“Has anyone heard from Red Robin in the past thirty minutes?”
Oracle comes over the comms just as Nightwing’s boots hit the roof, falling into a roll behind Robin.
Dick frowns, adding to the chorus of negative responses while he steps back to peer at the flashing lights over the lip of the roof. Emergency vehicles light up the street like a Christmas tree, but it’s finally safe to leave the scene below in the hands of paramedics and police. It’s one of those nights where even the smoggy black of Gotham can’t keep the city dark—too many people awake, either caught in the nightmare or watching with macabre fascination from hopeful safety.
“Should we be worried?” he asks, when everyone’s responded.
“Probably not,” says Babs, in a distracted tone—he recognizes it as the voice she gets when she’s simultaneously talking, hacking, and monitoring all four billion of her screens. It’s a standard during cases like these. “Suit’s tracker shows him safely in his Nest. But he was supposed to check in by now with additional data for the antidote, and he’s unresponsive.”
“The antidote needs additional data?” Dick asks.
It’s not the first time he’s felt out of the loop tonight; being pulled in last minute from Bludhaven will do that. But considering they all stocked up on about thirty antidote vials before heading out, its flaws would have been really helpful information to have. He thought this was a standard damage-mitigation/criminal-catching op, detective work already done.
Damian frowns impatiently from the far edge of the roof, poised to swing off towards Bruce and the others down in the Fashion District—towards the criminal catching part. Robin has been chomping at the bit to join the real action all night, annoyed to be stuck on damage mitigation.
Dick signals at him to wait, tipping his head against the rooftop breeze to listen better.
“It’s effective in preventing death and lasting damage,” Babs is saying, “which is why we’re using it. But it doesn’t actually stop the, y’know, excruciating pain part.”
“Ah,” says Dick. Well that explains the faint screams still echoing up from the street. He knew they’d injected everyone exposed—and emergency services was finally stocked up enough to handle it even if they hadn’t.
He looks to Damian again, pulls an apologetic face, and then continues on the open comm line, “Well, we’ve finished up here.” The offer is implied.
“No additional need for backup,” Batman rumbles. Dick isn’t surprised, with Steph and Cass both at his back tonight, but he still shoots Damian a sympathetic grimace. He remembers how much it sucks to be Robin and have Batman say you’re unneeded. “Go check.”
“Copy.” Dick drops the outgoing comm and nods to Damian. “Let’s go.”
Damian gives a loud groan Dick knows he would never try with his dad.
“Must we?” he protests, though he’s already readying his grapple. “Surely even Drake’s incompetence cannot demand such significant intervention.”
Dick can’t decide if there’s a compliment buried in there as they swing off the roof, or if he’s being overly optimistic. “We’re five minutes away. Ten, tops. If Red’s just got himself buried in research and lost track of time, we’ll be back out right away.”
Damian grumbles some more, but doesn’t actually argue.
Dick keeps up the chatter as they zoom down streets and across roofs, but there’s a hint of dread in his ribs. The case hasn’t been especially pleasant, but neither has it been the gruelling night Dick expected after he was called in to help with the the deadly and excruciating contaminant scouring through Gotham.
Not gas this time, thank god. Skin contact. He and Robin spent the first half of the night injecting antidotes and tracing back the source—a series of heavily-used public door handles, because whoever set this up was a bastard in all the worst ways—and only recently ran across a real fight. Two-bit thugs in black hoodies and cheap bandanas tied across their faces, but armed with knives coated in the poison. Not for the first time, Dick was very glad they each had so little exposed skin to worry about. More glad the henchmen were no match for Nightwing and Robin.
The fight was even fun, trying to get Robin to banter with him as the kid dropped enemies three times his age. He doesn’t get to spend as much time with Damian as he’d like, working in different cities. Even surrounded by violence and danger, it’s nice to see his baby brother. And it’s the rare night where that violence and danger didn’t include death, at least around them—every single infected civilian Dick has seen tonight had the antidote administered in time, and pulled through. Screaming and, he now realizes, still doomed to hours of excruciating pain, but alive.
Which is all to say, it would be just like the universe to pull the rug out from under him now.
He swings straight onto the window ledge when they reach Tim’s place, Damian landing behind him a moment later. Dick tries to peer inside, but the blinds are closed, and designed not to allow a single sliver of sight of the room.
He activates the comm link again. “O, we’re here. Any idea what kind of security he has?”
“Mostly through my own guesswork,” she grouses. Dick is glad she can’t see his smile over all-knowing Oracle harumphing at a blind spot. By her tone, Tim either has gotten an earful about that before, or will be soon.
“There’s a panel of some kind here,” Damian chimes in.
Dick turns to see him prying a brick face out of the building’s facade, revealing a small keypad inset an inch into the wall.
“Does it have a port of some kind?” Babs asks.
Damian is already feeling around the edges. “Yes, one of ours.”
“Nightwing, plug in my gizmo.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Dick pulls out the small device and passes it to Damian. One of Barbara’s better ideas—Dick tries his best, but he knows he’s no expert hacker. With this, he can just give Babs a remote connection.
Dick drums his fingers when the line goes silent, anxious to move off the sill. The threat of being seen is only a small part of it; the alleyway below remains deserted, sirens distant. Mostly he wants to get in and confirm Tim is okay.
Damian tuts softly, possibly at his fidgeting, possibly at the situation at large. He’s been peeved since the night began, when Bruce took the girls on his hunt for the mastermind instead of Robin. Dick thought he’d cheered up later, getting to spend time together, but a diversion to check on his least favorite sibling can’t be helping. (Dick ignores the annoyed and forlorn wish that they would just get along, now habit.)
He exhales heavily into the chilly air. It’s just barely too temperate to see his breath.
“Got it,” Barbara finally says, and Dick straightens. There’s no change he can see, but he’ll takes her word for it. “Window should be safe to open now, but just the one.”
Dick gingerly slides up the pane, pushes the blinds out of his way, and slips inside.
His first reaction is alarm, at the bloody smudge on the wall to his right. The table ahead is the only illuminated spot in the room, under a bright lamp, and it’s scattered with uncleaned tools: tweezers, bloody gauze, an unclosed tube of skin glue. Medical. Both boots, one glove, and the cowl of the Red Robin suit litter the floor with no apparent order.
He doesn’t realize he’s creeping forward until he hears the faintest slither of Damian’s cape coming in the window.
Dick takes a deep breath to slow his spiked pulse, works through the evidence, and straightens. No sign of a struggle, or multiple people present at all. The bloody smudge draws a clear path from the window to the table. The lack of additional lighting or heat implies hasty work and no time to relax since.
Tim fixed up one of his own injuries, and then got sidetracked. No lurking danger here. It’s not even…that much blood. Though (maybe it’s just him) Dick tends to prefer his little brother’s apartment to have no blood.
He’s almost convinced himself to calm down, moving through the apartment with less stealth and more efficiency, when a sound rises from behind the bedroom door—agonized groan rising into a muffled shriek, pained, awful.
“Tim!?” The bedroom door opens under his hand before Dick is even aware he’s moving.
It is Tim, though Dick has never heard him like this. He’s writhing against the maroon sheets, half in costume and half sweaty skin, forehead digging into the pillow with one wide eye and clenched teeth visible.
The door Dick shoved open slams against the wall a beat later, and Tim shoots up. In the blink of an eye, he’s rolled off the far side of the bed into a crouch, collapsable bo snapped out of a hiding spot too quick to see.
“It’s okay; it’s just us,” Dick says quickly, hands raised and body lowering. Too quickly for the tone to be calming, but hopefully Tim just needs the words. He scans over Tim’s body and zeroes in on the injury: a cut on the outside of his right shoulder, not too long, but angry red.
Tim’s eyes scitter between Dick and a spot behind him—Damian must have caught up—before he relaxes. The bo staff drops with a clatter on the hard wood and Tim’s arm follows it down, bracing himself as his head drops into the mattress again.
There’s no shriek this time, but there is the beginning of a pained moan before it’s choked off.
Dick starts approaching as Tim lifts his head again.
“You got infected,” he says, before Tim can.
“Yeah,” Tim bites out in a strained voice. “But it’s okay. I took the antidote.”
Dick does relax at that, rounding the bed towards him. Damian is hovering in the doorway when he glances back, schooling a startled expression into his usual glower. Dick smiles at the implied empathy in that, not that Damian’s looking at him.
“O noticed when you didn’t check in,” Dick explains when he reaches Tim. He’s slipped to kneeling instead of crouching, and his forehead is shiny with sweat, but, “You know, you’re handling this way better than the other guys I’ve seen tonight.”
Still, no chances taken. “Let me take a look at that arm, yeah?”
Tim nods, and Dick sets in to examine.
Not long after his brothers’ arrival, Tim finds himself sitting stock straight against the headboard, letting Dick pour over his hasty patch job on the cut. He can’t possibly need more than a minute, but Tim feels like he’s been forcing himself into this spot for hours. Every single millisecond of this stupid, stupid poison is an eternity of agony.
The Clench didn’t even feel like this. He was nauseous, and achy all over, and delirious by the end, but it wasn’t this all-consuming pain. With the Clench, it was the imminent knowledge he was going to die that hit him hardest. Now it’s almost worse knowing he won’t.
And the only thing—the only fucking thing—that could make it worse is having to sit like this, pretending to be composed and okay and totally able to handle it. Like he’s not weak enough right now to be beaten by a toddler; failing to draw on any training, pained and pathetic, letting down all his mentors. Pretending—
No, failing to pretend. Because even as he forces himself to stay upright, even as he chokes back every sound of pain, he’s still shaking like a leaf. Still can hear his ragged, too-loud breathing. Sweat beading on his forehead, uncomfortable cling of the parts of his suit that are still on.
Failing to pretend, no matter how hard he tries, and knowing even if he’s not going to be murdered in weakness anymore, Damian will be able to hold every moment of this over his head forever onwards.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” Dick finally says, after his inexorably long examination. “Could’ve gone for stitches,” (Tim wouldn’t have been able to thread the needle) “but it’s shallow enough that glue should be fine.”
Dick looks him over. “Not sure how big a dose you got, but I can stay if you want.” Dick’s onto him. He must be. Must know. Tim is transparently pathetic. You’re handling this way better than the other guys I’ve seen; what a joke. He is held together with scotch tape and failing determination.
“That’s okay,” Tim forces out. Belatedly he realizes he’s been staring at the hazy shape of Damian in the doorway, or at least through it as he tried to pull his thoughts together, and he looks to Dick instead. All sympathetic and worried in front of him. “I to—took the antidote, so I’m—I’m good. Just. Gotta ride it out.”
He wants to say more, but he has to clench down against another wave of misery instead. That was goddamn impressive, getting that many words out. Dick doesn’t seem to understand he should be goddamn impressed, but Tim will find it goddamn impressive by himself.
“Just because you’re not dying doesn’t mean you should be alone,” says Dick, putting the back of his hand over Tim’s forehead like he’s taking a temperature, eyes searching his face. Tim is painfully aware of the sweat on his forehead that is now on Dick’s hand. “Haven’t you ever had someone take care of you while you’re sick?”
I’m not sick, Tim thinks, but debating the semantics seems like a waste of time. He’s too out of his mind to know what isn’t a waste of time. He wants to curl up in a tiny ball and sob and rend the sheets, and not have to be perceived or exist as a human being in front of others.
“Alfred. Once,” he manages, instead of the scream that wants to bubble up.
“Once?” Dick asks, brushing his hair out of his face. He starts to look around for—god, Tim doesn’t know; he doesn’t want to have to keep thinking. “So did he sneak up on you, or did you actually get desperate enough to—”
He sees the moment Dick remembers.
“Shit, Tim, I’m sorry. I…forgot.”
“S’fine.” He’s honestly too stuck in his current pain to dwell on deadly illnesses past. The Clench was a long time ago anyway.
It’s fine; just go. I’m not mad; please just leave. Tim can’t—he can’t do this with Damian watching, he just can’t. Can’t take the knife in the back later. He doesn’t know if he wants anyone around at all, but it doesn’t really matter anyway because Damian isn’t allowed to patrol alone and Dick would never ditch his baby brother.
The pain swells. Tim has to clench his teeth hard enough to hear them, feels the tears prickling at his eyes—And, no, he will not cry. He will control this one fucking thing.
“You should go. I have—have drug data on—flash drive.” His eyes have strayed to Damian again. Tim can’t read his expression, half in shadow just outside the doorway, and under a mask, and, painpainpain.
Dick follows his gaze, and Tim finally fucking gives up and turns his face into his own shoulder as the shaking surges again. Don’t cry, don’t scream, don’t cry, don’t scream.
Fuck, Dick’s talking again—
“...take it to Oracle?” Tim makes out.
He risks looking. Damian is shifting in the doorway, either relieved or uncertain or really, you know, basically any emotion; Tim is in pain.
“Are you—staying?” Damian asks.
Tim can’t tell if he’s missing words over the blood in his ears, or if it’s just a pause. That vague sort of dizziness is pressing in, the one that makes the room around him seem wrong and the people sound too far away. Being upright is tortue.
Tim drops his head against the wall, wishing he had one of those gaudy padded headboards. He has to close his eyes just to hold back the tears.
“Yeah, don’t worry about me.” Dick’s comforting tones. Tim wants to sob. “Just tell B what you’re doing, and go straight to Oracle, okay? No getting into fights without me.”
“Tt.” (Oh, sure, that Tim can hear. He’d could probably hear Damian scoffing from a hundred miles away, buried ten feet in the ground.) “I hardly need you to succeed in a fight. But I will—”
Tim gasps as his vision whites out, ears ringing. He is horribly aware of every single sensation in his body as he loses the other senses. His hands fists against the sheets, shoving down into the mattress. Don’t scream, don’t cry, stay up.
“Tim?” Dick is saying, when the wave settles enough to hear again. Tim has no idea if it’s the first time he’s asked. He has managed to stay sitting, though, so. Score.
Tim cracks his eyes open. Damian has left the Nest—No: shuffling in the room outside. Damian has left the doorway, leaving the Nest. Hopefully finding the flash drive Tim lost somewhere between getting in the window and falling into bed.
“I’m gonna help you take off the rest of the suit, okay?”
As Tim straightens off the wall to make room, he can feel a tear track drying on his cheek. Fuck.
“I can do it,” he says, half mumbled.
He can’t do it. His hands are shaking too much to get a grip. Dick doesn’t comment, just replaces Tim’s hands with his own and peels off the uncomfortable layers. Tim doesn’t realize how much the half-stripped torso armor was digging into his back until it’s gone. By the time Dick has stripped off all but the underlayer from his torso, the shuffling outside has stopped and Tim hears his window slide open and closed one last time.
He strips off the underlayer too. He’s sweaty and awful and he just wants it gone.
Dick slides off the bed to work on his pants. Tim means to help, but his brief reprieve—9.5 on the pain scale instead of a 10—is abating, and he ends up just throwing an arm over his eyes, well aware the miserable twist of his mouth is still visible.
“Okay,” says Dick.
Tim moves his arm, blinking, and his pants are gone and Dick is back. Careful hands slide behind him, easing him off the wall to lean forward into Dick. Tim trembles. Keeps trembling.
Has been trembling, and now trembles more.
“I’m sorry,” Dick says, rubbing Tim’s back. “Just because it’s going to get better doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck now. You don’t have to pretend. I promise, you don’t have to pretend to be okay.”
“You don’t have to stay,” Tim says. (Don’t cry.) He can go. He can. Go be with Damian, or meet with Bruce, or save the people who need saving out there on his own.
“Of course I do,” says Dick, which doesn’t make Tim feel any better, forcing him to be here. “I want to stay.” And that—does. Okay.
Tim shudders, with a restrained sob instead of pain this time, and ducks into Dick’s shoulder. He pushes his lips together, then his teeth when the pain forces his mouth open. Hesitates, holds back—
“Hurts,” he finally whispers, feeling like a kid, but he wants his big brother.
Dick’s hands still, one coming up to cradle the back of Tim’s head. The arm around his waist tightens, pulling him in close. He has that vigilate suit smell that Tim somehow finds comforting—some combination of blood, sweat, and Gotham, smoothed away by Alfred’s cleanings into a comforting undertone.
It’s the best kind of hug, and he wishes he were actually able to appreciate it.
“I know,” Dick murmurs. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s going to be okay, I swear.”
The tears finally escape in earnest, but Tim doesn’t feel the immediate pressure to stop them this time. There’s not enough slack in Dick’s suit to dig his fingers in like the sheets, but he clings on anyway.
“I wish I could do more,” Dick is murmuring. “Okay. Do you want to lay down?”
Tim nods fervently, and doesn’t have to do anything as Dick gently guides him down and wraps around him. He’s careful to keep Tim’s arm with the cut on top, and that makes him want to cry too, though he’ll pretend it’s just the pain.
“I’m gonna get you water in a minute,” Dick tells him, “but I’m just gonna lay here right now if that’s okay.”
Tim’s onto his shit. Dick knows damn well it’s okay, and is only phrasing it like that because he knows Tim would hate to answer an, “if you want.” And maybe lie, because admitting to wanting anything sucks.
He’s not gonna let on that he knows, though.
“Good.” Dick snuggles in closer. The sleeves of his suit stick to Tim’s sweaty skin. Not ideal. Kinda gross.
“Your suit is uncomfortable,” Tim tells him. It is literally the least of his pains right now, but it’s also the only one he can sort of make into a joke.
Dick obligingly gives a huff of a laugh. “I’ll change, too.”
Tim shudders a breath in. “Can you—” But he has to clench his teeth together and take harsh gasps to avoid screaming, grabbing tight fistfulls of—
One hand in the sheets, one vicelike around Dick’s arm, he realizes. He releases the latter guiltily, digging it into the bed as well.
“Loose shirt?” Tim gets out.
He nods into the mattress.
“‘Course. But don’t complain when I go through your drawers and find all your secrets.”
Tim tries to laugh, between gasps and groans and whimpers, but it’s okay that it doesn’t come out well. Dick keeps hanging on.
He does get up for water and clothes and also a proper bandage for Tim’s cut after a little while. But when he slides back in it’s just like before, except softer.
Dick eventually turns off the lights, and stays there the entire night, even though Tim doesn’t sleep a wink and Dick surely can’t either with all his writhing. Not to mention the moans and keens and occasional shriek when the pain hits an eleven. Tim gets hit with embarrassment after the latter, but Dick doesn’t call attention to it even as he holds him tighter through the worst of it. He doesn’t say a word about the tears either, just pulls a tissue box and garbage can up to Tim’s side of the bed when he needs to blow his nose.
At one point, Dick contacts Bruce, or is contacted by Bruce, to give an update on the situation. The Bats must finally be returning home. Tim listens blearily, staring at the stippled-paint texture of his wall, eyes long since adjusted to the darkness. Dick doesn’t say he’s been laying with Tim in bed for hours, or getting him water to counteract the sweating, or tissues for his crying, just that he’s going to stick around “in case of any unexpected reactions,” which Tim finds exceptionally nice.
He even whispers an apology to Tim when he takes out the comm afterwards—as if Tim could possibly be disturbed by a quiet conversation, with the nightmare mamba going on in his body.
By the time dawn is starting to peak in slivers through the window, and the constant sirens have died out, he stops feeling embarrassed when he has to shove his face into the mattress again to scream. It’s stupid to think, considering how much pain he’s still in, but he’s…safe.
“I got you, Timmy,” Dick mumbles against the pillows, exhausted but with no sign of displeasure. “I got you.”