Around one o'clock on Friday, Dick decides he needs to run away from the circus.
"I'm serious about this," he says, waving his scrub brush. "One more time with the spraying and you'll be Maire's for good. And she's mean—we're talking steel wool mean."
This time he doesn't get out of the way fast enough. He frowns at his wet tee, frowns at the reason for the wetness, and shakes his brush menacingly. "Don't make me pull out the big guns. They have water pressure."
There's a brief stare-off, Dick keeping his brush and bucket of soapy water ready for quick retaliation. Quiet Bastard grunts once and reluctantly lowers his trunk.
"See, that wasn't so hard," Dick says. He dips the brush into the bucket and gets to work, making sure to scratch the itchy spot just behind Bastard's ear good and hard before moving on to his neck. "Not like I want this any more than you do," he mutters, "but you're getting kind of ripe, and nobody else volunteered."
Which is why Dick is doing the scrubbing instead of, say, Maire.
It's not that hosing elephants off is his job, although everyone pitches in with everything at one time or another. It's just, he's always liked animals (most days) and he's the only human Bastard seems to like (sometimes). So maybe the job is his, if only by default. Which is okay with him for now since he's got nothing else going on until the three o'clock practice run. Anyway, he'd rather be out in the air than in a tent breathing in recycled human sweat.
It's a nice day for summertime Florida. Not as muggy as it could be, clear skies, and no sign of the downpour that'll come promptly around two thirty. He guesses he could wait until then and let Bastard stand in it, but even that wouldn't kill the stink of steaming elephant.
Dick keeps scrubbing.
He leans down to get the bend of Bastard's knee, and Bastard swings his trunk around and gooses him. "Why you little… big… little…" Dick glares at Bastard. "You better not be laughing at me."
Bastard snorts, opening his mouth and swishing his trunk back and forth.
"Yeah, you think you're pretty funny, don't you?" Dick punctuates it with a flick of suds. "See who doesn't get an extra cane stick tonight."
Another snort and an elephant yawn, just to let Dick know exactly how much the Bastard could not care less, before he faces forward again. Dick grins. Bastard may be a son of a bitch, but he knows which end his sugar cane's whacked off on.
Dick circles wide, avoiding the slow-switching tail, and gets to work on a still dusty patch of grey hide. There's more than enough of it to go around. Cleaning elephants is a labor intensive activity, one of the many reasons his co-workers are happy to let him do it, and cleaning anything is pretty mindless, but Dick kind of likes that. He likes focusing his eyes on what he's doing while the rest of his senses spread out, going where they want.
Time funnels down creased elephant skin with the suds, and everything around Dick feels more there, maybe even more real when he's not looking directly at it. He can smell the sharp heat rising off the sand he's standing on clearly over the stink of hours-old elephant shit. When one of the big cats yowls from the arena, followed by the crack of Olsen's whip, the sound is so vivid, so immediate Dick as good as sees Yggdrasil rear back, snarling.
It helps that the animals in the surrounding cages are as quiet as they ever get. It's the heat, making them sluggish—making everyone sluggish, Dick included. Midday Florida in June is like breathing water.
He pours a bucket of water over Bastard's flank and steps back, swiping at the sweat beading his hairline and a clump of suds on his cheek. The heavy liquid drip dies along with Bastard's grunt, and maybe because he's been paying close attention to what his ears are telling him, over the bark of distant dressage commands Dick hears… clicking?
It's an out of place noise, and in a circus, noises that don't belong can sometimes get you hurt. He turns a slow circle, looking for the source, and there's this kid standing in the shade of the empty tiger cages. With a camera.
He calls, "Hey! This area is off limits," and the kid jerks and almost drops the camera. He looks like he's about to piss himself, or maybe just run. And Dick's had his share of run-ins with annoying photographers, but none of them have been half his size and age, with huge, terrified blue eyes.
"Wait," he says, taking a step towards the kid, who scrambles backward, almost tripping over his own feet. Dick throws out a hand. "Wait, it's okay, just… are you lost?"
"Let me take—are you here with somebody? Your parents?"
The kid swallows visibly and says, quietly, "No."
"Family? A friend?"
Again, even more quiet, "No."
And now he's got Dick swallowing. God. "Okay," Dick says, and wonders what the hell is wrong with the missing parents. The kid looks maybe ten. Maybe.
For a second, he wonders if he's looking at a runaway. Then he takes another, closer look, and changes his mind. The kid's clothes are clean, the red of his shirt bright and crisp. Under sawdust and mud, the sneakers are new and, if Dick is any judge, expensive.
So, not a runaway. Just a rubber-necking gilly, which isn't too much of a surprise; circuses attract them like Bastard does flies.
Dick says, "Do you live around here? Is there somebody you can call to come get you?"
The kid stares at him some more—god, the eyes. He says, "I'm—I live in Gotham."
Which is way the hell up the coast in addition to being this messed up place where a bunch of messed up people tried to kill Dick's parents years ago.
Dick doesn't think about Gotham, much. He never goes there. When Wagner's heads that way (pretty much never), he goes all out finding a replacement for those days. Actually, he's not too surprised this kid is from there. The vibe is that weird.
He says, "Look, I don't know how you got here or why you're not with your folks, but you need to go back to wherever you're staying until the show starts. You could get hurt wandering around here by yourself."
Deer in the headlights. Dick is starting to wonder if he's going to have to get a hold of child services or something when the kid nods. He says, "Okay," and then he turns around and runs.
Dick watches until he's gone. He shakes his head and goes back to scrubbing elephants. By the time it's time to fly, he's forgotten the whole thing.
Sometimes he thinks the hardest thing about circus life is how easy it looks to outsiders.
Not all of them. Not the ones who stop and think about it. But when you're in town for a limited amount of time you don't typically spend much of it having deep and meaningful conversations with townies. And when you're at a club or a bar and you say, "I'm an aerialist," the response, with allowances for local language, is usually something along the lines of, "Dude, awesome!" or "Cool," followed by, "Fun way to live, yeah?"
Since Dick has never figured out how to make a ratio of ninety percent hard work to ten percent fun sound awesome, he ends up smiling a lot and talking less than he'd like. Which, if you're just trying to get laid, isn't such a bad deal. But after a while it gets old, and if you're Dick, you get bored.
It's just easier to hang out with a fellow cirky. It's easier to be around someone who gets how things work, gets him.
Which is how he sometimes ends up with a coworker wrapped around him, kissing the hell out of him. Which is when he starts thinking how easy it would be.
Just shove his leggings down, push her bodysuit and tights out of the way and slide inside where she's hot and wet.
God, she's wet. She's riding his thigh, moaning quietly into his mouth, and he can feel exactly how wet she is through three thin layers of microfiber.
It's a side effect of flying. You come down from the ultimate high and you're running on pure adrenaline with a hard-on that won't quit. In his teens he'd go back to his parents' trailer and jerk off until his dick was raw. Now he doesn't have to, not if he doesn't want to. The problem is, most of the time the benefits don't outweigh the potential complications—not that that's stopped him before.
"Let's take this somewhere private," she says against his mouth, and he's this close to picking her up and—
So easy. If he didn't have to work with her tomorrow and the day after, and the day after that one, and a bunch of days after that he'd probably do it. As it is…
Dick pulls his mouth free and starts unwinding her arms from around his neck.
Amanda makes a kind of humming noise, then, "Dickie?" He wonders if saying no will do more damage than saying yes. The odds seem pretty even, but that could be his erection talking.
He says, "You know this is a bad idea," and she goes still against him. Then she drops her head back against the metal beam behind her, and that would be the inevitable muffled scream of frustration.
"What part of let's get each other off do you not understand?" she sighs, thumping her head against the beam one more time for good measure. "I'm not looking for a commitment, Grayson. I just want to come."
Her grin is sudden and bright, reminding him of why he was going to say no in the first place. He's already screwed up one friendship trying for more, and also—
"Dick. You're thinking."
Also… "I am?" News to him. Her foot hooks around his ankle, slides up his calf and starts reeling him back in.
"Yep. And that—" one hand on his hip, the other—nnh, god—palming his dick— "is the real bad idea."
And squeezes, just hard enough, Jesus— "Yeah?" he croaks.
She grins even wider, "Oh yeah," and grabs his hand and pulls it between her legs.
"God, you're wet," he moans it against her throat, mouths at her skin while he tugs at her tights, while she wiggles her hand into his tights and wraps it around his dick. Thumbs the slit and his balls tighten and he can feel himself leaking pre-come all over her fingers.
She's kissing words into his mouth, "Want to lick that off you." Biting his lower lip then sucking— "Want your dick in my mouth and your fingers—like that, just—"
Inside, she's slick and getting slicker. His hand is drenched and she's already spasming, like she's been clenching all night, waiting for something to clamp down on and now Dick is providing. He twists his fingers on the next stroke and rubs a light circle over her clit with his thumb and her hips jerk— "Uhhn…" Her hand tightens briefly around his dick before starting to move, jerking him in time with the thrust of his fingers inside her.
Night air cool against his back and she's heat all down his front, spilling wetly over his fingers pressed up and into her. He cups one small breast, thumbs the tight nipple; leans down and mouths her, sucks a wet circle through the fabric of her suit. She leans her forehead against his shoulder and jerks him fast and hard. Her need is his, it's all through him and he shoots more pre-come over her fingers when she goes rigid against him and comes all over his hand, biting down into the muscle of his shoulder.
She slumps against him and he eases his fingers out of her and takes her weight, holding them both up and trying to ignore his aching dick. Her hand is slack around him. He bites the inside of his cheek then says, when he's sure he can talk without whimpering, "Okay?"
She raises her head and smiles at him, sleepy and satisfied. Her eyes focus on his face, and her smile sharpens—"Your turn, sweetie—" then she's spinning them so it's his back against the beam; she's dropping to her knees and reaching for his dick.
She tips her head to one side and sucks on her lower lip. Rubs her thumb back and forth over the head of his cock. Scrapes her nail over the ridge under the rim, and his balls are cupped in her other hand, cradled and lightly squeezed—Dick drops his head back against the beam. "You're trying to kill me, aren't you?"
"If I was, you wouldn't have to ask. Do I need a rubber?"
A—? "N-no, I'm—clean, oh god…"
She grins and squeezes again. "Then I guess since you're the one guy I can trust not to bullshit me, I get to make good on this." This being his dick in her mouth—she licks all around the head and tongues the slit, and he spills more pre-come into her mouth, and this is going to last maybe a minute. He's been hard so long he's pretty sure his balls are turning blue.
Hot, wet suction, and Dick braces his hands on her shoulders and opens his eyes because he wants to see, but as he does he catches movement and—
His brain registers small and kid and ohshit just as Amanda slides a finger between his cheeks. She rubs around and around his hole and presses in just enough, and Dick drops his head back and comes strangling on a shout.
It takes too long for his vision to clear and his ears to stop buzzing—he doesn't have time to enjoy the feeling. She lets his dick slide from her mouth and her hand is beginning to slip off his hip when he starts pulling his leggings back into place.
"There's someone out there," he says as he ducks around her through the tent opening. "Be right back."
"Dick, you—" The rest of whatever she says fades with distance. Dick jogs the meandering line between the circus proper and the back yard. It's getting close to midnight, but here on the border between fantasy and real life there are still lights and people, if not a whole lot of either.
Dick waves to the Serpent Woman and her boyfriend. He says, "You guys see a kid run by?"
Meg takes a drag off her cigarette then points it. Dick says, "Thanks," and turns southeast into animal country.
He has to hand it to the kid. If you're a stranger trying not to be found, the animal cages are one of the worst places to hide; breathe wrong and something's bound to start squawking.
Dick flips himself up onto the roof of the lion enclosure. He cartwheels across it and onto the next cage as lightly as he can—the monkeys across the way make some interested noises, but settle down when Dick touches a finger to his lips. He pauses on top of Lulu's cage and stays there, hunkering down.
Lulu is an orangutan. She's old. She can and has slept through a hurricane and she snores like one, too, which should cover any sound Dick might make. He scans the area, turning himself in place as he goes, and it's not long before a shadow unfolds and leaves the security of the monkey cage, becoming a small boy.
Dick balances on the edge of Lulu's cage on the balls of his feet. He really shouldn't be enjoying this so much, he thinks as he watches the kid sidle closer.
Resting his forearm on his knee, he leans forward. He feels like a vulture—no, that doesn't work, vultures eat dead meat and the kid looks pretty lively. Dick's a bird—Robin, duh—but robins aren't birds of prey and… jeeze, this kid's pretty good at sneaking around. He works the shadows like he owns them, slipping a fast in and out through the cages. Good thing Dick has excellent night vision.
Bird of prey, heh. Good at catching small things sliding closer one foot at a—
Dick dives. He turns a somersault and drops down in a crouch, grinning at the boy frozen mid-step between shadows. "Nice night for a walk."
The kid gurgles something Dick doesn't catch. Footsteps stir gravelly dirt and Amanda calls, "Dick? Are you over here?"
"Oh boy." Dick glances at the kid, who looks pale and terrified and also… Dick squints. "I've seen you before," he says. "Outside Tampa," and just like that the kid's stance gets even stiffer.
"Yeah," Dick continues slowly, "from Gotham." He glances at the camera in the kid's hand—he remembers it, too. "Is that a permanent attachment?"
"There you are," Amanda says, and Dick jerks around. She's leaning against Lulu's cage with her arms crossed, and Dick really, really needs to start listening to his brain when it gives him a red alert, because she looks like all kinds of pain with his name on it.
Her gaze travels from Dick to the kid and back again. "Something you want to tell me?"
The monkeys pick that moment to start screeching. Dick silently promises them extra melon in the morning. "Let's get out of here before we wake the rest of them up," he says over the din, and pokes the kid in the arm. "Move."
The kid jumps a little, but he moves, and they walk in a row until they're beyond the cages, Dick keeping the kid in between himself and Amanda, and not just because he wants to keep an eye on him.
"Dick." He looks away from the kid's bent head and Amanda is smiling wryly at him. She says, "This is where I get off. Unless you want me to—?"
"No," Dick says, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck. "I mean, we're good. Look, I'm—"
"Don't even try," she says. Mouth twisted like she wants to say something, she glances at the kid; ends up shaking her head instead. "Practice run at seven thirty, okay?"
"I'll be there." Dick waves her off, watching as she disappears between shadowed trailers, and wishing… He turns back to the kid. "You by yourself again?"
The kid—did Dick get a name? He can't remember—holds out the camera. "I wanted some night shots."
Dick notices the dodged question but he doesn't call him on it. "I'd say you got them," he says dryly, and grins at the kid's blotchy flush, obvious even with the sketchy lighting. "Don't worry, it'll come back around and bite you one of these days. Karma or something."
The kid frowns in what looks like confusion.
Dick says, "Forget it. You are by yourself, aren't you?"
He starts to nod, but catches Dick's raised eyebrows and mumbles, "Yes," instead.
Dick doesn't laugh; he has a feeling it would make the situation worse than it already is. He says, "It's pretty late and it's not good to be a townie alone on circus grounds after hours. I can either take you back to your hotel or you can crash with me. Your choice."
The kid goes very still. Dick sees his muscles tense and gets ready to grab because he knows the kid is going to run, even though he's so still. And something about him—Dick can't quite put his finger on what he's seeing, just that it looks like speed.
Maybe it's his size. Dick was faster than everyone but his mom when he was that small. Whatever, he's not looking forward to chasing the kid halfway across creation for his own good.
He will, though. He knows himself well enough to know that if he doesn't make sure the kid's okay now, his conscience is going to eat him alive with worry later.
"I'm not—" he lets it trail off awkwardly. Because how do you tell a kid like this one that you're not going to kill him or molest him or something equally bad? But maybe he's a lucky bastard and it works anyway, because something about the kid's unnatural stillness changes. Eases, and Dick feels himself relax in response.
"I'll stay if it's—if you're sure," the kid says, and Dick breathes out silent relief.
He says, "Sure I'm sure. I'll take you where you need to go in the morning. Whoa, this way."
He nabs the kid's sleeve and swings him in the right direction. When the kid freezes under his hand, he smacks himself upside his non-thinking clause and says, "Sorry, automatic response," but the kid's already shaking his head.
"N-no. It's. Okay." He says, "I'm just not—can we go?" and looks up at Dick.
Who caves immediately because Jesus, big blue kid eyes. He says, "Sure," and starts walking, glancing back once to make sure the kid's following.
I'm just not…
Not what? Comfortable with the situation? Sure he should be doing this? Used to being touched?
Probably, Dick thinks, a combination.
"Do you have a car?" the kid asks suddenly, startling Dick.
"What? Oh—no. Why?"
Glass crunches under their soles: the remains of a beer bottle. The kid scuffles his feet in their worn hiking boots, kicking at loose gravel and other detritus. "You said you'd take me back."
"I'll borrow one. I'm Dick, by the way," he adds. "You got a name?"
The kid is nodding again, "I'm Tim. And I know who you are."
Dick snorts. "Why am I not surprised?" Tim's cheeks go dark again and Dick laughs out loud. Tim looks quickly around.
"Aren't they—shouldn't we be quiet?" They're passing through grouped trailers, some of them lit up inside, others not.
"You can if you want," Dick says, "but we're used to noise. Kind of have to be. This is me," he says, taking the steps in one leap and pushing the door open. He looks back; Tim is standing at the bottom of the steps with his backpack in his arms. "Coming?"
Tim follows without speaking. He stands just inside the door after Dick closes it and stares, gaze flicking from the cramped bunks to the shelves, to colorful piles of clothes clean and dirty… Dick wonders if he's mentally cataloguing the trailer's contents, storing the manifest somewhere inside his brain.
"You want the bathroom?" Dick asks. "Shower's tiny and the water doesn't get that hot, but it'll get you clean."
Slowly, Tim sets his backpack down against the wall and lays his camera on top of it. He says, "Yes. Thank you," and after another hesitant glance at Dick he disappears into the bathroom, pulling the drape closed after him.
The shower cuts on a few seconds after the toilet flushes. Dick gets busy unfolding the small futon that doubles as a spare bed and general seating. He pushes it flush against the cupboards on the far wall. He has no idea when Anton's getting back but he doesn't want him tripping over Tim when he does.
He's just laid their spare blanket out and wadded a bunch of his shirts (clean) for a pillow when Tim comes out of the bathroom carrying his jacket and shoes. His hair is wet, dripping water down the back of his neck, leaving wet spots on his red tee. Same color he was wearing in Florida, Dick remembers suddenly. It's also the same bright red Dick wears in the ring, and Dick is... going to stop thinking now.
"I used the towel with your initials," Tim says, setting the shoes beside his backpack and draping his jacket over everything. "Was that okay?"
"Absolutely," Dick assures him. He'll just use Anton's. "I have Power bars, if you're hungry."
Tim shakes his head. "No, thank you." He looks at the futon. "Should I—?"
"It's all yours," Dick says. He pulls his tunic off and tosses it at his bunk. "Be right back," he tells Tim, and goes to wash off the day.
The water is cold. Dick doesn't care. It feels good to get the sweat and grit off, and he completely understands why Anton doesn't mind having a quarter of his trailer taken up by the facilities, even if it does make sharing the cabin with sometimes two, sometimes three other people a pain in the butt. He shuts his eyes and dunks his head under the thin stream, rinsing his hair. Shuts off the water and he starts to reach for Anton's towel, but notices that his own isn't that wet. No wonder the kid was dripping.
He dries himself off and crawls into a clean pair of briefs and a tee. Slides the curtain back and edges over to his bunk, moving carefully because Tim seems to be asleep, curled into a small lump under the olive green blanket Dick bought at an army surplus store in Milwaukee. Dick balls up his suit and tucks it between his bunk and the end of the futon and slides between his sheets.
The trailer windows are small, and Anton has sheets strung up to cover them. Still, a decent amount of light manages to sneak in even after Dick shuts off the overhead. It doesn't really matter. The generators power down at midnight. But until then, there's more than enough light to see by.
Dick turns onto his side and looks at the kid.
At the shape of him, a kind of raised comma under the blanket. He's small. Even in a cramped trailer he's just… little. Dick doesn't know what to do with that.
He's used to kids. He meets new ones almost every day, makes them applaud and dream and smile, but this kid—
He hasn't seen Tim's smile yet. He wonders if he knows how to smile the way a kid would, because the way Tim moves and stands and talks, it's like he bypassed childhood and went directly to miniature adulthood. Which is maybe why Dick is so focused on how small he seems. His silence and his stillness don't seem childish at all, unlike his size.
Small and curled in, lost and dreaming under Dick's blanket. His sleeping face is turned toward Dick and it's… quiet. Smooth and kind of blank: a tired kid's face.
Outside, the hum of the generators dies. The light coming in through the shaded windows dwindles to almost nothing. Dick closes his eyes.
He doesn't think of all the possible reasons why Tim would be here, hundreds of miles from his home, sleeping on a floor that isn't Dick's. He doesn't wonder what kind of family would let their too small, too adult kid off the leash like this. He just rolls over onto his other side and goes to sleep.
The alarm on Dick's wristwatch goes off at seven. When he finally blinks himself awake enough to shut it off, Tim is nowhere in sight. Dick's blanket and shirts are neatly folded, sitting in what he will swear is the precise center of the closed futon.
Freaky, miniature adults, and seriously, it's like having a new kind of act nobody wants to see performed just for him.
In the bunk above Dick's, Anton grunts and mumbles something; the frame creaks as he moves, finding a more comfortable position. He starts snoring.
"Story of my life," Dick tells the underside of Anton's bunk. He scrubs his hand through his hair, yawns, and goes to dig his workout clothes out of the pile on the floor.
Oklahoma and Texas.
The kid is careful, but Dick knows what he's looking for now. In Fort Worth, he catches up with him outside one of the auxiliary tents. It's late afternoon, getting towards evening. Tim's watching Manny swallow a foot long Keris, digital camera clicking away. Dick says, "Hey," and Tim spins around and stares at him with those wide, wide eyes.
"I'm not trespassing," he tells Dick.
Dick wants to smile but he can't. Everything about this kid is just— "Do you know how wrong this is?" he says.
Tim looks down at his feet. "I'm sorry."
Somewhere there are people who aren't taking care of their kid. Dick doesn't know why not, and he doesn't really care. Because maybe they don't hurt him physically, but neglect is still abuse. Tim is still bleeding out, hemorrhaging his childhood out alone and chasing circuses.
Dick says, "No. I'm sorry," and cups his palm around the bony curve of Tim's shoulder. The kid's chin comes back up and Dick says, "Come on. Since you're here, you might as well make yourself useful."
Tim follows without hesitation, and yeah, that's one more thing for Dick to have nightmares about. He glances down at Tim, shuffling along beside him and says, "You shouldn't just trust people. Didn't anyone ever teach you that?"
"I don't," Tim says. "Just you."
"Kid, I…" He has no idea what he should say. He's nobody's dad, but he's beginning to dislike Tim's parents a lot. "You don't know me well enough to trust me," he says, and Tim makes a weird noise. It takes Dick a second to realize that it's a laugh.
"I know you," Tim says. Then, "Where are we going?" he asks, sounding like he actually wants to know. Like he'd actually tell Dick if it was somewhere he didn't want to go, something he didn't want to do.
Dick sighs, because he knows a losing battle when he's in it. "We're at the circus," he says. "Let's go feed the monkeys."
He's on a make-shift high beam with his arms stretched out to either side and his eyes closed. He knows exactly where he's going and how he's going to get there. And then he's movement energy speed and he doesn't think again until he's touching down on solid ground.
He opens his eyes. His dismount is a hair off mark, but otherwise he's good to go.
"Oi, Grayson! Party to see you."
He turns and Little Nell says, "Was hanging around outside your trailer. You want I should toss him?"
Dick examines the kid dangling from Nell's enormous hand. "You all right?"
Tim nods. He's clutching his camera like it's his only hope of salvation. "Let him down, Nell," Dick says. "He's okay."
It's permission, or… something, but not for Nell. Before she can let go, Tim twists himself free and drops. Perfect landing, even with the camera and a backpack.
"On in twenty, Dickie," Nell says, and lumbers off.
Dick looks at Tim. Tim looks back. "You're a long way from Gotham," Dick says. "Again. What is this, twice since Orange County?"
Tim nods again.
Dick blows out his exasperation. "Tim. You can't keep doing this." Something like understanding begins to dawn. Dick swears silently. He can't believe it's taken him so— "How long have you been doing this?"
Tim's eyes drop. He tells the ground, "Two years," and Dick doesn't go find a wall to pound his head against. He has to fly in less than half an hour.
"What do you want from me?" he asks, because maybe-ten-years-old and eyes and Dick doesn't need this in his life, but also he'd just kind of like to know why.
Tim looks steadily up at him. Looks at him like maybe Dick should already know these things. He kneels down in the dirt and pulls the backpack off his shoulder and starts rooting around in it.
Dick waits. He's got a few minutes before he has to finish warming up. Tim stands and holds something out to him, and he takes it.
It's an old photo. Dick and his parents from the Haly days, and also— "That's you?"
Tim opens his mouth, but whatever he says is drowned out by an elephant's startled roar. The shape of it looks like yes.
Dick hands the photo back. He crouches down in front of Tim and rests his hands on Tim's shoulders. "Tim, I'm glad I—I'm glad this means something to you. I really am. But you can't keep following me around the country." A stray thought sends him winging toward even more terrifying flights of understanding. "Out of the country?"
The eyes are answer enough. Dick closes his own. "You scare me, kid." He opens them back up and gives Tim the most serious look he can manage. At least, he hopes it is. "Timmy, I need you to do something for me, okay?"
God help him, is that hope? Like it's a privilege to be able to do something for Dick.
No head-bashing. Not now. "I know this place must seem, um, fun and safe to you, but it's not. And I—what?"
Tim is shaking his head. "I know it's not."
And Dick's skin is crawling, because he doesn't have to ask what Tim saw. He knows. He's seen it too, more than once, and it's never the same thing twice, but the next time is always just as bad as the first. And he must have tightened his hands because Tim is wincing and trying to hide it. He eases his grip.
"Okay. O—okay. You know it's… not safe. So you probably know why you shouldn't be here."
And Tim is shaking his head again, but Dick can't drag this out, and he shakes Tim, just a little.
"Timmy, come on—listen to me? I can't worry about both of us when I'm up there," he nods at the sky. "I can't think about anything but what I'm doing, because if I do I'll lose my concentration and maybe my grip. So, please." Another little shake. Little tiny one. "Go back to Gotham. Go home. And don't do this again. Please?"
He's not sure why it feels like breaking in half to say it. Maybe because Tim looks like his world just imploded.
The sounds of the circus backwash around them—bullhands and animals and butchers and the inevitable calliope. Dick thinks he's always going to link the scents of burnt sugar and hot oil with the feel of Tim's shoulders tight and bony under his hands.
Tim twitches in Dick's grip; he twitches his shoulders, tugging himself free and stepping back. He clears his throat a little… "I won't. If you—I won't. Anymore. I'm sorry, Dick."
Dick kneels in the dirt and watches the kid's already small shoulders get smaller and smaller the farther away he walks. He's pretty sure he just dropped something he didn't know he was holding.
Ten months wind down into one. The kid stays in Gotham. He must, because Dick doesn't see him; he just thinks he does.
It's a self-perpetuating near miss. Tim's always just out of sight around the next trailer; always walking away from Dick down the narrow lane between cages. He's in the audience watching when Dick's standing on the high platform under the big top, waiting for the spotlight to tell him it's time to fly, and it's distracting, and maybe if Dick wasn't an aerialist that would be okay, but as it is? Not so much.
He needs to take some time, get his head back where it needs to be, so he finishes his tour with Wagner's and leaves. It's September and a friend of a friend asks him if he wants to go biking in Bordeaux; he spends three lazy weeks bumming around the French wine country, and then he goes home; the closest thing to home he has.
Haly's is where it usually is this time of year. Haly's daughter married a Quebecois lady with amazing enough body art to qualify her as her own sideshow, and Haly always spends one week a year right before the move to winter quarters trying to convince her to take it and his girl on the road next year. It never works, but it means Dick knows for sure where his mom and dad are at least once a year.
It also means Dick gets to hang with Ran Kane and Xen Zatara, which is no hardship.
"Grayson, you bastard! You still owe me that fifty I loaned you last year." Well. Almost no hardship.
Dick shoves one hand into his back pocket and rubs the other over the back of his neck. "I'm sorry?" he suggests, and then he's getting slammed into the ground by a hundred and twenty-five pounds of lean muscle and sheer force of personality.
Xen wraps an arm around his neck and noogies him viciously.
"Ow, I give! I was gonna pay you back—no, I was! I just forgot, OW!"
She lets go of him and settles back on his abdomen, eyeing him narrowly. "Don't fuck with me. I'll hex you a permanent wedge, and you know it."
"Looks like she's got you right where she wants you, boyo!"
"Dick, you dog—you're here, like, ten seconds and she's all over you."
Xen shoots an evil eye (literally) at that last voice. There's a yelp and a crash, and then Ran's standing over him with her hands on her hips. The view is spectacular. Ran raises an eyebrow. "Not in your wettest dreams, bub."
Dick drops his head back down and whimpers, piteously he hopes, "What did I ever do to you?"
"Well, you didn't pay me back." Xen hops off him and bounces to her feet. She holds out a hand. "C'mon. Zee's here for a while, and she's making blini."
Zatanna's blini are amazing. Dick grabs Xen's hand and lets her haul him to his feet. "Lead me to them."
"I think bottomless pit fits you better than boy wonder," Ran snickers.
Dick laughs and hooks an arm around her shoulders. "Yeah, but as a headliner it sucks. Think I'll stick with what I've got."
"Tell that to your last girlfriend," Xen mutters. "Or was that boyfriend?" She picks up the pace, calling over her shoulder. "Move your butts, I missed breakfast and I'm starved."
Ran rolls her eyes. "I take it back," she says. "That's the real pit, right there. Come on," she hooks her thumb into one of Dick's belt loops and tugs. "If we don't, there won't be anything left."
An hour later Dick's dad sticks his head in the door of Xen and Ran's trailer where they're all lying around stuffed to the gills, and says, "Ladies, you're a sight for sore eyes. Dick… well, we'll just blame it on your mother's side of the family."
"Not in Mary's hearing, you won't," says Zatanna. She's prone on the foldout couch, nose stuck in a bodice ripper. "Too bad wonder boy here got more than enough of you to go around."
Dad slaps a hand over his heart. "I tell you, if I wasn't a married man…"
"Yeah, yeah, that's my family you're hitting on, Romeo," Xen says dryly. "Beat it, Grayson, and take the old lech with you."
Dick groans and staggers to his feet. Ran swats him on the ass as he edges by her. "See you in the ring."
"Maybe," Dick hedges.
She snorts, gooses him for good measure: "You've got some impressive glutes, there. Put them to good use."
Xen says, "Ha! No maybe about it, dude, you'll be there. Bring that fifty." She shoves him out into the sunshine and disappears back into the trailer. Zatanna's disembodied laughter drifts through the open doorway—Dick shakes his head and grins.
Dad says, "Just like old times, eh, brat?"
Dick ignores his father's grin, nudges him with his shoulder instead. "Can't wait to tell Mom how you think I got my terrible bad looks from her."
"Put a cork in it, son."
"Not on your life, Dad." His dad puts him in a headlock and drags him, laughing, the rest of the way to their trailer.
"Told you," Xen says out of the corner of her mouth.
Dick says, "Shut up," and hooks her ankle out from under her with his own. Spike-heeled boots look awesome, but walking in them on circus turf is dicey. Xen goes down hard and Dick is laughing as he walks past her.
She swears at him in several languages, a couple of which aren't from Earth. He turns around, still walking, and flips two twenties and a ten folded into a pinwheel at her.
She catches it mid-curse and stares at it like she has no idea what it is. "For the show," Dick says. "I love what you've done with costume."
She stopped wearing fishnets when she stopped touring with Zatanna, but the all-over black leather is new—and smeared with sawdust and clay dirt.
"You are so dead, Grayson," she says, tucking the bills into her cleavage.
"We're on in five," Syl says, appearing from a cluster of high-wire artists and catching Dick by the wrist. She tugs and Dick turns to look at Xen as he's pulled away.
"I hate to disappoint a lady," he calls, "but they're playing my song." He blows her a kiss, and then Syl shoves him through the back door at the flying rig, and they're climbing.
Melted, heat-risen greasepaint; popcorn, animal sweat and crowded-in humanity. The combined scents crash over Dick in a breaking wave. The sounds of the crowd and the last gasp of the clowns' knockabout flood his ears, and adrenaline spikes—this is his life happening right in front of him. He only realizes he's searching the crowd when the spotlights stop wandering and focus; one on him and Syl, and one on his parents, opposite them halfway across the tent.
Syl is smiling, and so is he; the ringmaster is running her spiel. "Get your head in it, Dickie," Syl hums through her smile, and Dick nods because she's right.
He's first and foremost a flyer. He's known that since he was old enough to understand what the word meant. But tonight he's in the catch trap alongside his mom, catching for two people who matter a lot more than just a damn to him. Flying without a net isn't even in it, but equipment fails or is sometimes… damaged.
Ten years ago, when they checked the net, it fell apart after a few good bounces. He'd landed without incident, but he was twelve and small for his age. An adult landing at speed…
Catchers are anchors, the pivot on which the entire act hinges, and their fitness can sometimes mean life or death for the rest of the troupe. Dick gets his head in the game. He wraps his hands around the bar and throws himself out, daring the air to catch him.
Later, he'll make a mental checklist of all the ways in which it wasn't his best performance. He'll think that his mother and father looked better in their costumes than most people half their ages would. He'll hope he's still half as good an aerialist as they are now when he's in his forties.
He'll think about how good it felt to fly with them again, wonder how much longer he'll be able to.
Even later, he and Syl will mainline Gatorade and laugh about every screw up they've each made over the last decade, until Ran and Xen show up to drag him out to dance somewhere that doesn't close until the sky starts to get light. They'll invite Syl, who'll beg off because she'd rather read her daughter to sleep, but Dick will go because they're his best friends and he sees them maybe twice a year, and it's not nearly enough.
He'll go because he loves them and because he wants to dance until his brain shuts up and shuts down, and maybe he'll even manage to make it happen for a little while. Maybe tonight he'll sleep six hours straight.
But that's later. Right now there's Syl, waiting for him to catch her, and his parents, who know he'll always come through for them. Dick's hands close tight around Syl's wrists, hers around his, key into lock. The arc of his swing is good, solid momentum, and he's throwing her out for Mom to catch and throw again. He follows in their wake, gravity nipping at his heels.
"Are you going to tell me about it?" Mom asks.
"About what?" Dick mumbles. He's hunched over the table, flipping through one of Xen's trade journals. He stops flipping, the page half turned, because an army of fifty foot mollusks? Seriously? Just… okay. Wow. It really is a buyer's market.
A glass of orange juice appears in the middle of the page. He glances up. "I was reading that."
"Mm-hmn." Mom spins the chair opposite him around and straddles it, facing him. "Two weeks I've had you moping around here, and as good as it is to have you, I'm not blind. You haven't stayed this long in one shot since you left."
Dick picks up the juice and tosses the mag. He swallows half of the contents of the glass and sets it back down. Rests his elbows on the table and turns the glass around and around, staring at circles of condensation on gold-colored Formica.
"Four months ago, I met this kid," he says without looking up, and the rest comes out more easily than he thought it would.
For the most part, Mom listens without speaking. He loves that about her, and also how she always waits to be asked for advice before giving it. She only stops him once: "Gotham?"
There's a blond hair trapped in ringed condensation; probably one of Syl's. He cleans the entire mess up with a tissue and tosses it. "I know. It's crazy, but—yeah."
"My god. He saw—"
Dick's mouth twists. "I think so. He had a picture of us with him and his parents—I'm pretty sure it was that day."
"Dick." And that's all she says until he's finished with the story and his juice. Then, "He didn't find you again?"
"No." He sets the glass down harder than he needs to. "Mom, I told him not to, and he just… he promised me he wouldn't. And he hasn't, or maybe I just haven't seen him. He kept it up for a long time before I caught him."
He thumps his forehead on the table like he couldn't against a wall a few months ago, and there's movement across from him: Mom getting up. Her hand is cool and dry on the back of his neck; her fingers are strong and welcome on his scalp. "God, that feels good."
"It should. I've been doing this for your dad since we first got together."
She laughs and rubs. The silence is more than comfortable; it's his mom. He says, "That guy. That night," and her hand goes still in his hair. Dick's throat convulses. "I am so damn grateful. I know it's wrong, but I—"
"You think you're the only one?" Her hands slip down to his shoulders; she tugs at him until he pushes himself up and turns to look at her. "You're going to find that boy, aren't you?"
"I think so." Actually, "Yes."
"Good." She leans down and kisses him on the forehead, then wipes away the smudge of lipstick. Her eyes are warm brown, and they crinkle at the corners when she smiles. She's still the most beautiful woman in his world. "I didn't raise an ostrich."
He rests his cheek against her abdomen and wraps his arms around her narrow hips. "Love you," he mumbles.
"I know, my robin. I love you too."
It's harder than he thought it would be.
His computer know-how is basic at best, and limited to search engines. Also, he's realizing that the only things he knows about Tim, if Tim was telling the truth, are his first name and his home town, and he doesn't even know if the kid's still in Gotham.
He could hire a PI, but it would cost more than he's got to spend, as well as probably taking longer than he'd like. Which leaves one more possibility, and he's not looking forward to biting that bullet again.
Because he does know someone besides Tim in Gotham, even if he didn't meet her there. She's the second reason he never goes there, and he's pretty sure her response to him asking for a favor, on a scale of one to ten, will be negative five billion.
He hits call, squeezes his eyes shut, and tries to remember one of the rosaries Grandma Loyd was always trying to teach him.
"Gordon. Talk to me."
"Yeah, I—" Call disconnected. He hits redial. It's a lot less traumatic the second time around.
"I could render every bone in your hands and feet into powder. You'd never get off the ground again."
Dick lets go of his pent-up breath. At least she's talking to him. "Babs, can we—look, you can say whatever you want if you—"
"I can say whatever I want, period. Don't try your bullshit deals on me, Grayson. I lived with the GC police commissioner for ten years."
He sits down cross-legged on the floor and rests his cheek against the couch cushion. "This isn't about me."
"No? I suppose now you're going to tell me it's about us."
"No." He's smiling because she's enjoying bitching him out. He can tell. "It's about a kid. I think he's in Gotham and—I'm worried about him."
He can feel her frowning at her five million computer screens. "Please tell me you didn't knock some starry-eyed townie up when you were sixteen."
Ouch. "You know I didn't. This kid… I think he's ten or eleven. He might be twelve and small for his age, but—"
"You think? How well do you know him?"
"I don't. He was, um—following me around for a while." He winces. It does sound kind of… weird. Bad weird. But you know, Gotham.
Barbara sounds like she's holding on to her stoicism by the skin of her teeth: "Grayson, I don't know whether to tell you to get a therapist or a restraining order. The first supermodel I could almost see. She looked like the type. But a ten-year-old?"
"Laugh, why don't you," he says, resigned, and she says, "Thanks, I think I will." And does.
Dick listens, grinning. It's been way too long. "So," he says when it sounds like she's winding down. "Help an old friend out?"
"Pfft. With your mini stalker? Sure. Just tell me something." The laughter is still in her voice but she's sobering quickly.
"Why this kid?"
Dick's been asking himself that for almost five months. He still doesn't have an answer he likes, and if he's not satisfied, Barbara definitely won't be. "Truth? No clue. When I figure it out, I'll let you know."
"Fair enough. Email me everything you've got. I'll get Eddie out to do the legwork, this is the kind of thing he loves."
"Dick—" For the first time, she sounds hesitant. "Are you thinking bad home situation?"
He's thought it, and thought about it. Thought about the kind of situation and family where a kid could just up and leave town without anyone protesting. "I know I keep saying this, but I really don't know. That's the problem."
Her silence is enough answer for both of them.
It's almost always too late for night and too early for morning when he stumbles into his room or trailer or wherever he's staying in whichever town he's performing in. He crawls out of his suit, throwing the separate pieces at the armchair, and flops facedown on the bed. His cell beeps at him, and he thinks about ignoring it. When he's working he checks his voicemail once a week, maybe.
Sometimes he remembers. Most of the time the phone remembers for him. He gropes for it, holds it up so the display catches the faint light from outside: twenty-four messages.
"Nngh." He tosses it back into the pile of clothes it was sleeping in and flips onto his back with a grunt.
The moon is gone, but in a city, there's always light of some kind. His suit's too-bright colors look washed out and pale in blue neon, but he can still see the green of his tights. The tunic's red shows up the yellow R emblazoned on it.
Too bright. Too… something. He doesn't know. Not about the suit or anything else.
He'll always be Mary Grayson's Robin, but he's been thinking that it's time for Robin the Boy Wonder to hang up the cape he wears for the first ten seconds of his act. Time for a new color scheme.
That blue is nice…
But Robin. In the back of his mind, there's always Robin. He made Robin, built parts of him out of pieces of his mom and dad and other performers. Like those flyers who used to be with Sloan's, the Todds—they're awesome, and their kid has probably as much potential as Dick did at that age.
The Todds, the Santellis, the Brand brothers; they all had an impact on who and what Robin became. But mostly, Robin is a patchwork of Dick from different periods of his life. Robin is who he was while he was busy growing into who he is now.
He's not the Boy Wonder anymore. He's not sure what label he's going to slap on himself, just that it'll be his label and nobody else's. He'll figure it out soon. He just wishes he wasn't gaining full plumage at the expense of his molt.
He'd almost like to… pass it on. Robin meant something to him. It might mean something to some other kid on his or her way to becoming whoever they're going to become. And he's selfish enough that he'd like to know the gold R is still out there. That the red and green are still flying. Still visible.
He can hear his mom the first time he tried the suit on for her: his own design for his solo flight. Fine feathers, my robin. You've always been a preener.
He groans, at himself and the suit, and drops his head back down on the too-flat pillow. From the clothes pile, the cell trills. It's a different sound than the last one—huh. It's so long since he's been around to take a call that he's forgotten what his ring tone sounds like.
"How nice of you to answer your phone, Grayson. I figured by now you would've at least learned how to check your messages."
"Babs." That's worth a smile all by its lonesome. "What's up?"
Her laugh is low and mean and promises a thousand things she will never, ever deliver, even though she's definitely capable. "I've got your pigeon ready for plucking. And I have to say, this one surprised even me."
"What?" He's up and moving before his brain registers the fact, adrenaline going strong. "Are you serious?"
Barbara hums. "Alien supermodels, a senator's daughter and son, and now the richest kid bar one on the eastern seaboard… birdboy, color me impressed."
He pauses in his pacing. "Who's number one?"
"Been sniffing something you shouldn't?"
"You said richest bar one. Who's one?"
"Not really a kid, unless you count maturity level, which I do. Bruce Wayne's the poorest, craziest little rich boy we've got hereabouts, but one Timothy Jackson Drake, age twelve, is a close runner up. And guess what he was doing off and on with one of Daddy's private jets for around, oh, twenty-six months and change?"
"Got it one." The click of fingers on a keyboard is coming in loud and clear. "Don't know how he managed it, but it's obvious he did. You know, he's got a website. Circus photography—good stuff, mostly aerialists. One weird thing."
Cue dramatic pause.
Babs says, "Not a single headshot of the Boy Wonder. Funny, huh?"
Behind Dick's closed eyes, Tim is hunched into himself, walking away. "He's still in Gotham?"
"Yep. The elder Drakes, on the other hand, never are. Mom's an archaeologist, Dad's a businessman with a layman's interest in just about everything—he tails her from one dig to the next. Timmy's got a housekeeper and tutors and, heh, get this: a personal trainer. Who is a former Olympic medalist in gymnastics, no less."
He lets his breath go, scrubs a hand over his jaw. "Have you seen him?"
"You mean other than through Eddie's excellent feeds? Believe it or not, I've met him. At the dedication for the new downtown library the Martha Wayne Foundation funded, last year."
It's—okay, it's plausible. Library science is one of her bazillion degrees, and she's said more that once that librarians are some of her best sources. But there's something… "You're not telling me everything."
"Just so you know, I hate you."
"No you don't, you hate that I know you this well. Spill, Gordon." He puts a growl into it, knowing it'll just make her laugh, always a plus.
It does, and she says, "You're still more trouble than you're worth. But in this case… I'm pretty sure this kid is my best source for Wayne candids."
Dick can feel himself blink. "You mean photos?"
"Give the Boy Wonder a cigar. Your Mr. Drake is not only a decent amateur photographer, he's also discreet. In my line of work, that's priceless. Screw this up, I'm going to be very not happy with you, Grayson."
If he sounds helpless, it's because he's pretty sure he is. "Babs, you know I can't promise—"
"Of course I know. Jesus, Dick." Her exasperation is nothing new, but…
She sighs. "Dick. I'm messing with you."
Oh. "Oh." He sits back down on the bed and stares at his feet—bare and resin tough against the worn hotel rug.
"Is it—" and god, Babs isn't supposed be uncertain about anything, ever— "Has it been that long?"
Maybe it's her tone of voice. Maybe it's the uneven breaks between words. It doesn't matter because, well, Babs. "Want to come along for the ride?"
Her silences have always been full ones. Eventually, she says, "It feels like a bad idea. I didn't know who he was, but I get the feeling he knows exactly who I am. I show up, he might freak out. I don't think that's the reaction you're going for."
"You're right." He laughs a little, because, "You always were."
"Now he tells me," she says dryly. "About the kid. I already sent you the file. Everything I've got is in there—phone numbers, address… you need to check your email more often."
"I know." He's flailing in the dark, looking for a hit and missing without fail. He can feel her listening to him doing it. "Can I call you some time? Just to talk," he adds quickly. "I just—I miss that. I miss this."
It was stupid to try for more. He knew it then, but he's smarter now.
Her laugh is full and rich, even if her voice is harsher than normal: "Dickie, you could've done that two years ago. Call me when you hit town."
The distant sounds of life going on outside the room are loud after Barbara's low-toned irony. Dick closes his phone and lies back, watching the shadow of a spider wandering across the ceiling.
Looks like he's going back to Gotham after all.
He takes a borrowed laptop to an internet café the next morning. He gets black Turkish blend, groped in line, and two cell numbers before he even sits down.
He picks a spot at the back of the room where he can see anyone thinking about coming at him from all angles, then he erases the new numbers from his cell while he's waiting for his laptop to finish booting.
The shop smells like cinnamon, coffee, and tech. The air is overheated and cramped with a dozen different languages. To his left, a man and a woman are arguing, the woman in Catalan, the man in German; they seem to understand each other fine.
Dick catches most of the Catalan, but he's never been good with German. He likes the sound of it, though, and he keeps listening while his browser kicks in, trying to untangle liquid consonants from harsh vowels. He cuts and pastes the web address Babs sent him into the search bar, and then the site comes up and the sound around him hazes out, because Babs was right: the kid takes pretty pictures.
A lot of black and white, which is surprising and surprisingly effective. A circus is its colors; take them away and the sweat beading an equestrienne's face flares into sharp focus. Black is the arc of an acrobat's body, the shading between sideshow tents and concession booths. White fills in the feathered lines of costumes, plumps a clown's already bulging cheeks and spits flame from a fire-eater's mouth.
He traces the outline of a dwarf's profile; her shadow stretches away from her, three times her height and filling the bulk of the frame. The shot bothers him, and he can almost put his finger on why…
Babs was right about something else, too. He's not in any of the frames. Haly's is missing as well, and he's willing to bet that it—and he—have never been part of this web page.
He's down to the dregs of his coffee. He swallows the last of it and types Bruce Wayne into the search bar.
He already knows the basic story. Everyone does. There may be a few countries Wayne hasn't killed in, but they're probably so small only their inhabitants know they exist.
Ten years ago, the Haly Brothers' Circus packed up and left Gotham as soon as the police finished their investigation. Having his acrobatic team nearly deep-sixed may have been great publicity, but Pop Haly always did give more of a damn about his people than money—it's what got him into trouble with a Gotham protection racket in the first place.
At the time, he decided the money wasn't worth being Gotham's newest freakshow. Haly's exited stage left, and Dick and his parents followed the story of Boss Zucco's slow deconstruction through the papers. Tucked in between black and whites of dead gangsters and blown up buildings were a few articles on famous serial killers, the decline of Gotham's resident crazies, and Bruce Wayne—sometimes all of the above. Dick got a glimpse into what his life might have been like if his folks had died.
It's not a new story. Some version of it happens every day. Two buddies disagree about something and there's a knife or a poker or a freaking grilling fork and someone gets hurt. A woman gets tired of getting hit and caves her boyfriend's head in with a baseball bat.
And sometimes, an eight year old kid watches a mugger shoot his parents and gets screwed up in ways no kid should ever be.
And after the police reports have been written and the case has been relegated to the unsolved files; after the psychologists have labeled him 'recovered' and his father's best friend and partner takes him in, the kid… changes. In places he makes sure no one but he can see. He was always sharp and quiet and shut up inside himself, but now he's quietly, sharply insular and very, very motivated. He wants to make sure what happened to him doesn't happen to anyone else. Ever.
Unlike most kids, he's got money and autonomy, so he focuses his motivation, hones his edges, and spends the next twelve years turning himself into a physically perfect, mentally brilliant weapon of mass destruction. When he's twenty, he turns himself loose on the world. The worldwide annual body count goes up several hundred per.
In the end, the only reason they catch the guy is his foster mother, his father's old friend. She gives him up on the condition that he won't be given the death penalty. A month after Wayne is sent to Arkham Asylum, he's the only inmate left alive.
Although they never did find Isley's body.
Now, the only reason anyone gets sent to Arkham anymore is if hanging Judge Dent has it in for them. Everyone knows Wayne comes and goes whenever he wants, but somehow when they go looking for him he's always in his cell, locked in tight. Half the time, he's in a straightjacket.
Just thinking about the guy makes Dick queasy. But the fucked up thing is, he can almost put himself in Wayne's place.
Almost. But not quite.
Because it was the second and last show of the day. Dick had already landed and made his bows. He'd just turned to watch his parents fly when a man's amplified voice said, "Grayson, don't! The lines are damaged!"
He remembers how still his mother and father went, up on the platform; the look on his mother's face when his father yanked hard on the trapeze with both hands and the lines frayed.
He remembers Bruce Wayne dragging two men into the ring. Their eyes were open. There was a bullet hole in each of their foreheads. Wayne dropped the men in the center of the ring and walked over to Dick.
He looked thoughtfully down at Dick and said, "I enjoyed watching you fly. Please tell your parents I'm very sorry to miss their act. Excuse me."
The screaming didn't start until after he was gone.
Most of the time that's how Dick remembers that night. Sometimes he (thinks he) remembers… something else. Some days he remembers things one way, some days another. But two things have stuck with him, no matter how much his memory plays with the rest of the details. The dark powder burns around the holes in the hitmen's foreheads. Bruce Wayne's polite phrasing and rich boy accent.
Ten years later in a Barcelona coffee house, Dick can still see the first and hear the second. He still doesn't know why Wayne picked his family to save, and none of the professional or fan-run sites dedicated to the guy are helping.
There's an excellent black and white headshot on almost every site (it's the cover page for two of them) that looks like it was taken within the last couple of years. He wonders if the photo is one of Tim's. He wonders why Tim is running around Gotham taking pictures of Bruce Wayne.
It's a little like asking himself why Tim chased him around the world for two years.
Dick buys a one-way to Gotham, nonstop redeye, departing next Tuesday. He shuts his computer down and leaves the café. It's not morning anymore and he has three days of back-to-back matinees to get through.
He feels bad taking off before clean up starts, but Grazzi is a lovely, understanding woman with a generous heart. Plus, Dick is good for business—any Flying Grayson is. He pulls his weight and isn't a drama queen, and more importantly he never flakes on contracts, written or spoken.
Grazzi kisses him on both cheeks and sends him on his way with her blessing and proxy hugs for his parents.
Dick folds himself into his cramped business class seat, exchanges smiles with the very pretty woman of Indian descent sitting next to him, and prepares himself for eight hours of torture to be followed by two hours of intense stretching to get the kinks out.
Transatlantic flights are evil and so is airline food. Dick chews on energy bars and spends as much time standing in the rear of the plane as the flight attendants will allow, which is actually a lot—Dick's always been good at making friends fast. Eight hours later, more or less, Gotham looks exactly the way he remembers: like gloomy, brooding hell. By the time he disembarks, Dick's ready to jump all over the first person who looks at him wrong.
He pulls his backpack and his duffle out of the overhead bin and shuffles along with his fellow passengers. Customs is all but deserted, and the terminal is thankfully uncrowded. He doesn't have extra baggage to pick up, and he heads straight for the nearest exit. He's almost to a cluster of waiting cabs when someone taps him on the shoulder.
"How 'bout a ride, wonder boy?" and Dick spins and drops his bags and hugs with intent.
And he's laughing and Babs is swearing and trying to— "Ow," Dick says meekly. "Not like I needed that shin, anyway."
"Let go of me," Babs growls.
Dick hugs harder. "Don't wanna—hey." He leans back enough that he can see her face. "I didn't send you my flight info."
Her return look is pure scorn. "Barbara Gordon, PI. Buy yourself a dictionary, buddy."
Dick sighs long and loud. "I'm surrounded by weirdos." He squeezes her again and gets an even more concentrated glare. "Can't I be happy to see you? Because I am."
By normal human standards, it's not a smile. By Babs and Tim standards it's… good enough.
"There you go," Dick says, and smiles wide enough for all of them.
Barbara shoves him away. "If you think you can keep your hands to yourself for half an hour, I'll give you a lift to your hotel."
"Don't have one." He slants her a look. "I forgot to make a reservation."
"I know," she says dryly. "Which is why I made one for you. Don't!" she says when he starts to reach for her again. "You're grateful, I get it." She starts walking. "Come on, birdboy. Time's a wasting."
The drive from Goodwin Airport into the city takes about half an hour. It feels twice that long, at least. Barbara resists all attempts at conversation, so Dick spends the time staring out his window, watching as streets and buildings grow denser, stranger; almost medieval in their design.
Barbara turns off Loeb Way onto South Grand, and Dick ducks down and cranes his neck to get a look at the weirdness that is the Gotham Superior Courthouse. "Wow," he says. "If it doesn't have a hundred gargoyles on it, I guess you guys don't consider it architecture."
"This from the guy who thinks red, green and yellow together constitute a fashion statement rather than a crime. Don't knock the gargoyles, circus boy. They add ambiance."
She turns right into the entrance to a gated parking structure. Dick eyes the armed security guards. "Ambiance, sure."
Barbara hands over a card, which is inspected by the goons, then returned. The gate slides open.
"Where are we, Camp David?" he asks.
Barbara puts the car in gear and they ease forward past rows and rows of brightly lit vehicles. "Almost," she says, steering them up a ramp to the next level. "The Grand on South Grand."
"You're kidding," Dick says. Barbara smirks as she nudges her tiny VW in between two SUVs.
"I have friends in high places." She shuts the engine off. "You hungry?"
Dick hoists his backpack over his shoulder. "Are you kidding?" he says. "After nothing but coffee and Power bars for twelve hours?"
She pushes her door open. "They've got a nice café in the lobby. Let's dump your stuff upstairs and grab a bite. Your treat," she says, and the smirk is back, but Dick isn't feeling it.
He says, "It's my treat as long as I'm here. I owe you."
Her smile drops and falls away like a badly fitted domino. "The jury's still out on that one," she says, and slides out of the car, slamming the door after her and walking away without waiting for Dick. She dangles her remote over her head, shaking it. "Move it or I'll lock you in."
Dick moves it. He follows her through the parking structure and three sets of sliding doors into the Grand's lobby. She walks past the front desk without stopping.
"Hey," Dick says, "don't we need to—?"
"I got your day pass right here, Dickie," she says, and flips a keycard at him. Dick catches it as she stops in front of a bank of elevators and pushes up.
The doors to their left slide open. A thin, aggressive-looking woman and a tiny girl get in. The girl notices Dick looking. She dimples and waves, fat blond curls bouncing, puffy pink skirts flaring. Barbara grabs Dick's sleeve before he can move. "We'll take the next one. Her perfume's so strong I can smell it over here."
He says, "Jeeze, you're picky," but he waits with her the few seconds it takes for another set of doors to open.
"Chemical sensitivity isn't just an idea, Grayson. Wake up and smell the petroleum byproducts." She hits a button and leans against the wall, staring up at the ceiling.
"That's the top floor," Dick feels he should point out.
The elevator is still going up. She's still staring at the ceiling. "This is me not asking," Dick mutters.
They stop moving. A soft chime sounds and the doors open. "Glad to hear it," says Barbara, and walks away down the hall, moving like it's the only thing she knows how to do.
Dick trails after her, looking around as he goes. The carpeting is deep red, the walls very white where they're not transparent. He starfishes his hand against one floor-to-ceiling window and watches his breath fog the glass. The view would be more spectacular if it wasn't Gotham he was twenty-six stories above.
"If you want the room, you have to use the card," Barbara says from behind him, and Dick jerks and turns.
"Sorry. I think I was spacing," he says.
"Jetlag. This one." She jerks her thumb at a door and Dick swipes the card he's still holding through the scanner.
The room is less a room than a small apartment fitted into one huge room. Dick sets his bags down beside the bed and wanders, rubbing his fingers over the couch's brocade upholstery, picking what looks like a jade statuette of some kind of monkey up off a built-in shelf and turning it around in his hands before putting it back down. He opens the full-sized fridge in the fully functional kitchen and says, "Whoa," because that is a lot of wine. Barbara shuts the fridge door, almost on his fingers.
"Okay, then," Dick says, and follows her back out. "Am I paying for this?" he asks when they're back in the elevator. "The smallest room in this place is probably out of my budget range."
"It's taken care of," he's told, which is—okay, it's pretty creepy. Maybe even 'The Family' level creepy. He thinks that one over on the way down, and he doesn't really stop thinking about it until Barbara nudges him into a chair in the 'nice café' that turns out to be as large a fallacy as 'room' was.
Dick fishes a sliver of lime out of his water and frowns at it. "You must have one hell of a client base," he says. "Half the places I eat, you don't want garnish in your drink."
"Don't remind me," she says, then, to the waiter trying to hand her a menu, "I'll have the mozzarella and tomato over arugula. Chicken with capers for him, and an order of mushroom crepes to split now."
The waiter nods and smiles and nods again like someone who just got hit with a two by or four, and wanders away. Dick snickers. "I could have ordered for myself," he says mildly.
She gives him a look, the gist of which seems to be Please, I observed your food intake habits for almost a year. Which is true, but instead of shutting him up it just reminds him…
"You should have stayed. We would have been the best."
Her mouth flattens. She sets her glass down, the click of it deliberate. "I was the best until a punk with a gun got lucky."
She cuts him off, "I know what you meant. I got over losing my knee and the force. You'll get over the fact that I'm not a flyer."
"You could have been."
"Dick." She takes off her glasses. Sets them down open on the table, and rubs the bridge of her nose. When she opens her eyes and looks at him, he looks back at someone he doesn't know. She wore contacts in the ring and at practice, but the Babs he ate with and laughed with and kissed as often as he could; the Babs who argued with him about people and theories and ideas he'd never given much thought to before wore glasses.
She says, "Can we just eat? Please?"
He can't remember the last time she asked instead of told. He says, "Sure," and unfolds his napkin. He immediately starts refolding it.
"Is that a boat?"
"I don't know," he says. "Is that a smile?"
The waiter puts something that smells really good down between them before she gets around to answering. Dick capsizes his boat and lays it in his lap. He looks up and meets Babs' raised eyebrow. "I have manners," he says.
"Mm-hmn," but… yeah. It's a smile.
The crepes are excellent. So is the rest of the food that arrives shortly after them, and Dick can't really blame Babs for ignoring the hovering waiter and Dick in favor of her plate.
Dick pushes capers back and forth through lemon sauce, and wonders whether Tim is home or out stalking somebody. "If you don't want to talk," he says, "just say so. I'll shut up."
Babs lays her fork down on shreds of tomato and greens; midday sun flashes off the tines and Dick blinks. When his eyes clear, she's looking past him out the wide, bay window. He doesn't think she's seeing cars or pedestrians; he doesn't think he wants to know what she sees.
"Maybe I don't have anything left to say that's worth hearing."
"Babs." He stalls out, surrounded by quicksand with alligators waiting in the reeds. "I'm sorry about the mouth thing—you know me," he says awkwardly. "You just…" look tired. There are lines at the corners of her mouth that weren't there three years ago, light but permanent, like the remnants of pain. She's only three years older than he is.
"What?" Her profile is still to him and he can't make out her expression. Maybe he misheard her.
"You heard me," she says, killing that possibility. "Leave. Get out of here."
"Babs—" It's crazy, or maybe one of them is. "I don't understand," he says, and she laughs at him.
"Who does?" She lays her palms flat on the table and leans in. "You don't need to understand. Just forget the kid and go away."
It's not much after twelve. The café is far from full, and the chink of china and silverware, the hum of conversation is muted. Barbara's hair is loose and full around her face, and he remembers how stark the red of it looked against an old blue quilt spread out on top of someone's trailer.
"I can't," he finally says, because that's how it feels.
"He'll be fine. You know that."
"No," Dick says, "I don't."
"He will, trust me. He was born in this town." She's frowning past him again—he hears their waiter speaking, seating people. Babs raises her hand once, still looking past Dick, then her eyes are back on his face and the waiter is hovering at her elbow. "Check," she says. "He's paying."
Dick smiles and hands over a credit card. There's not much else he can do besides get over to Barbara's side of the table in time to help her with her jacket. The brain-frying glare he gets is worth the effort. She turns on her heel and he shoves his hands in his pockets and does what he's been doing since she picked him up: follows. "You taking off?"
Dick ducks a waitress with a full load of plates. "I'll walk you out," he suggests.
"I still carry."
Dick breathes out and tells himself that she's got reasons. Good ones, and even if they weren't, they're hers. "Let me," he says quietly. "Please."
She looks back at him, her hand on the café's jiggling door—there are impatient people on the other side. She makes an annoyed noise and shoves it to, holding it open for a family of four. "Come on," she snaps once they're through, and he follows wordlessly.
Silence lives around her. He remembers that from years ago, the small bubble she carried with her, even inside the noise of the circus. And it's not so much the fact that she isn't talking, either. Barbara's silence is the same as Tim's stillness, a part of her, not something definable, just something that is.
Right now, it's all around her, the edges of it licking out, lapping at Dick's brain and ears and mouth, keeping him as silent as she is until they're back where they started this dance, standing on opposite sides of her car.
She stares at him across the roof, tapping her fingers in random patterns. Dick steps forward. "Babs?"
A shiver goes through her and her eyes focus; Dick thinks about giving back the step he took. "Door's open," she says, and slides in on her side, starting the car before he's got his door shut.
He waits until they're out into moving traffic before asking, "Are you going to tell me, or is it supposed to be a surprise?"
"I'm going to show you what you're letting yourself in for," she says.
"Which is—?" He slouches down in the seat and waits for it.
"A bunch of blue bloods with about three hundred years of New England history, half of it here in Gotham, and a house that takes up most of a city block."
Dick doesn't know whether to be impressed or scared. On the other hand, you get what you pay for—or in this case, what you don't pay for. "You did your homework."
She weaves them past a clutch of cycles and into a turn lane. "All you really need are the society pages for the last century and a half, and the downtown branch has everything archived. The Drakes aren't the Waynes, but they've been around a while. Part of the family moved down here from New York after a difference of opinion between the patriarch and one of his kids. The old man pissed off his number one son and Gotham got an influx of old money and newer, richer blood."
Mostly teasing, he says, "So, where do the Gordons fit into the Gotham hierarchy?"
"The Gordons have been Chicago beat cops since Chicago started being Chicago. Dad was the first to get out, and he left for me."
He knows better. He really does, but… "Your parents?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees her mouth tighten. "On your right," she says, and Dick lets it go and looks.
A city block, Barbara said. It's… big.
"Appalling, isn't it?" she says, her voice thick with amusement. "It was built in the late eighteen-hundreds for a retired shipping magnate. He lost his money on Black Sunday, and the Drakes picked the house up in nineteen thirty for the trifling sum of one point five million US."
And now, a little over seventy years later, a kid named Tim is growing up in what looks like a mausoleum on steroids. With gargoyles on. Jesus.
Barbara pulls into the small turn-out at the front gate. "Want to try knocking?" she says. "They might even let you in."
Dick stares at the gates: fancy wrought iron woven through more practical steel. Dragons. Drakes. "I'll come back later." If he doesn't chicken out and leave town first.
He has his cell and the number Babs gave him. He could call, Tim would… no. "Yeah. I'm sure." He listens to her put the car into gear. Counts snaky-looking dragons. Five and— "Is that a unicorn?
"Yeah, I—sorry. I'm punchy." Dick presses his hands against his eyes and rubs. When he drops his hands, there's Babs and just Babs; no dragons. Or unicorns. "I need to walk," he says. "How about you show me your town?"
He counts to ten while she watches him from narrowed eyes. She sighs, checks the mirror and pulls out into traffic. "Sure, boy wonder. I didn't need that new account, anyway. Let's go take a walk.
Granted, most people don't use their hands, but following the same track around a room over and over is pacing whether you're on your hands or your feet. Dick just happens to prefer his hands because hands require slightly more concentration than feet, which is good when you're trying not to think too hard.
It isn't working.
He got back to the hotel after walking around Chinatown with Babs for three hours, but he's still wired. He tried pushing the furniture up against the walls and running through a few stretching and calisthenics routines, but that didn't work either. He guesses he could go find one of the hotel's two gyms, but he's not much for machine workouts, and the likelihood of them having a set of bars or a horse is low. So now he's pacing with about the same amount of success.
Circle the easy chair. Flip up onto the bed and springboard over his duffle into a somersault that lands him smack up against the coffee table, leaving the weird earpiece thing Babs gave him at eye level. On his thirty-first pass he picks it up and puts it on. He cautiously presses what he's pretty sure is the right indent and says, "Hi?"
"Dick?" her voice comes in low and startled and annoyed.
"Uh, yes?" Dick says.
"I'm working," Barbara hisses. "What do you want?"
"I'm doing that thing," he says.
"The pacing hands thing."
"Dick. I am working."
He flips himself back up onto his hands, and hey, the earpiece is way more convenient than a handheld. "I was thinking," he says.
Babs mutters, "Oh here we go…"
"Do you think he'd flip if I just showed up? Because I feel like if I call, he'll freak out worse and run."
On the other end of the line something thumps against something else. Dick pictures Babs' forehead connecting with her console. She says, "You know you sound like an idiot, right?"
Dick walks himself over to the balcony doors and twitches the drape out of his way. The skyline is stained red. "What time is it?"
"Ten after seven." They keyboard rattles. "If you leave now, you can make the seven thirty El. Get off at Fairview, the house is two blocks down."
"Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"Yes, Dick, I am. Is it working?"
Barbara sighs. "Put both of us out of our misery. You're not leaving Gotham, so go see the kid and let me get back to work."
"Babs," Dick says.
"Save it," she says, lightly. "You can tell me all about how bad you screwed up tomorrow."
There's a click and the line goes dead. "Love you too," Dick says, and pulls off the earpiece.
He can't say for sure exactly how the next twenty-something minutes go. He just knows that by the time they're over, he's back in front of the gate with dragons eating each other's tails. The unicorn is glaring at him.
"What are you looking at?" he says, and he can imagine the snotty snort. And now he's having imaginary non-conversations with an imaginary unicorn just so he can put off doing what he came to Gotham to do for another few seconds.
"You're right," he tells the unicorn. "Completely pathetic." He presses the buzzer on the gate's control pad and half hopes that Tim's parents took him with them on their latest trip. Actually, he does kind of wish that for the kid's sake, but—
"May I help you?" a voice says from the pad's speaker. It's a woman's voice, distorted and tinny—the housekeeper?
"Hi," Dick says, feeling like an idiot and probably sounding like one, too, since Babs is always right. "I'm Richard Grayson, a friend of Tim's. Could you let him know I'm here?"
Feedback crackles at him from the speaker. "For Tim?" the woman says.
"Yeah. I mean, yes, ma'am," Dick says, trying to sound mature and responsible, whatever the hell that sounds like. "Is he around?"
"Just a moment," she says, which isn't strictly accurate. By Dick's count it's almost two minutes' worth of moments before the speaker crackles again and Tim says, hesitantly, "Dick?"
He leans his forehead against the brick holding fancy wrought iron in place and says, "Yeah. It's me," and hears Tim's breath go.
"Why—what are…" A kind of hitching gulp and Tim says, "Do you want to come in?"
"Do you want me to?" Dick asks.
Static, static, something that sounds kind of like static but also more organic. "Yes," Tim says, and the gate buzzes and then clicks. Dick pulls it open and walks through.
There's maybe ten feet between the gate and the front steps; the house was either built smack against the street, or when the street wasn't where it is now. The door is already opening when Dick gets there, and an older woman in slacks and a green cardigan peers doubtfully at him from behind it.
She says, "Mr. Grayson?" sounding like she thinks that's wrong, or maybe that he is.
Dick tries to smile, and says, "It's just Dick, ma'am."
"Mister… Dick." And now she just sounds disapproving. "If you'll follow me?"
"Sure," he says, then, "I can get that," as she starts to reach for the door to close it. She lets him, but the air of disapproval deepens.
"This way," she says, and Dick follows meekly, not wanting to rock the boat further.
He's not sure what the floor is made of, but it's hard and white and it makes his footsteps echo, his footsteps and the housekeeper's footsteps bouncing hollowly off each other. He wonders if the whole house is covered in the stuff; wonders if it sounds as wrong to Tim as it does to him, or if Tim is so used to it he doesn't notice.
Dick thinks he'd notice, but everything about this place, from the gargoyles outside to the paintings inside, the ones that look like they should be in museums, is something to notice; something someone who didn't live here would notice. But this is Tim's house, as hard as that is to believe, so maybe—
"In here, sir," the housekeeper says, and Dick sidesteps to keep from running her over. She gives him another disapproving sniff and stands pointedly beside an open doorway.
Dick says, "Thanks," and walks past her, and Tim is standing in the middle of the room. Dick is pretty sure he was watching the doorway before Dick stepped through it, and now he's watching Dick.
"Thank you, Mrs. McIlvenne," Tim says, and after directing one last suspicious frown towards Dick, the housekeeper leaves, closing the door after her.
Dick looks at Tim, who is still small and kid-like everywhere except for his expression.
Dick's seen that expression before, in Florida. The difference is, he knows what it means now. Tim wasn't scared then because someone had caught him; he was terrified of Dick's rejection. He still is, and Dick already rejected him once.
"Fuck, Tim," and he has a second's whiplash of his mom Richard, watch your language, he's a child! and then he's kneeling down the way he was the last time he saw Tim, only now he's not saying no. He's saying, "Sorry. God, I'm so sorry."
He doesn't realize he's holding his hand out until Tim edges close enough for Dick to touch him. They both look down at Dick's fingers brushing Tim's arm.
Tim bites his lip. "I haven't. I've… been here." He's still looking at Dick's hand.
"Yeah, I know," Dick says, and Tim raises his head and his eyes are very blue.
"Why are you here?" he asks.
"Because…" Dick concentrates on breathing because sometimes breathing is harder than you'd think. Tim's skin is smooth and kid-soft under his fingers, and he strokes, just his thumb, just once. "Because," he repeats, watching his hand, too calloused, too rough to touch anything in this house, "you still scared the hell out of me even when you weren't around to do it."
The sharp little sound Tim makes echoes weirdly around, bounces off white walls covered with real fake pictures that aren't Tim's photographs.
"You're pretty good with that camera," Dick says, and Tim kind of jerks under his hands.
He swallows and says, "I… how?"
"A friend," Dick says. "By the way, Oracle said to tell you, fifty at point two six three, whatever that means. She said you'd know."
"Oh," Tim says. "She—oh." And Dick wishes he understood what he just said because even though Tim isn't smiling or doing anything else that means happy to Dick, he's still lit up somewhere inside, and Dick would really like to know how to make that happen again.
"Are you staying here? In Gotham," Tim adds, and Dick sees and feels the cautious beginnings of hope in the tensed stillness of his body.
Hope. That Dick might be occupying the same city for a few days. He wonders if Tim is already planning how to stake out his hotel. If he thought he'd be able to do it without screaming, he'd laugh.
He wants to leave this house and this town and never look back. He wants to wrap his arms around Tim and hug him for a few hours or days or maybe just a few minutes. However long Tim will let him.
He wants to sit Tim down and explain to him why he shouldn't let himself get so emotionally invested in strangers. Except he knows Tim isn't invested in anyone but him and Bruce Wayne, which is in itself a freak-out waiting to happen, but Dick's taking this Gotham thing one minute at a time. He'll save the freak-out for Barbara—maybe tomorrow he can call her up and have a nice, long mental break.
The point is, he'll save the extreme reaction for a time and place that can't hurt Tim. After that he'll be able to have a calm, rational discussion with him about why following serial killers around just isn't a good idea.
Tim's arm shifts under his hand and Dick loosens his grip. Just in case. He tells Tim, "I'll be in town for a while. Not sure how long yet."
"Not a—a circus act?" Tim is frowning, and Dick thinks he knows why, but—
"No," he says. "Actually, I'm here to hang out with you." And if he'd thought Tim's eyes were big before—? Dick grins. "That okay?"
All eyes and one carefully controlled nod.
"Okay." He lets himself reach for Tim's shoulders. Lets himself squeeze—not a hug, but as close as he feels like he can get away with. Squeezes one more time and lets go and stands. "I'd better go," he says. "You're supposed to be in bed, probably." Then he remembers—
Tim. Stalking him through the deserted backyard an hour before midnight. "Or maybe not," he mutters. "But it's definitely my bedtime," because the nervous energy is gone and almost eight hours on a plane, and god he needs to sleep.
Tim's got that worried line on his forehead again, but he goes with Dick to the front door. And when Dick sort of stands there, not sure how to pull this off without looking like a total dork, Tim says, "Goodnight," and opens the door for him.
So okay. He really, really wants to hug the kid. He shoves his hands in his pockets instead, "'Night, Tim," and takes the front steps at a leap. And sneakers aren't exactly gym issue, but he makes his landing all right anyway.
"Dick?" He turns around on the walk. Tim is still standing in the open door. "Tomorrow?" Tim asks. Dick nods once, tries to make it look like a sure thing.
He doesn't stop feeling Tim's eyes on his back until he's through the gate and halfway down the block.
He knows it's a bad idea. Really, really bad idea, but Tim's housekeeper opens the door and instead of following her inside, Dick smiles his crowd-pleasing smile and says, "Can you tell me which part of the house Tim's room is in?"
The woman blinks. "I… I can take you—"
Dick turns up the glare; if you can't blind them with your good looks, do it with your pearly whites. "I'd like to surprise him. I don't think he gets enough good ones."
Her mouth parts then closes tightly, lips pinched in. Her hand clenches on the fabric of her skirt and she says, "The second floor in the northwest corner. But, Mr. Grayson—"
Dick takes the hand not trying to shred dark blue wool. "It's Mrs. McIlvenne, right? I promise, I'm not going to hurt him."
"Oh," she says, staring down at her hand in his. "I didn't think—I. Well. Tim doesn't have many friends, you see."
No, Dick doesn't, not yet, but he can go with the flow. "I wasn't sure," he says, "but I thought… it's—well, it's why I'm here." Sort of.
She blinks again, and then she makes an annoyed-sounding noise—directed more at herself than at him, Dick thinks—and pulls her hand free. "That's all very well, but how do you intend to—"
Dick winks at her and launches himself at the stone gargoyle glaring at him from over the door. It's got a long thick neck that's just perfect. He dangles for a moment before swinging back and forth a few times and flipping himself up and around to straddle the gargoyle's shoulders. He grins and waves at Mrs. McIlvenne, who's blinking up at him with her mouth open, and looks for another gargoyle.
Six gargoyles and some fancy hand and footwork later, he pauses on a window ledge that seems to belong to Tim. At least, Tim is inside the room the ledge is outside of, sitting in front of a computer. And since the walls of the room have framed circus photos on them, it's a safe bet that the room and attached ledge do, in fact, belong to Tim.
He starts to tap on the window, but he remembers how jumpy Tim is. And okay, maybe this wasn't such a good idea, but Dick's hand slips and his shoulder knocks against the window, and uh-oh.
Tim's shoulders tense up and he turns, eyes widening when he sees Dick. Dick half-smiles and waves. Tim's mouth opens briefly around what looks like Dick's name, and he gets up and comes over to open the window.
Dick waits on the next ledge while Tim pushes the window up and the screen out. When Tim stands back, Dick dives through, somersaulting into a crouch.
Tim is staring at the window.
Dick says, "Hey," and stands up, and the kid jerks around and stares at him. "I said I'd come back," Dick tells him.
"I know," Tim says.
Dick waits for something else. Some kind of acknowledgment. In a way, the absence of one is as good as.
Tim is looking past his shoulder and Dick cranes around to see if there really is something interesting on the wall. He recognizes Prague in the photo's background. That was… a year ago? Year and a half?
"You," he says, as he turns back to Tim, "owe me a tour, since I think I've given you, what, ten? Fifteen?" Tim's mouth curves slightly. Dick smiles wider. "Want to show me around your mausoleum?"
Tim's focus snaps in on him; he's looking at Dick like he's nuts, but Dick can—he can work with that.
He says, "I won't steal the good silver, I swear. Any silver. You practically slept on my dirty underwear—that's like being family!"
Tim says, "That's disgusting," and also, "I did not," all outraged, horrified kid, which is an excellent thing, and also kind of the point.
Dick shoves his hands in his pockets so he can't ruffle the kid's hair. "Come on," he coaxes, "just a little tiny tour? I can behave when I have to. Ask Oracle if you don't—um. Actually, she's probably not the best character witness, but—"
But. Tim shoulders are shaking and he's making choked-off noises, muffled and helpless, like he can't stop them. He says, "Please don't—don't—" He reaches out and grabs Dick's sleeve and drags him out of the room and into another, bigger room.
"Whoa," Dick says, because the new room is almost as big as his roompartment. In addition to the door they just came through, there are three others, two set at even intervals around the wall's half moon curve, and one straight across from them—the exit? "Since when do they give kids suites?"
"It used to be the nursery," Tim says in his dry Timmy voice.
"Stop that," Dick says. "You're not allowed to use sarcasm until you're pubescent. Is that an HD plasma?"
"Yes," Tim says. "Why can't I?"
"Because it's bad for your hormones," Dick says. "Makes them kick in early, or something. What—"
"She told you," Tim interrupts.
It's a hard one-eighty, but Dick is good with abrupt changes in direction. "I—what? She who?" Usually good. But this isn't his usual and Tim—
Tim is standing stiffly beside a beanbag-style seat that looks like somebody's idea of the kind of furniture that belongs in a kid's room. The chair doesn't look like anything Tim would choose for himself, much less choose to sit on, but his hand is resting on the back, his fingers dug in deep. "Oracle," he says. "She—you asked her to find me."
"Yeah," Dick says slowly, "I did. But I don't—"
"I'll burn them if you want," Tim says, and Dick says, "Burn what?" but he… god, he knows.
Tim lets go of the beanbag and walks away from Dick. He opens the door Dick picked as the exit and leaves without saying anything else, leaving the door gaping open onto the painted murder of what Dick thinks is probably a saint. It's hard to tell under all the blood.
Now that it's out from under Tim's grip, the beanbag is reasserting its shape, puffing up to fill in the gouges Tim left. Dick looks at the massive TV screen on the wall, at the stupid chairs and the total lack of kid mess, at the anonymous black and white photographs on the walls. He says, "Damn it," and then he goes after Tim.
The house is big, but the layout is easy to parse. Dick catches up to Tim on the stairs. Tim glances at him but doesn't speak, and for once, Dick doesn't try to get the conversation going.
The second story floors and the stairs are wood; the ground floor is grey-white stone that throws the sound of their footsteps back at them. Tim heads for the back of the house, stopping only when Mrs. McIlvenne calls his name from the kitchen.
She says, "Are sandwiches all right for lunch?"
Tim says, "Yes, thank you. In half an hour, if that's all right."
She glances at Dick, "You'll have company, I take it?" and Tim looks over his shoulder at Dick.
"I guess so," Dick says, hoping that's okay. Tim's face is blank, reflecting his own insecurities back on him.
"We'll be down in the basement," Tim says. "Are you coming?" he asks Dick, who gets the feeling he's being given one more out.
He doesn't take it. "Why not?" he says, and hustles Tim away before Tim can tell him why not, possibly with accompanying photographic exposition. "The basement, huh?" he says as he follows Tim out the back door.
Tim stops a few yards away in front of what looks like the entrance to a storm cellar and says, "Where else would you put a darkroom?"
"Well, I probably wouldn't put one anywhere," Dick says. "Not really my thing." He helps Tim pry the doors open, exposing a short flight of stone steps and another door at the bottom. Tim takes the steps two at a time and unlocks the second door.
"It's ventilated," he calls up to Dick. "My dad had the place renovated when I told him what I wanted it for, but the smell is fairly strong. I have masks, if you need one."
Dick snorts and vaults over the stairs, caroming off the door and slamming it wide. "I clean out animal cages, I think I can—"
He hears his voice trail off, but he can't remember what he was going to say. Doesn't bother trying to remember or finish the sentence, because behind the door he just slammed open are all the pictures of Dick and Haly's and Bruce Wayne that could be but aren't anywhere else.
He takes one involuntary step farther into the room and the smells Tim was talking about hit home. Sensory overload and four walls of information, and Dick's eyes and throat and nasal passages are burning. He can only catch stray details from the photos, some he recognizes, more he doesn't. They tilt away, spin dizzily past him as he steps all the way through the door and turns— "That's… one hell of an expensive hobby."
Tim shrugs. "It would be more expensive if I didn't do my own developing."
Dick steps closer to the nearest wall, skimming, unable to really focus—there are so many photos, packed too tightly together—until his eyes and brain catch on a shot that isn't circus or Dick. Its subject is dissimilar enough to the Wayne Dick sees in other, surrounding photos that he isn't sure--
It's a black and white, like most of the others. A dark-haired man is sitting lotus-style on some kind of bare surface. His back is to the camera and he's naked from the waist up. The skin on his neck and arms and back is covered in writing: Japanese and Chinese characters, Cyrillic lettering, hieroglyphs, Sanskrit… other written languages Dick can't begin to put names to. Woven through the ink are scars, curves and edges of pain more telling than black letters stamped into bare flesh.
He touches the edge of the photo with just the pad of his index finger. "Is that—?"
"Yes," Tim says from beside him, and Dick jumps because the kid was halfway across the room a second ago. "It's from last year."
"That—it's his cell. Isn't it? That's Arkham."
Tim nods. He's studying the photo, frowning at it as if he's not pleased with the finished result. "That was before Dr. Quinzel banned cameras. She said the stress of public scrutiny wasn't conducive to maintaining her patient's emotional stability and mental well-being."
"You've been there."
Tim's eyebrows go up. "I—yes. Of course."
Of course. Why wouldn't a twelve year old boy visit an asylum for the criminally insane in his spare time?
Inside Dick's head something is shouting twelve, he's twelve, he's just a kid. Something else says so were you when they almost died. Wayne was eight.
"Why are you here?" he says abruptly.
"I—" Tim's voice trips over the pronoun; his feet stutter backward. "I live here?"
"No, why are you here? Why aren't you traveling with your folks?"
Tim's silence is and isn't like Barbara's. He wears it with his clothes, carries it around, but it doesn't belong to him: it chose him and chooses to follow him, performing for him like Ran's tigers perform for her.
"I was supposed to go with them to Peru," Tim says. "Something came up. Dad had this built," he nods at the wall Dick is standing next to. "That was two years ago."
Dick thinks about his own parents, who kept him with them as long as they could, then let him fly free when the nest got too small.
"Do you want me to burn them?" Tim asks for the second time.
Before Dick can answer, there's a soft buzz of sound. "Lunch," Tim says.
Bruce Wayne isn't looking at Dick. His eyes are closed or they're open and blind, seeing what his mind dictates, or he's staring at something in his cell that only he can see. His face is everywhere, on every wall, but all Dick can see is the back of his head, smooth dark hair, jagged black words Dick can't read and scars, too many for not enough skin.
Dick says, "Can we take it outside?"
Tim is warmth and silence almost within reach. He says, "If you want to."
"Yes," Dick says. Every part of Tim is so damn still. Dick can't keep his hands from flexing. "Please."
He squints up at the cloud cover that's not enough to completely kill the glare. "I could swear there was sun when I got here. Do you guys even know what clear skies look like?"
They're standing in Tim's backyard, which is more of a park than anything else. Tim keeps looking at the blanket; at Dick; at the grass and the outside of everything like it's something he shouldn't be seeing.
"It's spring," he says, as if that's all the explanation Dick should need. And he does have a point. Dick keeps forgetting he's in New England.
Grunting his disgust, Dick spreads Mrs. McIlvenne's blanket out on the grass beside a huge oak, and sprawls. Tim sits down next to him, crossing his legs neatly, and they eat with the Gotham skyline spiking unevenly up in the distance. And it's not that the skyscrapers are taller or more intimidating here than they are anywhere else, it's just the way the clouds hang heavy and grey over them, like approaching doom.
Dick finishes two roast beef sandwiches to Tim's half. He waits until he's sure the kid is done eating before saying, "So most of my brain wants you to torch the whole room."
Tim makes a stifled noise and holds the soda he just opened over the grass. Brownish cola foams over, drips down the sweating sides of the can onto his fingers.
"The rest of me," Dick says, "wants to tell you to save what's important and burn the rest."
He reaches for Tim's shoulder, not letting his hand sit heavily or grip, or anything like that. Just touching, letting Tim know he's here. "That room… it could be bad for both of us if your parents suddenly decided to take an interest in their kid's hobbies. Not," he continues as Tim's head snaps up, "that that would be a bad thing. And that's all I'm going to say about it, I swear."
Tim's look is grateful, and Dick almost feels bad for his next topic, but not bad enough to keep his mouth shut. He drops his hand and says, "Wayne's a totally different ballgame. I don't think that guy would be too happy with your collection."
Tim drops the soda. "It's—he doesn't—"
"Arkham. Jesus, Tim." Dick runs a hand over his hair. "That's—" He laughs, because even he knows what a lousy joke it is. "It's insane."
Tim's head is turned away. He sets the downed soda right side up and wipes his hands on a paper towel. "Dr. Quinzel said he didn't mind me. Just the press."
"Kid…" The grass is scratchy under Dick's palm and he pulls his hand back onto the blanket. He's the wrong person for this discussion, but Tim is looking at him, waiting for him to get it together; he sighs and picks up his soda. "I don't know much about asylums, but if the doctor is doing what the inmate wants, there's something wrong. Maybe I should—"
"No!" And it shouldn't be a surprise—Tim's only diffident when the topic under discussion is Tim—but he's up on his knees, cheeks flushed, gripping Dick's arm like Dick's about to jump up right now and make tracks to the nearest cop shop.
Tim holds on tighter. "You can't go to the police. Not that—I don't think it would matter, but he's not…" He swallows, visibly. "He's alone except for Dr. Quinzel. I don't want to get him in any more trouble."
Which is—Dick has to force his voice past his too-tight throat, "He's a murderer. He's going to be in an asylum for the rest of his life because of it. That's about as bad as it gets."
Tim's eyes drop. His hand falls away from Dick's arm and he sits back, and Dick puts his soda down and frowns at the kid's bent head. "Why are you so fixed on this guy? He kills people, Tim."
Tim's face is in profile, turned mostly away from Dick. His mouth is tight and his shoulders look like they're about to crack. "They would—they could have killed you. Those men."
Dick presses his palms against his closed eyes and rubs at the tension that's not going away. Because that's just it, isn't it? Killing is wrong. Everything Dick knows is telling him that. Everything in him is telling him. But if not for a guy who is willing to kill, Dick's family would be dead, and Dick would—he'd—
"He's a good man," Tim says quietly. "He's not… well. What he does is wrong, but I—" He's still looking down at his lap. "He has posters of you. Of your family. From the circus?"
"And that's not creepy at all," Dick mutters.
"Right," Dick says, "I forgot who I was talking to." He flops back against the blanket and closes his eyes, but it doesn't work; he can still feel Tim's heat next to him, can still hear the small sounds of him shifting around, moving closer.
"He saved them," Tim says.
Dick opens his eyes and looks at him. "Yeah, I know." And he does, better than Tim ever will.
"I—don't you want to understand why? Isn't that fair?"
Dick groans and drops his arm over his eyes because he can hear what Tim isn't saying. You owe him. It's the same thing Dick's subconscious has been telling him for ten years. He lifts his arm. "Spit it out," he says.
Tim says, "I'm sorry?"
"You're going to make me do something I'm going to regret," Dick accuses, and the little sneak smirks at him.
"I promise we won't get caught," he says, still smirking.
Dick drops his arm back over his eyes and moans, because he's in so much trouble and it's his own damn fault. "If we do, I'm feeding you to Fi-Fi," he tells Tim.
"Who's Fi-Fi?" Tim wants to know.
Dick says, "My favorite tiger," and sits up. "Come on. Let's get this over with."
Tim pours out what's left of their sodas and starts building a neat pile of trash, but Dick nudges him away, gathers the edges of the blanket together and slings the makeshift sack over his shoulder.
"It's not anything bad," Tim assures him on the way back to the house.
"As long as you're not planning to B and E some Mafioso's place, I'm good," Dick says, half-jokingly. When Tim doesn't answer, he looks down at him and oh god… "God, you are."
"Not… exactly," Tim says. "Not a Mafioso."
Dick moans again.
Tim is frowning thoughtfully. "I don't think there are any still living here. They've mostly moved to Blüdhaven."
"Do you want to do this or not?"
"Okay," Dick says, "I can live with that. Just don't tell me anything else until we get there."
It's not, he thinks, a matter of choice. Not really. Because Jack Drake has a lot of pretty toys, but Dick's always preferred bikes and the black Ducati is choice. If he's going out, he might as well go out in style.
"Helmets?" Tim says, sounding almost amused. Dick grins down at him.
"Oh yeah." He glances at Tim's jeans and medium-weight jacket. "You going to be okay like that?"
Tim nods. "We should be back before dark."
"You're not going to get me lost, are you?" Dick says as he takes the helmet Tim holds out.
Tim shakes his head before pulling on his own helmet. He flips the visor up. "Traffic's okay this time of day, so we can take Grand up to Giordano. It turns into the Kane Memorial Bridge."
"And I have no idea what that means," Dick says. "I'm probably going to live to regret it, but I'm trusting you, kid." He flicks Tim's visor back down and starts pushing the bike towards the mouth of the garage.
He can feel every bump and crack in the concrete through his grip on the handlebars; even with added speed, he'll still be able to feel the road. He says, "I'd buy myself one of these if it wouldn't spend half the time in storage."
"Maybe you should anyway." Tim's visor is back up. Dick stops halfway down the drive and swings his leg over, starting the bike up.
"Maybe I should. Hop up," he tells Tim over the sound of the engine, and the kid settles behind him, small hands and bony elbows digging into his waist. The gate at the end of the drive creaks open; Dick feels the kid tucking the remote into his jacket, and then Tim's arm is back around him. Squeezes lightly, letting Dick know he's ready. Dick grins and guns it and—
God, it's been too long since he's done this.
It's flying. A different medium than his usual, but the drop-in-your-gut, back of the throat soaring tightness he gets from a trapeze is the same. As Tim promised, the streets aren't any more clogged than Dick would expect of any big city during the day, the main arteries wide open and breathing freely, and even with the traffic lights, Dick is loving life more than he has since his last visit to Haly's.
Giordano spits them out at a cloverleaf that curves around and into a wide bridge spanning the bay. Dick pays the toll, feels Tim lean into him for a brief second and then they're past the barrier and Dick wishes he could have his helmet off for this: he wants the whip-burn of salty wind over his skin; wants to hear the seabirds and smell the ocean. He's not that stupid, though, and Gotham isn't the back roads of Bordeaux. He settles for the warm weight of Tim against him and pours on the speed.
The Kane Memorial Bridge stretches across the bay, connecting Gotham's north island to Gotham County proper. Once they're over the bay the city's urban decay gives way first to suburban spread, then manicured lawns, gardens, hilly acres surrounding sprawling houses.
There's not much on the roads but them and a few scattered commuters, and Dick opens the engine up and lets the landscape blur around them, trusting Tim to tell him when to stop.
Just past the Sommerset town limits, Tim squeezes Dick's waist and tugs on the left side of his jacket. Dick turns his head in time to get an eyeful of well-preserved Neo-Gothic architecture brooding in crazy angles against the ocean's backdrop. He doesn't need the gate announcing Arkham Asylum's presence to know which building he's looking at. It's just that weird, and also creepy, even in the middle of the day.
The gate and the creepy mansion on the cliff whip past, quickly followed by another town. Dick is starting to wonder if Tim's internal compass is off—and if that's maybe just as well—when Tim tugs hard on the left side of his jacket.
There's a turnoff coming up; Dick takes it fast and Tim is tugging again; the road forks almost immediately. Dick obediently goes right.
The bike jolts as he straightens out of the turn. Dick winces and shifts slightly forward, feeling Tim shift with him. The road beneath the tires is still paved, but it's seen better days, and Dick can feel every rut and dip. He slows down enough to avoid the larger ones and his surroundings, which consist mainly of heavy forestation, come into focus. Sometimes there's a break in the tree line and he thinks he sees the outline of a house, but it's still a little surprising when the road widens, opening up into a half moon drive in front of a house that's not quite as large or as intimidating as Tim's.
Dick brings the bike around to idle in front of the front steps. He flips his visor and hears Tim do the same. He nods at the realtor's sign stuck in a patch of violets. "Are we buying?"
"Parking," Tim says, and slides carefully off.
Dick kills the engine and kicks the stand out. He lays his helmet on the seat and watches Tim try to make his hair stop standing straight up. "Here, let me," he says, reaching, and Tim goes still under his hands. "You can tell me now."
"Hmn?" Blue eyes blink open; Dick grins because Tim looks half asleep.
"I do the same thing when somebody rubs my head," Dick says, and Tim jerks away, streaks of red riding his cheekbones. Dick lets him go, sticking his hands in his back pockets and nodding at the house. "So, let me guess. Bruce Wayne's childhood home?"
Tim shakes his head; he went from embarrassed to checking his pockets in less than ten seconds. Dick isn't surprised to see him pull a tiny flat camera from an inner jacket pocket and press a button on it before replacing it.
"Wayne Manor was the other fork," Tim says absently. "It has a caretaker and security measures, but this place has been empty for two years. It's safer to leave the bike here and walk."
Dick feels the blink coming, but he can't stop it. His voice comes out higher than normal. "Security measures?"
Tim hums his affirmative. "The area directly around the house is fenced off, and there are stone borders around the property line except for where it intersects with this one. And there's a dog, but only inside the gate, and only at night."
Dick's just glad he wore hiking boots instead of sneakers. "You've been here before," he says as they cut across the drive. There's a path worn through between the trees, but he thinks you'd have to know what you were looking for to find it, which Tim apparently does.
Tim slants a glance at him before ducking a low-hanging branch. "A few times."
"Isn't it kind of weird breaking into a house in the middle of the day?"
"Statistics show that break-ins that happen during daylight hours are just as or more successful than the ones that take place at night. Anyway," Tim continues, "I'm familiar with the caretaker's schedule, and he's always gone between noon and six. He keeps the dog in his quarters—the old carriage house."
"Not really feeling reassured, here," Dick mutters, but he keeps walking instead of doing the sane thing, which would be grabbing Tim by the scruff of the neck and hauling ass.
Over the treetops, he's beginning to get glimpses of massive amounts of grey stone, extensive crenellation, and enough towers and turrets to blot out the sun on a cloudless day. Tim points to where the tree line is starting to thin. He says, "That's the beginning of the Wayne property. The house is—"
Right there, across a hilly, grass-covered field, surrounded by fancy gardens situated on the other side of what seems like miles of stone interspersed with tall, pointy metal.
"That's not electrified, is it?"
"Between seven at night and six in the morning."
Before Dick can decide whether or not he's kidding, Tim skids down the side of the embankment they're standing on and starts across the field.
"Forget going to," Dick says as he scrambles over loose soil and pebbles in Tim's wake, "I'm regretting this now."
The fence isn't much of an obstacle for Dick, but they're both panting by the time they're on the other side of it and jogging toward the house: Dick hoisted Tim up before doing what amounted to a handstand followed by a half swing to keep from getting skewered.
Now he pulls up a few feet away from where Tim just stopped and eyes Wayne Manor's rear view. "I guess knocking isn't part of the plan?" he suggests hopefully.
Tim is staring intently at the roof—make that roofs. There are several.
"Oh no," Dick says. "No, no, no. I am good, but in these shoes even I'm not that good."
"You don't need to be," Tim assures him. He's tugging something out of his jacket.
"What is—" It looks like a cross between a stapler gun and a— "Where the hell did you get that?"
He wriggles his fingers, gimme, and Tim hands the thing over. Dick holds it up, turning it around, inspecting it from all angles. "The guy's got cool toys, I'll give him that." He looks sharply at Tim. "He didn't…?"
Tim is shaking his head. "He had to leave it. The police were almost on top of him."
"And finders-keepers time for Timmy. Never mind where this happened or how many stories up you had to dangle just to retrieve the damned… Jesus. Have I mentioned lately that you're nuts? Yeah? Okay then."
Tim is snickering. Dick shakes his head and waves the— "Grapple gun," he says, trying it on for size. Sounds about right. "I feel like I'm playing one of those games that come with guns instead of good old-fashioned controllers. Point and click."
"Aim for the lowest row of crenellations—that would be the third floor," Tim says. "There's an inner walkway that goes all the way around the central block, and there are two entrances."
"For future reference," Dick says as he aims, "when I tell you I don't want to know, I'm probably lying."
He braces his wrist, but compared to the handguns he's shot, there's barely any kick. The line arcs high, disappearing over the crenellation; this far down he can't hear the scrape of metal on stone, but he can feel the grapple connect, and when he pulls there's no give.
"Hope you know how to rappel," he says, but Tim is shaking his head again.
"We don't have to—or we may need to push off the wall, but we don't need to climb." He taps a button set into the grip. "Press that. It'll take us up."
Dick frowns at the line. "That's up to the weight?"
"I've seen him carry someone his own weight, so yes, I'd assume so."
Dick takes a deep breath then blows it out. "Here goes nothing then, I guess. C'mere."
He ends up with Tim wrapped around him from behind. It's a little like rappelling, just while being dragged upward. The speed is manageable, though, and even with Tim clinging to him like a monkey, it's an easier ascent than any he's managed on the few rock climbing expeditions he's been on.
Getting over the lip of the wall is a little tricky, but they make it, pulling themselves up and over the crenellated ledge and toppling down onto Tim's walkway with nothing worse than scraped hands.
Dick curls to his feet and looks at the gun, still in his hand, at the line that looks like it shouldn't be able to hold a full grown human's weight, at the oddly shaped grapple—not a hook at all, it's a thin jumble of points and curves melded into a symbol Dick doesn't recognize.
He wonders, just for a moment, what it would be like to use one of these things in a city. To actually fly, building to building.
Tim is already moving. "Leave the grapple here. We may have to use it if we can't get to the doors," he says.
"I thought you said there was no one here," Dick calls. He lays the gun on the ledge and jogs to catch up.
"Well, yes," Tim says as Dick slows to a walk beside him. "But there are always unreliable variables." He turns the corner and walks a few more yards before stopping in front of a door. "This should be it."
"Wait a minute, I thought the doors were a no-go."
"Most of them are," Tim says, patiently, "because this is the only one I know the code to. They're all different." He presses a button on the pad beside the door and the screen lights up.
Dick leans back and to the side and peers through the nearest window; inside is an actual garden with what Dick assumes is a Japanese theme; there's a shallow, man-made stream running through it. Dick adds eccentric to his list of Wayne adjectives. "How do you know it's the same as it was the last time you… whatever."
"Alfred, the caretaker, never changes the codes for the upper floors, and Bruce hasn't been back here in months. And," Tim says as there's a faint beep and then a click, "I don't think Bruce has ever changed this one. It's his mother's birthday, and this room was built in her memory."
He pulls the door open and looks at Dick. "Ready?"
No, he's really not, but he says, "Sure, kid," and follows Tim in; through the sound of running water and the smell of green, living things; down wide, high halls full of strange art and ancient weaponry; down balustraded stone staircases, he follows Tim, and the only thing left in his mind is a pointless and mostly rhetorical question.
What the hell am I doing here?
Rhetorical because he's not looking for an answer. Pointless because he already knows why he's here. He really does. Tim wants him to see Wayne as Tim sees him, wants him to—maybe not to sympathize with the guy, but at least to see where he came from and understand how he got to where he is now; and to some extent, Dick does understand. But this house, the weight of years and Wayne lives lived fully or not; nothing Dick knows, nothing he's lived can touch this place.
Tim looks at Bruce Wayne and sees himself. Same birthplace, same background, close to the same life, just interrupted.
Dick was born in a tent in Nebraska. Two days later, he was in Wichita, sleeping in a blanket-lined drawer while his mom did sit-ups on the trailer floor. He's never lived in the same place for more than six months at a time; his personal and family histories are rootless, and here…
There's no point of reference for him here, nothing to parallel his life at any stage with the corresponding stage of Wayne's life.
Ahead of him on the stairs, Tim turns back toward him. "There's CCTV on this floor. Just move where I move."
Dick steps where Tim steps and decides that when they get out of here (without tripping any alarms), he's going to buy Mrs. Mac a set of chains for Tim, ankles and wrists, because if it's just the ankles, Tim'll be out in minutes.
"In here," Tim tosses over his shoulder, and disappears through a pair of double doors.
Dick hisses, "Tim," because he's still across the hall, then, "Damn it," and ducks after him.
He half expects to get hit with some kind of hi-tech laser beam. He hears the doors snick closed behind him and he hears Tim say, "It's okay, these rooms are clean," so he opens the eyes he's just realized he squinted shut.
Three seconds and he's wishing he'd kept them shut. "Tim, this—we shouldn't be in here."
Because he doesn't need Tim to tell him where he is. The scarf draped across the foot of the bed, as though someone changed their mind at the last minute and dropped it there, blue and probably worth more than Dick's entire wardrobe combined, is enough.
He holds up his hand, glancing from the scarf to the bracelet lying in a liquid platinum heap on the dressing table. The windows are closed, but the air smells clean. There's no dust anywhere.
Dick walks over to the dressing table and stands in front of it, not touching anything. The mirror is a triple, set in some kind of dark red wood. His mom would love it, would love to have one like it, if she had room for it. She does have a brush almost exactly like the one sitting in front of a row of three jewelry boxes. There are dark hairs coiled through fine bristles.
This is—it's—he's stepped out of time.
With every breath, he inhales the subtle amber scent of Martha Wayne's perfume. If he touches the brush that's a match for his mother's, if he looks up into the mirror he's sure Bruce's mother will laugh back at him in the glass. If he turns fast enough he'll catch Bruce's eight year old shadow running from the room, giggling, Thomas Wayne two steps behind him threatening a hundred horrible fates if he doesn't get his tie back, Now, Bruce!
Wayne probably did get his tie back. The one he didn't wear is lying on the carpet almost on top of a faded Max Mercury action figure.
A night out with their son, a night at—was it the theatre? The opera, maybe a movie premier? A family outing, tradition: something they did once a week or a month, together; or maybe a reward for Bruce's A in a subject he didn't like?
The details the sites provided were contradictory. Tim would know, but Dick's not going to ask; it's not his business or his right.
In the Grayson trailer, Thursday nights were family nights, performance or not; everyone at Haly's knew that. If they were on the road, the date kicked over to Friday, sometimes Saturday or Sunday, but it wasn't the day that mattered.
If it was one of those rare days they weren't working, or the last performance ended early, they'd go into town and see a movie and get ice cream. But most of the time it was just Dick and his parents in their trailer inventing card games incomprehensible to anyone but them or finding new and crazy ways to play Monopoly, Dick's mom's radio on low in the background. Sometimes his dad would read out loud, from one of Dick's home-study-assigned books more often than not.
John Grayson made Hamlet fun.
Dick's hand hovers, palm down, over the brush. He can feel his breath stirring the air that isn't his to breathe and his skin crawls, recoils from the phantom tickle of soft bristles.
Tim says, "Dick?" His voice is closer than it was. Dick looks up into the mirror and Tim is there next to him, and behind both of them, Thomas, Martha and Bruce. The portrait was probably painted right before—
Dick swallows, tasting the age and dust and tainted air that should fill one family's crypt.
"Come on," he tells Tim. "We're out of here."
He drops Tim and the Ducati off at the Drakes' monster garage.
Tim stands next to him beside the bike, head down. "I'm sorry. I didn't… I just wanted…"
"I know," Dick says. "It's okay. I'm okay. Takes more than a few ghosts to freak me out." He shrugs his shoulders, rolls away the tension that comes with driving a motorcycle for extended amounts of time.
"You can borrow it, if you want," Tim says in the Ducati's general direction.
Dick gives the offer serious consideration. The bike's a sweet ride, but he doesn't want to owe Tim's parents more than he already does.
"Thanks," he says, "but I'm good." He scrubs his hand through Tim's helmet hair. "I'll drive you around while I'm here, if you want."
Tim tries to duck his hand, fails, and sighs, "All right. Tomorrow?" Just like last night.
Dick's hand cups the kid's nape; he can feel the rough-cut grain of Tim's hair prickly against his palm. He rubs his thumb up and down the side of Tim's neck, squeezes gently. "Yeah," he says. "Tomorrow."
"No more serial killer houses today, okay?" Dick says as he follows Tim upstairs. He's had enough of those to last him the rest of his life.
The kid's smile is small, but it's there. "Would you like to see the gym?"
Dick bursts into laughter. Tim stops and looks at Dick with his head tilted slightly to one side and a small frown line between his eyes. "I—if you don't want to, that's—"
Shaking his head, Dick shoves his laughter back down into the place where his really awful sense of humor and also his bad timing live. "It's not that, I just—" He can see the kid has no idea. He says, "Sure, kid, I'd love to see your etchings."
Tim looks confused but game. He says, "It's down this way," and turns around and walks back down the stairs.
Dick sighs and follows. His sense of humor is awful, sure, but at least he has one.
The door Tim leads him to opens up onto a hall Dick can't help but notice keeps going down. It's not the same downward drop to Tim's darkroom, but when Dick asks, Tim says, "We're underground. Not very far," he explains, "It's the same way movie theatres are built," which makes a weird kind of sense. Then he opens another door, and Dick stops listening because…
It's a gymnast's or dancer's wet dream. There's no flying rig, but Dick has a feeling that's only because Tim hasn't figured out how to get one yet.
"The pool's through there," Tim says, pointing, and Dick catches the glint of light off still water through closed glass doors. He looks back over at the parallel bars. It's been days since he's had his kind of work-out.
"Do you want to…" Tim's hesitance trails off. His gaze is fixed on one set of rings.
"Hell yes," Dick says, and pulls off his sweatshirt.
The only thing that would make it better is the missing flying rig, and Dick's willing to overlook the lack because he's moving the way he needs to move, the way he's made to move, and he'll be back on a trapeze soon enough.
He can feel Tim watching him, but it's a back of the mind buzz, like the sounds a crowd makes during a performance. He tumbles free of the rings and somersaults across the mats, coming out of the last turn by the beams.
There are three of them set at different heights; Dick swings himself up onto the highest, the kind of height and stability he likes best but doesn't get to have when he's on the road. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Tim edging towards him. He says, "Awesome equipment. Yours?"
Tim slides a little closer. "Sort of. Dad had most of it put in when I started training."
"Yours." Up on his hands gripping the beam, legs split in the air, he walks himself towards the end. "You know, if you want a flying rig, I can hook you up with people who know their stuff." He glances in Tim's direction; the kid is holding a towel and watching Dick's movements like it's the most important thing he could be doing.
He says, "I—yes. That would be…" He blinks. "I'm not—too old? You—I think you were my age? And you could do the quadruple."
Dick reaches the end of the beam and tips his legs forward, doing a slow, specialized kind of curl to get himself back on his feet. "Dad and Mom started me off really young," he says. "You're actually just about the right age, and you've got, what, a few years of gymnastics?"
"Four," Tim says. "Two years of Judo." He frowns. "I'm not sure if I know the right things. You're—" he pauses as Dick curls backward onto his hands and starts walking back the other direction. "I don't think I'm that flexible."
Sweat is making Dick's hands slippery on the wood. He should have asked Tim for some tape, or even talc. "A lot of that's practice," he says. His hand slips and he sways in place, getting his balance back. Tim hovers just inside his line of sight.
"What about the rest?" he asks, and Dick thinks that's very Tim: he wants to know how and why, explicitly, so he can get it right the first time.
Which cracks him up because it's so Tim, and really not Dick at all. "Did you know my mom was a dancer before she met my dad?" he says, and starts hand-walking again.
"…Yes?" Tim says cautiously. He sounds like he thinks he might get in trouble for knowing, but Dick figures Tim probably knows more about his family history than he does, so he's not as freaked out as he probably should be.
He says, "She stuck me in front of a barre when I was five. A lot of women aerialists also dance, but I'm one of the few guys who do. More of them should. It triples your flexibility."
And now Tim is chewing on his lip and looking thoughtful. "Do you think I should—"
Dick says, "Jesus, kid, don't make me laugh when I'm upside down." He works on holding it in and looks at Tim, who's still chewing, and says, "Quit that before you chew yourself a hole. God, I sound like my mom."
Tim makes one of his I-think-this-is-how-laughter-is-supposed-to-go sounds, and Dick decides he's close enough to the end and curls himself upright. He turns sideways on the beam and somersaults off, backwards, a double flip. His bare feet hit the mat with just the right amount of spring; whoever put this place together knew what they were doing.
"I'm sorry about the flying rig," Tim says. "If I'd known—I mean, if you—"
Dick straightens out of his crouch and stares at him. "Are you seriously apologizing for not having a trap set-up for me?" Because that's— "Timmy, you're awesome, but you're also nuts."
Tim's mouth twitches and he says, "Can I be sorry for myself? I could've gotten some close-ups of you doing the quadruple."
Dick laughs so hard he gets the hiccups and has to hold his breath until they stop. "Oh god, that hurts," he says, rubbing his gut. "I take it back. You're not awesome, you suck." He reaches out and gives Tim a little shove, and Tim goes still, but only for a moment, and then he shoves Dick back. And it's a tentative push that barely rocks Dick in place, but it's something.
He says, "Brat," and flicks Tim's nose, getting a startled look. "Don't feel too bad about the quadruple," he tells him. "I probably wouldn't have done one. I never did them much when I was a kid; even less now that I'm older. I stick with the triple most shows."
"Why?" Tim asks.
Dick takes the towel he holds out, swiping the sweat from his face and neck as he drops down on the mat. "Your body can take a lot more stress when you're little," he explains. "There's just less of you, and when you're flying, the less of you there is, the lighter you are, the better. I'm five foot ten—I've been hearing since I turned sixteen that I'm too tall to be a flyer, and in a lot of ways, it's true. Doesn't stop me from doing it, but if I hadn't been born into a circus family and flying was what I wanted to do, I'd be screwed."
"That makes… sense." Tim sits down next to him, folding himself up neatly. He rests his hands on his knees, rubbing his palms back and forth against his jeans. "You still do the quadruple sometimes. Last year, at Haly's—"
"Yeah," Dick interrupts. "At Haly's. With my dad, a catcher I trust to do his job and let me do mine. Look, what drives the quadruple—and the triple, too, and any other flight technique, really—is speed. Momentum. Matt Santelli, the first artist to make the quadruple ever, estimated that by the fourth spin, you're clocking in at almost sixty-five miles per hour."
Tim doesn't say anything, but the worry line on his forehead gets deeper.
"Yeah," Dick says again. "It's scary if you let yourself think about it. When you're going that fast, spinning, you get disoriented. I always black out for a split second going into the fourth turn, and when the lights come back on, I'm on top of my catcher, if I've got one. What that kind of speed means, in terms of landing, is that your catcher has to get you just right or somebody's arm is getting ripped off. If your landing is net, then you have to make sure you tuck and turn, make sure you don't land flat. Otherwise, net or not, you'll break your neck."
Beside him, Tim is quiet and very still. Dick can't tell if he's freaked out or— He nudges him with his shoulder. "Hey. You're thinking too hard again."
Tim slides a look at him, licks his lips nervously. He says, "The photo."
"Which one?" Dick asks, grinning lazily. "You've got a ton of them."
"The one from… back then."
Oh. That one. Dick says, "I remember," and he's not sure where Tim is going with this, but Tim's frown line is worry deep again.
"You picked me up and said I should watch, later, because you'd do the quadruple for me. Robin…" He shakes his head once, like shaking something off. "There's only one other person alive right now who can do it. It's just—Robin should have that. He's the best."
Dick thinks about not saying anything. Tim is so centered on Robin, on the idea of Robin. But he'll find out eventually, and maybe it's better if Dick tells him now instead of making it fait accompli.
"Actually," he says slowly, "this is Robin's last year flying."
He's not looking at Tim, so he can't see the kid's expression. But he can hear his breathing speed up, can feel the minute, shocky shift of his body next to him. Before Tim can say anything, he says, quietly, "I won't stop flying. I can't. But I'm not really Robin anymore, and I need to figure out how to be who I am. So Robin's going to retire."
The mats creak under Tim as he sits up. Out of the corner of Dick's eye, he sees Tim pull his legs up to his chest and wrap his arms around them, then rest his chin on his knees. Dick isn't sure, but he thinks Tim's eyes are closed.
"Who?" Tim says.
Dick says, "What?"
"If you're not going to be Robin anymore," and he looks pretty unhappy about that, "are you—will you be a Flying Grayson?"
Which is the twenty-million dollar question Dick's been asking himself for almost a year. "I have a couple of ideas," Dick says. "I can share, if you want to point and laugh."
Tim opens his eyes and looks at Dick, and says, "Why would I do that?"
Because they sound stupid even to him. Still, Tim's not going to be too critical at this point. "You know those Last Son books everybody's reading?" Dick says. "The ones by… what's her name?"
"Lois Lane," Tim supplies.
Dick says, "Yeah, her." He drapes the towel around his neck and leans back on his elbows, squinting up at the domed ceiling. "They're a little cheesy, I guess, but—"
"They're not," Tim interrupts, then ducks his head when Dick cocks an eyebrow at him. "The first one was probably the best," he tells his lap. The tips of his ears are bright red. Cutest thing Dick's seen since he watched Babs make friends with Zitka the elephant, five years ago, but Tim is staring a hole in his jeans, so maybe that's not such a good thing.
"Hey, it's okay," Dick says, trying to regain lost ground. "How could I not like Supes? He's a flyer. Sure, he could use a few more vulnerabilities—"
"But he dies!"
Tim says, "In book six, Doomsday kills him."
Dick is not going to laugh. He's really not. "I guess I missed that one," he says carefully, and Tim sort of… wilts.
"He comes back to life," he mumbles, and his mouth is all kinds of half-circle unhappy. "But he did die," he continues almost defiantly, "and there's kryptonite, which means he isn't completely invulnerable."
He's cute and miserable, and Dick gives in and laughs and leans up to mess with his already spiky hair, getting an indignant, "Dick, quit it!" for his trouble. But Tim looks a lot less miserable, so Dick refuses to feel guilty.
He says, "Ignore me. I'm a jerk with no taste, or so I've been told." Mostly by Babs and Xen, but also by his mom once or twice, so it's probably true. "I brought Lane's stuff up because of that comic."
"That's the one." He shakes his head and laughs again, mostly at himself, because fixating on a name and an image from a graphic novel? Isn't his sanest or best thought ever. But then neither are most of Tim's ideas.
"I like the art." Dick's tone sounds like an excuse to his own ears; his dad is in the catch trap, his hands out, and Dick can do better than this. "The designs for Flamebird and Nightwing were—they're excellent."
Tim is chewing on his lower lip again—he does that when he's focusing on something—and the impulse to reach out and tug it free is stomping all over Dick's good intentions.
He makes himself look away and says, "I like Nightwing's colors—I'd have to do some massive redesign, cut out the excess, make it more aerodynamic. But I'd try to keep the basic look."
"For the new costume." Tim's voice is flat; he doesn't sound unhappy, exactly; more like accepting.
"Yeah," Dick sighs, relieved and getting away with something. He wishes he knew what. "You know," he says, leaning into Tim with his shoulder, a physical push for answers he's not sure he wants to hear, "I'm not going to be here forever."
He's giving Tim's Tomorrow? shape and substance, something they've both been avoiding. Dick wants to ask if Tim's going to go back to tailing Wayne after he's gone. He wants to ask him not to, the same way he asked him to stop following Dick. He knows Tim would stop, and that's exactly why he's not going to ask.
Tim's lip is back between his teeth. Dick compromises, brushing the corner of Tim's mouth with his thumb and without pressure. Tim blinks and says, "Oh. Sorry," letting go of his lip.
His mouth is still parted—on something he doesn't want to say, but thinks he should? The other way around?
Dick says, "I used to bite my lips. Mom would—"
"He won't hurt me," Tim breaks in, and now it's Dick's mouth hanging open on things he wants to say and can't. "There's—there was a girl," Tim tells him. "He killed her father and she tried… she almost killed him because he wouldn't hurt her."
"Is she okay?" Dick hears himself ask.
Tim's shoulders are hunched in. "I don't know. She was at the state home, but she. Left. I think."
Dick closes his eyes. He says, "Please," and swallows, tasting his heartbeat.
Tim says, "Mom said… at the circus she said if I practiced, if I wanted it enough, I could be like you. If I wanted to. That's why—"
The trainer who is also a gymnast. Four walls of photos and a darkroom. This room. But when is anything ever that easy, even for a kid like Tim Drake? For the kid Bruce Wayne almost could have been, never was?
Tim is up on his knees beside Dick, fingers curled into denim, gripping tight. "I can't—they can't teach me what I need to know. I want you to. Please."
His own word tossed back, dripping wet and flopping, dying at his feet. Dick opens his eyes and looks at Tim's still, tight face. Tim's eyes don't demand or even beg, but they are asking. Dick can't think of anything to say but, "Go change."
It's like watching somebody else's dream build itself right in front of you, beautiful and terrifying and perfectly flawed. And maybe it's not your dream, but once you've seen it you'll never stop seeing it or wanting it to be yours.
Tim's form isn't flawless. His upper body needs work, and his dismount is wobbly half the time. Watching Tim isn't like watching himself ten years ago. It's better.
Because Tim is potential in motion, and Dick's subconscious is busy telling his hindbrain how good Tim's going to look in red and green.
His cape isn't going to be yellow. In his mind, Dick sees black with gold lining. He sees it fall down around Tim, covering all of him—that's how he'll look when the spotlight hits him, gold-rimmed black, and he… won't smile. He'll flare the cape and leap, and the cape will fall away the way it did when Dick used to do the same thing only with less black and more gold, and after that there will be green and red and speed—
His brain clears and his eyes focus well enough to see that Tim is on the high beam. He's poised and balanced, watching Dick. Waiting to be shown. Waiting for Dick to tell him how high, how much, how long.
Dick says the only thing he can say, the only thought left in him. "You're going to be Robin."
Tim blinks. He says, "Yes." And he smiles. Not much. Just enough.
Dick says, "Give me…" And Tim does.
Tim says, "I can." With his voice and his body.
Dick believes him.
Reality arrives at two o'clock in the form of Tim's math tutor. "You can stay if you want," Tim says, hovering in the gym's doorway with Mrs. Mac behind him. "I don't mind."
Dick minds for him, but he stays anyway. Gets in some horse work and does laps for half an hour after that. By the time he makes it back above ground, the sun's more than thinking about setting and Math Guy is gone. Tim's back in his room, in front of his computer. He says, "I went back down, but you were swimming. I didn't want to bother you."
Dick bonks him on the head. "This is your house, twerp, and I'm not a guest. Bug me all you want."
Tim tips his head to one side. His mouth is twitching. "Technically, you are my guest."
"Right," Dick snorts. "But do guests do this?" He tackles Tim down onto the floor and starts tickling.
Tim gets out one startled yelp, but then he seems to get that Dick is playing and starts giving back almost as good as he's getting. Fifteen minutes later, they're lying next to each other on the floor, panting. Tim's hair is all over the place and his clothes are wrecked. Dick's pretty sure he's not in any better shape. Then Tim turns his head and he's smiling, and Dick doesn't give a shit what he looks like because Tim is smiling.
"Hey," Dick says. "You're a mess."
"So are you."
Dick rolls over and rumples the kid's hair past redemption, getting a muffled protest. "What was that?" He wiggles his fingers threateningly against Tim's sides. Tim elbows him in the gut.
"Oh, no fair," Dick groans and jerks back, rubbing his abdomen while Tim snickers at him. He rolls himself to a sitting position, keeping himself out of elbow range, and gets a look at the almost totally dark sky outside Tim's window. "Getting kind of late." He glances at the computer. "I should probably get out of your hair, let you get your stuff done."
"You could stay. For dinner."
Dick grabs Tim's hand and pulls both of them to their feet. "Not tonight, kiddo." He nods at the computer. "School's important. You don't want to get behind, not if—"
He cuts himself off, because he has no right to tell Tim what to do. He has no right to Tim at all.
"I want this, Dick," Tim says as though he can see into Dick's head. "I asked." Which is part of the problem.
If Tim was a circus kid, the kind of kid Dick grew up with, Dick would grab him and hold on for a while. But he's not, and Dick isn't allowed. He messes Tim's hair up some more instead, watches Tim suck on his lip (he's trying not to bite) and press his arms in tight against his sides. He says it so Tim won't have to say it, "Tomorrow," and leaves before Tim's eyes can convince him that staying for dinner is a good idea.
It feels good to get out into the air, even if it is Gotham's metallic-tasting brand. Dick gets off the El three stops early, and walks the rest of the way back to the Grand just to get more of it.
Around him, the theatre district is starting to get busy: marquees lit up in all colors, women in pretty, slinky rags and guys who look like they'd rather be anywhere else. Perfume and cologne combine with exhaust and low-grade back alley rot, tickling the back of his throat. Dick breathes it in and thinks about scents and sense memory and show business, circus smiles on stage faces—Dick wants to see that in Gotham. Ten years ago, he was the show. Now he wants to watch.
History of all kinds lives openly on Gotham's streets, runs away down its alleys with a smoking gun, flows sluggishly through its sewers like blood through needle-polluted veins. This district and Dick's hotel are just one more part of the living, breathing whole. He itches to get out in it and let it happen around him, but he doesn't know Gotham, doesn't trust it. In his head, Babs is telling him that if he had a brain, he'd take it out and play with it.
He reluctantly turns his steps away from the main drag and goes back to the hotel to wander aimlessly around his roompartment. Opens the fridge and looks at the eleven million bottles of wine, but he's not a drinker, not even when it comes to the good stuff. He thinks about calling Babs, but that didn't turn out so well last time. He puts the earpiece down and goes to wash the chlorine out of his hair.
Still damp, but too bored and jumpy to care, he wanders back into the main room, grabs a random book off a shelf and tries reading. Twenty minutes later, he's boarding the El. He calls Barbara and her phone goes directly to message.
"Hey, it's me. I'm on my way over." He starts to disconnect, then rethinks his message. "I mean, this is Dick." With Babs, it's a good idea to make sure she knows for sure. "Don't launch any rockets at me when I knock, okay?"
The guy sitting next to him on worn blue bench seating watches him slide his phone into his jacket, snickering. "Musta been some fight," he says, and Dick has to smile, because back then it really was. He just hopes she doesn't decide to pick up where they left off, because rockets would almost be better.
He has five stops and a ten minute walk to rethink a few other things before he gets to her door, and the thing is, he doesn't have an actual death wish. Somebody walks past him down the building's hall, brushing up against his back with a soft, "Sorry, man," pushing him closer to the decision he's avoiding.
The walker's footsteps fade slowly into the click of a closing door. Dick tells himself to grow up and punches the buzzer. It takes a few seconds, but the door clicks without inflicting bodily harm, so she can't be too pissed off. He follows the sound of her voice through minimalist, wood-floored rooms to her office, and she's right where he expected, doing what he knew she would be: talking to someone, watching her screens, and typing like crazy.
"I told you, stay on Merks. He's the best lead we—what?" She frowns up at Dick, who just tapped on her shoulder. "Stay on Merks, Huntress," she says, and pulls her headset off, eyeing Dick like he's locusts at best and the other nine plagues combined at worst. "Why are you here?"
He tries a smile out on her. The frown turns into a glare, and Dick lets his shoulders slump. "I'm going stir crazy. Not used to just hanging around all night, you know?" His hands flex. "I feel like I should be—" he laughs, shakes out his twitching fingers. "I suck at vacations."
"So go out," she says. "Go dancing or something."
It's… not a bad idea. He's restless and keyed up even after the first good workout he's had since he left Spain; he needs to move, run, something. "Come with me."
"Forget it," says Babs, arms crossed. "The synth-joint works. I'd like it to keep working."
She gives him the names of a couple of clubs, though, and he takes them gratefully—he wasn't looking forward to testing the waters cold, not here. "Stick to the main streets," she says. "Crime is way down, but Gotham is never safe. In fact—" she pulls her headset back on and hits a couple of buttons on the console. "Yeah, 2245 Ditko Street. Ten minutes is good. Thanks."
"What was that?" Dick asks.
"I just called you a cab." Her eyes are back on the screens. "You can wait in the lobby, should be here in five if you're lucky."
He laughs and starts backing out. "I know when I'm not wanted. Hey." She looks at him over her shoulder and in the light she's a green outline, her glasses as opaque as the smooth curve of her lower lip. "I can take care of myself," he says.
She leans back in her chair, and just like that he can see her eyes again. Her mouth is the smirk he knows—he remembers how it feels against his mouth. "Sure you can, Dickie," she says. "Take the cab, okay? Now make me happy and beat it."
He takes the emergency stairs instead of the elevator, and thinks about automatic reactions. He can take care of himself, but this is her turf. Dick thinks about everything wrong with Gotham (Grayson, don't!)… he thinks he'll take the cab.
"Where to, man?" the driver asks. Light flares off a pair of aviator lenses. His smile is wide and white against tanned skin, and his hair is a dustier red than Babs'.
"You know where 69 on Third is?" Dick asks, and the guy grins wider.
He says, "Who doesn't?" and pulls away from the curb with a screech. Maybe five minutes later, he drops Dick off across from a dark building flaring white-blue around its neon edges. Dick can feel the music vibrating before he hears it.
"Busy place," he says, paying the driver and eyeing the line that goes around the side of the building.
The driver hooks his elbow out the window. "I can hang while you check it out."
"Thanks," Dick says, "but I think I'm good," and jogs across the street.
He gets hijacked almost immediately by a pair of twenty-something women without male company who drag him into the club with them. They seem nice and they can move, but he doesn't stay long. The base beat is too thick in his head and the vibe in the room is wrong, greasy on and under his skin with repressed violence. When he leaves, the cab is still across the street. Dick ducks through traffic to lean against the car and grins at the driver. "I thought you weren't gonna wait."
The guy shrugs. "Doesn't look like your kinda place."
"Yeah, not really," Dick says, and gets back in.
The driver looks at him in the mirror. "Next?"
"Eurydice." The guy up front snorts. "Something wrong?"
The driver says, "Not one fucking thing, emo kid," a reference Dick doesn't catch, and starts the cab's engine.
Eurydice is mostly black-dyed hair and leather and red lipstick, but there's an underlying purple/green/white theme that makes Dick's skin crawl. The driver ("It's Roy, man") is waiting when he comes back. "Next."
After Dick's third wash out, Roy says, "Dude, let me pick, okay? Fucking touristas." And Dick laughs, but he walks into Green World like wading into green sea water under a blue sun. The room throbs around him with the beat, undulating human currents curling hands out to him from the dance floor. Dick lets them reach, lets them touch. Lets them pull him in and drown him down lush and slow.
The air is choked with sound and scent, but no smoke, although pot swirls hazy and sick-sweet somewhere around the edges of his awareness. The smells are ones he knows, understands; sweat and heat friction, needing bodies rubbing slow and indiscriminate together. The crowd in this place is just as into the music as the masses packed into the other clubs, but their movements are more fluid, less frenetic, and Dick moves with them, dancing with no one and everyone, people coming and going around him like waves washing out from his center.
A girl with silver-streaked dark hair and a beautiful mouth wraps her arms around him and kisses him before the current sucks her under again. The flow shifts, curls around, and then Dick's pressed up against a blond guy who looks like he's straight off a California beach. He moves lazily against Dick, slow, easy grind, and his smile says he's up for more, but there are new hands on Dick's hips and Blondie's gone and Dick is up close and personal with one of the hottest women he's ever had the privilege of getting up close and personal with.
She arches into him, a slow feline stretch of arms and belly and breasts, arches a smile at him and drapes those arms around his neck. "Well, aren't you pretty?" she says. "And new? I don't think I've seen you in here before, and you I'd remember."
"New, yeah," he says, blankly, because her thigh is between his, pressing up, and his brain is scattering in a hundred directions.
Black leather slides slickly under his damp palms. Not the cheap stuff that was all over the floor at Eurydice, this is sleek, doesn't catch on his calluses, and it covers her in swirls and stripes—he can feel skin in between the lines. She tips her head back and watches him from half-closed eyes, still moving with him, with the ebb and flow around them.
"Pretty boy." Her fingertips rub wet over the seam of his mouth, like she licked them before she touched him. "Come keep me company, hmn?" And she's leaning in, nipping his jaw, and her hands—
Dick hears the sound he makes over the music, strangled and too vulnerable, too needy for this place. The woman laughs in his ear, "Careful, sweetie—unless you want to get eaten?" and with the still-functioning portions of his brain, Dick realizes she's maneuvering them towards the edge of the dance floor.
"Wait," he tries to say, but she's kissing him and he loses seconds he needs in the slick slide of her tongue. She pushes her tongue into his mouth and her breasts are soft, leather-striped heat against his chest, and the smell of her is cloudy-sweet all around him. He floats in her arms and her mouth and his head, and when she pulls away long enough for him to get a breath that isn't full of her, she shoves him backwards, and he's up against what feels like a wall.
He looks at her, mouth open, lost, and she grins at him and trails one long, purple nail down to his waistband. Dick watches, helplessly, but she's taking his chin in her other hand, tilting his face up and laughing at him.
"Wrong move," she says, holding his license and the cash he shoved into his front pocket up between them.
Dick looks at the money, then at her. "What—"
"You really should be more careful with your valuables, sweetie," she purrs as she leans in; he can feel her tucking his stuff back into his pocket. "Someone might take advantage."
"I don't—" he tries to say, but her hands are sliding back up his chest. Her nails catch on his nipples and his breath catches in his throat.
"You're in over your head, kid," she breathes against his ear. "Be a good boy and go back to your hotel before you drown."
"Who—" he pushes at her, but she's a lot stronger than she looks. "Who the hell are you?" he hisses.
"A friend of a friend of someone who wants you to stay in one piece. This isn't a good place to be tonight." She licks him, quick slick of her tongue up the side of his neck to his ear, and he doesn't want to be hard, but he is, hips jerking helplessly, pressing his cock against her hip. She laughs, "I really do wish I had time to play with you," and pulls away, taking friction and pressure and need with her.
Dick slaps his palms flat against the wall behind him, just to be able to feel something that doesn't move. He's shaking. Shaking and hard and he feels like he's going to puke but he doesn't know why.
"I don't understand," he says, raising his voice enough to hear himself over the music. "I'm not even from here, so why—"
"You don't need to be," she says, low and dark and he hears her perfectly. Blue-green light edges her smile in ways he doesn't understand, which is just par for the course. "This is Wayne's town, pretty boy," she says. "No one does anything here that he doesn't know about."
Her smile is an aching knot in his gut, between his legs. She sways backwards towards the floor, letting the drift of dancers swallow her slowly. Waves once, a flick of hand and fingers he can't separate from all the other hands and fingers and arms around them, and he can't separate her out, and he's glad.
When he's sure she's not coming back, Dick slumps in on himself and for a while he doesn't do anything but breathe. He swallows a few times, tasting bile, tasting her, and then he shoves himself away from the wall and starts pushing through the crowd towards the closest exit. He gets the feeling he's used up all his get out of jail free cards, and he thinks he should probably get out of here before he loses something he really needs.
This time Roy isn't waiting, but Dick didn't expect him to be. He doesn't bother getting another cab, just walks the short distance to the subway, connects up with the El, and drags himself the last few blocks to the Grand from the train station.
The girl at the front desk looks up from her book and smiles as he walks by. He smiles back, but it feels off, even to him; it's been a weird night, and he's… "I'm tired," he tells the empty elevator. Which, he thinks as the doors open onto a deserted hall, was the whole point of this pointless night out. So, maybe not so pointless after all?
You go right ahead with that one, Grayson, Babs whispers in his head. Dick heaves himself up off the wall and out of the elevator. Hey, he tells head-Babs, I'm still in one piece. And right now, that's good enough for him.
He does have one bad moment outside his door, digging through his pockets for the key card he knows black leather babe took just for the hell of it. But it's still there and he gets the door open and stumbles through, closing it behind him and reaching automatically for the locks.
"You should have stayed with the boy. Gotham kills strangers as easily as it does natives," a voice says behind him, and Dick jerks his hand away from the door's deadbolt and spins. He fumbles, feeling for the lights, and he finds the control panel, but nothing he hits works.
"They're temporarily disabled."
Dick lets his hand fall. His pulse throbs dull loud red in his temples and his throat and his ears. He swallows, wrenching his gaze from one shadow to the next, and finding nothing. "Who are you?"
"I think you know that."
And okay, maybe after black leather babe, he's got some kind of clue. Maybe because yesterday there was Tim's Wall o' Wayne, followed by the Timmy-style breaking and entering. And listening to Tim talk about the guy like he's god or something. Also, circus posters for Christ's sake.
That and the voice is still the same as the one that lives in his head.
He says, "Aren't you supposed to be locked up?"
Somewhere, in some eternally screwed up universe, it might, might be considered a laugh. "Supposedly."
The guy's tone is dry enough to make Dick laugh. Because god help him if he isn't starting to feel for him. That's probably Tim's fault, but Dick will regret Tim when—he just won't.
He says, "Would it be stupid to ask how?"
"Let's just say I like to know who's in my city," Wayne replies.
In Dick's head, black leather babe is saying, this is Wayne's town, honey. In the roompartment's north-east corner, the shadows are congealing.
Dick's eyes slide away from sight and his brain sidles back around to… the boy? "Wait a minute, did you mean—" and he's going to shut up now, because he's not bringing Tim anywhere near this fruitcake, even if it's just his name.
But Wayne says, "Timothy Drake." And Dick goes vertigo sick.
Cold sweat breaks out at his hairline, dampens his armpits, and goose bumps rise like hives everywhere his skin isn't covered. He hears himself say, "What?" and winces because he sounds vulnerable and powerless in this room with locked exits and a mass murderer for company.
"Your parents are well." Gentle and without inquiry, and Dick thinks he understands but he's too cold and his tongue is too thick in his mouth. Wayne says, "I didn't come here for this," and shifts out of his shadows and into more shadow.
Dick edges his way across the room using the dim light coming in from the balcony. He sits down on the latest of a thousand beds that are never his and closes his eyes and breathes.
"If I intended to hurt any of you—" Is that impatience? Jesus.
"Your bedside manner needs work," Dick says. His eyes are still closed. He feels kind of floaty, sitting here in the dark he doesn't want to see so badly he has to keep his eyelids between it and him. "Why?"
He thinks—yeah. It is supposed to be laughter. "I'm aware of his activities," Wayne says lightly.
It's enough to make him open his eyes. He says, "What's that supposed to mean?" He still can't see a damned thing.
The shadows feel like a smile. "The circus removed you from his immediate reach. He kept up with you as well as he could, but he found me a more accessible subject for his study. And I was connected closely enough to you in his mind to be satisfactory."
Gotham logic. It's pointless to say, "You didn't even know me."
"No. I saved your parents' lives, and possibly your own. That was enough for Mr. Drake."
"God, this is fucked up." Dick leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and rubbing his eyes. "I should—I need to leave."
"It would probably be best."
And that's just… "Why are you doing this?"
For the first time, the silence coming from Wayne feels almost confused. "Doing what?"
"This." Dick waves a hand at the room-not-actually-an-apartment. "Coming here. Talking to me. Offering—I don't know. You tell me."
The shadows move and Bruce Wayne is standing in front of Dick, and he's a man. A man who's killed a few armies' worth of bad guys and done things Dick doesn't even want to think about, but still—just a man. Then he shifts, just a few inches, Dick's not even sure which way, but Wayne is gone again, leaving Dick with the idea of an expression rather than the shape of his face.
The shadows say, "I believe your continued existence is one the best things I will ever accomplish."
Dick thinks—he's not sure, but he thinks he loses a few minutes. Maybe more than a few. Brain freeze is like that.
Hotel. Wayne. Right. "Still here."
"If there's trouble, call Gordon. She knows how to contact me."
And that is probably the scariest thought he's ever had planted in his unwilling brain.
He's so stuck on concepts like beyond creepy and serial killer in the house that he doesn't realize Wayne is gone until something flaps. The balcony door is wide open. The drapes flicker in and out like off-white fog.
Dick doesn't call the front desk for a cab. He doesn't get up and run. He wouldn't get far.
The air coming in off the balcony is damp; it smells clean. It smells like a lie.
Dick drops his head down until his chin is almost on his chest. He rolls his shoulders forward and then backward. He does it again.
He rolls his head on his neck, one way and then the other, full rotations, and feels the tension draining out of him, neck to shoulders to arms and chest on down. Relaxes his hands a finger at a time, grateful for the slow give. He slides off the bed onto the floor, folds his legs up and rests his forehead on the carpet for just a moment.
Maybe two moments.
Maybe a few more.
He gets up and goes to shut the door. From the balcony, Wayne says, "Dick."
So, yes. That was him stroking out. "Jesus, don't do that. Unless you're actually trying to kill me?"
There's a slight pause. "I… apologize."
Now why does he get the feeling that that happens, oh, never? He says, "It's okay. Don't do it again."
The drape flaps and curls.
"Did you need something? Else?"
"I—no. I wanted to remind you to lock this door. Even this high up, Gotham isn't safe."
"I... you should... please remind Tim that he should always retrieve his grappling lines."
God. Just… god. "Sure. I'll do that. You have a good night. Try not to kill anybody."
"If you like."
And he guesses that's as good as good gets in Gotham. "'Night."
"Good night, Dick."
He waits almost a minute, counting off the seconds in his head, but the fat lady has apparently sung. He pulls the drape out of the way and closes the balcony door slowly because he wants to slam it shut really fast, really badly.
He takes fifteen minutes to make every way into the room he can find as secure as he can figure out how to before he crawls out of his clothes and into bed. Thanks to the exhaustion of sheer terror he's almost asleep when he realizes that halfway through—he's not going to call it a conversation. It wasn't. So. Halfway through whatever that was, Wayne started calling him by his first name.
Dick thinks he's going to have to ask Tim to invent newer, better words for scary and creepy. Because seriously. Wayne redefines the whole freaky paradigm.
In the morning, he puts the earpiece in and whines at Babs before he's even out of bed.
She says, "Who do you think owns the place? If you think I could have gotten you that room on my income, think again, hunk wonder."
He says, "Does this town breed stalkers? Jesus, Babs. You were a cop!"
"Yes," she says. "Yes I was. And if he hadn't taken out the ambush set up for me and my partner, I'd be a dead cop instead of just an ex. Bard got off worse than I did. He's in a wheelchair. But at least he's still alive."
Dick scrubs a hand over his face. He just keeps putting his foot in it, but then he's good at that. "Babs, I—"
"Turn on channel seven."
He doesn't ask why; he's learning that in Gotham sometimes it's better not to. He has to search for the remote, but he finally finds it under the coffee table tangled up in one of his socks. He turns on the widescreen mounted on the far wall.
"—Jack Ryder, reporting live from Gotham's popular Green World, which last night was the target of an attempted bombing by a group of masked commandos calling themselves the Dollfaces. Commissioner Gordon wasn't forthcoming with the details, but in the past, the Dollfaces have been associated with Mary Dahl, the former star of Love That Baby."
Dick turns down the volume and stares at the picture in the screen's upper right corner. "That's—wasn't she—?"
"The kid by the elevators, yes," Babs finishes for him. "Except she's five years older than I am. I almost had one of her guys last night, but he shook Huntress off. Lucky for you, Eddie found the link between Dahl and Green World's owner, who happens to be the last of Dahl's costars left alive. Bruce sent Selina to find you, just in case."
"Black leather babe," Dick mumbles.
Babs says, "You should see her when she's working."
Dick groans and drops his head back against the couch. Ryder's tenor segues into the weather report, followed by an ad for some kind of chain restaurant Dick's never heard of. He kills the power. On the other end of the line, Babs is typing. Big surprise.
"I know you're still there," she says. "I can hear you breathing."
"I." There's a mural on the ceiling. Moonlight on water under a jagged cliff… flock of bats… it looks like something out of Night On Bald Mountain. Dick says, "I have no idea what I'm supposed to say."
The Babs in his head is shrugging. The real one is probably doing the same thing a few miles away.
She says, "You know, Dad doesn't hate him because he's psycho. He hates him because he's the psycho Dad owes, and they both know it. I'm okay with the idea that I owe him, but I hate that he won't let me do anything about it. Worst pain in the ass I've ever met."
"You love him," Dick says, open mouth, insert foot, and if he could punch himself in the mouth, he would. She just laughs.
"That and three bucks will buy me a cup of coffee at the greasy spoon around the corner. God, I hate Sundollars. I used to be able to get crappy Columbian for under a dollar. Now every diner thinks their dirty dishwater is gold."
He chokes out "I'm sorry" around his laughter, and she says, "Forget it. When are you bringing the new bird by?"
Dick thinks seriously about going back to bed. Eight o'clock is too fucking early for this kind of thing. "Is there anything you don't know?"
"You are way too cheerful for eight in the morning."
"Regular ray of sunshine, that's me. When?"
He smiles because she can't see it. "I guess… today? If Tim's okay with that."
Tim is very okay with that. He doesn't say much at the house beyond yes, and on the drive over he clings to Dick so hard Dick's going to have bruises. But his anticipation is radiant heat Dick can feel, almost see around him. It matches the tightly leashed impatience in Babs' voice, and Dick is surprised the sheer nervous energy they're both generating doesn't blow out a few walls when they're finally occupying the same room.
Babs doesn't stop typing until Tim is standing beside her. He eyes her wall of screens with what Dick thinks is a combination of analysis and covetousness and says, "Oracle."
Babs says, "Redbreast Two. Welcome to the clubhouse."
They don't smile at each other. They don't shake hands or touch at all. But.
Babs lets Tim touch her toys. Even play with a few. It seems to work for them.
Which works just fine for Dick.
He keeps Tim on the rings for almost an hour doing swings, Iron Crosses and inverted crosses. At four-twenty, he switches him to the parallel bars. Tim needs upper body work more than anything else, and after twenty-something years of John Grayson's example, Dick's good for that.
By five, Tim is drenched, and even Dick is feeling the burn. He's working his own routines alongside Tim—he figures he might as well make use of the superior facilities while he's got them. He looks at Tim, barely upright between the bars and says, "You ready for a shower?"
Tim stares blankly back. His arms give slightly and his fingers start to uncurl. Dick catches him just before he drops. "Hey." He holds Tim steady—just his hands, he's still not sure if he's allowed to hug. Tim's so closed off in so many ways; it's like walking through mined territory and Dick doesn't know half of what's out there waiting for him to step on it. "Next time, tell me before you pass out, okay?"
Tim nods, all of him drooping, and Dick thinks screw it, hefts Tim over his shoulder and starts walking.
"Dick?" Tim sounds sluggish instead of shocked, and Dick revises the time table in his head. If he's not careful, Tim will injure himself trying to make himself into whatever he thinks Dick wants.
"We're going to talk about this non-communication thing you do," Dick says. "After you get clean."
Tim doesn't answer but Dick thinks he feels him nod against Dick's back, so he keeps going until they're in Tim's rooms, in the bathroom. He sets Tim down on the toilet and starts the shower—lukewarm. Too hot and he'll pass out for real.
He turns back to Tim, who's up and propped against the sink, dragging off his clothes. "Shower," Dick says, and scoops Tim up. No protest this time, either, and his skin is clammy and chilled, and Dick's starting to get worried. "Got something that'll get your electrolytes balanced?" he asks as he leans Tim against the tile.
"In the kitchen," Tim says. His eyes are closed. "Ask Mrs. McIlvenne."
"Right," Dick says. "Be right back." He stops outside the bathroom. Sticks his head back in the door. "Don't fall over." Tim mumbles something incoherent. Dick jogs down to the kitchen.
Mrs. Mac scolds him for not using the pull, then hands him a tray with a pitcher and two tumblers. "If you need more, you call me," she says, and swats him with her dish towel. "Now scoot so I can get something done."
"Yes, ma'am," Dick says meekly, and scoots. He nabs a few brownies from the counter on the way out and walks as fast as he can get away with while carrying a full tray back to Tim's suite.
He shoulders the mostly shut door open, and Tim is in his bedroom, sitting on his bed, pulling on a tee. Dick notes zero body-fat and the boxer shorts sticking to Tim's still-wet body.
"You know," he says, "you can dry off all the way before you put your clothes on. It won't stunt your growth." Tim heaves a pillow at him. It falls short by about two feet.
Dick puts the tray down on the desk and fills the glasses. "Here," he holds one out to Tim as soon as Tim gets his head and arms through the right holes. "Brought you plenty of sugar," he says, jerking his thumb at the brownies. "I'm going to clean up, okay?"
Tim blinks at the glass. He takes it and stares at it, and Dick says, amused, "You're supposed to drink it, twerp. It's not going to bite you."
"Hmn," but Tim is drinking, so Dick brushes the kid's wet bangs off his forehead and goes to take a shower.
When he gets out of the bathroom, Tim is dressed and sitting in front of the computer, looking a lot better. He turns his head at Dick's entrance, and Dick… really needs to get used to the smile. There's not much to it, just a quirk and a tiny curve, but every time Dick sees it he wants to grab Tim and hold on until Tim relaxes everywhere.
He's so tight. Even on the bars, at his most fluid, he's still thinking. Every movement he makes is deliberate, and Dick thinks training him is going to be a learning experience for both of them. He's going to have to teach himself how to teach Tim, and that's something he's never had to do with any other flyer he's trained. He's enjoying the challenge more than is probably healthy, and he has no intention of stopping. Worse—he tentatively prods the normally overactive guilt-related centers of his brain—he doesn't even feel bad for aiding and abetting a minor in the pursuance of criminal acts.
That, he thinks, is Gotham's real danger. It kills conscience. It turns your principles and your belief system around and upside down until it's all so mixed up that you're not sure what the original looked like. Makes you want things you know can't be good for you, then sugarcoats them with a thin layer of something you need until resisting feels like willfully scraping yourself raw with sandpaper.
Over the years, a lot of people have taken the fact of Dick's existence as tacit permission. They've chosen to believe that because he's easy-going and looks like a very good time, he's up for anything—more, that he'll let anyone do anything to and with him they want, regardless of his own needs or wants. Actually, he's good at saying no.
He's even better at telling himself no.
He's already told Tim no, once, and he thinks he broke both of them a little in the process. He isn't sure he has enough willpower to do it again, which is a relief, but also scares the hell out of him.
Because one of these days Tim is going to need him to say no, and Dick is just going to have to keep going on the assumption that he'll be able to.
"You said blue, right?" Tim says, and it takes Dick a second or two to realize Tim just asked him something.
"What?" He holds up a hand. "No, wait, I was zoning. Sorry, kid. Blue what?"
"For Nightwing," Tim says, and pushes away from the computer so Dick can see what's on the screen, and it's…
"You did this yourself?" Dick asks.
"Oracle did the detailing. I gave her your ideas and she cleaned them up."
Dick nods and keeps looking at sleek blue and black angles shot with dull gold; there's a black-edged blue domino to go with the outfit and it's—okay, it's fucking beautiful. Dick looks at the kid holding Dick's new identity out to him like an offering.
He decides that the next time he sees Babs he's going to kiss her until her enormous brain short circuits. He'll even try to be nice to her pet psychopath.
Tim? Is going to get hugged. Right now.
Dick touches. People and inanimate objects and animals, whatever, it's just what he does; he's never had to think about it before. But ever since he got here, he's been worrying about touching. How much and where and what's acceptable. What's comfortable for Tim.
He remembers Tim's shiver when he touched his arm three days ago in the foyer. Thinks about the stilled quiver of Tim's body under his hands when they're in the gym. And today, the boneless slump of Tim over Dick's shoulder. Just… letting Dick take his weight. Trusting him.
Dick says, "It's perfect, kid." Then he leans forward against Tim's chair and lets his arms go around Tim the way they've wanted to since his first day in Gotham. Rests his chin on the crown of Tim's head.
Tim doesn't even twitch. It's like he's afraid that if he moves, so will Dick. That Dick will let go. Dick holds on, and holds on until Tim relaxes against him, just a little. When Tim relaxes enough to lean back into him, Dick leans down and breathes, "Robin," into his skin.
Tim goes liquid in his arms.
Dick thinks this is something close to falling in love, and even in his head that sounds unbelievably fucked up. It's even more fucked up how much he doesn't care.
He needs to get out of this town. He needs to get Tim out of this town.
Instead, he tightens his arms around Tim and breathes with him until he can't tell the difference between the rise of Tim's chest and the fall of his own.
Tim's breathing deepens. His head falls back against Dick's chest, and Dick bends forward just enough to see that his eyes are closed. Gently, Dick swivels the chair. He picks Tim up, sleep heavy and boneless, and carries him over to the bed.
Managing a sleeping Tim with one arm and perfect hospital corners with his free hand is tough, but Dick's tougher. He eases Tim in and pulls the covers up, and Tim immediately rolls onto his side. Dick sits down on the side of the bed. He rests his hand on Tim's hip. When Tim doesn't protest, he leaves it there, feeling heat and life and Tim under his hand.
It's a long time before he goes back to the hotel, and he leaves a note for Tim when he does. Tim has enough people wandering silently through his life, appearing and disappearing without warning.
"Oh, Mister Dick!" says Mrs. Mac, looking as disconcerted as she did the first time he showed up. "I'm so sorry, I forgot you were coming. The master and madam are back a few days early, and we're in a bit of a tizzy."
She steps aside so he can enter and closes the door behind them. "I believe Tim is in the library, if you want to—"
"I'm here, Mrs. McIlvenne," Tim says, appearing from the third open door on the right. "Hey, Dick."
And he didn't really need a reminder of why he's here in this insane town, hanging out with asylum inmates, but if he did, the look on Tim's face would be it.
"Come say hi to my mom?" Tim says, and Dick hadn't expected this so soon, but now that it's here…
He says, "Absolutely, kid," and hooks an arm around Tim's neck and pulls him in.
As though Dick touching Tim is some kind of signal, someone shouts, "Where's the third crate? Janet! I can't find the Sakkara shawabti!" And there's thumping and pounding—on the stairs, maybe?
Definitely the stairs: someone in khakis and beat-up but very high end hiking boots, with sun-bleached brown hair. Dick's going to go ahead and say that this is Tim's dad. There's something familiar about him—maybe his hair was as dark as Tim's when he was younger.
He shouts again, "Janet!" and Tim steps forward with his hands half raised, his whole body a tense wish for his dad to shut up and stop embarrassing him. Dick knows the look—he's been there himself more than once.
"Dad," Tim says, "I'm pretty sure the rest of the crates are in the small morning room."
Drake pauses in his forward charge to blink at his son. "They are?"
"Oh yes, sir," Mrs. McIlvenne says. "I directed the delivery men to put them there for the time being. The day help can move them to wherever you wish."
"Oh. That's fine, I guess. Ida, do me a favor and get someone to pry open the one with the three stamped on it, would you?"
"Right away, sir." She hurries off, looking relieved to go.
Drake seems to finally notice Dick. He frowns at him, maybe trying to place him. "Do I know you?"
Tim steps into the breach. "Dick Grayson, Dad. He's my gymnastics trainer." And there's an apologetic glance from Tim, but Dick shakes his head slightly, then smiles at Drake and holds out his hand.
"It's a pleasure, Mr. Drake."
"Grayson." Drake is looking at him, but Dick's not sure the man is really seeing him. The handshake is brief and firm, maybe a little too much of both. "Going to whip my boy into shape?"
"Tim is in excellent physical condition, sir. Training him is going to be a rewarding experience for both of us." And everything he just said is completely true, except for how it's also a total lie.
A big picture kind of lie. The details are always the same, but they don't always add up to the same thing.
Drake is shaking his head. "I tell you, I don't know why this kid's so fixated on his monkey bars, or whatever you call them. Why couldn't you just toss around the pigskin like your old man, Timbo?"
"Dad." The flush creeping up Tim's cheeks makes him look about five. Drake must agree because he laughs and ruffles Tim's hair.
"I'm messing with you, kiddo." He walks away down the hall, calling over his shoulder, "Get on him, Grayson. I'll expect a gold medal out of you guys in a few years."
A few seconds later he's gone from sight. There's a murmur of voices and then a door bangs closed. Tim's shoulders sag.
Dick wraps his arm around Tim and tugs him closer; it's a victory when he feels Tim allowing himself to lean a little.
"He's really busy," Tim mumbles against Dick's shirt. Dick rubs his hand up and down Tim's side, slow and steady, over and over.
"No big deal," he says. "Sometimes parents just need to be weird. Even the normal ones." Tim quivers against him; Dick pokes him. "You laughing at me, kid?"
Tim lifts his head. He's not smiling, but his eyes are—hmn. If it didn't sound so cheesy, Dick would say they're gleaming.
"Compared to Mom, Dad's as normal as parents get."
Wow. "So, I should start running now?"
And now Tim is laughing his quiet Tim laugh. "This way, sucker. She only eats stray visitors every other month."
"Uh…" but Tim has a hand around his wrist, tugging him towards a closed door. Tim taps twice on carved, aged wood inlaid with what looks like stained glass.
A woman's voice calls, "Come," and Tim pushes the door open. Dick follows him through and blinks at the woman rising from behind her desk to meet them.
Jack Drake's hair may have been a lot darker at one time. It might have been the same color as Tim's, but that's all it ever was. At least Dick figures that's the case because Janet Drake's hair is an exact match for Tim's in everything but color. Gender and hair color aside, everything about Janet Drake is a match for Tim, from her size to her eyes. Christ, her eyes.
"Mr. Grayson," she says, holding out her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you. Tim hasn't told me nearly enough about you."
Her fingers and palm are rough, callused and strong. Archaeologist, Dick's brain reminds him, drawing on Babs' detailed reports. Field work. "Yeah. I mean, yes. Nice to meet you, too," he manages, and oh yeah, he is completely screwing himself.
"Please sit." She's walking toward a cluster of couches around a coffee table, and Dick moves without thinking to follow because the "please" was only for show; he's been given his marching orders.
He takes the loveseat opposite the lounge Janet Drake sits down on. Tim is hovering next to him like an indecisive hummingbird; he looks like he's not sure whether to sit or take flight. Drake transfers her smile from Dick to her son.
"Tim, if you don't mind, I'd like to speak with Mr. Grayson alone."
It's not a request, but Tim minds a lot, if the look on his face is anything to go by. He bites his lip and glances at Dick. "Mom, I—"
She shakes her head. "I won't scare him away. I promise," she adds, raising an eyebrow. Dick gets the impression that rebellion isn't something that happens a lot around here.
Tim's hand moves towards Dick, but is yanked quickly back. Dick grabs it and grins up at him. "It's okay. I'll come find you later, all right?"
Tim is frowning at their joined hands. "All right, Dick," he says, putting emphasis on Dick's name. Dick has this weird feeling that a point is being made at his expense. He wishes to hell he knew what it was, but this party is Drakes only and… Dick's hand is empty.
The door closes slowly and reluctantly behind Tim. "Richard John Grayson," says Janet Drake.
Dick turns back to her and it's still a kick in the gut, because she's Tim. Or Tim is her, or something—
"Twenty-two years of age, son of John Grayson and Mary Loyd. At one time the third member of the Flying Graysons."
Dick stares. Janet smiles. Sort of. "Don't look so surprised, Mr. Grayson. Tim was sitting on my lap that night."
"Can I have Mrs. McIlvenne bring you something to drink? No? Well, if you'll excuse me a moment, I'm going to ring for coffee. I've been on one plane or another since eight-hundred Cairo time yesterday, and I'm liable to fall asleep on you if I don't administer some kind of shock to the system."
He's not sure he believes that, but he nods wordlessly, following her from the couch to the bell pull and back with his gaze. He's not sure what he was expecting from Tim's mother. He knows this woman isn't it.
"So." She sits back down, crosses her legs and… appreciates him. At least, he thinks that's appreciation. Hopes? The only alternative he can come up with is Wayne-level creepy.
She says, "May I call you Dick?" and he nods again—he's starting to understand how Tim developed the habit. "I suppose we should start with the fact that my son has been following you all over the US, Canada and Europe for the better part of two years."
"Doctor Randolf, actually."
Is that a non sequitur? "I'm sorry?"
Her lips curve and the eyes that are a match for Tim's crinkle a little at the corners. "Janet is fine." There's a tap on the door. "Come."
Mrs. McIlvenne sticks her head in. "I'm sorry to interrupt, madam, but the bell?"
"That was me, Ida. Coffee, please, very hot and lots of it."
"Of course, madam." The door closes silently after her.
"She's an excellent housekeeper, if unimaginative," Janet Randolf says. "I'm afraid Ida's inability to think outside the box is one reason for Tim's unusual amount of freedom."
Dick's not usually this slow. Maybe that not-a-conversation with Wayne did something to his brain cells. Like erased half of them. "I'm sorry, Mrs.—Doctor—Janet. I'm feeling a little out of the loop."
"I would be too, in your situation." She's toying with the heavy silver band around her middle finger; no stone, but there are some kind of symbols carved into it. It's her only jewelry. "What do you think of Gotham?"
Too dark? Too many gargoyles? Not enough sanity? "It seems like an okay place."
She throws her head back when she laughs. Her teeth are white and perfect. "Priceless. A few thousand years ago you would have been the titular queen's favorite, destined, most likely, to be mummified and entombed with her."
"Did Tim invite you here, Dick?"
It surprises him. He'd thought— "He didn't say?"
She laughs again, more quietly. More like Tim. "Tim tells me and everyone else only what he thinks we need to know. Thanks, Ida, just put it there," she says, and Dick jerks because Mrs. McIlvenne, stealth housekeeper, came back in while he wasn't looking.
She sets the coffee tray in front of Randolf, and then turns to Dick. "Are you sure I can't get you anything, Mister Dick?"
He forces a smile and shakes his head. "I'm fine, thanks."
This time, the sound of the door closing feels final. Janet Randolf pours herself a cup of coffee and holds it to her lips, blowing on it before sipping. The scent of it curls through Dick's pores and seeps into his brain; he doesn't recognize the blend but it smells dark and bitter and rich in a way that only the very rich can afford.
"He didn't ask me for anything," he says abruptly. "A friend of mine is good at tracking things down. I asked her to find Tim for me."
"Mmn." Randolf's cup is already half empty—she wasn't kidding about needing the caffeine. "Ms. Gordon and Mr. Nigma are, by all reports, very efficient."
Dick wonders if you have to have reached a certain level of creepitude to live in Gotham. It would explain a lot. "For someone who claims they don't know much, you know a lot more than you should."
"I know you convinced Tim to stop following you."
Dick rubs the back of his neck. "Yeah. I should have left it there."
"But you didn't. You searched for him. I'm curious as to why." She sets her cup down and fills it again, but she doesn't pick it back up immediately.
Steam is rising from the pot's spout and the cup. Condensation clouds the surfaces around them; the coffee must be scalding hot.
Dick glances at the woman across from him, then away. He doesn't know why he feels guilty for doing the right thing; he just does. "He was just a kid. I—he's really small." He looks down at his hands, resting on his thighs. "I told him not to come back, but—"
"You thought something might have happened to him anyway," she finishes. He nods and she leans back against the lounge, smiling a little. "Let me tell you a story, Dick. And then you can tell me one."
He doesn't say anything; he's not going to give her anything he doesn't have to.
For a second she just looks at him. Then she reaches for her coffee and says, "Drake Industries owns a number of corporate jets. Twenty-five months ago, give or take, one of our regular pilots contacted me. He informed me that Tim had flown three times within the last month, by himself. The paperwork and scheduling checked out, but like you, he was concerned. I told him to carry on. Then I cashed in an old favor. Something along the lines of your transaction with Ms. Gordon, I imagine."
Her face and eyes are clear. Wayne's name is harshly acidic in Dick's mouth. "You had him followed."
"I wanted him protected, but I saw no reason to rein him in if it wasn't necessary. Tim is capable and self-sufficient."
Because he's had to be, Dick doesn't say. "So you just let him wander all over half the world by himself."
"Not quite. He had a bodyguard. And he had you."
Dick half laughs. "I guess you'd know. That must have made for some strange bedtime reading."
Randolf tips her head to one side, eyes half shut. "Informative. You and your family are interesting people."
He looks back down at his hands. "I can't blame you for wanting to know. Tim is… he's…" He doesn't know how to put Tim into words. He doesn't think there are any either good or weird enough. Which reminds him. "How'd he manage to get a plane off the ground in the first place?"
"Tim has been forging my signature since he was eight. His hieratic is better, but he handles the English alphabet well enough to pass."
His mouth is—not hanging open, but something close. That's how it feels, anyway. Randolf gives him Tim's half-smile. "Strange as it may seem, your upbringing was in many ways more conventional than Tim's."
"I think I'm beginning to get that."
Half of the windows in the room are clear. The other half are stained glass: blue, green, yellow, red. The spill of color across Randolf's face cuts her features into a Picasso-like arrangement that Dick isn't going to even try to read.
"You've lost me again," he says, and her mouth tightens into blue-slashed yellow.
She says, "You're wondering if I'm crazy. You want to know why I allowed my ten-year-old to chase you across several continents."
He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and lacing his fingers together. "I'm just trying to understand where Tim's coming from," he says, and she starts laughing.
She's laughing, and he doesn't have the first clue why. He feels like he doesn't know anything anymore. He says, "Did I say something funny?"
It makes her laugh more, for some reason. She catches her breath and says, "A while ago Jack Drake made me a deal. His parents got Tim out of the bargain. That's where Tim is coming from."
He's going to throw up. Right here on Janet Randolf's expensive carpet. He's pretty sure she knows; he's never been good at controlling… anything. "What did you get?"
Feral is the only word he can come up with for her smile. She says, "Freedom," and sits there watching him. Waiting.
Is he supposed to say something? Express an opinion? "Mrs.—" one eyebrow, just one— "Doctor Randolf, I'm not—I… don't think I'm catching whatever it is you want me to get."
"I think you understand exactly what I want you to." Randolf puts her cup down and picks her bag up off the low table. She pulls what looks like a notebook from it, writes briefly then tears off a piece of paper and holds it out to Dick.
He takes it, and Randolf says, "It's as well that both Jack's and my parents are dead. The Drakes would have made this difficult."
Dick is staring at a line of zeros on what appears to be a check.
"Tim has his trust, but it won't be available to him until he's nineteen. That should cover the next year at least. You'll contact me when you need more."
"The legal documentation will be taken care of, and I believe you already have experience when it comes to education on the fly."
He'd expected to have to fight for permission to train Tim over the summer months, and whatever spare weeks he could grab during the school year.
He'd expected to have to fight for Tim. For his Robin. Instead he's being handed everything he wants and more.
How—no, why is this happening?
What he's thinking is all over his face. He can feel it, can see it in Randolf's expression. She says, "You're not stupid, Mr. Grayson, even if you sometimes choose to act that way."
He says, "Pretend I am."
Her exasperation is scarily like Tim's. "This is unnecessary—"
"Stop." Dick leans down and places the check in the middle of the table. "I—just stop. Please."
Randolf—it feels like she's backed off in some way. She hasn't moved, not in any direction Dick can define, but there is… distance?
"Very well." She picks up her coffee cup. Sips and sets it back down. "Tim is my son, not my clone. His needs are different."
Mom said… at the circus she said if I practiced, if I wanted it enough, I could be like you. If I wanted to.
Hands clasped, twisted in her lap, but she's looking at Dick as though she's never had a bad day in her life. "Do you think I don't know why he imprinted on a beautiful, athletic child obviously loved by his parents?"
"I didn't do anything!" It's almost a shout, and he is… never going to stop acting like an idiot in front of this woman.
Her mouth is quirked to one side. She says, "You smiled for him. You touched him as casually and easily as you've touched and been touched your entire life. I am neither casual nor easy."
"I'm sorry," and that's just stupid. He keeps offering what she hasn't asked for. His only is excuse is that he'd do it for anyone.
Something, in her face. Dick used to think he was good with people but he can't read her at all.
"I wasn't always—" she shakes her head once, sharply. "Of course, none of this would ever occur to Jack." Her eyes clear and focus on him. "I don't kid myself, Mr. Grayson. I'm not a mother."
"You mean you don't want to be."
She shrugs. "Semantics. I won't debate phraseology with you. I know what you think of me, and—" she doesn't look away from him once—"I don't care."
Anyone else, he'd say they were lying. Anyone else.
"I'm not certain how Tim views you. His motives are unusually opaque for someone his age. I expect you to treat him as you would a family member."
Her eyes… Dick hopes to god he never does anything to piss this woman off.
And maybe she can hear him thinking it, because she says, "I doubt it would take much for that lunatic in Arkham to reverse his good opinion. I believe wounded children are one of his triggers."
Dick reminds himself that he knows how to breathe.
Randolf picks up the check Dick placed on the table. She leans forward, one elbow propped on her knees, the check extended between two long, calloused fingers. "Take it, Mr. Grayson."
Do this, her (Tim's) eyes say. Before I change my mind.
Dick takes it. He grips it in his hand and listens to the crinkle of rapidly aging paper. He sits very still.
Because if he doesn't. If he moves at all, he's going to get up and go find Tim. Throw him over his shoulder, vault out of a window and run, then keep running until he can see the Pacific.
They're sitting on the floor of Tim's bedroom, leaning against his bed. The… paper. Is lying on the floor in the middle of the room. They're both staring at it.
"She." Dick's tongue is thick and his throat feels swollen. His jaw feels rusty and unused. "Tim."
Tim says, "Hmn," and leans until his shoulder is touching Dick's.
"She gave you," Dick says, pushing words out past the strangling pressure in his throat. "To me. She—"
There's nothing else he can say. Nothing that would make sense, because nothing about this does. Not to Dick.
But Tim says, "I know." He says, "It was one possibility."
The most likely one, Dick hears.
"I'll call Ms. Gordon," Tim says, and starts to get up. Dick wraps his hand around Tim's wrist and pulls him gently back down.
Tim moves easily with the pull; he moves where Dick wants him to move, until he's kneeling between Dick's legs. Dick tugs him forward. Wraps his hand around the back of Tim's neck—it's already habit—and briefly touches their foreheads together before pulling back a little. There's not much air between their faces. There's too much space around them.
Dick cups Tim's face in his hands. "Do you understand?" he asks. "Do you know why this is wrong?" He searches Tim's eyes, Tim's face, and he finds knowledge but no understanding.
Compromised, Dick thinks. Wayne. Randolf. Even Babs, for god's sake, and she's one of the straightest arrows around. If he stays here much longer, he'll get sucked in, just like the rest of them, and Tim—Tim will never know this isn't the only way to live.
Tim says, "Dick?" in this really small, almost scared voice, and Dick realizes he's looking through Tim instead of at him. "I'm sorry?" Tim says. Like he doesn't know what he's sorry for, but if Dick wants him to be sorry, then—
Dick has been in plenty of fights, the fast flash in the pan that comes with a bunch of guys blowing off steam. He's never wanted to hurt anyone before.
"Tickets," he says, then, "No," when Tim starts to get up again.
Tim settles back down. He rests his hands on Dick's bent knees and looks at him. He's waiting for Dick to tell him how it's going to be, and the fact that Dick knows that—
"I want you to know," Dick says. "You don't have to do everything yourself. I don't want you doing something because you think it's what I'd want you to do. Believe it or not, I can make an airline reservation."
Tim nods as if this is all self-explanatory, even though Dick knows that's so much bullshit. "Where are we going?" Tim asks.
"Home," Dick says, and looks over Tim's shoulder at the paper on the floor. "We're going home."
He offers Tim the window seat, but Tim wants the aisle. Since it's only the second thing Tim's actually asked him for, he's already saying yes before the request is out of Tim's mouth. Anyway, it's not an issue. If Dick has to be stuck on a plane, he might as well be able to see out.
He props himself up on one of his armrests and watches Tim do things to and with his laptop. He wonders if this is the first time the kid's flown with the great unwashed—does first class even count as mass transportation?
The laptop chimes softly. Dick cranes his neck just in time to see a chat window pop into existence.
He says, "Who're you talking to?" before remembering Tim's privacy obsession. "You don't have to answer if you—"
"It's O," Tim says immediately, and without a pause in his typing.
Dick has to think about it for a second, but… "You mean—"
Tim holds up a finger. One-handed touch typist, huh? That's… well, it'd be pretty impressive if Dick hadn't seen Babs do the same thing a million times.
"Right. No names," Dick says. He almost, almost regrets introducing them. Then he reminds himself that they already knew each other in their sneaky, I-know-that-you-know-that-we-both-know-but-I'll-commit-seppuku-before-saying-anything way.
He asked them why they didn't just get it over with before now. Get everything out in the open. Tim gave him a bland look full of Where's the fun in that? Babs said confirmation wasn't worth a possible security breach and more-or-less permanent leak.
Dick thought geeks, and stopped asking questions.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," says a flight attendant. "Just wanted to let you know that we've been cleared for take-off. We'll be making our approach in just a minute. In the meantime, the captain has turned on the fasten seatbelts sign, and I'd like to take this moment to remind you that we request that you turn off and stow all portable electronic—"
Tim types something; clicks something; clicks something else and closes the laptop. He tucks it into the pocket on the chair in front of him and leans back into his own chair. Anyone but Dick would probably think he's relaxed, but Dick's watching his hands. Tim's tells are all in his hands, and right now his nails are white; he's gripping his arm rests that hard.
Dick uncurls himself and slides a hand between Tim's chair back and his neck. He squeezes as gently as he knows how. "What's up?"
Big, god, huge blue eyes swallowing him down, and Dick remembers how he got sucked into this in the first place. Tim's eyes. Just like his mom's.
"Is this going to be all right with them? That I'm coming with you?"
Will they like me?
Dick feels the corners of his mouth curling out and up, and he knows he's grinning like an idiot.
Because Dad will take one look at Tim and have him on the pommel horse within an hour. He'll work him until he falls over then say, "Doing great, kid," and turn him over to Mom.
Who'll hug him until he forgets what skin hunger is, then feed him all the things a Robin should be eating. She'll show him the uneven bars aren't just for girls, and she'll have him flying like a pro in a matter of months.
Xen will hijack Tim for her act. She'll dress him in black fishnets, smear him with dark blue kohl and opalescent nail polish, and teach him to swear like—like she does. Tim will love her and want to kill her at the same time, just like everyone else in her life does.
Ran will sit with him and talk with him and listen to him. She'll teach him to understand tigers and muck out elephant stalls. She'll show him how to be easy in his skin.
And Dick? Dick will love him. Because he already does.
He says, "Little brother, I don't see why it wouldn't be." And squeezes a little harder.
The hum of flight engines vibrates the surface beneath Dick's feet; it jitters up his legs and spine, snaps through his shoulders and arms and down into the hand still wrapped around Tim's nape. Slight pressure—Tim is pressing back into Dick's hand, just enough to be felt.
In his peripheral vision, the runway is rushing past. The plane lifts, a whole body trapeze cradling him, and Tim is warm and real under his hand.
He lets Tim's small, quiet smile carry them both out of Gotham.