce, pouring hot coffee into a mug that’s half the size it was a year ago. “Apparently, they believe she has also regressed in age.”

Bruce’s head jerks up at the sound of that. “What? And they didn’t tell me?”

“They probably wished to confirm their suspicions before doing so.”

Bruce can’t deny the logic in that, but his skin itches to be following up on this woman as well. But no – he trusts his team. He trusts them to do this as well as he could’ve, or even better. It’s more efficient to work on the antidote based on the blood sample, though the process could be quickened with a few samples from this woman.

Bruce fishes out his night phone, and quickly makes a call to Lennon Doyle, the drug dealer. “Doyle,” he says in his normal voice, knowing that the phone will automatically output it in Batman’s growl.

There’s shaky breathing from the other end. “One sec'nd,” Doyle says in a fluctuating voice. Bruce waits impatiently, hearing the sound of a door squeak open and then close. “Batman. I haven’ done anything, I swear, ya have t—”

“This isn’t about that,” Bruce interrupts. “I need to know whether there are any other names. Other people you’ve been told to give the special drug – this Aqua – to.”

“No,” Doyle responds. “No one. They don’t give out a list o' names. It’s just the one ev'ry time. And that was my last job, I told you, so they won’ be contacting me no more.” His voice has developed a pleading note to it.

“Do you know any other dealers? Anything about them at all?” Bruce isn’t naïve enough to think that there aren’t many, many more people in the lower levels of this operation.

“Uh…” Doyle mumbles a few more um’s and ah’s. “Quentin. He lives five blocks from me. It’s against protocol to know the others, but last month there was a mix-up or somethin', and all his supplies were delivered t' me.”

“What’s his address?”

Doyle rattles off an answer, before finally saying, in a hesitant voice, “Is that all?”

Bruce hangs up.

He shoves the rest of the omelette into his mouth and grabs the coffee, placing his plate quickly into the dishwasher. He needs to drop by this address, before the day properly begins.

 


 

Bruce hates to admit it, but he thinks his displays of threat this morning may have been a bit over the top, a way of expunging the tensions of the morning. It doesn’t matter, though. Soon, the analyses of the drug he’s just gotten his hands on will come through. If Tim and Damian’s hunch is correct, then they might have a solution to this before the day ends.

And even if it isn’t, then at least they have a sample of Aqua.

Bruce isn’t as careful heading to his office as he was when he got home the first time. His head is too busy putting together an internal to-do list, to find some way of casually prompting Jason to hurry it up with his information.

He’s only just turned the corner to head down the final hallway to his destination when Dick emerges out of a door to the left. Both of them jerk to a halt, and Bruce doesn’t know whether Dick’s heart has begun racing like his just has, but he can tell by the look on his son’s face that he wasn’t expecting Bruce to be here, and it isn’t a pleasant surprise to be running into him.

Not that Bruce would expect otherwise.

His mouth is dry when he opens it to speak, because Dick is still standing there like a deer caught in the headlights, like he’s just been found somewhere he wasn’t meant to be, and Bruce is ready to do anything to wipe that look off his face because it’s his fault it’s there and he hates it—

“Dick,” he says, effectively halting the useless track his thoughts have been running in. “You’ve been down for breakfast?”

Dick’s face is as neutral as it’s ever been, and his voice is cautious when he responds. “Yeah,” he says. “With Damian.”

Bruce nods, as though this is the imparting of some incredibly valuable information. “We might’ve cracked the case of your age regression,” he offers, grasping at straws for something to say.

“Yeah?” There’s an actual sliver of emotion in Dick’s voice now, instead of that blankness that he’s been addressing Bruce with since he woke up.

Bruce nods. “You shouldn’t be standing for so long, with that leg.” He jerks his head a little. “My office?”

Dick hesitates only for a moment, but in the end he nods. Bruce leads the way, walking a tad slower so there’s no need for Dick to speed up or risk falling behind. This little acquiesce is something so basic, so inherently built-in to some people, and yet Bruce had only realised a little while ago that he tends to walk off and leave others to follow.

He tries not to do that, anymore.

He opens the door to his office, and sunlight immediately streams out of the room and into the hallway, brightening it with natural light. His office is cosy and warm now, on chilly mornings, but in summertime, and during sunny afternoons, it’s an absolute oven.

Bruce doesn’t lead them to the desk and the chair by the corner. That would feel much too formal, and he doesn’t want Dick to feel uncomfortable – or rather, increase the discomfort he’s obviously feeling. Instead, he sits in one of the armchairs around the coffee table laden with stacks of paper and reports, and Dick warily takes the one closest to the door.

He’s left the door ajar so Dick won’t feel trapped in there, but he doesn’t know how well that’s working, considering the way Dick’s gaze flits around the space before focusing purely on where he’s placing his feet.

“We think it’s related to a new drug circulating Gotham,” Bruce begins, going right to the point. “I have a sample downstairs now being analysed for its chemical makeup, so we can begin testing it. Tim and Damian have Jason tracking down a lead in the city. They think a woman Damian was following last night who had taken this drug has regressed in age.”

Dick blinks a little, and he leans back into his seat. “That’s… different,” he says. “Have you tracked down the dealers? Who wants to change their adult paying customers into late teens?”

Bruce hums in agreement. “There’s obviously a different endgame that we haven’t uncovered yet. The dealers I’ve questioned have both been too far down the ladder to know much. We have a few leads we can follow, but they’re thin at best.”

Dick squirms in his seat a little. His fingers are fiddling with a slight bump on the hooked part of his cane. “So you can work out an antidote to change me back?”

There’s something else beneath this that he isn’t asking, but Bruce answers the question as honestly as he can. “We’re going to do our best,” he says.

“And if it doesn’t work? What then?” Dick’s eyes don’t look at Bruce; they go through him, probably fixed on the far wall.

Bruce shrugs a little. “Then we’ll work with what we can,” he says. Gentle voice. Calm hands. No sudden movements. “Dick…”

“So, what,” Dick interrupts him, almost as if he didn’t hear Bruce, "I’ll just live here, in the Manor? Tell the world I’ve had some magic facelift and that’s why I look younger? And an accident at the same time and so I forgot the last, like, seven years?”

“Dick,” Bruce says slowly, after he’s given Dick a chance to speak. Don’t speak over them. Don’t invalidate any of their concerns. “If you really are here, aged as you are now, you’re—”

No, he can’t say that without first addressing why Dick would feel like he isn’t welcome. Saying something like that, about Dick being welcome at the Manor, about him always having a place in this family and in Bruce’s life, will likely only tip Dick off that Bruce is completely aware of his past actions. And that would beg the question of why Bruce hasn’t brought it up, why he hasn’t apologised.

Bruce takes in a breath, and begins again. “I need to apologise to you.” Simple. No complicated words. Blunt and to the point. “I…” he wishes he’d practised this, that he’d figured out the best way to say this so the extent of his feelings would be clear, but it’s too late now, “I remember. That day, when you came to see me after you got back from the mission.”

If Dick had been looking skittish before, it’s nothing compared to how his hands clench around the handle of the cane, the way his body goes completely still. His chest barely rises and falls; Bruce wonders distantly whether he’s holding his breath or if it’s just shallow enough to not be noticeable.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, “for everything I said. I didn’t—my words and actions were rash. I should never have said any of that to you. I should never have,” his throat closes up for a moment but he swallows around it, plowing through, “laid a hand on you.” There’s an audible intake of breath, but Bruce is unsure whether it’s from himself or Dick, because Dick is still a perfect statue seated on the leather couch. “You’re always welcome in this house. In this family. I have no right to dictate your place in it. That’s what I was trying to say, before. That if you’re stuck here permanently, you don’t have to w—”

There’s no warning before Dick gets up and leaves the room. He barely uses the stick in his hand, striding purposefully out the door. Bruce barely has enough time to process this before there’s another figure rushing in.

“Ja—” Bruce doesn’t get the word entirely out before he’s being yanked up and thrust up against the wall.

“I can’t fucking believe you.” Jason’s voice is furious, his eyes flashing green. “He told me you’d kicked him out of the house, but to hit him?” Jason’s voice rises the longer he speaks. “How the hell can you stand being so self-righteous and parading around taking down petty criminals and going after abusers when you’re the same goddamn thing? I’ve given him so much shit for being a faithful lapdog, but no fucking wonder. You’ve beaten it into him.”

Bruce doesn’t even try to fight against his grip, or say anything, because he knows that everything Jason is saying about him is right. After a moment, when Jason is clearly still holding him in place waiting for an answer, he says, “I’m trying to fix things.”

Jason lets out an incredulous laugh. “Yeah,” he says. “Fixing. That’s all you ever do, isn’t it? Yell at us, do whatever the fuck you want, and then when everything’s settled again you come in with some rambling apology that’s mostly just a stupid explanation about how you were actually right, and then some shit about how much family means to you, and then you expect everyone to forgive and forget.” He makes a disgusted noise, letting go of Bruce and moving back, like he doesn’t even want to be touching him. “I don't care what your fucking intentions are. If you ever touch Tim or Damian or Cass, or Dick again, I will come for you.”

Bruce doesn’t try to say that he would never, that the incident with Dick had been a one-off thing, because what reason does Jason have anymore to believe his word? He’s broken any sort of trust he ever had with his kids.

But he can’t just say nothing. “I won’t. I promise you, I will never touch them – you, any of you – in a harmful way.” He runs a hand through his hair, thoroughly drained. “You have no reason to believe I mean it, or that I’ll keep my word, but…” What can he say, to show the weight that this has on him? “I will spend the rest of my life making it up to Dick, even if he never forgives me—”

Jason is suddenly shaking his head. “No, see, that’s another thing. Dick would forgive you anything you do to him. If you go to him the second he’s back to normal and open your fucking heart up and apologise, he’ll lap it up and believe you and you’ll think everything’s fine and then never bring it up ever again, and then maybe a month or a damn week down the track, we’ll hit our next big crisis and you’ll fall back into old habits again. It’s like I said. You do the same goddamn thing over and over again and we just keep forgiving you because,” he waves his hands around, movements jerking and jaw clenched, “maybe because we’re all desperate for parental figures or something else absolutely pathetic. But you,” he shakes his head, turning away a little so Bruce can’t see his face anymore, “you keep dragging us all here and abusing that power that you gave yourself when you decided to take us all in. Someone should’ve stopped it years ago, but now I’m stopping it.”

He’s breathing a little hard now, and has to stop for a moment to calm himself.

“Like I said,” he says, voice suddenly as even as it’s ever been, “if you don’t clean up your act, I’ll make sure you can never hurt them again. Whether that means taking them away, or taking you away.” And then Jason turns to leave, but when he gets to the door, he stops and says, over his shoulder, “The lead checked out, by the way. Tim’s downstairs working on a way to age Dick back up.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Bruce says, but Jason leaves before he can catch Bruce’s words.

Bruce sinks back down on the chair. He’s never felt nearly as devoid of absolutely everything as he does right now. Because the only reason Jason’s words struck so deeply is because he’s right. Bruce falls back into the rut he’s created for himself when he was younger and more prone to emotional outbursts and displays of headless anger.

He can think of all the times he let rage cloud every other emotion he felt with just Dick alone, and the number racks up to far more than it ever should've been allowed to get to. All the times he yelled at him after Dick had been hurt on a mission or patrol, because of the fear welling up in his gut. The times he avoided the boy’s bedside when he was injured or sick because he couldn’t bear to feel helplessness and it was easier to give in to the anger and go out into the night with his cowl.

Bruce remembers the extremes, with Dick, the times he’s fired him after various injuries because he couldn’t bear to deal with it and wanted Dick as far removed from him as possible so Bruce and Batman’s lifestyle didn’t hurt him. And then he thinks about incredibly thoughtless that had been, how he’d been so focused on his own emotions and needs that he never once thought about Dick’s beyond the physical ailments.

Part of Bruce doesn’t even want to send Dick back; this is a chance to fix things. Dick at nineteen could just stay here and Bruce could raise him all over again and it would be better this time, because Bruce is better this time, or trying to be at least—

Even before that train of thought leaves the station, Bruce already knows that there’s absolutely no way he could ever do that. For starters, there’s no way the rest of his kids or Dick’s friends would ever let him do that, just because he feels guilty at the way he’s treated Dick. The Dick who belongs to this time deserves to have a life; Bruce has never been as proud of anyone as he’s proud of him. He can’t – he won’t – take away agency like that and force Dick to grow up all over again and diminish all the things Dick has achieved, all the relationships he’s built, the life he’s had.

Bruce finally takes a breath and looks up at the clock. His face feels itchy and raw, like one does after a long crying session, but his eyes are dry and empty. The relief of tears aren’t a luxury he will allow himself, not for this.

The clock shows that he’s been sitting here in silence for fifteen minutes. Bruce pushes himself up and heads down to the Cave to see what Tim’s concocted so far.

Tim, Jason, and Cass are in the middle of a heated discussion when Bruce enters the Cave. All three of them glance up in unison when they hear his footsteps, glancing at each other before apparently coming to a decision.

Jason walks to the back of the Cave and Tim coughs awkwardly before he starts fiddling with something on the benchtop; Cass has evidently been chosen as the spokesperson for the three of them.

“The analyses are almost ready,” she says, “but we need medical assistance on alert.”

Bruce frowns. “Why?”

The rest of them still sometimes have tics that’ll come out when they’re in a place they trust to be somewhat more open, but Cass’ have all been manufactured, little mannerisms to put people at ease and throw professionals off-guard. It’s when they don’t show up that Bruce knows something's up.

“It’s probably unlikely we’ll get him at the exact moment he turned back,” she tells him, “but there’s a chance he’ll be heavily injured if we do.”

Tim speaks before Bruce can question farther. “Bruce,” he calls. “Take a look at this.”

Bruce carefully files the little tidbit in the back of his mind and focuses on what Tim's showing him.

 


 

Dick hadn’t really had a destination in mind when he took off, but now he finds himself in the attic, high in the rafters and shaking like a leaf. He doesn’t understand it; he was fine after the initial shock had worn off, and he was fine when he’d gone back to the Titans, and he hadn’t even really had nightmares or anything, beyond seeing Jason die over and over. What is it about this that made him react like that?

He regrets telling Tim to leave him alone after the kid had followed him when he'd run out of Bruce's office, because he would love for something to distract him, and he’s also a little bit stuck up here because his leg really hadn’t taken kindly to the way he’d bolted and climbed to get to this particular spot.

Dick cautiously swings himself down from the beam and onto a more comfortable junction, landing on his good leg with the ease of constant practise. He can already feel the utter humiliation of the way he’d reacted to Bruce’s words, but he can’t even figure out a way to apologise to Bruce, because every time he thinks back to their talk, his mind seizes up.

He can’t even process Bruce’s words, let alone think of a way to address them. Now all that’s left is hoping that they’ll find a way to put him back to the time he’s supposed to be in so he doesn't have to deal with this newfound problem.

The sun is high in the sky and Dick is beginning to swelter from the heat when there’s a little knock on the trap door.

Tim’s head pokes up a moment later. “Hey,” he says awkwardly. “I know you said you wanted to be—”

“No, it’s fine,” Dick says, a smile automatically plastering itself onto his face. “Were you after something?”

“Yeah, uh,” Tim crawls up fully into the attic, and Dick drops down onto the dusty hardwood flooring to meet him halfway, “you, actually. We’ve found an antidote.”

Dick’s eyebrows rise before he can stop them. Maybe something's finally going right for once. “The lead came through?” he asks. Now that he thinks about it, that’s probably why Jason was here.

Tim nods. “Yup,” he says. “Her bloodwork still had trace amounts of the drug in it, which we know now that we actually have the drug as well.”

Dick follows him down the foldable staircase, sliding down to make the process faster. “So I can just… be changed back right now?”

“As soon as you want,” Tim tells him. “There’s a little bit of prepping we have to do to make sure your blood pressure and oxygen levels are stable, but that should be over pretty quick.”

Dick finally asks the question he’s half dreading an answer to. “Will I remember?”

Tim’s mouth twists sympathetically. “No,” he says simply. “This isn’t like magic where it’s your past self in this time. Technically, your now body is still here somewhere, and your current brain; it’s just sort of… not here?”

Dick finds himself smiling genuinely at the terrible explanation. “So I won’t remember,” he summarises, “but the version of me coming back probably will?”

Tim nods. “Yeah,” he says.

“Great.” His future self can have all the problems he’s been thrust into. Dick’s just glad to be heading back into a time where he at least knows where he stands with the people in his life - or not in it. “I won’t have to worry about any of this for another like seven years.”

Tim huffs. “That doesn’t sound right, but none of us know enough about this to refute it.”

“How long till I meet you?” Dick asks, curious. The way Tim’s acting around him is sending strange signals; he’s simultaneously filling the role of the younger brother, but also someone of equal standing with Dick, much like Jason now, or Barbara perhaps.

Tim thinks about it for a moment. “Like another few months?” he says.

They’re at the clock now. Walking through the entrance immediately makes Dick shiver, but he can’t pinpoint whether it’s because of memories or the actual temperature difference – because no amount of heating systems will truly work down here and it’s a fact of life at this point.

Tim’s telling him about how he became Robin, and despite it all, Dick finds himself laughing. “Wait wait wait,” he says, the incredulity of all the coincidences hitting him. “You mean to tell me baby you figured it out?”

Tim scowls. “I wasn’t a baby,” he mutters.

“You’ve got some brain in there, kiddo,” Dick says, despite the fact that Tim is around the same age as him right now. “And guts, to come to the Manor and tell me and Alfie—” He stops in his tracks.

“Dick?” Tim asks, turning around.

“I, uh,” Dick wets his lips, “Damian’s in school, and I get the feeling he doesn’t really like me, so it’s probably fine if I don’t say goodbye to him…” His voice trails off, unable to verbalise his thoughts.

“Alfred and everyone else is down there,” Tim reassures him, eyes seeing through the lack of words.

Dick lets out a breath and nods. Then he asks one final question.

"When does Jason come back?"

Tim doesn't look at him now. "In about three year's time, I'm pretty sure," he says.

Dick swallows, but it's alright. Most people don't get their loved ones back at all. Dick can wait three years.

 


 

Dick feels wrong in his skin. That’s the first thing he notices when he becomes aware. He’s been in the Cave medbay enough to recognise the feeling of the linen on the cots, but he doesn’t understand…

The last thing he remembers is absolute exhaustion, letting Catalina lead him into the shower because he had blood in his hair, her sickly-sweet croon as she pushed him into the bed. He doesn’t know if they had sex, or if he’d just passed out the moment his head had hit the pillow. He thinks that now knowing for sure should be more concerning than it currently feels, but his mind is a numb haze.

“Dick?” That’s Tim’s voice, but it's... deeper?

Dick pries his eyes open. Someone had the foresight to move the overhead light so it isn’t glaring down into his eyes, but even so, it takes him a little while to fully blink away the blurriness.

“Tim?” he says, focusing on the figure standing by his bed that looks like Tim, but is surely, surely not, because the Tim he knows still has baby fat in his cheeks that makes them so fun to squeeze, and his hair is much shorter.

“Yeah, it’s me, Dick.” Tim squeezes his hand, but his eyes don’t reflect his tenuous smile.

“Dick.” Bruce’s voice comes from the other side, and Dick turns his head around to face him. He almost reels back at the tired lines around Bruce’s face, the grey in his temples. He hasn’t shaved this morning, either. “How do you feel?”

“Fine?” Dick’s voice is slightly more bewildered than it should’ve been.

“What year is it?” Bruce asks him.

Oh no. Dick can already see where this is going, and he curses absolutely everything in the universe that decided to pile time travel onto him atop all the other crap that has just happened.

“[Year],” he says, already knowing even before he sees their faces fall a little that he’s in the wrong time. “Time travel? Alternate universe?” He’s honestly too tired to even think about flipping off the universe.

“You’re about four years into the future,” Bruce clarifies. “But technically, this is more age regression than it is time travel.”

Chapter Text

Tim sits at the Batcomputer staring blankly at the screen. In front of him is everything they have on The Company, which isn’t very much at all.

The main problem is, he isn’t sure why he’s got these files open; the case was closed after they got Dick back. There’s no evidence tying The Company to this drug business and Dick’s predicament. Tim can barely even convince himself that he’s doing this for a reason rather than a way to avoid dealing with Bruce, let alone lay out his non-existent theories to another person.

It’s about four in the morning when he glances at the clock. Tonight is Batman’s night off – the night they’ve made him take off every fortnight – hence Tim being down in the chilly Cave.

He’s pretty sure Dick would also be down here with him, had it not been for Alfred drugging his food so he’d finally fall asleep. Normally, Tim would protest – none of them like their food being drugged, and it’s no way to convince Dick that they’re friendies, but Dick’s been here for about two days now and he hasn’t slept a wink.

Tim wishes he could say that he anticipated Dick's behaviour being like this – whatever this is – but he can’t, and he hates it. He knew Dick when he was this age. He was sixteen and he was Robin, not a little kid with the excuse of ignorance. He just… never noticed, apparently, that Dick was going through stuff beyond trying to take down Blockbuster.

Dick being in Bludhaven is no excuse, because Dick was there any time Tim needed him – and he still is – and Tim somehow manages to botch up his attempts to reciprocate it every time.

Tim lets out a low growl of frustration and scrubs a hand over his face, blinking bleary eyes at the screen and trying to take in the information all over again. It won’t do to focus on what he could’ve done; he’ll just have to try better and hope Dick forgives him for not being the brother Dick has been to him.

Tim stiffens when he senses someone watching him. Spinning around, he only relaxes when he sees Cass in a hoodie that’s much too glittery to look like she bought it intentionally for herself, drinking a green coloured smoothie.

“Where’s mine?” he asks, voice hoarse from disuse. Maybe he should go to bed. It’s a bit childish for a twenty-year-old’s fuck you to his parent be staying up late.

But he’s not doing this to be rebellious, Tim reasons. He’s doing it because he needs to fix Dick and get to the bottom of this situation. And after what Bruce did, Tim can’t really say he deserves parental authority anymore.

“Get it yourself,” Cass says, sitting on the armrest of the chair.

She wriggles her feet until Tim relents and lifts a leg, wrinkling his nose as the cold of her toes hits him through the trackpants he’s got on.

“You ever thought about investing in socks,” he mutters, doing his best to squash her feet with his weight.

“Socks are bad for blood circulation.” Cass sucks the smoothie through the straw with an obnoxious sound, made worse by the echoing in the Cave.

“That’s a myth,” Tim tells her, “for menaces like you.”

Cass simply tilts her feet a little, away from the warmer parts to the still-freezing skin, and Tim lets out an aggravated sigh. They sit in silence for a moment, until Cass’ smoothie is finished.

“The Company?” she says, tilting her head a little.

It’s not that Cass is going to be sceptical, because her skills are like hunches for everyone else. She knows that Tim's hunches are often just his subconscious putting together pieces before the rest of his brain. But there’s something about telling someone else when his investigation – if it can even be called that – is still in such an early stage, that he squirms a little as he speaks.

“It feels like they’re still out there, y’know?” he says. “Like it isn’t really over.” And then his eyes narrow as he brings up yet again the question that he knows he, Bruce, and Damian have all been asking since the rescue mission. “We all know there’s something you guys are keeping from us, for instance.”

Cass meets his gaze head on. “There’s nothing that you need to know about,” she says simply. “Nothing that’ll help you with this, anyway.”

“What could possibly be so bad that you two won’t tell us?” Tim demands, turning in the chair a little. “You know we won’t judge you for any decisions you had to make. We were all a little off our game.”

None of them can really stay a hundred percent focused when a family member is the one in need of a rescue. Maybe it's because they so rarely had to be rescued. Tim can count on one hand the number of times he’s had to go in to extract Dick from a situation he wasn’t already halfway through escaping from himself.

Cass is a husk when Tim continues to look at her. “We judge ourselves,” she says. And then she silently slips off the chair and walks into the darkness of the Cave.

Tim exhales loudly, mentally punching himself for being so blunt. He’ll have to be better the next time he gets Jason alone.

Another thirty minutes pass and Tim gives up getting any more information out of the reports. He stands with a stretch, spine cracking wildly as he bends backwards. It’s about five in the morning now; no one should be up yet (or still).

After being up for almost a day and a half, Tim knows he’ll likely crash for a solid ten hours the next time his head hits the pillow, and he has work for the company that needs to be done today, or there’ll be a whole line of people out for his head.

Instead of heading to his bed, Tim makes a detour to his favourite sitting room. It’s directly above the kitchen frequented by Alfred, and Tim had found out that the lower floor is accessible by an out of commission dumbwaiter a few years ago when he first moved into the Manor.

He thinks Alfred’s caught on to the fact that he uses it, because it’s been suspiciously free of the cobwebs and dust it’d been filled to the brim with since the first few times he used it.

Tim sets down his work laptop onto the coffee table and grabs a blanket from where it’s draped over the back of one of the couches. It’s warm from the sun, and the last traces of shivers from being in the Cave leave him as he settles on the carpeted floor, using the couch as a backrest.

It only takes Tim a few minutes to fill his flask up with coffee; when he returns, Dick’s sitting on the couch and peering at the laptop screen with apathetic eyes.  

Tim would’ve fallen back down the hole he’d just climbed up had his nights these last five or six years not been filled with unexpected appearances like this.

“Hey,” he says, casually nudging the entrance shut.

Dick looks up at him and smiles a little. Tim still squirms at the way Dick looks at him ever since he turned this age. “Hey, Timbo,” Dick says in that same easy way he doesn’t say it anymore. “Have I thanked you yet for taking one for the team and working at WE?”

Tim snorts. “I don’t think so, but you should,” he tells Dick.

"I’ll leave a note for future me,” Dick says. He tucks his legs underneath him, settling against the arm of the couch.

Tim suddenly realises that for Dick, Tim’s father isn’t dead yet, and Tim has yet to be adopted. He wonders just how Dick’s making sense of all this in his head – unless his memories from his previous age regression are more prominent than any of them have assumed it is.

The fact that Dick hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about details doesn’t help.

“Aren’t you meant to be asleep?” Tim asks, setting himself back into his cocoon.

Dick absentmindedly starts fiddling with Tim’s hair, judt like Tim knew he would. “You’re only confirming that Alfred put something in my food,” he says. “So is your hair intentionally like a mop, or did you just forget to cut it?”

Tim bats at Dick’s hand half-heartedly. “Shut up. It looks better when I’ve actually combed it.”

“Ooh,” Dick sings, “combing. Is this like that phase you had where you spiked it up and wore glasses?”

Tim spins around now. “How’d you know about that?” And then his eyebrows rise. “Alfred?”

Dick’s smile is wide, but still so very brittle. Tim will take whatever he can get, even if his indignation is very, very real. “Yup,” he says. “I think Bruce asked for updates every once in a while, so Alfie would include pictures. You looked really cute.”

Tim braces himself for a cheek pinch that never comes, and now Dick looks the tiniest bit nostalgic. Tim doesn’t know what his fifteen-year-old self would’ve said in this situation, and he wishes he did, just to make Dick feel a little more at home here.

It’s strange, because this Dick is only a couple years older than him, about the same age as Jason is. Tim has always thought of Dick as… older? Wiser, maybe? He knows he’s always seen Dick through hero goggles that only really went away after Bruce got lost in time, but he didn’t realise until now that it never really went away. Maybe that’s why this discovery about Bruce and Dick is hitting him so differently.

“What’re you working on?” Dick prompts. He’s absentmindedly braiding Tim’s hair, but his hands are clumsy and shaking slightly, probably from lack of sleep.

Tim tries to see past the deep shadows under Dick’s eyes, how much more visible his already rather prominent cheekbones are. “Uh,” he says, rubbing at his eyes as he looks back at the screen. “Reports. I need to look over them before sending them in. They've gotta be in by noon today.”

Dick glances at the clock. “And when was the last time you slept?” he asks.

“I napped yesterday,” Tim starts to say, before his mind screeches to a halt. “Hey. I’m twenty now. You can’t make me go to bed anymore.”

Dick huffs a laugh. “Yeah,” he says. “And yet, somehow, you’re still the same height.”

Tim spins around and lunges at Dick, and suddenly they’re grappling on the carpet behind the couch.

 


 

Tim falls asleep almost immediately after their wrestling match, which is exactly what Dick has been counting on. This version of his tiny brother is strange and closed off and different in all the ways Dick supposes are inevitable, given the relentless passage of time, but he somehow still acts around Dick almost the same way.

The weirder part is that even Tim seems to be surprised by his own reactions, like he's unconsciously falling into an ingrained mould without even realising. Dick doesn’t want to think about how their relationship will change in the future, doesn’t want to think about the consequences of his actions and how they’ll impact Tim eventually. Does Tim even know all the details? Has he ever read through the reports that probably exist?

Dick hopes not, and then feels ashamed at wanting to hide his transgressions from Tim. He needs to face up to them, to be held accountable.

He listens to Tim’s even breathing as he burrows into the couch. He gently lays the blanket that had been on the floor over Tim’s sleeping form.

And then he gets to work on the open laptop.

He would’ve gone to the Cave had it not been filled beyond what Dick had thought of as its maximum capacity, with people coming and going. Dick had wanted to sneak in after Tim had come up, but then Bruce had gone downstairs too, so now he had to resort to hoping that Tim’s laptop had access to their network.

Dick’s glad it hadn’t gone into hibernation. He glances over the giant to-do list Tim’s got on a sticky note on his desktop background, wincing slightly at the mess of work he’s piling himself with. He doesn’t want to mess with Tim’s work at the company, but if he has time after he’s found everything he’s looking for, he’ll help out a little.

Dick finds himself distantly thinking about whether Tim ever got around to university. He can’t help wincing internally at the thought of schoolwork on top of working at the company and Tim’s night gig. He wonders whether Bruce took it better this time than he did when Dick had dropped out.

Dick unscrews the flask of coffee Tim’s brought up with him from the dumbwaiter shaft. He sniffs it first, to see if there’s a noticeable scent of anything additional. Then he pours a little into his mouth and holds it there to test it with his taste buds. Lastly, he holds his nose closed and swallows the tiniest amount.

It passes the three tests, but he knows Alfred’s always messing with what sedatives he’s using. Not all of them are as easily detectable as others. He doesn’t know how to verbalise it, even to himself, but the thought of being drugged to sleep makes him want to throw up.

Dick opens up the virtual environment their network operates in. When it asks for user identification, he purses his lips and shifts up onto his knees. Fishing Tim’s hand out of the blankets without waking him is a feat unto itself, but Dick manages it, getting his pointer finger to the fingerprint scanner and swiping it a little.

Tim grumbles in his sleep, and Dick resists the instinct to soothe him with touch. If there’s one thing he’s learnt in the last few years since Tim became Robin, it’s that he’s really not used to things like fingers running through his hair, hands placing sheets over him. The only reason Tim hadn’t woken when Dick had placed the blanket over him is because he’s been up for so long.

Dick settles back against the footrest of the couch, tapping a few keys to access the reports from the year he’s from. He has to know what he told Bruce. Because there’s absolutely no way Bruce knows everything, no way he’s allowing Dick to stay.

Maybe Dick did a few years. Maybe he actually went ahead with the plan to turn himself in...

Dick’s eyebrows shoot upwards at the pages of documentation in Bruce’s painfully detailed prose. Gang wars, the assumed death of what had apparently been a fourth Robin…

Wasn’t Stephanie Tim’s girlfriend?

He skims through the reports, looking for his own amongst all the rest. They’re all written days after the actual events, but he apparently wrote up a couple while he was laid up with a few bullet wounds through a leg.

Two hours later, Dick exits out of the environment and reopens all the windows Tim had up. He doesn’t know what to think.

Catalina dies in prison a few years after. He doesn’t know why he went looking through prison records and find her, and he doesn’t know how he feels now that he knows. Mostly, it’s a whole lot of nothing.

Dick spends the next half hour or so finishing up that last document Tim had said was really important and needs to be in by noon, despite it being a Sunday. Fishing through his emails, Dick sends it to his secretary, because Tim now has a secretary.

The thought of being legally tied to Tim isn’t nearly as weird as it probably should be, because he’s considered the kid to be his brother ever since he became Robin, but he hates that Tim had to lose all his parental figures for it to happen. 

Well. He doesn’t particularly care what happens to Jack Drake, but he hates that Tim had to go through that. And Dana, too. From the stories Tim had told him, Dana had seemed nice. 

Dick can barely comprehend the amount of loss that Tim had had to go through in that tiny period.

Dick leaves the sitting room as silently as he’d entered it, going back to wandering the halls. He knows that lunch on weekends are a family deal, when they’re in the Manor. He assumes that that’s continued, what with the massive expansion of the family. The last thing he feels like doing now is spending hours before five or six others, trying to calm the waves swirling within him.

He’s nauseas just thinking about it.

Dick heads into his room, the room he’s barely been in since he woke up in the Cave, and fishes out the emergency protein bars from the hidden panel in his closet. There’s a guarantee in these, at least, that they won’t contain anything extra.

Part of Dick knows that Alfred will understand if he asks him to not drug his food, but he can’t quite bring himself to make that request, either, because what if Alfred doesn’t? And that lingering doubt in his mind is eating away at him; he know Alfred isn’t like that, and he feels terrible at the thought of suspecting Alfred of all people doing something so underhanded, but he can’t get rid of the niggling fear in the pit of his stomach.

Dick apparently falls asleep in the closet, because the next thing he knows when he opens his eyes is that there’s a shadow in the doorway blocking his exit. Dick’s shoulders hit the far wall when he slides backwards, before realising that it’s Bruce.

He would’ve rather it be anyone but Bruce, but he supposes he can’t avoid him in here.

Bruce had backed up when he’d seen that Dick had woken up. Now, he says, “Dick,” in a soft voice, softer than it’s been in years, and Dick’s hit with the urge to burrow his face in Batman’s cape and let him take care of this mess he’s gotten himself into.

But there is no mess now, is there? He’s in the future, where he's already taken care of the mess, for better or for worse, so why is he still lingering on that? He needs to move on, to focus on helping these guys find a way to fix this situation. They can’t have him not at full capacity, and apparently Dick can’t really deal with any sort of extra attention on him right now.

“Didn’t mean to fall asleep in there,” Dick says with forced levity.

He makes himself shuffle forward a little, so his legs stick out of the closet. The protein bar in his hand is half eaten; he folds the wrapper over the bar and tucks it into his pocket.

“I’m sorry I woke you,” Bruce says, and his voice practically drips sincerity. It’s a bit jarring, if Dick is being honest. “I came here to see if you wanted to have morning tea.” Normally, Dick would assume it’s a demand, an order, but the way Bruce says it makes that assumption fall away.

And now Dick’s confused, on top of tired to the point of seeing black dots every time his head changes altitude even slightly. He wishes Bruce had chosen a different time to be weird.

“Uh,” he says. “I’m not really that hungry.”

Bruce’s mouth turns down in the corners a little. “You’ve barely eaten since you’ve woken up,” he says. “We have cereal now. Alfred’s become a lot more lenient in the last few years.”

Dick doesn’t really feel like cereal, either, not when he's been having it for these last few months because it's an easy meal to prepare and stock. But he can never say no to Bruce, especially not when he’s asking like this. “Okay,” he says finally.

He waits a little until the world rights itself, and waves a hand dismissively at Bruce’s halting gestures to assist his balance. They make their way down to the kitchen, Dick trailing a little bit behind Bruce.

It’s surreal to be in the Manor again, after the events of the last… few days? It’s been a week, at most, but the events have blurred in Dick’s mind and now not even his innate sense of time can make sense of it.

Bruce settles in his usual seat at the breakfast bar. It’s strange, the customs that last.

“No sedatives in anything,” he promises. “But your body needs sleep.”

Apparently he and Alfred have decided that Dick currently needs food more than he needs sleep, though. Dick’s fine with that, because he can feel his stomach grumble quietly. When was the last time he had a proper meal? Catalina had ordered room service, had even tried feeding him morsels when he’d stared at the food blankly, but he’d soon thrown up everything into the toilet bowl.

“Never thought I’d see Alfred let something so sugary be in the Manor,” Dick comments, looking at the box of Lucky Charms.

He settles down on the barstool closest to him, a few seats down from Bruce. His normal seat is the second one from the outside, but it feels wrong to sit there.

“I think he got more lenient when you hit your mid-twenties,” Bruce tells him. "And no one else will go near that atrocity." He’s got a muffin on a plate in front of him, and is working into it with a knife and fork. “Tea?”

Dick nods. He can already smell the peppermint coming from the teapot. While Bruce pours, he fixes himself a bowl of Lucky Charms. He’d never had this particular cereal growing up, or even as an adult – the first time he’d tried it was at Wally’s house. Alfred probably wanted to get more sugar into his system, or at the very least, appeal to his sweet tooth.

Bruce set down the teapot beside Dick, so it wouldn’t go cold while he was eating. He sipped from his own as he continued to eat his muffin.

“Can I come on patrol tonight?” Dick asks.

Bruce pauses for a moment, then turns to face him. “If you continue eating normally before then, and get more sleep,” he says with some reluctance.

It’s almost like magic how Dick’s appetite partially reappears the moment Bruce says this. He nods and digs into the bowl with more gusto, even having it in himself to finish a second bowl.

 


 

Alfred had to take in Dick’s costume for it to fit well enough. Part of Dick wishes he hadn’t managed to finish it in time, so Dick would’ve had to don another outfit for tonight, at least.

Part of him is angry, because this is his costume, that he created and designed all for himself, and that he can’t let Blockbuster (and Tarantula, his mind supplies in an unwanted whisper) take it from him. He gave them a lot, more than he ever wanted to, but he’ll be damned if they take this, too.

But unfortunately, the anger dissolves within an instant because Dick’s too tired to hold onto it and use it to fuel him; it’s never been in him to sustain something like that. And in the absence of the anger, there’s that same numb anxiety that’s been haunting him.

Batman and Robin get into the Batmobile – and wasn’t that a surprise, to find that there was another Robin now, and Bruce’s biological child, no less. Dick had thought that the kid’s scowl couldn’t get any deeper, until he’d opted to patrol with Tim.

“Ready?” Tim says, bike helmet on.

Dick’s current biggest regret about not taking any of these memories back to his present with him is that he’ll never know to teach Tim better style. He winces every time he looks at Tim’s cowl.

“I was—”

‘’—born ready, I know.” Tim’s voice isn’t as exasperated as it is when Dick normally says that, and he can tell that Tim’s smiling behind the helmet.

Dick swings his leg over his bike. He can instantly tell that he’d been the one to rebuild and modify it, and that partly helps with learning its features. Tim rushes out ahead of him as they’re heading out of the Cave, and Dick instantly speeds up to match him.

“Hey, you’re accompanying me on this patrol,” Tim objects when Dick overtakes him.

“I’m still older than you, Timmy.”

They’re about partway to Gotham when Tim suddenly switches the comm channel to the main one, speaking to everyone who’s out tonight. “Jason needs backup,” he says, voice tense as he rattles off an address.

If Dick’s memory of Gotham is correct – provided that there haven’t been major changes in the last few years – then it’s an abandoned warehouse. If he were honest, though, most of the time the addresses they have to go to end up being abandoned warehouses.

“Who’s Jason?” Dick asks as they change direction. Now he keeps pace with Tim, going neck and neck.

“Uh,” Tim’s bike doesn’t swerve in the slightest because he’s too much of a professional for that, but there’s a hint of panic in his tone, “maybe a moving vehicle isn’t the best place for this—”

“Jason as in our Jason?” Dick says, but this isn't new information. It just feels like he's rediscovering something he already knew, like the tracks in the mud have just been buried by water before they were able to be cracked and dry by sunlight. This is probably what they meant when they said he'd probably remember his past age regressed self - he just hasn't had a chance to think too much about anything beyond Blockbuster and Tarantula until now.

“I can't fucking believe this is the first time this is coming up,” Tim mutters, just loud enough to be heard over the comms. "Why me."

“How?” Dick asks.

“Lazarus Pit,” Tim responds. “But also a bunch of other stuff? Oh, and – promise you won’t freak out – he’s the Red Hood.”

Jason is the Red Hood?” Dick practically yells. “But he’s—”

“He gets out of the seedy shit he’s involved in in a few years,” Tim offers mildly.

“But he’s killed people—”

“Look,” Tim interrupts, voice suddenly more steely than it’s been since Dick woke up, “all I know is that he and Bruce have come to some sort of understanding – I don’t know what it is; you’ll have to ask them if you really wanna know. But he doesn’t like talking about it, and we only just got to someplace normal with him.”

Tim’s asking him to not say anything, Dick realises. And he won’t, he knows that, because he… well, he does care about killing people, but he’d be a complete hypocrite to judge Jason based on that, after what had happened with Blockbuster, and hell, after how he’d killed the Joker with his bare hands. And their whole reason for crime fighting is to rehabilitate, isn't it?

The rest of the journey is silent. When they arrive at the building, Dick can see the Batmobile hidden in a shadow, and the bike that Cass had gone out on a few metres away from it. They drive to the other end of the building, leaving their bikes in a dark alleyway beside the dumpster.

Tim grapples to the roof, and the only hint to his movements is the slight shift in the air. Dick follows closely behind, landing quiet as a cat.

There’s a giant skylight right in the centre, and he and Tim peer into it. Down in the warehouse is a typical set-up. Boxes and crates pile against one wall.

“Shipment must’ve come through recently,” Tim says, voice barely audible. “Why’d he ask for backup? There’s no one here.”

The moment he finishes speaking, three people appear. Two are older, bulkier, and the third is a young boy, no older than eighteen. His mouth is gagged, and his hands are duct-taped behind him.

“Nice going, Ro—Red,” Dick says. “You jinxed it.”

Tim lets out a huffed breath.

There’s a crackle in Dick’s ear as a voice speaks. “Red, I need you and ‘Wing to take out the kidnappers and take care of the hostage.” The voice is deep, and there’s a slight rasp to it that Dick associates with smoking.

His mind instantly places it as Jason, and he wants to tell him to keep speaking, wants to say something himself, because there's something almost calming about its presence, but Tim’s already moving. Dick’s so off his game that he keeps getting distracted in the field, mind wandering from one thought to another. No wonder he's always been a few steps behind these last few days.

There’s an awkward pause as Tim looks at him, and Dick realises he’s waiting for Dick to take charge.

Dick’s about to open his mouth, when Tim says, “You take right,” and vanishes to the tiny opening in the skylight.

Dick follows, only a moment behind him.

Dick thanks the cover of night as they sail down into the room. There are three other men, heavily built and heavily armed, who come rushing in the moment they enter. Clearly, they were guarding this hostage. Dick wonders who the boy is, why he’s so valuable.

But then he doesn’t have time to think about that, because two goons are rushing at him and one of them has just begun shooting.

“Take care of the hostage!” Tim calls in his ear.

Dick wants to protest that there are five of them and there’s no way he’s leaving Robin with so many guns, but even when Tim had been Robin, he could’ve taken care of them alone.

Dick spins around and aims a kick at the midsection of the man behind him. The man doesn’t even let on that he’d been hit, and Dick sighs internally. They’re lucky this is in such close quarters, because that’s the only reason no one has started brushfiring.

Instead of taking the time to properly incapacitate the goon, Dick flips over him and darts to the far side of the room where there’s an entrance to what’s probably an office.

Dick kicks the door in, but there’s a shift in the air behind him and suddenly a body is grappling him from the side. The grip around his centre is ironclad, and no amount of bracing himself for the impact onto the hard floor would’ve prevented the air from rushing out of his lungs.

The thug who tackled him now has one hand on Dick’s chest, effectively holding him down, and his body is pressing down so Dick can’t move.

There’s nothing holding down Dick’s legs and he recovers from the wind being knocked out of him much quicker than the average person, so there’s really no reason for why he completely freezes up for a moment as his opponent straddles him.

And then the man lifts an arm up and is about to bring down a fist when the situation finally clicks and Dick twists to the side, the blow landing on the concrete of the floor beside his head. In the moment that he’s distracted, Dick snaps his hand to the arm holding him down, dislodging it just enough for momentum with his legs to do the rest of the job, freeing himself.

His breath is coming in short bursts, much too rapid for the energy he’s exerted, but he can’t think about that now because he has to take this guy down and then rescue the hostage.

The man goes to sweep Dick’s legs out from under him, and Dick only notices at the last moment, jumping to avoid losing his balance. He’s yanked to the ground, but he uses this to his advantage, neatly manoeuvring his legs around his opponent’s torso and letting gravity pull both of them down.

Dick leaps away at the last moment, and lands on the man’s chest. “Hey, do we have cuffs?”

“Catch!”

What looks like a giant batarang sails through the air. Dick’s about to grab it when he’s toppled, going rolling into the side of the table.

“This,” the man hisses at him, speaking for the first time, “is going to be your last night. You’ve been nothing but a pain in my ass for—”

“For what,” Dick pants, dragging himself to his feet. “For the last five minutes? You ever think that maybe you have anger issues?”

The door is right behind him, and he can see the boy still tied there looking at him with wide eyes. All he has to do is handcuff this pillar of brute strength.

Dick dodges out of the way when the thug lunges forward, neatly offering a kick to the backs of his knees. The man stumbles, but his fall is controlled as he grabs at something Dick can’t quite make out in the darkness.

Fuck, Dick thinks, because the knife isn’t aimed at him.

He’s never caught a knife out of thin air before, not when it's going at this speed, but there’s a first for everything, Dick supposes.

“Duck!” he yells even as he lunges forward to try and shield the hostage with his body.

An arm wraps around his opponent’s neck and his eyes close as he slumps to his knees. Tim appears from behind him, looking at Dick with wide eyes, because the knife has sliced past the side of Dick’s head and hand he’d raised to try and grab it.

Dick spins around the moment he sees the man has been subdued, pleading with who knows what that the hostage will be alive.

The knife is in the boy’s right shoulder. Dick breathes a sigh of relief that he isn’t dead even as he dashes over to him.

“Hey,” he says, reaching into his supplies for bandages. “You’re going to be okay, alright? What’s your name?” He takes off the cloth in the boy’s mouth that had been serving as a gag.

The boy’s breathing is still too harsh. Dick can hear Tim behind him talking over the comms and dragging the body of the sedated man away, and he tunes it out to focus on the hostage before him.

“I know it hurts, but you’re going to be fine,” he says, slipping perfectly into a soothing tone he’d perfected as Robin. “We just have to try and stem the bleeding as much as we can. And then I can untie you.”

“Billy,” he says, on the tail end of a gasp. “M’ name’s Billy."

“You’re doing great, Billy,” Dick soothes.

He holds down the wad of bandages around the blade, careful that it isn’t jostled, and brings around one of his tiny medical scissors to cut through the duct tape holding Billy’s wrists together.

Billy’s movements are jerky as he tries not to move the entire right side of his body. His hands are flat on the floor on either side of him as he subconsciously tries to hold onto something.

“I have the hostage,” Dick says into the comms. “He’s got a knife wound, upper right shoulder. I’ve stemmed the bleeding and he should be fine.”

“We’re wrapping up here,” Batman responds. “Bring him outside. The EMTs should be here soon along with the police.”

“Copy that,” Dick says. Then he turns and gives a sympathetic smile to Billy. “So we gotta head outside now, and this is gonna hurt a little bit more than it is right now, but there are paramedics right outside who can give you the good stuff.” He can already hear sirens wailing.

"I’s okay,” Billy grunts. “But I might pass out on the way.”

“I’ll catch you if you do,” Dick says. “Okay, let me do most of the work.”

Securing the bandages in place with medical tape, Dick brings an arm around behind Billy’s shoulders, and one arm grabs Billy by his upper arm. He advises the kid to take a breath and hold it, and then he pulls.

Billy lets out a ragged groan, but he’s standing. Dick gives him a minute or so, and then he’s practically supporting most of his weight as they make their way out of the warehouse.

The night air outside is lit up entirely by the lights from the police cruisers and two ambulances that have pulled up. Two EMTs rush forward when Dick and Billy emerge, taking over from him. Dick’s glad to not have to step too far into the lights.

Instead, he slinks back by the side of the building and around to a little nook, where he can grapple up to the rooftop. From his vantage point, Dick watches as Batman and Robin finish talking with one of the officers.

“Finish patrol and regroup at the Cave for a debriefing,” Bruce says over the comms. “We’ll speak with the hostage.”

But something about just leaving Billy there without saying goodbye or checking up on him at the very least doesn’t sit right with Dick. Instead of going back to where he and Tim stashed their bikes, he slinks back down to the ground and makes his way to the ambulance he’d seen Billy get taken to.

The boy is lying inside the vehicle when Dick appears in front of it. Seeing him, one of the paramedics say, “Make sure he takes it easy, Nightwing,” just before being called away.

Dick climbs inside. Billy’s still awake, but only just hanging onto consciousness, by the look of it. “Hey, Billy,” he says with a bright smile. “How’re you doing?”

“You w’re right,” Billy says. “They did give me the good stuff.”

Dick laughs. “I’m glad,” he says. “You got family or friends out there who I could contact?”

Billy’s smile fades. “No,” he says. “Not right now, anyway.”

Dick frowns. “What do you mean?”

“Nightwing,” Batman’s frosty voice calls from behind him, but Dick holds up a hand as Billy speaks again.

“One minute I’m walking to my next class, the next I’m in an apartment I’ve never seen before. Then some guy comes in and tells me to come with him, and I think they do the chlorine with a rag to the face thing – so cliché, amiright? – and I wake up in the warehouse.” He makes a gesture that’s probably meant to be a shrug.

Dick sits back on his haunches. “Huh,” he says. “Uh, Batman? You might want to take over the questioning now.” He has no idea what they’re looking for specifically and the last thing he wants to do is jeopardise the case, even if he wants to go back to his own time even less - not that that anxiety makes a lick of sense, based off of the explanation he was given about his situation.

Batman has to wait until Dick’s left the vehicle to climb in. “Hello, Billy,” he says, in a gentle rumble that many who face Batman never hear. “I have a few questions I’d like to ask, if you don’t mind. We’ve had a few cases like yours recently, if that makes you feel better.”

“Go ahead,” Billy says. “Can only go uphill from here, right." Even as he says it, it doesn’t look like he entirely believes his own words.

“What year is it?” Bruce says.

“[Year],” Billy answers instantly. “Why, was that the wrong answer? What year do you think it is?”

“You’re currently twelve years in the future, from your perspective,” Bruce tells him. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen.” Billy’s words are starting to slur now, and Dick hopes Bruce is going to wrap things up soon. He’d like to not break yet another promise.

“One of us will come and visit you in the hospital,” he says. “Don’t worry about being kidnapped again, or where you’re going to go after you're released. My team’s will take care of everything.”

With that, he exits the ambulance. An EMT had been standing beside Dick during the questioning, and she now says, “Anything we need to know about?”

Bruce looks at her for a moment. “He won’t have any records,” he tells her. “I doubt he has any family you’ll be able to find. If it’s possible, keep him in the hospital until police find somewhere secure to hold him.”

The paramedic sighs. “I’ll do my best,” she says. “But it’s harder when it comes to minors.”

Batman nods, and with a sweep of his cape, he steps into the shadows. Dick follows him to the top of the building, turning his comms unit on. If Tim’s already left to finish his patrol, maybe Dick can go along his usual route.

It feels like it’s been forever since he last patrolled around any city, even though it really hasn't.

“Nightwing,” Bruce calls as he’s heading to the Batmobile. “Head back to the Cave.”

“Wh—but patrol’s not over,” Dick says with a frown. The last time he’d been home this early, he was probably still a pre-teen.

“It is for you,” Bruce says. When Dick opens his mouth to argue again, he adds, “Your body’s probably still recovering from the serum. You’ve had one decent meal and solid stretch of sleep for the first time in two, three days. At this rate, you’re going to hurt yourself, and probably others.”

Dick can’t argue when Bruce tells him he’s not well enough to prevent others from being hurt. That, and the fact that he could tell while he was fighting that he wasn’t at full capacity, that he wasn’t reacting right.

But he doesn’t want to go slinking back to the Manor for another sleepless dawn.

And then the strangest thing happens. Bruce caves.

“You can ride along in the Batmobile with me and Robin,” he says. “If you want to stay out for the rest of patrol. You can sit in on stakeouts, but no fighting. That’s the compromise.”

Dick blinks. In all the years that he’s been by Batman’s side, he’s never seen him relent like this. Bruce has done so, on many occasions for many things, but never Batman. Once, he may have seen this as the compromise Bruce says it is, but right now he can’t think of anything worse than to be in a car with Bruce for the next couple hours.

“No, you’re right,” he says. “I’m off my game tonight. I think I’ll just head back. Besides, Robin doesn’t exactly seem to like me very much. He’ll probably do better with some alone time with you.”

Bruce grimaces. “Robin’s behaviour is… it’s not out of dislike.”

Dick doesn't know what to say to that. Of all his current siblings, he knows Damian the least. “I’ll see you when you guys get back,” he says as he backs towards where his bike is.

Batman doesn’t say anything until Dick’s just out of earshot to only register his words as a vague sound.

 


 

Tim stares down at the stacks of paper he, Jason, and Cass had managed to move from the warehouse and into the Cave. They would’ve scanned them directly into the network, but Tim’s hunch had been right.

They hadn’t taken down The Company at all. They’d only managed to get rid of one of its outer branches, and not even a major one at that. Tim isn’t even entirely sure they’d done even that, based on how incredibly wide this operation seems to be.

Jason had left after delivering the last box to conduct his usual rounds to all the houses of the kids that had been de-aged, and Cass had taken one look at the amount of paperwork they need to sort out and announced that she had to go shower. It’s been about an hour and she has yet to emerge, and at this point Tim’s ready to shut off the hot water line to the Cave.

But what he’s really waiting for is Bruce to get back, because he needs to tell Bruce about this and about his theory.

The Batmobile roars into the Cave, screeching into its signature parking with perfect accuracy. Tim’s tried so many times – when Bruce has been out of town for whatever reason – to recreate the ninety-degree spin at full speed into the jerking stop, but he’s never quite managed it.

The only thing that makes him feel better about it is no one else is able to do it quite like that, either.

Batman and Robin exit the car, Robin going straight to his station to type out his report. Damian is good with a schedule like that, always perfectly on time with anything related to their night duties.

Tim fixes up the piles of paper strewn messily around him – and why Tim seems to have that effect on paperwork is another question – as he watches Bruce take off the cowl and run his hands through his flattened hair in a failed attempt to fix it.

“Have you seen Dick?” is the first thing Bruce asks as he walks up to Tim.

Tim opens his mouth before he even has an answer. He closes it again with a frown. “I haven’t seen him since he went to speak with the hostage,” he says.

“He isn’t back here yet?” Bruce asks. He eyes the parked vehicles again, as though more may appear if he looks hard enough.

Tim shakes his head. “I’ll try reaching him over comms,” he says. “But that can wait. You gotta look at these first.”

Only now does Bruce seem to notice the documents. “These are from the warehouse?” He goes to crouch beside Tim, to get a better perspective of where to begin.

They’re the same in a lot of ways, him and Bruce, but this is probably the thing they’re most similar in. Maybe it’s because Tim had picked up so much of his documenting and filing from Bruce, but he finds it easy to see Bruce’s thought process from a random selection of documents like the ones he currently has surrounding him, and he knows that Bruce is the same with Tim's methods, while Tim’s siblings ask for a summary first before they dive in.

Tim knows Bruce sees it when there’s a sharp intake of breath. Bruce leans in closer, plucking the document up from the array.

“I’m not seeing things, am I,” Tim says. “It’s all connected.”

Bruce nods grimly, fingers pressing the bridge of his nose. “No,” he says, in that tone of his that means that once he processes all this, there’ll be absolute fury. “You’re not imagining things.”

Tim continues: “But what I don’t get is why Dick got turned to nineteen. The rest of them are younger. The clientele wants them younger.” The words leave a bitter taste in his mouth.

The twist in Bruce’s lips reflect Tim’s feelings. “Cass and Jay haven’t told us the full story of how they found Dick,” he reminds Tim. He places the paper back down where it’d been before. “I’ll call in the others. We need all hands on deck for this one again, considering we never took down the human trafficking scheme in the first place.”

Chapter Text

Dick stares up at the window from where he’s half hidden by the shadows. The Clock Tower still stands tall and proud, one of the few survivors of the earthquake that had nearly destroyed Gotham a few years ago.

It’d been almost muscle memory to come here instead of heading back to the Manor early. Even before their friendship had turned romantic, Barbara had been one of Dick’s closest friends, someone who truly knew what it was like to work with Bruce, someone he could lean against and offer support to in return.

This mess with Catalina and Blockbuster has taken even that, but the only thing that Dick feels now, as he gazes at the structure before him, is cold and empty from the inside out. His eyes trace the vines of ivy as they lace up the ageing stonework, climbing to the very top like he longs to do.

Dick doesn’t know why he’s still here. Facing Barbara is… not something he wants to do right now, not when he’s reeling left and right as he tries to move with the flow of everything around him. Besides, does he truly want to find out what their future holds?

There’s a tiny ping in his ear, an indication that there’s someone on the other end requesting an open line. It’s likely Barbara, having spotted him with one of the cameras spread out around the building.

Dick doesn’t really want to talk right now, even though that’s all he wants to do. Instead of answering, he gets back on his bike and starts driving.

He isn’t focusing on where he’s going, too busy trying to go back to the numbness rather than this anchorless feeling he’s carting around. Cityscapes flit by as he speeds a little beyond even what’s normal for a vigilante, surroundings a passing blur of lights. Gotham may be unsafe at this hour, but that doesn’t mean it has a non-existent nightlife.

Dick almost doesn’t realise he’s out of Gotham and on the highway to Bludhaven until he’s about halfway there. But something settles in him at the thought of seeing the city, despite everything that happened.

Besides, after all the hell Gotham has given Bruce, it’s not like he feels any differently towards her. It just leads to more determination to do better, to work harder. Dick vows the same for his city.

The warning sign on the side of the road doesn’t register to him until later, when he reaches a giant wall.

Frowning, Dick dismounts and turns off the ignition. He probably passed some sign explaining why the city’s walled off like this a mile back and didn’t notice. So now he can either keep going to check up on the city – he’s watched snippets of the news; it would’ve mentioned anything too bad – or he can turn back.

Maybe it’s a new security measure.

The second option only registers to him after he’s already slipped past the barricade, and even then just as a passing thought. There’s no way Dick can turn around and head back to the Cave without seeing what’s going on in Bludhaven.

Besides, there’s a huge chance that whatever it is, it’s because of Nightwing’s absence. He doesn’t know how long he’s been gone for, or if anyone would’ve taken over for him, but that doesn’t matter. He’s here now; he can take over for his older self until this situation gets fixed.

Although, he kind of wishes he’d looked at the reports for more recent events. He wants to know what he’s driving into.

Dick can barely see in the darkness, which is another oddity, because this close to Bludhaven, there should be visible lights from the skyscrapers and buildings. Did something happen with the electricity?

Dick’s fiddling with his phone, getting up the torch. He’s just turned it when he takes a step and the ground beneath his feet is just… not there.

The light comes on just in time for Dick to see the massive hole, as though he’s at the edge of a cliff. It’s only a lifetime of training and preparing for surprises – not to mention running along rooftops – that keeps the rest of him from following.

Dick stands at the edge of the crater, the only source of light the torch on his phone, and he stares.

What had once been Bludhaven is now absolutely nothing. He can only see as far as the torch goes, which, in this never-ending blackness, doesn’t seem very far, but all around is the crater. Dick aims the torch downwards, to see perhaps whether there’s a way to walk forward, but it’s seems to go down forever.

How did this happen? How had he let this happen?

Dick’s legs give out and he finds himself sitting, legs folded beneath him in a way that’s terrible for blood circulation, but he can’t bring himself to care because his city is gone.

Dick remembers the power of the Internet, and unlocks his phone as fast as his shaky fingers can work, looking up news on Bludhaven from the last few years.

Chemo. Then a nuclear explosion.

Dick runs a hand through his hair as he skims through various news articles. After a moment, he places the phone down beside him and grips his hair tight in both fists, rocking back and forth as he tries desperately to breathe.

He’d thought that he’d fixed things. He can’t pinpoint a specific reason for that deduction beyond the fact that he’d seen countless reports written by himself on the Batcomputer servers, up to the present day. Dick had just assumed that that meant everything was better now, that he’d done something that meant he could…

Well, honestly, something that meant he could live with himself.

There’s another ping in his ear. Bruce has no doubt noticed by now that he didn’t go back to the Cave.

Dick doesn’t answer it. Instead, he roots around for his phone again and shoots off a semi-incoherent text, saying only, be back soon.

The second it goes through, there’s a phone call to him from Bruce, and Dick sighs as he declines it. The screen goes from the call to his contacts, and he blinks at it, because there’s a group inhere that hasn’t been there in years. Not since… well, not since they disbanded the Titans again, ages ago.

He clicks on it hesitantly, but sure enough, there’s a list of names there as familiar to him as his own. Roy, Wally, Garfield, Kory, Vic, Raven.

Donna.

Donna.

Dick has no idea what this means. It’s not unheard of, in the superhero community, to die and come back to life. Apparently even his own adoptive brother did it. But Dick remembers how it’d felt to watch Donna die, how he’d been the first one there because it was his fault that she’d died, protecting him.

It’s one thing to see Jason as he is now, after only really experiencing his death through mission reports and a gravestone. A grotesque display in the Cave. It’s another altogether for… this.

Dick’s dialling the number before he can even consider other possibilities. That perhaps it’s a different Donna, or maybe that his future self is a nostalgic piece of shit for baiting him like this—

“Dick?” His name is spoken on the tail end of a yawn, and normally Dick would apologise, but tonight he’s struck speechless at hearing Donna’s voice on the other end, voice choking up even as he tries to force out a sound.

When he doesn’t answer, Donna speaks again, this time sounding much more awake. “Dick, is that you?” she says. “Is everything alright?”

Dick doesn’t know the answer to that, because it’s simultaneously yes and no. “Donna,” he says, and his voice probably sounds like someone took it through a cheese grater.

“Are you okay?” comes a demand from the other end. “You don’t sound okay—"

“Yes, I—everything’s fine,” he says, trying to sound normal. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

“I was going to get up soon anyway,” Donna responds easily. She leaves a comfortable little gap in conversation that he can easily fill. “It’s been a while,” she offers when he doesn’t take it. “Haven’t heard from you since you took a few months off.”

“Yeah, uh,” he covers the microphone as he sniffs loudly, “long story. A weird one, too.”

“I have time. I got up early today.”

Dick can practically hear her smile. It makes his chest clench tightly at the thought of Donna being alive to do so.

“So, um, I’m guessing the mission I took time off for kinda… went a bit sideways,” Dick begins, catching her up on the main details. “So when I’m from, you’re…” he finishes, trailing off.

“Dead,” Donna says, and Dick closes his eyes against the darkness of the crater his legs were now dangling from.

“Yeah,” Dick says. “And now I find out that Bludhaven’s been destroyed, too.” He lets out a laugh that's a bit too on the side of manic for him to be considered sane.

Donna lets out a breath. “Dick, I’m sorry,” she says, because what more is there to say? She knows what this city meant to him, that it’d been his responsibility. “Dick, where are you?”

“The bigger question is, where’re you?” Dick tries for a lighter tone. “Your status says you’re visiting aliens.”

“I just got back from a trip. I’m in New York now. Are you where I think you are?”

Dick huffs a humourless laugh. “If you mean Bludhaven, then yes. How do you think I found out?”

“So you don’t mind if I pop in for a visit,” Donna says. “Stay where you are, okay?”

Dick doesn’t have time to answer before Donna hangs up. He has a smile on his face, he realises, feeling the muscles move as they go back to their neutral position.

Dick clutches his phone in his hand now as he waits, sitting there, because Donna said to not move. He doesn’t know how much time has passed before the first little piece of doubt pops up in his head. Maybe it was a hallucination.

He stifles it a little desperately, but it’s followed by a barrage of others, and he has to turn his phone on again to look at the call history.

It’s still there, as blatant as ever. Dick doesn’t let the screen go dark, eyes trained on it. He doesn’t know how long it’s going to take Donna to get here, but sitting in the wreckage of everything he tried to build, his life, she’s an anchor he desperately needs.

He’s bowed forward, eyes slipping shut from a bone-deep tiredness, when there’s a whipping noise from above him. In the haste to get up, because that’s Donna right there, landing as gracefully as ever, his phone drops into the crater.

Dick barely notices, partly because it doesn’t make a sound, but mostly because he’s stumbling forward to wrap his arms around his friend.

She’s in costume, to match his, the same version that she died in. Dick doesn’t think about that as he feels her familiar arms around him, burying his face in Donna’s shoulder and clutching as tight as he wants, because he’ll never be strong enough to squeeze her to death.

Dick only registers that Donna’s been speaking this whole time a few moments later. He draws back a little, one gloved arm going to rub at his face and nose.

“Sorry for blubbering all over you,” he says with a wet chuckle. “But… I mean, Jason was one thing, but now I find out you’re here too, and…”

“Come on, let’s go sit somewhere with a view,” Donna says.

But she slips her hand into his as they walk to the other side of the giant wall, and Dick’s relieved beyond words.

“The Titans got back together?” he says, trying for a lighter conversation than how’d you come back would bring.

Donna nods. “Raven’s father again,” she says ruefully. “She has a bunch of brothers, it turns out. They targeted all of us, we teamed up to fight back…”

“And realised we’re a great team and fighting together felt great and we should get the team back together,” Dick finishes.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It’s not. I just… I can’t imagine being on another team like that.” Dick tries to explain, but it’s hard when he can’t even put it into words he himself understands. “Not when the last time we got together, you died.”

“Dick,” Donna says, stepping in front of him so she can meet his gaze straight on. She places her hands on his shoulders. Donna’s just a bit taller than him, but Dick has never truly felt that height difference, and he doesn’t now. “It wasn’t your fault. And I don’t regret it. I’d never regret saving you. You’d do the same for me.”

You shouldn’t’ve had to, Dick wants to say. He’s supposed to be better than that. And the one time he can’t handle it, Donna had been the one to pay the price.

They’ve always been able to read each other better than anyone; Donna sighs when Dick doesn’t respond. “What’ve you been doing all this time?” she says.

Dick shrugs a little. “I woke up like this a couple days ago. The first day was mainly the others convincing me they weren’t evil, yada yada – future past me even left a helpful video. Tonight’s the first time B let me out on patrol.” Although that would probably be disappearing after he got back, what with driving all the way to the barren wasteland that is Bludhaven.

They see his parked bike on the road, and head to the side, towards a little copse of trees and a fallen log.

“They know anything about how long you’re going to be like this?”

Dick blinks awake a little more. “Argh, God, I’m sorry. I completely didn’t think of the team right now – if you guys need backup or anything, I’m still available, and obviously better aged than I was three days ago—”

“Dick, shut up,” Donna tells him, nudging his shoulder with hers. “I was asking to see how bored you were going to get. The team meet up from time to time; if you aren’t allowed out of the Cave or the city, we can meet you there.”

Dick finds a smile growing picturing the look on Bruce’s face if the Titans showed up on their front doorstep. “Oh, yeah, he’d love that.”

“We can still call it a play date, if that smooths things over,” Donna adds, and not for the first time, Dick wonders how he ever survived without her.

 


 

“So let me get this straight,” Jason says, stepping a little away from where they’re standing around the table in the centre. “They’re fucking…regressing peoples' age? For human trafficking? That’s… that’s sick.”

His words echo exactly what's been going through Bruce's mind since they put the pieces together. Bruce nods, mouth a thin line. “One of the files we retrieved showed an order for a hundred aged seventeen. I’m sure we’ll find more of the same if we keep digging.”

“But Dick was like, nineteen,” Tim says as he spins on his chair at a dizzying speed. “Was he part of a different batch, then?”

Bruce aims a pointed look to Jason and Cass, who meet it head on.

“Probably,” Cass responds to Tim. “Not everyone turned the same age, right?”

Jason shakes his head in agreement, smoothly continuing from Cass’ nonchalant response. “A whole bunch of them in my area were sixteen,” he says. “But this is a big lead. We just gotta keep watching their houses till someone comes to collect.”

“Maybe,” Bruce says, staring down at the papers spread out before them.

How had they missed something so big? His mind is running as fast as it can, trying to collate all the information spread out before him, but no matter how quick he is, it already feels like they’re all fifty steps behind. They may have completely ruined their chances of taking them down with their actions so far—

“Wanna share with the class? Not all of us can read your thoughts,” Jason says irritably.

“We may not have taken down the entire operation, but we took down something,” he starts by saying. “See here.” He plucks a few pages paper-clipped together and places it in front of Jason.

Jason squints at the first page, and Bruce wonders, not for the first time, whether he should recommend a good optometrist. The rest of the kids mill around to peer down at it as well.

It’s a list of business transactions made over the span of a year, showing shipments of large containers throughout the country and also internationally. As Jason looks at it, his eyes flash green for a second before he squeezes them shut and takes in a breath visibly. The whole incident is over in less than a second; the only reason Bruce notices it all is because he’d been watching at the right time.

Distant pride fills him at how far Jason’s come. He needs to find some way to let him know that, because the time for keeping good emotions, good feelings, hidden is past. But after everything that happened with Dick, and the last time he talked to Jason alone, he has no idea how to even begin to go about that.

“So far no pick-up,” Tim murmurs. “But they have to know they’re here. There’s been at least two mentions of it on the news so far.”

“It’s only been one missed month,” Cass says. “They could be regrouping. Pooling resources to gather up the remaining people.”

Bruce grunts in acknowledgement, and then falls silent once more. There’s a plethora of information to be squeezed out of the pages before them, and he won’t be satisfied until all of it is on their servers. The Cave falls quiet again.

The environment is different now. Tim and Dick usually made up the majority of the noise, tossing theories and information back and forth. None of them are very loud on their own, but Bruce has seen how Tim and Dick’s combined efforts have solved cases faster than silence in the Cave did. He had never minded, putting in earplugs if it ever got too bad.

Today there’s no Dick here, something that’s still worrying at him. Tim’s apparently only going to speak when necessary, and he doesn’t look at Bruce when he does so – not that Bruce blames him. Damian isn’t even here; it’s his night off and he’d fallen asleep before Jason had called Tim for backup.

“Why’d you call us here?” Jason asks, crossing his arms.

“Delegation,” Bruce says. “There’s too much here for me to go through alone, and I want Damian to be… less involved. I’ve got Oracle looking for patterns internationally, but I need all of you as well. Please.” He adds that last part after a moment, looking at Tim, Jason, and Cass each in the eyes.

Don’t demand, just ask. You aren’t their superior officer; you’re their father. And you’ll be surprised at how receptive they might be to a simple question.

Jason blinks in surprise, before staring at him incredulously. Maybe this wasn’t the right time to assume they might want a choice in the matter.

Bruce’s mouth twitches in irritation at himself, for constantly getting this wrong, but he does his best not to let it leak into his tone. “I’ll send you all the files when they’re ready,” he says.

“Who’s going to tell Damian?” Cass asks.

A lot of the time, if Dick’s on the case with them, he’ll fill in anyone who wasn’t there. The rest of the time… well, Bruce assumes they go through reports or something. It’s yet another thing he somehow put on his eldest without realising, something that's neither efficient, when looking at it from a leadership perspective, or fair in any way to Dick.

Bruce adds it to his ever-increasing list of mistakes, the things he needs to rectify.

“I will,” he says. “When he wakes.”

Damian won’t take well to being sidelined from this case, especially considering that the group they’re after kidnapped Dick, but Bruce has apparently gotten increasingly more protective the older he gets. He knows that Dick, when he was Damian’s age, had been involved in pretty much everything Batman did. He also knows that using Dick’s upbringing as a reference point isn’t the best idea, particularly considering recent revelations.

He’ll just have to keep Damian as busy as he can to make sure he doesn’t feel excluded, or try to go off on his own.

“Dick?” Jason asks, breaking Bruce out of his thoughts on Damian and to the other pressing issue: Dick’s disappearance.

Tim blinks, as though suddenly remembering something. “He never got back from patrol,” he says distractedly, fiddling with his comms unit.

“What do you mean, he never got back from patrol?” Jason turns to Bruce. “It’s his first night and you let him off alone?”

Bruce is no longer surprised by how vehement Jason can be when it comes to Dick. But that first conversation they had, maybe a year ago, after Dick had been slipped a hallucinogen and vanished for months because of something he’d thought Bruce had said, he’d been absolutely floored at the protective anger in his second eldest.

“I told him to head in early. He said he would. When I got back, he wasn’t here,” he says, eyes on Tim as he waits to see whether Dick will answer.

“No response,” Tim says, already stepping towards the Computer. “But I can track the bike and the comms… oh, shit.”

“What?” Cass steps forward, and then makes an unhappy noise.

“He’s gone to Bludhaven.”

Oh no. Bruce wishes he’d had more time, more insight so that they could’ve been the ones to break it to Dick. Because based off what he remembers, Dick at this point in time would be reeling from finding out about the destruction of the city he considered his own to protect.

“Did no one tell him what happened?” Jason says, frowning at the screen.

Tim chews on a strand of his hair before Jason whacks at his hand to make him stop. Bruce is glad; it’s a gross habit and he really needs to hit up Google to see how he can get Tim to stop it.

“He went through a bunch of older reports from my laptop the other day,” Tim says. “So either he knows and went to check himself, or…”

“Or he just found out,” Jason finishes.

Bruce’s phone buzzes, and he glances at the screen, relief flooding him at the words on the screen Be back soon.

“Dick,” he says to the rest of them as an explanation. “He says he’ll be back soon.”

Jason shrugs. “Well, he’s a big boy again. You can’t exactly not let him go out.”

Bruce doesn’t say anything in response, because Jason doesn’t know. To be fair, Bruce himself barely knows what happened in Bludhaven beyond the major details – or anything that was explicitly written in reports. He never tends to go over Dick’s reports with too fine a comb, usually just skimming them to have a general idea about what he'ss doing. And with the mess in Gotham at that time, he’d probably overlooked a lot.

So that settles his night reading, then. But after they’ve gone through all of this. It needs to be dealt with, and fast. They can’t allow The Company to get another shipment of kids (adults?) out to their buyers.

“I’ve already gotten about half of this on the BatCloud,” Bruce starts to say, before he’s interrupted.

“The BatCloud?”

Bruce doesn’t know how Jason has managed to go this far without being aware of its official name. He purses his lips as Tim and Cass snigger.

“They had a vote after we updated the system,” he says tiredly. “Apparently we have to keep in theme.”

Jason stares at him for a moment longer. “At this point, why the fuck did I expect anything else,” he says, throwing up his arms. “But does Superman call his cloud storage SuperCloud? No, because it sounds dumb.

“That’s because they don’t have a cloud storage,” Tim retorts, sounding like his old self for the first time in days. “They have the Fortress of Solitude.”

“Which is exactly my point. Theirs is called the Fortress of Solitude, and we call this the BatCave and have the BatCloud. Why do we let you name shit down here.”

Tim glares at him. “It was already like that when I came in,” he protests.

Cass shrugs a little. “I like how SuperCloud sounds. Like a really intense smoothie.” She glances at Jason, “Steph blames you for the names, by the way.”

Jason – there’s no other way of putting it – squawks. “It was like that when I got here too, douchenoggin.”

“Yes,” Bruce says, gazing up at the ceiling in hopes of being awarded with more patience than he has. “Dick named them.”

There’s complete silence in the Cave, before Cass says, “I thought it was you.”

Bruce has, in all honesty, never felt more insulted in his life.

Tim’s looking at him in disbelief. “How could you let him do that to us?” It’s probably the first time since showing Bruce the video that Tim’s said something to him that wasn’t case related. “Do you know how it feels to have to say ‘I need to go; the Batmobile’s waiting for me’ or ‘I’m doing research on the Batcomputer’.”

Bruce runs a hand down his face, wondering how they got so far off track here. “He was eight,” he tries to explain. “I didn’t think it’d stick.” When no one says anything, he finally says, “As I was saying—”

“You’ll send up whatever stuff you want us to look over, we got it,” Jason says, waving a hand.

It’s like with Bruce’s words, and the reminder of their reality, all the humour has drained out of the room. Despite the necessity, Bruce wishes it could stay.

But after everything, he doesn’t deserve that comfort. Not when it’s his fault it’s ruined.

Bruce sighs. “Yes,” he says. “Meeting adjourned, in that case.” The words feel strange in his mouth; he can’t quite remember how he ended meetings before, but he knows it wasn’t like this.

They slowly disperse, but not before Cass drags him in for a sparring match. Matches with Cass are probably Bruce’s favourite form of de-stressing, purely because of the amount of concentration he has to put in to last as long as he does.

Tonight is no different. This is usually a time for them to talk, to catch up – it’s a sort of competition, too, to see who can provide a piece of information shocking enough to throw the other off balance.

Bruce doesn’t know whether reaching out will be reciprocated, but he tries anyway.

“We haven’t had you over in a while,” he says, meaning as a civilian.

“Been busy,” Cass responds, with an uppercut blow that momentarily makes Bruce too busy to respond.

“How’s Steph?” He hasn’t seen her in the Manor (or the Cave) in ages, either. The last he heard, she and Cass were thinking about taking their relationship one step further and moving in together.

There’s a flurry of parried blows before Cass responds. “She’s okay. Busy too. Med school.”

Try as he might to get rid of the urge to nod to Cass in the middle of a sparring match, it’s just something so ingrained in Bruce that he can’t help it sometimes, especially when the lines between Batman and Bruce Wayne are so blurred. He sees Cass smile as he almost loses a match when he does so this time.

“Of course,” he says. “Are you two still coming to dinner tomorrow night?” They’ve been unable to stick to a specific night for family dinners, and now Alfred will email them all with whatever date he chooses.

There’s currently only been two occasions when someone couldn’t make it because of prior engagements; Bruce doesn’t know how Alfred got access to everyone’s calendars, and he doesn’t really want to question the man’s magic.

Cass hesitates before she answers. “I think so,” she says.

And that’s how Bruce knows that she knows. Cass looks away the moment his attack falters, when she reads on his body what Bruce has just found out.

The remainder of their match is all formalities, as Bruce tries desperately to figure out what to say. There’s nothing he can say that’ll make this better, especially to Cass of all people.

Cass must get frustrated at how distracted Bruce is, because she quickly and efficiently finishes the fight with a sword to Bruce’s gut. Cass taps twice and counts to five; Bruce could break out of the hold with relative ease, but he doesn’t.

“Cassie,” he says softly, backing away. “I…”

You were supposed to be different, Cass signs furiously. You said he was wrong to be violent towards a child, but you did the same.

Bruce feels each word like a punch to the gut. He feels everything Cass isn’t saying, things like broken trust and hypocrisy.

I know, he says, hoping she gets what he’s trying to sign because his fingers are shaking from a combination of adrenaline and her words. And I’m sorry. I’m trying to be better. To Dick. And all of you.

And that’s all he can say.

Cass doesn’t respond, or look like she really believes him. Bruce doesn’t blame her, and when she silently disappears to put away the sword and go change, he doesn’t call her back. He does the same with his, but they might as well be on different planets.

But then, just as she reaches the foot of the staircase, Cass turns around and says, “We’ll be at dinner,” and slips away before Bruce can respond.

 


 

It’s about three hours later that Dick slips into the Manor from the Cave. He hadn’t meant to be out so long, but once he and Donna had begun talking, it had taken the sun rising to stop them.

It’s been a long time since he’s actually been some semblance of okay.

His stomach is growling, and as much as he doesn’t feel like eating right now – does he ever, anymore? – he heads to the kitchen anyway to put together something quick and easy. Alfred always has stuff like that ready to go, for when he’s asleep.

Dick has often found that stolen food tastes better than his own. Maybe it’s a result of how he grew up, first in the circus where everyone shared everything, and then with a team made up mostly of teenagers with a very high metabolism who tended to eat everything in sight, regardless of labels.

He knows that Tim, for instance, hates sharing cutlery with a vengeance, but is generally alright with sharing food. Jason - when Dick had known him, that is - had been insanely protective over his food, to the point of stabbing Dick with a fork one time when he went to grab a stray piece of lettuce. If Dick really tries, he can probably still find the scar on the back of his hand.

The fridge has a box with leftovers from what appears to be a casserole. As Dick looks at it, however, it’s like his stomach shrinks into himself. He can tell he’s hungry, knows he should probably eat, but he still stands there with the fridge door open, staring at its contents.

The thought of eating makes something unpleasant stir beneath his skin, makes his mouth twist a little. It brings forward an onslaught of unwanted thoughts, things buried deep within him and saved only for the darkest moments in the middle of the night, things with words like deserve and worth.

Dick no longer wants to eat.

He goes to close the fridge door and almost has a heart attack when he sees Bruce seated at the island.

“B,” he says, all the air rushing out of his lungs. His heart is pounding away in his chest, something dark and slimy writhing in him at the thought of Bruce having seen his dilemma in front of the fridge.

But then Bruce yawns and rubs at his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. “Did you just come in?” he says, voice rough with sleep. 

Dick nods. There’s an undercurrent of anxiety being pumped through his veins, just like there has been for the last few… well, if he really thinks about it, probably since he killed the Joker. It’s like he and Bruce never truly recovered after that, because every step since then has been a mistake.

He wonders, even now, whether Bruce regretted adopting him after that. It’d been one of the things he’d selfishly clung to, and still clings to, though he knows that Bruce is a good enough person that he would (probably) never turn Dick out for that; he’d most likely try to rehabilitate him, or have him close to keep an eye on him.

"I tried calling you."

"I lost my phone. Think it fell into the crater." It's a little bit amusing how this reason for not answering sounds more made-up than all the times he'd given little white lies. Wally was being really loud. Kory stole it for a day. Tim did something and now it doesn't ring when you call.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce says. “About Bludhaven. But it wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could’ve done.”

Dick doesn’t know what to say to that. He settles for nothing, instead walking over to the cupboard to get out his favourite cup. He holds it under the tap as it fills, then drinks it all in one go, effectively ploughing through the giant lump in his throat and serving as a way to fill the silence in the kitchen.

“Were you sleeping in here?” he asks when he’s finished, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He’s genuinely curious.

Bruce grimaces, and Dick recognises that look on his face that means the answer is something he doesn’t want to admit. “I was mostly waiting up for you,” he says, “but I think I dozed off because of the documents I was reading.”

“Case related?” Dick asks.

His back blocks the few rays of light that are filtering in through the long stretch of window, overlooking grassy stretches of land. From the distance, Dick thinks he hears a cow mooing, but chalks it up to his imagination, because none of their neighbours are close enough for him to hear a cow, and why would Bruce have one?

Bruce nods. “Connected to the group that caused your…” He waves a hand, gesturing to Dick. “I can fill you in after you’ve gotten some sleep.”

Dick nods. “Yeah, you should get some sleep,” he says. “You look terrible.”

Bruce smiles slightly, but it looks forced. “So do you,” he offers. “But we might as well turn in after breakfast.” He stands with a stretch, heading over to the fridge himself. “How hungry are you?”

Dick shrugs. “I’ll have whatever you’re having, as long as you aren’t cooking it yourself.”

Bruce grunts, a noise that Dick didn’t know he found comforting until Bruce apparently decided to stop doing it. “Breakfast food or dinner food?” he asks.

Dick ponders over the question. “Anything that’s not sweet,” he says finally.

Bruce glances at him, probably because Dick has a sweet tooth known to their whole family and beyond, but doesn’t question it. He shoves his head back inside the fridge and emerges with that casserole that Dick had seen moments ago and pulls it out.

Dick gets out plates and cutlery while it’s heating. Bruce, for some reason, has never been able to warm anything up without standing in front of the microwave staring at the food spinning around.

They silently move back to the island, Bruce sitting in his usual spot, and Dick in the barstool one down from his own. Something doesn’t feel right about sitting there right now. Soon, the quiet scraping of knives and forks against their plates is the only sound in the kitchen.

Dick’s glad they heated up the whole container, because he’s hungrier than he thought; he ends up going for thirds, the first two plates shoved into his mouth ravenously. It’s only afterwards that he realises that Bruce ate half a serving ridiculously slowly, probably only to keep him company. And it’s only later when he’s placing his plate in the dishwasher that he spots another one there, recently used.

“Donna’s alive,” Dick says halfway through the meal. “That’s, uh, why it took me so long. She’s in New York now; flew over for a visit.”

Bruce nods. “Yes, she returned around the same time as Jason, from what I recall.” He takes the tiniest of bites, moving his food around the plate. “There was an issue with the multiverse going on at the time.”

“I’m… glad?”

“Honestly? So am I,” Bruce tells him. His hands still, eyes going out the window to the blinding morning sun. “It’s selfish, I know, but I—”

“I know, B,” Dick says, and he does. It’s selfish, so selfish, but he can’t quantify in words how grateful he is to the universe for granting him this, for Donna and for Jason. And it makes a heavy stone of guilt sit in his stomach, right where the casserole went, because he knows what multiverse issues mean – hell, he knows what any issues mean, for them: a metric tonne of death and destruction.

There’s another lull in conversation as they clean up after eating. It doesn’t take very long, and some things feel the same as ever when Dick’s raised eyebrow is the thing that stops Bruce from making himself a pot of coffee.

Just before Dick’s about to head up to his room, Bruce speaks.

“Dick,” Bruce says, and his voice is faltering and tremulous, like he's working himself up to something. Dick immediately knows this is something he’s probably going to feel incredibly uncomfortable hearing. “I, I need you to know—you’re safe here, and this is your home, no matter how you feel, or what you’ve done, or… anything. No matter how your relationship is with me.”

There’s a stirring of memory in Dick’s mind that he pokes and prods at, because he’s certain that Bruce has never said anything like this to him, but it’s still familiar for some reason. He’s not even entirely sure he believes Bruce; Dick can smile and accept this all he wants now, but he’ll only know whether it’s conditional once something happens.

“Have we had this conversation before?” he says, voice lilting up in a hesitant question.

If anything, Bruce’s face grows more tense. “Sort of,” he says. “I had it with your… the previous age you were.”

It comes rushing back, as though all that'd been blocking this particular memory had been Dick’s reluctance to face it. Dick refuses to react to this new – yet always known – memory with any visible sign; he feels exposed enough as it is.

He doesn’t understand. Bruce knows about Blockbuster, about how Dick will go on to fail Bludhaven like he’s failed no other. How can Bruce say that now, of all times?

Some of this train of thought probably reflected in his body, because Bruce steps forward and places his hands on Dick’s shoulders. He looks straight into Dick’s eyes and bends his head down a little as he speaks: “I know you find that hard to believe, and I don’t blame you, what with my actions in the past. But this is your home, just as it is mine, and that will never change. No matter what.”

Dick takes a step back. “You mean, regardless of whether I killed someone,” he says, relieved when his voice doesn’t shake. “Is it because technically it was Catalina who killed him, because you were able to resurrect the Joker?”

“You would be welcome here even if you went out and massacred all of Gotham,” Bruce says in a fierce voice. “Your actions don’t change that. Or even,” he hesitates for a moment, voice softening once more, “even if you didn’t want to consider this your home any longer.”

“I don’t understand,” Dick says, now genuinely confused. “You have a rule, B.” His voice comes out on the border of unhinged, but he can’t help it. This is one of Batman’s rules that he’s been living by ever since he met him; Bruce can’t just go and pull the rug out from under him like this.

“I have a no-killing policy,” Bruce says, “but there are mainly two reasons for that. Firstly, for the sake of Batman, and what Batman is trying to do. I can’t just go around killing people and have the same relationship with the police force that I do. They wouldn’t trust me or work with me the way they do if I – or anyone associated with me or under me – started going around killing criminals.

“And secondly, for myself, personally. It’s a line I can’t cross, because if I did kill someone, I don’t know what I’d do. If I’d go off the rails, if I could ever live with myself, if I could ever stop from doing it again and again, and not just as a last resort. Nowhere in that does it say that you should be feeling as you are now about what happened with Blockbuster.”

“Bruce, you don’t understand,” Dick whispers. “These last few weeks, it’s been one mistake after another. I’m always one step behind. It is my fault, maybe not for the shooting itself, but for everything leading up to it. For Catalina being there. For not stopping her. I just stood there.”

“Some things are out of our hands,” Bruce tells him, brow furrowing a little.

Dick shakes his head frantically. It’s almost like he’s overcome with a wild urge to show Bruce the worst sides of himself, to test these new boundaries Bruce has just put in place. It feels almost safer, here in this time, to push against them. None of these things are happening to him; if this backfires, then at least he knows.

“But I was ready to leave,” Dick says, voice barely audible even to himself. “Before you called me into Gotham for help with the… the gang wars, I think. I was running around all over the place, wherever Catalina led me. I could’ve stopped her anytime I wanted, but I didn’t.”

Bruce is studying him, but for some reason, he hasn’t taken his hands away like Dick expected him to. “Dick,” he says slowly. “Nothing she did, or made you do, was your fault. I’ve looked at some of your accounts on the servers, spoken to Alfred. You were obviously unwell – are unwell.” When Dick frowns and goes to deny it, he adds, “Can you honestly tell me you’re okay? And I don’t mean physically.”

Part of Dick’s training as Robin had been extensive studying of psychology. Every time there’s a new finding, a change in understanding, another copy of the DSM released, Dick will go over it with a fine-tooth comb, because their job isn’t just bashing up criminals. It’s helping.

Dick’s just never turned that knowledge onto himself. When he doesn’t say anything, Bruce lets out a breath.

“It’s okay to not be okay. We're not perfect, and we shouldn't expect ourselves to be,” he says. “I know I haven’t told you that enough, but it’s true. In our line of work, it’s a given.” He looks like he’s about to say more, but then his phone buzzes a unique vibration pattern.

“Answer it,” Dick says immediately. “Babs, right?”

Bruce nods, but doesn’t look entirely happy about receiving the call. “Barbara,” he says in greeting.

Dick’s standing close enough to Bruce that he can hear Barbara’s voice from the other end. Had it not been a case related call, he would’ve probably fled from the room.

“Bruce, I went through the data you sent me,” she says. “And I have a list of very likely locations for bases. This is… big, B. Bigger than we thought it was.”

“Thank you,” Bruce says. “I’ll look at them right now—"

Barbara snorts from the other end. “The very fact that you’re up now means you didn’t sleep. I’ll send you the list in five hours.”

With that, she hangs up.

Bruce frowns, looking down at the phone. Dick wishes he’d slipped out while Bruce had still been on the phone.

“I think I’ll go up and try sleeping, as well,” he says, and then he’s out the door and into the corridor before he can see whether Bruce responded or not.

Dick doesn’t bother with brushing his teeth, or a shower he’s starting to very desperately need. He has spare blankets in the closet, so he pulls out two more atop the one already spread over the bed and crawls under them, wishing to lose himself from this confusing whirlwind of a day for a few hours.

Chapter Text

Jason doesn’t quite know when it began, but at some point, he had realised that it’d been about a week since he’d had breakfast at his own place. He’d just started going to the Manor for Alfred’s omelettes and never stopped to think about it.

The thought doesn’t petrify him the same way it probably would’ve a couple of years ago. Instead, all it does is make his stomach growl slightly as he pulls up to the front door. He’s missed a few mornings as his schedule grew more and more crowded, only dropping by before or after patrol, if at all. The fact that he now has a pretty significant amount of unsupervised minors to watch means that his main meals happen to and from the houses on his list.

There’s a messy line-up of other vehicles strewn around the front, in absolutely no cohesive order. Jason can now tell what belongs to who. That frightens him a little more, as does the frankly horrific choices some of his siblings have.

There’s the sleek black bike with bronze highlights, which belongs to Cass. Jason knows that Bruce will often build custom bikes for her, but the aesthetic of this one is too Cass to be another birthday present. 

Parked… not exactly adjacent to it, but not opposite it either – diagonal? Jason questions – is the neon green car that Tim clearly took in to work at some point and then forgot to take inside to the garage. It has flames printed on the bonnet, starting at the base in blue chrome before gradually working its way into warmer colours, and the headlights have been modified to be blue. He somehow got Bruce’s permission to use any car in Bruce’s expansive garage.

Jason has no idea how he maintains said permission, considering the way he drives. He also doesn’t know why Bruce has a car like that, because it’s actually painful to look at.

Jason doesn’t go in through the front doors. Instead, he heads down the little paved path, hidden slightly by rosebushes. It’d been this path that he’d walked (or ran) down every afternoon when he’d gotten home from school, but it’s been so long since then – so worn down by other memories now – that it doesn’t hit him quite like it did the first few times he’d come through here.

There’s a bicycle lying on its side, right by the door. The signs of actual human presence in the Manor – the sign of kids and life – is another thing that had stopped Jason in his tracks a lot at the start.

Now, he takes it more or less for granted that there’ll be loud voices in the kitchen, a shouting match that makes him wince, the whistle of what appears to be a spatula flying through the air and slamming into the far wall with a wet splat.

They had also, at some point, negotiated for Alfred to have family breakfast off. It’s a work in progress.

“Oi, brats,” Jason calls loudly as he enters, bending down to undo his laces but making sure to be facing the inside of the house so no one can surprise him with an attack, “whoever threw that’s gonna have to clean it up.”

Normally, it’s Dick who reinforces stuff like that. This last month or so, Jason’s been picking up the slack, and with none of Dick’s fine cajoling.

But Dick’s sitting right there at the breakfast bar when Jason enters. It’s weird now, because this version of Dick looks almost exactly like their one, plus minus a few eyebags and wrinkles here and there.

Damian marches over to the kitchen sink, grabbing the scrap of cloth that was there for messes, and heads to the wall that now had what appears to be batter of some kind. He loudly grumbles the entire way.

“So?” Jason says, throwing his jacket onto a nearby armchair and heading around to the stove. “Where’s Bruce at? He’s the one who called us here at asscrack dawn.”

“Father is lurking in the downstairs study,” Damian says.

Jason immediately knows why – this is probably the first breakfast they’ll have since Jason and Bruce had that talk. He makes sure not to glance at Dick as he says to Damian, “This’ll be a good learning experience, shrimp. Bribery is key to vigilantism.”

Damian frowns. “You said that for learning to tie shoelaces,” he says. “I don’t see how that—”

Tim snorts, interrupting him. “You told him that learning to tie your shoelace is a key vigilante thing?”

“I think the more pressing concern here is that Damian couldn’t tie his own laces till age eleven,” Jason says.

Damian sniffs. “We had more pressing matters in the League,” he says. “Lessons in how not to burn pancakes, for instance.”

“My pancakes never—fuck.” The pancake on the stove is entirely blackened on one side. “Tell me before it burns, you absolute dandiprat.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jason spots Dick mouth dandiprat. He’s been silent this whole time, and while Jason is curious, there’s a larger part that has absolutely no idea how to talk to this older version of his brother.

Damian has finished wiping the wall clean, just as Cass enters. She has on a hooded floor-length bathrobe, fluffy and orange. Jason watches Dick’s eyebrows rise to his shaggy hairline at the sight.

“Morning, Cass,” Tim says, slurping down his coffee.

Cass grunts at him, settling down in her seat and staring at Jason until he sighs and drops a couple of pancakes on the plate before her.

“Gremlin,” Jason mutters, but at this point, it’s routine for Cass to turn up in her giant bathrobe and grunt eerily like Bruce.

And then another figure comes bounding in through the door.

“Are those pancakes? Whoever’s making them, thank you from the bottomless pit of my heart,” Steph practically sings as she half-leaps onto the barstool beside Cass, placing herself between Cass and Tim.

“That,” Damian says, “is my seat.”

“And now it’s mine,” Steph answers cheerfully. “But if you can catch this strawberry in your mouth, you can win it back.”

Steph shoves her hand deep into her pocket and emerges with a surgical glove. She tosses it on the ground between herself and Damian; it travels about a quarter of the distance before flopping to the floor.

“I accept your gauntlet,” Damian says immediately, swooping in to grab it, “and Grayson throws.”

Normally, this would be an easy way for Damian to recover his seat. Because normally, Dick would toss the strawberry in a high arc, giving Damian all the time in the world to position himself.

Dick blinks in surprise at being mentioned. “Um,” he says hesitantly, glancing to Tim, who gives him a thumbs up.

“Peg it at him,” Tim suggests around a full mouth.

Jason throws a burnt piece of pancake at him. “Be nice,” he admonishes.

Tim lets out a huff of disbelief, spraying crumbs all over his plate, and Jason turns back to the stove before they can see his embarrassed flush. He’s beginning to sound like Dick.

“Ready?” he hears from behind him, followed by Damian’s impatient click of his tongue.

The others start up a drumroll, and Jason turns around just in time to see the slice of strawberry fly in a large arc over their heads and—

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jason demands. “I don’t care if you’ve gotten de-aged. You’re getting that down from there.” The kitchen is under his responsibility while Alfred is gone now that he's the oldest in this room, dammit, and he sure as hell isn't about to let a piece of fruit rot up there for them to find a month later.

Jason’s words are immediately followed up by two shouts of protest as Steph and Damian both demand another strawberry to be thrown, replacing the one stuck atop the overhanging tube of light.

“I’ll aim lower this time,” Dick says with an apologetic smile.

The strawberry lands perfectly in Damian’s mouth, with little need for him to account for anything. He swallows it down with a pleased smirk aimed at Steph.

“Fine, fine,” Steph says, easily swinging down and taking the spot beside Tim.

“Stephanie, right?” Dick says. “You’re…” He pauses, looking between her and Tim.

Tim’s eyes widen. “We’re not dating!” he says quickly. “We broke up. Ages ago.”

“Oh,” Dick says, looking as though he was relieved to not have asked it outright, “cool. Gotcha.”

“I’m dating Cass now,” Steph says brightly. “Moved on to the better sibling.”

In perfect sync, she and Cass fistbump, going behind Tim’s head as he mutters a little hey!

“Also cool,” Dick says.

Jason can’t blame him; it must be weird to be ambushed by family breakfast, especially when you only have vague memories of most of the people there. Has he even met Cass yet, in his time?

There are only five barstools around the kitchen island, so Jason grabs a plate of food and goes to the armchair by the window. Normally, Dick would join him, saying something about only kids eating at the table.

Tim joins him now, much to Jason’s surprise.

Bruce appears in the doorway with Damian appearing to have dragged him here, judging by the grip he has around Bruce’s wrist and forearm, pulling it up over Damian's shoulder like Bruce is a giant pillar to be lugged around. The thought of Damian finding out makes something twinge in Jason’s chest, but the thought of keeping it hidden doesn’t sit right either.

“Good morning,” Bruce says. It’s another change they’ve gotten used to over the last year – Bruce being actually coherent in the mornings. The wonders of actual sleep for fucking once.

Dick and Steph are the only ones who respond with actual words, Tim and Cass making vague noises. Bruce heads over to the stove, glancing around with a considerate eye. He heads straight for the pot of coffee, just like they all knew he would, and then he places two slices of bread in the toaster.

Damian frowns at this break in habit. “You’re behaving strangely today,” he says. Jason’s heard him use a less severe tone when accusing murderers.

Bruce glances up at him. “Hmm?” he says, clearly having missed Damian’s words.

“You never eat toast,” Steph supplies. “Like. In the four ish years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you give off that you even knew what a toaster does.”

Bruce just looks confused now, which is another indication that he slept. “Well, it’s in the name,” he says. “It’s a toaster. It toasts.”

“I gotta agree with Steph here, B,” Dick says, chiming in without having to be brought into the conversation for the first time that morning. “I’ve known you for fifteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen you give off that you even know what a toaster is.”

“Of course I know what a toaster is,” Bruce says. “Toasters are related to more than seven hundred deaths annually worldwide.”

There’s a moment of silence in the kitchen, before Tim says, “Wow. That’s got to be the most in character thing I’ve ever heard Bruce say.”

There’s a spot at the corner of the island where Bruce normally sits, but today he eats standing up, finishing his toast over the countertop and stepping towards the window while he gulps down his coffee.

“So,” Jason says. “What did you call us in for?”

It’s not like he has anything particularly pressing to do, but he’d like to not give off the impression (to Bruce, anyway) that everything’s suddenly alright. He just doesn’t know how to give the man the cold shoulder while still keeping things hidden from Damian until he figures out what to say to the kid.

Almost immediately, there’s a shift in the air as the inhabitants of the room suddenly transform into crime fighters. Tim, who’d been peering around Jason’s armchair to make faces at Damian, leans back. Cass’ head pokes up from her sleepy trance. Steph, who’d been slurping her glass of orange juice loudly, stops.

It’s really only Dick who remains unchanged, and Jason has to come to the sad conclusion that he never stepped out of that mode in the first place.

Bruce looks around at them at Jason’s question. Normally, had Alfred been present, downstairs conversation would be met with a thinly veiled warning look. Normally, no one brings it up during these breakfasts anyway, wanting to spend time around each other without bringing up cases.

Jason’s almost sorry to be breaking that unspoken rule.

“Barbara tracked down some locations,” Bruce begins. A hint of stiffness seeps into his speech, any hints of the man who’d been dragged into breakfast by his youngest fading into the shadow of Batman. “From satellite images, we can confirm bases of operation in Dherain and Agolea.”

“You said bases of operation,” Tim says.

Bruce nods. “They’re large, larger than their operations here, but not enough to account for the rest of the paper trail they’ve generated.”

“But we’re taking them down,” Damian says. It’s both a statement and a question; Jason suddenly wonders whether Bruce ever got around to filling Damian in on what they learned the night before.

Bruce hesitates. “Normally, yes,” he begins, “but this time we have almost no other leads to go off on. There’s no connection between any of their bases, from the papers we found; it’s pure chance that these two locations were traceable.”

“Which means they won’t see us coming,” Jason says. “We can go in, dismantle these branches, nab their paperwork—”

“We can’t dismantle the branches,” Tim says, just as Bruce opens his mouth as well. “The element of surprise is the biggest thing we have going for us right now.”

Jason’s eyes narrow. “And what do you intend to do if we find a whole warehouse of kids they’re about to sell?” he demands.

Tim’s mouth twists. “Look,” he begins, but Bruce interrupts him.

“We start with recon,” he says. “Our objective is to retrieve as much information as we can. Other locations and the formula they use in their drugs. If there are kids in there, then we get them out after that has been done. We’ll be disguised as looters, local hooligans. With luck, they won’t trace it to anything larger than a single, accidental hit.”

Jason… well, Jason can’t quite argue with that, because he knows that the price of going into these bases, breaking down the front door with guns blazing, is the best way to make the rest of the operation burrow down in their holes and disappear for at least a year. And despite everything, he trusts Bruce. He trusts him to have the best interests of the trafficked children.

And there’s always comfort in the knowledge that, if all else fails, he can fix things himself.

With that thought comes the reminder of what happened the last time they went with one of his plans, and he firmly shoves it out of his mind, doing his best to stop his eyes from flicking towards Cass.

“Leaving tonight?” Cass asks, stifling a yawn with a sleeve of her outrageously bright robe.

Bruce nods. “I’ve just about readied the briefing,” he says. Then he turns to Steph. “Stephanie.”

“Bruce,” Stephanie mimics Bruce’s sombre tone. “I’m not going, am I?”

Bruce grimaces apologetically, the corners of his mouth turning down a little. “I need you in Gotham while we’re away,” he says. “We rarely have so many leaving at once. I’ve talked to Barbara – Dinah’s going to be here to help as well, and she’s having… negotiations with Huntress. And if you need anything—”

“Yell for Superman; I remember protocol.”

“He’ll be on standby.”

The rest of breakfast is finished as fast as they can work their way through the food, each eager for a chance to finally move forward in this case. Bruce is the one who loads the dishwasher, because he and Tim are the only two amongst them who are actually any good at it.

It’s only as they’re heading to the Cave that Jason remembers that Damian has school. He jogs forward a little to catch up to Bruce, catching him right as he nears the Batcomputer.

“Damian’s not coming, is he?” he says as quietly as he can, knowing how sound echoes in the Cave.

Bruce sighs. “This is safer than him following us by his own means. You know he won’t stand to be left behind. Any other case, maybe...”

But this time it involves Dick, and the people who hurt Dick. Jason swallows and looks away, knowing that Bruce is right but hating it all the same. Sometimes he looks at Damian and thinks about all that the kid’s missing out on, things he might come to regret in a decade’s time. And then he thinks about growing up an only child and being dead for his formative years, and decides that maybe this life that Damian has, being surrounded by a giant flock of family, isn’t the worst thing he could’ve ended up with. Better than still being with the League, at least.

Bruce waits until they’re all here.

“Our first base is in Dherain,” he begins. “Damian, Tim, and I will be going there. The Batplane will barely even need to be cloaked this time of year - the fog will be good cover. Jason and Cass, you two will be going to Darmania. I have the exact location in your briefing folders—”

“What about me?” Dick interrupts, edging himself forward from the back of the pack.

“Dick, you’re still—”

“B, you guys are underhanded enough as it is,” Dick argues. “Ignoring the age thing, I’m perfectly fine. And you guys need me, or at least, you need someone. Taking down a whole base that’s the size of this,” he waves his hand at a blueprint that’s up on one of the monitors, “isn’t easy for two people, no matter how skilled. And if you want it to be all covert, then it’s almost impossible to do in the time window you’ll probably have.”

There’s a pause as Bruce contemplates Dick’s mini speech. Then he says, “Fine. You’re with me and Damian. Tim, you’re with Cass and Jason.”

“I don’t need you to babysit me—”

Jason almost snorts in amusement; he hasn’t heard that tone since before he died. He wonders just how many fights Tim has been privy to; judging by the look on Damian’s face, he’s been exposed to none.

“You have an unknown substance in your system,” Bruce counters, “and I have the advantage of hindsight.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Bruce’s eyes turn sad, and he looks away. “Tim, I’ll fix up your—”

“I fixed up all the details, don’t worry,” Tim says absentmindedly, a stylus flicking away as he scrawls on the tablet in his hands.

Bruce opens his mouth, and then closes it again. “That’s everything, then.”

Jason walks to his favourite nook in the Cave to go over the blueprints and terrain in more detail. If he’s going to be heading out of Gotham for a few days, there are things he needs to take care of.

 


 

Dherain is located in south Europe. It would’ve been good for trade via sea, had it not been for the giant stretch of rocky crags that stick out in its only bay. There are lighthouses posted atop practically every mountain peak along the coastline, but despite them, hundreds of ships and fishing boats crash every year.

Dick’s done the reading, but the same can’t be said for the tiny cactus sitting two seats down from him. They’re lucky the Batplane Bruce now uses has the space for that; Dick remembers their planes from his Robin days, how Bruce accounted for each and every millimetre of space.

And this isn’t even the big plane; there’s another one in the Cave that Dick spotted before they’d taken off, which can apparently fit the ‘whole’ family, however many that is.

“Done?” Dick asks lightly, despite knowing the answer.

Damian glowers at him. “Part of my training regime is keeping up to date with every country in the world. This is merely a refresher.”

Geez, Dick thinks, unsure if he’s being serious. It’s not entirely unbelievable that Bruce had had a kid with Talia (although Dick had secretly been surprised that it hadn’t been with Selina first), and the more he observes Damian, the more he realises that this is a child who grew up in the League of Assassins.

He can forgive him for being a little prickly, especially considering he hasn’t quite hit his growth spurt yet – for all his sharp words and heated glares, it’s like being attacked by a kitten.

“Tim tells me you like art,” Dick says, trying to start up a conversation. According to Tim, Damian misses him.

Damian is quiet. “It’s a useful hobby,” he says finally. He doesn’t look at Dick.

Dick tries to put himself in Damian’s shoes, unfamiliar as they are to him. He pokes and prods at his brain to see if anything comes out of that weird little hole that had supplied him with pieces of conversation and context from when he’d previously de-aged.

There’s nothing there. Dick tries not to feel too frustrated. This is just a kid; he’s good with kids, despite the fact that they’re usually strangers.

But there’s Lian, and he knows he’s good with Lian, so surely that counts for something. Damian’s just missing his older brother, and bringing up one of his hobbies when he seems to be a fairly closed off person might not have been the best way to go about this.

Dick tries for familiar ground.

“So you’re Robin.” It’s an open-ended conversation starter, something that will hopefully be more successful than the art question had been.

“Yes. You made me Robin.”

Dick opens his mouth, but it’s a second before he can verbalise his thoughts. “I… Huh,” he says, and then snorts. “That’s a first. Y’know, I always thought that Tim would just… retire, instead of moving on to a new name. He seemed different from the rest of us. He actually has a family – well, had a family. I guess his father dying changed all that. So he grew up and moved on and you came in, huh?"

Damian looks distinctly uncomfortable, and doesn’t respond. If anything, he looks even more closed off than before Dick had tried to strike a conversation.

Dick finally sighs and brings up the one topic he’s been told to talk about. “So I hear you’re good with a sword.”

They’re about half an hour into a discussion about the merits of a recurve bow when Bruce comes over from the cockpit. From out the window, Dick can see the approaching bay; it’s lucky they’re flying, or else this trip would probably have taken another hour just to get to the beach.

“We’ll arrive in five,” Bruce says. “Remember, recon only. We can’t be going in with only half the information, no matter what we may see or hear.”

“Got it, B,” Dick says, as Damian says monotonously, “We understand, Father.”

The Batplane lands in between two rocky slopes. At this time in the afternoon, the darkness hides it just as well as the clouds and mist. They'll turn on the cloaking feature before they set off, but it's barely necessary.

Even from inside, Dick can see that the barren landscape extends out as far as his vision goes. From the files, and from his own geographical knowledge of this area, he knows that the rest of the country is a lush green, that this area is so incredibly dead because of its history with chemical testing.

“Comms check,” Bruce says, and immediately there’s a loud ringing of feedback in Dick’s ear.

He winces, and sees Damian do the same out of the corner of his eye.

Bruce looks apologetic. “Sorry,” he mutters as he fiddles with the earpiece, and the noise slowly fades.

They’re donned in dark black gear, entirely removed from their usual costumes and completely identical to one another's. Apparently, Bruce just had them lying around. Their usual face gear has been replaced with helmets that look like ski masks from the outside, but are equipped with about as much technology as Batman’s cowl is.

Dick puts it on and grimaces at the feeling of his head being enclosed. It makes him think back to his Target helmet, which is still sitting—

No. No, it’s not still sitting at the back of Dr Fledermau’s closet, behind that false wall. There is no more apartment, no more building. The reminder hits Dick once more and he has to breathe for a moment before he can tune back in to what Bruce is saying.

Luckily, it doesn’t seem like either of them noticed; definitely a benefit of these helmets. Just as he thinks that, Dick feels a phantom itching sensation in his ear and grimaces as the knowledge that he can’t just scratch it threatens to overpower the feeling.

“…take the south wing,” Bruce is saying, “and the two of you will enter through the north. I noticed some issues with the radio when we were flying overhead, so there may be interference with the comms. If anything happens, and you can’t contact me or each other, you will exit the building immediately. You will not come after me, because I can take care of myself. Is that clear?”

He’s met with two sets of crossed arms and huffed breath.

Bruce looks at them, unyielding. “Nightwing,” he says, and there’s a tiny jolt of electricity in Dick’s bones at the sound of Batman speaking to him. He’s more alert in an instant. “Is that understood?”

Dick leans back against the wall. “Loud and clear, boss,” he says, the familiar words flowing from his mouth. “Anything goes wrong, we bail on you and everyone else and make a wild dash for it.”

Bruce sighs. “Robin,” he says.

Damian stands straighter. “We will go in, take Corridor 3 and head through the second doorway. You will have the alarms disabled by then; if not, wait until they are or until there’s verbal confirmation. We will retrieve the information using the USBs and upload them directly if we can get a clear signal, and then take a baseball bat to all the equipment and make it look like petty vandalism. We will make sure the criminals see us with spray paint as we leave. If something goes wrong, we leave immediately.”

Bruce’s face softens, a look of unmasked fondness seeping through his typically stoic exterior. Dick agrees – he would like to coo at this kid who just rattled off their entire battle plan. He wonders if giving in to the urge to ruffle Damian’s hair is as good an idea as his brain is making it out to be.

“Alright,” Bruce says. “You’ll know when to enter.”

And with that, he leaves. It’s less dramatic than it usually is, now that there’s no cape to follow him out.

Dick watches him go for a moment, before turning to Damian. “C’mon, let’s get into position,” he tells him. And then, before he can talk himself out of it, his hand darts out to tousle Damian’s hair for a quick second, and he starts walking almost before Damian even realises what’s happened.

The muffled squawk behind him makes his face split into a grin.

 


 

It had been going alright. Their blueprints had been perfect – this building didn’t even look like it’d been dusted in the last decade, let alone undergone a structure change. It hadn’t been difficult to bypass all the security measures (not that there were very many) and get into the office slash security room.

Damian had darted towards the nearest computer, immediately plugging in the USB drive and getting to work, fingers a blur as he’d typed.

Dick, in the meantime had been rifling through the rest of the room, looking for anything that hadn’t been digitised. He grimaces at the amount of paper that’s beginning to pile up, but it’s lucky that their technology is now so much better than it’d once been – he can just flick through the pages and the camera in his helmet will pick up everything and create a document based off the scans.

But no matter how efficient, it’s still slower than they have time for.

Dick has finished a whole wall of cabinets, where one entire drawer had been filled with just grocery bills and furniture orders, when the security camera footage on the far side of the room draws his attention. It’s been calm this whole time, with only the occasional individual moving down a corridor or, in one interesting occasion, stealing into the kitchen to grab a handful of apples, and disappearing into a supply closet.

Now, however, the cameras have shifted to show a group of five heading down a hallway. Dick pauses skimming through shipment listings as he heads over to the controls panel. He presses a few keys – once you’ve worked with one of these, you’ve worked with them all – and follows along as the group turn this way and that.

The best thing about Bruce’s tech: it’s designed for breaking and entering. If he squints at the screen, it’ll zoom in and do its best through predictive algorithms to make the image clearer, even going so far as to run a stream of guesses for passcodes that are being entered.

It’s been nice to have all the freedom in the world to build his own gadgets, but lately there’s been no time. Hell, the only time he ever really had was when he was starting off; every ‘update’ since then has just been repairs.

Dick wants to ask Bruce how he finds the time. He wants to tell Bruce that he gets it now, a little more than he did back when he was fifteen and wondering why Bruce couldn’t just take a night off from being Batman and Bruce Wayne. It’s different, when you’re operating with someone else, someone who’s been doing this for longer than you have and whose city it really is, because you never shoulder the entirety of the blame yourself.

But this is just another one of those things that Dick will likely never verbalise. Not to Bruce, anyway, because the sheer awkwardness of that conversation will probably kill both of them.

“Done,” Damian announces from the computer. A moment later, he wanders over to Dick, peering at the screen. “What is it?”

“Them.” Dick nods to the screen in the upper left corner, where they’ve now wandered to. “Biggest group I’ve seen all night. Can’t be a coincidence.”

There’s a pause. “Our instructions were recon only,” Damian says a little reluctantly. Dick barely knows him, but it’s clear form his tone that he doesn’t want to let this go, either.

“It’s not like we’re interfering,” Dick responds lightly. “Keep watching them. I’ll finish up my end.”

He’s barely worked through the last of the shipments – and good lord, if he were to man a ship, he’d at least have some creativity in naming it – when Damian’s posture changes. It’s not something Dick probably would’ve noticed, had they not been on a mission. Had he not been trained from childhood to notice absolutely everything around him.

“What?” he says, walking over.

Damian steps over to the control panel. “They’ve disappeared into a restricted area,” he says. “We can’t see the cameras without clearance.”

“I can get us in,” Dick says instantly.

He sidles in next to Damian, and they both know that time is running out and Bruce will be pissed, but he can’t help it. It’s not as easy getting in as he’d probably made it seem, but with the use of their codebreaker, it’s simpler than it would’ve been.

There’s a chance they’ll know it’s been hacked. But they’ve gotten everything they needed from the system. They’re looking to be spotted now anyway.

Damian sucks in a breath when Dick finally gets the cameras up. A row of cells are now displayed on the upper row of screens; the group that Dick had been following is standing at a station at the far end of this room looking at something on a screen. Try as he might, Dick can’t make out anything on the screen; the technology in the room is just too old – it’s a wonder they’re accessible from here at all.

“We can’t leave them,” Damian says, eyes trained on the teenagers in the cages. There must be at least a dozen, and that’s based off the range of the cameras alone.

They won't be able to cover a second break-in with the same tactics they used this time. Security will rise, and it'd be weird for vandals to revisit so soon. Anything they do has to be done now.

“Of course not,” Dick says.

 


 

Vandalism, Dick reflects, is much more fun than it has any right to be. They’ve brought along baseball bats, in the holders that typically carry broadswords.

He and Damian start by wrecking the control room. The cabinets are upended, papers strewn all over the place, before they graffiti derogatory images all over the place.

“This therapeutic?” Dick asks Damian breathlessly. Smashing equipment takes effort.

“My five years of enduring the American education system is finally being put to use,” Damian responds, spray-painting a giant penis on the wall.

“Okay, they’re heading this way,” Dick says. “Your comms still down?”

Damian nods. A stream of guards race inside, the first one crashing to a halt in the centre of the room and the others reacting similarly. The two of them slip out as the guards are still reeling from the damage wreaked, and it’s only after they’ve locked the door with a pair of handcuffs that there’s a shout from inside.

The jog to the hallway they need to get to would’ve been faster, had they not had to smash every window they found on the way there. There’s a burst of static in Dick’s ear, and he turns the volume down a little when he sees that it isn’t stopping.

A glance to Damian shows that he, too, knows that Bruce is probably signalling to them that it’s time to get out. They go forward anyway.

“Duck,” Damian says suddenly, and Dick drops to the floor only to see an approaching squad of security guards.

There’s a muffled curse from behind him and in the next second, just before they’ve reached Dick, Damian is right back at his side.

“I ducked,” Dick mutters, even as he swings with the bat.

“My fault,” Damian says, but his voice is anything but apologetic. “It’s… an inside code. From after your time.”

Oh. Really, it’s a wonder that they’re this far into the mission before something like this reared its head. Dick wants to know what it meant, where it’d come from. What did Damian mean, an inside code? All the code words they have Dick passed onto Tim; he assumes Bruce did the same thing to Jason, because the few times they worked together, Jason had understood them perfectly.

Dick does his best to swing for places that won’t do permanent damage, just remove them from the playing field. Damian is at his back, anticipating his every move. It’s… something else, to work with the kid. His movements are fluid and confident; Dick wouldn’t call it dancing, exactly, but there’s a fluidity to it that’s beautiful in itself.

The guards are wearing eye protection, so Dick has no qualms about spraying paint onto them. The first guard he does it to lets out a surprised yelp, immediately moving backwards in an attempt to get away from the bright yellow paint that’s now coating his goggles.

Damian has taken the vandalism to a whole new level, painting over the bodies of the guards lying on the ground in a heap. Dick squints even as he ducks away from the path of a taser. “What even is that?” he says, one of the few phrases he can speak in Dhernian.

Dick can tell by Damian’s eyes that he’s smirking, even as he doesn’t answer.

“Come,” Damian says instead.

They round the corner to the final door between them and the cages. Damian sprays a giant turkey on the wall, conveniently covering the security camera as well, while Dick keys in the code. The second the door unlocks, he smashes the control panel with his bat.

Immediately, a blaring alarm sounds.

“Fuck,” Dick says with feeling, even as he and Damian enter.

The static in his ears have grown, but the earpiece must be malfunctioning, because it’s definitely turned off.

It’s even more confronting to be in here. The gazes of about twenty people, all mid-teens, train on them the second they enter. It’s only sheer luck that the group they had been tracking aren’t there anymore.

“It’s okay,” Dick says, trying for a reassuring look as he walks by all of them to the wall at the very back, where the power board is. This has to be the most high-tech room this place has, even if the cameras and room itself are older than Alfred. “We’re going to get you out of here.”

He rotates through languages, hoping that even if they don’t understand his words, they’ll hear the tone.

“Get them out,” Damian says. “I’ll handle the cover.”

Freeing everyone is a simple matter of switching off power – and also backup power – to the room. Everything turns dark, and Dick grabs his torch from his belt, shining it around. He’s met with terrified faces.

Another torch turns on; Damian opens up a cage on the far end, reassuring the boy in there. With his words, other cages open up, and pretty soon, the entire room is standing out.

“Follow us,” Dick says, gesturing with his hand.

Damian, in the meantime, has handed his baseball bat to the first teen he’d freed, who is now smashing things to his heart’s content. His attempts are weak, much weaker than theirs had been, but his heart is in there and it’s one more task off their hands. Dick does the same.

Now they have to get themselves and twenty teenagers out of this place. Their exit was supposed to be have been through the front gates and then out over the fence; they don’t have the time to create another.

“Lead,” he says to Damian. “I’ll bring up the rear.”

Damian doesn’t argue. He starts off at a jog, but it quickly dwindles back down to a walk when they find the two kids who’re limping. Dick carries one; the other is supported by Damian.

It’s the absolute worst time for Dick’s head to be spinning the way it is; he probably didn’t have the filters in the mask on to get rid of the fumes from the spray cans.

There’s a shout from behind him and a rush of footsteps. Dick quickly deposits the boy in his arms onto the nearest person and turns around, baseball bat at the ready.

There are three guards this time; he has no idea how they’re going to pretend like this was typical vandalism now, with this rescue, but they’ll get to that bridge later. Right now, he needs to worry about getting all of them out of here in one piece, and that means hitting each of these guards in the ribs and thighs and stealing their tasers to turn against them. He's never missed his escrima sticks more.

There’s a beeping in Dick’s ear, and he frowns, because there’s still a buzzing sensation in his head, but the sound from the comms seems clear enough.

“Where are you?” Damian pants, and there’s the sound of an object hitting flesh.

“On my way to you right now,” Dick responds. How had they gone that far in the minute he’d needed to take down the guards?

He races down the dim corridor just in time to see the kids ganging up on the five guards who had apparently thought that going up against twenty-one teens they'd held captive was a good idea. Dick tases the last one, and nods to Damian.

The boy he’d been carrying before has been propped up against a wall, and there are two other kids standing beside him protectively.

“I got it,” Dick said. He crouches down and lifts him back up again; the boy stirs. “Hey. What’s your name?”

The boy coughs a little. “Derek,” he responds in Spanish. His eyes are bloodshot. “Who are you?”

“Honestly?” Dick lets out a high-pitched laugh, as different to his own as he can realistically fake. “We were just here to bash things up. Then found you lot.”

“Oh.” It seems that Derek’s energy has run out, because he slumps back against Dick’s shoulder.

Dick frowns. There are no visible signs of injury, and the other kids all seem to be doing fine, more or less. Is this just a lack of food? Has he been here longer than the rest?

There’s another buzzing in Dick’s ear.

“Where are you.” Bruce’s voice is a tight growl.

“We went a little off track,” Dick responds. He’s lucky Derek is so out of it. “Nearing the exit now.”

“You’re ten minutes late,” Bruce says.

“Like I said, we went a little off track, but we’re back now. Mostly.” Damian is smashing through another control panel. “Also, uh, it might be helpful if you could call the local cops in. Also a couple of ambulances.”

“Why.”

“Rescue,” Dick says, before he stops dead in his tracks.

This is the final lobby before they’re free of the building. It should come as no surprise that there’s a massive flock of guards standing between them and the exit.

Had they been like the other guards, this would’ve been relatively simple. But word has definitely gone around, because there are steel shutters that came down the second Dick came through the door, and there are guns trained on them from all around.

“Scratch that,” Dick murmurs. “We’re going to be a lot later than anticipated.”

One of the guards speaks in heavily accented English. “Put down your weapons,” he orders. “And we won’t harm you.”

Damian snorts so loud that he probably pops a blood vessel. “You had children in cages,” he responds in Macedonian. “You’ll kill us to keep us quiet.”

“They’re here for medical treatment. This has pushed back their recovery for months” the guard snaps. “We will not press charges against the two of you. You can go home. Drop your weapons. Walk out.”

“Do as he says,” Bruce says suddenly through their main channel over the comms. “I need a hole.”

Damian plays the part perfectly, nodding in hesitation and turning to Dick pleadingly. Dick gives in immediately, placing Derek to the ground. The kids all around them turn and stare in fear and betrayal, some even screaming.

The girl who yells something to Dick’s retreating back is tasered the second Dick isn’t looking; he can hear the buzz and thump as she falls, but he continues to the steel gate that they’ve cracked open slightly, anticipating Damian.

The second the door opens slightly, a figure in dark clothing leaps in and tosses two tiny pellets. Gas erupts in the room, and there are shouts all over the place as guards try frantically to get their masks on.

Dick turns, dropkicking the nearest security guard and shoving his gun across the floor. Bruce used a knock-out gas; the kids are all out, with no masks to protect them, and there are a fair number of security guards who didn’t get a chance to put on theirs – or didn’t have masks – who are also slumped on the floor.

Unfortunately, there’s still a significant number that are awake. The haze makes up for it, though. It coats any security cameras, hiding their movements as they go through and take down the remaining guards.

“Freeze!” someone yells from Dick’s left, and he turns in an instant, reflexes working on overdrive.

There’s a guard with a gun in each hand, and a look on his face like he’s all too prepared to use both of them.

“Anyone move, I shoot!”

There are only three guards left now; Dick can’t differentiate between them and Bruce and Damian, but he knows that they’re there.

No one moves; in this haze, the guards can’t guarantee that their actions won’t be interpreted as hostile.

“I’ll play mouse,” Dick says, and without waiting for an answer, he leaps upwards and into a somersault.

The second he moves, there’s an eruption of gunfire. It goes on for only a moment before someone takes him out, and there’s dead silence once more. Dick pants slightly from where he’s kneeling by the far wall, away from all the unconscious bodies.

The sound of sirens draws closer. They need to be gone before the cops get here.

Someone is coming over to Dick. Dick rises to meet them. There’s a wave of vertigo as he does so, which is… unusual, to say the least. Dick can’t remember the last time he felt vertigo from something as simple as a flip.

“—eed to go!” Bruce’s hand at his elbow and his body is moving before he’s even fully aware of it.

Damian is ahead as the three of them slink out of the entrance, keeping to the shadows. Dick can hear officers speaking over the radio, Dhernian words too rapid for him to be able to piece together. A moment later, ambulances pull up, but by then, they’re already over the fence.

Dick presses a few buttons to let natural air into his helmet, not yet daring to take it off entirely just yet. He can already feel the waves of anger coming off of Bruce, and he sighs inwardly as he resigns himself to hearing a lecture when they get back to the plane.

The hike back is long, made longer by the fact that, while there aren’t any major injuries, he and Damian haven’t come out of this unscathed. Dick can feel where bruises will definitely be popping up in the morning, not to mention the buzzing headache he now has.

The Batplane is a welcome sight; Dick lets out a relieved breath as they approach it. The moment they step inside, Bruce is at the controls, steering them up into the sky.

“We’re leaving?” Damian asks, yanking off his helmet. His hair is sweaty beneath it, standing up in weird tufts here and there while the rest is matted to his head.

Bruce nods. “After the way that ended, there’s nothing more we can do there. Not without raising suspicions.”

Here it comes, Dick thinks. He half collapses into a nearby chair and tugs at the helmet until it’s off. “B,” he begins. “We couldn’t just leave them there. Not after we saw them.”

Bruce doesn’t say anything, but Dick can see his knuckles whiten around the curve of the armrest of the chair. Dick swallows. Bruce’s anger is one thing, but his disappointment is another. He could always handle the first, but it’s the latter that plagues him well into the night.

“You were hit!” There are hands on his face, tilting his head to the side.

“What?” Dick pushes at Damian half-heartedly. “No, I wasn’t. I was wearing a helmet the entire time. There’s no way…” His voice trails off as he sees Damian’s fingertips come away red.

Dick stands abruptly, teetering slightly as he makes for the bathroom mirror. Sure enough, there’s a trail of red trickling down from his ear and down the neck of his shirt.

“Huh,” he says, craning his head to look at it. He’s about to poke a finger into his ear to see if there’s a cut or something when Damian whacks at his hand.

“Sit,” he snaps.

Bruce has put the plane on autopilot now that they’re well into the air. He frowns quizzically at the side of Dick’s head, fingers quick to tilt his head a little.

“Any blows to the—”

Nothing, B,” Dick says. “Look, it’s probably just… the earpiece or something with the helmet. Maybe you were just really loud over the comms.”

Bruce grunts a little. “Wipe,” he says to Damian.

Dick holds himself still as Bruce clears the dried blood around his ear. There’s silence when he stops.

“What?” Dick says.

“We’ll have to run tests when we get back,” Bruce says. “You probably tore your eardrum. You were dizzy before.” It’s more of a statement, but Dick hums a reluctant yes anyway.

“Could it be a side effect?” Damian asks. There’s an expression on his face that Dick doesn’t recognise. “Of the serum.”

“We’ll run tests,” Bruce says again. His hand is heavy on Dick’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”

Dick wants to protest that it’s just a little bit of blood – they’re around loud noises all the time; a burst eardrum is probably just another initiation thing at this point – but he can’t deny that this feels nothing like a typical burst or ruptured eardrum.

“I hope the others are having fun,” he comments.

Chapter Text

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.