Dick wakes, limbs thrashing, a scream humming between his lips. Darkness crowds all around him, a voluminous nothing that makes his skin crawl. Not now, not like this, he thinks, trailing hands over his skin. Stops.
His wrists are unbound. His heart races unencumbered by wires and pulses he cannot feel but hurt just the same. A thought prickling in the back of his mind urges him to brush off the vestiges of the dream.
Come on big guy , it tells him, you know this room. You know these walls. There’s air in your lungs. Fight.
Rolling to his side, Dick fumbles over a cool surface, wires, follows them down and breathes a sigh of relief. The lamp blooms a butter yellow color that illuminates the space.
With the lights on, blessedly bright and all around him, the shadows pull back and clarity breaks, a cold, unsettling dawn. He’s in his apartment. He’s alive. He’s free. It was only a nightmare— the nightmare—slithering into his subconscious again, shuttling his mind through those twisted pathways that leave him cold, alone, afraid when his eyes open, unable to trust the world around him.
The digital clock flips forward. Four-thirty am. He’s caught just over an hour of sleep before waking. There's no way he's going back to bed now.
Cold air kicks down Dick’s sweaty back as he climbs from the damp sheets. He stops to rub his arms and take a calming breath. Frowns. Fear clings to the skin like heat on desert rocks. Dick reeks of it. Six weeks since he’s returned to Bludhaven, and he hasn’t figured out how to stop being so goddamn afraid.
Dick stumbles over the combat boots strewn on the floor. The Nightwing costume hangs over the back of his bathroom door ready to be donned. He spends more time in it than out. A common occurrence even before he started lengthening his patrol hours to guard against the stagnant days.
In the bathroom, Dick leans over the sink and tries to remember the last time his day didn't start this way. How many times has he been in this exact place trying to focus his thoughts on the next move—open the cabinet, pull out the bottle, fill up the glass, take the pill. The nightmares, the regrets, they’ve become a part of his daily routine. Like the headaches. Like the phantom chest pains. It always leads him back to those final seconds strapped to the machine. He could be dreaming about the most beautiful beach in the galaxy and he’d hear it at a distance, up close, buzzing against the shell of his ear. The countdown always finds him. The needle always slides beneath his skin.
He flicks the medicine cabinet open without glancing at the man in the mirror. Dick already knows what he looks like right now anyway. Dark circles sliding down his cheeks, skin a little pale, eyes restless. His reflection is one of a man who is too tired to rest, too tired to fight. Too tired to…. He slams the cabinet shut.
Nothing in his life is happening like it should when you save the day. The world should magically snap into a better place, and everyone, Dick included, should sleep a little safer. Instead, everything is twisted. His dreams are haunted though, his body cold, and his thoughts have grown dark. The things he touches breaks. The plans he makes are wrong. His city digs in her teeth at night and spits him out, leaving Dick feeling too raw and exhausted, useless and defeated.
Once upon a time, Dick had a contingency plan for these kinds of moments. The times when running makes the most sense, but his weary head is telling him different ways to leave. Alone, with his eyes on the horizon, he could disappear completely. He wants to. It’s the reason why he shouldn’t be alone right now. It’s the reason why he needs to talk to someone.
It's more than lack of trust that keeps Dick from reaching out to his family. Tim, Babs, Alfred, he can talk to them, sure, but each time brings more worry in their eyes, more skepticism in their voice when he says he’s fine, everything is fine. He doesn’t want to change the way they view him. And sometimes he needs to be the way they see him; a fierce protector, a dedicated partner, a good son, and not the broken stranger he feels like sometimes. He needs to stop thinking like this, needs to focus on the problem at hand.
He needs to talk to someone, but who?
Dick draws a deep, steadying breath. One after another until he can think clearly. But after a few long minutes, no one immediately springs to mind. The fear won't let him think. Dick huffs at himself, a sound that's darkly amused and also frustrated.
Establishing criteria shouldn’t be this complicated. It should be someone who knows him and trusts him. Someone who has seen him at his worst and won’t be disappointed that he’s sunk this far. Someone who won’t push for answers. Laid out this way, the answer becomes obvious. Dick has precious few friends of that nature left in his life.
Locating the communicator takes less than five minutes. He only pretended to forget where he kept the spare, but it was hidden in the wall behind his favorite pictures of the past. Faces with which he cannot part. Memories that refuse to guide him. Dick stares at the small ear unit between his fingers waiting to be activated. Seconds pass, then minutes. Using the communicator takes considerably longer than he thought it would.
It used to be that nothing would’ve stopped Dick from sending the signal. Nothing would have kept him from responding. Nights alone without contact from Batman, no word from his partner, has changed him. Things are different now, relationships faded. Promises can’t hold fast forever. He’s not sure who would answer or when if at all.
Dick shakes his head, denying the idea. That’s not what he’s about. It wasn’t what they were about either, not Donna, or Wally, or Garth or. He takes a deep breath. There aren’t very many members left from the original team, and that thought makes his decision clearer. Still, it’s a good decision to call Roy. There’s no way Dick can disappoint him more than he already has.
The thought pushes him to power on the communicator.
“Speedy, this is Rob with an emergency signal. Kumquat Mango Kiwi cups with extra durian on the side.” His lips twitch faintly reciting the Titan’s first emergency code words. They’d been so young. They’d been inseparable. “Come in, Speedy.”
Minutes pass before Dick tries again.
Dick doesn’t realize he’s shifting restlessly in the chair until the communicator gives a quiet hum, and his entire body freezes. Roy’s voice follows, breathless and a bit husky.
“Rob, huh? You’ve got some—” Nerve, Dick supplies mentally, but Roy surprises him. “Of the worst timing, man. Anyone ever tell you to work on that?”
“A couple?” Dick admits, not so distant memories rushing through his head. The sound of a door slamming shut is so at odds with Roy’s casual tone. “Never thought it was a problem though, seeing as it’s always a matter of perspective.”
“Unbelievable,” Roy huffs. Movement follows the sound. “Thought this channel was for emergencies.”
“It is.” Dick struggles with the words despite the almost friendly reception from Roy. It’s so much more than he anticipated, and the thought makes Dick feel worse. How could he expect any less?
Movement again. Dick strains his ears. Rustling, a click, a soft moan, no a question. Roy’s not alone. He doesn’t hear anything else to tell him that Roy is moving to another room. No footsteps, no door closing. Really didn’t expect more than an audience of one, Dick thinks while deciding his next move.
“Don’t leave me in suspense then, man. You got a problem?”
“Yeah. Yes,” Dick repeats when the word wobbles in the air. “I’ve been back in the city for a few weeks, but it’s been hard adjusting,” he says, carefully. “I need a mission. Something to settle back into the game. You need a hand with anything?”
“A mission, huh?’ Roy clicks his tongue. “I don’t think you got the memo, Dick. Outlaws don’t run like that anymore. We’re a different team now.”
Batman keeps tabs on the Outlaws, how could he not, but they work autonomously, driven by impulses Batman refused to put to paper. Dick had read through the case files himself. He saw more than the reckless abandon and disrespect for most property laws. He’d seen a band of people on the run. He’d seen escape from all the chains weighing the members down and that’s something Dick needs right now.
“I know. I know, Roy, I just. Anything. Research. Recon,” he says, hating the edge rising in his voice. “Even if you need just need someone to watch your back, I could be there.”
The next pause is long, longer than if Roy were merely considering the request. Definitely not alone then, Dick thinks, stomach clenching at the thought of who might be listening to him right now, when he’s low, belly up to a friend who only responded because a promise made in blood. A part of him is so desperate, he doesn’t even care.
Roy sighs. “Yeah, okay. We have an interstellar run planned. Someone asking a favor from the princess. Odds are it’s nothing, but we might be able to carve out a spot for you.”
“Sure,” Dick says, vaguely. “When?”
“We’re blasting off Wednesday at 0300. It’s bounty work. We’re meeting Kori’s contact first to assess the job. If it’s anything good, we’ll act, and if not.” Dick can hear the shrug in Roy’s pause. “We’ll come right back. But Dick, chances of this being a four man deal are pretty slim.”
Wednesday. Less than a day away. It’s the only thing that matters, really.
Dick closes his eyes, throat sour with relief. “I’ll be there.”
Dick arrives at the Outlaw’s tropical headquarters in the dead of night. The abandoned airstrip they’ve commandeered blends into the encroaching jungle but is only minutes away from a resort and steps away from the beach. It’s exactly the kind of set up the old Titans had longed for; not that Happy Harbor or Jump City hadn’t been amazing, Dick thinks hastily. This place just happens to look like paradise.
A shout echoes from the open bay of the space cruiser, breaking the peaceful night. The shadows of the Outlaw team spill from the hold onto the crumbling runway. Dick crouches beneath a heavy spray of pale flowers just beyond where he estimates the ship’s sensor radius to end. Spying on friends isn’t exactly the kind of behavior Dick likes to engage in, but any detective or agent must use every opportunity to gather information. On the other hand, they all know Dick’s arriving soon. Judging by the volume, they just don’t care. Jason’s voice is the loudest and most complex with several emotions threading through, all different shades of anger.
In the shadows, Dick sighs. He’d thought he and Jason had made some kind of peace on the rooftop.
“I can’t believe you’re okay with Nightwing just waltzing in," Jason says. "You don’t mind he’s going to be dropping in here all expecting us to dance to his tune?”
“Nightwing will not waltz in here,” Kori replies, just as loud but also firm. “This is our home. This is our family, and he cannot break these bonds, nor would he want to, when he has been invited.”
“And he doesn’t want to,” adds Roy. "I keep telling you, Jaybird, Dick just needs to get off planet for a while. We’re basically his interstellar Lyft.”
A snort. “Yeah. Like Dick even knows how to tip a driver. Newsflash, guys, he’s going to drag his fucking issues in with him, expect us to fix the problem, and then skip off into the sunset. It’s his MO.”
“Jason, where Richard is concerned your fears are always so wildly misplaced,” Kori says.
“Whose isn’t? And frankly, princess, I can’t believe you aren’t raising an objection. I know you don’t want to see him. Maybe even less than me. And why is that? Because Dick takes advantage of people,” Jason concludes, voice growing soft.
“Have you met Dick? It’s mostly the opposite,” Roy says with a bitter laugh, and Dick flinches. “Besides, there’s nothing about Rob she and I don’t know.”
“Okay, fine. But what about the other thing?”
“The other thing?”
“The ‘Dick doesn’t like listening to orders’ thing,” Jason says. “There’s already three captains on this ship, you know what I mean? I’m not going to be listening to another.”
Roy sighs. “Jaybird, come on. I already explained our dynamic to him, and he gets it. He's just a passenger until we iron out the bounty details. Then he's running by our playbook. He promised.”
“How long do you think that’ll last?”
“Jason, we must trust Roy,” Kori says. “He chose to help a friend. We will respect this.”
“Just tell me why? Just explain it to me so I can understand it. None of that ‘we are Titans’ bullshit, either.”
“Because despite everything, Dick has my back and I have his,” Roy says quietly. “Besides, it’s never a bad idea to have an extra set of hands and eyes on a mission. So, tuck that ego back in your pants where it belongs and deal, Jaybird. You know he’d do the same for you.”
“Okay, it is exactly a bad idea to have extra anything on a mission and. You guys.” Something stops Jason mid-sentence. His growl carries into the dark, low, frustrated. “Fine. Fine. But I won’t let him hurt either of you. One wrong move and I’ll pop his top and then jettison him out with the rest of the trash.”
“You’ll pop his top, huh?” Roy says, teasingly, dragging Dick back in time to the first time he’d heard that tone and the way it sent heat licking across his neck. Dick wipes the sweat from his brow. The jungle humidity is really something.
The comment must be a secret signal to end the grievance session because the tension bleeds from the air.
“Fuck you, Harper,” Jason grumbles.
“Please continue,” Kori says. “I would like to hear more of this popping of the top.”
“Don’t even try it, princess. I’m not afraid to take you or that freaky couple bond of yours on.”
“Really?” Roy drawls. "Because I recall you looked scared as hell the first time you tried taking the two of us on, Jaybird.”
“Princess, you better collect your man before he gets himself hurt!”
A rush of air, a muffled curse, and Dick can see Jason’s shadow sweep into the air. His legs stretch impossibly long, and his torso morphs into a giant black maw with glorious mane. Kori spins her prize until a rusty chuckle pops out. Kori echoes the sound, and it carries rich and clear through the humid night.
Good lighting, laughter, and a tropical breeze. It’s the perfect time to make an entrance. Dick edges away from the ship instead, needing to process the conversation.
Jason’s opinion isn’t too surprising. Despite their moment on the rooftop, their hug, Jason almost naming the thing they share, he’s still wary of Dick. Fine. It's never easy with Jason, and he never thought their tentative truce would lead to immediate trust between them. Although that would've been nice. Sighing, Dick tosses his head back and stares at the dark leaves surrounding him. Hearing Kori share her opinion had been both gratifying and painful. Their relationship has been strained for so long that their bond will have disappeared. He wonders how he could ever doubt it. And then there’s Roy. Roy. Defending him. Dick’s not sure if he should laugh or cry.
Overhead, the sky is filled with spilling starlight, brighter and more beautiful than they have any right to be. Soon, Dick will be there. Soon, his feet will be off the ground and his troubles far behind him. He just has to face the past and make peace with it first. No small feat there. So, peace offering. Dick reaches into the jungle around him, grabbing flowers and carefully trimming their stems. A few deft twists of his fingers and he’s ready. Dick pauses, then gathers hibiscus flowers to form a small bouquet.
The sensors blare when he approaches a second time. The lampposts switch on, illuminating Dick strolling up the runway, a backpack slung over one shoulder.
The Outlaws appear at the top of the cruiser’s cargo ramp. Roy’s cheeks are dusted with more freckles. His summer tan. Kori’s eyes glow softly as they cast over Dick. She floats to Roy’s side and gently places a hand on his arm.
Dick pulls a smile from his performance roster, one geared to dazzle. “Permission to come aboard the luxury liner, captains?”
Jason turns away with a snort. His lips move, muttering something so low Dick can barely make it out. “You’re certainly dressed like the main act.”
“Come on up, Rob,” Roy says, doffing his ball cap. “I was starting to get a little worried.”
Dick’s boots clomp up the ramp. The sound is light, like he’s walking up aluminum, but the metal feels solid. He wonders where the alien material comes from and how the Outlaws came about it.
Dick reaches the top, grin still blazing. “Worried? Why?”
“You’re late,” Jason accuses.
“I’m,” Dick checks his mental clock, “Twenty minutes early.”
Jason’s hard gaze turns suspicious. “‘The earliest bird gathers the intel,’ remember?” Jason mocks. “So, like I said, late.”
The easy recitation, the mocking tone, Dick supposes he’s said it to Jason before, but he can’t find the memory. There are precious few moments where Dick managed to show up for Jason, and Jason managed to listen. They stare at one another, unmoving, and Dick tries to determine if there is suspicion in Jason’s eyes or the trick of the light. Roy steps between them, a hand on both their shoulders, diffusing the stand off.
“Looks like you decided to pick some flowers,” Roy says, gesturing at the lei around Dick’s neck.
Dick breaks the stare to look down. “Stopped to get some gifts.” He lifts the floral wreath and places it over Roy’s head. “A quick hi and thank you.” He turns and offers Kori the small bouquet in his hand. He receives a soft smile in return.
“Hello, Richard,” Kori murmurs. “You are welcome on this ship.”
“Please don’t say that,” Jason mutters.
Kori presses her cheek against the soft petals then breathes, deeply enjoying the scent. “You’re just jealous you didn’t get flowers,” she says, archly.
“Hey. Who says I didn’t bring Jay flowers?” Dick asks, adopting a hurt look. He turns towards Jason then brings a closed hand straight down and up again, a bit of sideshow flair for a sharp-eyed rube. His palm opens, revealing a white flower with creamy soft petals that spill over his fingers. He reaches up to offer it, nearly amused by Jason’s startled reaction and the way he squares himself, shoulders low like he’s about to drop into a fighting stance.
“No one’s given you flowers before, huh?”
Jason rolls his eyes. “Thought you might be getting ready for a sucker punch.”
“So, you admit that you took a cheap shot on the rooftop?” Dick asks, relaxing slightly. “Hold still.” Darting forward, Dick places the flower behind Jason’s ear before he could protest.
“I admit nothing,” Jason snarls, but the anger is subdued.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dick drawls. “You pretty much admitted you cared about us.”
Jason flushed. “Fuck you, man. I’ll show you how much I care.”
Roy claps his hands. “Well, this sounds like one of those contests I don’t need to participate in anymore. We’ll leave you to it. But Jaybird?” Roy points to the far left of the hold. “The hovercraft is charging over there if you need to get the piss off the ceiling.”
“Jason, show our guest to his quarters. We will complete our departure protocols and leave in ten minutes.” Kori floats close to Dick. Her warmth cascades from her body like the star for which she was named. “And Richard.” Her hand skates over Dick’s shoulder to his cheek. “Though I await the day you no longer need to hide from your troubles, it is good to see you.”
Quietly spoken, the words strike with the edge of a fine blade. Dick stands stunned as she and Roy depart from the deck.
There’s an itch at the back of his neck. The kind of tingling you get when danger is near. He looks up to find Jason gazing at him, a dark consideration in his eye.
“You look like shit,” he says, bluntly.
Dick shifts his rucksack on his shoulder. “Long night. Bludhaven isn’t exactly paradise.”
“You got that right.” Jason walks into the ship, leaving Dick to follow. His broad back is stiff, shoulders set, head cocked. Definitely isn’t a fan of Dick being here right now, and he’s going to show it.
The ship has two levels, the upper main deck and lower systems deck. Each with a central hub surrounded by five quadrants, which Jason shows in an abbreviated tour. Dick takes in the various rooms; a militarized lounging area, the cargo hold, from which Dick entered the cruiser, a small shuttle bay which houses three sleek hovercrafts, the mechanical room where the engine is housed, and the crew quarters, where they stop.
Dick looks at the curved doors facing each other across a narrow hallway. He glances at them, and then at Jason. “There are only two rooms?”
“Yeah,” Jason says, voice smug. “And you’re not sharing with me. We’re keeping you back down in the hold w—”
“With the other baggage,” Dick interrupts. “I know. I get it. Lead the way please.”
They tramp back through the long corridors. Dick’s quarters are below the crew’s if he’s not mistaken. With three full walls and a partition, it barely qualifies as a room. It even has a few bolts and hooks on the wall for cargo.
“You can access the hold lighting from here,” Jason opens a panel on the wall opposite the partition wall. “The left two turns down your room lights like this. The right two the hold.”
“Leave it like this,” Dick says. “Keep the cargo hold lights on in case someone needs them.”
Jason raises an eyebrow. “You can just use the central light at the entrance if you need a nightlight, Dickie.”
Dick looks around the room a second time, ignoring him. “At least there’s a bed,” he says, quietly.
Jason pushes off from the wall. “What do you mean, ‘at least there’s a bed.’ And it’s a damn comfortable one too. You better climb down from your high fucking horse and tell Roy and Kori thank you, because if it were up to me, you’d be—”
“Jason,” Dick interrupts. All the heat evaporated from him between one breath and the next. He glares up at his erstwhile successor? Brother? Rival? He didn’t need or want the confused jumble Jason always brings to his emotions, the sad tug to his conscience. “Just shut the hell up,” he ends, finally.
He turns away, dull surprise the last expression he sees unfolding over Jason’s face, then the door sweeps shut behind him. He tosses the travel bag to the floor before falling into the bunk.
This is going to be the best trip ever.
The Outlaws call their space cruiser the Goldemane because she flies with a trailing halo of light.
It's the first spacecraft he’s boarded in quite some time, and Dick quite likes the feel of her. The curved walls are tall and wide, the glyphs decorating the walls and technology alien, and the speed impossibly fast. He’d expected a more formal tour followed by a mission briefing, nothing in-depth, just enough for Dick to get his bearings. Instead, the Outlaws split the moment the ship reached interstellar space, offering no explanation.
That is...different, but, as Roy warned before, the Outlaws are a different team now. A picture of what that might mean takes shape in Dick's mind, and the broad strokes aren't promising. Fortunately, Dick has worked with stranger teams. Newly formed, eminently established, thrown together by dimensional powers, Dick has helped them come together and overcome inconceivable odds. The Outlaws will be no different.
He spends the first few hours aboard mapping the ship to better familiarize himself after Jason’s abbreviated tour. He finds two additional rooms on the crew deck; a training room and a gleaming cleaning facility with twelve different nozzles embedded in a fifteen-foot wall. There are more than a few questions he needs to ask about this.
After committing the ship to memory, Dick searches for the Outlaws, thinking perhaps they were waiting for Dick to seek approach them when he’s settled. Instead of Roy, Kori, or Jason, he continues finding empty rooms, hidden nooks, and strange offshoots in the walls. The Goldemane isn't all she appears to be, and Dick begins to suspect the ship's nature. It’s not until he discovers a hatch adjacent to the mechanical bay that he finally locates another person.
The small room is filled with alien greenery. Gently waving leaves and pulsating pores cover the curved walls giving the room an aquatic feel. Soft pink fronds form soft halos around several thick bamboo-like plants guard a small walking path. Roy sits at the edge of a small water feature central to the room, a small pipette in his hands.
“This reminds me of the gardens in Superman’s fortress,” Dick says.
Roy jumps, startled. “Shit. You uh. You scared me.” He glances at Dick narrowly. “You’ve been to the Fortress?”
“Sorry. And yeah, a few times. It’s pretty cool.”
Roy shakes his head. “’It’s pretty cool,’ he says. Like it’s no big deal to receive an invitation let alone go.” He kneels back besides the pool. “What are you doing down here?”
“I was just looking for everyone.”
“Jason and Kori are walking the ship’s spine trying to figure out what hull piece has the system beeping.”
“Something is always wrong on this hunk of junk.”
Interesting. Dick files that information away for later.
“What is this place?” he asks.
Roy sweeps a hand through the air. “Welcome to what we think is the air filtration system and/or garden. I’m just finishing up the water testing here. Come on, we don’t have to stay.”
“What do you mean it’s what you think is the air filtration system?” Dick tries to keep the suspicion from his tone, and largely succeeds judging by the way Roy simply begins putting away his testing equipment.
“We’re still pretty new to the ship. Most of the day is spent combing through systems and protocols, trying to translate the important functions to something we can understand. It can be pretty frustrating. That’s why we stay out of each other’s hair while it happens. But we’re learning her ins and outs.” With his equipment gathered, Roy heads to the exit.
“Sounds challenging,” Dick says, following. Heavy green and purple fronds curl away as they pass. “Where did the Outlaws find this craft?”
“It's more like this ship found us,” Roy says after a short pause. “The challenge comes from taking roles established for a five-man crew and splitting them between three people. There’s always something to do.” Roy exits the room, and Dick follows, excited by that information. It means there’s a plan in place to redistribute the workload. He’ll have something to do soon enough, until then, everyone likes a volunteer.
Dick pauses by the entrance. “So, what do you want me to do until then?”
Blinking, Roy turns to him. “Do?”
“Yeah. I don’t mind helping until you fit me into the task rotation. Chore list. Whatever you guys are calling it.”
“Well, I thought you’d just,” Roy trails away when their eyes meet,“Honestly, man, I thought you’d want to sit on your ass for a while. Rest and recoup.”
“That’s not me,” Dick says.
“No. No, it’s not," Roy says, scratching the scruff on his chin. He gives Dick a piercing look. "Maybe it should be this time. Seriously, Dick, when do we ever have the opportunity to sit back and let the journey be on another person's shoulders? Willing shoulders even. Broad and oh so sturdy." He winks, and it's enough to coax a thin smile to Dick's lips.
"I appreciate the thought behind that offer, Harper, but I need to do this."
"Okay," Roy says, a soft note in his voice. "I’ll try getting to the roster in the next day or so. Have to run it by the team first though.”
Dick nods, knowingly. “Jason.”
“Jason,” Roy agrees, sounding relieved. “You guys really know each other well, don’t you? Until then,” Roy glances around the room, grinning when he spots a data pad. “You’re on inventory.”
“Inventory? Really?” Frowning, Dick accepts the pad.
“Hey, you asked and it’s something that needs to be done. We’ll probably hit a station on the way to Pashtou-5. We’ll resupply, and we can’t do that without—”
“Without the inventory. Right.” Dick sighs. “I’m on it.”
Roy tips his hat. “Thanks man. Concentrate on the items here,” he raps knuckles on two doors. “This houses the maintenance pieces for engine and support tech. Very important. Once you’re done, you have to manually copy your info into the bridge file.”
Inventory. It’s not the greatest task Dick has encountered, but if the team needed him to work on it, he will. And it feels good to have something to do.
The two storage rooms house an array of alien equipment, some familiar in design and name, others bizarre in form. Thankfully, the data pad has the items categorized by picture and a translated name he can read. Once he delves into the process, Dick finds his mind occupied, his hands busy. He finishes far sooner than he’d anticipated.
Tapping the comm channel, Dick broadcasts his request across the ship.
“Hey team. I’ve completed the inventory. Can someone tell me how to access the bridge file?”
He waits a few moments before sending another broadcast. Again. No response.
Dick grits his teeth. No matter. He can get it to work.
Finding a way into the Outlaw’s file system is easy. The ship’s Terran interface is built on a Wayne Tech platform after all. Dick cut his teeth on the stuff. Once he’s in, Dick follows the data nodes until he finds one named Inventory. Dick starts transferring the information into the sheet when he notices a familiarity in the information he’s entering and the entry above.
Twelve hydrocoils. Forty infracells. One-hundred and eighty-two circuitous fluid channels. Those same numbers have been entered weeks ago by—Dick scrolls to find the log account. JPT.
The busy work he’d been assigned has already been completed.
Dick. Dick. Dick. Dick.
His name echoed with the insistent ring of an alarm clock. Groaning, Dick pushes his head into the pillows.
Dick. Dick. Dick. Dick. Dick!
“Dick, this is your captain speaking.”
Dick lifts his head and squints one eye to search for the source of the melodious voice.
“The crew is awaiting your arrival in on the main deck.”
“How come you never use your sex voice on me, Jaybird?” Roy interrupts loudly.
The channel is open to all three of them. Great. Sighing, Dick tries to squeeze his entire body under the pillow.
“This isn’t my…. I’m being nice. You told me to be nice.”
Kori hums thoughtfully. “There is much the sex in your voice right now. Perhaps you were correct, Jason. You should not be nice.”
“See!” Roy crows. “Why have you been hiding this from us? Do you reserve it for special occasions or just special people?”
Jason’s exaggerated sigh floods through the hold. It retains the same velvet tenor the next time it filters through the channel, soft and warm like a sure hand trailing down your stomach.
“Roy, this is your captain speaking. Adjust the shield gates to the following coordinates while we prepare for phase jump.”
Roy whistles softly. “Wow man. That was a mistake. You cannot use the sex voice on me. You can’t. There’s imminent danger 180 degrees around us and I don’t even care.”
“May I try?” Kori asks.
“Of course, babe, but go easy on me. I’m barely hanging on as it is.”
Kori’s voice blow through the speakers like a sultry wind trickling. “Jason, this is your captain speaking. You are hereby ordered to continue using the sex voice whenever you pilot the ship.”
“Babe, no,” Roy whispers, betrayed.
“We’re getting a little far afield.” Jason resumes command of the ship’s communications channel. “Dick Grayson, this is your captain speaking,” he says, and Dick ignores the way his belly grows tight. “Please report to the main deck so we can—”
The ship rocks, interrupting the announcement. A squeal of warning notifications fill the air.
“Jason! We must stay out of range until Dick gets here.”
“I’m on it, princess.”
“Roy,” Kori continues. “Status on the shield gate.”
“Up and running,” Roy says. “The sequencer allows the outermost shields to rotate in to recharge, but I don’t know how effective that will be against Nargei’s ships. He’s got a fucking fleet out there.”
A dull chime rings through the system.
“The auxiliary defense systems are online, but the ship’s main array is still constructing something. An attack plan perhaps?” Kori growls. “Manual control only extends to the forward guns.”
“That’s another thing to put on the list,” Roy mutters just as Jason’s shouts, “hang on everyone!”
In the hold, Dick struggles into his pants and races from his makeshift room. A sickly yellow light bathes the corridor walls, pulsating in time to a tinny sound. The alarm. It barely registers to Dick’s ears. No wonder he slept through it. Dick bursts onto the flight deck just as Jason yells through the comms.
“Dick! Get your pretty little ass to the bridge right now!”
“I’m here,” Dick shouts, sliding to a stop.
The Outlaws sit belted into command chairs stationed in front of a giant screen. Their fingers slide across the command consoles, which are shaped in a sharp triangle formation, perfect for three. Flight, weapons, defense and auxiliary functions judging by their conversation.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re being attacked,” Jason drawls.
“I gathered,” Dick retorts. “Who are they?”
“Someone who didn’t get the message about the vessel’s change in ownership,” Roy replies. “To be fair, it’s been about two weeks, so it’s not like the word got around.”
Dick crosses his arms with a sigh. That’s why Roy had been so cagey. “You stole the ship? I have no clue why I didn't expect this, but I didn't expect this."
"How did you think we got an alien ship out of the blue?" Roy asks.
"Honestly? With your current crew, I thought it might be from an old boyfriend," Dick says. There had been more than a few that cropped up from Kori's past.
Kori tosses him a sly look. "Yours or mine?"
The ship swerves suddenly. Dick staggers against the pilot seat. "Do you need a hand there, Jay?" he asks.
"No," Jason replies through clenched teeth. "I need you to buckle in."
"Still," Dick continues, ignoring the retort, "That's the kind of information you should tell a guy before they come aboard. Stole it from who?”
“Not quite clear on who really,” Roy says. “And stole isn’t the right word for it.”
“There is a saying from a movie I once saw. Keep what you kill,” Kori says, a fierce grin on her face.
Dick frowns, turning towards her. That movie came out ages ago, practically when they were dating.
“I thought you scrubbed this ship’s signal,” Jason says, interrupting the thought.
“I did,” says Roy. “But this is alien technology that we’ve only had for two weeks. Two weeks!”
“Guys, we need to focus here,” Dick say. “Roy, you said there’s a fleet out there. Can you bring the attackers up on screen I can view?”
Slowly, all three of the Outlaws spin their chairs to face him, various looks of discomfort on their faces. Well, Roy looks somewhat amused at least.
“We’ve got everything under control, Dick. You just need to sit down and strap in,” Roy says.
Dick turns to where Roy is pointing. A small wall mounted seat is extended beside the platform ramp. It looks like a jump seat, hard, uncomfortable, and out of sight. Dick shakes his head. He just needs to be brought up to speed so he can offer input.
“Just bring the Nargei up, and I can help—"
“Nargei is an intra-dimensional loan shark,” Roy corrects.
“Fine,” Dick huffs. “Bring Nargei’s fleet up.”
“This isn't a consultation, Dick,” Jason cuts in. “We need to make a phase jump. In order to make a phase jump, you have to be strapped in here on the flight deck or you can kiss your lunch and your spine goodbye.”
“Dick,” Jason shouts, “You are not the crew. You are the cargo. Strap the fuck in.”
Dick stands in the center of the silence, stunned. He meets their gazes, calm, apologetic, and wicked, but not a one of them willing to budge. He takes a step back down the ramp, and Roy and Kori turn back to their stations. Jason swipes into the air. A translucent screen appears, and Jason begins to speak, eyes hot on Dick as he walks back down the ramp to his seat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’ve experienced a bit of turbulence from a hostile alien power. At this time, we ask that you stow all baggage in the appropriate compartment, secure your seat in the upright position, and buckle your seatbelt. We will be preparing an interdimensional phase jump in sixty seconds. The jump will place us outside of the Milky Way.” He grins. “Thank you for flying Outlaw Air.”
“I thought this was a luxury cruise ship,” Dick grumbles after securing the safety harness.
“And I thought you weren’t supposed to be backseat driving.”
Dick’s head jerks up, but all he can see is the back of Jason’s head. He hadn’t imagined it, and it occurs to Dick that perhaps he hadn’t fully interrogated the idea of traveling with this particular group of people from his past. And Jason certainly isn’t helping to cool his fraying temper.
“Countdown to phase jump.” Kori’s voice rings out.
“Countdown initiated,” Jason says. “Ten.”
The ship disappears in a flash of light.
It’s been seven days since Dick has joined the Outlaws. Seven days of deep space travel at the speeding light of stars. Seven days of solitude aboard a ship with three people with whom he used to know so well, yet he is so rarely in their presence. Time passes slower because of it.
That is the worst part of his new routine, being alone. Everyone is too busy to talk to him throughout the day. It makes sense if they’re new to the ship and trying to learn the intricacies of the ship’s functions. But every minute of the day except for meals?
Dick sees the Outlaws before meals, and then, only when Roy has cooking duty. On those days, Dick arrives early for a few rounds of polite small talk with Roy and sometimes Kori. Today, they argue the merits of tabasco over salsa for omelettes until Jason arrives. Roy patiently explains tabasco's superiority, Kori remains neutral, and Dick champions salsa if only because it' something to do. After eating, the Outlaws scatter to the part of the cruiser where they’ve staked a claim, once again leaving Dick to his own devices.
Being named cargo means Dick has even less to do on the ship. It’s like everyone has stopped trying to include him, and Dick has nothing but time and space on the ship. When Dick actively seeks the Outlaws in an effort to be helpful and kill time, he seems to arrive at a point where Kori was too engrossed to talk or Roy too focused to hear his knock. And Jason always appeared in the places Dick tried to be when he wanted to avoid them.
With no true tasks, and no busy work to keep him occupied, Dick establishes his own routine, one that takes advantage of the ships diurnal sequence. He sleeps during the day cycle, when the hold’s lights are on, and either meditates in the gardens or trains in the recreation room when the hold’s lights are shut down due to conservation protocols.
He’s taken to sitting in the lounge at long periods of time with his feet propped and a movie running on his tablet. Occasionally, Roy will take breaks, and they’ll shoot through a classic television episode or the rare movie, but most of the time Roy is with Kori and that. That’s good for the both of them.
While he hadn’t given the situation immediate thought, Dick hadn’t considered the sheer amount of awkwardness that came with being in close quarters with the Outlaws for the week-long journey to Pashtou-5. It’s not like anyone is ignoring his presence, Jason excluded, it’s just that Dick is so beyond their thoughts, he doesn’t register. In Jason’s opinion, Dick thinks, looking at the back of Jason’s head as he strolls up from the hold, he’s functionally useless.
He want to just do something useful right now. Even talk to someone without the nagging feeling that they’d rather be anywhere else but near him. He needs that right now. Staying in motion is the better option. His body, his mind, Dick has to keep them moving. He can’t stop. If he stops it’ll catch up with him.
It doesn’t help that he always feels tired. If escaping to space did anything, it shook up his rhythms enough that the nightmares disappeared. He hasn’t experienced one since coming aboard. He’s still sleeping in short spurts that never exceed three hours, but it’s much better than before. Just thinking about sleep triggers a yawn, and he stretches, back arched, arms extended behind head, nose scrunched, mouth open. He’s blinking away tears at the end.
“God that felt good,” he mutters.
“Shit,” Jason says right before a large crash.
Dick’s on his feet in an instant and vaulting over the table. “Are you alright?” he asks, reaching for Jason’s shoulder.
“Yes. Geez. The power ring died on this transport unit is all,” Jason says, slapping his hands away, a flush rising along his cheeks. He drops to a knee and pushes a large crate to its side.
Four white rings sit flush against the bottom of the crate. One of them isn’t glowing. Dick stares at the crate. He doesn’t recall seeing it down in the hold. It’s twice as wide as Jason and nearly four feet long. There’s no way he could’ve missed it. He wonders where it came from.
“Nothing.” Frowning, Jason pokes at the broken ring. His fingers circle under the thin lip searching for something. It’s possible he finds what he’s looking for, because Jason hums thoughtfully then pulls away to restart the transport. All four rings flicker on for a moment, then two wink out. “Well fuck you too,” Jason grumbles.
“I can help you move it the rest of the way. With the other two rings, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Jason says. “It’s not that heavy.” Jason adjusts his grip on the sides
“What is it? More rum?” He grins at the surprised flinch that skims over Jason’s face.
“You’ve been looking through our cargo?” Jason asks.
“Had to get to know the other passengers,” he replies. “Coconut rum though, Jay? Why are you guys hauling alcohol?”
“Do you know where we’re going?”
“Roy said something about a mining colony?”
“Well, there you go.” Jason leans back on his haunches and flips the crate back over. His shirt stretches tight over his shoulders under the strain of muscles. He wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead. Dick glances back at the floor.
“You’re going to be selling freight?”
“Why do you sound so surprised? The Outlaws have bills to pay, and it’s not like the colony has anything like this. The credits will come rolling in.”
“From cheap rum?”
“Cheap?” Jason asks, offended. “This rum is made from organic sugar cane, locally sourced, crafted from a recipe handed down since the family burned the plantation to the ground. It’ll sell. I know something about supply and demand, remember?”
Dick frowns at the light reminder. He never likes it when Jason brings up the past as a challenge, white glove with brass knuckles stuffed inside.
“Fine. Fine. Let me help you get this.” Dick’s stopped by a broad hand on his chest. He’s pushed back with a firm shove.
“No. I’m taking this to Roy and Kori’s room. You don’t want to go in there. Trust me.”
With Jason’s back turned to the crate, it’s Dick who sees the metal drop on its edge. The top cracks open, and several leather straps the color of warm honey tumble to the ground.
Jason glares over his shoulder. “Seriously fuck you.” He turns back to Dick. “Look, I really don’t want your help right now. Can you just.” He flaps his hand back to the table.
“Fine,” Dick snaps. “I’ll just sit here like I have been all day for the last three days. Waiting to do the damn job I’ve been invited here to do.”
Jason raises his eyebrow like the true skeptic he is. “Relax, Dick. This is your luxury liner. We’ll let you know when we need you.” He hoists the crate over one shoulder in one powerful motion then continues before Dick can retort.
Joining the Outlaws definitely wasn’t his finest idea, and the longer he’s here, the more he’s pushed to the sidelines, the hotter his temper becomes. He’s safe, maybe, and not alone, but he can’t stand being the wobbly wheel, the unreliable friend, the guy who’s told to wait until he’s called.
Worst yet, Dick is still alone.
“Whose turn is it in the kitchen?” Jason asks after nestling another box in the corner.
Dick looks up from the weight distributor where he's stood most of the day. The Goldemane had reached a hub-station and the team spent the day refueling and restocking materials for the ship. He's been checking the weight of their haul to make sure the agreed material amounts have been met. Keeping track of numbers isn't exciting, but this combined with today's kitchen duty will be the busiest he's been in days. “It’s my day. You have any requests?” He fights to keep his grin in place when Jason grimaces.
"Nah. Just thought I’d help whoever it is out since I’m in the mood to cook,” Jason says, but it doesn’t sound convincing. “You finish up. I’ll get started on the food.” He escapes before Dick can protest, and frankly, he’s not sure what he’d say, not with the relieved look in Roy’s eyes.
Dick shoves his container against the hull. It hits the interior wall with a resounding clang.
“Dick, come on, man. Jason’s like that sometimes,” Roy says.
“Guys, I don’t want to hear it,” Dick growls.
“But you must. Jason prefers to take the kitchen duties and will do so whenever possible. But he also feels pressure to take the role when he feels the food preparation will not be…. Adequate. I am not allowed to prepare food often,” she confesses.
“Okay,” Dick says, slowly. “But Kori, you can’t cook.”
He watches Roy and Kori exchange a glance, a couple glance, a conversation without words, a connection between two people while he grits his teeth and waits.
Kori turns back to him, green eyes alight with amusement. “Yes, but neither can you.”
“I can cook. I can!” Dick protests, loudly, shoving the anger down again at Roy’s burst of laughter.
“My gut still remembers the great chili cook off,” Roy says. “Unless you’ve managed to pass culinary school, I’m with Jason. Now come on, we need to finish.”
“I can cook,” Dick grumbles. He feels antsy, skin pulling tight over his knuckles as they continue stacking the heavy crates in neat rows, three by three. Ignored and the laughed at, moved from team to cargo, and now one of the few menial duties has been stripped from him.
Soon, they finish and climb to the crew deck to find the air filled with rich, sizzling scents. Kori rises in the air, promising to help Jason make the meal more fantastic. Dick only grunts, crossing to the kitchen storage. He pulls the eating utensils free and begins to prepare the table. It’s something to do at least.
The food spreads across the long table, a mix of greens, grains, pickled vegetables, meat. Some of it's alien, most of it's not, but everything Dick puts in his mouth tastes delicious. It makes Dick stop and think about the last time he had a full meal. The last time he’d tasted flavors in his food, sweet, spicy, bitter, juice in his mouth that he salivated. He absolutely hates that Jason can cook so well. He also wants to know when he honed the skill. And also where the candied nuts came from and why are they so good in the long grain.
After ten minutes of silent eating, Dick’s patience snaps. He lets his spork clatter into an empty bowl and stares defiantly at the table’s other occupants.
“So, what’s the plan?”
The Outlaws look up from their dinner plates with not even vague interest. Kori takes another bite of the gelatinous grain-like goo she’d insisted would complement their meal of dark greens and the tastiest chicken skewers Dick’s eaten in his life. And Kori hadn’t been wrong. The goo is pretty good. But the meal isn’t so amazing that it robbed the others of their ability to speak. Dick had observed them for days, and there weren’t very many times when he didn’t hear conversation between them. Now they’re at the dinner table silently chewing their food while evading his glance like the plague.
“Hey guys. Usually a question gets an answer. What’s the plan?”
Roy glances at the others before answering. “What plan?”
“The plan for when we arrive at the mining planet,” Dick says, glowering. “Pashtou-5? What is our mission, our strategy, our plan?”
The Outlaws exchange another round of glancing. Whatever consensus they’ve made isn’t apparent right now. Jason shrugs, opening his mouth as if he were to answer and then shovels a fork full of the strange long grain into his mouth. Roy nudges Kori beneath the table.
Kori shakes her head in admonishment. “There is no plan, Richard.”
“There is no plan yet ,” Jason corrects.
“You can’t possibly expect me to believe that,” Dick snaps, turning to his right. “Roy?”
Roy shrugs. “Sorry, but I told you the basics when you called. We’ll find out more when we get there then you’ll have, you know,” he pauses to take a sip of his juice, and sliding out of Dick’s angry stare, “Real time updates.”
It stands to reason that people who are fully invested in the truth of their emotions would be such terrible liars. What Dick can’t figure out is why they’re choosing to lie about one thing. An important thing. He doesn’t know why they’re keeping him in the dark about the mission. Unless they don’t plan on taking him. Dick glowers at the thought. He can already tell that they’re planning on him staying on the ship.
And that’s the last place Dick needs to be right now. Rather than let loose the angry retort, Dick shoves his food away, reveling in the hot twist of satisfaction when three pairs of eyes fall on him, see him.
“Fine. Fine. I just thought I would’ve earned a little trust from you, Harper.” Okay, so maybe the retort didn’t get swallowed.
“Are you serious right now?” Jason asks, stirring in his chair. “This is where your bitchfest is about to start? At the dinner table?” His hands spread across the table’s like he’s poised to pounce. He’s jerked back suddenly. Roy’s hand twists into his t-shirt, holding Jason in his seat. The shirt slides over his shoulder exposing tense muscles in relief and a savage scar beneath Jason’s collarbone.
“Settle down, man,” Roy murmurs. “And you, Dick, come on. I know—”
“No, you don’t know. I’m not here to play straight man to your merry band or pawn busy work to when it’s already been completed. I came here to join a team.” Dick stands, a small headache brewing behind his eyes. “And right now, I’m going down to the cargo hold before I say something I’ll regret.”
“Rob, come on!”
“Couldn't even making it three days before making it all about him. I fucking told you so,” Jason crows. The Outlaws collapse into loud shouting, but it’s Jason’s words that follow Dick to the hold.
Three minutes is all it takes before Dick’s conscience tosses his righteous anger aside replacing the misguided, if useful, emotion for something new. It’s not quite shame and it’s not quite embarrassment, but he is feeling like the time he snuck out from the manor and left the keys to Bruce’s prized Ducati in some house party in North Haven when he was fifteen.
In a series of quick leaps, Dick ascends the heavy crates along the far wall wanting to go high after feeling so low. That’s what his little working vacation is supposed to be like, a high point when he feels like he’s dangling at the bottom of his life. He lies on his back and stares at the gray ceiling.
This whole thing has been a mistake.
Getting away is the ultimate fix for his troubles. It has always worked for him. But he’ll be damned if he allows his behavior to prove some twisted point Jason wants to make. He also doesn’t want to be talked down to or ignored. Being ignored is the worst part. Roy, Kori, Jason, they all know him. They know how much he hates being benched. They know how feeling useless hurts.
The air above him blurs. Dick blinks rapidly, denying the frustrated tears their release. He doesn't want to be caught crying. He has no reason to be crying. Slowly, his vision clears and the ceiling snaps back into focus. Dick tilts his head.
There’s something wrong here. Something wrong inside. Something, Dick cocks his head. Something wrong with this room. He considers the strange curving ceiling pieces that extend out just enough to be decorative maybe. Removing a panel reveals ductwork that runs the interior of the hold. Maintenance shaft or smuggler’s hold, it doesn’t matter. This will give him something to do for a while. Dick swings up, then turns, hanging upside down from the entrance to grab the ceiling piece and pull it back again.
Dick spends the next two hours following the circuitry and cables winding alongside the crawlspace. He reaches the ships engine, a large, incandescent ball of power suspended behind an array of rotating fields and metal. He’s making plans to access the ship’s network on his way back to the hold. The ship’s power source is fascinating, but he has to figure out why the security system didn’t activate when he wandered around the ship like this. It’s dangerous. He’s about to remove the paneling and hop down when he hears voices. Dick pauses, listening.
“It’s not like there are very many places to hide on this ship. I mean. Where the hell is he?”
“When I was first taught the game of ‘first hide & then go seek,’ Richard often hid in one of the many closets inside of the tower,” Kory replies. “Perhaps we should try there.”
Something is wrong with that statement. It tugs at Dick’s brain, but he bats it away to concentrate on Roy and Kory’s movements and how close they are to leaving. He doesn’t want to be caught sulking in the ceiling.
“Closet, huh? Figures. No, I just mean. You know what, you can’t give me that kind of look, babe. You know what it does to me.”
“Disappointed?” Kori asks dryly.
“Is that what your eyes are doing right now? Because it looks like they’re telling me to get over there before my stupid mouth gets me in trouble.”
A whoosh of air. “I suppose you would like for me to suggest some way to delight your stupid mouth into silence. A kiss perhaps.” There’s a pause, a laugh. “No, Roy. We agreed. Our displays for affection are to remain in our quarters.”
“Please, princess. No one is going to feel uncomfortable down here when it’s just me and you.”
“What if Jason and Dick find us?”
“They can kiss each other,” Roy mumbles. Kori’s laughing reply is silenced by a kiss. The ship’s quiet makes the change apparent. A sight, a hum, and then a heavy moan. If Dick could escape without interrupting their moment, he would instead of cataloguing this deeply intimate kiss. Finally, Roy breaks away, sighing his pleasure.
“One day I’m going to remember to pick you up,” he says.
“Perhaps you will… one day. But now, I like you like this.” Kori's teasing ends in a pleased hum, and Roy moans softly. Their kiss ends with a sigh. “You will perform beautifully, my dearest one. To see your surrender for the engagement ceremony will be such an honor.”
Roy clears his throat, a clear sign of embarrassment. “I know it’s for the bounty and all, babe. But we should talk about things afterwards.”
“If you insist. But now, you must go. We must find your best friend before Jason does.”
Boots hit the ground. There’s an awkward bang where a body presses into a wall.
“Shit,” Roy mumbles. “Didn’t realize I was so close to the wall… Kori, please stop laughing at me.”
“You are so beautiful after kisses, Roy. I cannot help it.” Another kiss, this time loud and smacking. “Go, search the closets above. I will search the ones below.”
“Fine, fine. Just go easy on him, Kor. Unlike that looney Red Hood, I know a slow slide when I see one. Dick needs support from all of us, so he doesn’t make it to the bottom.”
Footsteps echo up the metal stairs. At least one person has left the hold. Dick can never tell with Kori’s flight. He’s debating crawling back through the shaft and reviewing the other quadrant when the panel opens revealing light, bright as the sun. Kori’s green eyes peer through the crack.
“Olly, olly, oxen free,” she says, and Dick recognizes that smugness from photo shoots, carnival dates, and yes, even hide & seek sessions in the days when he’d thought there would never be a team he could become close to ever again.
“You found me.”
“As I will always.” Kori floats backwards allowing Dick the space to drop down. He shakes out the faint ache in his knees from crawling for hours and stretches his spine. His audience crosses her arms.
Doesn’t look like he’s going to get out of this one easy. There’s only one thing to do, and it’s one of the few things Dick’s never enjoyed telling people because it meant it’s too late, the damage is done.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
"That is not what I want to hear, nor do I think I am the one to hear it."
"It's all that I got right now."
"I somehow doubt this, Richard. I did not want to press, but I fear it should be. You should be."
Dick grimaces. Earlier, he had lamented being unable to talk to his friends, but with Kori staring down at him after his big blow up, Dick would prefer anything else.
"Probably would've worked better before now.
"You did not have the words when you first arrived. You do now. Clearly.
"Well, nothing's coming to mind, so I doubt it." Dick watches a frown flicker behind her eyes, and he recognizes it from before during their arguments. "I'm not a mind reader, Kori, so you're gonna have to help me out here."
“Is Roy correct? Do you need our support?”
Dick inhales sharply fighting with himself again. “Deny, maintain, be better” is the mantra he’s used for years. It has never failed him before, but recently, he can’t do any of those things. It’s why he made the call. It’s why he’s here. And maybe that’s why the Outlaws couldn’t trust him with any details regarding the loosely formed plan.
Dick bows his head.
“Yeah, I do.”
“Then you will apologize to Roy,” she commands.
A wall sits between them suddenly, built on the edge of Kori’s voice. There’s no compassion there, no compromise now that Roy is between them. And Dick can’t even blame her. Roy is the reason why he’s here, vouched for him, and is even now shielding him in a way that’s all too familiar. Even though Dick knows he’s right about them keeping information from him, he can admit his reaction could have been better.
“I didn’t mean to blow up like that,” Dick admits. “I’ll apologize to Roy. And I meant my apology to you. I know you don’t remember, but I. Kori, we were friends before everything. I’d like for us to be friends again.”
Kori pauses, a small moue on her soft lips as she considers his words, then sighs. “I will apologize as well, Richard, for I have kept something from you. I do remember. I do feel. I do regret. I do love.”
“When? How?” Dick asks, staggered by the news. There’s no reason why he should have known, but he feels as if he should have been told.
“There are many ways to inspire healing in the mind and body, but for this,” Kori touches her temple. “I do not have everything, but with understanding and time from myself and others, I have regained many precious memories.”
“And the memories. Do you.” Dick stops himself before asking if she remembers him, their relationship, and how it affected him to know that the person who shared his heart for so long was gone. “God, this is good news, Kori. I’m happy for you.”
“I am too,” she replies. “The past still feels distant to me, but I do recall the ways in which it shaped me. I am happy now because of the past, and so, I am determined to keep those precious memories. With understanding and time, I think we can be friends again too, Richard.”
Dick looks into eyes as clear and guileless as when he’d first met her. He feels something inside, bittersweet without sadness, without regret. He takes her hand.
“Then it’s settled,” he says, voice tender. “We will always be friends.”
Kori squeezes his fingers gently before disengaging. “With understanding and time. Now come, you must right your wrong.”
As trips go, Dick’s sure he can remember worse. There was that Atlantis visit where he got sick and nearly fainted in front of the delegation. That’d been pretty bad; or the time the Titans went universe hopping through two dimensional spaces. That had been painful. On the other hand, he hadn’t been with Kori, Roy, and Jason—three people who have equal reason to distrust and dislike him, to be discomforted by his presence when a part of him still needed theirs. Dick should have considered this part of the equation before running off with the Outlaws, but the stray thought he'd paid the situation said managing their interactions would be easy. He's spent nights laughing at himself for that one. At the time, he'd been much more concerned with staying on step ahead of his problems. Set the pace and then the problems would chase you.
He just has to fight, just has to keep moving. And it's working with the Outsiders.
The ship's atomsphere improves once Dick apologizes to Roy, who accepts it with only a gracious nod and a punch to the shoulder. Roy justs adjusting the schedule allowing Dick to scurry through the ship's repair ports reviewing access lines while Jason and Roy test which nodules connect and control correspond to the ship's systems. Dick and Kori have shared kitchen duties now, and the have vowed to wow their friends. Just seeing Jason struggle with his composure while carving his soup with a spoon has been worth it.
Jason though. Jason is still the outlier.
Dick isn’t into country, but he’s thinking about writing a little ditty about blasting into space with your ex-fiance who is in love with your former best friend, and your… Jason. It’d be a slow crooner with a guitar lick at the end of each chorus designed to break your heart.
They’re in the hallway, bodies bring me back to better days
A sigh, a glance, old feelings have my heart racin’
And then there’s Jason.
The ship pitches forward, tearing Dick's thoughts away from composing the perfect chorus. The orange peels Dick spent time stacking into the frame of a small tent fly into the air then hang weightless. Dick rises from his seat along with the tablet he’d brought in case he’d felt like reading.
Dick grabs hold of the railing above his head and propels himself forward. He grabs the central column to stop his momentum. From this vantage, he can see straight into the ship’s bridge. Roy’s red baseball cap floats between Jason and Roy, quivering from side to side from their angry exchange.
“You should have told me you fucked around with the thrusters,” Jason snaps.
“Excuse you. I had to calibrate the input dials thanks to you and Kori’s lead feet… lead fingers,” Roy retorts.
Dick swings around until his body is parallel to the floor. He whistles, stalling the arguing pair and offers a quiet smile. “Can I help you guys?”
“No!” Jason and Roy shout in unison, but their eyes never leave each other.
“Roy broke it,” Jason barks. “So, he’s not going to pawn it off on you. He’s going to fix it himself.”
“There’s nothing to fix,” Roy yelps as a heavy hand slaps his shoulder. Dick’s gaze slide from the veins in Jason’s forearms to the central console where a red light begins pulsing. Another alarm sounds, this one a cascading chime.
“Oh yeah? What about that?” Jason turns back to his screens. “Harper. I’m being shut out. What the hell did you do?”
“Shit. I think the security protocols think someone is trying to hijack the ship.” Roy unbuckles his harness and propels himself out of the piloting chair. Jason’s snarky venom chases him from the room.
“You just had to go in and tinker, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Roy floats up to Dick, a tight smile on his face. “Hiya.”
“Hey. Roy. You know I can help if you need it.”
“I do. But it’ll be faster if I just reroute that protocol through the conversion processors Jay set up.”
“Oh,” Dick says. “Still. I’m here.”
“Believe me, I know, and I need you to be over there.” Roy nudges Dick shoulder until he’s pointed back at the lounge. “I always thought your attitude got shitty when it came to unexplained mechanical errors, but you’ve got nothing on your brother up there.”
“I have a great attitude!”
“He’s not my brother!”
Roy grins. “Keep telling yourselves that, okay? Please. And keep saying things at the same time. You're still pretty cute when you get riled up short pants...hey. Hey!” Roy bats at the foot Jason lodges against his hip.
“Are you fixing the problem yet, Harper?” asks Jason.
“I’m getting there,” Roy grumbles.
“Let me help you with that,” Jason says, sending Roy sailing with a powerful kick. Roy flips them a bird before angling himself down towards the engine room. Jason comes to a stop in front of Dick. “And what are you doing out here, birdbrain?”
“You know, the best way to help form a team is to encourage team interaction,” Dick says. “We may have all worked with each other in the past, but I haven’t been a part of a team in a while. And when I was an Outlaw,” he pauses, letting the memories filter through him, the mistakes he’d made. “Our run didn’t end how I would have liked, but we were a team that could work together.”
Jason stares at him aggressively. Everything about him feels aggressive from the spread of his thighs to the subtle flex in the arms crossed over his chest. “And you’re telling me this, why?”
“Why? Jason. You know.” Dick bites back his admonishment, because they both know Jason knows such simple strategies. “I’m flying blind here,” he says. “And that’s not where you want your teammate to be.”
“We’re teammates now?”
And something about the bite in Jason's voice has Dick's simmering temper snapping all over again.
“Yes. Yes, we’re teammates, Jay. We’re teammates, we’re brothers, we’re Robins.” At the heavy eye roll, Dick shoves Jason back, unsurprised when Jason charges back into his space closer than before. “We are. That doesn’t change just because we’re not in Gotham, or if you’ve found another way to try filling my shoes!”
“Wow,” Jason breathes. “There’s the Dick Grayson I fucking know. I knew if you stewed long enough that inner asshole would just ooze free. You never fail to disappoint, do you man?”
Dick's eyes narrowed. "I knew it. I knew you were keeping me out. Is this why? Were you wanting to isolate me and push me until I reacted?"
"Maybe I wanted to figure out what the hell you were doing here and what you and Bats are planning," Jason shouts. "It doesn't make sense. You calling Roy in the middle of the night and begging to hop on aboard to the unknown with three people who hate you.
Dick reacts without thinking. A hard punch blocked, a strike caught, and he's held fast by Jason's hot palms. "They don't. You don't hate me."
"Well, we sure as fuck don't like you all that much. You've got people all over the fucking planet that would push their grandmother into traffic for a chance to kiss your ass," Jason snarls, gaze hot, stone still despite Dick jerking his hands to get free, "Why the hell did you come here?"
“I came here because I wanted help!”
Jason’s head curves toward him, a shark sensing blood in the water. “What was that?”
Dick eyes close to collect his thoughts, hoping Jason will just disappear. When he finally opens his eyes, Jason is staring at Dick like he’s a puzzle he never wanted to encounter. Why won’t Jason just leave? He’s like a bad penny, a boomerang, a…. Dick sighs again, angry at himself over that slip of the tongue more than he could ever be at Jason.
“I’m here because I wanted to help. I don’t owe you any more than that.” And just like that, Jason lets him go.
“Yeah. You do. But I’ll let it slide for now.” Jason cocks his head to the side in his thinking pose. “Don’t leave,” he commands before stalking out the lounge.
Dick is ornery enough to do just that, but something tells him the consequences would be too much. He finds himself drifting back to the ground. Gravity restored then. Dick settles back at the table, glumly, wondering why he’d ever thought this would be a good idea. Roy and Kori, things are different, but their past has allowed them to come together. Jason? Not so much.
In the aftermath of the so called “Robin War,” Dick had just enough time to visit with his family and witness their grief and anger first hand. He’d always known on some level that he was an integral part of the team in the same way Bruce, Alfred, and Babs had established themselves as pillars. But somehow, he had compartmentalized and rationalized the hurt he might have caused everyone to a small detail that could be ignored. He would have never expected Jason to feel that pain, and he would never have imagined Jason acting on it in such a way, a yell, a punch, and then hugged to Jason’s chest. God, he’d felt absolutely fragile when Jason’s hands had glided light over his body, as if he were afraid Dick would disappear in a puff of smoke.
Heavy stomping breaks Dick’s thoughts. Bootsteps, size 11, combat grade on a metallic alloy. Jason’s on his way back. He appears in the doorway seconds later, a scowl on his face.
“Here. Maybe this will keep you off my back.” Jason slaps a data pad on the small table.
Dick gives the pad grudging attention. It gleams quietly beside him. He slides it closer, surprised when the screen flashes and the information projects up from the table. A stream of data spins up in incomprehensible script before his eyes—no a stream of code.
“A holographic display?”
“Kind of,” Jason says. “The Kandat process their data on three dimensions. Makes things interesting and complicated. Have fun with that.”
I already am, Dick thinks to himself, stroking his fingers across the sigils. They flicker then twist, becoming Arabic numbers, and Dick dives in, immediately engrossed in mastering how to locate, extract, and then take in information. If they had given this to Dick days ago maybe he wouldn't have blown up so spectacularly.
The security subroutine is Golion in origin, a technology only seen in the Terminus. The Kandat, who Dick assumes are the species that built the Goldemane, have incorporated the Golion systems into their own. The last time Dick had seen this specific task unit, he had embedded a secondary task to increase the decryption speed for the Titans. He’s sure he can do something similar for the ship if he could just untangle five years’ worth of alien coding advancements. That issue isn’t a problem or shouldn’t be. It’s just that Dick’s eyes droop heavily, stinging at the corners. He should sleep. He wants to sleep. But he can’t sleep right now. This is another challenge from Jason. More importantly, it’s something to do.
Sighing, Dick scrubs a hand over his face.
He really is too tired to concentrate on this right now. At least he’s sleeping for longer stretches at a time when his body lets him. No nightmares in the dead of night though. He calls it progress.
Deciding to take a break, Dick flips through the tablet’s contents, which are comprised of security programs and a small data packet, because Jason is as paranoid as everyone else in his batty family. He selects the packet and watches it unfold up from the screen. This time, the language is immediately recognizable and reads Pashtouan Historic, Economic, and Cultural Data. Interesting. He spends another hour reading through sections, grabbing the interesting items and adding them to his mental storage. He’s not sure how anything relates to their bounty specifically, but how could he when he’s been regulated to the corner? He’s just starting to read into the honor binding system and the emotional transference that is facilitated through the ceremonial bracelets and how that differs slightly from cuffs—see entry 38—when a shadow falls over him.
“Okay, what did you do to Jason?”
Dick looks up to find Roy standing over him, a guarded expression on his face. Dick leans back in his seat and wipes a hand over his tired eyes. He’d been so engrossed, he hadn’t heard Roy walk into the room.
“Hey,” he greets, before giving him a quizzical look. “I didn’t do anything to Jason. We haven’t even yelled at each other in the last I don’t know. Three hours, maybe?”
Roy scratches the back of his head. “Huh. Well, he’s suddenly insisting that you be more involved in the details of our trip. Strange when he was pretty vocal about you not being here at all.”
“And you guys just went with it? Come on, Roy. That’s not—”
“That’s not what happened at all, man.” Roy’s heated expression blows clear as easily as it appeared. “Kori and me thought you could use the down time while we’re here traveling. You sounded like you were in a bad way when you called, short pants. Looked worse when you arrived.”
Sighing, Dick leans back in his seat. “You’re not the first person to tell me that. I did blow up at Jason,” he admits. “I thought you guys were. I don’t really know what I thought.”
“Don’t go around beating up on the guy, Grayson. Jason doesn’t deserve that and neither do you.” The casual admonishment stings. “Besides, the plan is pretty.... Non-existent right now.”
“We both know that’s not true, Roy. I can tell when someone is leaving me on the sidelines for ‘my own good.’” He spits the phrase out through twisted lips. “I came here because I wanted to feel useful.”
“Like I said on the phone, we’re a different kind of team. Kori’s leading this one, and that means no planning until we have access to all the information from her contact. Then Jason can put together whatever diabolical backup plans you guys learn while suckling on the Batman’s teat,” Roy flashes a grin at the pure disgust on Dick’s face.
“Not cool,” Dick says, wincing.
“Not my fault you have an overactive imagination,” says Roy. “And then there’s me. No cares, no plan—”
“You always have a plan, Roy. I never understood why you and Ollie always pretend like you’re less methodical than you really are.”
“It goes with the Robin Hood brand. You know, merry band and sexy hats.” Roy points to the ballcap cocked rakishly on his head. “But back to the point, you aren’t being excluded. You do have a place here. And you can mastermind to your heart's content as soon as we have details for you. Sounds fair?”
“Yeah,” Dick says. “Sounds fair.”
Even if it wasn’t fair, he’ll just have to deal with it.
Roy's smile looks relieved. "Good. Now come on. I want to walk through the power conversion programming. Between the two of us, we should be able to decrease the yield time for the synchronous shield transference."
The cruiser flies low in the atmosphere, a shimmering blue shield flaring with light as they pass through the planet’s ionosphere into the darkened clouds. Pashtou-5 is a mining planet in the gamma quadrant of the Ironstrike galaxy known for its arid weather and fierce winds that drive the planetary darkstorms. Those same winds have been bombarding the ship since they left space.
The sensory alarm blares in warning every time a blast knocks Jason from the projected course.
“This is something you could have fixed,” Jason mutters.
Kori looks up from the display. “What?”
“The alarm. Your boyfriend has been super quick to hack into the alien tech. He could’ve replaced the alarm with something that isn’t designed to bust eardrums.”
“I turned the volume up a little.” Roy brings his thumb and forefinger close together. “Just a teenser.”
“Why, my love?” Kori asks.
“Didn’t want short pants sleeping through another attack.”
“Change it fucking back , Harper,” Jason snarls.
“Oh, so now you want me to mess around with the ship, huh?” Roy shakes his head. “Well, no way, buddy. Not until you ask me.”
Jason levels a quick glare at him. “What do you think I’m doing?”
“Bitching,” Roy says frankly. “Look, you got Dick all tense from your shitty flying.”
Dick starts then relaxes his grip on the harness. “Stop trying to pull me into this.”
Jason glances over his shoulder. “What’s the matter, Dickiebird? Worried I didn’t finish flight school?”
“No. Just remembering the time I came home the weekend someone crashed the Stingray,” Dick says, just as another burst rocks the ship and its crew. The alarm squeals at a new pitch that has Dick massaging his temples.
Wind blasts the the ship again and again. It lurches sideways then tilts downward, forced by the unseen pressure sweeping around them. Kori’s fingers slide over the control panel. A series of words scroll above her fingers in a graceful script before resolving into the alphanumeric symbols Dick recognizes. They stabilize, but the ships alarm continues sounding. Kori winces.
“It is rather loud. Perhaps we should consider an adjustment,” she says. “Something that is not made for a species whose ear bones are three inches thick.”
Roy’s expression smooths into something considering. “What were you thinking, princess?” he asks, while Jason huffs.
“Something musical,” Kori replies.
“Yeah, like ‘Highway to Hell,”says Jason. “Now everyone hold on to their knickers. The luxury liner Goldeman will be entering the planet’s stable stratosphere… now.”
The cruiser breaks through the cloud bank revealing a shimmering sandscape under triple moons. Dick releases the breath he’s been holding.
“So, you were worried,” Jason says, a quirk at the edge of his mouth. His fingers slide over the navigation board, bringing the ship low to the ground.
“Not really. I just didn’t expect it to be so beautiful,” Dick says.
The sands seem to gather the brilliant light cast by the celestial bodies and reflect it back in a pale pink all the way to the mountains jutting up in tilted spikes across the horizon. In the distance, Dick sees the churning clouds of a dark storm.
“I spent several months here in my time away from Earth. The landscape very much informs their way of life and the bonds they share,” Kori says. “That too is beautiful.“ She glances at Roy, a gleam in her bright eyes.
The ship races across the ground, pink sands spraying in their wake, and soon, the Outlaws reach Pashtou-5’s bustling spaceport.
After landing, Jason, Dick, and Roy pull up the proximity cameras. The city spills out to the north and west, squat buildings from the outer rim to tall structures that seem to swallow the city’s countless lights. Roy drags another angle into the viewer. “This is the manifest station. We’ll have to pass through here before we can secure transport into the city.”
Jason nods. “Kori’s contact already knows we’ve arrived. It’s time to knock on their door.”
Kori stands. “We will meet at the cargo ramp in 10 minutes.”
They unstrap from their harnesses and move to their quarters, leaving Dick to continue his observations. He fiddles with the cameras, taking in the size and depth of the ships surrounding them, then stretches as he exits the flight deck.
“I hate staying behind,” Dick mutters minutes later as he enters the hold.
“Sorry, short pants,” Roy says as he saunters into the room wearing a jumpsuit that’s gray and fitted by a master tailor. “You did join us last minute, and we didn’t have time to secure the proper clearance for you beforehand.”
Kori floats down beside him. She’s also clad in a thin, gray suit with glowing piping. “You needn’t worry, Richard. Oduoau will provide you the proper cover once we explain everything to him.”
“I’m just wondering what a guy has to do to get a new suit,” Dick says to cover his glower. He didn’t come all this way to stay in the cargo hold.
“Flashy, right?” Roy says. “They’re double duty. Safety lights are baked into the seams like so,” he twists his wrist to show the pale red light pushing up his arm. “Helps maintain visibility in the event of a dust swarm.”
“And the second?” Dick asks despite himself.
Roy flexes while Starfire pirouettes in the air beside him. The material easily stretches through their movements providing a seamless canvas over their entire skin. And it left little to the imagination. Dick’s eyes retreat upwards to meet twin smiles.
Damn if they didn’t seem proud of themselves.
“They are eye-catching, yes?” Starfire’s eyes sparkle as she asks the question that’s not at all a question.
“Well, they are kind of that. Yes,” Dick manages.
The cargo door opens and Jason steps inside, clad in his version of the newer, slinkier Tron-inspired suit that Dick is not dying to wear. His eyes check the fit across Jason’s shoulders, the muscles shifting in his legs. These suits really didn’t hide much at all. Jason runs fingers through his hair, sliding the heavy strands backwards so his helmet fits comfortably. He’s quiet and contained, existing in the silent room until he looks up.
“Why’s it so quiet in here? What’s going on?” His gaze turns to Dick, and he can see the freeze happening. “You got a problem, Dick?”
Dick blinks. “No. Why?”
“Because you’re staring at me.”
Staring isn’t exactly the word Dick would use. Observing maybe. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Jason so unconsciously relaxed in his movements. He’s almost a different person. Focused on not only his own goals but the people around him as well. Maybe it wasn’t different as it was achingly familiar. Dick shrugs the thought away.
“You’re just. Eye-catching,” Dick says, fighting back a wince at Roy’s loud snort. “I thought the idea was to be subtle.”
“These are standard issue,” Jason snaps before turning. He makes a furtive motion to tug at the suit’s tight fit around his thighs and crotch while Dick forces his eyes elsewhere. There are only so many places to look right now.
Kori and Roy appear to be having a moment. Dick watches as Kori takes Roy’s hand in a gentle grasp. She folds a metal ring around his wrist. It flashes brightly, a fiery orange that fades slowly. Roy’s eyes slide shut with a sigh.
“Babe,” he says softly. “Come on. It’s too much.”
Kori cups his chin gently. “Everything I feel is true,” she whispers, then kisses Roy’s parted lips until he moans. She pulls away with a smile. “Come. Oduoau awaits. He will be happy to see me.”
“You mean he’ll be happy to see you,” Roy mumbles, rubbing at his reddened neck.
Laughing, Kori loops her arm through Roy’s and pulls him close. “That’s what I said.” She turns to Dick. “We will return soon with suitable attire and registration for you. It will not take too long.”
Jason cuts a glance back at him. “Stay put, goldie,” he says.
The Outlaws climb down the ramp into the shipyard filled with a dazzling array of crafts Dick’s never seen before or imagined. But Dick’s curiosity isn’t piqued. He watches his friends disappear on the horizon, leaving Dick alone for the first time since boarding the ship. The silence is more deafening without Kori’s soft morning song or Roy and Jason’s choreographed bickering.
It’s amazing how quickly he’d become accustomed to the Outlaw’s rhythms. Even more unnerving how quick he is to notice the absence and miss it. Sighing, he closes the ramp up and closes the bay doors.
Dick wanders the ship’s quadrants without suspicious eyes on him (Jason) or worried eyes (Roy) or neutral (Kori). The ship is alien enough to keep his attention for an hour. He spins through the central processing system after that, comparing it to the ships he’d come in contact with during his year-long space mission with the Titans all those years ago. If technology rapidly progressed on earth, then it flew forward in space. The theoretical engine Mr. Terrific, Mr. Fox, and Bruce had been working on seemed like the stone age when compared to how swiftly this ship cut through air and space. Yet, even this deeper dive into the ship's technology couldn’t keep Dick’s attention for too long. Each discovery forms at least ten questions in his mind, and Dick has no one to launch them at.
It hammers home that he's been abandoned by the Outlaws. The whole point of this excursion is that he didn’t want to be alone, and he’s right back where he started. Above all else, Dick hated being left behind.
With the silence surrounding him, Dick finds that self-truth has not changed. There’s a gnawing ache in his chest, the phantom pains again. Without the quiet banter running in the background, the pains tug at his attention. He can almost feel the morose thoughts that always follow, and Dick tenses in preparation to fight them off. His stomach lets out a sharp growl.
Apparently, he’s hungry too. It’s a good enough distraction.
The kitchen doesn’t provide much in the way of readily available snacks, which is surprising when considering Roy, but not so much Jason and Kori. They prefer fresh meals. Dick doesn’t want to hunt for Roy’s jerky stash. He’d done that in the past and nearly lost an eye. Instead, Dick goes to the ship’s replicator station, searching for meals and finds the last used schematics instead.
Dick raises a brow. “‘Bring back suitable attire’ my pretty fanny.”
Ten minutes later, Dick steps off the ship in a newly replicated jumpsuit, a jaunty swagger in his step.
Fifteen minutes later, he hits the floor of the containment center. Dick turns, stumbling back to the opening just as a sharp hum fills the air. He raises his hand, palm extended outward, and steps forward until he feels the energy just beyond his skin. A strong forcefield.
The Pashtouan guard is nearly two feet taller than Dick and three times as broad with thick, sinewy flesh and two sets of arms. Both of them cross his wide body and he eyes Dick with suspicion.
“Come on,” he cajoles. You don’t have to do this. I wasn’t even trying to leave the spaceport. Just let me out of here, and I’ll go right back to my ship.”
“No credentials. No cuff. No way.” The guard turns ready to leave.
“Wait.” Dick scrambles. “What’s going to happen to me?”
“You have a day-cycle for someone to claim you, little human.”
Dick frowns. “Then what happens?”
“You’ll have to pay your registration fees. Either you’ll go to the mines or you get cuffed. But you are a pleasing alien and quite small. Odds are you’ll have a high cuff price.” The guard says, blandly, and his facial expression doesn’t reveal if that’s good or bad. Knowing Dick’s luck, it’s probably bad.
The guard huffs a deep, stone-cracking sound that can only be laughter before leaving the cell block.
Back to the wall, Dick slides to the floor. A heavy sigh ruffles his hair. He’s never going to hear the end of this.
It starts with a countdown.
The ticks echo in the room, slow, inexorable, reminding Dick that each breath drew him closer to the end. The greatest minds on the planet couldn’t save Dick from pending doom. He couldn’t save himself, no matter how fast his mind races for a way out.
Eyes closed, Dick draws in a long, slow breath of recycled air.
When he was young and training to become the partner to the greatest detective, Dick had learned to regulate his breathing. It will save your life, Dick, just knowing how to step back and breathe. Breathe through the minute, long, slow, relaxed. The oxygen circulates through the system, flowing to the brain triggering endorphin release . It focuses his mind, and Dick remembers that there is a secret to solving every puzzle. He just has to slow down and find it. He just needs more time.
A gentle hand rests against his brow. Soft words filter into his ear. It’s enough. He can stop trying now. He can give in for just this moment. Give up, and things will get better.
Just let go.
He doesn’t want to. There’s still time. There’s still time to get out of here. Escape. Please .
But there is no time left.
The needle pricks his skin. The sting never lasts long because the lassitude follows. A heaviness fills his body, limbs, eyes, lips. The world floats away on the wings of his last breath, darkness, cold and final surrounds him, and….
Dick jerks hard and he cries out, rolling to protect his head. His heart races, his body shakes. The lights are on. His wrists are free. His heart races unencumbered by wires and timers. He doesn’t quite recognize the room, but he’s safe. He’s free. He’s…. In a holding cell on Pashtou-5.
A vaguely purple light pulses in the cell. It's soothing color. Dick breathes in time with the quiet pulse and shortly regains his composure. Sweat drips down the back of his neck and his cheeks are wet. Dick tells himself that’s sweat too. He’s drowning in it. After several days without a nightmare, this one has hit him particularly hard. He's not sure why or how. Perhaps it's the confinement that has dragged his mind backwards. He sits up on the flat couch.
Moments later, the cell block entrance slides open revealing the guard. He comes to a stop in front of Dick’s cell, a mulish expression on the craggy face.
“Registered offender 2319918, Terran, Richard Wing, your hadar ko has arrived.”
The universal translator tucked in the crook of Dick’s ear offers no translation of the phrase and no context to provide meaning, not that it matters. The important part of that sentence is the fact that someone came for Dick.
Dick stands slowly. “You’re letting me go?”
“Your hadar ko has arrived,” repeats the guard. “It would be illegal not to.”
The quiet hum of the restraining field ends, and the cell block entrance opens. Jason strides into the small hallway, a dangerous tilt to his mouth. His fingers twitch at his side, a small tell showing his unease at being unarmed. But he looks at Dick like he needs wants to unload a clip, so maybe that’s part of the tension. There’s probably going to be a lot of apologizing in Dick’s near future.
“As I said, the detainee is well,” says the guard, breaking Dick from his thoughts.
Jason’s lip twists like he’s about to disagree. “Looks like it. Doesn’t mean I won’t be lodging a complaint.” His eyes rake down Dick a second time and Dick can feel every place they stop on their way down his body and then up again. “Come,” Jason commands, hand extending in the exact imitation of the imperious behaviors Jason despises. The pose is the antithesis of Jason Todd, so much so that Dick can only stare at him, confused and appalled. Jason’s eyebrows furrow and his eyes flick to his side once, twice, three times angrily.
Message received. Dick exits his cell to stop at Jason’s side.
“Thank you for coming,” Dick says. He freezes when Jason’s palm curves against his cheek. The touch is gentle, far different from the last time Jason had his hands on him.
Their conversation on the rooftop had been weeks ago now, after the events dubiously titled “The Robin War.” Tim’s forgiveness had been a balm to his soul, just as seeing Damian had eased something deep inside him. To know that his family had stitched together, overcoming the assortment of grief, regrets, and distrust that existed alongside the deep love they shared, had made Dick feel like everything that happened was worth it. Is worth it, including the heavy punch to his jaw. He’d worn that bruise for several days, touching the skin and wondering where Jason had gone, or what he would do next. Or what he had meant to say. The time for them to talk had come and gone, and now is Dick so deep in space his problems should be all but forgotten. But the nightmares still find him. And Jason’s touch feels like forgiveness. Dick shivers.
Jason steps even closer, folding a hand to the nape of his neck. “You aren’t hurt or anything,” Jason demands, massaging him with tender fingers.
“Ah. No. I’m not hurt or anything and Jason,” Dick chokes when Jason’s fingers slide to his jawline. “Jason, are you alright?”
Jason glares at him before nodding. “I am now that you are beside me,” he says. The words are kind, but Jason’s voice grinds out the words with a threatening edge.
The guard claps both sets of hands together. “I apologize for the doubts I shared regarding your dominion over Richard Wing. The transference between you is strong!”
The transference...? Dick jerks his head up. The guard’s craggy face is split into a grin. Jason just looks pained.
“That’s what they tell me,” Jason says. “I will take him back to the ship. As you saw, his preliminary registration has already hit your system. I’m sure his status will be corrected shortly.”
"Of course. You will find me at the first desk to complete the release process." The guard turns to leave
“Corrected? What is going...?" Dick gasps when Jason’s fingers slide over his lips pressing them close. He raises his hand ready to deaden Jason’s nerves when Jason smiles. It’s bizarrely soft, doting almost, and Dick would think he’s dealing with mind control if Jason hadn’t been himself when he’d first arrived. Jason removes his fingers when the door shuts.
“There were inconsistencies in your suit’s bio-registry. They thought you were stock instead of my oneebeibee ,” Jason says, while Dick frowns, still trying to process the way that word sounded.
“Fine, later. Can we get out of here? I’m starving.” Dick moves to leave, but he’s stopped by a strong grip on his arm, firm but still gentle. “What?” Dick growls, tugging at the offending hand.
“Dick, I heard you,” Jason says, like it’s the most important thing in the world right now.
“So, let’s go get something to ea—”
“No, asshole. I heard you .” Jason gaze becomes angry then confused then. He’s never seen a look so soft on Jason’s face while his gaze bores into Dick’s eyes, like he’s only seconds from willing some truth from Dick’s mouth. “You were screaming.”
Dick meets his gaze head on. “Nightmares. It was just a nightmare.” He taps Jason’s fingers before sweeping them off. “I’m good, Jay. Thanks for coming to get me.” He escapes before Jason can hurl another accusation. Or provide one more gentle touch.
Jason catches up quickly and tugs at the tail of Dick’s shirt until they’re side by side. Dick’s been in the game long enough to follow his lead, but the proximity and the touches make him jittery. The feeling twists around Dick’s chest and tugs hard. He dismisses it quickly. Just another phantom pain.
After confirming Dick’s registration and providing another warning to both Dick and Jason regarding personal safety, the guard lets them go.
“Fucking finally,” Jason mutters the moment they step out of the security force offices.
Dick draws in a deep breath, glad to be free. He’d entered from a much less scenic location. This entrance opens to a stone plaza with soft scrollwork separating the striated rock. The stone is an angry orange that reminds Dick of the badlands only glossier. The moons have faded into the bright light of morning and Pashtou-5’s mining colony looks beautiful.
“Hey,” he says, good will rising. “I wasn’t kidding about coming to get me. Thank you, Jason?” Silence. Dick turns to find Jason stalking away. “Jay? Where are you going?”
“You said you wanted food, didn’t you?” Jason calls over his shoulder. "Come on."
One hour, four dirty cakes, and six ground worms, which had been sautéed and season until it tasted suspiciously like chicken, later, Dick finds himself trapped in a small alcove of one of the numerous shops found within the space mall.
“Please stop calling this place a space mall,” Jason gripes, shoving a pile of clothes into his arms. “If anything, this is the space bazaar.”
"The shops have air conditioned interiors,” says Dick. “Mall.”
“Yeah. And we had to haggle for everything. Bazaar.”
“Why not a market?”
Jason curses under his breath. “Will you please pick something. We need to check on Kori and Roy. They’re actually working right now.”
“Ah yes, the show that no one bothered to tell me about. Why? We're adults and we've all had intimate experiences with one another," Dick says, reasonably, as Jason starts choking behind him. He knows Roy and Kori are in a happily invovled, sexual relationship. That means they have sex. Looking back, he’s sure he would have walked in on them twice if not for a sudden spirited argument with Jason. “Yeah, Kori and I used to be engaged, but. I’m not that petty, alright? I am happy to know that Kori is happy. And Roy. Roy deserves happiness too.”
“Sure, I even believe that. Doesn’t mean anyone wanted you to mope around with hurt feelings.”
Dick raises a brow at the second offensive item Jason brought him. The material balls into his fist. “See, you do care?”
“I couldn’t care less.”
Dick tosses another leathery romper back over the dressing room door. Jason squawks, so it’s not a total loss. “Can you at least find me something that doesn’t have my erogenous zones exposed for the world? Is that too much to ask?”
Another piece of material flies over the door.
“First of all, your thighs aren’t erogenous zones,” says Jason. “And we both know you’ve worn less.”
“It was a different time, and I’m tired of people trying to get me to apologize for Robin uniform 1.0. I was killing it.”
“Who asked you to apologize?” Jason asks, voice sharp. Attentive and offended on Dick’s behalf for some reason. He should have a breakdown in front of Jason more often if all that intensive protectiveness gets directed…. Wincing, Dick stops the thought. Humor can be used to deflect his true feelings, but that isn’t what he wants now. It’s not fair to Jason either, who is really trying to help right now.
The last suit in the pile fits snuggly showing every sharp plane and curve of his body, but the color is a darker gray than the others, and Dick’s nipples and thighs are completely covered. Bright blue lighting threads through the material. It kind of brings out the eyes.
“We have a winner.”
“Fucking finally,” Jason breathes. “Come on out then. Let me look at you.”
Dick exits the dressing room. He does a little spin. “Am I appropriately attired to belong to a hadar ko ?”
Jason’s mouth parts. “Uh. It’ll do,” he replies. “Catch.”
Dick snatches the projectile from the air before it slaps against his cheek. He flips it over several times trying to identify the item. It’s a curved piece of metal with a thin band of what resembled LED light near the edge.
“What’s this?” he asks, risking a quick glare towards Jason.
“That’s the cuff. You have to wear it now.”
“If I put this on,” Dick starts, slowly. “It means that we’re engag—”
“Dating,” Jason interrupts. “For the duration of this mission, we are dating. I’m your hadar ko and you’re my oneebeibi. And yes, this is your fault.”
That word again. Like hadar ko , onneebeibi has no translation, but it sounds like a familiar endearment and far too sweet falling from Jason’s tongue. Dick stares at Jason until he’s sure Jason isn’t fucking with him.
“Kori was pretty specific. She said engagement.”
Jason snorts. “Okay, yeah, but not for us . What? You think I want to be the next victim of your engagement curse.”
That one hurts.
Dick absorbs the blow. Thinks about it at least. He turns. “Hey Jason?”
“Yeah—shit!” Jason throws himself to the side just catching the edge of Dick’s punch. Wincing, he strokes his jaw. “Maybe I deserved that.”
“Maybe? Try definitely.”
“Fine, I definitely deserved that. But I don’t deserve you.” Jason stoops down to grab the cuff, then kneels on one knee.
“Oh fuck, you, Jay,” Dick says, suddenly embarrassed. He tugs at the hair sliding over his face then smooths it back.
Jason presents the metal on the palm of his hand. “I know it’s unexpected, but Richard Wing, will you do me the honor of becoming my pretty bride-to-be?”
Dick can feel the blush on his cheeks. “This cuffing thing is an engagement then?”
Jason sighs. “For some people, yes. Ouch, yes, yes, Dick. Damn. This is an engagement cuff but there are others, shit.” He leans back cupping the ear Dick tweaked. “I put it all in the data pack on the Pashtouan culture for you. Didn’t you read it?”
“I read it. I just didn’t finish it.”
“I can tell. So yes, you need this kind of cuff because you replicated Roy’s bio-suit to wear. Between that and your reading at the jail—”
“—your subtle subby side deemed a hadar ko was necessary before you could be released. I spent a lot of credits on this thing, so please, say yes.”
Dick stares at him. The match is lit and his temper has started to simmer. "My subtle what?"
"It's alien technology, Dick. And we're billions of miles away from anyone who gives a damn," Jason says. "So please, can I cuff you so we can walk through the streets without you being picked up for breaking even more laws you were to busy to read?"
"Fine. Yes. Go ahead." Dick grudgingly extends his arm.
With a grin that is a shade too smug, Jason clamps the cuff around Dick’s wrist.
It’s like a switch flipped inside of him. One second he’s thinking about Roy and Kori’s engagement, why it doesn’t hurt him, and the look in Jason’s eyes when Dick had stroked the cuff, the next he’s consumed by an uncontrollable fear.
“Dick.” Jason’s voice cuts sharp as a whip. “Dick. You’re fucking shaking .”
Slowly, Dick lifts his hand up. He’s surprised that it can be lifted at all. His head says the cuff should be heavier. That his wrist should be higher, stretching just behind his shoulders so that constant ache settles into his bones, but this. He can move this. He blinks, concentrating on that thought, but when he focuses on the fingers spreading out from his palm, Dick sees how they vibrate. He is shaking.
“I didn’t. I didn’t realize.” He tilts against the wall and slides to a crouch.
Jason claps their hands together and holds tight until the shaking stops. It takes far longer than it should, especially since Dick’s thoughts are concentrating on fighting the darkness. It’s just beyond his vision, lurking in the back of his mind, waiting for the moment to drag him down, down deep to a place that’s silent, gentle. Dick fights back a sob. He can keep it together if he just tries. Dick sucks in a shuddering breath and nods. He’s got this.
The shaking stops, and after another breath, he begins to relax.
Clearing his throat, Dick offers Jason a firm look. “I’m okay,” he says, and his voice is steady, so it must be true. He repeats himself. “I’m okay. Sorry.” He freezes when the steadying grip loosens, and he lurches forward, squeezing Jason’s hand. A small whine escapes him, half protest, half embarrassment.
Jason catches his elbow. “Can you stand?”
Nodding, Dick tries to rise, but his knees buckle, and he slips. He’s so weak, he’s going to fall. It happens in slow motion, the grimace, the sweat trickling behind his ear, the pain in his chest and then. He’s tugged into Jason’s arms.
For some reason, Dick’s body refuses to do anything but curl into Jason. His fingers clamp into the thin material of his jumpsuit and his eyes squeeze shut. He doesn’t want to let go. “Shit,” he hisses, and even that angry sound breaks into a sob.
“Dickie,” Jason whispers. “What happened to you, man?”
Alarms ring out of the answering silence, a loud baying sound that drowns whatever half-truth Dick had been considering.
“Fuck,” Jason growls. “We gotta get out of here.”
Dick sniffles, grits his teeth, forces the words from his throat. “Why are there always alarms going off with you guys?”
“It’s a dark storm,” Jason says, voice grim. “Not us this time. We have to get somewhere safe. Now.” He presses at his collar. A small gray nozzle extends then unfolds twice. Jason removes a small pair of goggles and presses them to his face. The nozzle expands into a breathing mask. Jason presses the same area along Dick’s collar and soon, he’s also prepared for the elements. Jason pulls him to his feet. “Can you move?”
After a dubious look, Jason heads to the exit. Dick forces his legs to follow.
The path from the mall to the plaza is abuzz with activity. Business owners swiftly close their windows and doors while shoppers scurry on two, four, and six legs. Dick turns back to find Jason a few feet ahead of him. He breaks into a quick gait reaching Jason just in time to have his hand grabbed before they exit onto the plaza. Sand rolls across the stone floor, circles at their feet like a begging thing. Jason climbs to the top of the stairs, Dick clutching at his hand, and lifts a set of binoculars to his eyes.
“Shit,” he mutters. “It’s going to be on the space port before we can reach the ship. We have to find something. An emergency shelter maybe. A room for rent. Anything.”
From this elevation, Dick can see how the plaza sits as a hub with four roads extending from the corners. The black clouds race closer, enveloping the sandscape and leaving impenetrable darkness behind. He represses a shiver, wipes the sweat from his palms. Shelter. They need it fast, and it appears to be in short supply. There are no discernable signs for public refuge, no lines of panicked people fighting through an entrance way. Nothing promising except--
“There. Come on.” He tugs at Jason’s hand and is met with stubborn resistance. “North northeast. There’s a guy selling something. I think it’s access to shelter.”
Jason follows the ordinals spying it with his own eyes before nodding. “Let’s go.”
Dick and Jason bound down the stairs.
They head away from the plaza into the narrow streets. Around them more bodies dash from the streets to somewhere, presumably, safe. They stride with purpose, four-armed Pastouans and other humanoid aliens alike. Their suits glow more brilliant in the encroaching dark. Jason’s chest piece holds a design different from the bat signal, but the diving vee-shape reminds Dick of it all the same. Dick pushes at various points of his suit before finding the appropriate input device. He begins to glow as well, a small circular shape in his chest with lines spreading out like compass points. A safety precaution then.
The edge of the storm has reached the space port. The blowing winds sweep down the street, pulling signs and banners parallel to the roadway. It staggers the remaining people escaping the sand and darkness behind them. Dick forges ahead with Jason close behind, a bulwark against the worst of the force. Finally, they reach the Pastouan draped in white cloth pulling down a heavy barricade over his door.
“Shelter,” Dick calls. “Please.”
“ Stafilzine ,” replies the Pastouan.
Jason steps forward and flashes something in the air, a bright chip with a jewel emblazoned at the center. “Shelter for two.”
“Ahh. The tiny pretty has a master. Unfortunately, I only have one location left to protect you from the storm.”
Jason bares his teeth. “We’ll take it.”
“Good. That will be eighty-three hundred,” he says, holding out his hand. “Thousand.”
“Credits?!” Jason shouts.
Behind them the spaceport disappears, and the darkness moves closer, leeching color and light.
Dick bounces on his toes, and when that doesn’t relieve the anxiety coiling at his spine, he squeezes Jason’s hand. “Jason. The storm.”
“Fine. Eighty-three hundred thousand credits. And you better hope it’s worth the cost, because if anything happens to him.” Jason slides their joined hands across his arm.
“Barbarian!” the Pashtouan cries, taking the money. “Go through the alley. It is the shed in the back.”
Together, Jason and Dick cut through the narrow alleyway and burst into a small rock garden with a low wall. Jason stops in his tracks leaving Dick to skid into his back.
Jason points to a small shed in the distance surrounded by shifting sands. There are others equally spaced behind it in the city’s outskirts. “Look at it. That’s at least a click. We’ll never make it.”
The alarm skips up an octave to accent Jason’s dire prediction.
“Come on. We can find something closer. Break in somewhere. I don’t know.”
Dick shakes his head knowing they can’t go back. They have to keep running, stay one step ahead of the dark.
“No,” he says. “We’re going to make it. You just can’t stop moving.” He takes off like a shot, heart already racing in his chest when he feels Jason’s hand slip from his. Seconds later Jason overtakes him.
They run side by side battered by the wind, still managing to keep the shelter in their sights. And then they begin to slow. The sand rolls in front of them, undulating like serpents. The motion is hypnotic, fooling the eye and the senses. Half a click down and the shelter seems no closer. Their footsteps fade before they complete the next step. And the wind nips at their back, whistles past with mocking speed. Dick glances south. The storm is too close and growing closer, eating the land and leaving nothing behind. It’s coming for him.
Startled, Dick stumbles forward after a swift jerk.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Jason’s cheeks are red from shouting, but Dick can barely hear him.
“You should leave me,” he announces.
Jason does a double take. “What?”
“You should leave me,” he repeats. “Get to shelter. Just leave. Please, Jason.” Dick swallows back the pleading sound, the scream building inside him until he can speak again. “Get out of here. I want you to be safe.”
Jason’s curses drown out the bedlam surrounding him. His eyes begin to glow, an unearthly green light flooding his thin goggles. He immediately releases Dick’s hand and squeezes hands into fists. Even now, the control slips back over him, but his eyes still flare with that haze.
“No. We don’t have time for your heroic bullshit, so don’t fucking try it.” Jason reaches out, movement swift as a snake, and grabs Dick’s chin. “I’m not going to leave you alone. Do you hear me, Dickie? I won’t leave you.”
“Jason. I.” He was wrong. Dick wants to say the words, but he can’t. He can’t say it, and he can’t save Jason.
Fingers wrap along his hand. “We’re almost there. Just hold on!” Jason drags him through the rising dunes.
A hot burst of wind breaks over Dick’s back. The sand gathers at his feet, thick drifts that are up to his calves already. The next step causes him to stumble. It feels like he’s drowning. He’s about to slip under.
The darkness swallows Dick whole. He can’t see anything,
He’s alone in the dark, one more step and he’s going to slip under. It will be so easy, all he has to do is let go. But he doesn’t want to let go. He doesn’t want to die. Jason told him he just needs to hold on.
Dick stares in horror. He can’t see Jason. He can’t feel his hand.
The wind catches his screams as they cross his lips whisking them away.
In the end, Dick didn't hear the timer tick the final seconds or feel the hand tangled around his own. A sweet lassitude spread throughout his limbs, making his head heavy and his breath light. His consciousness folded in, and Dick could no longer think, feel, be. He'd drifted alone in the darkness until suddenly, his eyes opened, and the world appeared before him. It had been painfully bright, his breathing heavy, his world alive again. He'd sworn then, in that small room moving gingerly on limbs that felt new, he would never go back to death willingly. He would rail, he would fight, and he would run until it was his time.
Even with thirty years behind him, Dick has managed to surprise even himself with his naivety. How could he think he'd ever be safe?
The darkness has found him again. Billions of miles away it came and dragged him into a consuming pool of nothing, where he aimlessly floats atop waves of nothing. He needs to fight, but he’s exhausted. His chest hurts. His head rings with the soft wash of sand. Luthor had said he wouldn’t feel a thing, but Luthor has always been a liar. Dick feels everything, but nothing more vivid than his own fear.
“I don’t want to die.”
But he did. He lost. He failed.
“I don’t want to die. I didn’t want to die.” His own voice echoes oddly. The detail means something. If he can just fight , he’d figure out why.
A wave of darkness breaks across his chest pushing him forward, reminding him that he's not done yet. It's as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, as staring at the monster across the gap and doing something about it.
“Come on big guy,” he mutters. Winces at the rawness in his throat. It’s nothing. He just needs to fight.
Dick tries swinging his arms, but they refuse to move. He tries again, moves his feet. He can’t move his hands. They’re still encased in metal spreading him wide, but no. His hands are locked in front of him. What’s going on? He yanks, squirms, shouts.
“Fuck, Dickie, please, please. If you can hear me, I’ve got you. I’m right here with you.”
His name again. Dick’s never heard another voice before—before? That matters—but he did. Bruce’s voice. Luthor’s voice. The tick of the clock. The needle sliding under his skin. He had failed, and now it was time to die. But he didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to be alone.
“You’re not alone. I’m with you. Damn it, Dickie, hear me. My heart beat. It’s right beneath your ear. Can you hear it?”
Dick stills, and the wave carries him up and down again. There. He hears it somehow, even at the distance between them, the invisible boundary between life and death. A heartbeat. Strong.
“I can hear it, Dick whispers. The heart beats. Dick’s head rises and falls with the next wave. He listens and the sound grows closer, louder. Real.
“Thank fuck. You’re alive, baby. You’re alive.”
Something soft brushes his forehead. An impossibility. Death won, and Dick lost.
Heartbeat, the rise and fall of a chest, soft breath over his forehead. Whatever feelings that rise from the realization are distant, so far away he can’t imagine something other than the numb squeeze in his own chest. Phantom pains. He shouldn’t be able to feel them. A lie: he felt everything. He remembers sand, running, a hand slipping from his own.
He knows the voice, heavy with relief.
It’s not the first time he’s seen Jason in his dreams, hallucinated his likeness, laughing, silent and accusing and always there like Dick hadn’t been.
“Jason. Jason, you shouldn’t be here with me.”
A sigh. “No, Dick, you’re here with me , and I’m not letting you go. So, come back to me, Dickie.”
Come back? Dick stubbornly latches on to that phrase. There's something wrong with it. Something that makes it inconsistent with. Something. He can't come back because....
“I’m right here,” he mumbles.
“Good. Good. Keep talking to me. What is the last thing you remember?”
“I thought we could make it. I forgot that I can’t make that call. I was wrong. I was wrong, I was wrong, I was wrong.”
“No.” The grip around Dick’s wrist burns. “No, Dick you were right. We made it. We're in the shelter. Just keep talking to me. What else do you remember?”
Everything is so dark, he can’t see, he can’t concentrate. “I can’t.”
“You can,” Jason urges.
Grimacing, Dick sifts through the memories floating in his head. “I remember the cell. You came to rescue me, but it didn’t work. We didn’t have enough time to defuse the bomb.”
He got it wrong. Dick can tell by the confusion in Jason’s voice. Another mistake. Jason’s graduated to another class of training. He’s learned how to find weakness and ruthlessly exploit it. But Jason only shifts beneath him, hand soothing down his back.
He tries again. Images come to him from not so long ago. Green fire lit in fierce eyes. Stumbling through sand, Dick frozen by fear as the darkness closed all around them.
“The storm. I remember the storm.”
“The storm?” Jason repeats. "You mean the dark storm?"
The tone says Jason thinks this qualifier is important. Dick flips through his recent memories, nodding when he sees the entry for dark storms in his mind. Powerful sand storms whose magnetic centers drag a light-swallowing mass at their eye. They appear regularly across Pashtou-5, but it doesn't stop the mining. Nothing ever has.
“Yes. The dark storm. I thought we could make it.” Dick draws a sharp breath, wet and green. “I almost got Jason killed.”
“It’ll take a lot more than hauling your pretty ass through the desert to take me out.” Jason’s indignation rattles in his chest like bass, a rumble Dick can feel. Familiar. Real. He has to be sure.
Dick worms his wrists from side to side until his hands slip free from the restraints (sweaty hands loosening, did Jason hold him this entire time?) Now, he can reach up and touch. His fingers travel over uncompromising bone and smooth skin. The features come together in the dark; sharp nose, strong jaw, sloping cheekbones, sensual mouth with a faded scar at the corner. Jason.
“Jason. Jason, you’re here .” He can’t believe it, but it’s true. He can hear Jason, feel him.
“Yeah, I’m here with you. We made it to the shelter. It’s some kind of. Uh.” Jason stumbles to a stop when Dick embraces him.
“Thank you,” Dick whispers. It becomes a litany of all the things he can’t manage to say in that moment because the feelings are too big to fit inside those words. He’s not alone. He wasn’t left behind. He’s alive and safe in Jason’s arms. “Thank you.”
“Thank you? What the fuck, Dick? Did you really think I was gonna leave you there?”
Dick shakes his head. He’d been thinking of the peace he’d made with himself, the face he presented to the world. He’d been thinking that he’d mastered being alone as an agent when his messages went unanswered and his lifeline severed. It was all a lie.
“No. Can’t I thank you?”
Jason grunts. The sound makes Dick’s mouth quirk.
“Usually someone says something to acknowledge it at least. Thank you. No problem. Something.”
Jason's voice grows dark. “Maybe if you tell me why you sound like that when you do.”
“Sound like what?”
“Like you’re shocked that Red Hood can save people.”
Dick lays gentle fingers to Jason's cheek. Contact to soothe, to reassure where his expression is lost in the dark. "You’ve always been a hero, even when you try not very hard not to be.”
“What is it then? Because you sound. You don’t sound like yourself. And that’s twice you froze on me in a matter of minutes. Nightwing never freezes. What’s got you like this ?” Jason says the word like it’s some strange unknown, and if Dick hears weak and useless in his tone, well, isn’t that what he’s become?
It's the perfect opening delivered in the perfect terms for Dick to do the one thing he's both longed to do and avoided since joining the Outlaws: talk. Dick swallows thickly. He’s never had a problem with words, but they refuse to come out.
He doesn’t know how to explain it. He doesn’t know how to explain how the Boy Hostage stigma did drive him in the past to be smarter, to be better, to never be vulnerable in that way again. But even with all that training, even with all his successes, Dick had always known that if the worst ever came, Batman would be there to save him. He has never questioned it, even. Dick closes his eyes. Even after Jason, even when he and Bruce had let Jason down, the smallest part of his heart knew Bruce would’ve made it for him. He never understood why he hadn’t for Jason.
Then Dick’s moment came, and he’d been forced to face the ultimate truth: Batman is only human.
He lets out a sob of laughter. It’s what he had told Bruce time and time again, after all, “You’re only human, Bruce.” He never stopped to think it was a lesson he’d learn himself. Never thought he’d still be dealing with the aftermath or that the consequences would be curled against Jason in the middle of a storm, who perhaps had learned that lesson long ago. He can't share that, but other things maybe. He just needs to get it out.
“Can I talk to you?”
He can feel Jason tense then, “Yeah, you can talk to me.”
The answer is too quick. No protest, no challenge. Dick shakes his head.
“I’m serious, Jay.”
Jason captures his hand, squeezes tightly. “Then talk, Dick. I’m here right now. I’m not going to leave you. Remember that.”
No, Jason isn't going to leave. He hadn't before, and just as importantly, he can't leave now. He's a performer's favorite type of audience; enraptured, eager, captive. And he's holding onto Dick in a way that feels secure, safe, like he's not going to let Dick fall into the swallowing dark.
Dick drew in a deep breath, and when he released it, the words began to flow. He started from the beginning; the syndicate, his capture, the bomb, the mad plan. It came easy in some places, the route presentation of mission facts, and in others he faltered, hesitated, grew quiet. But in the dark it doesn't matter. Jason holds him tight while listening. Dick can hear his heartbeat, loud in his ear. He isn't alone. The darkness makes it easier, intimate, like a secret.
“It was the mmm,” Dick stutters, before breaking off to try again. Mission report. “It was called the Murder Machine. They strapped Nightwing to the bomb knowing that I couldn’t escape. After learning the mechanics of the machine, what it could and could not do, Luthor devised a way to trick the machine.” Distantly, he sees the room through the hot lights beating down on his body. He sees Batman for the first time in months, helpless at his feet.
"What did Luthor come up with?"
"The machine was connected to my heart. When the timer stopped,' Dick swallows thickly. "Lex theorized that stopping my heart prematurely would allow them to disconnect me from the machine."
"His solution was to kill you?" Jason's voice shook with anger.
“Temporary death," Dick whispers. "Real, but not. It was over so quickly."
Jason stroked his neck with gentle hands. "Dick."
"I can remember how quickly the darkness took me under. For an instant I could see everything, and everything was nothing but me and my last words echoing all around me. I think I could hear them even when I was. Even when Luthor put me under.”
“And what were they?”
Dick takes a steadying breath. “I don’t want to die,” he whispers, and the words echo through his entire body with painful clarity, because he didn't want to, loved the power and the fury of being alive. "Every dream becomes a nightmare where I'm sinking down, no escape. I can't breathe. And then, nothing."
“Was it like that for you?” Dick pushes away, stunned the question fell out. “Sorry. Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked that, Jay. Shit.”
Silence. He can’t see Jason’s expression, but he can feel the way Jason stiffened, his breath growing shallow. Now that he’s not pressed against Jason’s body, he can feel the cool air, can feel the rattling patter of sand slamming against the outer walls.
Finally, Jason moves, cupping the back of Dick’s neck beneath a warm palm and drawing him close again. “It’s okay. It’s just. That’s not what happened to me. I saw the timer, and I remember thinking if I had been, well. I had some thoughts, but I was happy that no one was gonna get hurt because of me. And then there was the nothing. A flash of light and I was in my grave, nothing in between. I think,” he clears his throat, “I think I was at peace.”
“But your nightmares.”
“The pit,” Jason says, shortly.
“Oh,” Dick whispers. “I’m sorry.”
“We’ve all suffered trauma, Dickie. It doesn’t lessen ours to acknowledge your own.”
Jason’s eyes are on him again. He can feel their intensity burning bright and hot again. Dick’s heartbeat begins to accelerate until it thumps so hard, he can feel it in his belly, which begins aching. Jason is furious. That fury always needs an outlet, a place to rage and roar until it burns out. Still, Jason’s touch is gentle on his skin. A thumb slides over the veins in his wrist to soothe him. Bizarrely, Dick imagines Jason as a young, angry kid hunched over a butterfly, but Jason holds a tiny pair of tweezers and a duster that he uses to stitch the scales back to the wings. So careful of Dick’s trauma when he constantly throws himself in the fire for his own. That more than anything loosens the dam.
Dick talks, and once he’s started, it’s hard to stop. He talks about everything that took place after he came back to life. He takes Jason through the plan, the infiltration, the mission, the things he learned, and the team ups. He tells Jason about the messages he’d left with Bruce, and how those communications seemed to dry up until the only thing left was silence. Fear. He tells Jason that he made it through to the other side and how he thought he’d be stronger. How he’s not. How all those experiences made built something stronger inside but broke something too.
He says, "I want to know why the world keeps spinning when I'm standing still."
He says, "I want to know why winning feels like losing."
He says, “I went out there, I survived without the Bat, and I came back because of it. Maybe I thought it’d be easier, I’d be more capable. But I’m not stronger, Jay. I’m not.”
He says, voice cracking, "I don't want to feel like this anymore."
Silence. It settles heavily over Dick's shoulders, and he remembers why he shouldn't reveal that inside him lives a cracked shell of a man bleeding from the heart.
Then Jason moves. He lifts Dick's hand carefully, like it's fragile glass and not calloused and covered in scars. A soft brush over the tips, then the knuckles. Jason's breath is warm, damp, hot as it blows softly across his forehead. Warm lips press against his brow, and Dick remembers nightmares, shadows all around, a warm kiss, lullabies in the dark.
Jason says, "I wish I knew the answers, Dick, I wish I found my own so I could share them with you."
Jason says, "We both know whatever you came out here to find is already inside of you, but I'll be here until you do."
Jason says, “You might not feel like it, but you are strong, Dickie. You are. Strong enough to survive. Strong enough to come home. Strong enough to get back up again.”
Jason says, voice vibrating with suppressed feeling, "I'll always believe that, even if you can't."
“I think I used believe that, be that,” Dick confesses. “But nothing is going my way. Everything is slipping through the cracks. Work. People. I can’t even close a case right now, Jay. You asked me why I came here. That’s why. I’m useless, weak. I couldn’t do it alone, and I shouldn’t be alone.”
“Allow me to point out a flaw. You just said that you were operating alone and still managed to save the world. And you are never alone, Dick. Never, especially not right now. You even have me on your side.” Jason says like that it’s an obvious fact, and Dick smile is small, strained, but also real. The first one in a while.
The truth of it floats through him leaving him exhausted but oh so relieved. He opens his eyes, and for a moment, Dick feels like he can see.
“I guess I can’t argue with that,” he says.
“Your name is Dick Grayson, so yeah, I think you can and will argue with that,” Jason’s voice softens. “And I think you can do anything, Dickie, even get through this.”
Dick curls against Jason’s body while he’s stroked gently, and it feels like he can breathe freely, the weight lifted from his chest. He relaxes into Jason’s hold bit by bit, comfortable and comforted. Jason smells like leather and a pungent smoky scent like he’d been to a floral bonfire. It’s pleasant. Dick drifts on the scent and the soft rhythm of Jason’s breath while the storm continues to rage outside.
Shifting, Dick hums.
“Another hour maybe,” Jason answers before the question touches his lips. “Dark storms travel along a prescriptive path and the spectrum phenomena lingers for six or seven hours after the actual storm moves on.”
“What is this place?” he asks.
“Best I can tell, a hydroponic station. Plenty of water, and what I assume are edible plants, but I can’t see anything, so, the taste test is put on hold.”
“Why are there lights sewed into the clothing if they’re not visible during the storm.”
Jason sighs. “Seriously, Dick?”
“I literally put everything you needed to know about Pashtou-5 in that file. I even used your shitty little classification system. You didn’t read it?” He sounds more than a little miffed.
Dick rubs at his chest soothingly. “I didn’t finish it. I had planned to while you guys were out, but the cabin fever set in.”
He can feel more than hear Jason shake his head in disgust.
“We hadn’t even been gone for an hour. Here.” A cup is pushed against Dick’s fingers. Dick lifts it to his lips and moans softly. Water. It soothes his raw throat. He drinks it all gratefully, then collapses back.
“Thank you,” he whispers, and Jason shifts again. “You know, I’m supposed to be helping you guys, Jay.”
“You are helping me.”
Jason’s shrug tips Dick up and down pleasantly. “Fuck if I know. You’re like my community service project for anger management or something. I don’t know.”
Dick nudges him with an elbow. “That’s a pretty shitty thing to say to me right now.”
“It’s a process, man. Besides, we’re both pretty shitty people. It’s why we should stick together.” His hand settles on the back of Dick’s neck. Fingers stroke his hair. “Back to your question though. The inlaid lighting emits light across the spectrum. Pashtouans can see the band that manages to pierce the phenomena. Humans can’t, even with the goggles. Sometimes we’re blind to a lot of things.”
Dick closes his eyes, thinking about the times he’s been blinded by emotions, fear, pride, anger, doubt? About what they need and why, from who?
“Maybe. What’s gonna happen when we get back though? Can’t stick.” A yawn escapes him. “Can’t stick together when you’re in paradise and I’m by the Bludhaven River.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we’re actually on Earth,” Jason says. “Until then, just. Close your eyes, alright. You look like you could use a little rest.”
“I think I’d rather get the sand off me. This thing is skin tight, and I still managed to get in my craw.”
Jason snorts. “What’s a craw exactly?”
“That is one lesson you’ll have to discover without my guidance, little wing.” He sits up. “There’s more water here?”
“It’s some sort of greenhouse. We can actually shower.”
“Lead the way.”
Dick holds on to Jason’s shoulder as he guides them through the green house, describing the layout as they move. Jason explains how he mapped out the irrigation system to this spray before turning the switch. The soft shushing sound of falling water is the most perfect sound Dick’s ever heard.
They undress in silence, and if Jason resents how close Dick is to him, thigh to thigh as they step under the spray, he doesn’t say anything, keeps his palm curled over Dick’s elbow to steady him. Dick turns his head towards the spray, sighing as it patters over his face, cool and sweet. He gathers the drops in his cupped hands to wet his hair. He does it a second time, releasing the water over Jason’s shoulder. He’s surprised when Jason begins running fingers through his hair. His strong fingers circle Dick’s scalp, disarming him with a gentle touch. Dick slumps into Jason, a quiet moan pressed against his shoulder.
“You don’t have to stop talking you know,” Jason says.
Dick smiles. “I would’ve thought you got tired of me by now.”
“I was over it before you even boarded the ship,” Jason grumbles, “but it’s not like you’re the only one who needs to be reminded they’re not alone in the dark.”
There’s a tug on his conscience, an ache fluttering through his chest, but it’s real and his own. Wrapping his arms around Jason’s waist, he draws him closer, whispers, “Okay.”
Eyes shut, Dick can pretend a little longer, block out the pending light that will scrutinize their closeness. He can luxuriate in touch, the way Jason places Dick’s hand against his chest when he feels like he’s drifting in the dark, leans closer when Dick’s voice flickers, soft as candle light.
Kori barrels over the runway scattering pink sands into the air like a giant plume in her wake.
“Kori, wait!” Jason says, dropping Dick's feet to the ground. He separates them right before he and Kori collide, and she carries him into the air. Seconds later, Kori returns with her arms wrapped around Jason's waist. They drift slowly, Jason muttering, “I’m fine. We’re fine,” in soft tones before landing.
She pirouettes midair and reaches for Dick's hand. “And you. You are unharmed as well?"
“Yes,” he says. “Jason saved us.”
“I am glad,” she says. The softness of her voice muffles Jason’s half-hearted protests.
Roy climbs down the ramp seconds later. He moves stiffly, like his muscles are sore and his shirt and pants are too tight. “We were worried. Jaybird, your transmissions stopped coming and then the grid went down. We’re just glad you’re okay.”
Jason glances at Dick. “We are now. How’d everything go?”
Kori’s face splits into a satisfied grin. “Very well,” she purrs. “Roy performed beautifully, and we will be able to infiltrate the club to find the suspected cuffbreakers.”
“Good,” says Jason
Roy settles a hand on Dick's shoulder. “We have three names, building plans, four schedules, half a payment, and marching orders, Rob. You ready to mastermind?”
Dick glances at Jason, who returns his look with a steady gaze. “Yes, but it’ll be better if we can all come together on this in the morning.”
“Yeah?” Roy says, surprise coating his expression. “You can stand waiting another five hours before letting your brain loose on creating the perfect plan while Jason’s breathing down your neck.”
Jason flushes. “Shut it, Harper.”
“More like eight hours and yeah,” Dick says. “Besides, Jay will be busy wasting his time on a contingency plan. He won’t be a problem.”
Roy laughs. “As long as you guys don’t come to blows in the meantime.”
“Do not let them concern you, my love,” Kori says. “The downtime is necessary for I promised to pamper you tonight.”
“And on that note, this meeting is adjourned,” Roy says. Kori and Roy reach for each other and float towards the crew cabins.
“I’m going down to the hold,” Dick says.
Jason’s lips quirk, amused. “I know. I was gonna come down with you.”
“Okay,” Dick says, surprised, but also grateful.
Okay is how Dick feels. Not perfect, not great, not even good. His emotions still feel raw, his senses high, higher with Jason warm and real in the light beside him.
After spending too long under the gentle spray, Jason and Dick had dressed and returned to sit beside each other. Whatever distance between them that started at the beginning of the trip has eroded, and Dick crossed the unnegotiated line a second time, resting his head on Jason’s shoulder. They talked more, fingers seeking each other out, about Dick’s time with Spyral, and the things Jason had never known about his return as Nightwing. The silence hit harder than the storm perhaps, sending the signal that the storm had passed. Freeing themselves had taken longer. Jason had emerged from the sand with Dick in his arms and slogged back to the weakened city and the Goldemane.
It had given Dick plenty of time to think—if not about all that happened, at least about now. He feels okay now. Maybe will feel better in the future. And he thinks Jason got one thing wrong, because he's found something already, something precious.
Jason nearly crashes into Dick when he halts at the doorway. “Sorry,” he says, sounding sheepish. “I wanted to show you the override for the conservation mode while we’re here together.”
Dick smiles. The second in hours, the first unabashed in—he doesn’t know how long. “Jason, you don’t need an excuse, okay? I want company.
“You asked me why I came here, and I told you I wanted help. But more than that, I didn’t want to be alone, especially if it isn’t my terms. I didn’t want to be alone.” He takes a deep breath, a big step, falls forward so the wind whistles by his ears and the lights shine so bright when you fall. “Will you stay with me tonight?”
Jason’s arms curve around his waist, sure and tight. “Yeah, Dickie, I’ll stay.”
Special thanks to threeisme and volavi for the excellent beta work.