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Dick Grayson was not, by any means, the kind of person who enjoyed feeling left out.

Whether that be play dates with the pals, or sensitive operations concerning everything batty, or even just a casual conversation between people he was more than casual with, Dick Grayson hated being on the outside and looking in. Some people referred to that as being extroverted, others called it annoying, while Dick called it being a reasonable and decent and kind person who was nosy because he cared. He saw being left out of things he should largely be included in as a god damn insult to his person and to his ability. The only thing he ever felt comfortable being left out of was food preparation, and that was only after more than a little trial and error to discover his exuberant attitude and willingness to learn anything did not extend to the intricacies of perfectly proportioned chopping of green onions.

Point being, Dick wanted to be included. He needed to feel included. Not being included meant that he was being left out, and being left out meant he was being left behind. He was sure he could trace this particular “quirk” of his to several traumatic instances in his life, most of them centering around people he cared about being hurt in his absence, and the most infamous of those starting with a J and ending with Dick’s biggest regret in life, and it all culminated in his never-ending need to never be left behind because what if—

What if something happened? What if someone died? Again? Being left behind or left out wasn’t an option because he couldn’t keep people safe if he wasn’t included. It was a little egotistical and definitely a lot selfish, but Dick had been through too much and lost too many things to self-critique rather than self-reflect on this issue. He needed to be included to be of any help at all— end of story.

All of this was why Dick was left very, very sore when Bruce suddenly started acting even cagier than usual. Cagier than usual meaning even more visually constipated and less likely to give more than a grunt in response to any question given. Like something was on his mind that was larger than the average problem Batman had to face. And whatever that could be was absolutely something Dick Grayson needed to be included in.

His only saving grace was that he wasn’t the only one being left out. Tim Drake, the lovely little scamp, was just as pissed off as Dick was about being left out, in so much that he was colluding with Dick as to how they could gleam some iota of information on Bruce’s problem between them both.

“What about his underwear?”

Dick actually had to pause at that suggestion.

Tim and Dick were trying to figure out where they could possibly place a tracker on Bruce that the caped crusader wouldn’t find immediately (immediately being the operative word). Thing was, Bruce was the Michelangelo of snagging someone with a tracker, meaning he was also the Leonardo DaVinci of spotting them without even having to look. Whatever they were going to put on Bruce would have to last for at least a few hours because Bruce—

Bruce was wandering around the cave with that constipated face, leaving for an unknown location, and then returning with even more constipation. He was seeing someone or doing something that was causing this problem to ruminate in his brain to the point of altering his already lacking personality. If Dick and Tim wanted to begin on weeding their way into said problem so they would no longer be left out, then they needed to find out where Bruce was going— and if he was going as Bruce or as Batman. Because anyone who knew Bruce and Batman knew there was such a big difference in the problems either persona had to the point that it was whiplash-inducing.

Dick pursed his lips as Tim tapped away at his screen on a computer Dick had never seen before, meaning it was a computer Dick was pretty sure Bruce hadn’t managed to monitor as of yet. “Underwear,” he thought aloud, tossing a stress ball into the air that was painted to look like Mr. Freeze’s head. “I think it would all depend on one question— does Bruce still wear briefs?”

Tim’s upper lip curled in Dick’s direction. “How the hell would I know that? How the hell do you know what it was before to ask if it changed? How the hell—”

“Tim, just answer the question.”

Tim looked vaguely horrified. “I don’t look!”

“Then we’ll have to ask Alfred,” Dick mumbled to himself. “He still does laundry on Wednesdays, right? If Bruce still wears briefs, we can definitely slip something into one of the pocket seams during laundry day. Tim—” Dick whirled around, tossing the Mr. Freeze stress-ball at Tim’s head, who caught it with a sour expression. “— How out of the blue would it be if you offered to do laundry for Alfred?”

“Atlantic,” Tim groused before chucking the stress-ball at Dick’s head. He also caught it and tried not to take offense at the aggressive throw. “I’m holding a delicate piece of machinery— don’t rock the boat, Dick.”

“Looks like a clunker,” Dick observed. The thing looked less like whatever Dick would pick up from BestBuy and more like something that had been pieced together like a technological Frankenstein. The side of it had a weird second window the size of a palm— a twitter feed was running on it. The battery itself was like a tumor out of the back of the bottom. “Delicate isn’t the word I had in mind.”

“Bell is a ballerina amongst atrocities like Bruce’s setup,” Tim replied as he tapped away like he hadn’t been interrupted. “Bell doesn’t need your compliments. She only needs me.”

“Bell needs to have a date with a blacklight and some good disinfectant if the way you’re talking about her is something for me to infer from,” Dick drawled. “Does Steph know you’re double timing her?”

“Bell doesn’t need your sass,” Tim replied. “Also— Bruce wears boxers now.”

Dick guffawed. “Who the hell told you that?”

“Clark,” Tim replied before he turned Bell’s screen around (and what the what, these things could twist without snapping their necks, what?) to show a series of messages traded in gray. “Clark is an Apple user,” Tim added.

“Heathen,” Dick said as he glanced over the messages. “Bruce has terrible taste— in men and underwear.”

“You really gonna stand there and tell me you still prance around the city in briefs?”

“Who says I’m wearing anything at all, Timmy-Tim?”

Tim looked like he wanted to break Dick’s nose with Bell. “You know the whole point of this is for us to figure out what the hell Bruce is up to and not discuss your disgusting vigilante habits, right? God, I hope you dry clean your own suits. To ask Alfred to clean your rank leotard is criminal.”

“I’m an adult,” Dick pouted. “I buy laundry detergent and everything.”

“Not what I was asking,” Tim snorted. “Also— Clark says he’s pretty sure Bruce is expecting us to bug him.” He shook his head grimly. “Underwear is no longer an option.” Tim paused, squinting at the screen. "Ah. He also says Damian apparently broke Jon's phone. Something about a mobile game?" Tim shook his head again as he started clicking around furiously. "Let's upgrade Jon to WayneTech and maybe he can convince his dumpster-diver of a father to make the switch."

Why the hell did Bruce discuss his paranoia about his pseudo-sons with Clark Kent? And why was Damian the one to break the phone rather than the actual Meta-Human? “He probably would’ve noticed immediately anyways,” Dick lamented. “He’s really particular about his junk.”

“Dick, I’ll pay you to stop talking.”

“I have a job and more money than you?”

Tim hummed and squirmed to wedge his wallet out from beneath his ass to show Dick the gold card with a flourish. Dick groaned, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. “Trust fund baby.”

“Right back at you.”

“You have no pride.”

“All the family pride exists in your skull to help you defy gravity, Flying-Grayson. Hot air and ego.”

“What if it’s bad?”

Tim looked up from Bell just in time to catch the flash of vulnerable concern across Dick’s face. Dick quickly turned away and kept tossing Mr. Freeze’s head in the air, hoping his worry wouldn’t rub off on Tim the wrong way. The young man was still a kid in Dick’s eyes— he didn’t need to be thinking about these things with school and vigilantism already on his plate. Dick was the one who was supposed to worry about people and he was supposed to do it quietly. Tim didn’t need his shit.

“What kind of bad?” Tim asked after a pregnant pause.

Dick grimaced and threw the ball at the floor. It bounced back up and landed in his palm. He threw it down again, it came back up, down and up. Dick sighed. “What if he’s in trouble? Actually in trouble? Or what if someone’s gonna get hurt? Bugging his underwear feels too much like a gag. What if it’s something we need to be taking a lot more seriously? What if— we should confront him?”

Tim hesitated. “… Do you think he’ll tell us?”

Dick sighed again and threw the ball as hard as he could at the floor. It bounced back up, but he didn’t try to catch it, tilting his head back to see it soar high. It didn’t reach the ceiling of the cave but it definitely went high above their heads. Just like their quest in finding Bruce’s problem was. “He wouldn’t,” Dick finally replied. “He never told me anything unless he needed me to know it.”

“Then that’s it, Dick.”

Dick looked to Tim, surprised, because it sounded like Tim was throwing in the towel. And Tim even looked it too. His shoulders were slumped and he looked like he felt sorry for Dick. “Bruce is his own person— he’s his own species. So if he doesn’t want us involved— and I mean really doesn’t want us— then we won’t get even close.”

Then Tim smiled, tired and sympathetic. “I know you’ve known him longer, but I think I know the new Bruce better than you. And this new Bruce? He won’t let us know anything he doesn’t want us to know.”

Dick tilted his head back to the ceiling again. “You’re right,” he said. He didn’t specify what he was admitting to. “I just— don’t want to lose anything again.”

Tim cleared his throat and cast a glance to a certain glass display at the other end of the cave. “Now that, uh, that’s something you would know better than I do. Which is why I’m gonna say you should probably be following your gut on this, but don’t be surprised when you run headfirst into the brick wall that is Batman.”

“I won’t be,” Dick replied, voice softening, realizing he was going to have to bite off far more than he could chew to follow his gut. “I won’t.”

. . .

It could be anything.

It could be literally anything that was driving Bruce into a corner made up of grunts and pacing and twice as much brooding as usual. It could be concerning the League of Assassins, or Clark, or any of the Justice League, or maybe something Gotham centric like the Penguin or Ivy or Joker—

It could be anything and Dick couldn’t figure out where to start. He couldn’t tail Bruce or Batman and he couldn’t bug him. He couldn’t get anyone to help him because Tim didn’t need to be involved and Dick didn’t really trust anyone else to understand the delicacy of the entire situation. Clark might be one of the few people who knew Bruce better than Dick or Tim or Barbara or Alfred (maybe not Alfred) but Dick didn’t want to bring Clark into more issues since Clark was, like, saving the world half the time. Dick could maybe reach to exterior sources, maybe his old Titans, maybe even League members who Bruce could be coordinating his disappearances with to avert being needed in a crisis, but—

But god dammit, this was Dick’s problem, really. He was the one who didn’t want to be left out and he was fighting to be brought on. As far as he knew, Tim was the only person aside from himself who was upset about being left out at all, and even then, Tim knew when to throw in the towel and let things run their course. Dick didn’t know how to do that, though, when the bags under Bruce’s eyes were somehow as deep as they’d been a decade year ago. Not when he caught Bruce standing outside of a specific bedroom door in the manor, gaze far away and yet trained on the shut door.

Not when Bruce was audibly sighing, meaning he didn’t care who heard him.

There was a problem— a problem that had Dick scared of being thrown back to missing funerals. And Dick wasn’t going to let it go until Bruce took him by the shoulders and told him it was useless, that it was over.

Never again.

. . .

A few days later, Dick was pretty sure he’d found the problem.

And that problem was six feet plus, broad like an Abercrombie model, and wearing a crimson helmet that glinted like blood in the bright lights of Gotham.

He called himself Red Hood. He—

Well, to be blunt, he was dangerous. He used guns and he killed according to rumors and that was basically the last thing any vigilante working in Gotham should do. He seemed pretty eager to make enemies out of the good guys while also making enemies of enemies. And aside from all of that, the man was terrifyingly skilled and terrifyingly intelligent and really just terrifying. He could move faster than any man with that much bulk should be able to and it was like he could read Dick’s mind when they fought, like he knew all the tricks in Dick’s book, like Red Hood had studied him. And that voice—

That modulated voice—

So deep and broken up and sounding like scraping metal and yet it was like it played on Dick’s heartstrings, sending fear and adrenaline and something else

Red Hood was dangerous. And not just for the ways he could throw a punch. Something about Red Hood made Dick deeply and intrinsically stimulated. And Dick didn’t know in what ways. But what Dick did know was the second that Tim and Dick returned to the cave and told Bruce about this Red Hood that was running amok, Bruce had gone tense like a bow and stared off into nothing the same way he had stared at that closed bedroom door.

And that— that was how Dick discovered the problem.

He had no idea how to begin to solve it, but by god, he was officially and truly involved.

. . .

“I’ve got nothing on him,” Barbara said, her words full of regret because she knew Dick had really been counting on her digging up something even Tim had failed to find. “There’s no DNA available for me to check, there’s no background, there’s no previous mentions of whoever this is. All I’ve got is that the original Red Hood was the Joker, years ago.”

That had Dick flinching, barely catching himself from slipping as his feet landed on the ledge of one of the many buildings in Gotham’s skyline. The concrete and brick was slick with the rain. He couldn’t afford to screw up right now, especially when he was supposed to be listening attentively.

“He’s not Joker affiliated.”

Thank god Barbara knew what he was thinking— and thank god Red Hood wasn’t involved with the namesake’s predecessor.

“What I want to know is why you think he’s such a threat,” Barbara thought aloud over comms.

“He tried to kill us, O?”

That was Tim— he was listening in as well because apparently he didn’t trust Dick to do anything by himself even if Tim didn’t want to be entirely involved. Dick was pretty sure adult supervision needed an actual adult to do the supervising, not a college student with too much brain and not enough to keep him busy despite the fact that Tim had more than enough to keep him busy forever.

“You said he tried to kill you,” Barbara agreed.

“Yes,” Tim said.

“Yes,” Dick agreed.

“After you guys attacked him without attempting to open up a dialogue.”

Dick and Tim both paused, immediately seeing her point and trying to find a clean way to refute it. Except—

Barbara was absolutely right. Red Hood had been going to town on some small fry gang affiliates that were either so low on the totem pole they weren’t registered to Dick’s facial recognition software, or so deep that their backgrounds were superficially clean, and Tim and Dick had dropped in to stop him. So they might have used a little more force than would’ve been necessary with an unknown fellow vigilante that hadn’t actually put a bullet in anyone yet despite reports of Red Hood very eagerly putting bullets in anyone.

So maybe Dick and Tim had come off as a little more hostile than the situation had warranted considering the lack of bodies that they’d expected to be present when they’d been called in to witness Red Hood and his violent existence for the first time. Maybe they’d gone in with some preconceived notions that had made them react inappropriately. Maybe they should’ve, like, tried to talk first.

Whatever.

“He has guns, O,” Dick said like that was a nail in the coffin (which it totally should be).

“I understand that, but you guys didn’t even try to talk to him,” Barbara sighed. “And he was taking down some known violent assailants. I know we have our rule, but we also still try to talk to murderers before we beat them into a bloody pulp. Even Bane gets a chance at conversation.”

“They weren’t coming up as anyone important for me,” Dick replied, ignoring the second part.

“Uh, one of them was a serial rapist, N.”

Dick squinted at the rainy sky with Tim’s information. “… Has my database not been updated with yours?”

Tim groaned softly. “We have the same database. God dammit. Give me your shit later, I’ll catch you up to speed. I bet there’s an automatic download not working in your gear.”

“Red Hood’s body count is only criminals, and has been a single circumstance, Barbara told them, confirming the rumor. “And he only fought you guys when you attacked him first. Something tells me that he’s someone you can talk down rather than fight first. I know there’s been reports saying he’s dangerous and you guys seem to think it as well, but honestly? Only issue I’ve seen so far is that he took out a previously unknown sex trafficking ring rather upon his first sighting, but has been clean ever since.”

“And that was bad, O.” Regardless of what Dick believed and how many times he felt he was driving himself insane with the endless game of catch and release with criminals, they couldn’t kill. “We can’t— we can’t take the law into our hands like that. Not even once. This isn’t Judge Dredd. We can’t do that.”

“We can’t,” Barbara agreed softly. “Red Hood isn’t one of us.”

Dick finally slowed in his leaping from buildings, standing there in the cold rain and letting it wash over him, same as Barbara’s words. Red Hood wasn’t one of them. Red Hood wasn’t one of them. Dick couldn’t keep him to the same standards as Batman kept them too. Red Hood was his own disaster waiting to happen and that was all there was to it. So on that same token—

“He’s not one of us,” Dick agreed. “Which means he’s out there killing people. That makes it our responsibility to stop him.”

Tim and Barbara were quiet.

“If he’s out there killing people, then we treat him like we would a serial killer. We expect him to escalate and try to put him out of commission and behind bars before he moves on from criminals. And even then— human life isn’t ours to measure. Criminals are still human. We have the responsibility to protect those we can and ensure justice to those who deserve it.”

“Since when was that how we did things?” Tim demanded, sounding frustrated. "Since when did the Joker get such a black and white treatment? Half the time we let those assholes ramble on and on and on for days with nothing good to say. Why does this new Red Hood get less forgiveness than the actual disgusting monsters that run free every other week?”

“Red Ro—”

“Whatever,” Tim interrupted before Barbara could weigh in. “Just— whatever. I gotta go, Batman is calling me. N, if you slip one more time on wet concrete, I’m sending someone to pick you up. There’s no amateur hour when you’re ten stories high.”

Dick whipped around, searching for any red light to show a camera on him, but predictably saw nothing. “Six stories is survivable,” he argued uselessly.

“I’m sorry, O, is N currently traipsing rooftops that are only six stories high?”

“Wow, Red Robin, you know, I’m not actually sure if he is. Kinda looks like he’s in the residential business, which is probably around eleven.”

“Darn, maybe we need to tweak our software? He’s talking about six stories. Why would he talk about six stories when he’s obviously more than six stories up?”

“Both of you are bullies,” Dick deadpanned. “I’m being ganged up on. This is bullying.”

“Then defend yourself.”

Bruce’s voice suddenly breaking into their conversation had Dick— and likely Barbara and Tim— flinching like children caught with their hands in the cookie jar. If Dick could’ve traded a guilty look with his pseudo-siblings, he would have. “Red Robin, you need to meet me above the station. Commissioner Gordon wishes to speak with us.”

“Tell me if you catch Gordon eating anything that isn’t at least fifty percent green,” Barbara said. “And that doesn’t mean sour apple candy green either.”

“Affirmative,” Bruce replied evenly. “Red Robin, to me.”

“In the rain,” Tim groused. “Wish I had a car.”

“Nightwing, what’s your prerogative for the night?”

Dick hesitated. He had a chance to maybe breach the possibility of Bruce opening up to him about the problem Dick had discovered, but there was a very real risk of Bruce closing up for good if Dick didn’t handle it right. So he hesitated, still standing on the rooftop, the rain starting to make him shiver. He had a choice and he was not in the right place to be making choices.

“Gonna keep my patrol strong,” he said, deciding he needed to dig up a little more on Red Hood before he offered any sort of help or annoyance to Bruce concerning the man. “I’ll keep an ear out for you guys. Be careful.”

Bruce didn’t respond and Tim chortled, the sound thin between pants. The man really didn’t like the rain one bit. Something about tech and emergencies and audio interference. The comms went silent, the end of the conversation. Dick sighed.

Then, in singsong, “Be careful.”

Dick cracked a smile despite everything. “Gotta let them know they’re loved, O.”

“What’s that?” she asked, still playful. “The L word? N, you’re gonna get a bar of soap in your mouth for that.”

Dick was laughing now, shaking his head free of water with rain instantly soaking more and weighing him down. “Gotta keep up the good fight, O,” he said, unable to wipe the grin away now. “Let me know if anything goes sideways.”

“Sure thing, N.” Then, a pause, and then, softer, “Be safe out there.”

Dick chimed out of comms and began his rooftop-leaping with renewed vigor, warmth in his chest that he clung to. He couldn’t remember the last time Babs had actually tried to make him laugh.

. . .

“Officer Grayson,” Dick’s partner drawled, glaring down at the to-go box in his hand. She dragged her eyes back up to his face, disdain clear in her dark eyes. “Are you telling me you brought carryout for potluck?”

“Desiree,” Dick said, immediately trying to buy himself time as his steady pace into the precinct faltered. “Desie. Dez-Dez.” He could see actual slow cookers and casserole dishes and bread boxes all collected on the bullpen table behind her, where the rest of the second-shift cops were gathered. Dick had carryout from his favorite Thai place, serving size: one. “D-Des… -troyer.”

Desiree Hill twisted her mouth in disappointment, those lips so glossy that they could’ve been a search light. Dick wasn’t good at facing her disappointment considering she was the one who put up with him the most, and therefore knew all the best ways to notch his guilt as high as it could go. She was probably one of the best cops in GCPD, joining the force after one of the many tragedies that plagued Gotham, never telling Dick who she lost though Dick knew she’d lost someone, and never mentioning who she had lost this someone to. He trusted her with his life on the streets and trusted her with Gotham should he be absent. A formidable cop and an even better woman— meaning Dick was really stupid for forgetting the potluck and condemning his fate to her wrath.

Dick was mentally calculating how long he had before his shift actually started, how long it would take him to buy a box of cookies from the grocery store down the street, how much shit he was going to get from the rest of his shift for this—

It was just not coming up Dick today, was it?

“Shift has been pushed back an hour so people can eat,” Desiree told him, arching a finely-sculpted brow. “You’ve got an hour, Dick. You don’t want Commissioner Gordon coming down on you for not being a team player, do you?” She then smirked, knowing he was going to be scrambling, and offered a rare display of mercy. “I’ll stall.”

“You’re a saint,” Dick wheezed before he was turning on his heel, ready to sprint down the street to the nearest bakery for anything that could pass as homemade, when Tim was suddenly striding through the glass front doors of the precinct, standing in front of the receptionist, looking absolutely fantastic in a smart black overcoat for the cold with wind-swept hair and bright eyes and definitely not at university like he was supposed to be. He was also lifting what looked like a picnic basket up onto said desk. Dick’s thoughts stalled so severely that he just gaped at his little brother, until said little brother finished speaking with the receptionist and waved at Dick.

Dick walked towards him, suddenly wary. “Tim?” he called out, grinning cautiously. “Everything good?”

Tim frowned, looking exhausted of Dick already. “You texted me that you forgot the concha you had at home, remember?” He held up the basket like that explained everything. “Brought it. Just like you asked.”

Dick— didn’t know who the hell was looking out for him right now, but he was immediately suspicious with a supersized side of afraid. He jogged forward, grinning disarmingly back at Desiree, then reaching Tim and pitching his voice low to say, “I didn’t text you.”

“Yes, you did,” Tim said, scrunching his face up. “I went to your apartment and it was right there. Now take your fucking concha so I can—”

“Tim,” Dick interrupted carefully, slowly. “I didn’t text you.”

Tim blinked. Then he kept his expression deliberately controlled as understanding dawned in his eyes. They had a problem. “Well, I brought you the concha anyways,” Tim said, giving him a sharp nod, letting Dick know he was going to look into it. “I’m guessing— I shouldn’t assume you suddenly learned baking, huh?” Dick shook his head, and Tim cursed softly, barely even a whisper. “Alright. Well. I’ll handle it.”

“Thank you,” Dick murmured before taking the basket and then turning back to Desiree, all smiles like nothing was wrong. “A-hah! You thought I was a bad partner, but I tricked you!” He pushed the basket into her hands, the woman’s eyes lighting up— while also looking a little suspicious. Whatever, Dick knew it was out of the ordinary for himself to be remembering things like this (even if he actually hadn’t). Everyone loved concha here, ever since Officer Dé Léon had brought some his grandmother had made. Now everyone ribbed him for concha and the entire precinct would remember it fondly.

It was just— to suddenly have concha of all things—

Someone was watching him. Someone who could send messages from his private phone that had countless eyes on it and could break into his apartment without setting off any alarms. Someone that had been watching Dick long enough to not only know about concha, but also know Dick well enough to predict he’d forget. Someone who—

“Hey, Grayson, these look amazing!” Dé Léon called out from where most of Dick’s shift was gathered at the bull pen table, hands pulling concha from the basket with greedy excitement. From what Dick could tell, the topping was either white or blue or yellow on the various roles, a pretty innocuous color scheme, definitely not a clue to who had made it. He watched his fellow officers munch on the bread, wondering distantly if food poisoning would sweep the precinct tomorrow. He shouldn’t even be letting these people eat the concha, he had no idea if it was safe or not, but—

“I ate one on the way here,” Tim said, his voice so level that Dick could instantly tell he was nervous. “I’m gonna go home. Make sure, uh. That nothing happens.”

Dick nodded slowly, feeling detached from the moment while his mind was racing with possibilities, each of them steadily worse than the last. Tim would get himself to Alfred and they’d run whatever tests they needed. Tim likely had some of the concha left over in his car too, they could analyze that. An antidote could probably be made if needed. “Tim,” he said, interrupting Tim’s retreat from the precinct. The man’s fingers were shaking and Tim quickly balled his hands into fists to hide the reaction. Dick stared at him, wondering just how screwed they were.

“Tim,” he said again, carefully. “Be safe.”

Tim nodded and gave a halfhearted shrug of goodbye. “Have a good shift, Dick.”

Tim turned and left and Dick watched his coworkers gorge themselves, staring at the brightly covered sugary concha topping that decorated their fingertips and lips and the fronts of their uniforms. Dread pooled in his gut, dread that felt like tar and echoed like sick laughter in his head. He forced a smile onto his face and returned to his happily-eating team, praying he hadn’t just poisoned them all.

. . .

So, Dick hadn’t poisoned them all.

In fact, literally nothing happened at all from the concha incident. Tim couldn’t find any breech in Dick’s phone, there wasn’t a single stray fingerprint or even a weird crooked window opening into his apartment, there wasn’t even footage of someone getting in— there was just a good one minute of footage missing entirely. Barbara was simultaneously stumped and excited, worried for Dick’s safety, but also very eager to go toe-to-toe with someone who at least halfway knew what they were doing. Tim was grumbling to himself about it whenever Dick brought it up because Dick brought up things that made him nervous to turn them into jokes as a stellar coping mechanism and no amount of Tim-grumbles would make him stop.

Bruce, though.

Bruce was also worried. And when Bruce was worried, he brooded. He didn’t really broadcast worry, but he broadcasted business like a plague in his life. He spent more time hunched over the Bat-computer and more time pretending to intermix with socialites to dig up dirt on whoever for whatever. He spent more of himself on things to distract himself so he wouldn’t worry— or to ensure that no one else knew he was worried.

Unfortunately for Bruce, they all knew his game by now. Tim spent more time in the cave now that Bruce was worrying himself into business and Tim was really good at bullying Bruce off the computer so Tim could use it under somewhat shaky pretenses. Babs didn’t mind dispatching Bruce onto the less-dangerous issues during patrols, even if she didn’t actually let on they were less-dangerous. And Dick—

Well, Dick actually wasn’t very useful when Bruce was worried. Especially when Bruce was worrying about him. So Dick just kinda moped around when he wasn’t busy and let Bruce see, in person and undeniable, that Dick was safe. If that meant that Nightwing spent a little more time with the Big Bat than previously, then so be it. At least Bruce wasn’t constantly hounding Dick on comms for his wellbeing if Bruce could see Dick in front of him.

Sometimes— sometimes it felt like Bruce really would never get over the Loss, just like Dick had failed to get over it on his own.

At least Bruce wasn’t worrying about the Big Red Problem, though. Now he was worried about Dick. And Dick, blessedly, had a lot more control over this problem because he had control over himself. And Red Hood had seemed to slink away, with sights dwindling down from uncommon to none at all.

So now, hopefully, maybe, this would just blow over.

. . .

Dick was busy taking down a perp, listening to Bruce rumble out directions to his location with Tim over the comms, when things suddenly proved they were not going to blow over. And that epiphany had come in the form of a shadow blocking out the streetlight behind Dick, the wind rustling his hair, the smell of nicotine and blood, and the Red Hood himself, dropping down and landing so smoothly, so silently behind Dick that Dick was actually struck momentarily speechless.

Why was this big, lumbering death machine trained like a Bat?

“You gonna finish that?”

Dick flinched at the voice that came from the Red Hood, modulated and deep with an undertone of terrifying, scraping the edge of hair-raising. It was like listening to a robot trying to be human. Or maybe a human that had gargled nails? Something equally as startling.

The perp whimpered in Dick’s hands, the man held up by the lapels of his faux-leather jacket in Dick’s blue-striped grip. Dick looked down at the man— a criminal, a monster who had killed a husband and wife whilst trying to steal their TV— and wondered what Red Hood was going to do. The criminal, hilariously enough, was looking at Dick to save him now. Dick knew that look well, the desperate plea for deliverance. Was Red Hood that well known amongst the criminal inner circles? Was he actually known less as a criminal and more as a punishment?

“I— was gonna take him to G-C-P-D,” Dick said haltingly, wary of the large man. “Gonna let the cops handle him. Like we’re supposed to.”

There was a harsh sound from the mask, something that sounded like a wheeze. “Who’s we?”

Dick wasn’t sure. But he stood and lifted the perp with him, the man staggering, and not just from the punches he’d taken from Dick. There was fear in the criminal’s eyes every time he saw the Red Hood. “Me,” Dick replied simply, trying to pull on a disarming smile. “Why? Gonna stop me?” If he did, Dick was going to be able to back up the “we” pronoun. Bruce was expecting him and still worrying. Dick wasn’t alone and the Red Hood would do good to know that. “Not sure what you know about this city, but she’s got a couple guardians you would do well to remember.”

Red Hood stared at him. The white slits instead of the eyes were unnerving. Then, in the modulated growl, “I think I know your so-called guardians better than most, Nightwing.”

The way he said that— holy shit, Dick was missing something big and he had no idea what it was. Dick’s breath caught and the perp slipped on the grimy concrete floor, mumbling something about turning himself in, which Dick actually, for once, bought. Red Hood was stone cold intimidation with the genuine threat of death. With Nightwing, every criminal just saw their future chances of breaking out. But with Red Hood? Apparently criminals just saw a headstone.

“You gonna walk me to the station?” Dick asked, trying for levity so Red Hood wouldn’t know how much Dick was scrambling. “I didn’t know you were such a gentleman.” He swallowed. “Sorry, though. Guns make me a little nervous.”

“I know.”

Dick was missing something, holy smokes Batman, Dick was missing something.

Dick laughed and prayed it didn’t sound as nervous as he actually was. “Well, then why don’t you be a little more polite and waylay the concerns of lil ol’ me? After all, if you’re gonna be my escort, you should probably be more agreeing.”

“I never agreed to anything, Nightwing,” Red Hood said, voice scraping threatening. “Give me Henderson.”

The perp— the criminal in Dick’s hands. James Henderson, dirtbag, thief, and murderer. The one that was trembling on the ground, looking ten seconds from begging the Red Hood for his life. The one that Dick was supposed to be turning in.

The one who had broken into a home and shot a woman in cold blood, let her die slowly on the floor while he stabbed the woman’s husband to death. There had been so much blood on the scene, partly from brutality, and partly from how the wife had dragged herself across the floor to mourn atop the body of her husband before expiring herself. Premeditated, no, but heinous and horrific and completely lacking empathy was how Dick would describe what Henderson had done and Dick knew that prison would be too kind to the man. Especially because Henderson had a specific tattoo across his neck— a tattoo for a gang that would happily break their man out of the low security prisons that took these murderers.

Dick suddenly realized that Red Hood was giving him a choice. He could keep Henderson and shove him in the system and then hope he didn’t kill someone next he got out.

Or—

Dick handed Henderson to Red Hood and the problem was solved forever. Henderson would never hurt anyone ever again. The severity of the crime had proven Henderson was capable of true horror and would likely do so again, if Gotham’s curse was anything to go by. If Dick gave Red Hood Henderson, then Henderson would be completely and utterly nullified.

At the cost of taking Henderson’s life.

“Do you know what you’re asking me to do?” Dick asked slowly. “Bats don’t take lives.”

“I’m not a Bat.”

Dick knew that. Holy god, did he know that. “Handing him over to you puts the blood on my hands.”

“So what happens when a perp you turn in ends up on death row?” The Red Hood asked. “Does that electric chair end up on your guilty conscious? Do you tear yourself up while they eat their last meal?”

“Everyone deserves a fair trial.”

“Until the judge decides to accept a couple bills under the table and throw fairness to the sewers.”

Dick didn’t like how the Red Hood was taking all of Dick’s darkest rumination and bringing them into the night light. He didn’t like how the Red Hood seemed to know exactly how Dick argued with himself. Still— “It’s not my decision.” He took a step away, bringing the perp with him, hating how he’d considered Red Hood’s request for even a split second. “Those aren’t the rules I play by.”

“Your rules make corpses,” Red Hood drawled.

“So do yours.”

That sound, again, the wheeze that could be a laugh. “Not as many as you enabling assholes.”

Dick hated that Red Hood was probably right. The Joker alone—

“I’ve got to get this guy to the cops,” Dick said, his words stiffening. “See you around, Hood.”

“I’ll do it for you.”

Dick went rigid. “What?”

“I’ll do it for you,” Red Hood repeated. “I’ll kill him and you can pretend I’m the electric chair. We both know he’s guilty. We both know he’s gonna do it again. Let me put a bullet in him and you can walk away knowing you’ve made people safer in the same way the world is better off with the death of a dictator.”

Dick took a single, staggered step away. If Red Hood killed Henderson, then Batman wouldn’t know Dick had let the man die. And then—

“No,” Dick choked out before he could let himself make a mistake. “No way, Red Hood.”

There was the wheeze— definitely a laugh— and then the Red Hood was shaking his head at Dick like he was disappointed. “Nice to know things never change.” Then the Red Hood was turning around, waving a two-fingered salute. “Seeya around, Nightwing.”

There was the whizz of a grappling hook, and then the Red Hood was gone. Dick shivered in the cold air, feeling distantly like he’d just escaped shark infested waters. The perp squirmed beneath Dick, eyes darting around for escape now that he saw survival was suddenly possible again. Dick sneered and snapped his leg out, cracking his heel into the man’s nose with more force than he’d normally use. Henderson cried out and dropped to his knees, clutching his broken nose, blood spewing onto the ground. Dick didn’t even feel sorry for him.

That definitely wasn’t a good sign.

. . .

“He did what?” Barbara asked urgently, looking up from the black pearl milk tea Dick had brought her. The levity of receiving her favorite drink had been bulldozed by alarm as Dick told her what Red Hood had done.

“He told me he’d kill the criminal for me,” Dick said, shaking his head. “That the problem would be gone through way of permanent punishment and I’d never have to feel guilty for doing it myself.”

“Jesus,” Babs said, eyes wide. She pushed her chair from the screens at the top of the Watchtower and and gave Dick her full attention. “You almost said yes, didn’t you?”

Dick looked away, wishing he could deny it, but— “There are so many monsters that keep coming back,” he whispered. “It’s never gonna stop, Babs. Not the way we do it.”

Barbara reached out and took Dick’s hand, her fingers cold and wet with perspiration from the boba. She squeezed and Dick squeezed back, letting his shoulders slump. He knew they were both thinking about the same person. All bets were off on if they were brave enough to say the—

“Jason could have ended up dead even if the Joker had been neutralized years ago.”

— Welp, looked like Babs was feeling pretty damn brave tonight. Dick flinched at the name, a flash of red hair and a smile that was all teeth making his stomach turn over.

“If Bruce had killed the Joker back when the clown had first been messing with you, the Batman could’ve been ruined,” Babs told Dick softly. “From that, crime could have skyrocketed. Villains could have surged into power as Batman lost it. People wouldn’t trust Batman anymore and act even more foolishly. Jason could’ve ended up dead countless other ways from that one simple scenario.”

“That’s a lot of what ifs,” Dick mumbled. “When all we’ve got now is a definite of him being gone.”

Barbara sighed, “You barely knew him, Dick.”

“I know. Which is why it hurts.”

Barbara shook her head. “You couldn’t have known to know him. Hell, you couldn’t have known to be on earth. Jason was a pretty volatile kid from the beginning, he wasn’t always easy to get along with. No one can blame you guys for butting heads. He had an inferiority complex the size of Metropolis, you can’t expect—”

“God, Babs, the kid is dead,” Dick interrupted, words thick.

“Yes,” Barbara agreed. “And he’s been dead for a decade. You should’ve moved on enough to be able to say his name by now. Why you’re bringing this up now after so long.”

“Bruce has been staring at his door lately.” Dick shook his head. “Makes me— makes me remember.”

“Makes you blame yourself for something you had no part in.”

She was right but Dick didn’t care.

“I wasn’t there for him when he needed me,” Dick said stiffly. “I was too caught up in my bullshit with Bruce and too caught up in my own ego. If I had been a little less selfish, maybe—” And this was getting into the really heavy guilt that kept him up “— Maybe I could have taught him a trick to get him away. Maybe I could’ve sewn some seeds of belonging in him that would’ve led him to trust Bruce and I to tell us about the Joker and Qurac. I— I could have changed so much, Babs. I could have helped him. I could have…”
He trailed off. Barbara grimaced and finished, “Saved him?” Dick couldn’t answer. “Experience with the Justice League has taught us a lot of things, Dick. Namely— fate is fate. I don’t think we’d be anywhere different with or without you getting buddy-buddy with Jason. I think what you’re doing now is the best you can do.”

“And what is that?” Dick demanded. “Dote on Tim and Damian and pretend that makes up for what I neglected in Jason? It doesn’t fix anything, Babs.”

“Because it can’t be fixed,” Barbara told him. “He’s gone. You can only learn from it, and you have. That’s what matters.”

Dick looked away. “Jason deserved to be more than a life lesson.”

Babs apparently didn’t know what to say to that, and she wisely kept her mouth shut.

“Whatever,” Dick said, feeling uncharacteristically angry now. “Just— Red Hood might make the offer to others. I know Tim won’t listen, Bruce definitely won’t, but I just wanted to warn you guys and maybe give you some insight into his MO. He seems pretty damn justice-orientated, even with his methods. He seems more aggravated with the system than anything.”

“The system?” Barbara asked.

“Gotham’s system,” Dick clarified. “He seems upset that criminals escape and do awful things all over again. He seems to think it’s— inefficient. Or endangering?” Dick was struggling for the words. “He seems to think it’s not working and is taking it into his own hands.”

Barbara snorted mirthlessly. “Sound familiar?”

Dick winced. “We don’t kill people.”

She just shrugged and wheeled herself back to the computer. “I’ll relay your experience with the other two. Watch your back out there— kinda sounds like he sought you out for a reason.”

“Yeah, to offer his murder trade.”

“No, Dick. He sought you out for a reason.”

Dick blinked, realizing she had a point. The Red Hood could’ve gone to Tim, maybe even straight to the Bat himself. But Red Hood had gone to Dick and initiated conversation despite the less-than-friendly way Dick had outright attacked the man the first time they’d met. Red Hood, for whatever reason, had chosen Dick over the others. And that—

He really didn’t know what that meant.

Barbara sighed like she was tired of him. “Just be smart, Dick. Red Hood is up to something.”

“Is it Red Hood or the Red Hood?”

Barbara gave him a Look and Dick held his hands up in surrender. “Alright! Alright. I’m gone. Thanks for your help, Babs.”

“Technically, I was paid for the help I gave,” she said, holding up the boba tea. “But sure, let’s pretend I’m just super helpful with no strings attached.”

Dick couldn’t keep the smile from his face as he turned, giving a small wave. “Appreciate it regardless, Babs. Let me know if I’m needed anywhere special tonight.”

“Damian’s back— I doubt he’ll let your patrol go uninterrupted.”

Dick cursed silently to himself as he left and realized he should probably add espresso shots to his utility belt in preparation for the night he was about to have.

. . .

Don’t get him wrong, Dick loved the little Devil that was Damian Wayne in all his superiority complex and inferiority height. The kid was sharp and quick and knew how to get out of a bad situation as well as any of them despite the age gap. He was a fantastic partner in the field, responding well to orders but voicing his protests when he thought the orders were wrong, and he really did have the cutest reactions to Dick’s puns (cute meaning absolutely infuriated by any and all puns that came from Dick’s mouth) but sometimes—

“Nightwing, your landing was shakier than normal. Your knee buckled. What is wrong with you?”

Dick sighed and fought not to roll his eyes too dramatically considering Damian had a sixth sense for being sassed. Unfortunate, considering sass was Dick’s second language and that having Damian in his ear was always a surefire way to get Dick to sass. “I dunno, I think it was pretty good,” Dick said as he leaped from the roof he’d just landed atop, dropping down onto a mugging and scaring the shit out of a petty thief. A quick knuckle sandwich to the jaw, and the little lady was free to return with her purse, scurrying off into the night while Dick zip-tied the now-unconscious thief’s hands to his ankles. “Did you see that one, Robin? That was pretty good, right? Nothing to critique there.”

“The perpetrator had time to react to your presence. You’re sloppy.”

Dick tilted his head back and resisted the urge to roll his eyes into the back of his skull and just black out entirely. “Robin, where’s B tonight again?”

“He is involved with a drug smuggling sting that Red requested his help on. Why?”

“No reason,” Dick sighed. It helped to be reminded why he was Damian’s partner tonight.

“Are you growing senile?”

There was not a funny bone in Damian’s body. The little shit meant it. Dick’s eye was twitching, blessedly hidden by the mask. “Robin, where do we—”

“Silence, Nightwing,” Damian suddenly barked. “I am in pursuit of an assailant.”

Then there was silence on the line, offset by how Dick’s heart was hammering in his chest, terrified for whatever Damian was doing. He shot for the rooftops, Oracle in his ear relaying Damian’s position that was steadily moving further and further away from Dick. Panic was something Dick was familiar with experiencing, but panic when related to Damian was sheer fucking terror half the time. What if the kid got hurt, what if the kid hurt someone else, what if he killed again, what if—

Across the rooftops, dark silhouettes in against the cloudless, moonless sky, Dick saw two figures soar gracefully through the air, a small one following after a larger with no cape, no visible weapon or features, no ears, but the flash of metallic red atop the head.

Oh fuck—

Dick quickly changed course, trying to cut them off as he swung from roof to roof, praying he would be fast enough. The figures that he caught sight of only now and again steadily grew in size, telling Dick he was making some sort of headway, but not enough. Dick didn’t know what Damian knew of the Red Hood, but the kid was volatile to a fault and would probably love to put himself above the other Robins by taking out this new criminal. Pride was Damian’s middle name and pride made him blind, Dick knew Damian couldn’t take the Red Hood alone, and with those two pieces on Red Hood’s thighs, there was a high chance Damian was going to walk away with a few more holes than usual if Dick didn’t—

Something solid careened into Dick out of the shadow of a taller building, sturdy arms wrapping around him and yanking him out of the way, Dick letting out a sharp oof as the air was thrust from his lungs by the sudden change in momentum. His head knocked against cold metal, red filling his vision, and then Dick was being shoved again, harder, onto a roof and failing to catch his balance before he collided hard with a very familiar, very short vigilante cloaked in black and red.

“Bastard Nightwing, don’t—!”

Dick corrected with a handspring and whirled around on light feet, eskrima out and ready and—

Red Hood, gone.

“Damn him,” Damian snarled as he clambered to his feet, wiping his wrist under his nose.

“Are you hurt?” Dick demanded, eyes on the skyline, searching for that glint of red again and Damian continued to curse at nothing, boots scuffing on the ground in a sign of frustration. “Robin, answer me, are you—”

“As if that lumbering fool could get his hands on me!” Damian bellowed, rage making his words sharper than normal. “Amateurish, absolutely braindead, stupid! Bastard should know he can’t run from me—”

“Robin, calm down,” Dick said urgently, already pressing into comms for Oracle. “O, where’d he go?”

“I’ve got three guesses all based on motion detectors being triggered, I can’t give you a definite.”

“Give me the closest.”

There was a split second of radio silence, then Babs: “Sheldon Park. The roads are closed down for renovations in preparation for the winter. No one should be anywhere near it and the city set up a trespassing monitoring system just in case.” Another pause, then Babs again, a grimace audible in her voice. “Some heavy machinery in there, N— and some pretty serious chemicals if you know what you’re doing.”

“Send Robin and Spoiler the other two locations,” Dick ordered as he took off, grappling hook whizzing through the night. He was only a mile or so away from the park, but passing through Park Row was going to be a nightmare in its own way. He couldn’t promise he’d keep up the pursuit of Red Hood if he saw something, if he could do something.

He tried to stay away from Crime Alley as much as he could in his own way, too pathetic and weak-willed of a person to withstand the associations. Not only was Bruce so intimately connected to Crime Alley in his own birth, but so was the Lost Robin, not to mention one of Dick’s own biggest mistakes. It was hard to think of the place whilst being so personally connected to experiences of loss associated. It was even harder when he could beat himself to a bloody pulp over how he might have been able to save more people from terrible fates if he was just somehow better.

Dick reached Sheldon Park with his eyes trained straight ahead, not letting himself be thrown off by anything happening below. Maybe it was cruel to fly so high above the pain that he gave himself the illusion of being untouched and unmoved, but he could only handle so much bullshit in one night— the curse of being human.

He landed silently atop the concrete, facing the small yard before the Sheldon Park center and looked around, eyes peeled for another telling glint of red. He walked calmly towards and around the large brick building, listening to the crashing waves of the black ocean just below the stone railing of the edge of the park and the island of Gotham itself. He approached the edge cautiously, leaning over just enough to see if there was a glimpse of someone scaling down the sharp rocks, but saw nothing. Dick huffed and scuffed his heel on the ground, taking a step back and turning around, only to be inches from the Red Hood, the man far too silent for someone his size. Dick froze, fear lodged in his throat, realizing he could have easily been pushed right into the frothy depths without a chance to react.

“Not many people could’ve snuck up on me— you’re good,” he said, tongue heavy in his mouth, searching for something to say so he could have the first word. “Who trained you?”

“The best,” Red Hood replied.

“Yeah?” Dick asked, wanting to keep the Red Hood talking, maybe get some info. “Like who?” He searched his brain for someone, anyone, and jokingly said, “League of Assassins?”

“Some of them,” Red Hood confirmed to Dick’s shock. “But they’re not the best in that regard. I learned from someone else. Someone even better.”

“And who’s that?”

Dick couldn’t see Red Hood’s eyes, but he still got the sensation of being stared at in blank exasperation. “You’re not much of a talker, are you, Hood?”

There was a little flinch of the head, possibly a quick jerk of the chin, as Red Hood asked, “What’d you call me?”

“Hood,” Dick replied with an easy going shrug that was all careful stretching and slow movement for him to lean back against the stone railing and a little further away. Now the Red Hood would have to take a step forward to be in swinging-distance of Dick, meaning he’d telegraph the move a little sooner, giving Dick more time to defend. “Everyone’s got a nickname these days, you know? Anything longer than two syllables is just a pain.”

There was a low hum from Red Hood that could’ve been a growl depending on how the modular warped the sound. “Of course, Wing.”

Dick blinked, grateful that his mask hid half his expression, thus making it easier to hide his surprise. Was Red Hood— bantering? “Wing, huh?” he asked, finding himself not liking it at all, a remnant of old nicknames he rarely used, a memory of Dick entering the Bat Cave and calling out to his own Little Wing. “Why not Night?”

“Is that what you’d prefer?”

Dick was officially out of control of this conversation. “Didn’t know I had a choice.”

“Then why bother suggesting an alternative?”

Dick’s brain was, surprisingly, failing to come up with witty retorts. Especially when the Red Hood took a step closer, close enough for Nightwing to become aware of the heat that radiated from the man’s body. Dick was up against the railing, practically sitting on it. He couldn’t run as the Red Hood stood close enough for their knees to brush, one of Red Hood’s legs between Dicks’ bent knees.

“What’s wrong, Night?” Red Hood asked, pinning Dick to the spot with a gaze Dick couldn’t see. “Cat got your tongue?”

“Oh, is she in town?” Dick tried to quip back, hating how throaty his voice suddenly was. Up close, Dick could see just how ridiculously chiseled Red Hood was. Dick tried not to objectify men just as he tried not to with women, especially considering half the men he worked with were Abercrombie clone beauties (Dick sometimes included depending on the day) and there was nothing worse than being sized up and ogled by random people and villains and even allies, but holy Zoolander’s smolder, the Red Hood was art. Even with what had to be kevlar in the thermal, the black material clung to a body that was miles and miles of sharp curves and muscle. The fucking arms on this guy, held tight in the leather jacket, made Dick think of unspeakably stupid things considering this guy was not an ally and definitely could kill him. “I should— I should warn a friend.”

There was a pause, then something that could’ve been a scoff. “Didn’t know the Bat was still tangled up in cat toys.”

“Oh, you know,” Dick said, smiling coyly, trying to figure out whether he was being flirted with or not. The Red Hood angled his body like he was trying to let Dick look— or he was trying to hide Dick from sight. Dick glanced over Red Hood’s shoulder, but saw no one. The hell was going on? “I gotta look out for my partners, don’t I? I’m sure he’d appreciate me watching his back.”

Red Hood paused, before there was another sound— something like a sharp laugh, something disbelieving. “You really don’t know, do you?”

Dick wet his lips, and was grateful his eyes were hidden so the Red Hood didn’t see the way Dick’s eyes were trailing down the long column of the Red Hood’s neck. Material that skintight let Dick watch the man’s pulse thrum beneath the skin. “Know what, Hood?”

“Big Bat’s flown the coop,” Red Hood drawled, hand so close on the stone to Dick’s hip that Dick could feel the brush of leather against his suit. “He ditched the replacement.” Who was the replacement and how did Hood know this? “Doing a little soul searching, from what I gathered. He won’t be home any time soon.” Then Red Hood was leaning in and Dick’s breath caught tellingly in his throat. If that helmet weren’t in the way, Dick would swear Red Hood was about to kiss him. Red was filling his vision and Dick almost could breathe. There was a low sound from the helmet— a chuckle. “Nighty-night, Nightwing.”

Red Hood then pitched forward, slipping past Dick and dropping out of sight over the ledge, Dick scrambling for the ledge and peering into the frothing black waters below just to see a small, unlit speedboat break through the foam and slip into the black horizon.

. . .

The next day, Oracle showed her lovely face on the screen of the Bat computer below just to tell all three of them— Dick, Tim, and Damian— that Bruce was gone and intended to be gone for quite some time.

. . .

“Father would never leave us without a warning,” Damian was grumbling as he slouched against the wall and tried not to look like he was as miserable as he actually felt. Dick could read the kid’s tells better than his own, he knew Damian was hurt that Bruce had gone off to do some unknown thing without telling his biological son. At least Dick could use this when he would have to re-convince Tim that Bruce didn’t employ genuine favoritism next time the conversation inevitably came up. “He would have at least informed us of how long his absence would span. Something’s wrong.”

“Something’s been wrong for months,” Tim groused as he tapped listlessly at the Bat computer, thumbing through the various trackers on various Bat vehicles for some sort of heading as to where the Bat had gone— but to no avail. Bruce was better than that. “He’s been acting strange. You just haven’t been around to notice.”

“I was with—”

“Oh, we know,” Tim interrupted with a leer. Damian snarled and stomped forward, kicking Tim’s chair hard enough to shove Tim’s stomach into the various keyboards. The younger man yelped and spun around in the chair, swinging for Damian’s head, who ducked nimbly and tugged at a handful of Tim’s hair, and that was Dick’s cue. He forced his hand between the two, sighing when Damian bared his teeth like a dog and Tim let out the most ridiculous whine of indignation. “He’s pulling my hair, Dick!”

“Damian, stop pulling your brother’s hair,” Barbara deadpanned from the speakers.

“He asked for it,” Damian snapped.

“Only your precious SuperBoy ever asks you to do that.”

Damian snarled again, but kicked Tim’s chair again because he couldn’t very well retaliate against Babs when she wasn’t physically present.

“Guys, can we just stop?” Dick pleaded, letting his desperation seep into his voice. But Damian didn’t listen, reaching to snag Tim’s hair again when Tim so childishly stuck out a waggling tongue to imitate making out.

“Will you perhaps cease your immaturity in exchange for a meal?”

“Alfred, thank god,” Dick gusted, turning to watch the older man descend, as well dressed as always, chin held high. “I am starving and way too tired to deal with these absolute children.” He climbed the stairs, needing to wash his hands of Damian’s fit, and smiled tightly at Alfred as he passed. “Any way I could convince you to take the kids for the night?”

Alfred hummed and watched Dick for a moment longer than usual. “I have an alternative— I would like to speak to you, Master Dick.”

Ah— shoot. “Uh, alright,” Dick agreed, going for nonchalant. “Anything in particular?”

“Why don’t you come upstairs for the appetizer and wine that the young masters will not be sampling themselves,” Alfred suggested, turning away from the squabble happening below. “They must learn to sort things out as adults eventually.”

Dick just nodded as he heard Alfred begin to follow him, nerves hackled. The last time Alfred had needed to talk to Dick alone, he’d been trying to hint as discreetly as possible at not taking his romantic escapades to Wayne Manor, as Damian was prone to wandering the halls at night— and that had been a couple years ago. Hopefully this conversation wouldn’t follow the same measure of too-awkward-to-stomach.

Dick reached the kitchen and breathed in smell of the dinner he was going to drown himself in once this was done. It smelled like roasted pheasant and potatoes and brussel sprouts. Dick just needed to tell himself that the agony would be worth the reward of one of Alfred’s meals.

“So, what’s the problem, Alf?” Dick asked, leaning against the kitchen counter and taking the offered glass of wine. He was more of a beer guy, but free alcohol was free alcohol. He took a sip and hid a wince. Why was wine so freaking dry and how could it possibly be appealing? “Need me to practice a little more discretion?”

“Master Dick,” Alfred began carefully. “You should know Master Bruce left under— duress. And that he asked for the utmost discretion concerning his reasons, but entrusted me and you with a promise to secrecy.”

Dick frowned, brow furrowing, and not from the wine. “If it’s something dangerous…”

Alfred’s expression was uncharacteristically grim. “Master Bruce found that young Master Jason’s grave was disturbed several years ago, with the incident covered up by the grave keeper who has since been fired. Upon demanding an exhumation, he discovered that… that Master Jason was absent from his final resting place.”

Dick prided himself on his reflexes and ability to act quickly and appropriately under pressure. He was one of the best and knew it, trained by Batman from a young age, raised by Gotham’s worst, and honed by trauma to levels of skill that impressed even the most notorious of evil. He performed like a dream in moments of fear and panic and pain. He was a seasoned vigilante and he could survive anything with his head held high and an aloof smile on his face.

However, upon hearing his Little Wing had been dug out of the damn ground without Dick ever knowing, Dick threw his glass of wine against the cupboards and didn’t even think about the stains as the wine ran down the polished wood like tears. Glass rained down, scattered across the counter and floor, wine-drenched and twinkling innocently in the kitchen light as Dick fought not to break something else. Alfred, to his credit, didn’t even jump, but he did reach out and steady Dick with a hand on Dick’s elbow, featherlight but appreciated.

“Who did it?” Dick ground out as he stared at the red dripping to the marble floor, the fury he hadn’t felt in years brimming in his veins with newfound and hateful life. “Alfred, who took him?”

“Master Bruce left in pursuit of this very answer,” Alfred told him calmly. “He requested you to remain in Gotham.”

“Screw Gotham, I should be with him, I need to find who took Little—”

“He believes half the answer will lie in Gotham,” Alfred interrupted. “He told me to tell you to await his contact with further news. You are part of the search, Master Dick. Master Bruce knows how much this means to you.”

Dick shuddered, the anger dying from the surface, but still there, still thrumming with his heart. He ran his hands over his face, breathing shallowly. He then clenched both hands into fists and tried to breathe through the anger because god knew nothing good could come of it. His shoulders heaved as he brought his body back under control even as the fire burned him from within.

Why, oh why, could his Little Wing not just rest like he deserved?

“If he takes out whoever did this without me, I’ll never forgive him,” Dick told Alfred.

“I believe you,” Alfred sighed. “Considering you have failed to forgive yourself.”

“Babs says the same thing.”

“Because she’s right,” Alfred continued. “You didn’t know him well, Master Dick. He wouldn’t have thought for you to save him at all. The burden is Master Bruce’s.”

“I should’ve been someone to him,” Dick replied, whirling around to face Alfred and rehash the same song and dance that would keep him up for the rest of his life. “I should’ve been more involved in his training, in his battles, in his life! He was my little brother, my Little Wing, and I failed him with my absence! Bruce is a fucking nightmare at the best of times and Jason wasn’t meant to put up with someone like that alone! He needed someone he could turn to and trust and tell his secrets to. If he’d had that, then maybe he wouldn’t have run off to Qurac— maybe he would have told me!”

Alfred was silent in the face of Dick’s fury, and Dick really appreciated the man’s ability to just let the angry, stupid men in the butler’s life shout at the moon until they were done. Dick really couldn’t even think to thank him, though, because Dick was about one step away from sweeping his arm across the counter and destroying that asinine countertop espresso machine that only Steph knew how to use. His hands were shaking in their clenched state. Once again, he forced himself to swallow and accept the fact that the one and only thing that could ever drive him to be capable of killing was his Little Wing.

“I need air,” he said abruptly, stalking out of the kitchen, acting way too much like Bruce and hating himself for it, but also just too fucking pissed to beat himself up just yet. He burst through the sweeping front doors of the manor— and almost ran headlong into Cass.

She startled back, dark hair framing those wide, unreadable eyes as she quickly took in and saw the unbridled rage crawling under Dick’s skin. He turned his head sharply, wishing he could hide this part of himself from the young thing. He cleared his throat. “I— can’t make it to dinner. Tell the others I went out.”

Cass nodded, still watching him keenly. “… Be careful.”

Dick nodded back and turned to her to give a tight smile that was a ghost of what he’d normally show her. “Eat my share?”

Cass hummed. “Of course.”

Dick gave her a small wave and walked past. While Alfred was discreet, he knew Damian at the very least would hear about Dick’s emotional state outside the manor. God dammit, sometimes there was really no escape. He loved his family to hell and back, always would, he just needed to cease to exist every now and again. Especially when he was this close to punching a hole in the wall.

He walked down the long, gravel drive and slowly began to piece himself back together. Losing Jason had been hard— harder than words could describe. So hard that he’d thrown aside all his bullshit with Bruce and returned to Gotham the second Tim Drake had hunted Bruce down and demanded to be Robin. Dick had promised himself he would never let there be another Jason, never let his family feel alone, even if he was furious with them. He would never let another Robin know what it was like to feel unsupported, misunderstood, unappreciated, or even unloved. He would never allow such a burden to fall on a Robin ever again, if it was the last thing he did.

The move back to Gotham had been painful and sometimes it still was. Bruce, again, would stare at that fucking bedroom door like it would somehow end his misery. Dick sometimes couldn’t enter certain parts of the manor or fly over particular alleyways in the city. None of the other Robins and Bats really understood it, but they all knew the bare basics. They knew Jason’s name and what had happened and that they should never bring it up and that was it. No one was really brave enough to ask for more and no one really wanted to watch them suffer. Even Barbara would clam up, bright eyes suddenly distant and dull, her mouth a thin line as she quietly requested not to talk about it. Steph had once tried to push a little too far and Dick had almost shouted at her, he’d almost shouted. Dick hated how volatile and out of his mind Jason made him feel, but—

That was his Little Wing. Even for the jealousy Dick had suffered within the sensation of being replaced, he’d seen how intelligent and witty and kind Jason could be. He’d heard all of Bruce’s criticisms and seen how they only beat Jason down instead of building him up like Bruce had intended. Jason hadn’t spoken Bruce’s language the way Dick had, Jason only heard failure failure failure every time Bruce told him how he could be better. Dick had seen that and done his best to give Jason moments of light and levity with scarce opportunity, but they weren’t enough, they were paltry and secondhand and sheer in the face of the darkness that had haunted Jason’s every breath. Dick hadn’t tried hard enough because he’d been “angry”. Now, finally learning his lesson too late to save the one Robin who should’ve been Dick’s Robin, all Dick could do was his best, a best that would never be good enough.

Dick slowed his steps and tilted his head back, looking up at the stars. Patrol would start soon. Dick would be in charge of neighborhood assignments for the night as Barbara was still digging into some new crime movement that was slowly springing up, new peddlers running the same rugs, money being taken and sent somewhere she couldn’t see. Dick didn’t know what it was all about and he honestly, for once, didn’t care. Gotham was his home, but it was hard to feel like he belonged when he was haunted by the dead. His parents and then Jason, so many mistakes. When he’d been orphaned, Bruce had trained him in the hopes to realize Dick’s dream of being good enough to keep what happened to his parents happening ever again. Jason was proof that Bruce’s training was never good enough— in more ways than one.

Dick sighed, a hulking gust of air that left his lungs empty.

He was being stupid. He knew it. He was obsessing and inserting himself into a tragic event that he didn’t even belong in. Jason’s death was something to be mourned, not something for Dick to shoehorn his own guilt into. Dick Grayson, center of attention as always. The circus would never leave him and he’d never, ever learn.

He sighed again and kicked aimlessly at a rock. It skidded and clattered down the gravel driveway, barely displacing the finely manicured raking that seemed to happen overnight anytime someone drove through and displaced the small stones. Dick shook his head and turned back around to take the long walk home, knowing he was going to slip through the window into his own room and waiting for Alfred to leave him microwaved leftovers at the end of his patrol.