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i didn't want to be (here)

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Chapter One – you get me high (love) 

 

            Tim was punch drunk.

 

            He was riding a 60 hour sleep dep, what was probably a concussion from that explosion back on Sixth and Hanover, and he was bleeding in a bad way from some shrapnel that had clearly cut him deeper than the distant, floaty twinges of pain he felt had initially indicated…

            So yeah, he’d known this was a bad idea when he’d had it – known it was stupid and dangerous and knew he was delirious and understood perfectly well that his judgement was beyond utterly screwed, and yet…

            Here he is, limping his way across the Gotham skyline, way on the wrong side of the invisible territorial line that cuts Crime Alley and the Bowery off from the rest of the city – the part of the city more or less kept successfully under Bat control… he’s heading away from that part, away from what the rest of his Family would consider ‘safety’.

            Tim’s not so far gone that he doesn’t know where his feet are taking him, that he doesn’t realize he needs help here soon or it’s a pretty damn safe bet that he’s not gonna make it to seeing the spectacle of colors in the chemical haze of Gotham’s next sunrise.

            Some people think the pollution is what nails down the coffin lid on Gotham as being utterly unredeemable in its overwhelming filth, but Tim has always liked what the smoggy haze does to Gotham’s sunrises.

            He could be biased, though.

            He’s been watching the sun come up for over a decade now, after all, and that kind of familiarity and consistency is the sort of thing that inevitably leads to unwarranted affection.

            Still, Tim wants to see his city’s next sunrise.

            He does.

            He’s not heading deeper into Crime Alley because he’s suicidal.

            Or because he’s too messed up to realize what he’s even doing.

 

            Tim might be punch drunk, but he’s not stupid.

 

            He has a plan.

            He always has a plan.

            This plan is just as perfectly well thought out as any of Tim’s other schemes. It just isn’t one that’s officially endorsed as reasonable by the majority of the Bat Clan he belongs to…

            Tim’s com is blown, so he can’t call for the help he knows he needs.

            The rest of the Family is all the way across town.

            Well, most of them. Steph is close, but she has no resources on hand to immediately provide the kind legitimate medical aid he needs right now and he is not keen on a bumpy ride across town in a frickin’ glorified golf cart to get all the way back to the Cave.

            Tim could never make it close to the rest of them, not at the speed he’s moving or at the rate he’s bleeding… he’d never even to a Bat approved safehouse where they could come to him.

            The only place Tim can go for help is a place where help isn’t readily available.

 

            The only person Tim can go to is Jason…

 

            He knows Jason’s dangerous, knows the Red Hood is a killer – knows the former Robin has no reason in the world to help his replacement keep breathing for another day.

            Tim knows that the odds are about even on whether Jason’s in a mood to just fuck it and help him or whether his mindset is leaned more towards murder and might just finish the job he’d initiated twice now and choose to just kill Tim outright.

            Or, you know, he could just wait another ten minutes or so until Tim just bleeds out on his own damn dime. Tim’s probably got about four minutes of consciousness left, so he probably won’t even notice if Jason rejects the olive branch he’s trying to hand out.

            Not one between him and Jason – no, Tim’s not that stupid.

            Jason has no reason to ever want to accept Tim as anything less than the usurper he is.

            Maybe there could’ve been hope for something between them, once upon a time. But any real chance at that died when Tim forced his was into Jason’s still warm pixie boots.

            Tim’s fully resigned to the fact that there’s nothing left to salvage.

            Jason will never have any kind of truly resonate kinship with Tim.

 

            But to the rest of the Family?

 

            That relationship is something that can be saved, that can be carefully repaired and knit back together in a way that makes it stronger for its scars. That makes it more beautiful.

            Like Kintsugi ceramics, the fissures will never disappear or be forgotten, but with the right kind of nudge, they can be filled in and smoothed over.

            Tim can help with that.

            The other Bats have mostly given up on Jason – resigned themselves to taking the easy way out of thinking that the Pit ruined him, that he’s now nothing more than a murderer and that he belongs in Arkham with the other poor souls who can’t be saved.

 

            Tim knows better.

 

            He knows that the Jason he knew from before, that the boy who took up the Robin mantle because he just had to help – the boy who took a stupid yellow cape and made it something magic, made it something more than a mere symbol – is still in there somewhere, deep down and drowning in a swirl of acidic green and anger and fear and pain.

 

            Tim trusts Jason.

 

            Trusts his Robin, trusts the sweetness and kindness of the boy who died because he’d been chasing down a dream of Family

            And frankly, if Tim IS going to die tonight… which he is not planning on, really, he’s not… but… if he is… he’d rather do it after seeing Jason one more time.

            Tim would rather see Jason than see the sunrise, but the two have always been linked for him – he’d spent his nights out chasing Robin, after all, and it was only on the good nights that he stayed out late enough to spy the sun coming up while making his way home…

 

            Jason’s physically closer to him at the moment than any other Gotham vigilante.

            And Jason’s about 48% likely to help him.

            And if Jason does help him… it’ll be a way for him to start reaching back out to the Family, to start proving that he’s not quite the irredeemable bad guy they currently believe he is.

            Because Tim is hell bent on getting them to reconcile.

            He’s decided that it’s necessary, for all of their sakes, to get Jason back into the fold.

            He’s determined to do it even if the effort kills him.

 

            Which, with how his night is currently going, it very well might.

 

            And sooner, rather than later.

 

            But it might not.

            Tim’s almost to the spot where he needs to be.

 

            He knows exactly where Jason hangs out, knows his routes through the beat he’s staked out as his own, and knows exactly when the Red Hood will be taking a short break with his feet kicked over the side of an elegant old cornice with a gold brushed frieze depicting some meaningful Greek tragedy to which Jason’s drawn a painfully unironic personal connection.

            Tim knows that if he lands on this corner, even if his landing is rough enough to be heard across the building, that Jason won’t bolt immediately.

            Tim knows that Jason will have his helmet off, knows that he’ll be as relaxed as he ever gets these days – with a quiet street in the dark beneath his feet, steady hands checking over the ammo reserves in all his weapons’ magazines, and a lit cigarette tucked between his lips.

            He knows that if he limps his way over, Jason will turn to face him – slow and cautious but not terribly concerned by his replacement’s display of woeful stupidity in the reckless act of wandering so far out of bounds.

            Tim knows that if Jason doesn’t shoot him in the next fifteen seconds, he’ll probably live to see that god damn sunrise he’s been thinking about.

            His heartbeat is too fast to be an accurate measure of time, and his breathing is too slow, so it’s safe to assume that he won’t be able to tell exactly when he crosses that important threshold and lets go of the desire he has to be directly aware of it.

            Tim’s brain is too busy keeping his feet under him to mourn the fact that he would never accept such sloppiness from himself in other circumstances.

 

            Maybe he really is dying.

 

            Maybe he’s okay with that.

 

            Because Jason turns around and smirks at him – but it’s not the harsh, cold smirk Tim’s come to know as the Red Hood going on a bad bender… it’s the warm taunt of the Robin that Tim once knew, the smirk he used when he was playing with fire and possessed the implicit understanding that he could handle whatever twist or wild spark might come.

            “Thought you were supposed to be the smart one, Replacement,” Jason drawls out, his tone sharp and spiteful as he lifts the barrel of his favorite revolver to aim between Tim’s eyes – it’s a Smith & Wesson from the late 1800’s, more antique than military machine, a gift from someone Jay respects and a weapon usually reserved for the Red Hood’s more ceremonial kills…

            Tim would say some sarcastic quip about being honored to warrant such a special weapon for the one to finally kill him – since Jason’s last two almost murder incidents with him involved no weapon more refined that a refurbished batarang and some piano wire… he would spin something snippy like that, but right now shuffling forward and breathing in concert is enough a feat to warrant every drip of his attention.

 

            Jason notices immediately that something’s off.

 

            Notices, perhaps a second afterwards, that Tim is badly hurt.

 

            Tim doesn’t stop inching closer even as Jason scrambles to his feet, draws the curved blade of a kukri from his pocket, and snarls viciously, “I told you to stay the fuck outta my way, Replacement, so don’t you dare believe I’m not gonna take advantage of your shit for brains decision to come here in shape like that.”

            Jason crosses the last few feet between them, wraps his hand up in the collar of Tim’s still unwashed new uniform. Distantly, Tim realizes that this one might never be washed, that if it weren’t for that stupid explosion, it would still be nice and shiny in whatever new memorial case Bruce might erect for him inside the Cave.

            If Bruce would even do that for him.

            He might.

            Tim wasn’t Robin long, but it didn’t fuck it up too terribly.

 

            The thought makes Tim want to smile. Almost openly.

 

            He’s not quite able to manage the feat in full, but without having to concentrate on standing up on his own anymore, he’s able to make his lips twitch a bit that way.

            And he’s able to focus on the small things about the man standing right in front of him at the moment – like the way he’s breathing, actually breathing, when Tim had bowed before the remaining rubble of his gravestone not more than four hours ago.

            Like the way his face is so expressive, even from beneath the domino – he’s schooled his features well, and his masks are damn impenetrable, but below the façade is a flurry of emotive movement that’s unreadable primarily because Jason is all heart and just feels… feels everything about everything just so damn strongly.

            Like the way Jason’s radiating warmth on the icy rooftop, radiating warmth and comfort and peace, and a hope that makes Tim giddy bubbles up his throat in a laugh that is wildly inappropriate considering the circumstances.

            “The fuck you laughin’ at, runt,” Jason demands, giving Tim a rough shake and displaying his teeth in a rancid, vicious snarl. “What you think’s so funny?”

            “You didn’t shoot me,” Tim answers, utterly honest.

            He’s too tired to lie right now, too tired to pretend – to snipe and snark.

            Too tired to feel sober about Jason’s criminal record when he’s just so damn happy and relieved and overwhelmingly grateful that the man is even alive here to be a dangerous problem.

 

            Tim’s definitely high.

 

            Well passed punch drunk and at the end of his rope.

 

            He’s got another three minutes or so to keep breathing if Jason doesn’t decide to help, and only about twenty more seconds with his eyes open.

            His odds are good though.

            Jason didn’t shoot him, and it has to have been more than fifteen seconds since he first leveled his revolver with the barrel pointed at blowing out the giddy goop of Tim’s sleep and oxygen deprived brain.

 

            Jason doesn’t have an answer ready.

 

            He waits a beat and asks, off kilter, “Shouldn’t you be limping home to daddy? You’re looking pretty dead here, Replacement, and I’m pretty sure only one dead bird gets to pull the zombie card with those stupid, stingy assassin assholes.”

            “You were closer,” Tim explains with free admission.

            Jason snorts, snarl jerking uneasily at Tim’s clear honesty and the implied trust that must be there in him behind it.

            “In case you forgot, genius,” he spits with as much venom as he can muster, “I’m one of the bad guys these days. Who’s to say I’m not just gonna let you die? You seem like you’re bleeding out quick enough on your own that I won’t even have to help you on your way.”

 

            Tim’s chest lets loose another giddy bubble of drunken glee.

 

            “But you were Robin,” he counters.

            “That don’t mean shit to anyone, dumbass,” Jason hisses, giving Tim another shake and digging his finger into Tim’s shoulders hard enough to bruise.

            Tim’s not entirely sure when he put his kri away, or when he got both warm hands on Tim’s rapidly numbing body, but it makes him glad belatedly.

 

            “It does to me.”

 

            The fact that Jason was Robin means everything to Tim. It’s the only reason he’s done anything useful with his pathetic little life. And if this helps Jason reconnect with the Family he needs, the Family that needs him, well, that might just be something well worth dying for – and by the distant feel of arms around him, scooping him up via strong grips around his knees and his battered ribcage… Tim thinks it just might.

 

            He’s high as hell and well more than halfway dead, but he can still hear Jason’s voice – feels it rumble through his very being…

 

 

            “Don’t you dare go dyin’ on me now, baby bird.”

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

you get me high (love)

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter Two – i didn't wanna be ( here)

 

 

            Jason ain't alright, and he knows it.

 

            He’s not in a good place, and he’s definitely not any kind of good person, but he’s doing a damn good thing for this fucking city and he’s gonna keep doing it no matter how ungrateful the stupid fucks who live here are about all of it.

            Murder rates and overdoses and cases where a kid becomes a victim have all drastically decreased since the Red Hood has been doing his thing here. It’s made this part of the city into what’s still a rough part of town, sure, but it’s also not actively considered a ghetto anymore.

            That’s somethin’.

            Ain’t much, but it’s more than could be hoped for without him.

            Certainly, more than Batman and his goody two shoes little brood could ever manage.

 

            He’s got a decent thing goin’.

 

            It’s been a year since he figured out that not all of the anger was helpful, that most of it wasn’t even him, and it’s been a few months since he got back from that little vacation with the Outlaws where he ran himself raw enough to root out the worst of it and detox into something a touch closer to being human. Zombie boy won’t ever be normal again, but at least he can be a conscious killer that makes his own damn awful choices of his own free will.

            It’s not a lot, but he’s established an uneasy status quo that he can kinda keep on livin’ with and anyway, he’d got himself long ago resigned to the fact that he’s not the kind of special that gets to go to sleep without the nightmares that he’s earned.

 

            The Bats still consider him a criminal, but seem like they won’t actively hunt him down anymore for some reason Jason doesn’t care to understand.

            They keep outta the slums and Jason keeps outta their way, minding his own damn business and running his own damn neighborhood the way it needs to be run.

 

            Everything is goin’ just fine with his night – goin’ smooth and quiet, honestly – when that god damn idiot who replaced him in the pixie boots shows up punch drunk and dyin’.

            Just the sight of him still makes that irrational anger rise, makes a haze of venomous green swirl up in his eyes. He draws his gun, the snazzy ass one that Roy gave him – a modified antique that could now level a skyscraper if utilized properly – and aims it at Tim’s head.

            “Thought you were supposed to be the smart one, Replacement,” Jason greets with his spiteful furry out on full display.

            He doesn’t really want to shoot the kid, not anymore.

            Jason’s fury is more for Bruce than for the idiot who Bruce let take his place in the god damn ridiculous green tights.

            Even so, the idiot’s sudden, inexplicable presence on one of Jason’s favorite rooftop havens requires immediate explanation.

            But the baby bird is clearly worse for wear – wouldn’t make for a shred of sport in killing him, wouldn’t even still be standing if a drop of rain hit his head – and he doesn’t give an answer, doesn’t even try.

            Jason squints suspiciously at him across the roof as he continues to shuffle forward.

 

            Tim’s all sorts of bloody.

 

            There’s a nasty gash on his thigh, and another on his chest, both glistening in the grimy moonlight with the slick gleam of fresh and gushing blood. It’s too dark to see much else, but from the way Tim’s standing, or rather swaying on his feet, he’s probably got a head wound under that damn cowl of his – and his left arm is hanging awfully limp as it tries to nurse some hidden injury along his ribs.

            Kid’s got both feet in the grave already and looks just about set to slide the rest of him in.

            It strikes something spikey in Jason’s soft underbelly, gauging directly at an old wound that won’t ever likely heal correctly.

            He’s on his feet before he realizes it, kukri drawn and pressed against the idiot’s neck inside the same second as he wraps a hand around the red and black collar of Tim’s new costume. Jason doesn’t hold his anger back at all as he snarls, “I told you to stay the fuck outta my way, Replacement, so don't you dare believe I'm not gonna take advantage of your shit for brains decision to come here in shape like this.”

 

            Tim doesn’t quite seem to hear him.

 

            Even from behind the domino lenses, Jason can tell Tim’s eyes aren’t focused right.

            His stupid, too-pale expression twitches towards a smile.

            He stares up at Jason, wearin’ a dumbass look that seems something stupid close to awe, and then the hysterical gurgle of a choked off laugh bubbles up from deep inside his chest.

            “The fuck you laughin’ at, runt,” Jason demands viciously, halfway ready to pitch the kid off the roof as something odd like shame or sorrow swirls inside his gut with an almost forgotten feeling he can’t quite fully name. He squashes the sensation like it’s nothing more than some extra painful, potent embarrassment – bowls it over with defensive anger.

            “What you think’s so funny?”

            “You didn’t shoot me,” Tim replies immediately, his lungs tight and wheezing, but run through firmly with a bitingly guileless wonder.

            Tim is so high right now on his own rapidly impending death that he obviously doesn’t have the energy to spare in keeping up that famous Drake façade.

 

            Jason doesn’t quite know what to do with that.

 

            Another feeling he’s almost forgotten rears up with irrational force: worry.

 

            He waits a beat, thrown by the force of his own concern, and asks with a dash of poorly feigned flippancy, “Shouldn't you be limping home to daddy Bats? You're looking pretty dead, Replacement, and I'm pretty sure only one dead bird gets to pull the zombie card with those stupid, stingy assassin assholes.”

            “You were closer,” Tim confesses, eyes starting to drift closed as he either just succumbs to the fucking blood loss or gives in to the bizarre and unreasonable sense of safety he seems to be feeling as Jason sheathes his knife.

            “In case you forgot, genius,” he spits with less than half the venom he could fight for as he shifts his hold to Tim’s shoulders, “I'm one of the bad guys these days. Who's to say I'm not just gonna let you die? You seem like you're bleeding out quick enough on your own that I won't even have to help you on your way.”

 

            Part of him still wants to do it – to hurt Tim, and hurt Bruce by proxy through him.

 

            But part of him doesn’t.

 

            And it’s not just the part of him that doesn’t want to let himself kill without good reason.

            It’s a part of him that doesn’t want Tim to die. Doesn’t want him even hurt.

            A part that doesn’t like seeing him hurt, but kinda sorta almost likes seeing him here.

            Likes it so much it nearly drowns out the flare of anger that he exists at all – that rises up with force enough to make the clashing tides inside him roar loud enough that the sound of Jason’s own heartbeat pulsing through his ears should cover any sound that Tim makes in reply.

 

            It doesn’t.

 

            It stops entirely for just a beat – just long enough to hear Tim’s answer as if he’d shouted it above the clouds: “But you were Robin.”

 

            Like it’s just that simple.

 

            Like Jason can be trusted with something so important as keeping Tim alive without even half a second’s doubt to dull the matter.

            Like there’s no reason Tim would have chosen differently if the situation were less dire.

            Like Tim still believes in him just as thoroughly as he believed in the stupid little boy with the dumb yellow cape and the hideous green tight pants he befriended by accident.

            “That don't mean shit to anyone, dumbass,” Jason hisses with a hint of hysteric desperation. Tim needs to understand that he’s not that dumb kid anymore, that any goodness left in him – if there’d ever really been any there to start with – had died when Robin did.

            He knows his grip is too tight as he gives the baby bird a shake – knows his fingers will leave a stark few stripes of bruises. But Tim has to understand.

            Jason needs him to understand.

 

            With a giddy sigh as he starts going limp, Tim explains, “It does to me.”

 

            The words are resigned and real – not bloated with any shiny shit delusion.

            Tim knows Jason’s gone down a long dark road and he’s not so stupid so as to think Jason can just turn around on it, can back track from the course he’s set.

            But he’s also convinced that Jason can turn the road still left ahead of him towards a slightly brighter patch of darkness – possibly close enough to call it something of a grey area.

            He believes in Jason, now, not just the dumb kid that got his stupid ass killed.

            Tim believes that this current Jason can still make something decent of himself.

 

            And that just about guts Jason.

            In other circumstances, Jason’s knees might give out at such an unexpected blow.

            His head is certainly spinning hard enough to warrant such a weakness.

 

            But Tim’s gone wholly limp by now and Jason’s scooped him up into a secure hold without even realizing – with firm pressure on the wound he can reach, hand carefully covering the gash on Tim’s thigh.

 

            Jason has a safe house on this block.

            It’s a rotten little bolt hole without any real creature comforts, but it’s sterile enough to use in medical emergencies and, like all his places, it has a plethora of med kit materials.

 

            “Don't you dare go dyin' on me now, baby bird,” he whispers as he gets his feet to move.

            It’s half prayer, half plea, and Jason doesn’t even feel ridiculous in saying it aloud.

 

            The walk is awkward with Tim in his arms, but the idiot’s so light it’s hardly taxing – physically, at least.

            Mentally… well, every one of the 289 seconds it takes to walk there is excruciating.

 

            Jason gets Tim laid out on his sterilized counter, efficiently cuts through the parts of his uniform that surround his most obvious injuries – where the armortec is shredded and has already been half torn away. Moving as quickly as he can, Jason gets sanitary gauze packed into his wounds to halt the bleeding.

            Tim’s out cold, at this point, can't even muster up a subconscious flinch when Jason tests his ribs to the kind of unnatural flex or stiff swelling that would indicate an internal injury.

            Nothing seems broken or punctured, but he's certainly gonna feel it for a while.

 

            “What the devil did you get into, baby bird?”

 

            Jason's question is lost, feeble and desperate in a way Jason distantly feels he should be more self conscious about – can’t scrounge up the care for it while he’s so frantic over how to keep Tim breathing. The kid needs stitches, and a blood transfusion, and he might've had a concussion that needs to be tended to… and Jason can do the stitches, and could even rig up a transfusion of sorts, but the concussion is a problem… and Jason doesn’t think he's bleeding internally, but he doesn’t have the set up to monitor for that… and the fever already Tim's developing does not bode well for his hope of escaping infection.

 

            And Jason can't handle this.

            Can’t handle any of this, not at all, not by himself…

 

            And certainly not for someone like Tim.

 

            Not for someone as fragile, as breakable as Tim.

 

            For someone as important as Tim.

 

            Jason’s not exactly sure when he realizes that he somehow still thinks of Tim as important, still thinks that even after all the dying and killing and whatnot, Tim’s continued existence is important to his world view – necessary even – but he does...

            And whatever the reason, Tim is too important to let him fuck this up by going it alone when he’s so painfully aware that he can’t hack it in the lonesome wild.

Jason pulls his phone out of his pocket, lets his thumb hover over the numbers in one last burst of hesitation. He doesn't hate his replacement anymore – never really did before, even – but that spiteful niggle in him still has to wonder what the fuck makes Tim worth it… but Tim is worth it, Jason decides – feels the certainty of that thought coagulate inside him.

            Jason is physically rocked by the momentum of decisive change coursing through him, shifting the parameters of his tiny corner of the universe – he's physically shaken through to his bones when the other feeling, the one he doesn’t have a name for, wins out and suddenly keeping Tim alive is worth everything.

 

            It's worth burning this phone number.

 

            It's worth burning this safe house.

 

            It's worth possibly burning every bridge he has left to ask for a favor.

 

            Jason dials the number he knows by heart - it's the one to Dick's daytime cell, the one that all the Bats and cape associates know he monitors through whatever com or burner he's got on him at any given moment because big brother Grayson will always be there if you need him.

            That last bit is BS, but the bit about keeping track of his calls is real – real enough for the click of connection to sound half a second after the first ring.

            “Tim needs help,” Jason reports, skipping the small talk and rushing to get enough information out over the line to keep Dick from hanging up on him.

            The silence says that Dick's still listening as Jason rattles off Tim's condition, his immediate medical requirements, and the address where Jason's got him stashed.

 

            There's a tense moment of pause.

 

            “Five minutes.

 

            Dick never sounds more like Bruce than when he's out for blood – ironic really, considering how disappointed the Bat would be in Goldie if he killed.

            Jason doesn’t acknowledge the promise – doesn't acknowledge the threat laced within it, either – and simply hangs up as he turns his full attention back to Tim.

            The packing will hold if he slaps on a few compression plasters – long enough, at least.

            The worst wounds temporarily secured, he cuts through the remains of the tattered Red Robin uniform – a costume still so new and fresh and shiny that it still has barely any clever traps or complicated protective connections in the layers spread around the joints and between the plates of more solid armor. Hardly more than tatters now, though.

            Once Tim is stripped down to his boxers, Jason looks him over again, plasters a few more sticky bandages onto cuts that are still oozing blood after he disinfects them, but aren’t immediately life threatening.

            Then he carefully flips Tim over and slips the ruined costume out from under him before giving him another careful once over.

            His back in in better shape than his front.

            He's got some major contusions that will hurt in the morning, but no more open gashes or bones that feel broken or swollen spots that feel too stiff to be simple bruising.

            Kid wasn’t lying when he said he'd made some improvements to the cape.

            Jason’s pretty damn sure that his version wasn’t nearly so effective at keeping him alive.

 

            Gingerly moving once again, Jason flips Tim onto his back once more.

 

            As he does, he notices that Tim's skin has gone from being unnaturally warm to distressingly clammy, slick with sweat and ice cold.

            Tim's muscles are being wracked with micro tremors and his pulse is far too fast and thready when Jason finds it – it’s barely there to feel beneath his fingertips.

            Tim needs fresh blood in him before the hypovolemic shock starts to do real damage.

            Jason got a pint of his own blood stored away and he’s read Tim's file carefully enough to know they’re compatible without question.

            He’s halfway through getting it strung up on his cheap chandelier when he pauses – just before he sticks the needle into the vein he's prepped inside Tim's elbow. They're compatible, he knows, and he knows that the Pit probably won’t be able to infect him – it hasn’t affected Roy at all and there have been times lately when Jason's sure that half of Roy’s current blood supply came out of a bag with Jason’s name on it – but the uncertainty of maybe makes him hesitant to pump Tim full of tainted blood.

            What decides the issue is the fact that Jason feels Tim's already weak pulse abruptly stutter – one strong beat and then nothing for far too long before another, and then a third that’s way too weak coming far too quickly after…

            Tim's heart is trying to work with what it’s got, but it’s trying to run the whole damn machine on empty… soon, too soon, it's going to just shut everything down on him. He's already looking pale enough to be a corpse and if he starts to seize...

            If Jason doesn’t get some blood in him, he probably won't live through the drive up to the Cave, no matter how much Dick speeds.

            With that in mind, Jason presses the needle into Tim's skin, allows the blood to flow.

            Then Jason wraps Tim up inside his own thick leather jacket, throws a thick blanket over him to help retain additional heat, and keeps a steady finger on Tim's unstable pulse.

            The weak, thready thing disappears altogether just as Dick appears at the door Jason had left hanging open when he first arrived. Tim's pulse miraculously flits back into being as Dick crosses the room with Damian at his hip. Jason doesn’t even take the time to curse in gratitude before he gives the pair a run down of the changes in Tim's condition.

            Damian holds the blood bag aloft as Dick and Jason carefully maneuver Tim out to the Batmobile. Jason's holding Tim's shoulders and surprises even himself when he voluntarily slides into the backseat and cradles Tim's head in his lap - it's only after Damian slides in to kneel on the floor at Tim's hip, and only after Dick has them careening up the roads towards the Cave, that Jason realizes he is going to have to face Bruce and the others… and yet, he doesn’t regret the fact he's here.

            He wouldn’t want to be here, to be anywhere near here, without Tim’s life on the line, but since it IS … well, Jason finds he wouldn’t be able to tolerate being anywhere else.

Jason needs to know that Tim is going to be alright – needs it more than he needs air, if the clenched feeling in his lungs is anything to go by – and he can bear another fight if it means he'll be able to know for sure

            If it means he'll be able to hear the words straight from Alfred's mouth.

 

            The Batmobile screams into the Cave and Dick spins it like a pro to situate the door at Jason's back to the platform with the gurney that Alfred's already got waiting. Further inside Babs is presumably all set with the med bay preparations – even the updates, because Dick is com linked into the Cave's active network, so she got the info on Tim's evolving condition right when Jason laid it out for big blue.

            Steph and Cass appear in a blaze of sound and light a moment after the Batmobile is thrown into park, barreling into the Cave on the big black motorcycle Cass uses as Black Bat – Steph’s stupid little electric golf cart thing might be fast for what it is and useful in a thousand different ways for Batgirl’s weekly rounds of delivering medical supplies, especially those with high value price tags on the black market, to clinics in the grayer areas of town, but it’s not even comparable to the speed and maneuverability Cass can coax out of her bike. Steph’s cart is likely secure in a Bat hidey hole, but her rounds have clearly been abandoned for the night.

            Bruce is lurking around somewhere, Jason's sure, but he doesn't give much care or thought to it until he's hooked his arms under Tim's to hoist him out of the car – and he only thinks about it then because as soon as his grip is secure the door behind him opens and someone grabs hold of him the same way as he's latched onto Tim.

 

            There's only one person in the Cave who could manage hauling Jason backwards, especially with the addition of Tim's dead weight.

 

            Jason grits his teeth and doesn’t think about it – focusing on Tim alone.

 

            Damian slides out after them, keeping his pace even to ensure that the umbilical connecting Tim to the blood he needs doesn't pull taught. He kneels on the end of the gurney as Jason and Bruce get Tim settled on it and then, together, they manage to strong arm the contraption up the ramp to the med bay proper in record time.

            Alfred and Babs are both already gloved and sterilized, and they are elbow deep in little Timmy's innards before Dick even manages to get his ass out of the car.

            Damian has secured the blood bag to a proper stand, and is standing by respectfully in case Babs or Alfred need something, when Bruce locks his hand around Jason's upper arm and demands to know what happened.

 

            Jason doesn’t answer immediately – not even with a derisive snort and a snarky quip.

 

            He’s too caught up in looking at Tim – too stuck inside his lack of comprehension over how much he apparently cares about his Replacement’s survival.

            He knows why, honestly – he knows plenty about why he's so invested. Tim is a good kid, and he's a damn good detective – with just the right kind of sass to mix being a goody two shoes with being a fairly hardened criminal to make him an excellent vigilante… and he's just a good person, the kind of good that could keep Jason grounded… that could make the awful screw up of a kid that Jason used to be want to be better, to grow up right and become a better man.

            Tim was the kind of good and sweet and kind that even an asshole like the kid that Jason used to be might have once grown up to love...

 

            All that is well beyond his grasp now, that potential had definitely died with Robin in Ethiopia, but still… something about the utterly clear headed Tim Drake deciding to put such blind faith in him niggles at the wants and dreams he’s put effort into convincing himself he’d forgotten. But this version of Tim was almost making him want to remember…

 

            Jason is yanked out of his thoughts when he is hauled roughly out of the med bay.

 

            Damian drifts after his father, eyeing his wayward predecessor with a dark and wary gaze Jason can feel in his bones while Cass and Steph push into the med bay and begin to scrub up to provide extra hands with a measure of experience the littlest Robin just doesn’t have yet.

 

            Jason is still pretty lost in the swirl of his thoughts, but as Bruce works him backwards down the ramp, his brain is rapidly attempting to reorder itself.

 

            “Hood,” Bruce growls, using his best Batman work voice, “What. Happened.”

 

            Jason's eyes are still on Alf and Barbara, on Steph and Cass beside them, and on the bloody mess of kiddo currently laid out between them that is Tim.

            As the pressure in Bruce's grip increases, Jason finds his focus.

            He does not yank his arm out of Bruce's hold – despite the awareness that, yes that is going to be a bruise tomorrow – and instead admits, “I don’t know.”

 

            He sounds pathetic.

 

            He feels pathetic.

 

            Some distant part of him cares, but most of him just needs Alfred to make it all better.

 

            “The hell you don’t know,” Dick snarls suddenly, appearing behind Jason's shoulder and wrenching him around so that he's facing almost directly away from the med bay.

 

            And oh boy, Big Blue is out for blood tonight.

 

            He's removed his domino and it is all Dickie bird behind that bloodlust glare. He's not gonna need a reason to pick a fight, he’s not even gonna need the okay from Bruce to just go ahead with swinging punches here soon.

 

            “What. Happened,” Dick growls, repeating Bruce’s words, but with twice the threat and all the gravitas – his time in the Bat's dark cowl gave big boy blue some balls.

            “I dunno, Dick,” Jason returns, a raspy weak attempt to reflect Dick's venom. “He just showed up on my beat, all blown to hell and looking like fresh meat for Crime Alley entrepreneurs. Now, I ain’t been keepin' close tabs on the bird brain – figured that was your job – but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near where he found me. So, Dick, why don’t you know what the fuck happened to that reckless little scrap?”

            Dick gives Jason's shoulder a violent shake, gets his other fist wrapped up in the fabric at Jason’s collar, declaring, “I don’t believe that for a second, Hood. You know everything about what happens in your part of town; you control what happens there.”

 

            “There's no controlling what goes on in Crime Alley,” Jason spits back, resisting the urge to sweep his arm across his chest to brush away Dick's grasping fingers. “At best, there is containing that shit, limiting the worst of it and getting very lucky with the rest.”

            Dick doesn't believe him, obviously. The asshole barely even has his ear open to listen, let alone to genuinely assess Jason's words for truth and logic.

            As if Jason hadn’t spoken at all, Dick asks, “Why was Red Robin in Crime Alley? What did you do to make him go there?”

            “I didn’t do shit,” Jason hisses back, his glare focused on Dick now, though his hands remain floundering halfway to fists while hanging limply at his sides. “I was minding my own damn business, like I have been since I got back again. It's all you tight pants assholes who can't seem to keep your grubby paws out of other people's lives.”

            “Jason,” Bruce says, in that quietly threatening I'm being obnoxious and reasonable voice that used to make guilt burn through him, “just answer the question.”

            It used to make Jason rot with guilt and ache with dutifully shamed embarrassment searing into his bones, but now, at that heat does is make his anger boil.

            “I told you, already,” Jason growls, fists finally forming firm, “I don’t have any idea why your dumbass little baby bird flew into my side of town. And I don't know how he got himself all beat to hell. Comprende?

            “I think you do know,” Dick counters venomously, “I think you know, because I think you did it. I don’t know if was a bout of Pit rage or what, but I think you did it and you just don't want to come clean about it.”

            Jason’s got a swirl of green over his eyes, he fights down the violent response it wants him to answer with. The green heat of fury courses through him, tensing up his muscles and choking up his throat – cutting off his air and any words he might use to tear down the false logic behind Dick’s blind accusations.

            “You've tried to kill him before, and you say you regret it, you say that you're better now and that you're not gonna hurt him again, but do you actually mean any of that? Really?” Dick goes on ranting, “Tim keeps tabs on your whereabouts like he scared of running into you, and the first night he goes for a solo patrol anywhere near your side of the city he winds up like this. What am I supposed to think about that?”

 

            A realization hits Jason hard just then, so hard he blurts his out conclusion without even processing the words, “You really don’t know what the fuck he was doing out there.”

 

            The statement is met with stony silence.

 

            It's sullen and remorseful from Dick, and stoically condescending from Bruce.

            Both their faces wear the same mask of cold suspicion – it's eerie, really, how alike they've gotten in the last two years.

            Bruce is unchanged, the arsewipe standing firm and frustratingly inflexible – just as immovable as ever. But Dick has gotten so much darker… he's always had a hot streak and a hell of a temper, but the man standing here before Jason is a hollow wreck of the sunshine-y Mr. Smiles that Bruce's golden boy used to be…

 

            It would probably be a sobering point of recognition in other circumstances.

 

            Right now, it's just more fuel for the fire that the influence of the Lazarus Pit is currently stoking… Seeing how Dick has matured into the perfect little soldier, how he's become Bruce's carbon copy mini me, just makes Jason twice as furious.

            “So much for the title of ‘World's Greatest Detective’,” Jason huffs caustically, “Can't even keep track of a sleep deprived teenager in bright red spandex.”

            “He wanted space,” Dick says, a hint of that soft underbelly of his coming up in a coil of whining desperation. “He wanted autonomy, and independence, and the freedom to run his own cases on his own terms.”

            Jason bares his teeth in a smirking smile. “Sounds like excuses to me.”

 

            Dick is just about at his breaking point, just inches away from trying to hoist Jason up and throw him across the Cave to start a real fight, when a polite yet demanding cough rips through their collective distraction.

 

            “Ahem.” Alfred waits a moment for his audience to settle down, knowing that their desperation for news is so consuming that they won't be able to process his words without careful accommodation. “Young Master Timothy has suffered tremendous blood loss and significant damage in line with a concussive impact – mostly intramuscular and subcutaneous contusions with several severe shrapnel lacerations.”

            Alfred’s captive audience is still holding its breath, certain that Tim is going to be alright – or else Alfred would have opened with an apology and a far more grave demeanor – but still needing to hear it stated directly.

            “He is currently sedated and is being given a second blood transfusion. When that has been successfully implemented, he will have hydration, key nutrients, electrolytes, and his usual course of antibiotics administered intravenously,” Alfred continues. Then, with a slight smile elucidating a sense of profound relief, he finishes, “Miraculously, he should be fully recovered within the week, though bedrest is advisable for at least three weeks, preferably six, and he will require careful monitoring for at least twelve.”

 

            There is a stretch of distorted time – too long to even be measured in seconds, and yet to short to take up more than a few of them – in which the entire Cave lets out held breath as relief comes crashing down.

            But with the worry settled and adrenaline still high, the little sparks that could be brushed off before now begin to catch – and the fire burns hot when let to run ablaze.

            “So, it was an explosion,” Dick reiterates, fingers tightening around Jason's shirt and shoulder as his body process the accusation before he even makes it verbally. “In Crime Alley. You're the only one who creates explosions in Crime Alley. You made sure of that – by being quick to put a bullet through the brain of anyone else who even tried.”

            “Yeah, I did that,” Jason snarls, letting the green haze descend without a pause of hesitation. He moves to extricate himself with the speed and power and no holds barred intent that he developed with Talia, that he knows neither Dick nor Bruce is used to the idea of him possessing – of his being able to call on in the space of a heartbeat.

            It catches Dick completely off guard and is enough to get a bit of breathing room between them – though his arm throbs from how Bruce's grip tightened at the last second before he wrenched himself away.

            Dropping into a more aggressive stance, Jason viciously pushes his advantage to antagonize, “I did that and the number of explosions with civilian casualties went from two or three a week to zero. I cleaned up my neighborhood, no matter how much you disapprove of my methods, you can't argue with statistics.”

 

            Dick mirrors Jason's move to an aggressive fighting stance, looking for any hint of an opening to launch.

            “You're a murderer, Jason,” Dick shouts across the space between them as he begins to push Jason backwards – stepping off to the side in a way that would put Jason's back to Bruce if he followed. “You kill people—”

            “I kill scumbags.”

            “—and you've tried to kill Tim before, twice, and you just admitted that you're the only guy in Crime Alley who can use explosives and keep breathing,” Dick barrels on. “Sounds like a guilty conscience talking to me.”

            “I fucking called you, bird brain,” Jason spits back, “Replacement got himself blown up somewhere and I kept him alive. I could've just let him bleed out – I considered it, you know – but it ain't Pit rage anymore, and like I said, I only kill scumbags.”

            “You're still dangerous, still a killer,” Dick presses.

            But Jason has always been good at reading people, good at seeing weaknesses and mental vulnerabilities, and he doesn't hesitate to dig his claws into Dick.

            “See, I don’t think you're worried that I tried to kill him,” Jason points out with his best insufferable smirk, “I think you're worried about the fact that once he got hurt, he didn't go crying to you for help. Baby bird got hurt, and came to me. Whatever you did to fuck up the hero worship thing he had for you must've been some hella bad shit, man. ‘cause I tried to kill him, and apparently, he still likes me better.”

            That got Dick's control to break, frayed nerves snapping as the strain of pretending to be civil – to be the better, calmer, more morally justified person – became too much.

            Dick launched himself at Jason like he was just another bit of scum to be scrubbed off the streets – though he did not fail to treat the fight with more caution than he would the usual back alley thug in a brawl.

            Still, Jason knew Dickie bird's moves, even his most vicious ones – which weren't half as brutal as what Jason himself rolled out nearly unprovoked on an average night.

            Bruce did not intervene, but the fight was over before his lack of engagement became a glaringly negligent issue. Jason ended up getting the heel of a steel braced boot to slam into Dick's sternum in a brutal round house that knocked the wind from his lungs and left him bowled over and coughing on his back.

            “Well it's been real fun folks, but honestly, I didn't even wanna be here to start with, and now that my Replacement ain’t about to kick it like his predecessor—” Jason's eyes flick up to meet Alfred's sad, but stoic gaze and waits for him to give a subtle nod of confirmation before rolling his attention back to Bruce, “I’m just gonna mosey on out.”

            No one makes a sound as Jason back towards the Cave's entrance – except for Dick, who is still recovering from that kick to the chest – and Jason keeps his front facing them until he’s close enough to the manual side door to know he's got enough of a head start to get clear if he has to take drastic measures. And there’s a grenade in his pocket ready and waiting.

             “It was a great party guys, real swell,” Jason comments with acidic sarcasm and a flippant two finger salute of farewell. “But next time, how ‘bout you just lose my invitation, m'kay? Fabulous.”

            Jason slips out into the night and starts the sprint back to the city proper with mechanical alacrity. He keeps his focus on his breathing and is almost successful in pretending that the ache he feels inside his chest is just the strain of overexertion and not that he left a piece of himself shriveled up on the Cave floor.

 

            He’s not quite sure he could ever truly believe the lie.

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

i didn’t wanna be here ( without you)

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Three - every one of us ( got wander lust )

 

            Damian is still getting used to the idea that he is part of a Family – to the idea that he wants to be part of a Family.

            It’s hard for him to process what he’s feeling on the best of days.

            Mother always said that emotions were synonymous with weakness and therefore never taught him much about them beyond how to mollify the worst of their effects in order to ignore them more successfully.

            He understands enough of what he feels when he’s with Father to function adequately in his designated role, and he understands that the stranger feelings he has regarding Grayson are not ones that represent a challenge to his obedience or his excellence in performing up to par.

            Pennyworth offers a uniquely easy comfort that does nothing to disturb the calm lake of Damian’s day to day emotional state – even when he uses that peculiar manner of his to chastise some act or declaration of Damian’s that he finds unbecoming.

            Brown and Cain are hardly worth mentioning most days, mere blips of occasional impact within the confines of Damian’s localized universe.

            Todd… The wayward former Robin causes both Grayson and Father great strife, and therefore Damian hates him out of hand. He’s never particularly cared to look beyond Todd’s obvious failings and for the longest time he doubted that he’d ever have the desire to delve further into the details of his history.

            That is shifting here tonight, however.

            It’s a subtle shift, one he doesn’t wholly understand yet, but it’s one that has already made Damian’s usual indifference transition into the kind of tense queasiness within him that he’s grown to understand means some sort of emotional turmoil.

 

            It’s Drake’s fault, as usual.

 

            If there is anyone within the Family for whom Damian does not understand his feelings, it would be the ridiculous Pretender who had been occupying the role of Damian’s birthright in the place at Father’s side.

            The otherwise rather pleasant evening had started to go wrong right when Grayson first received news from Oracle that Drake’s signal had disappeared on the edge of the Crime Alley territory still claimed by the Red Hood (and Damian still does not understand why Father and Grayson tolerate such disrespect within their home city).

            Grayson wore his emotions openly – so openly that Damian is frequently unconvinced that such histrionic displays could possibly be genuine – and his woeful fretting had only built up an increasing degree of irritation as the minutes wore on without news. Oracle had sent Batgirl to investigate, and while Brown is not a detective of any true caliber, Damian can admit, if only to himself, that she is also not entirely inept.

            And she, absurdly, cares quite deeply for Drake.

            If there was anything to find in the area where Drake had vanished, Brown would have found it quickly enough to prevent this gnawing unease in Grayson.

            Nightwing keeps up a façade of relaxed confidence and focus on the Mission, purely for his own benefit in pretending to himself that he must be strong to keep Damian at ease, but it’s clear to Robin that no more productive work will be accomplished on Patrol tonight.

            Initially, resigning himself to that inevitability is not particularly taxing.

            Drake is always getting himself into trouble and when this most recent idiocy is resolved Damian is certain he would be able to take great pleasure in admonishing the Pretender for yet another example of why he is so unsuitable to maintain the role of Robin.

            But as the half hour without news stretches into completion, and then as one hour turns over into two, Grayson’s antsiness becomes nigh unbearable.

            Though his constant fidgeting is somehow infinitely preferable to the granite stillness he adopts when he picks up a call to his emergency cell – a call from Jason Todd.

            Damian cannot hear Todd’s side of the conversation, even though the cell phone’s connection has been redirected through Nightwing’s active com, but he can read an extreme reaction of displeasure within Grayson’s stillness.

 

            “Five minutes.”

 

            Grayson hardly sounds like Grayson when he speaks.

            It makes that queasy tightness start to pull at Damian’s internal organs.

 

            Grayson taps his com to disconnect the call and reconnect to the Bats’ communication network, getting to his feet and leading Damian down to street level as he grimly explains the updated situation, “Hood found Red Robin – he’s badly hurt, requiring immediate medical attention. He’s lost a lot of blood from a few deep lacerations and several shallower ones, and he may be concussed, but he does not appear to have any broken bones or internal bleeding. Robin and I are closest, and we have a Batmobile with a suitable back seat for medical transport and are en route to collect him. Cave ETA: eight and a half minutes.”

            “Roger that,” Oracle intones immediately, adding with a confident assurance, “Agent A and I will have the med bay prepped and waiting. You just bring our baby bird back to the nest.”

            Grayson gives a grateful nod – knowing that Oracle is likely watching from some street side security camera hidden in the dark – and continues leading Damian back to the car in the kind of stony silence that makes his shoulders so tense Damian often wonders how the pinched muscles don’t cut off the man’s cranial blood supply.

            The drive to the address supplied by Todd is bracing – it would’ve been impossibly reckless if Grayson had been anything less than exceptional behind the wheel of a vehicle he’d first learned to drive over a decade ago.

            Not a word is spoken until they reach the apartment Todd indicated – its door hanging open to allow them easy access.

            “He’s in hypovolemic shock and has lost consciousness,” Todd reports as soon as they step across the threshold – his honed senses ensuring that he doesn’t have to look up from his task of readying Drake for travel to be aware of their arrival.

            Additional details are doled out as Todd secures his hold around Drake’s shoulders and Grayson grabs his legs. Damian hops up to acquire the IV bag in the process of transfusing Drake with fresh blood and follows at a trot as they move Drake out to the car.

 

            Damian is diligent to keep proper pace.

 

            If Drake is to die because of Damian, it will be on an honorable battlefield in a public demonstration of skill – he will not allow the Pretender to meet his doom because Damian wasn’t quick or attentive enough to keep his transfusion at an appropriate height and slack umbilical. It would simply be unseemly, and would not be the definitive statement of higher value and more appropriate personal worth that Damian requires to assert his Robin aptitude.

            Todd is in the backseat with Drake’s head cradled in his lap and Damian kneels at Drake’s hip with his transfusion aloft while Grayson drives with truly ludicrous abandon.

            They reach the Cave in two minutes and ten seconds – five seconds less than Grayson’s initial estimate, even when combined with the time it took to get Drake into the Batmobile.

 

            Everything is ready for them, regardless.

 

            Father is there to help them extricate Drake from the back seat and speed up to the medical bay proper – where Pennyworth and Gordon are already gloved and waiting.

            Damian secures the blood bag to an appropriate stand that keeps the blood flowing and ensures that the delicate umbilical is out of the way of Drake’s attendants. He stands by as Brown and Cain arrive to scrub in – though, only partially out of a desire to prove useful to Pennyworth should the elder require an immediate extra hand.

 

            The bulk of the reason is that the queasy feeling in Damian’s stomach has turned into something violent and twisty and he isn’t sure what it means or what to do about it.

 

            He knows that staring at the nearly exsanguinated Drake doesn’t make it feel better, but it also does not increase the reaction’s severity at all – merely allows for an uneasy plateau.

            Looking back at where Father and Grayson are maneuvering Todd away from the vulnerability presented by the close quarters of the medical bay is a different story. That makes the twisty feeling in Damian’s gut redouble its violent thrashing – makes it feel as if the sensation is proactively growing thorns to maul him with from the inside.

 

            “Hood,” Father says with a calm, commanding tone, “What happened?”

 

            Todd still has his gaze locked on Drake – and he’s looking lost and pitiful in a way that Damian should be amused to see, in a way that should make him feel vastly superior.

 

            But it doesn’t… and Damian does not understand why.

 

            Sounding pathetic and useless, Todd eventually answers Father with a slow string of nearly inaudible words, “I don’t know.”

            Damian is perversely drawn out to be close to the scene – he drifts away from the medical bay as Father works Todd down to the Cave’s main level and Grayson gets more proactively involved with ensuring that Todd cannot escape his due interrogation.

            Grayson grabs Todd’s shoulder and violently yanks it in an arc that forces Todd to turn away from the medical bay consuming his attention, and Grayson’s voice is dark and furious in a way that Damian has never heard from him before as he snarls, “The hell you don’t know.”

 

            It makes the thorny, twisty feeling ache within him.

 

            “What. Happened,” Grayson demands – still sounding horribly unlike himself.

 

            Todd, at least, sounds normal – even if his normal is despicably irritating – as he returns in a snitty rasp, “I dunno, Dick. He just showed up on my beat, all blown to hell and looking like fresh meat for Crime Alley entrepreneurs. Now, I ain’t been keepin' close tabs on the bird brain – figured that was your job – but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near where he found me. So, Dick, why don’t you know what the fuck happened to that reckless little scrap?”

            Todd hides his worries far better than Grayson, but it’s clear he’s just as scared as his predecessor is regarding the current fate of Drake, and just as confused and anxious about the unknowns of the immediate lead up to Drake’s precarious condition.

            He doesn’t know anything about what happened, clearly, and it’s ridiculous to imagine otherwise – and yet… Grayson is not convinced.

            “I don’t believe that for a second, Hood,” Grayson snarls venomously, “You know everything about what happens in your part of town; you control what happens there.”

            “There's no controlling what goes on in Crime Alley,” Jason spits back, voice aggressive though his posture still remains weak with distraction. “At best, there is containing that shit, limiting the worst of it and getting very lucky with the rest.”

            As if Todd hadn’t spoken at all, Grayson barrels on to ask with thickly layered accusation in his tone, “Why was Red Robin in Crime Alley? What did you do to make him go there?”

            “I didn’t do shit,” Todd returns in a hiss as his muscles cease to seem like jelly.

            Damian can still see the obvious slackness in his stance, the limpness in his joints, but he seems more focused on the present now.

            Perhaps the legitimate threat he potentially could pose might be enough to knock Grayson back into behaving with some shred of sanity.

            Todd’s voice and posture start to strengthen in equal strides as he lays out, “I was minding my own damn business, like I have been since I got back. It's all you tight pants assholes who can't seem to keep your grubby paws out of other people's lives.”

            “Jason,” Father says emphatically, his own clearly compromised emotions being forcibly tamped down as he successfully remains the only figure of calm in this wildly impassioned and irrationally emotional discussion, “just answer the question.”

            “I told you, already,” Todd growls abrasively, fists finally forming firm, “I don’t have any idea why your dumbass little baby bird flew into my side of town. And I don't know how he got himself all beat to hell. Comprende?

            “I think you do know,” Grayson counters, roiling still with that painfully uncharacteristic venom, “I think you know, because I think you did it. I don’t know if was a bout of Pit rage or what, but I think you did it and you just don't want to come clean about it.”

 

            Todd shudders – seizes, almost – like Grayson’s viciousness has stoked a literal fire inside him that sears his internal flesh as it burns.

 

            Grayson takes it as a sign of guilt, of weakness, instead of the animalistic recoil that Damian suspects is a sign of impending danger – the building static before a strike of lightning.

 

            “You've tried to kill him before, and you say you regret it, you say that you're better now and that you're not gonna hurt him again, but do you actually mean any of that? Really?” Grayson goes on, “Tim keeps tabs on your whereabouts like he scared of running into you, and the first night he goes for a solo patrol anywhere near your side of the city, he winds up like this. What am I supposed to think about that?”

 

            A beat of pause.

 

            Then Todd blurts, “You really don’t know what the fuck he was doing out there.”

 

            The statement is met with stony silence.

 

            Damian cannot interpret the quiet, and he cannot see his Father’s face nor that of his older brother, but he can guess at the dark glowers filled with cold suspicion.

 

            It’s painful and sobering to recognize the degree to which Damian dislikes his supposition. He should want his older brother, his mentor, his only deserving predecessor, to emulate Father so perfectly, and he himself should want to be involved directly alongside them.

            But he doesn’t.

            Very much so, he does not want anything to do with this.

 

            And he does not quite understand why.

 

            “So much for the title of ‘World's Greatest Detective’,” Todd huffs caustically, “Can't even keep track of a sleep deprived teenager in bright red spandex.”

            “He wanted space,” Grayson says – no, whines.

            It’s keening and desperate in way that’s almost sickeningly pitiful.

            Grayson wants so badly for Todd to believe his words because Grayson himself does not fully trust the Truth of them.

            “He wanted autonomy,” Grayson continues in a futile effort, “and independence, and the freedom to run his own cases on his own terms.”

            Todd doesn’t hesitate to call the con and bares his teeth with vicious confidence in his clearly accurate assertion as he says, “Sounds like excuses to me.”

 

            A shudder runs through Grayson – one that makes Todd’s smirk tick up a fraction with a visceral sense of knowing accomplishment. Todd has seen Grayson like this before, knows how to push and pull and pick apart his anxieties in order to break him down completely.

            Todd is pulling in air to plant the final charge in the explosion of tempers that he’s knowingly getting staged to blow, when Pennyworth’s polite yet demanding cough rips through their collective distraction. “Ahem.”

 

            Silence falls as uncontested calm descends.

 

            “Young Master Timothy has suffered tremendous blood loss and significant damage in line with a concussive impact – mostly intramuscular and subcutaneous contusions with several severe shrapnel lacerations,” Pennyworth explains.

            Drake must be stable and recovering – elsewise Pennyworth would have started off this cool headed report with less gruff malcontent for his Family’s internal squabbling, with something more akin to absolute disdain for it.

            Damian knows that Drake must be recovering, but the knot of tension behind his lungs does not feel like it will relax at all until Pennyworth states such status directly.

            “He is currently sedated and is being given a second blood transfusion. When that has been successfully implemented, he will have hydration, key nutrients, electrolytes, and his usual course of antibiotics administered intravenously,” Pennyworth continues.

            Then, with a slight smile elucidating a sense of profound relief, he finishes, “Miraculously, he should be fully recovered within the week, though bedrest is advisable for at least three weeks, preferably six, and he will require careful monitoring for at least twelve.”

 

            There is a stretch of distorted time – too long to even be measured in seconds, and yet too short to take up more than a few of them – in which the entire Cave lets out held breath as relief comes crashing down.

            But with the worry that had kept the rabbits nestled and in the grass now dissipating and with the adrenaline in everyone’s bloodstream still coursing high… it’s like a gunshot in a herd of nervous wildebeest – with all hope for containment zipping off in the first echo of the sound.

 

            “So, it was an explosion,” Grayson reiterates darkly, with a chilling edge in his voice that Damian knows premeditates violence – knows it from his past with the League and his contact with villains… He’s never imagined the possibility of hearing it from Grayson.

            But there it is, ringing clear in his voice, as he continues, “In Crime Alley. You're the only one who creates explosions in Crime Alley. You made sure of that – by being quick to put a bullet through the brain of anyone else who even tried.”

            “Yeah, I did that,” Todd snarls back – vicious and feral and like he’s fresh from the Pit, Damian has seen this sort of thing plenty often from Before to recognize it now… seen it shortly before Grandfather declared the subject incompatible, rendering the experiment as failed and ordering the rabid animal’s prompt execution.

            But Todd… Todd was vicious enough, strong enough – focused and determined and aware enough to somehow use that wild rage to aid in his escape from Mother and Grandfather.

            Damian can name the new sensation that he’s beginning to feel here, and that awareness is at least a touch comforting to hold with certainty.

            He knows that this exact form of distress is fear… But not for himself, or his own sake.

 

            This is fear for Grayson.

 

            Fear for the older brother who is letting his emotions blind him to the very real threat that his wayward little brother currently poses.

 

            Damian’s fear is validated in the next second as Todd extricates himself from Grayson’s hold – managing to even pull himself free of Father’s grip on his arm.

 

            Riding high on the fiery waves of the Lazarus Pit, Todd declares with heady and abrasive confidence, “I did that, and the number of explosions with civilian casualties went from two or three a week to zero. Ever. I cleaned up my neighborhood, no matter how much you disapprove of my methods, you can't argue with statistics.”

 

            He is not wrong – about any of the truths implied by his statements – and that is, perhaps, what gives Father and Grayson such indelible strife.

 

            Todd drops into an actively aggressive fighting stance and Grayson mirrors the motion blindly with an eagerness to start a brawl that Damian can’t rationalize.

            Not from him.

 

            “You're a murderer, Jason,” Grayson shouts, entirely lost to reason. “You kill people—”

            “I kill scumbags.”

            “—and you've tried to kill Tim before, twice, and you just admitted that you're the only guy in Crime Alley who can use explosives and keep breathing,” Grayson barrels on. “Sounds like a guilty conscience talking, to me.”

 

            That thorny, twisty bit digs in again and Damian resists the bizarre urge he feels to shrink his stature and curl in protectively on himself.

 

            “I fucking called you, bird brain,” Todd spits back, “Replacement got himself blown up somewhere, and I kept him alive. I could've just let him bleed out – I considered it, you know – but it ain't Pit rage anymore, and like I said, I only kill scumbags.”

            “You're still dangerous, still a killer,” Grayson presses with vehemence.

 

            Todd doesn’t lose his edge like Damian wants to… instead, Todd pushes his advantage with the kind of vicious twist that gives tell of how thoroughly he’s embraced the raging venom of the Pit that courses through his veins.

 

            “See, I don’t think you're worried that I tried to kill him,” Todd points out with his best insufferable smirk, “I think you're worried about the fact that once he got hurt, he didn't go crying to you for help. Baby bird got hurt, and came to me. Whatever you did to fuck up the hero worship thing he had for you must've been some hella bad shit, man. ‘cause I tried to kill him, and apparently, he still likes me better.”

 

            And that’s the one… the singular nerve that’s already been rubbed raw – that needs just the barest brush of irritation to snap through Grayson’s self restraint as white rage fury over comes every last hint of rationality left in him.

 

            Grayson launches himself at Todd as if he were a Rogue escaped from Arkham.

 

            He is aptly cautious, but still failingly irrational, and Todd knows well exactly how Nightwing’s talent and training makes him move. And Todd has no qualms about throwing down the biting brutality he’d been taught by Mother and the League – moves meant to maim performed with blazing swiftness mixed with the occasional move designed to kill, but executed at a reduced speed to allow Grayson to escape.

 

            Todd is terrifyingly cognizant of every action.

 

            And Grayson is even more frighteningly blinded.

 

            Which makes the thorns in Damian’s gut writhe with anxiety.

 

            Father does not intervene.

 

            Damian can’t tell if that is a positive sign or not.

 

            At last, the brawl culminates as Todd gets a vicious round house to land squarely against Grayson’s solar plexus. The blow knocks Grayson to the Cave floor and leaves him spent and coughing as his body ripples through the shock.

 

            Todd spares him just a single second of disgust before he turns his attention to the wider room – shoulders squared to face Father while his gaze drifts up to meet that of Pennyworth.

 

            “Well it's been real fun folks, but honestly, I didn't even wanna be here to start with, and now that my Replacement ain’t about to kick it like his predecessor—” Damian cannot bring himself to look away and does not have to turn to know that Pennyworth nods a carefully supportive assurance, before Todd finishes, “I’m just gonna mosey on out.”

 

            No one moves as Todd backs towards one of the Cave’s emergency entrances.

 

            Todd’s hand drifts towards his pocket with the promise of a back up plan he can deploy if any of the Bats might deign to follow.

            None of them do, but Damian can’t help but think his wariness is more than reasonable.

 

             “It was a great party guys, real swell,” Todd comments with acidic sarcasm and a flippant two finger salute of farewell as he finagles the door to swing open via carefully reaching around behind him. “But next time, how ‘bout you just lose my invitation, m'kay? Fabulous.”

 

            No one moves for a long moment after Todd has vanished.

 

            Grayson is still on the ground, though he’s stopped coughing. He’s folded over himself with his head hung limp and his elbows thrown heavily across his knees – defeated.

 

            Father is the one to break the silence, chastising Grayson by saying, “You should not have allowed yourself to attack him.”

            “I know,” Grayson breathes out, sounding hollow and cold.

            “You are emotionally compromised, and you have compromised this investigation,” Father continues, “if there ever was evidence to prove that Hood is responsible for Red Robin’s current injuries, he now has the opportunity to effectively cover his trail.”

            Grayson’s slow breath is acknowledgement enough.

 

            A beat of quiet throbs painfully in the tense Cave.

 

            “Well, then,” Pennyworth declares, voice prim and utterly scathing in a deceptively light manner that manages to gouge deep furrows straight down to bone, “I think there’s been quite enough drama for one night. Now, if you all would kindly acquiesce without a fuss, I will remain with Master Timothy while you shower and change; and Miss Stephanie may return to the medical bay to sit with us once she has eaten something. The rest of you, really ought to get some rest, don’t you think?”

            Everyone is cringing with internalized pain they know full well they deserve and, they all know that Pennyworth executes his verbal whipping only when they’ve truly disappointed him.

            “That sounds agreeable, Alfred,” Father manages, accepting the terms on behalf of the entire group of assembled Family.

            “Very good, Sir,” Pennyworth acknowledges with icy reserve.

            Father removes his cape and gauntlets, triggering a slow, shambling shuffle of activity that ripples languidly through the ranks – affecting Robin last of all as he waits for Grayson to, at the very least, lift his fallen head.

            Damian cannot explain the difficulty he has with breathing as he waits – cannot explain why his lungs clench up entirely when Grayson does lift his head, and his sad blue eyes seek out Damian’s with a weighted apology swimming in his gaze.

 

            Damian cannot quite feel his face – cannot be wholly confident in the idea that his expression is steady and impassive, but he has enough faith in Mother’s training to feel strong enough to keep his spine straight and stand his ground.

 

            “Dami.”

 

            “Get up, Grayson,” Damian huffs, pleased with how unaffected he makes it sound.

 

            Grayson takes a slow breath and then complies.

 

            He doesn’t attempt to make conversation again until after they have changed and showered and made their way upstairs to the Manor proper – after they’ve thrown something edible together and eaten it in silence.

            Grayson walks Damian right up to his bedroom door, almost like he intends to tuck Damian into bed directly – like he’s still some sort of hapless child – when he kneels down at the threshold and looks Damian directly in the eye, with his hands resting warm and heavy on Damian’s still visibly stiffened shoulders.

            “Timmy’s gonna be alright, Dames,” Grayson assures him – unnecessarily.

            “I am aware, Grayson,” Damian responds haughtily. “Pennyworth was very clear.”

            A sad sort of smile flickers into view as Grayson prods, “It’s okay to admit that you’re worried about him. I know that you two are still officially unhappy and bitter rivals, but you don’t have to pretend you hate him still on every count.”

            Damian can cede – to himself, at least – that there is some truth to Grayson’s claim.

            He is uncertain why exactly, but he has come to respect and even admire some aspects of the insufferable Pretender – and he is rather unspeakably grateful for the part Drake played in rescuing Father while he was adrift in time – so he is indeed a touch anxious for Drake’s continued well being.

            But he is being truthful in saying that Pennyworth had allayed those concerns completely and without reservation. Drake’s condition – and Damian’s apparently rather involved investment in his survival – is not responsible for Damian’s current tense unease.

 

            The cause of that is far less simple to pin down.

 

            And Grayson's continued presence here in front of him, in physical contact with him, is not helping matters – an odd occurrence considering how his mere existence has made a great many things more bearable in the past.

            “Go to bed, Grayson,” Damian instructs imperiously.

            “You too, Dami,” Grayson responds.

            Instead of releasing him as Damian anticipates, Grayson pulls him into an inescapable hug – an inevitable action, in retrospect – and adds, “I love you, kiddo.”

            He presses a kiss to Damian's temple as he stands, and ruffles his hair as he turns away, saying, “Goodnight, Damian. Sweet dreams.”

 

            Damian only responds with a slam of his door.

 

            Normally, it would be a reaction of mostly pretended indignation about Grayson's typical penchant for obnoxious displays of affection, but this time… this time it's because Damian's heart rate has kicked up ten fold and it feels as if the organ has somehow crawled out of his chest and is now lodged in his throat.

 

            And Damian simply doesn't understand.

 

            It's a fear response, he recognizes, a fairly severe one… but fear of what? Surely, he is not afraid of Grayson, the idea is utterly absurd.

 

            Damian locks his door and takes a seat on his floor, determined to meditate upon the question until he has a satisfactory answer.

            First, he fixates on the feeling he had when Grayson had hugged him just now – attempts to identify the exact parameters of it. The feeling is a slimy one, the thorny vicious thing that has been mauling him internally all night – well, since this incident began at least… except, no.

            It hasn’t been bothering him the whole time… when Drake was initially reported as off the grid, Damian had felt a vague concern – a mild mix of worry for Drake and annoyance that Grayson was distracted – but this feeling, this spiky painful feeling… that didn’t emerge until Grayson got the call from Todd.

            Systematically working through the entirety of the last few hours, Damian isolates the moments when he most prominently felt this thorny, twisty ache of distress.

            He identifies that the feeling only came up in regards to Todd – more specifically, in response to Grayson's reactions to Todd.

 

            It clicks in him a moment after that, sends a biting chill racing down his spine.

 

            Because… Damian is afraid of Grayson.

 

            He's afraid that he is going to do something… something wrong, and Grayson is going to react to him the same way he reacts to Todd.

            He's afraid that Grayson doesn't understand that Todd is not the only member of the Family who has blood on his hands… Damian is a killer, too.

            Grayson keeps making the excuse that Damian was a child, that he didn't know what he was doing, that he was simply following Mother's orders and that he didn’t truly understand, but none of that is true and Damian is afraid that he will do something terrible and Grayson will realize… and Grayson will hate him like he hates Todd.

            Because Todd was Grayson's precious little brother, too…

 

            Once, at least, a long time ago.

 

            Todd was the little brother who screwed up and came back a killer and started to purge Gotham of her darkest scum and now he's a demonized criminal that belongs in Arkham... And Damian is uncomfortable with how similar his own circumstances seem.

            He will not be a child forever – should not be considered one even now – and when Grayson no longer has the ability to make excuses for him… how long will Damian retain his current position in Grayson's favor?

            Even Drake has not been spared from entirely from Grayson's aggressions – and Drake is a vocal proponent of the No Kill Rule, to the extent that he has appropriately called Father out for excessive use of force. Damian meanwhile has aligned himself with Todd's position on more than one occasion, to the extent of causing friction with Father.

            When Damian's world began to fall apart last year, it was Grayson that protected him – Grayson who promised that, even without Father's obligation to care for him keeping the others tolerant of Damian's presence, there would always be a place for him in the Manor, in the Crusade, and in the Family.

 

            Damian had believed him then – still wants to believe him now.

 

            But there's an itch of doubt beneath his skin, a terrifyingly acute sense that he doesn't belong and that he can't possibly hope to stay…

            All of a sudden, Damian's room feels suffocating and claustrophobic. He needs fresh air, needs space and distance and the quiet of anonymity.

 

            He cannot stay inside the Manor any longer tonight.

 

            He changes out of the sweats he put on after his shower – slipping into the one relic from his old life that he's never felt the urge to abandon: the soft, dark clothing he received from Grandfather when he reached a transitory phase of accomplishment in his League training.

 

            The air vent in the back of his closet connects Damian's bedroom to the seldom used study on the floor below and while Damian is finally beginning to grow, he is still currently small enough to shimmy through the gaps to make an unobserved escape if necessary.

 

            Or.

            Mostly unobserved, as it were.

 

            Pennyworth is standing by the door as the study's secret nook lets out into the auxiliary garage – his gaze soft and filled with the kind of pervasive understanding that he is uniquely capable of expressing without a sense of condescending pity.

 

            “Be safe, Master Damian,” Pennyworth says quietly, without any attempt to dissuade Damian from his current course, “and please return home before sunrise.”

            Damian gives a nod of acknowledgment – not daring to speak a promise he is unsure he will be able to keep – and lifts his helmet and the keys to his electric motorcycle from the wall.

            He is grateful for the butler's choice not to condemn his excursion, as he is distinctly aware that Pennyworth is only staying silent on the matter of his riding a motorcycle without a license or supervision because he knows that if he is not permitted to use his own gear – which he knows well and has extensive practice with handling – Damian will simply steal something else to serve the function from a neighbor.

            Damian throws himself into the ride, moving silently across town at a swift speed that few outside the Bats could ever dream of traveling at within the city limits. He knows exactly where he is going: the safe house where Todd had given Drake his initial first aid.

            Damian knows that Drake must have been bleeding quite profusely and he may be able to follow a trail of bloody footprints back to where the incident of injury actually occurred. Sure enough, Damian finds a clear trail to follow – so clear that he has to pause more than once to marvel at Drake's luck for having managed to avoid bleeding out before he even found Todd.

            Pennyworth is very confident in Drake's continuing survival – of his rather expedient recovery, for that matter – and Damian should not think to doubt the old man's judgment.

            Without further dallying Damian puts all thoughts of such impossibilities out of his mind – set his focus to solving the case in front of him.

            Damian tracks Drake's progress backwards through the evening – finds a smoked out utility hut on the corner of Sixth and Hanover that used to be the secret entrance to some sort of underground construction, possibly a laboratory.

            It will take some delicate maneuvering to carefully investigate the circumstances surrounding what happened to make the building explode with Drake inside it.

            Damian is beginning to poke at the collapsed material of the staircase to attempt finding a route inward when he feels the weight of a stare on the back of his neck. He senses the gaze mere seconds before the boom of a heavy body dropping down behind him – a body reeking of leather, gun power, and cigarette smoke – alerts him to Todd's arrival.

            “Well now,” he drawls facetiously, “If it isn’t just the littlest Bat brat I ever did see! What brings you along, short stop, out to defend big blue's honor?”

            “Don't be foolish, Todd,” Damian snaps, “I am here to uncover what occurred to render Drake incapacitated.”

            “Fancy that, so am I,” Todd mentions, eyes narrowing to evaluate Damian's truthfulness.

            “Obviously,” Damian huffs.

            Todd stares at him a moment longer, pinning him down more effectively than even Father managed. Todd's assessing gaze is nearly as powerful as Pennyworth’s own.

            Damian refuses to let it rile him. Todd easily could have killed him prior to his moment, being that Damian was shamefully unaware of his presence and Todd has at least four separate distance weapons visibly on his person, two distinct fire arms and a minimum of two silent throwing knives – blades likely laced with poisons.

            Whatever Todd can see in his expression appeases him enough to coax a sigh from his chest. “I suppose I could make use of those tiny hands of yours,” Todd accepts, huffing off without anything more solid indication as an invitation for Damian to follow.

            He feels off kilter and out of sorts, but as he trails after Todd, Damian realizes that the anxious itch beneath his skin has settled.

            After being so unsure of so much already today, this last uncertainty hardly registers over the calmness of relief at being useful and out in open air.

 

            Damian has little concern for picking apart the causes and consequences of that – right now he just needs to be moving, needs to be doing and Todd can facilitate the calm he needs to feel better than anyone else Damian could call on.

 

            The rest must be addressed tomorrow.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

but every one of us ( got that wanderlust )

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 - we started to fade ( i know

 

            Tim falls off the grid while it's early enough in the evening for it not to seem too obviously worrisome. It's more of an annoyance than any immediate cause for alarm when Steph is directed by Oracle to check up on his last known location.

            Steph is only just getting started on her rounds in the Batgirl zip cart she uses to haul around the highly steal-able and steal-worthy medical supplies that the free emergency clinics scattered around the city need, but they make these deliveries frequently enough that missing one isn’t going to ruin the ability of the clinic to help people. And she should have time to finish her rounds after she catches the idiot.

            Still, when she gets her hands on Tim… she’s already planning how to wring his skinny little neck for pulling yet another stupid stunt like this.

            This isn’t the first time he's done this – it’s not even the tenth time he's dropped off the grid while patrolling about twenty blocks back from the semi-official border of Crime Alley… the border that the Red Hood has made a lot more official in the last few years.

            Tim has been ducking into Crime Alley at least twice a month or so since the Red Hood resurfaced after going on a weird – unexpected, unexplained, but totally welcome – hiatus of sorts. The Bat hasn’t figured it out yet because Oracle is covering for stupid jerk, sending Steph to check up on his continued aliveness, and then proactively pretending nothing happened each time Steph catches him slinking safely back out of the Alley.

            Tim has also somehow managed to avoid getting caught by Hood on all these stupid dangerous field trips of his… well, until now, at least.

            Steph isn't sure that something is wrong until almost an hour goes by – she'd found his Red Bird with ten minutes and has been waiting for him to slink back as usual, but … it’s been a pretty long while already and he hasn't come.

            Tim hasn’t intentionally spent more than an hour off the grid since… since he left… since he packed up all his shit and went to find Ass al Ghoul and get Bruce outta time flux because no one else believed his theory.

            Admittedly, it was a pretty crazy theory and Steph would likely have sided with Dick, had she been there to provide input… In a quasi-fortunate turn of events she'd been pretty busy being almost dead in Africa with the miracle worker that is Leslie Thompkins – else wise there's probably no way that Steph and Tim could have maintained any kind of relationship.

            They'd already ceased to be dating before Bruce not-quite kicked it, but still… if Steph had doubted him too (like she probably would have, and like everyone else did) Tim wouldn't have been able to tolerate even being coworkers…

 

            And Steph would regret that more than just about anything.

 

            So, Steph has been a mostly willing accomplice in helping Oracle cover the idiot's ass.

 

            The main reason she doesn't get worried after about 20 minutes of waiting is that Tim was almost a week overdue for this field trip of his and whatever nonsense he gets up to on the wrong side of the line had to be delicate enough to warrant painstaking and careful attention.

            She should call Babs at the half hour mark, but benefit of the doubt (benefit of the ex-girlfriend really not wanting to rock the boat) gives him another fifteen minutes.

            And then takes her time using far more words than necessary to relay the issue.

            With a heavy sigh that shows Oracle has considered this an inevitable eventuality, Barbara calls it in over the main com connection.

            Twenty minutes later, Nightwing radios back with an update: he'd gotten a call from Jason and Tim needed immediate medical attention.

            Steph's heart is caught in her throat as Dick and Babs coordinate everything. She's all floaty and distant and totally not quite tied to gravity – and then, suddenly, Cass is there with Black Bat's epic fast motorcycle and she slaps some sense into Steph, getting her back to reality enough to get on the damn bike so they can get to Tim and the Cave…

 

            Steph doesn’t have the mental awareness to process much of the drive.

 

            She’s pretty sure that Cass makes it zoom by – crazy, kick ass ninja girl barely understands speed limits as a concept on a good day… when one of their own is in crisis?

            Yeah.

            They make some damn good time.

 

            Steph and Cass reach the Cave mere seconds after Dick throws the Batmobile into park.

 

            Bruce and Jason and Damian are in the midst of rushing Tim – and oh god does he look limp and bloody and pale – up to the med bay when Steph vaults off the bike and charges up after them. She’s probably far too emotionally compromised to really provide any actual help, but habit and ingrained emergency training has her pealing out of the upper half of her costume and scrubbing in to help with demands of surgery.

 

            She’s a fully capable and registered EMT now, they all are.

 

            And, usually, Steph has a strong enough stomach for the work to be able to handle herself when one of her Family members is laid out on the table…

            But this is Tim.

            He’s not her Tim, not anymore, but he’s still Tim.

 

            With everything that’s happened to him – to them – in the last year or so…

 

            Well…

 

            Steph is barely holding it together enough to follow Alfred’s orders when she’s told to put firm and steady pressure on the massive laceration on Tim’s thigh.

 

            She’s glad that Cass is here, too.

            Cass has enough focus to actually be helpful.

 

            Tim needs someone to be helpful.

 

            Babs and Alfred are amazing, but they’ve only got four hands between them, and Tim just has so many cuts that are still oozing blood… and so many bruises… and Steph has to trust that they’ve already checked for broken bones and internal bleeding and… isn’t Tim missing an organ or something that makes him like crazy prone to infection?

 

            Steph feels like throwing up her guts, but that, at least, is too taboo to allow even the thought to solidify – not while Babs is elbow deep inside of Tim not ten inches to Steph's right.

            But looking at how bloody Barbara's getting as she works to repair the damage Tim's managed to accrue… Steph feels like fainting might happen here soon, though. A glance up north confirms it. Yeah, that whole fainting thing… definite possibility there.

 

            Slow breaths. In through the mouth, hold, out through the nose, hold, repeat. It's a pattern trained into the bones of every person who has ever donned a cowl in Gotham.

 

            It helps.

 

            Not enough to make her really feel better, but enough to keep her spiraling thoughts from making things any worse.

 

            Steph still feels jittery, still feels woozy and panicked and wrong, but she can focus enough to follow directions from Babs and Alfred as they move on from patching up the nasty tear in his side to stitching up the cut in his thigh.

            They are still moving with urgency, but the vibe they’re giving off now is much more relaxed and calmly procedural than it had felt at first – when the base of their assessment was still just looking at how much blood Tim was losing.

            Now, it seems like they’ve decided the spectacular blood loss was more of an illusion than an accurate litmus test. The damage isn’t so bad as they’d thought, so bad as it looks.

            Shortly after that revelation sinks in, Alfred tells Steph that she and Cass can scrub out, get themselves cleaned up. It takes all her willpower to step away from the table, but she does it.

            And with Cass’s help – and by help, Steph means that Cass basically puppet walks her through the routine by physically dragging her around – she gets all of Tim’s blood out of the nooks and crannies of her skin, out of even the tiniest cracks in her thick callouses.

 

            Then she takes a seat at Tim’s bedside, the chair set back out of the way and positioned up towards his head so that even leaning forward to get a glimpse of his ashy face and the slack exhaustion in his knocked-out expression, Stephanie’s shoulder is a good foot and a half from Alfred’s hip. Cass floats around somewhere behind her – ethereal and surreally calming.

            Steph can feel Cass’s attention slipping off of Tim and out into the main Cave and whatever ruckus seems to be occurring out there, but Steph is still laser focused on Tim.

            She can’t bear the idea of looking away from him for more than a second, and even then, all she can really manage is a reassuring glance at his heart monitor.

            There’s shouting outside, but Steph only hears it distantly, distractedly – like the biting words and heated anger are just underwater echoes on a time delay.

            It’s not until Alfred squeezes her shoulder, his hands warm and dry against the bare skin still exposed from her pealed down uniform, that Steph realizes that the emergency surgery is over already. That Babs has cleaned up too and, that instead of being fixated on keeping him alive, she is now focused on making Tim as comfortable as possible while he’s out cold.

            Stephanie looks up at Alfred, more than a little lost and not quite daring to be hopeful until he smiles slightly and gives a firmly assuring nod.

 

            Relief crashes over her.

 

            She likely would’ve fallen out of her chair, smashed her face into the linoleum floor, and sprawled out limp and limbless like a super drunk sorority chick, if Alfred hadn’t been there already holding onto her shoulder.

            The butler gives another reassuring squeeze and then lets her hold herself up under her own power – she sways slightly in the seat, but keeps her tush firmly planted in it.

 

            Then Alfred heads out into the main Cave, hands clasped primly behind him, to give the boys the good news… and then to lay down the Pennyworth Whammy in his deceptively polite verbal smackdown when those idiots take the crisis over declaration as reason to start a brawl.

 

            Steph drifts halfway out of the medical bay to hear Alfred walk them all through Tim’s prognosis – she doesn’t leave the little glass cube of containment that separates the medical bay from the main Cave, but she approaches its door closely enough to easily hear Alfred’s words.

            She doesn’t quite manage to process them, but she catches the important parts: Tim was caught in some sort of explosion, he’s currently being sedated, transfused, and given all those vital nutrients and antibiotics that he needs, and he will shortly be able to make a full recovery – he might be back up and about as soon as next week.

            She keeps replaying those three facts in her head as Dick and Jason duke it out like the over sized lunkheads they are.

            Steph can hear the accusations and bitterness they throw back and forth between them, and though she’s not really processing any of it now, she’ll probably have to talk through some of it with Babs later on – because even as zoned out as she is, it does not escape her notice that a) Jason probably caused the explosion, b) Jason also probably saved Tim’s life by calling in for help, and c) Dick is both an asshole who can’t think before he acts and a well-meaning care-bear of over stuffed feelings who collects emotional baggage like it’s free shit at a college fair.

 

            When the stupid brawl is over – with Dick on the floor like an idiot and Jason backing out of the Cave like a reasonably sane person trying to get out of dodge after crashing the wrong damn party – the air is still tight and tense.

            It’s not until Alfred steps up again that the bomb diffuses.

            "Well, then," Alfred declares, voice utterly scathing in the way Steph always appreciates when it’s not directed at her, "I think there's been quite enough drama for one night. Now, if you all would kindly acquiesce without a fuss, I will remain with Master Timothy while you shower and change; and Miss Stephanie may return to the medical bay to sit with us once she has eaten something. The rest of you, really ought to get some rest, don't you think?"

            Everyone knows they deserve the pain that Alfred’s Whammy always delivers, and it takes a moment of internal cringing for anyone to recover enough to respond.

            “That sounds agreeable, Alfred,” Bruce manages, eventually.

            “Very well, Sir,” the butler responds.

            It’s not an agreement so much as a command for everyone to get their butts into gear and get moving on following orders.

 

            Babs gets Steph’s attention by placing a gentle hand on her forearm.

 

            “I’ll stay with Tim while you change and get something to eat,” the red-head assures – a mix of warm understanding and steely resolve. She’ll keep Tim safe for Steph, but she’s also hell bent on keeping Steph healthy, too.

            Alfred said Steph could come back to sit with their unconscious bird brain, but first she has to change and eat something. Steph can do that.

            It takes a second for Steph's muscles to get the message, and a little coaxing from Cass (and by coaxing, Steph can totally admit that Cass straight up drags her bodily towards the showers until Steph's feet remember how to walk on their own), but soon Steph finds herself lost in the comforting steam of the hot, hard spray in the Cave's showers.

            She blinks into a strange kind of full awareness, quite suddenly, at some point as the water runs over her face, and she begins to rush through her post patrol routine.

            Once she's clean and dry-ish enough, she throws on some sweats and races upstairs to stuff her face with a serving of that ridiculous, impossibly sugary (but still magically nutritionally balanced by force of modern chemical science) cereal Dick always asks Alfred to keep the Manor cupboards stocked with.

            Downing it in under five minutes flat, she wears so quickly she thinks she might puke it all back up if she had to take one bite more than she'd poured herself (but it's a queasy feeling in a very different and more manageable way). As soon as her food's gone she sticks the empty bowl in the sink and heads back down to the Cave.

            Mercifully, she doesn't encounter any of the other Bats in the whole time between leaving Cass in the showers and making it back to Babs and Tim.

            The blip of energy and alertness she had felt while frantically moving to complete the prereqs outlined by Alfred evaporates as she steps back inside the med bay. In fact, all her energy disappears and she half collapses into the chair at Tim's bedside as Babs wheels her way over to one of the bay’s supply bins.

            Steph has pulled her knees up to her chest and is trying to muster up the strength to reach out those last few inches, so she can wrap her hand around Tim's when Babs wheels over to sit beside her. Before Steph has fully comprehended Babs's arrival, she is already being enveloped in a warm hug (one she sorely needed, and Babs knows her well enough to squeeze tight without having to worry pointlessly about breaking her) and wrapped up with a fluffy soft purple blanket (one she didn’t know she needed and didn’t even know they had available).

            She feels the slight prickles of building tears, but nothing substantial makes it to her eyes. Steph isn't sure if she can’t cry because she knows that Tim is going to be fine, or if… if the tears aren’t crying tears at all, but angry tears because the more she sits with it, the more she realizes that half the reason she needs Tim to wake up is that she needs to yell at him for being a reckless little shithead. Because he scared her today with this asinine stupidity.

            Steph is still uncertain of her feelings, and what she wants to do about them, when Babs releases her and repeats for the hundredth time that Tim will be fine.

            When Steph nods and does an awful job of trying to fake a calm and grateful smile, Babs pulls in a considering breath and then asks, “Do you want me to stay with you? Or do you want some time alone with him?”

            “I—” Steph falters and looks between the boy in the bed who used to be hers and the most amazing big sister she’d never known how much she needed.

            Babs waits patiently for Steph to figure out her own feelings. She probably sees the resolve settle in Steph's expression before Steph even realizes she's decided, but Babs still makes her voice the decision aloud.

            “I— I think want to talk to him,” she manages after a moment, “just him.”

            Babs flashes that warmly indulgent smile – the one that, on anyone else, would probably make Steph want to bash their teeth out with her bare fist – and says, “Alright. I’ll be down in the main Cave for a while if you need me.”

            Steph nods dumbly with her eyes locked on Tim as Barbara turns around and rolls out of the med bay. At some point, probably a while after the silence would’ve been awkward in other circumstances, Steph heaves a sigh and asks, “What on earth were you thinking, idiot?”

            It’s half a whining, baseless complaint built out of fearful frustration, but there’s also something genuine inside the question.

            What were you thinking?

            With Tim, it’s never just an expression of outrage.

            With Tim… that question has a real answer. It always has a real answer.

 

            Tim is always thinking.

 

            Always, always, always thinking.

            Always thinking, always planning, always caught up in some scheme that puts him at least ten steps ahead of anyone else in the game – hell, Tim’s often thinking so far ahead he’s already playing a different game than anyone else on the current board.

            And he’s such a god damn little control freak about all of it…

 

            That is the reason Steph and Tim ultimately didn’t work out as a couple.

 

            Tim’s psychotically detail oriented little brain could pick apart a person and figure out what they wanted, what they needed, and what action got them to the mathematical pinnacle of a median between want and need. He was always been able to get the perfect gift, every time.

            Able to plan the perfect date, the perfect surprise, the perfect… well, everything.

            And he was able to craft most efficient schedule to make sure he could always hit every item on his list with work, school, the Crusade, and date night all planned out with an appropriately flexible timeline sent out to give Steph a head’s up three days ahead of time.

            It had been cool, at first.

            Steph had liked the feeling such keen attention being directed at making her happy.

            And she enjoyed having the confidence of knowing that he knew her well enough to arrange everything their lives to achieve maximum awesomeness without even having to ask her to get it just right… but the whole deal had lost its shine pretty quickly – especially that whole without asking part.

            While her input wasn’t strictly necessary, because they both knew that Tim would get it perfectly right, it started to feel stifling after hardly a month. Started to feel like she was being treated like a child or something… like she had completely lost control of her own God damn life.

 

            Yeah. That shit had definitely started to chafe a bit.

 

            And when Steph confronted Tim about how she was feeling, he hadn't understood at all.

            Not even a trickle of recognition, no clue at how to handle the validity of where on earth she was coming from… not one iota of understanding that her input was important regardless of whether it was technically necessary.

            That was the moment when the spark of compatibility that made them the very best of friends began to fade between them – not enough to diminish their friendship, but enough to make the idea of wanting it to be anything more start to erode rather aggressively.

            And, honestly, it wasn't just Tim being a control freak, but that was the big thing – on Steph's side of it, at least. She knew Tim hadn't been as willing to fight for them at the end of it as he would've been had the contentious spat come up earlier.

            Steph has never gotten a fully fleshed out answer as to Tim's side of why, but she's gotten enough to know he had been feeling the fade, too.

            Still, she cares for Tim, even after everything, far more than she's ever admitted to him in their post break-up existence.

 

            And Steph really does not like seeing Tim look so limp and lifeless in the Cave's med bay.

 

            Which, again, makes her beg the question: what was Tim thinking?

 

            Because she doesn't really know Jason Todd well enough to judge – though she does know he’s tried to kill Tim before and that little tidbit does not sit well with her – but she knows Tim well enough to be certain that he planned for some of this, but exactly how much of it is actually the plan is unclear.

            Tim's not quite suicidal… there'd been a few worrisome patches when things had been rough and the slightest brush at Tim's insecurities sent him storming away from the Manor for days at a time, but he'd always kept his trackers on and stayed in touch via com while they all waited for the situation to cool down and resolve itself.

            But things have gotten better in the last couple of months. Much better, even… despite the strange field trips he’s been taking into Crime Alley.

 

            Maybe even because of the field trips…

 

            That thought strikes Steph as a very important something that she's not sure anyone else involved has really considered yet.

 

            She knows that Tim is a control freak, and therefore knows that this is definitely not entirely an accident, but she doesn't know what he was thinking – she doesn't know the plan's intended end game, doesn't understand the motivations behind Tim's choice to enact it.

            Steph doesn’t know how Jason is involved, but she knows that he is very closely tied to all of it – and that Tim intended for him to be – and she thinks that Barbara may have some of the answers she needs to fill in the blanks.

            With a heavy, lingering sigh huffed in Tim's direction, Steph unfolds herself from the chair – keeping the blanket wrapped securely around her – and makes her way down to where Barbara is messing with the Bat computer.

            She's skimming through the security cameras trying to locate any hint of what explosion could've caused Tim's injuries – she back-tracking along Jason's course as he carried the already limp figure of Red Robin across the Gotham skyline, clearly more intent on getting Tim to a safe house than on avoiding the cameras. She's probably hoping that Tim was more intent on that too – that he ceased dodging Oracle’s all seeing eyes once he had gotten himself blown up.

            Steph hopes that Babs's plan works – actual, concrete answers about any part of this mess would make the bigger uncertainties of it easier to bear.

            But the hope she has for the success of Barbara's plan is not the main reason Steph is staring at the screens, transfixed.

            What has her rooted in place is the way Jason looks while he’s carrying Tim’s unconscious figure… the way he looks… desperate. Not just confused or vaguely concerned or even irritated at the idiot’s recklessness… he looks desperate and utterly wrecked.

 

            He looks like he’s in pain.

 

            On-screen, Jason’s running across the rooftops with only his domino to guard his face – that signature red helmet of his presumably lying about forgotten on a rooftop, abandoned in his apparent haste to get Tim somewhere safe-ish for assessment.

            It makes Steph realize that she’s rarely… if ever, now that she thinks about it, seen Jason Todd with a bare face. Well, she’s seen it in a few of Tim’s old pictures of him, from way back when the little stalker used to be nothing more Batty than a crazy ass kid with a camera, but those shots were of an entirely different person.

            Those photos captured the kid that Jason used to be before he’d died, he’d barely even been a teenager back then, let alone the risen from the dead grown ass zombie man he’d come back to Gotham as just a few years ago.

 

            So, Steph has never seen Jason’s bare face.

 

            But Tim… she thinks that Tim probably has.

 

            And Steph doesn’t quite know how she feels about that.

 

            She definitely doesn’t know how she feels about the way Tim looks while he’s limp in Jason’s hold… because he doesn’t look like he’s dying yet, doesn’t look as lifeless as he did by the time they all made it to the Cave… He looks… relaxed, almost.

            At least as relaxed as he’d ever gotten with Stephanie, even while they were dating.

            She remembers very vividly how she’d been kept up one night by nebulous nightmares that didn’t make her thrash or scream, but refused to let her rest easy, and she’d used the trick of counting Tim’s smooth cycle of breaths as he lay asleep beside her to calm herself back down enough to get back to sleep. He’d looked soft and peaceful, far younger than he ever did while awake, but at the same time… he didn’t look entirely at ease.

            Every now and then a frown would pull slightly at his slack expression, a cute little wrinkle would furrow his brow… Steph had thought it was kind of adorable when she’d seen it then, because it wasn’t real worry, it was more like the kind of concerted befuddlement achieved from facing a difficult sudoku puzzle rather than from untangling a demented scheme from some villain like Ra’s al Ghoul…

 

            But seeing him half dead in Jason’s arms… Tim looks totally content.

 

            Something twists painfully inside Stephanie’s chest and she realizes that she kind of hates Tim for that. Hates him for being ridiculous, for being reckless, for trusting Jason Todd, the asshole who tried to kill him (twice) in a way that makes it obvious that he trusts Jason far more despite it all than he’s ever been able to make himself trust Steph, even as his girlfriend.

 

            She also kind of hates Jason for it.

 

            For not deserving Tim’s trust, and for not recognizing what an incredible and profoundly rare thing it is that he has achieved in having somehow won Tim’s trust over (reckless, ridiculous, and irrational, though that trust might be).

            Quietly, though she knows that speaking up won’t startle Babs – because Babs has known she was standing there since the instant she left the med bay – Steph asks, “Who is he? To Tim, I mean. Who is Jason, exactly, to Tim?”

            Barbara sighs, leaning back heavily in her chair.

            “I’m not sure if even Tim can answer that question,” Barbara explains. “I don’t even know if Tim’s realized he should probably ask that question.”

 

            Steph nods silently.

 

            After a slow, considering beat, Barbara adds, “They’ve always been close, those two. I know you’re not really interested in how it was during the early years, but honestly, I think that Tim is the main reason the ‘early years’ of the expanding Family weren’t the final years of the Crusade as a Family venture. Tim kept everything together, mended fissures before anyone else even noticed they were starting to form.”

 

            Steph nods again, stilted and still silent.

 

            Then she says with painful certainty in the statement, “He did this on purpose.”

 

            “Yeah,” Babs agrees, validating, “Tim did this on purpose. I think his intended end game is to find a way to get Jason back inside the Family fold. I don’t think he meant to get hurt quite this badly, I’m not even sure if he meant to get hurt at all, but none of this this craziness is just a random occurrence. Tim wouldn’t leave anything about the Family to chance.”

            With a slow sigh to buy time to fully reorder her thoughts, Steph asks, “Do you think Jason can even come back to the Family? Do you think he even should?”

            “Honestly?” Barbara replies gravely, “I don’t know anymore. I have no idea if it’s even possible, let alone if it’s worth the strife and effort of trying. Tim seems to think so, though, and… well, trusting his judgement, seems like it’s been the right call lately, no matter how ridiculous it might seem to accept whatever he’s saying.”

            “Yeah,” Steph says, more effectively convinced than she wants to accept, “I guess.”

            “Tim’s going to be fine, Steph,” Barbara promises, turning away from her screens to look up at Stephanie’s face – worry highlighted in the blue glow of the Cave’s tech-oriented light. As she reaches out to grab Steph’s hand and give it a reassuring squeeze, Barbara continues, “We can ask him all the questions we having waiting for answers when he wakes up in the morning.”

            A beat passes, but after another calming squeeze of her hand from Babs, Steph nods with an almost firm resolve – with accepting resolution, at least.

 

            Babs flashes a slight, but deeply relieved smile of broad approval.

 

            “Now, I think Alfred would say that you ought to go upstairs and get some real sleep tonight,” she mentions – the barest edge of panic makes into Steph’s brain before she can register the sparkle of conspiratorial mischief in Barbara’s eye as she continues, “But Alfred’s not here at the moment, and I won’t tell if you don’t.”

 

            Grateful, Steph nods and gives a weak smile as she squeezes Babs’ hand back.

 

            Barbara pulls her down for a hug and presses a firm kiss to Steph’s temple before releasing her and shooing her back in the direction of Tim’s bed in the med bay.

            Steph makes it back to her seat and gets all curled up again before the exhaustion crashes over her. This time, she’s able to reach out and grab Tim’s hand for comfort easily, and with his warm pulse pounding away sedately beneath her fingertips, Stephanie allows herself to drift off into a more than fitful sleep.

 

            She’s still thinking about Jason, and as she drifts and almost dreams, she makes firm plans to go seek out the wayward not so little birdie and give him a piece of her mind.

 

            But for now… she rests, and wills Tim to do the same.

 

            It’s not exactly peaceful, but a fitful sleep is more than she had hoped for.

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

We started to fade ( i know, i wasn’t alone )

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 5 - i was on your side ( only waking up ) 

 

            Tim has always been a complicated variable to consider.

 

            Babs had pegged it perfectly when she first decided that Tim was important, that he was going to be important… to the Crusade, to the Family, to everything. Tim had been very clearly set up for something special by whatever cosmic comedian had built the universe from scratch.

            Almost as quickly as she recognized his general potential for significance within the whole world around the Family, Babs had noted that Tim was going to be especially important to Jason… both to Jason as an individual person, and to Jason’s ability to conform to Family expectations and the wide-reaching restrictions to participate in familial convention enacted by the implicit agreement declared by his continued presence among them.

 

            Tim kept Jason around a lot longer than he would’ve stayed otherwise.

 

            And Tim kept Jason involved and checking in with the rest of them even after he flew the coop intent on ditching B forever.

            It was because of Tim that Jason called Barbara when he realized that something didn’t quite feel right about the Sheila Haywood meet he’d arranged for himself out in middle of nowhere Ethiopia… and it was because of that brief phone call that Babs began to start digging, and that she figured out exactly how right Jason’s intuition could be…

            It was because of Tim’s influence and the phone call Jason made because of it that Barbara knew right where to send Bruce when things went so far beyond sideways that no amount of brute force or will power or cold hard cash from a billionaire’s bank vault could do anything to change the matter.

 

            It was because of Tim that after

            That after Jason died, Bruce didn’t become a killer himself.

 

            It was because of Tim that Barbara…

            That when Barbara got shot, that after she’d been paralyzed, after she’d given up on even being a real person, on being a useful person ever again… that after she’d gotten so caught up in what she’d lost that she hadn’t been able to see any hope or reason in trying to just carry on… it was because of Tim that after all of that, she’d been able to find something new.

            That she’d been able to truly become Oracle.

 

            She’d been leaning that way for a while, weaning off of Batgirl’s aerial thrills in favor of the far more productive role she could play behind the scenes… but there’s a difference between choosing to hang up her Batgirl cape, and having the option ripped away from her and Barbara hadn’t coped well with the difference. If she couldn’t choose Batgirl, if she couldn’t choose Oracle over Batgirl… then she couldn’t really be either of them. Or so she’d thought.

            Tim had shown her otherwise.

 

            And it was because of Tim that Dick had come back to Gotham, that he’d managed to come out of his own darkness enough to eventually help Damian start stepping out of his.

 

            It was because of Tim that Steph and Cass had been able to carve out legitimate places for themselves within the Family, and within the Crusade – and because of Tim that they’d eventually come to see how the two were inexorably linked. And how they wholly deserved to feel secure in the promise of their having a solid place in both.

 

            It was because of Tim that Bruce had been rescued from the chaos of the time stream, because of Tim that the Teen Titans had been miraculously resurrected in such a snappy, physics defying correction of the fluctuating space time continuum, because of Tim that the Wayne legacy was still standing, and because of Tim that Jason…

            That Jason has decided to fight the effects of the Lazarus Pit – to a degree, at least, enough to get him off the Bats' active capture list.

            He still wasn’t exactly playing nice with the Family, but he definitely wasn’t actively trying to kill them anymore, or even passively allowing them to die in front of him… he’d marked out his own little corner of the sandbox and was content to be miserable inside it all alone, without dragging any of the other Bats into the fray.

 

            Tim was a wild card.

 

            He has always been one, utterly unpredictable in the moment, but so clearly organized when his actions were looked at retrospectively with the end goal clearly visible and already fully accomplished... Whatever his goal is, at the moment, it’s likely that once he inevitably achieves it, his current choices – no matter how insane they seem to her, just now – will all come together to make uncomfortably perfect sense.

 

            Eventually.

 

            Babs has learned that it’s better to just not question his actions than to even offer help… right now, at least, it’s better. He’s still quite sore, and very understandably so, about having been called crazy and unstable in his worst throes of grief – about having had his very sanity questioned when he knew he was right about the things he was saying when Bruce was lost in Time, and when his friends had been actually dead (but not necessarily permanently dead) …

            He doesn’t feel valued right now, or trusted, or important, or any of the things Babs knows he absolutely is and that he deserves to feel recognized for being… so instead of offering blanket support in whatever insane quest Tim has set himself up for during these last few weeks of taking field trips into Crime Alley while systematically getting off the grid to go for it… she’s simply backed him up in silence, hoping that he comes to notice eventually that she’s been trying to make it all easier for him on the implicit declaration that he is loved and truly trusted.

 

            That plausible moment of recognition seems excruciatingly far off.

 

            With Tim safe and sedated, and the rest of the Family finally cooling off in their respective corners of the too-small slice of universe they get to call their own, Babs has time to sit down and reflect on all of this past evening’s building (and breaking) insanity.

 

            Because it has been ridiculous, and more than a little unsettling.

 

            Barbara is used to being the Bats’ all seeing eyes as Oracle, but there are some things she prefers to see through the helpful distancing of a camera lens.

            Seeing what unfolded tonight… having it play out right in front of her?

 

            That has been… significantly less than ideal.

 

            She’d known that the last few years had made Dick step deep into the darkness, had seen it herself as a third party, observing from a far to make sure he stayed as safe as possible, but she’d never seen it up close – never felt the kind of black fury he could muster.

 

            It was not a mere little bit disturbing.

 

            Barbara's own feelings on the matter aside, seeing Damian react to Dick's raging temper – a temper only Jason could ever draw out of him – was its own kind of heartbreaking.

            Damian is still too proud to admit to being at all frightened – by anything at all, let alone by Dick Grayson – but Babs could see it in the tight curl of his shoulders every time Dick spat something heated and nasty and hateful at Jason.

            Sitting at the Bat Computer now, as Babs is going over the footage of the altercation from earlier that evening, she can see Damian's fearful alarm plain as day. It's easier to handle when she sees it through a screen, but no less pointed or present.

            It's easier to handle Bruce's reaction, too – or rather, his non-reaction.

            Bruce shuts down on them as soon as Dick and Jason start trading spiteful barbs.

            His face closes off even more than it does with the usual stony Bat façade, his posture goes still and awkward, and the tension clear in his throat as he struggles to swallow makes it obvious that Bruce physically can’t verbally intervene.

            And he’s too stiff and still to effectively step in physically.

            Babs understands that Bruce has never been able to deal very well with the fact that Dick and Jason fight, with the fact that they would be constantly at each other's throats if not for someone helping them find common ground… but shutting down like this when his two eldest fight – when they fight and mean it, like they do – that's just irresponsible.

 

            Bruce can't cope with it, and Babs gets that, she does.

 

            It's hard to watch them fight, harder yet when it seems like the one you think is wrong is the one with all the facts on his side. The way Jason operates runs counter to the ideals of the Crusade. Barbara is not above admitting that she understands Jason's point – that she agrees with him, most days even, but she cannot allow herself to give into that urge or she'll never be able to come back from it… Jason walks a line that she could never stay balanced on.

 

            And she knows that Dick feels the same, which is why he jumps so quickly to such raging, vicious fury. He can’t rationalize the sweetness in the kid that Jason used to be with the willingness to be straightforwardly brutal to the point of almost unprovoked murder.

            Babs knows the cause and effect are still the same in him, that his sweetness is what prompts the viciousness, but Dick just sees the crimes and feels like crossing that line must be hurting Jason the way it would hurt Dick himself. Which means that a significant portion of Dick’s anger is the twisted and distorted desire to help save Jason from himself…

            So, for Bruce to just shut down, to blank out and step back and just leave his boys to duke the moral standing out between themselves… it's an understandable reaction from a normal person, but from Bruce, it's just an insult to the memories of who Dick and Jason both used to be. Barbara will be having words with him about this, if for no one's sake but Damian's.

 

            And then there are the other reactions – those from the people who were not involved with the fight… like Steph.

            Barbara knows that she wouldn't appreciate anyone thinking it of her, but Steph soft on Tim, soft and gooey with an aching concern that runs deeper than her worry for the others. She definitely still considers Tim to be hers in a way that makes him matter more to her…

            Steph was so dissociated from the fight that Babs didn’t know for certain whether or not she immediately understood what had happened to so upset Alfred when he’d testily declared that visiting hours were over for the night and brooked no argument against it – though it wouldn’t have been too difficult for her to piece the puzzle together.

 

            And Cass was the opposite.

            She started moving in to forcibly diffuse the fight the moment it got started, Babs could track her course as she slunk along the shadows at the wall to get into a good position for a takedown. If Jason hadn't pushed up the timeline, and if Cass hadn't frozen with confusion the moment she spotted Alfred's resigned sigh, if Bruce had given any indication that he considered the brawl to be inappropriate… the fight would've ended very differently.

 

            The way things were though…

 

            Babs isn’t sure what to make of the whole mess. Dick had some valid points when he'd accused Jason of being the person responsible for putting Tim in this position. But Jason's counterargument had been even more convincing. Both were perfectly valid, but Jasons’...

            Besides, Babs doesn't think Jason is capable of harming Tim anymore – not intentionally, at least. As she back tracks through the night, catching Jason on more security cameras than he has been otherwise sighted on in the last year combined, she sees… fear in him, real and utter terror. She sees anguish

 

            Yeah. If anything, Tim's pain hurts Jason as much as it hurts Tim… to think about how it would be if Jason had been the one to injure him to begin with… even as an accident, any hypothetical pain Jason caused him would be crippling to Jason, even if Babs could say for certain that Tim wouldn't hold it against him.

            She already knows that Tim could never blame Jason, for anything.

            Tim has already forgiven him utterly for the actual, intentional attempts on his life – the pointed and purposeful, attacks that had been deliberately vicious to a truly psychotic extent.

            Tim forgave that.

            Almost immediately.

            He could never begrudge Jason an accident.

            Dick probably thinks that's what this whole thing already is, an accident  of some sort where Jason's at fault – be it a rouge bout of Pit Rage Relapse, or an example of his overly brutal style of crime fighting gone wrong with Tim caught in an unintended crossfire.

            Any pain that Jason's feeling over the incident is likely just proof in the understanding Dick has built of Jason's manifesting guilt.

 

            Babs will deal with that idiot later.

 

            For now, she's still trying to figure out what happened – and knowing Tim, figure out why it happened. Because Steph is right, Tim did this on purpose… at least partly on purpose.

            She truly doesn't know if he intended to get hurt, and she isn't even certain that the end game is meant to bring Jason back into the Family fold – though it seems pretty damn likely from where she's sitting – but regardless, there are questions here that need to be answered.

            Little, detail questions, with concrete data to explore that have to be answered completely before the bigger, philosophical queries can even be posed.

            So, Barbara packs away her own worries and focuses on the task she's set her hand to, tracking Jason and Tim backwards through time.

            Tim had, very helpfully with an almost direly worrisome convenience, recently installed a camera of his own construction on the roof just north of the one where Jason liked to take his first break of the evening on Tuesday nights. He’d even obligingly wired the connection into the Cave’s primary mainframe… something Tim rarely did with his own surveillance resources.

            (Which is another unnerving thing to put on the back burner of analysis for now.)

            The newly installed camera caught the moment when Tim first arrived on the roof – already battered from the mysterious explosion – and it caught how Jason's first reaction was to point his gun at the intruder… but it also caught how quick Jason was to point the gun away, and how panicked Jason looked at seeing the little bird sway from clear injury.

 

            Babs works her way further back, trying to follow Tim to his origin point.

 

            It's slow going, and she hits a lot of dead ends before she hits the money, but eventually she spots Tim slipping out of a small concrete structure that appears to be a free standing utility closet of some sort. Watching the building and going back further, she can see a tendril of smoke escaping from the poorly hinged door – a moment after a subtle flash of light strikes.

            In other circumstances it could've been a camera glitch and an employee on a smoke break, but with Tim in the shape he is… Barbara's willing to bet a lot on the idea that the little glitch-like blink of light and puff of smoke in the structure at the corner of Hanover and Sixth was an underground explosion.

            Barbara runs backwards a full 72 hours from the explosion, but doesn’t see anything worth looking into for answers. Bookmarks it for further examination, but lets it go for now.

            Instead, she flips back to default in frustration and on the live stream she spots Jason – trusty helmet back in place, but sans signature leather jacket. He’s poking around the scene, cautiously digging up what is unmistakably rubble.

            Caught up in watching his methodical course, she sees how upset he is by pull in his shoulders – the little twinge of tightness in the urge to curl in on himself and the brutal street kid's grit determination to keep his shoulders firmly back. He's going to be there all night, chipping away at whatever clues are available until he has a definitive explanation for what happened. It'll be an answer that he may or may not choose to share with the Bats, but with Tim at the center of this… Babs has no doubt that Jason will leave no stone unturned.

 

            The chances of his being able to come back to the Family are slim, but it's at moments like this when Barbara believes it might be possible.

 

            And then… and then, Jason freezes. Ducks out of frame.

 

            Seconds later… Damian, shows up… of all possible people it could have been... Damian is there investigating the incident behind Tim's injury… it makes too much sense to avoid breaking Barbara's heart.

 

            Damian loves Tim, in his own way, and Tim understands – like he understood Jason… he understood that the anger came from fear, that the fear came from hope, and that the hope had been dashed once too many times for trust to come easy.

            Jason and Damian were both damaged when they came to the Manor – like fighting dogs, they’d been trained since birth to expect no kindnesses and they simply didn't know what to do with someone who gave it all away without any shred of reciprocity required.

            Without even having any acknowledgement of their deeds be expected.

            Tim embraces his Family, flaws and all he wholly accepts them for who they are… and he helps them fill in their cracks and smooth their rough edges and build themselves into who they want to be… and when they even mention that he may have been of help to them, he freaks out like they’re the one acting like a miracle of kindness.

 

            Tim unsettles both Jason and Damian, but does it in a way that helps them heal.

 

            Damian loves Tim as his brother, and he surely feels like he owes Tim for being so dogged about his theory that Bruce was alive and lost in time… and he's afraid of Dick, afraid of how Dick reacts to little brothers that break the Rule and come back ‘bad’…

            But Tim understands and, whether he consciously knows it or not, Damian needs him for that – needs Tim to be the bridge between the vicious pit bull that he feels like and the soft bellied Grayson golden retriever.

            Barbara is still thinking over how tragic Damian's life has been, how even under Bruce's care things have gotten little better, when Jason drops back into frame on the security camera.

            Panic streaks through Barbara for a second – she still too habituated with fearing for her Family's safety when the Red Hood catches them alone and off guard to properly check the reaction on her own terms.

            It takes Jason fearlessly, and almost affectionately, ruffling Damian's hair for her stomach to settle. Jason lets Damian join him in the investigation without any fuss at all.

 

            Jason is a good kid, at heart. He is.

 

            Babs does believe it, but she wants her flimsy faith to mean more than it does – more than it possibly can without a willingness to throw away her reputation and trust everything she is to the assertion. Tim trusts him like that, believes in him like that.

 

            And Barbara, for so many reasons at this point, is starting to think there may be a damn good reason to trust Tim's judgment.

 

            First of all, Tim is usually right.

            But secondly, though it's arguably the more important reason, Tim will do anything for Jason, and vice versa – no questions asked, no hesitation, and no regard for their own safety.

            They've always been like that in regards to each other – from the time they were mere ankle biters, just kids playing hero, and with only Jason in a real cape.

 

            Babs had always known the feelings between them ran deep.

 

            She’d pegged it from almost the first moment that she’d seen them together – thinking that, at the very least, a powerful bout of puppy love would be an inevitable development between them eventually.

 

            But looking at them now, at their reactions tonight…

 

            She skims through the footage she’d collected again, pulling up the rooftop where Tim arrived in a stumble while Jason was taking a break. She watches as Jason aims his gun, points it away, and practically melts when Timmy starts to fall.

 

            But this time, Babs is looking more at Tim’s reaction than at Jason’s.

 

            She’s looking at Tim – at the battered, bleeding little boy who’d just dragged himself ten blocks across the skyline without a single falter in his painful looking steps. She’s looking at how Tim sees Jason – looks straight passed the gun like it isn’t even there, let alone being pointed right at his head. She’s looking at how Tim sees Jason, smiles like he’s made it home, and then lets himself give in to the pain urging his collapse.

 

            Tim trusts Jason, completely – trusts him, trusts in him… trusts his judgement, trusts his compassion, his goodness, his faithfulness.

            No matter what he does, Jason can’t disappoint Tim – he just can’t.

            Tim’s open and unbreakable faith simply won’t allow it.

 

            And Jason seems to sense that – to sense enough of it to want to be better, to want to live up to the impossible standard of goodness that Tim’s trust imparts.

 

            Jason burned a safe house deep inside his own turf to get Tim the help he needed.

 

            Jason used his own blood bag stock pile to get Tim the transfusion that might’ve been the fine line of emergency medical attention that saved his life… because, while the end result is ultimately survivable for him with a remarkably quick recovery, he’d lost a lot of blood and it easily could’ve gone the other way… if they’d gotten him back here just a little later, if they hadn’t already had everything prepped, if Jason hadn’t pushed the hemo when he did…

 

            Jason voluntarily came to the Cave to see Tim’s treatment through to the end.

 

            Jason willingly bore Dick’s vitriol, Bruce’s icy and suspicious malcontent, bore the weight of distrust and accusations without so much as lifting an eyebrow to defend himself – not even with snark – until after Tim’s prognosis had been confirmed...

            Even when he had fought back, it was mostly defending his methods with cleaning up Crime Alley – backed up with facts – and then he’d focused, bizarrely and perhaps a bit absurdly, on protecting Tim’s honor…

            The idea that Tim could be stupid enough to get caught in the crossfire from one of Jason’s operations, the idea that he’d let himself be mauled by Jason again, the idea that Tim would ever just mess up in dealing with Jason… it had been too ridiculous for Jason to stomach.

 

            He’d attacked Dick for screwing up with Tim, for ruining the hero worship.

 

            Because they both knew that Tim didn’t make rash decisions – or truly stupid ones.

 

            Whatever the reason behind Tim’s choice to go to Jason for help, it had been a truly cognizant decision. Tim had picked Jason.

            Dick couldn’t deny that much and Jason knew it instinctively – neither of them even knew what Steph and Babs did about their little routine of checking in after Tim’s risky field trips into Crime Alley. Steph had only been maybe eleven blocks away from that corner on Hanover, and Tim had to know she would be waiting to reem him out again for being reckless – like she usually was on the nights he ventured out of bounds.

            The route to Steph was a block farther, perhaps, but it would’ve been an easier, street level jog for Tim than the skyline crisscross that brought him to Jason.

 

            Tim had other options for emergency care. And he knew it.

 

            And yet, he’d still chosen Jason.

 

            Babs is starting to see that Tim will always choose Jason.

 

            And she’s starting to see that Jason will always choose Tim.

 

            Jason didn’t hurt him.

            Not here, and likely not in most of the other incidents that the Bats have categorically blamed him for… Only those two incidents, with Jason fresh from the Pit and riding high on the biting thrill of vengeance… only those two were really Jason’s doing. Probably.

            Looking at the faces of her little brothers on that rooftop earlier tonight, Babs comes to find that she’s utterly resigned to fighting for them – to keeping her realizations quiet, but championing them from the shadows and standing on their side in the inevitable Family fights that she has no doubt are about to break.

 

 

            She will fight for her Family, to keep them safe and to keep them sane.

 

 

            Sometimes, the two goals seem set at odds, but if Babs has learned anything over the last decade of being involved with the Crusade… it’s how to muddle through the bad stuff until a tolerable result is eventually achieved.

            Until they crawl through the muck on sheer grit until they find a shred of sunshine.

            Bats are pretty much like weeds, they don’t need much to live – a little bit of water and a little bit of sun, and even the most uncomfortable slab of concrete can become someplace they can truly thrive.

 

            Tim had fought for her – had fought her when she’d been weak and close to giving up.

            Tim had helped her become Oracle.

            And she failed him the one time that he’d asked for help, for backing, for confidence.

 

            Jason… Jason helped her become the person she is today, too, and he’d never even once asked for her to have his back – never expected that she might be on his side and more than willing to hold her ground to prove it.

 

            Never again.

 

            Babs will fight for her Family.

 

            Even if she has to fight her Family to do it.

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

i was on your side  (only waking up)

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter Six - no matter where i'd go ( it wasn't alone )  

 

 

            Tim’s hurt.

 

            Things are… different… with Tim hurt.

 

            Because it’s Tim hurt.

 

            Everything is always different with Tim… Cass has always been able to tell that much.

 

            She can’t explain the difference, not with words or actions or any kind of effective communication, but she has always been able to see it.

 

            In the aftermath, when Tim is stable and the brief brawl between Dick and Jason is long played out and the Family is scattered, things might seem quiet and calm to a normal person.

            But Cass’s upbringing means that she’s not normal, means that she sees it all much more clearly, means that she can read the ongoing turmoil raging through her Family despite the quiet permeating the air around them all.

 

            Cass knows a thing or two about demons.

 

            Knows how they creep and crawl and stalk a person through the night.

 

            She knows that her Family deals with more demons than most, knows that they each have their own, personal phantoms and dark shadows that can’t be kept banished inside their nightmares – knows that when one of their own is hurt, these nightmares gain life to haunt minds even in the brightest hour of the day.

 

            And when Tim is hurt… it’s just different.

 

            It’s all more, somehow… more painful, more stressful, more personal, more everything; and just plain more, in its own right…

 

            Cass doesn’t have the words for it, not in any of the languages she’s picked up pieces of…

 

            But she knows that her Family is hurting and that letting them sit with nothing but the bad company found inside their own heads will do more harm than good.

 

            She starts with Bruce.

 

            He is their Father, their leader, their coach, their guide… he’s the one who started this Crusade for Gotham, and it’s easy for forget that he started it when he was just a young man – a twenty-something hardly older than she and Babs and Dick and even Jason are right now.

 

            Bruce started this alone.

 

            He started this feeling alone and he still feels that way, sometimes.

 

            Most times, probably… he’s just inhumanly better at hiding it than the others.

 

            He has so many failings – failings that, for the most part, he is distinctly aware of – and yet, when everything comes down to the line, they all still expect Bruce to lead them through.

            It’s a lot of pressure – enough to have long ago crushed any weaker man, even another hero. Anyone but Bruce would have faltered, would have fallen, would have lost the will to fight and the ability to make any kind of difference… but not Bruce.

            They value him for that in ways they can’t explain – trust him utterly for it.

            But they also have so many reasons to be angry with him, and so frequently have fresh reminders of the parts of him that stab and chafe, that it’s hard for them to communicate properly how much they care for and depend on him. How much they love him, how they value what he’s given them – the parts of themselves he’s helped them find and made flourish.

 

            It’s far more comfortable to stew inside their anger and Bruce lets them direct all of their frustrations at him. Because he’ll take it, all of it, and without a word of protest to defend himself. He’ll occasionally explain his choices, but usually that just makes the others see him as even more robotic and impersonal.

 

            When it’s about his kids, Bruce goes cold.

 

            He boxes up everything warm inside him and puts his focus in the logic.

 

 

            But when it’s between his kids… the logic doesn’t help.

 

 

            Logic is on Jason’s side. But the Rule is on Dick’s.

 

            Reason is on Dick’s side – Jason’s hurt Tim before, Jason uses lethal force, and Jason runs Crime Alley like a mob boss and a dictator rolled into one. He’s not a good person.

 

            But the evidence is on Jason’s side – Jason could’ve done nothing, could’ve let Tim die, but he called for help and got Tim what he needed and bore willingly with the consequences of seeing his choice to help Tim through to the end. Because he is a good person – when it matters.

 

            Bruce hates seeing his kids fight, hates not knowing how to agree with one over the other when both are in the wrong… And he hates that this is who he has let his kids become...

 

            And it’s Tim that’s hurt. Tim who’s caught in the middle. Tim who was never meant to be in this fight at all, Tim who has gotten the worst of it over and over, and Tim who somehow is the one who keeping pulling everything together – everyone together.

            Bruce would not be here, for so many reasons, without Tim.

            And Jason has hurt Tim.

            But Dick has hurt Tim, too. And Bruce… too often, they’ve all hurt Tim.

            All in the past, but never far enough away for it to be forgotten.

 

            Whenever Tim gets hurt in the present, all the old hurts resurface.

 

            And Bruce does not resist it, does not handle that sort of internalized pain well.

 

            Cass finds him in his study, the one on the third floor with the window that looks northwest over the Manor’s estate – over the tree-filled park that hides training grounds, over covered walks that bring peaceful walks and allow for endurance training, over the lake that’s seen hundreds of summertime adventures and that hides the submarines and deep water training facilities vital to the Caped cause… the one that looks over the still-visible culvert where the ruins of Jason’s gravestone stands as barely recognizable rubble…

 

            “Tim safe,” she says quietly, aware that Bruce is already alert to her presence.

 

            Bruce does not turn around from his vigil at the window. “I know.”

 

            “Lies,” Cass snorts. Then she cedes one point and presses, “Head may know. But heart hurts… But Tim safe. Smart. Jason help.”

            “Jason may have been responsible,” Bruce counters tightly.

            Cass snorts again, stepping forward with her arms crossed to stand beside the only father figure that’s actually been a father to her. “Jason help,” Cass promises, “Jason always. For Tim.”

 

            The words aren’t quite right. Not complete. Not expansive. Not enough.

 

            They don’t soothe Bruce the way she means them to.

 

            “Jason cannot control himself, especially not around Tim,” Bruce states, definitive and sure. The tightness in the stretch of muscle along the back of his arms testifies to the idea that he’s drawing on concrete examples to support his apprehension.

            Cass shrugs. She side eyes him to attempt figuring out what he is referring to exactly – something from before she joined the Family, she thinks. “Jason help. Protect,” she insists.

 

            “He is dangerous,” Bruce retorts.

 

            “Tim, too,” Cass huffs with considerable vehemence.

            It’s a point she firmly believes in, despite how Tim is different from the rest of them, despite how he hadn’t once been in a fist fight of any sort until after he’d donned the bright yellow cape, despite how he’d always be the weakest, physically, of the lot – Tim is just as capable of being lethal and indomitably dangerous as any of the others.

            “Tim dangerous,” Cass reiterates, more sedately but still just as firmly, “And me. And you. Damian, Steph, Babs – all Bats. Very dangerous. Tim, too.”

 

            Finally turning away from the window, Bruce gives Cass a long look of incredulous, careful evaluation. “You want Jason to come back to the Family?”

            His shoulders lift slightly, wondering at the stake she has in this.

            Cass doesn’t know Jason, not really.

            She has no sentimental reason to want to have the wayward former Robin to come back into the Family fold, and Bruce is uncertain of what could possibly be motivating her to support the idea. He’s not sure that she’s supporting Jason’s return for the right reasons.

            It’s a fair point, and truly, Cass does not particularly care whether Jason comes back.

            She simply cares about how much the rest of her Family cares about it – how they lean on the issue is how Cass has decided her own stance. And who leans the hardest.

            With another shrug, Cass explains, “Tim wants.”

            “Tim can be… overly emotional regarding Jason,” Bruce comments, his posture going curly cue and awkward. “He is sentimental, and… invested, but he will come to terms with the distance that must be maintained because of Jason's circumstances, eventually.”

 

            Cass huffs a laugh. “Tim wants. Will happen.”

 

            “Cassandra, there are some things that Tim's persistence will not forcibly achieve,” Bruce tells her, trying to sound firm as his posture wilts. He doesn't believe his own words.

 

            How could he, even? When he's saying something as ridiculous as that?

 

            Cass knows better.

 

            “Tim wants,” she insists, “Will happen.”

 

            Bruce does not reply aloud, but his posture screams defeat and dismay.

 

            “Jason will hurt him again, regardless,” Bruce states, to be still firm as his posture shift closer to the fretting father he is beneath the emotional armor. “And the closer Jason is to home, the worse it will be for everyone when it happens, especially for Tim.”

 

            “Yes,” Cass admits, “Tim knows. Tim… accepts. Tim trusts. I, too. Because Tim.”

 

            “Tim is not infallible,” Bruce tries, one last desperate stab at staying opposed even as his posture takes on a resigned cant.

 

            “No. Just good, very good,” Cass says. “And good heart. Tim and Jason, both.”

 

            “Good hearts may not be enough,” Bruce cautions gravely.

 

            It makes Cass have to hide a smile – Bruce still believes in Jason's good heart.

            Convincing him of the rest of it will be easy.

 

            For Tim, it won’t even register as an obstacle to his goal.

 

            No.

 

            Bruce will be easy so long as he still believes that some part of Jason is truly good.

 

            Dick will be the challenge on Tim's mind.

 

            Cass presses her shoulder into Bruce's briefly, in quiet solidarity – a promise and assurance. She waits until he presses back, and then she turns and goes.

 

            Cass finds Dick in his room.

 

            He’s twisted up on the floor in a meditative pretzel that would break the average person's spine. Cass is used to finding him like this, and she can even copy most of his poses – though this one is a bit too bendy to emulate easily.

            And too bendy to make it easy to read anything but tension in his figure.

            So, Cass takes a comfortable seat on the floor and then shoves at Dick's shoulder until he falls – landing in a loud collapse of limbs that renders him as little more than a PJ clad heap.

            He doesn't move to right himself immediately.

 

            It takes a moment before he finds the resolve to force his muscles into motion, but eventually he mirrors her posture.

            Dick lets her read everything that he is – no hesitation or embarrassment or fear, just lets her see exactly what he's feeling. Open, honest, and warm.

            He's not great with words, either. He's better than Cass, but that's still a bar too low to pretend has any meaning. But he knows how to communicate with things other than words, and he knows how good Cass is at reading his emotions – he lets his feelings do the talking for him.

 

            Guilt seems to be his primary feeling at the moment.

 

            Guilt and fear. And the self loathing twist of pain and anger caught up in being pulled apart by circumstances well beyond anyone's control.

 

            “Think too hard,” Cass points out. “Not feel enough.”

 

            Dick huffs darkly, “Seems to me like I’m feeling too much. Not thinking at all.”

 

            His back his curled, but his muscles are stiff and tense. He’s all caught up inside his head – over thinking every piece of the puzzle, analyzing and re-analyzing every aspect of the evening’s situation and the wider circumstances that caused it.

 

            “Jason hurts you,” Cass says, eyes filled with the kind of sympathetic warmth she’s only recently begun to understand – that she’s learned from watching him.

 

            Some of the tension in him recedes as he gives a heavy sigh and admits, “Yeah. He does.”

 

            “S’okay,” Cass promises. “Hurts because care.”

 

            Dick doesn’t have to answer verbally to know that he’s confirmed Cass’s statement, he doesn’t even have to nod. He simply wilts slightly and looks up at her from the side of his eye.

            “Jason cares, too,” Cass tells him, asserting, “Cares too much. Makes angry on purpose – push away, not chased… Stays close. Keeps tabs. Protects – himself, mostly, but Tim, too.”

 

            An anguished chuckle claws out of Dick’s throat. “He’s tried to kill Tim; twice, for sure.”

 

            With a dismissive shrug, Cass points out, “Damian, too – tried to kill.”

 

            “He didn’t know what he was doing,” Dick protests immediately. “Talia raised him so he didn’t understand that you can’t just kill someone in your way, or that Family is supposed to be more than a ranking system meant for choosing a successor.”

            “Shiva raised me. No words. Still, I understood. Understand,” Cass presses.

            Damian knew what he was doing when he tried to kill Tim, and he did it with a kind of intentional awareness of the consequences that Jason simply hadn’t had when he’d first climbed out of the Lazarus Pit.

            Jason tried to kill Tim because he was blind with hurt and hate and anger, and drugged into making murder feel like his only possible recourse.

            Damian was emotionally blinded by his desire to be found worthy and his fear of being found wanting, but he was perfectly aware of the choices he was making and their consequences.

 

            Cass doesn’t quite have the words to convey that.

 

            All she can do is be resolute with knocking down Dick’s excuses.

            “Damian’s better now; he’s learned how to be the good guy and he’s come to care for Tim,” Dick tells her, whining note in his voice to match the tension of his posture that confirms an acute awareness of his weak positioning.

            “Damian obeys. No Kill is Rule. Bruce’s Rule. Damian obeys Bruce, does not believe Rule is right,” Cass explains, working slowly and carefully through the words. “Values Tim now, yes. Jason values Tim, too. Values more, values always.”

            “Jason does not—”

            “Does.

 

            Dick huffs, sensing the impasse.

 

            “Damian afraid,” Cass presses after a beat, moving the conversation forward. “Afraid of you. Afraid of… he and Jason, same. Afraid of you… see… same… sameness?”

            “Damian thinks I’m going to see him like I see Jason?”

 

            Cass nods, relieved as always that her Bats can understand her.

 

            “He thinks he and Jason are at all alike?”

            Cass nods again, this time with grave severity. This is the important point for helping Dick to understand the issue at the situation’s heart.

            “Jason is little brother. Loved. Taught. Lost,” Cass explains. “Jason broke Rule, kills on purpose – believes kill to save. Damian agrees. Kill bad guys. Save city – permanent. Logic. Damian obeys Rule. Does not believe. Afraid of… do something bad, make problem… You no more love. No protect. No teach. Like Jason. Like Tim.”

            Dick frowns, whole being going stiff from where it had been getting soft and despairing.

            “Like Tim?”

            With another firm nod, Cass explains, “Tim fought. Over Robin. Tim won, but… you said bad… said mean Robin, too much grieving. Gave to Dami – Dami meaner, Dami knows. Less grieving as excuse. Doesn’t like you thinking kid. Worried kid is why you love.”

 

            Cass scrunches up her nose – frustrated at her lack of words, in any language.

 

            The timid curl of Damian’s shoulders when he shrinks if Bruce or Dick can’t see is something that strikes painfully, straight against her heart. He pretends to be proud and strong and arrogant and haughty and better than everyone else in the room, but he’s so afraid of losing his place when they aren’t there to measure him… so afraid.

            “Damian thinks I won’t love him anymore if I realize that he’s growing up?”

            Bafflement makes Dick’s shoulders rise, his elbows pulling back in mild affront as his disbelief makes him doubt his understanding.

 

            Again, Cass nods – firm, unwavering, certain.

 

            “Won’t judge as kid, judge as adult,” she confirms. “Judge as wrong.”

            “But… Tim and I have mostly gotten over that thing with Robin. It was a mistake, I admit that,” Dick pleads, hoping that Cass can somehow make it be enough to convince Damian. “I fought with Tim, sure, but we’re good again. I still love him. I’ve always loved him and always will and Tim knows that.”

            “But not Jason.”

            Dick frowns. “I don’t know if Jason can come back from what he’s done,” he admits.

 

            Rocking her whole torso forward, Cass confirms that is the actual problem.

 

            Dick doesn’t know if Jason can come back, doesn’t believe that he’s still got the good heart that made him such a great Robin when he had the role… Jason’s heart is so obviously good, despite the morals he displays, and Dick doesn’t know… can’t see it, somehow.

            Damian is not as good hearted as Jason, and he knows it.

            He doesn’t care about the general population, much at all.

            In fact, he’s generally disdainful of the idiocy and coarseness, and uselessness displayed by the average civilian and would far prefer to never have to associate with them at all.

            Whereas Jason… Jason loves people. He acknowledges that a lot of them are truly terrible, and the average of them is a pretty shit collective, but still, he loves meeting people, learning about their struggles and their lives and their hopes and dreams.

            Learning their stories.

 

            Jason protects people because he loves people.

 

            Damian does it because his Father does. Because it is officially the ‘right’ thing to do.

 

            If Dick can’t see how Jason’s heart is still so good, still so pure, despite everything, how could Damian expect to be able to recover if he ever does something wrong?

 

            “Jason… hurt, but still good,” she asserts. “You don’t want to see good. But there. Deep, beneath hurt and fear and… and the sad.. but there. Very there.”

            “I just… I don’t know,” Dick sighs. “I can’t find the little brother I used to know in this new version of Jason, I don’t see how any of him could have survived.”

            “Doesn’t matter you see, matters is there,” Cass presents. “Tim sees. Tim sees for you. Trust Tim. Usually right.”

            Another strangled chuckle escapes Dicks chest as something in his clicks slightly closer into place. “Yeah,” Dick settles on, “You got that down. Tim is usually right.”

 

            Cass breathes in and out slowly, pleased as reaching a step towards real resolution.

 

            Like she did for Bruce, she leans her shoulder into Dick’s and waits for him to lean back – the support and solidarity and strength in the gesture doing more to say that it’s okay that he still has a ways to go before he can fully come to terms with what Cass wants him to than any form of language ever could.

 

            They will be okay.

 

            It may take a while, but they will be okay.

 

            Cass knocks Dick over just for sport as she stands and stretches out her shoulders.

            Dick just shakes his head and sighs as he lifts himself into a handstand that moves to place the balls of his feet on the insides of his elbows.

 

            Cass leaves him like that and goes off in search of Barbara.

 

            The Bats’ own Oracle is in the Manor’s kitchen, and she – as Cass expected – is welcomingly easy to assuage, tangled up in worries from which she’s already half managed to cut herself away. It won’t take much to help Babs pull herself the rest of the way out.

 

            Cass takes a perch sitting on the countertop by Babs’s shoulder, curled loosely around herself to let her limbs all balance out and rest on each other with minimal effort. She remains in silence there as Babs stares darkly at the cabinets above her current means of reaching – there is a set of lower cabinets set aside for her, and a nifty claw-like device that can extend her reach above, but she’s not looking at the Cabinets because she genuinely wants anything in them.

            She’s looking at them because – on bad days – they remind her of how much she has already lost in the course of fighting the ‘good fight’, and of how much she has left to lose.

            Barbara Gordon does not usually wallow, so she is allowed to have her moments of anger and weakness and despair in a way that Cass would never permit from Dick.

            Babs is not at risk of self-centralizing – of putting herself at the heart of a situation that truly goes well beyond, or of blaming herself and her mistakes for the entire cause of an unfavorable outcome when the situation was terrible to start with… Barbara does not wallow in her guilt or sadness, she simply mourns.

 

            And she has much to mourn.

 

            She is resigned to the necessity of it, committed fully to the choice that means she will always be at a substantially higher risk of losing her loved ones – she’s accepted that no matter what decision she makes, eventually, Life would still have given her plenty of grief to swallow.

            Barbara would prefer to mourn after pouring everything she is into the effort of trying to keep her City and her Family safe – to mourn after a real fight, and honorable, good, and truly human attempt to beat back the darkness for a short while.

 

            Eventually, Barbara sighs – heavy and frustrated, but not lost in the black swirl of regrets and self doubt and fear.

 

            Cass leans forward to squeeze Barbara’s shoulder – careful to moderate her grip, now that she understands the odd need people have to feel the strength in being gentle. Barbara, especially, demonstrates for the Family how potent and crucial the soft side of strong can be.

 

            As Barbara reaches up to grasp Cass’s fingers, squeezing them back in return, Cass assures, “Tim safe. Jason… come home. You… okay… with that?”

            “Not exactly,” Barbara admits. “I mean, I want him to come how, and I know it’s kind of an inevitability at this point…”

            “Tim wants. Will happen,” Cass agrees sagely.

            “But I still… It’s going to be a long road and I just don’t know if the others are ready for what it’s actually going to mean,” Barbara confesses.

            With a shrug, Cass retorts, “Never ready. Why do, if ready? Rise to do, make better.”

            “Yeah, I know. But I can’t help but feel like it’s still a bad idea,” Barbara sighs, but her worry is topical and her frustration mild.

            “Bad ideas… sometimes fun,” Cass counters with a conspiratorial grin.

 

            Babs gives Cass’s fingers another squeeze.

 

            “You and Jason together will be absolute terrors,” she huffs with affectionate horror at the possibilities beginning to open up. “And don’t even get me started on you two colluding with Steph… oh, lord, we really should make a preemptive rule about it…”

            She shakes her head in good humor and mock dismay as the first grays of dawn begin to filter through the kitchen window.

            “Well, I’m going to head upstairs to get some sleep,” Babs announces firmly, adding with an arched eyebrow, “You coming?”

            “Soon,” Cass promises, looking out at the dreary sparkle of morning.

            “Soon,” Babs emphasizes.

            Cass nods and releases her hold on Babs’s shoulder.

 

            She doesn’t wait for Babs to wheel away before unfurling herself from the counter and going off in search of Damian.

 

            Cass does not find her next target with nearly as much ease as she’d managed to find the first few on her list.

            Damian isn’t even at home when she starts looking.

            His silent electric motorcycle is not in the auxiliary garage when Cass checks.

 

            In coming back into the Manor proper, Cass finds Alfred taking tea in the East Wing’s first floor sitting room – Cass calls it the Blue Room because all the elegant vignettes embroidered on the plush furniture, and all the geometric patterning on the wall paper, and the soft swirls of the carpet are designs created by varying shades of blue.

            It’s not the only room in the Manor that has a singular color defining its decorative scheme, but it’s the only one that Cass likes and one of a select number that manage to catch the weak rays of Gotham’s sunrise and turn them into something magical.

            Alfred’s tea has the usual extra place set, in the eternal preparedness for the possibility that one of the Manor’s lost souls might wander in requiring the unique sort of peace and comfort afforded by a good cup of tea.

 

            Personally, Cass is more interested in the pile of cranberry scones Alfred has stacked up on the three tiered tray between the two place settings.

            “Would you like to join, my dear?” Alfred asks congenially when he spies Cass loitering at the door. Alfred is the one Family member she is not worried about – well, not exactly worried.

            She understands that he bears the greatest burden in the Family, but he is perhaps the only one actually prepared for it. He is more than capable of bearing such a toll and can even be trusted to remove himself from a command position on the rare occasion of emotional compromise without the prompt of an outside observer – and he can do it while offering his replacement a neutral lay of the options on the board.

 

            Cass is not worried about him.

 

            It may not be fair to him to not be worried, but Alfred will not begin a self destructive spiral because of the Family’s turmoil.

            Even so, Cass doesn’t hesitate to accept when Alfred offers and she promptly folds herself into the chair set angled near off from the butler – arranged so the two occupants may both look out the window over the rapidly brightening park of Wayne Manor’s easterly estate.

 

            She nabs a scone and begins munching away contentedly as Alfred pours her a cup.

 

            Alfred has taught her manners and she swallows before thanking him politely and setting her scone down to take the obligatory sip required to appease him – she has joined him in a specific ritual or sorts, as he’s explained the scenario, and it would be unspeakably rude of her not to properly partake in it.

            Lifting the cup with careful hands she gives the delicate porcelain a swirl. The cup’s creamy ceramic body, inlaid with gold accents and blue enamel to compliment the room, makes the tea within shimmer with captured light. The liquid is a vibrant burst of reddish amber and smells of earthiness and sunlight and the complicated floral milky citrus sweet of bergamot and chai that she’s come to know of through Alfred’s other lessons.

 

            It smells good, like the promise of a new days should feel, and it tastes even better.

 

            The tea curls over her tongue with a surprisingly weight gravity, bergamot oils letting the high flavors linger after the earthiness has passed – extending the evolving flavor experience of the sip beyond the first touch of tongue and well into the swallow.

            “It’s called a Morning Red,” Alfred mentions in the hush as Cass decides to take another sip and savor the strange experience. “Or more infamously, it’s known as a Mourning Red. It’s a blend crafted of a Rooibus base with a warm touch of heavily oxidized Assam, flavored with bergamot, cornflower, and just a touch of chai. It originates in the mix of cultures at the crux where Africa meets the Middle East, and has the dubious notoriety of being quite popular in Turkish high society as the primary tea served before dawn on days of religious fasting or at the funerals of particularly prominent individuals, hence the Mourning.”

            Cass nods, solemnly absorbing the information.

 

            She takes a third sip, breathing in the flavors as much as tasting them.

            “It was always Jason’s favorite,” Alfred reminisces, nostalgic in a way that encompasses both an old pain and a new and fragile hope.

            Cass keeps her eyes on the tea in her cup, a soft smile gently tugging at her lips.

 

            Jason would’ve liked the history as much as the tea itself.

            And… now that’s been mourned, he’d appreciate the mix of aptness and irony even more.

 

            Alfred is willing to appreciate it in his absence, to use it in a subtle declaration of his own unwavering support for Jason’s eventual return.

 

            Yeah. She doesn’t have to worry about Alfred in this, at all.

 

            Alfred may be the only person in the Family who is as prepared as Tim himself is for the now obvious inevitability of Jason’s homecoming.

 

            Cass finishes her scone and drinks the rest of her tea with Alfred in a companionable silence the fills her chest with the balmy contentment of Family.

            Before she has to figure out the words to make a polite refusal of Alfred’s offer to pour her a second cup, the soft click of the external door down the hall betrays the arrival of someone coming in from the auxiliary garage.

            “That will be Master Damian, then,” Alfred supplies, his own relief showing through.

            The butler arches an eyebrow at Cass, offering her the choice of going to Damian herself or of leaving it to Alfred to go (and thereby taking de facto responsibility for the tea set).

            It’s only the obligatory bones of an inquiry.

            They both know she would like to handle Damian, personally.

            Cass stands immediately, though without rushing, and takes the time to give Alfred a full 45 degree bow in thanks before she turns to go.

 

            Cass catches up to Damian as he makes it back into his room – she short cut through the main hallways where Dick could have stepped out of his room and seen her pass while Damian resolutely snuck back in through the vents in determination to keep his brother in the dark about his deepest fears.

            He pulls off the head covering of his League of Assassins’ gear as Cass takes a cross legged seat on his floor.

 

            She simply looks at him expectantly, immovable, while he glares down at her until he eventually relents and seats himself to mirror her posture.

 

            Damian smells of ash and soot, with a fertilizer tang woven in and the unmistakable smell of mentholated tobacco.

            Cass smiles, saying, “You and Jason. Investigate Tim.”

            Damian’s glower simply deepens.

            “Is good. Help Jason come home.”

 

            “Father and Grayson do not wish to have him return at all, let alone to the Manor.”

            Cass shakes her head. “Do wish. Scared. Guilty. Their fault. Jason… not alive to them, not real person yet. Is… nightmare. Phantom magic… meant to torture… to blame… to make re… re? Re… punish and make better?”

            “Repent,” Damian supplies nonchalantly and without distraction from her point – a habit that Tim had been the first to develop. He’d slowly taught the others and they’d all acclimatized to it, helping her by lending easy support without judgement and without getting off track by having to explain the full definition.

            Cass didn’t need the full definitions. The… taste of the words would fit the feelings or it wouldn’t and no amount of explanation would change that – it would simply derail the more important part in the line of conversation.

            With a nod to confirm and thank, Cass goes on, “To make repent. Scared Jason not real, and too, scared he is.”

            “They do not want him to come back,” Damian protests, gaze falling away in a rare show of weakness that clearly betrays his own fears.

 

            He rarely opened up like this, even to Cass.

            The stress of this is truly getting to him.

 

            “Hoped for better,” Cass explains, reiterating, “Hoped… ‘Rest in Peace’. Feel… their fault not peace. Fear not real, just phantom. Not full human. Just fragment. Wanted better… for him, better than this. Than Gotham and fighting and this… this world. Wanted peace, wanted… wanted heaven… for Jason, wanted heaven.”

            Damian doesn’t scoff, though his posture is stiff with disdain he is giving due consideration to the sentiments professed within Cass’s stilted explanation.

            “They are not so foolish,” Damian says eventually, words measured in an attempt to beat back the niggle of hopefulness trying to rise up inside him.

            “Not foolish, grieving,” Cass counters seriously. “Always grieve him. Always love him. And… little foolish, blame selves for things beyond.”

            Damian’s frown is thoughtful, still tight and worried, but not nearly as fearful.

            Cass uses the advantage of her long arms and Damian’s distraction to leap at him and encompass him in a tight hug, giving a smacking, affectionate kiss to his temple.

 

            “Love him. Love you. Always,” Cass promises.

 

            Damian grumbles incoherently and struggles to squirm his way out of Cass’s hold.

            She doesn’t let him escape until she gives his head another kiss.

 

            Then she lets go and hops away before Damian can dole out a reprisal.

 

            Limbs starting to feel the heaviness of stress and exhaustion, Cass makes her way down to the Cave while shaking out her abused muscles.

            Steph is still asleep in the chair at Tim’s bedside, burritoed up in a fluffy purple blanket.

 

            Cass simply sighs.

 

            Steph is… Steph is like Jason in so many ways… She’s emotionally driven.

            She frets over little things, brashly conquers big ones. She’s crass and mean and scrappy, but only to cover up how much she cares – how much she cares about people, and how much she cares about how the people she loves see her. And she, just like Jason (and just so irrationally), believes that the people she loves might not truly love her back.

            It hurts Cass sometimes, looking at Steph – feeling how sharp and significant and how totally present all of Steph’s insecurities are. Feeling how useless Cass herself is at helping her.

 

            Cass decides to let Steph sleep for now, to leave her and Tim alone.

 

            There’s still one more family member to chase down, after all, and Cass is certain that Jason won’t be sleeping – regardless of how pointedly he needs to after the night’s excitement.

 

            Cass doesn’t plan on being subtle.

 

            She grabs the helmet she has with the darkest visor and the loudest bike in Black Bat’s arsenal before streaking off into the dawn in search of the one last Family member she needs to find and set at peace before she can attempt to find her own.

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

no matter where i’d go (it wasn’t alone)

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 7 - i just need to see you ( need to feel that rush )

 

 

            Tim hurts when he wakes up

 

            He is unsurprised.

            Unsurprised by the leaching ache that’s boring into all his joints and muscles, and unsurprised that he’s woken up to have the unique vigilante luxury of feeling it.

            Of course, that may have just been Tim.

            Tim’s relationship with the concept of physical pain developed in a uniquely singular environment, and he is aware that his viewpoint is not normal and may not exactly be healthy.

            The very first time Tim felt real physical pain had been when he’d slipped while climbing down a fire escape after a very successful night of stalking Batman and Robin. He’d badly bruised his hip and sliced open the side of his hand on a rusty shard of what had once been the fire escape’s railing.

            Wary of drawing attention to himself – distinctly aware that Batman and Robin had left the area – Tim had grit his teeth, picked himself up, and used his bike as a crutch to get to the nearest neighborhood clinic (he’d memorized the locations of all of Gotham’s legitimate, anonymous, free clinics well before he started going out on these ventures – because Tim was never anything but perfectly prepared).

            He’d gotten six stitches, a tetanus shot, and a stern talking to about being out alone this late at night – and for coming to a free clinic when even his haircut said he could afford to pay.

 

            Worth it.

 

            That had been his only thought as he’d limped home, researched proper follow up care for tetanus ridden lacerations, and sacrificed his entire month’s allowance to anonymously donate twice the average annual gains the clinic earned outside of corporate donors.

 

            He had gotten hurt a few other times in chasing after Robin, and then a few more after he'd befriended Robin (befriended Jason as Robin, obviously), but mostly the incidents of pain were linked pretty intimately with good memories. Some of his best memories.

 

            And then… and then Jason had died.

 

            He died… and then… Tim had…

 

            And then Tim had foisted himself upon Bruce with the demand to let him be Robin.

 

            Tim had made Bruce take him on, despite his being a poor candidate to manage the role… He had been painfully inadequate and the training regime he had put himself through in order to achieve adequacy had been brutal.

            Those days were a blur of aching muscles and joints, of cuts and bruises, not to mention the exhaustion… The process had been effective, however, and each bit of pain had gotten him one step closer to competency in a way that felt more than worth it.

 

            Even now, Tim aches through and through on far more days than not.

 

            He barely even registers the sensation of aching muscles or a battered body as pain anymore… at this point it feels a lot more like progress.

 

            So, Tim is unsurprised to wake up feeling awful, and unsurprised that Jason had taken his olive branch and done exactly what Tim had hoped he'd do.

            And, honestly, he is unsurprised by the fact that he doesn't see Jason anywhere in the Cave – he's probably long gone, for the moment, at least.

            Tim is even unsurprised by the fact that the first face he does see when he wakes up is Steph – and she looks pissed. Probably fair.

 

            “You. Are. An. Asshole,” she lays out through gritted teeth as she glares.

            Tim just takes it – he won't officially confirm the statement on the record, but he also knows that he deserves it.

 

            “What happened?” Steph demands, running her fingers through her hair – it’s mussed and frizzed, and more than a touch greasy, as if she’s been dragging the oils in her fingers across the strands an awful lot in the last few hours. “What wer—”

            She cuts herself off from finishing the question as a muscle twitches in Tim’s jaw.

            He’s usually perfect at controlling his emotional responses, at controlling how his face exposes them – especially around the Bats.

            As he’s gotten more… involved with the Family side of the Family Business, a few exceptions have developed.

 

            The first one, obviously, is Jason.

 

            He still can’t quite bear talking with the others about Jason – neither Jason now, nor Jason then – not wholly candidly at least… Tim feels very strongly about Jason’s existence, about how he’s changed and how he hasn’t, and it’s impossible for him to bite down on those feelings when another member of the Family professes an opinion of him that’s been built on information that just simply isn’t true.

            They’re wrong about him.

            They’re all wrong… And it’s hard for Tim to stay calm and cool and collected and actually looking like he’s the rational one in a conversation when the others are just so wrong.

            He’s working on getting over it – well, over his vehemence, at least.

            Tim is right about Jason, and he’s decided that it’s best for the Family if Jason comes back into the fold, so he has to get better at covering his emotive responses in order to convince the others to see Jason clearly – which he will. Eventually.

            It’s a campaign of brute force persuasion if he’s ever attempted one.

            But he can manage.

 

            The second thing that now manages to consistently get under his skin, the only other truly big thing is when the others start to question his competency – his sanity even.

 

            What were you thinking?

 

            It’s a buzz word question at this point, almost meaningless and yet so deeply irritating that it sparks Tim to irrational anger. He’s even snapped at Alfred for asking it – and he knows that Alfred didn’t mean it like that… Alfred would never mean it like that.

            But still… it stings enough to make Tim lash out, regardless.

            In the beginning, it had some merit.

            Tim took some stupid risks. He had sometimes failed to consider all the variables at hand, to plan for every possibility that even might arise.

            He’d only been twelve, though, so he figures he should have a touch of leeway for then.

            By the time he was fourteen and actually attempting to take on the Robin mantle… mistakes like that just didn’t happen, anymore.

            Ever.

            Tim didn’t let them happen.

 

            Even so… the odds were never in their favor and… and sometimes, Tim lost a gamble.

            It was never because he didn’t account for it, never because he failed to predict the possibility or failed to plan and appropriate response… it was just that sometimes… sometimes the game was rigged just a bit too strongly against them for Tim to overcome the obstacles.

            What happened with the Teen Titans is an example of that.

            Tim fell short.

            Tim let his team down and they… they died.

            Kon died.

            Cassie. Bart… his team

            Tim let his team die.

 

            It hardly matters that Tim got them back eventually – he cheated to do it, and he knows that he will eventually be called to face whatever consequences or karma or otherwise indefinable cosmic avenger will get back at him for it, but he’s okay with that – what matters is that Tim fell short in the first place.

            And in his grief, he began taking bigger risks – or, at least, what seemed like bigger risks to his Family. Tim knew how to play the odds better than anyone, so even if he could acknowledge that he started playing more aggressively, he never permitted himself to have anything less than perfect control of the board they were playing on.

 

            But after Steph

 

            And then his parents… Tim can admit that the plane crash blindsided him a little. It shouldn’t have, knowing how often they flew around the world on business – knowing that the statistics were in their favor even if they spent their whole lives on planes, but that the odds were never 100 percent… That hurt. A lot.

            Even if Steph had eventually recovered and come back from Africa (it would have been nice if she’d sent a note or something, to confirm Tim’s half incensed hypothesis that she could survive the mortal wounding with Leslie Thompkins’s help)… she had essentially been dead for an excruciating few months.

            And even if Tim’s father had technically survived the crash, he’d been in a coma on full life support as he teetered on the edge. His father would eventually get better, but not for a long while and not without a few calls that came far too close to failure.

 

            Yeah, Tim had not been having a good year at that point.

 

            He’d been told that he needed to take some time off, at the very least – it had been strongly suggested that he hang up the cape for good, even.

            Repeatedly. Directly.

            By everyone but Alfred.

 

            And then Bruce… Bruce died, too.

            Except… he didn’t. Tim knew he didn’t. He didn’t have much evidence to prove it to a skeptical audience, but he had enough hard data to be absolutely certain on the matter.

            He had hoped… well, he’d hoped that the Family side of the Family, that he’d only just begun to truly trust in having, wouldn’t have to make him prove it. He’d hoped that they would just believe him… that they would simply trust him.

 

            He had been wrong.

 

            That had been the first time in a long time that he’d ever just been wrong.

 

            They thought the grief of the last year had finally driven him crazy or something. And between the debacle that came with the fight over who would take up Batman’s cowl to keep the symbol alive when the man who created it had died – fighting that had mainly been between Dick and Jason, honestly – there was too much mess for Tim to launch a full scale investigation or to frame a truly convincing argument around the case.

 

            Dick didn’t believe him. Didn’t want to listen to him long enough to figure out that it wasn’t just the grief that was motivating Tim’s insistence.

 

            Damian didn’t believe him… Damian openly discussed the fact that he thought Tim had cracked completely. Damian considered Tim a danger to himself, and to the other Bats as well.

 

            Steph was dead.

            (Essentially, at least… she wasn’t dead but Tim didn’t know that at the time.)

 

            The Titans – even those who’d retired before Tim had joined the team – were dead, or scattered, and none of them would even answer his calls.

            Hell, the Justice League wouldn’t answer his calls.

 

            Cass was still too new among them to really know, either way. She knew Tim felt that he was right, but she didn’t know him well enough to understand that he would never feel that way, certainly not so strongly that way, without the facts of the matter being firmly on his side.

 

            Barbara was sympathetic, but she couldn’t believe him on faith alone. She thought it was the grief, just like Dick had. She thought Tim truly believed in what he saw, but she thought that was he’d seen was just a product of an overwrought mind being pushed too far.

 

            And… Alfred …

            Tim hadn’t talked to Alfred.

            He couldn’t.

            There was a miniscule chance that Alfred would openly assert that he did not believe Tim’s theory… but if Alfred had doubted him, doubted his ability to cope, doubted his sanity

            Tim couldn’t have handled that and he knew it.

 

            So he avoided the risk.

 

            (A fairly convincing move, he felt, to prove that he was still sane and competent and self aware and wholly understanding of the statistical risk landscape he was facing.)

 

            His next few moves, admittedly, weren’t exactly helpful towards furthering that end, but he’d gotten pretty desperate and he didn’t know how much time he had left before he lost his chance and Bruce got stuck drifting about in the time stream permanently…

 

            He’d gone to Jason.

 

            Who believed him.

            Easily. Totally.

            Jason had trusted his judgement without question.

            (Which had been one of the factors that irrefutably convinced Tim that his hypothesis that Red Hood Jason still had the parts of Robin Jason that made him stand out so particularly as a special kind of hero…)

 

            Jason had believed him.

            He just hadn’t cared.

 

            That was a lie.

 

            Tim knew it. And Jason knew that Tim knew it. But between his natural stubborn streak and the Pit Rage pushing him to pitch Tim off a roof for even silently questioning the veracity of his professed nonconcern… Jason had refused to help him.

 

            So, Tim had gone to Ra’s al Ghoul.

 

            Ra’s didn’t care, either way – didn’t care if Tim was right or if he was crazy, and didn’t care if Bruce was alive or dead.

            Tim didn’t need him to care.

            Tim needed him to help.

            And Ra’s would always help Tim.

 

            Ra’s wouldn’t hesitate to help Tim. All he ever wanted in exchange was for Tim’s help on an ambiguous ‘favor’, the chance to pick Tim’s brain, and then a court side seat to just watch things play out as Tim exerted his will on the very fabric of reality. Ra’s deeply enjoyed watching Tim pull strings on the Universe – strings that had taken the Demon’s Head several centuries to find, if his praise of Tim’s abilities was to be believed.

            Ra’s ‘favor’ had been… simple. Stealing a bit of innocuous information from a bad guy who deserved the vengeance of a horde of ninja… and it was something Tim refused to look more deeply into, because it wasn’t topically a moral travesty. It had cost him his spleen, though.

            Whatever.

            His spleen is hardly the most vital organ he’d ever damaged beyond repair… If his current liver lasts more than another decade, Tim will be unbearably shocked. Don’t even start about his kidneys… He’s already got a new set of organs growing in a lab (that he has not yet mentioned to the others, and never will, unless he dies and the auto release on his data streams punt everything he’s ever touched inside the digital universe over to the Cave’s servers).

            Still, those are issues to be dealt with another day.

 

            And he’d been right about Bruce.

 

            But the idea of the others thinking that he’s crazy… yeah, that still smarts.

 

            Steph is still adapting to his vitriol over the issue. And the habit of questioning his thought process is one ingrained from the arguments they had while they were dating.

            But she’s controlled herself here, and Tim takes a deep breath to force full acceptance of the fact that she’s trying to allow him to remain open to her as the conversation continues.

 

            Tim doesn’t answer her question of what happened, just yet.

            He can’t.

            It’s too big a question for him to explain without cracking open the casefiles and putting up all his charts and data on a very visible screen.

 

            “He could have killed you,” Steph mentions heavily. “I know you know that.”

 

            “He hasn’t killed me, yet,” Tim counters with a shrug.

 

            “He’s gotten close. More than once,” Steph tells him, her voice quiet in a way that says she knows he doesn’t need the reminder – that she doesn’t need it either – but that it does have to be mentioned, because it is relevant.

 

            “But he hasn’t,” Tim presses. “He could’ve, easily could’ve. But he hasn’t. That’s important, statistically. He doesn’t want to kill me.”

            Steph blinks at him, big blue eyes filled with all kinds of twisty little thoughts and overwhelming emotion. “He could’ve just let you die.”

            “Yeah,” Tim admits, validating her concern slightly before soothing, “But the odds said he probably wouldn’t. Even when he was actively trying to kill me, when he decided not to, he arranged things so that someone else could come help me – and made sure they’d get there in time to save me successfully.”

            The ache of more emotion pours through Steph’s gaze, but she stays quiet.

            “I know, he could’ve killed me,” Tim validates again, before refuting, “But statistically speaking, it was very clear that he wouldn’t. No matter how it looks to you, I knew he would help me – and he did. That’s what matters.”

            With a frustrated, almost distraught little huff, Steph complains, “The fact that he helps you doesn’t mean very much when he’s usually the reason you’re ever half dead to begin with.”

            Tim stiffens suddenly, all his muscles going rigid despite the searing pain of the motion as dread curls in his stomach. “What?”

            “I get that you’re bizarrely okay with the whole damaged psycho puppy lashing out abuse thing that Jason’s got goin’ on, but even you have to see that it’s not healthy for you. He almost kills you on the regular, and this time… this time it was a lot more almost than usual… If Dick had been half a minute slower in getting you here, if that shrapnel had hit just an inch further towards the back of your thigh, or to the side of your torso… if the blast had been just a bit closer or stronger – even to just crack a rib… you wouldn’t have made it.”

            “Jason had nothing to do with the blast,” Tim says sharply, the vehemence in his glare making the breathiness caused by his injuries less undermining to his point.

            Steph ignores it and glares back. “It was a bomb in Crime Alley.”

            “It was a fertilizer bomb in the Bowery, by New Town – grey area where Jason’s control isn’t absolute. On most days the criminals there hardly even care that Red Hood claims their turf as his,” Tim points out firmly. “Jay only uses det cord and C4.”

            This was something he had considered, that the Family would be so dead set on blaming Jason like they usually did that they’d argue. He’d anticipated that they would likely ignore some of the evidence, that they’d initially fight and send Jason off in a huff, but he lived in a Family of detectives for fuck’s sake… They couldn’t possibly all be ignoring so many obvious clues.

            Steph frowns with puzzlement – like this is the first moment since this debacle started rolling that anyone’s even mentioned the possibility of Jason not being responsible for the initial incident of the explosion.

 

            Which is an unfortunate set back.

 

            Tim had a plan for this, obviously, but would have far preferred to have avoided the need to fall back on it. He was already working on a back-up plan to begin with here – being that the initial plan did not involve nearly getting blown to bits by the low rent gangsters he’d been investigating. Initially, Tim’s plan involved bringing the case to Jason – since it was centered around a gang claiming territory on Jason’s turf – and using the process of working a job with him to slowly introduce the idea of coming back.

            That plan was elegant and slow.

            Jason would’ve been halfway back to being inside Family before any of them even noticed what was happening.

            Having Jason save his life was a more abrupt re-entrance, and one Tim knew would cause friction, but he had hoped that it would be a clear enough good will gesture to make smoothing that tension over a less drawn out affair.

 

            Apparently not.

 

            Apparently, Tim’s stupidly optimistic belief in the Family had gotten the better of him.

 

            Again.

 

            It’s irksome, but… unfortunately, it’s not entirely unexpected.

 

            Tim knew it was a possibility, he just didn’t like to think of it as quite so plausible.

 

            Even with this idiocy confirmed, Tim can’t help but hold out a little hope that, maybe, this time they’ll actually believe him when he tries to explain. This time he has a massive case file of evidence, complete with color coded charts and data sheets, to formally convince them.

            Sitting at his bedside, Steph seems to be taking his words with their due consideration.

            Her expression is grave, but not entirely closed off.

            Tim’s hopeful that she’ll be able to come to the proper conclusion – both because she’s smart enough to see the cracks in the argument that Jason could have ever been responsible for this, and because she owes him that much to at least attempt just trusting him on faith.

 

            Steph doesn’t manage to reach the end of her internal debate just then, because Alfred appears at the med bay’s door with a tray in his hands laden with Tim’s favorite super food smoothie and a plate of Alfred’s famous miracle of nutrition packed chocolate chip cookies.

            “It’s good to see you up, Master Timothy,” Alfred greets warmly.

            “Good to be up, Alfred,” Tim returns, eyeing the tray warily and feeling out the potential of his stomach attempting to rebel against the idea of eating any of it.

            When his gut doesn’t immediately riot at Alfred sets the tray down at his bedside, Tim decides it’s worth the risk to grab a cookie. He savors in the uncanny deliciousness, and once again wonders what deal Alfred made with the Universe to so be able to defy the laws of physics.

            Alfred gives Tim an encouraging smile and then turns his attention to Steph.

            “Miss Stephanie, now that you have seen for yourself that our dear boy is awake and well, I believe you are due for a meal and some genuine rest,” Alfred mentions.

            “But, Alfie,” Steph pleads automatically, despite knowing that it’s futile to argue.

            “Ah, ah,” Alfred retorts firmly, “You agreed to the terms when we made the deal for you to remain here with Master Tim through the night. Now, off to bed with you.”

            “Yes, Alfred,” Steph submits, pulling herself up heavily to her feet with the bright purple blanket still wrapped around her – looking no more ridiculous than her original costume from when she first started going out at Spoiler.

            A wave of nostalgia strikes Tim as Steph slinks obediently out of the room, a huge yawn shifting her shoulders as her feet automatically point her towards the elevator. Alfred follows, shooing her onward from directly behind, and Tim falls into a contemplative calm as he watches their backs disappear into the Cave’s extensive shadows.

            Tim has never been terribly prone to wistfulness, and reminiscing about the good old days is unfortunately tricky when the old days weren’t exactly resoundingly ‘good’. The very earliest days, long before Tim had accidentally fallen into Batman’s field of focus – when he was just an eight and a half year old kid with a camera and a secret obsession – there had been a few high points that were truly high.

 

            Figuring out that Robin was Dick Grayson.

            Figuring out that Batman was Bruce Wayne.

 

            Catching the both of them on camera without their notice – snapping some incredible pictures of them that managed to capture their very essence in a way that mixed the human side of what made them want to fight crime with the mystique of the legends they were developing into as symbols of Gotham.

 

            Meeting Spoiler, and seeing how Batman and Robin could truly inspire a city, could encourage a kid in a bad situation to step up and do the right thing, could make someone who had every right to be angry at the world want to try fixing it instead of just tearing it down.

 

            Meeting Catwoman, and learning how grey the grey area could be.

            Meeting Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn and finally feeling like he wasn’t a freak because he thought humans were too complicated to make sense of – because humans were so complicated that he barely understood how he was feeling half the time, let alone anyone else.

 

            Figuring out how Robin grew into Nightwing with the Teen Titans by his side.

            Figuring out that the new Robin was Jason Todd – figuring out that a mantle as important as Robin’s could be passed down, that the image could be altered, the persona made slightly different, but the Robin-ness could remain.

 

            Figuring out that he really appreciated what Jason brought to the Robin role, what he brought to the hero’s legend rather than the sparkly caricature.

 

            Capturing Jason’s Robin on camera with a poignancy and potency beyond what he’d ever managed with Dick’s Robin…

 

            Tim loved the nights he’d gone out to snap photos of Jason’s Robin.

 

            He’d been better equipped to manage it than he’d been when Dick was Robin.

            In terms of his tech, he’d gotten smart about packing light and effective – backpack full of snacks, extra warm thermal layers so he could move around easily but still be warm enough without a coat, and his carefully unimpressive seeming camera tweaked to his exact specifications to best capture what shots he knew he was looking to obtain.

            In terms of mental preparedness, he’d also improved over the years – his understanding of how the patrol routes functioned had peaked, and his understanding of how Jason moved and when he would be the most expressive was constantly evolving with each new night bringing in a blast a of exciting new information, and his awareness of exactly how taxing the strain of the endeavor would be had reached an equilibrium with his physical ability to accomplish the mission he set for himself.

            Those nights had been good nights.

 

            Every glimpse of Jason had made Tim feel utterly exhilarated.

 

            There was just something about Jason… about his roughness and rawness and how he balanced the brute force approach with an incredible intellect and this unbelievable degree of emotional concern for people… that drew Tim inexorably closer to him.

            Every night, every glimpse, every cheeky grin… It was always an absolute rush to see him. Even when Tim saw Jason outside of the Robin costume, at a Wayne Gala or on TV at a Wayne Enterprises’ press conference or charity event… or even just as Jason Todd, a kid who happened to wander into to Tim’s favorite coffee shop on a regular basis.

            (Jason’s habits had in no way affected Tim’s favor for the coffee shop… not at all… it wasn’t like there weren’t three dozen others to choose from that were set up in place more naturally convenient to Tim’s official schedule…)

 

            At this point, Tim could admit to having had a fairly significant crush on Jason from right about around Day 1…

 

            It took him a while to realize it, a far longer while that it probably should have…

 

            Tim should’ve noticed that much when he started going out every single night to snap his pictures, instead of the three or four times a week he’d gone out when Dick was Robin.

            He should’ve noticed it when Jason inserted himself into Tim’s life and Tim realized that he didn’t ever want Jason to leave – not Robin, but Jason.

            He should’ve noticed it before… noticed it in time to do something about it before…

            Well, not that Tim would’ve done anything about it even if he had noticed.

 

            Tim had been too timid back then to do much of anything.

 

            Honestly… maybe it’s sort of a blessing that Tim didn’t realize exactly how much Jason meant to him until after he’d died.

            If Tim had noticed, and done nothing, and then faced having to mourn Jason after everything else… the regret would possibly have been utterly paralyzing.

            And Batman couldn’t have afforded that. He had needed someone to step up and force Bruce to see what Batman was becoming, and Tim was the only person in a position to do it.

 

            It had been pretty damn paralyzing as it was, anyway.

 

            Tim had lived in what was basically suspended animation for a month before he’d been drop kicked back into his senses by the culmination of his self abuse – in the form of a hallucination of Jason Todd being disappointed in his uselessness in the face of a very obvious and specific issue that needed to be dealt with… that Jason would’ve been pissed at him for having so carelessly failed to address it.

            Tim needed to make Bruce see that Batman had to be the hero Gotham needed.

            With Jason’s death, Bruce’s grief was making Batman into a monster, and Jason would’ve hated to see that the legacy of everything he’d lived for was going so rudely to waste.

 

            So, Tim had stepped up.

 

            His Robin days were… not good days. Decidedly not.

 

            He had a few brief moments of good, of feeling like he’d managed to accomplish what he had set out to do, but for the most part it was all a blur of grief, feelings of inadequacy, and the ever present terror of pushing the wrong buttons in a way that would make the rest of the Family realize that he didn’t belong. The Family was just beginning to rebuild after Jason, they were all still too lost to fully comprehend Tim’s degree of intrusion – and each day had been a constant battle to ensure his presence was subtle enough to keep it that way.

            While he’d been absolutely wrecked by Dick’s decision to pass Robin on to Damian after Bruce had gotten lost in time, Tim was honestly… relieved that his Robin days were over. He didn’t know how to be anyone else, but being Robin… it had always felt a bit wrong to him.

 

            He’d given it up voluntarily when Jason… had come back.

 

            Steph had taken up the mantle briefly while Cass had come in as Batgirl – neither suited their roles and each had moved on to their current positions before Damian had even come into the picture, well before Bruce had almost died.

            But Batman needed a Robin, so Tim had taken up the yellow cape again.

            Mostly for the Titans’ sake – which had just gone swimmingly…

 

            And then Bruce had almost died, and Damian’s grief had led him to acting out more than usual, and Dick had been desperate to do something to keep the Family from falling apart when he needed to focus on beating Jason in the fight for Batman’s cowl…

            It had hurt then, but Tim more than understood now.

            And he was relieved that his Robin days were definitively over.

 

            He liked being Red Robin now, though he was still trying to figure out both his role in the Crusade and his role in the Family.

            Mostly, he was focused on trying to figure out Jason’s role in the Family.

            That was the more important thing.

 

            Jason was still good, still just as sweet and heartfelt and concerned about people as he’d been when he was Robin. Red Hood’s methods were more aggressive and dramatic than any of Robin’s had been, but the heart of the matter was that the concern was still there – that the brutal methodology had evolved out of a desire to protect.

            Tim could tell.

 

            And he needed to make the rest of the Family see it.

 

            Jason’s death had torn them apart.

            His rebirth via Lazarus Pit was no less affecting – it was far more so, even, especially as his return wasn’t simply a one off event that needed to be accepted and dealt with, but rather was an ongoing series of painful reminders that continually rent the status quo asunder.

            Tim had self assigned himself the mission of reengaging Jason in the Family business.

 

            He’d snuck into Crime Alley and stalked Jason through his new routines, learning everything he could about the person Jason had become. It was… it was a lot like the old days, the pretty damn decent ones from before he was on the Bats’ radar.

            And just like in the old days, Tim felt a rush with every single new tidbit of information – with every glimpse and glance and every incident when Tim could confirm something to prove that Jason was still Jason, Pit and everything else, aside.

 

            Jason needs the Family as much as they need him, though neither side can see it.

 

            Tim knows that the challenge will be that much harder to surmount with Dick and Bruce currently blaming Jason for Tim’s immediate injuries.

            His injuries aren’t even that bad. It wouldn’t have even been an issue at all if he’d been just a bit closer to home. Tim would’ve been patched up, and given a stern talking to, and possibly a blood transfusion – though, if he’d gotten home quickly enough and Alfred had been irate enough, he may have been denied it intentionally for the purpose of being kept too weak to get out of bed for at least a few days.

            Speaking of too weak to get out of bed… While Tim’s been lost in his rare bout of reminiscing, he’s been munching on Alfred’s cookies and sucking down his superfood smoothie… and he’s beginning to feel the effects of whatever sedative Alfred put into them.

 

            He’d known the drug was coming.

 

            There was exactly zero chance that the butler would’ve ever let Tim get out of bed today.

            And he never would’ve walked away from his charge without verbally acquiring contractual consent to the circumstance unless the point was moot.

            Tim knew he needed Alfred’s miracle food to get better quickly, so skipping the meal was impossible, and he knew he needed rest, but he also knew that if he were to attempt to get rest without a chemical aid… he’d only get frustrated and antsy and attempt to get out of bed too early. So Tim was moderately resigned from the onset – an implicit agreement to be drugged that they both acknowledged as necessary.

 

            Tomorrow, though, Tim wouldn’t roll over and give in.

 

            Tomorrow – or tonight, rather, as soon as the others were out on patrol – Tim would be healed up good enough to attempt figuring out his range of motion and the limits imposed by his condition. And soon enough, he’d be back on the streets working to get Jason back into the fold.

 

            This spat with the Family over his current condition is a minor obstacle, one Tim already has a plan to counter – he just needs to be on his feet to do it.

 

            Tim will get Jason back.

 

            He needs to, so he will. Simple as that, simple as ever.

 

            It’s as much for his own sake of sanity as it is for theirs…

 

            Before Tim gives in completely to the chemical sleep coursing through him, he spots Jason’s signature leather jacket folded neatly and unobtrusively in the corner. It wouldn’t have been at all easy to spot if Tim hadn’t been looking for it expressly.

            He had a vague recollection of Jason wrapping him up in it, and had hoped that – if Jason had to be chased out by the almost inevitable friction of the Family – he would’ve left it behind as a sort of souvenir for Tim to smile over while he waited impatiently to recover.

 

            Jason would never come back for the article of his own accord.

            Which meant that Tim would simply have to bring it to him when he got out of medical.

 

            Tim could do that.

 

            36 hours. 40 max.

 

            Tim smiled to himself and settled down – meditating his way into a deeply recuperative sleep with the aid of the sedative. He needed it to be as restorative as possible.

 

            He was working on a clock, after all.

 

            Tim dreams, obviously, of Jason – and the rush he feels from getting close enough to have an easy conversation with him, even if it’s only in his dreams, makes him smile in his sleep.

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

i just need to see you – need to feel that rush (again and again and again)

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 8 - standing on the corner ( in the rainy hot night )

 

 

            Jason waits.

 

            He’s actually pretty good at waiting.

 

            Despite his reputation for rushing in with guns blazing, Jason’s perfectly able to pull back and be patient and wait for the right moment before he acts.

            Jason knows how to read a situation, how to play it all out from different angles in his head before committing to a course. And he knows when his data is bad, knows how to identify the prickles of unease that lets him know that he doesn't have enough information.

 

            Sometimes though, that aspect is not difficult to recognize.

 

            When Cassandra Cain roars up to where Jason’s chillin’ out after an exhausting few hours of attempting to excavate some usable evidence from the blown out shell of what seems to have once been a meth lab, it’s very obvious that she both knew he would be there and had come looking for him, specifically.

            Jason hardly knows the girl, but he’s picked up plenty on how she's got enough League of Assassins training to know that she could be a real threat if he's not careful. And he knows right off the bat that he doesn’t have the information to effectively be careful.

 

            So, when Cassandra roars up on Black Bat's motorcycle, sans Black Bat's costume, Jason waits. He stays leaned up against the low wall that surrounds the concrete public park area of the municipal square on the corner by where the Replacement got himself blown up and just waits for her to explain – or to do something that explains… because Jason has also picked up on the whole no-talking thing she’s got goin’ on.

            Cassandra just hops off the bike and plants herself down cross legged on the low wall's wide, flat top – staying just out of reach for hand to hand combat, and too close for a throwing blade to be effective. Jason shifts to keep her fully in his eye line, and then just waits.

            She settles in and waits, too.

            Jason’s not to terribly bothered by it.

            He can do this, can be patient enough to wait it out.

 

            Jason’s not bothered by the quiet.

            And he’s not bothered by her staring.

            With his signature Red Hood presenting a blank slate of emotionless armor, he’s not even a little worried about the possibility of her provoking and then reading some sort of micro expression that could expose his emotional core or whatnot.

            Jason can control the rest of his body language – enough to make his style of movement unrecognizable to the World’s Greatest Detective. To that whole Family of detectives who could usually identify a person and read the last eight months of their history by nothing but the god damn thread of the hem on their jeans.

            If he could fool them for over nine months, he can keep himself and his inner feelings disguised from Black Bat for the next hour, or however long she decides to keep this up.

            Jason can handle this weird sit and stare extravaganza the frickin’ mute assassin chick Bruce somehow accidentally acquired wants to pull.

 

            The only thing about it that has the potential to get under his skin – and only even has that potential because of how recently Jason got blind sided by the realization that he couldn’t allow himself to let his Replacement die – is that the feeling he gets from the way Cassandra sits and stares… Because the way she does it, the way she just sits and stares and sees is an act imbued with a unique kind of oddball focus that is uncomfortably reminiscent of how it feels to be scrutinized by Tim’s crazy little robot brain.

            It makes Jason feel like he’s being carefully vivisected, delicately inspected from the inside out… like his skin and bones and armor aren’t so much barriers as they are lenses.

            Cassandra, like Tim, seems to stare at him like he’s a puzzle rather than a person.

 

            And he gets the feeling that Cassandra, also like Tim, is frightfully good with puzzles.

 

            Jason doesn’t hate the itch of feeling vivisected.

            He definitely doesn’t like it, exactly, but he doesn’t hate it – a consequence, he thinks, of how innocently Tim-like the sit and stare phenomenon seems.

            The Replacement and he still have some major issues to work out, and Jason sincerely doubts that they'll ever genuinely be friends – or anything close, really… even if the kid does seem determined to make things between them civil – but he does… remember.

            Jason remembers Tim, and how they used to be – and, even more so, how Tim used to make him feel. He remembers Tim more clearly and more affectingly than he remembers just about anything else from before he died.

            Well, technically, Jason has a blunt but nearly perfect recall of everything from Before, but inside his head it seems more like it was a movie of someone else's life.

            Tim is one of the few triggers that makes him feel all of it.

            That makes him feel at all like any of that old life, that life from Before, was actually his.

 

            Which is just one of the reasons Jason has for repeatedly trying to kill him.

 

            It is one of the very few reasons that don’t seem to be going away, though, so it's probably pretty relevant – and likely to remain relevant until he gets that shit sorted proper.

            The other big factors have eased, a bit. Shifted, significantly, at least.

 

            The blame Jason put on the Replacement for existing was misplaced – he’d come fairly quick to the conclusion the blame and vitriol he harbored should've been focused squarely on Bruce’s shoulders. And even that… while Bruce certainly didn’t help, he’s not the one who actually killed Jason… The bat brained asshole might’ve pushed him into acting rashly, and might’ve shown up too late to do shit about any of it, but still… The Joker killed him.

            He blames Bruce for a lot, blames the Joker more, and knows he shouldn’t really blame the kid who replaced him for much of anything.

            Jason's even starting to get over hating Tim for simply being so successful at filling the pixie boots. That much of it was always rooted in Jason’s own insecurities, anyway.

            It had never really been about the Replacement himself.

            And even with the generalized hatred he bore for all things Bruce themed, the blinding force of Pit Rage was also beginning to ease as he learned more and more about how to successfully force the fire and fury and fight inside him to just simmer down a second.

            So, all of that is great, and means he doesn’t want to kill the Replacement – well, honestly, he never wanted to kill him, he’d simply felt like he needed to kill him… felt he was compelled to erase the pain of his past by removing the reminders of it in his present.

 

            But, still… the anger he holds against Tim is special – not Tim as the kid that replaced Jason, but against Tim himself, specific to him and his own idiotic doings.

            And the vague sentiment of feeling that being around Tim provokes… whelp, it ain't exactly conducive to the ‘staying calm’ thing that routinely not killing him requires.

            Jason huffs at the irksome thought – refuses to acknowledge the thought hiding just behind it regarding  a vague worry over Tim's current status of probably not dead.

 

            He eyes Cassandra suspiciously, half concerned that he should be wondering if she came as the bearer of bad news… though it is far more likely that big blue would be the one out looking for him if Tim had kicked it – out looking for his blood, at least.

 

            As Jason's gaze roams warily over Cassandra's relaxed posture, the girl breathes in slowly and opens her mouth to break the silence.

 

            “You… hurt Tim,” she states brokenly. Before Jason can get huffy and defensive, she adds, “When die. You hurt Tim… very… very…”

            “Very much,” Jason interjects on autopilot – more focused on trying to smother the roil of fury threatening to turn this strange conversation into a straight up fist fight than on anything his mouth was saying (because a fist fight with Cassandra Cain would not go well for Jason and he knows it, despite the rage urging him to attempt using his size to just over power her).

 

            Cassandra nods enthusiastically, bright eyes practically beaming at him, strangely enough – though the rest of her expression stays as blank and placid as the Bat’s best.

 

            “Hurt Tim when die, hurt Tim different when came back – try to kill,” Cassandra says, her tone taking a chilling cant of disapproval. She pauses long enough to glare the point home before going on much more brightly, “Tim live. Tim forgive. Happy to see you – so happy.”

 

            Jason's not quite sure what to do with this monologue, so he kinda just lets it roll.

            He’s also not quite sure how to take her words, so he pushes the rising roil of sentiment that’s rearing up in the back of his brain forcefully aside.

 

            “You not hurt Tim, tonight,” Cassandra says confidently. “Tonight, Tim save.”

            “No shit, Sherlock,” Jason snorts. “You figured it all out by yourself didn't you, no help at all from Daddy Bats. That bastard probably still thinks I set the damn explosion, don’t he?”

            Cassandra nods gravely.

            “Fabulous,” Jason bites, gritting his teeth together as green flicks briefly over his eyes – the reaction being mercifully hidden by his Hood.

            “Tim knows,” Cassandra promises, gesturing widely to sweep Jason’s concerns away with a dismissive hand wave. “More important.”

            “Sure, it is,” Jason huffs, cutting a snide glare at her. “You’ve never been on the Bat’s bad side, have you? ‘Cause it ain’t fun.”

            Cassandra shrugs. “Tim more important.”

            Jason snorts. “Pretty sure it ain’t Timbers’ little logo on all the fancy toys, and it ain’t his house the big bad Cave is under, and it ain’t Red Robin makin’ any crims quake in their boots.”

            Cassandra shrugs again, this time with a cutting cocky smirk pulling at her lips as she repeats, “Tim more important. Will see. Tim… bullies.”

            “Tim bullies Batman?”

            Tipping her head to the side in a move of question that suggests the answer is obvious, Cassandra doesn’t say anything and lets her smirk pull harder.

 

            Apparently, she thinks the baby seal Jason once knew actually does bully Batman.

            Before he can stop himself, the thought that he would probably like to see that shit roots itself deeply in his brain. He would probably really like to see that.

 

            A snicker from Cassandra makes him blink back to the present.

            “Will see,” she promises, like the creepy ass ninja side of her training means she can blatantly read minds, “Will see, when come home.”

            A pang strikes hard behind Jason’s ribs and he shuts down fast on any thought of what the sensation might be – snarling, “I ain’t goin’ back there.”

            Cassandra isn’t startled by his switch to vitriol.

            Doesn’t even bat an eye.

            “Will see,” she affirms steadily, with a mysterious glint in her eyes that makes her smirk seem even sharper. “Will see. Soon.”

            Before Jason can fully process her response, Cassandra unfolds herself and slides off the wall without further ado. She leans into Jason’s personal space and punches at his shoulder with a smile that seems bizarrely affectionate considering how hard the actual contact is (Jason is definitely going to bruise from that shit, armor doing fuck all against the god damn ninja girl).

            ((He doesn’t rub his shoulder against the throbbing though, at least, not until after Cassandra has disappeared around the corner.))

            Once she’s gone, and the rapidly rising sun has begun fighting to chase Gotham’s shadows away, Jason picks himself up and meanders his was over to a safe house – one he has not compromised in the last twelve hours.

            It’s not exactly pretty, but it’s got a working shower with piping hot water, and a comfy couch to crash on, so it’s more than good enough to serve his current purposes.

            Jason showers and settles down to sleep, planning out the specifics of his next move as he kills time until the first step of his vague plan can be taken.

 

            It’s an irksome timespan to wait, but Jason had resigned himself to the trial before Cassandra Cain had rolled up. He’d resigned to it right after he’d finished up picking through the rubble of the meth lab in the municipal basic utilities hub unit – helped out with getting into the tiniest little crannies by the Demon Brat, of all people.

            (Which is something Jason doesn’t want to think to hard about, and instead turns his focus entirely onto the work to be done.)

            There was a case here, clearly, and Tim had been working it.

            What that case was, nobody knew… According to the Bat Brat, Tim hadn’t logged any new case files on the Batcomputer’s server for over a month – and he’d only done bare bones updates on the active records for the other cases he had running.

            Which means he’s been pouring at awful lot of focus into this, working it entirely off the grid and keeping it quiet from right under the noses of the Bats’ brightest brains.

            Of course, Jason hadn’t noticed his forays into Crime Alley, either, and this shit hole neighborhood is supposed to be his god damn turf.

 

            So, finding the idiot’s case files – because no Bat Brat could ever run a case without keeping files on it, even Jason’s never managed to kick the habit – is now Jason’s priority.

 

            He waits eleven whole hours, until 6 pm on the day after the Replacement got himself blown to shit on his turf, before he slips out to investigate one of Tim’s most frequented safe houses.

 

            6 pm is the sleepiest hour of the day for vigilantes.

            Especially, vigilantes with daytime personas to maintain.

            It’s the time when they’re all eating supper and taking naps, and generally not being terribly alert about anything at all that isn’t immediately world threatening.

 

            It’s the only time when Jason has much of a chance at getting into one of Tim’s apartments without being immediately noticed.

            The baby bird’s security set up is pretty ace and it’s gonna take a significant snatch of time here to get through it all without setting off every alarm in the Cave and GCPD – well, he’s pretty sure he’s gonna trigger a few, but with the Bats all sleepy and shit, he should be able to get it to turn off and register as a faulty signal before anyone actually looks at it.

            And to lay his own alarms within the signals so he can know ahead of time if anyone does decide to take a look.

            Because this isn’t just a smash and grab.

            Jason knows that Tim’s got a twisty little mind and he’ll have taken pains to have hidden any case files he’s created regarding whatever he’s working on at the edge of New Town.

 

            Working as quickly as he carefully can, Jason slips into Tim’s apartment via the conveniently located skylight that Tim had gotten installed as soon as he’d bought the place – under the guise of it being important to maintaining his delicate rich boy skin care routine and to his sleep schedule to have plenty of natural lighting.

            This is one of the safe houses that Tim owns openly, he even had it registered under his real name – it stands as a legit apartment more than a bolt hole like the one Jason had dozed away his afternoon – and it actually had made the god damn news when Tim had elected to renovate the place. Granted the story only appeared in the pop pages of the Gotham Gazette, but still… Jason thought it was ridiculous, regardless of how it meant he conveniently knew the new layout – and could make solid guesses at the extra tricks and snazzy security boosts.

            It takes about eight minutes to get inside, and he has to leave his tablet running a constant loop of interference signals to counter act against the alarms trying to determine whether or not the skylight is actually open. He’s also got it running protocols to counter any alarms that might be triggered after he gets inside – like from pressure plates under the expensive tiling splayed in elegant patterned across the main room’s open floor plan.

            The floor’s actually a pretty cool, an oddly modern revisioning of old world Greco-Roman mosaics. Away from the main room, the flooring spreads out into more Asian inspired designs – flat wide planes of dark hardwood, for the most part, and down the hall Jason glimpses at least one room covered with traditional tatami.

            Yeah, not a single slide of hidey hole potential had been ignored in the renovation of this frickin’ place… Good thing Tim’s just the seventeen year old co-acting CEO of two of the nation’s biggest corporate technology conglomerates, with more money than god, a genius IQ, and the kind of moral grayness usually attributed to Bond villains… Yeah, not like this kid could be a good damn spy or anything… And all Jason’s glanced at so far is the frickin’ floor.

 

            This could fucking take a while.

 

            With just one more grumbled complaint about Tim’s chronic deviousness being exacerbated by close contact with Bruce’s frickin’ paranoia complex, Jason begins a systematic perusal of Tim’s potential hiding places.

            While he goes about it, he can’t help but also assess Tim’s interior design skills.

            There’s a shit ton of rich boy pretension and entitlement in the décor, but at the same time there’s a certain subtlety to how the layout flows and how the individual aspects all complement each other that makes it work without feeling artificial or gaudy.

            It’s very clear to Jason as he shuffles through the place – digging up more honey pot slicks than a Bornean bee cave as he goes, though he sadly doesn’t have time to peruse the contents of these stashes beyond determining that they’re not about the New Town meth lab – that Tim made every single design choice in here.

            And just like Tim, it’s a mix of everything he’s ever come in contact with – the things he’s encountered and decided were useful enough to just steal and make work for him.

            It feels a bit to Jason like he’s picking through Tim’s brain, and in many ways the analogy rings true, but more than that… he’s combing through Tim’s brain as Tim sees it.

            Honestly, that’s the part that’s disconcerting.

            The general slobbery Tim’s adopted in half of the house, the pristinely kept condition of his camera space and dark room, and chaotic, but clearly organized arrangement of the desk set up with his central tech array, the intermixing of new and old and East and West… It’s an odd look at Tim’s awareness of himself.

            Jason’s not sure he likes poking into it.

            And considering how he was raised by the world’s greatest detective to be unbearably and insatiably nosy, the disquiet he feels seems achingly out of place.

 

            Jason tamps the sensation down like it’s just as misinformational as whispers from the Pit, and keeps his focus on the work.

 

            Two hours in, and nada.

            Jason’s still got nothing to show for it.

 

            And while he’s not exactly out of places to check, he’s done a once-over of the whole apartment and now needs to isolate a few places that might have a higher likelihood of being the spot where Tim would store this particular file, so he can dig deep into the potential slicks.

            But Jason’s confused.

            By all appearances, this incident isn’t linked to anything important. It’s just a low rent drug case, maybe tied into an overly ambitious gang – at worst with a few ties to the New York mob. Not even rating Falcone levels of interest.

            Nothing worth keeping so secret.

            And since it’s currently Tim’s primary active case… Jason would’ve thought he’d want it to be easily accessible.

            It’s a frustrating road block, and a solid reminder that Jason doesn’t really know Tim anymore – if he ever could pretend he did, to be honest.

 

            He ends up standing in the disaster zone that is Tim’s bedroom – between several different piles of clothes in various states of uncleanliness, and several different piles of technology in various states of dismantled – with his hands on his hips and a vague notion to start just digging through the disarray to just clean the place up. Maybe even leave finding the right file on the back burner of things. Alfred would be ashamed of the baby bird for this shit.

            The dark side vigilante is still undecided when he hears a low click from the main room – the sound of someone coming inside through the door to the balcony, someone with the proper codes and permission for entry authorized by Tim directly.

            Jason lets his hand drift to the holster on his left hip, but only lets his thumb brush the handle as he creeps silently towards the bedroom door. The Bats don’t use lethal force – even the Demon Brat sticks to maiming, now – so Jason doesn’t have to have his finger on the trigger to be ready to brawl and if he keeps his threat level low, he might be able to get out of here without making relations between them all too much worse.

 

            He’s worked way too hard at carving out this survivable equilibrium to throw it out now.

 

            And, some niggling part of his brain reminds him, if he’s not a threat, he might possibly get a voluntary update on baby bird’s condition – those first twelve hours after the crisis resolves are still pretty dang dangerous, after all.

 

            Jason slides along the wall to get an angle on the main room from the sliver of open space he’d left in the doorway to the bedroom.

            When he gets a glimpse of Batgirl’s bright purple cape, he carefully nudges the door open further and searches for signs that any of the others came with her.

            Seeing none, Jason steps cautiously into the hall and gets halfway down to where she’s standing before she even manages to look up. They both freeze when she does.

            “What are you doing here,” Batgirl asks, voice loaded with the kind of resigned and unsurprised vitriol usually attributed to people on the wrong side of the tracks when talking about the rats they’re forced to co-exist with.

            “Could ask you the same thing, Blondie,” Jason snarks back, adding, “Ladies first.”

            She straightens up and crosses her arms – loosely, so that she’s still combat ready, but in a gesture to say that she’s not looking to pick a fight. And to further support that sentiment, she relents to answering his question before getting an answer of her own.

            “I’m here trying to figure out what the hell happened last night,” she asserts, glaring at him with a clearly foregone conclusion in her head.

            “You ain’t the only one with questions,” Jason presses as he rests the heel of his hand on the butt of his gun, pushing it deeper into its holster to return Batgirl’s loose gesture of faith.

 

            They stare at each other in silence for a moment, measuring each other up across the ground between them like the good ol’ kids of Gotham grit they are. Jason knows enough of Stephanie Brown to know she’s from a not so great tract of town – not quite as bad as where he’s from, but not so far removed to be all that better off.

            They might not be siblings in squalor or whatnot, but they’re definitely cousins.

            Of all the Bats that joined up with the Crusade after Jason had kicked it, she’s definitely the one he’s got the most in common with.

            They speak the same language, harbor the same innate distrust, chafe under the same restrictions, and possess the same kind of stubborn, aggressive determination to protect the few people they’re willing to call their own. And more than that, they can both consciously and unabashedly recognize the substantial list of similarities that resonate between them.

 

            Which is why they never skip the posturing, but always skip the small talk.

 

            “This is your fault, you know,” Stephanie states, voice full of certainty and confidence, but intriguingly absent of any venomously barbed accusation. “I don’t care what Tim says about this shit with the fertilizer bomb and whatnot—”

            “He’s awake?”

            Jason’s mouth interrupts the girl before his brain even fully processes his question.

            It has to be true though, because Tim was out of it well before he got to the Cave.

            There’s no way he could’ve been yappin’ away about fertilizer bombs or any of it unless he’d recovered consciousness.

            “Maybe,” Stephanie confirms petulantly.

 

            It still makes something tight and thorny inside Jason’s chest loosen up the hold it had on his heart and lungs. He nods absently, accepting her response and the truth it implies.

 

            Stephanie huffs. “This is still your fault, though.”

            “I didn’t have anything to do with the god damn bomb,” Jason retorts.

            “Even if you didn’t, which I’m still not entirely convinced of, b. t. dubs,” Stephanie says, gesticulating dramatically as she cuts to the aside, “It’s still your fault that Red Robin was even on your side of town to start with – that he’s been going over there at all without his bio trackers turned on or any way for us to follow him.”

            “How the fuck is that idiot’s dumbassery my fault?”

            “He’s only doing this because he wants you to come back to the Family,” Stephanie states, like the facts of the matter should be obvious.

            “Like hell he is,” Jason growls. “He’s the one who first suggested the whole plan where I stay in my own shitty corner of the god damn sandbox.”

            Batgirl’s hands find her hips in an exasperated snort of superiority. “He did that to prove that you could be reasonable. He did it to get you off the Bats’ active capture list. The rest of us all thought you were still Pit crazy, detox with the Outlaws or not, but Red Robin said you could be bargained with – and held to the agreement.”

            Jason’s glaring, but his brain is too gummed up with attempting to process her statement to respond. Tim convinced the rest of the Bats to let him hold Crime Alley? To ignore his means of controlling it unless he took his methods outside of his allotted neighborhood?

 

            How the fuck did that happen?

 

            The last time Jason saw Tim, before last night, was the night before he’d called Roy and Kori in a half crazed throw of desperation. The night before he’d left to marathon a series of off-world missions with the Outlaws, and to try to get his head on straight.

            They’d kicked a whole bunch of alien ass and then spent a long few weeks regrouping on their own private island in the South Pacific. Roy and Kori had their own issues to work through, and all three of them had used the time to get their inner demons out and laid bare – their own special version of an AA intervention away-stay summer camp…

            But instead of for alcohol it was for a genius war-vet with anger issues, a drug problem, a dissociating robotic arm, and a new daughter, an alien princess trying to come to terms with what happened to her when she’d been sold into slavery, and a zombified former street kid dealing with the consequences of giving his knot of insecurities and anger issues a dip in a demonic swimming hole so vile it had a 100% success rate in driving survivors insane, and only a 4% success rate for not instantly killing the people subjected to it.

            It had been about four weeks of continuous off-world badassery, and then almost five months of methodically working through the downsides of being that kind of awesome and learning to control the inescapable consequences of what made them that way.

            He’d gone with them for that express purpose, intentionally; he’d gone because he’d realized how deep the Pit’s claws had dug their way into his psyche – because he’d started having trouble with being able to tell what it was that he wanted and what it was the Pit wanted.

 

            He’d gone because he’d almost killed Tim again, because he’d made a third attempt on that god damn idiot’s defenseless little life.

 

            Jason hadn’t killed him, obviously, and he doesn’t even think the other Bats even know about the third attempt – it had been pretty spontaneous and hadn’t involved a weapon other than Jason’s bare hands, so it could possibly have been passed off as an accident if Tim had chosen not to level the blame at him (Jason doesn’t know why he ever would, but Jason’s also rarely ever known what’s going on inside that ridiculous robot brain of his).

            But still… it had been a moment of weakness, a moment when Jason lost control in a different way… Like it wasn’t just the Pit putting whispers in his head to make him want and need and simply urging him to follow those desires… That time, it had felt almost like he’d lost control of his physical body altogether – like the Pit had taken his brain out of the equation and just worked him over like a human meat puppet.

            He’d almost killed Tim the last time they’d been within a hundred yards of each other, and with that as his last impression before Jason went off detoxing, before seeing Jason come back to reclaim Crime Alley for the Red Hood under only slightly different parameters, Tim had decided to advocate for letting Jason stay unmolested in his own little corner?

 

            When the negotiations had first been struck up and it had been mentioned that it was Tim’s idea to create a rigid boundary, Jason had thought it was because he hadn’t wanted to risk being caught anywhere near Jason – especially caught unaware.

 

            But… Stephanie is saying something else, something that changes the framing…

            Significantly.

            He’s not sure how to sort that.

 

            Stephanie seems unsure as well.

            She’s staring at him from behind her cowl, trying to rationalize whatever she’s seeing.

            “You didn’t know,” she states eventually, quiet – like it’s a revelation she thinks might be best kept secret. “You have no idea how determined he is to get you back into the Family.”

            Jason’s mouth runs away with him again, “Well, why the fuck would he be?”

 

            Stephanie deflates. Shrinks. Shows the human hiding inside the vigilante costume.

 

            Jason doesn’t understand it, and isn’t sure he actually wants to.

 

            She stares at him like she’s seeing him for the first time all over again, like she’s found a new point of reference to evaluate him with – to use in comparing herself to him – and like she’s both unsure she likes what she sees and relieved that she sees it.

            It grates at Jason’s relative calm.

            Before his antsiness can build beyond reckoning, Stephanie sighs.

 

            “Oracle thinks he’s been trying to look into some low rent gang trying to push into Gotham from New York, using some sort of drug connection on the edge of New Town,” Stephanie states, switching into work mode. “Have you found his hard copies, yet?”

            The question spikes another thread of frustration, but it’s a different enough road block to make the transition smooth without allowing them any chance to compound together.

            “Nope, I got jack shit,” Jason admits. “I’m about to start ripping up floor boards here, unless you’ve got a better idea.”

            She ponders the question for a moment, looking at Jason, looking at the apartment, looking back at Jason… “Have you tried the refrigerator?”

            Jason blinks. “Qué allí?”

            Stephanie shrugs. “Well, he doesn’t keep much food in it.”

            “Fair point,” Jason responds, an involuntary chuckle escaping.

            With a nod, Stephanie goes on, “And he’s only got a real kitchen to begin with because you apparently like to cook – he’s got a spot in here designed for everyone. He only uses like three things in the kitchen, maybe four… the coffee maker, the microwave, the sink, and… the fridge is more like a local forum of his current favorite Family photos. That’s why it’s so big despite the fact that it usually only has a single case of some sort of Asian energy drink in it.”

 

            Jason’s not sure why Stephanie suddenly feels all yay sharing, but he decides to roll with it as they start moving towards the refrigerator.

 

            Honestly, he hadn’t noticed that the fridge might seem so over sized to the average person. It looks almost exactly like the kind of thing he would want inside his own kitchen.

            But stepping back and looking at it as an object in space, rather than an appliance with a given degree of utility, it is rather over large in the surface area department – something that goes easily unnoticed due to the well designed layout of the photographs posted on it.

            It’s an artful display.

            Very Tim; tasteful, elegant, and laced through with a deeper commentary meant for him alone to read and reflect on… And something… something about it makes Jason pause.

            He nudges Stephanie’s elbow to hold her back from opening the fridge right away and shifts his stance to stare at the array of pictures. Two things bother him.

            First, and most obviously, there’s a picture of him there – a recent one, from two weeks ago, at most. He’s sitting back on the rooftop where Tim found him last night, relaxed in the heavy heat of a summer evening, blowing smoke rings with his cigarette. It’s a playful, calm, and very human photograph, rendered in a dramatic interplay of light and shadow and color.

            It makes Jason look like a very different person than he sees himself as being.

            It makes him kind of want to meet the person Tim thinks he is.

 

            It also makes him wonder how the hell Tim got that shot.

 

            Before he can sink too deeply into that consideration, he notices the pattern with the photographs that’s been niggling at him – inching its way into his awareness.

            “These look grouped funny to you,” Jason asks, making the final sorts through his head about why the arrangement looks off.

            Stephanie pauses. Assesses. “Not really. It’s not much different from his usual.”

            “You got a black light in that belt, right? Pull it out for a sec, I wanna check something.”

            Confused, but compliant, Stephanie pulls out her black light as Jason hits off the over heads and switched his Hood’s lenses through the various filters he has set – rotating through all of them in a brute force assessment.

            He lands on one with less surprise than he’d anticipated – overheads off, black light on, lenses set in a red blue split shift like it’s a cereal box decoder ring… bright purple writing in Tim’s signature scrawl of shorthand flares to life, with some additional notes in red and blue.

            It looks like… percentages. And some random letters. Several sets of number letter pairs, running data together in a multivariable comparison. The photos are grouped by their numbers – the combined average of their statistics being used as something like inverted coordinates.

            “Oh.”

            Stephanie’s slight exclamation makes Jason look sideways at her.

            “You got any idea what this shit means, or has the baby bird just straight up cracked?”

            “It’s a running odds board, on a long con. Tim’s whipped them up for a couple of cons we’ve done when specialized, coordinated undercover work is necessary,” Steph explains.

            Gesturing to the elements in turn, she elaborates, “These are the different players, this number is the priority of convincing them of whatever you’re trying to pull, this one’s the percentage of how far along you are with convincing them, and this one’s listing out what game plan you’re running on them and what phase of it you’re at…”

            Stephanie shakes her head as Jason tries to process that, going on in building disbelief to say, “He’s got more than just the Family here, he’s got the Titans, too… and the Justice League.”

            “What the hell for?”

            Taking a slow breath, Stephanie turns towards Jason with caution and says, “For you.”

            “Bull. Shit.”

            “It’s definitely for you, it’s in the kitchen,” Stephanie points out, extrapolating, “I think it’s a running count of where he is on course for getting you back into the Family. Holy hell, man, he’s been playin’ this since you got back the first time – I think he pegged you as you when Red Hood was still just a body dropping ghost story.”

            She sounds impressed – and a touch sad, for some inexplicable reason, but unsurprised.

            Jason’s just reeling.

            Because seriously.

 

            The fuck is going on?

 

            Tim’s got a game set against his own god damn Family – and the idea of having a family at all is something Jason knows Tim’s been pretty damn desperate for since Jason first met him.

            And he’s supposedly got this game runnin’ for Jason’s sake?

            He’s risking the Family’s wrath to push a play on getting Jason back involved?

            And he’s been running it from way back when Jason was still actively trying to kill him?

 

            The fuck is that shit?

 

            “Frickin’ psycho robot,” Jason breathes, shaking his head.

            Yeah. No. He cannot take this shit.

 

            Baby bird can throw away his own life if he really wants to, but no way is Jason gonna contribute to that shit. He doesn’t want to go back to the Bats and they don’t want him there anyway – he doesn’t belong and doesn’t want to.

            End of story.

 

            Tim’s not gonna gain any ground by risking his own spot in the nest.

            And Jason ain’t about to encourage it.

 

            Which means that this whole working more or less amicably with Batgirl on a quasi-mutual case revolving around Tim’s idiocy has got to stop. Right the fuck now.

 

            “You know what?” Jason rasps, a building venom in his voice as he feels the Pit’s fury start to surge and whole heartedly embraces the heat. “Fuck it. Just fuck it all. I don’t even care anymore. You wanna know what happened to the shithead Replacement? Have at. Just leave me out of this crazy ass shit. And stay out of Crime Alley, or you won’t be walkin’ home, got it?”

 

            He doesn’t wait to see if Stephanie nods – or reacts at all, really.

 

            Jason just spins on his heel and jogs back to the main room.

            He shoots his grapple gun at the sunlight and rappels up to it as fast as possible – snatching up his tablet as he passes through the gap and rolls over through his landing.

            He takes off running and is in the air again, swinging back towards Crime Alley, before the alarms begin to blare.

 

            Jason doesn’t even slow down until he’s more than safely within the bounds of Crime Alley’s border. He doesn’t stop until he hits the river on the far side of his turf, until he’s at the furthest point he can get from any of the reasonable access routes.

            Ironically, this curve of mid-rises right along the river between two sketchy little warehouse districts is the closest point inside Jason’s turf, geographically, to Wayne Manor – and Jason finds himself facing that way as he stops pacing long enough rip his helmet off and struggle through the effort to light a cigarette.

 

            Getting the damn thing to burn is a challenge as the sky opens up with a downpour, but he gets it done eventually, and takes a long drag on it as he stands on the corner jutting out furthers towards the mainland.

            He takes another one immediately after huffing the smoke out from his first breath.

            If it hadn’t been so important to his sanity, if he hadn’t been doing it for so long already, and if it wasn’t helpful to have to focus on controlling his diaphragm, Jason would’ve been hacking up a lung after the first two breaths.

 

            As it is, he makes it to the filter in about three minutes and he’s still wired up like a fuckin’ kite, but at least he’s in slightly calmer skies.

 

            His second cigarette takes over five minutes, and after it, he’s calm enough to just breathe for a minute.

            His throat is still tight, and his heart’s going a mile a minute, and his gut’s still churning away, but he’s detached from the worst immediacy of it.

 

            Jason lights up another cigarette and scrubs his fingers through his hair – staring towards Wayne Manor as he takes a drag. He can’t see the Manor, can’t even see the echo of a hint of lights from it. Can’t tell if he’s glad or not.

            Briefly considers sneaking out across the river to get a clear look at the place, to see if he can glimpse a light in the window he knows belongs to Tim’s room – wondering if they’ve moved him up there from the Cave’s med bay yet…

            Just as quickly, Jason dismisses the thought.

 

            He doesn’t care anymore, he doesn’t – refuses to if it means giving Tim a reason to act out like such an idiot.

 

            “The fuck you think you’re even doing, asshole?”

            Jason’s not quite sure if he’s asking Tim, or asking himself… He remains unclear as he takes one last drag and turns his back on the Manor to head for a safehouse.

 

            He can’t bring himself to wonder if it even matters.

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

 

standing on a corner in the rainy, hot night ( wondering if you were at home )

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 9 - my pocket's full ( of someone else's cigarettes )

 

Timothy Drake does not like waiting.

 

            At least, not when the factor at the crux of the equation is him.

            He can wait for basically ever if he’s waiting on someone else, or waiting for an external piece to fall into the place he’s slotted for it. He’s been called frightfully, obsessively, patient.

            But if he’s the thing he’s waiting on… Tim demands immediate results, instant perfection – or at least as quickly as is possibly conceivable according to the laws of physics. And he’s perfectly willing to attempt bending even those purportedly immutable rules.

            He expects himself to perform to a par he sets himself – expectations that have been called ‘unreasonable’ by many, but none of those who would think so have ever made a truly convincing argument against them. Mostly because they all can perform up to that par easily.

 

            Fourteen hours after getting himself blown up, Tim wakes up and takes stock.

            Makes a schedule.

 

            36 hours, he decides. 40 max.

 

            Reasonable.

            Perfectly reasonable, considering how all that’s wrong with him is a little bit of blood loss. He’s had three transfusions (a massive amount, to be sure, but he’s always taken well to them, and having had two of them be with his own natural blood stores helps) and he has all his immune supplements and mineral supports, and the nutrient boosts Alfred sneaks into the IVs.

            So what if the average civilian is down for two weeks from something like this?

            The average cape is up after no more than two days.

            And Tim’s on a tight schedule. Tighter than usual, even.

 

            He’ll throw a couple naps in and take it easy over all, but he’s gotta be up and out of bed before something happens that sends Jason back to ground.

            The ideal schedule would have him out of the Manor in 10 hours, but Tim is realistic.

 

            As soon as he gets himself settled and sorted after his disconcerting chat with Steph, Tim hunkers down and sleeps for almost 11 hours – the sedative in Alfred’s cookies helps.

            After that he’s given real food and detached from all the wires and tubes keeping him in the hospital bed. Unfortunately, his rush on reputation means that as he’s given more physical freedom, he is simultaneously moved back up to his second floor bedroom – just far enough away from the Cave to make sneaking down to get an early work out in extremely implausible.

            It’s irksome, but not unprecedented or unexpected.

            Tim allows himself to nap another two hours after the exertion of getting up to his room.

 

            When his alarm goes off, he forces his muscles up and out of bed.

            He drinks an entire bottle of his special hyper-nutritional slurry, wraps his injuries in plastic, and takes a careful shower – with a hot water yoga routine helping to coax his muscles back into a reasonable semblance of functionality.

            The effort is exhausting and afterwards he has to take another two hour nap.

 

            When he wakes up from this nap, he’s already 17 hours into his schedule – not behind, exactly, but running on a very slim margin of error.

            It’s around 1 am and the others will be in the thick of Patrol, at the moment – possibly even thinking about starting to wrap up and head home if it’s been a quiet night. He’s running out of time to make substantial progress and with that pressure in mind, Tim forces himself up and works through a basic exercise routine.

            The set is one he designed himself, based on the most simplistic martial arts kata he knows and combined with elements of the conditioning Pilates routines Bruce had taught him (and elements he’d picked up by hacking into the Batcomputer’s secure files to investigate what he’d taught the others before him). When performed in his room, under circumstances of restricted space and the need for his movements to avoid triggering the motion sensors hidden in his room, the Pilates routines effectively go back to their roots as PoW regimens meant to keep imprisoned soldiers from driving themselves insane with inactivity.

            Tim is not a prisoner, per se, but he certainly cannot afford to be noticed in his stepped up activities – another bout with Alfred’s special cookies is not something that could possibly fit into the schedule he’s outlined for himself at the moment…

 

            Running on easy through his routines, Tim works his muscles systematically for the next three and a half hours, but as 5 am approaches and the summer sky starts to grey, the risk that his Family’s impending return home will result in his being checked on begins to outweigh the benefits of another set of repetitions.

            As he’s taking another shower, this one, moved through with a carefully acted carefulness, Tim’s precautions are validated.

            Dick comes in to check on him, and waits outside his bathroom door until he emerges in a spray of steam – that worried puppy dog pout in place as he sits curled up in Tim’s reading nook armchair. “You should still be resting,” he points out, his concern annoyingly genuine.

            “I felt gross, Dick,” Tim protests, pulling on some fresh pajamas. “I haven’t had a shower since I got blown up by a fertilizer bomb in a meth lab and I’ve been laying in the same clothes for two days. I know you grew up in a circus, but I grew up in the wonderfully hyper sterilized conditions of first world high society luxury.”

            Tim feels a touch guilty for pulling the ‘crappy childhood he didn’t realize was crappy’ card on Dick, especially in combination with the jibe at his own unconventional childhood, but the comments are distracting enough to help start desensitizing Dick’s big brother worry meter to the flare of irrational emotion that strikes at the comment of how Tim had gotten caught unawares in an explosion that nearly killed him.

            It’s a brutal kind of mind game – one he didn’t have to learn from Bruce.

 

            His Mother taught him well enough, at that.

 

            It’s also one that Dick has never really grown into a conscious awareness of playing, and as such it’s still proving temptingly effective – though, Tim has enough self control to only utilize it when the circumstances call for drastic action.
            Emotion and conflicting concerns compete for dominance in Dick’s head, the flutter of his feelings showing plain across his face as Tim maneuvers himself into bed. He settles on concern for Tim’s health, but not fixed solely on his physical health or even on his mental health in regards to his apparent recklessness with Jason – he’s also clearly considering Tim’s irksomely deep seeded need for Family connection in general.

            “You know, it’s been a while since we watched a movie together?” Dick offers, suggesting hopefully, “Maybe that Star Wars interlude you like?”

            Tim sighs. He and Dick have their issues, but Tim still considers the acrobat to be an extremely important person in his universe. “I’m pretty much always up for Rogue One,” he relents, adding in a slow admission, “I’ll probably fall asleep halfway through.”

            “S’okay,” Dick promises, deeply relieved that Tim hasn’t refused him, “You’ve explained it enough times that I can probably keep track of what’s going on all by myself.”

            Tim settles into bed and sneakily sets his alarm to go off in about six hours as Dick gets the movie queued on Tim’s smart TV before settling in under the covers with him. Tim lets Dick cuddle up close, knowing that the caution Dick’s displaying in being affectionate is less a newly developed respect for Tim’s less than enthusiastic reciprocation and more a fear response that’s fixated on the fact that they’d only very recently moved passed the Robin issue.

            Officially, at least, things are still not entirely smooth regarding that (because emotions of that scale are not exactly things that can be reasoned with or negotiated over), but they are much better – and Tim would like to keep them that way.

            Accepting the octopus hug now is the most effective method Tim has found to give Dick a solid assurance that they’re still good – good enough to definitely still be Family, to still be brothers in life and bothers in arms without question.

            Tim does fall asleep halfway through the movie. And he stays asleep when Dick eases himself out of Tim’s bed and shuts the TV off before heading to his own room.

            He rests, mostly peacefully, until his alarm goes off at 10am.

 

            24 hours in.

 

            The others are already at work or school, and Tim can head downstairs to get something to eat without anyone but Alfred throwing him any concerned glances.

            Alfred isn’t subtle about his concern, but he also isn’t abjectly disapproving.

 

            Especially as Tim eats his breakfast, and drinks his nutritional slurry, with an obedient willingness that’s offset by his complaints of being bored and babied.

 

            He spends two hours downstairs, settled into the library with Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem – carefully pretending the object isn’t plastered with coded case notes on his plot to get Jason back into the Family, the physics problem proving too perfect a metaphor for him to resist especially in how the novel’s plot of false accusations and dramatic, emotional intrigue complicates the matter in concert with the problem he’s observing inside the Bat Family.

            Two hours of ‘reading’, another two hours upstairs performing his clandestine workout routine, and then two more hours taking yet another nap.

 

            By 4pm, Tim is allowed to be downstairs for six hours at a stretch.

 

            He eats dinner with the Family, a tense affair where very little of significant note is discussed – just light discussion of some banalities from the Family’s daytime lives.

            By the time the others are getting ready to go out on Patrol, Tim’s wheedled his way into permission to come down to the Cave after he takes yet another nap.

            Tim makes a show of taking it easy as he works through a gentle tai chi routine while Alfred checks in with everyone on coms – being subtle enough about reporting on Tim’s actions that if he didn’t know Alfred would never deny the others his keen assurances, Tim could almost believe that he wasn’t being watched at all.

            Afterwards, he heads upstairs for the night. Runs through three hours of a much more strenuous workout, and then throws himself into sleep.

 

            At 40 hours, he’s awake and eager to hit the streets.

 

            Unfortunately, it takes another three hours for a reasonable opening to arise.

 

            Summer schedules are notoriously dynamic and Tim berates himself for failing to adequately plan for the fact that Damian’s supplementary classes would give him a random delayed opening on a Wednesday. Not to mention, for failing to confirm the scheduling of it.

            He won’t make that mistake for tomorrow.

            Damian wouldn’t mind if Tim ran himself to death, but he would likely tattle on him to Dick the moment he left the Manor, so Tim spends and extra three hours fighting hard not to show his antsiness, confirming every single minute detail of everyone’s schedules for tomorrow, and mentally working through the most likely places to which Jason could possibly have retreated post Cave debacle.

 

            Five minutes after Damian leaves, Tim’s hits the Cave – fully dressed, and ready to go.

 

            He doesn’t try to BS Alfred into thinking that he’s just going to do yoga, or catch up on some case notes, or anything. He doesn’t talk to Alfred at all.

 

            Tim simply heads downstairs.

 

            With a brief detour through the Library to collect one last piece to set the dominoes he’s laying, Tim’s first stop is the Med Bay. He heads straight to the corner where Jason’s leather jacket is still neatly folded up and tucked into an out of the way nook.

            He buries his face in the article and breathes in deeply – an indulgence he allows himself simply because he knows that there’s no possibility for any legitimate satisfaction regarding the aching crush of half acknowledged want behind the urge. He breathes in the scent of leather and gun powder and cigarette smoke and musky grime and, of all things, bacon, without any burst of guilt at the selfishness of it.

            The smell of this jacket is all Jason, Jason now, Jason as Red Hood and the young man who’s clawed his way back from the dark edge of oblivion by sheer force of will alone – the innate goodness of his heart beating back the venom of Ra’s al Ghoul’s vile insanity.

            He’s not the kid that Dick and Bruce and even Barbara miss, but Tim… Tim thinks he’s more impressive now than he was as a brash kid with anger issues and a sweet heart. Tim thinks that the person he’s become is an elegant maturation of that kid, shaped by direct intent and an incredible determination to flout all expectations in a refusal to be broken by his circumstances.

            One long breath in, a pause to savor it, and then Tim slips the jacket on – it’s more than large enough on him to fit over his own leathers, and while it will be rather uncomfortably warm to wear two coats in the height of summer, he needs his own gear to be protected on a motorcycle (while not exactly cleared to ride safely) and he’d only give up the privilege of wearing Jason’s jacket for the brief moment he has to do so if trading the indulgence meant Jason was willing to come back to the Family immediately.

            Since that is not a possibility, Tim snuggles into Jason’s jacket, grabs his slim red daytime Ducati (because Red Bird is just a bit too much beast for him to handle at the moment; he’s reckless, not delusional), and streaks out onto the streets towards Crime Alley.

 

            The first apartment he tries is empty – it’s definitely still an active safe house, but it’s not the one Jason’s currently staying at. Same with the second.

 

            By the time he makes it to the third, he’s a full four hours behind schedule – meaning that he only has about an hour, hour and a half, until he’s missed at the Manor. If Jason isn’t here, he’s only got time for one more shot, and even if he finds Jason at the next place he’ll only have about ten minutes to convince him of his honorable intentions.

            Even if Jason’s here, he’s only got about twenty minutes to be truly safe with his timings for getting back unnoticed by anyone but Alfred – and Tim’s pretty sure that Alfred will proactively tell on him if he’s not home in time to cover up his own absence.

            Tim’s already halfway through picking the obnoxiously difficult series of locks on Jason’s door before he hears signs of life from inside the apartment. It’s just a slight shuffle of boots, but it sends such forceful relief through Tim that he nearly drops his picks.

            Only nearly, though.

            Actually dropping them would waste too much time.

 

            Tim makes it through the last few locks as quickly as he can and then swings the door open in one motion, quick and smooth, as he raises his hand in surrender.

 

            The barrel of Jason’s cocked Glock is right in his face.

 

            Looking passed it, Tim can see a flare up of the green in Jason’s eyes that had helped send him running off from the Cave to begin with.

            Jason’s biting down so hard on his words that a vein pops in his forehead.

            Without breaking eye contact, and still ignoring the gun completely, Tim says, “You know, I considered bringing a fruit basket, but I decided not to because I figured you would just end up throwing it at me and being pelted with oranges is not exactly a useful means of acquiring vitamin C.”

            The joke makes the green in Jason’s eyes flare, but it also pushes him to grab Tim and drag him bodily inside the apartment. Point to Tim.

            His back hits a wall as the door slams, and Jason’s gun is still in his face, but Jason’s hand is still on his shoulder – an indication that he’s keeping his mind in the present and isn’t in the process of a physical or even a mental distancing. It’ll probably mean more bruises, but he’s less likely to get shot and more likely to get his point across.

            “What the hell are you doing here, Replacement?”

 

            Okay, so there’s a mild mental distancing occurring, but that’s fine.

 

            “Looking for you, obviously,” Tim retorts.

            Jason yanks on his shoulder, wrenching it around in its socket as his back slams against the wall again. “Cut the sass, shithead,” Jason snarls, adding with a dramatically increased pressure in the grip on his shoulder, “Why the fuck are you even out of bed?”

 

            There’s the concern he was hoping for. Another point to Tim.

 

            “You saved my life, Jason,” Tim says firmly, calm and honest. He feels a tremor run through Jason’s arm as he resists a shudder before Tim continues, “I wanted to thank you.”

            Jason’s hold shifts on his gun – like he’s considering the benefits of bashing Tim’s skull in with the hand grip. There’s an 87% chance he won’t do it if Tim stays silent.

            That drops to 48% if Tim goes through with his next follow up statement, 23% if he times it wrong and just so happens to speak as an inopportune thought crosses Jason’s mind.

            Tim doesn’t hesitate. He braces himself, syncs his breathing with Jason’s, and then says clearly as Jason’s gaze wavers in its vitriol, “And I’m not the only one.”

 

            The snarl snaps into place instantaneously, consuming the rest of Jason’s expression.

 

            The impact of a gun against Tim’s temple doesn’t come, but the hand on his shoulder moves to his throat – not as tight as Tim would’ve guessed it would be under these circumstances, but still more aggressive than is comfortable to sit with.

 

            “Ain’t nobody was thanking me when I dragged your half dead ass into the Cave, you psychotic son of a bitch,” Jason roars with the kind of pained viciousness of hurt that makes Tim’s heart ache – to the point that it’s a fortunate excuse to have Jason’s hand on his throat to explain away the sudden prickle of tears. “Next time, I’m just gonna leave your sorry ass on whatever roof you fall on, maybe stick a note with my regrets on your god damn lifeless body before I ship it off to those asshats you call Family.”

            The pressure on Tim’s throat increases as the green flares up again and, with something frighteningly close to desperation, Jason growls, “Might as well take the credit, since I’ll definitely be taking the blame regardless, ‘cause they certainly ain’t about to wanna thank me.”

            It breaks Tim’s heart completely.

            He didn’t mean to make this so much harder on Jason.

            This was supposed to make everything about it easier, for all of them.

 

            And Jason’s confidence in his statement about how none of the Manor’s residents wanted to thank him for the selfless act of rescuing that he’d performed is flawed.

            Missing a key character.

 

            “Alfred,” Tim forces out, pushing the syllables roughly through his highly constricted airway in a distended effort.

 

            Jason’s grip goes slack and Tim carefully resists the fight in his lungs to gasp.

            “Alfred wants to thank you in person,” Tim tells him in a carefully measured released of air. It’s a lie, but also not. Alfred has never stated such, but Tim also knows it would be true.

            Jason doesn’t seem to believe him, but also can’t imagine anything less of Alfred.

            His hand is still resting on Tim’s collar bones, but his grip is nonexistent – he’s frozen, brain glitching out like Tim’s has done before.

            Giving him a long few seconds to digest the information, Tim waits before he says with slow and steady invitation, “Alfred would like it if you came by for tea.”

            “Not gonna happen, scamp,” Jason growls – it sounds vicious, but the hand on Tim’s throat is still slack, more than loose enough for him to breathe perfectly easy.

            Unsurprised, Tim gives a careful half shrug that doesn’t jar Jason’s hand enough to remind him that he’s kind of in the process of threatening Tim’s life again.

            “I figured,” he admits, “But I had to try.”

            Jason’s snarl twitches, lip curling further up to reveal just a touch more of his teeth.

            “You blew your Med set, and dragged your frickin’ half dead ass all the way out here for that?” Jason growls. Unconsciously, he adds pressure to the hand on Tim’s throat – not squeezing or threatening, just leaning into it a bit, which makes the heel of his hand press hard into the point where Tim’s ribs fuse together.

            “And to return your jacket,” Tim points out, using a small twitch of his hands to gesture at himself and the over sized leather article he’s wrapped up in.

 

            It makes Jason realize what he’s wearing for the first time and he yanks his hand back as if the sight of Tim wearing his jacket made his skin burn.

 

            The hand that had been on Tim’s throat becomes a fist at Jason’s side.

 

            Moving slowly, and broadcasting his intent, Tim slips out of the jacket – ignoring the pang of reluctance to part with it he feels as it slides off his shoulders.

            Proffering it up without revealing the ache inside him, Tim says, “Thank you, Jason, for saving me. I know it put you in an unpleasant situation. If the others… if they said something to you… if they… They’re upset. Irrational.”

            With a snort, Jason huffs, “They’re irrational, alright... But you ain’t much better, asshole. The fuck were you thinking?”

 

            Tim resists the full flinch, but to someone as observant as Jason, he doesn’t delude himself into thinking that he hid the reaction well enough – the pull at Jason’s tightening posture indicates that he definitely noticed, and definitely disdains it.

            Which is unfortunate, but derailing this conversation to explain the particular sore spot would be far more unhelpful than just ignoring it at risk of letting the wound fester.

            “The gang activity in New Town was unconfirmed until that night,” Tim informs him, adding, “I was going to bring the case to you as soon as I had something actually solid.”

            Jason bites down on his teeth, grinding them viciously together.

            “The fuck you were,” Jason manages eventually. “How long have you been sneaking onto my turf for shits and giggles?”

            “Since the day you got back,” Tim replies, honest.

 

            Jason would be able to tell if he lied. Jason had always been able to tell when he lied.

 

            No answer meets Tim’s reply. Jason simply maintains his glare.

 

            Tim’s still holding out Jason’s jacket, but its owner is making no indication of wanting to take it from him, so Tim drops his arm as the muscles start to vehemently protest the strain.

            He folds the jacket over his forearms in front of him, eyes dropping to stare at Jason’s shaking fists – his gun having been slid back into its thigh holster without attracting Tim’s direct notice… Probably a good sign.

            “Alfred wants to see you,” Tim reasserts. “Desperately.”

            Jason doesn’t make a verbal response, but a strong tremor runs through his stiff frame.

            “The Manor will be empty tomorrow, almost completely,” Tim mentions, explaining slowly, “I’ll be back on bed rest, but Bruce and Dick and Damian and Cass and Steph and Babs will all be away at work or school between 10 am and 4 pm. All of them. And I’ve checked their schedules, confirmed that it’ll be like that every Thursday for the next two months. By next week I can arrange to be gone, as well.”

            Jason hasn’t interrupted him, or hit him again, so Tim counts it as a win and suggests cautiously, “If you wanted to drop by, you wouldn’t have to stay – or see anyone else. And Alfred would be very much appreciative.”

            And, Tim thinks but doesn’t add aloud, I think it would be good for both of you.

            He’s weighing the odds of what would happen if he did say that bit out loud.

 

            The most likely outcomes are not good.

 

            Jason is not inclined to react well to someone suggesting that they know what he needs better than he does. And the last thing that Tim wants is to spook him or make him turn against the course Tim’s set for everything because of simple spite.

            With a glance to the side, Tim spots the arm of a couch he can almost reach. He gives a slow, gentle toss to the jacket in his arms – taking half a step towards the door as he deposits the jacket on the plushily upholstered arm. Straightening up, with another step towards the door that Jason does not react to, Tim sighs heavily.

 

            “Please, Jason,” he asking, undisguised pleading in his voice, “Just think about it.”

 

            With that, Tim slips out the door – leaving Jason standing stiffly in his foyer – and makes his way back to the Manor.

            He barely makes it back before the exhaustion crashes and he tumbles into bed with barely enough awareness left to squirm into comfy clothes that could pass as pajamas.

 

            Tim manages to have his field trip go unnoticed.

 

            The others might be set to be arriving home in a mere few minutes, but Tim knows he’ll be completely asleep – and looking like he’s been that way for several hours – long before any of them make it up the stairs to check on him.

 

            He’s calculating the odds of Jason’s decision possibilities as he drifts on the edge of oblivion and he’s resigned to the fact that they aren’t quite what he’d been hoping for…

 

            43% Jason comes over tomorrow.

 

            Better than it could’ve been, but worse than it should’ve been – than it would have been if the absolute idiocy of the Family hadn’t gotten in the way.

 

            And there’s only an 11% chance that Jason will come over next week if he doesn’t come tomorrow… and the odds of another issue arising, of some other fissure flaring, in the intervening days are just too high to make it plausible to think that Jason will still want to come by then if he decides to wait on it instead of coming tomorrow.

 

            Tim has a contingency for that, and he’ll be in good enough shape next week to enact it, but for the moment, the frustration of having to resolve this stage on a 43% possibility of phase success is irksome. Grating.

 

            It would’ve have kept him antsy and awake all night if it weren’t for the bone deep exhaustion of having pushed his body harder than he should have.

            As it stands, Tim’s out cold within forty seconds of settling down.

 

            He doesn’t dream, and feels his sleep is probably better for it.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

my pocket’s full of someone else’s cigarettes (i don’t even smoke)

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 10 - come on over ( and mend my heart )

 

 

            Quiet is a mixed blessing inside the halls of Wayne Manor.

 

            On some days, the quiet does indicate a tentative peace.

            Some days, it means calm and peace and safety. But those days are few and far between lately, and it has been quite a long while since quiet in this House meant calm.

            These days, quiet usually means defeat… means hopelessness and guilt and woe.

            Quiet means a moment of pause because the fight is too much, or too hard, or the participants are too injured to make a fuss. Quiet these days most often means that his youngsters are brooding under heavy weights their shoulders were never built to bear.

            Alfred is aware that he is not guilty for their suffering, that he is not inadequate for being unable to truly help relieve their woes, but still… he cannot simply accept that. He cannot sit impassively and view their pain without wishing that he could do something more for them.

            He’s spent a fair few days this month needlessly polishing the silver.

            Today is not a bad day, not compared to other days this very week, but that is little enough consolation to make Alfred consider finding something to dust.

 

            Master Timothy is restless.

 

            He is the only child currently at home, and Alfred knows he would be out and about himself if it weren’t for his present condition – a grave state of injury that he had not lightly exacerbated with his reckless excursion yesterday.

            Master Tim is feeling the isolation of being kept at home while the others are out more than he’s consciously aware of, being that his usual state of being alone is typically a proactive choice of getting away rather than being left behind. Alfred isn’t certain if Tim is aware of how particularly sensitive he is to that notion, but the butler has always taken pains to remind him of his own presence in the Manor – and to assuage his worries with assurances that being kept at home to recover is a very different action than being proactively shut out.

 

            For the moment, Master Tim is an adequate distraction from Alfred’s own worries.

 

            The butler has whipped up a pot of tea – the red tea Jason once favored, the only variety of morning beverage outside of his unholy blend of coffee that Tim seems at all taken with – and he has a tray of scones in hand as he seeks the boy out in the Library.

            Timothy has been growing more and more anxious over the course of the afternoon, and in the last hour or so he has been especially fretful. It’s almost to the point of making Alfred consider lacing his next meal with something to help him rest – though, outside of the moments immediately following significant medical procedures, the butler is reluctant to force a drug into one of his charges… Particularly a charge with a history of acute sensitivity to such drastic measures – both in terms of a mental and physical aversion.

 

            Alfred finds Master Tim standing at the window – gaze trained firmly on something only solid enough for his eyes alone to see. “He should be here, by now.”

 

            Master Tim’s muttering is not loud enough for the boy to be consciously aware of it.

            The low sound is hardly loud enough for Alfred to interpret the syllables, though he remains unable to conjure viable meaning from the words.

 

            Alfred sets the tea tray down on one of the Library’s more central tables, in hopes of drawing Master Timothy away from the windows and his current fixation beyond them.

 

            “You would like to join me for tea, Master Tim?”

 

            His voice is firm. It’s a tone he perfected long ago: warm with the assurance that the invitation is one the boy may turn down without offending him, but also pressed with a strong encouragement to accept.

 

            Timothy turns around with a sad, guilty look flitting across his countenance, but he doesn’t work up the coordination to respond before the landscape shifts.

            Alfred feels the alteration as the Manor’s close is nudged aside – an intuition honed after years of learning how to look after children with the skills gained via training with literal ninja – and feels a prickle of nerves.

            This feeling is not due to a sheepish young Bat sneaking home after an outing they know Alfred would frown upon – this gentle break in the Manor’s seal is the result of someone standing on the front stoop.

            This sensation is due to someone who knocks.

 

            It’s a soft sound, singular and hardly audible despite how the hall is arranged to encourage such echoes to find a staff member’s ear.

 

            Alfred’s face remains impassively reserved, though he feels a pull of disquiet beneath it.

            The Manor is not expecting visitors today, and rarely are the moments when an unexpected guest is considered truly welcome on these grounds.

            Before the wariness can solidify inside the butler, he glimpses an expression on Master Tim’s face that he has not seen in far too long – has far too rarely witnessed in him at all.

            There is hope shining in Master Timothy’s gaze, and a baldly joyful relief that makes Alfred’s heart swell.

 

            “I’ll be in my room, getting some more rest,” Timothy declares, breaking into a quick shuffle to escape – hobbled by stiff muscles and the sharp pull of his still healing injuries.

 

            Alfred does not chastise his abuse of his body, knowing it to be futile and distracted by the awareness that Master Tim has been planning for – has been hoping for – the arrival of the guest still waiting on the front porch.

            With all due haste, and no small dash of wariness, Alfred approaches the door.

            It’s a well-practiced motion for him to unlock the massive object and swing it inwards – honed to a quickness that gives little warning of his presence to whomever is waiting beyond.

            The mysterious visitor does not jump, but he does freeze up – muscles locking into place with a stiff sheepishness, tinged heavily with the twin weights of shame and fear.

 

            “Master Jason.”

 

            Alfred’s greeting is quiet, breathless with disbelief and a nearly crippling wash of joy.

 

            This is the first time Alfred has witnessed proof of Jason’s miraculous resurrection from within arm’s reach of the dear boy – the first time in three years that he has seen the rambunctious boy he helped raise without the red mask of his new persona.

            Alfred has seen Jason on surveillance footage.

            And Alfred has seen him occasionally in the Red Hood costume, from across the Cave on the few times that his visitation was utterly unavoidable…

 

            But this… this is the first moment Alfred has seen Jason since he died.

 

            He’s gotten so much taller, so much broader.

            Like Bruce honestly – though Alfred isn’t certain even Bruce showed such mass in his physique while there’d been any youthful gangliness left for his frame to grow into. At just under twenty years old – and dear lord, Jason is nearly twenty now – the young man still seems like he’s got a good few inches of growing left to do.

            Master Jason looks… tired, worn. Exhausted and hunted in a way that pains the butler.

            But at the same time, he looks like he’s been getting enough to eat, regularly, and like he’s simultaneously getting enough sleep to meet the needs of a growing boy.

            He’s standing up straight, his eyelevel just above Alfred’s, but the butler can see the urge to sheepishly curl in on himself that Jason is consciously resisting – like he’s still the same fourteen year old kid who has just ruined his dress shoes by running through the gardens again.

 

            “Hey, Alfie…”

 

            And Alfred melts.

            It takes all his will power not to place a hand on Jason’s shoulder, not to draw his wayward boy in close enough to hear his heart beating.

 

            “Won’t you join me for tea?”

 

            Jason gives a full body flinch, the ‘kicked puppy reaction’ as Jason himself termed it when he’d been grumbling about young Timothy’s resistance to the Family’s kindnesses.

            Alfred aches to see it, but he does not press the issue or indicate any awareness of having observed the flinch reaction.

            “Nah, Alf,” Jason manages, hands shifting in his pockets. “I just… I came by to, uh, to give this back,” he explains, pulling his fist out of his pocket wrapped around a statuette.

            Alfred holds out his hand to receive the object and blinks when a marble horsehead is deposited in his palm – a knight from the chess set in the Library.

            Before Alfred can summon up the breath to ask how, Jason blows out a heavy breath.

            “Uh, Timbers must’a nicked it before he brought my jacket back yesterday,” he admits stiltedly, “I found it in my pocket this morning. Figured you’d be wanting it back.”

            “I sincerely appreciate the gesture, Master Jason,” Alfred promises.

            The butler is tempted to ask him for a game – it’s been so long since they’d last played and none of the Manor’s other residents took such pleasure from the simple logic of it that Jason did. Alfred has enjoyed playing with Miss Barbara and Miss Cassandra, but neither truly has the patience for it – and Master Tim is simply too skilled to enjoy a game, much like Bruce had been at just a few years his senior.

 

            Jason had always loved the game for its own sake.

 

            Its richness, its complexity, its clear focus on a singular goal… Jason took to playing with tremendous enjoyment and significant skill. He may never be a grandmaster, but he can pull pleasure out of the game without requiring the match to be intense or genuinely competitive.

            It would be so lovely to play Jason again.

            It would be unbearably wonderful to even have Jason willing to step across the Manor’s threshold… an act it seems painfully clear that Jason is determined to avoid.

            Even so, even with all Alfred wishes could happen, he is still overwhelmingly grateful to see Jason here at all, under any circumstance less dire than his last visit.

            Speaking of his last visit…

            “Master Timothy is resting upstairs if you would like to check up on his recovery,” Alfred mentions, “Excursion yesterday aside, he’s been a model patient – well on his way to healing.”

            Jason gives an unconscious nod, tension uncurling from his shoulders.

 

            It still warms Alfred’s heart to see the concern Jason carries for his Family being worn so plainly in his being – brutalities and disagreements aside, Jason is still Jason, and he still loves his Family with every fiber of his being.

 

            And Master Jason has always held a particularly soft spot for young Timothy.

 

            “Would you like to see him?”

 

            The answer is yes, clearly.

            There is nothing Jason would like more than to see Tim, to confirm with his own eyes that the boy is healing as well as Alfred claims – it’s obvious that Jason’s instincts are screaming at him to take up Alfred’s offer.

            But Jason trusts Alfred’s judgement on the matter, trusts him well enough to believe his words at face value.

 

            And his resistance to setting foot inside the Manor is stronger than the urge to see Tim.

 

            “Nah, Alf,” Jason says, fidgeting as his feet begin to twist away from the threshold, “I should prolly be getting’ outta here anyway. Wouldn’t be too good ruffle any extra feathers, eh? Bet Timbo’s already in pretty hot water about getting’ me involved to start with.”

            “Nonsense,” Alfred scolds firmly. “Master Tim is only alive right now because of that decision, and because of your choice to help him, and I’ll not hear another word otherwise.”

            Jason bows his head under the chastisement, but his chest rounds out with a warm breath as he resists, and yet simultaneously rejoices, in the praise inherent in Alfred’s rebuke.

            “Either way,” Jason huffs after a strained moment, “I should be shovin’ off.”

 

            Jason’s words have barely hit the air before his feet start carrying him away.

 

            “Master Jason,” Alfred chides, reaching for the last straw he has to grasp. “It would be remiss of me to allow a child of this House to leave without a proper meal. At least, let me provide you with a spot of something to take with you. We have the leftovers from a lovely four cheese chicken lasagna; always a favorite of yours, as I recall.”

            The temptation of a favorite food sways Jason back to facing towards the foyer.

 

            It solidifies a steel determination within Alfred.

 

            Young Timothy has worked tirelessly to present this kind of opportunity for reconciliation to the Family, and Alfred seeks to capitalize on his efforts as much as possible – despite the risks inlaid in the potential of rewarding Timothy’s recklessness.

            Timothy has been a vocal proponent of Jason’s ability to return to the Family from the very beginning. Master Tim has maintained a consistent belief in Jason’s permeating goodness when even Alfred has to confess to having had doubts – it’s nearly impossible to have any degree of faith in such things when the horrors of a Lazarus Pit are involved.

            Alfred never doubted Jason, but he does have to admit to having wavering concerns over whether or not the Pit’s influence had changed him beyond reckoning.

            After all, it was not the fault of the rabid dog that it was sick, being at the mercy of an illness was not an act that accrued any blame or any need for accountability – but no amount of guilt or innocence could make the rapid dog less dangerous, and Alfred is ashamed to admit he considered the analogy relevant.

            He had wanted so desperately for Jason to find peace in the next life, he’d been so distraught to learn of his brutal reanimation, and so heartbroken at the impact of it all on his Family, that for a moment – for just a moment, but still far longer than his conscience could abide – he had doubted Jason’s potential to return to the Manor.

 

            Master Tim has never once even wavered, never lost faith – never even let it dim, though he had more reason than any of them to doubt Jason’s ability to recover from the Pit.

            He has always believed in the inevitability of Jason’s return home like he believes in the in the eventuality that the sun will explode. It will take a long time, and plenty of circumstances around the matter might seem like they impart dramatic change, but in the end, no human influence will change the outcome in any way.

            Timothy has arranged scenarios over and over again for the rest of the Family to participate in helping Jason return to the fold, testing the waters to see if both sides are ready while simultaneously steering them closer to finding common ground, and Alfred wants to help.

 

            Getting Jason to voluntarily cross the Manor’s threshold is probably a critical step.

 

            If Tim’s presence in the Manor is not already temptation enough, a home cooked meal will have to do the trick.

            “You simply must allow me to pack you up enough for a good dinner,” Alfred insists, adding lightly, “It won’t take more than a moment.”

 

            Without waiting for Jason to make any kind of response, Alfred turns on his heel and heads deeper into the Manor – leaving the heavy front door open, swaying lightly on its hinges.

            He’s hoping that two ingrained habits will have Jason coaxed to follow him: firstly, the muscle memory of the firm chastisement that came whenever a child of Wayne Manor left the door open while they ran amok (particularly in seasons of heightened disparity between internal and external temperatures), and secondly, the carefully cultivated habit of following Alfred like sweet little ducklings whenever the promise of good food was on the table.

            It truly won’t take him more than a moment to pack up a cooler for Jason to take with him as he leaves this afternoon to head back to whatever sub par location he’s currently residing at, so Alfred believes he should be able to provide the comfort of a home cooked meal even if Jason remains standing at the threshold.

            If Alfred remembers correctly, Jason only begins to feel so awkward that he would leave rather than obtain leftovers after a solid ten minutes or more of waiting.

            A tragic, but currently beneficial consequence of his spending so much time during his childhood without proper nutrition – and with an acute awareness of the lack.

 

            Even so, Alfred is hopeful that Jason will cross the threshold.

 

            It might not seem like much, but it would be a literal first step towards bringing Jason home permanently – and a significant one at that.

            Jason has always been particularly sensitive about the bounds of Property, and about the possible implications and repercussions of being present on someone else’s property… So, if he steps into the Manor of his own volition, it will be an act imbued with much greater significance and potential than it would be coming from almost anyone else.

            With bated breath and an anxious flutter laying well-concealed inside his chest, Alfred makes his way to the kitchen and begins methodically removing containers from the area’s primary refrigerator. He arranges them in neat stacks on the island and pulls a large cooler from the cabinet below – quickly calculating the best possible means of maneuvering the three dimensional shapes to make the absolute most of the space available.

            Alfred knows he won’t ever be able to convince Jason to take more than one cooler, but he hopes to pack as much food as he possibly can into the one he can get the poor boy to carry away with him when he goes.

            He’s in the midst of hastening through the process of packing when he hears the low impact of the front door being closed.

 

            Hope leaping to his throat, Alfred slows his actions.

 

            It is a long, achingly tense few seconds before a cowed and cautious Jason appears in the kitchen, but it makes Alfred’s heart sing to see him – even looking as pained and uncomfortable as he currently does.

            It is going to be a very long road ahead, but this is the first step to healing and it makes a rare sort of calm contentment fall over Alfred as he works.

 

            The Family is still fractured and shall still face many difficult trials regarding Jason’s return and permanent involvement with both sides of the Family business, but Alfred is confident that time and patience, and the gritty stubbornness inherent in every youngster raised within Wayne Manor, will be able to mend all wounds eventually.

 

            It is a tense feeling, but still a good one – still a bright and hopeful one.

 

            And for that, Alfred is supremely glad.

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

come on over ( and mend my heart )

 

Chapter Text

 

 


Chapter 11 - i just wanna be ( in your light )

 

 

            When Jason leaves Stephanie in Tim’s apartment, when he gets far enough away to calm down and then gets enough feeling back in his limbs to move, he heads for a bolt hole.

 

            The idea of being in a safe house with any degree of comfort in it chafes almost as much as the disquiet he feels at the implications of being at the crux of Tim’s current focus – of having been at the crux of Tim’s focus for so long already.

            It’s unnerving, unsettling, and it makes Jason want to hit things.

 

            He doesn’t go out patrolling right away – even though it’s dark enough by now to be the midst of prime patrolling hours. Instead, Jason attacks a series of weighted training dummies, the kind that can be hit hella hard, and can hit back with just as much force – when a few different varieties are all set in a close arrangement (each with different return speeds and resistance levels) it makes for a solid workout…

            One that’s distracting enough to get his focus pulled back together.

 

            It’s not quite enough to make him feel truly calm… but it should be enough to ensure that he doesn’t straight up kill the first bastard who pisses him off while he’s making his rounds.

            Though… the thought does cross Jason’s mind that if he goes back to murdering folk almost indiscriminately, it’ll be that much harder for Tim to convince himself that Jason’s capable of being dealt with rationally.

            Because Jason will have no part in letting Tim think that it’s a good idea to risk his position with the Bats just because the idiot thinks Jason is still somehow redeemable.

 

            Jason spends all night beating up on gangsters and drug dealers.

 

            Some of them don’t even need reminding that Red Hood is the one in charge here, but he lays down the law again regardless. He’s not the kind of brutal that wounds egos, just bodies, so he’s not worried about sewing any extra malcontent within the ranks of those few miscreant groups he allows to continue operating on his turf. And he’s not too worried about reprisal from the Bats because he successfully manages the feat of not killing anyone – it’s a close-ish call a couple times, but nothing that an ER won’t fix, and with Jason’s control securely established, ambulances will actually venture into the Alley nowadays to pick the battered suckers up.

 

            When he gets back to his current bolt hole from that excitement, the sun is already quite high above him and nearly all the shadows have been chased away.

            The observation of that alone is exhausting.

            By the time Jason’s washed off the worst of the grime from patrol in a cold shower, scrubbing harshly at his skin under the unsteady spray of an ancient, rickety bit of hardware, he’s half asleep at standing. He barely makes it to the couch after pulling on a decently fresh change of clothes – collapses gratefully into oblivion.

            His last thought before it all fades away is that he’s very glad he has routinely made the decision to invest in big ass comfy couches instead of in beds of any sort. This shit is just so much comfier than any mattress could be to him, comfortable in the physical immediacy and comfortable in the mental capacity of being a temporary, transitory respite.

            Jason’s only got a couple places in the city with a proper bed in them, and at the moment, that lack feels spectacularly comforting to him.

            None of these shit holes are ‘Home’, but they all feel terribly more welcoming for that fact than any mere hint of the Manor imparts on his psyche (not that he still connotates the Manor as home in any way… ).

 

            Falling pleasantly into oblivion, Jason keeps his brain centered on the ache within his muscles – not pain from an outside source, but the ache of self inflicted progress. It’s not the feeling of being hurt, so much as the satisfying feeling of personal effort – a good day’s work.

            It’s enough to keep the worst nightmares at bay, for once in a blue moon – the ones about the Joker and the warehouse and the hazy green hurt that came after.

 

            It’s not quite enough to keep Tim out of his head…

 

            Just vague shadows, thankfully, but still haunting hints of how Jason’s impact on his life has pretty much just straight up ruined it from the very beginning. There was probably a blip of improvement, when he got Dick and Babs involved at the start of shit and managed to get Tim a smidge of reasonable social interaction and the actual care-giving a kid needs, but Jason’s nightmares generally ignore the bright spots.

            They’re brief enough anyway to have hardly made a difference over all, regardless.

            The worst dream of the night, however, isn’t about how Jason has accidentally ruined Tim’s life on a regular basis, but how he’s actively tried to kill him on an equally regular basis… how there’s still a part of him that’s hurt and angry and that still actually wants to kill him.

 

            He wakes up rested enough, but angrier than optimal.

 

            Breakfast is gonna be an adventure then, something requiring mental and physical effort to create – more distraction than genuine endeavor for something edible.

            Strudel.

            He hasn’t baked anything in a while, and he’s got the shit to sort it here, so the repeated pounding and acute attention required to make a candied cherry strudel is very appealing.

 

            It’s a bit after noon by the time he’s got everything set, and the stack of fruit mash and pastry is just about ready to go into the oven when there’s a click at his door.

            The kind of click that says someone’s trying to pick his locks.

            The kind of click that says someone’s successfully trying to pick his locks.

            Which narrows the field. Dramatically.

 

            Whoever’s out there is almost definitely a Bat.

 

            Jason has a Glock out and cocked before he even takes a step towards the door, and he’s got it leveled at the approximate point of the would-be intruder’s head as the door starts to swing outward to admit them into Jason’s space.

            His glare and growl freeze in place when he sees the person trying to break in – all the vicious grumbling about privacy and respect, and the god damn agreement he’d been ready to scream about gets caught in his throat.

 

            It’s Tim.

 

            Tim, who should still be tucked up in bed.

            Tim, who shouldn’t really be able to stand yet after sustaining the injuries he had.

 

            Tim, who should probably be put on a frickin suicide watch here soon.

 

            Jason just freezes up and glares at him as Tim rises from his knees to his feet with his hands up in carefully broadcast surrender.

            Tim’s not even looking at the gun Jason’s got cocked and pointed at him. He’s looking passed it, right at Jason – meeting his gaze head on.

            It’s infuriating how blatantly Tim is ignoring the threat Jason poses – so infuriating that it takes all of Jason’s will power to hold himself back from reminding the idiot of it.

            “You know, I considered bringing a fruit basket,” Tim snarks with a smirk, still completely ignoring the gun. “But I figured you would just end up throwing it at me and being pelted with oranges is not exactly a useful means of acquiring vitamin C.”

            Green flares in Jason’s vision at Tim’s flippancy.

            He manages not to shoot the psychotic moron, but he can’t resist the impulse to grab at Tim’s shoulder and wrench him forward. Dragging him bodily into the apartment in order to slam his back against the nearest wall.

            Jason’s gun is still cocked, drawn back to keep it out of Tim’s reach in such a way that would probably blow Jason’s ear drum out if he fired it – but that’s hardly a consideration on his mind as he fights the urge to just blow the damn kid’s brains out for the spite of it.

            Because Tim has the gall to look smug.

            He keeps his face smooth, his expression perfectly placid, but Jason can see it in his eyes.

 

            Itty bitty bastard needs to lose a few teeth in that perfect evil genius smirk of his.

 

            “What the hell are you doing here, Replacement,” Jason grits out.

 

            “Looking for you, obviously,” Tim snipes back, painfully blasé.

 

            Jason gives him a rough shake, banging his back into the wall again and keeping his grip on Tim’s shoulder so tight that he knows it’s painful.

            “Cut the sass, shithead,” Jason snarls viciously, “Why the fuck are you even out of bed?”

 

            Another flash of that smugness in Tim’s eyes nearly makes Jason move to strangle him then and there, but it vanishes quickly – replaced by something warm and sad that’s almost equally unbearable in a very different way.

            “You saved my life, Jason,” Tim said, his voice as firm, honest, and unwavering as his gaze. “I wanted to thank you.”

            The way Tim says his name alone is enough to make him want to shudder, but the way he says thank you is what draws the tremor through every cell of Jason’s body.

            His grips shifts on the Glock he’d half forgotten he was holding as the Pit flares up to remind him that Tim is being an absolutely arrogant bastard by being here like this, risking himself with this ridiculously unfounded confidence that Jason isn’t going to kill him.

            Tim has no real reason to think he’s safe here.

            And it is not a small piece of Jason that wants to remind the idiot of why that is.

 

            A flicker of calculation creeps across Tim’s expression.

 

            Then he visibly steels himself and keeps his gaze locked with Jason’s as he says, “And I’m not the only one.”

 

            The blatancy of the lie is what pushes Jason over the edge – just how obviously wrong, how clearly untrue the statement is, that grinds against Jason’s tenuous hold on sanity.

            The snarl snaps viciously into place with all the venom and vehemence Jason can muster without just snapping the kid’s neck without thought.

            “Ain’t nobody was thanking me when I dragged your half dead ass into the Cave, you psychotic son of a bitch,” Jason roars, tightening his hold on Tim’s throat until he winds up squeezing tears from him like he’s little more than an especially annoying, prickly, grapefruit.

            “Next time, I’m just gonna leave your sorry ass on whatever roof you fall on, maybe stick a note with my regrets on your god damn lifeless body before I ship it off to those asshats you call Family,” he hisses, muscles trembling with the sheer force of effort it takes to not kill him.

            In a growl directed mostly towards himself, Jason finishes, “Might as well take the credit for killing you, since I’ll definitely be taking the blame regardless, ‘cause they certainly ain’t about to wanna thank me for anything.”

 

            “Alf~red,” Tim croaks out with a pained gap between the syllables.

 

            Jason’s grip goes slack immediately – though he’s reeling too much to remove his hand altogether. Alfred wouldn’t blame him, right? Jason had never really dared to ask the question.

            But… that night in the Cave. Alfred didn’t blame him.

            Alfred had given every assurance Jason needed to feel confident in the idea that Tim would be able to survive his injuries. His gaze had been just as warm and bright and supportively calm as he ever remembered it being.

            Beneath Jason’s hand, Tim breath shudders through his lungs.

            “Alfred wants to thank you, in person,” Tim says in a carefully dispensed measure of air.

            Jason flinches, physically recoiling from the idea of trying to deny that Alfred wouldn’t want to be so polite – but equally strained to attempt believing that Alfred would want to be anywhere near him for any reason.

            Tim is insistent.

            “Alfred would like it if you came by for tea.”

            “Not gonna happen, scamp,” Jason grinds out.

            Seeming unsurprised, Tim gives a shrug as he admits, “I figured, but I had to try.”

 

            So nonchalant, so blasé, so… mind numbingly, idiotically reckless.

 

            Jason’s snarl twitches and he leans into the hand on Tim’s throat as the rage begins to boil with an energetic violence. “You blew your Med set, and dragged your frickin' half dead ass all the way out here for that?”

 

            The pound of his pulse inside his ears is almost loud enough to drown out Tim’s overly casual response, but Jason’s brain manages to parse out the words as Tim defends his decision to come here by adding, “And to return your jacket.”

            Tim gives a small twitch in his limbs, indicating himself and the article he’s wrapped in.

            Namely Jason’s jacket.

            The one he’d tucked around Tim in order to attempt keeping his temp up, the one he’d totally forgotten about having left behind in the Cave when he’d fled.

            Jason whips his hand back like it’s been burned.

            Seeing Tim wearing his jacket… standing there in what’s become his vigilante uniform, essentially, again… Jason hasn’t been this close to killing someone blindly since before he’d left to detox with the Outlaws.

 

            It’s just a searing burn of flashbacks and rage and the hateful fear of being replaced and he has never hated anything the way he hates Tim right now.

 

            And it’s worse, so much worse, because… because it’s not just the straightforward hate of seeing Tim in his uniform again. It’s complicated by the way the jacket’s not really a uniform, by the way it’s just a jacket… by the way something strange reacts from deep inside at the sight of Timothy god damn Drake wearing Jason’s clothes.

 

            Jason isn’t seeing straight – feels like a sneeze could fucking kill him at the moment.

 

            Tim’s blurry in Jason’s line of sight as he uses slow, broadcast movements to slip out of his jacket – as he holds the article out on offer. Jason can’t move to accept or reject it.

            “Thank you, Jason, for saving me. I know it put you in an unpleasant situation. If the others... if they said something to you... if they... They're upset. Irrational.”

            That.

            That’s a concrete rage, a direct conflict with clear sides.

            Jason latches onto it.

 

            “They're irrational, alright,” Jason snorts. Then his brain loops back around involuntarily to apply the sentiment to Tim in a huff, “But you ain't much better, asshole.”

            Jason shudders, fists squeezing painfully fight at his sides as he growls viciously, “The fuck were you thinking?”

            He’s not sure if he means what was Tim thinking in getting himself blown up, in coming to Jason once he was dying, or in coming back now that he’s slightly less dying.

 

            Tim flinches.

            It’s not quite a full body reaction, but it’s visceral – deeply rooted.

 

            Jason can’t tell what triggered it, not for certain. But he can guess.

 

            There’s a painful swirl of guilt that hits with the vicious satisfaction of having scared him, of having wounded him in some way beyond the physical – of having reciprocated the hurt that Jason’s felt in having been forced to face Tim’s mere existence.

            His complicated, frustrating, ridiculous existence.

 

            Tim goes oddly sour, sounding cold and brusquely clinical as he answers Jason’s question, “The gang activity in New Town was unconfirmed until that night. I was going to bring the case to you as soon as I had something actually solid.”

 

            Now that is some fucking bull shit.

 

            Sounds like Tim is trying to convince him that this was a one off, that the first time Tim came nosing into Crime Alley was just this week, just for this case. Which is just not even close to true. Jason saw that photo of himself on Tim’s fridge – saw the evidence that said he’s been coming deep in to Crime Alley frequently enough to learn the region’s schedules.

 

            “The fuck you were,” Jason accuses, demanding, “How long have you been sneaking onto my turf for shits and giggles?”

            “Since the day you got back,” Tim admits, open, honest, and willing. And he’s not even trying to disguise that he means from the first time Jason got back…

            Which is better than the bull shit attempt to convince him that he hasn’t been meddling in Jason’s shit from the beginning, but it still feels utterly disconcerting.

            Jason can’t process what he’s feeling or thinking nearly well enough to select an appropriate response – so he just maintains his glare.

            Tim’s arm begins to tremble at the strain of holding out Jason’s jacket and he slowly lowers the offer – folding the pliant leather over his forearms and letting them rest in front of him for a moment like he doesn’t want to let go.

            “Alfred wants to see you,” Tim reasserts, “Desperately.”

            The undeniable Truth of it makes a vicious shudder run through Jason’s core.

            “The Manor will be empty tomorrow, almost completely,” Tim mentions, quietly pleading – somehow managing it without sounding pathetic. “I'll be back on bed rest, but Bruce and Dick and Damian and Cass and Steph and Babs will all be away at work or school between 10 am and 4 pm. All of them. I've checked their schedules, confirmed it. And it’ll be like that every Thursday for the next two months. By next week I can arrange to be gone, as well.”

            Jason can’t move, can’t quite tell if he wants to hit the kid or if it’s just the Pit trying to make him do it, but either way he wants Tim to shut up and isn’t capable of being anything less than lethal if he goes about insisting it.

            “If you wanted to drop by, you wouldn't have to stay – or see anyone else. And Alfred would be very much appreciative,” Tim finishes, gaze digging into Jason for any sign of a potentially affirmative reaction.

            Jason doesn’t give him anything.

            A moment later, Tim sighs heavily and reluctantly shifts the jacket in his hold. He gives the article a gentle toss to let it land on the arm of the couch Jason had crashed on last night and taking a few cautious steps towards the door.

            “Please, Jason,” he says, pleading laid out undisguised in both his gaze and in his voice as he wraps up, “Just think about it.”

            Jason can’t respond and with that as his closing, Tim slips out the door.

            A moment later, Jason hears the sound of a motorcycle tearing off down the road.

 

            Jason doesn’t move for a long while.

 

            When he does, it’s to throw his strudel in the oven – though his stomach churns at the thought of eating it… Alfred taught him the recipe for it, after all.

            He stands in front of the oven, hands pressed against the lip, head bowed low between heavy shoulder. He’s leaned over enough to be able to watch the pastry rise as it bakes – stares at it blankly for the entire duration of the process.

            Mechanically, Jason pulls it out and lets it cool, then eats the whole thing despite the ashy taste each bite leaves in his mouth – because Jason was raised better than to waste food, and his life experience had compounded the lesson into an ingrained habit.

            After that he falls back onto the couch – feet towards the jacket Tim returned – and slips back into a fitful oblivion. His rest is unsettled, but no clear nightmares form to jolt him fully into wakefulness... he stays on the couch drifting in and out of a vague half-sleep.

            Jason almost wishes he’d chosen a safe house with a TV rigged up, but the back of his mind is glad he didn’t because he’d feel even more pathetic if he had the option for TV available and still couldn’t muster up the effort needed to turn it on.

 

            He stays like that most of the day.

 

            By early evening, he manages to gather up the energy to run in to grab a cheap burger and some fries before heading out on the sloppiest, laziest patrol he’s ever walked.

            Jason spends the night roaming around, breaking up bar fights and a few attempted muggings, but nothing substantial. He doesn’t do any legitimate work to forward any of his ongoing cases, and he stays well away from the grey area of New Town and the far side of Burnley – certain that the region will be crawling with uninvited Bats that he simply does not have the stamina to deal with right now.

            About an hour before dawn, Jason pays for a large pizza with a hundred dollar bill, doesn’t take his change, and heads back to the safe house where Tim found him earlier that day.

            He’s not entirely sure why he doesn’t move base.

            He could. He should.

            He has before.

            But he doesn’t.

 

            The jacket Tim returned is still laid across the arm of Jason’s couch.

 

            He hasn’t even touched it, yet. Probably wouldn’t ever, if it weren’t one of his favorites.

 

            By the next morning, Jason’s back to business. Mostly.

            He’s resolved to just ignore the situation and focus on his own shit.

 

            He takes the jacket with him when he moves ten blocks southeast – to a crumbling penthouse that used to be a high end suite in the luxury of Park Row. Now, it’s got a basic bit of cable and functioning hot water, but that’s about it of the luxury left – well, that and the pretty sweet view it has over the highway that borders Sheldon Park. The park ain’t a nice place anymore, not really, but it’s still a bit a green in Gotham’s endless grey and it’s got a nice set up of lit pathways that look mysterious and magical in the dark (at least, it does if you can ignore the awareness of all the hookers and drug dealers populating the shadows).

            Pancakes for breakfast, a few hours on active case files – though still none even tangentially related to New Town.

            He’s antsy though, antsy enough to decide to take a smoke break in the park.

            In an attempt to prove to himself that he doesn’t care about anything that happened yesterday, Jason wears the jacket Tim returned. It’s a bit warm for a jacket of any kind, but it’s always breezy by the harbor.

            He’s camped out on the piling under the base of the Kane Memorial Bridge before he crams his hands into his pockets in search of the smokes he always keeps on him.

            The pack in the jacket is still there – which kind of surprises Jason, being that Tim had always been vocally disapproving of his smoking habit, almost from the day they’d formally met – and his lighter’s there, too.

            But there’s an additional object.

            A little marble statuette – a chess piece.

            He’s not sure if the white knight is Tim’s way of attempting to make some kind of flawed commentary, but the piece is an elegant horse head carving – one Jason has always been enamored with and one he’s intimately familiar with…

            This piece is from the chess set in the Wayne Manor Library, the one that he used to spend hour and hours playing with on Sunday afternoons with Alfred.

 

            The weight of it in his hand makes the world sway slightly beneath Jason’s feet.

 

            He’s halfway through the instinctive motion to chuck the knight straight out into the ocean before he catches himself. Jason’s definitely an asshole, but he’s not that kind of asshole.

            This chess set is worth twice what his current safe house goes for on the market, and it would be a cryin’ shame to ditch a single piece – besides, one of the first few simple, superfluous pleasures Jason learned that he enjoyed was the warmth and awe he felt at the sight of a complete and intricate chess set. The one in the Library had always been his favorite.

            The pieces were about twice as large as in most chess sets, and weighty with both a physical mass and an intriguing gravitas of Art.

            Before he’d even learned to play the game properly, Jason had enjoyed moving the pieces around in his own imaginary scenarios of epic clashes and fantastic battles.

            It wouldn’t be right to break up the set because Jason’s on a bender…

            He should mail it back to the Manor, or… or something… Like maybe just walking across the bridge he’s camped under and taking the easy, twenty minute jog through Bristol to just deliver it in person… It would be much more efficient that way.

            At the risk of knowingly falling prey to Tim’s obvious machinations, Jason considers it.

            He knows that Tim did it specifically to manipulate him – how he knew about the chess set, this one in particular, Jason doesn’t know and doesn’t want to – but still, Tim asked him to just consider stopping by, he wouldn’t have to stay, and Alfred…

            Alfred may not want to see him, exactly, but he also wouldn’t turn Jason away and Jason is kind of… well, he hasn’t really seen Alfred since he got back.

 

            And he’s not a good enough liar to pretend to himself that he hasn’t wanted to…

 

            Jason’s on the Bristol side of the bridge before he even realizes that he’s wavering enough to stand up as he considers the option.

            By the time he recognizes that he definitely wants to see Alfred enough to risk being caught by the rest of the Family, Jason’s approaching the curve of uber wealthy estate grounds that make up Bristol Heights. Beyond that is the Drake Estate, the Gotham County Forest National Park and Nature Reserve, and Wayne Manor.

            If Jason were in any less perfect shape than he is, he might’ve had time to reconsider his decision to visit the Manor, but as it is, he makes it to the main drive in fifteen minutes. He uses the long curve of asphalt to run the variables one last time, hesitating with each step.

            Tim said no one but him and Alfred would even be home.

            Jason doesn’t think Tim would lie about that, but he could be misinformed – even if he fact checked the schedules, Jason is just that kind of lucky to know better than to expect anything this risky to go smooth.

 

            To mitigate the risk of being ambushed as much as possible, Jason walks right up to the front door – ironically, the most obvious and traditional route inside is the one with the least aggressive security measures in place. Wayne Manor doesn’t get many legitimate visitors, but the ones it does get are frequently reporters that would have a field day with the scandalous potential drummed up by being faced with any of the Bat’s more creative security measures.

            He marches right up to the door and knocks before he loses his nerve – just once, and just firmly enough to barely scrape by to count as anything, but it’s a knock, none the less.

            Jason vows to give it no more than fifteen seconds before he just drops the white knight onto the porch railing and kicks it back to Crime Alley.

            His hands are clenched fists in his jacket pockets as he waits, every heart beat a nerve wracking throb of sensation.

 

            And then the door opens.

 

            Jason’s half curled away, refusing to make eye contact, but he can clearly see the rest of Alfred revealed within the doorway. There’s a stutter in his motion, from when he first cracks the door to when he pulls it wider and greets, “Master Jason.”

            There’s a hint of breathlessness in the words, surprise and something else that Jason’s too afraid to analyze.

            He takes a breath, braces himself, and peeks up sheepishly to reply, “Hey, Alfie…”

            Alfred draws a sharp breath and Jason forgets any words he may have wanted to follow up with. A ripple of emotion runs through Alfred, far more visible than Jason is used to seeing from him, but still stoically reserved enough to make reading the exact emotions impossible.

            “Won’t you join me for tea?”

            The question comes after a distended quiet, but it doesn’t feel awkward or out of place.

            It feels natural.

            Jason is terrifyingly tempted to say yes.

 

            “Nah, Alf,” Jason manages eventually, hand wrapping around to pull the knight out of his pocket as he continues, “I just... I came by to, uh, to give this back.”

            Alfred dutifully holds out his hand and allows Jason to hand over the chess piece.

            A clear wave of nostalgia washes over the butler as he looks over the knight and Jason doesn’t think he’s imagining it when he notes a brief flicker of a soft smile.

            Before Alfred has to ask, Jason explains preemptively, “Uh, Timbers must'a nicked it before he brought my jacket back yesterday. I found it in my pocket this morning. Figured you'd be wanting it back.”

            “I sincerely appreciate the gesture, Master Jason,” Alfred promises.

            It makes a wash of peace flood through Jason, makes him feel like, for once, he made the right call on doing something.

            Another beat of silence hits; not quite awkward, but definitely not easy.

            After a moment, Alfred side tracks to mention, “Master Timothy is resting upstairs if you would like to check up on his recovery. Excursion yesterday aside, he's been a model patient – well on his way to healing.”

            Almost suspiciously so, if Alfred’s tone is anything to go by.

            Jason doesn’t blame him, Tim’s a slippery little bastard.

 

            But he’s glad to hear that Alfred thinks he’s behaving well and actually trying to heal himself up at this point. Jason figures the compliance won’t last long, though.

            Also figures that his appearance wouldn’t help matters – especially if he can’t keep his temper perfectly contained, always a risk in general, but always a higher risk around Tim.

            Still, he hesitated with Alfred offers, “Would you like to see him?”

            Because he would.

            Jason trusts Alfred’s assessment, but a first person view would make him feel better.

            He still hates Tim, more than ever in some ways, but he still doesn’t want the kid to die.

            Or even to be hurt.

            And Jason definitely doesn’t want to be the factor that complicates his recovery.

 

            “Nah, Alf,” Jason refuses, leaning physically away from the temptation as he begins to think about how logical it would be to start backing off before anything else happens to run the status quo. Again, Jason knows he’s just that kind of lucky and he doesn’t want to ruin shit any more than he already has.

            If the others come home early, if they realize Jason’s been there… it’s gonna be a fight, which will upset Tim, which will send him tumbling off into another idiotic bout of recklessness.

            “I should prolly be gettin' outta here anyway. Wouldn't be too good ruffle any extra feathers, eh? Bet Timbo's already in pretty hot water about getting' me involved to start with.”

            Alfred huffs, chiding firmly, “Nonsense. Master Tim is only alive right now because of that decision, and because of your choice to help him, and I'll not hear another word otherwise.”

            Warmth blooms in Jason’s chest – a dangerously comforting sensation.

            “Either way,” Jason presses after a strained moment, “I should be shovin’ off.”

            Jason’s already moving to walk away when Alfred’s voice stops him in his tracks with an undeniable rebuke, the kind to which Jason will never out-grow reacting. “Master Jason. It would be remiss of me to allow a child of this House to leave without a proper meal. At least, let me provide you with a spot of something to take with you. We have the leftovers from a lovely four cheese chicken lasagna; always a favorite of yours, as I recall.”

 

            ‘A child of this House’, Alfred called him.

 

            ‘Always a favorite of yours’, Alfred remembered.

 

            Jason doesn’t know what he’s feeling, but he’s hella sure that he doesn’t like feeling it.

 

            “You simply must allow me to pack you up enough for a good dinner,” Alfred insists, adding, “It won’t take more than a moment.”
            Without waiting for Jason to make any kind of response, Alfred turns on his heel and disappears into the Manor – leaving Jason stiff and awkward and unsettled on the porch.

            He can’t just leave now…

            Alfred’s getting him food. Good food.

            And he’d be horribly insulted and upset if Jason were to refuse it.

            But Jason also can’t just stand here, out in the open like this… it’s too vulnerable a position, too awkward a pause point, too… close.

            Jason doesn’t belong here.

            Doesn’t fit here, shouldn’t be invading the lives and space of those who do fit…

 

            But he can’t just stand here, and he can’t just leave…

 

            Jason hasn’t set foot in the Manor in… almost three years, at this point. He’s been back to the Cave – more than once, even – but he’s never ventured upstairs.

            To the place he used to think of as home.

            Crossing the threshold of his own volition will be different than if he were dragged inside – say by a returning Bat Family member with a chip on their shoulder and a grudge against an easy bad guy to blame. But still… Jason’s tempted.

            He doesn’t want to go inside.

            He doesn’t belong here, never really fit here, and doesn’t want to have to feel all that angst at the disparity again…

            And yet… Alfred’s chicken lasagna is one of his very favorite meals, one he’s never managed to perfectly replicate. So he also doesn’t want to leave.

 

            In the end, it’s the dual pronged pressure of it, the combination of the tempting promise of food and the painful ache of standing outside so exposed, that pushes him inside.

 

            He gently closes the door behind him and shuffles awkwardly across the foyer, trying not to look at anything long enough to feel the crushing weight of suppressed memories.

            Jason hovers at the edge of the kitchen, watching Alfred work in silence – his movements efficient and methodical as ever, and just as easy to find comfort in watching.

            It is far, far too easy to fall into the calm of it, to lean up against the island’s counter top and just watch Alfred work. It’s too much. Too nice, too easy.

            He can’t be here.

            He doesn’t deserve this… this peace. Not here, not now… not ever, not after everything else he’s done and had done to him since this place last felt comfortable... He didn’t even really deserve it then, he just got lucky – and it took a while for the Universe to realize it.

            Took the Universe a while to course correct.

 

            Jason doesn’t exactly think he deserved to die, and certainly not the way he did, but still.

 

            Being back here shouldn’t feel like this.

 

            “Master Timothy will be pleased to hear you stopped by,” Alfred mentions suddenly, startling Jason out of his thoughts.

            Running on rote, Jason snorts and snarks, “Idiot prolly already knows.”

 

            Alfred hms an agreeing response.

 

            The tension inside Jason suddenly snaps, flooding him with a welling distress and the kind of uncertain malcontent that makes his muscles tense and his skin itch.

 

            “Why’s he doin’ this, Alf?”

 

            “Doing what, Master Jason?”

 

            Alfred’s voice is soft and soothing, but it makes Jason take a step backwards as he fights to keep from curling in on himself with an admission the vulnerability he feels.

            Gesturing around at the Manor, at the cooler, at the white knight set on the island’s counter top, Jason just flails to explain, “This. Just all of this.”

            Jason rakes his fingers roughly through his hair, adding, “He’s risking his place here, and taking stupid risks with his god damn life, and for what?”

            “For you, dear boy,” Alfred assures instantly, without even chastising him for his unbecoming use of such foul language. “And his place here is not in jeopardy, it never will be. He’s doing this because he wants to help you see that. And to see that your place here is still open for you, as well, should you wish to return to it.”

            Jason stiffens, fists squeezing at his side – hateful words burning on the tip of his tongue as he resists the urge to grab the white knight and bash it through the nearest china cabinet.

            “All families have their fissures, their moments of internal strife,” Alfred sighs as if he doesn’t see Jason struggling not to break things. “This Family has more than it’s fair share, certainly, but the heart of the matter is that we are a Family. You may disavow us, but no matter how feeble our claims on you may be, you will always have unbreakable claims on us.”

            Alfred zips the cooler and smooths the strap across the top as he adds, “Master Timothy believes in you, Master Jason. As do I. Master Timothy simply wishes to convince you of it.”

            “Alfie, no… I…” Jason chokes out.

            He can’t handle this.

            But Alfred wouldn’t lie.

            And Timmers might be sly as shit, but he’s never shy about it… when he wants something, he says so, and then moves the fucking Universe to get it.

            But this… this doesn’t work.

            He wants to think Jason’s still redeemable, still good somehow…

 

            It’s wrong.

 

            Not just impossible, but wrong.

 

            Jason’s not good, not even kinda good. And Tim’s almost getting himself killed because of this stupid delusion of his. And no matter what Alfred says, no matter how much the butler means it, the baby bird’s place here IS at risk.

            There’s only so much friction a guy can take and getting on the Bat’s bad side is a sure fire way to ratchet up the pressure, and with Dick and the Demon Spawn against him, too…

            Tim’s risking way too much.

            And Jason does not deserve it.

            Can’t ever hope to deserve it, can’t even fathom why Tim, of all people, thinks he does.

 

            “Why would he,” Jason croaks. “I tried… I almost… I killed him, Alf…”

 

            “You chose not to,” Alfred replies simply.

 

            “That’s… That’s not… If that’s what he said happened…” Jason’s snarl is turning vicious and the venom of the Pit is sizzling with the awareness of how that jackass is just upstairs and about as defenseless as he’ll ever be.

 

            Before Jason can do anything about that revelation – before he fights between the possible reactions of pushing down or following through on the urge to go find that asshat and teach him a lesson about speaking for Jason when Jason could do his own damn explaining – the situation is changed by the sound of the door to the main garage being flung open.

            Jason’s eyes flick to the clock over the stove as the rage settles in a sudden whomp.

 

            4:17 pm

 

            Tim promised the Manor would be empty today – but only between ten and four…

 

            Which means Jason’s time is up.

 

            His muscles are tense and he’s ready to bolt – to fight his way out if he has to – when Alfred speaks up. “Master Jason,” he says quietly, pushing the cooler of leftovers toward him.

            Jason hesitates for a long second before he grabs the strap and slips it over his shoulder.

            He doesn’t deserve this, but he’s taking it.

            Maybe that’s always been part of his problem, but he can’t make himself say no to something so good as Alfred’s home cooking – can’t imagine himself growing into any kind of person that could manage the feat.

 

            Before Jason’s taken more than a step away from the island, Dick bursts into the room from the far side – a strangled, whining complaint on his tongue that dies in his throat with a horrible gurgle as he freezes up when seeing Jason.

            It takes his brain a moment to process the sight – a moment Jason should have used to kick start his escape, but failed to as his own body seized up.

            “Jason.”

            Shock, pain, guilt, fear – the rapid swirl of Dickie bird’s vibrant emotional storm is uncomfortably easy to read, as always. And the fury that comes after the initial shock of impact smooths it all down to a singular, pointed sensation that Dick can funnel into action.

            His fists clench at his sides as his body instinctively adjusts into fight mode as he grits his teeth together in demanding, “What are you doing here?”

            “Fuck off, dickface,” Jason snarls.

            “Language, Master Jason,” Alfred chides sharply.

 

            Neither Dick nor Jason look away from each other.

 

            The cautious, infuriated standoff lasts until a loud, clanging thunk sounds from the direction of the stairs, and Dick’s attention darts off towards it.

            “Tim,” he whispers fretfully in his second of distraction.

            Jason exploits the moment to get a head start towards the door.

            Dick’s always been faster than him, so he’ll need every advantage he can get to escape without having to beat Dick’s ass again so he can have a real hope of getting away.

            “What did you do to him?” Dick demands venomously as he charges after Jason.

            Jason barely makes it to the edge of the kitchen before Dick manages to latch onto his elbow in an effort to hold him back.

            “Saved his fucking life,” Jason snarls, ripping his arm free, “And for all the trouble it’s gotten me, next time, I ain’t gonna bother with it.”

            “But what the hell are you doing here, now,” Dick demands, squaring up as Jason turns to face him ready to fight.

            “Nothin’ at all, dumbass,” Jason retorts.

            Before a pause could settle into place, Tim appears at the kitchen door closest to the stairs and shouts Dick’s name with a pleading that makes the golden boy break focus.

            As Dick looks away, Jason whips back towards the door and sprints out of the room. A crash sounds behind him, and the sound of breaking china, and Dick’s voice shouting Tim’s name in alarm, but Jason doesn’t turn around.

            Jason feels a pang in his chest, but… he’s pretty sure it’s not from worry.

            He can recognize the sounds of a distraction when he hears them – and he can grit his teeth through the insult of Tim’s realizing that he needs a distraction and focus on the getting away part of this debacle…

 

            And he can push himself to sprint hard enough on the way back to Crime Alley to keep his thoughts in order on a narrow line of focus that’s fixed entirely on keeping his limbs moving in decent coordination.

 

            And when he gets to his safe house, Jason keeps himself focused on packing Alfred’s offerings of delicious food into the fridge – and setting the metal container filled with Alfred’s special blend of red tea in the very back of his highest cabinet.

 

            Then grabs a bottle of Jack, plops down on the couch so hard it creeks, and clicks on the TV – channel surfing until he lands on a mid day marathon of Airport Security New Zealand.

 

            As Jason curls up and lets the drone of idiocy in neat accents from people stopped by New Zealand customs drip through his brain, Jason very carefully does not think about how Tim didn’t have to do that with Dick… how he didn’t have any good reason to distract the asshole to let Jason get away successfully.

 

            He very carefully does not think about how much he does not deserve this ridiculous good fortune of somehow being in the god damn baby bird’s moderately good graces…

 

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

 

i just wanna be in the Light  ( light that surrounds you )

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Twelve –‘cause i don't wanna ( wait )

 

 

            When Jason shows up to the Manor later than Tim had hoped he would – when he doesn’t arrive until 3:36 pm – Tim knows right away that there is a significant possibility that someone would arrive home to interrupt before Jason was ready to leave.

            Damian, Steph, and Dick were all usually free by 4 on Thursdays, though most of the time they didn’t head straight back to the Manor.

            If anyone had to show up early, Tim has to hope it would be Damian.

            Hilariously enough, for all that Damian got on Tim’s nerves, he strongly suspected that the gremlin would be the least alarmed of any of them to find Jason in the kitchen with Alfred.

            The little Demon would not be pleased to see him, certainly, but he would not be very likely to react emotionally, and or do anything drastic to disrupt the cautious peace that merely being in Alfred’s presence could generate for a Bat in turmoil.

            Steph… might be okay.

            She would not be happy. But if she fought with Jason, it would be a verbal argument at worst – and while that could turn pretty damn nasty between them, both Jason and Steph were scrappy enough folk to be able to walk an insult off eventually, even one that might strike straight to the bone.

            If Steph showed up before Jason left, they’d fight, and it’d be rough, but they’d recover.

            Eventually.

            Honestly, a straightforward fight between them here might be enough to start building up a kind of mutual respect. Some sort of street wise Fight Club cred, or something.

 

            But if it was Dick

 

            If Dick gets home first, Tim knows a physical altercation would be almost unavoidable.

            Dick and Jason were both just such tactile people… even for how Jason could mortally wound with a single word, he had always been, and certainly still is, a person who interacts with the world as a physical entity. Even his words, which Tim would rarely consider objects in any kind of physical context, are utilized in the same way as a different person would loft a stone.

            Jason pulled the metaphysical into genuine physical space and used it to launch the kind of mental blow that could actually do serious bodily harm.

            So… when Tim hears the unmistakable sound of Dick’s motorcycle pealing up the long curve of the Manor’s back driveway… his stomach squeezes tight in trepidation.

            Not only is it unfortunate that Dick is the one arriving home first, but circumstances are even worse for the fact that Dick himself is already emotionally compromised – he only uses the back driveway when he’s been out riding around in the countryside to blow off steam from some emotional high he already knows would not be beneficial to bring home.

            The adrenaline high of tearing over asphalt at insane speeds helps, but Tim knows it doesn’t actually calm him so much as it displaces the negative energy into something more positive… which means that if a negative circumstance pops up – say stumbling unawares into finding Jason in the kitchen – he’s gonna spin all that energy right back into something bad.

 

            Something with the potential to do real harm.

 

            Tim is on his feet and hobbling to his bedroom door as fast as he can – which, tragically, isn’t all that quick, even when he’s using the stupid crutches he’d been given after having nearly torn his stitches out while visiting Jason yesterday, and even when totally ignoring how all this rushing about is pulling dangerously hard at those same stitches, which are already tender.

            He’s pretty damn sure he tears them completely when he vaults down the stairs, angling the jump from the second floor landing to use the sweeping curve of the railing below as a stepping stone to propel him towards the kitchen.

            Tim lands hard and rolls through the inelegant crash with his teeth gnashed together in hopes of smothering the pained groan that jars his lungs.

            Before Tim regains his feet, he hears Dick’s voice shout, “What did you do to him.”

            Black fury at his body – for not letting him move quickly enough to get down there in time to warn Jason of Dick’s impending arrival – rises in Tim and his movements stutter with an additional weight of spiteful resistance that has not been helped by the impact of his fall.

            Tim makes it to the kitchen door just as Dick manages to latch onto Jason’s elbow and demand, “What the hell are you doing here, now?”

            “Nothing at all, dumbass,” Jason snarls back as he succeeds in ripping his arm free – without disrupting the heavy cooler Tim is deeply relieved to see slung over his shoulder.

            The good vibes gained from Alfred’s cooking might even be enough to mitigate the worst of the bad vibes from this run in with Dick – as long as Jason gets away now, before it escalates.

            Tim calls Dick’s name with the kind of desperate, innocent pleading he knows Dick is physically unable to ignore. It makes the oldest of the Wayne wards look away long enough for Jason to seize the momentary glance as a viable opening for escape.

            Dick’s not distracted for long though and he whips back around as he registers Jason’s movement – fully prepared to stop him by any means necessary.

            But Tim’s prepared for drastic measures, too.

            His hand darts out to snatch up a coffee cup and he hurls it at the island, on an angle that will make the spray of ceramic shards hit Dick’s back with substantial speed – probably not quite hard enough to pierce the leathers he’s still sporting from his bike ride, but still more than hard enough to make him feel it.

            On impact, Dick wheels around – confused, concerned, and caught between the pull of disparate urges he can’t effectively use any kind of logic to choose between.

            Jason successfully makes use of the distraction and the Manor’s front door slams closed on his exit before Dick manages to get his brain to process the situation.

            Pained with the ache of an imagined betrayal, and deprived of the actual object of his current fury, Dick winds up glaring at Tim – with big blue eyes screwed up with unshed tears.

            “What the hell was he doing here?”

            “I invited him,” Tim returns, glaring right back.

            “Invited? Wha— how could you be so reckless? He could’ve killed you, Tim! He could’ve been here just to finish what he’d started with that god damn explosion,” Dick shrieks.

            “He didn’t have anything to do with the explosion, Dick,” Tim shouts right back.

            Tim is completely done with this bullshit today.

            DONE.

            He’s on back up plan number 47 – forty fucking seven – because of how far Dick’s head is lodged up his ass, and he’s not keen on playing nice any longer. “He saved my fucking life, so stop being such a freaking asshole about it. You know, for all the grief he’s getting for fucking helping me, he’s probably just going to let me die next time, so thanks for that.”

 

            That wounds Dick, exactly like Tim meant it to.

 

            He’s been watching Jason long enough to have learned how to hit hard without landing a single physical blow and he’s not concerned about pulling any punches. Between Jason’s sharp example and his own mother’s pointed teachings, Tim could probably do enough mental damage to genuinely kill a person with nothing but his words.

            If this were a physical fight, Dick would destroy him – he’s barely wining against gravity, at the moment – but in a game of mental manipulation, Tim’s always got the upper hand.

            He’s crushed the smoldering remains of the almost nonexistent souls belonging to the kind of business negotiators that have made Bruce go crying to Lucius Fox for help with corralling. It means that obliterating the fight inside a gooey golden retriever gone rabid like Dick is literal child’s play – something he can manage easily, even while half dead and working with his vision going blurry and black around the edges.

            Dick sways back onto his heels, physically recoiling from the idea of Tim being so unapologetically vicious with him.

            He might continue to sway, but that could also be Tim starting to lose the tenuous grip on balance he’s been clutching. Consciousness alone is pretty much all he can reasonably manage right now, and even that’s starting to feel rather overly ambitious.

            “Timmy,” Dick breathes, immediate concern bowling through the anger.

            “Master Timothy,” Alfred chides gently, arriving in a mysterious blink of existence right at Tim’s elbow. “You appear to have torn your stitches. Let’s get that seen to, shall we? I’m sure Master Richard can handle cleaning up this mess without us.”

            Tim gives a nod – well, at least he thinks he does – and Alfred’s hands on his back and elbow begin steering him towards the mudroom near the Manor’s spacious West Patio. The room intended to store only gardening tools has been retrofitted to hold everything necessary for minor and non-emergency surgery while still keeping adequate room maintained for the gardening supplies, holding everything from sterile scissors and hazmat bins to the shears Alfred uses to prune the rose bushes and the most massive leaf rake Tim has ever seen.

            It doesn’t seem plausible that the room could possibly remain genuinely sterile in the way needed for an operating theater – even one meant only for minor bodily repairs – but Alfred is magic, and no one would ever think to question his ability to keep a place clean.

            Alfred starts prepping the supplies needed to touch up Tim’s dressings while Tim fights back a pained wail at the effort of pealing off his shirt. He’s definitely torn his stitches and he’s bleeding rather significantly though the wrap of bandages that had been covering them.

            He can’t feel the wound on his leg – but he can’t really feel that leg, at all – so it’s safe to assume he tore those stitches, too.

            He’s gonna need Alfred’s help to get the flannels off, though. Coordinating two limbs to get the shirt tossed aside has been trial enough to prove that he’s not gonna be able to manage anything more complicated on his own.

            Alfred doesn’t seem to mind.

            He certainly doesn’t comment as he helps Tim lay back to provide access to the wound on his torso. With the old bandages removed, Alfred makes quick work of repairing the damage Tim’s done to himself – with a remarkable painlessness that Tim hopes he can attribute to some topical anesthetic he must’ve missed seeing Alfred apply.

            It’s unfortunately far more likely that his brain had just lost the ability to process the sensations and has just cut off the feedback from his nervous system entirely.

            Tim tries to help Alfred get his pants off by raising his hips as much as he can when he feels Alfred tugging at his waist band, but he’s not entirely sure how successful he is at it.

            He slips into the black of total unconsciousness before he feels the soft fabric of his pants begin to pool around his ankles.

 

.

 


 

 .

 

            It’s dark when Tim wakes.

 

            The kind of dark that says he’s late for Patrol.

 

            Panic streaks through him for a full second as he tenses his muscles to attempt pulling himself from the warm comfort of his bed. The panic is quickly replaced by pain, which reminds him of his current injuries and the whole, ongoing debacle with Jason – and the immediate complication of yet another wrench being thrown into his plans for dealing with that debacle.

            What happened downstairs is a complication that is bitingly unnecessary, and it grinds painfully against Tim’s reasoning abilities, making it seem like acting rational and kind and careful is just too much work to stomach.

            Especially since it will never be acknowledged at all, let alone appreciated for its psychotic degree of difficulty.

            He hopes it was today that the horrible interaction in the Manor’s kitchen took place – that it was just this afternoon that it happened and he hasn’t already missed an entire day (or more) because he needed to push himself too hard to stop the fight between Dick and Jason from escalating to a point beyond what his contingencies could possibly account for.

            As long as he didn’t lose a whole day, Tim counts the over exertion as totally worth it.

 

            It sucks that exacerbated anemia hurts so much, but, whatever.

            Tim’ll live.

            Probably.

 

            Definitely live, actually – he’s in the Manor.

            He wouldn’t be waking up in his bed room if he were at any real risk of dying. He would’ve been in the Cave’s med bay, at best, and a clinic or even a legit hospital at worst – if the whole possibly dying thing was actually still on the table.

            He can’t resist a groan as his muscles protest the attempt he makes to stretch, and the sound of fabric rustling near his feet in response alerts him to the presence of someone else in the room before he even opens his eyes.

 

            It makes him really not want to open his eyes.

 

            He does anyway, but he savors his last few seconds of peace before he does.

 

            Dick is perched in the cozy arm chair at the foot of Tim’s bed, and he’d probably had his socked feet up on the mattress before Tim began to show signs of waking.

            “You’re benched,” Tim deduces by his presence, feeling slightly, irrationally smug about the circumstance. Dick deserves to be benched for his idiocy.

            Dick’s slow breath in and out is more than enough confirmation.

 

            “You’re under watch,” Dick counters.

            He has the winning hand here, and he delivers it with a sad, flat tone, and all the gravitas of a Reaper at the Gates.

            Tim’s stomach drops, the whole world slides out from under him.

 

            He’s on a suicide watch. Officially.

 

            For Dick to be camped out here, it has to be an order laid down by Bruce directly.

            Apparently, he can’t be trusted to be left alone for any reason, even for a second.

 

            “What for?” Tim demands, outraged.

 

            Pained concern floods Dick’s expression.

            “Tim,” he breathes. “You were hardly cleared to get out of bed, and the first thing you did was run off to find Jason. Alone. You’re picking fights, tearing stitches, being reckless…”

            “I’m fine,” Tim huffs, a titch irked by the way Alfred apparently tattled on him.

 

            Dick doesn’t respond for a beat.

            When he does speak, it’s not a direct rebuttal to Tim’s point, “We’re worried about you.”

            “Worried?” Tim scoffs, “Like you were worried about me the last time I was right?”

            He gets an immense satisfaction out of the way Dick flinches at the wholly relevant accusation. It doesn’t make the situation better, but it makes him feel better.

 

            “Tim, it isn’t like that,” Dick attempts. “This is different. You’re not grieving like you were before, but you are behaving just as erratically.”

            “I’m fine,” Tim reiterates.

            “You’re not, Tim.”

            “Yes, I am,” he retorts sharply. “Everything was going reasonably to plan before you and Bruce ruined everything by blaming Jason for this stupid injury to start with—”

            “It was part of the plan to get yourself blown up?”

            Dick’s worry for him chafes for its legitimacy and Tim gives an exasperated sigh. “Getting blown up was not the plan, but working the case connected to the lab that was apparently rigged to explode was part of the plan. And I had contingencies in place in case something happened.”

            “Contingencies like going to a man who tried to kill you?”

 

            Tim rolls his eyes.

            “Why is everybody so hung up on that?”

 

            “Tim, he tried to kill you!”

 

            “But he didn’t, and not because I was in any shape to fight him off or because anyone else showed up to help,” Tim points out. “He didn’t kill me because he chose not to, while in a full on Pit rage, and barely capable of making any kind of decision, let alone a rational one.”

            “He’s still dangerous, irrational, and more than capable of hurting you,” Dick returns vehemently, gaze flicking down to Tim’s neck.

            He must have bruises from the less than warm welcome he’d received when he’d finally found the right pick of Jason’s safe houses – and he must be dressed in a shirt with a collar that’s low enough to expose them. An unfortunate circumstance on both counts.

            Feeling petty and pissy, Tim counters, “That could’ve been Damian.”

            “His hands aren’t that big, and he wouldn’t attack you while you’re injured. He wants to prove he’s better than you when you’re at your best,” Dick snipes back.

            It’s an unfortunately fair point.

            The gremlin is an asshole, but he is an honorable asshole.

 

            Tim didn’t say it because he really meant it, he’d only gone down that route because he’s pissed that Dick is so upset over Jason hurting him, but completely okay with Damian doing it.

            Dick’s obvious bias shouldn’t surprise him at this point.

            “He didn’t mean it, I surprised him,” Tim defends weakly, starting to feel the aching exhaustion of the anemia again. The adrenalin and aggression of fighting with Dick had helped him ignore it for a while, but Tim knows that he’s not going to be able keep this up for much longer… He’s already losing ground on the logical arguments side of things.

            “That doesn’t make it better,” Dick tells him, voice soft and sad.

 

            Tim doesn’t have a retort ready. And his brain is behaving too sluggishly to find one.

 

            Dick sighs with a heavy sympathy and says, “I know you miss him. I get it, okay? I do too. And after getting the Titans back, after getting Bruce back… and with Jason come back to life… I get that you want him to come home. But it’s different. He’s different.”

            “He’s grown up, Dick,” Tim challenges. “You just miss the kid he used to be too much to see how he’s still the same person in all the ways that actually matter.”

            “The Jason I know would never have tried to kill you,” Dick whispers, “Not you.”

            “He didn’t try to kill me, he tried to kill the Robin that replaced him,” Tim delineates firmly. “It just happened to be me who was wearing the pixie boots.”

 

            Dick’s pained expression doesn’t change.

 

            Tim resists the urge to huff openly again, and he barely manages to keep his glower from darkening dramatically to reflect the swirling storm of his thoughts – plainly revealing how dark his mood has turned will not be helpful in terms of attempting to get off the suicide watch.

            “If you believe that, if it could even possibly be true,” Dick says slowly, looking down at his fingers. They are tangled together in a concerted effort to keep himself from physically reaching out to Tim, which actually lends legitimacy to this stilted attempt to keep an open mind as he asks, “Why can’t you just take it slow? Test the waters more gently. Prove to us why you think that Jason is… that he can… Why can’t you wait for us all to be on the same page?”

            It’s more of an effort to understand Tim’s ongoing thought processes and his current feelings and his unfolding plans than Tim has seen from Dick since before Damian showed up.

 

            It should make Tim happy – because, his plan to convince the two most stubborn members of the Family is apparently starting to impact at least one of them…

 

            But… right now, with the anemic exhaustion, a throbbing headache, and the painful swill of a failed attempt to push a plan forward all stacking up to crush him, Tim finds that he doesn’t particularly care how genuine Dick’s current attempt is to truly understand.

            “I don’t want to wait anymore, Dick,” Tim sighs, shaking his head and letting his gaze drift out the window to skim over the alluring nightscape.

            His room is on the Manor’s south side and over looks the front lawn as it curves down towards the heart of Gotham, the expansive cityscape just barely visible as it glitters in the distance. He can’t see Jason’s grave from here, but he knows the grounds well enough to walk a mental map around the back to stand at the untouched ruins of the once pristine burial site.

            “I’ve been waiting, and I’m tired of it,” Tim elaborates. “I’ve been trying to tell you all that Jason needs you, and that you need him, since the day he got back. Nobody’s listening, and I’m done playing the slow game, trying to convince you when you don’t want to be convinced. I had a plan to show you that Jason’s still important to the Family, and you just keep ruining it.”

            Tim realizes belatedly that he’s settled back heavily into the pillows, that his eyes have squeezed closed. He’s not sure if they’re being pressed closed against an upwelling of emotion or if he blinked and he’s just too tired to force them back open again afterwards, but either way, he chooses not to fight the issue. A nap seems like a very nice idea at the moment.

            “Tim.”

            “I’m tired, Dick,” Tim says, shutting down Dick’s response before he makes it. “And Alfred says I need to rest, so just go away, okay?”

            “I can’t leave you alone,” Dick whispers.

 

            Tim can feel the heartbreak in the statement, but he doesn’t have the energy to unpack all the nuance in the sensation of it. He thinks, however, that Dick wants to leave the strain of the atmosphere here as much as Tim wants him to go.

            But he’s also loyal, obedient, and genuinely concerned about Tim’s current mental state.

            It’s grating, but not unexpected.

 

            “Then just… be quiet.”

 

            He doesn’t have the fortitude to open his eyes, or even listen to hear if Dick makes any sort of response. Tim is out cold immediately, almost before his words have cleared the air.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

even if we’re gonna ( break )

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Thirteen – you get me ( high enough )

 

 

            Dick Grayson has never been terribly good at dealing with conflict.

 

            And conflict that’s been caught up in such deep rooted emotions as what this god damn ridiculous Family can manage is just… it’s too much. Far too much.

 

            Dick can’t handle any of this, and he knows it.

 

            He has not been coping well… with anything, really. Hasn’t been coping at all, not really; not for a long while, if he’s honest.

            He’s just been putting on the smile, pulling off the cheer, faking all things he needs to… and he knows that he’s only getting away with it because the rest of the Family is also struggling.

            Which just makes it that much more important for him to find a way to pull himself together, so he can be strong enough to let the rest of them feel safe in feeling weak.

 

            It hasn’t been going as well as he’d have liked, but he’d thought it was working well enough to keep the Family sane enough to hold together.

            These last few days have done a lot to prove him wrong.

 

            At this point, Dick is struggling to keep his own head above water.

            He can’t possibly hope to be strong or steady enough to give his Family the comfort that he so desperately wants to provide.

 

            He can’t even begin to count the ways he’s failed.

            And with Tim injured, being kept on forced bed rest and under a suicide watch, Dick can’t even summon up the strength just begin attempting to set things right.

            To even soothe himself enough to figure out how to try.

 

            Friday morning sees Cass coming up to take his place at Tim’s bedside.

            She doesn’t say anything, and her eyes are dark with both sympathy and disappointment.

 

            Dick doesn’t try to defend himself.

 

            He just slinks out of the room and heads up to his own bed on the third floor.

            It’s cold, and uninviting, and Dick hasn’t worked his body hard enough to sink into oblivion without registering concern over those details.

            He’s spends an hour or two trying to sleep, just tossing and turning until his covers are a wreck and he winds up staring aimlessly at his ceiling.

            By the time the sun is streaming fully through the cracks in his blackout curtains, Dick gives up on trying to get any rest.

 

            He needs to talk to someone about this mess.

 

            The only person he thinks he could bear confessing it all to is Babs, and she should be at the Clock Tower around now. She will likely be working on the stuff for her second Phd (this one in computer forensics) rather than any Bat case work, but she’ll be in the Clock Tower to do it.

            The Clock Tower is her space, the place where she works best, the point from which she can run the entire operation behind the evolving franchise of what looks like it might become Batman, Inc. It’s amazing that she can handle all of that, in general.

 

            It’s more amazing that she can do it all and somehow still be a functional person, too.

 

            Dick takes his Ducati on the scenic route to Old Gotham, swinging through the City Hall District and the edge of the Diamond District before settling in the newly retro fitted parking garage deep beneath the Gotham streets where the historical landmark of Old City Hall stood as the last piece of the building, preserved for posterity by the generosity of the Gotham elite – led in their effort, as always, by Bruce Wayne.

            The Clock Tower is surprisingly accessible to the public, with a café of sorts populated by carts of street food vendors in the wide marble atrium of the entryway that curls up and around the mezzanine and tours led by Gotham Museum Association Docents through the lower levels.

            There’s even an elevator that operates on the standard government schedule from 9am to 5pm that takes tourists up to the room that’s supposedly behind clock faces where the bells are located. It’s actually about thirty feet below the room with the actual clock faces, which is the place where Babs has taken the historic architecture and made her own elegantly super-modern mission control center that somehow plays well with the original industrial design elements.

            Dick takes the elevator up with the tourists.

            He likes watching them; likes the calm distraction of it. Damian’s scoffed that he’s ‘preposterously enamored of their ignorance and banal excitement’, but Dick thinks he’s starting to win the kid over in terms of light hearted people watching. Not everything they do has to be fixated entirely on gathering clues and finding evidence and sussing out secrets for the Mission.

            Up among the false faces of the clock tower, there’s a hidden door (that’s not terribly hidden, it’s labeled ‘maintenance’, after all… but it does look like it was worked in subtly to blend with the décor) and inside the closet behind it is another, much more thoroughly hidden secret door, with a five part mechanical and biometric access code that leads to a landing at the bottom of a narrow staircase that twines around the outside of the Clock Tower.

            At the top of the stairs is another door with an even more complicated locking mechanism, but this one is usually triggered to unlock and swing open from the inside as Babs welcomes her visitors inside.

            The multitude of doors is mostly to keep out the insanely curious tourists out – which seems like over kill until it’s pointed out that if you handed Tim Drake a puzzle box at eight years old, he’d probably have decided to hack NASA with it. And he likely would’ve managed the feat.

            Tim might be exceptional, but if a kid within even half as much potential ever wanders up into the Clock Tower after hours… if they’re curious and smart and just happen to get lucky with the lighting conditions or something… Well, unexpected visitors would be a Problem.

 

            When dealing with the Public, being extremely over cautious is the only viable option.

 

            Most of the Caped visitors come in through the roof, or the elevator Babs uses from the basement directly, so those have different kinds of security prepped. Fewer obvious barriers, but they’re all arranged so as to make the entry points no less secure.

 

            But Dick always likes taking the stairs when he shows up during business hours.

 

            Babs pops the final door for him as he approaches, and he strides into the Clock Tower feeling the welcome sensation of peace and security the place represents swirling around him.

            He finds her, as always, in the center of the action.

            Today, he finds Steph curled up in a cozy armchair beside her, half buried in one of the infinite number of blankets Babs has tucked away in the strangest places to make it so that the comfort they provide is never out of reach.

            It’s not quite disappointment that swirls through him at seeing Steph, but a touch of the ease found in privacy and security does slide away.

            “Am I interrupting anything?” He asks with his usual wide grin of greeting. “I can come back later if you two are have a ‘girls only’ chat or something.”

            Steph snuggles deeper into her blanket and says nothing, but Babs mentions, “You’re not interrupting, and I suspect that you’re here for about the same reason.”

 

            Resigned, Dick sighs heavily and asks, “Jason?”

 

            “And Tim,” Babs confirms.

 

            Dick feels a stab of the aching regret he has for not being able to help Tim the way he should have, but his self pity is quickly superseded by concern for Steph's current state of mind.

            Dick hasn't checked up on her at all, not once since they first found out that Tim was hurt – an enormous failing on his part. He knows how much Steph cares about Tim… knows that she loves him more than she'd ever admit, even if their brief romance didn’t work out.

            In the last few days, Dick's little sister has watched the boy who was her first love get blown up and put on a suicide watch. Dick has been so caught up on his own useless worries for his little brother, that he's forgotten that his little sister is likely taking these events even harder.

            Turning to face Steph more fully head on, Dick promises, “He's been resting well, and Cass is with him now.”

            Steph doesn't mean to nod, but the unconscious little bob of her head that follows Dick's words in relief proves to him how worried she's been – and how clearly he should have been able to do more for her.

            “We'll keep him safe, Steph,” Dick promises, pulling up his own comfy armchair to camp in, “We're going to help him get through this.”

            Steph looks up from her knees at him, but she doesn't seem very comforted by his words.

            Before he can puzzle through why, or hope to figure out how to say anything more helpful, Babs mentions quietly, “This isn't just something to help him through, Dick.”

            Looking over at her with trepidation, Dick waits for her to elaborate, “The issue with Jason won't just go away if we ignore it hard enough. Tim isn't suicidal, he's just desperate.”

            “Desperate for what?”

            “For us to listen to him,” Babs explains, still using that softly patient tone, “For us to really listen – not just to hear what he’s saying, but to understand why he’s saying it.”

            “He hasn’t been willing to try talking to me in a long time,” Dick confesses.

            “Yes, he has,” Steph announces, speaking for the first time since Dick arrived. Her voice sounds cracked and fragile – very unlike the usual trademark of the brash Stephanie Brown he’s grown to love. “He has been trying to talk to you, because he’s known that you would be almost as difficult to convince as Bruce. He’s been talking and none of us have actually heard any of it.”

            Babs nods an agreement. “It started with the idea of letting Jason run Crime Alley.”

            “And stay there,” Dick presses. “He’s been scared of Jason, and he didn’t want to end up running into him unexpectedly when Jason had free range of the City. Keeping him in Crime Alley at least made him more predictable.”

            “That’s what Jason thinks it was for, too,” Steph mentions.

            Dick frowns, confused.

            Both at what Steph means, and at when she would have had the chance to learn that Jason has viewed those tense negotiations in the same way Dick has.

            “That’s not what he suggested it for,” Babs clarifies. “He did it to prove that Jason is capable of being rational.”

            “Barely rational,” Dick protests.

            Leveling an unimpressed stare at him, Babs retorts calmly, “More rational than you’re willing to give him credit for being, even now.”

            Dick reins his temper back to keep from snapping something stupid.

            “Even if he can be rational, it’s not Jason, anymore,” Dick manages after a moment.

            “Tim thinks he is,” Steph counters.

            “And he has a track record of being right, even when what he’s saying sounds absolutely insane to us,” Babs contributes.

            Dick shakes his head slowly, unable to accept the idea of wrongly disregarding Tim’s hypothesis about something impossible again – and yet, equally unable to believe that Jason… that the sweet, scruffy, soft as a sugar drop, kid that had been his Jason, his little brother, his cohort and fellow trouble maker, his partner in crime… Just unable to accept the idea that his Jason had turned into the cold hearted killer parading around as Red Hood…

            “The Jason I knew would never hurt Tim, couldn’t ever even dream of it,” Dick tries.

            Dick’s not sure if the others ever figured it out, if Bruce or Babs ever really noticed (though he thinks the odds are pretty good), but as a kid, Jason had been crushing so hard on the boy next door that Dick half expected heart shaped doodles with their initials entwined to start popping up in Jason’s school books.

            “I think…” Stephanie starts, voice so tight that she has to cough to clear it and then start again, “I think that’s why he hurts Tim, specifically Tim.”

            Quizzically, Dick turns his full attention to Steph as she fiddles with an imaginary loose thread in the purple fluff of her blanket. She came along after Jason died. Well after.

            She has no reason to understand the bias Dick knows Jason should have against the idea of hurting Tim, of letting anyone hurt Tim.

            “He’s gone after Tim harder than he’s gone after any of us,” Steph explains, keeping her eyes on her knees. “Even harder than he’s gone for Bruce. It sorta makes sense if you’re thinking that he’s going after the Robin who replaced him, but Tim’s not the only one of us who did that.”

            Dick tries desperately not to frown, wondering if Steph has been hurt by Jason somehow and then simply not told the Family about it. He’s never really worried about Jason going after her because of his vendetta – about Jason going after her, or after Damian.

            “Technically, you replaced Tim, not Jason,” Babs says, making Dick’s own point more calmly and eloquently than he would have done. “You’re a problem, but beside the point.”

            “But still… I think the reason he hurts Tim more than everyone else is that he’s just so angry that Tim’s put himself in such danger, that he keeps putting himself in danger, that it just kinda overloads Jason’s ability to respond… and the Pit kinda takes over for him,” Steph says.

 

            It doesn’t make much sense to Dick.

 

            Jason hurts Tim because he’s worried about Tim getting hurt?

            Seems pretty reaching, in terms of logical reasoning…

            Seems pretty much like it’s just a lame attempt to excuse the violence.

 

            “Cass has confirmed that the explosion that Tim was injured by while on Patrol Wednesday night was caused by an unplanned detonation of an unstable fertilizer bomb that Tim was in the middle of disarming,” Babs mentions after the moment of silence between them all stretches past the point of comfortable. “It wasn’t Jason. He saved Tim’s life. And we’ve given him nothing but grief for it. But he knew we would, and he saved Tim anyway.”

 

            Dick isn’t sure if he wants to believe it, but can’t…

            Or if he already sort of does believe it, and doesn’t want to.

            He’s not sure which would be better. Or who it would be better for

 

            His head feels a bit floaty – thoughts swirling in a dizzying spin that makes him feel like he did as a young kid, still learning how to properly spend long periods of time upside down.

 

            “We need to start seriously thinking about how we want to handle having Jason come back into the Crusade as an official ally,” Barbara says carefully. “Before we even try to open up negotiations, we need to figure out what we would need from him to make an agreement viable.”

            Neither Dick nor Steph responds.

            “Do you really think it’s possible for that to even happen?” Dick wonders eventually.

            This time, it’s Babs that has to pause.

            “I think it doesn’t matter if it seems possible,” she replies after giving the answer a careful beat of consideration. “Jason is back. He’s a player on the board. Either we pull him back into the Bat fold, or we relinquish the idea of total control over the city. Gotham is hard enough to keep civilized with the Rogues convinced we’re metas with absolute control and a united front that nothing could possibly penetrate. Right now, they’re still kind of hunkering down as they try to figure out what side Red Hood is really playing for, but eventually… well, if Jason isn’t going to be one of the good guys, he’ll either be a weak link to us, or one of the bad guys.”

 

            Dick is vehemently against all three of the options, and all for different reasons.

 

            And regardless, he’s still hung up the fact of how Jason hurts people; hurts lots of people, but especially those in Dick’s Family… in what is supposed to be Jason’s Family, too.

            “We can’t just let him come back,” Dick protests quietly. “Not after everything he’s done.”

            “We won’t be just letting him do anything. Circumstances have changed, and we either change with them and adapt to let Jason back in, or we deal with the fact that the world has left us behind in this respect,” Barbara reiterates.

            Speaking up again, this time more confidently than before, Steph adds, “Tim’s not going to stop this until we accept that Jason’s coming back. And we’re not gonna be able to stop him.”

            “He’s under watch, he’s safe,” Dick counters. “We can protect him, even from himself.”

            “No, we can’t. You have no idea, Dick. He’s been complaining to me about how you underestimate him for years, and you’re still doing it. He is patient and relentless. He might be playing at compliance right now, but this has never been a short game for him. The moment you relax or look away, he’s gonna be right back to putting himself in danger,” Steph declares.

            There’s stress in her voice, but absolutely no uncertainty.

            And then Babs mentions, “And if we push too hard to keep him safe, we’re gonna push him right out the door. He’ll run away, Dick, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to find him if he runs, let alone be able to drag him back.”

 

            It makes Dick feel sick to contemplate, to even let his thoughts barely brush the idea.

 

            The result is a long drag of uncomfortable silence as all three of them attempt to wrangle their disobedient thoughts regarding their personal fears for dangers inherent in the impact of the baby bird’s stubborn streak.

            “Tim had a binder full of possible negotiation conditions under the lining of his freezer where he keeps your ice cream,” Steph manages to say eventually. “I’m pretty sure that means it’s what he thinks are the most important points for you to accept his plan of bringing Jason back. I don’t know what he thinks Bruce needs, I couldn’t find a binder with his name on it anywhere, but I’m guessing you and Bruce are pretty close on this.”

            Wary, Dick asks, “What conditions?”

            “No Killing is the top thing on the list, obviously. Though Tim suggests rubber bullets rather than no guns,” Steph lays out.

            “Jason could still kill people with rubber bullets,” Dick points out.

            “But it substantially reduces the chances of a kill being accidental, which allows for more direct accountability,” Babs refutes diplomatically.

            Dick doesn’t like it at all, but now is not the time to quibble. He hates all of this, hates that he’s even considering the idea of letting it happen.

            “What else?” he asks.

            “Tim thought you’d need to have regular check ins be required,” Steph explains, “He suggests alternating between having Jason come to the Cave and having one or two of us meet up with him somewhere in Crime Alley.”

            Dick shakes his head but doesn’t say anything.

            He still doesn’t like it. If anyone’s going venturing into Crime Alley, which he thinks is just a terrible idea, they’re going to be in pairs at the very least. He’d prefer trios, but even that still seems too risky to swallow.

            Steph goes on without direct prompt to say, “Another thing that Tim mentioned was the need for Jason to wear a com, and all the gps and bio trackers we usually do.”

            Dick would’ve thought that would go almost without saying.

            If Jason was going to be a Bat (which Dick still can’t rationalize the fact that he’s apparently considering the possibility of happening), then Jason would need to be a Bat – which involved having the rest of the team informed on your status, and able to inform you on the status of the others, so that they could always arrange for efficient back up when necessary.

            “Jason won’t submit to that,” Babs cautions. “Maybe the com, but the rest… not likely.”

            Steph nods and then glances over at a bright blue binder set on the edge of Babs’s desk before she says, “Tim had that underlined. He circled the com part and wrote ‘start small’ in the margin. I think he put a time frame on introducing more, but I don’t remember exactly.”

            With a nod of her own, Babs asks, “Anything else?”

            Dick wants to shout that there’s about a hundred more things he’d need from Jason, need proof of and not just promises for, before he’d truly be willing to accept the notion of having the infamous Red Hood wear the Bat symbol.

            (One of them being that he actually wear the Bat symbol, which Dick doesn’t think Jason would ever accept doing again, not so long as Bruce is the man behind the cowl.)

            But Steph doesn’t say anything like that.

            Instead she shrugs and says simply, “The only other big thing he noted was that Jason would have to put all his files on the shared server. And keep up to date on a detailed activity log like the rest of us.”

            It’s another thing that Dick thought should go almost without saying. It’s just another standard part about being a member of a team as diverse and complicated as the Bats, especially when it comes to how they all have separate cases and individual specialties that may prove useful to one another as complications in the detective work arise.

            It’s an imperative order to keep everyone connected and involved with each other, to keep tabs on how each of them is fairing in facing down the stresses and dangers of the job.

 

            That rule came into being after Jason died.

 

            Tim instituted the practice. By forcibly hacking into the others’ project files.

 

            Before even bringing Babs and Dick, himself, back to the Crusade, Tim had put hardware in place to give him guaranteed back doors into their systems, and once they were actively involved again, he had them all linked up to the Cave’s super secure shared server before they had any idea what was happening.

            After the other losses they’d faced in the last few years… the practice of constantly checking in and checking up had become much more dramatically pressing and important – automatic in a way that’s crucial to maintaining the Bats’ sanity in the face of all they fight.

            It’s the kind of system that should’ve been able to let them notice that Tim was starting to tip off the edge in pursuit of this idea he has of bringing Jason back to the Family.

 

            It failed in that.

 

            But being a system of Tim’s own design… He could likely find ways around it – hell, he’d likely built in ways to get around it, right from the initial onset. So… Dick supposes he shouldn’t feel too horrible about how wretchedly useless his attempts to monitor the system were at catching Tim’s drastic and evolving recklessness.

 

            But still… they should have seen this, should have stopped it before it went this far.

 

            He says as much to Babs and Steph, and neither can respond immediately.

 

            And then Babs sighs. “I think we passed the point of no return on that one before Tim even got his feet into the pixie boots… Tim built himself up to be Robin on grit alone and that’s not a trait he’s just gonna grow out of because we want him to.”

            Steph murmurs an agreement.

 

            A moment later a shrill beep from her phone breaks the somber tension.

            “I’ve gotta head to class,” Steph explains.

            She casts one last look at the binder she’d apparently brought here from Tim’s place and then heads out via the direct to ground back elevator.

 

            Dick stares after her for a while before Babs says, “For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jason’s half as irredeemable as he wants to seem. I think he’s still just so scared of us pushing him away that he’s trying to push us back first – just like when he was a kid… Only now, he’s a lot better at hitting our exact sore spots.”

            Dick heaves a sigh in response, unable to find any words big enough to encapsulate the raw feeling that’s trapped and writhing in his chest.

            “Are you… are you going to be okay?”

            Babs is asking in earnest, and it takes a careful breath for Dick to keep himself from pulling on the bright smile and assuring her he’ll be fine.

            “I don’t know,” Dick admits when he can force himself to be honest.

            “Talk to me, Dick,” Babs implores.

 

            She knows he won’t talk to anyone else, and knows just as firmly that he needs it.

 

            “I don’t want the Red Hood anywhere near my Family,” Dick admits, simple words coming slowly but steady enough to stick. “And I don’t see how Jason could possibly have grown up to be the person under the hood. It’s upsetting, and… I just don’t know if he can come back from what he’s done… if bringing him back is really something we should try. Even if… if he could be helped, somehow, is that really the best way to do it?”

            “But you are open to the idea that he can be helped?”

            Dick blinks. He hardly even realized he’d said it until Babs latched onto the idea.

            “I don’t know,” Dick sighs honestly, shaking his head. “I guess so, maybe? I mean… if… if he can be helped, I’d like to help him… I’m just not sure he can be helped.”

            “It’s always okay to not be sure,” Babs tells him.

            She reaches over to grab his hand where it’s resting on his knee, and then gives a gentle squeeze as she adds, “I’m just glad that you want to help, if someone shows you that you can.”

            “Jason was my little brother, Babs,” Dick huffs with a heavy touch of desperation, “Of course I want to help him, if it’s possible. I’m just worried that it’s not.”

            “First off, anyone can be helped, and everyone should be,” Babs states firmly. “Secondly, Jason still is your little brother, whether either of you want to think about it or not. And most importantly… I am entirely certain that Jason has no idea you would ever want to help him.”

            Dick lets his breath slide out through his teeth.

            He can see why that last statement would be true. He hasn’t exactly been charitable with regards to his treatment of Jason since he got back from the dead and started dropping bodies.

            Jason hasn’t really given him any kind of reason to think of the Red Hood as anything other than a villain, but Dick also hasn’t given any indications that he might be willing to think of Jason as anything separate from the Red Hood’s public persona.

            There’s a part of Dick that does believe that Jason simply is the Red Hood now, and also believes that the Red Hood belongs in Arkham.

            There’s another, bigger part of him that knows how Arkham fails utterly as a psychiatric facility, that knows how it doesn’t actually work to help the inmates heal and atone – a part of Dick that wants to find Jason some other place, somewhere he might stand a genuine chance of being helped and rehabilitated.

            But there’s also the part that doesn’t think Jason can be rehabilitated.

 

            It’s a smaller part of him than it was yesterday, Dick notes with a degree of surprise.

 

            He wonders if Babs can tell that just by looking at him. He wouldn’t doubt it if someone told him she could. The way she’s stayed quiet over the last few… well, however many minutes have passed while Dick’s gotten lost in his thoughts, how she’s got that slight, but warm and sympathetic smile on… Dick thinks she probably does know.

 

            “It’s okay if you’re not okay with everything about the idea of having Jason come back to the Family,” she tells him, confessing, “Honestly, I’m not exactly okay with it all, myself.”

            Self doubt and a touch of fear make him less than perfectly kind as he latches onto that concern and says with half an accusation, “You seem awfully dedicated to advocating for it, if you really aren’t entirely okay with it.”

            Babs, being Babs and therefore an actual angel or some such divine creature, doesn’t even blink at the possible interpretation of hostility that could be pulled out of his words.

            “This thing isn’t going to be stopped just because I’m not okay with it,” she points out with laborious calm. Resignation and regret lace her tone as she adds, “This is going to happen somehow whether any of us like it or not, it’s been inevitable since Jason got back, and it’s been doubly unavoidable since Tim decided to make it that way.”

            She sighs and offers up a weak, sardonic smile, “It’s like a rip tide at the beach: trying to fight it will only make us drown faster… if we swim sideways, along the beach and across the tide… we might end up in New Jersey, but we should be alive enough when we get there.”

 

            Dick sighs too, giving her hand an almost accepting squeeze.

 

            He can’t respond with words, right now – at best, they’ll misinterpret his complicated feelings and at worst, voicing them wrongly will gum up his own limited understanding of how he actually feels at the moment.

            “Just try to remember that you do want to help him,” Babs instructs, “Focus on that instead of the question of whether or not we can possibly succeed in helping him.”

            “I’ll try,” Dick promises.

            “That’s all anyone can ask of you,” Babs returns.

            She gives his hand another squeeze, and he reciprocates before saying, “Well, I’ll let you get back to whatever you were working on before Steph and I showed up to make you play Family therapist. I’m sorry it always seems to be on your shoulders to help everyone.”

            “I’ll admit that it’s sometimes stressful, but we’re Family. If I can be of help to any of you, I want to do as much as I can for it,” she tells him firmly, releasing his hand.

            Dick unfolds himself and stretches as he stands.

            Then he leans forward to give her a kiss on the top of her head.

            “You work miracles, Babs,” he assures her.

            It earns him a soft, genuine smile.

 

            Dick makes his way down from the Clock Tower using the civilian route again (you can’t go up on camera and never go back down again, even not so savvy detectives would be able to notice something that glaring pretty quickly), and then takes his bike on a leisurely tour of Gotham City’s variegated neighborhoods.

            He just loses himself in the ride, letting his mind wander as far away from this mess as it can get. The afternoon of people watching allows his mind and nerves to settle.

            At least until he ends up on the edge of Crime Alley on his way back home while he weaves through Robbinsville.

 

            Dick stops on the border.

 

            Pulls over and looks into the shadows of the neighborhood policed by a vicious vigilante in a red helmet…

            Staring, Dick feels floaty and drunk – almost to the point that he considerers going in to find Jason and just have it out with him.

            To fight it out and then leave it on the mat like they’d managed to sometimes when they were much younger people.

            It would be cathartic, to say the least.

 

            But it would not be a good idea, and likely not a survivable idea.

 

            Dick can clearly picture how it would go.

            He wouldn’t make it far into the Alley before a bullet bounced off the asphalt by his feet – if Jason even bothered with a warning shot, at least.

            Jason would have the high ground, and security in distance.

            It wouldn’t make Dick feel any better, and it would make it just that much harder for him to remember what Babs said about this thing with Jason coming back to the Family as being inevitable… make it that much harder to focus on how he does still want to help Jason in some deep down part of himself where he still thinks of Jason as his little brother.

 

            Dick stands astride his bike on the edge of Crime Alley for a solid twenty minutes.

 

            But in the end, he does the smart thing and heads back to the Manor without venturing across the line. It feels like the wrong choice as he speeds across the Kane Memorial Bridge, but it also seems like all the other choices would’ve turned out far worse.

            Dick doesn’t know what’s going to happen, or what he could actually live with happening.

            But he’s at least been reassured that he’s not the only one who feels a little lost in all of this insanity. They’ll just have to muddle through as best they can.

 

            After all, they have gotten through worse.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

you get me high enough  ( i’m over the edge )

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Fourteen – searching high ( and low )

 

 

            Bruce does not take a shift at Tim’s bedside until the sun is rising on Saturday morning.

 

            The rest of his Family are taking advantage of the weekend’s lack of daytime obligations to catch a few good hours of the rarely achieved deep sleep they all sorely require, and deserve.

            They need as much as they can get right now.

            The lives they lead are hard, and the last few days have been especially trying.

 

            He doesn’t understand how things have managed to go so wrong.

 

            Doesn’t understand what Tim was doing, why he placed himself in such unnecessary danger without letting anyone even know about it – about the case he was working or the risks he was taking or the reasons behind any of it.

            The system they have in place to keep tabs on each other, to allow for them all to provide aid and support and anything they might need, is a system of Tim’s own design.

            Tim should’ve been the last person Bruce needed to worry about.

            He was so smart and so strong and so utterly competent… Tim knew his abilities, and knew how to utilize the others’ abilities, better than anyone. He should’ve known exactly when he needed aid, and know exactly who to ask for assistance with whatever he was doing…

            And Bruce should’ve been able to recognize that Tim wasn’t checking in like he should have been, with as much detail and frank honesty as he should have known was needed – as had been his usual prior to the lead up towards this incident.

            Bruce should’ve seen that the quietest of all his sons had gotten even quieter, that he had something heavy on his mind.

 

            Bruce is aware that he is not the sort of parent that could ever be awarded accolades.

 

            But he had hoped, that with his recent near miss, with the still fresh circumstance where never seeing his children again had been a legitimate possibility, that he would have been able to recognize how precious to him these kids were – been able to invest more of himself in proactively expressing that to them directly, to invest in convincing them of his concern.

            Dick and Cass had wholly embraced the idea. Even Barbara had approved enough to start spending several nights a week at the Manor again, despite their disagreements.

            Damian had finally found something to agree with Stephanie on when she called it ‘creepy’, but they’d both been warmer towards him for it in these last few months.

            But apparently, he’d missed the mark with Tim entirely.

 

            It has been quite distressing to realize that Tim has been concealing his concerns, and his activities regarding them, from everyone; even Oracle didn’t know precisely what he’d been up to – and even Alfred had been intentionally (and successfully) kept entirely in the dark.

 

            Bruce doesn’t know exactly what he could have done to prevent this, but clearly there is something in his care taking that has been so lacking he didn’t even recognize that Tim might be in danger – let alone that he might be a danger to himself…

 

            It has been a while since any one of his children has been on a suicide watch.

 

            And most of the previous incidents involved some sort of outside element intervening, either fear gas or joker venom or some other mind altering drug… something prompting their thoughts and fears and insecurities to turn on them and twist into something truly dark.

 

            This is different.

 

            This isn’t fear gas driving Tim to do anything to make the screaming stop, or venom making each breath hurt so much that a separate self-inflicted pain is the only thing he can put his focus into that will let air into his lungs. This isn’t a bad trip on some drug making him see threats in every shadow or to hallucinate horrific phantoms.

            This is Tim throwing away any hint of self preservation he ever had.

            This is Tim choosing to disregard his health and injuries, repeatedly, in a way that’s nearly killed him more times than Bruce could ever care to count in the last three days alone.

            This isn’t just Tim being reckless, or ruthlessly dedicated to the cause.

 

            This is a kid stepping out into the street without looking, a kid attempting to cross a six lane high way with his eyes closed.

 

            This is something different, and Bruce doesn’t know how to handle it.

            He doesn’t even know what went wrong to start with.

            Or how far back he has to look in order to find out.

 

            Tim won’t tell him – won’t even speak to him, to anyone.

            He won’t even look at most of them.

            He’s being blatant in how he’s shutting even Alfred out.

 

            Right now, he couldn’t talk even if he wanted to…

            He’s been sedated – only slightly, but the gentle push is enough to keep him sluggish, is enough to let the apparently massive sleep debt he’s wracked up claim its due.

            It has always been easy to forget how young Tim is, easy to fall into the trap of trusting his judgement like he would trust a respected adult… easy to ignore how impossibly unhealthy it was that this child would successfully accomplish more in a single 24 hour cycle than most adults would even attempt to tackle in a week. It’s been far too easy for far too long…

            Bruce doesn’t know how he lost sight of Tim, lost sight of the boy as his son rather than the young man as his business partner.

            All Bruce knows at this moment, is that his little boy is not alright.

            And that he is partly, significantly, to blame for letting it go on like this until the situation became utterly untenable.

 

            He knows that Tim is not alright.

            And he knows that if anyone will know anything about why, it would be Jason.

 

            Tim has always been… uniquely fixated on Jason.

 

            It would not have taken a detective to notice how… attached to Jason Tim had been from the very beginning.

            Initially, Bruce had considered it a reasonable response to having gone through a series of traumas and been rescued each time by Jason directly – a theory that made even more sense when considering that Tim knew who Jason was under the Robin mask right from the outset.

            And then… after Jason… died… Tim had forced his way into the Crusade with the express purpose of protecting Jason’s legacy. He hadn’t allowed himself to mourn and he’d grown obsessed with perfecting himself in order to live up to his self assigned goal of being the perfect Robin so as to avoid letting Jason’s memory down.

            It had not been healthy, and Bruce had known that, but because the crippling loss of Jason was so fresh to him, Bruce hadn’t, at that time, yet allowed himself to grow close enough to the poor boy to take an active role in providing for Tim’s mental well being.

            In fact, he had – quite erroneously – assumed that if he could crush Tim’s spirit, he would quit the vigilante business, which would be bettor for him in the long run, even if it was clearly damaging in the short term.

            Obviously, Bruce’s attempts to drive Tim off had backfired spectacularly.

 

            In part, Bruce is glad for it.

 

            Tim has been a crucial part of what has kept the Family together for years now, he’s probably the only reason that neither the Family, nor the Crusade, has crumbled entirely…

            Not to even mention his contributions to preserving Wayne Enterprises and all of the philanthropic ventures that the company supports… Tim had wrested control of WE out from under Ra’s al Ghul before anyone else even realized it was under threat, let alone a threat from someone like the Demon’s Head.

            It was likely due to Tim’s existence, to the entirely false attribution of Tim’s skill set as being the result of Bruce’s teachings, that Ra’s al Ghul had given up his grandson to Bruce’s care with such little resistance. Bruce would have fought for Damian until he tore down the world in doing so, but it hadn’t taken anywhere near such strife to win and that could only mean the immortal – in his own, creepy way that was horrifically out of touch with modern reality – had consented to the idea of allowing Bruce to raise the boy.

            Tim had never so much as acknowledged that he played any part in it, certainly he hadn’t ever told Damian that he’d been involved at all.

            Tim had quietly taken Damian’s abuses until he’d earned the child’s grudging and secretive, but clearly undying, respect – genuine admiration, even.

 

            Perhaps his bland willingness to take such blatant abuse should have been a red flag.

 

            From the beginning, when it was Bruce attempting to tear him down and crush his spirit.

            Or when it was Dick, trying his best to enact the very same ‘cruel to be kind’ policy while training him in the gymnastic art of aerial maneuvering.

            Or when it was Barbara, attempting to lock Tim out of the Batcomputer’s systems for his own good once they’d realized how far he would push himself to finish a case.

 

            They had all, at one point or another, attempted to hurt Tim in some, direct and concrete way to make him back off – pushed him too hard, dismissed his efforts and potential, refused to acknowledge even the most smashingly impressive of successes.

            It all ended up just pushing him harder, driving him to make himself even better.

            They were all guilty of it.

 

            But no one pushed Tim as hard as he himself did.

 

            And nothing motivated him to do so like Jason did – Jason’s legacy, Jason’s memory, and now, it seemed, Jason’s approval.

 

            Jason had been unbearably cruel to Tim when he’d come back to life, crueler to Tim than he was to even Bruce. Not only had Jason brutalized him, beat him repeatedly to within an inch of his life, but Jason had also been quick to declare Tim an inadequate replacement – confirming every one of Tim’s deepest insecurities directly, and when coming from the person he’d been doing all this work for, whose standard he’d been attempting to live up to…

            They should have realized that it wouldn’t make Tim back away like a rational person.

            They should have known that it would simply motivate him to try harder.

 

            Bruce doesn’t know how to fix this.

 

            But he does know that finding Jason is probably the most important first step – finding Jason and figuring out exactly what has happened between the crime lord and Tim lately to have made Tim so determined to win his predecessor’s approval.

            It’s an excruciating wait through the whole of the day that Bruce has claimed to watch over Tim. Alfred brings in a meal halfway through, just as Tim is waking up enough to eat something… it’s another plate laced with just a hint of sedatives.

            Tim can taste them and glares sullenly at his plate as he eats, but he does eat and that relieves a smidge of the tension in Bruce’s chest.

            It is not long before Tim is pulled back into a deep, restorative sleep.

 

            This time, Bruce can’t simply stare at the unconscious face of his middle child – can’t look at the slackness without still seeing the lines of tension that mark his sleep as induced and less than perfectly relaxed.

            This time, Bruce has to occupy himself with something else.

            He chooses to go through the binders of photographs that Tim keeps under his bed at the Manor – binders with each of the Family’s names on them. They aren’t the most private collections he’s created – those binders are in a floor vault under the bed in Tim’s private apartment in China Town, locked up so tight that no one has ever gotten inside to see the shots that Tim considers to be his most precious – but the relatively accessible ones here are the Manor are a curated, evolving narrative of those lucky few that Tim considers Family.

            Dick’s binder has the most variegated shots, the most growth and the clearest timeline, but it’s still Jason whose binder contains the most pictures in terms of raw volume.

            Even with the unfortunate interlude of Jason’s death… with the tragic, and mysterious gap in his history that is the year and a half that Jason was assumed to still be deceased… Tim has significantly more pictures of him than he has of Dick. Tim has more pictures of Jason than he has of Steph and Cass and Damien, the three siblings who came along after Tim, combined.

            Bruce flips through the binder of Jason’s photographic history, watching him through Tim’s camera as he developed as Robin – and even as he evolved through phases as Red Hood.

            Without Tim’s painstaking attention to detail, Bruce would’ve been hard pressed to believe that the Red Hood had changed in any way since coming back to terrorize Gotham when he was still fresh out of the Lazarus Pit.

            But looking at Tim’s photographs, at the narrative he’s crafted of Jason’s return, it’s clear that there have been several points of transition – some of which Tim has brought to the Family’s attention, and some of which it seems he intentionally neglected to mention.

            It could be that those points he did not bring out for the Family to scrutinize were irrelevant to the argument he’d been making at the time, but even outlier data that could muddy the water in an analysis is data that’s important to the validity of the conclusion.

            While Jason has certainly seemed to have taken far more steps in moving forward from the Pit towards being a reasonable person again, he has also taken some clear steps backward.

            Bruce is very concerned about how hard Tim had been pushing for Jason to come home when he’s had such a clear picture of why that feels so impossible still. Why it’s so objectionable.

 

            Jason isn’t Jason anymore and they have to accept that – they all have to accept that.

 

            No matter how much they might want to have Jason get involved with the rest of them again… It doesn’t seem… He can’t… Jason may be able to work with them in the Crusade – to join back as a proper Bat, even as implausible as that alone currently seems – but there will always have to be a line between allowing that and letting him step truly back into the Family.

            No matter how sorely Bruce misses having Jason be his son, he has to think of his other children and the constant, unavoidable risk that Jason poses to them.

            Eventually, Bruce puts the binders of photographs back into their box beneath Tim’s bed.

            He pulls up Moby Dick on the tablet Tim has resting on his bedside table and begins to read aloud, allowing his voice to sink into that especially smooth, deep timbre of the storyteller.

 

            It seems to help Tim relax, if only marginally.

 

            Bruce is half a dozen chapters in when Stephanie appears at the door to relieve him of his term on watch. She stands frozen in the doorway for a full minute – simply staring at Tim’s slack expression with her own twisting up in turmoil – before she looks at Bruce, who continues reading without interruption until he reaches the end of the segment and Stephanie takes an unpressured step inside the room.

            When Bruce closes the book and looks up at her, he mentions in a whisper, “You do not have to do this, Stephanie. We can ask Cass, or I could stay, myself, if this is going to be too hard on you. I understand how difficult this situation must be for you.”

            As testament to that fact, Stephanie doesn’t even grow defensive at the statement.

            Instead, she sighs and admits, “I wouldn’t be able to focus on Patrol. I may as well do something useful.”

            Bruce nods acceptingly and sets Tim’s tablet back on its table.

            He stands and places his hands on Steph’s hunched shoulders. He is still more awkward than he should be with delivering physical signs of affection and support than he should be as a parent of seven – good lord, he has seven children now – but he’s far better than he once was and pulls his daughter into a brief, but heartfelt hug.

            She needs it so much that she hardly even seems embarrassed as he releases her and she shuffles over to the plush chair he vacated.

            Bruce calls a farewell that is not returned and then heads into the hallway. The sounds of Stephanie’s voice picking up where he left off in the story of the white whale soothes enough of his worries for Bruce to head down to the Cave without proactively compartmentalizing.

            Cass is already dressed and readying to head out to the South Side of the city. Dick and Damian are also nearly finished with their preparations to Patrol the East Side. Bruce will be taking everything else and while he expects it to be a quiet night, he has no intention of shirking his duties – despite being determined to spend significant effort in tracking down Jason once he has finished with his usual Patrol.

            He impresses on the others the importance of remaining diligent despite the distractions at home and then leaves them to their own, well trained and carefully honed, devices.

            Bruce trusts his children – with his city, with his life… with everything he is and has.

 

            He suits up alone, gives a curt farewell to Alfred, and an equally curt greeting to Oracle as he signs onto their active communication network, and then sets out for Patrol.

            The night goes quickly and is as quiet as Bruce supposed it would be.

 

            He is able to turn his focus onto finding Jason just after 2 am.

 

            Bruce has only just set foot inside of Crime Alley when Oracle pings him over a private com connection. He taps his ear to accept – knowing that if he doesn’t, she’ll just hack it and be pissed off when she gets through.

            Or more pissed off, as it were.

            She sounds pretty pissed already.

            “Of all the stupid ideas you’ve had lately, B…” she starts off.

            “Jason needs to be found,” he points out.

            “Not now,” Oracle refutes, “And not by you.”

 

            Bruce does not respond aloud, because he does not agree.

 

            It has to be him that finds Jason.

            He cannot let himself, even by happenstantial negligence, foist this responsibility onto one of his children.

            It will hurt enough to find Jason himself and have to face the brutal reality of the monster that has taken root inside his son.

            Confronting such head on, in uncontrolled circumstances, could very well shatter any of his children – especially those who had once counted themselves among those closest to Jason.

 

            No.

            It has to be Bruce, himself, that does it. Alone.

 

            And it has to happen soon.

            Soon enough for Bruce to manage the feat before any of his other children get the same idea to attempt to handle it themselves.

 

            Which means, essentially, that it must happen tonight.

 

            Bruce knows that his children will not sit idly by for long, and while he may be the only one to have yet seized upon the idea of seeking Jason out for answer, he is very certain that the others will not be long behind.

 

            In the face of Batman’s silence, Oracle sighs.

 

            “You can’t do this, Bruce,” Barbara tells him, voice heavy and almost imploring, “You can’t just go punish Jason for all of this. Tim did it to himself, and he knew what he was doing, what he was risking, when he did it. You can’t ignore that.”

            “I am not ignoring it,” Bruce replies harshly. “But Jason needs to know what happened, and he needs to be brought into a controlled environment to be debriefed – to get to the root of the matter that caused this.”

            “We know what caused it. And Jason won’t have any more answers than you do,” Barbara tells him firmly. “Tim is the only one with any legitimate agency in this.”

            “But Jason will know why Tim is enacting this plan of his now, Jason will know what he’s done to cause Tim to act,” Bruce counters.

            “He’s alive, Bruce,” Barbara sighs. “He’s alive. That’s it. That’s what he’s done to prompt Tim to act. And the real question isn’t why is Tim doing this now, it’s why haven’t we noticed that he’s been doing this until now. Tim didn’t start this recently. Based on what Steph has found, Tim has been working on this from the moment he found out Jason was alive.”

            Concerned about ensuring that he fully understands the implications of Barbara’s statement, Bruce comments, “The Red Hood was still trying to kill him when we found out.”

            “Yeah,” Barbara huffs in a manner that is not reassuring at all, “And Bruce? We’re pretty sure, at this point, that Tim figured it out before you did. We think he might’ve known on day 1.”

            Bruce freezes on the rooftop, glad his feet touched down before the words sunk in.

 

            Tim had known?

 

            He’d known that it was Jason who was trying to kill him, who had eviscerated him while he’d been ensconced in what was supposed to be the unparalleled safety of Titans’ Tower.

            “Jason didn’t know, either,” Barbara says after a long sway of silence. “Jason didn’t realize that Tim recognized him immediately. He’s been just as surprised, and feeling just as lost and cornered, as the rest of us. Finding Jason isn’t going to answer any questions for us… if anything, it will just push him further into hiding – maybe make him leave Gotham altogether.”

            Maybe that would be for the best.

            Bruce doesn’t speak the thought aloud, but he doesn’t have to for his silence to be more than telling of his feelings on the matter.

            “We have to deal with this, Bruce,” Barbara huffs, exasperated. “If Jason runs off, it’s only delaying the inevitable and it will just make Tim that much more desperate and determined to make it to his end game immediately the next time Jason swings into town.”

 

            It’s a fair point.

 

            But it does support Bruce’s argument for finding Jason now, for bringing him back to the Cave tonight for a thorough questioning in a controlled environment.

 

            It would be for Tim as much as it would be for anyone else inside the Family.

 

            If Bruce brings Jason in, they could hash everything out once and for all, could clear the air and make definitive evaluations regarding Jason’s potential for being part of the Crusade again – for being part of the Family again.

 

            Bruce wants him to come back so badly that it hurts.

 

            But he’s also entirely convinced that his boy has been entirely corrupted by a force outside of himself, has been made a monster by the unholy processes that somehow brought him back to life when the sweet hearted, brash and hopeful, little boy who had died tragically before his time should still be safely in the ground where his kind soul could rest in peace.

 

            This brutal caricature of Jason has none of his humanity.

 

            Bruce has almost brought himself to terms with it, but if he has to have it proven before the Family, to set their minds at ease with the idea of distancing themselves from this Red Hood, from this empty, spiteful mask with nothing but a phantom inside – with nothing but the ghostly vestiges of Jason’s reanimated character come back to reap vengeance on Bruce because he so deserves it, inside – then so be it…

            Bruce will bring him back.

            Even if it will crush what’s left of his heart to do so.

 

            He cannot allow his Family to risk themselves on an impossible dream, cannot allow Tim to maintain this heart breaking, and painfully endearing, delusion of his that Red Hood is truly the Jason they all once truly cared for…

            Tim is on suicide watch because of this chaos and the Red Hood must be held accountable for that. His mere existence is painful enough to hurt Bruce with every breath, he does not have to hurt the rest of the Family, as well.

 

            Digging into that resolve to make his feet begin to move again, Batman resumes his search of Crime Alley for the infamous crime lord in the expressionless red helmet.

 

            Oracle is still protesting to the course inside his ear, and she tries one more method to reroute Batman’s steady aim: “Tim is on a suicide watch. He’s on a watch because he tore his stitches after a life threatening injury, and he tore them because he wanted to let Jason escape the Manor without letting you and Dick subject him to an interrogation. Bringing Jason home by force will not help Tim. Dragging him back will only make you feel better. You’ll really just be pretending that it’s actually for Tim’s benefit when it could really set his recovery back weeks.”

 

            “The Red Hood must be found,” Batman refutes darkly. “He must be held accountable for what he’s done, and he must be brought to justice for it.”

            “Not tonight,” Oracle repeats in a heavy, resigned sigh. “And not by you.”

 

            She cuts the com connection after that, but Batman has no doubt that she’s still watching his every move as he combs the repellant neighborhood for any trace of his crime lord quarry.

            Oracle doesn’t understand why he has to do this – why it has to be him that bears this burden to protect his children from it.

            Barbara is not a parent, so she cannot possibly understand, and Bruce doesn’t truly hold that against her despite his frustrations with her resistance.

            That line gets harder to maintain as he continues his search without uncovering any fruitful leads. He has no direct proof that Oracle is helping Red Hood elude him, but he also is entirely certain that she has no inclination to help him be found.

            Batman is forced to give up the search that night just before the sun rises on Sunday morning. While the unfortunate result is disappointing, it is not entirely unexpected.

            If there was anyone in Gotham with the skills, determination, and capability needed to hide from Batman, it would be the Red Hood.

            Especially if he had Oracle’s help.

 

            They would have to discuss her probable intervention eventually, but for now, Bruce can table the issue in the interest of maintaining the Family’s limited harmony while Tim is in the midst of crisis. While one son central to this incident is a lost cause, the other is not, and Bruce is determined to help him through this. And that takes precedent above all, at the moment.

 

            Bruce divests himself of Batman’s cowl and armor, works himself through a cool down routine and then cleans himself up in the Cave’s showers before taking up his place at the Bat computer to input his notes from the evening.

            Then he heads upstairs to the Manor proper and checks in on each of his children.

            When he finds them each no worse off than he last left them, Bruce makes for his own bed and collapses into a dead sleep the moment his fingers gain purchase on the covers.

            Six and a half hours later, he rises as usual in the luxurious calm of a weekend.

            He has made arrangements to allow both himself and his son to be excused from their daily duties at Wayne Enterprises for the next few days – and Tim is off for the next two weeks, at least – but there are still a few details that always need to be handled, even on Sundays.

            As soon as that’s all taken care of, he returns to Tim’s room to relieve Cass of the watch she took over from Steph after a mildly abbreviated Patrol. He picks up Moby Dick where Steph left off around halfway through, making a concerted effort to control his emotions.

 

            Bruce will fix this.

 

            Eventually. He will. Nothing else could ever be acceptable.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

searching high and low ( but nobody knows )

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Fifteen - high on hope ( or high on fear )

 

 

            Tim waits two whole weeks.

            Fourteen days, six hours, and thirty seven excruciating minutes.

 

            He waits for his wounds to heal enough for him to be entirely certain that he won’t risk legitimate damage by exerting himself to a significant extent.

            It’s also long enough for the bruises on his throat to fade away.

 

            Tim decides that he’s done waiting on a Monday morning.

 

            He hasn’t spoken to anyone since he fought with Dick, and as such, he’s officially still on a suicide watch – insulting as that may be in all respects.

            Still, the restrictions have relaxed a bit and Tim is allowed to shower in the peace of genuine privacy – which means he can prep a minimalist go-bag to help get him to one of his isolated, secret safe houses, from whence he can facilitate an actual endeavor to go to ground.

            Tim is running away.

            And he is not at all ashamed to admit it.

 

            Dick has gone downstairs to grab them both a bite to eat and Tim uses the time to dress in his usual thermals and some comfy looking sweats – far warmer than strictly necessary, but not to an extent that Dick would notice while he’s distracted with trying to play mother hen.

            Tim’s go bag is extremely light – being that anything he’d take from the Manor would be absolutely covered in trackers that would be irksome and time consuming to disarm.

            It’s literally nothing but a few hundred bucks in untraceable cash, a clean phone that Tim rebuilt himself, and a pair of EM pulse electrodes that he can put behind his ears – serving both to trick his brain into thinking he’s still perfectly warm for the half dozen blocks he’s planning to walk without a coat, and to shield his signal while he rides into town while wearing a tracker invested leather jacket…

            (Because he is not an idiot and won’t forego the protection of leathers while on his motorcycle just because of a few inconveniently placed trackers. Especially not when the bike itself will have a few dozen trackers of its own.)

            He also pulls high frequency ear plugs, a sonic transmitter, and a contact adhesive patch with enough sedative to drop a small horse out from behind a tile in his bathroom in the corner tucked behind the toilet. Tim’s not worried about them having been found or tampered with – the only person besides him who could even get back there without significant construction damage is Damian and that psycho is not about to go poking around Tim’s bathroom for kicks.

            He’s full dressed and his hair is almost dried – damp strands hanging loose and covering any hint of the low profile ear plugs he has in place – long before Dick returns with breakfast.

            It’s a massive, sugary bowl of cereal for him, and a nutrient enriched chocolate chip muffin for Tim. He’s even brought a cup of coffee up, along with the two big glasses of milk.

            The coffee almost makes Tim want to feel bad about what he’s about to do.

            Only almost, however.

            And only enough to almost make him want to feel bad.

            He couldn’t actually ever be genuinely made to feel bad about this.

            It’s mostly Dick’s own fault anyway, and since desperate times call for desperate measures, Tim’s not keen on pulling any punches.

            Especially, not when he’s working on a deadline.

            A very tight deadline.

 

            Jason cannot be allowed to sit alone inside his head for too long.

 

            Or at all, really, but circumstances have made it rather unavoidable.

            Even so, he can’t be left to his own devices for too long because every minute he’s alone with himself is another minute that Tim’s careful work can be undone. He’s spent heaps of time establishing an intricate thread of logic to implant in Jason’s psyche to help weave a specific understanding of the current fabric of reality, and every second that Jason’s brain and insecurities and the claws of the Lazarus Pit have to rip and tear at that fabric is a second that risks a nail catching on Tim’s delicate thread.

            He’s already wasted more than enough time.

 

            And he’s not too fearful of offending Dick’s trusting, brotherly sensibilities.

            Tim wouldn’t have to do any of this shit if it weren’t for Dick’s head being up his ass.

 

            When Dick settles onto Tim’s bed with the breakfast tray perched between them, he flashes Tim a bright smile and relays an elaborate narrative about how he had to ninja sneak around Alfred to acquire such a reasonably sized breakfast.

            Tim relents slightly and allows Dick to see a slight smile on his face in response to the ridiculous tale, but he still refuses to speak. He does give a silent toast of thanks with his coffee.

            And he lets that leniency bleed over into allowing Dick to finish his cereal and even get a brief hug in before he puts his plan for escape into action.

            It’s nothing flashy, nothing that displays any kind of dramatic fighting prowess, but he uses the sonic emitter to distract Dick, to make him wince and writhe and frantically look around everywhere but where he should. Then Tim gets the contact sticky flush against Dick’s carotid artery and keeps the man’s scrabbling hands occupied long enough for it to take effect.

            Dick crumbles slowly into a heap on Tim’s bed.

            And the only comfort Tim sees to ensuring before slipping silently out the door is to check that Dick can breathe in his slumped position.

            After that, Tim heads downstairs without looking back.

            He only pauses in the mudroom to swap out his sweats and pull on his leathers. He does not look up when Alfred appears at the door with a dramatic sigh.

            “I would not wish you to feel imprisoned, but I would rather by far to have some convincing means to keep you here,” the butler admits.

            Tim sighs in reply, but he doesn’t look up and he doesn’t pause in his preparations.

            “Please, Master Timothy,” Alfred says quietly, “Come home.”

            This time Tim pauses.

            He still doesn’t look up, but he makes a few words crawl up his scratchy throat.

 

            “Not without Jason.”

 

            A moment passes in silence.

            And then Alfred accepts sadly, “Very well then, young sir.”

 

            Tim still isn’t looking, but he feels Alfred nod and he nods in return as he gets back to getting ready. It’s only another few seconds before he’s dressed to head out.

            He sticks the electrodes behind his ears and activates them to envelope himself within an electromagnetic field. Then he grabs a motorcycle without any fancy electronic components, kick starts the analog engine, and tears off down the tarmac.

            He heads to the City Hall district, ditches his bike and his leathers in the alley across from the Old Post Office, and walks three blocks to the subway. It takes two hours to ride back and forth and jump between lines in a way to make his course utterly impossible to follow – while he picks up odds and ends from stashes he’s cached throughout the system.

            It’s all theater gear, which means he can change his entire outfit and appearance in the space of half a second as he swings around a blind corner – through a long passage where the shadows and narrow angles make cameras ineffective – and then whips around and heads right back where he came from.

            Tim’s most secretive safe house is right below Oracle’s nose, a rented office in the building across the street from the Clock Tower. From there he can regroup.

            He snatches a couple of hours in a nap – running from Batman would be exhausting even if he wasn’t still riding the ache of catastrophic blood loss – but after that, he’s all business.

            Collecting his kit, Tim makes himself anonymous, and treks across the city towards Crime Alley. It’s still before noon, if only just, but Tim knows that finding Jason is going to take the rest of the day – even if he gets lucky.

            He’s not quite to the point of randomly knocking on doors, but he’s pretty close.

            There’s fifty buildings in Crime Alley with a reasonable power draw to serve as secure cover for a pseudo-Cave set-up… Tim isn’t entirely certain that Jason’s still running a sophisticated comp set, but he doesn’t think Jason’s gone entirely underground yet. There are still steady reports of the Red Hood patrolling as usual and keeping his turf secure, so he likely has something tech heavy running.

            So, fifty buildings.

            Getting close enough to each to scout security measures takes time, and isolating the two dozen with the kind of security a Bat could upgrade, takes time. Getting into those buildings without being noticed and clearing each floor for any specific units with exorbitant security takes more time. And then getting into those units, checking to confirm that they do belong to Jason, and evaluating the time span that has lapsed between his Tim’s arrival and Jason’s most recent occupancy takes more time.

            Not to mention the issue of running around town while dodging all of Oracle’s surveillance vehicles…

            He’s not even halfway through his list when the last vestiges of sunlight fade.

            He’s about two thirds through when the sun starts coming back up.

            Tim’s gone through all but five plausible options when he stumbles on one with a window left open over the fire escape – secured by an outrageous number of alarms and motion sensors, that are an absolute bitch to get around – and a slow cooker ticking away with something flavorful (definitely meat, probably pork) degrading into mush inside it.

 

            Bingo.

 

            Now, all that Tim has to do is find Jason.

 

            Being nearly 10am, Tim’s first thought is that he’s gotten back from Patrol already and is out cold in the bedroom down the hall.

            Tim dismisses the thought quickly, though.

            No Bat would be out cold enough to ignore the sounds of someone breaking into their safehouse – not unless they happen to be on the problematic side of half dead, at least, and Tim doesn’t think Jason will have gotten in any fights big enough to get himself seriously injured, because it would also have been a fight big enough to draw the other Bats’ attention and Tim is reasonably certain that Jason will have been maintaining a very low profile recently...

            Besides, if he’d gotten home already, Jason probably would have closed his window – unless he was expecting guests, which is unlikely, but not entirely impossible…

            But also, the pork in the slow cooker is… not meat shaped anymore.

            It’s been there a while, like he put it on before heading out, and Tim doesn’t think it’ll be an even partially solid substance if Jason leaves it in while he crashes post Patrol.

            No, it’s much more likely that it’s a meal planed for Jason’s post Patrol binge and he just hasn’t gotten back yet to devour it.

 

            It makes a certain amount of sense for Jason to have shifted his Patrol timings in order to ensure he was working with the maximum potential to best avoid the other Bats’ poking around to find him.

            And if there was ever a neighborhood in the universe that would’ve gotten so desensitized to the idea of masked men toting weapons walking around in broad daylight that no one would bat an eye to see Red Hood on Patrol, it would’ve been Gotham’s Crime Alley.

 

            So, Jason is like still out pounding the pavement (and pounding in people’s faces).

 

            Which leaves Tim in a bit of a pickle…

            Now that he’s here, and can see that Jason is not, Tim feels that it may not be the best plan to have Jason come home to find Tim sitting in his living room.

            But also can’t just leave and wait for Jason to come back before making a soft open approach. Getting passed Jason’s beefed up security measures had taken a significant bit of finagling and it’s fairly likely that Jason will notice someone’s messed with it.

 

            Acceptable alternative options fail to present themselves as Tim’s brain tries to spin the problem enough to work out a viable solution.

            And after just a short moment of attempting to figure out the best approach, the possibility of choosing how to initiate this meeting is taken out of his hands…

 

            Jason moves so silently across familiar ground – so quick and quiet and smoothly – that Tim’s first hint of his presence is the sound of a pistol being cocked.

            Tim freezes.

            Hands up, fists open in complete surrender; duffel bag strap still hooked over his elbow.

            Spots Jason with his peripheral vision, already standing in his kitchen after having slid soundlessly through the still open window over the sink.

            Jason’s figure is blurry at the edge of Tim’s vision, but Tim doesn’t need to see his expression at all to feel the fury radiating off of him.

            Hypothesis confirmed: Jason finding him just standing here inside his safe house is… markedly ineffective towards getting on Jason’s good side…

 

            “You got any kind of reason I shouldn’t shoot you right now, Replacement?”

 

            “Not really,” Tim admits. “But I’d prefer it if you didn’t.”

 

            There’s a low burst of garbled static from the Hood’s voice processor – like Jason’s muttered something under his breath that the Hood’s mic can’t quite capture well enough to reproduce as a valid output signal.

            Tim very carefully does not react.

            Or move at all.

 

            Jason just stares at him, gun cocked and steady.

 

            The silence stretches on so long that Tim is tempted to tell Jason to just get on with it, already – he’s on a schedule, after all.

            But that would open him to questions about what the hell kind of a schedule Tim’s got set for himself that involves coming here while he’s still supposed to be on bed rest.

            Which is not the best place to start this conversation.

            Why he’s here is an inevitable question, but keeping the idea of a schedule out of it would be helpful – Jason’s not the type of person to react well to the idea of someone attempting to control his life, to manipulate his very psyche to achieve a give end.

            Even if that end is good for him.

 

            So, Tim waits.

 

            Plan A is to wait, totally frozen, until Jason decides how he wants to play it.

            But Tim is still pretty solidly anemic, despite waiting two frickin’ weeks to do this.

            And his duffle bag is heavier than optimal in the given situation.

 

            The muscles in his arm begin to tremble eventually.

            The tremors start out in concealable, local bursts, but far too quickly turn into a generalized and visible weakness that makes the arm holding his duffle descend.

            It clicks against the floor when the muscles in Tim’s arm give up entirely on holding it.

 

            The click triggers Jason into speaking.

            “The hell are you even doing here, shouldn’t you still be in bed or some shit?”

 

            “I ran away.”

 

            “The fuck?”

 

            “I ran away,” Tim repeats, doing his very best not to sound too patronizing.

 

            Jason snorts. “I heard you the first time, dipshit. I’m just havin’ trouble buying the idea that you flew the fuckin’ coop.”

            Tim shrugs.

            The motion moves the strap of his duffle, and Tim can feel Jason’s eyes on it.

            “I’m clean,” Tim mentions. “No trackers or beacons or hackable tech or anything. The bag, and everything in it, s’all clean, too. You can check it if you want.”

 

            Jason doesn’t respond.

            Tim’s not sure if it’s because he’s thinking about checking Tim’s bag, or if he’s still trying to decide whether or not to shoot him. Probably both.

            And Jason’s probably considering the idea that even if he decides not to shoot him right now and checks Tim’s bag, if he finds anything he doesn’t like, the question of to shoot or not to shoot is gonna come right back up again…

            It’s actually pretty likely to come up again a lot in the next few twists of conversation… regardless of how much Tim does not actually want to be shot.

 

            Still in Tim’s peripheries, Jason adjusts his stance.

            The gun in his hand is still steady – still cocked and pointed at Tim’s head – but Jason’s over all posture is more relaxed.

            Tim takes this as permission to slowly shift his own posture so he can actually see Jason, and carefully shift his muscles to prevent his knees from giving out in the same way his arm did.

            Jason still has his Hood on, and Tim’s movement rachets up the tension in the air, but Tim still feels reasonably confident in his odds of surviving the next few minutes.

 

            The silence lingers heavily again, but this time Jason breaks it well before Tim begins to entertain the thought that he might honestly prefer being shot.

 

            “What made you run?”

 

            Tim shrugs.

            “It was suffocating,” he admits, blunt and candidly.

            It would be true enough to validate his choice even without the ridiculous excess of the suicide watch being leveled against him.

            Tim may have submitted to three weeks in bed under other circumstances – scenarios where Jason wasn’t a flight risk and it was only the usual mix of worry wart procedures to deal with – but no matter how much he might’ve wanted to stay, Tim would’ve had to bolt eventually.

            He chooses not to mention the suicide watch to Jason at the moment, thinking that it’ll just complicate things and add another, unnecessary layer of tension to the already rather strained atmosphere.

            Instead, he glosses over it to say, “I just needed to get out of there, get somewhere I could breathe… you know, find somewhere to exist without feeling like I’m being watched.”

            Jason couldn’t possibly do anything but empathize.

            Tim watches his chest expand with a heavy breath – one that may have been a sigh if his helmet’s mic was rigged to relay that kind of sound.

 

            “So, why the fuck you come here for?”

 

            Tim shrugs again.

            “I wanted to apologize about the others being assholes,” Tim tells him. “And about me being an asshole about getting you to come talk to Alfred.”

            It’s not strictly true.

            It’s not why he came here.

            But it’s still a legitimate point.

            The rampant asshole-er-y of the last few weeks warrants an apology.

            Well… it truthfully warrants much better than an apology, but an apology’s all that Tim has really got on offer at the moment. He’s working with a very limited pool of resources.

 

            “Meh, them’s the breaks, kid,” Jason accepts – accepting the inevitability of the situation instead of pulling any merit out of Tim’s apology.

 

            It makes Tim’s mouth twitch towards a frown.

            He’s waited too long to get his ass out here, Jason’s internalized too much of this shit as nothing more than the Universe holding a god damn grudge against him

            He’s not even really angry at Dick or Bruce for being such vicious assholes to him after he saved Tim’s life. He’s just accepted that it’s the inevitable way things are.

            Tim should’ve gotten here sooner, while Jason was still angry.

            He could take the bruises.

            It would’ve been wholly worth it if it meant that he could’ve gotten in the apology while Jason still felt like something was wrong with how things played out.

            Then the apology might’ve meant something.

 

            Instead, it feels like he’s apologizing for the rain – like it’s nothing more than ‘sorry that the thunderstorm flooded the basement of your restaurant and now your home and livelihood are threatened, that sounds awful. Poor you.

 

            It’s cheap and useless now, and Tim fucking knew that waiting was a risk.

 

            Fantastic…

 

            Whelp. On to Plan M… Or rather to like M-90.3 or something.

 

            Tim’s lost track of the exact instance in the naming convention of his systematic strategy adjustment theorem he’s reached with this utter idiocy – this long term plan of Familial reintroduction he’s been trying to enact for frickin’ years now… like he’s some god damn ornithologist bent on bringing back some sort of feisty, angry zombie bird species (that’s probably venomous and probably from frickin’ Australia and definitely out to kill everyone) – to reestablish the endangered venomous robin species safely in its natural habitat, but he’s not an ornithologist and he doesn’t have decades to do this slowly because the Wayne-forest habitat is rotting from the inside out and it needs it’s red breasted venomous robin back…

 

            “Yo! Earth to Timbelina!”

 

            Jason’s shout breaks Tim’s spiral, the shout more than the gun being waved in his face – than the gun’s hand grip being tapped against his temple.

            The shout is all Jason’s voice, his human voice unprocessed by the Hood.

 

            Tim blinks and looks up at Jason’s face – his bare face. His hair is mussed up from the sweaty hours spent inside the helmet and the skin around his eyes is a touch splotchy from where he’s ripped at the lingering bits of adhesive for the domino he wears despite the Hood.

 

            It’s Jason.

 

            It’s Jason, and something in Tim relaxes dramatically at the reminder – despite not knowing exactly when Jason got so close, despite the gun still being cocked, still pointed at his head, still more than ready to just blow his brains out.

            It’s Jason, and he’s alive, and that’s important – that Jason is here at all, that he’s alive and still him in all the ways that matter, and that’s the thing that’s most important.

            Tim can fail a thousand times, but because it’s Jason there’s always room for one more chance to try again. It’s just how Jason is, how he’s built, how he’s wired.

 

            It’s pretty amazing when you consider where he came from.

            Growing up in the rough of Gotham worst areas, on the cold and bitter and vicious streets of Crime Alley and the Narrows is not the kind of back story you would expect to instill a tolerance for second chances – let alone hardwire in a capacity to continuously reinvent them.

 

            But Jason does that.

 

            He’s more than tolerant, he’s indulgent.

            Like a big service dog – like one fresh out of a war zone, letting an angry, impotent little kitten beat on him because what the hell could it hurt?

 

            So, Tim can fail.

            Over and over again, Tim can fail.

 

            The rest of the Family isn’t so great at second chances, but this is only about them in the barest sense – they don’t have to be willing to give chance after chance, they have to be worn down enough to just give him one. Just one shot, a chance to let them really see Jason.

            Because he’s the one being wronged, here.

            They just need one freakin’ second without pejorative judgement to just see him and everything will work itself out on its own. Not super smoothly, perhaps, but even so…

            Tim can deal with it.

            Everyone can just deal with it.

 

            And Tim can almost accept the failures.

            Because as long as he keeps getting back up, Jason will keep letting him try again.

            Until something sticks, until it works.

 

            “Oh~kay, Timtam,” Jason drawls suddenly, rolling out the syllables as far as they can stretch. “You are clearly very high on something hard and heavy, and I think it’s time for you get your scrawny ass outta Oz.”

 

            “What? But— no, wait, I—”

 

            “Wait what? Apology delivered, Timbit, so go annoy somebody else while you ride out the painkillers,” Jason huffs with a gruff and growly undertone. “Just go out to one of your own safe houses if you can’t take being at the Manor.”

 

            “Can’t I stay here?”

 

            “No.”

 

            “I won’t be annoying, or eat your food, or anything, I’ll just stay on the couch for a little while and then… and then I’ll leave,” Tim promises, mind frantically grasping at the shorn threads of his initial plan to try to salvage some actionable objective.

            Nothing progressive can happen today if he gets kicked out this quickly.

            He needs a couple minutes to get a real dialogue initiated. Something Socratic and philosophically simulating… Something Jason would find interesting and homey.

 

            “No,” Jason reiterates. “You’re fucking high, idiot – making even more dumbass decisions than you usually do. This ain’t a safe place, and you are hella zonked to think it is.”

            “It’s safer than the streets,” Tim says, clawing desperately at the comment for any kind of purchase he can make. But he’s slipping, and he knows it, and it’s hard to make the words come out audibly, let alone firm, “It’s safer here than trying to walk all the way to China Town.”

            It’s day light out, and Tim probably looks like a penniless drugged up college student on a bad ride, so even in Crime Alley, he’ll probably go unmolested for a good few hours.

            “You got places closer than China Town to hide at,” Jason points out, irksomely accurate.

            “But—”

            “Na-uh, I don’t want you here, asshat. I’mma eat my fuckin’ pot roast and crash in peace and that last bit ain’t about to happen with you here, so out.
            He gestures roughly at the apartment’s door, with the gun that still in his hand.

            “But—”

            “I ain’t playin,” Jason warns, tone dramatically darker than before. “Out.”

 

            Tim sighs.

            “Fine.”

            He drags his duffle along as he backs towards the door and then takes his time undoing all the bolts and chains and locks that really can’t be picked.

            When it’s open, he shuffles slowly out across the threshold, a harsh shove from Jason to his shoulder propelling him the last few feet into the empty hallway.

            The door is slammed behind him before he gets a chance to even turn around, and the rhythmic rumble of locks being re-secured echoes through the hall in loud, disheartening thuds.

 

            Tim sighs again as he stares at the door.

            The hallway around his is utterly void of life, the other apartments on this floor are very likely kept vacant so Jason doesn’t have to deal with nosy neighbors.

            If Tim just stays here, he probably won’t be bothered by anyone.

            That CCTV camera in the corner at the hall’s far end is tech that way too nice to be part of the building’s pretense at security, so no door man will see Tim on it and come up to oust him from a squatter’s nest. That cam has got to be for Jason.

            Who may come oust him, but probably won’t bother with the hassle of it.

 

            And anyway, Tim’s too tired to care just now about a future possibility of mild annoyance – particularly when it would mean he’d have another opening to attempt to talk to Jason.

 

            He could probably walk to one of his own safe houses, to crash there and regroup, but he’s feeling stubborn. He doesn’t want to leave yet.

            His goal for today was to find Jason and talk until they found some solid common ground to stand on – started off well with the whole Manor as a black hole of suffocation via repressed angst and shit… but he lost Jason when the apology fell flat, and then he lost himself in his own stupidly intrusive thoughts.

 

            But he can’t just leave.

 

            Jason has every right not to want to have Tim bothering him, but Tim…

 

            Tim wants to stay close, has to stay close.

            His chest is already tight and panicky with the idea of going elsewhere, of not being close enough to keep himself remembering that Jason is alive and that all of Tim’s failures won’t matter once he finally gets it right…

            And the lingering anemia combined with the drain away of adrenaline is making him feel woozy enough want to keep his hand against the flaky wallpaper opposite Jason’s front door.

 

            The wall’s support is helpful.

 

            Too helpful – comforting, almost.

            Enough to make him lean his shoulder against it when the muscles in his arm give out again. He probably could have leaned up against it with his other arm, but that one’s hand is shaking rather violently, and he isn’t quite sure why.

            His shoulder that’s been leaned against the wall slides, transitions into his back being pressed against the grubby wall paper, and then his knees give out in slow motion and his slips in scraping jolts down to curl around his duffle on the floor boards.

            He can hear Jason moving around in his apartment.

            Can hear the scrape of plates and cutlery and the thrum of music being cranked up.

 

            He falls asleep like that, in a sudden breath of there and then not that should probably be concerning, but Tim’s out cold enough to keep from having to care.

            His throat and chest are so tight it hurts, even in the swirl beyond oblivion, and Tim’s not quite sure why, but equally sure he shouldn’t poke the sore spot to figure out why he cares.

 

            The rest of the world can just wait a god damn minute while he sleeps the worst of it off.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

high on hope or high on fear ( we were heartbreak of the year )

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Sixteen - we were stackin' up ( to fold )

 

 

            By the fourth day after the shit fest that came with having gone to chat with Alfred, Jason is just about ready to give up.

            Give up on what exactly, he’s not particularly certain, but still…

 

            Well, giving up on maintaining his Patrols while avoiding the Bats seems a plausible first step, but it feels like more than that – like it’s all a lot heavier than that. Like giving up on that is really part of giving up on something else entirely…

            It’s frickin’ weird.

            The Bats have been pissed at him before, been actively hunting him before, but now… he thinks they feel a lot more determined, a lot more desperate.

            He doesn’t have any idea why, he didn’t hurt the fuckin’ baby bird – didn’t even see the idiot until the last second, and even then it was only for a second – so he’s got no clue as to what’s with the ridiculous vehemence here… but that’s just apparently how shit rolls for him.

            Fuck it.

            He doesn’t give a damn anymore.

 

            Jason simply adjusts his Patrol – he can stay out later in Crime Alley than the Bats can in the rest of the City, both because his costume is a lot less dramatically out of place than the others’ full on circus get ups, and because the people in his neck of the woods just don’t fucking care anymore. The god damn Bat himself could probably stroll through at noon without a fuss.

            So Jason just starts going out way late.

            Coming back well after the sun’s up.

 

            By Day Seven, he’s started on a plan of switching safe houses every three days.

 

            By Day Eleven, he’s jumping house every other day.

 

            Two fucking weeks after the shit storm at the Manor and Jason just cannot deal.

 

            He clears out before dinner time, buys a pork shoulder at the butcher’s shop on the corner of the old place, sticks it in a slow cooker in a new spot, sets it to roast forever and doesn’t head out on whatever his Patrol’s become until almost four in the morning.

            He’s planning on coming back for the meat, crashing for a couple hours, and then jumping ship again. If he can’t get far enough ahead of them this time to feel like he’s got a comfortable lead, to feel like he can sit the fuck down for five minutes without worrying, he’s gonna have to dial up Roy and Kori – maybe bribe his way into another semi-permanent invite to the island with the promise of his ‘gourmet’ cooking for dinner every night.

            He doesn’t want to impose on one or both of them again, not so soon after the detox insanity… he was hoping to go for at least a year away, a measly little year of being a god damn self sufficient grown ass person… Whelp, he tried.

 

            Maybe next time he’ll get all the way around the calendar before he runs out of gas.

 

            Jason’s a sap – and despite knowing it, he’s never been able to change it – so he holds out hope that he won’t have to get his ass out of Gotham right up until he gets back for his pork shoulder and finds that his safe house window has been very skillfully breached.

            He wouldn’t have noticed it at all if he weren’t looking for hints of intrusion, or if the shadow of his trespasser had been standing any further inside the apartment than at the edge of his living room. Jason knows the ground better than any intruder could, and he moves with the advantage of silence as he slides inside.

            His gun is in his hand, cocked and leveled at the intruder’s head, before he registers that the person standing in his living room is Tim.

            Not Red Robin, but Tim.

 

            Tim Drake, in civvies.

 

            Tim, being as sensible as could be hoped for considering where the idiot is standing right now, freezes – hands raised and palms flat and every muscle perfectly still to prove he’s not here for a fight like any of the others would be.

            The fuck is he doing here? Stupid, reckless, dumb ass little shit.

            The fury radiates so tangibly through the air around Jason that Tim takes a nervous swallow. Jason almost pulls the trigger on that offense alone.

            “You got any kind of reason I shouldn't shoot you right now, Replacement?”

            He doesn’t really need a good reason, just any reason – just something to shut the Pit’s whispers down as it howls at how intentionally irritating it is that Tim has even fucking found him, let alone that he’s broken in and made himself at home … worming his way into Jason’s life and sweeping it all out from under him. Again.

            Replaced in his own fucking safe house.

            Little shit just doesn't know when to fucking quit.

 

            And to make matters worse, he’s got zero self preservation instincts because, instead of supplying Jason with even a bullshit answer to latch onto, Tim says flippantly, “Not really. But I’d prefer it if you didn’t.”

 

            He’d fucking prefer it? Seriously?

            That is the only god damn defense he’s gonna muster?

 

            Jason is very literally threatening to kill this moron, and all he says is that he’d rather that Jason didn’t shoot him?

            God damn it.

            Tim was trained by the frickin’ Bat. He should have something better than that useless flimflam ready to spin when something like this comes up.

            Jason is gonna kill this kid just to teach him a lesson in preparedness.

            It’s ridiculous.

            Utterly ridiculous.

 

            And Tim’s not reacting to the threat at all.

 

            Or.

            Well. Maybe he is.

 

            The HUD on the inside of Jason’s Hood shows that Tim’s heart rate is currently through the roof. And the HD visuals are catching the subtle signs of tremors running through Tim’s muscles – either he’s bleeding out again or he’s scared enough to wanna piss his pants.

            Option A is far more likely.

 

            Especially as the tremors start to spread and the weight looped around one of his arms makes it start to sink… a duffel bag.

            Dumb ass brought a duffel bag.

            Jason taps his visor’s read outs through every scan he has available, searching for any hint of Bat tracker or bug or even a watch that’s a little too smart in a way that could let frickin Oracle get her nosy eyes inside his place.

            The scans all come up clean, but paranoia’s got sharp teeth and it doesn’t let go lightly.

 

            Jason grinds his jaw around a much more colorful and vehement response as the duffel sinks down far enough to click against his floor boards before he grits out, “The hell are you even doing here, shouldn’t you still be in bed or some shit?”

            Cool as ice, the idiot replies, “I ran away.”

            “The fuck?”

            He… he ran away? Wha-… how? How is this place not swarming with worry warts in capes and costumes? Why the hell would he leave? Why the hell would he come here?

            “I ran away,” Tim repeats, still cool as a fucking cucumber.

            All smarmy fresh and crisp.

 

            Jason snorts. “I heard you the first time, dipshit. I'm just havin' trouble buying the idea that you flew the fuckin' coop.”

 

            Tim shrugs. Asshat.

 

            The movement jars the strap on his elbow connecting him to the duffel bag.

            He brought a bag.

            A clean bag.

            He flew the coop, went to ground with a go bag hidden from fucking God, and then… and he came the fuck here. The hell is goin’ on inside that scrambled up noggin?

 

            Tim clearly knows that Jason’s concerned about the bag.

 

            But he tries to soothe the wrong fuckin’ worry when he speaks up, saying, “I’m clean. No trackers or beacons or hackable tech or anything. The bag, and everything in it, s'all clean, too. You can check it if you want.”

            Yeah.

            Jason knew that.

            He’d already checked it, for starters – at least virtually, anyway. He’d still like to rifle through it to make absolutely certain nothing’s hiding from his helmet’s sensors, but that’s a different worry altogether. Assured enough for now that the bag is clean, Jason’s mostly concern with the fact that it’s a bag.

            Tim brought a bag.

            After bolting from the Manor.

 

            The bag is concerning.

 

            Because Tim’s not the first little birdie to flee the nest.

 

            It’s concerning in a different way that he brought the damn thing here, but it’s also just concerning because run away birds don’t have the greatest track record with flying safely south and the bag Tim’s brought is not light. This doesn’t look like a sabbatical for sanity. It looks like he’s not really planning on going back to the Manor – not soon, at least, possibly not ever.

 

            “What made you run?”

 

            Jason’s not entirely sure why he asks.

            He’s also not sure why he falls back to lean his weight over his heels in a slightly more relaxed stance – or why that tiny gesture is enough to make Tim feel comfortable enough to make a slow shift to face Jason more directly.

            Jason’s still got a gun pointed at his head, but it may as well not be there at all for the blunt disregard the weapon gets from Tim.

            Tim shrugs again, and then says with a candid rawness in his tone, “It was suffocating. I just needed to get out of there, get somewhere I could breathe... you know, find somewhere to exist without feeling like I'm being watched and judged and… and just… smothered.”

            Jason can’t ignore how similar he felt the last time he’d left while he’d still been considered to be living there – how he felt before he ran.

            He pulls air slowly into his lungs. Forces it out again just as slowly.

            Then he asks the important question: “So, why the fuck you come here for?”

 

            Tim shrugs, yet again.

            Somehow, it’s still not quite annoying.

            “I wanted to apologize about the others being assholes,” Tim tells him. “And about me being an asshole about getting you to come talk to Alfred.”

 

            Okay.

            Not what he expected.

 

            Kid looks sheepish enough about it that it’s probably true.

            True-ish.

            Mostly true-ish. Probably.

 

            Kid’s still a pretty crap liar, but he’s learned a lot while playin’ in the pixie boots.

            It’s just enough for Jason to be certain it’s not totally a lie, but not quite sure how much truth he’s actually getting from the kid.

            Either way, though, Jason doesn’t really care about the whole shit storm of assholery that is the crazy ass Bat Clan. Isn’t quite sure why Tim even thinks he still has any dogs in that fight.

 

            With a shrug of his own, Jason accepts, “Meh, them’s the breaks, kid.”

 

            Inexplicably, it makes Tim's mouth twitch towards a frown.

 

            Objectively, his expression doesn’t change much, but subjectively, it grows dramatically darker over the course of the next few seconds – alarmingly so.

            “You okay there, Replacement?”

            No response.

            Nothing to even indicate that he heard.

            And his eyes start doing that god damn flicker thing that Jason recalls from Before, the one that means the idiot is thinking too hard about some shit and his ridiculous robot brain is starting to overheat itself.

            Jason sighs heavily – a mix of fury and nostalgia mixing through his frustration.

            A heaviness sweeps through him, different from exhaustion, but somehow it still makes him want nothing more than to sink into the comfy black oblivion of his bed.

            This is one of the very few safe houses he maintains with an actual bed and he’d been looking forward to sleeping in it after gorging himself on pork shoulder – especially since he’d been concerned about being chased out of Gotham because the Bats were catching up to him and might soon be able to find his current safe house while he was occupying it.

            It has been a valid concern, apparently, if the kid on bedrest could find him…

            The others must’ve suspected something about this place and been circling – possibly only driven away in time for him to make a clean approach by the rising sun and their much more distinctive and ridiculous costumes.

            Feeling the weight of existing dragging down his shoulders, Jason takes a few steps further into his apartment. He keeps his pistol in his hand – just a little Beretta M80, built to be light and fast and easy to handle – but he reaches up to undo the traps worked into the clasps on his helmet. The haptic feedback system triggers with each correct input code and Jason makes a mental note to tone it down a bit – he’s never really taken it off in a hurry before, at least not without something significant to distract him as he nearly rips it off his head – and the mild hurry he’s in right now to get his head exposed to open air makes the feedback feel like it’s gonna vibrate his teeth right out of his stupid thick skull.

            Tim’s still caught in ‘flicker shock’ when Jason pulls the helmet free.

            The idiot doesn’t blink when Jason sets the helmet down on the counter of his breakfast bar with a solid thunk and simply continues to stand there, stuck inside his own brain, as Jason uses his thumb print to clear the security of his domino. The mask gives a small beep and releases the chemical compound designed specifically to dissolve the special, industrial strength adhesive that keeps the thing on his face.

            Or at least, dissolve most of it.

            Working on his own means he doesn’t have the tech advantage of Bruce’s billions or his pet brainiacs to make sure all the bugs get worked out of his systems.

            The lingering smudges of half dissolved adhesive make the mask sting when he pulls it off, but the inevitable splotchy redness on his face is not much of a concern, honestly.

            The prickle just wakes him up a little after a long Patrol.

 

            Jason’s taken at least three solid minutes here to mess around with his gear and Tim’s still caught up in his stupid genius head – hasn’t even noticed the inattention Jason’s been throwing his way enough to take a single step towards the relative safety of making a quick exit.

            Jason could have easily killed him ten times over, at this point.

            Tim’s paying so little attention to what’s happening around him that Jason could probably have gouged out his flicker happy baby blues with a god damn teaspoon.

            This time, noticing Tim’s lack of self preservation instincts makes a bitter bark of anger rise up in his chest and he shouts, “Yo! Earth to Timbelina!”

            It seems to do the trick.

            Kinda.

            Tim’s flick stutters to a halt and he blinks up at Jason with those big blue eyes all wide and innocent and awed in a way that makes Jason think uncomfortably of the way Tim looked at him when they were kids… That makes Jason think about they way Tim looking at him like that made him feel – made him want to feel more, and made him want to deserve it.

            It makes Jason’s lip curl up in a vicious snarl that Tim doesn’t seem to see.

            Tim’s pupils are blown wide, and he’s still got little tremors running through his muscles that no longer look like fearful little quakes. He’s looking dead at Jason, eyes perfectly still and flicker free, but he’s just as zoned out as he was with the flicker.

            He looks…

            He looks high, honestly.

            Like he’s running on nothing but caffeine and some hella powerful painkillers.

 

            Whelp.

            That at least explains the new degree of bad decision making he’s achieved.

            It’s a little worrisome that the Bat whose currently out of his brain on opiates is the one that managed to figure out how to find Jason’s current bolt hole, but whatever.

            Tim’s a genius without chemical enhancement, take a little something that makes logic and whatnot a lot more flexible and, sure, makes sense the kid could somehow mathematically calculate Jason’s gps coordinates by measuring his stride length or some shit.

            But still, Tim is high and standing in Jason’s living room and staring up at him like Jason is the best damn thing he’s ever seen. Not blinking. Like he’s afraid that Jason’s gonna disappear if he even thinks to close his eyes for half a second...

            Fuck.

            Jason can’t tell if he wants to just slap that dangerously sappy look off the moron’s stupid trusting face, or… if he kinda wants to promise that he’s not going anywhere – except he is.

            Tomorrow afternoon at the latest, Jason’s gonna blow this popsicle stand and skedaddle his way right out of Gotham – get his ass into gear and not slow down until he’s on the other side of the god damn planet.

            And it’s partly Tim’s fault that he’s so hell bent on doing it.

            Actually, it’s largely Tim’s fault. And entirely Tim’s Family’s fault.

            But really, more Tim’s fault than anything, at least directly…

            Stupid punch drunk idiot.

            Why’d he have to go and get himself blown up like that?

            Why’d he have to come to Jason once he had?

 

            Why the fuck did Jason have to bother shit with saving that scum sucking moron?

 

            Nothing makes sense anymore and Jason’s due to get out of Dodge ASAP.

 

            But he’s spent twelve hours cooking this pork shoulder and he is damn well gonna enjoy his last supper. And he’s gonna relish one last crash in Gotham, sprawled out on his bed with the silk sheet habit Alfred got him hooked on while he lived at the Manor.

            Which means that Kid High as a Kite here has got to go.

            Now.

 

            “Oh~kay, Timtam,” Jason drawls forcefully, rolling out the syllables with a heavy, lilted growl, “You are clearly very high on something hard and heavy, and I think it's time for you get your scrawny ass outta Oz.”

 

            Tim blinks.

            Brought back to the present in a startled rush of realization and alarm that makes him look like a deer in headlights – makes him look like Jason remembers him as a kid, like he looked the first few dozen times when Jason found himself wanting to smack some sense into frickin’ Bambi… a thing Jason hasn’t felt since before he got himself killed.

            Makes him want to smack a bit harder now, since the first few dozen lessons don’t seem like they managed to stick.

 

            Tim stutters back to life, spluttering, “What? But— no, wait, I—”

 

            “Wait what?” Jason growls, tamping down on the growing urge to wrap his hand around Tim’s tiny little throat and just squeeze until the frightened little seal stops talking like that, like he wants to stay... Or maybe to just short cut by smacking him hard with the M80’s hand grip.

            “Apology delivered, Timbit, so go annoy somebody else while you ride out the pain killers,” Jason huffs gruffly, hunching his shoulders to hold himself back, “Just go out to one of your own safe houses if you can't take being at the Manor.”

            Desperate baby seal eyes meet his and Tim pleads, “Can’t I stay here?”

            Fuck no.

            Never.

            Neither of them would survive that shit and Tim’s a sheep brained little runt on horse sized hallucinogens if he has any crazy kind of illusion that says otherwise.

 

            “No.”

 

            The single syllable is as much as Jason can manage without giving leave to his muscles to simply step up and strangle the moron.

            “I won't be annoying, or eat your food, or anything, I'll just… stay on the couch for a little while and then... and then I'll leave,” Tim promises, because, obviously, those are the only possible objections Jason could have concerning this ridiculous venture.

            But Tim’s straight up begging in a way that makes Jason feel distinctly uncomfortable – a hot swirl of something in his gut he does not like.

            Even if Tim just sits there without speaking, or moving, or breathing, Jason will be too aware of his existence to even pretend that he’s relaxed. Or even just not uncomfortable…

            “No,” Jason reiterates, feeling a tremor start up in his own arm muscles as he fights down the urge to just grab the kid and shake until he sees how ridiculous this is. “You're fucking high, idiot – making even more dumb ass decisions than you usually do. This ain't a safe place, and you are hella zonked to think it is.”

            “It’s safer than the streets,” Tim leaps to saying. He’s clawing so desperately at straws here that he’s willing to go for the low blows to attempt getting Jason to let him have his way.

            At the mention of the streets, at the idea of sending a drugged up Timbit out onto them to fend for his fucking self, Jason’s hand ball into fists.

            He’s pretty damn surprised he somehow avoids pulling his Beretta’s trigger.

            Because that shit is still cocked with the safety off and it sits heavy in his hand. It’s not pointed directly at Tim anymore, but its aim’s only off his feet by a few inches.

            And Tim’s talking again, trying to convince Jason to let him stay, “It’s safer here than trying to walk all the way to China Town.”

            China Town is where Tim’s got most of his official safe houses, and at least one semi-official apartment – though not the one he owns as the illustrious Timothy Drake-Wayne.

            It’s not the greatest defense.

            It's day light out, and Tim looks like a penniless drugged up college student on a bad ride, so even in Crime Alley, he'll probably go unaccosted for a good few hours.

            And besides, Jason knows Tim’s got bolt holes all over this damn city.

            He’s probably even got one in the friggin’ Alley – because Tim is just stupid and stubborn like that and would set up shop on Jason’s turf just to prove he could, on nothin’ but a dare he made while talking to his own damn self at four in the morning.

            Coldly unmoved, Jason points out, “You got places closer than China Town to hide at.”

            “But—”

            Jason doesn’t let Tim speak.

            And he definitely doesn’t let his gaze focus on how scared and sad the kid looks, as he refutes, “Nah-uh, I don't want you here, asshat. I'mma eat my fuckin' pork roast and crash in peace, and that last bit ain't about to happen with you here, so out.”

            He makes a shooing gesture at the door with the Beretta.

            Tim wilts, but doesn’t make a move to leave.

            “But—”

            “I ain’t playin’,” Jason snarls, leveling the gun at Tim’s head again. “Out.”

 

            Tim sighs in pained defeat.

            “Fine,” he mumbles in a despondent squeak.

 

            He drags his duffel along as he backs towards the door and then takes his time undoing all the bolts and chains and locks that grace the inside of Jason’s seldom used front door.

            When it's open, he shuffles slowly out across the threshold, a harsh shove from Jason to his shoulder propelling him the last few feet into the empty hallway.

            Slamming the door the moment Tim’s clear of it, Jason spends a moment re-securing all of the locks he has installed. Then he leans his back up against the heavy, bullet resistant polymer of the custom built door and just breathes for a few seconds.

            Eventually, he flicks the safety on his gun, works the hammer back down to neutral, and then holsters the damn thing. His hand is shaking so hard he has to make three attempts to get the gun to slide inside it properly.

            Then he methodically works through the mechanical process of prepping his meal for consumption, acquiring a plate and silverware and even a proper glass of milk, before he cranks on his music – nothin’ like a little distraction in the form of Bohemian Rhapsody – and then camps himself on the couch.

            He pulls up some open case files on his smart TV in order to give his eyes something to look at, but he does really see any of the scanned in pages he puts up in front of his face. He’s just staring blankly and occasionally scrolling aimlessly.

            It’s irksome that he doesn’t get to savor the pork shoulder the way he wants too, but it is a damn good cut of meat, so even with his brain set to run full on fog machine, he can appreciate on some level of base instinct that it’s delicious.

            That note is almost enough to bring him back down to earth.

            Not enough to make him consider staying in Gotham, but enough to make him prep a bag to take with him when he goes.

            He’ll probably call Roy tomorrow morning, from New York, or LA, or frickin’ Houston… wherever he ends up when he takes a chance on a random flight out of Gotham International Airport whenever he wakes up, but he doesn’t feel the need to get his ass to the Island tonight.

            He can stay here and crash as planned.

            He washes up his dishes, stores the left over pork for breakfast or what not, and packs a light carry on to take with him to wherever random bus and flight selection will make him drift.

            It’s the middle of the day at this point, but Jason’s never had trouble sleeping with the sun up, he’s got curtains to kill off the worst of the glare and honestly, he likes sleeping with a little bit of light… Keeps the nightmares back a bit, keeps the flashbacks of waking up six feet under from hitting quite so hard.

            One last night in a bed in Gotham.

            A weird transposition of certainty that he’s about to leave making the permanence felt in owning a bed feel less restrictive – to the extent that sleeping in a bit of luxe is actually nice.

            Jason’s calm enough to be looking forward to it as he wraps up.

            He’s changed into comfy flannels and a time-softened t-shirt and is closing down the case files on his system when a wrench gets thrown into things. Again.

            The habit of a cursory perimeter check, just a skim of the cameras, is too ingrained in him to disregard, no matter how calm or safe he feels. And that habit leads to him spotting the balled up figure of a tiny, brain dead moron curled up in the hallway outside his front door.

            It looks like Tim’s been there since Jason kicked him out, and a zippy rewind of the captured footage confirms it. Kid collapsed a few seconds after Jason kicked him out and hasn’t moved more than a few inches since he curled up on the floor.

            Jason’s cams are HD enough for him to see that Tim’s still breathing – a mixed blessing, considering that it means he can also see how unsettled Tim’s sleep looks.

            Which bothers him a whole helluva lot.

            It bothers him because it bothers him, but it does also actually bother him.

 

            He doesn’t quite know why.

 

            It’s not that he’s worried about Tim. Not exactly. The kid could get himself to a safe house, pretty easily. Even one that’s way off the grid.

 

            He’s high, but not like high high. He’s functional high. Maybe not allowed to legally operate machinery, and obviously, he’s making terrible decisions, but like… He could definitely get himself somewhere comfy. He’s choosing not to. He wants to be uncomfortable.

            Which, Jason supposes, is like totally his right if he wants it, but still…

            Jason doesn’t like it.

            He stares at Tim’s image on the screen for a solid five minutes.

            Not really thinking, or puzzling, or deciding anything… just staring.

 

            Jason wants to ignore him, to just turn the feeds off and head to bed as planned.

 

            He’s not genuinely worried that the kid would try to break back in or anything.

            The ‘at home’ setting on his security system is damn near impenetrable, it would take the kid a long while to get back in and he’d have to do it by going out and around to the fire escape to even attempt it – because unless he brought some serious gear, the locks on the door are impervious to picking (there’s at least three mechanical latches made out of differently blended varieties of heavy duty carbon fiber and plastic polymers that can’t be affected by even the strongest electromagnet). And even if he got into the apartment again, Jason’s bedroom is insulated within an entirely distinct layer of security, that’s just as hard to crack.

            So Tim’s pretty solidly locked out.

            And he doesn’t even look like he might try breaking in again.

            He’s just curled up there on the floor like he’s given up entirely on the idea of getting in.

            Which is weird and unsettling, because Tim is a determined little prick – like a god damn little ferret in the way he pokes his nose into places it doesn’t belong and then somehow gets the rest of him to follow through tiny cracks while it shouldn’t be physically possible for him to fit through… The fact that he’s not even trying here, that he’s not plotting or scheming or anything is unusual and rather disquieting for its strangeness.

 

            Jason finds that he can’t just let it go.

 

            He is physically incapable of turning off the screens and ignoring that he saw Tim camped out in the hallway. He can’t shove it out of his head long enough to crawl into bed and conk out in any kind of comfort. If he even tries, he suspects that the itch beneath his skin will lead to some aggressively epic iteration of his very worst night terrors.

            Eventually, Jason does manage to shut his system down so he’s not staring at Tim through his security camera anymore. But even with movement regained, it seems he only has real control in his upper body – his feet walk him over to his front door without permission.

 

            He stares blankly at the door for a long time, as well.

 

            And then he slowly starts to open it, one lock at a time… Moving slowly enough that he’s not entirely sure the decision to open the door is really a decision at all – it’s more like an accumulation of muscle memory, habit, and distraction making him perform a familiar action while he’s under the influence of something heady and consciousness altering.

            Once the door swings open, he stares at Tim’s prone figure for another indeterminable stretch of time. The kid looks even more uncomfortable than he did on the security cam.

            Jason had thought, in some part of his brain, that it could be a ploy, that Tim could be faking it to gain sympathy or something. But Tim’s not that good a liar, and he’s too smart to think that he could play the kicked puppy card any better than Dick Grayson ever could. With Jason’s immunity to Dick’s version, Tim would probably have to kick an actual puppy to draw out any kind of real reaction from Jason – and even then, it would most likely be anger.

            You don’t kick a god damn puppy, man.

            You just don’t.

            And even at his coldest and most calculating, Tim would know that. Probably.

 

            But Tim’s not playing kicked puppy here.

            He’s not playing at all.

            He’s likely not dying kinds of messed up, but he does have a bit of the shakes.

            Jason can’t tell if the tremors or just muscle contractions as the adrenalin ride wears out, or if they’re a side effect of whatever meds the idiot is on, or if he’s shivering because he’s cold.

            Regardless, Jason’s not a fan of seeing it.

 

            “Fuckin’ hell, man,” Jason huffs under his breath as he tries to get his chaotic rush of thoughts in order well enough to get any kind of audible speech out.

            Tim doesn’t even stir.

            “Hey, yo,” Jason finally manages, adding in a gruff shout, “Replacement!”

            At that, Tim jolts.

            He blinks owlishly up at Jason; confusion, hope, and terror in equal measure bleeding out of him through the unguarded gaze of his sleep-blurred eyes.

            “Get your ass up,” Jason commands.

            Tim doesn’t move. He sort of collapses slowly in on himself like a deflating yard ornament, but he doesn’t actually move.

            Jason grinds out a heavy sigh and then he states explicitly in a vicious bark of biting syllables, “I’ll let you camp your ass on my couch for a few hours if you get the fuck inside.”

            Hope so bright it looks painful contorts the kid’s expression and he opens his mouth to spout some surely ridiculous nonsense.

            Jason cuts him off. “Ah-ah, no talking. You can come in, you can camp, you can pull yourself together, but you ain’t gonna talk, a’ight? If you bother me, you’ll be back out on your ass in a second, got it?”

            Tim’s mouth closes so abruptly that Jason hears his teeth click before he nods.

            Jason backs away from the door, turning towards his bedroom. He hears the kid scramble inside behind him as he growls, “Lock the fucking door behind you.”

            The door closes quietly, and Jason hears the locks being reset. The sounds stop before he makes it to the threshold of his bedroom, but no footsteps attempt to start to follow Jason deeper inside the apartment.

            At the door to his inner sanctuary, Jason turns to glare at his unwanted house guest.

            “I’m setting the alarm in five minutes,” Jason warns, “You get yourself comfy on the couch before then and if you move more than six inches after the motion sensors are activated I will fucking shoot you, got it?”

            Another silent, singular nod from Tim – this time with a disproportionate degree of what almost looks like straight up joy radiating from the infuriating little bastard.

            Jason ignores it.

            Slams his door closed.

            And if he takes five minutes and forty two seconds to finish his bed time prep and set the alarms to armed, he very carefully does not consciously acknowledge it.

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

we were stackin’ up to fold ( but we can’t just let it go )

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Seventeen – just wanna be here ( tonight )

 

            Tim has never been happier or more comfortable with sleeping somewhere that is not his own bed than he is right now with the prospect of sleeping on Jason’s couch.

            And that says a lot, because only about 19% of Tim’s weekly sleep average is accrued in an actual bed of any kind – and less than half of that is usually in his bed.

            He has literally slept inside the casing for a rooftop industrial air conditioning unit, while it was operating, and considered himself fairly content and comfy.

            So, saying that he’s never been happier to crash on a couch means something.

            Something significant.

            Because the act itself is significant – because it means that Jason is handing out a good will gesture to him despite still being proactively pissed at him. Which is kind of amazing.

 

            Tim would never have predicted it.

 

            Then again, Jason has always been the closest cognizant entity he's ever found to a variable acting at true random. Not matter how good Tim has gotten at predictive algorithms, or at reading people and intentions, Jason always managed to stay just out of reach of his understanding – in retrospect his choices usually made perfect sense, but if Tim were presented with two equally plausible options for Jason to take, he usually guessed wrong.

            So, Tim is surprised when Jason opens his door and gruffly offers his couch up for the night, but not surprised that he is surprised – he’s so not surprised by it that he doesn't waste a second with disbelieving that Jason's offer is genuine.

            He’s on his feet and shuffling inside as soon as he manages to get his feet to hold him. Jason barks about having five minutes before he arms the place to the teeth and disappears into his bedroom with a slam of his door.

            The overt unwelcome of the gesture should make Tim feel awkward about imposing, but all it does is make him feel even more convinced that he can get things back on track. He missed any window to set things right in the immediate moment, but Jason has granted him solid means of securing a new window in the near future.

 

            And that thought makes him giddy with relief and honest to goodness hope.

 

            So, Tim spends the night on Jason's couch (well, the period of sleep he gets that morning while it transitions into afternoon) and spends it in absolute comfort – to the point that he falls into a true REM cycle rather than his usual, stunted and abridged version.

            Because of that, he almost misses his second opportunity to talk with Jason.

            Tim usually wakes at the slightest provocation; but caught in the tail end of a REM cycle, he almost misses hearing Jason wake up.

            Well, actually, he does miss Jason waking up, but he catches the sound of him undoing the locks on his bedroom door and tromping across the apartment towards a quick exit.

            He’s got a bag slung over his shoulder and that wakes Tim up like a triple shot of espresso.

            Jason’s leaving.

 

            Leaving leaving.

 

            Leaving the apartment, and leaving Gotham, at least… possibly even leaving the country.

 

            Tim would probably be able to track him down and chase after him, eventually, but it would take a while… and it would be a lot harder to make it seem casual, to convince Jason that he’s not literally stalking him for some nefarious purpose.

 

            But Tim doesn’t want to have to do that, for a plethora of reasons, but primarily because of how long it will take to get things back on course.

 

            The Bat Family is in the midst of a meltdown, one that goes wider than just the tension caused by the compounding incidents of the last few weeks. It’s one that’s been happening in slow motion over the last few years, one that started off with catastrophic speed the moment Jason died at the hands of the Joker.

            Tim’s intervention, his forceful occupation of the Robin position, had stopped the worst of the downward spiral. His efforts with bringing Dick and Babs back into active, collaborative roles had helped reverse some of the damage. And the arrivals of Cass and Steph, and even the vicious little gremlin, had helped to mitigate many of the factors attempting to destroy Tim’s progress… but entropy is an inexorable process and without Jason, it has always been just a matter of time before things began to break down again.

            And with Jason’s return, with his evolution into the Red Hood…

            That process was kick started up again like a nuclear fusion reaction.

            With Jason alive but still lost to the Family, the Bat Clan’s ability to cope with everything is being rapidly eroded. Especially when combined with the pressures of all the near misses – not to mention the actual losses – they’ve all suffered through recently…

            They don’t really have the luxury of allowing Tim to take his time with this.

 

            So, when Tim wakes up to seeing Jason attempting to sneak out before he notices, Tim jumps into action – literally. He holds himself back from tackling Jason outright, but he vaults off the couch in an unsteady tangle of limbs that puts him standing face to face with Jason as he startles the second Robin forcefully enough to make him turn away from the window.

            It doesn’t make Jason draw a weapon, though by the position of his hand at the lip of his pocket Tim surmises that he’s only inches away from it.

            Still, inches away is leagues of progress.

            “You’re leaving?”

            Jason arches a skeptical eyebrow, huffing, “What’s it to ya?”

            “I don’t— I… Let me cook you breakfast,” Tim scrambles to suggest, expanding, “To thank you for… letting me stay on your couch.”

            “You? Cooking breakfast?” Jason snorts. “No offense bird brain, but uh, I’m not sure I trust your culinary abilities enough to have any faith that I won’t die of food poisoning if I let you cook anything.”

            Desperate, Tim tells the unedited truth: “Alfred taught me how to make your favorite kind of cinnamon pancakes.”

            The skeptical eyebrow flattens out into a glare.

            “He did what now?”

            “I asked him to,” Tim explains, “To teach me how to cook something easy that you liked.”

            “And why the hell would you do a thing like that?”

            “For this, because I wanted to have something I could do to thank you if it ever came up… because… because you like food. You like food like Dick likes hugs, or Cass likes music, or Steph likes shiny new toys,” Tim tells Jason, keeping his eyes locked with Jason’s gaze. “I just wanted to have something to thank you with.”

 

            Jason squints at him.

 

            Tim resists the urge to squirm or look away.

 

            Jason deserves to know without a doubt that Tim is being honest… Though, when Jason’s squinty glare does not let up, Tim starts to wonder if he made a mistake.

            But, he knows that Jason would be able to tell if he lied – and that Jason would be pissed at him for even attempting to bullshit him about something like this.

            “And Alfred let you in his kitchen for that useless shit?”

            Tim nods, biting back a retort that it wasn’t useless – that it was extremely useful, because it was already the only reason he currently had a hold on any of Jason’s attention.

            “He said that it was important for me to have a means of feeding myself that didn’t involve a half gallon of MSG, exorbitant risk of salmonella, and an excessive delivery fee.”

            Jason snorts again, but this time it’s an amused sound instead of derisive.

            “Well, he ain’t wrong about any of that,” Jason admits.

 

            Tim waits for Jason to say more – for Jason to decide more.

            If he doesn’t let Tim cook him breakfast… Tim doesn’t know what he’ll do. He has contingencies, but they’re vague contingencies. Basically, the plan all comes down to follow Jason, the how and where of it to be determined later – and the exact timing… he could just follow Jason straight from here, literally just walk with him to wherever he’s going.

            It might risk pressuring Jason to run even further and even faster, but Tim doesn’t want to let him leave Gotham without putting up a real fight to keep him here.

            And allowing himself to be parted from Jason’s side for even a second would be a sub par effort at convincing him to stay.

            Tim is here now, he has this opportunity to talk Jason out of this plan he’s got to run… and letting Jason go off without him would be such a waste of that opportunity.

            Yeah. Tim’s decided now. If Jason doesn’t decide to stick around and let Tim cook them both breakfast, he’s just going to trail along at Jason’s heel until he gets chased off – at which point, he’ll just start trailing from a distance.

 

            But he’s not throwing in the towel on the first plan yet, not until Jason explicitly rejects his offer outright. Which is probable, but hasn’t happened quite yet.

 

            Tim waits, the pressure in his chest constricting his lungs.

 

            And then the strap of Jason’s duffel bag slides off his shoulder, and he kicks the heavy article up against the base boards of his breakfast bar.

            Air slides out of Tim’s lungs in a punch of relief.

            “Well, fine then,” Jason accepts, “Let’s see if Alfred managed to beat something useful for being a person into your stupid thick skull.”

 

            Tim nods, trying not to faint or stumble with the flood of chemicals rushing though his bloodstream – the endorphins and adrenaline making his limbs feel shaky and stiff.

 

            And now he has to actually cook pancakes.

 

            Great. He is mildly adequate at making pancakes – something he is irked by, but has never had enough time to truly correct.

            He doesn’t know how to cook anything else, except for Ramyun and a few kinds of rice based dishes (things his dad cooked occasionally with the nostalgic claim that they were once the comfort foods of a young Janet Lim while Jack Drake was courting her on their first archaeology dig, in Greenland and far away from the rich Korean flavors of Janet’s heritage).

            But Tim doesn’t know how to cook much, and doesn’t really care to learn to cook more, so he really should obtain perfect mastery of the one thing he truly does want to cook.

            Honestly, he should have known to work on that before now.

 

            Whelp. No use regretting it now. Later he’ll have plenty of time to lament and reflect.

            But right now, he has work to do.

            Right now, he has a totally unfamiliar kitchen to navigate and Jason’s settled down on the far side of the breakfast bar from the main cooking space with a smirk on his face like he’s going to enjoy watching Tim flounder through a scavenger hunt.

            Tim doesn’t bother to ask if Jason will tell him where things like the griddle or the outlets, or even the flour and cinnamon are hidden. Jason wouldn’t tell him.

            In fact, it’s quite probable that Jason doesn’t even have the things required to make pancakes properly… which would mean that Tim would have to adapt. Alfred taught him a few techniques to manage, but he’s only mildly adequate at making them the right way, he’s got a tragic little confidence in his ability to work under altered conditions.

            Butter, eggs, milk, and maple syrup are in the fridge – surprisingly well stocked considering how transitory this safe house seems to be for Jason, at least surprisingly to Tim. He consciously, logically knows that Jason likes to cook and therefore should have lots of food, but he somehow thought… well he was pretty certain Jason wouldn’t want to be so wasteful as to leave it when he jumped ship, but maybe this fleeing Gotham thing is a less well planned excursion than optimal for responsible food preservation.

            The griddle is tucked up in the cabinet above the fridge and Jason gets a good snicker out of watching Tim struggle through clambering up onto the counter beside the fridge and leaning over to reach the damn thing. Tim manages it, feels the action pull his tired muscles out of sorts, but most of his stitches came out four, nearly five, days ago – so nothing is actually harmed by the not quite horrifically awkward tumble.

            Hunting down the baking soda, the salt, the baking powder, and the cinnamon takes a bit longer, but Tim can at least reach them without fuss.

            It’s the flour that proves the trickiest.

            Jason has a cabinet stocked with three different kinds.

            Because, obviously.

            And to make matters worse, they’re not labeled with any kind of conventional terms that Tim’s made himself familiar with. They’re in small-shop brown bags, constructed of uniform waxed paper, with a number scrawled on one side: 45, 55, and 80.

            Which make total sense.

            Tim opens each bag and rubs a pinch of it between his fingers.

            They’re all noticeably different, but Tim can’t quite nail down what it is about them that makes the feel of each into distinct sensations.

            He can, however, rely on the wonders of an eidetic memory to match the feel to that of the one he used with Alfred. Brown bag 55 is apparently super fancy all purpose flour.

            Jason arches an eyebrow when Tim plops the bag up on the counter, but he doesn’t say anything to indicate whether it’s an impressed eyebrow, or a skeptical, deridingly amused one.

            Tim chooses to ignore it and get on with attempting to actually whip up the meal.

            Large bowl, whisk, ladle – Tim collects the last of what he needs and gets down to work, ignoring the pressure of feeling Jason’s keen attention on him.

 

            This is a test, and Tim knows it.

            But he’s always been a faultless test taker.

 

            And as long as Jason’s willing to keep giving him chances, Tim will do whatever it takes to capitalize on them.

            He has to focus on the cooking to make the pancakes up to par, but not quite so hard that he can’t start considering options for how to bring up what he needs to talk to Jason about regarding the issues currently driving him towards fleeing Gotham. It’ll be a tricky thing to manage without simply spurring him onward to get out of the city immediately.

            Tim exerts considerable effort to thinking up some ploy to get Jason to stay, but he’s failed to land on one with reasonable confidence before he’s finished crafting his stack of cinnamon pancakes.

            He doesn’t come up with anything as he plates two servings and hands one of them off to Jason – who nibbles skeptically before digging in with a distracting enthusiasm that Tim finds deeply rewarding. But the flare of pride in Tim’s chest is not enough to smother the fearful ache.

            “You ain’t totally shit at this, Replacement,” Jason comments explicitly when he finishes scraping his plate clean. “Should get Alf to teach you more.”

            Tim shrugs. “I don’t really want to know more.”

            Jason simply shakes his head and mutters something about Tim being ridiculous.

            Then he pushes back from the breakfast bar, hooks the strap of his duffel with his foot, and shoulders the pack as he says, “Thanks for breakfast, asshole. Now get the hell out of here.”

            “Please don’t leave Gotham,” Tim blurts before Jason’s even finished speaking.

 

            Jason’s demeanor hardens immediately.

 

            “I do what I want, dipshit,” he snarls, taking a threatening step towards the window – and glaring viciously as Tim instinctively steps to block him.

            Tim didn’t mean to bring it up like this, but he can’t let Jason leave without trying to get him to stay and Jason’s less likely to resent the direct approach than any subterfuge.

 

            “I don’t want you to leave Gotham,” he admits frankly. “Please. Stay.”

 

            “I will stab you, Replacement,” Jason grits out.

            He takes another heavy stomp forward to drive the point home.

 

            Tim doesn’t flinch. “Okay.”

 

            That makes Jason blink. “What?”

 

            “If stabbing me will make you feel better, if it will make you stay… then okay,” Tim replies with a shrug, spreading his arms and relaxing his muscles. “Go ahead.”

            It feels like familiar territory, and that is somehow enough to lift a weight off Tim's shoulders. It's a negotiation, an open court of offers and counter offers. And – even though the offers being played with are not exactly optimal, even though he's bargaining on degrees of pain that he will have to suffer – there's no one else who's better at this game than Tim.

            He's willing to trade an awful lot for the chance to keep Jason here, and all he has to do is show Jason that he's serious.

 

            “I will kill you,” Jason warns, fists visibly shaking at his sides, “You smug little bastard.”

 

            “If that will make you stay, then I would probably be okay with that,” Tim tells him.

 

            Tim's nonchalance, and the ring of truth that permeates it, breaks Jason's self control.

 

            He lunges at Tim, grabbing his shoulder and throwing his weight around to slam Tim against the wall by the fridge.

            The hand on Tim's throat is not quite crushing his larynx, and as a further point in Tim's tally, Jason's move to attack him made the duffel's strap slide free of his shoulder – it's been left forgotten in the middle of the kitchen.

            “You don’t get to decide that,” Jason snarls, teeth bared and gnashing right in front of Tim's face. “It’s isn’t up to you. It affects more than just you.”

            “It's my life,” Tim retorts calmly. “If that's the way I want to use it, then that's my own damn business. I’m not throwing it away for nothing. I’m trading it, for something I want.”

 

            “Fuck. You.”

 

            “If you want to.”

 

            Tim only says it because he knows that Jason would never… he would never even genuinely threaten to do that to him, to anyone. Pit rage or not, Jason would never

            But Tim needs to show him how serious he is about this – to prove to him that he means business to any extent required.

            “If that's what it takes to make you stay,” Tim says slowly. He pauses, takes a deep breath and lifts one of his hands to fold around Jason's forearm. “I want you to stay, Jason. Please.”

 

            Jason makes a guttural, snarling sound that is probably an attempt at language.

 

            The hand on Tim’s throat closes around him, squeezing tight against collar bones while still allowing air to pass into his lungs. Tim can feel Jason’s muscles trembling, resisting the urge to simply shatter Tim’s collar.

            He knows this is a constant struggle for Jason, and he hates how he keeps making things even harder for his predecessor to manage, but Tim would rather it be him making things harder than any of the other Family members. The less antagonism between Jason and the others, the less frequently refreshed that antagonism, the easier it will be for Jason to reintegrate – and he has to reintegrate.

            Whether or not the others will admit it yet, they need Jason’s passion and his complete, soul-encompassing love of the average person to keep their focus where it needs to be.

            Jason hates Tim in a way that’s perfectly understandable, considering the unavoidable twists in their history, but the friction between Jason and the others is largely built on misunderstandings about the fundamental motivations that drive them all to action.

            Misunderstandings that can be cleared up.

            That need to be cleared up.

            Because Gotham needs her Bats united, needs them strong and healthy in mind, body, and spirit to stand against the shadows of the city’s darkest corners.

            They can’t hope to successfully hold back the city’s demons when they’re too caught up in fighting their own – too lost in their own darkness to chase away anyone else’s shadows.

            Jason fleeing Gotham now would be a huge setback, a massive road block requiring a detour that Tim’s not sure that Gotham could withstand. She’s been teetering as it is.

 

            “Please. Stay,” Tim says, words quiet but steady.

 

            Jason drags Tim away from the wall by the hold on his throat, throwing him across the kitchen. His feet catch on Jason’s duffel bag and he ends up sprawled across the floor.

            On the upside, he’s so tangled with the strap that Jason doesn’t even bother trying to collect it. He probably has another bag stashed elsewhere in the city packed and all ready to go, but it’s still a brief delay in his immediate departure.

            As Tim rights himself on the floor enough to look up at Jason, he answers Tim’s plea with a single, vicious word: “No.

            He then launches out the window, leaving Tim alone on his kitchen floor with a hollow ache behind his lungs and a pained chill seeping into his bones.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

just wanna be here tonight ( right beside you )

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Eighteen – i don’t wanna feel ( this mess )

 

            Jason wakes up feeling better than he has all week.

            A real bed does a body real good, no doubt about it.

 

            He wakes up refreshed and ready to haul ass across the country to whatever quiet corner he can find to hide out in for a much needed vacation from Gotham’s perpetual insanity.

            Jason’s actually feeling good enough to think that he might not need to flee all the way to the Outlaws’ Island to get out of this funk. Just get his ass out to a cabin in Colorado or something and camp out for a couple weeks – long enough for things with the idiot Replacement to settle down again, but not so long that Crime Alley goes to shit without him.

 

            Thinking of the Replacement, Jason finds the idiot still crashed out on his couch when he ventures back into the apartment’s living area.

            It’s a surprise.

            Jason hadn’t forgotten that Tim had shown up, but he’d figured that eventually the idiot would come to his senses and skedaddle.

            Apparently not.

            The sight of Tim on his couch – curled up around his duffle without a blanket, just like he was in the hallway outside his apartment – makes Jason pause.

            The kid at least looks more comfortable on the couch than he did in the hallway – his expression slack and calm, and his breathing is deep and smooth. He looks younger like this, a lot younger, and the deep exhaustion inherent with his brand of existence is more evident.

            It almost makes Jason want to find a blanket or something to toss over the idiot.

            Very almost.

            He actually takes a step towards doing it before he heaves a sigh and pulls himself together. Encouraging Tim’s ridiculous, irrational behavior won’t be good for any of them.

            Unfortunately, it seems Jason’s quiet huff has been enough to wake the moron.

 

            Tim attempts to vault off the couch, an inelegant tumble that lands him face to face with Jason – whose hand has twitched instinctively towards the knife in his pocket.

            Tim blinks owlishly up at Jason, his face a picture of… not surprise, but close. Alarm.

            “You’re leaving?”

 

            Jason arches an eyebrow at the edge of panic in his voice. “What’s it to ya?”

            “I— I don’t— I…,” Tim scrambles to arrange his thoughts, blurting in a hurried huff, “Let me cook you breakfast.”

            The suggestion makes Jason blink.

            “To thank you,” Tim elaborates, “For letting me stay on your couch.”

            “You? Cooking breakfast?” Jason snorts, shaking his head to attempt to clear the vague images of the domestic comedy skit that’s begging to be imagined. “No offense bird brain, but uh, I’m not sure I trust your culinary abilities to have any faith that I won’t die of food poisoning if I let you cook anything.”

            The amusement dies as Tim declares, “Alfred taught me how to make your favorite kind of cinnamon pancakes.”

            “He did what now?”

            It’s not exactly a sense of betrayal clawing at his throat, but it’s something that’s uncomfortably close to that sensation – made all the more disquieting because it’s Alfred.

            Before Jason can sink into wallowing over that possibility, Tim leaps to explain, “I asked him to… To teach me how to cook something easy that you liked.”

            “And why the hell would you do a thing like that?”

            “For this,” Tim tells him, hands waving around wildly with another touch of desperation as he elaborates, “because I wanted to have something I could do to thank you if it ever came up… because… because you like food.”

            The anger starts to settle as Tim flails, though Jason’s not entirely sure why.

            It seems to bolster Tim’s confidence as he goes on to explain, “You like food like Dick likes hugs, or Cass likes music, or Steph likes shiny new toys.”

            Tim keeps his gaze locked sincerely with Jason’s as he trails off in a statement that falls just short of a whimper, “I just wanted to have something to thank you with… just in case…”

            Jason squints hard at him, searching for any sign of deception.

            He doesn’t let up even when he finds nothing.

            Because the sentiment is too ridiculous to be anything but a bald faced lie…

 

            Except… if there’s anyone more dedicated than Bruce to the super-sized vigilante version of the Boy Scout always be prepared BS, it would be Tim.

            It’s totally plausible that he’d want to have some means of legitimately saying ‘thanks’ to Jason… ‘just in case’… Even without his ridiculous notion of getting Jason back involved with the rest of the Bats.

            There is a part that’s confusing him, though.

            “And Alfred let you in his kitchen for that useless shit?”

            Tim nods, biting his lip in a way that Jason finds bizarrely, intensely distracting, and then says with a curl of embarrassment, “He said that it was important for me to have a means of feeding myself that didn't involve a half gallon of MSG, exorbitant risk of salmonella, and an excessive delivery fee.”

            Jason snorts again, deeply amused this time rather than derisive, and has to hold back an actual laugh as he admits, “Well, he ain't wrong about that.”

 

            Tim doesn’t reply.

            He’s waiting for Jason to make the next move – weight shifting subtly between his feet and his sharp white teeth worrying that lip of his again.

            He’s waiting for Jason to decide if he’s allowed to follow through on his request to make breakfast and it’s clear that he’s deeply anxious about the answer.

            Jason knows this is a bad idea, knows it can’t possibly end well.

            But he shrugs anyway.

 

            He’s still got those vague images of a bright, domestic comedy skit flitting about in his head. He's tempted by the gut wrenching potential for adorable... by the twist in his belly at ache of something more... tempted enough to give in. 

            “Well then,” he says, letting the strap of his duffel slide off his shoulder. He kicks the bag against the foot of the breakfast bar as he accepts, “Let's see if Alfred managed to beat something useful for being a person into your stupid thick skull.”

            Tim nods and begins a ridiculous, hilarious scramble through the kitchen in a mildly panic-ridden scavenger hunt that Jason finds unbearably amusing.

            It’s like watching a drunken imitation of Disney’s Bambi on Ice crossed over with the most ridiculous version of Iron Chef Junior ever created. It’s fantastic.

            Way better than the vague comedy skit Jason had imagined.

            It’s the longest stretch of time he’s been truly amused by something in a long time…

            A helluva long time… Probably since from before the Pit. Before he Died.

 

            It doesn’t even bother him to think about that bit.

 

            What does end up bothering him at all is that the enduring amusement of watching Tim attempt to cook is the sense of a spiky warmth of some sort pushing up behind his lungs.

            It’s a feeling he doesn’t have a word to name, and he’s pretty sure he doesn’t like feeling it squirm around inside his chest… but at the same time, he must admit the warm inside it actually feels pretty comfortable – unsettling, maybe, but… also kinda nice…

 

            Obviously, that nice bit was doomed to fading pretty quick after Jason came to notice it.

 

            He gets to bask in it for far longer than he would’ve expected, though.

            It lasts until well after Tim’s finished his hilarious mad dash of cooking, until after Jason’s nibbled on the final product and found that it actually tastes pretty damn good – until after he’s scraped his plate clean and had ten whole seconds to steep in the contentment bred by that strange warmth of something and the slightly more familiar satisfaction of a full stomach.

            “You ain’t total shit at this,” Jason admits. “Should get Alf to teach you more.”

            Tim shrugs. “I don’t really wanna know more.”

            Of course not, Jason thinks shaking his head. The little idiot is just that fucking ridiculous, learns to cook one thing in case an impossibly unlikely ‘thank you breakfast’ event comes up, sure thing… but the idea of learning how to actually feed himself? Yeah, he’d never do something so obviously practical. Why on earth would it even be a question?

            Jason pushes up from the breakfast bar with a heavy sigh and speaks in an almost affectionate growl as he says, “Thanks for breakfast, asshole. Now get the hell out of here.”

            Before Jason’s even finished speaking, Tim’s hopped up to his feet like a panicked little bunny rabbit and frozen in place while blocking Jason’s route to the easy exit of the kitchen window, blurting desperately, “Please don't leave Gotham.”

            Jason’s good humor evaporates, and he glowers at the snotty, presumptuous Replacement as he growls, “I do what I want, dipshit.”

            Taking a step towards the exit, Jason makes certain the idiot understands the veracity of the threat laced inside his steps. Tim’s whole body tenses in anxious preparedness, but he doesn’t back down – if anything, he shifts to more effectively block Jason’s course.

 

            “I don’t want you to leave Gotham,” the bunny rabbit states, “Please. Stay.”

 

            He’s being about as open and transparently honest as it’s possible for a Bat to get, and that alone is alarming enough to make Jason reluctant to even process his words – let alone to fairly consider the plea inside them.

            “I will stab you, Replacement,” Jason grits out.

            It’s not even going to be up to him in a few seconds here, the green rage of the Pit’s fury has been shocked to swirling up inside him by the blindsiding hit of Tim’s whiny desperation.

            Jason takes another heavy stomp forward to drive the point home, fists clenched at his sides and teeth bared like a rabid animal.

            Tim doesn’t flinch, doesn’t blink – doesn’t even draw a sharp breath.

            He just jumps straight to flat acceptance, saying simply, “Okay.”

 

            That’s another shock to Jason’s system, one that’s unexpected enough to make him pause – to beat back the green haze long enough for him to ask for clarification.

            “What?”

            Tim shrugs. Opens up his posture with defenseless invitation.

            “If stabbing me will make you feel better, if it will make you stay... then okay, go ahead.”

 

            Jason recoils physically at the suggestion. His body aches with the effort of staying still and his muscles begin to tremble. Because no. Hell no.

            What the idiot is suggesting is just… not… not reasonable.

            He can’t be sane to suggest something like that, not while looking so dead serious.

            It’s just… ugh, Jason can’t even wrap his brain around how wrong it is for Tim to be willing to get hurt by him for this ridiculous flight of fancy he has regarding that utterly absurd hope of getting Jason to agree to stay in Gotham.

            “I will kill you,” Jason snarls, “you smug little bastard.”

            The Pit’s green rage is clawing forcefully up his throat like he’s hacking up another lungful of its vile, corrupt and polluting waters. Like he’s about to spill his guts across the floor.

            Or about to spill Tim’s guts… which will probably make him puke regardless…

            “If that will make you stay,” Tim starts, his voice quiet but unwavering, like he’s just coming to the realization of the full Truth that resonates openly in his words himself, “I would probably be okay with that.”

 

            The nonchalance, the unbridled Truth of it, the way Tim just means it… the way he would really rather that Jason fucking kill him than leave Gotham… it breaks Jason’s self-control down by dissolving the mortar in a wash of acidic green.

            He lunges at Tim, grabbing his shoulder and wrenching his weight around to slam his back against the wall by the fridge – knocking the air from his lungs and pressing hard enough on his throat to make it a struggle for him to draw in more.

            Jason’s torn between just wanting to crush his trachea completely, and wanting to rip the kid’s arm off as a warning. But Tim’s so pliant and accepting beneath his fingertips that he probably wouldn’t be able to make a warning stick.

            How on earth is a super genius, who was raised by the frickin Batman, still so stupid?

            “You don’t get to decide that,” Jason snarls venomously, from right up inside Tim’s personal space. He’s all over the kid – towering above him, wall of muscle pressed against him, arms and legs blocking him in until Jason is the only thing he could possibly focus on.

            And still, he doesn’t seem to register the threat.

 

            It hurts.

 

            It hurts like nothing Jason’s ever felt before.

            It burns and tears and makes him shudder with … with fear almost. With a fear more potent and painful than anything Jason’s felt since before he frickin’ died.

            “It isn’t up to you,” Jason continues, raging at full force, “It affects more than just you.”

 

            “It’s my life,” Tim retorts calmly – with this infuriating kind of suicidal awareness of how what he’s saying is not improving his odds of survival at all. “If that's the way I want to use it, then that's my own damn business. I'm not throwing it away for nothing. I'm trading it, for something that I want.”

            He means it.

            He just means it so damn much.

            Jason cannot cope with that. Cannot comprehend it.

            His muscles feel stiff and achy, his bones feel molten.

 

            “Fuck. You.

 

            “If you want to.”

 

            Jason blacks out for a beat, leaning into Tim with too much of his weight to make the swaying go unnoticed. He just can’t. Can’t process that, can’t rationalize it… can’t deny that there’s part of him that wants it… and he can’t even say whether it’s just the asshole that he is naturally who wants to leap at Tim’s suggestion, or just the Pit’s whispers that seem so eager to make Jason press up harder against him. Or even something else entirely.

            When the next heartbeat pushes fresh oxygen into Jason’s brain, he wakes to find Tim’s slim fingers wrapped around his forearm.

            “If that’s what it takes to make you stay,” Tim says, slow and quiet and earnest.

            He means it, and he wants Jason to know he means it.

            “I want you to stay, Jason,” Tim pleads, “Please.”

 

            It’s not consent.

            It’s not.

            Jason knows it’s not.

            But it doesn’t feel like it’s not.

            Jason wants to kill him for it.

            If it were anybody else here, Tim would not be getting out of this okay.

            Hell, he might not even still…

 

            But… no.

            NO.

            Just no. Not ever.

 

            Not with Tim – not with anyone, but definitely not with Tim… not Tim.

 

            Jason’s done some questionable things, some downright deplorable things.

 

            But that… that is too far over the line.

            He kills people for that. He kills people for way fucking less than that.

 

            “Please,” Tim whispers, steady and certain in a way that makes Jason want. “Stay.”

            His fingertips give Jason’s arm a gentle squeeze, one Jason isn’t sure is an entirely conscious action – enticing towards his conscious offer though it may be.

            Jason drags Tim away from the wall by the hold on his throat, throwing him across the kitchen. His feet catch on the duffel bag that Jason only just then realizes he’s long abandoned and the kid winds up sprawled across the floor. Looking up at him with hurt in his big blue eyes.

            Looking up at him with pleading.

            With undiluted desperation.

 

            Jason gives a full body shudder and squeezes a guttural snarl out from between clenched teeth in a breathy, blood growl, “NO.”

 

            Without another glance at Tim, without allowing Tim to say anything else to compromise his judgement or control, Jason dives out the window and sprints across the rooftops until his lungs feel like he’s torn them out and ground them into the filth of Gotham’s streets with the steel capped heel of his combat boots.

            He runs a little further, then, until he actually collapses – falls flat on his back on some grubby rooftop somewhere in the god damn city close enough to the harbor for the stink of fish to strongly make him question whether drawing in any more oxygen is even worth it.

            His body’s reflexes don’t actually allow him any leeway in the decision making process, but the frustration of it helps keep his mind off the rest of this undeniable clusterfuck.

 

            He can’t handle this.

 

            Any of it.

 

            Can’t trust himself to attempt processing it alone… Inside his own head, the warped situation is only gonna get more and more pathetically twisted.

 

            His phone – thank fuck – is in the pocket of his cargo pants instead of in his duffle or a coat pocket, and he fishes it out with trembling fingers.

            It takes three tries to fumble through his contacts, and then five full ring cycles for Roy to pick up, but the moment Jason hears his voice – muffled like his tongue is wrapped around a screwdriver while his hands are full of something metallic and heavy – Jason feels his lungs relax enough to let the panic ebb.

            “Jaybirf, halz ik?”

 

            “Roy,” Jason croaks out feverishly.

            There’s a heavy thunk as Roy registers how serious this call is and reacts appropriately by setting down whatever mad experiment he’s messing with.

            “I need to get out of Gotham.”

 

            “I’m in the burbs around Starling City,” Roy replies immediately, mouth clear of any muffling from the impediment of tools. “Give me three hours and I’ll pick you up.

            Jason grunts an affirmative and listens to the sound of Roy puttering about to ensure that he’s not leaving anything actively on fire or in a state of potential explosion or such.

            As Roy grabs his keys and sets out from whatever hidey hole he’d crashed in, the mad mechanical genius starts up a banal stream of conversation detailing his latest project – attempting to super charge a diesel engine with some sort of scummy algae substance that eats the pollutant byproducts of a normal engine to make the engine run better, harder, and faster as well as running exponentially cleaner.

            It’s a conversation meant mostly to keep Jason’s mind on the present – he has to participate, Roy pauses periodically to force him to answer small, easy questions, but he doesn’t have to actually think about much to keep his end up.

            The distraction technique is one that’s worked for them both over the years, and they’ve perfected the art of working it on each other… of noting exactly how well it’s working.

 

            Or not working.

            “—So, I fucked Ollie’s little sister on their sweet new kitchen table and knocked all their fancy food stuff all over the floor—”

            Jason chokes on whatever vague imagining his mind had drifted darkly off towards when it had started to slip away from the main conversational stream.

 

            “There we are. Lost you for a second helmet head. What happened?

 

            “Nuthin’ ” Jason huffs, staring blankly up at the grey sweep of clouds hanging low above him. “Just… stuck on shit. Lotta crap has happened in these last few weeks.”

            “Wanna tell me what I’m dealing with? Since you’re not playin’ ball with the whole not talking about it?

            It’s less innocent suggestion than it is a careful, probing nudge.

            Roy has literally zero clues about the potential minefield he’s driving towards, and with the Bats, they both know that Gotham’s always a probable warzone if not handled carefully.

            “The Bats are all just being especially pissy because the Baby Bird got himself hurt.”

 

            Roy pauses a beat.

            “On your turf?

            “Yeah.”

            “You do it to him, or..?

            “No. Not me. And no relapse. Not exactly,” Jason says stiltedly.

 

            He takes a long breath to pump oxygen into his brain and reorganize his thoughts. “He just… he keeps pushing. He got hurt, got better, and then… then he came by… to say thanks and shit, and to apologize for how the others got all pissy like usual and chased me out of the Cave when I brought him back there to save his stupid life in the first place.”

 

            There’s a lot to unpack with that.

            Roy starts with the obvious: “You brought him to the Cave?

            “Yeah.”

 

            Roy waits patiently, hoping for Jason to give him something more than that.

 

            “He was really bleeding, already lost a lot – too much,” Jason sighs. “I couldn’t even tell if he had internal injuries or anything because he didn’t have enough blood in him for swelling.”

            “You just found him after the fact? Or did you have to deal with the assholes responsible before you could assess him?”

            There’s an unspoken acceptance of the fact that ‘deal with’ could just as easily mean ‘kill’ as it might mean ‘chase off’. Roy doesn’t care that Jason kills. He’s an army vet from a part of the war that’s never made it to the news cause nothing decent ever happened there. He understands exactly how the lines get blurry. That’s not the problem right now.

            The panic attack, and how it seems to be still firmly ongoing, is the problem.

 

            And Jason’s reluctance to speak about it, or the incident that’s caused it, directly.

 

            “He um… he found me.”

            “He what?”

            “Yeah, um, he found me,” Jason admits, trying not to get lost in the flashback of that moment when he realized who’d disturbed his break, when he realized Tim was hurt. “He’d limped his frickin’ ass half way across Crime Alley. Collapsed when he hit the roof I was on.”

 

            Roy doesn’t respond immediately.

            Probably can’t.

            Or maybe he does, and Jason just can’t hear him.

            “Okay, sure,” Roy mutters eventually, “Tim found you. Passed the fuck out. You assessed, found he needed serious meds, and… then what? You piggy backed him to the creepy ass Cave you weirdos call an HQ?

            “I called Dick.”

            Jason has to close his eyes and pinch the bridge of his nose at the admission.

 

            It sounds like an even worse idea than it was.

 

            “You… Really?

            “Yeah. I called Dick,” Jason affirms. “He and the Demon Brat came with the Batmobile to transport Tim to the Cave. I got in the car first, pulling Tim in after, and before I realized I couldn’t back out, I was in the Cave with all of ‘em.”

            “Can’t imagine that would go well…

            “It didn’t.”

            “How bad?”   

            Jason considered it – thinking over everything that happened before drumming up an answer. “Well, no one died. Tim’s the only one who was even bleeding – and that wasn’t even because of the stupid fight. Honestly, it was really not the worst brush up we’ve had play out this year. Not by a long shot.”

 

            It’s a surprising revelation.

 

            This fight really wasn’t all that bad.

            It was just that it was a fight over Tim, over Jason hurting Tim… which made it sting, made it sear, made it scar… Made it all feel more relevant and dramatic.

            If it had just been another dust up over his methods… he probably would’ve walked away and never given it another thought. It wouldn’t even be worth mentioning.

 

            Roy gives him a moment to digest that, probably takes a second to swallow it himself, and then he presses on, asking, “So, you got chased out of the Cave, leaving the pricks with nothing sore but their egos, then what? What made it escalate?

            Letting out a sharp breath, Jason growls, “Kid’s fucking suicidal, Roy, seriously. Like a day after he got himself blown up he shows up on my doorstep, picking my locks like it’s any old case, and says he’s doing it just to say thanks, to apologize, and to return my fucking jacket.”

            “Jacket?”

            “Yeah, I needed something to keep him warm when he hit the chills in hypovolemic shock. Must’ve left it when I got chased out.”

 

            Roy takes another second to swallow the information.

            “Okay, so he drags his ass out to return your jacket. How’d he know where you were?”

            “No fucking clue.”

            “Fair. We’ll table that shit for later. How’d he even get there?

            “Snuck out on his bike, which is totally an approved method for recovering from and explosion. He had to sneak back pretty quick before the others noticed he was gone… but he… he got it in my head that Alfred wanted to see me,” Jason rambles on.

            “Did he convince you do go to the Manor?”

            “No. No, I wasn’t… I didn’t… I wasn’t gonna go, but the dude’s a slick little thief, Roy, nicked a piece off Alfie’s favorite chess set and stuck it in my jacket pocket. Everyone was out, and I just wanted to drop it off…”

 

            “God, you’re an idiot. And Pretty Bird is clearly singing your siren song,” Roy huffs, the teasing judgement not indicative of any deeper condemnation. “Who showed up?”

            “Dick, obviously,” Jason tells him.

 

            It’s a soap opera; repeating characters, exorbitant plot twists, histrionic emotional drama. Of course, it would be Dick who showed up.

 

            “What happened?”

            “It was gonna be a fight… but Tim, ripped the gold boy a new one. Dude vaulted down two stories on crutches, pretty damn sure he tore his stitches, but I didn’t stick around to see.”

            “Good plan.

            Jason mutters a bitter agreement, thoughts drifting over questions he hadn’t yet let himself ask about what had actually happened to Tim in the interlude after that but before last night… It’s been about two solid weeks of dead silence, Bat vigilance, but…

            “It’s been quiet. Two weeks of quiet,” Jason says, thinking out loud. “The Bats have all been everywhere… but like they’re rushed or something. Like… like there’s less of them out at night than there should be.”

            “Well one is probably tied to his bed at this point,” Roy points out, adding with a too-amused snicker, “Kid seriously sounds like he needs a leash.

            “It has been suggested,” Jason mutters back distractedly, thinking over Roy’s point.

 

            It’s valid. Tim shouldn’t have been out of bed, let alone on Patrol.

            But… with Tim capable of sussing out Jason’s bolt hole… they would have had to do more than just tie the idiot down… They’d have had to drug him. And keep him under a constant monitoring rotation. It had been a sarcastic comment at first, but Jason’s realizing it has to be true… Tim is… he has been…

            “They had him on a suicide watch, Roy,” Jason realizes aloud, “They had to’ve. It’s the only thing that could have kept him down for two weeks between showing up then and showing up again today with that god damn bag. He was legit suicidal.”

            “Okay wait. Back up,” Roy huffs, trying to unpack it all while Jason’s brain is still attempting to spiral with his new realization. “He came back?

            “Sorta, new place.”

            “New place number what since the first time he found you?

            “Uh… nine, I think. The Bats have been circling. A lot.”

            Roy sighs, but lets it go. “So, he found you again? And you said… you said he brought a bag with him? That for real?

            “Yeah, said he ran away and needed a spot to crash.”

            “You let him stay?”

 

            Jason huffed, seriously regretting it now as he admits, “Not initially. I kicked him out, but he just curled up on the floor of the god damn hallway.”

            “Oh, Jay, he’s like a puppy!

            “Not funny, Roy,” Jason barks, reflexive anger just enough to kick through the panic for a moment. The moment doesn’t last long as Jason’s thoughts hit their stride.

            “Kid’s half dead, lying in my front hall, freezing his shit for brains ass off… I should’ve let him in sooner, should’ve checked on him, made sure he detoxed alright… Clearly he didn’t… I mean with what just went down, but… God, Roy, I left him alone on my floor. I— Santa Madre, lo maté. Estoy loco. El chico está solo, y es suicida. Lo maté.

            “SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU CRAZY SPANIARD, I don’t speak any fucking Spanish, bitch, so slow your fucking roll and codeswitch back to Japanese or some shit I can understand. Like Russian, how about Russian? Russian is a good angry-sounding language and I speak Russian. So, your fucking rant might actually be helpful,” Roy screams across the distance, voice clipping in his microphone.

 

            The sound of angry horns blaring wildly accompanies his yells.

 

            Jason’s on his feet at this point, trying to figure out where he’d gotten to in Gotham, calculating the quickest route back.

            “Jason! ANSWER ME, you god damn butter butt biscuit head!

            “Yeah, Roy,” Jason answers, “Sorry, I just… I gotta get back. I gotta… he might—”

            “Slow down a sec. Okay? Talk to me, Jase,” Roy says, legitimate worry laced through the reasonable demand. “Just. Stay on the line, a’ight? Tell me what happened before you called.

            “He was still there when I woke up, curled up on the couch. Hadn’t even grabbed a blanket,” Jason relays, starting towards the couch in question at a hard jog. “And he… he cooked us breakfast. Pancakes. Alfie’s pancakes. My favorites. And he didn’t ruin them. Like Alfie has definitely taught him kind of good. And it was… it was nice. Like almost Pre-Joker nice.”

            “So that’s good right?

            “Kinda. Maybe? It was… weird. And then…” Jason’s lungs squeeze tight and he uses the excuse of having to jump a wide gap to give him a second to refocus his thoughts. “He asked me to stay in Gotham.”

            “Okay?

            “No. Not okay. We argued. He… I threatened to stab him and he… he said that if that would make me stay, he wanted me to do. Said he’d be okay with me killing him if it made me stay here, Roy,” Jason relayed, voice still canting towards desperate.

            “That’s a little creepy maybe,” Roy mentions, “But not exactly news. I mean, seriously, it’s kinda par for the course, man. Little dude’s got a complex or somethin’, but I think it’s mostly that he just doesn’t want to be the reason behind you getting chased away from home.”

            “No. Roy. He… would’ve… he wouldn’t have resisted, at all if… if I… God, Roy, he offered sex,” Jason explained brokenly.

            “And you turned that sweet ass down?

            “Roy, don’t be a piss head. It was under duress,” Jason snarls.

            “I’m just sayin,” Roy says suggestively, sobering to explain, “You turned him down, Jason. You did. Or you’d be callin’ me with a lot less you left in ya. You sound wrecked, man, but you don’t sound gone.

 

            Roy’s words are a comfort, if only a small one.

 

            And Jason runs out of room to respond as he arrives at the window he’d fled through… probably less than an hour ago. Sees the lights on, hears movement inside.

            “Roy, I’m here,” Jason whispers. “I think Tim’s still inside.”

            “Stay on the god damn line, Jason or so help me I’ll get Kori to whoop your ass and put that shit on Youtube,” Roy threatens, dead serious despite the joke.

            They don’t joke about this shit. Not the important part.

            Jason called. Jason put out the life line, asking for help.

            Roy answered that call, because that is what they do.

            And Roy is on his way here right now, keeping the line open, keeping the connection live – keeping the one whose lost and drifting tied down to something solid.

 

            Jason won’t hang up.

 

            But he will put the phone in his pocket. “Eavesdrop quietly, asshole. Don’t spook ‘im.”

            “I won’t spook him you big lunkhead, this is way too juicy to miss,” Roy replies as Jason slides the phone gently into his back pocket.

 

            Then Jason gingerly eases his way back into the apartment.

            He finds his duffel untouched on the kitchen floor and carefully sidesteps around it as he stalks towards the shuffling sounds coming from the living room – ducking down below the edge of the breakfast bar, because whatever Tim’s doing is keeping him close to the floor and Jason isn’t sure how on guard he should be as he approaches.

            He’d rather get the lay of the land, see the shape Tim’s in, before he makes a firm call.

            In the living room, he finds Tim squirming into his Red Robin suit – he’s on the floor, writhing on his knees as he struggles with the last zipper, and seeing him makes every muscle in Jason’s body go tight.

            He might make a strangled noise, or maybe not, but either way, Tim straightens up and turns around, though he stays on his knees as he reaches casually for his duffle.

 

            He freezes when he sees Jason.

 

            They hold position until a staticky Roy shout-whispers, “Jay? You alive? It’s been 78 seconds, already, and no one’s said anything? What’s happening with the whole Bird sitting sitch? Did you fucking leave me on the window sill or something? Jay!

            “You came back,” Tim whispers, awed with disbelief.

 

            Jason frowns. Takes a deep breath. Tries to stifle the roil of anxiety.

            And then admits openly, “Yeah. I guess. Kinda.”

 

            Tim pulls in a long breath, absurdly looking like he might tear up here. “I’m glad.”

 

            “I’m not.”

 

            Jason doesn’t mean to say it, but he’s tired. He’s all kinds of screwy inside and the crazy mess of chaos and confusion and emotion is exhausting, and he just doesn’t have the energy to keep his thoughts and feelings sorted well enough to bullshit anymore.

            This conversation very well may kill him, but with his emotional state wrought into such a fragile, twisty figure… he can’t bring himself to extend another tendril to care.

            He’s just glad that Tim’s still breathing, and all he’s concerned with right now is figuring out how to keep it that way when the baby bird seems so determined to dig himself a grave.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

you get me high, love... i don’t wanna feel  ( this mess )

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Nineteen – if we’re gonna tumble ( in the gun fire )

 

 

            Tim doesn’t move.

            For… for a long time after Jason leaves the apartment, Tim doesn’t move from where he’s sprawled across the floor in Jason’s kitchen.

            He knows it’s his fault.

            He pushed too hard, moved too quick, leveraged too much pressure.

            He knows he didn’t do this right… that he moved too quickly, too aggressively…

 

            He chased Jason away.

 

            Tim thought it would be best to keep him in Gotham by any means necessary, was perfectly willing to sacrifice everything to make it happen.

            But…

            But maybe…

            Maybe, it would’ve been better… would’ve been smoother and easier, if he’d let Jason leave… and maybe it would’ve been better if Tim had simply followed Jason, like he’d planned to in his first contingency, but silently – as nothing but a shadow of support with the occasional comment about how Gotham needs Jason…

            And maybe even the extremely rare comment on how the Family needs him…

 

            Or maybe not.

            Maybe that would still have chased him away…

            With Tim having waited too long to get out here to apologize, maybe it was inevitable that Jason had to leave.

            Tim doesn’t like thinking in terms of inevitabilities, he likes the inherent flexibility of variables being able to alter outcomes, but sometimes… there are some things that… that he can’t control, or adjust… And Jason is usually a good bet for being the one to find those things.

 

            But that doesn’t make the outcomes any easier for Tim to accept.

 

            So, when Jason leaves, Tim doesn’t move.

            He wallows.

            He knows he’s wallowing, knows it’s useless, and stupid, and deeply unhelpful… but he doesn’t care. He wallows anyway and lays on the chilly linoleum of Jason’s floor and curses himself for having waited too long to get out here.

            And then for having pushed too hard after he’d lost his real chance.

 

            Tim wallows for… for at least an hour, probably, in real time – though it feels like it could easily have been as long a week, or as short a hellish eternity as five minutes…

            He’s not planning on moving for a while longer yet – not really planning on moving ever, if he’s honest – but Gotham, being Gotham, soon disrupts his pained lethargy.

 

            An alert goes off on the tablet tucked inside the duffle he’d brought with him.

            An alert set to override the settings keeping most of the device’s notifications on silent.

 

            Tim can’t muster the strength to stand, so he simply crawls over to where he’d left his duffle abandoned by the couch and fishes through it for the one piece of tech he’d brought with him. It’s not a terribly powerful tablet, it’s just a little home made thing that’s only marginally too big to be considered a rather large cell phone.

            It’s only wired in to a few auxiliary systems he’s hooked up to the command center of the Cave’s shared server. It doesn’t actually have access to the server, and therefore that server has no access to this device, but it’s got a close enough watch on the servers streams to note when something significant happens – it’s like a finger on the pulse to track a heart attack, if you will.

 

            Still sprawled on the floor, Tim lies on his back and hold the tablet up over his face as he skims through the data readouts – parsing the disparate blips of information into an organized understanding of the evolving situation.

            It’s just about sunset, at this point, shift change for police officers and guards, a sleepy part of the day for Bats, and a prime time for the baddies to be gearing up for something big.

 

            Like an Arkham break out.

 

            Tim can’t quite tell who all is involved directly, but Killer Croc, Clayface, and Mr. Freeze are all popping by name already, and it seems like there might be some Scarecrow and Black Mask connection in play. It’s a disparate group that Tim wouldn’t normally suspect of working together, but that actually makes it more dangerous…

            If there IS collusion, it’ll be an unexpected and difficult fight to suppress them.

            But if the attack is not a coordinated venture… if the separate parties all wound up selecting right now to launch their attacks by pure happenstance… It will be a lot harder to identify their immediate goals and corral them away to prevent public harm.

 

            It’s an ‘all hands, on deck’ scenario if Tim has ever seen one.

 

            He spares one more moment of regret to lament having chased Jason away, and of having run himself so ragged in being ridiculous (and in failing while being ridiculous) that this mission is going to be a brutal effort for him to even join the fight, let alone to properly contribute to it… but then he forces himself to focus.

            To get down to business.

            Because… It’s not like Tim could ever just not go or something…

            The others will be risking their lives to save the city, and Tim can’t just let the odds stand even more starkly against then simply because Tim is feeling shitty about himself right now. His presence won’t even the odds by much, but it could still mean the difference between life and death for a member of the Family. And that matters, little as a thing it is, that matters.

 

            So, with lead limned along his limbs, Tim drags himself mostly upright and digs through his duffle for his spare Red Robin uniform. With grueling, laborious effort, Tim wriggles out of his street clothes and into the skin tight armortec. This uniform, like the one he ruined in the explosion nearly three weeks ago, is still technically just a prototype mock up, so it has hardly any traps or secret catches that need to be dealt with.

            It should be a quick change, but it feels like it takes another full hour for Tim to swap outfits. The illusion isn’t helped much by the point they’ve reached in the evening – that brief moment of time where the light of the sinking sun is starting to race through the city to escape the building shadows of the night in a rush that feels visceral and abrupt.

 

            Tim has just finished with the last zipper on the main suit (one that’s irksomely difficult to reach and will need to be adjusted in the next iteration of the damn thing), and is turning to dig his gauntlets out of his duffle when he comes face to face with Jason.

            It’s a fever dream, or hallucination, or Tim’s had a heart attack and died, or… something.

            Because Jason Todd is crouched on the floor… less than ten feet away from him.

 

            The very same Jason Todd that Tim had just chased out of Gotham an hour ago…

 

            Tim didn’t hear him come in, has no idea when he got there (or when Tim’s brain finally cracked… because this would not be the first time he’d hallucinated Jason Todd back into his god damn train wreck of a pathetic little life), and he’s not entirely certain what to do now.

            He probably should check to see if Jason’s real.

            He’s not quite sure how to go about doing that, but it should probably be a priority.

 

            However, before he wraps his brain around any possible test for Jason’s real-ness, a burst of muted static from one of Jason’s pockets breaks the silence.

            Tim can’t quite hear the words clearly enough to glean any meaning from them, but he’s certain that he hears Jason’s name come up once or twice. And somehow, the idea that someone else (Roy, by the sound of it) knows that Jason’s here, confirms that Jason’s real to Tim.

            Shock, awe, and a gut wrenching relief punch the words from Tim’s throat before he has any other rational thought, “You came back.”

            Jason frowns.

            He doesn’t quite glower, but his expression is still dark enough to make kittens quake.

            He takes a slow, deep breath that Tim instinctively, desperately mirrors.

            “Yeah. I guess. Kinda.”

            It’s not resoundingly conclusive confirmation, but it’s more than enough to make Tim woozy with ecstatic disbelief.

            Tim mirrors Jason through another careful breath, feeling his eyes prick sharply with the excess of overwhelming emotion currently coursing through him.

            “I’m glad,” Tim breathes.

            “I’m not,” Jason huffs immediately in return.

            It’s an open, honest statement, and although it nearly crushes Tim’s heart to hear, he’s still glad of two key details: the trusting openness with which Jason’s speaking, and the fact he’s here at all to say it – even if he’s not happy to be here, he is here, and that’s important.

            “You shouldn’t be suiting up.”

            Tim blinks, still too distracted by Jason’s miraculous apparition to have full command of language, or even awareness of his own situation. It takes a few seconds to fight his brain back into the wider circumstances of the present moment, “I..? Oh, um, yeah. I… there’s an issue… an Arkham break out. A big one, it seems. So, it’s kinda all hands, on deck.”

 

            Then Jason glowers.

            It hurts Tim to see it, but the black expression isn’t nearly as vitriolic as it could be.

 

            “Do they know you’ll be participating?” Jason asks darkly.

            “Um… no,” Tim admits sheepishly, “Not yet.”

            Jason huffs, “You shouldn’t be. You’re not healed up enough, it’s too risky.”

            With a quick snap that pulls his brain out of the awed funk it’d been caught in, Tim snorts derisively. “I’m not sitting on the sidelines while the others risk their lives.”

            “You’re a liability.”

            It stings because it’s true, but Tim won’t let it stop him.

            “That’s why I haven’t checked in or told them that I’m coming,” Tim explains, pulling his gaze off of Jason and forcing his attention back to pulling on his gauntlets. “They need back up and I’m going to provide it, whether or not they know to look out for me. If they don’t know I’m there until we’re in the thick of things, they won’t have time to distract themselves with worry.”

            “That’s a fucking awful plan,” Jason declares flatly.

            “Well, I’m open to suggestions,” Tim snorts with caustic abandon.

 

            “Don’t go.”

 

            “Not that suggestion,” Tim bites out. With a heavy sigh under his breath, as he finishes with arming his gloves Tim adds spitefully, “That’s not even a real suggestion, like seriously.”

            Jason growls in clear frustration as Tim moves on to securing his bandoliers across his torso, saying thickly, “You’re going to get yourself killed, asshole.”

            “Maybe,” Tim admits. He owns up to that prospect fully, would never insult those he’s already failed and lost or those he’d leave behind in failing here, by ever pretending that he was not aware of the risks he was taking – the risks they were all taking. “But I might save lives, too.”

            Jason curses under his breath in Spanish spit out too quick for Tim to catch.

            Tim ignores it and reaches for his cape.

            Before he pulls it free of the duffle, Jason’s hand whips out to grab hold of the material.

            “Don’t go,” he barks again, giving the cape a firm yank.

            Tim grits his teeth and wrenches the flexible material out of Jason’s hold – ripping it free by using an explosive burst of his full strength in a display of temper that nearly sends him toppling over because of the unexpected lack of resistance met in Jason’s grip.

            Keeping his balance by the skin of his teeth, Tim rights himself, swings his cape around to drape over his shoulders, and grits out, “No.”

            As Tim’s securing the clasps, Jason reaffirms, “You. Will. Die.”

            “Maybe,” Tim corrects, adding, “It’s my life, Jason. I get to make use of it how I see fit, and if you don’t like it, too bad. You have no right to stop me, or tell me how to live.”

            The implicit understanding is that while Jason has no right to stop him, they both know he has the abilities required to make him stay home… Jason could easily incapacitate Tim, even if he restricted it to an injury that would only keep Tim down for a few hours, Jason could do it.

            Tim’s just praying that Jason won’t go there.

            Jason hasn’t shown any dramatic proclivities for keeping Tim safe since he got back from the dead and the hateful dealings with the Lazarus Pit, but he’s also shown little regard for Tim’s feelings on a given matter – so if, for some bizarre reason, Jason decides that Tim’s safety does matter… he likely won’t hesitate to hurt him mildly to ensure his overall security.

            Possibly.

            Consent is big with Jason… so maybe, Tim can get away clean.

            And maybe… maybe he can even do more.

            “If you’re so certain I’m going to screw this up and die, come with me,” Tim suggests, “If you were out there to watch my back, the odds of me tripping up somehow and getting myself killed would go down dramatically.”

            Jason makes a choking sound, and in Tim’s peripheral vision his body jerks towards Tim slightly – a disjointed, uncontrolled reaction that Tim’s learned to connect with something like a bout of Pit rage flaring up. It’s not the straight leap to violence that he’d displayed before his attempt to detox with the Outlaws, but it’s still a significant issue that Tim needs to collect more direct data on… It may be of crucial significance in affecting Jason’s Familial reintegration.

            Tim’s not quite sure what about his statement caused the flare up, but now is not the time to dissect the conversation to figure it out.

            He’s just about finished getting prepped to head out into the fray.

 

            Picking up his domino, Tim hesitates in securing it to his face.

            Before he lifts the mask and divests himself of a certain portion of his humanity, Tim looks up and tries to meet Jason’s eyes.

            The man crouched across from him is glaring, but his gaze is inexplicably skittish. And when Tim finally does manage to catch Jason’s eye, he sees that the deep blue of Jason’s irises has been subsumed by a flickering, fiery tinge of Lazarus green.

            “Come with me.”

            It’s not exactly a suggestion or even a request, but the statement is said so softly it’s hardly a declaration spiked with any kind of genuine demand.

            Jason’s fists clench, and his whole being gives a shudder.

            And Tim resigns to backing off.

            “Just think about it, okay?” Tim asks, looking down and then closing his eyes to secure the domino in place. As the mask beeps under his thumb print, as it hisses with the release of the gaseous compounds that mix together to create the adhesive, Tim adds, “I could really use your help out there, tonight. We all could. History and grudges aside, there’s civilians getting hurt out there. We can fight among ourselves all we want after the innocent bystanders are safe.”

            Jason doesn’t respond and Tim accepts that as he rakes his fingers through his hair to smooth it down enough to pull his full cowl over his head.

 

            With that accomplished, Tim’s ready to hit the streets.

 

            Physically, technically, ready, at least…

            Mentally and emotionally? He’ll need to give himself a few minutes alone on a roof to center himself before he truly joins the fray…

 

            Tim permits himself one last look at Jason, who’s staring at him with an odd splash of confusion clear across his face – confusion strong enough that it seems to have calmed away the worst of the Pit’s influence, at least in going by what’s visible of the coloring within his irises.

 

            Seeing that somehow calms Tim, as well.

 

            He resists the urge to say anything, either in final invitation or as parting words, as he pushes to his feet and strides towards the window. He takes a single strong breath and then vaults out the window onto the fire escape, and then leaps into the abyss beyond as the full darkness of night definitively drapes itself across the streets of Gotham.

            He makes it to the West Side, where his alerts had the projected action most centrally focused, and pauses. He takes three minutes in the shadowy alcove of an air conditioning unit tucked beside the shed like structure of a roof top access stairway and clears his mind, prepares his brain to focus on the fight as he runs through a quick routine of final warm up stretches.

            The trip over here warmed most of his muscles up plenty, but the stretching keeps everything limber and moving smoothly.

            Then he pulls a com unit out of the lead lined pocket on his utility belt and sticks it in his ear as he brings a live image of the city map with the gps locations of the others’ bio-trackers up on his gauntlet’s 3D projection display.

            He clicks the com on and watches his own little dot appear in the center of his projected map as he finagles the device into his ear. His dot is fainter than the others, one point of data rather than the dozen or so complied to create theirs, but still too noticeable for Tim’s tastes.

            Fortunately, the others are busy enough and focused enough to let him go unnoticed.

            A flurry of voices meets him as the others are in the midst of assessing the extent of the damage already caused while simultaneously collecting, categorizing, and interpreting data about what’s actually going on in detail.

            Tim doesn’t speak up and the others are too consumed with their own tasks to take any note of the addition of his com to the active communications stream.

 

            While eavesdropping, Tim gleans that this is not a coordinated attack, but three separate incidents that have unintentionally coincided. The Arkham break out is exclusive to Clayface, Killer Croc, and Mr Freeze – who were only working together insofar as it took to get beyond Arkham’s walls. All three have now split ways and are wrecking their own brand of havoc.

            Black Mask and Scarecrow are each in the midst of their own, independent scheme.

            The timelines of their dastardly plots have both moved up at the apparent interference of the other incidents, as each villain is determined to become tomorrow’s biggest news story.

 

            The immediate priorities are Clayface and Croc.

 

            Mr Freeze is dangerous, but he’s attempting to escape. They’ll be able to track him down after the worst of this chaos ends, probably even before he schemes up an actual revenge plot or whatnot that would actually endanger civilians.

            Croc and Clayface on the other hand… they’re on rampages that aren’t meant to allow them to achieve any higher goals, they’re just out for the immediate destruction – out to cause as much pain and chaos as possible while their limited freedom remains within their grasp.

            Whatever Mr Freeze promised them to help with… whatever else they were planning, his part in the escape seems to have been entirely forgotten in their current wash of bloodlust.

            Which is probably what Mr Freeze was counting on.

 

            Dick and Damian have been assigned to Croc, while Bruce and Steph are on Clayface.

 

            Cass, as the sneakiest, is going to scout and assess for the worst of what’s going down with Scarecrow and Black Mask – with Barbara helping ease her way and analyze her findings to evaluate priorities. Which will make taking them down easier after Croc and Clay are dealt with.

            But Cass can only be in so many places at a time, and that can’t change no matter how sneaky she is – despite how it sometimes feels like she’s everywhere at once inside the Manor.

            Even with Oracle’s help, there’s a limited efficacy to a single scout.

 

            With Tim’s particularly rocky track record with Killer Croc, and his not much better history with Clayface – not to mention his current liability status due to the stupidity of still lingering anemia – all acting as additional encouragement, Tim decides to stick himself on recon with Cass. She’s currently scouting out Scarecrow’s scheme to determine the immediate threat level he poses to civilians.

            Scarecrow’s threat is typically assessed as a higher danger than Black Mask’s.

 

            They’ve worked together once or twice, but tonight it seems they are at odds.

 

            While Roman Sionis and his specialized mafia subset gang of False Facers are drug dealers, gun runners, and general anarchists, he’s a fairly organized mob boss and his attacks on the public are almost entirely restricted to physical injury – with only mild psychological harm incurred primarily from the result of drug addiction.

            Dr. Jonathan Crane, on the other hand, is far more sinister in how he imparts pain on Gotham’s civilians. The fear gas and neurotoxins he uses to affect the populace often leave lasting brain damage that can create both physical and mental disabilities if not properly treated. And most of the people affected are too underprivileged to get properly treated. Even many of the better off victims feel that they can’t afford the time off work and convince themselves that they don’t need it, that it wasn’t that bad (because taking time off work to keep themselves sane is the worst possible sin they could commit according to most bosses).

            He also affects the wider population in two critical ways: first by making citizens hurt other citizens, which makes normal people fear other normal people more than they ever should, and secondly, he makes those who survive after having hurt people while under the influence of Crane’s drugs bear with the guilt of having done so.

 

            So, Scarecrow is priority one.

 

            But that means no one is on Black Mask.

 

            Which gives Tim the perfect opening to insert himself into the operation in a manner that does not allow his participation to be questioned while simultaneously preventing it from being a dangerous distraction to the others.

            Tim picks up on Black Mask’s location from Barbara’s constant stream of verbalized status updates and moves into a viable scouting position.

 

            He’s just gotten settled in the swoop of shadows with the best view of the warehouse complex that the False Facers are working out of when Babs pings him over a private com connection – and he taps acceptance of the call with only the slightest wince of trepidation.

            But really… it’s not like refusing the call would help at all. It would just buy him a few seconds of silence while an even more pissed off Oracle hacks into the line.

            “You’re the one who always says that we can’t just disappear on each other, Tim,” Barbara says crossly the moment the connection clicks. “You scared us today, and I am gonna give you hell for it later, but for now… It’s good to see you here.”

            They both sigh in the heavy pause that follows.

            “Now, no BS birdy,” Barbara cautions before asking, “Are you really up for this?”

            “Yes,” he barks immediately.

            His answer came too quick, too defensively, and if he were talking to the Board at WE they would flay him alive for such obvious weakness.

 

            Barbara simply waits for him to get over himself and give her a real answer.

 

            “I’m not at 100%,” Tim admits, insisting, “But I can handle this. I can scout and help provide emergency back-up. I’ll stay out of the main conflicts and only intervene if something happens that catches one of the others off guard. I’ll be here for medical evac, mostly.”

            Babs doesn’t sound like she buys it, but thankfully, she lets it go.

            “Tell me what you’ve got eyes on,” Barbara sighs.

            Tim relays what he can see of the False Facers’ numbers and excessive fire power, making explicit comment that he has yet to see Black Mask himself – positing that there may be another warehouse involved. This one could simply be a depot for weapons and drugs in transit, though it could still be the central operations hub – but with the actual command center located deep inside and possibly underground.

 

            Tim will have to get closer and infiltrate further to be absolutely certain.

 

            Babs gives her blessing with a vexed warning to be careful. She lets him know that she’ll keep the private chat between them live, but that she’s going silent for a bit to get back on the main stream with the others for a while. Anything Tim says out loud will still reach her and be worked into the over all Plan, even if she doesn’t audibly respond.

            Acknowledging that, Tim goes silent himself and sneaks closer to the main warehouse in question – eyes open and wary.

            The False Facers are a trigger happy bunch on a normal day, but today, they seem especially nervous – clearly fearful of the possibility that Scarecrow’s followers might pop up somewhere to ruin their fun before they even bring the main party out to the streets.

 

            It is not an unfounded fear.

 

            One of the other reasons that Black Mask and Scarecrow are considered lesser threats than the currently rampaging Croc and Clay is that they might very well get caught up in a pissing match between themselves and fight each other to exhaustion without requiring much Bat intervention aside from mopping up afterwards and locking everything down for GCPD.

            So, Tim is cautious in his circling – keeping an eye out behind him for any hint of a wider net of security forces patrolling in the shadows between him and Scarecrow’s current location.

            As he edges closer, he finds clues that confirm this as the primary headquarters, while also indication that there is a second warehouse like Tim hypothesized, but that one is the temporary supply depot. He relays everything to Babs, including the shout of alarm that goes off across the warehouse when a False Facer scout finds one of Scarecrow’s goons and sets everyone inside the warehouse on the offensive.

            The False Facers flood out to deal with the Scarecrow incursion and Tim uses the opportunity to sneak closer. He still hasn’t gotten eyes on Black Mask himself.

 

            It’s a worrisome gap in the information.

 

            If they cannot locate Black Mask for the take down, they’ll have to subdue each and every goon individually and still risk having Black Mask get away to start this whole mess again next week. If Tim can find the man in charge before the Bats launch their attack, they might get the goons to surrender, and they’ll definitely put a huge damper on any plans for a raincheck.

 

            While the sounds of shouting and gunfire pick up on the far side of the commercial lot, Tim creeps his way through the interior shadows of the warehouse.

            He successfully makes his way down to a lower level that seems mostly vacated – the guards having moved up to the ground floor to replace those who’d been drawn outside into the Scarecrow conflict. There’s probably more even further downstairs, an elite guard surrounding Black Mask directly, but for now, it seems Tim can be nosy while undisturbed.

            Before moving down to nail a visual on Sionis, Tim pokes into the assortment of crates and barrels littering the first lower level. He gets a look at some heavy duty fire power in the form of military grade rocket powered grenade launchers but not much else before a shout is raised behind him and the unique pattering of an automatic weapon fires on him.

            The burst of fire is brief, but not quick enough for Tim to have escaped unscathed when diving behind a steel lined weapons crate – not naturally, anyhow.

            The discharging bang of a larger caliber, semi-automatic gun is what interrupts the spluttering of automatic fire long enough for Tim to dive successfully for cover.

            A second later, Jason appears in full Red Hood regalia. He drags Tim around to crouch behind a wide reinforced concrete pillar as a few goons from the lowest level appear and begin to fire a wild spray of bullets across the vague area of their position.

            Tim is too overwhelmed with the swirl of emotion caused by the sight of Jason there beside him to care – or even notice, frankly – the ache of what is probably a bullet’s supersonic impact on his shoulder. His throat is squeezed tight enough to prevent any words from escaping, and Tim restrains the wheeze that wants to trying pushing out despite the futility.

            You came, you’re here, you’re here, replays on instant loop ad aeternam inside his head, drowning out all other thoughts and getting his mind caught in a deep, inescapable rut.

            Tim can’t think of anything besides his awe and gratitude for Jason’s presence until Jason gives him a rough shake.

            “God, kid,” Jason growls through the electronic filter of his helmet, “You have got to learn how to stay away from bullets…”

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

 

 

if we’re gonna tumble in the gun fire ( promise we’ll be side by side )

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Twenty – stand up ( and be counted )

 

            Jason collapses,     when Tim leaves.

 

            Falls straight back on his ass and winds up leaned heavily against the underside structure of his breakfast bar.

 

            Somehow, he’s managed not to hang up his phone and Roy’s muffled shouts echo in the still apartment as Jason scrapes together the energy to tug the device out of his pocket and then all the way up to his ear.

            “Heellllloooo~? Jay? You’ve got fifteen more seconds before I call Kori to go all supersonic alien war machine on your ass, answer me, damnit!

            “I’m here, Roy,” Jason sighs, voice dropped low and heavy with the weight of reality attempting to drown it all away. “Tim left, though. Emergency Bat mission, apparently.”

            “Yeah, I caught that,” Roy drawls.

            “God damn idiot is gonna get himself killed,” Jason laments coarsely, letting his head fall back heavily against the drywall.

            “But you didn’t kill him first, so that’s a plus, right?

            Jason snorts. “Hardly.”

            “Hey, man,” Roy contests firmly, “It’s not like he made it easy for you. I heard a few really dumb ideas being thrown around out there. But you didn’t kill his ass outright, and I’m proud of you for that, a’ight? Seriously. I remember working you down from the Pit Rage, an’ working up to having you hold it back yourself… You’re doing a pretty damn great job.

 

            Jason tries to snort again, but it comes out more like a desperate wheeze.

 

            “So, uh, I’m still like half an hour out from Gotham,” Roy mentions after a moment of letting the lull stand. “But like… um… I’ll be there soon to back you up head on, so… maybe…

            Lip curling in annoyance at Roy’s uncharacteristic hesitance to shoot straight with him, Jason barks viciously, “Just spit it out already Roy. Fucking hell, man, you sound like a dumbass fourteen year old with their first crush.”

 

            “Why don’t you go with him?

 

            Jason chokes on the air inside his lungs, again. He’s gonna have bruises on the inside of his frickin’ trachea after this shit storm of insanity wraps up.

 

            “Listen. I mean it,” Roy affirms before Jason can drag in enough air to curse at him, “It’s clear that Robin Mock 3.0 isn’t gonna be convinced to sideline it, and you’re worried enough about his safety so worked up over it that a stupid little spat with the Bats makes you need to throw a lifeline… I hate to say it, but the little bugger’s right about how things will go better for him if you’re there to watch his back – assuming you can keep your eyes off his ass, at least.

 

            The crass joke gives Jason enough space in his brain to craft a retort.

 

            It’s not the snarky thing it should be, but it’s actual words with which to voice his primary concern, and Jason manages to speak them clearly as he says, “If I go out there to save him, the odds are pretty good that I’m gonna end up killing him, shit head.”

 

            “I dunno, I think you might be passed that.”

            Grinding his teeth together so hard he’s surprised that nothing chips, Jason grits out, “I’ve already nearly killed him five separate times in the last three weeks, twice in the last day.”

            Jason can hear Roy’s shrug in the rev of an engine from across the line.

 

            “Yeah, maybe,” Roy cedes after a moment. “But still… That was when he was being stupidly antagonistic towards you. Now, he’s being stupidly heroic towards, not-you. Pretty big thematic difference there, bubba. An’ I know you like seein’ Pretty Bird get down to business, so… I dunno, maybe it’ll be alright.

            Jason’s silence is sufficient to say that he’s not sure enough of anything to say it, and the quiet is thickly weighted with the implicit understanding that Jason mostly dislikes the idea.

 

            Only mostly.

 

            There is a tinge to it that shows he is considering Roy’s point about how when Tim is being his stupid stubborn self in a way that pokes and prods at Jason directly it elicits a very different reaction than when Tim’s stubbornness is directed at doing something kind of amazing. Tim’s reckless still grates on Jason when he’s being heroic, but to a lesser degree than it would otherwise… he hasn’t felt compelled to throttle Tim just for being a hero since… well since before the detox trip with the Outlaws, honestly...

 

            Maybe Roy’s not wrong about this shit.

            Maybe it would be alright…

 

            “Like seriously, man,” Roy rumbles on in his ear, “Your choices are really limited. You can sit here and keep talking with me, pining uselessly over your ridiculous bird brain and wallowing in the fact that you’ve tried to kill him a couple times, way back when—

            “Today. Roy,” Jason interrupts to correct, “I’ve tried to kill him a couple times today.”

            “—Or you can go out there and save his stupid ass while I’m stuck out here for the next 25 minutes, trying to dodge the psychotic traffic of your frickin’ ridiculous city,” Roy goes on undisturbed, adding with incredulous, personal insult, “Like how, man? It’s almost nine at night! Shouldn’t rush hour be over by now? Where are all these people even going?

 

            Jason’s only sort of listening to Roy’s traffic rant.

            He’s mostly trying not to let himself be convinced by the bigger argument.

            Trying and failing.

 

            Because Tim is in danger, significant danger.

 

            He’s still healing off a serious injury and he’s a fresh escapee from a suicide watch.

            It’s downright irresponsible of Jason to let him go out there in a cape, and his half assed attempt to get the kid to stay put was never set up to be more successful than it was pathetic and embarrassing. Even while he’d been making his demands, Jason had never thought it’d work.

            He’d rushed back to the apartment because he didn’t want to risk Tim killing himself, but then he’d just let the kid rush off into a gunfight that’s almost certain to accomplish that goal.

 

            Even if Tim weren’t a suicide risk, he’s still recovering from a massive injury.

            He’s a liability, at best, out there.

            He could just falter and wind up with a bullet in his brain by accident.

 

            But there’s the terrifying possibility that it won’t be an accident… that he’ll step openly into the line of fire, and then simply won’t even try to dodge when the lead starts to spray.

 

            And Jason cannot abide by that.

 

            He’s on his feet and heading for the bedroom before he realizes he’s made a decision, before Roy’s even finished raging about the idiocy of Gotham’s road system, and how the over crowding situation inherent to any sort of natural growth urban development mess is not at all helped by the city’s even more idiotic drivers.

            He’s half dressed in the Red Hood’s signature armored get up when Roy calls a wrap on it, and nothing but a hot second manages to pass before the redneck notes the distinct sounds of shuffling gear.

            “You’re going out?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Good. I think it’ll be helpful,” Roy approves before warning, “Keep me connected through your helmet and I’ll use its gps tag to find you as soon as I make it into this break light hellhole you call home.

            Jason’s in the midst of securing his domino when he replies, “Sure thing.”

 

            A moment later, he syncs his phone to the Hood, transfers the call over and then ditches the rather breakable mobile device on the counter. “Still hear me?”

            “Loud and clear, Jaybird,” Roy responds. “Where ya headin’?

            Consulting the HUD inside his visor that depicts the trackers put on each of the Bats to help them back each other up (and allow people with access to the Cave system, like Jason, to avoid the busy bodies), Jason hmms. Tim’s primary tracker is not online. Nor are any of his secondaries, or tertiary back ups… If he’s got any sort of ping on him for Oracle to find, it’s a localized signal that buried too deep for Jason’s limited access to view.

 

            Kid was dead serious when he said that came to Jason clean and untraceable.

 

            Seeing absolute proof now makes a mix of satisfaction and frustration flood through him.

            “West Side, I think,” Jason comments to answer Roy, “I can’t see Red Robin, but the others are gathered around that part of the city… with a pretty telling gap between them.”

            Jason can feel Roy nod in the pause before he says, “Alrighty then, go save your stupid endangered bird species. I’ll be there quick as I can, and I’ll try to let you focus – you know, be less distracting than usual with all the brilliant dazzle of my witty commentary as I drive.

            With a snort that’s wholly amused, Jason retorts, “If by witty, you mean that awful, redneck crap you spew, I think it might be best if we just duct tape your mouth shut for a while.”

 

            Roy attempts to make a retort, but he’s cut off by the blaring of a horn and his own string of bizarre, Appalachian pseudo-curses.

            Jason simply huffs a laugh and turns his focus to finding one little Red Robin (who is bound to be in stealth mode) hiding somewhere in a part of Gotham that’s nearly the size of the whole god damn Queens borough in New York.

            He’s also working on almost zero information.

            With no idea of who broke out of Arkham to start with, let alone what the hell their immediate goals are now, Jason’s flying pretty blind.

 

            It takes a while – a lot longer than Jason would ever want to admit – for him to find Tim, and even then, it’s mostly due to blind luck as he sneaks into a bit of blank space within the circle of area being covered by the Bats. Batman and Batgirl are the furthest east, and the furthest north – still flitting around close enough to Arkham to be on the edge of Coventry rather than firmly in the Upper West Side region. Nightwing and the demon brat Robin are furthest west, right by Gotham River on the West Side’s upper curve. Black Bat is significantly further south, half way to Chinatown, almost.

            Which leaves about ten blocks right in between them all being effectively encircled and contained, but not actively controlled.

            It’s not a huge hole in their coverage, but it’s enough to make Jason think that Tim would likely aim for it – as a recon position, if nothing else.

 

            Jason turns out to be right, though it takes a spray of gunfire to help him zero in on the exact address of the warehouse where Tim’s aimed his interest.

 

            The gunfire, thank fuck, is not being aimed at Tim directly.

 

            It seems like a nasty spat between Black Mask and Scarecrow, but Jason doesn’t particularly care at the moment.

            The sound drew him in, and he spies Tim on the opposite side of the warehouse roof from where the echoes of automatic gunfire are still pattering away. The kid’s using the distraction of the fight outside to sneak into the warehouse while the area is mostly clear.

 

            Which, if Jason knows Black Mask – and he does – is a straight up terrible idea.

 

            Obviously, Jason follows the malfunctioning little Timmy-bot inside.

 

            The kid’s sneaky, Jason’ll give him that, and the warehouse’s ground floor is almost entirely vacant – as is the level immediately below it, if the sensors in Jason’s Hood are accurate (which he’s certain they are) – so the brain dead birdy’s idea of infiltrating the place in the midst of all the hubbub isn’t an entirely insane plan.

 

            It’s still stupidly reckless, though.

 

            And Jason’s fears of Tim being in the line of fire come to direct fruition after he spends just a few minutes poking around on the basement level – as a goon steps up from the shadowy corner stairway leading to a sub-basement.

            Tim doesn’t notice the goon as he’s digging through the mountains of evidence piled up in crates around the basement, but the goon notices him. Immediately.

            Jason’s a quick draw on his Glock, but he’s racing against a guy with a fully automatic machine gun. A half dozen bullets get shot towards Tim’s undefended back before Jason’s well aimed response finds its place between the goon’s eyes.

 

            The gunfire inside the warehouse has raised the alarm and the shouts of other goons can be heard as they ascend the stairs while Jason sprints across the floor to where Tim’s hiding.

 

            The idiot hadn’t been keeping out as keen an eye for trouble as he should have been, but when trouble came shooting, he had at least taken the initiative to dive behind protective cover – or… well, cover, at any rate.

 

            The crate he’s tucked behind might be lined with steel, but it’s still filled with explosives.

 

            It wouldn’t take too much bad luck for a bullet to penetrate the casing and hit the contents in exactly the wrong way so as to make them go boom prematurely.

 

            Jason dives behind the same piece of cover, grabs Tim blindly by the spot on his collar where his shoulder meets his nape, and then hauls him over to a reinforced concrete pillar that serves a much more reasonable chance at actually protecting them from the maelstrom of lead.

 

            Tim’s bloody, again.

 

            He did not quite manage to dive away quick enough to get out of that mess unscathed.

 

            It’s nothing too life threatening, just a couple shallow scratches. One that tore a few threads on his cape, one that managed to rip through the armortec covering his deltoid, and one that skimmed the edge of his cowl – leaving a streak of split skin over his cheekbone.

            Three bullets, three very minor injuries… but… the red line on Tim’s cheek has Jason’s full attention enraptured—his obsessively intense focus fixates of the permutations of chance.

            If that one shot had hit just a little bit lower, a little to the right… Tim wouldn’t have a jaw anymore. A little further and the lead projectile would’ve gotten stuck fast in Tim’s spine…

 

            Tim’s gone mostly boneless, sitting limp and utterly still as he stares at Jason without any kind of present comprehension or sense of awareness.

 

            “God, kid,” Jason growls, giving him a rough shake, “You have got to learn how to stay away from bullets…”

 

            “I’m fine,” Tim retorts weakly, shuddering back into proactive awareness of the moment.

            He sounds… not winded, exactly, but still breathless in some way.

 

            Jason doesn’t think on it.

 

            He simply grabs Tim’s chin and swipes his thumb roughly over the cut on the kid’s cheek, collecting a thick sheen of blood on his glove to parade before the idiot’s eyes.

 

            “Not fine,” Jason snarls.

 

            Tim rolls his eyes behind his cowl and uses his gauntleted forearm to sweep roughly at Jason’s hand, brushing his obviously valid concerns aside like so much soapy fluff. “Fine. I’m fine enough, considering I was just shot at,” he huffs, adding, “And considering that I am still being shot at.”

 

            The False Face goons are still spraying bullets at their position, though the volume has been reduced to keep them pinned down while a few of the gangsters approach to flank them.

 

            “So, you got any good plans to get us out of here or is this just a sort of bash our way outside scenario?” Jason barks, packing away everything his focus wants to linger on.

            Fixates himself wholly on the mission.

 

            Tim angles himself to peek around the edge of their cover and over the mountains of crates scattered at near random across the factory – looking towards the staircase down to the sub-basement. “We need to get eyes on Sionis, directly. If possible, capture him outright. That way, at least some of the False Facers will just surrender immediately.”

            “Not many of ‘em,” Jason refutes, explaining, “Blackie there still pays their salaries, even from a cell in Blackgate. His goons don’t do commission work.”

            “Some is enough,” Tim mutters, “It’s worth it.”

 

            A brief pause and the sharp tensing of muscles is all the warning Jason gets before Tim bolts out from behind their bit of cover, uses his bow staff to trip up one goon and a blazing quick round house to incapacitate another, and then dodges swiftly into the shadows of a pillar set right beside the stairs.

            Cursing all the way, Jason follows – firing off a few cover shots, and aiming at least two that have actual targets to drop.

 

            Tim is frowning when Jason slams his back against the pillar beside him.

 

            “Please don’t kill them,” the kid says quietly, tone low and mournful.

            “What?”

            Jason cannot believe he wants to do this now. Opening this can of worms is not conducive to accomplishing anything, let alone escaping… Which— as noted by some bizarrely detached bit of Jason’s brain— to be fair, Tim’s plan is not escaping, so really, blowing open this can of worms right now doesn’t really impact his immediate goal…

            Tim’s voice draws Jason’s attention out of the oddly academic twist it got caught in, the baby bird’s words coming soft and slow.

            “The False Facers,” Tim elaborates, as if he thought Jason were really confused on that part of this argument, but too gingerly for it to really be a believable ruse. “Don’t kill them. Please, Jason – you’re a good enough shot to manage it, you’re better than almost anyone at it, you don’t have to kill them to make sure they’re not a threat anymore.”

 

            “You’re a little late to be asking that,” Jason huffs.

            His body count is already at three, and that’s assuming that all his shots of cover fire missed entirely—unlikely, considering how good he’s gotten at playing with the ricochet…

 

            “I’m asking now,” Tim states, undeterred. “No more bodies, not tonight.”

 

            The earnestness with which Tim speaks strikes something in Jason.

 

            It’s a hard blow, one that cuts Jason to the quick… but it’s not pain, exactly, that hits him in the aftermath… it’s pause… It’s this stillness that sinks into his bones as Tim just stares at him, waiting for an answer – hoping for something impossible.

 

            Hoping like he thinks he actually has the power to make it real.

 

            Like he thinks Jason has the power to make it real.

 

            The moment holds and Jason can’t breathe.

 

            And then… and then a bullet ricochets off a metal support beam and hits less than an inch from Jason’s hand, slides through the edge of armortec fabric on Tim’s knee – reminding Jason that they’re still being shot at, and waking him up to how close he is to Tim… giving him an inkling of how easy it would be to just cut and run right now.

            Get his ass out of here, maybe even take the baby bird away with him.

            He could just pistol whip the idiot bird brain and haul his unconscious figure out by force. Easy. But… something about the idea grates at Jason’s insides…

            Especially with how potently he feels the weight of whatever something Tim is feeling—whatever it is that’s pulsing through the idiot’s pleading gaze thickly enough to drip like heavy syrup into the tiny crevices inside Jason’s lungs…

 

            Ripping his gaze away from Tim, Jason grumbles incoherently for a long moment, chewing on his words to prevent himself from acting and eventually grits out, “No promises.”

            In response, Tim grins like Jason just personally swore him in for a seat on the Mars Mission and turns away to dart down the stairs as a gap in the stream of gunfire pops up.

            “Oye!” Jason shouts after him, charging down the stairs at a dead sprint, “I said ‘no promises’. I mean it. Minimal effort will be expended on this no killing bull shit. Comprende?”

 

            Tim doesn’t respond with any grave acceptance, but he doesn’t laugh either.

 

            They both know that, despite Jason’s protests regarding minimal effort, there’s an implicit promise to try inside his grousing – and that’s more of a promise than he’s ever given on the matter before.

            Fortunately, in some ways at least, the pressing encouragement of gunfire gets them both refocused pretty quickly. They make it all the way to the sub-basement and under reasonable cover before they take a pause to reassess again.

 

            They’re definitely in Black Mask’s command center, there’s a semblance of walls set up to make a maze of the place – keeping Roman Sionis and his VP cronies separated from the rabble while they discuss their plans, but still keeping it connected enough to hear any disturbances.

            Disturbances like a Bat breaking, getting spotted, and being welcomed with a hail of shouts and gunfire… If Blackie had any detailed plans or blueprints laid out on a table at the heart of this place, they’re long scooped up by now, probably even destroyed if the acrid tang of smoke and gasoline in the air is any indication.

 

            The scent isn’t very thick in the air, barely any of it.

            It’s hardly enough to make a notable reading on Jason’s HUD, and nothing makes it passed the air tight seal or filters on his helmet.

            Jason has frequently been overwhelmingly pleased with himself for having the foresight to make the damn Hood so thoroughly air tight. And this instance is another example of why it was so necessary. Flashbacks to a different warehouse, a different time, a different reality with the same impossible odds and bursts of fire and accelerant would not be helpful right now…

            Tim seems to note the smell, and know what enough about what it means to feel the kick to urgency, because his expression quirks briefly in a sharp frown before he turns to Jason and uses a quick flurry of hand signals to ask Jason to circle around to the right in an attempt to find the center area where Sionis and his cronies will be.

            With a roll of his eyes being unfortunately concealed by his helmet, Jason nods.

 

            They split off and work their way inward.

 

            Sporadic shouts and grunts give tell of Tim running into a few goons and promptly disabling them with a few nasty taps from his bo staff.

 

            Jason meets a few goons, too.

            And aside from a few shots to the knee caps, he disables most of them with a quick nerve strike instead of a bullet to the head. He doesn’t know exactly why he does it, why he actually puts effort into keeping his stupid not promise to the idiotic baby bird, but he does.

 

            And at the center of the maze, they find two of Roman Sionis’s False Facer captains.

            It’s only a quick few seconds to disarm them, and then another few to figure out from where their angry looks are directed that Black Mask himself fled up a concealed back stair case.

            A glance at the smoldering remains inside an oil barrel confirms that the plans have been destroyed to a point that makes attempting to reconstruct them unrealistic.

 

            Without further pause, Tim and Jason charge up the back stairs after Black Mask and find themselves in a dark, narrow tunnel that leads south west. It continues to narrow until it’s only one person wide, and Jason has to turn his shoulders slightly to keep them from scrapping the grimy concrete of the tunnel’s damp sides.

            Tim’s in the lead when they reach the end of the tunnel and he doesn’t even look back to see if Jason’s still following as he leaps up to snatch at purchase on the lowest rungs of a ladder built directly into the concrete – what looks like a utilities ladder leading two stories up to a manhole at street level. Jason grumbles spitefully under his breath about the tight squeeze as he follows Tim upwards, but thankfully, the passage isn’t so tight that he winds up getting sucked back down into any flashbacks about digging his way out of his own coffin.

 

            Tim being there… Tim having turned around at the top so he’s silhouetted in the dingy glow of the streetlight above to wait expectantly for Jason to reach him… with Tim waiting there to grab on to his forearm with a firm determination to help haul him out of the darkness may or may not have something fairly significant to do with that…

            Jason very carefully ignores the possibility.

            And the potential complications of its consequences.

 

            From the open street, it’s obvious that Black Mask fled into another warehouse packed with his cronies – they’re all on high alert and a group is heading over to the shadowy alcove where Tim and Jason have just emerged with guns ready. They’ve presumably just been ordered to ensure that no one’s followed Black Mask over from the ruckus in the other warehouse.

            Tim silently replaces the manhole cover while Jason eyes the approaching goons and fights to keep his head on straight after the tightness of the tunnel.

            Then they swiftly ascend the nearest wall to perch on the rooftop to make a reasonable plan of attack to get inside this new venue.

 

            Unfortunately, they aren’t alone on the rooftop long enough to even start to make a plan.

 

            From a roof on the opposite side of their current position from the alley that Tim and Jason popped up in, Batgirl swings over to where Red Hood and Red Robin have crouched to observe Black Mask’s new hiding spot.

            She’d clearly been doing her own reconnaissance when they’d appeared.

 

            “What are you doing here,” Tim asks, sounding rather more than just slightly offended at Blondie’s existence in a way that makes Jason want to cackle for some reason. “I thought you were handling Clayface with Batman twenty blocks north of here.”

            “Clayface has been handled. Batman went to help Nightwing and Robin with Croc while I got sent to scout Black Mask,” Stephanie explains without even a hint of petulant resistance. The tone of her voice only shifts out of being purely clinical when she turns the question around, demanding with a mix of acerbic frustration and gooey concern, “What are you doing here?”

            “Scouting Black Mask,” Tim returns coolly.

 

            “And Hood?”

            Her question is all acid this time.

 

            “He’s helping,” Tim retorts before Jason can.

 

            Jason snorts, saying, “If by ‘helping’, you mean, ‘trying to keep your skinny ass from dropping dead of pure idiocy’, then yeah, I’m ‘helping’.”

 

            Tim ignores him, and Stephanie squints at him – evaluative.

 

            “Are you really here to help?” She asks, “This isn’t just a thing because you want to kill more of Black Mask’s cronies because he likes to operate on ‘your turf’?”

 

            She even does the air quotes around the last two words.

 

            Scoffing, Jason replies, “Blackie’s a whiny bitch who shoots civilians for kicks, and poisons those he doesn’t kill, I ain’t about to lost sleep over taking his ego down a few pegs for any reason. If you ain’t got the hands in brute manpower to tie that dog town before he does some real damage tonight, I’m not just gonna sit here and let the bastard walk – regardless of the neighborhood he’s currently terrorizing.”

 

            Steph’s raised eyebrow can be felt in her posture where it can’t be seen beneath her cowl.

 

            “He promised not to kill anyone,” Tim mentions in a floundering blech of fake factual statement, causing both of Batgirl’s eyebrows to shoot skyward in helpless astonishment.

            “I did not,” Jason snarls, with more petulance than vitriol. “I ain’t said I’m not gonna be killin’ anyone. I’m just not trying to hit a new high score on my body count record.”

 

            Stephanie looks Jason over, street kid hackles clearly raised.

 

            Her gaze flits to Tim, sitting cool as a cucumber and already looking bored of all things by this frickin’ conversation – Jason half wants to shove him off the roof for that offence alone.

 

            Before the idea solidifies and he has to actively fight the urge to follow through on it, Batgirl gives a heavy, beleaguered sigh, and says, “I got eyes on Black Mask. He went inside about forty seconds before you guys popped out of the ground.”

 

            Jason frowns behind his hood.

 

            Because that statement of hers in implicit agreement to fight alongside Jason… it’s a declaration of confidence in the Red Hood, a tacit promise to watch her back instead of skiv it.

            Tim just nods like such was already a forgone conclusion, and then moves on immediately to plotting with Batgirl to get the three of them inside Blackie’s new digs as stealthily as possible while disabling the maximum number of goons before the rest of them realize the need to engage.

 

            The conversation leaves Jason slightly behind for a few long beats.

 

            “You okay there, Jaybird?

 

            Roy’s low voice in his ear makes Jason jolt back to awareness with a shudder.

            He makes a low noise of affirmation and Roy replies, “I should be just less than ten minutes out from where you are, okay? We’ll work this shit out real good as soon as your stupid city isn’t about to burst its damn self into flames, every last bit of it. Promise, a’ight?

            Jason gives another low grunt of agreement and then wrenches his focus back to the present, joining in on Batgirl and Red Robin’s attempt at planning a stealth infiltration with his insider know how on Blackie’s False Facers.

 

            It’s weird. Really weird.

 

            Jason doesn’t know if the weird part is that he’s playing at being one of the good guys, or if it’s just that he’s working with a few of the actual good guys and they aren’t even pissed about it… The weirdness may even be something else entirely as a pleasant calm of ‘work focus’ settles in over him and most of his anxieties and Pit fueled furies get squashed below it.

 

            Jason’s a criminal, and he knows it.

 

            But… maybe there’s something to be said for playing the white knight occasionally.

 

            He’s got both feet stuck firmly on the dark side of right, but maybe… maybe, he’s not quite so lost as he’d believed… maybe he’s not quite so far gone than he can’t step up and play hero now and then – keep the whole city safer in a different way than he’s had to do as Red Hood by ruthlessly ensuring his territorial reign so that Crime Alley stays as clean as it can get.

 

            Maybe… maybe he can still figure out a way to help people directly, to help them by just helping, instead of helping by hurting those who’ve already hurt…

 

            God, Jason needs Roy here for this shit – he’s got no hope of sorting it alone.

 

            And besides… he’s got a mob boss to maim at the moment.

 

            Instead of letting himself get lost inside his own head, Jason turns his complete focus to helping Red Robin and Batgirl execute their infiltration.

 

 

 

            Between the three of them, this crazy ass counter attack might just work.

 

 

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

 

 

stand up and be counted ( before we slip away )

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Twenty One – don’t ever doubt it ( even if we’re surrounded )

 

 

 

            When Steph shows up on the rooftop where he and Jason have crouched to scout a way into to nail Black Mask, Tim’s first instinct is to groan like a ten year old being told he’s grounded and therefore can’t go over to a friend’s house to binge a new video game.

 

            His second instinct is to cut and run.

 

            If Steph calls it in and he gets shunted back onto a suicide watch for trying to do his god damn job, and you know actually save people, Tim is going to be pissed.

 

            “What are you doing here?” Tim asks, wary but convincingly aloof and unaffected. “I thought you were handling Clayface with Batman twenty blocks north of here.”

            “Clayface has been handled. Batman went to help Nightwing and Robin with Croc while I got sent to scout Black Mask,” Stephanie explains promptly and calmly.

 

            It’s not an apology, but there’s no hint of her gearing up any resistance to his presence.

            A positive sign.

            Still, a little warning would’ve been nice.

 

            As if hearing his mental griping, Oracle connects to the com in his ear with a huff that tells of how stressed she is with keeping all her conversations separated on private lines.

            “I did try to warn you, but I lost your signal for a few minutes,” Oracle explains, adding crossly, “Honestly, you’re lucky I didn’t send her after you, or call it in over the open wire.

 

            Tim grinds his teeth but does not otherwise respond.

 

            Meanwhile, Steph – clearly not hearing Oracle in her ear – has flipped the question around to ask what he’s doing here. Her tone is still perfunctory and calm, with only the slightest edge of a disapproving growl behind it.

            “Scouting Black Mask,” Tim returns coolly, stubbornly waiting for her to be the one to address the massive red elephant on the roof.

 

            “And Hood?”

 

            She doesn’t sound accusatory, but she also doesn’t sound happy.

 

            “He’s helping,” Tim insists immediately. Too defensive, he knows, but where he’d be coming off as overtly antagonistic to any of the others, he knows that Steph will read his biting grumble as nothing more serious than the brattiness of an almost righteous age old tantrum.

 

            Before Steph can swallow Tim’s response, Jason snorts and provides his own input, saying, “If by 'helping', you mean, 'trying to keep your skinny ass from dropping dead of pure idiocy', then yeah, I'm 'helping'.”

            Tim’s too focused on Stephanie’s reaction to bother with acknowledging Jason’s comment. Steph’s expression is all screwed up with careful consideration as she squints evaluatively at every inch of Jason’s person.

            “Are you really here to help?” She asks, “This isn't just a thing because you want to kill more of Black Mask's cronies because he likes to operate on 'your turf'?”

            Her stance is aggressive, and her gesticulation matches it, but Tim can hear real question in her tone. She’s genuinely asking, and willing to listen to what Jason has to say on answering.

            Jason doesn’t seem to notice how hard she’s trying to forge a truce with him.

            Scoffing, Jason huffs back, “Blackie’s a whiny bitch who shoots civilians for kicks, and poisons those he doesn’t kill, so I ain’t about to lose sleep over taking his ego down a few pegs for any reason. If you ain’t got the hands in brute manpower to tie that dog town before he does some real damage tonight, I’m not just gonna sit here and let the bastard walk – regardless of the neighborhood he’s currently terrorizing.”

 

            It’s not… a resounding expression of Jason’s support in this, not a fair representation of the truly unwavering goodness in Jason that Tim knows will never let him leave the fray while anyone is being actively threatened by a Rogue. But it’s also not a cripplingly antagonistic explanation of his motivations…

 

            “He promised not to kill anyone,” Tim blurts, as Stephanie regards the wayward Robin with a disbelieving eyebrow raised.

 

            That shocks both of Steph’s eyebrows skyward and Tim can feel Jason tense angrily in the blind spot he’s occupying at Tim’s shoulder.

 

            “I did not,” Jason snarls.

            At the same time, Oracle chastises, “Tim. He didn’t say that. Over promising on his behalf isn’t going to help anyone, especially if he can’t follow through on it.

            While Oracle’s still prattling on in his ear, Jason follows up, “I ain't said I'm not gonna be killin' anyone. I'm just not trying to hit a new high score on my body count record.”

 

            Tim ignores them both.

 

            Because Jason didn’t exactly promise not to kill anyone, but he did make more of a commitment to the idea of it than he ever has expressed a tolerance for prior to now.

 

            And because Jason has followed through on it.

 

            Since Tim asked him not to kill anyone, he’s only fired the gun in his hand six times, and each shot that sounded was followed up by the grunting and pained yelps of a grappling take down rather than the soft schlump of a body drop.

            Jason hasn’t killed anyone but that first guy tonight, and… maybe he killed two more between the first guy and when Tim asked him not to kill anyone else.

            But since Tim asked him not to, Jason hasn’t killed a single person.

 

            Oracle, and Batgirl, and all the rest will realize it eventually.

            Until then, this conversation’s completely moot.

 

            Batgirl and Red Hood stare each other down like alley cats, hackles raised and ears flat.

 

            It stays like that for a ridiculously long time – Tim can’t even fathom what it is they’re looking at, or what’s taking so long to see it. Both Steph and Jason are incredible at reading people, this whole little silent battle of wills thing shouldn’t take this long…

 

            An exasperated sigh is building in Tim’s chest when both of them let their gazes cut away, and both wind up staring straight at him. He can feel them glaring.

 

            His heart pounds with a premature excitement as the possibilities narrow before him.

 

            And then… yes.

            To Tim’s relief, Steph metaphorically rolls over and she gives a heavy sigh.

 

            She’s accepted Jason’s place in the ongoing team up and moves straight to business, explaining with an easy sort of work focus, “I got eyes on Black Mask. He went inside about forty seconds before you guys popped out of the ground.”

            Tim jumps into planning an infiltration with her, distracting her from the fact that Jason’s still stiff as a steel beam behind him.

 

            Steph has accepted the team up, if only as a temporary thing.

 

            Jason didn’t quite realize that it was one.

 

            He needs a bit of time to sort this whole thing out inside his head, to accept the implications of what it means for him to be working with the Bats – to be fighting alongside them, instead of against them.

            Tim intends to buy him as much time as he can, while simultaneously making use of the pause to hash together an effective game plan for the three of them to use against Black Mask.

            They’ve got a fairly solid plan of attack sorted when Jason speaks up, providing an insight on how Roman Sionis responds to the pressure of being cornered – a few personal insights that each reveal a piece of his off the record history and genuinely aids the Bats.

 

            Over the next ten minutes, Jason offers several significant suggestions.

 

            They’re all things that will most certainly keep Tim and Steph far safer than they would be without Jason there, even if they had an alternate third person on the team.

 

            By the time they’re ready to rumble, Oracle has an update for them, saying to both Tim and Steph, “Killer Croc has been subdued. Batman and Robin are en route to aid Cass with corralling Scarecrow. Nightwing is escorting Clayface and Killer Croc back to Arkham and then will be heading out to rendezvous with Steph. The estimated time until his imminent arrival is currently about 15 minutes.

            Which means they only have about twelve minutes to wrap this up and get out of here before Dick arrives and throws yet another wrench into everything Tim’s worked for.

 

            Whelp. At least it’s not Bruce.

 

            Without even having to look at each other – a fortunate hold over from the time they were dating – Tim and Steph agree to say absolutely nothing about Dick’s impending arrival.

            Unless Oracle hacks Jason’s Hood herself to tell him… But it’s distinctly unlikely that she feels the urge to go to such lengths to tell him something that he doesn’t want to hear and that stands a solid chance of making him relapse with Pit rage in the midst of battle… Yeah, the best plan for everyone is to wait until meeting up with Dick is inevitable.

 

            Ten minutes into the plan and it’s looking like it might not even be inevitable.

 

            They’ve got the False Facers forming a circle around Black Mask in the center of the most open part of the ware house, and are picking off the few that try to make a break for an exit as the Bats circle closer. It looks like they might be able to wrap this up and get away clean well before Nightwing shows up – to maybe even get over to where the others are dealing with Scarecrow and his goons to provide back up for Cass and Bruce and Damian (from the shadows, obviously, while only revealing their presence if absolutely necessary).

 

            But of course, nothing can ever go that smoothly.

 

            Jason’s the first one to realize that something’s wrong.

 

            Tim knows that Jason’s been playing it slower than he normally would, but he’d hoped that was because Jason was actually taking pains not to kill anyone rather than the fact that Jason was splitting his attention between his take downs and his suspicions.

            Tim also has been hoping that Jason would be willing to share his suspicions with the team… preferably in time for them to do something about them before the wave broke.

 

            Even Tim can tell that Black Mask is a bit too calm to make it easy for the Bats to be comfortable, but he can’t connect the dots like Jason can – can’t even see them.

 

            And when Jason does put the pieces together, he doesn’t hesitate to act.

 

            “Yo, Blondie! Duck,” he shouts at a seemingly random instant, reaching into his pocket and lobbing a grenade in Batgirl’s direction.

            She ducks at Jason’s word without a beat of hesitation, which saves her life two fold: one it keeps her from being hit by Jason’s grenade, and it keeps her head from being knocked off her shoulders from the swing of a cargo crane’s steel boom being cast across the warehouse.

            Jason’s grenade lands in the control box for the crane, but the goon who’d been controlling it manages to dive out before it explodes – and whatever he’d been doing there is apparently already done, because Roman Sionis cracks a smile.

            But Tim doesn’t get a chance to analyze that.

            His gaze is drawn to Steph and Jason, by a flurry of frantic movement that says Jason hasn’t even bothered to look at Sionis yet – he’s still firmly in the mindset of crisis aversion.

 

            Steph’s dive took her halfway across the warehouse and she ends up within ten feet of Jason, who suddenly lunges at her. She yelps a protest as he wraps an arm around her elbows in a vice grip and starts roughing her around by grabbing at her utility belt.

            Steph is struggling, half an inch from total freak out – absolutely convinced that Jason’s in a relapse or something and inches away from killing her.

            Tim can’t blame her.

            He knows Jason’s still cognizant, his movements are too smooth and too organized for this to be anything of the Pit’s direct doing. But it is still quite alarming to see.

            “Arsenal, you on the roof yet? Cause, I got a delivery to make,” Jason howls above the din of shouts and the sound of heavy doors locking into place.

            An explosion answers him from above, raining heavy steel beams and shrapnel down on top of them – most of it still on fire.

            “Finally, numb nuts,” Jason huffs as he gets Steph where he wants her. Without looking at her, or at Tim for that matter, Jason fires a grapple gun upwards through the new skylight, attaches the winch to the hip of Batgirl’s utility belt, and starts it up retracting at full speed.

            Batgirl gets yanked upwards and Jason lets go of her arms as soon as he’s sure she’s too high to retaliate. Tim stares upwards as she vanishes into the smoke and debris above.

 

            Meanwhile, Jason’s turned his attention to Tim.

 

            He’s barreling across the warehouse like a freight train, totally ignoring the chaos in the ranks of the False Facers he’s creating. Seeing all six foot two inches and two hundred plus pounds of him heading straight for Tim at full tilt is… dramatic… and absolutely horrible.

            Utterly terrifying, and the sight pins Tim in place as he gets caught up in thinking about the last time he saw that exact thing evolve before his eyes. He ended up with a half-crushed trachea, two broken ribs, and a couple pints too few of blood in his body – and that was before Jason pitched him off the roof into the icy currents of the Sprang River.

            And Tim knows that wasn’t Jason’s fault – knows that it was the Pit making everything Tim said sound awful and antagonistic. And he knows, he does; he knows that Jason’s not currently caught in anything like that spiral of frustrations and Pit whispers and whatever angst had so provoked the underlying anger Jason always bore him.

            But… but still… it’s hard for a brain to write over that kind of bone deep muscle memory of abject terror and Tim can admit with only the slightest pinch of shame that he shrinks in on himself and squeezes his eyes closed right before Jason makes contact.

 

            Unlike Steph, Tim goes boneless.

 

            Fighting now won’t help anything.

 

            It won’t stop Jason from accomplishing whatever he’s attempting, and it might wind up with Tim causing himself injury – also unhelpful, and dramatically so.

 

            Therefore, Tim stays pliant.

 

            Terror keeps his heart rate high and his eyes squeezed shut and his teeth ground tight, but his faith in the fact that Jason doesn’t want to kill him keeps him calm enough to beat down the instincts screaming at him to at least try to fight.

 

            It hurts.

 

            When Jason slams into him, every joint in Tim’s spine creaks and pops and too many pain receptors to track fire off as Jason tucks Tim against him and dives through a roll that sends them both sliding across the rough warehouse floor.

            As Jason’s rummaging about to rig and aim a grappling gun, Tim feels it – feels how the floor is rumbling… like it’s warping under an unknown mechanism that’s not half as visible as an explosion, feels how the floor is literally tilting even, bending away right out from under them.

 

            And then the slow tip that can barely feel accelerates sharply as gravity takes hold.

 

            “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” Jason mutters darkly as he lands the grapple where he wants it and begins to reel them towards the hook at top speed – tearing up the knees and thighs of his cargo pants, and at least one shoulder of his jacket, as they zip across the fragmenting concrete of the disintegrating floor. He crushes Tim against him, so tight that Tim can barely breathe and angled so he can’t see anything but the crook of Jason’s shoulder.

 

            He can’t see it, but he can feel when the floor falls completely out from under them.

 

            The grapple gun’s winch is hooked to the cross point Tim’s bandoliers make on his back and it catches them as they begin to fall, but the reel whines in vehement protest to the sudden weight it wasn’t calibrated to hold.

            Jason hangs on tight to him for a moment, but then… he lets go.

 

            “Hood!” Tim shrieks as Jason falls into the darkness.

 

            He doesn’t get an answer.

 

            The rumble of collapsing floor, the continuing patter of gunfire, and the cacophony of shouts as fires continue to rage and massive hunks of debris from multiple explosions continue to skitter across various surfaces as Tim struggles against the force of the grappling line that’s pulling him rapidly upwards.

 

            It does not have an emergency release button.

 

            Honestly, it looks like Jason crafted it specifically to hoist people up against their will, to hold people who he’d be expecting to have frantically fighting for escape.

            Briefly, Tim considers simply unclipping his bandoleers and squirming out of the harness acting to keep him moving skywards – but he might need some of what he’s got stashed inside the many pockets of the two extra utility belts.

            His normal utility belt, the one worn like a traditional belt instead of looped across his torso, has a lot of gear in it, but as the weak link in most of his team ups, Tim has adapted to playing smart and tricky rather than throwing down a brute force card. His bandoleers contain a plethora of things needed to make that happen.

            And since Jason fell into unknown territory, with an unknown number of assailants waiting for him to hit the bottom, if Tim wants to follow, he’ll likely need every advantage he can possibly obtain to keep them both alive until they escape.

            So, losing his bandoleers is not a viable option.

            Which means that his next move is to reach into a pocket for a collapsed Batarang. He unfolds one wing and twists awkwardly to get the reinforced wire within reach.

 

            He starts sawing away at the wire as Nightwing appears above him.

 

            “Tim!

            “I’m fine, ‘Wing,” Tim shouts, the hint of desperation in his voice being the only thing to rock the calm assessment.

 

            It’s not a begrudging or a perfunctory response, it’s a genuine ‘work voice’ reply.

            He’s not holding on to any petulance about Dick’s part in getting Tim on a suicide watch, not right now. They’ll probably have to hash that out later, but for now, Tim is totally willing to work with Nightwing, to trust him with his life, naturally, just like they usually do.

            The edge of desperation just barely present in his voice is for Jason and it grows slightly as Tim goes on, “Red Hood. He… he fell. We have— we have to go after him!”

            “We will,” Dick promises. “We will; I swear, we will. But first we have to get you up here and then regroup with Batgirl and Arsenal and the others. Something’s not right here.”

            “No! He fell ‘Wing! He fell to save me and I am not just going to leave him down there to face whatever it is that’s waiting for him all alone,” Tim declares, renewing his efforts to saw through the grappling line or break the device winching him upwards.

 

            There has to be a hidden release catch somewhere.

 

            It seems like the device is meant to lock around a victim’s arms, which would leave a bit of space between them for a captor to finagle a finger towards a release on the inside of the device, since there’s nothing externally. Tim’s only worry as he begins to search for it is that it’s fingerprint locked or something.

            What he finds is a pinhole opening for some sort of key – with some electronic coding release by the feel of it, probably like a modified micro usb embedded in one fingertip of Red Hood’s gloves with the release command inside it.

            And Tim can hack that.

 

            Well, he could if he had more time.

            60, maybe 75 seconds would be enough.

            It’s not long by most reckonings, but it’s an eternity by his current standard.

 

            A standard where Jason could be bleeding out below him, could be facing hordes of goons and guns, could be dying in the dark… alone. Afraid. Again…

            A standard where Jason has already died once, has already been in a position where his would be rescuer arrived too late…

            Where he has no reason to think this time will be any different than before.

 

            So, 60 seconds is an eternity.

 

            And since Tim doesn’t have that kind of time – and because Dick is still screaming something about how Hood will be fine and they have to get out of here above his head, which means he’s unlikely to help Tim out of the winch and then let him dive back down if Tim makes it up to within arm’s reach – Tim decides to short cut it… By inserting his modified Batarang into the pinhole and using an overload burst of electricity to short circuit the device in a way that overloads all of the machinery completely.

            It means that Tim gets a nasty burst of electricity coursing through him and may very well have a cool new branching fulgurite scar along his right hand when this is over. And so will anyone within about four feet of the cable he’s attached to, or whatever the cable’s other end is hooked on (assuming that the object is at all conductive).

            Dick jerks back involuntarily, probably having gotten a smarting shock to his foot – which had been within striking distance of the bolt going through the cable – and shrieks, “Tim, no! We’ll get Hood, I promise, but right now, we need to go.”

            “Sorry, ‘Wing,” Tim shouts back through clenched teeth as the winch attachment clicks open and he holds himself up with one hand on the device. “I can’t do that.”

 

            Dick hovers over him, looking like he’s of half a mind to dive down himself.

 

            It makes Tim’s chest expand with a grateful kind of true relief that Dick still truly does care, that he won’t abandon Tim for this… for so definitively choosing Red Hood over following along with the rest of the Bats.

 

            It’s one second of relief, but it’s a nice second.

 

            Because Dick can’t follow.

            He doesn’t have a cape. His Nightwing get up is a purely streamlined jumpsuit, designed to let him maneuver through the air like a fish through water. And Dick is not a light weight creature by any stretch of the imagination. Just because it rarely looks like gravity has any claim on him, doesn’t mean he’s actually free from its constant pull.

            Which means that, if he dives down here, he’s gonna be yanked downward hard and fast, and he will need to shoot a grappling line to something before he goes splat.

            Tim can’t see much in the hazy debris and dim lighting, but he knows the bottom is far, far, far away and there’s not much around for a line to connect with.

 

            Jason being alive at all where he fell is legitimately in question, but Tim refuses to consider that potential.

 

            But if Dick attempts to follow, his survival is almost certainly a non-option.

 

            “There’s nothing for a line to attach to down here, and the fall is at least three stories, probably more,” Tim explains, “So, don’t follow me without at least one of the others to spot you from up top. Try to find us a way out from below ground! I’ve got a com in, so unless we end up in a ten foot thick lead box, Oracle will be able to get through to us.”

 

            “Timmy, please don’t do this,” Dick pleads, helpless.

 

            “Sorry, Dick,” Tim tells him, genuinely apologetic.

 

            He doesn’t want to hurt Dick like this, he really doesn’t.

            But that doesn’t mean he won’t.

 

            “I have to.”

 

            And then Tim lets go.

 

            Falls.

 

            And falls.

 

            And falls

 

            Then he fans out his specialized cape and glides.

            He takes tight circles as he descends through the dark, keeping close and central, and allowing for the glide to keep him moving very quickly downward – inadvisably quickly, if he’s honest, but he knows how to hit the ground hard while avoiding injury.

            It should be fine.

 

            And it is.

 

            Mostly.

 

            He… may have pulled the stitches in his thigh again… though after three weeks of healing, he probably didn’t rip the injury too terribly.

 

            Alfred is going to kill him after this. Repeatedly.

 

            Wincing at the thought of Alfred’s wrath more than at the pain of struggling up to his feet, Tim flips the lenses of his domino over to his specialized night vision: a mix of reads from a starlight cam and from a thermal cam. It makes the landscape look like a hellish kaleidoscope of blues and greys and greens, and a few jarring warm spots of garish red and yellow, but at least it’s one with identifiable objects to maneuver around.

            The biggest of which is a massive lump of what looks like fabric in the center of the area dimly lit from above – with a hot body at the center of it… Jason.

 

            Tim makes his way over cautiously, because the body is not moving and… that… doesn’t bode well for Tim’s hope that Jason survived the fall.

 

            When he gets close enough to see it clearly, he can tell the body isn’t Jason’s.

 

            And… it’s still alive. Even in the chaos of this mess, Jason’s still keeping his promise to attempt not killing people. It makes a lump of pride and fear climb up Tim’s throat.

            Tim would probably be totally okay with it if Jason chose to kill in order to keep himself alive right now. Yeah, no definitely… Tim would be totally okay with it.

 

            After wasting a few seconds on that rush of emotion, Tim clamps down on his idiocies and looks around in search of where Jason’s gone.

 

            His pulse is rushing too fast through his ears for the sounds of a scuffle to register immediately, but it does eventually, and Tim’s night vision helps interpret the vague shadows of six mercenary combatants struggling to subdue Jason as they drag him off to the south west.

            Red Robin leaps into action, and within a few seconds of joining the fray, he and Red Hood have the mercenaries on the ground – unconscious and zip tied into pretzels.

 

            And then Red Hood is standing across from Tim with his posture tense and uncertain.

 

            Tim wishes he could see his eyes under the Hood. Like this, Tim can’t tell how bad the current flashbacks are for him, can’t tell how much rot and room the Lazarus Pit has to play with inside his head – can’t even fathom how much control the Pit’s influence currently has…

 

            “You had an airbag under your armor?” Tim asks, carefully sidestepping any questions that might lead to traumatic answers about whether or not Jason is currently okay.

 

            “Yeah,” Jason barks through his Hood. “It comes in handy, sometimes.”

 

            He’s still got a Kevlar vest on, but his leather jacket and his usual top layer of armortec and plate ceramics is gone – presumably shredded in the act of saving his life during the fall.

            Tim nods agreement and then asks, “Any idea how we’re getting out of here?”

 

            “Nope.”

            Jason still hasn’t moved.

 

            And Tim, not wanting to spook him, hasn’t moved either.

 

            “Well, we should probably start looking for an exit,” Tim suggests, still not moving, despite a growing awareness of encroaching echoes of shouts and footsteps, “I don’t think these guys are the only ones down here.”

            “Uh-huh,” Jason agrees, not even nodding as he holds position. “There’s probably a hundred more on their way, give or take a dozen. Sionis has pulled this shit on me before.”

            “So… shall we?” Tim suggests, moving with excruciating slowness to gesture for Jason to lead the way wherever he thinks best.

 

            If Tim steps first, he’s about 87% certain that he’s gonna end up face down on the concrete with an armored knee between his shoulders…

 

            It’s a fifty fifty shot as to whether that happens with a knife in his gut or not, right now.

 

            Jason still doesn’t move.

 

            They stare at each other for an uncomfortable ten seconds.

 

            And then Jason, sounding painfully – heart wrenchingly – fearing and fragile, asks with an awkward, uncertain lilt, “You really here, Baby Bird? Or ’m I just seein’ things?”

 

            Tim swallows the lump in his airways to promise, “I’m here Hood. I’m here.”

 

            He still doesn’t take a step forward, but he leans closer.

            As close as he can without falling flat on his face.

 

            Jason leans away, in turn, but to a lesser degree than Tim leans towards him.

 

            His hands twitch like he’s itching to reach out and prove to himself that Tim’s actually a solid object in front of him, and like he’s too afraid he’s not to be willing to test it.

 

            “I’m here,” Tim promises again, but this time he adds urgently, “I’m here, but Jason, he have to get out of here before the rest of the goons find us.”

 

            A shudder rips through Jason – so violent it nearly brings him to his knees.

            Tim takes an involuntary step towards him as he fights himself to let Jason get himself under control. Jason has to set himself to rights, or they’ll never be able to get out of this without another close call with Jason nearly killing him in the process of escaping Black Mask’s goons.

 

            It only takes about five seconds, but Tim swears it’s been an hour since he last inhaled.

            And then Jason pants and without looking up, he grits through his teeth, “Code. Names.

 

            Joker’s torture included trying to break Jason by making him give up the identities of the other Bats working with him. Tim read that in the file he hacked out of the ice block of data at the center of the Batcomputer’s core storage. He read the transcripts. Listened to the audio files.

 

            Tim tortured himself with it.

 

            Jason didn’t know at the time that Joker already knew, that the Joker had known who all of them were for a long while, and he’d refused to give up the names.

            Despite the brutal beatings, the drugs, the hallucinations, the food and water and light and sleep deprivations… despite the waterboarding, and the slow rot of minor amputations going putrid and septic… Jason hadn’t given up the names.

 

            So now using real names over the wire while they were all in their costumes…

 

            It must be one hell of a sore spot to work with now… a thing strong enough to short circuit his brain entirely, perhaps. Which… painful as it is… may have just been helpful.

 

            But, in moving forward, it’s a painful remainder for Jason that is easy enough for Tim to avoid. He can work with that. It’s not even a struggle.

            Tim nods. “Right. C’mon, Hood,” he says quietly, but with a resounding confidence in their abilities for creating the means for them to get out of this alive. “We gotta get moving.”

 

            Jason inhales harshly a few more times as he straightens.

 

            Then he shakes himself bodily and says, “North is probably a good idea. We might meet more goons, but whatever reason those shits had for trying to head south is probably worth taking pains to avoid.”

 

            “Sounds good,” Tim agrees.

 

            He waits until Jason takes a solid step forward before taking his own – towards Jason, though, rather than in the same direction.

            Jason reaches him in another stride and grabs his shoulder to roughly spin him right around, growling, “North is that way, idiot.”

 

            With his expression resolutely resisting the bright grin of blinding joy he wants to make, Tim makes an noncommittal sound and very carefully pretends not to notice how Jason squeezes his shoulder again and hold on an excessive few seconds to cement the mental proof of Tim’s physicality to himself before they head into the darkness together.

 

            He has never felt more confident. Or more exquisitely alive.

 

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

 

 

don’t ever doubt it, even if we’re surrounded   ( don’t wanna slip away )