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And Here You Are Living

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Bruce Wayne walked into Dr. Fatima Waqud’s door at precisely 9 o’clock, which surprised the psychologist. The well-known billionaire was hardly known for his punctuality or his attention to decorum, for that matter. She had been hesitant to see Gotham’s famous resident when her secretary had informed her of the appointment. More famous for his ridiculous exploits, Bruce Wayne had little patience for counselors and therapists, so to see him in her office on time, no evidence of a hangover, and dressed to impress in a well-tailored suit on a Saturday morning surprised her in a way few things managed to surprise a counselor who was used to catering to the rich.

After pleasantries had been exchanged, Dr. Waqud brushed her gold and red hijab away from where it had fallen slightly in front of her face. She smoothed her loose bright yellow summer dress as she sat down in her dark brown leather armchair and gestured for Mr. Wayne to have a seat on the matching couch that accented the forest green rug on the floor. Earthy tones tended to help people relax, and her office was filled with their influence as could be seen with the framed pictures on the wall and the fountain that bubbled in the corner of the room. Dr. Waqud’s office was a sanctuary from the noise, bustle and dismal colors of Gotham. Fatima had always loved colors and the way they influenced the mind and her own mood. It was one of the many reasons, her family had been surprised that she had settled in the dreary city, yet she had her reasons.

“What brings you to my office today, Mr. Wayne?” She asked after he had finished settling himself. The billionaire looked awkward and uncomfortably on her couch; he sat on the very edge as if waiting for the chance to escape.

“Bruce, please,” he corrected but offered no other explanation.

“Very well, Bruce. How can I help?” She kept her tone light and friendly, trying to calm his nerves.

He studied her for a long minute, and she smiled politely. She’d hardly be a fit therapist if she didn’t know how to wait for another to speak.

“I’d admired your dissertation regarding how post-traumatic stress disorder developed in children and affected them as adults,” Bruce replied, shocking the psychologist.

Charcoal eyes blinked. Then blinked again. Dr. Waqud absently spun the gold bangles that contrasted against her dark skin. She would not have been more surprised if he had announced he was Superman.

“You read my dissertation?” She asked. Her voice holding only an echo of her surprise.

He nodded.

Regaining her equilibrium, she spoke with a calm voice, “I apologize. I hadn’t been under the impression you were much of a reader.”

Bruce flashed her a smile that she had seen on the cover of magazines throughout the years. “You can hardly believe everything you read in the tabloids.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “I did you a disservice by prematurely judging you. I offer an apology.”

He waved the offer away. “I’m here because of your dissertation. Your research and arguments were intriguing to me. Recent events have forced me to admit that I may not have the best resources available to combat PTSD that developed in childhood. I hope to rectify the situation.”

This at least was familiar ground. As much as Bruce Wayne reportedly hated therapists and the whole counseling field, everyone in Gotham knew what had happened to Martha and Thomas Wayne. Poor Bruce had been a young witness to their cruel murders, and he most likely had developed a form of PTSD as long with the world’s worst coping mechanisms if the tabloids were to be believed.

“What happened?”

He stared at her again, and there was something unnerving in that stare. “What is your opinion of the Batman?”

She didn’t react to the non-sequitur. Often times, patients would circle to the real issue if you were willing to listen. “I’m afraid my opinion is far too complicated for our time together, but in short, I am glad there is someone who is able to combat the likes of Joker and Two-Face, but he never should have allowed a child to fight with him. Have you had an encounter recently with him?”
Bruce smiled. “Oh, I’m afraid I’ve never had the chance to meet him. I’m far too afraid to travel the places he is supposed to frequent at night.”

“What are you afraid of?”

He shrugged, relaxing into a role that Dr. Waqud was only beginning to suspect was a mask. “I’m a billionaire in the world’s most crime-ridden city. What’s there not to be afraid of?”

She leaned forward and kept her face neutral. “Is fear a consistent part of your life?”

He laughed. “Only a little, but I’ve managed to keep friends in high places.” He grinned. “Are you aware that I fund a large portion of the Justice League operations?”

“What?” Fatima kept the shock off her face but suspected she failed keeping it out of her voice. That was not where she suspected this conversation to go. Was this man truly implying that superheroes could be bought?

“I help fund the Justice League,” he repeated. “I believe in their mission, and my support has always been fairly well documented in their annual tax documents. However, I have recently realized there is a crucial element missing, and I have been tasked to solve the problem.”

As the words sunk in, she leaned back in her chair. “Allah forbid,” she whispered. “You want me to be a counselor for the League.”

Bruce leaned forward, perching once more on the end of the couch. “Something like that. You were brought to my attention due to your most recent article regarding the superhero ideal and how we cannot hold ourselves to their highlights when we only ever see them in their glory. You argued that many of our heroes would have to be suffering from PTSD, but the public would never see it.” He gave her a toothy smile that did nothing to calm her racing heart and unsettled nerves. “It was a fascinating read.”

Before she found her ability to reply, Bruce stood up. “I’ve left the non-disclosure agreement with your secretary. As for payment, if you provide satisfactory services, I’m willing to fund the non-profit you are attempting to get off the ground for an entire year.” He turned to leave. “If you are in agreement, I’ll expect you at Wayne Manor on Monday evening. If you are not, then this conversation never happened, or I have your license revoked for breaking patient client confidently.”

She blinked again, twisting the golden bangles encircling her wrists. Still she stood with him. “Are you threatening me, Mr. Wayne?”

“Of course not, Dr. Waqud.” He didn’t fumble once over the pronunciation of her foreign name. “I’m just stating facts.”

With that, he walked out of her office. Collapsing back in her chair, she continued to spin her golden bracelets as she thought over everything that had been revealed to her in the last fifteen minutes. She was not arrogant enough to think that she alone could help the entirety of the Justice League. That would require far more than she alone could offer, but the promise of getting her non-profit to support the Syrian refugees off the ground and running was too tempting to dismiss the notion out of hand. The current political climate did not encourage Americans to donate to a charity that was run by a Muslim female, even though the non-profit itself had designed to be completely secular in nature.

Dr. Waqud stared at the space on the couch Bruce Wayne had left. Possibilities circled in her brain. This could be a chance of a lifetime.

Chapter Text

“How can we ask children to undergo torture for our safety? Americans have never been so cowardly to ask a child to die for us. We are the home of the brave, not the cowardly. We do not allow kids to enlist in any branch of the military, and we cannot continue to allow young children to face battles that we are afraid to fight ourselves,” President Katz argued.

Clark had emailed him the article before it hit the presses. Even though he had lost his job at the Daily Planet, the reporter wouldn’t have difficulty finding work as a freelancer. Clark was too unique in his ability to get exclusives with the superhero community, but his latest article would certainly rock the political world. President Katz was pushing to abolish the portion of the UN Charter that allowed for those under the age of 18 to participate in Young Justice. If that were not enough of a headache for Bruce, the article additionally announced that Superman had confirmed that Red Hood had been the second Robin, although the article reported that Jason had been kept prisoner and tortured, rather than a story of resurrection. There was only so much the public would swallow.

Bruce curled his fist in frustration. Clark had no right to announce that Red Hood was the second Robin. No, Clark hadn’t had the courage to tell Bruce that particular piece of information in person. Man of Steel, my ass. Clark was right to fear Batman’s retaliation. There were certain things the world did not need to know. He already knew that the reporter would argue that telling the truth was never wrong, but Clark was a foolish Midwesterner, who refused to realize that the world was not nearly as peaceful and trustworthy as those in Smallville. And now, Clark’s compulsive truth-telling would cause too many problems for Bruce to fix.

…and yet, there was a part of Bruce that wondered if President Katz was right. Jason never would have died if he hadn’t been Robin. Would Dick be struggling with depression if he hadn’t lived the life of a child superhero? Tim wouldn’t have limited motion in his shoulder if Bruce had kept his word and not taken another partner. Then, there was the issue of Cassandra. It was clear she had been abused. The child twisted her ankle in a sparring match but didn’t report it. When Bruce had noticed it, she shrunk away from him as if Bruce would strike her for showing weakness. His knuckles turned whiter as he tried to reign in his anger. He wanted David Cain to pay for his treatment of the child, and he would pay. Batman would make sure of it.

He released his hands. Was Batman any better though? Had he essentially done the same to Dick, Barbara, Jason, and Tim? He had trained them to be undefeatable weapons, stolen their childhoods, and forced them to face more than a child ever should have. Perhaps, Angela Katz was right. Children shouldn’t be allowed to be superheroes. Young Justice would never have been a thing if Batman hadn’t allowed Dick to be the first child hero. So much could be traced back to that one fateful decision.

Closing his laptop, Bruce stood up. Anger and guilt warred within him. He needed to pound it out on a punching bag before he ended up doing something he would regret like strapping Clark in kryptonite cuffs for a few hours…. although, the man definitely deserved that.

As he arrived in the cave, he saw Cassandra dash away from the training mats. Bruce sighed. Heaven forbid, there would be a single child in his life that followed a doctor’s orders for recovery.

“Cassandra,” he called.

Cass slowly stepped in front of him. She took one look at him before forcing her gaze to the floor and hunching in on herself. Her feet were not planted firmly. She was prepared to dart away in a second’s notice.

Bruce lowered to one knee in front of her. He kept his voice gentle and calm. “Were you exercising on your twisted ankle?”

Cass nodded once.

“I asked you not to do that because I want it to heal and not cause you pain,” said Bruce.

Cassandra looked up at him. “Angry?”

“No, I’m not angry.”

She scrutinized him for several seconds. “Angry,” she declared.

Bruce sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Not at you,” he reassured her. Bruce had no idea how a child who had known him for such a short period of time could read his emotions so clearly. “May I check your ankle?”

Moving her damaged left ankle behind her right foot, Cass told him, “Fine.”

“I’d like to check, but I won’t force you.”

“Fine,” she repeated.

“Alright,” he replied. “Would you like to watch cartoons?”

Cassandra had quickly fallen in love with the bright colors and movement of animation. Bruce had the feeling it was the first time she had ever seen anything like it. Bruce was grateful that the manor still had a large collection of cartoons from Dick’s childhood. Well, considering that Dick’s favorite movies and shows were all still cartoons, it probably was not fair to say they were from his childhood. Bruce’s fleeting hope that Dick would someday outgrow his preferences had waned considerably over the years. Yet, if he could just hear his son cackle again, he would never make a diminutive remark about cartoons ever again.

Cass nodded, and Bruce set up the system in the girl’s makeshift bedroom in the Cave. After a significant amount of research, Bruce no longer believed Cassandra was a potential threat, but the child refused to leave the Batcave. He had tried to force the matter, and then she had disappeared into the caverns for two days. No matter how often he promised that Wayne Manor was a small fortress, she refused to trust the upstairs as safe. When Batman encountered David Cain, he would make him regret harming this precious child.

Once Cassandra was set up, Bruce went to a punching bag. He double checked his ankle boot, grateful he was no longer on crutches, even if Alfred argued that he should still be resting the joint. It wasn’t like he was kick-boxing. His warring emotions and fears fueled his grueling workout. He pounded every question he had about his choices into that the bag until his mind quieted into the semblance of peace.

 

A few hours after his workout, Bruce was rereading Clark’s article with a clearer mind -he couldn’t afford to miss a single detail that was released to the public – when he heard the front door slam. Dick. He had been expecting this. He knew Dick would be here in an angry huff ever since Bruce had interfered with his college schedule. Bruce was prepared for this. He would not rise to his son’s anger, nor would he allow Dick to pick a fight. He would be calm and rational; both emotions much more likely to occur now that he had worked out his anger issues on a punching bag. Dick hadn’t even had the decency to tell Bruce his plans to his face. He left a note on the Batcomputer that simply read: I’m going back to the Bludhaven Police Academy. Alfred agrees. A quick conversation with Alfred had informed Bruce of the terms of the agreement, and Bruce altered their deal slightly.

Bruce heard Dick’s racing footsteps ascend the stairs. The boy was running and skipping steps. He always moved quickly in his anger and was more susceptible to sloppy mistakes. Dick slammed opened the door to his study; Bruce didn’t flinch. Dick slowed his walk to a righteous stomp and threw the paper on Bruce’s desk.

“What the hell is this?”

Bruce flicked his eyes at the paper. “It appears to be a college schedule.”

“Don’t be cute with me, Bruce,” Dick growled. “What the hell is this?”

Bruce leaned back in his chair and stared at his son. The boy was practically shaking with his rage. He knew Dick would be angry, but he hadn’t expected his son to be livid. Resting his elbows on the arms of his chair, he steepled his fingers before responding.

“Alfred informed me of your deal. I altered it slightly. You will be taking a full course load this semester.” He kept his voice steady. He would not rise to his son’s anger.

“What give you the right? Nevermind. Don’t answer that,” Dick raged, throwing his arms in various directions. He’s coordination and control also decreased when he was emotional. “Just because you’re Batman, doesn’t give you the right to control my life.”

“This has nothing to do with the masks, Dick, nor is this about my need to control,” Bruce started.

“Bull–”

“If you would allow me to finish,” Bruce said, voice still neutral. Dick floundered for a moment. Bruce didn’t blame him. Since Dick was 15, their arguments had always followed a script, and Bruce was off-script. Dick scowled but waited.

“Someday, I will die.” Dick visibly tensed, and his expression wavered. “There’s nothing wrong,” he reassured his son. “It is a fact of life. I will die. Whether you like it or not, my company will be left to you. You will be responsible for running the company. The board will drag up every conceivable and inconceivable way to force you out, and they will never allow a college dropout to be CEO.”

“Great!” Dick yelled. “I never wanted to be CEO.”

Bruce pursed his lips and refused to let his own anger and disappointment show. He wanted his company passed down to his sons. Jason, as a legal nonentity, was no longer eligible for it – not that he ever wanted it in the first place, and Dick found business the exact opposite of his life goals.

“How exactly do you plan on funding Nightwing or your team on a police officer’s salary?”

“My trust fund –”

“Will eventually run out. The League, your team, and all our nightly activities depend on the funding Wayne Enterprises provides. Losing the company isn’t an option.”

Dick collapsed in the chair he so often used to study in when he was a child. “So it doesn’t matter what I want.”

“On the contrary, I doubt you looked at the schedule, but all of the classes meet after the hours of the police academy. Additionally, I checked the syllabi for each course. None of the professors check attendance, and there’s only a midterm and a final for each class. The courses are material you are familiar with and will require little to no work on your part,” Bruce explained.

His son didn’t speak for several moments. He folded in on himself and grumbled something Bruce didn’t hear. Apparently, they were at the sulking stage of Dick’s anger, but his eldest hadn’t stormed off, so Bruce counted it as a win. Alfred told him if he explained his reasoning to Dick he would be far more willing to listen. Bruce had an unfortunate habit of assuming people understood why he did things, and while Dick understood him far better than most, he still was quick to lash out against anything that he felt treated him like a child.

“I’m not giving up the police force,” Dick said sulkily.

“I didn’t ask you to.”

Sitting up rather quickly, Dick turned to face him. “Why are you being so chill about this? You hate guns. You realize I’ll be carrying one.”

If that wasn’t Dick’s blatant attempt to poke the bear, Batman was a unicorn. The only good consequence from his son’s note was that it allowed Bruce to consider his options regarding his son’s career source. For reasons Bruce didn’t understand Dick wanted to be a police officer, and it killed a part of Bruce that his child would be handling a gun every day – but if the choice was between Dick using a gun, and Dick killing himself, Bruce picked the gun every time. Maybe, it wasn’t that simple, yet the academy was something Dick wanted. He needed his son to want things again.

“I would have thought you would have been grateful for my decision to support your career.”

Dick studied him, clearly looking for a lie.

“The gun, of course, won’t be allowed on the premises.”

Dick’s scowl returned, but he didn’t say anything.

There was a small, selfish part of Bruce that wanted to show Dick the article he was reading. He craved explaining to Dick the consequences of his actions regarding the Kryptonite, but a larger part of him that woke up to nightmares of Dick’s death by suicide demanded he protect his son. Dick would blame himself for all that was happening, and Bruce couldn’t afford for his son to lose himself to his guilt.

Unsure how to continue the conversation, Bruce returned to his computer. Dick sat slouched in the chair. When his son didn’t move or speak for more than twenty minutes, Bruce restarted the conversation.

“Was there something else?”

“Huh?” Dick replied, turning his gaze towards his father. “No, why?’

“You haven’t moved in twenty minutes.”

“Oh. Um. Just thinking.”

“Hmmm.” Bruce returned to the article, and Dick didn’t say anything for the entire hour he sat in that chair. A growing part of the billionaire was concerned, but he didn’t comment on it, and Dick eventually returned home.

 

Sunday dinner was an awkward affair. Brucie Wayne had entertained thousands of people with charm and ease but sitting at his dinner table with his Robins was quickly proving to be one of the hardest feats of his life. Jason sat on the far end of the table, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. He focused on his food and ate it methodically. There was definitely something wrong with the boy, but Bruce had no idea how to wade into those waters without risking Jason’s temper. Dick sat on his right, and he ate without comment, which was a slight improvement from not eating – but only slight. Tim was on his left. He was mindlessly twirling the angel hair noodles on his plate into a gigantic ball on his fork. Alfred would be appalled. Of course, he would have to be here to be aghast at Timothy’s poor manners. Alfred was supposed to be here. This meal was his plan, but Mrs. Cummings from his church had called him, frantic. Her husband had fallen off a ladder, and she was too shaken to drive him to the hospital, nor did she think the situation required an ambulance.

Desperate to abate the uncharacteristic silence, Bruce asked, “How is school, Tim?”

Tim’s shoulder stiffened minutely. It wasn’t a full flinch, but it was enough to raise the billionaire’s suspicions. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dick straighten and focus on Tim.

“Fine,” Tim replied to his plate.

That was most assuredly a lie. This was at least familiar ground to the billionaire turned vigilante. He knew how to ferret out the truth.

“How are your classes?”

“Fine,” Tim repeated.

“What are you learning?” Bruce pressed.

His partner sighed. “Stuff.”

Bruce’s eyebrows rose. Yes, Timothy was a teenager, and Bruce was no stranger to teenage boys, but this teenager had never spoken so sullenly about school.
“Who’s your favorite teacher this year?”

“Mr. Nunez.”

Dick entered the conversation with a query of his own. “When did he move up to high school?”

“Um…” Tim panicked. “This year?”

Something was wrong. A glint of light shifted Bruce’s attention to Dick who was tapping away at his cell phone.

“Dick, no electronics at the table.” That had been an Alfred imposed rule ever since Dick had joined their household. Dick ignored him.

“Tim,” Dick began, still staring at his screen. “Why can’t I find a record of your registration for this year at Gotham Academy?”

Defeated, Tim heaved a large sigh. “Because I’m not registered at Gotham Academy. My parents registered me for a boarding school in London.”

There was a brief pause as that piece of information sunk in.

“Why?” Bruce asked.

Tim froze, clearly reluctant to answer the question.

“Timothy.”

“My parents won’t be returning until January of next year,” Tim told his plate.

“I see.” Bruce’s grip on his fork tightened. The boy’s parents didn’t deserve him. They constantly threw him away with yesterday’s garbage. He reigned in his temper, refusing to comment about the absolute neglect. Tim was still staring at his plate, and Dick looked torn between wanting to pummel the Drakes and wrapping Tim in hugs.

“I’m sorry,” Jason interjected, anger clear on his face. “Did you just say your parents have decided to leave you for four months? When the hell does this boarding school start anyway?”

“It’s fine,” Tim argued. “I’ve been left this long before.”

The comment had the opposite effect of what Tim had probably been hoping. Jason erupted, “It’s not fine. How old are you anyway, replacement? 12?”

“I’m fourteen,” Tim hissed.

Jason chose to ignore him. “Who do your parents think they are?”

“They’re busy!” Tim defended.

“Oh, please. You know who’s busy? Mister Tall, Dark, and Brooding over there.” Jason flung a hand towards Bruce as he glared at Tim. “And he still managed to be a part of my life as a kid. And you.” Jason’s ire turned to his father. “Why the hell haven’t you filed a claim with CPS yet?”

Tim stood up in anger. “I don’t want him to. I’m not being neglected,” the boy argued. “At least my mother isn’t a crack addict.”

Jason charged Tim as soon as the words were out of his mouth. However, since he had chosen to sit so far away, there was plenty of time for Bruce and Dick to interfere. With practiced ease from long hours as partners, Bruce and Dick responded quickly. Dick stood up and grabbed Jason’s shoulders forcing the younger man to stop and look at him. Bruce grabbed Timothy and steered him out of the dining room. His eldest had a far better chance of talking Jason out of his anger than Bruce did. Besides, Bruce needed more information.

“Sit,” Bruce commanded as soon as they entered one of the main sitting rooms.

Tim crossed his arms and sulked on the couch. And here, Bruce was hoping he would skip this part of adolescence with his current partner.

“Insulting Jason’s mother was wrong.”

Tim refused to reply.

“When does your boarding school start?”

“It already did,” murmured Tim.

“Then why are you still in Gotham?”

Tim whispered something Bruce couldn’t hear. Bruce leveled him with an unimpressed stare until the teenager spoke louder. “They think I have a terrible case of mono, and I need rest at home.”

Bruce sighed. He knew where Tim got a forged doctor’s note for mononucleosis. It would not have been difficult to change Dick Grayson to Timothy Drake on the form Bruce had used to force Dick to take a break from the Bludhaven Police Academy.

“And how long has the doctor ordered you to rest?”

“Six weeks.”

Even for mononucleosis, that was an extended period of time. “And where do your parents think you are?”

“Linkwood Prep,” Tim replied. “But in my defense, they’re out of contact for the next four weeks. Mom will be heartbroken when she finds out I was so sick while they were away.”

Nevermind that responsible parents didn’t just leave their children for a month with no way to contact them.

“I will let this pass, provided that you live in the manor for your six weeks of prescribed rest and study your course material. Then you will go to Linkwood.”

Tim nodded sullenly.

“And you will apologize to Jason.”

“Fine.”

Bruce held back a sigh. Why did he keep bringing teenage boys into his home? The pair returned to the dining room where Dick leaned deceptively calmly against the wall feet away from where Jason had perched next to the dining room table.

“Sorry,” Tim mumbled as soon as he entered the room.

“Forget it, replacement. Dick explained a few things to me,” Jason told him, surprising Bruce and Tim. Jason scrutinized Tim, who was staring at Dick.

Dick smiled brightly and pushed himself off the wall. “Well, this has certainly been fun. Same time next week?” He said with false cheer. “And Timmy, let’s do ice cream this Thursday.”

“I have Young –”

“I already checked with Babs. You are not scheduled for any training or missions that day, and since we all know you don’t have any school obligations, I’ll see you Thursday,” Dick told him.

Tim folded. “Of course.”

“Great!” Dick clapped his hands together loudly. “Well, I think it’s time Jason and I headed out.”

“Can we leave your fake ass cheer here?” Jason grumbled.

Dick ignored him as he headed to the garage. Jason followed shortly after but not before telling Tim that he would keep an eye on him from now on. Bruce wasn’t entirely sure he understood half of the subtext of that conversation but decided to pursue it later.

Timothy threw himself on his chair. “Your sons are worse than you,” he grumbled and dug into the remaining pasta on his plate.

Bruce wondered what that was about yet decided to let it slide. Both Jason and Dick had eaten their portions. Tim was eating his. Nobody was killed or injured, and none of the furniture was damaged. As far as Bruce was concerned, the first Sunday dinner was a success.

He sat down and finished his own meal as Tim mumbled about overprotective hypocritical former Robins. Later, he would take a plate of food down to Cass, and he would sit with her as she ate silently. He should have brought more teenage girls into his home.

 

The evening following the first family dinner Dr. Waqud arrived at Wayne Manor. Bruce wasn’t surprised that she agreed to come. His extensive background check on Dr. Waqud revealed that the psychologist was fundamentally curious and a fan of the Justice League. He knew the woman would bite, and most importantly, her long list of high profile patients proved she had the ability to keep a secret. Not only had she passed on his background check on her character, the woman had extensive research how events in childhood that caused PTSD affected adults. She was pushing constantly for counseling services provided to Syrian refugees, which was mostly denied due to already stretched thin resources. The nonprofit she hoped to create would provide counselors for those children and some adults. It was a worthwhile effort that Bruce did not have a problem funding, especially if the result would help his sons.

Currently Dr. Waqud sat in a high-backed chair across from Bruce’s desk. The dark-skinned middle-eastern woman wore a short-sleeved white dress patterned with orange circles outline in black with orange pumps and hijab that featured the colors of a sunset. Bruce found the whole outfit garish and unnecessary bright. It reminded him of some of Dick’s less fortunate clothing choices.

“If I won’t be working for the JL, who will I be working for?” She asked, keeping her legs crossed and trying to appear casual, but Bruce saw the way she spun the black bracelets on her right hand.

“Me.”

She blinked. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Bruce stood and turned to the clock behind his desk. “Perhaps it would be easier if I showed you.”

The clock swung open, but Dr. Waqud did not respond how Bruce expected. She stood up and had her hand on the doorknob, prepared to leave. Her eyes widened slightly in fear that she careful tried to mask. The woman had lived in Gotham too long to allow fear to show true terror. Her right hand clutched what was undoubtedly a phone in her pocket.

“Mr. Wayne, I’m going to give you one minute to explain, but I want you to know that my thumb is hovering over the send button on a 911 call. If you take one step towards me, I will dial,” she explained with a voice only vaguely pitched in fright.

Bruce had no idea what had frightened the woman so badly, but he closed the clock. “I apologize. I hadn’t met to frighten you. I’m merely trying to explain.”

“I’m pretty sure an explanation doesn’t require a trip down a poorly lit staircase that probably leads to a torture chamber. I’m not interested in becoming the next woman who disappears without a trace,” she told him. After cracking the door, her left hand had wrapped around a small cylinder. Pepper spray? He guessed.

Belatedly, he realized that inviting a woman into his home and requiring that she not tell anyone where she was going and then trying to lure her down into his basement probably seemed absolutely incriminating. Dick would be laughing at him if he were here. This is what you get for your dramatic entrances.

He released a sigh and sat back in his chair. He spread both hands out in a non-threatening gesture than rested them on the desk in clear view. Dr. Waqud loosened her hold on the pepper spray but stayed perched by the door.

“I’m Batman,” he stated.

The psychologist’s stance loosened if only to reset to shock. “I’m sorry?”

“I’m Batman,” Bruce repeated. “I was trying to take you to the Batcave.”

“You’re Batman?” She echoed, clearly in disbelief.

“Yes.”

Dr. Waqud blinked. “You believe you’re Batman.”

At least, this proved that Brucie wasn’t in danger of giving his secret away. “I don’t believe anything. I am Batman.”

“Okay.” Her voice took on that familiar psychologist tone of I-don’t-believe-you-but-I’ll-humor-you that Bruce hated. “Let’s say I believe you. Why am I here?”

“My son, Nightwing, suffers from depression,” he stated.

She relaxed her grab on her cell phone and turned closer to him. “Your son? Richard Grayson? He’s Nightwing.”

“Yes.”

“And he has depression,” she repeated.

“Yes.”

“Mr. Wayne, I appreciate that you want my help, but I don’t think I’m qualified to help with…this.” This undoubtedly met his perceived delusions.

Bruce bit back a sigh. This would not be a problem if he could have just shown her the Batcave. In the blink of an eye, Bruce reached into the secret compartment of his desk and brought out the knife he kept there. He threw it so that the blade landed next to the light switch. Dr. Waqud stared at the blade. Bruce pulled out another knife.

“I can hit any point you ask,” he stated.

She stared at him in amazement. “Allah forbid, you’re Batman.”

Bruce nodded.

Dr. Waqud pulled the knife from the wall. “And your son was the original Robin and is now Nightwing?”

Bruce nodded again, pleased to have finally gotten through to her.

“Allah forbid, Jason was the second Robin.” Best not to bring up that Jason had been resurrected.

“As I mentioned early, Dick struggles with depression. I needed a psychologist I could trust who understood the reality of childhood PTSD and could keep a secret,” Bruce explained.

Dr. Waqud sat back down in the high-backed chair. “I’m going to be a Batman’s psychologist,” she whispered.

“No,” Bruce immediately clarified. “I’m not in need of a therapist.” Dr. Waqud looked unimpressed. “You would be Nightwing’s therapist.”

The woman took a deep breath. “Okay, when do we start?”

Chapter Text

Barry Allen was exhausted. Exhausted didn’t feel like a strong enough word for how undeniably drained and worn-out he felt. He was no stranger to days without sleep or pushing his body past its physical limits but being the father of newborn twins was a different type of exhaustion. At least fighting crime provided adrenaline. The twins zapped his energy. Every time he found the time to collapse onto his couch or his bed, one of them would start crying again. It just didn’t make sense. He was at least a billion times faster than them, but he just couldn’t keep up.

Not to mention that Iris couldn’t produce enough milk for the twin terrors. The two were eating like a pair of speedsters, which was highly concerning. Don and Dawn hadn’t shown any signs of moving quickly, but Barry wondered if their time in the speed force fundamentally changed their DNA. Iris and Barry had been spending a small fortune on baby formula, which they didn’t have. Iris’s job provided the necessary time off required by law for maternity leave but refused to pay her for that time. Barry had taken all his vacation time and was grateful to be paid for it, but the time in the hospital and the baby expenses added up. Well, that was until the hospital bill had mysteriously been paid, and an envelope with $20,000 appeared in his mailbox.

He had no doubts about who was responsible for that. Bruce did not often shower his friends with extra money. Mainly because most of the Justice League was too proud to accept help – but Barry couldn’t find the energy to be indignant about it. He was too grateful. Batman had solved one of his problems, and Barry’s gratitude ran deep because if the twins were not enough, then there was Bart.

His time-traveling grandson did not take being benched well. Bart manifested a ton of anger and resentment at Barry, and when Barry told his grandson that he wanted him to talk to Dinah about the future and to process the friends he had lost by choosing to come back in time, the time-traveler lost it. Barry and Wally had their issues, but it had never been this extreme. Barry had a lot more sympathy for Bruce and his fights with Dick.

Speaking of, where were Batman and the others? Flash turned around in the JL meeting room, confused. He thought he was late for the founder’s meeting. They were gathering to discuss President Katz’s new plan to prevent minors from being superheroes. Barry wasn’t sure what would come of it. Angela Katz wasn’t up for reelection, and neither of the 2016 presidential candidates had commented on it, undoubtedly waiting to see which side the voters favored. Did President Katz have enough time left in office to follow through with her plans? Barry doubted it. Changed moved slowly. Way too slowly.

While Barry understood President Katz argument, he wasn’t sure he agreed. Courage didn’t have an age requirement. He had met grown men and women who couldn’t handle the things Wally had handled at 12. Besides what else was a young meta-human with powers supposed to do? Fighting crime and being a part of a team gave focus and a purpose for a kid’s developing powers. How did you ask anyone who was able to stop a terrible crime from happening to stand on the sidelines?

“Did hell freeze over? And why wasn’t I invited to that party?” Hal asked, breaking into Barry’s thoughts. When did he get here?

Barry scrunched his eyes in confusion. Sometimes Hal’s jokes didn’t always make sense. “What?”

Hal shook his head as he stared at Barry. “You’re a good fifteen minutes early.”

“I thought I was late.”

Hal rolled his eyes and took the seat furthest from the door, where he could see everyone as they entered. “Of course, you did. You look like hell. I thought Wally was filling in.”

“He is.” Barry let out a deep sigh. That was another thing he felt stressed about. Wally didn’t want to be a superhero, but Barry just couldn’t spare the time. It was only going to be temporary.

“Then why do you look like a breeze could knock you down?”

Collapsing into the chair next to his friend, Barry replied, “Being a dad is horrible.”

Hal chortled. “Don’t let Iris here you say that.”

“I know. I know, and I love them so much it physically aches, but I think they’re trying to kill me.”

“I thought they were only a month old.” Hal’s face scrunched in confusion.

Barry’s face fell in his hands. “They are,” he mumbled.

“Well, is Bart helping out?”

Slouching further, Barry murmured, “No, he hates me.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“He literally craved I hate you into my front lawn with superspeed. I had to dig a pit through the words before the neighbors asked any questions.” And before Iris saw it. Barry had no doubts where Bart had gotten his temper, and he wouldn’t be able to handle it if the pair blew up together.

Hal’s face looked like he had eaten a lemon. “That’s – I mean I’m sure- Bart can’t hate you.”

Barry sighed. “No, he just hates me acting like a parent.” It didn’t matter that Bart needed a parent. The kid had spent too long on his own in some futuristic hell. Trying to get him to heal from that was as difficult as getting Wally to admit that being trapped in the speedforce had affected him at all.

Hal’s reply was cut off by the entrance of the rest of the League founders. Everyone took their usual seats, although the tension between Batman and Superman was thick. Barry was too tired to care about whatever that was.

Batman took his customary position in a seat and began the briefing. “As you all know, President Katz has recently argued for legislation…”

Barry tried to pay attention, but the office chair he was sitting in was so comfortable, and his body was so tired. His limbs felt so heavy, and the chair was so soft. He blinked his eyes opened. He would stay awake. The meeting was only an hour. He could stay awake for that long…

Something shook him. Barry jolted upright. “What?” He blinked. Batman was no longer in the room. Diana and J’onn were talking as they exited the room, and Dinah and Clark were discussing something in the opposite corner. “What happened?”

Hal snorted at him. “You fell asleep. And Bats growled at me to let you sleep when I tried to wake you.”

“What?” Barry repeated. That didn’t make any sense.

“My thoughts exactly,” Hal offered. “Want to tell me what you did to get on his good side? Hell, I didn’t even know he had a good side.”

“I,” Barry stumbled over his words as he thought of the recent financial blessings he received. “I have no idea.” Sure, Bruce wasn’t greedy or mean, but he expected people to follow their commitments. He didn’t cut anyone slack. He swallowed. This couldn’t be good.

The Green Lantern clearly didn’t believe him. “When you feel like sharing with the rest of the class, let me know.”

“I have no idea, Hal.” Barry groaned. “I’m going to pay for that later.”

Hal laughed long and hard.

“What did I miss?”

“Hell froze over.”

Barry stared at his friend. “Did I travel back in time again? I thought we had this conversation.”

“We did,” Hal agreed. “But this time I’m sure Hell froze over. You were early, and Bats and I agreed on something.”

A faint pain began in the back of Barry’s head. Sleeping through the meeting was a bad idea. “I thought you disagreed with him out of principle.”

“I did. I do.” Hal shrugged. “He’s the one who took my side.”

His headache was getting stronger. “Can you please just explain what happened?” Barry ignored the whiny quality to his voice.

Hal gave him a pitying look, which Barry did not need. “Diana and J’onn disagree firmly with President Katz’s bill. Bruce and I supported it. Dinah’s on the fence, but I think she’s leaning towards supporting it. Clark didn’t offer his opinion either way.”

If he weren’t so tired, Barry knew that sentence would make more sense. “Batman agrees with the bill?” That couldn’t be right. Batman was the one who brought the first child sidekick into the game. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Hal gave him a look Barry couldn’t decipher. “As I said, hell froze over.”

Before Barry could wrap his weary mind over that development, Superman interrupted their conversation.

“Flash, a word please,” Superman asked, approaching the pair. Dinah had left the room. Hal shook his head and followed Dinah out. “I appreciate that Batman has only recently discovered how much he owes your nephew, but try not to use League time to catch up on sleep.”

“I’m sorry. What?”

Clark looked surprised. “You don’t know?” Clark released a breath. “Never mind. Just don’t sleep through another meeting.”

With that, Superman was gone, leaving a confused Flash that had a growing suspicion regarding his former partner that needed to be addressed.

 

After refueling and making a few phone calls, Barry Allen zipped towards the west coast. He needed to have a word or perhaps several words with his darling nephew. He knocked on the door of Wally and Artemis’s apartment and waited. And waited.

It occurred to Barry that he had no idea what time it was. Maybe he should have looked at a clock before dashing off to confront his nephew. Eventually, Artemis in an oversized school sweatshirt and black shorts opened the door. Her eyes widened slightly in surprise.

“Barry?” She asked, eyes flicking into the hallway. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he told her as he pushed into the apartment. “Is my nephew around?”

Artemis was looking at him with the same eyes Iris used when he thought he was acting strange. Well, she was used to the craziness that came with loving a speedster.

“He’s patrolling Central. Like you asked him to do.” The blonde’s words were slow, careful and pronounced.

It was clear she thought Barry was crazy or had been infected by something. “Okay, I’ll wait.”

“What’s going on?”

“I need to talk to Wally.”

“Yes, I got that. About what?”

Barry looked at the young woman, who was going to become his niece. The truth was he loved Artemis. He thought her cool head and practical thinking were good counter balances to Wally’s… Wally-ness. He trusted Artemis. He did, but Dick’s suicide attempt wasn’t his to share as he pleased with others.

“He lied to me about something he shouldn’t have,” he said instead.

Artemis shook her head. “Okay, I’m not getting involved. Do you want something to eat?”

“I’m not hungry.”

The woman arched her eyebrow. Right, she lived with a speedster.

“I ate before I came,” he corrected.

“At least, sit down.” She sighed. “You look terrible.”

Barry gladly followed her into the living room where he sank into the couch. Artemis picked up her computer and returned to her own spot on the couch. She began typing away. The soft sounds reminded him of Iris typing up a new story and almost lulled him to sleep.

“You’re a cop, right?” Artemis jolted Barry out of his doze.

“Forensic scientist for the police department,” he clarified.

“Okay, what do you think of the current criminal justice system?”

Well, that was a conversation that he couldn’t half participate in. He blinked himself awake and forced himself to turn his head to the woman sitting on the other side of the couch.

“That’s a complicated question,” he replied, unsure of what she was looking for.

“Do you feel confident that we can guarantee someone’s innocence or guilt with the current justice system?”

Barry sighed. “No, there are few guarantees. We do the best we can and hope the system doesn’t mess up too badly.”

Nodding as if she expected the answer, Artemis asked, “And do you think prison is an effective deterrent for criminal behavior?”

“I don’t know.” She was probing into his own doubts about the system, and this wasn’t a conversation he particularly wanted to have when he was this exhausted. “What brought this on?”

“I’m –”

She was cut off as a whoosh of air filled the living room and knocked the soda cans over, the books on the coffee table flipped open. Artemis clutched her mug of tea. The wind blew into Barry’s face. That was truly annoying.

“Babe! I’m home.” Wally zipped over to give Artemis a kiss but pulled back and stumbled when he saw Barry. “Uncle Barry!” He cried, unsuccessfully trying to stop his momentum before he crashed onto the floor.

Barry let out a fond chuckle. “Kid, you never change.”

Wally stood up and leaned on the arm of the couch next to Artemis. “Not that I don’t always love to see you, but did I forget plans or something?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m here because of an interesting conversation I had with Superman today.” Barry pitched his voice low and stern. He needed his nephew to know that he wasn’t fooling around.

“Okaaaayy,” Wally stretched the word out. He looked confused, although there was a nervousness in his green eyes that told Barry he knew he was in trouble.

“Yes,” Barry began slowly. “He told me that Batman had only recently become aware of how much he owed my nephew.”

Wally gulped, and Barry’s suspicions cemented. His nephew was the perfect picture of guilt. Barry dragged out his next comment, watching the expressions of fear, resignation, and guilt play out across his nephew’s face. There was no torture greater for a speedster’s than being forced to wait.

“Wally!” Artemis interrupted Barry’s planned reprimand. She whacked him in the side, hard enough for him to take a step back. “You told me you told Bruce.”

“No, I said I would tell Bruce,” Wally argued. “And I did.”

Artemis looked at him disbelievingly. It appeared she already knew, so Barry didn’t need to watch his words.

“When?” Barry asked.

Wally’s eyes flicked over to Barry. “What?”

“When did you tell Bruce?”

And that look was the epitome of guilt. “When I came back from the speedforce…”

“Wally!” Artemis cried again. “You promised!”

“Yeah well, Dick begged me not to,” Wally defended.

“And if he begged you to kill him, would you?”

“Of course not! What is your problem?”

“My problem is that you risked my friend’s life.”

Wally’s face, always so expressive, shifted from anger to guilt. “Babe, I –“

“Forget it.” Artemis scoffed and left the room. There was a soft bang from a slammed door.

Wally’s face quickly moved back towards anger. “Thank you for that.” Then he saw the look on his uncle’s face and his anger disappeared in favor of the look Wally adopted when he knew he was in deep trouble with his mentor. Wally rubbed the back of his neck fast enough to leave a burn. “I mean. How much trouble am I in?”

Barry had had plenty of time to develop a suitable punishment. Whenever Wally and Dick had gotten in trouble, which was more often than not, Bruce favored straight grounding. Barry preferred more creative punishments.

“You’re babysitting the twins the next three Saturdays,” he stated. Barry liked to think that he’d take his wife out to dinner, but he knew they’d both just sleep.

“Okay,” Wally quickly agreed, but he looked suspicious. Barry never did let him off that easy.

“On my way over, I called Central City Penitentiary. The warden will be expecting a visit from the Flash to give an inspirational speech about the possibility of turning one’s life around.”

“Oh, come on!” His nephew cried.

“The point being,” Barry continued as if Wally hadn’t interrupted. “That when you agree to do something, you follow through. Part of the Flash’s commitment to justice is encouraging people to leave lives of crime and showing them alternative options.”

“And if I refuse?” Wally challenged. His chest out in challenge.

“Then you deal with your Aunt Iris.”

His nephew deflated instantly. “Fine,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Lastly, you are going to talk about what happened in the speedforce.”

“Nothing happened,” he hissed.

Barry shook his head. He loved his partner and nephew so much, but his tendency towards denial was a major weakness of his. That’s probably why he never told Bruce about Dick’s attempt. Wally preferred to live in denial, but it had to stop.

“When I found you the first time, you were clutching Artemis’s corpse. The second time, you were watching Dick jump –”

“Yes, I know. I saw everyone I care about die, but it didn’t happen. Everyone is fine,” Wally argued, but Barry knew his nephew well enough to notice the widening of his eyes. Wally was still bothered by all that he saw. He just didn’t want to admit it.

“You lived that for a month, Kid.”

“I’m fine,” Wally gritted out. Were all his partners this obtuse? Barry was fairly certain that he could recognize when he pushed passed his limits. Why couldn’t any of his proteges?

“Look, you can talk to me or you can talk to Iris. I don’t even care if you want to talk to Dinah, but you can’t just ignore this, Walls,” Barry said, unconsciously falling into the voice he used for scared victims of crime.

Green eyes scanned the hallway. “Fine, but no one tells Artemis.”

Barry’s mind sounded a klaxon at the request. “That’s not a good idea.”

Wally’s eyes were fierce. “Noted.”

“Okay,” he agreed reluctantly. It was not his responsibility to fix communication issues between the couple. He hoped after his nephew processed some of the events, he’d realize how ridiculous his request was. “I need to get back to Iris and the twins.”

Barry didn’t wait to hear Wally’s dismissal. He only hoped he hadn’t messed this up too badly. He needed a nap. A long nap.

He returned home to fine his wife with bags under her eyes, red hair sticking every which way, shirt stained with various bodily fluids, changing Dawn’s diaper. Barry zipped over to her and diapered Dawn quickly. He then gave Iris a kiss.

She smiled at him. “What was that for?”

“Nothing. You’re just so breathtakingly beautiful.”

Iris gave him a look of fond exasperation. He held Dawn in one hand and had his other arm was wrapped around his wife. They stood there peacefully for all of twenty seconds, and then Don started crying from his crib.

Chapter Text

Sweat dripped off Dick’s forehead down to his chin. His shirt clung to his back as he did push-ups on the floor of the BPA gym. He had tried to do one-armed push-ups, but neither arm could support his weight individually. Frustrated with his lack of progress, Dick stayed late most days at the BPA to regain the muscles he lost since he stopped eating. He was such an idiot. What did he think would happen? He hardly had any muscle left.

His goal was 100 push-ups, but around 50 his arms started shaking. Determined, Dick kept going. He had made it to 75 yesterday. He would do 100 today. His shoulders burned with each push and pull of his muscles, but Dick kept going.

The lights flickered once. Dick heard the footsteps of someone entering the gym. He tensed automatically. He forced himself to relax. It was just Officer Ramirez.

“Grayson, go home.” There was a hint of fond exasperation in the older man’s voice.

Dick grinned. “I’m just trying to catch up. I’ll leave soon.”

Officer Ramirez shook his head causing the dark curls at his forehead to rustle. “No, you’ll head home now. I promised Officer Park that I wouldn’t let you exhaust yourself while she’s on vacation with her husband.”

Dick didn’t let the scowl he felt show on his face, but it was a near thing. Instead, he hopped up with faked ease. The room only spun slightly with the quick maneuver. He grabbed his water bottle and wiped the sweat of his face with the towel and drank some water to buy himself some time before speaking. It would do no good to sulk here.

Once he was positive he could speak with what others assumed was his natural ease, he addressed the officer. “Ah, no worries. I’m fine.” He kept his grin in place. He felt manic, but he knew no one ever noticed. “But I’ll head home.”

“I’ll stop worrying when you are no longer skin and bones. When are you coming over to let my wife feed you properly?” Officer Ramirez asked.

“As soon as I graduate,” Dick replied.

“I’ll hold you to that, Grayson. Now get on home.”

 

Unlocking the door to his apartment, Dick stepped inside. There was a fast motion that he caught out of his peripheral. He turned to the living room where Jason was pretending to read Jane Eyre. A pencil slowed to a stop as it rolled across the floor. Dick raised an eyebrow, but Jason pretended not to notice. His younger brother was hiding something, and Dick’s big brother prerogative was to discover what it was.

He flopped down on to the couch unnecessarily close to Jason, who immediately tried to shove him off.

“Aw, Jay, aren’t you happy to see me?”

“Get off! You big moop!”

“Nah,” Dick replied as he reached under the couch, which caused him to invade Jason’s personal space even further. His had grabbed a …book? Why would Jason be hiding a book? Jason kicked Dick off of him, and Dick stared at the book in his hands. The familiar dark blue with three infamous letters SAT. Why did Jason feel the need to hide an SAT book? Dick flipped the book open absentmindedly checking that it really was an SAT book.

“What’s this?”

Jason scowled at him. “It’s an SAT prep book.”

“You’re studying for the SATs?” Dick said slowly. His mind had trouble grasping the concept.

“Not all of us think college is a waste of time.”

“I know that, but you can go to whatever school you want.”

“No,” Jason stated, grabbing the book out of Dick’s hands and picking up the pencil that had rolled across the floor. “Jason Todd could. Jay Peterson can’t.”

Dicks swallowed his immediate reply. Jason’s new identity was a sore spot for all involved, and it was Dick’s fault. With the news hitting the world that the second Robin hadn’t died but instead had been held prisoner and tortured for two years, Jason Todd couldn’t come back to life as well. The connections would be too obvious.

“Jay Peterson dropped out of high school to get a job to help with his mother’s medical bills,” Jason reminded him with his trademark scowl.

That was another open wound. Before his death, Jason wanted to be the first person to graduate high school in his family. Now, he didn’t trust himself to handle a six-hour school day around a bunch of other teenagers, and Jason adamantly refused to allow Bruce to set him up with an identity that had a high school diploma. He didn’t want something he hadn’t earned. Jason was scheduled to take the GED later this month.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were looking at colleges?”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Why didn’t I tell the man who loathes school that I plan to get a degree? I wonder.”

“I do not loathe school. I just -” Dick floundered for the right word.

“Consider it a colossal waste of your time. I know, Dickhead. I’ve listened to your Bruce rants for days now.”

Dick sighed. It seemed all he ever did was mess-up. “I think it’s great you want a degree, Little Wing.”

Jason looked at him skeptically. “Right.”

“Babs, Wally, and Artemis are all working on their degrees. Have I ever said anything negative about them?” …Well, he had. He had muttered about Artemis and Wally’s decision to go civilian for months, but that was before Jay was resurrected, so it didn’t count.

Jason was still eyeing him dubiously, so Dick tried to explain, “I don’t want a degree because I don’t need a degree. I know enough criminology, computer science, and chemistry to do my job well. College isn’t going to teach me anything I don’t know.”

Plus, it would be thousands of wasted hours where he’d be forced to sit still for no good reason, although none of that mattered. As much as it pained him to admit, Dick would one day have to be CEO of Wayne Enterprises. What he wanted didn’t matter. It never had.

“There’s more to life than crime-fighting, you know?” Jason, who had waged a war on Gotham in his single-minded determination to get revenge, asked him.

Dick just laughed. “Course, Little Wing.”

The older man stood up before his brother could comment on the lie. “Well, I better head off to pick up, Timmy.” That was another cause for concern. Tim had been acting weird for the last few weeks, and then to discover that he wasn’t enrolled in school. Dick couldn’t believe he had missed that. In between his move to Bludhaven and living with Jason, Tim had fallen through the cracks – making Dick the worst big brother on the planet. Tim and Jason deserved so much more. Someone they didn’t think they need to hide their problems from.

“Yes, the wannabe college dropout is going to lecture about the importance of school. Can you really not see the hypocrisy?”

“It’s not about school,” Dick tried to explain. How did he explain that he was more concerned with Tim knowing someone was paying attention? Tim needed to know that someone would notice if he dropped out. Of course, no one had, which was the problem. Tim deserved so much more than Dick was able to give.

“Right.” Jason scoffed and walked into his bedroom, shutting the door with a dull thud.

Dick rubbed a hand down his face. Could he do nothing right with his little brothers? He’d have to figure out what was wrong with Jason later. Something was clearly bothering him. Something more than the SATs.

Repressing a groan, Dick sprang up to deal with his other little brother. Maybe he wouldn’t fail this time.

 

The sun’s fading glow barely lit Gotham by the time Dick pulled up to Drake Manor. He parked his bike in the half-circle in front of the door. The fountain with a woman catching water in a clay pot in the middle of the driveway had long since been shut off. Tim didn’t see the point in wasting water when no one was around to enjoy it.

Dick approached the large oak doors and rang the doorbell. The bell chimed a melodic tune, but no one answered the door. Dick rang again. It wasn’t like Timmy to forget commitments, but then again Tim hadn’t wanted to talk to his wiser older brother about his issues. Changing tactics Dick banged louder than was necessary on the door. No answer.

There was no way Tim thought his front doors would keep Nightwing out. Swallowing a hint of raising dread, Dick pulled the lockpick he always kept in his sleeve out. It was for handcuffs, but he’d be able to shimmy the Drakes’ deadbolt. It wasn’t like they had have the security of Wayne Manor.

Opening the door wide, Dick called, “Tim. Tim, are you here? Timmy?”

Nightwing’s honed instincts overrode Dick’s casual entrance. There was no sign of a break-in. No sign of active life either. The house was spotless without even a hint of a dust trail. No matter how much the staff didn’t notice Timmy, they certainly kept the mansion clean. Although, how hard could it be? The Drakes were never home, and Tim only ever spent time in the kitchen or his bedroom.

Dick headed for the kitchen since it was closer. If Tim wasn’t there, he’d head up the stairs and sweep the bedrooms before calling Batgirl. Robin shouldn’t be with Young Justice today. He had cleared it with Babs, but then again, scheduling was the hardest thing to keep track of as YJ leader. Dick was grateful that his own time as leader involved more crisis than day to day boredom. He had never been particularly good with details. You weren’t a particularly good leader either.

His train of thought smashed to an abrupt halt when he found Tim on the floor with his back against the kitchen island. A shattered class of orange juice laid only inches to Tim’s left. The liquid soaked into Tim’s pants, but he didn’t seem to notice. All his focus was on the piece of paper he clutched in his hands.

“Tim?” Dick called. Tim didn’t answer. Didn’t move.

Squatting next to his youngest brother, Dick asked, “What you got there, Timmy?”

There was still no answer. No form of acknowledgement.

Dick peered over Tim’s shoulder to see what had frozen Timmy. His heart sank.

Mr. Timothy Jackson Drake,
We regret to inform you that Mr. Jack Drake and Mrs. Janet Drake perished in a cave in of their archeological site on September 4, 2016. We are deeply sorry…

Not bothering to read the rest of the letter, Dick sank to the ground besides his brother and threw an arm around him. Tim still didn’t move. “Oh, Timmy,” Dick whispered. “I got you.”

Over the years, the death of his parents faded to a subtle ache like the pain in your muscles the day after a brutal workout. It was okay as long as he didn’t move the wrong way. But Dick would never forget the hollow, numb feeling that chased his life for so long afterwards. He had eventually channeled it into a righteous anger that fueled his nightly activities. But the night his parents died was still a hollowed out emotional blur.

Oh, he remembered Zucco. He could recite verbatim the threats Zucco uttered. He remembered his indecision and fear of trying to tell someone. The sound of the ropes as they broke. The fear on his parents’ faces and the thud of their bodies hitting the floor had haunted his nightmares for years.
But after that? The night was a blur. He knew there was chaos and commotion around him, but he had been deaf and blind to it. He didn’t remember conscious thought coming back until he woke up in juvenile detention because that was the only place with a bed. It was only supposed to be temporary, but Dick still wondered how long he would have been left to rot there if Bruce hadn’t been oiling the slow motors of the foster care system to get custody of Dick.

With great effort, Dick pulled himself out of his own misery and focused on Tim. Tim, who was caught in a stupefying case of shock. Reaching into his pocket for a phone, Dick typed out a quick message to Bruce and Alfred.

The chimes of the doorbell echoed through the house. Reluctantly, Dick pulled himself away from his little brother. “I’ll be right back. Okay, Timmy?” There was no answer. Dick sighed and headed for the front door.

A white male police officer with a receding hairline and a few extra pounds packed around his core had his nose stuck in a flip notepad. “I’m looking for a Timothy Drake,” he stated.

Irritation flooded Dick. “Who’s asking?”

“I’m Officer Lud, and I need to speak with Timothy Drake.”

“Why?”

“I’m afraid the matter doesn’t concern you.”

“If you are here because of the death of his parents, I’ve got it covered. Thanks.” Dick made to shut the door, but Officer Lud caught the door.

“Sir, Tim is a minor. He will need to be taken into foster care or an orphanage until he comes of age.”

Right. Dick didn’t believe him for a second. No way would he let Tim end up in a penitentiary because they didn’t have enough beds. “He’ll stay with me.”

“And you are?”

“Tim’s older brother.”

The police officer squinted at his notepad. Had the man not heard of a smartphone or was he rebelling against the modern world? Either way, Dick didn’t trust him.

“There’s no mention of an older brother.” The police officer stared at Dick. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to move.”

Dick barely suppressed a growl as he moved out of the way. He couldn’t pick a fight with a police officer, not unless he wanted a brusque end to his chosen career. Still, he would not allow this officer to take Timmy away. The system wouldn’t fail his brother.

Where were Bruce and Alfred? They should have been here by now. Dick slid his phone out of his pocket and sent the emergency signal to the Bruce. Tim needed some of the efficiency that only money could buy.

Following behind Officer Lud, Dick saw the man halt as he saw Timmy. The man turned suspicious.

“What’s wrong with him?”

If possible, the man went further down the pole of Dick’s estimation. He restrained his anger through sheer force of will, he wouldn’t lose Timmy to mister rent-a-cop. Dick leaned his hip against the kitchen island, careful to avoid crowding the officer.

“He’s just found out his parents are dead. He’s in shock.”

Officer Lud shot Dick a look, which told him he hadn’t quite managed to keep all the sarcasm out of his voice. Jason would be proud. The officer pulled a penlight out of his pocket and shined it into Tim’s eyes.

Tim blinked and shook his head. Dick would have rejoiced if he didn’t see the clear fear on his younger brother’s face at the sight of the man crouched in front of him with a penlight.

“Hey Tim, how are you feeling?” Dick asked, voice carrying none of his previous ire.

Tim blinked again but turned to look at Dick. “Dick?”

“Yeah, Timbo, it’s me.” Dick reached down and offered him his hand. Tim took it hesitantly, but at least, Tim stood, and the officer backed out of his space. “Can you tell the officer that you want to come with me?”

Tim nodded, still not truly focusing. Dick’s heart ached for his brother, and he wanted to wrap him in a hug, which he couldn’t do because Officer Lud was glaring at Dick.

“Sir, you’re not in our system. I can’t allow Timothy to leave with you.”

Dick was saved from having to soften his reply by the sound of the front door opening.

“Dick?” Bruce called.

Finally.

“In here,” Dick replied, wrapping his arm around Tim so that he could offer some support.

“Sir,” the cop replied clearly agitated. “I’m going to have to ask you to let go of Timothy.”

Bruce’s fake trip and bungled entrance covered Dick’s low growl.

“Pardon my clumsiness,” Bruce said with a side-eye at his eldest. “What seems to be the problem, Officer?”

“Nothing that concerns you, Mr. Wayne.”

Bruce’s brow furrowed in a way that made him look idiotic. “Well, my son seems to disagree. He said his friend lost his parents and needed a place to stay.”

The police officer flicked his eyes to Dick. He clearly hadn’t recognized him as easily as he had Bruce, which was fine with Dick. He had never enjoyed his celebrity status as Wayne Heir and the comments that followed.

“That’s kind of you to offer, Mr. Wayne, but I’m afraid, the law requires me to house orphans with pre-approved families,” he stated.

The irony was Bruce had pushed for the law change after the disaster that had befallen Dick after his parents’ deaths.

Tim made a small noise of distress.

Bruce, who so often hid behind Brucie or Batman, radiated sympathy and compassion. “Why don’t we let the boys sit in the other room while we sort this out?”

Officer Lud nodded, and Dick left and half carried Tim to a sitting room on the first floor. Tim was still quiet, but his eyes lost the vapid look.

After Dick situated them on the most uncomfortable couch, Tim clutched Dick’s shirt and asked, “What’s going to happen to me?”

“Nothing,” Dick promised. “You’ll come live at the manor, and we’ll be real brothers.”

Tim jerked at that and the tears started. His hands twisted in Dick’s shirt, and dull fingernails dug into his stomach and side. Tim’s body started shaking and the sobs grew louder. Dick felt his heart shatter. He never wanted anyone else to feel this pain. That was why Batman and Robin existed to prevent innocent kids from losing their parents. Yet, there was no villain to blame here. No enemy to subdue and fight. Nothing any of them could have done.

“It’s my fault,” Tim hiccoughed.

Dick shifted so he could look Tim directly in the eye, yet he was thwarted by Tim’s refusal to lift his head up.

“It was not your fault, Tim.”

“If I was a better son, they wouldn’t have left so often.”

The absolute misery in that sentence warred with Dick’s anger at the Drakes. There was no point in getting angry at the dead. No matter how much they deserved it.

“Shhh, Timmy. You’re perfect,” Dick murmured over and over to his brother as he sobbed in his arms.

Eventually, Bruce walked in. Tim sat up and rubbed at his eyes as if it were not obvious that he had just been crying.

“I’ve straightened out the paperwork. Tim, you can come home with me,” Bruce stated, careful not to address Tim’s tears.

Tim nodded and stood, and Dick followed right behind him. Bruce squeezed Dick’s shoulder as they exited the room.

“Thanks for notifying me.”

“What took you so long?”

Bruce shook his head, and Dick dropped it. He didn’t care. Not really.

“I’m staying tonight,” Dick declared. “I’ll use the zeta in the morning to get to Bludhaven.”

Despite Bruce’s usual frowning on using the zeta beams for personal reasons, he offered no objection.

Once they managed the short walk to Wayne Manor, Tim entered without even a mumbled hello to Alfred. He climbed the stairs like a zombie, and Dick trailed after him. He sat on the bed with his brother as Tim stared at the wall. He laid down with him and held him close once Tim decided he no longer wanted to sit. Dick didn’t offer any platitudes - didn’t say anything, just held his brother until they both drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

Chapter Text

The smell of oatmeal drifted through the apartment as Jason prepared a brown sugar and strawberry oatmeal for himself. Usually Dick would have joined him at the dining table, talking incessantly as he scarfed down three scrambled eggs, but Dick hadn’t come home last night.

Jason wasn’t overly worried about it. The overly affectionate man had probably convinced poor Tim to cuddle and watch cheesy movies. Dick maintained a love of horrible movies that defied logic. Jason blamed West’s influence. The man thought anything with an explosion was a quality film. Sure, the former Robin enjoyed explosions as much as the next vigilante, but he preferred his in person without the drivel that constituted a plot in most action films. Then again, West was a certifiable idiot, and Jason still didn’t know how Dick put up with the irritating speedster.

Finishing his meal, Jason donned his leather jacket over his jeans and red shirt. The weather did not justify the extra layer of clothing, but he felt naked and exposed without the jacket. The dripping sweat and clammy feeling was a small price to pay for the feeling of comfort the black motorcycle jacket provided. Lacing up his combat boots and making sure he had his wallet, Jason headed out the door.

It was a half hour commute on public transportation to the only decent public library Bludhaven offered, but Jason refused to take his bike. He didn’t trust that Bruce or Dick hadn’t placed a tracker on the motorcycle to keep tabs on him. Bruce was pretending to give Jason space since he was apparently cured, but Jason knew his dear old dad too well. He’d shoot himself in the foot if Bruce weren’t tracking his movements and bank accounts.

Bruce and Jason had developed an uneasy truce. Well, more or less. Bruce had a billion other projects that required his time, and Jason was too distracted with his own research to pay his darling father much attention because he was not nearly as cured as he led everyone to believe, nor were his questions regarding his resurrection answered.

There were no more blackouts and raging fury that he couldn’t control, but Jason’s mind was far less himself. He didn’t know how to explain it, and no one seemed to notice, so it was probably some internal crisis that every character in every novel Jason had ever read faced, but Jason could deal with feeling less like Hamlet and more like Jason Todd. …even if Jason Todd didn’t exist anymore.

Setting up a fake identity was not nearly as difficult as it should have been; the hardest part had been accepting that whatever he did from now on would be attributed to a man that didn’t exist. Well, and the fact that his overbearing father had tried to force him into a name that didn’t easily connect to Jason Todd, he had told him to shove it where the sun didn’t shine. He had lost his life, his death, his mind, and himself like hell was he completely giving up his name.

Jay T. Peterson nodded at the bus driver as he stepped aboard the 10:15 bus. He timed his commutes so that he’d miss the worst of the morning rush hour as minimum wage workers made their ways to their various underpaid jobs. More than a lifetime ago, Jason would ride the morning bus with his mom. Vague memories of clutching her hand bounced in his brain as the bus bounced from the potholes in the pitiable Bludhaven streets. Vague memories. That was Jason’s problem. His life before the damn Pit was all vague memories and missing pieces.

No one told him M’gann’s help would lead to a brain he could no longer trust. If were honest, he hadn’t felt himself since his resurrection. The lack of the green haze in his mind just knocked the issue to the front of his brain. It had just been a feeling in the back of his brain like he misplaced something important until he had mixed up Helena and Voila when talking to Alfred the other day about their plans to see Twelf Night. Alfred, bless the man’s pure soul, didn’t comment on it, but Jason still felt the shame. He had worked hard not to be an ignorant kid, and yet here he was 17, a freaking high school dropout, who couldn’t discuss the most basic of Shakespearean plays. He could have lived with mixing up Iago and Othello, as moronic as that would have been, but at least those two were in the same damn play!

Vague memories, crappy recollections, and the need to prove to the world that he was not some ignorant street rat drove Jason to the Bludhaven Public Library every day where he studied. Desperate to fill the damn holes in his brain, he studied everything from the chemistry he used to know like the back of his hand to the novels he had known better than himself. It was infuriating, but damn, if he weren’t going to relearn whatever it took to feel like himself again.

He also spent his time studying for the GED. It was bad enough that Dick knew he was studying for the SAT. If Jason remembered correctly, Dick took the stupid test after a four-day mission with his stupid team and still almost got a perfect score. There was nothing Dick wasn’t good at, which made it hard to not want to punch the man at times. Before his death, Jason knew he could have taking the SAT and done well, but now, he was even worried about the stupid GED. What a joke.

“Jay,” Mrs. Lewis pulled him from his thoughts. He hadn’t even realized he had made it to the BPL. “It’s always a pleasure to see you.”

Mrs. Lewis, an elderly widow, spent her free time volunteering at the public library because what else am I supposed to do? Sit at home and do puzzles. I’m too young for that. She kept her grey hair in 40s curls and frequently despaired the decline of fashion. She and Alfred would get along fabulously.

Jason gave her a roguish grin. “The pleasure is mine, ma’am.”

She pulled a key out of the old desk drawer. It gave a loud squeak in protest. The ancient thing should have been relegated to a dump years ago. “I saved you the study room on the third floor.”

The third-floor study room was the only one with a widow to the outside. It also happened to be were the test prep books were kept. “You’re a saint, Mrs. Lewis.”

“Oh shush! Save your flattery for someone your own age!” She shooed him off, and Jason headed to the third-floor chuckling.

He stared at the history section of the GED practice test. He knew this. He knew which amendment granted woman the right to vote. It wasn’t the 15th that was everyone but women, so that meant it had to be the 16th or the 19th, surely it wouldn’t have taken the United States five more amendments to give women suffrage. He circled B and moved on to the next question.

An insistent knock at the door distracted him from his studies. Mrs. Lewis looked in at him with expectation. He scooted his chair back and let her into the room. She moved into the room like a lioness pouncing on prey, pushing his books to the side as she placed an overly large Mary Poppins bag onto the table and began pulling out food.

“I thought food wasn’t allowed in the library,” Jason said, dumbfounded.

Mrs. Lewis continued to spread out her plates as she replied, “That only applies to clumsy rhinoceros who would leave food crumbs or stains in my books.” She turned to face Jason with an eyebrow raised. “I trust your capable of eating without damaging public property.”

Jason nodded.

“Then, I don’t see a problem. Now sit and eat. Day in and day out, you come to this library to study, and not once have I seen you leave for lunch,” Mrs. Lewis scolded. Actually scolded him. He wasn’t sure if he should laugh or be annoyed.

“I eat a big breakfast.” Plus, he didn’t notice the time passing when he was focused on schoolwork. He never had. Not once he had discovered how much joy there was in knowledge. His older brother never enjoyed schoolwork, especially essays of any kind, always putting it off until the last second. Once, Jason swore Dick wrote an entire paper in a passing period. But Jason had never shared Dick’s loathing for school. Growing up on the streets taught Jason that education was the most valuable gift someone could be given. Gotham Academy had brand new books and working heaters. He had walked through the wardrobe into Narnia, and he would be a king of Narnia. Eh, the metaphor fell a bit flat, but the point remained the same. Reading transported Jason to different worlds, and education offered the potential to experience a life he never thought possible.

Mrs. Lewis offered him a piercing stare. “Well, now you’ll have a big lunch. Sit down and tell me how your brother is doing while we eat.”

Jason froze. Jay Peterson had a sick mother, who had died, but he was an only child. He didn’t remember talking to Mrs. Lewis about Dick, but it wasn’t like his memory was the most reliable. Damn. How was he supposed to keep a cover if he couldn’t remember the most basic facts of his life? What had he even told her about Dick?

He hedged, “He’s good.”

The library volunteer nodded, and Jason breathed a sigh of relief. His eyes caught sight of an African American man perusing the shelves across from the window of the study room. His head was shaven, and he looked oddly familiar to Jason.

“Do you expect me to care?” Jason hissed as his boot pressed down on the chest of the man in front of him. “You sold to kids.”

“Please, please, don’t,” Tommy Tones begged. Jason received a sick satisfaction of having the black man beg from him. “I won’t do it again.”

He traced the man’s broad face with his knife, enjoying Tommy’s panic clear in his wide eyes as he tried to watch the knife.

“Here’s the thing, Tommy.” Jason tapped the gangster’s nose with the flat side of the knife. “Second chances are bad for business.” Red Hood sliced the man’s jugular before he could speak another word. The blood squirted across his helmet and own to his jacket and body armor. He smirked inside his helmet as he separated head from body. Soon, no one would sell to kids.

An incessant buzzing sound distracted Hood from his task. He looked around the room. That wasn’t right. Why was there an older woman here?

“Your name is Jay Peterson. You’re in the Bludhaven Public Library. You are studying for the GED.”

Oh freak. A flashback. He had a freaking flashback in front of Mrs. Lewis. What was he going to do next attack innocent children?

Jason tried to push himself off the floor, but then he noticed his shirt was covered in blood. Oh god. Who did he hurt? His eyes flicked to Mrs. Lewis, but she didn’t seem hurt. She was still repeating the same sentences over and over again. Jason checked himself. Oh. His shirt was red. He was wearing a red shirt.

Forcing himself to stand, Jason grabbed his jacket off of the back of his chair. He mumbled an apology and fled the room. Taking the stairs three at a time, Jason tore through the library until he was outside, and an autumn breeze hit his face. He was okay. If only his body would get the message. The sound of a brakes screeching sent Jason’s heart into overdrive. He had to get home before he ran into a crowbar or heard the eerie sound of laughter.

Not trusting himself on public transportation, Jason popped his headphones into his ears and listened to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack as he hurriedly walked home. As long as he made it before the hypocritical mother hen did, he’d be fine. Jason just needed time to collect himself.

His long strides and quick pace had his body dripping sweat uncomfortable and his throat was parched, but Jason refused to remove his jacket. His hands were still trembling by the time he got to their building. He fumbled the keys four times before he managed to get inside the building. Not wanting to be in an enclosed space, Jason took the stairs to the fifth floor, where he only barely got the key in the lock on his first try.

Jason ripped his jacket and shirt off. Wadding the shirt into a ball as he headed to his closet and tore every last piece of red clothing off the hangers. Jason threw them in the kitchen sink and doused them in rubbing alcohol from the bathroom before lighting the whole pile on fire.

He stared at the fire as it engulfed the clothing, allowing the dancing flames to calm his nerves. It was strangely peaceful to watch and his heartrate and breathing slowed to acceptable rhythms.

Until the smoke detectors went off… Jason cursed at himself, opened the windows, and fanned smoke away from the detector with a towel – which, of course, was when Dick walked in.

Dick’s trained eyes swept the kitchen for threats, and Jason swore he saw a hint of a smile when his older brother caught site of the red clothing on fire in the kitchen.

“Any particular reason you’re burning your clothing in the sink?” Dick asked as he leaned casually against the counter. Their kitchen was little bigger than a hallway with the sink and dishwasher directly parallel to the stove and microwave and about 3 inches of counter space.

“Because we don’t have a fireplace,” Jason snarked and turned on the sink to douse the remaining flames.

Before Dick could respond a gust of wind almost knocked Jason over. Great. West was here.

“Don’t you knock,” Jason groused.

Wally ignored him and turned on Dick. “Do you know what today is?”

“Friday?”

“It’s date night!” Wally exclaimed. “For the past two years, Friday has been date night, except for when you stole my girlfriend to do your dirty work!”

Dick’s fond smile disappeared. “I’m on a break. If Tigress is on a mission, I had nothing to do with it.”

Wally’s limbs were moving so quickly that Jason wondered how he didn’t accidentally hurt himself as he raged. At least, West shifted Dick’s attention off of him, even if the former Robin wasn’t exactly keen to listen to the speedster complain about his love life.

“No, this isn’t about the team,” Wally hissed. “This is about how I hid your suicide attempt –”

Jason’s world came to an abrupt halt. “What?”

Green eyes widened as if they noticed Jason for the first time and his mouth opened in horror. Dick shoved Wally out of his way.

“Great, thank you. Is there anyone else you’d like to tell?”

“I didn’t. I mean. I didn’t know,” Wally replied.

“Forget it,” Dick said as he stormed out of the apartment.

Wally grabbed the bridge of his nose and banged his head on the cabinets above the counter.

“You want to explain, West?”

Wally gave a rather large sigh and pulled out his phone. Jason tried not to allow his anger to rear up, but it was a near thing.

“What are you doing?”

“Texting Roy,” Wally told him after he pocketed the phone. “Come on.” Wally headed towards the living room.

Jason followed him but refused to sit down. He crossed his arms and glared at Dick’s best friend. Wally sat on their oversized couch and rested his forearms on his thighs.

“Look, it happened three years ago,” Wally said raising his eyes to meet Jason’s. “You don’t need to worry about it.”

“It happened while I was alive?!”

Wally groaned and threw his head back.

“Tell me what happened.”

West stared at the ceiling as he spoke, “Three years ago, Dick called me to say good-bye, I guess. He sounded funny on the phone, and it took me a minute to realize he wasn’t okay. He admitted he planned to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. I raced there and pulled him off before he could do anything.”

Jason swore and swore again. There were not enough curse words for how he felt. “And this happened while I was alive? What the hell? Why would he do that”

Finally, tearing his eyes of the ceiling, Wally looked at Jason. “You’ll have to ask Dick that.”

“Oh, I will.” Jason grabbed his motorcycle jacket and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” West was suddenly in front of him. Damn, speedsters were annoying.

“To talk to Dick.”

Wally gripped his shoulders. “Let Roy handle it.”

Jason threw Wally’s hands off his shoulders.

“At least put on a shirt.”

Frozen, he looked down at himself. He was shirtless, clutching his motorcycle jacket with hands that still held a slight tremor, and trying to chase Dick down for what? If he went after Dick now, it would be a fight, and Jason couldn’t know if a fight would send him into a flashback. He rubbed a hand down his face.

“Why aren’t you going after him?”

Wally stared at him for a moment. “Because I can’t handle Dick’s issues right now.”

It was the truth, and if Jason were honest, he couldn’t either.

“Fine.” Jason threw himself on the couch. “We’ll wait for him to cool off.”

A red eyebrow rose. “We?”

“Shut up, West.”

Wally sat on the opposite side of the couch.

“Are you going to put a shirt on?”

Jason threw a pillow at him.

Chapter Text

The soft buzz of the music echoed around the room as Roy sipped his beer. Dinah, bent over the pool table with pool stick in hand, lined up her shot. Living with Ollie had made Dinah one of the few challenging players in a game of pool for the lifetime archer, though Artemis was getting better. On the other side of the room, Ollie played with Lian throwing her up in the air through some sorta hoop drones that were modified from target practice. Jade and Ollie were tossing Lian through more and more complex hoops. Lian’s laugh could be heard above and around the noise of the music, which stopped Roy from interfering. Lian was happy, but if they dropped her…

The clack of the cue ball hitting the striped seven ball into the left side pocket drew Roy’s attention back to the game. Dinah smirked at him.

“They’re not going to drop her.”

Roy scowled. “I know.”

Dinah pursed her lips as she readied her next shot. “Then get your head in the game before I wipe the floor with you.”

The cue ball nicked the thirteen, but the ball hit the corner of the pocket and bounced back towards the center. Roy raised an eyebrow. Dinah offered him a half-smile. He wouldn’t accuse Dinah of the missing shot on purpose, but he got the message.

Roy placed his beer bottle on the cocktail table Oliver had bought after he got tired of yelling at his ward to not place his drinks on the wooden edges of the pool table. He bent over the pool table and hit the cue ball to spin into the solid two ball, which hit the four ball. Both balls sank into the corner pocket. Roy grinned, and Dinah lightly shoved him.

Lian’s screams of delight caused him to look over at her. Ollie held her above his head and blew raspberries on her stomach. It was disconcerting to see playboy Ollie having such fun with an infant. Dinah bumped him.

“I know. It’s weird to watch,” she teased.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. Roy sighed. Since Ollie, Dinah, and Jade were all here, it meant that it was Wally or Dick. He thought about ignoring it but knew he wouldn’t, so he pulled the phone out.

I screwed up. Can you get to Dick?

Roy glared at his phone. He was tempted to say no. He was tempted to tell Wally to figure out his own problem, but his hand stilled over the no reply. Wally complained about Dick a lot, but he rarely asked for Roy to intervene if it weren’t serious.

What did you do?

I screwed up. Please.

Fine.

“That scowl might break your phone,” Dinah said.

“I have to go.”

Dinah raised an eyebrow.

“Dick’s being an idiot again.” This better be worth his time.

Accessing his phone’s databank, he tracked Dick’s location via his phone. If Dick had turned his phone off, this wouldn’t work. Roy’s eyebrows rose. Dick was at a bar. He swallowed. That wasn’t good. Dick had been raised by the king of sobriety, and even Roy had gotten subjected once to one of the man’s many complaints about alcohol’s impairment on the body.

“A big idiot,” he corrected. He raised his voice. “Jade, I gotta go.”

Jade placed her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows. Roy grabbed his jacket and headed towards his wife.

“Something happened with Wally and Dick,” he explained.

“It wouldn’t have anything to do with why Artemis is pissed at Wally, would it?”

Roy felt like banging his head against the wall. Why couldn’t Wally only piss off one person at a time? At least Jade would deal with Artemis, since Lian’s birth Jade had gotten more protective of her family.

“Probably.”

“Good, take care of it. Artemis says I can’t castrate him, and she’s happier when he isn’t an idiot,” Jade told him.

He refrained from raising his eyebrows. That was as close to approval that Jade got. Wally didn’t know how lucky he was. Roy nodded and headed down to Green Arrow’s cave to use the Zeta.

Ollie groaned. “If you take the zeta tubes in civvies again, Bats is going to murder me.”

Roy smirked as the elevator doors started to close. “I thought you could handle the Big Bad Bat.”

He laughed as he heard Ollie bang his head against something. If Bruce truly had a problem with Roy taking the Zeta tubes to help his son, then Roy wouldn’t be able to. The man just had to give a show of decorum.

 

Roy entered The Green Dragon and scanned the room for Dick. The bar had the usual suspects of a seedy bar, but somehow Bludhaven took the worst of Star’s seedy bars and magnified their worst qualities. A couple of drunks, complete with beer guts and raggedy clothes, sloshed their beers as they talked. A few women talked and cackled at his entrance. He ignored them and headed for the lone figure at the bar.

Dick sat in a worn-down bar stool, staring off through the lines of whiskeys, tequila, and rums. A single drink sat in front of him. Roy grabbed it from behind Dick and downed it with one go. Dick swerved around quickly, no hint of impairment.

“Hey! That’s mine! Roy?” It was interesting to watch Dick shift from anger to confusion to incredulity so quickly. “Let me guess. Wally called you.”

“Yeah, he texted me, and given that you’re about to throw your chances for a career with the police out the window, I’d say it was a good thing,” Roy told him.

“My ID says I’m legal,” Dick argued.

“Right.” Roy scoffed. “Let’s go.” He gripped Dick’s shoulder in case he got any dumb ideas.

Dick sighed but got up.

Roy led them outside, pleased to note that Dick didn’t sway or stumble.

“Stop it,” Dick growled.

“Stop what?”

“Watching me. You had my drink. I’m completely sober.”

“And that was your only drink?” Roy asked, skepticism clear in his tone.

Dick turned to glare at him. “Yes, would you like to use a breathalyzer?”

“No, but Bats might.”

The nineteen-year-old honestly look betrayed for a minute. “You didn’t?”

“No, and I resent you thinking so little of me, but how do you think I found you.”

Dick ran a hand down his face and cursed.

Roy laughed. “Yeah, now care to tell me why you were at a bar?” Roy had been doing well keeping his worry about Dick at a manageable level, far better than Wally ever did, but he’d be lying if his concern over his friend didn’t notch up several degrees at finding Dick at The Green Dragon.

“Just let it go,” Dick said as he increased his pace.

Roy easily kept pace with the shorter man. “Yeah, like you let it go when I went off the deep end looking for Roy.”

“Yeah well, I was wrong. You found him, didn’t you?”

Finding the original Roy Harper did very little to ease the clone’s guilt. Roy one was still a mess and currently missing again. The clone didn’t blame Roy for his feelings of betrayal, but now that he was safe, it seemed better to give him time to cool off.

Roy let his skepticism show clearly on his face. “Are you really trying to argue that how I handled that five-year search was healthy?”

Dick refused to answer.

“Now tell me what’s going on.”

“What? Wally didn’t tell you?” Dick hissed.

“Dick,” Roy growled. “Stop avoiding the question. What’s going on with you?”

The raven-haired man turned a corner and whispered something Roy didn’t here.

“What?”

“I was avoiding heights, okay?”

Roy didn’t need to feign his confusion. “What?”

Dick looked at him for a minute. “Wally really didn’t tell you.”

The archer hoped his growing suspicion was way off base. There were certain things he could count on. Dick Grayson’s steady presence was always one of them.

“There’s a park around the corner and up a ways,” Dick offered instead.

The pair continued their walk in silence. Dick fidgeted nervously on Roy’s right, and Roy mostly tried to ignore it. Dick led them to a park bench away from the nearest street lamp, so there was only a soft glow from the light. Empty Bellie Burger cups and old newspapers littered the area.

Dick sat on the bench, facing forward and focusing on the darkness of the bushes in front of him. Roy joined him and out of curtesy, followed Dick’s gaze rather than stare at his friend.

After a beat or two of silence, Dick said, “A couple of years ago, I did something stupid, or rather, I almost did something stupid. I mean I didn’t. And that’s what matters, but sometimes, sometimes I think about it.”

Roy nodded. His tongue seemed too large for his mouth. How did one respond to such a confession? No wonder Wally was constantly freaked out.

“I didn’t, and I wouldn’t,” Dick explained to the silence. “I’d never do it. I just, I just think about it sometimes.”

Since Roy couldn’t figure out how to make his tongue properly work, he grabbed the boy (Dick was so young. How could he forget how young Dick was?) instead and pulled him into an awkward but firm hug on the bench. “My life would suck without you.”

Dick laughed, because the first Robin had always been insane. “Thanks, Roy.”

“But you’re not going to do anything?” He asked the question and tightened his hold.

“No, no. I won’t I promise.”

Roy let Dick go and nodded.

The younger man gave Roy an indiscernible look. “What? You’re not going to track my every movement now.”

“Do I need to?”

“No!”

“Then no.” Roy waited a beat or two in silence before whacking Dick upside the head. Hard.

“What was that for?”

“Alcohol is a terrible coping mechanism.”

Dick scowled. “I didn’t drink anything. You did.”

“You thought about it.”

“But I didn’t.”

“Good. Keep it that way.”

Dick rolled his eyes but didn’t comment further.

“So who did Wally tell?”

“Bruce.”

Roy gave Dick a very unimpressed look. “Bruce had a right to know.”

The teenager sulked but didn’t dispute it. “And Jason.”

“Your younger brother with the insane protective complex?”

“Yeah.”

The red-haired man thought for a moment before answering. “Well, Wally shouldn’t have done that, but if you are honest with him, he’ll worry less. It’s when you disappear and clam up that we all worry about you.”

“I’m tired of people worrying about me.”

“Then take care of the problem.”

Dick didn’t respond, and the two fell into another silence until Roy stood up.

“Come on,” he jerked his head. “Let’s go calm Kid Idiot and your brother down.”

“There’s no way they’re still together without bloodshed.”

Roy gave his friend a look but didn't say anything. Dick clearly underestimated how much he meant to the two men.

 

“How did you miss that shot? He was right in front of you!”

“Not all of us have practice with guns!”

“Shut up West before I shoot you.”

Dick’s face showed surprise at the commotion from the living room. Roy laughed at him and shook his head. The acrobat clearly didn’t understand how much he was appreciated. They walked into the living room.

Wally and Jason were playing a cooperative game on the Xbox. Wally’s face looked worried, but he didn’t say anything. Jason looked up from the game.

“You’re back.” He addressed his older brother. “You good?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m good.”

“Then come join my team and we can crush your friends.”

Dick gave a weak laugh but threw himself down into the middle of the couch between the two and grabbed a controller.

Roy leaned against the wall and watched them. Dick would be okay. He just needed to stop being an idiot.

Chapter Text

Alfred Pennyworth did not watch cartoons, or perhaps, it was more accurate to say that he did not watch cartoons alone. He hadn’t ever watched cartoons until Bruce had taken in a grieving, angry, and active circus kid. His first charge had brought the new orphan into the manor because in a rare moment, Bruce felt empathy for this child that just watched his parents fall to their deaths. Bruce had remarked how similar he and the child were. Alfred, as the one who raised Bruce, was far too often struck by their differences than their similarities.

Bruce preferred solitude and study, while Dick preferred movement and people. It wasn’t that Dick wasn’t smart, heavens no. The boy had absorbed information like a sponge and loved learning, but the child had also loathed silence, solitude, and sitting still, which presented a problem when Dick first hurt his knee. The child simply refused to stay in bed and rest the joint, so Alfred had bargained watching a movie of Dick’s choice together. The 11-year-old had picked some animated feature that Alfred fell asleep to.

Over the years, Alfred’s knowledge of animated ‘classics’ grew considerably, and the old butler could admit that a select few cartoons were quality films, but mostly he enjoyed how much Dick would smile when they watched a film or show together. It was this knowledge that allowed him to identify the toy zebra waiting outside his bedroom as Zecora; the character the ponies had misjudged as a scary witch rather than a sage mentor. Alfred smiled. Having raised Batman, he understood apologetic gestures when they were offered. Cassandra hadn’t trusted him, especially his ascertains that the manor was completely safe. He had pushed harder than Bruce because the man with a genius IQ couldn’t recognize that a cave was no place for a child to reside. Genius, indeed.

He picked up the horse and set it on the right side of his mantle. He placed it behind twelve-year-old Dick Grayson’s first foray into robotics, which was a crude impersonation of a robotic Alfred pulling cookies out of the oven, and the teacup with “I can no other answer make but thanks” printed along the inside rim that Jason had given him after they had attended their first Shakespearean play together. To the left of these dearly loved trinkets, in the center of the mantle, his Jesus icon rested as a reminder to pray for his charges.

Oh Lord, thank you for these precious children. Help me to guide them. They need you now more than ever.

Turning his attention to his newest acquisition, he was reminded of his new favorite home video. Once Master Bruce discovered that the young girl liked Dick’s old My Little Pony shows, he had decided to acquire all the horses, characters, and multiple accessories for her. Cass had looked confused at the presents. The poor child had never seen a toy before, so Bruce responded by sitting on the floor and demonstrated how one might play with a toy horse – if one was an almost 40-year-old man who had never much played with toys himself. The girl watched him in confusion, while Alfred silently recorded the whole thing. The sight had warmed his old heart, and well, it never hurt to have blackmail material.

Eventually, Cassandra had understood the horses were somehow supposed to make her happy. Then when Tim, who she had taken an instant liking to, disappeared from the cave, she had bravely snuck into the manor and began delivering horses to Tim’s room. Alfred wasn’t sure Tim had noticed that his room had slowly been taken over by multi-colored horses, but the old butler appreciated that Cass was trying to help in her own small way. Heavens knew, Tim needed it.

Descending the stairs, Alfred’s knees creaked. He ignored his aging body and wondered what he could cook this evening to tempt Timothy to more than a few bites of his food. It was an unfortunate repetition of this household; a child lost his parents and then lost the desire to eat. Looking through the fridge, he decided on a stir-fry with plenty of protein and vegetables. He lit the burner on the stove when the appearance of Cassandra startled him. Not even Master Bruce could successfully sneak up on Alfred, but this girl moved silently. He didn’t react more than an inclined head towards her.

“Tim hurt?” She asked with intense eyes.

Alfred sighed. “Yes, Master Timothy is hurt, but not physically.”

Cass studied him. “How?”

“His parents recently died,” Alfred explained.

She blinked at him. Cassandra, who had David Cain for a father, didn’t seem to understand.

“He’s sad, my dear.”

“How help?”

“Just be with him,” Alfred offered. There wasn’t much any of them could do. Nothing sliced to the bone more quickly than the death of a parent, except perhaps, the death of a child. Thank you, Father, for returning Jason to me. It was not the first time, nor the last time he would pray that prayer. Despite all Jason’s pain, despite the murders, Alfred would never stop being grateful his grandson was returned to him. There were still times he was surprised the house had survived Jason’s death and the aftermath. It almost hadn’t. Oh Lord, thank you.

Cassandra disappeared without a comment, and Alfred imagined she would spend the majority of her time keeping guard over Timothy’s room, and poor Master Timothy probably wouldn’t notice her. Alfred wished that his multitudes of experience with the recently orphaned would make this process easier, alas it only made it familiar.

Alfred delivered two bowls of stir-fry to Timothy’s room. As he suspected, Cassandra had taken a crouching position on top of Tim’s desk where she could keep her eyes on all entrances of the room. He placed her bowl next to her, and she offered a small nod of thanks. Unfortunately, he was also correct about Master Timothy’s lack of observational skills.

He cleared his throat rather loudly. “Master Timothy.”

Tim blinked into awareness, although his eyes still looked lost. It ached Alfred’s heart to see it. The boy didn’t deserve this. None of them did.

“You must eat something.” Alfred allowed his voice into a softer tone he didn’t often use.

“I’m not hungry.”

If Alfred never heard those words from any of his charges again, it would be too soon. “Nevertheless, you must eat.”

Tim’s whole body sighed as he crumpled but accepted the food. Alfred stayed and watched him until he consumed half of the bowl. Then he departed to eat his own dinner before relieving Bruce.

Descending the stairs into the Batcave, Alfred heard his knees creak again and refrained from sighing. He was getting old, and there was only so much denial one could maintain about that reality. Alfred approached the Batcomputer and noted the vast array of activities Batman was engaged in. There were screens monitoring the hallways and exterior exits of Arkham Asylum. Two small red beeping dots on a map in the corner were labeled N and H. Another computer window had the text of some sort on it. Even benched the man didn’t rest. Neither did his children. Again, Alfred refrained from sighing.

“There’s nothing to report,” Tigress’s voice carried through the speakers. She had agreed to patrol Gotham, while the others were benched. Batgirl had reinjured her shoulder pushing too hard in physical therapy and followed the doctor's recommendation to rest the joint for an additional week. Batman had pushed to have her return to patrol Gotham.

Barbara had looked at Batman with an extremely unimpressed look and told him, “I’m not going to permanently injure my shoulder because you refuse to work with a hero you didn’t personally train. We both know Tigress is fully capable of handling Gotham.”

Alfred had bake his finest beef wellington for the girl. If only his charges could fine a lick of common sense in their over intelligent brains.

Batman grunted in reply to Tigress’s report, undoubtedly wishing that one of his proteges were sweeping the scene instead.

“It’s only a matter of time before someone in Arkham makes a move. Keep searching,” he ordered.

“Has it occurred to you that criminals are now afraid that Batman will kill them? Have you heard the rumors on the streets about the Joker’s death?” Tigress asked.

“Yes,” Batman growled.

“I’ve got a live feed on Arkham up here. It’s probably more prudent to have Tigress patrol Gotham until someone stirs in Arkham,” Batgirl replied from her position on the Watch Tower. As much as Alfred admired Barbara’s willingness to allow her body the time to heal, the young woman was the same as her mentor with regards to resting.

“Fine,” Batman growled and muted the microphones in the cave.

“Have you tried being grateful for the reprieve instead of hunting shadows?” Alfred queried.

Predictably, Bruce glared at him. “No. It’s too quiet.”

“Perhaps, Tigress is right. Perhaps, those in Arkham are worried, they will not return should they anger the Bat again,” Alfred stated.

Bruce didn’t respond to that, and it may have been unfair to reiterate the point. Bruce had never wanted the reputation of a killer. Alfred decided to change the subject.

“Your dinner is upstairs. I shall take over here while you eat it and check-in on your new charges.”

Standing up to move out of the way, Bruce nodded and headed towards the stairs. Then an alarm pinged on the computer, and Bruce dashed to the computer as fast as his booted leg would allow. The small map at the bottom of the screen enlarged and the dot labeled N was flashing. Alfred moved out of the way to allow Batman access to the computer.

“Is Master Dick in trouble?” Alfred asked.

Bruce’s hands tightened into fists. “No, he’s at a bar,” he growled.

A part of Alfred wished he was surprised that Bruce had programed his trackers to alert him for such an occasion. A larger part of him was profoundly saddened by the young man’s life choices.

Abruptly, Bruce stood up.

“Where are you going, Sir?”

“To put a stop to this.”

This time Alfred did sigh. “By causing a scene at a seedy bar?”

“If that’s what it takes.” Bruce started walking towards the Zeta tube.

“Need I remind you that Timothy just lost his parents, and you are a foster father again. How quickly do you think Timothy will be removed if the tabloids catch you dragging your son out of a bar?” Alfred reasoned.

Bruce stopped, tense muscles shaking. Then he deflated with a sigh and turned to look at his father figure. “Why is he doing this, Al?”

“I don’t know, but you are doing what you can.”

“It’s not enough.” Bruce’s fleeting moment of vulnerability faded, and the anger returned. Alfred wondered how much of that anger was directed inward.

“You can’t save him, Bruce. He is responsible for his own choices. The only person you can change is yourself,” Alfred offered, voice soft.

The younger man left the cave without another word. The older stayed and watched the blinking dot until it left the bar, praying the young man didn’t do anything he’d regret.

 

Alfred awoke abruptly, his eyes wide in the darkness. He couldn’t remember a dream or nightmare that woke him, but he knew he was awake. Very awake. He wouldn’t be falling back asleep. Used to waking up at the same time daily, the elderly gentlemen knew it was very early in the morning. He stepped out of bed and grabbed his phone.

It was 2:33 in the morning. It was far too early to be awake, and yet awake he was. He grabbed his robe and house slippers and decided the prudent thing would be to check on his charges.

As suspected, Timothy was a small form fast asleep on his oversized bed, and Cassandra had been sleeping on the floor between Tim and the window, but she jumped over the bed silently to land between the unidentified intruder and her friend. She relaxed immediately on seeing Alfred.

“I apologize for waking you, Miss Cassandra. I am just making the rounds,” he informed her quietly as not to wake Tim.

Cassandra beamed at him and nodded. He did not know if his meaning transferred, but the girl appeared to approve of his actions, and she returned to her self-directed guard duty. Shutting Timothy’s door, Alfred wondered if he should bother checking Bruce’s room or just head downstairs.

In order to spare his knees, in the unlikely event that his eldest charge had developed an understanding of the importance of rest, he checked the master bedroom. To his complete and utter lack of surprise, the room was empty. He headed to the Batcave to urge his charge to rest. Unless something drastic had changed in the last few hours, Gotham didn’t need Batman to obsessively hover over his large computer fretting over the lack of activity from Arkham Asylum.

As soon as he opened the secret entrance, raised voices and the particularly colorful language of one Jason Todd greeted his ears. As Alfred descended the steps, Jason’s language proceeded to worsen. The amount of vulgar and deplorable words his grandson spewed snapped something inside him.

“JASON PETER TODD,” his voice boomed and echoed around the cave.

The scene below froze. Jason’s weight shifted to lean further from Bruce, and Dick let go of Jason’s arms, undoubtedly trying to hold his brother back unsuccessfully. There was no doubt which of the two men were currently stronger. Half of Bruce’s face was red and already swelling. The man had clearly made no move to defend himself. Alfred just barely prevented himself from snapping at Bruce. The man’s bloody guilt would destroy him.

“Master Jason, you will go upstairs and fix a pot of tea. You and I will discuss your outburst shortly,” Alfred ordered.

Tight muscles shook with the fury Jason contained. He didn’t say a word to anyone and stomped out of the Cave in a barely concealed rage.

“If you both would follow me.” He turned on his heel, uncaring that the moved looked bloody ridiculous in house-slippers and led the two men to the medical portion of the cave. He handed Bruce an icepack for his face, and then pulled out a breathalyzer for Richard, who balked.

“No.”

Alfred raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “Earlier this evening, you went to a bar. This will tell us how much you drank.”

Dick’s voice went hard and unyielding, similar to the Bat voice. “You could ask,” Dick growled. “I expect this from him, but I thought you were better than this Alfred.”

“Master Richard.” Alfred could not keep his anger and disappointment out of his tone. “Over the last year, I have watched you ignore all basic human needs, lie to everyone around you, and by your own admission, patrol without armor, which easily could have led to your death. Your coping mechanisms leave much to be desired. I plan to stop this nonsense before it plunges further into madness.”

Grabbing the breathalyzer out of Alfred’s hands, Dick fumed, “I didn’t drink anything.”

He breathed into the device and tossed it on the medical cot before storming up the stairs to the manor. Bruce grabbed the breathalyzer first. After a quick glance, he turned the device so Alfred could read the results. 0.00. The old man sighed and deflated. He had been far too hasty.

“What happened, Bruce?” This should have been his first question.

The billionaire turned vigilante hedged. Alfred knew whatever came out of his month would skirt the truth, but he was too tired and worn to muster much of an objection.

“Jason discovered a severe error on my part,” Bruce stated.

Alfred rubbed the place on his forehead where a headache was forming. “So you let him hit you?”

Bruce grunted and handed the older man two tablets and a bottle of water. “Here.”

He swallowed the pills gratefully. Then turned to his first charge. “Your guilt will kill you and them.”

Instead of replying, Bruce grunted again, and Alfred’s frayed patience vanished.

“With all due respect, Sir, grow up!”

 

Alfred allowed himself to take a few breaths before joining Jason at the small circular table in the kitchen. Once composed he stepped into the kitchen and grabbed the teacup Jason had already prepared. The sweet peppermint aroma floated towards his nose, and he took a grateful sip before addressing the troubled young man at the table.
Angry hands clutched the teacup in front of him in a white-knuckled grip. Jason stared into his tea and made no move to acknowledge the older man. Not wanting to repeat his mistake with Dick, he sat next to Jason and gathered more information.

“What happened?”

“Bruce is an ass,” Jason hissed, tightening his grip on his cup.

“Perhaps you could tell me what your father –”

“He is not my father!”

Adoption papers said otherwise, but Alfred let the matter drop. “Very well. Perhaps you could tell me what he did that has upset you?”

Jason gave a humorless laugh. “He didn’t adopt Dick.”

“He has adopted Dick,” Alfred corrected.

“Yeah, a month ago. What the hell is wrong with him? Dick was here years before me. Why didn’t he adopt him?”

“I’m afraid the matter is complicated.”

Jason snorted.

Alfred sipped his tea, allowing the liquid to warm him before replying. “Why does it bother you?”

It was the wrong question to ask. Jason erupted. The teacup smashed against the wall of the kitchen.

“Why does it bother me? Why does it bother me? Because Dick almost threw himself off a bridge when Bruce adopted me!”

The world stilled. A shrill ringing filled Alfred’s ears.

“Oh shit!” He heard Jason yell above the piercing sound in his ear. “You didn’t know?! How did you not know? You know everything!”

There would be time to process the information later. Right now, one of his charges needed him. “Master Jason, please calm down. I would bet a year’s salary that Richard is currently nestled in Timothy’s bed, and I know Cassandra is keeping guard over that bedroom. No harm will come to any of them tonight.”

“I still think Bruce deserves more than a punch to the face,” Jason sulked.

“Depression, similar to all mental illness, is a multifaceted condition. Master Bruce’s error may have contributed to Dick’s unfortunate reaction, but he cannot be held solely responsible. The best we can do is help Richard get the help that he needs,” Alfred explained, a yawn threatening to escape in his exhaustion. “Perhaps, it would be best if we both retired for the evening and allowed cooler heads to prevail in the morning.”

“Yeah, fine,” Jason grunted and trudged up the stairs.

The elderly British gentlemen would bet the entire Wayne fortune that Jason went to share in guard duty with Cassandra. He smiled to himself as he swept up the broken teacup and mopped the spilt tea.

Exhaustion flooded his body, but Alfred knew he would not be able to sleep until he processed some of the night’s revelations. Returning to his room, Alfred pulled his small book of Psalms and his Anglican Book of Common Prayer off his shelf, and for the last few hours of the early morning, he prayed, crying out for help for he lacked the wisdom he needed.

Chapter Text

A gleam of sunlight from the huge arch windows hit the rows of crystal in front of her. She didn’t dare touch the fragile table arrangement, a hand-painted china from centuries ago and the crystal water goblets by some fancy designer that Artemis pretended to know the name of, on the solid oak table in front of her. She hadn’t even known there were designers for archaic dishware. Instead she gripped the back of the matching solid oak dining chairs. Her fingers struggled for purchase along the grooves and crevices of the delicate roses and leaves hand craved into the wood as she listened to Wally and the event coordinator for the Preston Country Club describe menu options for their special day.

To distract her from her rapidly growing ire, Artemis took soft deep breaths and focused her attention on the grounds outside. The sweeping acres of green grass and large trees resembled something of a fairy tale. A rather uncomfortable feeling rushed through her, so she returned her attention to the woman in the black pantsuit and overly pleasing smile.

“If we head back to my office, we can look at the calendar and find a date that works for you both,” the woman whose name Artemis couldn’t remember said.

“That would be great!” Wally beamed. His smile hadn’t left his face since he entered the historic country club.

“Actually, we have a few more places to visit before making a decision,” Artemis argued, fingers still clenched into the dining room chair, so that she didn’t elbow Wally.

The woman’s face flickered for a moment; clearly she wasn’t used to someone turning down the Preston for some other less elegant location, but she recovered easily enough. The woman pulled a business card out of her black portfolio and handed it to Wally.

“Of course! When you’ve made your decision, give me a call.” Her false cheer rang in the room.

It reminded the archer a little too much of an acrobat given to false cheer lately. She stormed out of the room, leaving Wally to say their goodbyes. Pulling her car keys out of her purse while she walked away.

Artemis waited for Wally in the driver’s seat of the car. Her hands found the right key and slid it into the ignition. The passenger side door clicked opened and Wally slid in before she turned the car on. Wally watched her for a second and Artemis ignored him as she backed out of the parking spot.

“So…what was that?”

Involuntarily, Artemis’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. “Give Oliver the money back,” she growled. “I told you I didn’t want him to pay for this.”

Wally’s bright green eyes shifted from concerned to aggressive. “I didn’t take any money from Oliver.”

“Then how the frick where you planning on paying for that? Last I checked we couldn’t afford a place that was a thousand bucks a plate.” She managed not to raise her volume, which was a near thing, but even she could hear how tight her voice was.

“I didn’t take any money from Oliver,” Wally repeated. His tone matching hers.

“That didn’t answer my question,” she barely refrained from screeching the sentence like some shrill hag. A realization dawned on her. “Give Dick the money back.”

Wally rolled his eyes. “I didn’t take any money from Dick either.”

“Then what?” Artemis shouted. “What on earth possessed you to think we could afford the Preston?”

“Bruce paid for it.”

Her pony tail whipped her cheek when she jerked her head to look at her fiancé. “What do you mean Bruce paid for it?”

Wally’s fingers tapped restless along the tan interior of the door. His face stared out the windshield. “Bruce gave me $50,000 for our wedding.”

Forcing her attention back on the road, Artemis asked, “What? Why?”

“Why does Bruce do anything? I swear, Dick only understands him half the time.” Wally didn’t shift his gaze.

“Don’t lie to me,” she hissed.

The speedster’s fingers stilled. “He’s grateful Dick’s alive.” He let out a large sigh that deflated his tense shoulders. “He also suggested that it would be in everyone’s best interest if he were informed regarding any other attempts.”

“You have got to be kidding me?! You took a bribe from Bruce!”

Wally turned in his seat, so he was fully facing her. His normally bright green eyes darkened with anger. “First, you’re mad at me because I didn’t tell Bruce, and now, you’re upset because I agreed to! What do you want from me?”

Artemis glared at him. “I want you to not take bribes to do the right thing.”

“Oh for crying out loud! I had already agreed to – WATCH OUT!”

The blonde archer threw on her breaks and swerved into the emergency lane to avoid colliding with the line of cars that had come to a halt on the freeway. She took a few deep breaths to calm her racing heart and doublechecked that Wally was okay. Wally’s face drained of color and beads of sweat formed on his forehead.

“Hey, you okay?”

Shaky hands carded through red hair. “Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. I’m just gonna run from here. I need to stop at campus for some lab work anyway.”

Before she could reply, he was gone. Artemis dropped her head onto the steering wheel. That could have gone better.

 

Laying across the foot of their queen bed with her feet hanging off the bed, Artemis had one hand tangled in Brucely’s fur as he slept in the center of the bed and another held the cell phone to her ear. She had called her mother to complain about her ridiculous fiancé.

“But why does it bother you so much?” Her mom asked for at least the third time.
Artemis had avoided the question precisely because she didn’t know how to express her feelings into concise neatly wrapped words.

“It just does.”

“Artemis.”

She made an indiscernible noise as she flipped onto her stomach and kicked her feet into the air. Brucely didn’t even twitch.

“Ollie’s not my uncle,” she offered in explanation.

Her mother made a tut sound on the other end of the phone. “Believe it or not, I know who you’re related to.”

“He wasn’t even my mentor, not really.” Artemis sighed. “I mean I already knew how to fight and shoot a bow.”

“Your father taught you.”

Artemis groaned. She flipped over again and slid onto her feet. She started to pace. “Can we not make everything about dad?”

“When you stop rejecting every father figure, I’ll stop bringing up your father.”

“Please stop.”

“Okay fine,” her mother acquiesced. “You don’t want Oliver’s money because he wasn’t your mentor. Is that why you don’t want Bruce’s?”

“I don’t even understand why he offered. It’s not like he just hands out money.”

Paula Crock chuckled softly. “He’s on record as a significant financial supporter of the Justice League, and how many charities does the man run or give to?”

“Mom,” Artemis dragged out the word in that petulant way she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. “Not the point.”

“I don’t understand why you are so surprised. He paid for you to attend Gotham Academy, and he offered a full tuition scholarship to Stanford.”

“Which I didn’t take.”

“Artemis, has it ever occurred to you that it’s how Bruce says thank you? From what you’ve told me, it sounds like you and Wally are a large part of the reason his son is still alive. If it were the other way around, I would want to repay that.”

The blonde ran a hand down her face.

Her mother tried again. “Artemis, why do you help people? Why did you choose to be a hero?”

“What do you mean?”

“You were raised with villains.” Anticipating her daughter’s objection, she quickly defended, “Don’t argue with me. I know who I was. But you chose to be a hero. Why?”

Artemis’s brow furrowed. There were so many reasons. A tangled knot of emotions squirmed in her stomach. She didn’t want to be her dad. She owned the world a debt because of her dad. She liked not being her dad. It was fun. Aloud, she gave the safe answer, “I like helping people.”

“And do you think Bruce Wayne enjoys using his resources to help others?”

Deflated, she leaned against the wall, crossing her left ankle over her right. “It’s not fair when you’re so logical.”

She could hear the smile in her mom’s voice. “I never intended to play fair.”

“But Mom,” Artemis complained and ignored how whiny her voice sounded. “I don’t want to get married at the Preston.”

Her mother laughed. “That is a completely separate issue.”

“I’ll think about what you said,” Artemis conceded.

“You do that.”

After exchanging good-byes, the blonde college student, decided that she should make some a big pot of pho before delving into her homework. No matter how annoyed Artemis was with Wally, she still made enough for a speedster’s metabolism – she did still love the idiot.

 

Pouring a standard amount of condensed milk into two glasses, Artemis filled the Vietnamese coffee filters with Trung Nguyen before pouring the hot water over the filters. The aroma of strong, rich caffeine permeated the room.

“Mmm, that smells delicious,” Barbara chimed, her eyes closed and inhaling the scent deeply.

Artemis set the kettle down while they waited for the coffee to drip through the filter. She joined her friend at the kitchen table, careful to avoid the head off the table where too much pressure would cause the whole thing to wobble.

“That’s because you’ve been guzzling black tar,” Artemis fired back.

Barbara shrugged. “It gets the job done.”

“And how is the job going?”

“Honestly? I can’t wait for Kaldur to get back.”

Gray eyes widened in surprise. “I thought you enjoyed bossing people around.”

As usual, the redhead ignored the barb. “The team’s great.” A small sigh. “I’m not as nice as Dick or Kaldur.”

“What?”

Barbara’s face scrunched. “I don’t like interruptions.”

Artemis barked a loud laugh, and Babs glared at her.

“Don’t look at me like that,” the blonde argued; grin still plastered on her face. “It’s just for all the complaints I’ve heard about team leadership, not liking interruptions is just –”

“Stupid?” Barbara filled in, her voice small and eyes focused on the table.

“Hey, it isn’t stupid.” Amusement faded quickly in the face of the normally confident woman’s hesitation. Artemis reached out and grabbed her friend’s hand. “What’s the problem?”

“It’s just every time I think I’m getting somewhere with this chemist case, some problem comes up with the team.” The blonde didn’t offer any reply, and Barbara continued, “It’s frustrating because I’m good at it. I can handle the team. I can lead them effectively. I just don’t like doing it. I’d rather be in my work room researching.” She released her grip on the other woman’s and dropped her face into her hands. “Oh my God, I’m Bruce.”

“You are not Bruce.”

Barbara pushed back from the table with her hands on the edge, unconsciously tipping the chair onto two legs. “I just admitted that I find other heroes a nuisance and would rather spend my time alone in my cave.” She dropped her chair onto the floor and brought her elbows onto the table. “Dear Lord, I even adopted an orphan.”

Well, Artemis couldn’t exactly argue with that. Instead, she tried to reassure her friend, “Just because you’re similar, doesn’t mean you are Bruce.” That sounded like an echo of something she heard somewhere.

A memory of her mom and fifteen-year-old Artemis flashed through her mind. She was seated on her bed and her mom had rolled up in front of her and took her hands. “Just because you are similar to your father, does not mean you are your father, Artemis.”

Standing up, Artemis shook off the memory and moved to finish their coffees, stirring her cup with a toothpick soaked in fish sauce to give the drink a smoother taste. Artemis finished the beverages by dropping several ice cubes in the glasses. Each cube splashing and plinking as it hit the glass and the liquid. She offered a drink to her friend who took it with a distracted word of gratitude.

“What’s going on in that big brain of yours?”

Barbara gave a tight smile. “A lot. I need to think about this more.”

In other words, Babs wouldn’t discuss the issue further until she had reached her own conclusions. Well, that was fine with Artemis. She had other things that she wanted to discuss.

“Does Bruce just give you money?”

The other woman raised one sharp eyebrow. “You mean other than the fact that he paid my high school tuition, is paying my college tuition, and funds all of my nightwork?”

Artemis sighed.

“What’s this about?”

“Bruce wants to pay for our wedding.”

“And that’s terrible because?”

Artemis twisted her lips to one side of her face as she thought about how to respond. “I don’t want to take his money.”

Barbara laughed. “You already have. We all have. He funded 75% of Mount Justice and the Watch Tower.”

“I know. It’s just –” Just what? She had no idea how to put her hesitations into words.

“Look,” Barbara tried to explain. “Bruce doesn’t know how to communicate, so he gives money as a sign of gratitude or an apology.” A small pause. “Or if he just thinks you need it. The man has no concept of how most people live.”

“So we should keep it?”

“The other option is donating it. You won’t be able to give it back. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Artemis sighed again. Either way, she still didn’t want to get married at the Preston. The whole place reeked of apathetic rich people. It wasn’t who she was.

“Alright, well, one more question.” The archer took a breath. Suddenly nervous with sweaty palms, which was ridiculous. Barbara would say yes. “Would you be my maid of honor?”

“You’re not asking your sister?”

“I love Jade, but I’d like my wedding to not end in explosions.”

A devious looked passed on the redhead’s face. “I don’t know. That could be fun.”

“No.”

Babs shrugged good-naturedly. “I’d be honored.”

A warm smile burst onto Artemis’s face. “Thanks.”

 

Adjusting the wig again, Artemis sighed as she looked at the light brown curls she was wearing and tried not to hate it. This whole thing had been her idea, and she would live with it. It was just she hadn’t wanted to go back uncover so soon, even if it were for only a few hours. But she wanted, no needed answers.

For the first time in her life, Artemis thought she may have found something that she actually wanted to do that wasn’t hero work, but at the same time, the task ahead of her was daunting. Just because she could recognize the massive problems with the criminal justice system, it did not mean that she knew how to solve these problems. Today wouldn’t even give her answers for the massive question of how, but rather it would answer the question if she were on the right track. Unfortunately, it also meant a brief uncover visit to Belle Reve while the Flash gave his don’t-do-drugs-and-stay-in-school speech.

While Wally tried to encourage those in prison to turn their lives around, Artemis, dressed in a black blazer with a press pass, would be interviewing the criminal population about their desires to change and if jail had increased their desires to be a productive member of society. The possibility of prison or extended jailtime didn’t seem an effective deterrent to Artemis, and she selfishly wanted a world where her sister wouldn’t have to spend the rest of her life in hiding because of past crimes. If Jason Todd could get a pardon for brutally murdering 8 people, why couldn’t Jade?

Wally, dressed as he Flash, appeared in the doorway, arms crossed and leaning against the side of it. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah. You finish your speech?”

“Of course!”

Artemis raised an unimpressed eyebrow. For the last week and a half, she had listened to her fiancé complain and bemoan this totally unfair assignment from Barry. Wally may be a science genius but a wordsmith he was not.

His shoulders deflated. “After he finished laughing at me, Dick helped me with it.”

Artemis didn’t drop her eyebrow. Dick was hardly the most reliable when it came to the English language. He had frustrated more than one English teacher at Gotham Academy, and Bruce had been often called in for meetings about Dick’s butchering use of language. The original Boy Wonder, however, was close to Clark, whose job depended on his ability to use words.

“How much did you copy from Superman’s old speeches?”

Wally gasped in mock outrage. “Are you insinuating that we would stoop so low as to plagiarize from a fellow hero?”

“So all of it?”

Shrugging, he replied, “Yeah, the man’s good with words.”

Artemis laughed at him. Wally scooped her up and carried them both to the prison.

After clearing security and removing anything that could easily be used as a weapon, Artemis was led into a prison room with a solid gray table and two folded chairs. The only decoration on the solid grey concrete walls was a one-way mirror where a correction officer would be monitoring her conversations. She’d be allowed to interview a limited number of prisoners – not enough to draw any hard conclusions, but enough for Artemis to decide if she would pursue law school.

The first to enter the room was a small but toned, baldheaded white man. His arms were heavily tattooed with skulls, guns, and women. Artemis didn’t look too closely. He grinned wolfishly at her.

“My, my, my, they didn’t tell me I’d be interviewed by a looker.” The man whistled appreciatively.

It took everything in Artemis to not react. A mild-mannered reporter did not roll their eyes or wound men who were annoying.

“What da ya say? Let’s skip the talking, and I’ll give you a little ride instead,” the man leered.

“I’m sure it would be little,” Artemis replied, unable to take any more of this man’s idiocy.

The man’s whole head ripened like a tomato as he sputtered indignantly at her and called her names she would be sure not to repeat back to Wally.

“If we could continue, I’d like to ask a few questions,” she stated above the noise of the man’s outrage.

“I ain’t gotta put up with this shit. Stupid ho gonna talk to me like that.” The man stood up and banged on the door. “Hey! I ain’t gotta talk to this ho. Probably overcharge you and forget to deliver.”

Artemis curled her hands into tiny fists and reminded herself that she could not incapacitate this man for being a scumbag. He was already in jail. Let him talk.

The guards removed the vile-tempered man and replaced him with a tall dark-skinned African American, who looked like he could rip the thin table in two.

“I see you met I-ain’t-gotta Joe.” He offered a smile that showed perfect white teeth. “My name is Carl. I’d offer to shake your hand, but.” He raised his hands that had handcuffs chained to shackles on his feet.

“Amy Lucas,” she responded. Artemis wasn’t new enough to criminals to believe that a polite smile meant innocence. Too many criminals were capable of civil conversation. “I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

He nodded once.

“How long have you been in Belle Reve?”

“3 years, 6 months, 22 days.”

“That’s awfully specific.”

Carl shrugged and offered no further explanation.

“What happened?” She tried instead.

“Same old, same old. Black man at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Are you saying you didn’t commit a crime?”

Carl leaned back in his chair and stared at Artemis for a long minute. “I’m saying it doesn’t matter. I was convicted because I was a black man.”

“I doubt that’s true,” Artemis countered.

Carl laughed. The sound bellowed in the room. “You’re here to write an article, right?” A nod. “Well, perhaps you should start by researching the overwhelming convictions of Blacks and Latinos.”

“Okay,” she agreed because she was vaguely aware of statistics that agreed with the man’s statement. She could delve into that later. “Well, has being in prison made you want to give up crime?”

The man laughed long and hard for a full minute. He wiped tears from eyes. “I thought you had to be educated to be a reporter.” Artemis stiffened in response. “You can’t get a job after prison. You’re forever marked as a delinquent. Most people get out, come right back in.”

It was as Artemis suspected. Once you had a felony, how could you get a job. Although, she wasn’t sure she believed that Blacks and Latinos were criminalized more often. Most of the supervillains she knew were white, although…how often did the likes of Lex Luthor receive punishment for their crimes?

“Time’s up!” A prison guard ordered, throwing the door opened.

“Well, this has certainly been fun,” Carl informed her and walked out of the room.

The rest of Artemis’s interviews fell somewhere in between complete disaster and to a small degree informative, but all those who had been willing to have at least somewhat of a civil conversation with her confirmed Carl’s theory that there was little opportunity to turn one’s life around after being convicted of a crime. There was nothing that encouraged long term sustainable change, and Artemis wanted to fix that.

It appeared she finally had a college major.

 

A light fog and an early autumn chill rolled through the streets of Gotham as Tigress cased the Narrows. Gotham nights had been eerily quiet since the Joker died. Whispers on the streets claimed that Bats would kill now. Those rumors had always existed but the celebrations of the Joker’s death brought a truth to them that many feared, although there would always be those who clung to the underbelly of life heedless of the consequences. It was those criminals, Artemis had mopped up during her brief stint as Gotham’s Guardian. But the longer Tigress prowled the streets, the more the rumors changed with the wind.

People were beginning to wonder if perhaps the Batman had died with the Joker, or perhaps he had left now that his greatest foe had been vanquished. Tigress didn’t concern herself with the rumors. She knew enough about Batman to understand that he would use the gossip to his advantage and unveil himself in the most dramatic fashion possible.

Perched on a rooftop, she searched for criminals, but she also planned how she might explain to Wally why she didn’t want to get married at the Preston or any other fancy country club or yacht club. She had hoped to talk with him after their visit to Belle Reve, but unfortunately, they had both been too emotionally upset to have a civil conversation.

Instead, they had moved their furniture out of their living room and had a friendly sparring match that eventually deteriorated into kissing…as all of their sparring matches did. Artemis couldn’t help it. Wally’s lips were just so kissable. She grinned fondly at the memory.

Flipping over to the next rooftop, she found a couple of dudes, who looked ready to break into a small electronic store. She prepared an arrow to fire a warning shot.

“Tigress,” Batman spoke over her comm. “Harley Quinn just broke out of Arkham Asylum.”

Artemis cursed. Joker’s crazy girlfriend couldn’t have waited another week before breaking out when Gotham was no longer her problem. She fired three warning shots at the men below and waited for them to scatter before acknowledging Batman.

“What information can you give me?”

“I’m pulling up the security footage now,” Batgirl responded.

“Harley Quinn is extremely dangerous. Do not engage,” Batman ordered at the same time.

Behind her mask, Tigress rolled her eyes. Did Batman ever think anyone was beyond his protection? She wondered if the man told Superman to be careful.

The three idiots below returned to the electronic store. Annoyed, Tigress loaded a rubber tipped arrow and took aim. Something whacked into the side of her head and knocked her off her perch and onto the flat rooftop. Her vision swam, and she tried to stand, but her body wasn’t listening.

Harley Quinn stood over her, gigantic mallet in hand. “Don’t bother getting up, Sweetums.”

The crazy costumed villain hit Tigress again, and she knew no more.

Chapter Text

“Tigress! TIGRESS!” Batgirl yelled over the coms.

“Aw, ain’t that sweet?” Harley Quinn’s falsely saccharine spoke using Tigress’s com. “You wanna see your blonde friend again. I want those Bat Boys responsible for my puddin’s death, you hear?”

“That’s not going to happen, Harley,” Batgirl responded, fingers moving rapidly across her keyboards to check the current roster of Young Justice. Superboy, Miss Martian, and Beast Boy were all in the Tower, but M’gann was still benched and in recovery from helping Jason, and Barbara wasn’t about to send a new hero into Gotham. That just left Superboy.

There was a shuffling sound from the other end of the com. “Oh sweetie,” Harley crooned. “We both know how you hero types work. I’ll even save you the detective work. I’ll be at the docks. Pier 6. See you soon!”

Static filled the com. Harley must have broken it. Annoyed, Batgirl focused on solving the problem. There was no way Artemis would die doing a favor for Barbara. Her shoulder still needed a week of recovery, but she could push it if necessary. The entire Bat Clan still needed recovery time. Harley Quinn may be unpredictable, but she wasn’t as dangerous as the Joker. Well, at least not normally. Who knew what that brainless besotted fanatic would do, now that her puddin was dead. A shiver ran over Barbara’s arms. How had Dr. Quinzel ever fall for that madman?

Batgirl called Superboy over the coms and placed an emergency alert on the Flash’s channel. There was no way Wally would forgive her if he wasn’t notified.

“No metas in Gotham,” Batman growled over her coms.

Hot fiery anger like lava through her veins erupted. Her fingers curled into her palms and the nails dug into the palm of her hands. Forcefully, she unclenched her fingers. When she spoke, her force was ice. “I’m sorry. Who invited Wonder Woman to patrol over the summer?”

The flooding of the anger reminded her that Bruce had promised to take care of Gotham while she adjusted to leader of YJ – except the man did not handle the city at all.

“No metas in Gotham,” he repeated in a deeper growl.

The lava erupted. “Screw you, Bruce! I’m not going to lose my best friend because you’re an arrogant, hypocritical prick.”

She threw her headset onto the table and muted all communication from the BatCave. Superboy entered the room flanked by Miss Martian on top of a Beast Boy, who had chosen the shape of a rhinoceros. M’gann still hadn’t gained all her strength back. She tired easily, and Barbara missed the martian’s soothing voice in her head.

“What’s going on?” Garfield asked as M’gann slid off his back and he transformed into his preferred monkey form.

“There’s a situation in Gotham. Superboy –”

A burst of uncontrolled air told her Wally had arrived.

“What’s going on? Is Artemis okay? Where is she?” The words rushed out of Wally’s mouth fast. The skin around his lips was even whiter than normal. His mask hiding just how badly his freckles must be standing out against pale flesh.

“Tigress,” the word emphasized to help the temporary Flash gather his composure. “has been captured by Harley Quinn, who broke out of Arkham Asylum a few hours ago.”

“A few hours! Why am I just now hearing about this?”

“Tigress was just captured. We didn’t know about the escape until recently. Harley covered her tracks well,” Batgirl replied, frustrated. She had set up the damn surveillance coding herself. Harley shouldn’t have been able to fool her system, and yet, she had. Damn infernal woman.

“What’s the plan?” Superboy asked. His arms tight against his side, ready for a fight. Flash stood next to him, vibrating with his eagerness to leave, but Wally was no longer a fifteen-year-old new superhero. He wouldn’t dash off without hearing the plan, even if his whole body registered with his desire to do just that. Barbara could relate. No matter her desire to join the boys on the field, she couldn’t endanger Artemis’s life with her own carelessness. And like it or not, her shoulder was in no shape to take on Harley Quinn and her damn hammer.

“She’s at Pier 6 at the Gotham Harbor. Superboy, I need you to create a distraction, so Flash can dash in and grab Tigress. We will deal with whatever plan Harley thinks she’s hashing as soon as Tigress has been removed from danger,” Batgirl commanded the team.

“But I want to help too!” cried Beast Boy.

Red hair flashed in her vision as she shook her head. “No Beast Boy. I’m sorry. We don’t have enough information, and you’ve never handled a Gotham villain before.”

M’gann placed a hand on Garfield’s shoulder. “Gar, the best way we can help right now is staying safe.”

Beast Boy hung his head in a nod that he never quite finished. The speakers announced that Superboy and Flash had departed. Leaving M’gann to comfort Garfield, Barbara pulled her headset over her ears. She didn’t unmute the BatCave, but she did inform Batman of the plan. Hopefully the man would stay out of it.

The sound of gunshots immediately flooded her ears. She searched the docks for security footage, but any cameras had been shot or destroyed earlier, leaving Barbara blind. She could only hear through Superboy’s and Flash’s coms. It sounded like way too many guns. How had Harley Quinn gathered that many goons without anyone noticing? Or was the whole thing some elaborate trap? Joker had always been fond of those – maybe he had left some of his schemes behind for revenge.

Frustrated, she searched again for nearby cameras. She found one two blocks away. A small security camera for a convenience store showed only the front entrance to the store. She wanted to ask for a status report but knew better than to risk distracting the team when they were clearly in combat.

A grunt of pain echoed over the coms, followed by several curses.

“Superboy is down,” Flash said, edges of panic laced in his voice. “I repeat. Superboy is down.”

That didn’t make any sense. There was no way Harley Quinn would have expected a Kryptotian, let alone have access to kryptonite.

“How?”

“Damn psycho laced her hammer with kryptonite.” A soft gasp behind Batgirl told her that M’gann had heard the comments. “I’m bringing him back now.”

“Understood.” Batgirl turned her attention to the other occupants in the room. “Make sure Superboy gets to an infirmary. Find a flyer to get him closer to the sun.” Both Garfield and M’gann rushed to obey. “And tell Flash to see me before he rushes off again!” She called over her shoulder at the pair.

Barbara rotated her shoulders. Once. Twice. There wasn’t a ton of pain, but it was stiff. As long as she minimized the use of her right arm, she would be fine. Of course, if she took a hit to her right arm… it could be disastrous. The last thing Batgirl wanted was to create a need for another rescue.

“What happened?” She demanded as soon as the wind announced Flash’s presence.

“She said she was expecting a different Boy Scout, and she was saving something for him.” Wally ran a trembling hand through his hair, knocking the cowl off his head. “Superboy was whacked with the hammer and stabbed with a kryptonite knife.” His feet moved so rapidly that Barbara wasn’t sure how the man appeared to be standing still. He swore again. “And I couldn’t grab Artemis. She’s attached to an f-ing bomb. I couldn’t move her without setting it off!” Another curse.

“How much movement does she have in her hands?” Batgirl asked as a plan formed in her mind.

“Plenty. She’s not exactly chained.” Wally paused. His vexation clear. “Harley’s got her on some sorta pressure switch. If Artemis moves off of it…”

“You can’t just replace her weight with something else?”

“I could, but I didn’t have enough time to see how sensitive the damn switch is. We could easily blow the place sky high,” Wally grumbled, pacing.

Barbara threw open the top drawer of her desk and pulled out two tiny devices. “Okay. Then give these to Tigress. If she is close enough to the bomb or the pressure switch, I can guide her in disarming them.” Batgirl searched the fear, trying to mask itself as anger on her friend’s face. “Can you distract Harley and her goons long enough for us to work?”

Wally nodded once and left the Watch Tower again, leaving Batgirl blind once again – hopefully, not for much longer.

In under a minute, Flash had placed the camera she had given him above Artemis and the bomb, so that Batgirl could finally see or, at least, see a section of the warehouse. Tigress stood perfectly immobile without chains or rope. Her hands clenched at her side in irritation. No doubt she was watching her fiancé fighting off henchmen, while she remained trapped. Neither Barbara or Artemis did well with being the damsel in distress.

“How are you doing?” Batgirl questioned through the com Flash had given Tigress.

“Peachy,” the other girl growled. “Please tell me you can disarm this thing.”

“Yeah, just give me a minute to analyze it.” Batgirl focused the camera to give her a better view of the camera and the bomb. The explosives were only a few feet behind Tigress. “Can you move at all without setting off the switch.”

“Only my left foot is on the switch. I can move my upper body, but if too much pressure is released…” Tigress allowed her sentence to remain unfinished.

“Okay, okay,” Batgirl reassured her. “I have an idea, but you’re not going to like.”

If Tigress didn’t have her mask on, Barbara was sure she would have seen the other girl roll her eyes. “I haven’t enjoyed anything about tonight.”

Batgirl ignored her complaint. “If you can do a backbend and transition yourself into a bridge pose, you should be able to reach the components to disarm the explosives.”

Tigress minutely stiffened before replying too casually, “You just had to bring that yoga class up.”

“Hey!” Barbara teased lightly, false humor cheering the air. “I thought you’d be good at yoga!”

“Yeah, yeah, next time take Nightwing, and leave me out of it.” Tigress shook her head a moment. “Okay, what do I do.”

Batgirl swallowed, wishing she could hold onto levity the way Dick did in crucial moments, but every muscle in her body tightened against her will. “Like in that class, you have to concentrate on spreading your weight. Push into the ground with your feet, so the pressure switch doesn’t deactivate.”

Tigress agreed and followed Batgirl’s instructions as she slowly moved her right foot to be hip width apart from her left and even slower, bent backwards at the waist. Time moved in slow motion while she waited for her friend to touch both her hands onto the ground onto a bridge pose and let out a breath she had been unaware she had been holding.

“I don’t know how long I can hold this, so what’s the plan?” Tigress breathed through the com.

“You’re going to have to pry open that compartment, so I can get a better read on the bomb.”

Tigress grumbled something under her breath as she transitioned herself to balance on her left arm. There was a five count as Tigress guaranteed her position would not set off this new bomb. Then, she pulled a small object out of her right sleeve. Villains always did forget to double check for devices sewn into one’s uniform.

The metal siding popped off, clanging loudly as it hit the floor. Tigress turned her head. No doubt to see if anyone would interrupt her work. Batgirl focused on the wires arming the explosives. It didn’t look too difficult to defuse – but then again, this was Harley Quinn. There were probably trick wires throughout the mess of tangled electronics.

Absorbed in her task, Batgirl failed to notice that Tigress had returned to a standing position. “We have a problem,” Tigress stated, voice too neutral to be calm. “Nightwing is here.”

WHAT?!

Frantically, Batgirl grabbed the headset she had discarded earlier and unmuted the Cave.

“What is Nightwing doing near combat?” She all but screeched into the line.

“Perhaps, if you had not neglected to unmute the communication lines earlier, you would have had the information at an early time.” Alfred’s voice was scathing.

Breathing deeply, Batgirl forced out an apology. “Why is he here?”

“Nightwing took the Batmobile while Batman was attempting to reach you,” Alfred continued. His tone enough to freeze rushing rivers. You did not endanger his charges and forget about it.

Barbara bit back another apology. “What’s his plan?”

“I do not know. I do know that your ninja followed after him on his bike.”

Refusing to groan at the abysmal failure this mission was turning out to be, Batgirl patched herself into the Bat Clan’s coms.

“Hey Harley, I heard you were looking for me.” Nightwing’s voice dripped with flirtatious desire.

Of course, Barbara couldn’t see Nightwing since he, Harley, and Flash were all out of range of her camera. Tigress, however, stood straight up, watching the proceedings.

“Flash, what’s your status?”

“Two more guards.” A whooshing sound through the com and then, “There done.” A second later, he was in the same frame as Tigress. “Found something for you, sweetheart.” He placed her crossbow into her hands. “Couldn’t find any bolts though.”

Tigress strapped it onto her back. “You are such a tease.”

Flash grinned incorrigibly. “Let’s see if I can disarm this. Um, Batgirl. I'm gonna need some help."

Over the coms, Nightwing continued flirting with Harley. “Come on, Harls,” Dick purred. “You know your life was better before Joker. Think of how much better it could be.”

Disgusted with the idiot her heart had a crush on, Batgirl ignored him. As long as he kept Harley distracted, it wouldn’t matter.

"You need to cut the middle two wires at exactly the same time."

“There done!” Flash announced, and Tigress pulled her foot off the pressure switch. Nothing happened. Tigress and Flash gripped onto one another.

Harley Quinn laughed uncontrollably. Batgirl’s stomach churned. Joker or Harley laughing never meant anything good for anyone.

“Harley, this isn’t a trap. I swear,” Nightwing pleaded. His voice took on a desperate tone that it had lacked before. The coms weren’t sensitive enough to catch Harley’s reply, but Batgirl could still her laughing. Barbara wished she had access to another camera.

“Status report,” she demanded.

“Um…Nightwing tried to offer Harley a deal, and then a small ninja attacked her,” Flash informed her.

Tigress swayed a little on her feet.

“Woah, Babe, you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Tigress hissed.

“She took a hit from Harley’s hammer, probable concussion. I’ll call the police. Get to medical.”

Before Artemis had a chance to protest, Wally scooped her up and dashed off the view of the camera. Two seconds later, the speakers announced their arrival through the Zeta tube.

“Nightwing and uh Ninja, the police are on their way. It’s time to go,” Batgirl instructed.

“Call them off,” Nightwing growled.

Barbara blanched. He couldn’t possibly be… “No.”

Sirens wailed through the calm. Blue and red lights flickered in the small square her camera could see.

“Dammit!” Nightwing howled. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn laughed and laughed. A few seconds later, Dick responded again. “Ninja and I are headed to the Cave.”

Batgirl threw off her headset and pushed her chair away from her computers. That entire mission had been a failure. Superboy had encountered Kryptonite; Tigress needed medical attention, and who the hell knew what was going on with Dick? That man was a damn nuisance who was going to get himself and others killed. Barbara wanted to hit him hard enough to knock some damn sense in his head.

Her elbow rested against the arm of her computer chair, and she brought her right hand to rub small circles at her temple. This mission was her failure. First, she allowed her anger to influence her decisions. Then, she proceeded without having enough information. Batgirl hadn’t instructed them to case the building first. She assumed Flash and Superboy would work like she, Nightwing, and Robin did. That assumption had nearly cost several lives tonight.

It was even more disturbing to know that Harley had been on the loose hours before either she or Batman had heard about it. Not to mention, how blind she had been on this mission. Clearly, the team needed someone to step away from the individual situations and pull away and look at the bigger picture. They needed someone not only on coms for a coordinated attack when Miss Martian was unavailable, but they also needed someone with eyes on everyone.

One thing was absolutely sure, even if she had to hack every camera in the city of Gotham, Barbara Gordon would never be blind again.

Chapter Text

Tim blinked. Then blinked again. He was alone. Dick’s octopus tentacles were not crushing Tim to the older man’s body; Jason, face etched in a scowl, wasn’t asleep in Tim’s reading chair, and Cassandra with eyes focused on imaginary dangers wasn’t perched on his desk. He blinked a final time and noticed that there also weren’t any cold dinner dishes. There was no gnawing sense of hunger either, so Tim assumed he had eaten recently, for a given definition of recent.

Curling in on himself, Tim cherished the soft darkness of the room. He was alone like he knew he always would be. It was nice that Dick and the others stopped pretending. Tim had merely been Jason’s replacement. He was alone here just like he was alone at home. Like he always would be. Tim bit back the stab of pain at the thought.

It was time to go home. It wouldn’t take long to forge documents creating a long-lost aunt or great uncle. Then Tim could live at home and not bother anyone. A fresh wave of grief crashed into Tim; he had tried not to bother his parents, but they were still dead. It seemed it didn’t matter what he did he would be abandoned in the end.
Shoving the covers as violently as he shoved the thoughts from his mind, Tim sat up and grabbed his shoes. He was halfway through tying the second set of laces when the young teenager realized that if he was alone in Wayne Manor, something was wrong. Cursing himself for his ridiculously slow deduction, Tim finished tying his shoes and raced down the stairs into Bruce’s study.

He adjusted the time on the clock and ran into the Batcave. He made it three steps in before he heard Bruce yelling. Tim breathed a sigh of unexpected relief. If Bruce was yelling, there wasn’t an active emergency. Batman always solved a situation before unleashing his fury on any of his proteges.

Tim slowed to a walk and stuck to the shadows. Curiosity captured his attention, yet he wasn’t interested in directing any residual anger at himself. From his vantage point on the staircase, Tim saw Bruce pacing in anger, his fists clenched at his sides. The sound of his ankle boot thumping reverberated throughout the cave. The young detective couldn’t see Batman’s face from the current angle, but he knew enough about Bruce’s body language to know whoever pissed Batman off was in deep trouble. Deeper trouble than Tim had ever been in.

In front of Bruce, Dick, dressed in grey loose grey sweatpants and an oversized Gotham University hoodie that he had probably stolen from Bruce, huddled in on himself in a way that was unnatural. Dick Grayson didn’t cower from Bruce Wayne. Nightwing never once backed down from Batman. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.

Since Dick’s head was ducked into himself, Tim couldn’t read the older man’s face. Concern rolled in Tim’s gut like he’d ridden a rollercoaster a few too many times. He needed more information, although he doubted the best way to get it was to interfere. Perhaps he could creep down the stairs without being seen to get a closer view.

A pebble struck the ground and bounced twice next to his right foot before coming to a stop. Tim stared at the stone for a second. Then he turned to his right where he saw Cass perched in her preferred squatting position a few meters above him on a natural ledge of the cave wall. She cocked her head to the side in clear invitation.

The top of the stairs skimmed the edges of the cave wall, and Tim climbed back up the stairs to begin his ascent to Cass’s position. The pull on his injured shoulder ached as he scaled the cave wall. Fortunately, most of the handholds were easy to find and the path was more horizontal than vertical. Tim doubted very much that he would have been able to climb upwards with his still injured shoulder. As it was, he was still going to catch hell from Alfred for even this little bit of strain.

Cass was directly above him when the exertion on his injury caused him to falter. She reached out a hand and grabbed Tim by the wrist. He cried out, but his yelp was buried underneath the sound of Bruce’s yelling. Together, they managed to get Tim up onto the ledge. His shoulder throbbed painfully. That was a stupid venture. Hopefully, he hadn’t mangled his shoulder beyond repair; although, it wouldn’t matter either way.

As he settled in to sit next to Cassandra, it occurred to him that he was now precariously perched on a tiny ledge with jagged rocks digging uncomfortably into his rear and his legs dangled over a 50-foot drop without climbing gear or a grapple. Cass seemed not to notice the danger as she squatted like she always did, feet firmly on the ground as she observed the world around her. Tim envied her. Cass belonged here; Tim didn’t.
“OF ALL THE STUPID AND DANGEROUS STUNTS!” Bruce’s yell echoed off the cave walls, making it sound louder and fiercer than normal.

From his improved vantage point, Tim watched Bruce pace furiously in front of Dick, who was still slightly hunched in on himself. Now, he could see the other occupants of the cave as well. A few feet away, Alfred, who looked far too pale (Tim wondered if it were anger or fear.), stared fiercely at the conversation unfolding in front of him. The butler hadn’t even bothered pretending to clean as he usually did while he eavesdropped. Farther away but equally absorbed with the argument, stood Jason with arms crossed so tightly across his chest that Tim thought the seams on that stupid motorcycle jacket would rip soon. The look on Jason’s face promised murder. Unable to stop himself, Tim shivered and refocused his attention on Bruce.

“I want an answer Dick! What the HELL were you thinking?” Bruce had stopped pacing and stood in front of his first protégé. His shoulders muscles shook with ferocity of his anger. For the first time in his life, Tim Drake was incredibly grateful not to be Dick Grayson.

Dick finally looked up, and Tim gasped. It couldn’t be. He wouldn’t have. Dick wasn’t that stupid. He couldn’t possibly have done something that imbecilic. Dick was better than that. An iron weight sloshed back and forth in Tim’s stomach. But Dick did have a death wish. Oh god, Dick promised not to attempt suicide, but he had never sworn not to allow a villain to kill him. Tim thought he was going to be sick, but he knew the lead in his stomach wouldn’t escape his esophagus. He also knew he’d never forget the sight in front of him. Dick Grayson was wearing his Nightwing mask with the mish mash sweats.

Desperate, Tim wanted to believe that Dick had stripped out of his Nightwing uniform and had left the mask on. It was unlikely. Dick almost always took his mask off after taking off his gloves, but the man was hardly a creature of ingrained habit.

“Did he go out like that?” The words were barely a whisper as he forced them through his tightening throat.

Cass nodded.

The iron weight rolled painfully in his gut; every muscle in his body tensed. Tim was going to be sick.

“Why?” The word was as desperate and broken as Tim felt.

Cassandra gave Tim a look of sympathy.

“No,” Tim denied. The word crept out of his abused, tightened throat. It felt like he had swallowed a bomb whole, and it lodged itself in his trachea.

“Who?” He forced out despite his lack of oxygen.

Cass pursed her lips in the way she often did when she searched for words that seemed to be beyond her reach. “Girl,” she decided on. “Hammer,” she added with a nod.

“Harley Quinn?! Dick went to face Harley Quinn wearing that?” Anger roiled in Tim’s stomach and burned up his esophagus. How dare he? How dare he? Hadn’t Tim lost enough? Wasn’t it enough that his parents had never wanted them? Wasn’t it enough that they had died? How much would he have to lose?

Everything. Everything he cared about was destined to be ripped from his fingers. The one person who had wanted Tim had a death wish. How long would it be before Dick was ripped out of his life as well?

“What. Happened.”

Cassandra stared at Tim for a long moment. He was about to repeat himself when she pointed at Dick. “Left.” Then, she pointed at Bruce. “Scared.” She turned back to Tim. An emotion Tim couldn’t place on her face. “I protect.”

“Thank you,” Tim gasped, the words fraught with a gratitude he couldn’t express. “He can’t die. He can’t.” It was only then that Tim realized he had been crying. He had no idea when the tears had started, but he couldn’t stop them. Silent sobs streamed down. Cassandra didn’t offer any physical comfort. She just watched him as she often did. It was enough.

Tim pulled his dangling legs up and wrapped his arms around them as he pulled his knees into his chest. He took a few deep breaths to collect his wild, racing thoughts, and then back to the drama. Dick had apparently remembered himself. He was no longer hunched in on himself; instead, his arms flung violently as he shouted.

“You never listen! She deserved better!”

“Harley Quinn doesn’t deserve your life.”

Dick let out an unholy scream of frustration. “For the last freaking time, I wasn’t going to let her kill me.”

“It may not have been your intent, but it would have been the results of your reckless actions.”

“Oh, screw you, Bruce.” Dick shoved passed him. “I’m going home.”

“Master Richard, need I remind you –”

But Dick cut Alfred off with a foul curse that froze the elderly man. Bruce, as well, seemed momentarily stunned. No one cursed at Alfred. Let alone used that word towards the man. Dick seemed the only one capable of movement, and he stormed towards his bike. Only to be intercepted by Jason, who grabbed Dick’s wrist and spun his arm around his back, capturing Dick in a painful hold. The older man tried to break it, but given Dick’s significant loss of muscle mass, he didn’t stand a chance¬ against Jason’s strength.

“Let go.” Dick fought, though even he could tell it was a lost battle.

Jason growled, “Apologize.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Dick spat.

Jason spun Dick around and shook him slightly. “Apologize, you idiot. Otherwise, you and I both know, you’ll spend tomorrow in your bed, thinking you’re the worst human on the planet.”

Tim thought that was a bizarre threat, but Dick paled dramatically.

A fierce gleam appeared in Jason’s eyes. “Apologize,” he threatened. “Or I keep talking.”

Dropping his head again and avoiding all eye contact, Dick nodded. Jason released him.

“I’m sorry.” Tim had to strain to hear Dick’s faint words.

Alfred, still clearly shocked, (Whether it was from Dick’s colorful language or the way Jason had gotten him to apologize, Tim wasn’t sure.) nodded.

“We’re going upstairs,” Jason declared.

Dick seemed cowed for the moment. He followed Jason silently up the stairs. Tim would wait a few minutes, and then follow. If he were lucky, maybe Jason would explain what had just happened.

The sound of Bruce’s uneven gait distracted Tim, and he watched as Batman collapsed into the desk chair in front of the Batcomputer. He rested his elbows on the desk and dropped his face in his hands. Alfred squeezed his shoulders and offered the man some pills. The two spoke softly, and Tim had no hope of overhearing their conversation. Still, he felt rather uncomfortable with the display. Bruce Wayne didn’t break, but looking at the man and the man’s father figure, Tim’s last remaining image of the infallibility of Batman shattered into a million irreparable pieces.

How many fathers would he have to lose?

Refusing to cry again, Tim channeled his hurt into anger. He needed answers. And Dick was going to give them to him if Tim had to drag out every single one. He would not lose anyone else. He would not.

He stood up to begin his descent.

“Are you coming, Cass?”

She shook her head. “Barbara.”

Oh. Barbara had been involved. Had Dick been trying to protect Barbara? Tim was struck by the realization of how much he still didn’t understand about what had happened tonight. The young detective didn’t need to ask if Barbara was okay. She clearly wasn’t in the medical bay, and if she had been in danger, Dick and Bruce would not have been staging a dramatic reenactment of a soap opera in the cave. He needed answers. He burned with the desire to understand what had transpired before he made his entrance into the cave.

Gazing at the desolate image of the two men by the computer, Tim decided that any research he needed to do would have to wait. He couldn’t stand to stay and observe Alfred and Bruce in their shared private grief.

“I’m leaving.”

Cass merely nodded in reply. Her gaze fixed on the two men below.

Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, Tim hurried to the stairs and crept back inside Wayne Manor. He didn’t know where Dick and Jason would have decided to go but finding them had not been difficult. Dick’s frustrated yells led Tim to the first-floor gym. Jason and Dick were sparring. Well, Dick was more letting his anger disperse in a fit of uncontrolled rage. Jason didn’t attack the older man. He blocked. Over and over again, he blocked Dick’s fury.

Tim swallowed. He wanted answers, but they could wait until his brother no longer resembled a screaming banshee. Instead, he tiptoed up to his room and pulled his computer onto his lap. He’d get his own answers.

Chapter Text

Dick Grayson slumped on the bergere striped settee that Dr. Waqud ordered for her new therapy office at Wayne Manor. Bruce had given her a black American Express card and told her to order whatever she needed. When she had asked what the limit was, Bruce smirked at her and told her she wouldn’t hit it. It was a good thing too, because the room Bruce had provided for her was a disaster. She promptly ordered a fresh coat of a less daunting paint color and friendlier décor. The room now looked like a well-used living room. Well, assuming one had multiple security protocols to enter one’s living room. Paranoid didn’t even begin to describe billionaire Bruce Wayne.

Despite the ridiculous security measures, Dr. Waqud was satisfied with her work. She sat in a tan upholstered swivel arm chair that allowed her to turn from her desk, which faced the room’s large window, to the client area, where her current client sat with his forearms on his thighs and his hands dangling between his legs. Between them was a glass circular coffee table framed with the same wood that supported the settee. The table held a deep green vase with fresh cut lilies and the clipboard with the paperwork Dr. Waqud had given Dick a few minutes ago. He hadn’t spoken a word or moved his gaze since she had asked him to complete the Beck Depression Inventory.

If she were honest, she was surprised by Dick’s clear display of depressive behavior. Bruce had warned her that Dick had quickly and easily fooled his last therapist into believing that his retreat into self-destructive behaviors was a fluke based on high stress levels. A few coping mechanisms later and Dick had been cleared. That was not the teenager currently on her couch. Dick looked defeated.

“Dick, if you do not wish to fill the form out, we can return to it later,” she offered when Dick still hadn’t moved to pick the clipboard and pen up.

He flicked his eyes up at her briefly in response. She wasn’t overly concerned with the inventory; there should be another one on file once Dr. Leslie Thompkins released her files to Dr. Waqud.

“There are a few questions you’ll have to answer verbally though.” Dick didn’t twitch in reply. “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?”

“No.” The word was short, bitter, and angry.

She didn’t believe him, but she was also familiar with the tone of someone who felt like their entire world was people asking if they planned to attempt suicide. Still, there were several questions she had to ask in a professional capacity.

“Have you ever attempted suicide?”

“No.” Dick’s body tensed, and his hands moved to clenched fists at his sides. Despite the evident anger at the line of questioning, Dr. Waqud continued. She knew from Bruce that Dick was lying to her, but she didn’t blame him. There was no trust built up between them yet; nevertheless, the questions were a professional necessity.

“Okay, thanks for answering those,” she said with her calm counselor voice. Dick wasn’t going to talk to her until a level of trust had been established. “Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself?”

Dick gave a huff of laughter. “I’m sure Bruce told you all about me.”

Yes, Bruce had. Bruce had offered a range of details from Dick’s fighting style to Dick’s preferred breakfast. It was endearing really. Bruce had complied a list of everything he could think of that may have affected Dick’s mental state including a document on the most traumatic missions, and he also included a list of his son’s tells that he had begun to compile. Behaviors, he argued, that meant Dick was about to slip into self-destructive behavior. It was quite clear to Dr. Waqud that Bruce sincerely desired to help his son, but he also had no idea how to do it.

“This isn’t about Bruce. This is about you, Dick. I want to know what is important to you.”

Dick shrugged. “My parents fell to their deaths when I was nine because I didn’t stop Zucco, and then I became the world’s youngest superhero.”

Fatima made a note of Dick’s guilt at the death of his parents. “But what about you now? What do you enjoy doing?”

Dick shrugged again.

“What brings you joy?” Dr. Waqud persisted.

Dick offered another fake laugh. “Nothing.”

“How long have you felt that way?”

He didn’t answer.

“More than six months?”

His response was quiet, barely a whisper. “Yeah.”

“More than a year?”

Dick hunched further into himself, but his answer was evident in the silence.

“Okay,” she began, leaning forward in her chair. “My job is to help you feel better, but I will need your help.”

“What’s the point?” Dick mumbled into his feet.

“Dick, do you want to feel like this for the rest of your life?”

The answer was sullen. “No.”

“Your way hasn’t worked. Are you willing to try something else? If it doesn’t work, what have you lost?” She argued. It wouldn’t matter how good she was at therapy if Dick didn’t cooperate, he couldn’t move forward.

He shrugged in response.

Well, that was probably the best she was going to get for now. She barely restrained from twirling her golden bangles on her wrist. It was a nervous tick that she wouldn’t allow in a professional capacity. “Okay. Well, let’s talk about last night,” she said softly.

Dick immediately tensed.

“What happened last night?”

The dark-haired boy finally looked up, a bitter expression on his face. “Can we stop pretending Bruce didn’t already fill you in?”

“Bruce isn’t in this room,” she reiterated, determined to keep her growing annoyance out of her voice. “I want to know what happened from your perspective. Why did you go out last night?”

Dick gave her a skeptical look but ultimately decided to test her. How she handled this next dialogue would set the tone for future sessions. She would have to tread carefully.

“Because Harley Quinn deserves better.” His answer was short and to the point as if the answer was obvious.

“What do you mean?”

Shifting his posture, Dick leaned forward. “What do you know about Harley?”

Dr. Waqud thought about the facts she knew about the crazy women. Mostly, Dr. Quinzel was a horror story among therapists. No self-respecting therapist willingly worked for Arkham Asylum anymore. “She used to be a therapist, but she joined the Joker.”

“Yeah, but why did she join the Joker? No one knows what happened in those therapy sessions because the footage was deleted,” Dick argued. For the first time since he entered the room, there was an energy around him. “The Joker is – was sadistic, abusive, and manipulative. Anyone who was locked in a room with him by themselves for such extended periods of time...” Dick shook his head. “She didn’t stand a chance.”

Dr. Waqud blinked and then blinked again. “You wanted to save Harley Quinn.” That was unbelievable. Whose first thought to a criminal mastermind, who had hurt them and their family, was this person deserves to be saved?

Dick shrugged again, energy vanishing as quickly as it came. “It’s the least I could do. I did kill her boyfriend.”

She wouldn’t let this stand. “All evidence suggested that the Joker pushed you off that ledge. His death was his own fault.”

“I was going to kill him,” he insisted.

“Were you?”

Dick didn’t answer her. It was something they would have to continue to work on. She decided to change topics.

“Why did you go out without any armor?”

“Because my suit was locked up, and no one was listening to me,” Dick growled. “If I were trying to kill myself, I would have jumped off Wayne Tower.”

Dr. Waqud bit back a small smile. Gotcha. “So you’ve thought about jumping off of Wayne Tower?”

Dick paled. “It’s not like that. I wouldn’t.” The words were desperate and fearful. He needed her to believe him.

“I believe you,” she told him softly, trying to calm him. “But I still think it would be a good idea to develop a safety plan.”

“I don’t need one.”

“Dick, can you honestly tell me that if something happened to someone you loved you wouldn’t consider jumping?”

“Nothing is going to happen to them,” Dick said with fierce determination.

“I know, but just in case. It pays to be prepared, right?” She argued.

Dick nodded in defeat, clearly not excited about the prospect. For the rest of their session, Dr. Waqud helped Dick form and plan the beginnings of a safety plan. By the end, she was satisfied with the sketch they created, but she wasn’t confident Dick would call anyone on his list if he did start feeling suicidal.

Her next session was a surprise. Well, her next 3 sessions were a surprise. She had agreed to counsel Bruce’s son. Now there was a son back from the dead, a neighbor, and a nearly silent girl Bruce found on the streets. Astaghfirullah, Bruce certainly had a complex.

Her thoughts were distracted as Jason Todd strutted into the room. Only for him to freeze and do a double take.

“Holy sh- you’re a Muslim?!” He exclaimed.

She ran a finger around the edge of her brown and yellow striped hijab. “Is that going to be a problem?”

Jason looked indignant. “No. I’m not,” he stumbled with his words. “Look, I know every idiot who says they’re not prejudiced is probably hiding from the systematic injustices they benefit from. But I’m not. You surprised me. Everyone knows Bruce hates religion.” He sat down on the couch with a glare and crossed his arms.

“Interesting. I didn’t know that,” she replied. “I only spoke with him briefly, but I was under the impression that Alfred was a devout Christian.”

“Alfred is Alfred,” Jason stated as if it explained everything. When it was clear she didn’t understand, he elaborated. “No one tells Alfred what to do. Besides, I’m pretty sure Alfred’s been going to that church since before Bruce was born. I think Dick went with him once or twice to an Easter service or maybe it was Christmas.”

“And yet, you are convinced Bruce hates religion,” she stated.

“Because he does,” Jason argued right back. “Whenever Alfred brings God up, he gets this tight pinched expression like he’s been constipated for the last week.” That was an image Fatima didn’t need. “When Dick went with Alfred, he was thunderous. I thought Bruce was going to start punching civilians. Come to think of it, Dick may have gone just to piss Bruce off.” Jason unwound his arms from his chest and shrugged. “I don’t remember it real well.”

There was a lot in that speech to unpack, but since Bruce hadn’t treated her with prejudice, she decided to focus on the most pressing concern. “Have you had trouble with your memory since you came back to life?”

And Astaghfirullah, that was not a sentence she had ever expected to say. Na'udzubillah, at first she had thought that her initial assumption of Bruce Wayne being a closeted insane person had proven correct. People didn’t just raise from the dead. He knew the man had missed his son but claiming a resurrected son was far too close to the dangerous waters of insanity and far from reality. She hadn’t believed him until she saw the DNA results herself. Then she praised Allah. Clearly, Allah had great plans for Jason Todd, and it was an honor to be included.

Jason squirmed on the couch, making him look significantly younger than the tall, muscular man who strolled into her room. “Look, I’m fine. I’m not crazy. I’m only here because Dick said he wouldn’t see you unless I also started therapy.”

Dr. Waqud hadn’t been told that and normally she wouldn’t offer counseling to someone who didn’t agree to be there, but Jason was a special case. “You must love your brother a lot to agree to those terms,” she stated.

“Don’t read too much into it. I just don’t want him to end up dead.” Jason crossed his arms again and glared off to the side.

“Well, what would you like to talk about?” She asked, forcing cheer into her tone.

Jason turned back and eyed her skeptically.

“If we are going to sit here for an hour, we might as well discuss something.” She needed Jason to open up and unlike Dick, he didn’t have any known pressing concerns. Of course, there was the obvious trauma of his death and resurrection, but Dr. Waqud doubted Jason would be willing to consider the matter during their first appointment.

“How was Dick’s session?”

“Doctor patient confidentiality prohibits me from speaking about Dick’s or anyone else’s treatment to another party.”

“Except Bruce.”

Daddy issues didn’t even scratch the surface of the boys’ preoccupation with Bruce’s surveillance. Perhaps, she would need to speak with Bruce about giving his sons room to breathe. “Dick is 19, and therefore a legal adult. It is no more Bruce’s business than it is yours what he and I discuss.”

“Oh great,” Jason grumbled. “Because I’m 17, Bruce gets full access to our conversations. Pass.”

“That isn’t what I said. Only if there’s something of a concern like if you were planning on hurting yourself or someone else would I have to speak to your father about it.” It had only been a few minutes, but she could already tell dealing with Jason would be headache inducing. Whereas getting Dick to speak was like working with a kinked hose, she had to work the kinks out before he would speak. Jason was very argumentative.

Jason tensed at the word father but pushed passed his unease. “Dick’s the suicidal one, not me. And I’m not going to hurt anyone else, so there’s no reason for Bruce to be involved with any of this.”

“Of course not,” she agreed easily. “I take patient confidentiality seriously.”

Appeased, Jason gave a stiff nod. Even if his face still held a skeptical frown.

“Now that we got that out of the way. What would you like to discuss?”

Jason stared at her for a few moments before asking. “What do you know about amnesia?”

“Are you having difficulties with your memory?” She asked again.

“I didn’t say that. You asked for a topic. I chose amnesia. Like those terrible soap operas where a character gets amnesia and ends up sleeping with his best friend’s wife or something. How likely is that to happen?”

Dr. Waqud knew when it was better to simply play along. “Memory loss isn’t my field or specialty, but total amnesia is very rare. Most amnesic patients recover part if not all of their memories.”

“What helps someone recover memories?” He asked, aiming for nonchalant, but she heard the eagerness in his tone.

“I’m not familiar with the latest research, but it has long been believed that familiar stimuli can help a brain remember,” she replied.

Jason nodded, a look of contemplation on his face. “Is there a way to create localized amnesia?”

She didn’t bother asking if there was something Jason wanted to forget. Instead, she replied to the question, “I believe people have been asking that question for years. It’s why alcohol sales never falter.”

“Don’t let Bruce hear you say that. He thinks alcohol is the son of the devil,” Jason explained.

The rest of Jason’s hour continued in the same vein. Jason asked ‘theoretical’ questions about memory loss, the concepts of guilt versus shame, and the ethical issues surrounding the death penalty. Through the conversation, she learned that Jason was struggling with his memory and a deep struggle over the death penalty, but he didn’t want anyone to know of his struggles.

At the end of the conversation, Jason stood up and smirked. “This wasn’t half bad, Doc. I’ll send the replacement in.”

Before her newest client walked in, Alfred came into the room with a silver tea tray with biscuits and a pot of tea. “I took the liberty of making you cardamom, ma’am. I apologize for Master Bruce. He forgets that most people do not plow through work with a single-minded determination without the need for a break.”

Dr. Waqud smiled. Alfred Pennyworth was a treasure. “Thank you.”

He nodded his head in reply. “I’ll distract, Master Timothy for a few moments, to allow you a break.”
He left the room before she could thank him. She couldn’t help it. She really liked Alfred. Perhaps, she was beginning to understand what Jason meant. Alfred was Alfred.

The last two hours had been heavy. There was much to digest and dissect, but for now, she cleared her mind and breathed in the familiar scent of the black tea.

All too soon, Timothy, Bruce’s neighbor, of all things, slinked into the room. Timothy immediately sat on the couch. He was a tiny teenager. If Bruce hadn’t informed him of Tim’s age, she wouldn’t have believed he was past 12.

“I’m Dr. Waqud. You must be Timothy,” she greeted.

“Tim,” he corrected.

“Nice to meet you, Tim.” She smiled. “How can I help you?”

Tim studied her. “Let’s not pretend that Bruce hasn’t already told you about the recent deaths of my parents. I’m assuming he also informed you that I was given a choice between speaking with you and speaking with Canary.”

It was vaguely irritating to have to keep repeating to Bruce’s children that therapy was about them and not Bruce. She would have to have a conversation with the billionaire.

“I’m here for you, not Bruce,” she stated.

Tim stared at her, a clear expression of judgment. “I know that, but I’d rather not waste time discussing things we both already know. We only have an hour.”

“Are you in a hurry?”

He was silent as he stared at the floor for several moments. “I need to be okay. I need to be stronger.”

“Why’s that?”

Tim didn’t look up. “Dick’s depressed. Jason’s clearly lying about his mental state, and the only reason Bruce hasn’t noticed because he’s consumed by his worry about Dick. Never mind the fact, that Bruce is trying to pretend like Jason’s first few weeks back didn’t happen. They need someone who’s functional to help them.”

“And who said you needed to be the one who helps them?”

Tim’s head popped up. “I have to.”

“Why?”

“Because I have to,” Tim argued.

“That’s not an answer, Tim. I need you to tell me why you have to be the one who helps them,” Dr. Waqud pressed.

“Because if I don’t, what’s the point?”

“What’s the point of what?”

Tim shook his head and refused to answer her question. She could see the beginning of tears forming in the corner of his eyes.

He cleared his throat. “I think I’m going to speak with Canary. Thank you for your time.” He stood up to leave. He paused at the door when she called to him.

“That’s your choice, but Tim, if you can’t face the answer to that question, you will not heal,” she told him.

Tim gave a hesitant nod and left the room. Dr. Waqud thought she’d have the next forty minutes to make notes for Jason and Dick and brainstorm how to best convince Bruce that he needed therapy as much as his sons. However, less than five minutes later Cassandra Cain slunk into the room. At first, Fatima hadn’t even heard her enter. One second no one was in the room. The next Cassandra was on the couch.

The girl’s eyes were big, and she kept surveilling the room as if she were waiting for someone to jump out and attack her. Bruce had informed Dr. Waqud that he suspected Cassandra had been physically abused. She understood his suspicions. Most teenagers didn’t have the wary sense about them that Cassandra exhibited.

“Hello Cassandra,” she greeted. “I’m Dr. Waqud.” She stuck out her hand for a handshake.

Cassandra stared at it and turned her head like an owl. “Cass,” she stated.

Fatima dropped her hand. According to Bruce, Cass had difficulties with her speech. Dr. Waqud had explained to the man more than once that she wasn’t a speech therapist. Bruce, she suspected, had some sort of listening disorder because he ignored her hesitance completely. Since Cass didn’t speak much, Dr. Waqud thought she try art therapy with her. She was also not an art therapist but trying to explain to Bruce that he would need someone else fell on deaf ears. There was a limit to how many people he was willing to know about Batman, and he had already exceeded it with her.

Handing a set of color pencils and a blank sketch pad to the girl, Dr. Waqud asked her to draw a self-portrait. Cass blinked at her in confusion. Deciding that it may be best to start simpler, she tried asking the child to draw what she felt. Cass nodded and began scribbling away on the paper.

Five minutes later, she held up her drawing proudly. It was a large black oval with two legs(?) protruding out of it. It looked a bit like a two-legged black cat (maybe?). Dr. Waqud had no idea what type of emotion it was supposed to represent.

“Can you explain your drawing to me?”

Cass looked at the drawing and back to her therapist. “Bat,” she said.

“Bat?” Fatima repeated. She had to bite down on her desire to inform the girl that bat was not an emotion. “What does bat mean to you?”

Cass stared at her for a moment. “Safe.”

“You feel safe with Bruce?”

She nodded.

“Were you not safe before?” Dr. Waqud questioned.

Cass pulled her legs up onto the chair and hugged her knees to her chest. She refused to answer, but it was answer enough. Dr. Waqud attempted to get Cassandra to draw another picture, but Cass refused. Fatima closed her eyes for a few seconds to collect her thoughts. When she opened them, Cassandra was gone. She hadn’t even heard the door open or shut.
Fatima rested her elbows on the arms of her chair and rubbed circles around her temples. She had a lot of work cut out for her. This was a much bigger job that Bruce had originally suggested. While she felt confident that she’d eventually be able to help Dick with his depression, and she knew she and Jason would make progress, she couldn’t help but be glad that Tim had decided to see the other therapist. Maybe, Cassandra would as well. With research and time, Dr. Waqud might be able to help the girl, but she was not trained, nor did she have the tools to help Cassandra at the moment. It would be highly more effective if Bruce hired a trained speech therapist.

Quite frankly, there was a lot she needed to speak with Bruce about including the fact that none of his children felt like they had any form of privacy. However, she was not sure she would have any more success getting Bruce to listen than she did earlier. Perhaps, Alfred would have some ideas.

Chapter Text

“Could you please just talk to her?” Wally groaned into the phone.

“I did. She said she will be busy that day,” Roy replied.

Wally let out a scream in frustration. “ARGH!! We haven’t even picked a date! How can she be busy?!”

Silence was the only response. He could easily imagine Roy giving Wally a look, although what look he wasn’t sure.

“Ugh, Roy, please talk to your wife. Because I may not have a wife if she doesn’t cooperate.”

“Artemis is that upset about it?”

Wally barely refrained from letting out another annoyed yell. “Jade’s her sister. Of course, she’s upset about it! You’d be upset too!”

“Oh, I’m plenty upset.” Roy’s tone was flat, and Wally had no idea what that was about.

Pause. “Wait. Why are you upset? It’s not like you would be a bridesmaid. Oh. OH. Of course, you’re going to be a groomsman, dude. Sorry, I thought I asked.”

“You still haven’t.”

Wally rolled his eyes, even though Roy couldn’t see him. He filled his voice with saccharine. “Roy dearest, would you please consider making me the happiest person by agreeing to be a groomsman on the day of my wedding?”

“Don’t overdo it.”

“So, that’s a yes?”

“It’s a yes, idiot.”

“And you’ll talk to Jade.”

“I’ll talk to Jade.”

The redhead sighed with relief and thanked his friend before ending the conversation. Truthfully, he didn’t understand Jade on a good day, nor did he understand how Roy and Jade ended up married with a kid. Whatever. Roy made his own life choices, and normally, Wally didn’t care. Except now Jade refused to come to their wedding, let alone be a bridesmaid. He had no idea what Jade’s problem was, and he usually didn’t care, but now, it was a monstrous problem for him.

Artemis was hurt, and when Artemis was hurt, she channeled the pain into a fierce energy to improve. Wally blamed her jerkface of a father who withheld his love and demanded perfection from his daughters. The speedster had hardly seen his fiancée after she had been cleared to return to training, which took far longer than Artemis wanted. Still, Harley’s mallet had given Artemis a concussion, and unlike what superhero movies portrayed, concussions needed time to heal.

The moment Artemis had received the clearance to begin training again, she had all but disappeared from their apartment. She still attended classes, so Wally saw her in their shared Vietnamese Lit class. Outside of class though, she spent her free time in one of the training rooms at the Watch Tower working on her awareness training. At first, Wally had given her space, but it had been a solid two weeks of this, and he was tired of having to be the Flash just to see the woman he wanted to marry. Enough was enough.

Knowing that Artemis would be training at the Tower late into the night, Wally had volunteered for the graveyard shift of monitor duty. Once the majority of occupants left, he’d try to convince Tigress to call it quits.

“Hey Flash,” Hal greeted him as he walked onto the bridge.

Wally raced over and gave him a hug. Next to Uncle Barry, Hal was the absolute best.

“How much longer are you covering for him?” The older man asked after letting go from the hug.

Refraining from the groan his overdramatic teenage self would have used, Wally offered a fake grin. “Probably tell the end of the year.”

Hal offered a low whistle. “I thought it was just a couple of months.”

Wally rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah well… he needs the time.” Wally only had to babysit once to understand that Uncle Barry would not be up to Flash speed for a while. Honestly, he was hoping that Barry would take the mantle back at the start of the new year, but he wasn’t even sure the man would be ready by then. Babies were exhausting. Twins doubly so. Speedforce affected twin babies were triply exhausting.

There were only two good things that came from Wally’s babysitting punishment. One, he was able to force Bart to see what his grandparents were dealing with and convince the sulking teenager that the best way to get Uncle Barry to change his mind about the benching was to function as a healthy individual and help out. When Aunt Iris had called him with tears in her voice to thank him for whatever he said to Bart, Wally couldn’t believe it. – That was the other good thing. The Allens were so exhausted from raising twins and dealing with Bart that Uncle Barry had completely forgotten about forcing Wally to talk to someone about his time in the speedforce.

Sure, the speedforce was Wally’s own personal hell, but he had put the whole thing far out of his mind. He had plenty to focus on here like his upcoming wedding…and getting his fiancée out of the Watch Tower training rooms.

“…Flash?” Hal was giving him that I’m an actual adult look that he saved for when he was worried.

“I’m fine,” Wally replied on autopilot. Belatedly, realizing that he had no idea what the question had been.

Hal snorted. “Yes, the college student that is trying to leave the superhero game volunteering for the graveyard shift screams fine.”

He really didn’t have the energy for a convincing lie, so he said, “Since Tigress was cleared for duty, she spends all her free time here. She thinks what happened was her fault.”

There was a small exhale beside him. “Don’t we all?” Hal shook his head. “None of us are infallible.”

“I know,” Wally quickly agreed. “She doesn’t.”

“I thought it was just the Bats with the god complexes.”

It was Wally’s turn to snort. “I think it’s a Gotham thing.”

The Green Lantern gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Well, if anyone can convince her to relax, it’s you.” There was a brief pause and then, “You know if you ever need to talk about anything, I’m here.”

Wally playfully pushed the man in response. “Yes, I know. Now, knock the mature adult routine off. It’s bizarre.”

Hal grinned in response, but the worry still shone in his eyes. Wally didn’t think he could deal with the worry of someone else. He was fine. It was all the other people in his life that needed the support, which reminded him after he convinced Artemis to take a break, he’d need to check on Dick.

Flash and Green Lantern exchanged good-byes, and Wally grabbed a chair to watch the monitor screens. Several late-night comedians gave commentary on President Katz’s new goal of shutting down Young Justice and all underage superheroes. There wasn’t a chance that the bill would go through before her term in office ended, so he wasn’t worried about it. But interestingly enough the public seemed evenly split over the idea. Wally had missed the first presidential candidate debate, so he had no idea who was on what side – but given how toxic the whole political atmosphere was, he knew the candidates were on opposing sides.

The whole thing was monumentally stupid in Wally’s mind. Of course, the government wouldn’t shut down Young Justice. Even if America did, the team’s home base was in a satellite protected by the top technology and Superman. No one was going to quick being a superhero because a few mothers worried over children.

“53% of you would choose to hide behind teenagers. Do you also ask your kids to check your closet for the bogeyman?” One of the late-night hosts asked.

Wally rolled his eyes skyward. No, but typically, you allowed the people with the skills and training to deal with disasters. Age was a number, not a predictor of skill, strength, or maturity. This whole thing would blow over after next month’s election, and Wally would be glad for it.

Scanning the rest of the monitors, he knew there were no current disasters, and he’d rather not stay here and listen to these hosts undermine the strength of his former teammates. He raised his hands over his head and stretched deeply. Then he darted off to find Tigress.

He found her in the third simulation room. Undoubtedly, she was improving her situational awareness, so no one would be able to sneak up on her again. If he wasn’t careful, he would end up with a gut fool of arrows. Rather than risking that, he called out as soon as he entered the room.

“Hey Tigress, are you here?”

The room was close to pitch black, and Wally could just make out the simulated rooftops. He saw the yellow of the Tigress uniform on the fire side of the room. She turned when she heard his voice, and even though he couldn’t see it, he knew she was glaring at him.
Tigress flipped over to Flash’s position and hissed at him, “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you,” Wally yelled right back. “You’ve been at this for over a week.”

“I need to get better,” she argued.

Wally groaned. “You need to remember you have a life outside of Tigress.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Have I not been spending enough time with you?” Artemis sneered. “I’m trying to make sure I or someone on my team does not wind up dead because of my carelessness.”

“You need a break!”

Tigress didn’t respond. Instead, she drew her sword and spun around. The blade rested at the edge of the second Robin’s neck. He wore that same stupid motorcycle jacket, but he had ditched the stupid red helmet on his face and just wore a domino mask. He smirked as he eyed the blade at his neck.

“Well done, Blondie. I didn’t think you’d notice me once lover boy got here.”

“What is he doing here?” Wally cried, petulant. He did not need someone else in his life falling for Jason’s ploys.

Sheathing her sword, Artemis responded curtly, “I needed help. The Bats are the best, and he was available.”

“You couldn’t have asked Batgirl.” Wally didn’t care if he was being unreasonable. Jason Todd was trouble, and he was the only one who seemed to realize it.

“She’s busy,” Tigress hissed.

“Not to interrupt this fun lover’s spat, but to save my eardrums,” Jason interjected. His arms were crossed over his chest, and he still wore that stupid smirk. “Batgirl’s benched for the time being for that communications stunt, and I happened to be free. You would think that you would be grateful West. After all, I’m helping your fiancée.”

Wally wanted to tell Jason where he could stick his help. “I thought Batgirl was leading Young Justice?”

Beneath her mask, Wally knew Artemis was rolling her eyes. “In name only. Aqualad comes back next week. It’s not worth finding a new leader for such a short transition.”

“Well, this has been fun,” Jason said, pushing himself off the wall he had been leaning on. “But I have some intel I promised Barbie. See you kids later.”

“We’re older than you,” Wally sputtered indignantly.

At the same time, Artemis asked, “Do you know if she’s had any luck?”

Jason shook his head. “Not as far as I can tell. Whoever this chemist is. She’s good. Damn good. We may have prevented smash from going into Gotham, but it still has a trace in Bludhaven. Hopefully, we’ll be able to track down the suppliers soon.”

“Good luck,” Artemis replied as the other teen left the room.

“When did you become all buddy buddy with Jason?” Wally hissed.

Artemis flipped her mask to the top of her head and glared at her fiancé. “When he offered to help me train. What is your problem?”

“What is my problem?! I’m sorry I care about you,” Wally yelled back.

Artemis sighed. “I’m fine, Wally. Just tired.”

Noticing her sagged shoulders, Wally’s tone lightened. “When’s the last time you got a full night’s sleep?”

She barked a laugh. “Too long.”

“Go home and get some rest.” Wally put his hands up in a defeated gesture before Artemis could argue. “You’ve done a great job here. You even caught Jason sneaking up on you in a middle of our verbal spar. I think you’ve passed, sweetheart.”

Artemis nodded reluctantly. “Did you talk to Roy?” She whispered.

“Yeah, he’s gonna talk to Jade.”

She nodded once decisively. “Okay, I’ll shower and head home.”

Wally placed a kiss on her forehead. “Sounds good. I’ll join you as soon as my shift ends.”

Artemis grinned. “You do that.”

 

Arriving in Bludhaven in the midafternoon was always disappointing. The city had a smell that never dissipated, and the smog was worse than Gotham. Wally had no idea how Dick could love such a terrible place. And Bludhaven was terrible. The crime rate was higher than Gotham’s. The only plus side was that Bludhaven had less crazies. Wally suppressed the smog-induced cough that threatened to escape. Bludhaven was the worse.

He gave up trying to figure out how the appeal of Bludhaven and sped off to Dick’s apartment. Dick didn’t answer Wally’s knock. His arrival wasn’t a surprise, so unless Dick was avoiding him, there was a problem. Cursing under his breath, Wally speed through the door. The apartment was dark. Not even a computer screen offered a light source. Racing through the darkened room. He found Dick sitting on his bed with his forearms resting on his thighs, just staring blankly at the phone in his heads.

“Dick?” Wally called.

The man in question didn’t move. Wally moved to open the curtains, and daylight trickled into the room. Dick blinked slowly and looked up.

“Wally?” He asked, voice hesitant.

Unsure of what else to do, Wally fell back onto his usual demeanor. “Yeah! Dude, did you forget we had a man date scheduled for today?”

“Sorry,” Dick spoke and stood up. “Sorry. What time is it?”

“About 3 o’clock. How long have you been sitting there?”

Dick shrugged but the maneuver was sluggish.

“Well, never mind then,” Wally offered with a fake grin in place. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t care,” Dick said and slowly looked at his friend. “Wally, I’m not. I’m not. I’m not sure I want to be alive.” Tears welled in Dick’s eyes, and he ducked his head. “I’m sorry.”

Wally pulled his best friend into a tight hug and refused to let him go. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay. I love you. You’re amazing. You know that,” Wally rambled as he tried to comfort him.

Dick sobbed into his shoulder. “Wally, why? I’m not worth this.”

“Yes. You. Are. You’re my best friend, and I’ll help you remember who you are.”

Dick didn’t respond other than to clutch Wally harder and dig his hands into his sweatshirt. Wally held him, and they both fell to the floor. Dick sobbed until his tears soaked through Wally’s sweatshirt and into his shirt. Wally held him until the tears subsided, wishing and hoping there was anything he could do to stop this to show Dick just how awesome he was.

“Thank you,” Dick gasped after he finished.

Wally had no idea what he was thanking him for. He hadn’t done anything. “No problem.”

Dick shook his head with a shaky smile on his face. “You have no idea why I’m thanking you, do you?”

Shaking his head, Wally gave a small grin in reply.

“Never change, Wals,” Dick replied. He stood up. “Well, should we watch a movie?”

Confused as to Dick’s change in demeanor, Wally slowly stood up after him. “Um, sure. Also, I wanted to ask you. Would you be my best man?”

Dick looked like a goldfish staring out of his fishbowl. “What?”

“Do you want to be my best man?” Wally repeated.

“Are you sure you want me?”

“Um. Duh. You’re my best friend.”

Another shaky grin met him. “Okay.”

 

Voices woke Wally up. Years of superhero training prevented him from groaning aloud, but when he recognized one of the voices as Jade’s, he considered whining. Why was that woman in his bedroom talking to her sister now? Apparently, he had made a noise aloud because Jade turned to him with a glare.

“How is this idiot supposed to protect you?”

Artemis glared right back at Jade. A dagger at her sister’s throat. “I don’t need his protection.”

Oh, hell no. Wally sped between them, pushing Artemis away from her sister. “If you are going to spar, take it to the living room.”

A knife pressed into his gut. Jade smirked dangerously at him.

“Try it,” Artemis goaded. She had picked up the mini crossbow that she kept under the mattress, aiming it directly at Jade’s head.

Wally phased through the knife and raced back to his side of the bed. “Living room,” he cried.

Jade pocked her knife and leapt towards the window. “We good, little Sis?”

“Yeah, we’re good,” Artemis replied.

Her sister disappeared out the window.

Falling dramatically onto the bed, Wally groaned, “What was that about?”

Artemis gave him a look of fond exasperation. “Jade’s going to make sure our dad’s not at the wedding.”

“Wait, really?”

“Really,” she replied with a smile. She leaned down to give him another good night kiss as she curled back under the blankets.

He was about to fall back asleep when his eyes sprang wide open. Aw, crap. Now he owed Cheshire a favor.

Chapter Text

“Grayson! My office!” Officer Park yelled onto the training grounds as the BPD cadets finished their warm-ups.

A few of his police academy classmates snickered as Dick bit back a groan. What could he possibly be in trouble for now? He hadn’t been chased out of the BPD gym in weeks. There was no reason for Officer Park to show up glaring at him.

Walking into her office with a smile that even he realized was probably too fake, Dick asked, “How may I be of service ma’am?”

Officer Park ignored his friendly nature like she always did. She waved to the chair in front of her desk. “Have a seat.”

Reluctantly, Dick did as instructed.

“After a solid month of medical leave, you are still top of your class. Care to explain that?” Officer Park growled at him.

Dick couldn’t quite manage to keep his bafflement out of his voice. “Am I in trouble for doing well?”

Belatedly, he realized that wasn’t the correct response. He knew he wasn’t supposed to noticeably succeed as a cop. If people started connecting him to Nightwing or any of the Bats, he would be in serious trouble.

“No,” Officer Park grunted. “It seems there is a need for more honest cops, and they want to graduate the top 5% early. The brass found out that Bruce Wayne’s son is at the academy, and they want you specifically.”

This time Dick couldn’t control the groan that escaped; he barely refrained from collapsing onto the desk in front of him. He moved to Bludhaven so that he could avoid Bruce’s shadow that touched everything in Gotham. Was it too much to ask that he was judged on his own merit and not his adoptive father’s money?

Do you really want to be judged on your own merit? A sinister voice in his head whispered. You know you’ll be found wanting. Worthless.

No. He cut off the voice with a vicious snap of his brain. He wasn’t going to go there now.

The sound of chuckling distracted him from his internal conflict. “I’m glad you feel the same way. The short of it is the commissioner believes that Bruce Wayne’s son won’t be able to be bought.” Officer Park snorted. “He didn’t say it, but I know he’s also hoping Mr. Wayne will donate a large sum to the BPD to protect his son.”

Dick didn’t bang his head on Officer Park’s desk, but it was a near thing.

His commanding officer gave him an amused smile. “I like you, Grayson. I know this isn’t how you wanted it, but keep up the hard work, and they’ll notice that you’re more than your father’s money.”

He returned the smile. “Thanks ma’am.”

“Your final exam is Friday morning. Now send Cadet Cook in after you.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And don’t let me hear about you overworking yourself again,” Officer Park called as he left her office.

After Dick finished his day at the Bludhaven academy, he retrieved his phone from his locker where a text from Barbara was waiting for him. He hadn’t heard from Babs since he left the cave in sweats. She had been busy with the smash case that everyone else had dropped. Curious, Dick opened the message.

Spar tomorrow? 5am? Bludhaven’s Gym on North and 3rd?

Dick didn’t remember the last time he saw 5am. Okay, that wasn’t precisely true. He saw 5am all the time during the whole invasion disaster, but he had been working on sleeping by 2am now. He fired back a quick response.

Do you ever sleep?

Her response was just as quick; she always did have her phone on her. *eyeroll* Some of us can manage to go to bed at a decent time.

I’ll believe that when I see it.

Barbara ignored him. Spar tomorrow? Yes or no?

He wanted to see her, but. Yes… but not at 5am.

Fine. 6.

Dick rolled his eyes. Realistically, he knew he couldn’t push it back any further if he wanted to be on time to the academy, and Babs would have suggested the evening if she were free. …and he wanted to see her more than he wanted to sleep in, which he didn’t want to examine too closely. Babs deserved someone a million times better than him.

 

The next morning, Dick dragged himself out of bed at 5:30am, scarfed down a protein bar, and headed to the gym. He had hoped to beat Babs there to prove a point. He arrived a good 15 minutes early, but her motorcycle was already parked in front of the gym. Parking next to her bike, Dick hopped off to join her.

This particular gym was a personal favorite of Dick’s, meaning it was in complete disarray. Paint flaked off the once white walls that had turned yellow with age, and the floors hadn’t been scrubbed in the last decade. There was little to no equipment besides a few boxing gloves, sparring mats, and punching bags. In short, it was the type of place Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be caught dead in, and Dick loved it all the more for that.

Upon entering the gym, he was surprised to see Babs already engaged in a duel with Cass. The two girls spun around the mat in a fascinating fury. Neither managed to land a solid blow on the other, and Dick was mesmerized watching them spar like it was a circus act. A familiar pang hit Dick as he remembered his former life. He pushed it aside. That life was dead and over.

He turned his attention back to the spar in front of him. Barbara tried to sweep Cass’s feet out from underneath her, but Cass jumped over the attack and front flipped to land a hit on Barbara’s back. Babs stumbled, and Cass managed to sweep the redhead’s feet out from under her in the same move that Babs had tried on her. A pounce and Babs was pinned.

Dick clapped. “Impressive,” he called to the two girls on the mat.

Cass flipped off of Barbara, and Barbara pushed herself off the mat.

“You’re early,” Babs greeted him.

“Not as early as you two.”

“Yes well, not all of us need to sleep in.”

Cass made a face at Barbara’s assertion, and Dick laughed. “I think your protégé disagrees with you.”

“Cass isn’t my protégé. She’s my friend,” Babs argued. “Besides, she’s better than me at hand to hand.”

The girl in question beamed and turned to Dick. “Better than you too.”

Dick smiled. “I bet.”

Barbara scoffed. “Right now, a yellow-belt is better than him.”

Bouncing on the balls of his feet, Dick rose to the bait – despite the fact that they both knew that Dick was still recovering from his muscles loss and retraining his body. It was the constant reminder of how weak he allowed himself to become and how long the recovery process was taking that convinced Dick that no matter what he would keep eating. He barely remembered his recovery after Jason’s death because it had all blurred together in pain, both physical and emotional. Grinning, he teased, “Care to back that claim up.”

Babs threw a loose hair out of her face and grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.” Readjusting her ponytail, she turned to Cass. “I brought some books for you to read while we spar.”

The girl may not be her protégé, but there was no question that Babs had taken Cass under her wing. Bruce had still refused to hire a proper speech therapist, arguing that until David Cain was behind bars and he could legally adopt Cassandra, it wasn’t worth the risk of finding another doctor with a confidentiality agreement. Barbara had taken it upon herself to teach Cass to read and was helping her with her speech.

Cassandra chose a spot where she could easily see all entrances and exits, leaning against the wall as she sat with her legs out in front of her. She pulled a picture book out of Barbara’s backpack and began reading. Dick cracked his neck and returned his attention to Barbara.

“Are we sparring until someone’s pinned?”

Babs rose one of her red eyebrows and a playful smirk decorated her features. “Do you think you could pin me? I was just going to go first to three hits.”

There was no way in hell that Dick would be able to pin Barbara with his current physical skill, but he couldn’t allow a challenge like that to pass. He smirked right back. “You’ll have to catch me to pin me.”

Barbara ran at him with no warning, and Dick blocked her punch with a muscle memory that had lasted beyond the muscles.

“Starting a fight without bowing, what would your teacher say?” Dick teased as he danced out of the way. He feinted to the left, but Barbara blocked it and slammed her elbow down to block his attack from the right.

She scoffed. “He’d say,” And she dropped her voice down an octave to match Batman’s gravely tones. “Your opponents will give you no quarter. Give them none.”

Dick laughed, and Barbara used his distraction to land a punch to his obliques. Dick skirted away from it, but it would probably bruise.

“Ow,” he feigned a grimace. “You’re not kidding around today.”

Barbara ignored him and dove at him with a fury she only had when she was royally ticked off. She clocked him in the chin with her elbow. That would definitely bruise. Only this time he didn’t understand what had pissed her off.

He backflipped out of the way and twisted to the left when she followed.

“Want to tell me what’s going on with you?” Dick asked as he ducked under a jab.

Babs didn’t reply and spun around and kicked him in the gut. Dick failed to dodge the kick, but he rolled with it and spun out of the way. Flipping over her and towards the other side of the mat, he grunted, “Okay, what did I do?”

Not stopping in her pursuit, she replied, “You tried to attack Harley in sweats.”

“That’s what this is about?!” He exclaimed as he blocked another blow to his midsection. “Come on, Babs. Don’t you think Bruce and Alfred already tore me enough of a new one?” His voice was more exasperated than frustrated.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Babs aimed a punch to the left while shifting her wait and kicking with her right leg. Dick backflipped away from both. “We love you, you idiot. Do you have any idea how terrifying it is to hear you’re out against a super villain with no armor and no equipment?”

Dick missed the rest of her rant because his mind stopped. “You love me?”

Babs stopped her brutal assault. There was a brief pause where Dick wondered if Barbara’s cheeks reddened or if that was all in his head. Her checks were most likely flushed from the exertion.

“Of course, I love you, idiot.” There was a pause where Dick’s brain went to the blue screen of death and a warmth spread throughout his body. “I also love Artemis and Jason.”

Feeling foolish, Dick flicked his eyes to the floor. Of course, Barbara loved him as friend. It was irrational to think someone as perfect as Babs would fall for someone as worthless and incompetent as him. Forcing the negative thoughts out of his head, he moved around a mumbling Barbara and swept her legs out. Babs toppled, and the two grappled on the floor. Dick rolled on top of her. She bucked and forced him off and grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back. Luckily, she wasn’t quite as strong as Jason.

Dick twisted, bent his arm and dropped to the floor, forcing Babs to release her grip and tumble to the floor. They rolled in opposite directions. Babs sprang up first and wrapped her legs around Dick’s waist before he could stand up. Dazed from the sudden movement, Dick failed to prevent her from grapping his wrists and keeping him pinned.

Barbara grinned. “I win.”

Staring up at her face flushed with exertion and wild red hair around her face, Dick couldn’t stop himself from focusing on how absolutely gorgeous Barbara Gordon was. Trying to prevent his feelings from open display, Dick offered an over exaggerated pout. “You win.”

“And you’re not going to fight supervillains in your sweats again?” She teased refusing to get up.

Dick groaned playfully. “Yes, fine.” For some reason, when Barbara asked him, it didn’t bother him like it did with everyone else. It was nice knowing that Babs wanted him to be alive. He tried not to analyze his reasons for that and instead focused in the warm feeling that flooded his chest.

Babs rolled off him with the same teasing smirk on her face. She offered him a hand up, and he took it without hesitation. An alarm beeped from Barbara’s phone.

“You need to head to work,” she said as she walked over to where Cass was sitting to collect her stuff.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I’ll see you later. Bye Cass.”

Cass looked up from her book to watch Dick for a long moment. He always felt uncomfortable when she gave one of her unnerving stares. He never could tell what she was thinking. She didn’t verbalize her thoughts like Dick or Jason did, and he couldn’t read her like he could Bruce or Tim. She was an anomaly. One Bruce and Babs both adored, and why shouldn’t they? She was clearly better than Dick. He breathed out the negative thoughts and tried to clear his mind.

After an eternity too long, Cass offered Dick a parting wave. He didn’t give a parting remark as he left the gym and headed for work.

 

Twice a week, Dick drove his bike from Bludhaven to Gotham. Sundays, they had their awkward family dinners where Jason and Bruce still sat as far away from each other as possible. Although some progress had been made, Jason had started responding to Bruce’s questions with one-word answers. Cass and Alfred took turns reminding Tim to eat. Tim had never been the largest of eaters, but the death of his parents had killed most of his appetite. Dick spent most of the dinner, performing a one-man show, trying and often failing to engage the rest of them in a form of pleasant conversation and desperate that no one saw how empty he felt at each and every one of these family meals. Bruce spent the majority of the meal studying all of them and reminding Dick to eat, which in recent weeks had become less of a necessity, mostly due to the other weekly Sunday evening activity: therapy.

Therapy had been going better than he thought it would. Dr. Waqud didn’t push him to discuss anything he wasn’t ready to talk about. Some days he connected with her easily; the conversation flowed, and she helped him process. Other days, for reasons he couldn’t explain, he clammed up; he felt empty inside, and he had nothing to offer. Either way, Dr. Waqud was patient with him and offered techniques that helped – like telling someone when he was struggling with wanting to be alive. It was always so, so hard to get the words out, trapped in his chest by some unseen force that shoved them deeper and locked them up. But when he could manage to coerce the words out, he was always greeted by comfort and a reassurance that he was loved. It was the only thing that could force the impeding darkness away in that moment.

Surprised by his relative success, he knew he was doing better. And not just fake better where he pretended for everyone else’s sake. No, he was doing better. He wasn’t who he used to be, and he was miles from fine – but he was better.

Part of the reason, Dick was improving was because of his fierce commitment to therapy. He didn’t always want to do the homework or practice new coping mechanisms, but he had to because as Dick had slowly begun to crawl out of the deep pit he had been trapped in, he realized how much his depression was affecting those he loved. He had always known that Wally was frustrated and worried about him, but to see how his depression – and that was a hard pill to swallow; he was clinically depressed – affected his family hurt worse than the emptiness inside.

For the first time, Dick recognized that Bruce’s overbearing protectiveness came from a frantic fear for Dick’s safety. Dr. Waqud had forced him to roleplay how he would feel if someone he loved behaved as he did in the last few months. Dick wasn’t willing to say that Bruce’s fear was justified, but he was willing to give his father a little grace. After all, Bruce’s worry was messing with his sleep and ability to function. Batman still hadn’t tracked down the rest of the kryptonite that had unsurprisingly been stolen from the government. The only thing that spared Nightwing the lecture of the century was the simple fact that Nightwing had been locked out of the cave.

Alfred seemed impossibly older, and Dick worried that was his fault. Jason, well, Dick didn’t know what was wrong with Jason, but something was wrong with his younger brother. Dick had only recently started noticing the gaps in memory and the way Jason would zone out at times. If Dick hadn’t been preoccupied with himself and his feelings, he would have seen it sooner.

Then, of course, there was Timmy. It was Timmy that first convinced Dick that he needed to change. It physically hurt to see the way Dick’s depression damaged his younger brother. Tim was the reason Dick was committed to therapy. After the incident with Harley Quinn, Tim was scared. It had been masked by anger and determination, but Dick knew fear wrapped in more palatable emotions.

“I can’t lose you too.”

Dick couldn’t forget those words or the anger behind them, even as tears swam down his younger brother’s face. Tim was hurting, and it was Dick’s fault. Determined to fix the colossal mess, he drove out to Gotham every Thursday to spend time with Tim. No matter how he felt. No matter what he thought about himself. Every Thursday he drove out to Gotham. His depression was only allowed to kill him.

He didn’t know if he’d be able to help Tim though. Clearly, he was responsible for tearing his family apart. Who knew if he’d be able to fix it? He probably wouldn’t be able to. Who was he trying to fool? Everything he touched turned to ash. He would end up hurting Tim even more; he needed to leave and disappear.

A car horn jerked him out of his despairing thoughts. He swerved his bike into the open left lane. His chest hurt, and his breathing was labored. He should pull over and figure out what was wrong with him, but he was on the bridge that connected Gotham and Bludhaven. There were no safe spaces to pull over that would allow him to collect himself without drawing attention. The last thing he needed was his picture to end up on the Gotham news as a stranded motorcyclist.

Doing his best to ignore his swirling thoughts and strange difficulty with breathing, he focused on the road in front of him. His hands tightened on the handlebars. By the time he reached, Wayne Manor, the strange physical symptoms had passed. He jumped of the bike and tore off his helmet. He shoved his thoughts into a separate compartment of his mine and searched for Timmy. He found him in the second-floor den. Sunlight, flowing in through the opened curtains, provided the only light in the room. Tim sat on the couch with his knees pulled up to his chest and arms wrapped around his knees.

“Hey Timmy,” Dick greeted with a smile on his face as he flopped onto the couch next to Tim. “What’s up?”

“Cassie and I broke up,” he whispered.

“What?” Dick asked, bewildered. Had he even known Cassie and Tim were dating?

Tim rested his forehead on his knees and then turned his neck to the older man. “I disappeared for a while, and she sent me a text message.” Tim shook his head and mumbled something into his knees.

Dick wrapped an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Hey, it’s okay.” Anyone who broke up via text wasn’t worthy of his little brother.

Tim lifted his head up. “Then she found out what happened to my parents, and she felt awful. We got back together for a bit, but…” he trailed off.

Confused, Dick asked, “So you’re not broken up?”

Sighing Tim dropped his head again.

“Tim?”

“I broke up with her this morning.”

“Why?” Dick wasn’t exactly a stranger to break-ups, but Tim seemed upset for the person who had decided to end it.

Timmy shook his head against his knees, and Dick decided not to push for more information. Instead, he pulled Timmy into a side hug. “Come on. We can head out to the skate park.”

“I’d rather just stay here.”

“Okay,” he easily agreed. Sometimes he didn’t want to go outside either. “I’ll put on a movie.”

When Tim didn’t disagree, Dick put on the Fellowship of the Ring. He’d try to stay awake as the movie played. He knew when he needed to put on a movie his brothers needed versus what he enjoyed.

 

Friday afternoon Dick walked into his apartment a full member of the Bludhaven Police Department. He would start Monday morning as Amy Rohrbach’s newest partner. Every other early graduate would start with graveyard shifts. But not Bruce Wayne’s precious son. Disgusted, Dick flung his new police badge onto the kitchen counter. He should have known Bludhaven wouldn’t be far enough to escape Bruce Wayne’s influence.

Opening the fridge, he searched for a late lunch. Last night, he and Jason had finished the last of the leftovers, so he made a sandwich and grabbed chips out of the pantry. He’d been avoiding the oven ever since Jason had freaked out after he accidentally burned himself on the top of the oven. The incident he desperately wanted to keep from Bruce and Alfred.

 

Dick never enjoyed cooking in the same ways that Jason and Alfred did. It didn’t mean he couldn’t cook. It meant that if someone else was willing to do the chore, why should he? Lately though, it took a monumental effort to convince himself that eating wasn’t optional, let alone fix a meal. Convinced Dick wouldn’t eat without support, Alfred had brought prepared meals over with instructions on how to heat them in the oven because microwaves were for heathens.

He reached in to pull the baked chicken out of the oven, but the top of his arm scraped the hot oven coils. He cursed and dropped the dish as he pulled his hand away from the heat source. Turning on the cold water, Dick paused. He felt something. Something that wasn’t a numb darkness. Pain released endorphins. Pain released endorphins. The same thought kept circling his brain. Pain released endorphins.

Staring at the open oven, Dick had a terrible idea. Pain released endorphins. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt something besides numb. He stuck his hand towards the oven.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jason screeched.

Dick pulled his hand back. Dumbstruck, he replied, “I dropped the chicken.”

Jason grabbed the discarded oven mitt and picked up the dish and slammed the oven shut. “And your solution was to reach into a hot oven.”

“I, I,” Dick struggled for words. It seemed like such a fool proof idea, but now, looking at Jason’s irate face and the burn on his upper arm, it was such a stupid idea. What had he been thinking?

Jason dragged Dick’s arm under the still running faucet. He didn’t say anything, and it made Dick feel even worse.

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Damn right. You weren’t thinking?! You idiot. If you need someone to hurt you, I could have done it for free.”

“I’m sorry,” Dick mumbled again.

Jason shook his head and left the kitchen, returning a few seconds later with the first aid kit. He applied a burn cream and bandaged Dick’s arm. Jason’s hands held a gentleness that belied his anger.

“Has this happened before?”

Dick nearly swallowed his tongue in his rush to reply. “No, no, I swear. This was just a lapse of judgment. I’m sorry.” Tears welled in Dick’s eyes. What had he been thinking?

“Stop babbling,” Jason scolded. “Okay, here’s what is happening. I tell Alfred.”

“YOU CAN’T! Jason, it was a one-time momentary lapse of judgment.” Dick didn’t care if he sounded frantic. There was no way he’d avoid a hospital if Bruce found out about this.

“I tell Alfred,” Jason repeated. “OR you start taking the prescription Leslie gave you over a month ago.”

One look at Jason’s face and Dick knew that he would not bend on this. “Okay, okay. I’ll take the pills.”

 

His phone buzzed in his pocket. A reminder popped up that he had midterms next week. Dick cursed under his breath and stood up to grab the textbooks that were still wrapped in cellophane. He unwrapped them and left them on the table. He deserved to relax after completing his police academy exam. He’d look at what he would be tested on after he took a small break.

Four hours later, Dick had binged through half a season of Parks and Rec. He considered that he should probably open a textbook or at least, bring one into the same room as him when the doorbell rang. Bruce stood at his door with a bag full of takeout containers.

“I heard congratulations were in order,” he offered, stepping into the apartment and shutting the door.

Dick crossed his arms over his chest. “I thought we agreed you’d stop following my every move.”

“I wasn’t tracking you,” Bruce replied, setting the food on the counter. “Commissioner Titus called to congratulate me on raising such a fine young man.” There was the beginning of a smile on his lips.

Dick snorted and shook his head. “How much did he ask for?”

“He didn’t ask for anything, but he did spend over three minutes discussing the inadequacies of the BPD police equipment and the dangers of police work.”

“Right. How much did you give him?”

“I didn’t give him anything.”

Dick jerked his head back and gave his father a disbelieving look.

Bruce gave him an exasperated look. “You told me repeatedly that you didn’t want my money buying you promotions.”

“And I don’t,” he agreed. “But since when do you listen to what I want?”

“Dick.” The younger man knew the expression on his father’s face. It was the pained I’m trying that the older man had never been able to express well.

“Okay.” If Bruce could try, so could Dick. Plus, the BPD’s equipment was notoriously out of date. “Enough to buy bulletproof vests, but that’s it.”

Bruce grunted, but Dick knew him well enough to understand it as an expression of gratitude.

“Where’s Jason?”

Dick shrugged. “Probably the library. He’s been studying for his SATs.”

Bruce’s face lit up with pride, and Dick stuffed his feelings of inadequacy as far down as he could. Before Dick could respond with his rising bitterness, Jason walked through the apartment’s door. After he had hung his coat in the closet, Jason rounded the hall and eyed the two men in the kitchen, paying close attention to Dick.

“What did Dick do now?”

Dick rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“He graduated from the BPD Police Academy,” Bruce replied. “I brought lobster thermidor to celebrate.”

“From Gotham,” Dick clarified.

“You can’t get lobster thermidor in Bludhaven.”

“You just hate eating in Bludhaven.”

“It’s not my fault that there are no quality restaurants here.”

Dick ignored his father and pulled out three plates. The man was a spoiled prince.

Jason eyed them both and settled for speaking to Dick. “I’ll let you two eat then.”

Bruce got an uncomfortable, constipated look on his face. “I brought more than enough.”

“No, it’s okay. I don’t want lobster.”

Dick froze. Jason loved lobster. Dick was the one who didn’t like lobster. As soon as he smelt the food, he had known Bruce was extending an olive branch to his younger son. Bruce might be here on the pretense of celebrating Dick, but everyone in the family knew that he was desperate to repair the broken relationship between him and Jason.

Turning to face his brother, Dick shot him a look. “Don’t be like that. We all know that lobster is your favorite.”

“I’ve never had it,” Jason argued.

Bruce and Dick stared at the younger man. That had been true when Dick had scooped Jason off the streets, but Bruce had introduced them both to ridiculously expensive and fancy foods. Jason had hated French food; he had dubbed it a fancy way to eat bugs. But he had loved lobster.

Jason realized that he misspoke and tried to cover it up, “I mean, I haven’t had it in a while.”

Predictably, Bruce ignored him. “How long have you been having issues with your memory?”

“We’re not talking about this.”

“Jason, this could be a symptom of something dangerous. You can’t just ignore it.”

In response, Jason snapped, “You do not get to tell me what to do.”

Dick stepped between the two. “Okay, okay. How about this? Jason joins us for a celebratory dinner, and Bruce drops it.”

Bruce immediately protested. Dick placed a hand on his forearm and shot him a look. Please let me handle this. He relented, but Dick saw the message in his eyes. If you don’t, I will.

“I hope you know this is your present,” Jason declared as he stomped towards the kitchen table.

“That’s fine, Jay,” Dick soothed and brought the plates to the table where his never-been-used textbooks sat.

Bruce, following with the food, raised an eyebrow.

Dick rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “I, uh, was going to review before my midterms.”

Bruce made a noncommittal noise, and Dick quickly put the books in his room. The last thing he wanted was to have a discussion about the real reasons he dropped out of college in the first place. Oh yeah, that would go over well. Bruce was worried about enough when it came to Dick.

When he returned to the table, Bruce had finished placing Dick’s meal onto his plate. It was blackened salmon with wild rice and vegetables.

“I thought you said you got lobster?”

Bruce gave Dick a confused look. “You hate lobster.”

“Yeah, I just thought…”

Piercing him with those cold blue eyes, Bruce stared at Dick for a long moment. “I wouldn’t bring you something you hated to celebrate your accomplishments.”

In other words, I care about you. His father may not always have the words or do the right things, but he loved him. It was time Dick started accepting that.

Chapter Text

It started, like most terrible things in Jason’s life, on a Monday. It was an end of the summer season/early fall thunderstorm, and he spotted a middle-aged woman trying to change her tire in the pouring rain. Jason had wanted to ignore it. He tried to ignore it, yet he still found himself getting off the bus and offering to help. By the time he finished changing the tire, Jason was soaked from head to toe. His socks made a squelch sound as water had found its way inside his boots and was now a small trapped lake holding his feet prisoner. His favorite leather jacket had been ruined, so he tossed it in a nearby dumpster. Shivering in the damn rain, he called a cab to take him home where he took a hot shower and curled up on the couch with his newest fantasy novel and a hot cup of lemon cayenne tea.

That should have been the end of it.

Unfortunately, the woman happened to be Mrs. Lewis’s neighbor’s friend’s cousin or something. On Tuesday, when he walked through the library doors the old woman greeted him with too big of a smile. From there the whole thing tumbled out of control. Now he had a burner phone and the numbers of half the population of the fifth ward in Bludhaven. People called him for everything, from car issues to help finding missing children. It was the last one that had him picking up the buzzing burner phone from his back pocket, even as Diana eyed him pointedly over her vanilla ice cream cone.

Jason did his best not to flinch under that stare as he answered his phone. “Hello."

“Hello, is this Jay?”

“Yeah.”

“I, um. I heard you help people.”

Jason bit back a sigh before standing and walking outside of the ice cream parlor. There was no reason to give Diana more of a reason to scold his manners. “Yeah, what can I do for you?”

“It’s just the hot water in my apartment doesn’t work. I told my landlord about it weeks ago, but she still hasn’t done anything. Normally, I’d just fix it myself, but…” Jason stopped listening. The voice on the other end of the line was male; Jason would guess middle aged or older. He was clearly embarrassed about having to call someone to fix his problem. He had become tone deaf to the shame, worry, or embarrassment that often accompanied these calls.

“Okay, I’ll stop by later today,” he cut the man off.

After getting his address, Jason strolled back into the ice cream parlor where Diana was watching him. He barely sat back down on the chair before she pounced with questions.

“Who was that?”

It wasn’t until that moment that Jason realized he didn’t get a name. Well, whatever. He helped people; he wasn’t friendly. That was Dick’s thing, not his.

“A client.”

Diana’s eyes narrowed, and her eyebrows became a stiff line across her face. “A client for what?”

Too late he realized how his brushoff sounded and what conclusions Wonder Woman had drawn. Less than three months ago, he had been a drug lord in Gotham. His inglorious reign lasted less than two weeks, but that didn’t matter.

Heat rising in his cheeks, he confessed to his bowl of chocolate ice cream, “It was someone who wanted plumbing help.”

“Plumbing help?”

Jason could hear the bewilderment and doubt in her voice. Damn it all. He couldn’t have Diana doubting him. If it were Bruce or Dick, he flip them off and carry on, but he cared about Wonder Woman’s opinion of him. Reluctantly, he slid the burner phone across the table.

“I help people who can’t afford to pay professionals,” he mumbled, wishing to disappear under the floorboards.

Diana snatched the phone up and immediately started scrolling, undoubtedly checking his text messages for confirmation.

“Jason.”

He stiffened.

“Jason, look at me.”

He forced his eyes up to find Diana beaming at him. “I’m proud of you.”

A warmth spread through his entire body, and heat rose into his face again. “Thanks.”

Diana gave him an amused smile. “This isn’t something you need to keep hidden.”

All at once the warm feeling vanished. Jason pocketed the black flip phone. “Don’t tell Bruce.”

“Jason,” she began.

“No. Don’t Jason me. Don’t tell Bruce.”

“Alright, I won’t tell him, Warrior Heart.”

Despite himself, Jason relaxed at the old nickname. He picked up his spoon and continued to eat his slowly melting chocolate ice cream, trying to look more relaxed than he felt.

Mercifully, Diana played along. She bit her ice cream cone and wiped off the vanilla that stuck to her fingers. “Why did you ask to get together?”

“I’m not allowed to want to spend time with you?”

“Warrior Heart, subtly isn’t your strong suit” she replied with a fond smile. “Nor is it mine. Why did you want to see me?”

Jason took a deep breath and tried to relax his shoulders. He hadn’t talked to anyone about this yet. He kept a hard copy of his notes in an old composition notebook, which he hid in the fourth floor of the library. Above the rarely used history section, Jason pried the ceiling tiles up and left his carefully constructed notes hidden. It might have been paranoid, but he didn’t trust Bruce or Dick to not hack into his computer, which was why he rarely used it, and he definitely did not trust his dear older brother not to search his backpack out of ‘curiosity’. It was bad enough the time Bruce caught him with several of the manor books on mythology and religion.

“I want to talk about the Greek gods,” he stated.

Diana raised an eyebrow. “What brought this on?”

“I’ve been doing some research about religion. I want to know why I was brought back. I’m trying to find some answers. I’ve ruled out anything with reincarnation because I obviously came back as me and not a squirrel. There has to be a reason, right? There has to be.” He didn’t realize he was rambling until Diana reached across and laid her hand on his.

“Warrior Heart, I don’t know why you were brought back, but if the reason was only to lighten my grief, it is enough for me.” She smiled at him, warm and friendly. “I will answer any questions I can.”

Something in his chest loosened and he smiled back. “Are they really gods?” It was probably an insensitive question to somehow who had worshipped at some of their temples, but he needed answers, and he trusted Diana.

“That would depend on your definition of a god. They live longer than most humans and have strengths and abilities outside the realm of most of humanity, but none of them are all-powerful or all-knowing like the Abrahamic faiths believe their god to be.”

“So they’re like Superman?”

A teasing smile lit up Diana’s face. “Yes, but don’t let him hear you say that. You’ll get an hour and a half lecture on how he isn’t a god.”

Jason didn’t worry about that. He had never been close to Clark like Dick was. He had picked his favorite superhero, and he had never once regretted his choice. “Can they bring back the dead?”

Diana’s brow furrowed. “That’s complicated. Hades can release someone in his river back to the living but there are time constraints, and he never does it without payment. As far as I’m aware, the others cannot.”

“What do you mean someone in his river?” Jason asked, trying to understand.

“Not everyone journeys through the River of Styx, but I’ve heard different reasons as to why. Less and less people go to the Underworld every year. It’s a fraction of what it was millennia ago.”

“So I wouldn’t have?”

“No,” she answered decisively. “You wouldn’t have. Plus bringing someone back after three years is outside the realm of his power.”

Jason swirled his now melted chocolate ice cream. He was not sure if he felt relief or something else. On one hand, he was glad that the Greek gods have less power; rereading mythology taught him that the Greek myths were mostly about horny, jealous beings who he didn’t think were worthy of worship. On the other, he would have to start considering the faiths he had been avoiding.

“Thanks,” he said once he realized the silence had dragged on too long.

“I’m glad you’re alive, Jason, no matter the reason,” Diana told him with a smile as soft as a spring day.

He couldn’t help the feeling of warmth that spread his limbs as he returned the smile.

 

After returning briefly to the library to update his notebook because he knew not to trust his current ability to remember anything, he headed to mystery man’s apartment to check on the plumbing. As he suspected, it was the hot water heater, which was why the no-good landlord hadn’t fixed the problem. Hot water heaters were expensive, but Jason had a ‘father’ with too much money, who wouldn’t ask how Jason was spending his newly reinstated ‘inheritance’ unless he broke a million dollars. Bruce would monitor the situation, but that’s why Jason paid for everything in cash. He hoped it drove Bruce crazy.

As Jason tightened the bolts of the new hot water heater, he thought about his last session with Dr. Waqud. Those weren’t going great. Jason came every week, so Dick didn’t get any crazy ideas about skipping. Dr. Waqud wanted to talk about things Jason didn’t want to discuss with anyone, let alone a therapist in Bruce’s pocket. They both ended the weekly sessions frustrated and in Jason’s case, often angry. It wasn’t his fault his memory prevented him from answering her invasive questions. It was his fault that he typically became an ass around her fifth question. Still, there was one statement that despite his memory issues kept circling in his brain, looking for a place to land. If you won’t be honest with me Jason, you need to be honest with yourself.

And if Jason were honest with himself, he’d admit that he kept taking these odd jobs because fixing concrete objects soothed his inability to fix the abstract problem of his brain. Great. Now his brain was waxing poetically like some Emily Dickinson poem had taken over his internal narration.

The wrench he was using slipped out of his hand as the words to a once familiar poem sprang to mind. A poem he knew he hadn’t read upon his return to life.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops ¬– at all –

He remembered the moment he read the poem for the first time, curled up in an oversized reading chair with a steaming cup of hot chocolate and a warm throw blanket. He had traced the words along the ancient pages; afraid if he moved too quickly they would tear. For the first time, he might have found hope.

Jason shook himself and grabbed the wrench. He finished installing the hot water heater, offered his good-byes, and left to walk the streets of Bludhaven. The weather was cool, and Jason tugged on his new jacket that still hadn’t melded properly to his skin the way the other one had. The sun had started its descent and left a soft glow on Bludhaven’s grimy streets.

That poem had been the first clear memory that had returned. It wasn’t spotty, jumbled, or confusing. He remembered the words of the poem, the smell of the hot chocolate mixing with the old book scent, the warmth of the blanket, the sound of his fingernail accidentally scratching the page. Why had it returned so clearly? Was his brain healing? If he waited long enough, would all his memories before the Pit return clearly? Did he want them to?

An involuntary yawn interrupted his thoughts, and he forced his tiredness to a different corner of his mind. Before he could return to his more pressing questions, his phone buzzed in his pocket. He unlocked it and saw his reminder for the SAT tomorrow. He groaned. Was that tomorrow? Damn. Jason recalled a random poem and moment from his life but couldn’t even keep what day it was straight in his head. Random ass memories would have to wait. He needed to try to get some basic concepts lodged in his brain before his test tomorrow.

Lost in his own thoughts and looking at his phone, Jason didn’t notice the idiot running towards him until he had slammed into him, knocking his phone to the ground.

“Stop! Thief!” Someone shouted.

Old instincts raced through him. Jason grabbed his phone and chased after the man. He nearly caught up with the man when he stopped on a dime and ducked into an alley. Jason had overran him and had to double back. By the time he got to the alley, the man was attempting to climb the fire escape. Jason lunged and tackled the man to the ground.

As he did the lights of sirens filled the alley. Cops. Wonderful.

“Stand up and keep your hands where I can see them,” a female voice shouted at them.

Jason complied quickly. The last thing he need was to deal with a damn arrest. There was no way Bruce and Dick wouldn’t know instantly. The other man groaned and made a weak attempt at standing. Jason barely refrained from rolling his eyes.

A brown-haired woman approached slowly gun still drawn, aimed at the two of them. “Keep your hands where I can see him but step away from the man on the ground.”

With his arms still raised, Jason took two steps to the left.

The other cop finally got out of the car. If there was a god somewhere, he, she, it clearly hated him. Because the man who sauntered over with a shit-eating grin plastered on his face was none other than Dick Grayson.

“Sir, I’m going to need you to step over to the wall, so I can pat you down,” Dick said, sounding official, but his eyes were full of mirth.

Rolling his eyes, Jason did as asked.

Dick made a show of looking for weapons. “What happened?” He hissed quietly.

Jason grunted, “He stole something, and I ran after him.”

It only occurred to Jason now that he didn’t know what was stolen or if anything had actually been stolen. He could hear the lectures on paying attention to his surroundings already.

The sound of a scuffle tore both of their attentions towards Dick’s partner and the other man. The woman had the thief flat on his stomach as she forced his hands into handcuffs. Dick put his gun back in the holster. He gave a low whistle as she dragged the man into cop car.

“In a city full of corrupt, ugly, male cops, how did you manage to get her as your partner?” It was a rhetorical question. If that hypothetical god existed, he, she, it loved Dick Grayson as much as he, she, it hated Jason Todd.

“Rookie!” The woman snapped. “What are you doing?”

“Getting his statement,” Dick responded casually. “He doesn’t have any weapons.”

Well, that was a lie, but he’d thank Dick for it later.

Before Dick’s partner could respond, a young Latina girl burst into the alley, panting. She looked around and spotted Jason. “Jay!” She called and ran toward him, even though Jason had never seen her before in his life. “Did you get my mother’s purse?”

Dick, one-man circus and every child’s best friend, crouched down to be eye level with the girl. “Do you know this man?” He asked gently.

The girl gave a decisive nod. “Everyone knows Jay!”

“Do they now?” Dick’s tone carried the promise of future questions, even if he sounded friendly towards the girl.

“Of course!” She said again. Confusion written across her face. “Did you get her purse?”

“It’s right here,” Dick’s partner said as she handed the item in question to the girl.

The girl snatched the bag from the woman and then lunged forward and gave Jason’s legs a hug. Dick didn’t even bother trying to hide the large smile on his face. Jason only didn’t glare at him because he knew the other cop was watching him. Instead, he patted the girl’s back awkwardly, hoping she’d let go soon.

“You’re free to go, Jay, but next time leave the crime fighting to the police officers,” Dick’s partner responded.

Eyes wide and innocent, Jason responded, “Sure thing, ma’am.”

 

Back at the apartment, Jason’s contemplative mood from early shattered. He paced the apartment up and down with a pencil and sticking notes trying to remember how to find the area of the shaded region of a circle and a square or what the hell Side Angle Side meant.

Dick stepped in a large smile on his face, which immediately collapsed at the state of their living room. “Are you okay?”

Jason eyed the room he had been pacing for the last hour. He had ripped pages out of his SAT prep book and scattered them around the living room as he worked on problems. He had left sticky notes everywhere as he tried to remember basic facts.

“I’m fine,” he replied quickly, grabbing the papers and sticky notes and carrying them to the desk in his room.

Predictably, Dick followed. “What’s going on?”

“I’m taking the SAT tomorrow.”

“You know you’re going to ace it just like your GRE, right?”

“Save the pep talks for Tim. I’m fine.”

Dick pursed his lips, and Jason prepared himself for twenty questions. Instead, Dick said, “I’ll make dinner.” Then left to do so.

Jason felt like he broke into a cold sweat. What was wrong with him? There was nothing wrong with him. It was normal to be anxious about taking the SATs. They were a timed-test that influenced a person’s future. There were 25 minutes for each section more than enough time like 30 seconds was supposed to be enough time for Batman to find him.

Jason tightened his hand on the number two pencil in his grip. Red numbers counting down quickly danced in front of his vision. He was supposed to have 25 minutes, but he had only been allowed 25 seconds. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t. He was going to die. Oh god, he was going to die. Batman hadn’t come. He had left him.

Words flooded Jason’s hearing. “Breathe, Jason, Breathe. I need you to breathe, Little Wing.”

Slowly awareness trickled back into Jason’s senses. His chest was too tight and black spots danced in front of his vision. He gulped desperately for air and turned out of his brother’s grip. He landed on his hands, panting as he inhaled oxygen.

Rubbing circles in his back, Dick said, “Inhale for three. One, two, three. Exhale for three. One, two, three.”

Jason focused on his breathing until his body stopped shaking. Eventually, he rolled over and sat on the floor with his back against his bed. He closed his eyes and cursed. Dick sat beside him shoulders bumping quietly. Neither one of them spoke for a long moment.

“Sorry,” Jason offered to the silence.

“Don’t apologize. What happened?”

Jason shook his head.

“Jay –“

“Don’t,” Jason cut his brother off quickly. “Just don’t. I’m fine.”

“Because an SAT induced panic attack is the definition of fine.”

“Let it go, Dick.”

Dick sprang to his face. Concern replaced by anger. “Like you let it go about the night on the Brooklyn Bridge. Like you didn’t make me remember that night in painstaking detail to satisfy your curiosity.”

Jason followed suit. “It wasn’t about my curiosity. I was worried about you!”

“Oh please, I told you repeatedly that it wasn’t something that would happen again. You wanted another reason to be pissed at Bruce. You needed one after you realized your daddy issues didn’t have a leg to stand on.”

Jason’s brain snapped. He threw a punch that Dick dodged easily. Dick tackled him to the ground. It was a mess of limbs and pins until Jason accidentally kneed the older man in the crotch. Dick let go of Jason’s shoulders immediately to hunch in on himself. They both cursed, and Jason sprang off his brother.

Dick was motionless on the floor. Jason kept alternating between cursing and apologizing. After the older man was able to stand again, he stared at his brother for a long moment.

“This can’t continue, Little Wing. You need to talk to someone. I don’t care if its me, Dr. Waqud, or Alfred, but you need to talk to someone,” he said before he walked out of the room, leaving Jason alone in the middle of the chaos.

Chapter Text

Crouching next to Timothy as he typed away on his keyboard, Cassandra guarded the boy who was too focused on the screen in front of him to notice any incoming threats. Not that there would be any incoming threats. Alfred had shown her the security measures in place in and around Wayne Manor. She still wasn’t fully convinced, but Alfred hadn’t taken no for an answer. It had taken her an embarrassing amount of time to realize that he was the leader of Wayne Manor. Everyone argued with Batman’s orders, but no one disobeyed Alfred.

That shocking revelation had led to her moving from the safety of the Batcave into a bedroom she had yet to use in Wayne Manor. Once she realized Alfred was the one in charge, she knew better than to disobey his orders, even the ones that were implied – especially those. But the leader of the house seemed content for her to stay with Timothy.

She liked Tim. He was by far the least confusing of all the occupants of Wayne Manor. Well, besides Bruce. She liked Bruce most. His whole body screamed his intentions; she didn’t understand why so many of his trainees misunderstood him. Protect shouted from each of his movements, and yet, Dick and Jason seemed angry about it. She didn’t understand. Why would they hate protection? She couldn’t comprehend them. She was glad they were only in the house on Sundays.

Tim, though, she liked him. He was quiet and never asked her for anything. Unlike Barbara who demanded improvement. Always. How many books had she read? Which words were still difficult to pronounce? (All of them.) Were the speech techniques she had found on the internet helping? She knew Barbara was trying to help, but Cassandra didn’t understand why. Weapons didn’t need to speak. She had tried to explain that once with words painfully scrapping her throat as they escaped. It had caused the older girl to form tears and pull Cassandra into a too tight hug. She had given up explaining after that. If speaking was the price she had to pay for safety, it was a small one. She would learn. And then, Barbara wouldn’t cry. She didn’t like it when Barbara cried.

Tim didn’t cry. Well, he didn’t cry about her. Tim had cried a lot when his parents died, and then he stopped. Like all his tear ducts had been dried up. Then he stared at the wall with unseeing eyes wide-open. He looked like a corpse. Cassandra hadn’t liked that at all. She focused her attention on possible intruders from the windows, keeping watch without having to look at him.
And then one day, he whispered, “I don’t even know why I miss them so much.”
Cassandra turned her head to find Tim sitting on the edge of his bed bent forward so his stomach practically collapsed onto his thighs. He wasn’t looking at her.

“They weren’t here,” he continued. A harsh, brittle laugh escaped. “They were never here.” He sounded angry, but he looked defeated. Tim pulled his knees to his chest. “Except when they were. Mom always made it special, ya know? Like she knew what I most wanted or what I had been studying and she’d suddenly find all the time in the world to dive headfirst in a new project with me. We once spent an entire summer building cameras.” Another harsh laugh/cry escaped. “It was that fall I started following Batman and Robin.” Tim grabbed the sheets in tight fists. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair. She shouldn’t have,” The words cut off as a choked sob escaped Timothy’s throat, and he buried his head in his knees.
Cassandra had never been allowed to cry, but when Barbara cried she demanded physical touch, reassuring herself that Cassandra was still there. Cass had never understood it; of course, she was still there. Since she knew no other response to tears, she crept closer to the grieving boy and sat next to him, allowing their sides to touch. She sat with her hands in her lap with perfect posture. After a long moment where she wondered if she was doing this wrong, Tim unraveled.

“Thanks Cass,” he whispered.

She gave him a small smile. Her bangs falling in front of her face as she ducked her head. She retreated back to her preferred spot on his desk.

Now though, Tim was typing furiously on his laptop. She wished she could understand the words and numbers on his screens. She wanted to know what had captivated his attention. Perhaps Barbara was right; she did need to learn to read. Unlike Batgirl, Tim didn’t mumble or murmur under his breath as he worked. He was focused and silent. Something Cassandra could appreciate. She was used to long periods of silence, waiting for orders. But since she had been here, she was included in conversation. Even Batman would involve her.

But sitting in silence while Timothy worked brought uncomfortable memories to the surface. Her skin itched. She took one more look at Tim who hadn’t shifted his focus in hours and fled to the Batcave.

Entering the Batcave silently, she noticed a video of Harley Quinn and Batman was playing on the main screen of the Batcomputer. Bruce sat in his large black desk chair; arms steepled at his chin as he studied the screen in front of him.

Harley was devoid of face paint; her blond hair was down and unbrushed. Her eyes had a lifeless quality to them, but there was a deranged smile on her lips. Her arms were cuffed to the bolted down table. Her body was relaxed, and she wasn’t going to attack anytime soon.
Batman, on the other hand, radiated tension; he was coiled with a barely restrained need to attack. To most people it looked like fury, but Cass knew it was a fierce desire to protect.

“Where did you get the kryptonite?” Batman asked.

Harley laughed. The sound sending a chill up Cassandra’s spine. Laughter didn’t belong in this conversation. “Is there an echo in here? You’ve asked me the same question six times, Batsy. My answer hasn’t changed. You want answers. I want Nightwing.”

Batman’s right fist tightened, but other than that, there wasn’t a sign that he responded to her demand.

“Where did you get the kryptonite?” Batman repeated.

The blonde threw her head back and laughed. “Maybe you should get your ears checked. I am not offering you anything until I speak with Nightwing.”

Cassandra saw the decision in Batman’s shoulder before the man recognized that he was moving. He slammed his fist onto the table in front of Harley.

“No,” Batman yelled as his fist dented the table.

“My my, what’s gotten your panties in a twist, Bats?” Harley’s face started to glow as Batman turned to leave the prison room. “What do you think I’m going to do to your poor boy all locked up in here?”

Batman didn’t turn around, but the security footage captured the grinning Harley with thoughts dancing behind her eyes. She looked far more dangerous than when Batman had first entered the cell.

With silent feet, Cassandra padded the rest of the way to Bruce’s chair.

“Why not?” She asked as she pointed to the screen.

Bruce studied her a long moment; she didn’t squirm. “It’s too dangerous,” Bruce finally offered.

Cassandra’s face scrunched. Too dangerous? Harley wouldn’t be able to hurt Nightwing with her hands cuffed to the table. Besides, she had seen Nightwing spar Barbara. He needed work, but he was far from defenseless.

A large sigh drew her attention back to Bruce. “Dick needs time to heal.”

Confused, she replied, “Not broken.”

“Not physically, no.” Bruce had a far off look on his face, and Cassandra had no idea what that meant.

“Need answers?” She tried, though her tongue caught on the sw sound.

“Yes.”

“Nightwing?” She tried again. Maybe Bruce hadn’t understood her.

The lines around Bruce’s face grew taut. He was angry. “No.”

Shifting her weight to the balls of her feet, she watched Batman for any sign of physical aggression. His eyes flicked to her feet, and his whole face softened.

“I’m not going to hit you, Cassandra,” he stated.

She relaxed her weight down and nodded. She didn’t understand Bruce’s refusal. He protected Nightwing, but there was no danger here. Harley Quinn couldn’t hurt him. If that wasn’t an option.

“How?”

Bruce scrutinized her. “How?” He repeated.

Frustrated, she tried again, “Answers.” The word still felt wrong across her tongue.

“How will I get answers?”

She nodded.

“I hacked into the military’s database and security feed. The small sample of kryptonite was stolen the night of September 25. I’ve used the tire tracks and images of the van caught on the security tape to locate approximately 2500 possible getaway vans. I’m cross referencing with the data from the registration of motor vehicles to narrow down the possible matches,” Bruce replied, pulling up the grainy secret feed to show her.

Cassandra tilted her head to the side. She only understood half of what Bruce had said. This seemed like a lot of work. It would be easier to let Nightwing have a conversation with Harley, but she wouldn’t press it again.

Bruce noticed her confusion. “Would you like me to show you?”

Nodding, Cassandra grabbed the other chair and scooted close, so Batman could teach her.

 

“No! No! No!”

Barbara raised her hands defensively like Cass was some wild animal. It infuriated her more. Cassandra didn’t hurt people by accident. But she wasn’t going to do this anymore. It hurt. Barbara had promised not to hurt her, but her brain hurt. She almost wished Barbara would strike her instead.

“Cass.” Barbara’s tone was soft, and her posture radiated the same calmness she used when dealing with victims.

Cass kicked the books in front of her into the wall; she enjoyed the loud bang they made as they collided with the obstruction.

“Cass, please,” Barbara said again, but this time the words sounded desperate.

She stopped in the motion of kicking another book; leg bent at an awkward ankle as she turned to study the redhead in front of her. Wild hair escaped from her low ponytail. Green eyes were wide, and her hands were in an aborted posture as if she tried to touch Cass and decided against it. Her mouth was parted, and her weight rested primarily on the leg closest to the door. Oh. Babs was afraid. Babs was afraid of her.

She didn’t like the feeling that squished inside of her at this revelation.

Picking up the book she had been about to kick, she offered it to Barbara. “I am sorry.”

‘Sorry’ she had learned was some form of magic word. It erased past misdeeds and allowed a fresh start. Alfred gave her plenty of practice to use the word. An impeding punishment could be turned into a soft smile with the right use of the word. Cassandra had no interest in learning what a punishment from Alfred would be like. If he was able to keep Batman in line, his punishments had to surpass even those of David Cain’s.

Unfortunately, ‘sorry’ didn’t always have the same impact with Barbara.

The older woman accepted the book and sat down on the floor. “Thank you for the book. Can you tell me what happened?”

Cass made a face.

“That’s okay. Something upset you?”

She nodded.

“Can you tell me what upset you?”

Cassandra shook her head. She heard the soft tap of Alfred’s house shoes against the rugs in the hallway. A moment later, the man joined them in the room.

“What happened here?”

Cassandra shrunk. Throwing things inside the manor was not allowed. The ‘sorry’ was forming on her tongue when Barbara saved her.

“It was my fault, Alfred,” Barbara stated easily, rising to her feet. “I didn’t realize how much time had passed.”

Alfred studied the room and occupants. He stared at Barbara as he spoke. “Perhaps a break is in order.”

“Of course,” Barbara conceded gracefully. “I’ll just clean up.”

He cleared his throat. “I did not mean a break just for Miss Cassandra. When was the last time you used your time for recreational purposes, Ms. Gordon?”

“Yesterday, I –“

Alfred raised a hand to cut her off, “A recreation that is in no way connected to your nightly activities?”

Barbara, who normally looked composed and patient, flailed like a fish drowning on air. Cass surprised herself and the others with a laugh. She covered her mouth with her hands as wide eyes took in the others. Alfred and Barbara both smiled, very different smiles, but still smiles.

Knees cracking as he squatted, Alfred looked directly at her. “Laughter is always permissible, my dear.”

Cass felt a warmth spread through her; she chased it and locked it down. Laughter ended in bruises. Laughter was unnecessary.

“You’re right, Alfred. We could both use a break. How about we watch another Disney movie? How does that sound, Cass?”

Nodding, Cass followed the older woman out. She didn’t always understand Barbara, but she liked being with her. …most of the time.

Sometimes Barbara would ask a question, and then tears would leak out of her eyes. Cassandra didn’t understand it. She had seen Batgirl fight; she had seen Barbara shake off a painful strike, but she’d cry when Cass answered her questions.

The worst was when Alfred, Bruce, and Barbara had all tried to figure out her age. She didn’t understand the question, still didn’t. But Barbara had asked if she had ever bled from her lower regions before. Bruce turned bright red at the question, and Alfred made some sound before stifling it. She nodded and then with clumsy words and hand gestures explained that David Cain had given her some type of surgery, so it wouldn’t happen again. It hurt, but she hadn’t bled again. She was grateful for that.

She must not have communicated clearly because Barbara started crying; Bruce looked ready to murder someone. In an instant, she realized that protect applied to her as much as it did his children, even if she didn’t understand what he was trying to protect her from. Barbara had pulled her into a desperate hug, and Alfred mentioned something about calling a doctor. The whole thing confused her more than anything, and she fled to the unexplored caverns of the Batcave to process. She still didn’t understand.

Although, she also didn’t understand why Barbara kept suggesting Disney movies. Cassandra enjoyed the singing, colors, and happiness of the cartoons, but Batgirl always looked discontent with the choice.

“Let’s watch Mulan,” Barbara announced as soon as they entered the room.

Cass shrugged and sat with her legs folded under her on the couch. Babs joined her on the opposite side of the couch. Before the movie finished its title sequence, Alfred dragged a bleary-eyed Timothy in. Alfred had Tim’s laptop tucked under his arm, and Tim looked disgruntled and adorable. Cass giggled at the sight.

Barbara and Alfred smiled again. Tim’s heavy eyelids sprang open and stared at her. Curious about how far she could push this, she stuck her tongue out at Timothy in a gesture she had stolen from Dick. Barbara laughed loudly. Alfred hid a smile behind his hand, and Timothy made a strange face at her.

“Well, if even Cass thinks I need a break,” he replied and hopped into the middle seat.

Before ten minutes had passed, Tim had slumped over and fallen asleep. Barbara pushed him down to rest on her shoulder, so he didn’t end with a crick in his neck. After another ten or so minutes, Bruce walked softly in as well. He didn’t say a word, just sat on the floor in front of the couch. She almost didn’t see Alfred hiding in the doorway, watching them as they watched the movie.

Safe, she thought to herself. Safe and good. She wanted to stay here.

Chapter Text

A crushed diet Coke can clinked along the black asphalt. Unused napkins flapped in the wind until they hit a dim street lamp. A few orange and brown tinted leaves stirred. The wind tugged on his cape, but it didn’t make a sound. He could almost hear Dick’s chatter softly filling the quiet stakeout or Jason snickering about the time Batman spent finding surveilling places, so his cape could flair dramatically. He could see Tim focused and silent, determined to be the best Robin.

Batman did not sigh, nor did he regret the fact that all three Robins were off the streets and safe tonight. However, Bruce Wayne would be lying if he said he didn’t miss having a partner. He would never admit it, but he found himself wishing for anything to break the monotony of staring at the same building for the last few hours. His eyelids tugged and demanded to close, and it was through pure force of will that they remained opened.

He had grown used to giving at least part of his attention to his partners. He never had known when Dick would decide to walk backwards on his hands to one side of the roof and almost tumble off because he hadn’t been paying close enough attention, nor when Jason would decide to take off because people were in trouble and a camera could do a stakeout just as well. Then there was that one memorable moment when Tim had fallen asleep in the exact position he had started the stakeout in; it had taken Bruce a full fifteen minutes to realize what had happened. Part of Bruce envied Tim’s ability to fall asleep anywhere, even a light doze might help his near constant exhaustion. Without a partner, he couldn’t allow himself to blink.

His mind distracted him with yet another memory. One night of surveillance had been crashed by a newly minted Batgirl, who was wearing nothing but a spandex clad costume. Batman had tried to tell her no. She crossed her arms and stared at Bruce for a full sixty seconds before she told him that he could either teach her here where he could keep an eye on her or she’d observe from another rooftop. Either way, he wouldn’t be able to chase her off and surveil his target. Dick cackled. Batman told her to leave or he’d tell her father. If anything, she looked even less impressed and threatened to do the same to him. Dick’s laughter cut off abruptly. The boy immediately sprouted denials and promises that he hadn’t told Barbara Gordon anything.

“Oh please,” she had said with an eyeroll. “There is only one man in the city who could afford Batman’s gadgets, and it sure is convenient that every time Robin was reported injured, Dick came to school with the same injury.”

Taking Barbara on as his second apprentice had been a mistake. He knew he would regret the decision the moment the three of them drove back to the Batcave in the crowded Batmobile that hadn’t been remodeled with a backseat yet.
Barbara Gordon didn’t play by anyone else’s rules. Batman had far less control over Batgirl than he did over Robin. He told her no metas in Gotham, and she ignored him. Even worse, she silenced communications with the cave during a fight and put Nightwing in danger. He was no longer the leader of the Justice League, so he couldn’t bench her from Young Justice, but he could lock her out of his cave and refuse to partner with her.

She had put Dick’s life in danger. It wasn’t something Batman was likely to forget or forgive. Batgirl was competent but clearly too emotional for the job.

The rustling of leaves pulled his attention back to the street in front of him. He blinked behind his cowl and realized that the number of leaves had changed without him noticing. Batman had gotten lost in his thoughts on patrol; Bruce couldn’t remember the last time that happened. This was unforgiveable. Being tired was no excuse, he’d have to retrain his ability to concentrate. He had over 300 possible matches of vans, even after his cross-referenced search with multiple department of motor vehicles. The tire tracks may have helped, but they were far too generic to reduce the search to smaller numbers. Discouraged by his lack of any other lead, he began the tedious process of crossing off the list the old fashion way. Eventually, he would run into a criminal who could connect him to the mastermind who had orchestrated the heist of the kryptonite.

Despite the fact that Batman was ninety percent positive that Lex Luthor was behind the most recent stunt, he had no evidence to offer law enforcement to charge the man. The length of the investigation hardly mattered. A crime of this magnitude could put Luthor away for life. That was worth the slow, methodical process of building a solid case.

A white van pulled into the driveway across from Batman. Fortunately, his lapse hadn’t cost him this time. A Hispanic man exited the van and headed into his home. Batman silently descended to the ground and checked the van. Opening the back door, the van was filled with various paint and painter’s tools. He checked for kryptonite readings, but his scanner reported no traces of the alien element. He shut the back door of the van and grappled back to the rooftops. His body felt heavy as he fell into the Batmobile. He placed the car on autopilot and closed his eyes while his car drove him home.

Arriving back at the cave, he was aggravated to find Batgirl copying information from the Batcomputer to a USB.

“I locked you out of the Batcave,” Batman growled.

“And I hacked the lock,” Barbara informed him without taking her eyes off the screen in front of her. “I noticed your tire track and DMV cross referenced search. I pulled-”

“Get out.”

Batgirl disconnected the USB from the computer and stood up to face him. Her fists planted on her hips, she said, “I narrowed your search to 15 possible and 4 highly possible vans, but if you don’t want-”

“How?”

If Barbara rolled her eyes, he didn’t see it behind her mask. However, he suspected exasperation rolled off her in waves. “There was a rosary and a saint necklace hanging from the rearview mirror.”

Bruce had noticed that detail as well, which hadn’t helped him lower his search. It wasn’t enough. “There are over two million Catholics in Gotham City alone.”

“Yes,” Barbara agreed. Her left hand tightened its grip on the USB. “But I recognized the picture of the saint. It’s Saint Amand of Flanders.”

That didn’t mean anything to Bruce. He could hardly keep up with inane number of Catholic saints, nor did he see the connection.

“He’s the patron saint of taverns and bars,” Batgirl continued. “But more importantly, there’s a bar called Amand’s, where they sell blessed St. Amand pendants. I pulled the home address of everyone who lived within a five, ten, and fifteen mile radius of the bar.”

That was…impressive. Batman hadn’t noticed the particular saint, nor had he guessed the importance. It was sloppy work. He should have ran an image diagnostic. Bruce wanted to rub his eyes. When was the last time he slept for at least six hours? There were too many leads to follow up with, and he didn’t have a partner or a team to handle half the load. Still, he hadn’t made such asinine mistakes since his first few years a vigilante.

“What was the information you needed?”

Batgirl stared at him for a moment before answering. “A new drug called purple has hit the streets in Miami. I think it’s connected to Gotham and Bludhaven’s smash.”

“That was Nightwing’s case.”

“I know that, but he uploaded all his files to the Batcomputer through his backdoor in the system.”

Dick had a backdoor into the Batcomputer? It was perhaps not as surprising as it should have been. Barbara, obviously, thought he knew about. Otherwise, she’d never mention it casually. Batman would need to flag the backdoor to monitor the situation. Had Nightwing discovered the Arkham Asylum recordings? If Dick knew Harley’s demands, he would suit up immediately. Batman had to prevent that at all costs. Nightwing wasn’t ready to be back in the field.

Placing the USB in a pouch on her utility belt, Batgirl relaxed her posture. “Aqualad returns tomorrow. I’ll be taking a team to Florida to monitor the situation and hopefully, find some answers.”

Batman turned towards the locker rooms, which used to only have a male side – before Barbara had shoved her way into their lives. Barbara, who never took no for an answer and reminded him uncomfortably of a much younger Bruce Wayne. He wanted to rip off his cowl and pinch the bridge of his nose to stave off the oncoming headache. He was grateful for her assistance but also annoyed by her presence. That was…how he often felt around Clark.

He grunted in reply.

“With all three Robins out of commission, you’ll be without back-up.”

He turned back to look at her now. She was near her motorcycle and not looking at him. Bruce didn’t think he’d ever get used to the idea that his partners worried about him. There were many things he could have said to her, but he knew none of them would have been reassuring. Instead, he took a page from Dick’s book.

“Nonsense. I’ll have Agent A.”

Shaking her head, Batgirl snorted and swung her leg over her bike. “Stay safe, Batman.”

Her bike roared to life, and she was out of the cave before he thought to reply.

If Bruce indulged in a too hot and too long shower, there was no one to complain about it. He rested his head against the cool tile and closed his eyes while the hot water cascaded down his back and steam filled the room. Five minutes, then he’d move. He needed to update his case files, research Barbara’s nineteen possible vans, and see if his search for David Cain pinged any recent results. He would find Cassandra’s father and neutralize him. It would be another late night. Plus, in the morning he had an important merger meeting for Wayne Enterprises.

Five more minutes. Then he would get out and start working.

 

Bruce stumbled through the front door as his work week finally ended. He was beyond exhausted and needed a nap. He had been so tired during his last meeting with Lucius that the man refused to let Bruce drive home. He would have argued with his long-time friend, but he couldn’t remember what they had been discussing. Lucius mumbled something about something. Bruce hadn’t understood him, but he had gathered that it wasn’t complementary. Before the CEO found a suitable reply, he had been bundled in one of his limos and driven home. There had been something wrong with the limousine, but Bruce couldn’t figure it out. Just a tingling sensation in his brain that something was off.

“My heavens, Master Bruce. What happened?” A voice called to his left.

“Alfred!” Bruce shouted. That was what was wrong. Alfred hadn’t driven his limousine home. He blinked his father looked annoyed with him. He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong this time, but he knew he had disappointed Alfred. That made him sad.

“Yes, well, one would think you’d refrain from repeating such activities then.”

Bruce blinked and stumbled. Alfred caught him, just like Alfred always did. His mind felt hazy like he couldn’t make out the sharp edges of a picture.

“Have I been drugged?”

Alfred sighed as he helped Bruce up the stairs. “No, Master Bruce. This is the result of 60 consecutive hours without sleep on top of a long three weeks without proper rest.”

That made sense. He was very, very tired. The pair made it up to his room. Bruce faceplanted on his bed. He slept.

 

Bruce woke up groggy and confused. No light was shining through his curtains, so it was the middle of the night, but he had no recollection of falling asleep the night before or even making it to his room. He stretched his arms overhead. His sore back protested the movement. However, he had ended up in his bed, he hadn’t slept in an ergonomic position.

Walking into his bathroom, he turned on the faucet and splashed cool water onto his face. His reflection looked haggard and older than Bruce remembered being. How old was he now? 38. Far too young to look like a fragile middle-aged man. He grabbed a towel and buried his face in it for a moment. Then he replaced the towel and grabbed his robe, cinching it at the waist. He needed a cup of coffee.

He shut his bedroom door silently. The lack of light in the hall told him that the other occupants of the manor were asleep. He shuffled silently down the stairs. The heated floors kept his bare feet warm as he walked into the kitchen. He turned the light on and immediately felt his skin crawl. He wasn’t alone.

“Good morning, Master Bruce,” Alfred greeted, and his tone was glacial. Bruce was unashamed to admit that he wanted to turn around and go right back to bed.

“Good morning, Alfred,” Bruce responded from habits long ingrained to him by his British butler. He turned to look at his father figure, who was also wearing a warm robe. Slippers clad his feet. Alfred rested the book he had been reading on the wooden table beside him where a cup half filled with tea rested on its matching saucer. Alfred had clearly been at that table for an extended period. “What time is it?”

Alfred hummed at him and made a point of glancing at the clock above the stove. “It’s 3:23am.”

Bruce winced in reply and turned to the refrigerator to reheat some leftovers. Part of him wanted to turn around and go back to the safety of his bedroom, but he was Batman. Batman wasn’t a coward. Dumping a casserole type dish onto a plate, Bruce opened the microwave and heated the food. Over the sound of the machine, Bruce could hear Alfred staring at him.

When the microwave beeped, he grabbed a fork and joined Alfred at the table.

“Are you going to say anything?” Bruce asked. He would not squirm as if he was ten years old and in trouble.

Alfred continued to stare at him and took a sip of his tea. “Would it matter if I did?”

Bruce bit down on his food and accidentally clamped the fork with his teeth. A tingling sensation filled his mouth and peaked his irritation further.

“If you want me to apologize-”

The sigh Alfred gave in response was loud. Bruce stopped speaking immediately.

“No, Master Bruce. I don’t want you to apologize. I want you to change.” Alfred stood up and took his teacup and saucer to the sink. He didn’t turn around when he finally spoke. “You missed the last two family dinners, and I’m not sure when the last time Tim and Cassandra saw you out of the cave. Are you aware that Tim is behind on his shoulder’s physical therapy? Or that Cassandra’s expressive language capability has flourished under Ms. Gordon’s tutelage, but both are exhausted by the process?”

“You cannot keep taking children in and expecting me to raise them. You need to make a decision. What is more important them or your mission?” Alfred left the room without waiting for Bruce’s reply.

Tightening his grip on his fork, Bruce was angered by Alfred’s words. How dare he suggest that he didn’t care about Tim and Cass?! Hadn’t he just taken dinner to his sons in Bludhaven, and he had taught Cassandra how to run a simple DMV database search. He had.. he had… His mind blanked. Had he spent time with Tim since his parents died?

Surely, Tim would have come to him if he had wanted to talk about it. Dick had all but demanded the attention he needed. He woke Bruce up with tear-filled eyes after nightmares and pleaded with his new guardian until Bruce capitulated and allowed Dick into his bed. He sulked and pouted when he wasn’t feeling well and performed a detailed circus trick when he needed Bruce’s affirmation. Since Tim hadn’t asked for his attention, Bruce had assumed the youngest Robin hadn’t needed it.

He shook his head. He was a damn fool. Tim wasn’t Dick. The third Robin was the least like Batman’s first partner. Tim had never once communicated his needs. He expected to be forgotten. He expected to have to take care of it himself. Bruce wasn’t any better than the Drakes.

He would have to make it up to Tim. Getting him back into school and into a proper physical therapy routine would need to be the first steps. He added those to his mental to do list.

Bruce covered a yawn with his hand and shuffled to the counter to make a pot of coffee. He needed to finish checking down the vans with only two left he should be able to finish this weekend. He was fairly positive that the merger for Wayne Enterprises had concluded favorably, but the CEO didn’t doubt that Lucius had threatened to resign again. Lucius Fox had low tolerance for anything he deemed Brucie or Batman bull. There were still no leads on David Cain. He added learn speech therapy to the list as well. It would be another long day, but Alfred was right. He needed to give Tim and Cassandra as much attention as he gave his cases.

Retrieving his laptop from the study, Bruce pulled up a few videos on expressive language while he drafted the adoption paperwork for Timothy Jackson Drake. By the time, Timothy staggered into the kitchen for a cup of coffee, Bruce had ordered several different workbooks for Cass, learned a great deal about the neurology of expressive language, and printed the adoption forms.

“Good morning, Tim,” Bruce greeted.

Tim visibly startled and splashed hot coffee onto his hand. Cursing, he set the cup down and grabbed a paper towel.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Tim hissed, annoyed. “What are you doing in the kitchen?”

“I didn’t want to miss you.”

Open suspicion laced the boy’s face. “Why?”

Bruce felt as if he had missed a step in this conversation, but he had no idea where. “I heard you have been neglecting your physical therapy.”

The suspicion was replaced with resignation. Tim grabbed his coffee with his good hand. He held it close to his chest as he spoke. “There’s no point in it.”

Bruce reeled back. “You cannot ignore your injuries. They will become a hindrance in the field.”

Tim blinked and stared at Bruce owlishly for a minute. “Bruce, Dick is almost ready to return. When he does, Jason won’t be far behind. Barbara’s leading cases. Cass is better at hand to hand than any of us. You don’t need me anymore.”

The air left Bruce’s lungs unexpectedly. “Tim,” he floundered.

“It’s okay, Bruce. I was only ever a fill-in. I’m better at the tech stuff anyway.”

“NO!” Bruce erupted, spilling the remains of his coffee on the freshly printed adoption papers. He placed one hand on Tim’s uninjured shoulder and the other cupped Tim’s elbow. He crouched down, making sure that he and Tim were at the same eye level.

“You are Robin.” Grey blue eyes widened in surprise. “You are my partner. If you want to stop, you may stop. But you will not stop because you do not feel inferior. Do you understand?”

“I,” Tim verbally stumbled. “I don’t –”

Bruce’s grip tightened on Tim’s shoulder. “Do you understand?” He repeated.

“Yes,” Tim said, refusing to meet Bruce’s eyes. They would work on that.

“Regardless of your decision about our nightly activities, you will resume your physical therapy immediately. You are far too young to have permanent shoulder pain. We will start today downstairs at 9:30. Now,” Bruce stood up and guided Tim to the table. “I drew up adoption papers for you.” He felt Tim’s muscles stiffen underneath his hand. Bruce released his hold and continued, “It’s your choice, Tim. You will always have a place here regardless of a legal document, but if you wanted to make it official.” Bruce allowed the offer to fall in the silence.

Tim didn’t look up, and Bruce was afraid he had made a mistake.

“May I think about it?” He whispered.

“Of course.”

Tim nodded and began to retreat out of the room. He turned suddenly and launched himself at Bruce. Tim’s arms wrapped around Bruce, and Bruce returned the hug. The awkward feeling of regretting the decision faded away. Now if only he could find a way to legally adopt Cassandra.

 

That evening as Bruce prepared for patrol, he was surprised to find Tim seated at the Batcomputer wearing his Robin costume.

“What are you doing?” Batman growled.

“You were right, Batman. I’m your partner. It’s time I started acting like it,” Robin informed him. He tapped the comms he was wearing once. On the computer behind him a map was displayed.

A shadow moved on his right. Batman turned to see Cass step out of the darkness. She wore all black and moved as if she were nothing more than a shadow.

“Better with partners,” she announced.

Robin smiled at her. “Since I can’t be in the field, Cass can watch your back.”

A thousand and one denials rose up in Batman. He hadn’t trained Cass. She deserved to not have to fight. He didn’t need her help.

Cass glided in front of him. “Better with partners,” she repeated. Then, she handed him a light purple pony with dark purple hair with a bright pink stripe in it. He knew the pony was from that terrible show Dick had loved. Other than that, he had no idea what the thing was supposed to represent, and he certainly had no idea what to do with it. Cass looked up with him with trusting eyes.

Bruce closed his fist around the toy. Then he placed it in one of the empty pouches of his utility belt. Tim snickered behind him, and Cass stuck her tongue out at him. Batman ignored them both.

“What’s your name?” Batman growled.

Cassandra beamed at him. “Black Bat.”

Batman nodded and headed towards the Batmobile. Black Bat jumped into the passenger seat with a delighted smile on her face. He started up the engines and drove them out of the cave.

Chapter Text

According to Psychology Today, “Childhood trauma causes permanent changes in the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.” Not to mention that children exposed to trauma can lead to a lifetime of anxiety, fear, depression, PTSD, self-destructive behavior, anger issues, feelings of isolation, and low self-esteem. By supporting a group of child superheroes, we are essentially saying that we do not care that we are condemning them to a life of problematic mental health issues.

Artemis jotted down a note on one of the mass of sticky notes surrounding her computer. Her political science class had been discussing the new House of Representatives Bill 4031b that President Katz supported, and House minority leaders were trying to schedule a vote for before the presidential election next month. Rather than analyze the upcoming election, Professor Howard had instructed his classes to study and prepare for a debate regarding the proposed disbanding of Young Justice and all superheroes under the age of 18. Artemis wouldn’t know until the day of which side she had to represent, so she was attempting to find support for both sides.

It wasn’t hard to build an argument rejecting the bill. Being a superhero had saved her life. Joining Young Justice had kept her from following Jade and her father into a life of crime. Jade was the only reason she had escaped without killing anyone. Her older sister had always taken the ‘messier’ assignments. Her first kill was at the age of 15. When Jade had returned home, Artemis had found her sprawled on the bathroom floor arm draped over the toilet while the rest of her crumbled on the floor. Chunks of bile and half-digested food floated in the water. Artemis flushed the toilet and sat down next to her sister, clutching her hand in a desperate grip. Seeing her beautiful, strong sister lifeless on the floor caused tears to flow as she tried to force Jade to move. Jade never once acknowledged her. Everything changed after that.

In contrast, Artemis moved in with their mother at the age of 14. Paula Crock had been released from jail, but Jade was 18 and far too entrenched in the criminal life. Despite not being around for a few years, Paula was determined that at least one of her daughters wouldn’t end up in a life of crime. When Artemis had turned 15 and almost gotten expelled for fighting, Batman – no doubt with the help of Cheshire – found her.

She didn’t know where she would be without Young Justice, so the idea that some government official would take that away from her and her friends infuriated her. Most of the upper class had no idea what the real world was like, and they had no right to take a haven from kids that needed it.

But reading the other side’s arguments forced her to rethink. Would Dick still be suffering from depression and low self-esteem if he hadn’t been Robin? And Wally hadn’t slept through a night since his return from the speed force. He wouldn’t talk about it, but Artemis knew something had happened. Roy also fell off the deep end while searching for the other Roy Harper. Conner had anger issues, but she wasn’t sure if that was a result of trauma or just his personality. Kaldur pulled away from everyone after the reveal of his father’s identity. M’gann was…well M’gann was normal. She was also a Martian, so Artemis wasn’t sure she counted.

Young Justice had saved her, had saved the world – but was it worth the damage it unleashed on her friends? Someone had to save the world. Heroes knew the sacrifices made. It wasn’t like turning 18 magically made one more capable of handling trauma.

A rush of wind scattered her notes everywhere. Her tea mug knocked over, and Artemis dashed for her laptop, barely grabbing it before the brown liquid flowed across her desk.

“Good news! I just booked the perfect place for our wedding!” Wally announced, standing in a ta-da pose.

“God, Wally. I’ve asked you not to run in here. It’s hard enough keeping -” Artemis paused. “Did you just say you booked a place for our wedding?”

Rising from her desk chair, she placed her computer on a dry surface. Wally dashed out of the room, causing more papers to shuffle, and handed her paper towels. White paper towels quickly turned brown as they absorbed the spilt tea.
“Yes, and you’re going to love it. There’s no craved furniture. No crystal dishware. But it has a beautiful view overlooking the city,” Wally replied joyfully.

“And you booked it?” Artemis repeated, voice carefully neutral.

Wally beamed at her. “Yes! For June 3rd. We’ll finish classes, get married, and then honeymoon! Wait. Why aren’t you excited?”

“You booked a place without asking me?!”

Her idiot boyfriend threw his hands in the air. “You said you didn’t want to plan a wedding!”

“I meant let’s go to the courthouse. Not plan one behind my back!”

“Plan one behind your back?!” Wally sputtered. “You knew I was doing this!”

Artemis threw the dirty paper towels into the trash bin under her desk. “Did it not occur to you that maybe I wanted to see the place before you booked it?”

Vibrating with his anger, Wally yelled, “No, it didn’t! Because you’re miserable every time we see a place. It’s like you don’t even want to get married!” Wally sped out of the room after that, knocking over the now empty teacup again.

Collapsing into her desk chair, Artemis gripped the armrests until her entire hand turned white. She needed to shoot something.

 

“Should I be offended that all your targets have red hair?”

Tigress ignored Batgirl’s comments as she pulled her bowstring taut and aimed at the moving robotic targets. She fired three shots in a row. The first hit a shoulder joint, the second a kneecap, and the third a foot. All nonlethal, but all would take opponents out of a fight.

Satisfied with her work, she turned to face Barbara, who leaned against the wall with her arms crossed and one leg bent with her foot on the wall. It was a pose far too reminiscent of Nightwing, but Artemis refrained from commenting on it. “Just venting some frustration.”

Batgirl pushed off the wall, approaching her friend now that the simulator had deactivated. “What did Wally do now?”

“Booked a wedding venue without asking me,” she replied. The fierce anger cooled after an hour or so of archery practice. Mostly, she just didn’t understand it now.

Barbara pinched her lips in that way that Artemis knew she was refraining from making some disparaging comment about the patriarchy. Feeling the need to defend Wally before he was lumped into that category, she added, “It was a miscommunication.” She was still incredibly annoyed, and she didn’t comprehend how it happened, but she would be damned if Barbara insulted Wally. No one insulted her idiot.

The other vigilante frowned but let it go. Artemis turned away from her to put her bow back in the room’s armory.

“I’m leading a mission to Miami in a few days. Do you want in?” Batgirl asked.

“Can’t.” Artemis shook her head. “I have midterms.” She stopped mid-step. “Don’t you have midterms?”

Smirking, Barbara teased, “I took mine last week. Plus, I’ve finished all my assignments for the semester. Well, except finals.”

Artemins groaned. Why were her two favorite people in the world genius prodigies. It wasn’t fair. “I hate you. I literally hate you.”

“No, you don’t. You hate that after two years of indecision, you finally decided on a major and have a backlog of courses to take.”

Nudging Barbara in the shoulder a little more forcefully than necessary, she began to exit the room. The other woman just laughed and walked with her. Artemis asked, “So what’s your mission?”

“There’s a new lead on smash. A new drug in Miami called purple hit the streets with similar death rates and addictive properties. The drug hasn’t been seen since Red Hood disrupted the drug trade in Gotham, but now it’s made an appearance in a largely populated city with no known hero presence. It’s worth investigating,” Batgirl explained.

Once the pair had entered the female locker room, Artemis flipped up her mask. She grabbed a towel and wiped the sweat from her face. “Sounds fun. Who you taking with you?”

“Miss Martian and Wonder Girl.”

Artemis removed the towel from her face and shot Barbara a doubtful look. “You want to take Wonder Girl on an investigative mission.”

Barbara placed both hands on her hips. “Cassie’s stealth competence has drastically improved over the last few months. She’s capable of far more than others give her credit for. More importantly, she wants to learn.”

Tossing the now used towel into the hamper, Tigress began removing the outer layer of her armor. “I didn’t say she wasn’t capable. I’m just surprised. You’ve been chasing this drug and chemist for months.”

Tight shoulders relaxed, and Batgirl let it go. “You sure everything is okay with you and Wally?”

Stunned by the change of topic, Artemis paused in pulling of her boots to look at her friend. “Yeah, why?”

“Because those dark circles under your eyes look almost as bad as Dick’s last summer.”

With one last tug Artemis removed her boot. The welcome chill of the floor provided relief for her sweaty feet. “Wally hasn’t been sleeping well,” she admitted quietly.

“I’m sorry.” Artemis hated her tone. “Have you talked about it?”

“No,” the blonde growled, shoving her boots into her bag. “He insists on pretending everything is fine.”

“He has always struggled with denial.”

Whirling around on Batgirl, Artemis threw her sweaty socks into her bag. “Don’t insult him! At least, he remembers to eat!”

Barbara’s mouth parted slightly. “Whoa, I didn’t – ”

“Just forget it,” she replied before stomping off towards the shower.

 

Blindly reaching for her cup, Artemis sipped her coffee – and almost spit it back out again. It had gone cold. How long had she been studying? Her eyes flicked to the bottom right of her computer screen. It was nearly 3am, and she still wasn’t done studying for her American government midterm. She groaned and stood up to refill her mug of coffee. If she hadn’t decided to take a trip to the Watch Tower to blow off steam, she probably would have finished by now. At least, Wally was patrolling Central City tonight. She could study in peace.

That was until she heard the loud crash in her living room.

“What is going on?”

“Um. Nothing! Shouldn’t you be sleeping!” Bart replied while he attempted to hold a woozy Wally up.

Ignoring his nonsense, Artemis raced to her finance and began checking him for injuries. “What happened?”

“Hey Babe,” Wally greeted with a dopey smile. He swatted her hands away from his midsection. “Tickles.”

Artemis turned the full force of her glare on the kid next to her. “Answers. Now.”

“Yelp! Um…he got hurt on patrol, but didn’t want to tell Flash’s team about it, so he called me, and I may have accidentally given him too many pain killers,” Bart raced to explain.

Helping Bart lay Wally on the couch, Artemis focused on the issue at hand. “Where is he hurt?”

“His leg. I’m not sure where. He kept saying it’s would heal in a few days, and he just needed some pain relief until then.”

“Wally, which leg is hurt?”

“You look like an angel.” He grinned in response.

Rolling her eyes skyward, Artemis searched his leg for damage. She didn’t see any entry wounds or bullet holes, which meant it must have been a dislocation or a break. Carefully, she glided her hand up and down his leg until she felt the massive swelling in his knee.

“Dammit,” she cursed. His knee had been dislocated, and Wally popped it back in himself. “Bart, go get Barry.”

Bart hesitated; his weight shifted between each foot. “I don’t think he want’s Grandpa to know he’s hurt.”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass what he wants! He’s a complete and utter moron! If that knee wasn’t placed back in properly, it will heal incorrectly, which means surgery to fix it. Which means a whole lot of unnecessary pain, considering it’s near impossible to keep you all sedated for any length of time,” Artemis yelled, barely refraining from hitting Wally or shaking his stupid accomplish.

“Welp!” Bart exclaimed. Then he rushed out of the room. Hopefully, Barry and Bart would be able to get the moron to the Watch Tower before his knee had the chance to heal incorrectly.

“Artemis?” Wally blinked as he stared at her. His metabolism had already started burning through the fog of medication.

“Yes, it’s me, idiot. How many pain pills did you take?”

“Dunno. Hurts,” he whimpered.

Artemis refused to take pity on him. “That’s what happens when you’re an idiot.”

Wally scrunched his face in thought when two bursts of wind entered their apartment.

“What happened?” Barry asked, kneeling next to his nephew immediately. His hair was puffed out on all sides. He was wearing blue and white striped pajamas, apparently not bothering to change his clothing when he heard about Wally’s injury.

“No, no, no,” Wally moaned, shaking his head back in forth.

Barry ran a hand through Wally’s sweat-soaked hair and turned to Bart. “What happened?”

Bart gulped under the intensity of his grandfather’s glare. Rarely, did Barry Allen show his fury, but when he did, it was a terrifying sight. “I don’t know. He called me and said that he needed some pain killers from your supply and that it was important that no one else knew. Is he going to be alright?”

“He’ll be fine once his metabolism burns through the medicine. How many pills did he take?”

“Um…” Bart’s mouth drooped, and his eyes darted to the floor. “All of them.”

“What?!” Barry turned to fully face his grandson. “There was over half a bottle left. You know those pills already take our metabolism into account!”

Bart mumbled at the floor.

“What was that?” Barry’s tone was hard.

“He said something about wanting to sleep.”

Of course, he did. Why did she love this idiot? Right now, she wanted to smack him in the head a few times. Surely that would fix his insomnia. “His knee was dislocated, and he popped it back in himself,” Artemis informed Barry, who had bent down to scoop his nephew up.

He nodded once and turned to Bart. “Go home and tell Iris what’s going on.”

“But I want to help.”

“You’ve helped enough.”

Bart looked crestfallen, but he obeyed and raced out of the room. Barry left less than a second after him, leaving Artemis alone in her living room with her incomplete study guide and half-read books. She rubbed her hands down her face and closed her laptop. She doubted she’d get anymore studying done tonight; she could only hope she had learned enough to pass her midterm tomorrow.

By the time Artemis had cooled down enough to join her idiot fiancé at the Watch Tower medical room, Dr. Mid Nite had properly reset Wally’s knee and given him a cast from his mid-thigh to his calf. His left leg was completely immobilized. A normal person would require at least six weeks of healing, but Wally would only need a week. It was a good thing because Artemis doubted she’d survive a week with a speedster on crutches with her sanity intact.

Barry, now dressed in the Flash’s uniform, handed Wally a pair of crutches. Wally grimaced, but took them and swung his legs slowly off the bed. His movements suggested that the massive amount of pain pills he had taken had worn off.

The pair didn’t say anything when she walked in. Barry still wore a hard look on his face, and Wally refused to look at his uncle.

“All set?” She asked, trying to disrupt the tension.

Wally looked up at her gratefully, slowly putting his weight on his good leg and adjusting his crutches as he slid off the bed. “Yeah, I’m good to go.”

Whipping his head to face Artemis, Barry asked, “Has Wally talked to you about his time in the speed force?”

Only his quick relaxes prevented Wally’s crutches from crashing to the ground when he stumbled in response. Artemis wanted to have sympathy for her idiot, but truthfully, she was tired of Wally’s denial. “No.”

“Will you that let go?” Wally screeched. “I made a bad judgment call tonight. It’s not connected.”

“A bad judgment call?” Barry repeated, incredulous. “You didn’t think through your plan of attack, ended up injured in a fight you should have easily won, neglected to inform your backup of said injury, tried and failed to take care of it on your own, dragged a benched hero into this, and nearly overdosed on pain medication. Did I miss anything?”

She had never heard Barry filled with that amount of fury. Throughout the tirade, Wally’s earlier ire disintegrated, and he hunched in on himself. His uncle took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Kid, you can’t keep pretending this isn’t affecting you. How much longer until you fall apart? Or get an injury we can’t fix?”

Wally’s voice was incredibly small when he spoke, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Hearing her stupid idiot with that small voice broke something inside of her, Artemis walked over to stand next to him; she placed her hand over his on the crutch and squeezed. Wally gave her a smile, but she could see the tears gathering in his eyes.

“Not talking about it isn’t working. Come on, Wall-man, I want to sleep through the night again.”

Wally nodded. His voice thick, he replied, “Okay, okay. Just not tonight, okay? I want to get my head on straight.”

Artemis was about to argue but failed to stop the yawn that escaped her.

“Go get some rest. We’ll talk more later,” Barry announced.

“What about Central City?”

“Cisco and Caitlin can watch over the city. I should have done that in the first place. Central City can survive without the Flash for a few months. I shouldn’t have asked you to cover for me,” Barry replied, shaking his head slightly as he studied his nephew.

Wally’s shoulders slumped even further. He didn’t say anything in response just nodded as he followed Artemis out of the room.

Once the couple returned home, Artemis helped situate Wally on their bed. When she turned to leave the bedroom, he called, “Aren’t you coming to bed?”

“My government midterm is in a few hours. I need to finish studying.”

“Babe, I’m sure you’ve studied enough.”

She was too tired to fight Wally on this. “I’m not a genius, Wally. I actually have to study.” She left the room before he could reply.

Settling in her living room with a fresh cup of coffee, Artemis glanced at the clock. It was nearly six am. Determined to ignore the creeping sense of defeat, she buckled down and got to work.

 

Unfortunately, the conversion with Wally had to be postponed for a few days while Artemis took her midterms. She had just finished her debate on bill 4031b, where she had to argue for the disbanding of Young Justice, and she started to feel herself convinced of her own arguments. It wasn’t something she wanted to think about. She took her backpack off and set her keys on the kitchen counter. Too tired for the serious conversation that they needed to have, she rubbed her eyes and started to make a fresh cup of coffee.

She grabbed a mug and a splash of creamer as she waited for the pot to finish brewing. What she really needed right now was a nap, but they had been putting this conversation off for days already. Wally needed to talk about what had happened. She could sleep once they talked.

She walked into the living room where Wally was laying across the couch with his injured leg propped up on several pillows.

“How you feeling?” Artemis asked as she sat down in their oversized chair.

Wally threw a ball in the air and caught it. Repeating the motion as he replied, “Fine. I should be able to put some weight on my knee my the end of the day.”

“That’s great, Walls.”

“Yeah.”

Silence penetrated the room. It was awkward and uncomfortable and so far from their norm.

“What happened in the speed force, Wally?”

He didn’t reply at first just kept throwing that ball up in the air and catching it. Artemis gripped her coffee and forced herself to wait.

Finally, Wally caught the ball, but didn’t throw it back up. Instead, his hand squeezed it so hard his entire arm shook. “I saw you die. Over and over again, I watched you die.” Tears filled his eyes, and his voice was hoarse. “Knife to the stomach. Arrow to the heart. Explosion. Car crash. Some rare disease. It wasn’t just you. It was everyone. Dick kept jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.” He made a strange hiccup noise. “Uncle Barry. Aunt Iris. The twins. Bart. Everyone.”

Wally’s shoulders shook with the force of his sobs. Artemis placed her coffee cup on the side table and rushed to his side. She grabbed his hand with one hand and ran her fingers through his hair with the other.

“Hey, hey, you’re okay. I’m here. I’m alive,” she reassured him.

“I know!” Wally exclaimed with a hoarse sob. “I know, but I keep dreaming about it.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Artemis wished she could keep her exasperation out of her tone. This wasn’t about her.

“I thought they would go away!”

“Wally, it’s been months!”

“I know! Okay, I know.”

Standing up, she returned to her seat and grabbed her cup of coffee. She was torn between wanting to comfort Wally and wanting to punch him. Having something to occupy her hands would prevent her from giving into the latter.

“Where do we go from here?” She asked.

“Uncle Barry thinks talking about it will help.” His tone indicated how he felt about that statement. “He’s also going to have Caitlin observe me while I sleep in case the speed force did something to my neuropathways.”

“Okay, that’s good.” It occurred to Artemis that Barry knew more about Wally’s anguish than she did. That left a disquiet feeling in her stomach. She was the one Wally was going to marry. She was his partner now. She should know these things before his uncle. Why didn’t Wally trust her?

“You okay?” Wally called.

“I want to be there.”

“Where?”

“When you do the sleep testing, I want to be there,” she repeated, determination clear in her voice.

Wally hedged, “You don’t have to do that.”

“I know I don’t. I want to.”

“I don’t want you there!” Wally yelled.

Artemis jerked back as if she’d been slapped. The words hung in the air. Wally’s text message alert broke the silence, and he grabbed it off the coffee table.

“I have to go,” he said after he pocketed his phone.

“GO?! You can’t just go after saying something like that!”

“Dick’s in trouble. He needs me.”

Artemis threw her hands wide, splashing coffee on the chair and the floor. “Dick has other friends! I swear to God Wally if you leave now, you won’t need to bother coming back.”

Wally paused in his efforts to push himself off the couch. “You don’t mean that.”

“If you want to test how much I mean it, walk out the door!”

“Artemis –”

“Don’t you dare! You plan our wedding by yourself. You lie to my face for months. You don’t want my help. And now, when we’re finally talking, you want to rush off to check on Dick, who has just about every member of Young Justice and the Justice League at his disposal to help him! Oh, screw it! I don’t care! Do whatever the hell you want.” Artemis walked into their bedroom and slammed the door.

Chapter Text

There was a long-standing debate regarding personal cell phone use. Batman had a strict no personal effects in uniform policy, which made sense when one was on a mission or patrolling Gotham, but Batgirl had never seen the point in refusing to bring personal effects to the Watch Tower – and she knew Nightwing had a few loosely connected to Dick Grayson posters on his wall. Still, Batman didn’t have the police commissioner for a father. One would think that given Bruce’s obsessive worry over his sons’ safety, he would understand that Barbara had to have a way to contact her father. Of course, that would take admitting that Batman obsessively worried about his Robins, which would never happen.

The problem was that Batgirl couldn’t use a burner phone to call the police commissioner because he wasn’t supposed to know his daughter was a very involved member of the Bat colony that had invaded Gotham. In the end, Barbara had connected her phone to her wrist computer and heavily encoded the programming. It was a risk, but it was a calculated one.

Of course, had she not bothered with the elaborate code she wouldn’t have received Dick’s text.

hey

He was in trouble. Babs was certain of it. Dick didn’t just text, ‘hey’. He texted memes, rather random bits of information, the end of a conversation he hadn’t realized you weren’t in, and occasionally, a coherent conversation. Hey was the equivalent of I-don’t-know-what-to-say-but-I-don’t want-to-be-alone-with-my-thoughts-right-now. It drove Barbara mad with worry.

She knew he had other friends – knew she wasn’t the only one he counted on. She should have ignored his text. She couldn’t be there for Dick right now. She was leading a mission, but as Miss Martian flew the bioship, Barbara was more and more focused on what Dick was doing right now. She should text him back, just check in.

Penny for your thoughts? M’gann’s voice interrupted her internal dilemma.

It took all of Barbara’s training not to jump at the mental intrusion.

Sorry, M’gann’s voice continued. You just seem distracted.

Probably because I am.

Want to talk about it?

There’s no need. We should focus.

We still have an hour of flight time. M’gann’s tone of voice softened. It’s Dick, isn’t it?

Barbara felt her cheeks heat up. Did everyone know how often the former Boy Wonder was on her mind?

I’m worried about him too. M’gann continued, and Babs kicked herself. Of course, M’gann was just concerned about her friend. The whole world didn’t know about her ridiculous crush.

He’s fine. Barbara replied and forced herself to believe it.

The Martian gave her a serious sideeye and her doubt floated across the telepathic link. Luckily, Babs was saved from responding by Wonder Girl’s timely interruption.

“So…” the girl shifted in her seat. “Are we just going to sit in silence for the entire flight?”

“Hello Megan! Sorry, Wonder Girl! We were chatting telepathically,” M’gann replied.

Wonder Girl shifted back to the front. “I see,” she said, voice clipped.

Batgirl jerked her chin towards the blonde and felt the synaptic soothing of an additional person being added to the link.

Miss Martian saw me check my wrist computer and asked if we had any updates, Wonder Girl. Across the bond, Batgirl felt the calming of bruised pride. Cassie hadn’t learned enough mental control to block basic thoughts and emotions from floating across the mental bond effectively. Batgirl hated this part of leadership. She was glad Aqualad was back in his rightful role. Kaldur had greater patience with teaching others than she ever would.

Sorry.

Don’t apologize. Let’s go over the plan again.

There was a quiet groan from Cassie.

M’gann giggled. You’re fault. You wanted to be a part of the conversation.

Seriously, Batgirl, do you every talk about anything besides work?

M’gann’s smirk was poorly concealed, and Barbara didn’t need anything to distract her further. Dick would be fine. He had plenty of friends, and she would check in as soon as he was back. Her job right now was to lead this mission. She shut her side of the mental link and spoke allowed.

“When we arrive in Miami, Miss Martain will take the commercial docks. Wonder Girl will take Dodge Island and the tourist area. We know the drug often arrives via seaports on coastal cities, but we’re not sure if it’s being smuggled in by phony tourists or shipping companies. I’m covering Overtown as it has the highest rate of drug use and a new drug would hit the streets there quickly. The goal is to find the supplier. We need to know where this drug is coming from.”

She had purposefully placed Cassie in between Miss Martian and herself. Wonder Girl was an incredibly gifted hero, but she sometimes got in over her head with her lack of foresight. Once she corrected that mistake, she’d be an extremely formidable ally. Until then, Batgirl would keep her sandwiched, so a more experienced team member would be able to help her quickly.
It was too much to hope that the inventor of smash would be in Miami, but Batgirl hoped that at least, a senior level operative would be around that could lead her to the chemist responsible. The team that was sent to Stockton after the last reporting of smash successfully stopped the drug from spreading by destroying the supply, but they found zero clues to the origin of the drug.
Batgirl was going to change that. She had to.

 

Miami in October was still oppressively hot. It was 80 degrees with high humidity in the night air. Batgirl’s costume clung to her like a still drying papier-mache project. She was melting. This was ridiculous. How did people tolerate this? Batgirl sipped from her now lukewarm water. She forced herself to swallow despite the taste. She couldn’t afford to dehydrate.

This city was terrible.

It was nearing 3am, and she hadn’t seen a single sign of smash on the streets. Miss Martian and Wonder Girl had reported similar depressing results. She reminded herself that it was only the first night. They had time.

“I’m calling it,” Batgirl spoke into the comms.

“Oh, thank Zeus!”

“Meet at our rendezvous point. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

 

It was the fourth night of their week-long surveillance when Batgirl finally spotted a drug dealer who was smart enough not to use his own product. She swooped down with her cape unfurling behind her. She landed with a loud thud and used the shadows to make herself appear larger than she was.

“Who the hell are you?” The man asked. He was short, probably no taller than 5’4”, but he was lean and fit. A gun was tucked loosely in the waistband of his mesh basketball shorts – hardly a secure mode of transporting the weapon. He wore a white tank top and sneakers that easily cost upwards of a grand.

“I need information,” she growled.

The man scoffed, “Chica, you need –”

Batgirl flung a batarang into the man’s calf before sexist drivel could escape. Cursing loudly in Spanish the man collapsed onto one knee and pulled the gun out of his waistband. Batgirl threw another batarang knocking the gun across the alley.

“I need information,” she repeated.

“¡Hija de perra! Who the hell are you?” The man yelled as he placed his hands on the blood slowly trickling from his wound.

“I’m Batgirl.”

“Shit! I thought the Bats lived in Gotham,” the man ranted.

“I need information,” Batgirl repeated again.

“Listen puta,”

Barbara flung a batarang right next to the man’s other leg. “Try again,” she commanded.

The man paled slightly.

“Where do you get your supply of purple?”

“I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.”

Whipping her leg around, Batgirl kicked the man to the ground then placed her boot on his chest with the toe of her boot placing pressure on his Adam’s apple. “Do not lie to me. You sold purple tonight. When I release you, you’re going to tell me where it came from. Is that clear?” The man gave a shaky nod. “Good.”

Batgirl stepped back and ignored the foul curses the man spat as he rubbed his neck.

“The intersection of Tenth Street and I 441, there’s a building covered with graffiti. You can’t miss it.”

She pulled a bandage from her belt and dropped it on the ground next to the man. “I called an ambulance three minutes ago. It should be here soon.” With that, she pulled her grapple and flew to the nearest rooftop. She had a building to surveil.

Her coms cracked to life as she returned to her bike. “Miss Martian to Beta. I’ve got something.”

“Report.”

“I found several shipping containers loaded with smash. There’s four men unloading the container into trucks and six armed guards.”

“Wonder Girl assist Miss Martian in the takedown. I’m pursuing a different lead.”

“Understood.”

Ignoring the posted speed limit signs, Batgirl raced to her destination. Finally, there seemed to be promising leads. Lord willing, they would gather enough information to find the supply chain for smash. She parked her motorcycle in a dark alley a few buildings away. Then she grappled to the roof. Miami didn’t have nearly the same architecture as Gotham. There were no gargoyles or buttress to hide behind. Most of the buildings were low to the ground, which meant it would be easy for someone passing by to spot her. Fortunately, it was upwards of 2:30 am, which meant few cars were driving by, and she was in an area where the government forgot to replace street lamps.

The darkness would serve her well.

Pulling out her binoculars, she searched the outside of the building for guards or potential drug dealers, but the streets and alleys were empty. Her equipment showed that the building didn’t have an alarm system. It seemed this place was used most often for an exchange of goods than a headquarters of any kind. Keeping her frustration in check, she dropped in between two buildings to finish her surveillance on foot.

Closer, she found no evidence of a suppressed alarm system or hidden people. The door to the building no longer shut properly; it swung open with little force. Rats scurried away at her entrance, but the cockroaches weren’t bothered. The room before here was largely empty save for the pests, trash, and used syringes. An old mattress lay in on corner and opposite that was a hallway to another room.

Batgirl opened the door and heard the hissing of an air canister. Ingrained training had her holding her breath and reaching for her rebreather. She placed the piece over her nose and mouth and pivoted, so her back was flush against a wall. She wouldn’t allow anyone to sneak up on her.

Multiple assailants with gas masks flew in through the window. Batgirl threw two batarangs and cartwheeled away. Gunshots embedded in the concrete where she had been previously standing. Landing in a crouch, she threw a smoke pellet, filling the room with smoke. The gunshots rang loud in the enclosed space. Batgirl flew to the masked man closest to her and knocked him unconscious with a quick blow to the head while he was reloading his gun.

She dropped to her knee, dodging another’s shot and threw another batarang into the hand of the goon who shot at her. A grenade rolled to the middle of the floor beside her. The gunfire stopped as cursing filled the room. Batgirl sprang up and jumped towards the open door. She felt the heat of the blast and a sharp pain. And then, nothing.

 

Batgirl blinked awake and groaned. She tried to bring her hands to massage her aching head, only to discover her wrists were handcuffed and attached to the ceiling by a metal pole that ran across the ceiling. Realizing that forced her brain to remember that her shoulders were pulled tight. A steady burn crept along them and it wouldn’t be long before they were on fire. Mercifully, her feet were planted firmly on the floor, but there was no give for her to bend her legs at all.

She blinked again and realized she wasn’t wearing her cowl. Batgirl still had on her suit, but her gloves and utility belt were missing. It wasn’t uncommon for villains to take those items, so she always carried extra lockpicks in the sleeves of her uniform. Getting them out while her body was dangling from her wrists was going to be difficult.

The room she was in had solid gray walls with a metal door that clearly locked from the outside. The pole that ran across the ceiling ran parallel to the door, but she was a good twenty feet away from the door. Batgirl wouldn’t be able to ambush anyone until her hands were free. She’d have to pick the handcuffs and then figure out how to get the door open. A line of duct tape was on the floor approximately five feet from her. There weren’t any computers or cameras in the room, which would giver her a slight advantage, but Batgirl had no clue what would be beyond this room. She needed more information.

Pushing herself up onto her tiptoes gave her shoulders a moment of relief and gave her more maneuverability in her wrists to tease one of her lockpicks out of her sleeve. She almost had one out of her sleeve when the grating sound of metal against concrete forced her to drop so her feet were flat on the ground. In her haste, the lockpick slipped from her hands and fell down the sleeve of her uniform. That pick wouldn’t be any help.

“Ah, you’re awake,” a young woman said as the door shut behind her. The woman wore khakis and a blue green top with a white lab coat. She had light brown hair that was pulled into a loose ponytail and brown eyes behind light pink plastic glasses. The woman wasn’t especially attractive or unattractive and had no identifying marks. In fact, everything about her look screamed average. “I’m Dr. Amanda Barnes. I hear you’ve been looking for me.”

Batgirl’s eyes widened. This couldn’t be the chemist she had spent all that time hunting. She hadn’t expected someone who was clearly intelligent to just waltz in and offer their name.

“Congratulations, Batgirl! Or should I say Barbara Gordon? You found me!”

Barbara’s mouth dropped open. Yes, her cowl had been removed, but she hadn’t expected to be identified so quickly. Barbara Gordon was hardly famous or well known even in Gotham.

Dr. Barnes walked to where the duct tape line crossed the floor but didn’t cross it. “Don’t look so surprised. I also know that Batman is Bruce Wayne.”

“How?” Barbara stuttered as her brain struggled to reboot.

“Please, the better question is how does everyone not know? Wayne is the only one who could afford Batman’s ridiculous toys. Batman’s injuries always correlate with a Bruce Wayne vacation, and the Robins change every time a new kid enters his home,” the woman explained with an air that suggested everyone else was an idiot. It was a tone of voice Barbara was intimately familiar with. “But then, you figured it out as well. I respect you, Batgirl, which is why I didn’t kill you or your friends. Female geniuses need to stick together.” Dr. Barnes walked along the length of the duct tape. “But I need you to stop cutting into my profits.”

Ignoring most of that speech, Barbara ground out. “Where are my friends?”

Dr. Barnes gave her a half smile. “They’re contained, and it cost me ten men and a shipment of my drug to capture them. I have no plans to kill them although they’ll both probably need to be rescued when we’re done.”

“Where are they?”

Brown eyes rolled dramatically, but Dr. Barnes pulled a tablet from the inside pocket of her white lab coat. After tapping and swiping in a pattern Batgirl couldn’t recognize, she held up the tablet to show two camera feeds. Miss Martian was laying on the floor sweating. Nothing was physically holding her down, but the room she was in was clearly too hot for her to function. In the corner, it appeared that a fire was flickering and growing. Wonder Girl was standing with a panicked look on her face as she stuffed the shirt of her uniform in a hole of a steel container that was filling with water. Wonder Girl was trying to use her super strength to stop the flow of the water.

“It appears that Wonder Girl didn’t think to ascertain her location before trying to punch her way out,” Dr. Barnes said with a voice so full of disappointment that Barbara wanted to defend Cassie.

“I thought you didn’t plan on killing them,” she replied, refusing to allow her own panic to show.

The woman shrugged, and Barbara felt a rage that was normally reserved for the Joker. She couldn’t stand those who couldn’t even pretend to value human life. “I don’t, but I can hardly prevent them from killing themselves.”

Instead of answering, Batgirl swung her weight forward into a running kick. The pain in her wrists from being tugged back violently was nothing compared to her ultimate goal of dislodging a lockpick from her sleeve. The violent swing of her body forced a lockpick out of her sleeve. Slowly, she moved her thumb to grab it. Dr. Barnes hardly looked interested in the attempt Batgirl made. Belatedly, Barbara realized why the floor was marked with duct tape. She couldn’t reach the other woman as long as she was on the other side of that line.

“I understand that you had to try, but next time don’t doubt my calculations,” the woman replied with a long-suffering sigh. She dropped the tablet back into her interior pocket. “Now, as Wonder Girl has thoughtlessly cut our bargaining time short. I’m going to tell you what I want in exchange for your freedom. Leave me alone, Batgirl. Stop cutting into my profits when my drug enters a new city or town.”

“Your drug is killing people!”

“Capitalism kills people,” Dr. Barnes corrected. “Companies that refuse to pay their workers a liveable wage kill people. Laws that militarized the police in certain neighborhoods kill people. Refusing to address the exorbitant prices of medicine kills people. Life kills people. Those smart enough to protect themselves won’t find themselves addicted to my baby.”

Barbara snorted. At least that lecture had allowed her to get her lockpick in place. “So what? Only the strong survive?”

“Only the smart survive. We’re surrounded by idiots. Surely, you’ve noticed.”

“Being intelligent is not the only measure of worth,” Batgirl argued.

The woman rolled her eyes again. “If your friend had a single intelligent cell in her body, she would have noticed she was sinking in the ocean before trying to punch her way out. I have all the time in the world to debate the ethical ramifications of my actions, but judging by the rate of the water’s flow into the shipping container, your friend only has two maybe three hours. Your choice, Batgirl.”

Barbara forced her panic down and faced the situation with as much logic as she could. Dr. Barnes would hardly be swayed by emotional outbursts, and she had said she respected Barbara’s intelligence. Besides if she could keep the woman distracted from her hands, Batgirl could pick the lock before the woman noticed. She needed a little longer to get the pins in place. “Given your own level of intelligence, you could hardly trust my word to back off.”

“You’re right. Instead, I want a video recording of you confirming Batman’s identity. I’ll keep it on file. As long as you drop your investigation, I won’t release it to the public,” Dr. Barnes informed her as she crossed her arms underneath her beasts.

“You’re insane,” Batgirl replied.

“Perhaps.” The woman shrugged. “But I’ll return in an hour. I’m sure you’ll change your mind when Wonder Girl is blue from the cold and her container is half full of water.”

Dr. Barnes turned to leave the room, which gave Batgirl the opening to twist her lockpick one final time and allow her wrist to escape. She ran and did a flying kick at the woman, knocking her done before she could escape the room. Quickly and decisively, Batgirl knocked her out and stole the tablet from her pocket. She stripped the woman of her lab coat and used it to tie her hands behind her back. It wasn’t the most effective means of capture, but it was all she had at the moment.

She tugged her cowl back over her face and hacked the tablet. Accessing the Young Justice emergency line was a quick feat and she called the Watch Tower, hoping to reach Aqualad first.

“Batgirl to Young Justice,” she called.

Kaldur’s smooth voice answered her, “This is Aqualad.”

Praise the Lord for small mercies. “Aqualad, I need an emergency water evac off the coast of Miami. Wonder Girl is trapped in a rapidly sinking shipping container that’s filling with water.”

“Understood. What’s your status?”

“Currently, I’m escaping from the psycho behind smash, and then I’m going to find Miss Martian,” Barbara replied as she searched for schematics of the place on her newly acquired tablet.

“Will you need additional assistance?” Aqualad asked.

“No,” Batgirl replied. She planned to be out of here before help could arrive. She wasn’t a damsel in distress. She was a hero, who could handle herself.

There was a pause on the line. She wondered what Kaldur was thinking. If he doubted her, he didn’t show it. “I’m on my way.”

Batgirl cut the com line and pulled up the video surveillance. M’gann appeared to only be a few hallways away, and it looked like there were only 9 guards between her and her teammate. Unfortunately, five of them were directly outside her door. Three were guarding the door and two others sat at computers watching the room. Why would Dr. Barnes not put a camera in this room if she had one every where else?

She didn’t want anyone else to know Barbara’s identity. Hopefully, that meant that she was the only one who knew Batman’s alter ego. It was going to be hard enough to deal with Dr. Barnes’s knowledge of the event.

One problem at a time, Babs.

Formulating a takedown plan, she said a small prayer and opened the door to her cell. Batgirl changed the lenses in her mask and dug her emergency smoke bomb from her boot. Tossing the pellet into the room, she swept the feet out from the guard closest to her cell and flipped away. She ran to the men by the computers, zigzagging to avoid the accidental bullet and knocked them unconscious before they could sound the alarms.

The other guards cursed. Gunfire filled the room. She cartwheeled out of the way. Batgirl would kill for her batarangs right now. She summersaulted towards the next guard and kicked him in the leg dislocating his knee. The man tried to shoot her, but she stomped on his wrist, breaking the bone. She kicked the gun across the room. The man yelped and Batgirl spun to deal with the other two attackers.

Unfortunately, the room began to clear of smoke. Without her utility built, Batgirl didn’t have access to any of her equipment. The two remaining guards aimed their guns with far more focused precision. Batgirl cursed and danced closer to them. A blow to her abdomen told her that she hadn’t quit missed all of the bullets. That would bruise but thank the Lord for Kevlar. She roundhouse kicked the gun out from the guard closest to her and felt a burn across her thigh. Batgirl turned her fall into a summersault and knocked the last guard to the floor.

Knocking the last two defeated men unconscious, Barbara inspected the wound at her thigh. The good news was that it was just a graze. The bad news was that it still hurt like hell and she had no way to bandage it without her utility belt.

Batgirl immediately decided that wisdom was the better part of valor. Hacking the computers in front of her, she directed the guards to a fake rescue attempt on the other side of the building. She waited for the guards to clear out before limping her way to M’gann’s room.

She knew she was close when she felt the temperature increase significantly. The metal door burned her hands when she touched it. Batgirl kicked it open and her yelp of pain was cut off by the stifling atmosphere of M’gann’s cell. The room’s oppressive heat and smoke in the room forced Batgirl into a coughing fit. Batgirl dropped to the floor and crawled towards her friend. Grabbing her, she dragged M’gann out of the hellhole.

Her vision was going black, and she felt nauseous. The zipper on the back of her uniform burned across her skin, but she got them out of the room. The hallway was no filled with smoke, but if felt significantly cooler.

Batgirl sagged against wall as she waited for her vision to return. She wasn’t sure she could stand, and she was afraid she’d vomit if she tried. She pressed her check into the cooler floor and prayed for relief.

“Gonna need you to wake up M’gann,” she cried.

The Martian moaned, but didn’t move. Well, the moan was progress. If Batgirl could get them further away from the heat, Miss Martian should be able to get them clear of the building. She hoped.

She forced herself to stand and immediately broke into a coughing fit. Batgirl should have found her utility belt before attempting a rescue. She ignored her inner critic. Now wasn’t the time to analyze the mission she needed to act. Batgirl hefted M’gann up and threw one of her arms over her shoulders and dragged them away from the flames and oppressive heat.
M’gann moaned again.

It wasn’t until Barbara was two hallways away from the flames that M’gann regained consciousness.

“What? Batgirl, what’s going on?”

“Oh, thank God!” Barbara exclaimed as she stumbled. Her lungs and leg were on fire.

M’gann caught her, panic filling her face. “What’s wrong?”

Batgirl coughed. “Smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion. Gonna need you to get us out of here.” A coughing fit erupted from her lungs, cutting her next sentence off.

Stop talking. M’gann commanded telepathically.

Eagerly, Batgirl complied. Aqualad is rescuing Wonder Girl. You should be able to link us up and get us out of here.

What do you need?

Fresh air.

M’gann nodded and scooped Barbara up in a princess carry. Miss Martian took a minute to do something telepathically before floating the two of them out of the building and flying away. Batgirl couldn’t keep track of their trajectory, but she trusted the Martian with her life.

Miss Martian deposited her in the chair of the bioship. Batgirl sagged against the chair and focused on her breathing. Soon Aqualad and Wonder Girl were in the bioship as well. Barbara looked Cassie over. She was soaking wet but appeared unharmed.

“You look terrible,” Cassie exclaimed as she sat in the chair text to her. Wonder Girl bit her lip. A tell that Batgirl had tried to train out of her.

Kaldur squatted in front of her. He cast cool water across her burning skin. “Her temperature is significantly elevated. Wonder Girl, grab a water bottle. She needs fluids.”

Batgirl coughed. “We need to pick up Dr. Barnes.”

Kaldur shook his head. “We need to get you to a medic.”

“I’m fine!” Batgirl rasped, surprised at how hoarse her voice sounded.

“You stopped sweating. Your temperature is dangerously high, and your voice suggests significant smoke inhalation. Miss Martian also mentioned that you blacked out on the flight back to the bioship,” Kaldur informed her. His voice was always so patient and smooth.

Wonder Girl handed Kaldur the water bottle, which he brought to her lips. Batgirl was immediately annoyed that he didn’t hand the bottle to her, but her limbs felt inexplicably tired. She swallowed the cool water. Kaldur took the bottle away after a few sips.

“Wonder Girl can pick up Dr. Barnes,” Batgirl said, pleased that she didn’t cough.

The three occupants of the room shared a glance. Then Kaldur nodded. M’gann opened the floor of the bioship and Cassie shot out of the ship.

“Thank you,” Barbara replied, shutting her eyes and drifting off.