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swimming is to drowning as flying is to

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Talon takes its first steps out of Gotham’s sewers and something in it screams mistake!  

The something is better than what had screamed failure! traitor! murderer! as Grandmaster’s head dropped to the floor, and Talon had not let that stop it from cutting down more of the Court in his escape. It will not let this stop it either.

It does let itself be stopped by the child gripping its side. The child. Talon’s test. Not its first, not the first shaking form to be placed before it. They died, like Talon died, but didn’t move again. Talon thinks the first was hard. It was easy by the time they brought the child.

They’d never brought it a child before. 

“What kind of shitstain hurts kids?”

Talon was given an order. The order was wrong . The orders hadn’t been wrong for long enough that it was just Grandmaster and Owls watching, no Cobb to force it.

No Cobb to stop it—not until Talon had made it out of the maze, a tiny body pressed against it. Somehow, Talon knew it was not its first time defending one so small. 

Cobb had the advantage, a century’s experience, nothing to lose. Talon had the child.

Talon still has the child. It also has Cobb’s head. It has no place for either.

The child was gripping it tighter. Afraid. Talon does not think the words the Court lets it say will help. Instead, it hums, raising the pitch at the end and tilting its head at the child: as close to what? as it can ask.

“Where we goin’ now?” Talon can tell the child is from Gotham; can’t tell how it knows, when the child sounds nothing like the Owls, the only people of Gotham it has known. 

If the child is from Gotham, would it not have a nest there? Talon points to the city skyline.

The child burrows its head into Talon’s robes. “I don’ got a place there.”

Talon will find a place, then.

There’s something almost vindicating, seeing how shit Crime Alley still is; seeing all the other kids Bruce has failed. It’s not enough to make up for how fucking angry it makes him, kids ducking under any covered area to keep their only jacket dry, waiting out back of the cafe with the one nightshift waiter that’ll slip you a togo container if you pout just right, falling into whatever gang or bed that promises security. He’s got hate for more than Bruce; after the Pit he’s got plenty to go around (he’d had it before, hatred, bloodlust; the old anger is here still, but the increase is exponential, every slight or injustice multiplying on itself, dragging him into sickening green).

Jason isn't Bruce: he knows taking one guy down, taking them all down, doesn't mean shit if there's nothing in its place. Brucie Wayne can donate to his charities and hold his galas and say hugs not drugs—Batman can take on Joker and Two-Face and all the sickos he wants—these kids will always suffer, because real evil doesn't put on a pretty suit. If the Joker doesn't get them, the cops will, or their parents, or the fucking weather. Jason isn't Bruce: he knows that to help Gotham, you have to build something, not just give and take.

He's no saint, but in the time he isn't laying the groundwork for Bruce's lesson , he's built up what he can. Community based things, mostly; helping spread mutual aid networks and supplying the more expensive needs; encouraging underlings to volunteer with the understaffed food bank; making sure the few unofficial shelters he's cleaned up stay that way. 

The shelter he’s checking on tonight is favored by teens—the “staff” are barely out of their teens themselves, 20-somethings choosing to spend the short hours between their first and second jobs trying to make sure these street kids live long enough to do the same. 

Red Hood's enough of a name for most gangs to stay clear of what and where he claims, but he's got a decent security system set up anyway—no cameras (he's not Bruce ), just enough to let him know if he or one of his people need to step in. He doesn't bother trying to evade the motion sensors; only person the results go to is the person currently climbing through the fourth-floor window (it's not like he's gonna walk through the door . He'd rather not scare the kids out of the building when he's keeping the heat on for them).

Thinking of who his reputation doesn’t protect them from has green bubbling up inside him and he digs his gauntleted fingers into a deep bruise to temper it. Stopping the anger isn’t something he’s figured out how to do—the closest Talia came to teaching him was giving his anger a target, a focus. Pain doesn’t stop it, focus it, control it; it controls him , pulling Jason into his body and out of the Pit.

It doesn’t work one hundred percent of the time, but it works tonight, and he hunkers down to watch the front entrance. The fourth “floor” is a metal catwalk high in the back of the building (might as well make it easier on himself), only giving visibility of the double-doors and open entrance room. He’s not gonna watch any of ‘em where they’re expecting privacy.

Jason knows the brunette watching the door volunteers here most nights, has slipped extra money into her account. He can’t remember her name. Can't remember a lot of things, now, and there’s a big long list of potential causes for it, each shittier than the last. But he remembers to come here, and pay for the building, and to beat down any asshole who tries to fuck with this place.

The night’s slow, no new faces showing up that he can see, just hopefully-high schoolers taking practiced strides to their rooms with the occasional nod or smile at the staff. A handful look to have injuries, but all of them are in the later stages of healing, no fresh black eyes or bleeding noses. Good. No one’s beating them while they’re here.

Just because it’s slow doesn’t mean he relaxes; hypervigilant is his only state of being. His helmet isn't outfitted with any scanners—doesn't need to be, when he's already scanning his peripherals, taking in more information than a normal brain could process. That's how he sees it, catches what anyone else would brush off as the streetlights reflecting in the rain; in the window opposite where he'd entered, for a fraction of a second, eyes flash in the night.

If there's one thing his brain is hard-wired to notice, it's a threat . He loses the eyes as soon as he sees them but he's already moving to the window, pulling out his phone to check the outdoor motion sensors—all online, none triggered. Fuck does he wish he'd installed cameras now. Before he can hop out of the window after it, the motion sensor at the front doors goes off. He has a gun trained on the door before the knocking starts (small, whoever's knocking).

Brunette looks at the feed for the one camera—never recording, just there to preview whoever's on the front steps. Whatever she sees makes her gasp, unlocking and pulling the door open before he can shout something stupid like stop

Standing in the doorway is one of the most miserable looking kids he's ever seen. Their clothes are a parody of dirty, looking more like they took a trip in a mudpit than the grime of living rough, and the way the wet fabric hangs off them makes it painfully clear how skinny they are (and God does he wish the darkness around their throat was dirt and not bruising. He knows better).

As the volunteer (does her name start with an M, maybe?) ushers the kid in, Jason taps into the mic at the front door; it's meant for screening those outside in real-time like the camera, but the state of the kid justifies some creative liberties. The audio's muffled; by the time he's cancelled out enough noise to pick up on their conversation, the kid is asking something.

"—stay too? He wouldn't walk in with me, but I don't think he's gots a place to go neither."

"Is he around your age, d'you think?" The question makes sense—this kid can't be older than eight; if he's their size and in a similar state, he might not even make it a night out there. 

Kid shakes their head; "Bigger. He's all covered up, an' he don't talk, so I 'unno how big." Jason winces as the kid rubs their face, smearing what he really hopes is mud. "Know he's strong like a grown up though," they sniffle a little, getting teary, "an' I know he s-saved me."

God-damnit. Strong, silent protector, with a covered face? This reeks of vigilante; if Bats has taken in another fucking kid…

This time, he tries a breathing technique he thinks Alfred must have taught him, and eventually enough of the rage recedes. He's not sure that it works any better than the pain, but a voice from the past says something about agitating wounds slowing healing times and Jason isn't about to slow himself down just to get a little control. 

In his anger, he misses the end of the conversation, only focusing back in when the kid is being guided into the bathroom. Well, shit; he'd hoped to get a bit more information, like what the hell the kid was saved from (he'd put good money on those fucking eyes having something to do with it). The kid's savior is another issue; could be a vigilante, could also be a scumbag that just happened to do the right thing once, or he could just be a kid wrapped up to stay warm.

Jason's got too many questions not to go looking around (it's… Strange, to be motivated by something other than anger). He slips back out the window, dropping to a lower rooftop—there's nothing to say the guy is still around, but that doesn't mean there'll be no trace of him or the owner of the glowing eyes. 

If he had Bat-level tech, he'd have the guy's location in a few minutes of searching. Tech's been the hardest resource for him to amass, though, so he'll be looking on foot, asking around; the kid and their savior must've made an impression on someone . That, or maybe he gets lucky and the guy passed out in an alley nearby. 

… Or maybe, he gets either very lucky or very fucking unlucky , and spots a guy on the roof directly across from the shelter.

He can't say he bemoans a quick end to his search, yet he also can't say the figure perched at the edge of a roof, layered in dark fabrics, paints a particularly inviting picture (not that he does either). Deciding a closer look is in order before determining his approach, Jason props his rifle on a vent, looks through the scope—

And is greeted by reflective eyes looking back.

— 

Talon has found the child a nest (Talon threw Cobb's head into the water; remembers that something in the sewers will eat his body). Talon watches to see if the nest accepts the child, expecting this strange protective instinct to abate as soon as it gets confirmation of the child's security. Slowly, it does.

Talon approaches the blankness it is used to, but in the absence of the protectiveness—in the absence of orders, of masters—there is a feeling that prevents it from being fully numb. Talon is… confused. Confusion had never lasted for long with the Court, not without punishment. With no Court it seems to pour down with the rain.

When a large figure climbs out of the nest, Talon decides what it is meant to do next: observe them. The confusion recedes, replaced with the investigative curiosity Cobb encouraged (it. It might have had that before?), and it watches. It is not alarmed when the figure sets up a rifle. The figure doesn't even move to load it, just observes like Talon observes.

The figure is startled for a moment. Their fingers remain steady on their rifle. 

Then, the figure raises their right hand and… Waves? Talon doesn't know a meaning for the gesture outside of friendly greeting, and that meaning would not make sense. Talon does not know the figure, is not friendly with anyone.

Talon was not allowed to be friendly with anyone. Talon was not allowed to know anyone the Court did not need it to know. Without the Court, it knows the child. Maybe it could know more. Something in it remembers knowing more.

It waves back. The worst the figure can do is hurt it; it's been hurt before. 

The figure waits, and then they're storing their rifle and taking an odd path to the ground (the Court would have Talon simply jump down, its injuries healing fast enough that avoiding harm would waste time. Talon doesn't know what it would choose). They make their way across the street—a man, broad and tall, with a red metal helmet covering his head. Talon's face is covered in black cloth (not the proper black cowl and goggles it would have been dressed in for a mission, just a scrap it had torn from Cobb's clothing. The child was less scared when it covered its face).

It watches as the man looks up from the base of the building Talon is perched on, no doubt looking for his route up. Talon had found handholds in the aging brickwork and levered itself up with ease; the man jumps from atop a dumpster to grab the end of a fire escape ladder, climbing it til he's in range of the lip of the roof, making another jump to grab it and pull himself up. It wonders if the man had been made, how Talon was made.

Talon doesn't turn more than its head to the man, preferring to stay with its arms wrapped around its legs (not an advantageous position to fight. Talon doesn't know if it will have to, now that not-fighting has become a possibility). The man walks towards it, stops five meters away; his movements are slow, casual, but he carries tension in his shoulders. He looks at it, or it assumes he does, and Talon tilts its head just as it had with the child; what?

The man snorts, mutters, "like a damn dog," low enough a human might not hear it over the rain. "A little kid over there," he points to the nest, "says someone matching your description saved them. That true?"

A question. Can Talon answer? The man doesn't sound angry with Talon, but sometimes the Owls weren't angry and punished Talon anyway. This man is definitely not an Owl, clothes roughened and practical, modulated speech almost as informal as the child's had been. Talon decides the risks to an answer are minimal, and nods its head. Talon doesn't know if not-killing the child was "saving" it, but Cobb certainly would have killed the child had it not killed him first, and the child was in no physical state to survive without shelter. It feels right, that the child is safe in a nest.

The man nods, too. "Kid also said you had no place to go. That true?"

This one is harder to answer; it is true that it can no longer return to the Court, and knows no other place, and yet it had found a safe enough nest for the child in less than an hour of searching. Surely housing suitable for a talon would be even easier to find.

It settles on a nod followed by a shrug. The man huffs, shifts his feet. His hand doesn't move to a weapon. Talon stays where it is.

"Look," he starts, "if you need medical help, there's a clinic a couple blocks down that won't ask questions; otherwise, you can take your leave. I take care of things here." The man wants it to leave, wants Talon to stop watching the nest.

Something sharp and sour curls in its stomach and Talon's head lowers as it turns to face the man fully. A hand twitches to his thigh holster. No weapon is drawn. Talon is always drawn.

Talon shakes its head: points to the nest, points to its eye, points to the nest again. Talon will watch the nest. The man can watch, too, but he doesn't know the Court, he can't keep it safe.

A growl comes from the man, layered and warped by his mask; Talon raises its shoulders, unfurls its limbs to be bigger. That is anger, that is the snarl before a fist would meet Talon's face. Yet the man does not move forward—he moves up-and-down, his shoulders and chest, audibly pushing air in and out. Talon continues to hold its breath.

Each time the man exhales, some of the danger-anger-fight leaves his body, and neither of his hands have grabbed a weapon. With the Court, Talon would attack first, eliminate the possibility of a weapon being drawn (it hadn't at first, it thinks, even as it remembers never fighting any other way). Talon now, waits.

There is still anger in his voice when the man speaks, but a lighter sort of anger, one that doesn't make Talon want to puff up or run. "I can't have you this close to the kids when I don't know if you're safe." The man thinks he'll hurt the child? Hurt other children?

The Court had thought he would too.

Talon throws the man's growl back at him, wants to scream that he doesn't know what is safe, not like it knows. He steps forward; Talon's growl twists up into a whine. Why would he think it would hurt them? Why won't he let it keep the nest safe?

Hands go up—with a weapon? Did the man grab—no, his hands are flat and empty, his legs taking a step back.

"Hey, 'sokay, we can… Shit, we can figure somethin' out?"

Chapter Text

It turns out that all of Talia's training somehow hasn't equipped Jason to deal with one mute, overprotective weirdo with big eyes.

(That's what really does it, if he's honest, before he even hears the whine; the guy could be anywhere from a particularly spry thirty to an overmuscled tween, but those eyes are big in the way that screams young , pupils blown impossibly wide in stress. What bastard wouldn't help someone that young.)

Here he is feeling proud of himself for managing to ask Cat-Eyes to leave twice without shooting something, only for the guy to somehow get even more tense and let out a garbled sort of growl that tumbles into a genuinely pitiful whine as Jason takes a step forward. 

He suddenly feels like he's kicked about five puppies (he's felt better killing people , something he feels absolutely no need to unpack). 

Tamping down on his guilt (and confusion, and anger, always anger), Jason lifts his hands placatingly, tells the kid: "we can figure something out," like the moron he is. The part of him that wants nothing more than to tear Bruce apart limb-from-limb is disgusted by how much he cares right now; would've been better if the Pit had killed that kindness in you. Jason tells that part of him to fuck off so he can get this shit sorted.

"Offered the clinic before—you hurt? Sick?" The guy's been in the cold rain for who knows how long, in clothes that are definitely not waterproof; if he isn't sick now, he will be by the end of the night.

Cat-Eyes tilts his head in that confused way again, body still taut as a bowstring. That head shakes no ; a moment of hesitation, and then his hands rise to wrap around his body, miming shivering—cold. No shit .

He sighs. "Alright. You need a place to get warm?"

Cat-Eyes points at his eye, and the shelter again; Jason probably should've guessed. 

He finds himself staring at the guy's eyes again. "Cat-Eyes" isn't quite accurate—they're a dark color when not reflecting the light, blending into his blown pupils. It must be some kind of meta gene or enhancement (breaking one of Batman's rules just by existing here admittedly gets him a couple points in Jason's book).

A young, mute meta, intent on getting hypothermia to protect a kid.

Jason's going to regret this.

"Alright; how's about a compromise?" That damn head tilt again. " You want to keep an eye on that kid, I want you off my street—" (and away from the shelter til he knows the guy isn't bringing trouble) "I've got a safehouse in the building right next to us," he jerks a thumb at it, "I'll let you protect 'em from there." 

Talon knows the offer is a trick. If the man truly wants it out of his territory, he will not allow it to stay in the nest (house?). He will kill Talon, or try to; he will hurt it to protect his territory. Talon knows this.

But the man will hurt it if it stays here, too; with the nest, Talon would at least get out of the rain. It does not like the rain (it never rained in the Court. Talon's skin remembers it all the same).

And maybe part of him has latched onto the mystery of this man seeming to guard its… the child.

"It's got heating. You could warm up." The man speaking startles it— mistake! weakness! —almost as much as the idea does. Warm? Is that something Talon can know, can have? Not with the Court, but maybe now (maybe it had known it Before; in a three-person trailer; in a living room with a cathedral ceiling).

It is not freezing like its coffin, but it is cold , and it will take the chance to know warmth before it has to fight again.

It nods. The man sighs in… relief? Is he so confident in his advantage once they reach the nest? Talon supposes it understands; it had used its knowledge of its surroundings to end its tests quickly. Talon preferred it when they ended quickly.

The man points a strange gun up at the building he'd indicated, fires—ah, a grappling device. Stepping to the near edge of the roof, the man turns back to it. "I'd offer a ride, but you seem like you can find your way." With that, he engages the device, repelling to the taller building's roof.

The man is correct. Talon takes its stance, runs, and jumps. There is shouting from the man—Talon does not listen, letting itself be overwhelmed by the feeling of flying , by the rightness of it. It catches the small metal balcony it had aimed for with ease, something fluttering within it to say again, we'll do that again

From there, Talon carves a quick path up to the roof, twisting and climbing, not getting the same feeling out of it as flying but something pretty close. It wants to do both again. Every moment of its life as Talon has been about need; about the needs of the city, about the needs of its masters, about needing to do everything it's asked so it isn't frozen again.

Even saving the child was about need: Talon looked at what should be another passed test, and saw something it needed to protect. Wanting something is foreign to it, yet Talon wants to fly again. The Court can't take it away ( not again, a part of it finishes, and Talon doesn't remember, agrees anyway).

The man is looking at it again, and Talon suddenly hates the flat red helmet, hates how the voice modulation combines with the covered face to make his tone, his intentions, that much harder to read. Only Grandmaster was this hard to read, and at least experience had taught it what to expect from him (pain). Talon… Doesn't expect that from the man, even as it knows, it knows the man will hurt him (it's what the Court had used Talon for, wasn't it? Hurting people to protect their territory).

"Roof access is here," the man gestures at a slim door, "I'm gonna unlock it." Why announce his actions? Even as the behavior confounds it, it finds itself appreciating the warning. The door opens, revealing a small stairwell. 

Talon is working itself up to enter—the man certainly wouldn't give up his back to it, so while it strains against all of its training (a Talon takes every advantage and leaves none) , it will make itself vulnerable to get to the warmth. 

Except as it stands there, arms folded around it, getting ready to edge towards the narrow doorway, another distorted sigh comes out of the man's helmet. "Fucking fine, " he mutters before doing the impossible:

He shows his back to Talon. The man starts down the stairs first , turning his back to it the whole way .

This—this isn't overconfidence. The man just… doesn't think it is going to attack it. It. Talon. The Court's perfect weapon, their Hand, the blade Owls look at in fear even as they wield it.

But if it's not a threat, why does the man want it in his nest?

— 

Stopping halfway down the stairs, Jason breathes out, breathes in, and turns around. God-damnit. When the kid (and really, he has to be a kid with the way those big eyes sparkled when Jason mentioned getting warm) had frozen looking at the open door, he knew exactly what internal debate was going on in that head. He knew how it felt, to judge if shelter was worth the risk of leaving yourself exposed, and he found himself with a debate of his own: was getting the kid where Jason could keep an eye on him worth that risk?

Against every bit of the League's fucking training, he decides the answer is yes, but now he's turned back around to check and sure enough, the kid hasn't moved an inch. Shit, could be more of a hypothermia risk than I thought

He takes the kid in—before Jason walked down the stairs, the kid had been physically guarding himself, eyes narrowed. Now those eyes are ridiculously wide again (yup, definitely not human), arms dropped lax to his sides—he's surprised. 

Jason doesn't really know what to do with the feeling that gives him, and so he does what he always does, and lets it corrode into anger. Fuck this city, where a kid is floored by someone showing them the slightest bit of trust. Fuck this city, where you're made to wear armor for so long taking it off feels like you're being skinned. Fuck this city for finding anything young and maybe-good and bleeding it dry.

When the green rage has cleared enough for him to see, he curses himself; he'd noticed before that the kid reacted to his body language and sure enough, the kid has stepped back slightly, head lowered and arms in front of him. If Jason doesn't want the kid to run (and for some fucking reason, he doesn't) he's gotta control his anger, or at least how it shows in his body.

He forces a couple deep breaths before speaking. "You comin'?" he asks, all fake-casual in a way he's sure those eagle eyes pick up on, then turns back around before he can respond. It's a bit of a dirty move to pull with someone he needs to be facing to communicate with, but he hopes exposing his back again will be enough to show he's not still pissed (he is, but he can multitask).

The move pays off when, as he's nearing the bottom of the stairs, he hears them creak under a new weight. There's another door at the bottom and he unlocks and disarms it; by the time he's finished, the kid is standing just behind him (light-footed—who would've guessed). Shaking off the instinctual anxiety, he steps over the threshold first, moving in to do a sweep of the place. He hasn't used this safehouse yet, just bought and stocked it in case he needed to watch the shelter for more than a day, and there's no sign of entry from another party. He only flicks on the kitchen light, letting it faintly illuminate most of the unit.

Satisfied, he goes for the thermostat by the entrance, only to stop with a barely-internal groan: the kid is frozen again, stopped about a foot through the door. Shit .

— 

It doesn't know what it has exchanged with the man, but it knows an exchange has occurred.

Talon knows it was someone, before it died; it doesn’t remember who, not really, but sometimes a thought will come to its head (not again—what kind of shitstain—) that can’t be explained by its time with the Court.

It’s less a thought this time than a feeling, a feeling it had never needed in the Court: trust, or something like it. The Court asked only for obedience. 

Maybe it is the exchange that stopped them, it thinks, the Court did not ask for its trust because trust requires them to give something as well.

The thought is too big for it, so it shoves it down, away, but the feeling of too-big doesn’t go . Talon has been scared before ( don’t freeze me I’ll be good just please don’t— ), knows that going away in its head is the quickest way to end it. Yet, whether it is being away from the Court, being near the man, or the cold wet clinging to it, it doesn’t go; it stays in its body with the scared. 

It startles for the second time at the man’s voice— failure! mistake!— and the man raises flat hands again. "Hey kid, easy: it's okay." 

'Kid'? The man thinks it a child? If he feels anything like the need to protect Talon had felt, still feels for the child, then some of his behavior would become easier to understand. 

This is your advantage, its training hisses, he will underestimate you, leave himself open . It slams the thought down just as fast as it had its too-big thoughts of the Court. Talon could hurt the man, but Talon doesn't have to. It tilts its head at the man in response.

"You with me?" A strange question, with an easily observed answer (unless the man knows about going away in its head, but how would he?). Talon nods.

The man sighs, lowers his hands. "Good, that's good. I'm just goin' to turn the thermostat up, get it warm in here. It's just behind ya, and to the left." He says this, but then makes no move to the location indicated. After a silence in which the man seems to grow increasingly restless, it realizes the man must be waiting for another response from it.

He let it into his nest, he has trusted it, and it can't even give him a basic answer. Disgraceful , it hears what feels like Cobb; as soon as you fail as a Talon, you go on to fail at being trustworthy

It nods. Keeps its head low and, for the first time, it breaks its gaze from the man, keeping its eyes on the floor. It hears the man sigh again (it could be a huff or some other exhalation; the distortion makes them all sighs) then start walking, going to the wall to do whatever it is that will make it warm. He walks away from the wall after a few seconds, and Talon does not feel different, but it hears the whirring of air in vents and assumes that was the result.

The man stops in front of it, closer than he had been on the first roof, or the second, or the stairwell—half a meter, at most. Talon does not look up, does not tilt its head even as its curious mind asks what? why, who, what? The man’s hands drop a little, like he’s relaxed his shoulders.

“Can you look at me? ‘Sokay if that’s a no.”

Do people really speak like this? No orders, questions it can say no to, not demanding it turn those horrid eyes away from me! It doesn’t want to look at him, because it feels like it shouldn’t; yet he asked it to. Talon can’t do other things, makes mistakes, but this, this it can do.

It looks up.

God; in the time the kid had stopped looking at him, he’d almost forgot just how expressive his eyes are. Something has ramped the kid’s anxiety up to eleven, and Jason’s not enough of an idiot to think it was unrelated to his actions. Did he move too fast, get too close, look too angry? He takes a step back. “Heat’s on,” he says, low and clear (as clear as the voice modulation allows, anyways), “won’t do much good in your wet clothes, though. If I grab a towel and some dry clothes, can you get changed?” Waits a beat, adds: “You’d change in the bathroom; can even lock me out.”

He hates that it was the right thing to say; some of the tension leaves the kid at his reassurance and he nods, thankfully looking back up again. With that decided, Jason walks to the only closet, grabbing the warmest looking non-armored clothes and a towel. After a moment of hesitation, he also grabs a balaclava; kid might be unwilling to leave his face uncovered, and it's better than the soaked scrap currently wrapped around his face.

Arms full, he walks back over—unsurprisingly, the kid hasn’t moved an inch. When he holds out the bundle, the kid does that damn head tilt again, and he suppresses his thousandth sigh ( he’d at least understood what it meant when Alfred gave him clothes, even if he’d locked the door the second he closed it). 

“These are for you,” he lifts the clothes to indicate them, then points them at a door; “that’s the bathroom. I’ll set these down in there, then it’s all yours.” He would let the kid shower, but he doesn't quite want to risk a heart attack if the kid heats up too quickly. He puts the towel on the counter and clothes on the toilet, balaclava at the top of the pile. 

“Alright; now I gotta get dry. I’ll be in the bedroom, you can wait out here or wherever if you finish before me.” He figures it might be a load off for the kid to know Jason won't just be waiting for him outside the bathroom. Also, he needs to get out of this wet leather. For his part, the kid looks confused but edges towards the bathroom, squinting at the light—oh, light sensitivity with those eyes must be a bitch. The light-switch is outside the bathroom, so he hits it again before making his way to the bedroom.

No fluffy clothes for him, but he puts on a worn t-shirt and sweatpants that are comfortable enough, and he leaves on just a domino mask: figures the helmet probably wasn’t helping calm him down any. He looks in the mirror, regrets it, and steps back into the living area. The kid isn’t out yet.

Couch seems as good a place to wait as any. The kid can stay in the bathroom all night as far as he’s concerned, but if he’s not out in ten minutes Jason’ll check for signs of life. Kid wasn’t shivering, which leans towards a not great sign after at least an hour’s exposure to cold and rain, but he was more than agile and mostly lucid so Jason doesn’t think dropping dead is a risk. 

When he does step out, Jason turns casually (non-threateningly) to face him, and he has to bite back a grin at the sight he's met with. Wearing a too-big blue sweater, fuzzy socks, and superman pajama pants, the kid paints a lot softer picture than he had in that suit, even combined with what's essentially a ski mask.

Sue him, it's a little cute. Out of the armor, he'd guess the kid's in his mid-teens; he's built lean, with strong shoulders decently close to fitting Jason's sweater despite him otherwise drowning in it, and he looks like he's still waiting on a last growth-spurt. 

He also looks like being in dry clothes in a slowly warming apartment is the best experience of his life. Jason doesn't even think he realizes it, but the kid is rubbing the soft knit of the sweater between his hands; and though his body's still tensed, the kid seems a thousand times more relaxed than he was on the roof. Jason thinks removing the helmet was probably the right call.

The kid is staring at his face, taking in every exposed scar—he'd been a little worried that the J might freak him out more; any Gothamite with half a brain would get spooked by a sign of the clown. He doesn't get that from the kid, just wide-eyed curiosity and a slight tilt to his head (the mask has a mouth hole as well, and he swears the kids lips are quirked enough to almost be a smile).

"Clothes alright?" The kid takes a second to process like he has every time Jason's asked something, then nods with surprising energy. Up until now, the motions he's used to communicate have been restrained, efficient; this is neither, his head bobbing a couple extra times in appreciation of the clothes. 

Jason decides it's alright to crack a smile at that. "Good. Now, I wanna go over some ground rules," and he definitely notices how the kid flinches at that, bites his cheek to not let the anger out of his mouth; "but first, we should find a better way for you to communicate. You write?" he asks, miming the action.

The kid repeats the motion, frowning in thought before nodding, much more hesitantly than earlier. He'll take that as a positive 'maybe', which he decides is enough to justify trying it. Getting up, he grabs a pad of paper from the untouched desk and a pen from his discarded armor (hey, you never know when you might need to write something down. Or might need to stab someone with a pen). 

Jason sets them on the coffee table in front of the couch, sits at the opposite end of the table so that the kid won't have to get into his space. "There. If you need to say somethin' more than yes or no, you can write it down 'n show me. That sound good?"

He asks it if it "sounds good". If . As if Talon could ask for more, could refuse—as if it would want to, when the man is giving it words without it having to beg, when he has welcomed it into his nest and made it warm . Being able to answer the man ( the least you could give him ) is definitely good. It nods.

The man nods back, slapping his hands down on his thighs. "Alright." And then, because the man apparently has to continue being impossible to predict, he continues; "Before I go over the rules; this' been a pretty one-sided exchange," does he know what they've exchanged, will he tell it? "so if you've got questions, go ahead and use it to ask."

With trembling hands, Talon reaches for the offered paper and writing instrument. It didn't use anything like this with the Court, and yet… It presses down on the spring loaded back of the instrument and reveals a metal tip, lightly dotted with ink. The action and its result feel familiar; it lets its body's memory guide it, pressing tip to paper, writing the question it has been trying to answer ever since it left the sewers:

Is the child safe?

Chapter Text

The man's face… crumples, sort of, and Talon is instantly scrambling for what it did wrong. He said it could ask ( as if that had never been an offer before, Cobb asking Talon to speak only to punish it anyway ). But the man doesn't tense in anger, not more than he has been. "Yeah kid," his voice is tired, the kind of tired it had felt before the child, "they're safe. Is there anythin' in particular they need to be kept safe from? Any one ?"

Everything , it wants to say, everyone

It can't warn the man of the Court by name; without its Head and without its Hands, the Court still has its Eyes and Ears. Still, he should know something ; Talon will protect the child, but it can always be frozen, and the man seems to be who would protect them in its stead.

Dressed like it was , it writes, crossing out the 't' before showing the paper to the man. Somehow it knows that the man wouldn't understand Talon is referring to itself otherwise.

"Watch out for people wearin' suits like yours, got it." But Talons aren't all the Court has (it may never have talons again, after Cobb and itself). It grabs the paper up again. The Owls The Owls The Owls, it wants to write, Masters .

Putting it into words the man might understand comes slowly. 

Rich of Gotham. Old money especially.

The man sucks in a breath; "Okay. I'd keep an eye on anyone matching those descriptions anyway, but. Thanks." It doesn't know exactly how to respond to that, nods. "Now: the rules if you're gonna stay here."

Its whole body goes still, each muscle locking in place, its eternal heart in-between beats. Rules. Talon follows rules ( Grandmaster's head falling from his shoulders ), can follow them for this man who keeps it warm and bares his back and hasn't hurt it. If it follows his rules, he may never have to hurt it ( as if its obedience had ever stopped it being hurt ).

"Hey," the man's voice without the modulator is gentle, for all its roughness, "take a breath. I got a feelin' these rules'll be a lot simpler than whatever you're used to."

The rules of the Court are very simple: obey. Talon does not think rules get simpler, but it will not disagree with the man. It takes a breath ( it was ordered to ), and although it could have gone longer without breathing, it finds there is a certain calm in the action. After repeating the action, it nods.

Searching it for a moment, the man seems to find what he's looking for and continues. "Rule one: I don't hurt you, you don't hurt me. Only exceptions are defending yourself or others. Okay?"

Trick , its mind screams, lies—Talon is made for hurting . It takes another breath. Wishes it were sitting, kneeling—anything lower, less threat .  The Court made it to hurt others, trained it to take hurt as well as give it. The Court wanted it to hurt a child . If the Court was wrong about that, then— 

Stop. It shoves the dangerous thoughts back down, down ( they didn't leave it room for too many thoughts, for feelings. It all gets pushed down ). Focusing on what it knows instead of the questions that uproot it, it writes a reply for the man: Don't want to hurt you .

— 

Somehow, Jason had convinced himself that the guy finally being able to communicate beyond charades would make the whole thing easier to deal with—he hadn't thought about how he'd deal with the kid's answers. From the first thing the guy wrote, he knew dealing would actually be one of the hardest things of his un-life (of fucking course he asks after the kid he saved first, not the gun-toting stranger that just took him to a secondary location).

Learning that the kid's soaked clothes were a uniform of some kind, one of an organization he thinks will come after a little kid—well, it raises a lot of red flags. His second description narrows it down to one big fucking flag: he knows exactly what Gotham's elites would want with a street kid. 

Jason doesn't know exactly how he keeps the anger in, just that he does, eases off the interrogation (that's how, isn't it; 'cause this is what he trained you for). Restraining the anger becomes a more active choice when the kid flinches again at the mention of rules. Part of him wants to call it off, just let the kid do whatever the hell he wants, but he's not naïve, knows that the uncertainty would cause more problems.

(He'd caught Bruce reading a parenting book, once; waited until he'd set it down and left the room to take a look, flipping to the bookmarked page. "... It may feel counter-intuitive to establish clear rules and consequences right away with an abused child, but it can help to relieve the child of anxieties about unknowingly breaking a rule and possible punishments…"  

He'd closed it, snarled at the book's insinuation, at the possibility that Bruce too considered him broken.)

He lets himself slip into the voice he'd found as Robin, the gentle tone reserved for victims he didn't know he still had; looking at the kid doing his best impression of a statue, he can't really tell if it helps. His body language is weird, but pretty simple, easy to read now that he's got a feel for it. Fear has been a constant, the kid skipping flight and fight and going straight to freeze without fail; at some point in their interaction, he'd started lowering his gaze to Jason, something he didn't care for at all; and just to hammer home how absolutely fucked this all is, he's kept his hands tucked up in the sweater's overlong sleeves—slow, small circles rubbed with his left hand the only movement he allows himself. 

The kid's whole body moves when he finally takes a breath (had he even been breathing before?), chest, ribs, and stomach rising and falling… In the same three-fold breath he'd used to quell his anger earlier. Huh. With another breath, he seems as calm as he's gonna get, so Jason lays out the first rule. Honestly, if this is the only rule that gets through to him, he'll count it as a win.

What the kid writes in response turns out to be just as much of a sucker-punch as the rest of it. "Don't want to hurt you" ? He's got his theories as to where this kid's been, and all of them make green anger crawl up his throat, thick and ugly. 

Taking his advice for the kid, he breathes, and if the smile he pulls is more lopsided than usual, well, having a traumatized teenage meta in his safehouse is pretty un-fucking-usual. "Good thing I don't wanna hurt you either, then. That one's the most important; if either of us break it, we don't get to stay here. Make sense?" Jason knows what he put emphasis on might be confusing, but it's important the kid knows the rule applies to both of them. Eventually, he gets a hesitant nod. 

"Next up: if you gotta leave, say so—don't have to tell me where you're goin', just lemme know." He won't put a tracker on him, but he'll keep an eye on where the kid goes; the last thing he needs to worry about is a kidnapping. After a beat, he adds: "Not gonna kick you out or keep you in if you don't tell me, just prefer if ya did."

His addition definitely confuses the kid; Jason can't blame him, even as green pools in his chest. He gets another nod.

The next rule will definitely confuse the kid. How to phrase it in a way that won't make the kid think he's too interested in him. "Okay, rule number three: if you think you or the kid are in trouble, you tell me. I won't have people starting shit on my street—whatever it is, let me handle it."

These rules are not simple at all. Don't hurt, won't be hurt, won't be made to leave, won't be made to stay —all these rules seem to benefit it much more than they benefit the man. His offer to 'handle trouble' feels just as unbalanced, but his justification makes sense: defense of his territory, defense of the child (defense of it as well, as if it, like a child, is something living to be protected).

It nods, and it is not sure if its agreement is a lie. Talon will certainly tell the man if the child is in more danger, but Talon is a weapon; it is what others are protected from . It feels open air on its hand and looks sharply down: the sweater sleeve has started to roll up slightly under its ( childish, weak ) ministrations, and it quickly tugs the sleeve back down before its dark veins are shown. 

It looks back up when the man continues; "Alright, last rule:" certainly, this is where it comes, where Talon learns what the man wants from it in return, "pick up after yourself." What?

A chuckle emerges from the man (another somehow-soft sound that shouldn't be able to come from him, yet does), and those hands raise safe and flat again. "Hey, I don't wanna clean up your shit, I think that's more than fair." Some of the joke fades from his voice, but the rough-soft remains; "Make sense? Have questions about any of the rules?"

Talon has so many questions it feels more Question than Talon. Talon is also still warm, the room getting even warmer, and it doesn't want to risk a question that would lead to the warmth being taken away. It can follow the rules while not understanding them. Taking up the pen, it simply writes understood .

The man claps his hands together with a noise that grates at Talon's sensitive ears, but Talon does not flinch. "Alright, with that outta the way; you need anything? Warmed up enough?"

Surely there isn't a more-warm state it could be in? Talon can be frozen, and it can be cold, and it's just learned it can be warm—how can it be 'warmed up' more ?

It is unsure what the man reads from it (Talon is not in control of what it is showing to the man, not like it should be; the Court had called it one of its greatest flaws, its expressive nature ), but the man rises (slowly, intentionally) from the couch, looking to a spot down the hall that it knows he walked in the direction of before. "How's about I grab you a blanket?"

Instinctively its head tilts again— what? The word isn't foreign, exactly, but Talon cannot picture what 'blanket' represents in its mind. The man sighs, fists tensing and relaxing, and walks down the hall. Talon shifts its minimal weight from one foot to the other; the man hasn't told it to be still, and Talon doesn't want to be, will take the opportunity to move without orders. 

When the man returns, he's holding a folded piece of fabric, though it’s no fabric Talon is familiar with, thick and… fuzzy. If the clothes it has already been given are any indication, it would be warm and soft against its skin. 

“Y’want it?” The man lifts the fabric in his hands; the blanket. It desperately wants to ask why the man is doing this, giving Talon even more comfort, yet it even more desperately wants to accept it, to blindly curl into the comfort without thinking of the cost. 

The mask covering the man’s face turns down where his eyebrows would be, and that tiredness is back in his voice. “Free of charge, man, just take it. Y’can take the couch too.” He thrusts the offering out to it; its covered hands move at a glacial pace to receive it, conscious of keeping them as far from the man's as possible. 

And oh . Even through the sweater covering its hands, it feels the plush give of the blanket, and Talon sees itself curled up on the cold floor of its room, remembers begging for a blanket. The man steps back. Talon steps back, raises blanket-laden hands to shoulder height, and lets the folded blanket unfurl.

If it remembers asking for a blanket, then it had had one when it was someone, had felt this before.

It wishes it remembered how to use one.

Of course the kid doesn’t know what to do with a fucking blanket. Of course! Why the fuck would Jason expect the world to have the shred of decency necessary for someone to have given this kid a blanket at any point in his depressing life? This world killed him, killed Dick less than two years later if the rumors about Nightwing were true; having a kid grow into his teenage years having never received one of the most basic fucking comforts sounds exactly like this world’s brand of awful.

The kid still tenses whenever he gets too close so he’s not stepping up to help, but Jason can only take his lost and wanting stare at the damn thing for a minute before he has to open his mouth; “You wrap it around yourself, like a…” he can’t entirely bite back his groan at the comparison his mind supplies, but given the kid’s whole vibe, he has a feeling it’ll be effective; “Like a cape, or a cloak.”

Something sparks in the kids eyes, and he slowly (carefully, like he’s still not sure he can have it) drapes the blanket over his shoulders, grabbing at the corners to keep it around him. He's… really wearing it like a cape, and Jason gets a fractured memory of himself sneaking on Dick's old Robin cape, looking at himself in the mirror and feeling like for just a second, he had power. 

He shakes himself out of it, grounding himself by outlining what he knows of the kid: mute, enhanced eyes, serious parkour experience; saved a little kid from the worst kind of people; was involved with those garbage people to some extent. Given the other shit he's learned about the guy—confused by basic decency, quick to read anger, flinches at rules, doesn't want to hurt him —Jason doubts he'd been involved willingly. All of it points to the kind of shit the Justice League should be on top of, but he hasn't heard a whisper of the operation before this.

Focussing back in on him, he notices the kid's gaze is lowered again— fuck , Jason doesn't want a repeat performance of that fearful subservience the kid'd dropped into when they'd come in. Yet it isn't fear he reads in the kid's now lax body, it's wonder; he's staring at the blanket covering his arms like he's been reunited with a lost pet. He doesn't bother hiding a smile at the sight, even with all the grief and rage storming inside him; Jason's built for destruction, he knows, but if he can give someone a feeling like that, well. Maybe that's a type of building he can still do.

Making a sweeping gesture to it, Jason repeats his offer: "Feel free to sit on the couch." The kid looks sharply up at him, surprised. 'Take the couch' didn't clue him in? Remembering the exchange with the blanket, Jason thinks he gets it; the kid only seems to understand offers with direct, literal language. Since the kid can't literally take the couch, he just stayed where he was.

Now, he makes his way closer to the couch, this tentative sort of shuffle, hands gripping the blanket tight. It takes him a while to navigate keeping the blanket wrapped around himself as he sits. When he figures it out, he sinks into the couch, the blanket now wrapped around his front. Because it’s this kid, he freezes, a block of stone in fluffy pajamas. Jason stamps down the instinct to reach out and, unlike before, the kid works himself out of it in seconds. 

He’s left looking relaxed , eyes closing as he sort of nuzzles into the blanket. Part of him wonders if the kid is younger than he thought, but he doesn’t think that’s it; if the teenager is a meta of the created-intentionally-by-garbage-people variety (not Jason’s only theory, but his strongest one), he’s probably never had the chance to seek comfort like this, to be warm and safe. 

Rage rises reflexively to drown his caring— how dare they hurt a kid so bad that a blanket is the best thing that’s happened to him . Before the anger can consume him, all of his focus snaps back to the kid in front of him who is making a quiet, warbling sort of sound. It’s… Almost like a bird cooing. The kid coos, and nuzzles his covered head into a warm blanket, and Jason decides he’s allowed to care about him, allowed to want him to be content like this. 

Comfort. It hadn't been able to recognize what it was at first, holding the blanket, but wrapped in it now it can name the feeling that threatens to drown it. With the Court, its feelings had become small, distant; they were safer like that, let it be a Talon without them getting in the way. 

The comfort is big

Drowning isn't the right word for it, though—Talon has drowned, with the Court; not for punishment, but for training (they hurt the same). It’s more like floating, like right when it reaches the peak of a jump and it hangs there, just for a second; yet the comfort doesn’t leave, not even when it catches itself cooing like the owls had to their owlets (just birds, practical mousers and messengers for the Court. It had watched them care for each other, feeding, warming with a wing, and thought the dangerous thought that it would be nice, to care and be cared for). 

It cuts off the noise, hunching small and still. A Talon should be silent . That rule had been the hardest for it, early on with the Court; who it was before it was Talon had loved noise, needed it (cheering crowds and shrieking laughter and—and that’s the end of the memories, but it knows there’s more). Being quiet is easy now, safe. The only words it can say are The Court of Owls has sentenced you to die , even if other Owls had often demanded it say more. The slaps and nails of those Owls were much easier to take than the punishment if it had given in.

But this is not the Court ( free free flying and free ), and the man does not tense in anger. Chancing a glance up at him, his masked eyebrows are raised, his mouth parted slightly; surprised? It can’t be sure before his mouth shifts to a closed-lip smile. “Knew the thing looked comfy.”

His mouth quirks back down; “You hungry? Not much in the way of food here, but I was gonna scrounge something up.”

Talon winces, remembering an early test: a hunk of lamb had been placed in the maze. If it found it, it could eat. It had been very hungry, then; it is not hungry enough to justify the man having to scavenge for food. 

The man raises his hands; “I’m just going to the kitchen, probably gonna grab protein bars. Can I bring you one?” He can do whatever he wants. It nods. It… can’t remember food, not exactly. It remembers wanting it, remembers hunger ( feels it), and it knows the Court fed it if it stayed unfrozen for longer than a week. When it goes to recall what the food looked like, tasted like, there is only the memory of a thought: shove it down shove it down shove it down .

It runs its fingers across the blanket from underneath it, letting its bare fingers dip into the plush red fabric, and it brings itself back into its body enough to notice the man is no longer in front of it. Straining its ears, it hears a mechanical buzzing coming from the northwest corner of the floor. The kitchen then? It doesn’t dare move to check, will stay in the warm and comfort for as long as is allowed. It thinks it would even take a punishment just to stay longer. 

He returns a minute or so after the mechanical buzzing ends, holding four packaged rectangles in one hand, and two steaming mugs carefully in the other. All of it is placed on the table in front of the couch and it. The man then grabs one of the rectangles again, tearing the packaging to reveal what must be the ‘protein bar’ and taking a bite. He lifts one of the mugs to his lips, and Talon notes the little square of paper hanging from a string over its side before he blows on it, steam being pushed away as he takes a sip. 

It is momentarily startled by the hiss the man lets out, following it with a sucked in breath. “ Shit! Too hot. Made yours first, but y’should probably still let it cool a bit.” 

It casts its eyes back to the table, and to the second mug. He prepared it for Talon? Its mind jumps to poison, easily dismisses it—unless the man somehow knew its weakness and found a freezing agent of some kind, its healing factor should be enough to combat most poisons intended for humans, and what would be the point of the comfort before attempting to kill it? It had already made mistakes, left itself open tonight; the man could have hurt it, and didn’t. 

Despite not remembering anything about food outside the wanting of it, Talon has not convinced itself to attempt a protein bar of its own. Instead, it grabs the other mug in a mirror of the man's movements, pausing with it raised to its chin. It can feel the heat of the steam rising up, over its covered face and soaking into its skin. 

The man had only used one hand for the mug, so it had done the same, but it is so warm Talon's other hand aches to make contact. It gently cups the side of the mug opposite the handle and feels warmth rush from its palms to its bones. And with that rush, a memory; its hands, small and tan instead of strong and pale, wrapped around a teacup in a giant kitchen, a man with a black suit and silver hair encouraging it to drink from the cup with a nod.

As soon as it comes, the memory is gone, leaving Talon with real and remembered warmth in its hands.

Chapter Text

Jason figures he doesn't need to put the energy into convincing the kid to sleep on the couch; he wouldn't put up with that at his age (or any age), and with a little tea in him the guy looks about ready to pass out all on his own. 

Running on three hours himself, he makes his way to the bedroom, intent on getting another three before starting his day (taking over Gotham's criminal underground, as it turns out, isn't conducive to sleeping well). He feels the kids eyes on him though and sighs, stopping halfway down the hall. A normal person would see him walking to the open bedroom and get the gist; naturally, that means the kid has nothing but confusion and curiosity in his eyes.

"I'm goin' to sleep, knock yourself out." As soon as he says it, he knows he has to revise lest the kid actually hits himself over the head to attempt it; "I mean you've got free reign of anything that isn't my bedroom while I'm out." Having moved the gun bag into his room sure streamlines the 'where you're allowed to go' discussion. 

The kid nods, leaning into the corner of the couch— he'll be out like a light before Jason's even in bed, he guarantees. 

Jason himself doesn't last much longer; still domino-clad, he drops onto the shitty Queen, barely remembering to hit a three-hour timer before letting his chronic exhaustion pull him under.

— 

Talon doesn't like sleeping. Falling asleep had been… nice, drifting off in the warm blanket so different to when the cold of its coffin froze its mind into dormancy. It had forgotten dreaming. 

It dreams of a fall—not its own, though it may as well be with how Talon's stomach drops watching them. Their faces are nothing but blurs, only increasing its horror; it should remember them, it knows them it has to.

It wakes before they hit the ground; wakes, and is wrapped up in something, unable to move. Out out out! its mind screams, its arms ripping through the restraint with all its enhanced strength. Not the Court , it thinks blearily; it had never broken their restraints. 

The Court. The test. The child . Talon is on its feet, looking for—the window. It finds with relief that the window faces the nest he'd left the child in, and that the sun has not yet risen; its farsight is best in the dark. There's no sign of an attack to the nest, but that means less than nothing if a Talon had done the job.

What Talons? You killed them, Cobb's voice croons in his mind; the only danger left is you .

Even as it fights against it—the Court of Owls is more than where Talon was, there are more Talons out there—there's a certain cold truth in the thought that pierces its frenzy. It is a danger, the ultimate weapon, and what experience does it have in wielding itself? The child had been afraid of it, should be afraid of it; without the Court's orders, Talon is danger with no control, no target. It knew the order to kill the child was wrong, but it doesn't know what is right , not when Talon has been told what is right since before it died.

(It. It thinks it might have known what was right, when it was someone; it at least remembers caring about doing the right thing .)

Talon has to protect the child, can't not, and yet it can't be trusted not to put the child in more danger. It would never harm the child—not on purpose. But what if it fails to notice a threat, or leads the Court to them, or if the child must be held again and it fails to control its strength— 

It spins on its heels at the sound of someone moving. The sound comes from the largest fully-walled room; it fights through the fog still clinging to its brain to remember that the man had gone to sleep in that room. 

'Free reign,' the man had said; still, as it hears him start to approach the door of his room, it decides it should go back to where the man had left it on the couch.

On the couch, where the blanket it had been so generously given is torn in half. It-it hadn't known it was the blanket, just woke up restrained and reacted! It didn't mean to damage the man's property.

'I didn't mean to?' That's never worked before , its thoughts remind; the man may have been… kind to Talon, and it did not break his rules, but it broke his gift, and surely that will be punished. 

It needs the man, it realizes desperately—someone to keep it in control, protect the child when it's Talon the child needs protecting from. It can take the punishment. It needs him.

When the door to the bedroom opens, Talon is on its knees next to the couch, hands flat on its lap, head bowed. 

The man walks down the hallway, the sound of footsteps pausing abruptly: the man has seen it and its transgression. Silence stretches before it; the Court had done this, making Talon sit with its mistake, never knowing when the punishment would come. It has no right to, but it hopes the wait is quick anyway—the sooner its punishment is over, the sooner it can earn the man's forgiveness and the child can be safe.

Eventually, the man breaks his silence. "What's up?"

His voice is still soft past its roughness, words slow, casual. Talon doesn't know what he wants in response, so it stays silent and still; if it will be punished regardless, it prefers not to guess at what to do. Easier to let it happen.

"Y'with me kid?" The Court liked to ask questions; not for it to answer, but to remind it what it should know. He asks questions for it to answer, had gone out of his way to provide it with the means to when its gesturing had not been adequate. 

It nods. It is here, hasn't tucked itself away in its head like it usually would for a punishment. This is the first punishment from the man; it needs to be present to learn from it. 

— 

'Sleeping like the dead' really wouldn't lead to quality sleep if it was done right; Jason's never been a heavy sleeper, but after his death and the League, he can't sleep through a whisper from across a room. 

When he wakes to rustling somewhere in the safehouse, his hand is already on his nearest gun before the events of last night (well, technically four A.M. is the morning) catch up to him. He can't really hear what's going on; with the couch's creaks and what he thinks could have been a whimper, plus the everything about the kid he'd left out there, he has a pretty decent guess. 

Switching the gun for his phone, he checks the time and sighs; he only fell asleep an hour ago, but he's not getting back to it now. He'd be overstepping by leaps and bounds to go out and intrude on the kid's nightmare, so he resigns himself to laying in bed, listening just in case it takes a turn. Night terrors are more common with the younger kids, right? 

Instead of sudden silence, or thudding off the couch, or screaming—instead of what he expects to hear from where the kid is, what comes out of the living room is more whimpering, followed by tearing . Of what, he doesn't know, but the noise is fast and surprisingly loud, and the whimpers stop immediately. Hand back on his gun, Jason only just reigns in the instinct to barge out of the room; unless it was supernatural, he didn't sleep through a break-in. He gives himself three minutes before he caves and checks anyway.

Due to the beauty of old Gotham buildings, he hears the floor creaking as the kid moves (just barely; kid is light as hell. Yet another fucking thing to worry about). The sounds stop at the wall with a window, the apartment is city-quiet, and he thinks three minutes was too generous. Quiet should be a good thing, but in his head he's seeing the way the kid would fucking freeze , so still and silent he could be dead.

He doesn't need to be alone like that , Jason thinks, and definitely doesn't think about screaming and crying when he realized he was dying alone. 

Jason takes his time getting out of bed, doing none of the rushed, angry banging he tends to fill the mornings with (he does still slip the gun in his waistband). The floor creaks a little more when he gets to his door, but he just continues at the same slow pace, locking his room behind him.

Really, he should have, did expect the sight that greets him at the end of the hallway, but it's still a bizarre and sad enough thing to see that he's hit with an exhausted sort of surprise. The kid's frozen, of course, head bowed low—he's fucking kneeling on the floor by the couch, the picture of trained subsurvience. Jason's certainly no expert on healthy behavior, but it feels like a pretty obvious backslide from the blanket burrito he'd had on his couch an hour ago.

Almost absently, he takes in the torn blanket (he remembers waking up to a coffin's closed-in walls and understands). At the complete lack of response to his first question, he wonders if the kid even woke up; could be he's still in the nightmare, or maybe slipped straight from it into a flashback.

Getting a nod doesn't really mean the kid's all there, but it's better than nothing. It'd be even better than that if he could remember how he'd help as Robin (he knows there was a meta trafficking case, he'd sat with the victims for hours , yet the memory caves in as soon as he reaches for it, swept up in the rage that covers all his memories from then). For now, the kid's gonna have to deal with how whoever he is now helps.

First thing's first, he's not gonna play a guessing game for what the kid wants to say if he doesn't have to; he would just walk over and pick the pad of paper up from the coffee table if it wouldn't put him right in the kid's space. "Sokay if I come grab the paper?" 

A beat, then a nod, that covered head lowering even further; it's not exactly enthusiastic consent, so Jason skirts a good ways around the kid on his mission. He keeps his movements and voice low and slow. 

"If I hand you this, could you write what you think's happening right now?" Doesn't ask 'what is happening', doesn't want him thinking there's a right answer. That head flicks up for a second, an aborted attempt to actually look up before the kid's facing the floor again, giving him an even more hesitant nod. 

He fully extends his arm to keep as much space between them as he can while setting the pen and paper on the floor, within reach of the kid but not close. The kid doesn't flinch at his proximity, yet it doesn't feel like an improvement; with the lowered head, it screams resignation. 

Still, the kid reaches for them, pale hands moving achingly slow to close around the offered form of communication. Once he's writing though, his hand flies over the paper in sharp movements. When he's finished he sets the pen down uncertainly, laying his hands flat on his knees again.

It's hard to read it through the rising green, but Jason shoves that shit down and manages.

Broke your blanket. Dangerous. Going to be punished .

Jesus fucking Christ. He doesn't blame the kid—straight out of a nightmare, of course he'd default to what he knows. But just the idea of hurting the kid awakens a decade-old fear. I'm not him , he reminds, I'll never be him . Unfortunately, not being Willis isn't enough to actually help the kid, so he thinks carefully.

"I don't remember making a rule against blanket shredding," and that makes the kid curl into himself even more, but Jason catches that same aborted gesture to look up: he's confused, and that's a lot easier to work with than blind panic. "If I did, the punishment would be you tellin' me and helpin' me get another one. It's okay, kid," he tacks on the end when the kid looks impossibly more tense. He gets it, he really fucking does, but anyone thinking he'd hurt a kid, even the kid himself, sits sharp in his chest.

The kid isn't looking down at his lap anymore; he's looking at the pen and paper. "You can write." Jason eventually chokes out, hating that he thinks he needs permission. His pale hands scramble for them again (Jason tucks away the detail of too-dark veins) and this message comes even faster.

Dangerous , he repeats, need to be punished. To be safe.

Okay.

Okay, Jason can handle this; he can force the Pit down as it boils inside of him, fills his mind with images of tracking down whatever sick fucks had the kid and giving them the painful deaths they deserve. It's tempting, so fucking tempting, but he's seen how the kid reacts to his anger and he'll be damned if he puts that fear in his eyes again.

"The only thing I've seen you hurt is a piece of fabric. What makes you so dangerous?" 

He knows the kid's fear of being a danger may not be 100% since he's a meta; that would only make it easier for the sick bastards to drill the idea into his head, convince him he's so dangerous he has to be controlled—he stops that train of thought before the green can sweep him away.

The question really seems to throw the kid; Jason supposed he can't blame him. There's tension, fear in those shoulders, but the energy he puts into writing is desperate, almost frustrated.

Weapons are dangerous. Made to hurt people. Keep the child safe from weapon.

"Oh, kid. "

He knows not to approach, he does, but keeping his arms to his sides instead of reaching out to him feels fucking Herculean. He says the only words he has, gives them like an order, an apology; 

"You're not a weapon. You're a person." Now, how to get the kid to believe it.

— 

The man… confuses it. Confusion didn't last in the Court—Talon understood, or Talon was not meant to understand. 

It doesn't hate the confusion. 

It lets the man direct it back to the couch, takes the second mug of tea the man offers it after seeming to understand it would not be sleeping. The man gives no orders, doesn't punish, calls it a person —and while uncertainty keeps Talon tense, it almost finds itself looking forward to his next confusing action.

His leaving is not confusing; its masters had often left it alone for hours, days. That punishment had hurt the most, in the beginning. The person it was before it died needed to be around others, needed someone to hear it and be heard in return (even now, the need isn't gone; other punishments just started to hurt worse).

The man leaves, citing 'errands', and gives it the same 'free-reign' with the exception of the bedroom. His offer is generous, if unnecessary; with no punishment to ground it, no warmth to comfort it, and no man to peak its curiosity, it easily tucks itself inside its head to wait.

Like this, it reasons, it won't hurt anyone (or feel hurt) while waiting for the man to return. It can sit, watching the window from the couch, and wait for the man to come back. It wishes the man had let it go back to the roof to watch the child, but he seemed to want it on the couch; maybe this is the punishment, to sit so close to the child without knowing if they're safe.

He wouldn't do that , something in it says, even as anger and that need to protect threaten to bring it back to its body; somehow, it knows the man would never use the child in that way ( what kind of shitstain— ).

If Talon tries to see the child without the man, it could make a mistake. The man protects the nest; until Talon is sure it is safe , that will have to do.

(And maybe, maybe it is also tired, tucked in its little corner of its head. Maybe it wants to rest.)

It is accustomed to waiting, and the exhaustion it is left with after sleeping on the couch (isn't sleep supposed to make it less tired?) allows it to be tucked away even smaller in its head that for a moment it is

 

nothing.




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Until it is again.

It is back in its head, if not its body, and its body is being talked to. Oh. Someone is here (where is here?); Talon is no longer alone—should be paying attention, should be listening:

"...itting here the whole time?" A distorted voice, almost mechanical; the voice from the rooftop. If Talon were here enough to be afraid, it would find relief at that, at the other presence being only the man returned to his nest.

As it is, it does feel something ease within it, knowing the man returned without incident; good, he's safe too.

Chapter Text

By the time Jason returns to the safehouse, the sun long-gone from the sky, his interrupted sleep is definitely catching up to him. It's nothing he hadn't worked through before, but he doesn't have a death wish—exhaustion is an easy killer in this life—and he wants nothing more than to konk out in his bed for a few hours before the work starts up again come midnight. 

Telling the kid he needed to do errands wasn't even a lie; sure, some of those errands involved threatening murder (occasionally following up on those threats), but if he… If they'll be staying in this safehouse for a while, they'll need more than the limited supplies he'd stocked it with. 

He doesn't exactly regret not having a ground floor entrance—people are a lot less likely to break in if the whole first floor is boarded up. The climb through the one openable second-story window is especially awkward with arms full of grocery bags, though he manages to get up to the only functional floor with only a jammed elbow and muffled swearing.

Remembering the kid's instincts, Jason knocks before he starts on the door's many locks. He realizes with no small amount of embarrassment that he'd never given the kid something to call him; he can't exactly announce himself by saying 'hey it's me!', yet they also definitely hadn't had time to establish a knocking code, what with the whole "trying to convince the teenager I won't torture him over a ten dollar blanket" episode of the morning. 

Deciding to just go with Red Hood, he tacks on: "the guy who owns this place," as he pushes his way in. There's no response—not that he expects one from a guy who doesn't speak. He notices the kitchen light is still the only one on as he sets down the groceries—pretty sure the kid's photosensitive, so that tracks too. Except it's not the only thing that remains exactly how he left it over twelve hours ago; nothing in the place has been moved, and Jason knows it's not just that anything moved was returned to its place because the fucking kid hasn't moved either. 

He asks the obvious, can't help himself, but the kid doesn't seem to be in a state to even hear him, let alone answer. Those big eyes are open but vacant, his body somewhere between relaxed and frozen— fuck , what was he thinking leaving the kid alone? Not checking for injuries?

Even Bruce could do better , his mind supplies, and guilt and anger swallow him (just once, just once he wants to feel something he's not eaten up by).

"Hey, hey kid; need to know if you're here with me now." He waits in the hopes that the kid will process it, give him some kind of answer. Eventually, the kid shakes his head; Jason can't say he expected that, "Okay, d'you think you could focus on my voice?" 

Pause, nod. "Great, that's great. You're in my safehouse; you remember getting here?" Pause, another nod. "Good. Before getting here, d'you remember getting hurt anywhere? Your head maybe?" A longer pause this time; Jason realizes this might be a harder one to communicate, "If you remember getting hurt somewhere, point to that part of your body."

It's honestly relieving to see the kid frown through his balaclava as he processes the request; any emotion feels like an improvement over that lifeless stare. The kid starts to raise a hand (slow, but not trembling, and that's something isn't it?), turning it to point at his chest. Well, shit; a chest injury could be anything from light bruising to heart damage, the latter of which Jason really fucking hopes to avoid.

To know that's not the case, he'll have to actually examine the kid, try and coax him to the clinic. He wants to stay hands-off with him for as long as possible though, needs enough info on what they're dealing with before he even thinks of getting in his space.

Bending to pick them up from the floor they've been on since this morning, Jason slides the same pen and paper across the table, both stopping within the kid's reach. "Think you're up to writing how you got hurt?" If he knows what happened, he can get a better idea of the injury.

When the kid writes his answer, the pen drags—instead of sharp speed like before, his current sluggishness transfers to his handwriting, words looping together, and Jason feels like it's an hour before the kid is turning the pad to him.

Killed a Master. Chest hurt after.

Fuck. 

Obviously, Jason's not judging; he's killed more than his fair share after only being back in Gotham for a couple months, and forcing a kid to call them "Master" seems a pretty damn good reason for this guy to die. But a death means a body, means other people poking around this situation before Jason's even wrapped his head around it. 

At least the kid's probably not hurt. Physically. Fuck .

"That… makes sense," he gets out eventually, cringing at the awkward statement. The kid looks up sharply at it though, real surprise in his eyes. Sighing, Jason presses the release to take off his helmet (domino in place underneath) and sets it on the table, setting himself down in the one chair across from the couch. "Killing someone can definitely hurt. Seems like a shitty guy you got rid of though; might've been for the best."

He gets another frown at that and resists the urge to meet it with another sigh, just pointing to the pad of paper; the kid grabs it much faster than before, writing with closer to the speed he’d used in their first real conversation. When the teen finishes he gives a short, confident kind of nod; it’s the most personality he’s seen from the kid.

He wanted to hurt the child. Wanted it me to hurt the child. That was wrong.

Jason’s glad there’s no helmet on his face so he can drag his hands down it. “Yeah, kid, that was wrong.”

Talon likes that the man is sitting. It makes it easier to be more in its body, not having him standing over it. More than anything, it likes just being with someone, in the same room and talking and not-hurting.

Something about its presence on the couch and its answers are frustrating him, it knows, but he lets it answer, lets it stay, and Talon can't find a test within his lax body on the chair.

It doesn't like that the man is upset—maybe there's something it can do to help, since the man has helped it so much. It stayed still all day, it knows it can still be good.

But how to phrase it? It hasn't had to offer help as Talon before, and all the child had needed was for it to hoist them on its hip to accept its aid. This will be different to that, it knows; unlike the child, the man doesn't need its help.

Thinking back on how the man offered it help, it forms a plan.

"Free reign" still?

The man flicks his eyes over the note, one brow lifting before he nods; "This room, kitchen, bathroom, closets—anythin' that ain't my bedroom you can have at."

It gives its own nod in response and rises slowly (it knows to go slowly after this long sitting down, even if it doesn't know exactly how long it was), eventually moving in the kitchen's direction. The man's voice stops it before it leaves; "There's groceries on the counter. You should try one of the lighter soups since you… haven't eaten." He's starting to sound upset again. Talon thinks it can obey his request and complete its plan, nods its acknowledgement again, and makes its exit.

To call the kitchen its own room is generous, the small space only divided from where they were by a counter now covered in white plastic bags—the groceries, it presumes. The soup will be in one of them; it will save searching through them for after it's found what inspired it to go to the kitchen in the first place. Twice now the man has made it tea, both times leaving Talon warm and calm; it wants to do the same for him. 

Searching through the man's cabinets is hard to convince itself to start; it knows (thinks) it is allowed this under 'free-reign', yet it still feels an invasion, like taking advantage of his generosity. It has to spend several minutes reminding itself that it is helping the man (reminding itself he isn't the Court ) before it opens a single drawer.

Three drawers, five cabinet doors, and a quick scrub of the mugs in the sink later, it thinks it has all it needs to begin. The tea—earl grey, the only box already opened—has instructions for steeping, and it follows them with precision, pouring from the pot it had boiled the water in only once it reaches the correct temperature, waiting to the exact middle of the time frame provided for steeping before— 

He didn't remove the tea bags. Both times the man has handed it tea, the bag has remained, but the instructions say to only steep for so long—does the man prefer it left in? Will he get more upset if it isn't? 

Talon chooses to leave the tea bag in one mug and remove it from the other; the man can choose which he prefers, and it will be warmed by whichever is left ( tea is tea , a memory says, voice deeper yet smoother than the man's).

The next step, soup, presents no such monumental decisions—it follows the instructions on the can and is left with two bowls of chicken noodle soup.

It realizes all at once that it has prepared too much to carry back out to the man in one trip. Talon's training and abilities make it capable of transporting it all, of course, and neither the tea nor the soup are hot enough to burn (it had checked). But the last thing it wants is for the man to be unsettled by its abilities; a second trip will not hurt it.

When it brings out the tea, the man looks up briefly from the boot he's unlacing. "You havin' tea and a coffee, or you just like tea that much?" His tone is light, softening its roughness once again.

It shakes its head, setting the mugs down on the table to pick up the pen and write: Both tea. Pick one. Going to bring soup for both too.

And the man's face crumples again, like before—something that starts at his brow and ends at his jaw, collapsing in on itself even as he fights to keep his voice light. "Don't have to get me nothing, y'know? I can get my own food; you should worry about getting more in you —didja even try to find somethin' to eat while I was gone?" 

Oh no. It's upset him again (he's trying to hide it but it knows, you've always had easy tells ). It was just trying to help! 

Not have to, want. Want to help you, how you helped. The man's question is confusing; Gone without food for longer.

The kid turns back to the kitchen once he's finished writing which is fucking fortuitous for Jason because there's no way in hell he's hiding his anger right now. He doesn't know what makes him angrier: that there's yet another example of something awful happening to the kid, or the kid's actions proving yet again just how nice of a person all this awful shit has been done to.

(He does know: it's the first, the food. Far from the last hungry kid, but it's one thing to not have food and it's another to go without. Being deprived of most things will hurt; being deprived of food tears at you, finds purchase in your most basic of instincts and twists

You'll do anything to eat—wait on a couch, steal a hubcap, follow a bat into a cave—)

He gets it mostly in check by the time the kid's back, two white bowls in his once again sweater-covered hands—honestly, Jason can't tell if he's still cold, protecting his fingers, or just someone who likes the feeling (remembering the blanket-cooing, he's gonna go with answer three). The kid sets them down next to the mugs, those brown eyes so damn big and eager that, despite having eaten all three meals today, the canned chicken noodle looks like a steak to a starved man.

(He doesn't do steak anymore, actually; doesn't like the taste of blood in his mouth.)

"Looks good, kid." Some teens would bristle at the compliment on such a simple task; this guy absolutely beams . With him already accepting "kid," Jason had already expected he wouldn't be the type to push back against that sort of thing, not like Jason was at his age. 

Jason had hated being treated like a kid because life had already decided he didn't get to be one; this guy just seems happy to be treated like a person.

The kid hums, closed mouth still smiling, and tilts his head. What is he waiting for again…? Thanks to the kid not talking, Jason at least has a record of their conversations to look for the answer; "pick one," he'd written about the tea. 

He grabs the one with its tea bag still in it, knowing it will be more bitter (it's nice, rare, that he remembers something like this, something not tinged in anger or pain; just distant warmth in Alfred's lectures on tea), and takes a sip without checking the temperature. It's cooled a bit from when it was brought out steaming but it still warms his chest.

Looking up, he's met with the kid's intense gaze; whatever he's searching for in Jason's body language, he seems to find, giving a satisfied nod before picking up the remaining mug. The tea is unsweetened—it's what he prefers, but he wonders if the kid has different tastes.

(Dick took his tea with as much sugar as he could get away with, Jason knew, despite not remembering drinking tea with the older Robin; everyone knows Dick has an insatiable sweet tooth.

Had.)

He seems to like it unsweetened well enough, actually drinking it instead of just letting all the heat leach into his covered hands like he did this morning. Hasn't reached for the soup, though. Jason doesn't think it's another "pick one" scenario, exactly, yet it's clear he needs some prompt to eat. 

The kid likes to mirror him, so Jason sets down his mug and grabs the bowl closest to him; this time he blows on his spoonful before swallowing it ( setting a good example or some shit). It's alright; a little bland in the way most canned soups are, but it's warm and familiar. 

He hums his appreciation, already knowing to look for that wide smile in response; like he expected, his switching to the soup signals the kid to try it too. His grip on the spoon is a bit more dagger than utensil, and still it carries some to his mouth (he doesn't mimic blowing on it like Jason thought, probably knows it isn't hot). 

Jason is then treated to the genuine pleasure of watching the kid's eyes blow wide as he tastes the soup. 'Bland' doesn't exist once you've gone without food long enough; any food becomes an assault of flavors. Having once gone straight from street-starved to Aflred-fed, he understands how overwhelming it can be, doesn't begrudge the few tears that slip from those wide eyes as the kid keeps eating.

He's going slow without having to be told, taking small sips, chewing any chunks thoroughly; it's the right approach for a stomach unused to food, and Jason hates that the kid has already had to learn it.

Finishing first, Jason pulls out his phone, figures it might take away some of the pressure of a stranger (acquaintance at this point, hopefully ally) watching him eat. He puts the pressure of his attention back on the kid when he tries to sneak their dishes out to the kitchen to wash.

"I've got those. There's one paper bag with the groceries; y'should check it out." The rapid switch in topic shocks him into letting Jason take the mugs and bowls from him, and Jason gains himself a tail as walks to the sink. 

It's an easy clean up, just enough of a task to focus him as he keeps his better ear out for the kid's reaction to the bag's contents. He knows there's potential for a bad outcome—gifts are always a risk for kids like him, like them—but he can't help the anticipation building in his stomach. The paper rustles, then silence. 

Chancing a look, he wants to curse—the kid is frozen again. Before he can, though, those covered hands dig into the bag, pulling out the replacement blanket. It's thicker, hopefully a bit sturdier too, and it shakes just slightly in the kid's hands. Jason doesn't move. The kid sets the blanket back down.

"It's for you; can't have ya freezin' on the couch." The kid shudders at that; yeah, Jason hates the cold too. As he sneaks back out to the couch with the blanket still in hand, Jason catches a smaller, private smile on his face.

When Jason makes his own way out, the pad of paper is propped up on the table, an otherwise clear page with two words in large letters: THANK YOU . Reading it, he can't help but think he's doing something right.

Then it's three hours later and he's running back in from his bedroom to the tune of the kid throwing up what he'd managed to eat and all he can think is I can't do this alone, can I?

Chapter Text

Jason doesn't know how to help . He's comforted people being sick before, held his mom's hair back as she bent over the toilet enough times to remember it clearly even with his fucked up head, but those were people he could touch, not people who wear a mask and flinch away from him.

That mask is predictably nasty; as the kid finishes what is hopefully his only bout of retching and sits up enough to show his covered face, Jason can't help but grimace at the sight. Honestly, can the kid catch a break? (Can he?)

The soup on the floor (tiled, thankfully) looks pretty identical to how it did in the bowl, no blood or nothing; probably not dying, so there's that. "You think you're done?" he keeps his voice low, hopefully kind. The kid nods, though the gesture is followed by him hunching over a little more. Pinching the mask-covered bridge of his nose, Jason sighs; "I'll clean this up, grab you some water…"

Something in what he says must worry the kid because he's looking up, eyes red-rimmed. He whines , just as desperate and sad as it was on the rooftop, and then he's opening his mouth and:

"S-sorry…"

It's croaked out, barely more than breath being forced from the kids throat, but it's there , hanging in the air between them; he spoke, and his first fucking word to Jason was sorry .

Talon doesn't understand . The night had been going well! It was being good! It had helped the man, and eaten (and it went slow, knew it had to even if that meant not getting to finish), and gotten another blanket. It didn't mean to fall asleep, but it hadn't wrapped up in the blanket just in case it did (it won't ruin one again, it won't ). 

That doesn't stop it from waking up in a panic, a burning pressure in its chest, its stomach. It tries to be good, to drift away from the feeling until it leaves on its own, but it only burns higher, up its chest and its throat til its mouth waters and it's pushing the blanket frantically out of the way, trying to get up only to manage leaning its upper body over the edge of the couch.

It feels awful , the way its body acts without its control, muscles in its abdomen moving against its will—if it's not in control, it's not safe , no one is.

The man comes in with his kind words, and Talon nods but it isn't enough , does nothing against the feelings coiling in its stomach and its throat and its head, gives the man nothing . And yet he's here, ready to accept it, offering to clean its mess: he deserves more.

It happens without thinking, not without effort; Talon forces the word out, past burning and scarring and years of silence. 'Sorry'. It's still not enough, not the full explanation and apology (and punishment) the man deserves from it. It hopes he'll accept it anyway.

Another sigh. The man sighs a lot (or Talon makes him). "You don't gotta apologize for bein' sick. I gotta grab the cleaning shit but—you're not in trouble, yeah? Just sit tight."

Still so kind; if tears hadn't already been gathered in its eyes they would certainly form now, overwhelmed by the kindness of who should be a stranger.

It's what Robins do, its mind supplies in explanation, soothing and confusing it in equal measure. Robin . That means a lot of things, it thinks. Knows; Robin was there with the people falling. Robin is also here , in the mask over the man's eyes. 

For now, Robin means safe.

He returns with towels, a brightly labeled squirt bottle, and the promised glass of water. Talon doesn't feel enough guilt to refuse the glass, eager to clear the bitterness from its mouth. Emptying its stomach has exhausted it to a degree that doesn't make sense, not even leaving enough energy for it to aid the man in cleaning. It lays there, curled on its side with an arm around its stomach, and watches him with sore eyes.

The cleaning solution he's using has a strong lemon scent, overwhelming yet leagues better than the smell it's replacing; there's something familiar to it, too. Not quite the same, but—

An arched ceiling with matching arched doors, polished marble floors; "It is not only my job to clean but something I take pride in doing, and in doing well."

That silver-haired man again, those ceilings—they'd been important, must be for them to appear so often in its memories. But who? Where? The answers don't come, its memories too much of a distant fog to grasp. 

A tutting sound escapes its teeth, frustration forcing its way out. The man looks at him (the floor is wet but clean). By the nature of his position, he is closer to it than he has ever been. Talon finds it doesn't mind, looks right back at him.

"Got something to say?" He punctuates it with a gesture to the pad of paper, THANK YOU still proudly displayed. It removes that page carefully before writing.

Can't remember things, important things. Frustrating.

It didn't expect the man's eyes to go wide. "And uh, how long has that been a problem?"

It shrugs. Since dying. Don't know if it was like that before.

That was the wrong thing to write. Talon must have written something very, very bad, because the man is angry—furious. He stands to his full height, steps away from the couch, breathes heavily. 

How does it fix this?

If this were Cobb or one of its other Masters, it would simply be the outlet for their rage ("outlet". Kinder than "stress reliever", as more than one Owl had termed it). The man doesn't work like that, pacing away away from it in his anger—and he isn't working like he did before, either, none of the measured breathing and clench-relax fists. 

His fists clench in his hair, pulling hard enough Talon worries it will tear before rapidly switching targets. With a loud cry, he swings for a thin bookcase, sending its wooden frame crashing into the ground.

Oh.

Maybe the man does work like that, then.

It whines low in its throat, lowering its head again to stare at the slowly drying floor. It doesn't want to be scared of the man but it is, it is it is he was nice why was he nice if he's—

" Fuck! I-I need, I have to—go."

And then the man is gone. It doesn't want that either.

The Pit was hot. He couldn't feel it at first, couldn't feel much of anything in his half-alive state, but then the Pit worked its magic and it burned , acid submerging his body and filling it from the inside out.

Jason burns now, burns and is beaten down and has a building fall on top of him—he dies, and is reborn, and both feel like dying.

He's in an alley, crouched behind a dumpster. He's in a warehouse, tied to a pole; he's in a grave; he's in a Pit. Yet he's in the alley, he knows that, fuck he knows that.

Slamming a fist into the dumpster grounds him just a little, but it's also the perfect reminder of why he's here, why he left the safehouse in the first place.

This kid. This self-described weapon who's never raised a hand to him, who tilts his head and coos, who wants to protect a little kid and killed to do it, who snuggles into blankets and made him tea

This kid died. He was killed like Jason was, was alone and afraid and Batman won't come, will he?

Jason needs help. He's barely got a handle on the effects of the Pit (oh he saw the fear in those huge eyes, saw the kid calculating what would happen if the Pit's green rage was turned on him), and he has no way of knowing the effects of what brought the kid back. Really, he doesn't know anything; not the extent of the kid's enhancements, not who had him, not how to help him eat.

He doesn't even know the kid's name (God, let him have a name, let him have more identity than the weapon in some sick group's arsenal). He's clearly fucked this up, gone about it all the wrong way, and he refuses to just let the kid become his collateral.

The first thing that needs to be fixed right now is his eating; on a kid that's been starved, not being able to keep food down will get dangerous fast. Jason just doesn't have the training to help him with it—his medical know-how definitely goes beyond first-aid, but Batman didn't exactly focus on gastroenterology. 

So. A doctor. The one at the free clinic is pretty goddamn accepting, the kid having glowing eyes and having killed someone wouldn't even make her bat an eye. That little ball of secrets and tragedies isn't what makes him hesitate, it's him that's the problem; story of his fucking life.

Hopefully if he calls ahead she'll at least let him step in the building with the kid. He doesn't have his helmet to modulate his voice but, because he is that paranoid, he keeps a backup modulator in his pocket. 

A tired receptionist answers on the third ring, and Jason spouts off some bullshit about the Wayne Foundation that he knows (hopes) will get the person he wants on the phone. Some sounds of shuffling later, and then: 

"Dr. Thompskin speaking."

He turns on the modulator. "Hey, Doc."

"What do you want?" To her credit, her voice barely changes. 

Jason understands that this is the reputation he himself built, will continue building until Bruce learns his lesson and Joker's mutilated body is buried under a goddamn landfill—that doesn't stop him from getting a little snappy at the less-than-warm reception. "Look," breathe in, hold, breathe out, "this ain't a shakedown, I'm not—I've sent people to you."

"Thought you only sent people to the morgue." Ouch.

" Victims ," he growls out, "people who need help that most would turn a blind eye to if they don't care enough to turn 'em in." He takes in another breath, trying figure out how to avoid clues to his identity without remembering most of them. "I know you'll help. I know you won't turn a kid away because of who they are," another breath, this one mostly for emphasis, " what they are."

It's quite on the other end, then a small sigh filters over; "You seem to know it all; why call?" After being with the kid, talking with someone who isn't afraid to talk back feels almost fucking magic. 

"Figured Red Hood dropping in unannounced prolly wouldn't help the healing atmosphere ." His ears aren't the best but he swears he picks up a snort on her side before she goes quiet again. 

Thinking of the teen meta probably panicking in his apartment right now, Jason decides to lay it out as plain as he can: "Listen, if I bring in a kid with abilities who's been through some shit, will you help him even if I'm there?"

She lets the silence hang for longer than he's comfortable with before severing it—"If you can stay out of the way? All kinds welcome."

The fear doesn't leave with the man; its body is still tensed for a blow that isn't coming. At the same time, it is another type of tense for the man's return—not the when of it, the if. If the man doesn't come back, what will Talon do? Who will make sure it keeps the child safe?

(Is this missing someone, this feeling under its ribs? The space feels wrong without him.)

It wants to stand the bookcase back upright. It doesn't want to move from the couch. The man had said it could move freely in the apartment; he'd also said he wouldn't hurt it. Talon is no longer sure of the truth of either. He was Robin and safe, but he was also angry, an anger that has to lash out and the strength to make it hurt.

It wants him to not have done it, to go back and make sure the man never showed this side of his anger, because it wants to stop being scared of him (harder to protect someone when it's scared of them; it doesn't know if it could have protected Cobb).

Talon doesn't know how much time has passed when it hears the footsteps, the careful knock at the door (the faint light through the window hasn't changed dramatically; probably no more than an hour). 

"Ya in there kid?" It doesn't know how to respond, let alone if it should. His boots shuffle behind the door. "I'm not gonna barge in; if you're still there, and you're alright with me comin' in, could you knock twice where I can hear it? If you don't, I won't come in."

There's something in his voice (without the gravel, his voice would sound fairly young), a lot of somethings: guilt and regret and shame . None of its Masters would sound like this talking to it—to Cobb or the Grandmaster, maybe, but never to it.

It knocks on the wall by the door then leaps back to the couch, twisting the blanket in its fingers (carefully, using none of its strength).

"Alright, I'm gonna step in." Locks clicking, the creak of the door, and the man is back. What it can see of his face is flushed; from anger or any of the emotions in his voice, it doesn't know. The knuckles on his left hand are scraped and starting to bruise. He doesn't step any further in than he needs to to close the door.

Talon takes a risk, grabs the pen and paper without waiting for permission ( if you're gonna hurt me get it over with ). The man makes no move to stop it.

What did you hit?

He squints a bit, has to follow its gaze to his own hand to understand. "Oh; a dumpster. Just a dumpster." He sounds too embarrassed to be lying. 

His uninjured hand starts to rise; it flinches, and he quickly lowers it again. "I'm sorry." What? "What you wrote reminded me of… Of some shit I'm working through, and I got angry; that doesn't mean I get to throw shit around 'n hit things. I fucked up, and you get to be mad with me for it."

Oh.

It is mad at him; it didn't want to be scared of him, wanted to feel safe, and he scared it and it—it's mad at him. And it can be? It's allowed?

(Emotions weren't banned in the Court; some Owls wanted it to be scared or funny or shy, Cobb wanted it to be cold and cruel, Grandmaster wanted grateful—but anger? Unless it was at a target— the first test, the one he it will always remember —Talon wasn't allowed to be angry with anyone.

The feelings they allowed never seemed to be what it felt.)

Want to feel safe. You made it not feel safe. Don't want you to do that. Don't want to be scared of you.

His hands pull down over his face, dragging the scarred skin, and then the man is letting his body sink to the floor, folding more than dropping to his knees. "And I don't wanna scare you. Fuck kid, I'm so goddamn sorry—I won't do that again." His voice breaks in places, almost like the helmet is back again, except nothing is hiding the guilt sadness shame pouring from him. "That's a rule: I'm not allowed to do anything like that shit again. I do shit to scare you? I fuck off until you feel safe with me again. Got it?"

It pauses, tries to unpack what it can. Don't know if it feels safe, but want you to stay. Is that okay?

The man's knees rise to his chest and he wraps his arms around them, pressing his face into denim. "None of this shit's okay," young , he sounds young with his voice muffled and wet, looks it curled up as small as his broad body allows, "but I'll do whatever doesn't make it worse."

It can work with that.

He stays there, breathing deep into his knees, and bit by bit its fear fades. The man gets angry, it knew that; the man can't always control himself when angry, it knows now; the man doesn't want to hurt him, it's maybe starting to know. Doesn't want to and will never are two different things, but he seems to be trying quite hard to make both a reality.

The fear is still there; it doesn't think it will leave, not completely.

"You still feel sick?" He's lifted his head from his knees, can see when it shakes its own. "Good, that's good. I left some crackers out on the kitchen counter; think you could eat some?"

It frowns. Don't want to make another mess. Not good.

He sighs, “I know, but you gotta eat something , kid.” There’s desperation in his voice, something it instantly wants to soothe, shaking its head. “I’m not arguing on this one, just—it’d make me feel better.”

It… It can accept that. But first; Are you hungry too?

The man snorts out a wet laugh, “I’m good, go . I’m just gonna… Pick out some more clothes.” Talon nods, starts making its way to the kitchen, only to be stopped yet again by his voice at the threshold: “Hey, how would you like to go out come nighttime?” It freezes, spinning back around to face him. Go out? Leave?

Can we see the child?

“... Yeah, kid, we can see ‘em.” It nods and goes to grab the crackers; getting sick again would be a small price to pay to make sure the child is safe with its own eyes.

 

Chapter Text

When Jason tells the kid what he plans to do, "pick out clothes" is definitely code for "lock myself in my room until I know how not to be a monster". By the time he's passing the hall closet, the image of the kid trying to eat in the same balaclava he threw up in has him rummaging through.

If they're actually visiting the shelter, the mask will have to go anyway, and he doubts whatever alternate covering he cobbles together (if vomit doesn't stop the kid from covering his face, nothing will) will be less conspicuous when combined with Superman PJ's; the kid needs a whole new outfit.

What he manages to find isn't winning any awards, and he'll have to wear whatever shoes his suit came with; Jason thinks they'll work though, and the kid's eyes light up once he gets that they're for him.

Then those sleeve-covered hands start pulling at pajama pants, pulling down —"Woah, hey! You can change in the bathroom, remember?" 

What happened to the hesitance from before, the way he'd only moved to change when he was promised a locked door between them? Considering the kid hadn't known what a blanket was, not knowing social boundaries around nudity shouldn't be that surprising; fresh off of having the kid cowering in fear of him, basically outright saying he's still scared of him, the behavior makes something sickened and small die in the back of Jason's throat.

He stops as soon as Jason speaks up at least. Tilting his head in confusion, he grows to seem kind of embarrassed, shifting his feet before grabbing the clothes and rushing to the bathroom. He never hears the lock click.

And if he uses the time to check the cracker box and make sure the kid ate some, no one's around to see it (he did eat; now to hope it stays down). Really, he should be convincing him to go back to sleep, wake up at noon like a normal teenager—they probably should wait 'til then to walk over to the shelter, at least—but knowing the single-minded focus the kid has on his rescuee, he'll be lucky to delay their visit long enough to pitch the doctor's visit.

The bathroom door creaks back open. He's proud to see that the kid figured out how to cover his face with what he gave him (proud, and a little disappointed, and a little sad). Having a turtleneck pulled up to cover his face is a little strange, especially combined with the large sunglasses, but with the oversized hoodie thrown over top of it all, he passes for normal-city weird; more than good enough for Gotham.

(Does he still catalogue every bit of face this new covering reveals—how his dark veins extend to the skin there, how his cheeks are too hollow for his face, how his head's shaved? He can't bring himself to feel guilty for it; he needs information to help, and leaving it to the kid to tell him himself clearly has its downsides.)

Even with the glasses covering the easy tell of his eyes, it's still clear he's excited, bouncing a little with it. His eagerness to go out makes the sixteen hours he'd spent staring at a fucking wall that much harder to stomach. He hopes what he brings up won't ruin the excitement completely.

Telling the kid he needs to talk to him definitely puts him on edge, but the conversation needs to happen; as nice and professional as Thompskin's clinic is, there's every likelihood that it'll remind the kid of what was done to him, and he wants the kid to be prepared.

(It was putting on the gown, for him; what it meant if he'd have to take off. Thompskin let him stay in his clothes.)

"Remember me mentioning a clinic? Somewhere to go if you're hurt?" A nod. "I think what whoever had you did is still hurting you, makin' you feel sick; I'd like to take you to the doctor there, try to figure out what's goin' on and what we could do to get you better." He phrases it as an option; Jason probably wouldn't bodily force the kid to go in, not until it gets worse, yet the part of him that knows how serious this is wants to drag him there now.

Naturally, the kid shakes his head. Ate the crackers. Feel fine. Am fine.

Jason runs a hand over his face. "You feel fine now , but it took a couple hours before you threw up last time." The kid does not like that response, frowning hard enough that he can see it through the turtleneck. "Look, not bein' able to keep food down can get dangerous when you've gone without and," he has to swallow back Pit to get the word out, " dying can have… lasting effects."

He doesn't mention the constant ache in his joints, the Pit's influence , the way he swears his heart will stop for a second when he isn't listening. This isn't about him.

The kid stops frowning, not looking convinced but not immediately reacting with fear. "They wouldn't be doing anythin' major," not unless Leslie says they have to, "just performing some tests—"

— 

It flips over the back of the couch, away away from the man, scrambling to the kitchen counter for higher ground. It's wings arms spread wide, making it big, making it Threat.

No tests. No more tests.

The man doesn't move, but it feels itself strapped to a table, hears a target crying out, sees blue nitrile gloves guide a cannula into the crook of its elbow. "S-stop." No more tests, no more tests, please no more tests.

"...ymore, alright? Think… the kid…see them?" Young gravel voice floats in and out, between the cries of targets, its own cries. In its mind, it pleads to the testers, stop the tests please just stop, I can't live like this!  

It tries to focus on the man's voice instead; if it knows what he's saying, it can learn why the man wants it to be tested, can convince him there's no need—Talon is already being good, can be better , it doesn't need the tests to be good for the man.

"You're safe, just focus on getting to see the kid again. I'm sure they'll be happy to see you."

Oh. Tests are the price for seeing the child. To make sure it is safe to have around them? Can't the man make sure of that himself? 

It snaps at itself instinctively for the dangerous thought—the Court couldn't read minds, but when Talon was questioning a Master, even inside its head, they always found out. The only way to hide it was to stop questioning (the only way to hide its feelings was to stop feeling them; it never learned how to do either).

The man isn't the Court, yet he wants it to be tested; it doesn't think the concern in his voice is fake, yet he wants it to be tested . It knows it will submit to the tests (to protect a child? Anything) even as it knows it will still question. He'd said he doesn't want to hurt it, doesn't want to scare it; it has to know what's different, what has changed.

Talon clicks its tongue to be sure the man is looking at it, then mimes writing like he’d done before. The man watches it before nodding and slowly inching to grab the pen and paper. His speed annoys it at first, but as he starts approaching it suddenly finds itself very grateful, even more so when the items are placed on the counter and not handed to it.

Why test it? It can be good without testing.

The man's voice sounds wet again. "What… What have tests been like, for you? When I talk about tests, what're you thinking of?"

Does he want examples? Ideas? Or reassurance that Talon knows what will happen, how it is expected to behave? Should it lie, make the tests sound gentler in the hopes of softening what comes—or harsher, to show it has already been tested enough? 

It divides a clean page into three sections. In each section, it describes a type of test: the ones like the child, with a room and a target; Cobb's tests; and the tests it's remembering now, the type of tests it's being taken to this "clinic" for. It had finished this testing, it tries to clarify; the tests on the table stopped long before all the other tests, the Court only using the table to give Talon its needed electrum. 

(In the section for Cobb's tests, it only writes "mind.")

The man looks at the page for a long time. It can't tell if the silence is good so prepares for it to be bad. 

"... Can I have the pen and paper?" Wet doesn't really describe his voice anymore; it's wet like glue, like tacky blood, like—

He sounds how one target sounded, speaking in the few moments before it ended them. He sounds horrified. Talon slides the pad of paper closer to him. The man mumbles out a "thanks", removing the page it had just filled with surprising care.

And he writes—not for as long as it had, but the message is definitely not a short one.

When the paper is slid back to it, its first thought about what the man has written is that it's messy. Its second thought is too many thoughts at once because the man—the man has listed the tests that happen at the clinic. Some of it is similar to the table (pulse, blood pressure, your fear is affecting the readings, Talon; how disappointing ), some wholly unfamiliar. 

Each entry ends with the same phrase: if you don't want to, you don't have to. It doesn't understand. Gripping the pen ( stop shaking ), it circles the words, placing a single question mark next to them.

The man leans against the back of the couch, bouncing one of his legs before sighing and forcing it still. "That means if we walk into that clinic and you don't agree to any of the doctor's tests, then we don't do any of the tests; I'll bring the pen and paper so you can ask as many questions as you've got, but if you decide a test isn't worth it, it won't happen. I'd like it if you answered the doc's questions—I don't gotta see your answers—but you can say no to those, too."

A self-evaluation, then? Asking it to identify its weaknesses, deem what testing is necessary; yet why would he restrict what information he receives?

Why does he give it so many choices? Cobb was the only one who gave it choices in the Court. Those always had a right answer. If the man's do, it can't seem to find them.

"Whaddya think, kid? We gonna be up for this today? I get if it's too much on top of visiting the kid."

Does he mean…? No; the tests have to happen, they shouldn't be delayed. Waiting always makes it worse.

Want to see the child. Will go to the clinic after.

For all his eagerness to get there, now that they're standing in front of the shelter, the kid is making no move to go in. He's not fear-frozen like before, 'cause the universe has to throw out the occasional something decent to keep people sticking around. Don't get him wrong, the kid's definitely anxious, just to an almost-healthy degree.

The impatience Jason's never really gotten rid of wants to prompt him to go in but he holds himself back; seeing the kid you were ordered to kill but instead killed for is something to take your time with, probably. A few minutes later, the kid (the teen? He's gotta learn at least one of their names to differentiate, preferably the one with glowing eyes and trauma that makes Bruce Wayne's life look like a walk in the park) steps up and knocks. Jason's known in plainclothes by enough of the day volunteers that they're let in without too much of a fuss.

Asking to see the little kid naturally raises some suspicion, so Jason takes a wild shot in the dark that the kid had talked more about their savior and tells a volunteer to go ask them about him. 

Moments later, the sound of running feet approaches them and a significantly cleaner little girl is barreling down the hall to meet them, releasing a cry of " Birdie! " as soon as she's in definitely-too-close-for-shouting range. Jason turns to the startled teen with a smirk; 'Birdie' could work.

Again, he doesn't seem frozen in fear, just still and uncertain, hands fidgeting with his sleeves. Considering he'd been having a flashback on Jason's kitchen counter less than an hour ago, he thinks Birdie's handling this pretty well.

Jason's feeling a little less confident in his handling when the little kid doesn't stop , running straight up to the guy Jason hasn't been able to get within three feet of without him flinching back. 

He shouldn't worry; as she approaches, Birdie crouches to her level, easily catching her as she launches herself at him. The motions look natural on him, like he could comfort a kid in his sleep—how'd he get practice at that wherever the hell he was? Did he have siblings before? (During? Hell, if the place could do the shit he'd gotten the trauma-skewed sparknotes of, he wouldn't be surprised if the kid had kids . Fucking enraged, but not surprised.)

Figuring they could use the space (and that, crouched to hold her, he's looming over a kid who definitely can't handle looming), he takes a couple steps back. The little girl (without the muck, she's a cute kid; six or seven, thankfully not looking hurt or sick) is babbling into Birdie's shoulder. For his part, Birdie looks at her in what can only be wonder; he'd put money on those eyes being dinnerplate-wide under the sunglasses. 

"...an' turns out my Auntie can come get me! I didn't know, but 'parently Maddy was worried 'bout me an' told Auntie, an' they's been lookin' for me! Maddy's my cousin; she's in high school an' super cool…" 

Jason lets the one-sided conversation fade into the background, content that both kids are happily occupied. The volunteer that had retrieved the girl moves to a safe, yet sociable, distance near him (he doesn't know this guy's name either, even though he'd remembered Miles' name from when Jason had dropped the fake last month). 

"The aunt legit?" He asks in the growl he still isn't used to (his voice had only broken a year before he was digging his way out of his grave). Volunteer Guy starts a bit, processing the question.

"As far as we can tell; she's definitely been out looking for her, other shelters have heard from her, haven't found any red flags." Jason hums a satisfied note in response. "And this other guy—how's he doing?"

He doesn't know if it's Bruce's training or Talia's that keeps him from wincing. "Better now that he's seein' her. He's protective."

Volunteer Guy chuckles; "From how Esme tells it, he's great at it, too." Something makes him let out a sigh, tone shifting. "I hope she's exaggerating, what happened, but in Gotham? That hope ain't taking me very far."

Jason looks at Birdie, cradling this girl like he's built for it, looking just as happy as he had trying out the blankets. "Think he protected her from the worst, if anything." Volunteer Guy sucks a sympathetic breath through his teeth.

The kids eventually pull apart—not completely, the girl still holding onto his arms, swinging them side to side in a way he doesn't seem at all inclined to stop. Does Jason have shit he should be doing today? It doesn't matter; he'll let him have this all day if he needs it. 

Esme starts to pull him down the hall, probably to show off her room like little kids like to do. Birdie doesn't let her pull him far before stopping, turning to look back at him and tilting his head. This asking-for-permission thing is getting old; he just makes a shooing gesture at them, telling the kid to have fun.

He does the work he can from his phones while he waits—without using his modulator, it really isn't much, just checking on motion sensors and cams, confirming dead drops, and filling himself in on what work the Bat and Boy Wonder have been up to. The news doesn't make him as angry as it usually would.

When they come back out an hour later, Birdie still looks pleased, but he's definitely edging into overwhelmed. Thankfully, Volunteer Guy steps in so Jason doesn't have to be the bad guy, walking up to Esme and gently explaining that her friend has to go for now. For a moment, it seems like there'll be waterworks, then Birdie crouches down again, grabbing her head to press their foreheads together, and coos.  

The girl instantly devolves into giggles. After one last quick hug, she lets the volunteer take her hand, wiping at her eyes with the other. It takes Birdie a sec to start moving. Esme starts waving furiously before they've even reached the door and he jerkily returns the gesture, keeping his eyes on her as he walks away.

Stepping outside, Jason is hit with an impulsive thought and decides to run with it. "You'll prolly be able to visit her at her aunt's." Birdie hums a little, shakes his head. "Okay. ' long as you know."

— 

Talon wants to go to the clinic directly after (get the tests over with get them over with) yet the man insists on a break. He also insists it shouldn't spend the whole break sitting still, something it's grateful for considering the restless energy it's left with after spending time with the child—Esme. After being assured it is allowed, it climbs to the roof. It's always felt safest up high.

Even if it had spoken, it doesn't know if it could explain why it doesn't need to visit the child again. Seeing her safe, happy, and on her way to family filled it with a sense of completion it knows even if it doesn't remember. In the same way that saving her was right, letting go feels right, too.

It doesn't want to forget her, so it decides it won't.

Without orders to, it can't find the desire to practice its attacks, instead aimlessly stretching. Somehow it knows not to fly during the day, but it indulges in flips that give it the same soaring feeling in its stomach. 

It stops at the sound of the man's booted steps on the staircase, its body instantly pulled to tension. At least the man won't be the one doing the tests; it won't have to stay with the ones who hurt it. He gives it more choices, offering to either walk or bike to the clinic, grinning when it chooses bike (this time, it knows it chose the right answer). 

The motorcycle isn't quite as fun as flying, but with the wind in its hair and its arms safely around Robin (he feels the most like Robin here, laughing under his helmet when Talon trills happily) it finds itself disappointed when the bike is parked at their destination.

Thomas Wayne Memorial Clinic. Thomas Wayne; it knows that name, knows it never met him, knows he was good. The how s for it knowing that are just as blurred and fractured as the rest of its memories, and these fragments it doesn't know if it can trust. Testing happens here, and the name, man attached to it is good? 

(It doesn't like the possibility it opens; that the Court too could do bad, wrong things and still be good.)

Then the man asks if it's ready, and Talon knows that means it must enter. It is surprised to learn it can push the door open itself, no unlocking like the nests; it's surprised again when it steps in and is hit with warmth . The tests had never been warm (only one room with the Court was warm. Talon never felt warm in it).

The man has to prompt it to move, voice trying to be gentle under the modulation. 

It takes enough steps in and the young woman facing them speaks as well. "Hello, what can I do for you?" Her question is directed at it, and it. Doesn't know.

"Doctor Thompkins is expecting us." Fear blooms on her face at the man's words. Why? She nods, half-runs to another room.

Turning to the man, it pulls down the fabric covering its mouth, frowns at him and tilts its head. He huffs. "The helmet scares people, kid." Before it can figure out a way to convey a response, a different person comes from the same direction the other had left.

This new person is older, hair dark grey, in a clean white coat (the testers around the table wore black so the blood and electrum wouldn't stain). She frowns at the man, but twitches her lip in an almost-smile looking at it. 

"Hello, I'm Dr. Thompkins. Are you the kid I'm looking at today?" It checks with the man before nodding. "Alright. I'm going to bring you to an exam room; would you be more comfortable if he stays here, or comes with?"

Talon can tell the man doesn't like this question, yet when it looks to him, he shrugs his shoulders. "You do what you gotta do. She won't try anythin' even if I'm not there." It… somehow knew that without him having to say. Maybe it's the age she wears that the silver-haired man from its memories also wore, but even with the looming threat of tests, it feels that Doctor Leslie— 

Doctor Thompkins, is safe.

With a gesture, the man is handing it the pen and paper. That's close enough to a decision for it; with a nod, it steps forward alone. For the doctor, it writes and shows: He can come in when tests are done.

She gives it a nod of her own. "Alright; two doors down on the left."

Chapter Text

Doctor Thompkins is not warm, but it thinks she might be kind anyway. When it watches the door to the testing room, she leaves it cracked open. She asks him to sit in a chair instead of making it lie on the table (and this table isn't metal? It almost looks like the man's couch, with a strange piece of paper pulled over it). She sits down, too.

"So, what can I call you?"

'Talon' almost leaps from it's tongue—but the thought of being called it again for testing makes it swallow the title back down. She waits as it quickly writes, shows the paper to her: 

Whatever you'd like.

The man, it seems, is not the only one it makes sigh. "Okay. Red Hood-" that's the man, isn't it? "didn't mention any specific concerns. What do you think we need to address?"

Don't need any testing. Might as well see if the man was telling the truth about being able to refuse them.

"That might be true; I'm not asking about tests yet, I just want to know if any part of you is hurting, or feels sick." He had asked it questions like this too, on the roof and in his nest. It doesn’t feel any pains or discomfort currently, but the man had been concerned about its digestion so it writes what happened the night before.

She frowns, but doesn't do anything else to show that it's done something wrong. "And how would you describe your digestion before this? Any sensitivities, family history of issues?"

It doesn't have to think long. Don't know. Don't remember eating much.

"I'm sorry to hear that. Was that because eating hurt, or because you didn't have much food to eat?" It starts nodding.

Only allowed food when it's needed.

Doctor Thompkins' breath hitches—just slightly, not enough that it thinks a human would notice. "I want you to know that anything you say to me doesn't get shared with anyone outside this clinic. That includes the Red Hood."

It doesn't really know why she wants it to know this now, but it nods anyway. Red Hood said that.

She blinks once in surprise. "Good. That means you can be honest with me: are you safe? If he's hurting you, restricting your food—"

Talon knows it isn't supposed to interrupt, knows it will be punished, but it can't let the doctor say these things about the man; it waves its hands to signal her to stop, then writes furiously on the paper.

Not hurting. Helping . Helping it be safe, getting food, clothes, blankets and tea.

It's Talon's turn to be surprised when Doctor Thompkins chuckles reading its note. "Blankets and tea, huh? He sure knows how to treat a guest."

— 

Jason's fine. 

Really, he is; standing in the waiting room of the clinic he knows from both sides of his childhood, dressed as the terrifying mass-killer he also actually is , waiting to see if the teen he picked up from a roof will be eating from a tube or just needs to sleep off a bug—all of it's fucking fine! He definitely doesn't feel Willis's phantom hand pulling him away after they dropped off his mom, doesn't see Batman being dragged into a back room, doesn't remember thinking "Doc Leslie can't fix this, can she?"

None of that's happening in his brain, because he's Red Hood here, not Jason, not Robin (not dead). It may just be a waiting room, but as long as he's in the helmet, those issues get trapped in a fucking box to die. 

Jason knows he's fucked up; just can't be fucked up on the clock (well, not more than it requires; he only needs the Pit rage). 

Considering his primary coping mechanism is punching the shit out of someone, he doesn't know exactly how he's gonna calm down without leaving the clinic (and he won't—sure, Leslie won't hurt him, and most players give the clinic a respectful birth. Whoever had Birdie don't seem the type to care, and they definitely seem the type to want their plaything back). Talking to the receptionist is out considering the whole scaring-the-shit-out-of-her, and he doesn't think he could read a magazine without getting a migraine (oh the joys of death by brain damage). 

He doesn't have a non-"work" phone to dick around on (before taking the kid in, he didn't really have a non-work anything); as relaxing as it would be to him, the receptionist probably wouldn't appreciate if he flipped out a butterfly knife to play with; with nothing else, he just stares out the slightly-fogged windows and prays for something to grab his attention, pull his brain away from his half-remembered past.

Because fate's a bitch, Jason gets what he wants in the form of spotting someone watching from a roof. They're in plainclothes, but as they slip away he catches a familiar splash of bright white on their face. 

What's his replacement doing watching him?

When Doctor Thompkins asks if it will remove its hood, it finds little reason to hesitate; the man had wanted it to keep it on, yes, but that was for the people outside. Someone who runs the table tests won't be scared of what it looks like (it also doesn't like how the hood distorts its hearing, how it catches on its shaved hair).

When she asks if it will remove its glasses, it has two reasons to hesitate: the lights buzzing in the room and the strange, louder hitch in her breath at its face. Somehow, it isn't fear in her voice, not like the child; and the bright lights are a discomfort it will gladly accept in favor of what she could do if it refused. It takes off the glasses.

" Richard? " What? That—why did she call it that? It shouldn't be called that. "Richard, is that you?"

It shakes its head. Not in refusal; it doesn't know . The title, name, is familiar, but it isn't that now (if it isn't Talon, and it isn't Richard, what is left?). Thinking about the name hurts, it doesn't want to.

The doctor's voice is wet when she speaks again, still trying to be flat, friendly: "I knew a young man named Richard Grayson, and he looked a lot like you. Does that name mean something to you?"

It jumps out of its chair, holds back its whine at how the doctor flinches back, looks to the partially open door. With shaky hands it tries to translate why it shouldn’t be called that name into words. Not safe. Can’t be that. 

Doctor Thompkins does the same flat hands to try to calm it that the man does. “Okay. You can’t be him. I won’t say the name again.” It tries to breathe like the man did to calm itself. Richard Grayson is gone, it wasn’t safe to be him (this means who it was in the memories, who drank tea with the silver-haired man, has a name. Like a battered puzzle piece, the name should fit who it was but it doesn’t.)

"Would you be comfortable with me taking your vitals? I can call in a nurse to do it instead—minimal contact, I promise, just enough to get your pulse and blood pressure."

Pulse. She can see at this point that it's not human, sees its eyes and its veined skin, yet it doesn't think she's anticipating the results she will get. Still, it nods rather than go through the effort of explaining; it wants the tests done so it can leave, go back to the man's nest with its soft blankets and warm tea.

“Alright.” Doctor Thompkins grabs two objects off of the wall, and holds out the one that looks a bit like a clothespin to him; “This goes on your pointer finger; I’m going to walk closer and put it on. It won’t hurt." She has no reason to lie about it; if it hurts, she can just force it to do the test anyway. Most of the table tests had hurt.

It doesn't hurt.

At this point, Jason is about ten minutes away from snapping and following the replacement all the way back to the cave. He won't leave the kid here, or at least doesn't want to; the Pit doesn't always give him a choice, and seeing that guy in the fucking domino mask is enough to have the Pit roaring.

He can't be older than Birdie, can he, the new Robin? Older than when he and Dick had started, sure, but take the mask off and his eyes are probably just as young.

It's an angle he hasn't really looked at: Bruce didn't just send another Robin out there, he sent a kid. A kid who either grew up fast like he did, or one Bruce is making grow up now. Both options keep the green rising.

"Mr. Hood?" He doesn't jump (too well trained to. God he hates Talia sometimes), but he's definitely surprised to see the doc standing a couple feet away. Nodding in response feels like a bit of a dick move; doesn't trust his voice though, modulated or not, so here we are. "I've finished what tests we could; he seems to want you back with him.” The suspicion in her voice changes to wryness for just a second, “Though I think he’d take just about anyone’s company over being here.”

Jason thinks about Birdie agreeing to stay with a strange man with a gun just to get out of the cold (thinks of the kid writing “incremental cryogenic testing” in a long list of tortures); “Yeah, he prolly would.” He hopes his getting hit by how goddamn sad it is doesn’t come through the modulation.

Doctor Leslie, too smart for her own damn good, definitely notices something about how not-right he is. “I’ve got some questions for you,” at least miss the way his breath hitches at that, come on, “but I'm not asking them behind his back. What I am asking, I expect an answer: do you know who he is?"

He sighs; " He doesn't know who he is. I got no clue." At this point, Jason doesn't know if it would be easier if he did. 

"Is there… Any particular motive you have for helping him?"

He snarls at the implication, green still so close to the surface. "I dunno know who you think I am, what you think I do—I don't care—but I don't use kids. Hell, someone who's been hurt like that? Think what you want, I know I'd never bring them into what I do."

She studies him for a moment—what she's able to read from him, he doesn't know. Whatever it is satisfies her and, with a short follow me gesture, he's led to the only room with an open door (kid didn't wanna be trapped, noted).

As soon as he steps in, Jason's bombarded with a paper being shove in his face (bit of an exaggeration, Birdie's not comfortable enough to get that close to him; his fully outstretched arms still leave the paper a good foot away from him. It's still the closest he's willingly gotten to him, so Jason's taking the fucking win). 

It reads: Tests are done. Can we go back to the nest? As he's reading, he notices the kid has pulled the turtleneck back up over his mouth and nose; can't blame him for wanting to hide.

Also: 'nest'? Damn, the little girl was spot on with Birdie

"Doc's got a few more questions, then we can go." Jason has way more than a few questions himself, but he knows the kid would answer whether he wanted to or not, not understanding that he's allowed anything private. 

Birdie's not pleased even as he nods, hands falling to twitch at his sides; they're definitely close to reaching his limit, and Jason hopes that Leslie sees the same and keeps it brief. Honestly, he’s expecting most of the questions to just be grilling him on taking care of the kid, and while she starts off with hard-hitters good enough to make Birdie wince (he tries to bury knowing the kid is scared of his reactions, scared that Leslie will make him angry), an equal amount are centered around just pooling information about the possible changes to his biology and what that could mean for his health.

“I’m only telling you what he’s fully agreed to share—given the circumstances, I can’t have him fill out a release of information form, but he wrote what he’d let me say or ask about." If it were anyone else, Jason would doubt they’d managed to get Birdie to write anything more than ‘whatever you want’. He doesn’t doubt it with her.

What she can say is… A lot to wrap his head around. Learning how slow Birdie's pulse is at least seems useful; learning that the 'kid’ is actually closer to his own age is. Well. Jason feels like it should matter to him more than it actually does. Him being a kid was the reason he’d tried to help Birdie at all, that night on the roof, and three days shouldn’t be nearly enough time for him to be attached—yet looking at who he now knows is a young man, the urge to protect him, help him, doesn’t lessen. 

“What do I need to do to help ‘im?”

The sun is only just starting to set as they leave the clinic. 

The table tests took hours, sometimes days, and it did not leave them walking. It still didn’t like being at the clinic, but it didn’t get hurt (Doctor Thompkins had asked for a blood test, and it said no , knowing that meant needles. She didn’t do it anyway, didn’t have it restrained or drugged, just said okay and moved on).

It had started to drift into its mind, just a little, as the man and the doctor spoke. It had tried not to be anxious before the appointment but it was , and it could only maintain that tension for so long before tiring. The man had to call its attention when it was time to leave. He calls it ‘Birdie’, like the child did, and it feels much better than Talon, or what the doctor had said.

It’s too tired to flinch when the man loops its arms around him on the back of the motorcycle (it had flinched badly on their way there, even having moved its arms on its own; it took a lot of gesturing to convince the man it still wanted to ride). It lets itself sag into the man’s back, just a little, soaking up the touch that doesn’t hurt. The man doesn’t stop him; “Long day. Try ‘n save the nap ‘til we get there, Birdie.”

Birdie seems like a nice thing to be.

Chapter Text

It doesn't dream about falling. It dreams about the table, about electrum boiling through its veins, about the haze of drugs so thick it couldn't even tell where they touched it, being prodded and scraped and opened again and again.

The fall at least has people it wants to remember.

It wakes with blood in its mouth ( it bit through its tongue again; try the metal gag this time ) and has just enough of its awareness to know it can't get the floor dirty again. It spits the blood into its hands.

Its hands are unstained, only clear saliva there. It doesn't like that dreams get to stay when it's awake.

Laying down no longer an option with the feeling of cold metal against its back, it… Birdie gets up, walks to the kitchen to wash its hands. 

Being in the kitchen reminds it of food; Doctor Thompkins told it to eat small amounts whenever it remembers (she had first said "whenever you feel up to it," edited her statement after noting its blank look in response). 

Birdie finds the crackers from before, and its eyes are drawn to the plastic jar in the cabinet next to it. The jar has a little paper and foil lid underneath its plastic lid, and once it breaks the seal a warm, salty-sweet smell hits its nose. 

It spreads it on the crackers, feels the echo of memory in his muscles with the action. 

Richard Grayson ate this, didn't he?

Like the food, it pushes the thought down; though it quickly realizes a liquid will be necessary to force down more than one of the salty concoctions. Following the impulse of these memories only its body seems to keep, it opens the small refrigerator, reaches for the shelf in the middle of the door:

Chocolate milk. It doesn't remember what it tastes like. It wants to know. Scribbled on the thin carton in black marker are the words For you kid . If it isn't 'kid' anymore, can it still drink it?

It can ask when the man returns. For now, it closes the fridge, reaches instead for a tea bag. This, it knows it's allowed.

As soon as Birdie is properly passed out on the couch, Jason is off to the library. Without the insane tech and resources of the Bat, and without the hacking skills to make up for not having those, Jason picks up his information the old fashioned way (or he finds the people who do have the skills and resources and puts a gun to their head. Depends on the day).

Thankfully, he's starting from a significant fucking advantage to most people investigating Robin, and he'd read up on most of the replacement's activities when he was catching up on Batman's attempts to end crime while he was gone—though even in the Pit-blind rage he'd been in months ago, he'd noticed just how few reports of the new Robin there were. 

Now that he's focused on the replacement, plotting out a rough timeline of sightings makes the reason abundantly clear. After the first sighting (months after he died; couldn't even wait a whole year, couldya, Bruce? ), Robin isn't seen til almost three years later, taller and broader… 

He re-checks the Brucie side of things. Still only one adoption—not an orphan or a street rat this time, but a Drake (hadn't Birdie mentioned the Gotham Elite?). His adoption lines up in the middle of the three-year gap. Maybe Bruce was trying to learn from his mistakes, benched the kid and trained him up longer than his two dead Robins.

Or maybe the Robin from the year he died never made it long enough to be adopted.

God he wishes he was faster with this research shit, but a crowbar to the head has made it slow, painful work, leaving him stuck on the awful possibility that he killed another Robin as he squints at the screen.

It’s disproven with photos he finds in a handful of gossip articles, of pre-Wayne adoption Timothy Drake with none other than Dick Grayson, before and after that lone Robin sighting. There aren't pictures of him with Brucie til he started the custody process, but there also aren't pics of him or Dick with any other Robin-sized kids that he can find, so. At least there's that.

(Only two dead Robins, Jason and Dick. 

It's… weird, to think of him as dead. Jason still has to convince himself that he's not dead anymore.

Bet I can guess which one Bruce'd rather have come back. )

According to the news, Timothy Drake-Wayne is polite, quiet, and a certified genius; he's also rude, reclusive, and conned Bruce Wayne into adopting him to get a bigger inheritance. Considering how hush hush his custody case was kept, and that both Mr. and Mrs. Drake are alive and un-bereaved, Jason thinks the real explanation is a lot simpler. Makes it a bit harder to be angry at the kid (not impossible; the Pit doesn’t let him let go of anger, even the unfair, ugly kind directed at a kid who just happened to be taken in by the same piece of shit as him).

According to the news, this latest Robin is less talkative, less involved in direct combat (less reckless ), yet an absolute tech whiz, one the Gotham PD have credited with pointing them in the right direction for several cases independent of Batman. There also aren't many other gaps in his appearances, none preceded by worried reporting on potential injuries.

Bat's been keepin' him safer . Jason can't decide between being mildly relieved and giving into that ugly, jealous anger. Why did it have to take Jason dying, Dick dying for Bruce to figure out how to protect his kid? Did Bruce really need a kid raised on "yes sir" and "no sir" just to keep them alive?

Doesn't seem like little Robin's sayin' "yes sir" anymore, he corrects as he combs through some interesting Twitter threads; apparently Robin's being spotted on his own more, twice with Batman chasing him down.

The fear-spiked anger he's been high on since catching Robin 3.0 watching them loosens its grip just a bit. With his new rogue act, the kid might not've clued daddy Bat into his little recon mission. He hopes that's the case.

It's not that his plans for Bruce have been put on hold, Jason just hasn't figured out how to keep Birdie out of it. He's keeping Birdie as far away from the Bats as possible; a kid killing, Bruce could probably forgive, try to 'reform' them; but an adult, and enhanced at that? Batman'd throw him in Blackgate without blinking an eye.

With some deep breathing, Jason manages to calm his rage at the thought enough to keep the library keyboard intact. Focus . Even if Batman is aware of Birdie, he wouldn't have anything on him; the best approach will be to stop Robin's investigation before he realizes there's anything to find.

Does the chance to confront his replacement also settle something petty inside him? Sue him, it does.

At this point, the slight strain of staring at the screen has turned into the beginnings of a migraine behind his eyes. He's got enough to go off of for now.

Stopping by the bodega on his way back to the safehouse, he grabs a pack of the Ensure Dr. Leslie had recommended, and a cheap sports drink for himself; with the migraine, he'll be lucky to to keep that down.

He announces himself and knocks on the safehouse door this time too, and Birdie is knocking back without him having to ask. Inside, he's greeted by the bird in question sitting on the kitchen counter. After giving Jason a wave 'hello', he picks up—huh. A saltine with peanut butter, kicking his legs just slightly as he chews.

With the cabinets shadowing all of his face except that slight smile, perched where he is, swinging his legs; for a second, it's not Birdie he's seeing.

"Ahh, indulging in a delicacy I see."

Jason jumps, hands fumbling to hide the open jar behind him. The first Robin—Dick, he should get used to calling him that—raises his hands innocently.

"Hey, I get it; Alfred's great, but sometimes you miss the comfort foods." He says it all with an easy grin, rolling on and off the balls of his feet.

Jason narrows his eyes. "Yeah, poor little street kid can't handle all your fancy fuckin' food." 

He only glares harder when that gets a laugh out of Dick (it's a lot different from his Robin cackle, softer. Probably just trying not to wake up Alfred). "Circus, remember? I know all the poor kid specials, and PB on saltines? Hard to beat." Jason isn't dumb; he picks up on the 'I'm like you' move, trying to get him to trust him.

But he was also a Robin. He gave him his suit. Would trusting him be that bad?

"Want one?"

Jason… Didn't know he still had memories like that. Clear, hopeful. For some reason, he wishes he didn't have his domino on right now, like that hope he'd had back then of being able to trust is staying past the memory.

"Y'likin' that, Birdie?" Dr. Leslie hadn't said anything about it, but Jason's decided to try and get Birdie expressing his opinions on things; wants him to learn he's allowed to have them. He can feel a smile tugging at his lips as he asks.

Birdie nods enthusiastically, then reaches out a hand to him.

A hand balancing a coated cracker. When Jason just stands there, he nods his head at it; 'take it.'

It sticks with his memories to the roof of his mouth. "Thanks Birdie." 

His responding smile beams . That peanut butter-messy smile reminds him of something Leslie had scolded him for overlooking. "Howsabout after you finish, you take a shower? If you turn the nob a third to the left, it'll get nice 'n warm." Last thing he needs is the meta freezing or scalding himself.

That smile drops to a frown, Birdie dropping down from the counter and finding the pad of paper (he should probably buy another soon. Or maybe a phone?). 

A weapon shouldn't clean itself.

Jason manages not to punch a hole through anything only by forcibly reminding himself of the terrified look on Birdie's face when he'd broken the bookshelf. Said I wouldn't scare him again. I won't. I won't.

"You don't have to be a weapon anymore. You can be a person who takes showers, who eats food he likes, who doesn't have to be scared of himself." Without the anger, his voice just sounds tired and desperate.

Why does the man have to say things like this? He It isn't a person, not like he it was; can't be. A person couldn't have survived the Court. It saved Esme; no one saved him it.

Robin saved you , part of it insists, if he thinks you're a person, then you are.

It wants to recoil from the thoughts even as he it wants to embrace them. The Court was wrong, about a lot, but it knows it's a weapon. A tool. That's what kept it safe. Being him had gotten him it killed.

Yet few of the things that kept it safe in the Court have seemed to apply with the man. 

Maybe just in the nest

Safe as a weapon outside, safe as Birdie inside; it knows it won't work even as it feels himself giving in. 

The man hasn't said anything else, but doesn't seem bothered to wait for Birdie's reply. Instead of trying to write any of his thoughts he mouths a simple, 'Okay.'

Standing in the shower is. Strange. In the first moments, the water is hose-rain-coffin cold, then the warmth chases out the memories before they can take root.

Unlike when it had changed clothes before, now he looks down at his body; catalogues his many scars, healed white if they were before his death and an odd grey otherwise; wonders what they would look like against the tan skin he'd had in his memory. 

He doesn't let himself wonder why washing between its legs makes it anxious, just moves on and scrubs the rest of his body clean. The warm water is nice on his scalp.

Stepping out brings a sting of cold to its wet skin. Robin had handed him a towel; wrapping himself in it now, he thinks the man lied. This is a blanket, fluffy and soon-to-be warm. He doesn't have much body heat to warm a blanket on his own, but the residual heat from the shower seeps into it until he'd be perfectly content to curl up and sleep here.

Robin likes him to sleep on the couch though, and the couch has more blankets. Keeping the 'towel' around his shoulders, he slips on more soft, warm pants; pulls the newly clean balaclava over his head (does he still think the man will be scared of him? Probably not, but he's learned from Doctor Thompkins that he can't predict how people react to his face. He won't risk it).

Shucking the towel long enough to pull on a sweater, he reaches for the doorknob. He hadn't locked it. There was no need to.

Its plan to sleep on the couch is complicated by the man laying on it, a small towel covering his eyes. 

"Y'outta tha shower?" Birdie is reassured at least that it won't have to wake him, but his voice is slurred with a tight note of pain. Birdie hums low in his throat, warbling slightly; with his eyes covered, how can he communicate with the man, find out what's wrong?

The man looks confused by the noise. "Whatcha need?" Birdie huffs; that's what he wants to ask.

Remembering the motorcycle ride, he has a stupid, dangerous idea. Talon would be punished for it without question—Birdie? He doesn't know, and he'll grab any chance to help the man (to help Robin ) and fly with it.

Getting closer to the man has its heart thumping almost living-fast. It tries to convince himself it isn't all fear. When his cooling fingers brush against the man's arm, he jumps. "Birdie? Wha'?" There's no anger in his voice, just croaked confusion.

With slow, careful (shaking) movements, he flips the man's palm up to trace a simple message on his skin:

OK ?

When that face only stays scrunched in confusion, he repeats again, and again until it feels like he can see the letters written there.

He doesn't expect the man's face to break into a shaky grin. "Yeah, 'm okay Birdie." The hand under his fingers moves to pat him clumsily. He doesn't flinch. " 's like you not 'memberin' stuff; been happenin' since I died."

Birdie lets out a mournful noise. He'd wondered before if the man had been made like Talon was made. Sharing this doesn't bring him any comfort, just adds sadness to his own. He spreads his arms to cover Robin.

In the Court, when it was left alone, its company was the small family of owls roosted high in the rough rock ceiling. The mother would cover her owlets with her broad wings, shielding them from the cold and the Court and Talon. 

It isn't what a person would do, he knows. But it's what he can give, and so he does, cooing quiet comfort to the Robin who found him, shielding him from the cold if nothing else.

Chapter Text

Jason is aware that he should be pushing the arms off him before he's actually aware of the arms. He blames his lack of violent reaction on the lingering disorientation from his migraine (easier to believe than him even subconsciously refusing to scare Birdie). 

The pain is gone (in his head at least; the bones Joker broke still ache, as if he needs another reminder), from the light peaking through the window he actually managed to sleep through to morning, and Birdie is… Hugging him? 

As soon as he shifts, the arms retreat, freeing his own arm to reach up and remove the wet washcloth from his face.

He pauses before actually moving it. There's no domino under this; as soon as he takes it away, Jason Todd will be seen in full for the first time since he left the League. The thought doesn't fill him with as much reluctance as it probably should. 

Yes, Birdie hasn't shown him his face, but the hug shows he trusts Jason way more than he'd thought. From what all he's written about, the way he flinches, Jason'd assumed he'd be keeping the same two-foot radius indefinitely (it took him a full year before he initiated contact with Bruce). Yet he saw Jason in pain and bridged the gap without question.

His memory after getting back from the bodega is a foggy mess, so it takes him a second to actually piece together what had inspired the hug. Once he does, he sits up on the couch, all internal debate about the washcloth swept to the side.

"How long did you stay there!?" 

Does he feel guilty for how he's clearly startled Birdie? Of course, but it can't compete with the guilt over him spending enough time kneeling on the tiled floor for it to turn to night again, just because Jason had a goddamn headache

Of course he didn't move , some part of him taunts, you were laying in the only place he knows he can stay . He shoves that down before he finds out what the Pit anger can do when it's himself he's angry at.

Birdie doesn't respond—not exactly out of character, yet something about his wide-eyed stare sets his teeth on edge.

"I ain't mad," as if that's ever been true, "you just didn't need to do that; coulda kicked me off the couch, or could've had you take the bed. Did you even sleep?"

Jason can't read what Birdie's feeling for the life of him as he shakes his head, still kneeling. With a sigh, he swings his legs over the side of the couch, waits for the pins and needles to fade before standing up.

"Look, why don't you try to get some sleep now." He raises a hand against a protest he doesn't even know if Birdie will give. "I know you've 'gone without for longer', but you need good sleep;" Jason catches himself before he can say 'doctor's orders', instead tacking on a gruff: "take as much as you can get."

Birdie just… Stares up at him. Not in fear, he's gotten way too familiar with how that looks on him; it's almost like he's not really looking at Jason at all.

"Birdie?"

Robin .

Little Wing .

Jay.

He's older and bigger and scarred inside and out but Birdie knows him. Talon couldn't didn't know him, but Birdie can, does—

"Try and keep up, Little Wing!"

"Quit calling me that!" Robin's response only sends him cackling as he runs and tumbles and flies across rooftops, Robin's less-practiced landings thumping behind him.

"'Big Wing'll raise a few eyebrows, but if you insi—"

"No!" His yell stops Richard? up short. "I get that you don't like it, but I'm Robin now! Call me Robin!"

He turns to face a panting teenager, face red where the domino doesn't cover it, and he wishes he could wrap him up in his arms, wishes Jay wouldn't think it was an attack.

"Of course you are. You're Batman's Robin;" Robin's mouth opens in surprise, "you're also my Little Wing." He leans in, cups his mouth to whisper in a dramatic play of secrecy: "Can't exactly call you 'little brother' in uniform, can I?"

 

They were brothers .

The memory is happy, but looking at him makes him sad, makes him feel like he's watching them fall again. Yet he feels happy, too; joy so far beyond the comfort of a blanket, relief so much stronger than seeing the child safe.

It's a different way to be lost in his head, not tucked safe in a corner but standing in the center of swirling emotions. Talon learned not to do this quickly; it might not respond to its name then, too lost in trying to reign the storm in. Birdie lets it wash over him—Jay won't hurt him will he?

He won't, because even if the memories before he died can't be trusted ( they can they can that's your Little Wing ), he knows the man won't hurt him, not for getting lost or not responding. Richard had trusted Jay, but Birdie learned to trust him as the man, as Robin, and who he used to be wouldn't supersede that.

For now, that's enough to settle his mind, and his awareness of the world trickles back in. He's still kneeling by the couch, and Robin— 

Birdie knows the man stood from the couch at some point, but now he's crouched in front of him, his warm hand feather-light on Birdie's shoulder. It's… nice, he decides; certainly nicer than the concerned (guilty?) look on his face.

His eyes are a green that Birdie thinks might really glow, not the reflection of light that makes its his own shine.

Reaching up carefully slow, he flips the hand on his shoulder to be palm-up and traces the same message as before, forgoing the question mark: OK

Robin lets out a shaky breath, the corner of his mouth twitching up. "You're okay?" Birdie nods. "That's good to know. Do…" he hesitates, like he's afraid of Birdie's response; "Did I scare you?"

Eyes wide, he shakes his head frantically. He moves for the first time in hours to reach for the paper and reassure him, ignoring the way his hips pop.

Not scared, I was remembering. A nice memory.

Birdie can tell Robin doesn't fully believe him, but he nods anyway. "That's good; I was askin' if you wanted to take the couch? You—you deserve to sleep, too." 

It's easy to see embarrassment coloring his face in the dark room, and Birdie might not believe his words either. He wants to coo at the kindness all the same. Birdie isn't particularly tired, having slept while Robin was out; for Robin though? For his Little Wing? He'll try just about anything.

I'll take the couch if you fly safe tonight. Birdie's not unobservant; he knows Robin uses his sleep as opportunities to sneak out, and he has no doubt it has to do with his Red Hood persona (you don’t go to the trouble of a voice-modulating helmet and a duffle bag full of weapons if you don’t plan to use them, and from the clinic he knows ‘The Red Hood’ has developed an intimidating reputation). 

After reading the words, Robin looks momentarily stricken; before Birdie can fix whatever he’s done wrong, his look melts into something warm and bittersweet. “Safe’s no fun, but I’ll try.”

He’s not running away. Really, he isn’t; sure, Birdie asked him to stay safe in the exact same way Dick used to—Dick, who’s dead and isn’t coming back. That has nothing to do with how he doesn’t even wait for Birdie to lay down before slipping on his mask and helmet and climbing up to the roof.

If little Timmy didn't follow them back from Leslie's, it means he's already got eyes on the safehouse; the thought makes him wanna pack up and run to the next, but for tonight it makes his job easier. All he's gotta do is stand on the roof and wait (and maybe throw some finger guns at the cameras he can see; if he's not gonna beat the shit out of his replacement like the original plan, he might as well get some fun out of it).

Robin's there quicker than he'd expected—'there' being a few roofs over. His stealth isn't terrible, his darker Robin suit blending into the shadows better than Dick's was able to; if Jason weren't practically hardwired to make out that black-and-white domino, he probably wouldn't spot him. As it is, he turns directly to him, only getting a little amusement from the way his voice makes Robin startle.

"The Big Bad Bat know you're out here, baby bird?" He already knows the answer is no—Bruce'd be caught dead before he let a precious Robin face a gunman on their own. What he doesn't know is what makes Robin's look of surprise transform into an angry teenage scowl, or what makes him hook his grapple into a higher building before swinging straight into Red Hood's chest. The padding there isn't enough to stop the wind getting knocked out of him.

Jason still keeps his feet under him, though; what he's lost of that young Robin agility, he's gained in becoming a brick shithouse sturdy enough to rival Bruce. 

" Jesus kid, ever heard of talking?" The response he gets is a huffy growl (honestly? Birdie must've broken him, cause it's kind of endearing) before he's blocking a punch aiming for his kidney; "Your daddy teach you to fight dirty like that?" 

"Shut up!" Robin cries—really, what has he done to the kid? He knows just about anything could've pissed him off as Robin, but little Timmy has a lot milder of a reputation. 

His curiosity is halted by the successful kick Robin lands on his knee. Jason spits a wealth of curses as he feels the joint bend back farther than it should. If there's one thing he's used to though, it's pain; he straightens out his leg with only a little hiss before grabbing the arm coming at him and twisting to pin Robin with it. 

" Listen, " he spits out as Robin squirms, "I ain't interested in hittin' someone who ain't old enough to vote; keep the martial arts to a minimum and all we gotta do is talk, get it?"

Robin stills in his hold, head cocking to the side (is there a chance this kid also got nabbed by crazy rich bird people?). "What?"

Deciding the confusion is enough to stop the fight for now, Jason releases his hold; Robin edges away. “We good now?”

There’s still a frown on his face, but his voice is all childish uncertainty: “You’re a murderer.”

“Amazingly, killing some people doesn’t make me want to kill everyone.” Well, not now anyways—straight out of Nanda Parbat he’d definitely wanted to kill everyone. 

The eyes of Robin’s domino narrow; “Like who you brought to the Wayne memorial clinic?” Jason sighs, leaning back against what he’s pretty sure is a power box.

“Like him.” He knows that at this point, he needs to give the kid something , and from experience he knows what card to play. “Look, you know the Bat’s got his blind spots, things he won’t budge on,” Robin tenses again, and Jason pushes forward. “The guy I’m tryna help sits in a lot of those blind spots. A meta,” and that’s another hit; he knew it would be with the Titans the kid hangs out with, “with a background that’d make Gordon cry. I’m still tryna convince him he’s a person ; last thing he needs is a cell in Arkham.” A couple more hits. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Arkham doesn’t work, and little Timmy supposedly is one.

Robin still pushes back. “He— we wouldn’t do that. If he needs help—“

“You’ll what? Send him off to the League?” The anger’s rising against his will; “He wasn’t born a meta, it wasn’t an accident—he was made . Made into a weapon, made to kill ; you’re really tellin’ me the Bat wouldn’t ship him to Blackgate as soon as he learns the guy’s done what he was made to?”

It’s a big risk, revealing that Birdie has killed, but with green swimming in his vision he finds it hard to care. 

When he sees the horror on Robin’s face, the green recedes just enough for some guilt to hit him—Birdie’s backstory was enough to make Jason sick; a teenager, even grown-up-to-fast, probably shouldn’t hear it (was he that age when they took him, or younger? He doesn’t know if Birdie’ll ever remember). 

After opening and closing his mouth a few times, Tim’s eventually put together enough to ask: “I—who did it? Cadmus?”

He shakes his head. "Don't know; all I know for sure is they're well-connected, in bed with Gotham's old money, and definitely ain't afraid to hurt a kid." 

Jason can tell when the kid's bought into it. Oh, he's sure Robin still thinks he's the scum of the earth, but if there's one thing a kid-Robin likes, it's a mystery; a mystery that could help people, that Bruce can't solve? He wouldn't be surprised if Tim has names by the end of the week.

"And he…" Robin's uncertain, wringing his hands in a tic he's sure Bruce tried to drill out of him. "You think he's safe? With you?"

Ain't that the million-dollar question. "... He says he feels safe; I'm tryin' to trust him on that."

A beat, and then: 

"I'll look into it— without Batman."

That’s what Jason wanted, isn’t it? For Robin to turn his attention away from them and onto the walking piles of filth that killed Birdie, hopefully keeping Bats' attention away too? Why does it make dread spike in his chest, cut through his green and jaded throat to force out of his mouth—

"Don't go into it with no-one , kid; keep the Bat out, yeah, but… Make sure you've got someone watchin' your back."

"... Sure. Thanks."

It's half an hour, maybe, that Birdie lies on the couch waiting for sleep to find him. He's relieved when it doesn't, moving to sit up instead; laying down made its sluggish heart pump hard in his throat.

Had he felt this anxious when Robin left before? He wasn't there enough the first time to feel anxious, feel anything, and the second—his dreams had made him anxious, something hard to blame it on without sleeping. It's different to that fear, anyway; not the drop in his stomach as they fall or the straps and hands and cold metal against his back, just a jittery want for Robin to be back where he can keep him safe.

In a way, it's how it had felt being away from the child ( Esme, you know her name, you're allowed to remember her ), what had made it whine at the thought of being kept away from her. Except Robin protects him ; in half-memories, maybe, it's been the other way around, but in their time in this nest, the man has protected him from dreams, from his mind, from himself . Yet now he stands on the roof, alone, as Birdie sits on his couch.

He’s halfway up the staircase when the scuffle he could hear above him comes to a stop. No one has died (it knows what death sounds like), not that that reassures him. His heart only leaves his throat when the familiar heavy tread of Robin’s boots nears the roof door.

Once he’s opened it, the man starts. “Fuck! What’re you doin’ on the stairs?”

Birdie doesn’t answer, frowning as he observes how Robin holds his weight. He turns around and descends the stairs, frowning deeper still as he hears the slight intake of breath Robin makes each time his left boot takes a stair. As soon as they’re both on flat ground, he gestures for Robin to stay, moving quickly to grab the paper and pen.

What happened? How did your leg get hurt?

Robin winces; from the pain or the questions, he doesn’t know. “I’m fine , Birdie. Just had a disagreement with a little bird .”

Its eyes narrow; Dressed like it was?

The man shakes his head with the same desperation it he had when assuring he hadn’t been frightened. “No, no; if I’d thought he’d hurt you, I wouldnt’ve left him standing. No, the kid’s a protector, wanted to make sure you were safe. In that way he’s kinda like you.”

Protector. ‘Little bird’. Another Robin?

“... Whadya mean, ‘another’?”

Chapter Text

Birdie isn't particularly interested in answering Robin's question. Not when his little brother's just limped through the door.

Sit , he writes as angrily as he can manage. Naturally, that riles up Jay's own anger; Birdie just pulls a look that Talon would never use but Richard must have perfected. A look that says 'do what I say, because you know I can out-stubborn you' (does fear race up the back of its neck, challenging the man like this? It doesn't matter; Jay is more important than its fear).

With muttered cursing he isn't sure he's meant to hear, Robin eventually gives in, easing himself down onto one of the steps and straightening his left leg to the side with a hiss. Birdie resists the urge to mock his previous insistence that he was “fine”, though he's sure his frown gets some of it across. 

Knee injured. How?

"Nuh-uh, you first: the fuck did you mean by 'another Robin'?" Out of practice, Birdie chokes out something like a scoff. As if this is a conversation .

He snaps his fingers in front of his eyes to get Jay to look at them, to see how entirely unmoved he is, before tapping what he's written again. Little Wing is still angry, but he recounts how he got his injury (Birdie was right; another Robin. He'd ask why two Robins are fighting but he thinks it's not the first time).

Soft-tissue injury then. Where's your kit? Birdie doesn't remember what 'kit' he's referring to until after he writes it—a lot of things seem to come to him like that around Jay, like his body falls into patterns his brain struggles to recognize. It's nerve-inducing; even as the patterns feel so comfortable, so natural, so many of the behaviors he slips into are exactly what it learned not to do in the Court. What it knows won't keep it safe.

The Court was wrong, he knows. But what kept him safe wasn't wrong, was it? How he finds himself acting around Jay makes it feel like it was. He doesn't like feeling that way, like what he'd done to survive wasn't right.

Robin's taken his Red Hood helmet off, that familiar black and white mask covering blue green eyes. His frown is a bit less angry than his voice was, a bit more curious. "How'd you know I have a med kit?"

The scoff comes out easier this time. If you had a healing factor, it would've kicked in by now. Where is it?

Curiosity and confusion have beaten out anger on his face, and there's humor in his voice as he asks: "Who are you, and what've you done with Birdie?"

I don't know yet , he wants to say. Instead he cocks his head, and waits. 

Robin caves again, pointing into the kitchen. "Under the sink." His curiosity follows Birdie as he retrieves it.

Letting his unfamiliar muscle memory take over, Birdie inventories the kit's extensive supplies—had he done this as Richard? Robin? (Robin under fabric ceilings? Over rooftops?) Regardless, he finds what he needs, humming his satisfaction and carting it over. No one treated Talon's injuries, not with its healing factor. Birdie thinks no one's treated Jay's in a while either; he's happy to change that.

He doesn't question why Robin pulls the pantleg up over his swollen knee rather than taking the pants off and sparing himself the pain (like death, there are certain things they both understand). He does suck his teeth sympathetically at the fresh bruising revealed under his knee cap, the whole joint red and ballooned. 

Snapping to draw his eyes again, this time to his empty hands, Birdie palpates his own knee, then points at himself; waits, points at Jay, and finishes with his question head tilt. If Jay lets him do it, he reasons, he won't be able to write to communicate anyway (his hands feel better moving through the air anyway). 

It takes a second for the man to process, more for him to respond (they give each other so much time here). "Yeah, you can do it." He waits until Birdie’s made his cautious start, putting as little pressure as he needs to feel for less obvious breaks or dislocation, to continue his questioning: “Where’d you learn this?”

Some part of him wants to roll his eyes—several parts, really; even if he remembered, the thing Jay’s asking about is directly limiting his ability to answer. He hopes his huff gets his irritation with the timing across, makes a show of shrugging without jostling his busy hands.

Jay hisses through a grin as he presses on a tender spot; "My bad." 

Once he's felt around the whole knee, Birdie's decently confident there's no fracturing, just a nasty hyperextension and some bruising under the kneecap. In lieu of a brace, he tapes his knee up, following a familiar pattern meant to keep the joint stable while the strained ligaments heal. He doesn't miss Robin's eyes trained on his hands, following his movements til he rips off the tape, pressing the end down flat. 

His eyes flick back to his face. "You uh. You said somethin’, before.” Birdie tilts his head; Robin shifts on the step, rubbing the back of his neck; “Don’t think you meant to, you were—remembering things. But you spoke."

For a moment, it knows this is it; the man has finally gotten sick of the drawn-out process of its communication, or he's finally punishing it for speaking, or he wants it to say what the Owls had liked— 

But the man Robin continues, looking at it him and speaking softly, casually; "Is that somethin' you wanna work on? Talkin' again?" The thought sends fear rushing through its sluggish veins. Want isn't part of the equation, it— he can't.

He can know that it's safe to speak now, that Jay wouldn't use it against him, wouldn't twist its words to his purpose but. Believing that is something else entirely.

Robin sees it in him (of course), sighs (of course). "S'all good, Birdie. Can shelve that as long as ya want."

Tim isn't worried about Bruce catching him out—he's not naive enough to underestimate Bruce's overprotective ability to find him anywhere he is; that's why Tim devotes his efforts to make sure Bruce has no reason to find him (then, in the case that fails, he has airtight explanations for his extra -extracurriculars, all true enough that he won't feel like he's lying and won't show his tells).

Who he is dreading comms him before he's more than a block away. 

"And what was that , baby bird?" Unlike when Red Hood said it, a sadness-tinged warmth rises up in him even as he tries to suppress it, tries to keep himself comfortably in annoyed-and-inconvenienced.

"A mission , Oracle. Despite Batman's best efforts, I do have them from time to time."

If it were anyone other than Barbara, he knows what they'd say; how Bruce is protecting him, how after the last Robins of course he'll be more cautious

But Barbara knows he knows that, knows it doesn't erase how suffocating that overprotection can be. "Something tells me he didn't get the chance to veto this one. Nice trick with Cave cams, by the way."

If Tim grins at the compliment, no one’s there to see. Talking with Barbara has a lot of these little warm moments, when she says things he thinks his parents should've said, when she— 

When she acts like Dick. Dick, who gave him hugs without scolding him on 'propriety', who wasn't always there but tried to be, who called him 'baby bird' and softened the familiar sting of Bruce's distance with his wholly unfamiliar caring . They didn't even know each other ( really know each other, not just through a camera lens or at the occasional gala) for a year, yet on a rooftop in the dark, it's painfully easy to admit that Dick was his first taste of what family is, what it could be, and. It's not the same with Barbara, and yet it is, because she tries and she cares .

Even if she's the nosiest possible older sister, who never resists the urge to embarrass him on Titans missions over the group channel, he wouldn't give her up for anything.

He just doesn't know what to say . His… confrontation with Red Hood has him spiraling. Tracking the up-and-coming gang leader was technically within Batman's orders, but following in person a few days ago definitely wasn't. It's just—Red Hood is strange . He appears four months ago with little buildup, brutal in his ambition, racking up a body count as quickly as he overtakes progressively larger operations; yet Tim knows about the shelters, knows he saves his most gruesome treatment for traffickers (he doesn't take them over, he takes their heads ), speaks with more than one victim with torn clothes saying a man in a red helmet saved them. His actions have made him infamous, but he's careful even in his showiness to never reveal anything he doesn't mean to.

That doesn't mean Tim hasn't found anything . What had started mostly as him trying to contradict common speculation, an intentionally less likely theory had quickly become his leading profile: despite the lack of trail, his initial lack of connections, Red Hood is from Gotham. It isn't in what he's done, but in how he's done it; in the Crime Alley territory especially, he'd known which players to feed, which to fight, and Robin had heard victims talking about the shelters as soon as the news of his violence hit. 

Crime Alley victims, who'd taken one look at him and known he wasn't their Robin, made him build up trust by scratch—they trusted Red Hood even as he shot people in the streets. It takes more than fear or money to get trust like that; it takes understanding (Tim knows, has learned over and over it's something he won't have, can't give).

There's smaller things; Krav Maga woven into his rarer close-range fights, a lack of reaction to higher frequencies consistent with moderate hearing loss, eyes that he's now seen flash green, which opens up a whole host of other theories— 

"Robin, are you injured?"

He definitely doesn't jump at Oracle's voice in his ear (he's blaming it on the caffeine withdrawals). Doing a quick self inventory, he responds, "Negative. Sorry, I was just… thinking…"

She snorts. "Don't hurt yourself, bird-brain." Tim winces as she says it, pain creeping into her voice that even he can make out; it's harder, for her, speaking with him as Robin. Too easy to slip into old patterns, he thinks. "You know what you're doing with Hood? He's not exactly small-fry."

Rubbing a hand over his face to try and wake up enough for the swing home, he huffs. "At this point, I think he is small fry compared to who he's working against."

Barbara hums, the familiar click of her keys cutting into the comms. "Who, Black Mask? He's definitely more of an immediate threat, but with the speed Hood's gaining territory it's just a matter of time—"

"Bigger than Black Mask!" He blurts out, instantly scolding himself for yelling that name only a few streets away from the drug lord's territory, adding some additional evasive maneuvers to the mental map of his return route just in case. "This is bigger than the gang wars: human experimentation. Human weapons. " Because Tim understood what Red Hood meant as soon as he said 'made', had heard what little Conner has described of his time with Cadmus replaying in his head. He also understands that Hood was trying to appeal to him as a hero, to point out a bigger bad than himself, he just… Can't find it in himself to blame the man for it.

(Tim doesn't approve of him; he still thinks Red Hood needs to be held accountable for the deaths he's caused. 

But in this? Maybe Tim comes something close to understanding.)

"Aaaand I'm not letting you off the hook after that. If it weren't a school night I'd tell you to park your ass in the Cave til I got there. As is, expect a wheelchair footrest to the shins in the near future."

"I always do."

Birdie's doing good. He's doing really good; writing longer sentences, getting close without flinching, sassing him and standing his ground. He's doing good, and it makes Jason worried.

It's not the uncertain nerves he'd had with the guy's eating (something Leslie couldn't give a firm answer on; despite appearances, she assured him Birdie wasn't in danger of starving yet, and she'd thrown out 'delayed gastric emptying' as a potential. He hasn't had the chance to google it). With this, he knows what's bound to happen, just worries about how Birdie will take it.

Cause the thing about getting out? The thing about finally feeling safe? 

It doesn't last, not this early. Not for trauma this deep. And all this, the 'talking back'? Whenever Birdie backslides back into the space where he's scared of being hurt every time he moves, it's gonna be a lot of fuel for those fears. Yet looking at him, pouring out two glasses of chocolate milk, a small smile on his face, Jason doesn’t want to be the one to warn him. He’s already triggered the guy, forced him to relive his torture; breaking his momentary happiness to remind him he’s still fucked up feels cruel.

But considering Birdie has gaps in his semantic memory as big as blankets, he probably doesn’t have much of a concept of ‘mental health’ at all; if Jason’s learned anything in his two lives’ worth of trauma that can help him get back up after he inevitably crashes, he owes it to him. Hell, the first time Birdie talks back, and it’s to treat him. At this point he owes him more than he can give.

(He hasn’t forgotten ‘another Robin’, puts it next to the other bits of Birdie that would make him trigger-happy if he didn’t know the guy would sooner give him a cracker (or bow and accept punishment ) than raise a hand against him. Birdie's got a dangerous past, that’s for sure—one he’s starting to think got Gotham-dark before he was nabbed—but it’s only dangerous for Jason because he’s promised to protect him, and the shit he’s involved in only seems to go deeper.)

Setting down the two full glasses, Birdie turns back to him, miming what Jason eventually guesses is the process of helping him walk. If he’s honest, his skin crawls for hours after any fight, and having to lean on someone a full foot shorter than him sounds like the perfect recipe for putting him as on-edge as possible—and because the bird assassin reads his body language like it’s his job, he moves to an alternative without pause. Because he’s an overly-servile mess, his next suggestion is pulling the couch over to him.

“Y’really don’t gotta do that; this ain’t my first leg injury, I can scoot along the wall just fine.” But Birdie is already waving him off, that relaxed cheer of the moment not leaving as he walks over to the couch and.

Oh. Jason should probably stop forgetting he’s a meta.

It’s clearly not Superman-level enhanced strength but he’s not breaking a sweat, pulling the couch how Jason would a chair. After he’s pulled it perfectly in front of the stairs, he pats the couch, making a ‘hop on’ gesture, smile big enough to make him squint; Jason decides to stop thinking, just for a moment, and laughs.

Chapter Text

Birdie's good day lasts for a while; both of them drink chocolate milk on the couch like they aren't undead killers. Jason pulls up a nature doc on robins mostly as a joke, yet Birdie latches onto his phone, staring at it transfixed for the full run-time. As he watches, he starts fidgeting—just that fidget with the ends of his sleeves at first, but it eventually becomes clear the guy's got some excess energy to burn off.

Without sparing more than a thought to the sensitive operations he's handing over, Jason gives him the phone, says he can move around and watch at the same time. It's more than worth it for those eyes going wide and another grin splitting that covered face, even when Birdie resorts to holding the phone with his (thankfully socked) feet to pace around the room on his hands, bending at a back-breaking angle to keep the footage of robins in sight at all times.

Jason can't help but gawk; his flexibility and core strength are more than impressive, but it's the ease with which he does it that gets him, like it's as natural as breathing (he shoves down memories of Dick pacing on his hands, of him cartwheeling and hand-springing down the Manor halls). The documentary ends, and Birdie carefully sets the phone down on the coffee table, drops into a bridge before he's standing on his feet like nothing happened. He almost wants to applaud, but by now he’s well aware sudden noise is a trigger; he settles for a thumbs up.

"Impressive stuff, man; think you've worked up an appetite?" Birdie frowns, shakes his head, then shrugs. "Not hungry, but willing to give it a try?" Jason guesses, and gets a nod in confirmation. 

He figures this is probably a good time to start him on the meal-replacement shakes, cracks open a bottle and sets it on the counter before pulling out sandwich fixings for himself. When he realizes Birdie hasn't gone near the counter, he clarifies: "Go ahead and drink it, slow. Remembered the vanilla ones bein' the least gross, but we can try chocolate or strawberry too." Jason goes back to making the sandwich, keeps watch in his peripherals as, slower than he'd been seconds ago, Birdie picks up the open bottle.

Not being one for talking to fill a space ( leave that to Dick a traitorous part of him supplies), he lets their conversation end, not wanting to face Birdie in case being watched makes it harder to eat. Eating the sandwich that way feels stupid, though; he walks over to sit at the counter (telegraphs his movements; not gonna be the cause if he can help it). Birdie doesn't flinch, but he also doesn't open up to the proximity like he'd been doing earlier.

Jason's never been good at leaving in-betweens be. "How is it? 'f it's nasty you can tell me." Birdie takes another (slow) sip, shrugs his shoulders; he's not looking at Jason, and he's not looking at the drink. 

Despite his flagging appetite, Jason manages to put away the whole sandwich. The next time Birdie sets down his drink, the plastic bottle sounds empty.

"Good job with that," he shares, grabbing the bottle to rinse along with his plate, and Birdie. Stands up. It's not the most abrupt movement, yet it happens without warning and then the other man is walking away, no attempt at communicating, not even looking at Jason before he turns into the bathroom, closes the door.

Locks it.

Jason wishes he wasn't right. 

Birdie doesn't understand—it was, it felt good. Wasn't it doing good? Yes, realizing Jay had been watching him stretch had made it remember the Owls watching it , the 'Ensure' stuck in its throat, the man told it good job just like— 

The Ensure burns just as much coming back out, and it clings , it won't leave. It can still taste it, why won't it leave it can still taste it, even after the Grandmaster has it taken back to its cell, it's—

It's still in its mouth. The Grandmaster has been dead for a week and it's still in its mouth

The Owls aren't dead , its thoughts sing-song, not all of them. You weren't only the Grandmaster’s.

Talon bites its fist, lets the taste of soap and skin and hints of electrum the harder it bites overpower it, or tries to. Talon just tastes all of it. It bites harder. It cries.

Why won't it leave? It wants to be Birdie and safe and with his brother, it—he wants to stop feeling things that aren't happening, people that aren't there.

It was doing better ( worse, worse its training cries, hisses and claws through memories of all its failures, its misbehavior that it's surely being punished for). Now it feels worse than it had after the falling dream, shaky and sick and wrong, its brain occasionally adding the feeling of a hand pulling hair it doesn't have.

Jay doesn't deserve this , it thinks ( I don't deserve this, it doesn't dare to). He doesn't deserve to have to take care of a broken thing, not able to be a tool and not able to be a person—barely able to be , not without his help.

But it desperately, selfishly wants to stay, wants to be with someone real who isn't hurting it, wants the help of someone who thinks it isn't a thing to be used.

It wants help . Maybe Robin can't stop it, maybe he'll decide it doesn't deserve help but it—it's tired , desperate for the sensations to stop. It will try anything.

Its hearing buzzes; with effort, it focuses enough to make out a voice. The man. Robin ( Jay Little Wing Ja— ).

"... just like before, just a knock on the wall so I know you hear me." It doesn't want to be heard ( then they can find him they'll come back unless it's quiet it can be quiet ), buries its frustration and fear with its teeth in its fist. If it doesn't make noise, the man will come in to punish it check on it, and even if it needs his help the prospect is more frightening than being heard. A locked door could do little to stop someone with his arsenal (even less against the Court), yet some part of its brain insists that as long as it's locked, it's safe.

One hand still fisted in its mouth, it knocks the other against the wall facing the sink, tries to ignore the way phantom fingers twist tight. It hears Robin sigh through the door.

"Thanks Birdie, that's great; heard you throwin' up, wanted to make sure you're okay." There's shuffling, then something slides down the wall, hitting the ground with a soft thump. "Same rules as when you're changin', I ain't comin' in. Now, knock once for yes, twice for no: you okay?"

It barely hears its own two knocks, yet the sudden stop in the man's breathing is easy to spot. "Y'need help?" he gets out on a gasp. It knocks once. More shifting, the squeak of boots against the floor; "Can you come out so I can help you?" 

Two knocks. " Fuck, Birdie…" It feels tears prick in the corners of its eyes; it doesn't mean to be this difficult! It shouldn't need help at all. Those boots shift again, steps walking away—this is it, he's finally given up on his failure of a brother, realized it for the burdensome thing it is— 

"Here," it jerks back as something slides under the door, but it's. A piece of paper. After that, what it recognizes as the thin tip and ink unit from inside a pen is pushed through too. Some of the fragile safety of the room shatters even as it's eager to stop making noise. "Why don't we figure out what we can do to make you feel safe enough to come out. No time limit. Whaddya think?"

It has to cross out what it's written twice before it can write something other than want to stop tasting them . What it ends up pushing back out to him isn't much better.

Still feeling them. they're dead. How does it stop feeling them?

A whistley breath, air sucked through teeth. "... Think you're havin' a flashback, Birdie," Can that still be its name? Birdie is not the Court's, and it is. It doesn't want to be, but that's never made it stop. "Remindin' y'rself they're dead, that's good; they can't be here, and you ain't there. They won't getcha there again."

Oh, how it wishes it could believe that. The Court is mold: cut off the surface, a network of spores remains, eager to grow in its place. Its only hope of not going back to tests orders punishments rewards is that it is too insignificant to retrieve (why retrieve a sword when you can forge another?).

Something else. Please.

Sometimes, experience doesn't help. Sometimes you're  too deep in the pit life's dug you to know the dirt from the sky.

Jason's got plenty experience with flashbacks; his fractured past taking over the present, the Joker's laugh echoing in his ears, Willis' hand grabbing his throat—its hard to think of a moment since dying his brain hasn't planted his traumas so he can feel them grow. 

Thinking of Birdie using his coping mechanisms has something smaller (sadder) than the Pit rising in him. Fighting, smoking, bruising; it's how he survives. If he pushed any of it on Birdie, he knows with startling surety that any progress they've made would fold under.

Looking up "how to stop a flashback" on his phone feels beyond pathetic when someone's trapped in hell two feet away. He wishes, suddenly and desperately, that Alfred were here; Alfred, who knew how to walk up to him without making him flinch, who could read from Jane Eyre and calm his nightmares in minutes, who could take one look at you and know exactly what you need. Alfred would be able to help Birdie through this.

Alfred isn't here. For now, Jason and "Grounding Mechanisms for PTSD" is all he's got. Jason skims the article, dismissing what he knows won't work (trying to get him to talk would be a one way ticket to shutdown), before a writing exercise gives him an idea.

"Y'think you can write something for me?" The question rhetorical by necessity, he keeps going; "I want you to write down all you can remember from the robins movie, okay? Don't hafta be in any order, just think about it and write what you can." He tears off a few more sheets from the pad of paper, slides them under the door, and waits. 

It almost doesn't want to; what if thinking and writing about robins while feeling them just ruins robins too? Between thinking about the red-breasted birds and thinking about how Grandmaster had taken it for hours the last time, it would still much rather choose the birds.

Frustratingly, the documentary it had paid such attention to comes to it now in stilted fragments. It does what the man asks and writes regardless of order, the scene of the followed robins' eggs hatching ending up several lines below the same hatchlings' first flights, but the more it writes, the more it remembers, and the less it focuses on echoed sensations.

They don't go away all at once, or even very quickly at all; he's started going back to try and add more details to scenes by the time he can swallow and taste only lingering electrum and bile. 

Off the high of its fear, his behavior feels childish. A few bad memories and it scorns the man his brother the person who's been helping him, runs and hides, then begs for help? Pathetic , his mind hisses, and it doesn't just feel like the Court. He should be better than this, should be able to accept that he's safer than it was, should be making Jay laugh and give thumbs-up and smile instead of forcing him to sit outside a locked bathroom door, forcing that worry into his vice.

It doesn't realize its breaths have sped up again until the man Jay knocks lightly at the door. "Hey. How y'doin' now? Finished writing, wanna try somethin' else?"

He takes in a deliberately slow breath, grabbing the sheet it had written its pleas on and flipping it over.

I'm feeling better now. Sorry. It's nowhere near the apology and thanks Jay deserves; Birdie slides it under the door before he can rip it up.

Jay sighs; from relief or annoyance, it he can't tell. "Glad you're feelin' better, but y'don't gotta apologize: shit happens. S'okay if you can't, but y'think you can tell me what triggered your flashback? A sound, a smell, something I did or said?"

A bunch of little things , he writes hesitantly, unsure how much he really can share; Robin already knows an uncomfortable amount about what the Court did to it, but this seems like too much of a burden to make his little brother bare. He eventually offers up what he knows will save both of them a repeat of this specific performance: I don't think I can do the Ensure. The texture.

Surprising him, Jay snorts. "I get that; can't do any crumbled shit 'cause it reminds me of dirt. There's plenty'a other options, n' you can drink some broth for now." He pauses for a beat, starting back up before Birdie can scramble for a response without prompting; "Feelin' up to comin' out?"

In an embarrassed rush, Birdie reaches to unlock the door, only to stop when he sees its hand, the impression of its own teeth clear as the bite mark slowly heals (should it be this slow? It doesn't remember, hasn't hurt itself in so long. Its Masters didn't like it to be damaged without their say). Embarrassment blooms into shame; he pulls his sleeve down low over it, wiping stray electrum from his mouth. He think Jay wouldn't like knowing it had been hurting himself while they were talking.

"It's okay if you're not, we can—oh. Hey, Birdie." Having seen himself in the mirror, he knows he looks about as pathetic as he feels, eyes a unique electrum-bloodshot and hands fervently tucked into the sleeves of his oversized sweater. From the floor, Jay looks up at him with a frustrating level of understanding. "Wanna find another nature doc?"

Birdie has the strange urge to push back, insist that he get angry and punish him like he deserves expects . If he had more energy, maybe he would; as is, he nods, and gives into the stronger urge to think about something simpler for just a moment longer.

Jason isn't surprised when, almost an hour into the documentary he'd found on pigeons, Birdie's asleep curled around his phone on the couch. It had taken more convincing for him to hold onto the phone than the first time, and Jason only feels a little guilty for pulling the chronic pain card to get him to accept it (helps that his wrist actually is aching, an expected but annoying consequence of the hold he'd had Robin 3 in). 

The breath he lets out when he's sure Birdie's out is shakier than he'd admit. Fuck , that sucked. He can't tell if it's his own shit making him read too much into it, or if those sick fucks really used their weapon that way too; either way, he's lucky his memories haven't thrown up phantom hands of his own. Making sure to avoid the squeakier floorboards, Jason moves to his room. He has a cigarette in hand before he's even at the window.

He'd like to tell himself he helped, but for all he knows the guy's body was just too drained to keep panicking. What Jason does know is he wasn't as prepared as he could have been, should have been. Jason is committed to helping Birdie, and that takes more than the ability to play a movie on his phone; the shit with baby Robin distracted him more than he'd realized.

For what feels like the hundredth time, he promises to do better by him. If that means dealing with his own shit, so fucking be it.

Chapter Text

The dream he wakes up from, for the first time in his jumbled memory, isn't a nightmare. He (as Birdie? Richard? Whatever version of him is warm and smiles and laughs) guides three little robins through an acrobatics routine, gently correcting mistakes and rewarding every attempt with a gentle scratch between the wings, humming along to their gleeful chirps and tweets. 

He wakes with the mask wet under his eyes. 

With a sudden spike of anger, he rips the balaclava off; even in his sleep he ruins happy moments with problems he doesn’t understand. 

Birdie needs to think. If he can just clear this anxious fog from his head, he can figure out a way to be better ( Cobb always liked you for your mind ). The closest it had come to focus was his time on the roof, flipping and bending and straining its muscles, not having to think about its body and where it should be and how it should look and act and bend its head—

He needs to think. Hearing none of the sounds he associates with Jay's presence, he can't ask for permission tell the man where he's going. Leaving a note isn't much different from Birdie's normal communication anyway.

Being hit by the cold Gotham air as it steps out almost makes it him reconsider. He pulls the navy blue balaclava back on, trying to cover all of his skin; it's not as bad as freezing, but that doesn't mean he likes it, not when its his body doesn't recoup the heat on its own.

Still, the need for clarity keeps him from turning back inside, starts him on warm-ups that only grow more familiar. As he moves, feelings wash over him that he thinks are memories—joy, pride, love, sorrow. It's a level of intensity he wants to shy away from, too opposite of distanced to be safe, yet his body tumbles forward, handspring into back-handspring into aerial walkover. 

His head feels weighed down with emotion even as his ever-present anxiety is finally released; it's such a foreign feeling he almost can't blame himself for letting the approaching figure slip his focus.

Almost.

Talon sees them only a rooftop away ( close , too close). It aborts what would have been a double salto, landing in a crouch facing the threat. Their armor is dark and lightweight, edges blending into the shadows, but the center blooms in red, a metal-plated emblem on the chest.

A metal R . It tries to relax its stance, switch its mind to him and brother and person—tries and fails. Threat thrums through its veins, electrum forces oxygen into its muscles, and it is dangerous and sharp and doesn't know how to hold itself.

The Robin notices they’ve been spotted, only stiffening for a moment ( that’s good, Baby Bird, minimal reaction ) before shooting their grapple into the roof, landing half the roof’s width away from it. Instead of shifting into a defensive position or moving to attack, they raise flat hands like the man Robin before them, projecting their voice to be heard over the constant hum of Gotham: “It’s okay, I’m not looking for a fight.”

It isn’t looking for a fight, so much as it is always in one, no matter how much it wants not to be. A weapon doesn’t rest and outside the nest, with threat still lingering, it is a weapon. But a weapon doesn’t strike without cause; it gives a firm nod to show it understands. 

Their voice is young (almost as young as Jay in the memory; in a brighter, less armored suit) and tugs at something within it; it wants to cling to that, tug with until Birdie or any him tumbles free again. Feeling the cold wind bite through the knit of the sweater it wears, it knows it isn't so simple. It was foolish to think it could just separate itself from what the Court made him.

Robin's head tilts to the side like its own. "Do you… want me to leave?"

No. Yes. It doesn't know; shrugs, shakes its head.

"I can work with that."

He can't say he doesn't relish the chance to have shitbags in his scopes and under his fists, even as guilt eats at him for leaving Birdie alone. A part of him bubbling with green spits that it's Birdie's fault he's having to put down this territory grab anyways; they only moved in on his turf because Red Hood hasn't been seen protecting it this last week, has barely been seen at all. 

Sure, go ahead and blame the guy you just talked down from an hours-long cycle of flashbacks and panic for having the audacity to need help. Jason may be used to shoving down his Pit-fuelled thoughts; doesn't stop him feeling like an even worse person than he already is. 

At least the takeover attempt is half-assed at best. He'd brought along three of his people with more on standby to put it down, but his presence in the Hood helmet is enough to scare off everyone except for the small-time leaders making the play (clean-up is tighter; no need to send a message when the fleeing gang members will do that for him).

After a change of gear, he's on the return journey, helmet still on in case there's any stragglers. Slipping through buildings it would be too much effort to scale, keeping a mildly low-profile (it's not like the cameras around here work anyways), his half-deaf ears take a second to process the buzzing he hears is the rarely-used comms installed in the helmet crackling to life.

"— heard you've [been?] visited — little bird.

Way past on-edge, what words he makes out from the distorted voice have him flicking the safety back off his handgun, cursing himself for not picking up a spare phone for Birdie already. “What’s it t’you?” he growls, ducking into a broken doorway to try and block out rain and sirens; just his fucking luck to get a threat he can’t understand.

“Let’s say I — interest, one I’m — [B?]at would share.” His heart doesn’t know whether to slow or skyrocket; he can grudgingly admit one of Batman’s unpaid interns is better than the bid from Birdie’s torturers he was certain this was a second ago, but Bat-related trouble is nothing to fucking scoff at either.

Even piecemeal, the message is pretty clear; "And if I do what you say it can stay just your interest? Tell me what you want." Before he can let the good sense not to reveal anything get the better of him, he tacks on: " 'less it's steerin' clear of Birdie, or handin' 'im over to you; I'm lookin' out for him."

There's a pause long enough that he knows it isn't just the ringing in his ears drowning them out. Some of the bravado on the voice drops, he thinks, when they finally do speak. "I [don't think?] Robin — to hand over."

The pieces click into place for him, too. If Jason didn't know better about Bats, he'd almost consider asking them to forget he said anything. He lets his comm pick up his sigh; "Tell Bats I'm not goin' near the twerp if that's what you're worried about; only talked cause he was stalkin' me."

He definitely doesn't imagine the snort that comes over. Realizing he's essentially tattled on the kid, he throws in: "Tell 'im he's got a mean kick, too."

"... think [th?]is can stay [be]tween us."

Too easy to be true. Fortunately, Jason's too anxious to check on Birdie to care. "I think so too."

This other Robin is quieter than a Robin should be. Birdie thinks of birdsong over trapeze and sighs. To the boy's credit, it does not make a good conversationalist, too tense to move in much more than a nod and too how it's been made to speak. 

To his further credit, that doesn't seem to deter him; after a while, Robin shifts from quiet to gentle (once he'd realized he wasn't going to be attacked, presumably). His voice doesn't soften the way Jay's rough one does. This Robin is gentle in what he doesn't say, how he trips over his words trying to say the right thing, how his fingers twist for something that isn't there and how his eyes show a fear not of it , but of failing .

Birdie knows that fear. The Robin was talking—something about experiments and titans that makes its head and chest hurt to think about—when its cooing interrupts.

For a moment, Robin just stands there, staring at it with wide eyes. It coos again, trilling just a little, and steps forward. Robin doesn't tense (it he isn't reading as threat).

"Uh… I'm sorry, I don't know what that means." And little Robin is sorry; Birdie knows its behavior is weird , for a person, yet Robin doesn't move to laugh or ridicule, just apologizes for not understanding Birdie's attempt at comfort.

Humming in the back of his throat, Birdie is surprised to find something like pride warm in his chest, pride that a Robin so young is patient, scared and helping anyway. 

For a moment, he wants to open his mouth and ask: do I know you, what made you quiet, why isn't it me you're scared of . Fear grips its throat in punishment, bile burning where pride had—it can't . So it drags its hands up flat, safe, and hums again, stepping closer. Fear, someone else's fear, is enough of a motivator for it to move, perching on an electric box a few feet away from the boy.

Robin watches him with eyes almost as sharp as its own. "You're trying not to scare me," he concludes, then with his next breath: "You can't speak."

Birdie nods to both, lowering his hands to fidget with overlong sleeves. Robin watches that motion, too. 

"Do I scare you?" little Robin asks, and Birdie is shaking his head, resisting the new and frightening and familiar urge to hold him close, take him into the nest and keep him safe. Robin looks pleased, then thoughtful again; "Does Red Hood scare you?"

That name for Jay, right. Has Jay scared it? Yes, but overwhelmingly he helps it when scared. Thinking about him doesn't make Birdie afraid. He shakes his head again, tries to motion helping with his hands. 

Before he can see if he's been understood, he catches a glint of light off something red two or so blocks away. A smile breaks out on his face: Jay has a way of understanding him, can help Birdie tell little Robin that he's been helping, that he can help Robin too. 

But Birdie hasn't forgotten taping up Jay's knee, so as the red helmet gets within a human range of vision, it prepares to move little Robin away if necessary. Observant as he is, Birdie is sure little Robin has noticed both Red Hood's approach and its adjusted stance; he tenses, and Birdie isn't sure which causes it.

Approaching by street, Jay spots them a building away, picking up pace once he does and climbing a practiced route up to them. After taking in the other Robin, Jay locks on to Birdie; "You good?"

He nods from his perch, looking between the two Robins. It feels right, seeing them together; like something that should have happened before this. Pointing at himself, Birdie then directs the watching signal it used that first night watching Esme at little Robin, hoping Jay focuses on the other meanings it had meant that night— protecting , safekeeping

Jay's sigh is exasperated enough that Birdie's pretty sure he got it. "The bat-brat's got minders already Birdie; whadyuh do, adopt every kid you see?" 

Birdie can coo over the cute sound of confusion little Robin makes later; huffing, he gestures between the two Robins, makes the shape of their distinct mask on his face.

It doesn't expect Jay to freeze.

It's less than a second, the affected confidence he puts on with the helmet loosening him, but it knows the eyes behind that helmet are locked onto Birdie in a different way from before. When Jay suggests little Robin return to his too-quiet nest, suggests they head inside their own, Birdie nods its head. It walks in front of Jay without hesitation, refusing to let itself flinch to have someone at its back. It feels the weight of those eyes the entire way.

— 

Fuck; at this point, Jason is almost considering his rejected Knock Replacement Out-of-Commission plan just so he doesn't have to deal with this confusing protective-Bat bullshit. Admittedly, he doesn't know a non-violent way of executing that plan outside of trying to make the bird catch a cold. It's just—too goddamn much on top of Birdie's whole deal.

Like how he's pretty sure Birdie knows he used to be Robin. That 'another Robin' comment combined with using the domino mask to try to illustrate some similarity between him and Robin 3, some sameness that justifies the need to watch the brat like he'd watched the little girl. Or, not exactly like her (despite having eyes and ears on her new home with her aunt and cousin, he can't remember her name. New info tends to do that with a brain as trashed as his). Birdie had walked away from Robin 3 easy enough, none of the huffing or fleeting looks he'd expected.

Birdie just. Goes inside. Sits on the couch, back straight. Fuck . It's not as obvious as his panic has been before, but the guy has definitely shifted into 'expecting punishment'. For being with Robin? For being on the roof at all? 

Jason's determined to get an answer this time, but not under threat, not even threat he isn't making. "Hey. You're not in trouble. I've got questions I want you to answer; hurting you is off the table, even if you ignore every single one of them. Y'get me?" 

His reassurance works about as well as Jason expected: barely. Birdie nods, looks at the floor. Jason slips off the helmet.

"Okay. I want you to write down who you think I am." At another time, he'd smile at the way Birdie's head tilts. "Kinda weird, I get it; write any names or jobs y'think I have." After a beat, Birdie picks up the (reassembled) pen and paper, and nods again.

A kidnapped, brainwashed Gotham assassin, who knows there have been multiple Robins; the idea that Birdie was made in order to target Batman specifically is definitely gaining ground. 

That is until the guy (cautiously, body still prepared for a beating) slides his answers over.

Red Hood. Robin. Protector. Brother. 

Jay.

 

It takes a while to school his voice into something that isn't demanding. 

"... Can you take your mask off, Birdie?"

Chapter Text

Cobb says it had a pretty face, before. Some of the Owls still called it pretty, with the promise of pain; by the time it was holding a ( warm) child in its arms, it knew its face had been warped into weapon just like the rest of it.

Its first instinct when Jay asks is to refuse. It isn't caught up in its head enough to think its face could scare Jay, Jay with bruised knuckles and an arsenal and a sweeping scar, but. Doctor Thompkins had been shocked and sad and looked at its face with the knowledge of how it was before, of exactly which parts were added and taken away from the person it was.

Jay knows what it looked like before, too. Birdie doesn't want him to look at it like that. Birdie doesn't want him to feel like that, to mourn who's already (alive?) in front of him. 

But Jay asked, and Birdie doesn't think he can refuse his brother much of anything.

The heated air of the nest is still cool against its skin as the fabric comes off. It doesn't close its eyes, but isn't quite willing to look at Jay either, gaze locking firmly on the balaclava crumpled in its hands.

"Dick?"

Oh . That fits its memories of who he used to be much better than Richard; the child drinking tea, the bird flying along rooftops, that was Dick . (He doesn't think that changes that it can't be him again, but the name tucks itself into its chest, nestles in alongside my little robin .)

He fumbles with the pen more than it should, feeling the weight of Jay's eyes on it ( watching watching ).

I was. Am. Don't remember much. You, younger; a silver-haired man with tea; us both being Robin. Remember being Talon more.

Jay looks up sharply from the notepad; "'Talon'? That's what they called you?"

Revealing any unique details of the Court feels as dangerous as refusing their tests, but. They're brothers, aren't they? Shouldn't it he trust his little wing with this? He shakes his head.

Not called. What I was. Am. The model of weapon I am, what I am was used for.

Birdie (Dick? Would Jay want him to go by Dick now?) doesn't like the way Jay's hands shake, the way it rattles up to shake his lungs as he exhales, cursing softly. 

It likes what the man says next even less. 

"How would you feel about goin' back to Leslie's?"

It only takes one look at Birdie (Dick , that's fucking Dick , experimented on and brainwashed almost beyond recognition—yet he did recognize him, in that first death-defying leap up on the roof, in his exit from a backbridge, in his unbearable, unbelievable need to help even when the last thread holding him together has long since worn out—) to know that question shouldn't have come out yet. It needs to happen at some point; now that Jason has a baseline for where his health should be, it's clearer just how much was inflicted on him, what needs to be addressed. 

Yes, his paranoia hasn't rejected the idea of a clone, maybe one with a few false implanted memories, but that's something he can't really let matter , not when someone who looks and moves and feels like his brother is an exposed nerve sitting in front of him.

Dick was off in Bludhaven for most of the time they knew each other, and getting him and Bruce in the same room as each other took emergencies more often than not—that didn't stop him from sneaking Jason out for late-night pizza runs, from showing him how to stop a Bruce lecture with the right puppy-eyes, from calling him his little brother and meaning it.

Jason's had people hold what he owes them over his head more than enough for the idea of owing Dick to rankle him. Maybe he owes it to himself though; hearing about Nightwing's presumed death had, in the beginning, only been more fuel for the roaring fire of rage boiling the Pit in him.

It turns out, when you let yourself feel things other than anger, shit hurts . He's barely started to unravel any of the grief around Dick, and now he's here .

Here, and stilling in that way Jason knows means Birdie is starting to disappear into his head. "Hey, that's okay: no clinic, no tests." For now. "Nothin' in our deal's changed, 'm not gonna force you into anything, 's just. Jesus , Dickie, it's good to see you."

Too-pale, eyes too-wide, dark veins crawling up his shaved head, Dick gives a hesitant, disbelieving smile, nothing and everything like he did before. He's right here . How didn't he realize the second that smile came out? 

Dick picks up the pen and paper again. Didn't Dick know some sign language? Not that it'd help much when all Jason would understand is 'help' and 'thank you'. 

Not angry sad? That I'm not how, who you remember?

His laugh is dark and wet; "Pretty sure I'm not how you remember me either."

He doesn't expect Dick's frown (that young he'd read off Birdie looks strange on Dick. Dick could be childish, but only an idiot would think he had any of the naivety of it; it's not naivety now, exactly, more like the protections he'd built up were cracked open and peeled away). Still help. Still Robin. Still my Little Wing.

At this point, Jason feels entitled to the tears finally spilling past his eyes. "Yeah, Dickie. Still your Little Wing."

None of the changes he expected happen, but there are changes. The name, for one; 'Dickie' replaces 'Birdie' when Jay speaks, and it he likes it mostly

It's harder for him to make the change, himself. Birdie is… safer. He remembers being it, him for longer than Dick, even as he knows (thinks? hopes?) the opposite is true. It sounds nice and warm from Jay but it doesn't sound like he's talking to it.

Jay isn't upset with him, is the important thing. He feels dizzy with the relief of it, of having its face bare and smiling and getting a lopsided smile in response; he will take the tears and the way the shakes of fear stay and the threat of more tests in the future, all of it, to be seen and not found wanting.

That Jay can look at this failed weapon and still see his brother is as gratifying as it is terrifying.

Because not a lot has changed, yet, but there will come a point when 'Dickie' can't be him enough, when Jay will realize it can't be him.

Jay, on shaking breath, says they should eat something. He thinks its stomach can't fit more than being seen, agrees anyway. Just like Jay'd promised, there's no Ensure in sight; his little brother heats a bowl of broth and hands it to him with a piece of bread (looks so relieved when Birdie Dick eats both and doesn't bolt). 

After finishing his own meal, though, it's clear in bouncing legs and twitching fingers that the feelings Jay's faced seeing his undead brother have transferred to the need to move like Birdie's Dick's had earlier. He can't imagine still having energy, smelling like gunsmoke and blood like Jay does—despite sleeping more than it ever did as Talon, the little exercise he'd done before little Robin arrived (and the swooping threat and fear it could barely stop feeling since) have exhaustion settled into his bones. 

Still, he understands, and understands like he thinks only a brother could why Jay hasn't made a move to leave.

You can go. I'll still be here when you get back.

Jay looks set to argue for a second (his face scrunching up just like the memory—how could he think he isn't just how Dick remembers?), takes a few measured breaths, and deflates, scratching the back of his neck. "Could pick up a few things. See if Pedialite's an easier texture, finally pick up a phone so you don't get stranded…" 

Thinking out loud . It makes something warm settle next to his exhaustion, a tired smile tugging at his mouth as he makes a shooing motion. Work off that energy before you punch another dumpster, Little Wing .

Just because he encourages Jay to leave doesn't mean worry doesn't sweep in cold and brittle as soon as the locks click. Wrapping up in the blanket he bought him, Dick pretends that's warm enough.

 

He dreams that it is frozen.

It is in its coffin, being kept until use. 

Jay is there, operates the coffin's controls—and it begins to thaw but it burns , searing out from its veins. It can't tell him to stop. All it can do is burn. Jay says he's happy Dick's back.

 

It swallows back bile when he wakes. Rests his face in shaking hands. Fuck . He doesn't need another reason to be scared of Jay (Talon had hated the child being scared of it, and the man Jay looked so sad every time it flinched from him). 

The least he can do is keep down the food he gave him. Shifting til his feet find the cool floor, it he moves to stand, intent on finding something to focus on other than the light food sitting leaden in his stomach. Distraction comes when he sways on his feet, bright spots dancing in his vision. 

Huh. It's not an unfamiliar enough sensation to scare him (it pushes down the echoes of dizzying hunger), but with a(n over)full belly and no obvious illness or injury, he can't think of a reason it's engineered body would act like this. The spots fade after some steady breathing and his steps feel stable enough underneath him as he moves to the kitchen. Dishes. That's something he can do.

(If the spots come back after he crouches to put Jay's plate away, well, that was the last dish anyway.)

His bones are still heavy, what little energy sleep had given him sapped in an instant compared to how long it could last it as Talon.

Maybe you aren't meant to be unfrozen this long.

As soon as it thinks it, it tries desperately to push it away as it has with so many other dangerous thoughts, but it stays, cold and hard in the center of its skull. It— he! Can't be frozen again, can't feel how his body shuts down hours before his mind, so cold it's burning before it goes numb, unresponsive, and all it can do is sit in a body it can't feel and wait as its mind gives up on it too—

Never again. If lightheadedness and easy exhaustion are the price he'll pay for staying warm, he'll pay it every second. 

Jason can admit to going a little overboard. Nothing expensive (gang leading pays well but, old habits), phone just enough to call or watch videos and not much else, but two full bags of 'hope Dick can stomach this' after he's already stocked this safehouse with more food than the others combined is making him feel like Bruce when Alfred was gone and Jason got sick, panic-buying half the drugstore— 

What? That's—not something he's remembered before. He knew living with Bruce couldn't have been bad all of the time, trusted his younger self would have left another Willis; yet thinking about the man always brought up Garzonas, not being believed , the fight over his birth mother; the hope that Batman will still come dying along with him.

Remembering laughing until he nearly coughed up a lung because Bruce read the thermometer in Celsius and though he was dying of hypothermia, well. It makes him wonder just how much the Pit has been twisting. His betrayal and anger is still there, and what he knows is true is still enough to justify it, but making Bruce pay for his shit is something he feels more and more comfortable putting off. With Dick back, it's hard for it to matter at all.

Glancing over the couch as he makes his way to the kitchen (to try to find space in the dinky fridge for everything he bought), Jason thinks that Dick is asleep. It's almost worrying, how often he's been falling asleep; 'cept Jason doubts any of it has even approached being restful. Alfred always pushed rest after a tough mission . From what he now knows Dick has been through, the past four years have been one hell of a mission.

Once he's got everything minus the phone put away, though, he gets close enough to tell—fingers fiddling with sweatshirt sleeves, doing that stupid (nerve-wracking) not-breathing; Dick isn't sleeping, just laying there. It's hard to reconcile this deeply-ingrained stillness with the Dick he knew even though it's what he's come to expect from who he knows now. 

He doesn't tense more when Jason gets closer at least. "Want me to walk you through the phone, or y'think you got it? Tech's changed a bit." Tacks on the excuse for help; Birdie has accepted needing help with a lot of things Dick would have tried to stubborn through, but he figures he'll give the out in case that Grayson Independence rears its head.

Dick hums in response, raising himself to sit painstakingly slowly. Injured? He doubts Robin 3 took a pot-shot, and Dick frankly hasn't been doing enough to get hurt unless he'd strained himself with the gymnastics

"You feelin' alright?"

Fine. Show me the phone! Despite the obvious diversion, Jason can't help but chuff out a laugh; of course he'd choose setting up a phone to get excited about. 

He'll ask again later, watching for other signs of pain until then. Occupying Dickiebird's overactive brain can take priority for now.

Chapter Text

The dizziness stays. With it comes an all-over tingle that turns into an all-over sting, like the testers ramping up the electricity. That turns into an all-over exhaustion; there's nothing holding him to the same standard of activity it'd had as Talon, but where before it could leap between buildings, now he isn't sure he could even land a cartwheel. 

Trying to keep this from Jay ( can't burden him more than I am, it's already too much ) isn't helped by his little brother now having Dick's level of activity to compare him to. It feels like he's expecting more of it, now that he knows; 'Dick' can only give less. 

The pain he can work through—or he could, if he had the energy to work. At this point the only thing keeping him walking to the bathroom or kitchen without collapsing is the thought of Jay's face if he did. That's not enough, not forever, not even for this week; he knows that, fucked up as he is he still knows he's running its their his body into the ground.

He just… Can't stop. Can't even brace for impact. 

'Dick' keeps going, until he's alone in the apartment, on the floor of the kitchen with a dropped cup of water, and knows with certainty that he can't get back up.

For a moment he’s dreaded so much, he feels oddly calm. Dissociation , the part of him that isn’t tucked away supplies. If what he’s read on the phone Jay gave him can be believed, he’s been dissociating every waking moment since his death, only switching between depersonalization and derealization. 

Tapping out a text to Jay certainly doesn’t feel real, none of the anxiety of what it represents coming to strangle him.

to Little Wing: fell in the nest. im stuck on the floor 

His response comes almost instantly;

from Little Wing: Omw, give me injury rundpwn and don’t make anythign fuckin worse

Oh little wing , he thinks, letting his too-tired head rest on the cool tile, you should know by now: that’s all I'm good for.

Getting back light bruising as Dick's only injury is somehow way scarier than the long list he'd expected. Part of him had hoped Dick pulled a stupid acrobatic stunt, falling with fractures and dislocations galore. 

But he's not an idiot; Dick's energy has taken a nosedive the past few days, even with the decent sleep and slightly more food he's been getting. And that's just what he's seen . He should've known it was worse than what Dick was letting slip—his emotional filters may be shot to hell, but he's still a master at hiding pain.

Jason knocks on the door hard enough to feel the sting through his gloves; Dick doesn’t knock, just sends a ‘come in’ text. 

Once he’s finally in, once Jason can see him, he wishes his knuckles were bruised and splitting, wishes desperately for the sharp pain to pull him out of how it feels to see Dick crumpled on the floor. He has to stop himself from looking for the narcan he keeps stocked, stop himself from searching for a pulse.

He can’t keep himself from cracking his knees on the tile as he drops to Dick’s side (he doesn’t try to). “You positive you didn’t crack your head on the way down?”

Dick’s mouth quirks in a smile so tired Jason can hear it—can imagine that voice worn down by constant patrols, by constant fights with Bruce, by the awful shit people like them see and do day in and day out—and nods before letting his head rest back on the floor. It doesn’t feel like he’s hiding anymore. Jason hopes that’s not the only thing he’s giving up on.

There’s a bead of sweat rolling down Dick’s forehead; without thinking, Jason reaches to wipe it with the sleeve of his undershirt before it runs into his eye. He doesn’t flinch. Jason takes the chance to complete the motion. He can’t tell how much comfort it brings either of them.

“We gotta go to Leslie, alright? I wish you got more time to prep, I wish you got options but…” 

Dick shuffles his hand around. Jason’s phone eventually vibrates in his pocket.

from Birdbrain: i know

from Birdbrain: need help. shouldn’t be on you

He’s lived enough to read the guilt into that, brushes it off as he slides an arm under Dick’s knees. “Tough shit you’re stuck with me then. Lifting on three, ‘kay?”

This ride to the clinic, Jason really fuckin’ wishes he kept a car instead of the cycle. Not able to keep himself upright, Dick has to ride in front, Jason caging him in, and it is incredibly clear that Dick isn’t anywhere close to comfortable with it. He thinks the only reason he hasn’t gone full fight-and-flight is there’s no energy left to do it with; even the freeze his body chose instead seems to be wearing him thinner.

Unlike last time, the clinic isn’t empty. When Red Hood bursts in carrying a limp body there are a lot of reactions, none of them particularly helpful. The same receptionist is there, though, and she at least isn’t screaming.

“How soon can you get Doc Leslie out,” he growls; not out of any attempt to intimidate, he’s just barely restraining himself from shooting straight through to her.

“Sh-she’s, uhm, with a patient? I-if this is an emergency, Gotham General—”

“D’you think I’d be here if I could take him to the fuckin’ ER! Tell her Dick got worse.” The name falls from his mouth without a thought—who gives a shit about secret identities right now, even if the Dick in question whines after he says it (God, he fucking hopes that’s what he’s making that noise for, not some unseen pain, not yet another thing he can’t help with).

Less than a minute after the receptionist scurried off, something bangs against a wall in that direction before Leslie Thompson comes storming out, hair frazzled and scrubs coffee-stained and looking like a goddamn saint. She ushers him into an exam room, rattling off labs and equipment to two nurses before firing off questions for him before he’s even laid Dick out on the table. He answers honestly: no, he hasn’t been getting enough food, though it is better than before. No injuries that he knows of, just tired for the past few then couldn’t get up. Can’t tell if there’s been any pain—Dick offers what’s barely a nod when Leslie asks him directly, shakes his head just as weakly when she asks if he can point to it.

When Jason’s asked to step into the hall, he catches fear in Dick’s eyes and refuses. Leslie sharply explains that there isn’t enough space for him to stay, “not if you actually want me to figure out what the hell’s going on.” He reluctantly agrees, and still sees those scared eyes when he’s staring at the door from the hall.

It’s lucky it’s tucked away properly in its head now. Fear kept dragging him it back into its body, into the pain and weight and tests that promise more of the same, but once Jay leaves, it can stop being Dick. Dick can feel the electrodes stuck to his skin, can have his black blood drawn, can be wheeled into scans; it will stay tucked away, thinking of nature documentaries and blankets and other things it couldn’t think of when tested before. That helps.

The body it isn’t in feels especially worse after the blood draw, dizziness preventing it from doing much more than move its eyes. Things around it get louder after that, and it stops thinking at all for a while. 

When it’s thinking again, it’s tugged gently into its body by something in its hand—another hand—shifts, thumb moving in a gentle back-and-forth across its skin. It’s nice, calls to something that makes him feel warm and looked-after. He hums a sort of acknowledgement, not expecting the hand in his to jolt, jostling the table? underneath him.

Fuck , sorry—you with me now Birdie?” 

He’s fine with Dick—really, he is; honored even that Jay can look at him and see him . But hearing Birdie again feels like a weight off of him. Birdie doesn’t have to do things on his own like Dick does. He nods, surprised it doesn’t send pain up his neck, just leaves him slightly more exhausted than before.

A different voice speaks from farther away; “He doesn’t remember the blinks? Doctor Thompkins said—”

Jay interrupts before he can place them. “He loses time, ‘specially with stuff like this. Think it got him through a lot when they had him.” 

“... You should have brought him to us. You knew he was getting worse, you knew who he was! ” Birdie has to open his eyes at that point, trying his damndest to turn his head in the direction his voice is coming from, because that’s the little Robin, that’s—

He still has the domino on, but in the white light of the room Birdie can see him; can pair the faint scar on his forehead with the way his voice gets angrier but no louder, with the way he locks his knees to keep himself from rocking. Birdie mouths the name, reveling in knowing it:

Timmy .

His baby bird’s breath hitches, giving in to the rocking motion in favor of crying. “Yeah, Dick. It’s me.”

Tim doesn't have enough information. He just got an alert for a Red Hood sighting, in broad daylight at the clinic seeking treatment for someone (it's the man from the roof, it has to be—the Hood he's observed isn't attached to anyone else), and if he's been alerted then the GCPD have been too, and Tim—

He doesn't want Red Hood arrested. Not because he supports what he's done, or absolved him, but because Tim promised he'd help, yet aside from a potential lead in the sewers he's found nothing about this organization that made someone to be their killer. 

It also just doesn't feel right , he thinks as he whips through the streets on his cycle; that he'd get arrested just for helping a friend . If Hood's taking this risk, his friend must be in bad shape. Tim drives faster.

It isn't hard to find him in the clinic; Tim goes where people aren't, and quickly finds Red Hood pacing the Hall. Hood has never been known to wear heavier armoring, but the mis-buttoned flannel and stained he wears now are a sure sign that getting his friend here was more important than personal protection. For someone so meticulous about crafting his lack of identity, his obvious panic for this person he's caring for feels vulnerable, like something Tim shouldn't be seeing.

"How is he?" He tries to make his voice sympathetic without being pitying or expectant. Hood doesn't give any hint to whether he succeeds, just stops, helmeted head facing away from Tim.

"How d'you fuckin' think?" And that's all Tim manages to get from him, voice flat and rough even through the helmet's voice modulation.

Dr. Leslie is surprisingly forthcoming though (after he promises he's not here to get either of them arrested; if Red Hood notices he's being protected from Robin, it's not enough to stop the pacing he's resumed up and down the hall). The guy is doing about as poorly as Tim guessed; he asks what he can do to help, and Leslie gets a strange look on her face before suggesting he visits him.

That's enough to get a more animated reaction out of Hood, stomping over and refusing to let Tim in the room with "Birdie" alone, only grudgingly allowing it with himself as escort.

Stepping into the exam-turned-hospital room, Dr. Leslie's behavior suddenly clicks into place, even as his understanding of the past four years of his life is blown to pieces.

His voice is all petulant, self-righteous child as he turns on Hood, only for all his anger and upset to melt away as Dick, his brother, the first family member he was ever sure loved him back looks at him. Dick is unwell, thinner than he'd been even in the fallout of Blockbuster, his pale skin and inhuman eyes physical proof of the torture he's been through in his absence, but he mouths Tim's name like it's something to cherish.

He's alive . Deteriorating, yes, no doubt desperately in need of help standard human doctors (even those as exceptional as Dr. Thompkins) can't give, but he's alive . Tim can take care of the rest.

Looking at the helmeted crime lord between him and Dick's makeshift bed, he ammends his thought: he can take care of the rest, after getting Red Hood to let him. Given his observable affection for Dick, Tim getting positively recognized hopefully speaks in his favor—yet Hood has seen Dick's face, has demonstrated enough knowledge about Bruce Wayne and his connections to have contacted him with that knowledge. And he didn't. 

Who would care about Dick, yet not want him to reunite with Bruce? Unfortunately, Tim can think of a pretty decent list off the top of his head; especially during his more rebellious moments, Dick tended to court attention from people with opposing viewpoints to Bruce, in and out of costume. That is assuming there's any prior connection at all; Dick has still shown kindness as vulnerable as he is, and public opinion on Bruce's parenting of "the first Wayne ward" has rarely been positive. It's entirely possible Hood, who's already shown protectiveness towards Crime Alley's vulnerable, just got attached and doesn't trust Wayne to help him.

Tim can't gain that trust in a day, so he focuses on what he can accomplish—starting with establishing communication with Dick. There's no indication that Dick has lost his observational and analytical skills; it's entirely possible he knows what's caused his decline, or has a better-informed guess than them, and just lacks the tools to share it.

Calling on muscle memory he's started to refamiliarize with after ramping up his patrols, Tim signs two simple questions for him, not taking any steps closer to avoid invoking Hood's wrath. 'You remember sign? Know why you're sick?'

A different sort of recognition alights over Dick, his fingers (shaking with mild tremors—Thompkins said he'd shown symptoms of anemia, though the bloodwork they can do in-house hadn't pointed to any cause) fluttering as he searches for the right signs to respond with. From Bruce's training, Tim recognizes the sign for 'transfusion' easily, but what Dick proceeds it with stumps him.

Observant even as exhausted as he is, Dick takes in his confusion and repeats the sign(s) slowly. Tim eventually realizes that what looked like two random signs together is actually a modification of 'blood', the part incorporating 'red' replaced with 'black'.

He clarifies out loud: "They gave you transfusions of black blood, or what makes your blood black?" Dick nods. "And you think they're what's making you sick?" 

The smallest shake of his head. 'Need' he signs, and that. Unfortunately makes sense. Making a human weapon, part of the enhancement process keeping them medically dependent on their creators would be seen as a feature, not a bug. 

"What'd he say?" Hood demands.

"That he's sick because whoever had him stopped giving him infusions. Which means you can either try to find a secret organization in however long Dick has, or you can let me take what Dr. Leslie has left from his blood draw, and I can synthesize what he needs." Is he being overconfident, saying that? He doesn't think so. For Dick (who's alive ), Tim can make it happen. He wasn't planning on sleeping tonight anyways.

Red Hood's helmet stays frustratingly blank.

Chapter Text

Jason hasn't cried since the warehouse crushed him. His tear ducts still work, his eyes having managed to well up just these past weeks with Birdie-surprise-it's-Dick, and for someone else not crying beyond misty eyes for four years might not mean much but—

Jason used to cry a lot . If God was real, making an angry-ass kid an angry crier would be one of their worst jokes; he got good at hiding it out of necessity, but as soon as he really got going, he'd be blotchy-faced and puffy-eyed.

Sometimes he thinks he wouldn't need to throw punches 'til his knuckles bleed if he could just cry . If there was another way to get the awful shit out of him, just for a second.

He wishes he could cry now. The relief-fear of Tim's offer of real help for Dick, the leftover pounding heart and sick-sweaty feeling at just how goddamn sick Dickie is right now, the exhaustion he hadn't been able to admit has been swallowing him from trying to take care of Dickie and himself—Jason wants to fucking break under it, wants to finally crack and show just how shit of a choice he was for the job.

"Um, Mister Hood?"

He snaps back to his body in time to choke out a laugh. This fuckin' kid; Jason's knee still feels the kick Robin Three delivered without hesitating, yet here he is awkward and concerned and polite .

"Fuck you want with me?" Jesus , he may not be crying but he sure fucking sounds like it; thank God for the modulator. His hands shake and he clenches them into fists. It doesn't help.

"I think Birdie wants your advice on how to proceed." He talks like a mini-Alfred, Jason thinks, then has to smother the laugh he knows would crack uncomfortable and broken in the air.

Jason looks at Dickie, who's already looking at him—Dickie nods, slow, like it's taking all his effort to complete the motion. Suddenly, he fucking hates that Dickie trusts him. Somehow, despite obviously not knowing what he's doing, despite all the ways he's failed his brother over and over, he still looks at Jason like he can be trusted with decisions about his body, his life .

"It's not my choice, Dickie; it's yours, it has to be yours." Please, decide, let Robin help you just like I can't, let him save you like the brother I'm not .

Looking just as laborious as his nod, Dickie moves his finger to point at his own head, before bringing the hand down in a claw shape and circling it twice. Only now does Jason actually look at Tim ( fuck he's young ), waiting for his translation.

"He's confused… I think it's hard for him to process what he's being asked to decide." Jason's in the same fucking spot.

He jumps up to pace (something to do ). "And you think I'm the one to help?"

Little Timmy frowns (the biggest expression his face has made)."You've been his sole caretaker for the better part of a month. Right now, you're the closest to knowing how he'd want things handled." Then it's like the brat takes pity on him: "Giving me access to the blood sample is one thing, but we really should consider moving to a more equipped facility, hopefully before the GCPD realizes the sightings of you on the other side of the city are plants."

Dickie's eyes don't even so much as widen, as if Jason needed more proof that Tim's assessment is right; a Birdie actually hearing what the kid just said would be trying to climb the walls. Without any reaction, Jason feels like it's his responsibility (why is all of this his responsibility) to get the severity of what Tim's asking across to him.

"He can't be anywhere that looks like a hospital, or a lab. Even going here the first time took a panic attack and two hours of coaxing. Soon as he's aware enough to realize where he is, their training will kick in."

To his credit, Tim doesn't dismiss the point. After tilting his head (it's too close to Birdie Dick, that fucking pressure behind his eyes wanting nothing more than to burst at the sight) and making some kind of evaluation, he throws out: "Titans Tower. Some of our members have… Similar feelings, so we've made the rooms near the medcentre as non-hospital as possible, and most of the monitors are non-contact or portable."

Jason wants to say no, wants to scream it; there's no way one of the tots in tights doesn't blab to their mentor.

The greater part of him is fighting tooth and nail to accept that this is it. Keeping Birdie secret was always a ticking clock, and Birdie being the original Boy Wonder turned it to a half-burnt fuse. Time's up . Jason did what he could, and it wasn't enough, and now the real good guys will try to pick up the pieces.

That doesn't stop it from tearing him up inside, from making him pull the words from his mouth like glass to say, "I think it's your best option, Birdie." And it's the wrong name, but it isn't; Jason is saying goodbye to the weird kid with bird-eyes as much as he is his rediscovered brother, maybe more so.

The name catches Dick's attention, that open trust seeping out of his eyes, and he nods, and Jason wants so fucking badly to believe that he understands what he's agreeing to that he's pretending he can't read how dazed Dick is just as openly.

Tim nods like Alfred when a matter is settled (no chance his parents didn't smack him around to make him that Proper, where every movement is crisp and controlled and only catches your attention with how little it doesn't). "Okay, I can call in some low-profile transport. Is there anything you guys need from your safehouse before we go?"

We? The fuck is this kid on? "Dickie's phone is on him, and as long as you got blankets he'll be good."

And Tim nods again, and waits. Jason can't tell if he's studying him or trying to look patient. When silence only interrupted by the too-slow beat of Dick's heart monitor settles for too long, Tim breaks it; "And what about you? Is there anything you need before you come with?"

Tim and Jay talk for a while. Birdie-Dick isn't sure if it feels like forever because of the electrum, but he doesn't understand why they aren't moving . He got that much, that they have to leave; he's used to places being temporary. His family will move and be together and safe. Dick has done that before.

It he also knows there will be more Tests—but there's always more tests, and these ones will help him, and he can tuck himself away from his body and still know that it is his now (again). 

Whenever Jay looks at him, Dick tries to make a reassuring face. They're all together, and Baby Bird is so smart he'll have a solution as soon as the tests are over. 

Jay's body shakes by the time they leave, Birdie feels it wrapped around him as he's carried through and up, up, stairs and doors and doors and stairs until they're in the air . Just on the roof, but wind cuts through his sleeves, the cloud-covered sun hinting at warmth.

He can't see what he's being moved towards til he's inside it. All he can tell is it's a ship, and Dick-Birdie doesn't even quite know how he got that. Jay tries to set him down, still shaking, so Dick holds tighter, nuzzles his face into familiar leather. He may be a bit useless now, but he can at least help his Little Wing stay grounded.

There’s a laugh, maybe; the ship is mostly quiet, none of the sounds of Gotham cutting through, but snippets of voices he can’t place or process drift occasionally to him. 

He might have slept, or passed out, or let time slip him by again; what Jay is trying to set him down on now is a bed thing, patterned blankets pooled on top of it. This time, Birdie lets him, doing his best to nest into them. There’s a button clicking, and then one of the blankets starts to get warm ; so absorbed in leeching as much heat from it as possible, his anxiety barely spikes as some of the sensors from before are clipped or stuck to him. Those spikes are easily soothed when someone tucks the heated blanket around him. 

“You just rest, chum,” a memory calls; “you’ll feel better in the morning.” 

The him in his memory knows it’s a lie just like he does; and just like him, believes it anyway.

As soon as Dickie actually lets him let go, Jason sort of. Stops. He steps back from the futon, then steps back again, stopping only when his back hits something. Instinct has him pushing away, spinning around to face the threat with a knife in hand—

“Woah, it’s ah, it’s okay Hood? Just me. Just Robin.” Robin. Protector. Brother , Dick had written. But I’m not, I can’t, obviously I can’t . “Look; how about you take the recliner in here?” Jason just stands and shakes because he hasn’t fucking stopped shaking, which is bullshit; it’s not like it’s happening to him ( lying pale on the kitchen floor, was that a breath, just open your eyes stay awake Mom ). Maybe if he shakes hard enough he’ll drill through the floor and die buried under a building like he was supposed to.

Tim says something, asks something and then a hand is reaching out—“Don’t fucking touch me,” he spits. The kid doesn’t flinch beyond a blink, hand dropping to his side.

“Got it,” he says, like an insane adult with a knife didn’t just snap at him. That head tilts again, just like how Birdie, Dick, whichever person he failed had still tilted his to press further into his chest. “I was just asking if you think you need help getting to the recliner. We could bring in one of the other beds, too—oh, and you’ll need food. Doctor Thompkins said his diet’s been pretty restrictive, but I don’t know what you’d want.” Tim shrugs. “We have enough stocked that you should be covered.”

Jason blinks. He sheaths the knife to feel a little less like an awful person (not that it works). His own voice comes out embarrassingly… young, confused, something that curdles in his stomach to be; “Why am I… Here still?”

Little Robin frowns, like only now has mass-murderer Red Hood done something concerning. “Do you remember deciding to come to the Tower?”

He shrugs; the answer’s mostly yes. “Brought ‘im here. Shouldn’t I be…” In cuffs? In a cell? In the grave again?

Tim’s frown flips to the saddest little smile. “You’ve taken care of Dick. What all else you’ve done, can do: you’ve been taking care of him and running yourself into the ground to do it.” Telegraphing more than he had before, Tim gestures to the offered recliner. “Because of you, I get the chance to save him. The least I can do is let you be here to see it.”

Jason tries to make it simple: walk to the recliner. Sit. Tries to pretend everything else, all the blood on his hands just isn’t ; stop the world I wanna get off .

“... Can’t make myself move.”

The sad smile is replaced with something sure, almost proud. "Try starting small. Move your fingers, refamiliarize yourself with your body."

He's reminded of the PTSD coping methods he'd read through for Dickie (and later for himself, not that he remembers much). He’s torn between the crushing relief that someone will help and the weight of all the reasons a sixteen year old, this sixteen year old would know these techniques like the back of his hand.

Jason looks down at his hands—they shake just like the rest of him; one is bare, the other still in a biking glove; his bare right is littered with scars, his knuckles the pinkest of them all, still fresh from his other coping method. 

He clenches his fingers, extends, clenches again.

“Good; now try your wrists.”

Getting Hood settled takes a while, but Tim can’t find it in himself to mind, even knowing it’s keeping him away from the research. It feels… Nice, knowing what to do, how to help someone outside of the suit (not technically outside of yet; he’ll have time to peel it off later, when Dick’s safe). Still, he doesn’t linger; unlike testing for poisons and creating antidotes, isolating what's needed from Dick’s blood will require even more of a hands-on approach, and whether he’ll be able to synthesize it— 

Which he will . It doesn’t matter if it’s an as-of-yet undiscovered element and he has to fuse the atoms himself, he’s going to get it to Dick, and Dick will feel better, and Dick will be back .

(He doesn’t think about how he’s already seen this new Dick feeling better; how he was quiet and restrained and scared and nothing like the Dick he remembers.

Instead, he thinks of Timmy mouthed with love and relief, thinks of climbing around a roof, thinks of confusing attempts to comfort and protect. Dick is still there, the man who took one look at him in his makeshift Robin suit and offered him family, even if Tim had barely begun to accept it before…

It’s easier to think that things will be like before that.)

He sent a firm ‘steer clear’ to the other Titans before he’d called the cloaked ship to the clinic roof (overkill, maybe, but also a vehicle with a medbay). Naturally, that means Kon-El is waiting in the lab for him, arms crossed over his chest.

Tim walks right by him to the blood centrifuge. “You can ask, but I’m going to keep working on this.”

Kon-El huffs; “Stop pre-empting your confrontation. Our confrontation, whatever; who are they?”

An ugly snort of a laugh rips out of him; he has to set the sample down before his shaking hands undo the centrifuge’s hard work. There’s so many answers to that question, way more than Tim has. There’s Dick, who’s also Birdie, who was Nightwing, who was a human weapon that might not have even been allowed a name—

And then there’s Red Hood. Murderer, gang leader, expert marksman. An angry, scared man who cares , about sex workers and Joker victims and Crime Alley kids; who cares so much about Dick he’s let it tear him up inside.

Tim probably shouldn’t add his theory on Hood, doesn’t even fully believe it himself but—the trust Dick puts in him, vulnerable in a way Tim’s only come close to knowing among family; how Dick had tried to demonstrate a connection between them with the Robin mask; convenience store footage of a man of Hood’s build and (recently-acquired) slight limp, the hood of his sweatshirt just barely revealing a scar along his jaw, curving up into what could be—

There’s not enough evidence, not nearly enough, and yet. Something about this all makes Tim want to believe in the impossible unproven.

He smiles (it hurts. He wishes he didn’t still think he has to for Kon). “Would you believe me if I said two dead people?”

Chapter Text

Dick dreams of… Birdie dreams of floating, or is awake for floating; Jay’s hand is holding his sometimes, and smaller familiar hands adjust things around him. He tries to ask if he should be awake for them, and Jay’s hands just push his fumbling ones gently down, so it can't be that important. He can't move his head without feeling like its brain is waves crashing against a rocky shore, but one of those warm hands just gently cups his face until it stops, so it can't be that important. 

Floating to the surface without someone's hand there feels very important. Pressing air through its throat gets a broken whining noise out, and that gets the sound of footsteps coming from… somewhere. Normally it could tell, but it doesn't know where it is right now, let alone some sound .

"Shi—uh, shoot. What's, what's wrong?" The voice is somewhere between Baby Bird and Little Wing's, yet not either , not a voice it knows. Opening its eyes seems a monolithic effort, but it does it because it has to, has to see the threat-unknown-young? the voice belongs to.

What it has to do is stupid , it turns out, because as soon as its eyes are open blinding light assaults them; it closes them, hisses and whines (and whines more when it doesn't have the strength to scramble away).

"Hey, wait; is it the lights?" Knowing now it shouldn't try to nod, it hums, that breaking off into a mournful croon; the voice spits another shit under their breath and then something is clicked with too much strength and the glow in front of its eyelids blissfully retreats. "That, uh, that better?" 

It sighs in response, tries to tug its lips into a smile. It doesn't put too much energy in it though, focusing instead on peeling its eyes open once again. Birdie pretends it can draw energy from the blanket pulsing electric-warmth around it and eventually it's looking at a green wall.

Turning its head to scan its surroundings is off the table, but it can turn its eyes to see who it assumes is the source of the sound and the lights stopping. He’s—and it’s a he, isn’t he? Isn’t that something he took pride in? He wonders if Jay takes pride in that, or Timmy, or whoever this is—he’s an odd combination of Birdie’s brothers, broad with muscle and tensed defensively, yet still-growing and big-eyed. Maybe it’s just the mop of black hair (maybe he doesn’t remember enough people to compare to).

Seeing him reminds Birdie (Dick? He can’t hold his brain together long enough to remember why he should use a name that doesn’t make him warm like Birdie does) of what distressed him in the first place: the absence of brothers. 

‘Where?’ he signs, barely holding back another whine; where are they where are they make sure they’re safe.

It’s only as the (boy? Young man? Compared to the Owls they all look like kids) responds that Birdie remembers he might not understand sign (knows he isn’t as fluent anymore, the expressiveness necessary drilled out of it). “You’re at Titans Tower. You’re… pretty sick, but Robin’s working his ass off to make you better.”

Which is nice to know, as all he’d gathered of their location previously was “warm” and “absent of brothers”, but infinitely less important than what he’d actually been asking. ‘Robins where?’ The namesign comes easy, the sign for the bird moved up to his eye, but indicating two has the boy’s eyes widening, crossed arms going lax. 

Then he scoffs, dropping his arms completely; “Of course he was right. Tim’s in the lab, thinks he’s made a breakthrough so he probably won’t be up for a while." The boy frowns, face falling into the lines of it with the ease of flying over rooftops, safe for the amount of practice. “Think Red Hood’s figuring out food for you; managed to convince Tim not to go the feeding tube route yet,” It—Birdie shivers at the thought, at something being forced down its his throat, and pushes it down and away. 

“Yeah, he said you wouldn’t like it. I don’t blame you; Cadmus had enough tubes in me...” He trails off, rubbing at the crook of his arm (a motion just as practiced as the frown). 

And Talon, who was prized for its mind, who saw Jay as like it before it knew who he was, either of them—even through fog and sludge and the ache buried in his veins, he sees and knows the boy was made like him, just like he’d known it about Jay.

A flush comes to the boy’s face, angry or shameful or both. “Anyway, d’you uh, need anything?” 

“You sure you good Dickhead?” Jason isn’t looking at him, or not his face; his eyes are locked onto the IV on the back of his hand. Dick remembers the first time ___ went to the hospital after a show instead of the medic tent, how confused and scared and curious he’d been, watching them put a line in, and how ___ just laughed as ____ scolded her for ‘letting it get this bad’, pulling Dick up on the bed with her and explaining what the monitors and line is for.

He knows Jay’s memories of hospitals are worse than that. He hopes taking a page out of her book can help. “I’m good Little Wing. I’ve dislocated that kneecap tons of times, this time it just swelled too much for me to relocate on my own. Now they’re just keeping me on saline and naproxen until it reduces enough that they’re sure I haven’t fractured it.” Noticing Jay’s stare doesn’t let up, Dick puts on a Grayson grin, leans in; “I think B’s just too scared to admit I’m better at relocating joints than him.”

That gets a light snort out of Jay, a shake of his head; “What a weird fucking thing to brag about.” Then for the first time since he walked in, he looks up at Dick, actually looks at him. His voice comes out small (he’s just fourteen), “Just naproxen?”

Dick’s voice comes out small too (he’s just eighteen), “Just naproxen. My body doesn’t process opioids well.”

And the eyes are back down. “Does anyone’s?”

‘OK’, Dick Birdie signs, ‘being scared is OK.’ Seeing that anger-shame only rising, it tries to be who Dick remembered. ‘Tube would be scary because used to hurt me before, because force throat bad. Tube used to hurt you too. Tubes suck.’

And just like Dick, Birdie gets a little snort. “Yeah. Tubes suck.”

The Tower kitchen fucking sucks . Half the fridge is filled with meat and dairy alternatives Jason just knows would get vetoed by the kid Birdie Dickie for the textures, the freezer is filled with frozen dinners and ice cream that he’d never be able to keep down, and he’s getting more sure someone dulled all the knives on purpose.

At least they have ramen packets; his mama taught him a few ways to soup them up, and the little twerps do have an impressively stocked vegetable drawer going for them. He remembers Leslie saying something about vegetables being alright as long as they’re very well cooked (he looks it up twice while prepping them just in case), and it’s been a while since he’s had anything green himself, too distracted with making sure Dickie eats anything

Egg seems like too much of a texture gamble for Dickie (after the Ensure incident he’s not risking it) but he’s craving one for his own. Despite the otherwise vegan setup, there’s three cartons in the fridge; Jason shrugs, reaching for the standard-looking gray one, only for his hand to be blocked by a neon green bat .

Now, most of the trip here was lost to his panicked daze, but he distinctly remembers being asked (too nicely for someone as dangerous as him) to disarm. Knowing that, his instincts bypass the thigh holsters to grab one of the dull kitchen knives, pointed dead-center at the little creature.

The little creature, predictably, shrieks and flies a few feet away (Jason’s arm tracks its movement). Maybe less predictably, the neon green bat then grows into a neon green person .

“Hey, woah, what the hell dude?” hits the air from a ( green ) mouth at the same time “What the fuck!? ” is punched out of Jason’s. 

That green mouth is happy to continue; “Okay, maybe it wasn’t the best move to pull the bat card, but really, those… eggs are Starfire’s, and the last time I touched one my hand tingled for days . So here I am, trying to save you from a terrible tingly fate, and you pull a knife on me? Not cool man, not cool.”

He figures ‘you’re lucky I didn’t shoot you’ doesn't fly as a response to a teenager no matter how true it might be, but he lowers the knife. “I have… bad experiences being snuck up on.” He grinds out, forcibly ignoring how his heart rate jumped as soon as the knife sits on the counter instead of safely in his hand.

“Oh! Yeah, Robin’s like that too; I still have a batarang hole in my room from the time I sneezed and turned into a hyena. Let’s call this a mutual fuck-up then!” Still in person form, the green teen hops up on the counter, looking over the ingredients Jason’s laid out with interest. “Ramen, nice! Y’know, Cyborg swears by putting cheese in no matter how much I tell him the cow juice is nasty , but at least he gets his from this really nice farm just outside the city. I went there to check, of course; they can say ‘free range’ all they want but if the cows aren’t happy, I’m not happy…”

With Green Bean seemingly content to ramble without input, Jason goes back to rinsing the vegetables, sliding the diced green onions into a pan with olive oil before going back to chopping the rest. He’s forgotten how much he likes cooking a couple times now, only really remembering it on days when his hurts don’t ache as much, when being a living person doesn’t take as much effort. Learning to cook may have happened out of necessity (don’t think of making ramen for Mama when she tossed and turned and sweated cold in bed—was Willis still there or had he left? Even when the heat shut off it was still better when he left), but there’s something nice in it. Simple; not like baking, trying to force his sieve of a brain to remember proper ratios and stirring times and if he’s supposed to add the eggs yet; with cooking, as long as you throw in some onion and garlic, whatever you cobble together can turn out great.

Green Bean seems to agree, making a cat-like noise of appreciation when the garlic joins the pan, alongside carrots and what Jason’s pretty sure is bok choy. “Wow! We should let Robin invite knife-wielding weirdos more often! How much would it take for you to set aside some without the flavor packet—I’ve got like, five dollars cash or less, but as demonstrated I am uniquely equipped for pranking!”

Jason can’t help a snort, not looking up from the saucepan. “I kill people, kid; don’t think I’ll need a bat’s help with that anytime soon.”

He may not be looking, but he can still tell the kid’s tensed up beside him, legs no longer swinging in his peripheral vision. “...Ooookay, ignoring the scary part of that: do you think a bat’s really all I’ve got?” Without leaving time for Jason to say that he really doesn’t care, the teen morphs into a cat—definitely not a housecat, but not quite leopard or lion status either, its green spotted and striped self sitting at about the size of a medium dog.

Some small part of Jason that he’d honestly thought died with him whispers: cool .

“... Off the counter, or I’m giving you the bowl with fur in it.”

“Your brother’s weird.”

Tim’s first thought— yeah, and alive , isn’t it great? —is too sappy and sleep-deprived to share (same with which one? , something he’s going to unpack exactly never , thank you very much). Sliding over to his laptop to see if anyone’s successfully stabilized an aluminum alkyl base like this, he instead just offers a curious “Mm?”

Kon-El doesn’t scoff at being ignored, though, so Tim looks up from his research. His friend has his arms crossed, frowning in thought; not an uncommon sight, but becoming more and more so when it’s just them. “He’s just—gah! He’s like M'gann, y’know, all trying to make you happy. He started cooing at me.”

That makes Tim tap an open fist against his chest happily. He makes his voice flat (the one inflection he never has to worry about nailing): “According to Red Hood, that means he’s adopted you,” and delights in the way Kon-El’s dark skin flushes. Dick may express it differently now, but he seems to attach himself to people just as hard; he doesn’t blame Kon for getting a little overwhelmed by it.

“Yeah, well since Hood’s the second Robin I guess we’re all family.” Tim snaps his head up to Kon again, who finally scoffs, rolling his eyes; “Oh please, like you would’ve told me if you didn’t already believe it. He… used the Robin namesign, asking about both of you. The guy’s nine kinds of out of it but he…” Kon rubs at his inner elbow, making Tim instantly regret asking him to check on Dick given the state his brother’s in. “He knew what he was talking about."

If Tim were Dick, he’d pull Kon into a hug, replace the echoes of treatment Kon only later learned was wrong with unambiguous comfort—but Tim isn’t Dick, as much as he’d tried to be for Bruce, isn’t the one to pull people out of their pasts with dazzling smiles and a gentle touch (even now, shying away from touch and hiding his teeth with any smile, Dick does his best to comfort, to reassure; gravitates to it like an inevitability).

He isn’t Dick, but he is Kon’s friend. Without a word, he walks to the samples fridge, pulling two of the formulations that’d come closest to the pitch metallic compound he’d isolated from Dick’s blood; both near chemically identical to it, yet both ultimately inert, producing none of the unique readings his small sample still does. He holds out both glass containers to Kon: “Wanna try and fine-tune your eyes enough to melt these without melting their containers?”

Judging by the powerful squint-and-pout Kon sends his way, he knows he’s been given a not-particularly-relevant task to focus his energy on; still, he takes them without any further complaint, moving to the chemical shower and closing the blast-proofed door as he’s done the last few times Tim’s just so happened to ask him to ‘fine-tune his abilities’ while he’s upset. 

Eyes lingering an appropriate amount of time on his friend through the glass door, Tim eventually turns back to his laptop, pretending he isn’t anticipating the one-armed thank you hug Kon will initiate when he’s done. Maybe if I tweak the ratios, account for more byproduct?

So intentionally lost in alternative modeling of the compound, he barely looks when his civilian phone lights up, using one hand to idly swipe ‘ignore.’

An idleness quickly broken when his doubly-distracted mind hears muffled sounds and realizes the call has very much been accepted.

Scrambling to put on the Timothy Drake persona, he picks up full of the formal apologies his parents had him reciting before he turned seven. “I—” is all he manages to get out when the caller cuts in.

“Where are you keeping him?!”

“... Hi Dad.”

Chapter Text

After getting through the minutes worth of code-phrases necessary to convince Bruce that yes, this really is Tim speaking of his own free will, not a Tim coerced by Red Hood (that morbid curiosity he's so fueled by can't help but wonder if Hood—Jason was made to learn the same codes. Would Bruce's paranoia extend to changing codes only a dead boy knew?). And while it's infinitely better than hearing that edge of I-can't-lose-anyone-else panic from him, that doesn't make Tim any better at handling Bruce's disappointment. 

"If you wanted to run around with guns I'm sure that Arsenal would've trained you, if you wanted a mentor with different thoughts on death and rehabilitation Wonder Woman is always willing to talk, if you wanted a more laid-back partner I'm sure half the League and the older Titans would've taken you on—of all the people you could've relied on, you choose the Red Hood?" Before Tim can try to redirect from the newest misunderstanding (pushing down the feeling he gets at all the people you could've relied on to analyze maybe-later), Bruce barrels on; "I know I'm more restricting than what you expected, what you were used to; you ask me for more freedoms and I try to extend my trust, but if this is what you do with it, how can I trust you to keep yourself safe?"

Sometimes I hate that you go to therapy , Tim thinks yet doesn't say, both because he doesn't want to discourage the behavior and because the reasonable language Bruce employed still communicates an un reasonable conclusion. "If you let me talk instead of coming to conclusions on incomplete data, I could tell you that I'm not working with Red Hood . I'm helping—" your sons, my brothers —"a mutual friend." 

Knowing his adoptive father (and isn't that strange; nearing two years into it being official, yet outside of trying to talk him down from an overprotective ledge, Tim can't really bring himself to call him anything other than Bruce or Batman) would tear into the purposefully vague cover if given the chance, he continues to push back. "And I'm sorry for missing my check-ins, I am, but somehow I don't think getting distracted saving someone's life is irresponsible. I'm in a safe location which I'm sure you've checked by now, and everyone here is someone I trust with my life." (Yes he's the Red Hood, but he's also the Robin that passed him snacks whenever he caught Tim taking pictures.) "Who you've trusted with my life." All true, if more emotional of an argument than he likes to make; he's trying to keep one brother's heart pumping and both of them from being caught in Bruce's protective web, sue him for getting a little passionate.

(Why is he protecting them from Bruce?

"you’re really tellin’ me the Bat wouldn’t ship him to Blackgate as soon as he learns the guy’s done what he was made to?”

Just a little longer. Just until he knows how to make their case.)

Silence hangs between them. Well, silence on the line; the lab is never quiet, especially with Kon experimenting and definitely-not-eavesdropping. Silences with Bruce though end up coming regardless of the sound around you. If Tim's parents hadn't drilled scripts of polite talk into him he would probably make silences like that too. Or maybe he does, and that's why.

"... Is it just me you don't trust with this; would you let Aunt Diana or Uncle Clark check you're safe?"

And Tim misses the disappointed voice again. Because what can he say to ease that resigned sadness'I trust you, but your real sons don't'? 'I trust you, but they died'? 'I trust you, but I don't know if this will break you again'?

"... Doctor Thompkins can check, she knows."

"Alright."

"... I promise, I'll tell you when I can. And… Tell Alfred I really am sorry for worrying him."

"... He appreciates that."

Jason comes back to himself with a few broken fingers, staring at a slightly bloody dent in the wall. Which, considering the response Talia trained into him, into the Pit of him, is a lot better than he thought learning Bruce is onto them would go.

Him and the Pit rage at Bruce, at Tim, at himself (always himself), but.

He promised Birdie he wouldn't scare him again. That's the only reason the Pit's body managed to step out into the hall before reacting (did he punch it more than once? Does it matter?). What holds his-and-the-Pit's tongue from lashing out when Tim follows is more similar than it should be; he hasn't promised Tim shit, wouldn't trust himself to make any (can't even take care of Birdie Dickie Mama ). But Red Hood doesn't hurt kids because Jason does not fucking hurt kids, and that includes his replacement his brother a wiry teenager who got adopted with still-living birth parents, who knows trauma grounding techniques like the back of his hand, who looked at two killers and decided to help. Jason clenches his broken fingers and doesn't hurt anyone.

"—stupid question, sorry. If you step back in… I could splint those for you? Or you could do it yourself, but I… I can help."

I try to help , Jason thinks. But can I? What help did he give Catherine, who tried to shield him from Willis even when she was too high to speak, besides prolonging her suffering? What help did he give Birdie, scaring him and not recognizing his own fucking brother , that Tim or the Titans or the hundreds of other heroes who care about Dick couldn't do better? 

You care a lot, for being so bad at it.

A hand touches his forearm; fractures grind under bloody knuckles and he doesn't twist it off. As soon as he looks up, Tim backs off (fear is he afraid fuck has he scared off yet another hurt person—)

"Want to try moving your fingers—the not hurt ones, or is moving part of the problem?"

"Did I scare Birdie?" Comes out without his permission, even as it's immediately more important than breathing to know the answer; did he break another promise? 

Tim thinks about his answer ( stop that just tell the truth say I fucked up call me a monster ). "No." What? "I don't think so. He was… worried, definitely, but mostly just wanted to know if you were okay."

And as much as he doesn't believe it, it's also the only answer that makes sense. "'Course he did."

Another pause, the kid's gaze flicking from him, to his mangled hand, to the floor and up to his own. "Then we can step back in and make sure you are? Let him see?"

You know you're poison yet you keep going back. Love just isn't in your nature, huh?

When Birdie—Dick, fuck—when Dick looks up at him, reaction time so bad Tim's already rinsed the blood off, he makes a sign like a tear down his face, some that kind of look like letters, and another motion.

"Why are you crying? Who is Bruce?" Tim translates, his voice the wrong side of flat, his own hands rising and falling in a way that definitely doesn't mean anything (not in ASL; it says a lot anyway).

Jason has his issues with Bruce; hates him most days, was trained groomed to take him out—but as much as he can see his broken fist slamming into that blank face every time he closes burning eyes, he doesn’t think he’d want to forget the man for anything. He saw something in Jason, something good, even if he couldn’t always see past what he deemed ‘bad’. He was one of the first men Jason trusted at his back, trusted not to throw a punch or cop a feel when he wasn’t looking (technically Dick was the first, but at 5’2” and barely four years older than him, he hadn’t felt like much of an adult. Not with how old Jason felt).

And Dick? Wonder Boy? Batman’s first partner, Bruce’s first son? Sure, there was some kind of falling out between them (that Jason only realized wasn’t his fault with very awkward Bruce-then-Dick talks after he’d been fear-gassed), and they could yell the cave down when they really got into it; but Dick would still ‘sneak attack’ Bruce with hugs, call Bruce in sick from work to give him days off, and put up with Bruce’s wound checks with a fond smile on his face. 

“No notion of loving people by halves” ; Dick loved Bruce with all of his halves, even if he didn’t always feel like Bruce did the same. They were inextricable from each other (until they weren’t. Until one was dead).

“How much do you remember about who you used to live with, before?” Trust little Robin to stay on mission when the dead Robin’s too lost in his shit head.

Dickie huffs; Jason’s head snaps to him, scanning for distress (for anything other than a listless look, another body breaking down before him), and Dickie shakily mimes—signs something. "Tea?" Jason asks, "You had tea?"

He catches Tim frowning slightly, looking at Dickie. "What?"

"I think… I think that's his sign for Alfred." For Dick, Tim adds: “He would be an older white man, gray or white-haired, very kind, and happy to offer a cup of tea.” As soon as he processes the description, Dickie's dull eyes light up and he hums with approval.

What does he remember? Vaulted ceilings, Master Richard , Hey chum , and. Jay, at some point? On the roofs, maybe under the ceilings too?

Timmy?

“Hey, don’t get me wrong, you’re better conversation than most of my regulars;” Dick says on a grin, swinging his legs on the edge of the roof. “But this is the fourth night in a row, and baby birds need their sleep. I’m sure whoever’s looking after you is worried sick.” He knows they’re not; after the second night he knew who his little Baby Bird was, and looking back on movements around Drake Manor made it painfully clear how little time caretakers of any kind spend there, and Mr. and Mrs. Drakes’ extended trips are common knowledge.

Little Timmy (twelve, but he looks even smaller than Jay did) looks Dick in the face like he only does when he’s lying; “I’m fine Mr. Nightwing! My parents know I’m restless at night, so they make sure I nap after school.”

It feels mean to catch him out on it, so he’s as gentle as he can be. “Oh? I thought you told me Ms. Gardenia was watching you this week?” Ms. Gardenia, who showed up once, at the start of the week, and left forty minutes later.

“R-right! Well, well they made sure she knows too.” His whole body has curled in, protecting himself as he protects his ladžav parents, and Dick knows he can’t push further tonight. He’ll save his Baby Bird soon though, even if he has to drag him into it.

And what about the tents, the trailers the falling ? Who gave him warm smiles then?

Birdie doesn’t think his hands are saying much that Baby Bird understands, but it can’t hold the memory of what he’s said long enough to tell. ‘Confusing,’ he settles on, wincing when Timmy droops a little (a little more? How long has his Baby Bird been sad?). ‘I remember small things, but hard to connect them. B-R-U-C-E, does he say C-H-U-M?”

Jay laughs, wet and ripped out of him like a bullet; “Yeah, fucker spent enough time with Alfred he thinks he’s British.” Birdie whines, confused and sad and worried for his sad brother.

Why couldn’t the Court’s enhancements last long enough for it to help them? They took so much , took his brothers from his mind, took the him that they knew; the least they could do is build their weapon to last, let him bastardize their work and stand on unnaturally strong legs and hug them with unnaturally cold arms.

Why can’t he be with them, really and truly, learning new things about them to replace the lost, not drifting in a haze as the Owls kill him again .

“Birdie?” (And isn’t it nice, how Timmy sees the new him and cares anyway), “What do you need?” When he stops to think is when the whine stops, and it realizes it was still whining like an animal .

‘You said you-help-me. Black-blood injections… will it work?’ The long phrase is more exhausting than a quad (a what? On the roof of the nest, four rotations).

He misses Timmy’s translation but trusts it, and some of the sadness has lifted from his Baby Bird, eyes flashing with a layered determination. “Kon helped me with a breakthrough; I’d thought the trial compounds I’d made were inert, but the formulation in your blood is just inactive below a certain temperature—and the regenerative properties when it is active! I mean, it makes sense of course, how else would it reanimate—” The excited ember Timmy started nursing is smothered by colder determination. “We’re close, Dick. Birdie. You’ll be feeling better soon.”

Birdie’s relief will come later, after the electrum burns through its veins, after it is poked and filled with what kills him and keeps it alive. He has enough energy, though, to pretend; to sag into his electric blankets with a closed-eye smile like a weight has been lifted from him instead of crushing him pliant. Baby Bird needs to feel appreciated, like his work and his words are helping him. And they will be! Birdie can go away in his head and it’ll almost be like nothing happened at all, like it went to sleep broken and woke up fixed!

Opening his eyes after they’ve closed is a lost cause this time, but he thinks Timmy sounds a little better, a little happy. The words don’t make it through what’s choking Birdie’s brain, but he sounds better. 

When a-little-better, a-little-happy lulls into silence, he forms ‘I-L-Y’ in a hand he can’t lift from the bed, taking the last of the energy from him.

He hopes he dreams about the robins again.

“Birdie? Dick?” Steady, near-motionless breathing responds. “Probably should have expected that; he hasn’t stayed awake much longer than that since we brought him here.” ‘We’ feels better than acknowledging that, near-catatonic in a trauma response Tim can’t hope to unravel the causes of, Hood was only loosely involved in the actual transfer of care. Not that he’s stopped taking care of Dick now that they’re in the Tower, a pot of gastroparesis-friendly ramen soup left to cool on the stove after Tim asked to speak with him (Tim doesn’t think of how this, too, fits the profile of the second Robin; someone caring so hard it breaks them, and caring more to spite the break).

“Still; we need to talk about how administering this is going to go. I… Doubt it’s something he has fond memories of.” The understatement makes him wince, and Jason Hood lets out another one of those wet laughs, like the Robin cackle left to bleed out. 

Tim can suggest solutions, but he doesn’t know even half the triggers they’ll be running into here, let alone how his current state (no signs of necrosis yet, but they’ve had to stop the saline drip, his sluggish heart struggling to move the liquid his body is barely processing) will affect his reactions, how his reactions could affect his health—

“It should be here, with the heated blanket if he can keep it; surgical gloves are a no-go, and… And he needs a distraction, nature documentaries have been safe for ‘im before…”

Thinking back to the Red Hood he’d had to coach through a shutdown, a Red Hood convinced he’d failed to take care of Birdie; it doesn’t make sense, in the way that trauma-fueled conviction often doesn’t when he doesn’t know why , because not taking care of Dick is something no one could accuse him of.

(He knows how to help Dick cope with his traumas well enough to recite off hand, but had to let his replacement a stranger teach him a way to cope with his own.

So much of him is full of caring for others, there’s no room for himself. Maybe it runs in the family).