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in the smallest things

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"You're welcome anytime," Tim says. "If you ever need something. Or, you know, even if you don't." Welcome, he says, but the words don't match. His throat sounds tight, tense like the muscles in his arms, and she knows Tim lies all the time. Lies to Alfred, to Dick, lies to Barbara on the open comm. Lies to Batman, and if he lies to Batman then he lies to everyone. But he cannot lie to her. He keeps his voice even and his face blank but she can see the untruth stiffening in his shoulders. Welcome, he says, but she does not think he wants her here at all.

*

He does not want her in his home, and he does not want her in his fights. She can see it in the way his body sharpens, even though he's losing, even though he's clutching an arm to his chest and his nose is streaming blood. Cassandra does not care what he wants; whatever it is, he wants it less than she wants him not to die. Finishing the fight is simple—she has his opponent tied to a streetlamp in under a minute. But when it is over, it is Tim who looks defeated, looks betrayed.

She does not follow him home. He can stitch his own wounds, and anything she could offer would only hurt his pride.

*

But if he did not want her, why did he teach her the catches for his locks?

*

Anytime, he said. Any. So she comes when she knows he is away, drinking his tea while he sits in coffeeshops, touching his books when he goes to the library. Lifting the covers, she lays her finger on the words. She has never made it past the first page of anything. Sometimes she puts them back wrong on purpose, turned upside-down or numbered out of order. They are always fixed when she returns. She cannot tell if he is trying to erase her presence, or if he is saying, yes, you were here.

*

Cassandra always finishes patrol before Tim does. She is faster and better and he takes on more than he should. Sometimes she slips in his window because it is closer, stripping off her mask in his kitchen and pouring herself water from the pitcher. She grew up drinking from broken faucets and shattered pipes, from rainwater and rivers, and the filtered water tastes strange to her: flat and cold and clear. She can hardly imagine it ever fell from the sky or flowed through the earth.

But this is Blüdhaven. The water is as polluted as the air. Her tap runs bitter, metallic as blood. She leaves the empty glass on the counter and wonders what it takes to make something so dirty pure.

*

Cassandra bends over the skylight, working the locks free and easing the heavy window upward on its hinges. She has done this many times, but tonight is different. Tonight, when she lifts the frosted glass, Tim is in the hallway below, staring back at her. He stands at the ready, but his stance is backward, his staff in the wrong hand. The top half of his uniform is missing. In his bloodstained undershirt and his tights, he looks unprepared, almost afraid. Then he recognizes her, and his shoulders drop, relax a little.

"Oh," he says, lowering his staff. "Hi."

"Hi," she repeats, and wonders if she should close the window, disappear, pretend she never came. She wonders if she should stay, and if she does, if she should have a reason for coming. But there was no reason for coming, there was never a reason; only stolen tea and words that do not belong to her. Something. Anytime.

"Can I help you?" he says, but she does not know how to answer. Sometimes people say this when they want to help, and sometimes they say it when they want to say, go away. She thinks he wants both of these things. Cassandra shakes her head no. No, she does not need his help, but still she does not let go of the window.

"Did you want to, I don't know, finish another box of my cereal and leave dishes all over the kitchen?" It takes her a moment to realize this is a joke. He does not say it like it is funny, and although she cannot say so, it is almost exactly what she had hoped to do. She lowers her head and does not laugh.

Tim leans on his staff. "Come on, Batgirl," he sighs. "I'm getting cold. Do you want to come in or not?"

She does.

*

He has two broken fingers on his right hand and another on his left. She sees it when he waves her toward the kitchen, the stiffness of splinting together. That is why his stance was backwards, why he was ready to fight left-handed. Does he patrol like that, or were they broken tonight? How long did he keep fighting after he felt them crack? There is blood on his knuckles and down the front of his shirt, and suddenly the question makes her sad. Ribs can be taped and pressure slows bleeding, but if you strike with broken fingers you will only hurt yourself. Her own fists clench automatically.

"Help yourself," Tim says, shaking her out of her thoughts. He waves toward the cabinets awkwardly. Then he turns down the hallway and peels his shirt over his shoulders, just like she isn't there at all.

*

Cassandra knows exactly how long it takes to boil a cup of water, how many times it will circle on the plate of Tim's microwave before it begins to steam. She knows that the water will be still until she drops the tea bag in, knows when it reaches its best color, knows when to add sugar and when to leave it out. Tonight she makes chamomile for restfulness and stirs in honey for good health. She lifts a mug carefully in each hand, walking slowly so they do not spill. The hot ceramic stings her palms and she wishes she had not removed her gloves, but she does not let go. She knows her hands will not burn.

Without the light from the kitchen, the loft is almost completely dark. The living room is empty and the computer desk abandoned. There is a faint glow at the other end of the hallway, and she follows it to Tim's bedroom, hanging back in the shadow of the door. She has been here many times, but she has never gone into his room. She is not sure she is invited. The door is half open and all she can see are Tim's feet at the end of his bed, heavy boots resting on top of the covers. It is not enough to decide—boots do not say go away or welcome. Still, she watches like they will answer her question, like they might tell her to knock or to leave, to stay here or to drink her tea alone.

Several minutes pass in silence, the mugs slowly cooling against her hands. Finally, Tim sighs in exasperation. "I know you're there," he says. "It's sort of creepy. You can, like, come in."

"Sorry." She nudges the door open with her foot.

Tim clicks something, then pushes his laptop aside. "You don't have to be sorry," he says, sitting up. "Just stop acting like, I don't know, like you're on some kind of stakeout."

"Okay."

"You're still doing it."

She takes a single step inside, and catches herself before she apologizes again. For a moment, they both stare across the room awkwardly. The computer screen casts deep blue shadows on the bones of Tim's face, and Cassandra wonders if she looks as tired as he does, if her bruises are as dark.

Tim looks away first. "Light switch's behind you," he says.

She flicks it with her elbow. "Your shirt," she says. "Different."

"I, uh, changed it?"

"But not the rest?" Cassandra cannot count the number of times she has slept in her suit, in shoes, in work clothes, but she does not think Tim is like her. Tim, who drinks filtered water from a pitcher and knows when a single book is out of place. Tim, who kept his uniform cleaner than anything else in No Man's Land, even after he walked through the sewers. Tim would not sit in bed with gravel clinging to his boots. Not on purpose.

He sighs, shows her his hands. "Honestly? I couldn't get my boots off."

"Cut the laces?" she suggests.

"Yeah, I—it's dumb, right? I tried that. I can't work the scissors."

"Not dumb." She sets both mugs on the nightstand and holds out her hand. Tim narrows his eyes briefly, looking at her fingers and not at her. Then he opens the drawer and hooks the scissors out.

The laces shear easily—one slice down all the crossings. Cut, cut, and then Tim kicks them off, the rubber treads scuffing on the floor, scattering little pieces of gravel and bootlace wherever they land. What he says is "Thank you," but what he means is something closer to "I wish you hadn't asked." She can see it in his arms, in the slope of his shoulders: he does not want her help. There is no comfort in her holding a pair of blades. She says nothing about bandages or the broken ribs she knows he is guarding, only nods and lays the scissors down.

She takes her tea to the kitchen. The water has gone cold, but she sits at the table and drinks it, even so.

*

Cassandra wakes to a thick stripe of light between the curtains and hard wood underneath her cheek. She sits up slowly, raising her arms to stretch as she remembers how she got here. Her mug is waiting on the table, only half-full, and she wonders when she fell asleep. She had not meant to.

She drinks the tea, bitter and cold at the bottom of the mug, and wanders around the kitchen. The sun is high and the numbers on the microwave say 11:16, but there is no sound from the rest of the apartment. It is strange to think that Tim might still be asleep, and strange to think he might have left her here on her own. She takes off her boots, padding softly down the hall. Tim's room is open. She holds her breath and leans around the doorway, peering through the hair that slants into her face.

Tim is there, sleeping with his back to the door. She watches the blankets rise and fall once, then turns away. At home she could have slept as late as she wanted and not felt guilty, but it feels wrong to still be here, to catch him unaware. She steps back into the hallway.

The sun floods down from the skylight, warming her hair and reminding her that she cannot return the way she came. Her suit, so good for disappearing into the night, would be out of place even among the black leather of the punk girls in Blüdhaven. She needs a disguise for her disguise, but she has none. Tim would know what to do. Tim understands the city so much better than she does. But she cannot ask Tim; he is asleep.

In the end, she cannot take his advice, so she takes his sweater instead. She finds it draped over the back of a chair, old and baggy and full of holes. She does not believe it belongs to Tim; they are nearly the same size, and the sweater falls all the way to her knees. A poor fit, but a good cover. She tucks her cape neatly under the hem, raises the window, and descends the iron steps to the street.

The city is different in the daytime. The street names are unfamiliar, and everything looks smudged through the gasoline fumes. She keeps trying to picture things from above, fit the grid of streets she knows to the crossings in front of her. If this sweater had a hood, she would be on the rooftops even now. That would be easier. Faster. She never realized how far she lives from Tim, because she covers so much ground every night. But that was the point—to split the territory. She only ever passes by his home when she is already far from her own.

A bus lurches past her, the orange letters blinking the number of a route she knows. It would take her most of the way home, if she had any money to pay the fare. She has already searched the pockets of the sweater twice. Adding coins is still difficult for her, but she knows two pennies and a melted stick of gum will get her nowhere. The bus rolls away, trailing smoke that makes her nose itch. She keeps walking.

*

She does not see Robin for several nights. On Tuesday morning, she climbs the fire escape to Tim's apartment, expecting him to be at the library as he always is. Instead she reaches his floor to find his face in the window, watching her skeptically. She stares back at him, frozen on the black iron landing. After a moment, he shoves the window pane upward.

"Yes?" he says. "Did you need something?"

"I—" she starts, then closes her mouth again. I came to read your books, she thinks. I came to make tea. I came because I was worried, and I thought your house could show me if you were all right. None of these are the right answer.

"No," she says finally, looking down through the grating at the sidewalk below.

Tim does not say anything for a long, long minute. She can hear him tapping a finger against the window ledge, an impatient gesture. "Is there, um, a reason you're on my fire escape?"

She looks up again, pushing her hood back from her face. Lifts one shoulder and lets it drop.

He exhales loudly. "Cassandra," he says. "I do have a door."

*

"So," Tim says over the rim of his mug. "What brings you to the neighborhood?"

It is a friendly question, she knows, but the line of tension in his shoulders disagrees with it. Cassandra studies her tea intently, stirring and stirring although the sugar has long since dissolved.

"You going to find the answer in there?"

"Maybe." She lays the spoon down and tries a smile. She thinks it comes out lopsided.

Tim returns the crooked smile, but mostly he looks frustrated and very, very tired. The table is covered in charts and printouts and police reports, ringed with tea stains and the darker smudge of coffee. He picks absently at the corner of a report, and she cannot decide if he wishes she would leave, or if he is glad for the distraction.

"My nanny," he says, without looking up. "One of my nannies, when I was a kid, she used to read tea leaves."

"Read them?"

"Not like, read them read them. Not like a book. Like symbols."

Cassandra stares into her cup, but all she sees is her watery reflection staring back. "I don't understand."

Tim opens his mouth and shuts it again. "Yeah," he says instead. "Me neither."

She thinks they are not talking about tea anymore, or symbols. Or maybe the whole conversation is a symbol now. If it is, she does not know how to continue.

They drink in silence. Tim does not ask her again why she came, and he does not tell her to leave, but when he rises to put her empty cup away, she knows what he is saying. She walks down the real stairs, and out the door into the city.

*

Cassandra spends an entire night and most of the next day shutting down the beginnings of a drug ring. She had recognized one of the enforcers, and the colors belonged to the other side of town. Old gang, new territory. She wonders if Tim fought them already, if they left his neighborhood only to come to hers. She worries about where they will move next.

In her kitchen, she rinses blood from her nails and breathes deeply. First, she will peel off her suit, and then she wants to eat all the food in her cupboards, drink tea until—she stops suddenly. On the counter, a box of tea she did not buy, a note she certainly did not write. She shakes the water from her hands, then lifts the box carefully. The plastic wrapper crackles under her fingers. Words, too many words for her to read, but she knows the patterns, the shapes they form. It is a kind of tea she drinks often, though never at home, a kind Tim keeps deep in the back of his cabinet. The ink blurs when she touches the note. Tim's cursive is always difficult, the letters shaped like shadow versions of themselves, but this looks different, painful. He wrote it with his other hand, or he held the pen with still-broken fingers. Her eyes are crossing with exhaustion, and she cannot make out any word except his name. She carries it with her as she moves through the house, as she tumbles into bed, and she falls asleep with her boots on still thinking of the words she cannot read. She dreams of windows that are shut, and empty cups clinking against the metal of the sink.

*

It is more than a week before she sees Tim again. She boils water in her own house and takes her tea alone.

*

When they meet, he only nods to her across the buildings. She could follow him if she wanted, catch him if she wanted, but it would be wrong somehow, not polite. In the daytime, she does not visit, does not take his things or touch his books or drink the water from his pitcher. She wants to ask what the note said, but she thinks she knows. He saw she needed something, so he gave her what he had and she did not. She does not know how to say that it was not what she came for at all.

*

The tea tastes different in her house. It is distracting. Eventually, she puts her mugs away and pays Brenda for a muffin and her tallest cup of Assam.

*

Static crackles in her ear, and Cassandra nearly misses her footing. She cannot remember the last time anyone called her on the comm. Barbara is away, and Nightwing is away, and Batman is busy at home in Gotham. She must have imagined it; her gear is broken, maybe.

She takes two steps across the rooftop, and her earpiece buzzes again.

"Hello?" Cassandra says.

More buzzing.

On the other side of the roof, she sits down, letting her feet dangle above the city. "Hello? I cannot hear you."

Her earpiece whines high and sharp, and she slaps at it. Then the sound resolves into a voice.

"Robin, it's Robin," the voice says, muffled and flat but recognizable still. "I'm, uh, I'm in midtown, and I could use a hand."

*

Tim does not need a hand. He needs stitches. She tells him this, and he laughs at her. But he lets her lead him back to her apartment, which he has never done, so she thinks he is worried, too.

*

Cassandra hates giving stitches. She is not good at it, and she does not like to cause unnecessary pain. But there is no one else, and Tim cannot sew behind his own shoulder.

"Sorry," she says again, though Tim is silent. She can see the tightness in his arms, the effort of suppressing the flinch.

"Don't worry about it," he says, which is not the same as saying it is all right or that it did not hurt.

If Alfred were here, he would tell a story, something to distract from the pain. Cassandra does not know how. She tells stories only to herself, speaking notes into her recorder—names of suspects, accounts of days. She does not think knowing about her cases would make Tim feel better, and she is afraid of distracting herself instead. Already, it is hard to concentrate on the stitches when she cannot stop hearing Tim's silent complaints. The tension in his other shoulder. The pauses in his breath. The fingers, still bruised and swollen, clenching and unclenching with every pass her needle makes.

Her stitches are not good. The cut was deep and will scar, but at least it is closed now. It will be better. It can heal.

*

It is very late the next time she passes by Tim's apartment. Very late, or so early it would not be quite correct to call it morning. There was a fire in the harbor district, and Cassandra stayed out for hours, for much longer than she meant to. Now she is covered in ashes and the stench of oil smoke, her damp cape clinging to her shoulders. Home seems much further than usual, and her throat is dry after rushing in and out of the flames. She will only stop for a moment, just long enough to make a cup of tea. She does not mean to disturb—she expects him to be out still on his own patrol, or sleeping if he is at home. But when she touches down on the roof, she can see the light that radiates from deeper in the loft. Cassandra pauses for a moment with her hand on the latch. If he is awake, should she knock? A guest would knock, would offer some greeting, ask to be allowed in. But Cassandra is not a guest. She is not here to see Tim, and she does not think he wants to see her, not really. In the end, she settles for rattling the latches as she raises the skylight, scuffing her boots on the tarpaper roof. Not asking permission, but announcing her presence at least.

In the twenty minutes she spends in the apartment, she does not see Tim at all. But there is a clean mug waiting on the counter, a teaspoon balanced on the rim. She cannot read the words on its side, but they don't matter. She understands what it says.