Chapter 1: I have heard them say
Wally West, fastest man alive, now almost comfortable introducing himself as such without getting a little twinge at who isn’t alive to make it so, leans back in his very comfortable chair and enjoys the party atmosphere. It’s not often you see even the entire active roster of a hero team in one place for anything but a fight, so this is really one for the books.
“But,” says the redheaded kid with no costume except a thick pair of glasses, who everybody seems to call just 'Danny,' “I still smell something fishy. I mean, a Veteran’s Day party? We’re the Titans, not the Daughters of the American Revolution.”
“Well,” says Nightwing, with a shrug that shows he’s gotten used to dealing with this kid putting random concepts on trial, and was Wally ever that young? Jesus. “It’s not really a family holiday. So we’re not making anybody choose.”
“And it’s our day, too!” Wally enthuses, making a triumphant fist. He has drunk practically as much as everybody else at this party combined (although admittedly he’s the only one with a high resistance who’s trying to get drunk), and he’s only slightly buzzed, and it’s going to last about five more minutes. Metabolism. Downsides thereof. “No, really,” he insists, when Danny the Bespectacled gives him a dubious look. “We’re veterans. Don’t we see active combat practically every day?”
“I gueeeeess,” the kid draws the word out. Adjusts his glasses, squinty thinking-face.
“They do Veterans’ Day stuff for cops sometimes,” a girl Wally doesn’t actually know volunteers, and he nods enthusiastically. He will take to his grave that a lot of the reason he’s insisting on this is he got maudlin about his uncle on Memorial Day, and that only makes sense if heroes count as armed forces. If they can die in the line of duty, they count.
“Right! We’re vets. Like Dickie here,” he elaborates, waving at Nightwing. “You’re, what, twenty-two now? Here’s to fourteen years in the service, man and boy.” He toasts, and isn’t the only one to raise his cup, but Dick also isn’t the only one pulling a slightly weird face.
“It sounds so dysfunctional when you put it like that,” he grouses, and then lifts his own plastic cup in retaliation. “So here’s to you, seven years under the mask. Boy and man.” He smirks a little, and Wally throws back his head and groans.
“You’ve been doing this twice as long as me? I am undone. Or outdone. Something.” It’s been more than eight years since he first became Kid Flash, but there were all those endless crawling months of medical retirement in the middle that you have to subtract from his total. Seven years sounds about right.
Everybody toasts to Wally’s outdone-ness, and there’s a bit more back-and-forth before their knot of partiers break ups again to circulate.
He’s having a surprising amount of fun, for how awkward he was worried this was going to be.
Wally hadn’t been a Titan in a while even before he became the Flash, and the guys had called up sometimes inviting him to hang out, but he never took them up on it. One of them would have had to take a vehicle out to pick him up, or he’d have had to pay for a ticket and sit alone on a train or bus for the literal days it would take to get crosscountry to New York, or he’d have had to get Uncle Barry to carry him, and while now he would totally be carried anywhere, including to Apokolips or up and down the halls of his old high school or anywhere, seriously, if his uncle was just around to do it, at the time it felt like the maximum upper height of humiliation.
And once he was there, then what? Sure, they used to do plenty of things off-duty that didn’t need superpowers, or super-ninja skills, but the next fight was always there. Waiting. He’d have been the useless lump in the middle of a pack of razor-sharp fighting machines, and maybe he could have dealt with that if he’d been used to being…normal, powerless, but he wasn't even that good at spending time with normal people on normal terms anymore. No way could he have spent time around his hero friends in his retired-on-pain-of-painful-death wallow. It would have been awful. It would have made it so much harder to stay retired.
Now he’s Flash, and he's worked with the team a few times but it’s awkward in a different way, like trying to pull on your favorite middle-school underpants. Even if they’re clean and they were really comfortable at the time, they just don’t fit anymore.
But they invited him to the party, as a former Titan, and frankly being ‘the kid’ in the League, who he still kind of thinks of as his uncle’s peers, not his, is…not the most socially rewarding experience, all the time. So he’s been zipping around, getting caught up with people he hasn’t seen in a while, and wow, he kind of missed most of these people (the ones who aren’t strangers) a whole lot and hadn’t really noticed.
And because it’s a hero party he can just zip in and out of conversations when they get too slow for him, and it’s okay because he’s Flash, everybody deals.
Rather than get into an actual argument with Roy half an hour later, Wally zips off yet again, and decides his contact high is getting out of hand and he needs a minute alone, so he zooms into the darkened control room to take a few cleansing breaths. Hey, he can do yoga-y healthful things. Okay. Alone time. Is good. Even at fun parties. He feels calmer now.
Except, he hadn’t noticed, the room’s actually occupied. Guy, grey hoodie—oh, hey, it’s Dick. Standing alone in the dark. Okay.
He squints. Dick’s changed into civvies, so maybe he’s going out on a beer run—he’s been trying with endearing solemnity to keep the remaining underage team members from indulging, which means that if there’s an emergency the Titans call-up is very possibly going to be all teenagers for the first time in years, but he’s still throwing a hero party with alcohol, which is living large for a Bat. But he doesn’t look like he’s living large; his face is all flat and drawn.
Shit, did something happen? Did Wally miss it? See, sometimes he really wishes he got super-senses with this gig so he wouldn’t miss stuff, except that way lies the path to wishing he was Superman and he is too damn proud of being the Flash to ever wish that, so.
Dick gives him a stiff kind of nod and turns toward the door.
“Shit,” he says out loud, because his mouth moves even faster than his brain. Something is definitely wrong. Dick tenses, though he doesn’t stop, and Wally adds, “Wait up. Hey.”
He zips up beside his friend, who he’s maybe given the cold shoulder to enough times over the years they spent periodically at each other’s throats, being hormonal teenage boys with authority issues, but Dick’s never ignored him quite like this, and also when he has Wally's usually known what he did wrong, and whether he should be sorry. He grabs Dick just above the elbow, which might just make him madder, but at least if he gets mad in Wally’s actual direction he’ll probably say something revealing.
Dick’s shoulders sag out of their tight line, like human contact made him completely relax, and Wally can’t help feeling awesome about that even if he doesn’t know what the problem is. “Blaze,” Dick says, turning toward him a little, like he’s raising a familiar subject and they both know what ‘Blaze’ is, or possibly who Blaise is, and Wally doesn’t even know whether Blaise is a boy or a girl—
And then Dick has punched him in the face.
He goes down hard. Sure, he could have dodged it, and he sort of saw it coming although god is Dick fast for a normal, except he didn’t see it coming because there was no telegraph and he didn’t seem mad and what the hell?
He’d be on his feet again in an instant, except he’s already being kicked before he finishes falling, sending him spinning through the air with nothing to brace himself against, and then again, and again, and those sharp Nightwing punches are coming down at the same time, and by the time he hits the ground pretty much all his ribs are broken and his collarbone and something in his hip, and he can work through pain but this is a little much, especially with the fight adrenaline only just kicking in, and it’s Dick.
Dick bending over him with his face perfectly blank, punching again, and Wally manages to get his superspeed butt in gear and roll out of the way of that one. The compression on his ruined ribs leaves him a hair from blacking out, and rolling is clearly not going to be a winning strategy, but there is also no way in hell he can sit up right now. His arms are mostly okay, but without working pecs or right trapezius he can’t really lift them…he manages a sort of powerful-only-through-the-kinetic-energy-of-speed left-handed bat at Dick’s side to throw the next punch off, but the one after that he can’t do anything about, too much pain, wrong angle, so he’s getting punched in the throat with a crunch.
His vision’s still online, more or less, as the next one comes in, and somewhere in all the shock and affront and mortification and desperate not wanting to die, he sees Dick’s perfectly expressionless expression behind the deadly jab and thinks god, this is going to kill you when you wake up.
Part of him realizes that he’s spending one of his last thoughts on somebody else’s feelings, and he wonders whether that makes him a good person. Or at least a good friend.
Chapter 2: your strength is in the starlight
The sound of breaking bones is distinctive, but Kori couldn’t have detected it herself from rooms away. It’s lucky they have teammates and friends with enhanced senses, and trust them without hesitation or demur.
She grits her teeth with determination as the mob of them, everybody who was in the kitchen when the noise began, all burst into the control room together. “Freeze!” somebody shouts, and Kori blasts the figure in grey with a starbolt from each hand. The villain dodges, but it drove them away from the broken form of the Flash, so she feels nothing but satisfaction with the result of her attack.
It is a man, she sees, not large, and lacking any distinctive war-gear. Hunched warningly inside a grey-hooded sweatshirt. Raven, Dove, and a few other comrades not called after birds surge toward the broken form of Flash, while the rest of them charge the intruder, with more fury than strategy. He’s on the defensive, retreating, but as Changeling and Hawk close in on him he drops, spins, kicks, and there’s an elbow jab that makes something crunch, and he breaks three of Lilith’s fingers, and then Koriand’r nails him in the shoulder with a righteous fist, sending him flipping back—and she sees under the hood.
It’s Nightwing. It’s Dick.
No time to question or hesitate. They fight. He’s as skilled as he always has been, but together they are too much for him, and his face is blank and his tactics do not reveal the deep familiarity he should have with each of their abilities, so at least Koriand’r’s heart is swelling with rage at the violation of her beloved with no inclination toward breaking in confused betrayal, as she pinions his left arm.
Cyborg has the other, and several others are holding onto him as well, as though with his madness he may have developed the ‘super’ strength to tear through her grip as if it were no more than a chain of flowers. Well, he did just defeat the Flash. It is not impossible. Carefully, they force him to his knees, and all his resistance comes to nothing.
Someone has flipped the hood back, hoping perhaps that a clearer view would reveal imposture, and there is an expression in his eyes, she thinks, though nowhere else. He is terrified. The pulse running through the wrist under her fingers races with it. His breath is shallow with it.
“Who are you,” Kori demands, because while this is almost certainly no mere impostor, possession is the easiest of the other scenarios, the most straightforwardly mended, and if the possessor is so frightened of them, then threat is the best road to better knowledge. “What have you done?”
Her Nightwing’s throat rolls in a way that says surrender, though she’s seen it more often in much sweeter circumstances than this. He jerks his head up, defiance, and meets her eye without recognition. “My name is Richard Grayson.”
He says it like a challenge, flatly daring them to disagree, and fury like Starfire’s simmers from each of her companions. Raven’s healing alone may not be enough to save Flash, and the emergency physicians have not yet arrived though she believes she heard someone summon them, and none of them know who to punish.
“Uh…” says a voice from across the room, and—it is Dick, in the doorway, marvelously, unbelievably, Dick in a blue hooded jacket with the proper startled, searching wideness to his eyes at the sight of them with their blank-eyed captive, and bags of food and drink dropping from his hands to free them for potential battle. “Mind telling me what’s going on?” he asks.
He steps into the control room, and his eyes fall on Flash lying bloodied, barely breathing, and so he is not looking at his twin when the man repeats—grim, expressionless, and yet still somehow wildly reckless—“My name is Richard Grayson.”
Changeling scoffs, at that. “Yeah, that isn’t going to work when we have the genuine article right in front of us.”
The prisoner twists his head enough to look at the green-skinned man and says, biting off his words in a way that lends them an inflection that is otherwise absent, “My name is Richard Grayson.”
“I’m getting tired of hearing that,” says Dick, keeping calm in the face of this so well Kori can’t help being proud of him.
The prisoner’s teeth grind against one another and he jerks in her and Victor’s grips as though he has unjustly renewed his confidence in the value of struggling. Garfield sets the flat of his hand against the impersonator’s breastbone and holds his eyes, telling him without words to back down. He has no chance. He must realize this. He should submit himself to their mercy.
The prisoner bridles, and without any wasted motion, or any show of feeling stronger than affront, he sinks his teeth into Changeling’s green wrist.
Garfield makes a sharp little sound that’s almost as much surprise as it is pain, and with his other arm backhands the captive hard enough to knock his head back, taking the biting teeth with it, which Kori considers restrained of him. Changeling can hit much harder with his closed fist, let alone the fist of one of his ape forms. Even with this restraint, a red new bruise blooms across the false Nightwing’s cheekbone in seconds—and then fades, almost as quickly. He turns his head back slowly toward Changeling, locks his eyes when Garfield looks up from the blood beading on the back of his wrist.
His face is blank, and not stiff with tight control but smooth, as though there is no feeling to show. Only his pulse against her fingers, ready for action, and the tension in his neck betray the anger that must be there. She would say, if she did not know him so well, but this is not the man she knows, and perhaps she has only been imagining that she could read his face.
“Okay, break it up,” Dick says firmly, abandoning the middle of the room to join the knot surrounding his impersonator, who flicks his attention completely to Nightwing. “Gar, back off. Get that bite cleaned out. Jericho, could you get some restraints so Vic and Kori don’t have to stand there all night.”
Starfire appreciates the thought.
The false Nightwing does not. But neither does he offer to bite anyone else. It will do.
She hopes Dick doesn’t think she’s about to let the impostor out of her sight.
“Raven?” their leader asks, turning to their chief medical authority. “How is Flash looking?”
“Alive,” the mystic replies shortly. She has not taken her hands from their place on both sides of the Flash’s neck, and Kori can only guess that his steady, labored breathing depends on the steady flicker of power she’s expending. The expressions on her assistants’ faces are not encouraging. Dove is checking Flash’s pupils.
Flash is hardier than his light and fragile constitution seems to imply, Koriand’r knows. She could break him with one hand, if she could catch him, but he would probably recover, if she did.
She hopes that strength will be enough.
Chapter 3: and your hands, yet it seems
Once again displaying my flagrant disregard for continuity: it’s after the Crisis, but Kole isn’t dead. Nyah. And Doctor Midnight (Beth Chapel) as opposed to either ‘Doctor Mid-Nite,’ was never actually a member of the JLA and got killed off pretty fast; I kick continuity in the shins because she is my favorite.
(On the other hand, the fact that Wally is currently dating the magnetic-powered Frances Kane aka Magenta is just canon.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After stealing a minute to change back into costume, Dick supervises Wally’s transfer up to the Watchtower. It’s a wrench, considering last time he left his team alone in their home base for fifteen minutes, someone with his face broke in and hospitalized an Alpha-class metahuman, but they’re on guard now and his double is in custody. He hangs around waiting for the critical-condition light to go out (for better or for worse), although Superman corners him partway through and spends a while telling him very seriously that he is not responsible for this, and he has to keep that in mind.
Dick loves Clark like a favorite uncle and a childhood idol wrapped up in one, because that’s what he is, but sometimes he really wishes hitting him would hurt something other than your hand. Except no. If Clark wasn’t indestructible, Dick wouldn’t even be considering hitting him. (Probably.) But Dick is responsible, whatever Superman thinks. Wally was his guest in his Tower, and it has to have been Wally’s trust in him that let the infiltrator get the drop on him.
He leaves once Doctor Midnight proclaims the Flash stable. His face is probably not what Wally is wanting to see right now.
(Thinking about that, he stops to arrange for Magenta to be beamed up. Wally will absolutely be down with waking up to see his girlfriend, and Frances will be seething to not have made it in time to help beat up the Nightwing impostor. At least he can get somebody the chance to feel useful.)
Back at the Tower, someone presumably feeling the need to engage in any action at all has cleaned up after the party. He announces his return, and Vic turns up to fill him in.
Nightwing’s double has not been forthcoming in his absence. He turned out to have two serious-business combat knives on him when searched, one at the small of his back and one strapped to his calf, as well as a smaller folding knife and a multitool in his pants pockets.
Otherwise his gear consisted of eight hundred and fourteen dollars cash, in a fancy leather billfold that completely fails to match anything else about him and which Nightwing would normally assume was stolen, a length of thin wire cable that could serve as a garrote, a crumpled receipt for gas station coffee, two packets of crackers and one of that enhanced-electrolyte-glucose powder you can get to mix into water, for those situations where you’ll need to maximize hydration uptake but for whatever reason can’t haul a bottle of sports drink along, and a hotel room key. No other combat or infiltration gear.
They took away his clothes, just in case, and gave him a set of Dick’s sweatpants and a workout shirt that had gotten mixed up with Kori’s laundry. (It would’ve been okay if they’d gone into his room to grab clothes, really, but he appreciates the consideration for his privacy.) They checked him for makeup and masks, and found nothing.
Duplicate took all of that much better than anyone expected, after the biting incident. Being strip-searched apparently bothers the guy less than having his identity challenged. Noted.
The theory list right now, as brought up on a screen by Cyborg, starts with clone and meanders along through ‘fetch’ and ‘shapeshifter’ to ‘induced mass hallucination,’ which is the suggestion that always goes on the list when nobody actually knows anything. But apart from the insta-healed bruise, their mysterious intruder seems human. They don’t have anyone trained to do a genetic workup, but Vic did all the scans he could and Raven left a note to say she’s working on the problem. Hopefully she’ll remember to get some sleep, too.
They’ve put the man in an interrogation room that’s actually one of the smaller training rooms with a table hastily bolted down in the middle, and asked him a lot of straightforward questions, but he’s stopped even insisting that his name is Richard Grayson. He hasn’t said anything in hours.
Dick looks at the monitor screen, where his doppelgänger sits wearing his clothes, arms and legs cuffed to the chair, expression closed, and Pantha leans over the table, glaring, ears flattened, claws out, all her feline apex-predator menace brought to the fore.
“What. Do. You want?”
Not a flicker.
Dick shakes his head. This isn’t going to get anywhere. This guy might have panicked when they first took him down, but he’s not cracking for anything less than heavy-duty torture now. If there was a window, they missed it.
“Tell Pantha to pack it in,” he says. “Get him to a detention cell.” Interrogation rooms were not included in the building plans, which decision Vic may want to revise in the future, but holding cells? Absolute must.
“Give him a while to stew,” Gar agrees. Dick would correct him, but he’s right.
“And I’ll draw up a roster for prisoner monitor duty,” he concludes.
His double took down the Flash singlehanded. They’re keeping eyes on him until the League decides to demand a custody transfer. Hopefully by then they’ll have learned something other than ‘my name is Richard Grayson and I don’t stay bruised.’ Martian Manhunter will probably be able to get a lot more out of him, and they’ll be able to analyze his genetic makeup, but it stings Dick’s pride to have what is clearly a Titans issue handed over to their seniors.
But at the same time, it was a current League member who was actually attacked. He’s sure he’ll be able to get someone to keep him in the loop. The League likes him. Some of them seem to like him more now that he’s less closely connected to Batman.
He gets the roster drawn up, and Kori demands to go first, so he can’t rely on her to help him keep a cool head, because she’s downstairs watching the cameras on his evil twin. Sometimes Dick really misses being able to declare ‘patrol time’ whenever he was at loose ends. He does not miss obligatory nightly patrol. After two hours of unproductive theorizing, worrying, exercising, redrafting various protocols, getting in Vic’s way as he overhauls security, and eating leftover party food, a call comes down from the moon. Wally is not only out of danger, he’s conscious, able to dictate a report on the assault, and extremely relieved his attacker wasn’t actually Dick. God bless speedster healing. Though he’s on bed rest for a week. Anybody needs the Flash in the next several days, they’re going to have to settle for less.
Dick catches three hours of sleep when he finds there’s nothing else that he can claim urgently needs doing, and when he wakes up it turns out ‘the dickier Dick’ (Roy’s choice of words before he left last night, apparently; what are friends for) is now taking a nap of his own, so he showers quickly before he goes down and joins Joey on monitor duty.
Turns out his double sleeps sitting up, which is interesting in that if he’s paranoid enough not to risk lying down when he’s already chained up in a cell, why is he willing to fall asleep at all? But not very stimulating to watch. Dick looks at Jericho, instead.
“So, up until the inevitable supervillain attack, what do you think? Good party?”
Joey smiles and shrugs. I had fun, he signs, without taking his eyes off the screen. Try again next year?
“But maybe not in the Tower.” It’s a fortress…but it’s also a target. A very visible target. After getting their perimeter breached like this…they’ll probably all relax better somewhere with less security and more obscurity.
Joey nods understandingly.
They chat, although Dick’s eyes keep drifting to the monitor screen and Jericho has to snap his fingers for attention a lot, which he takes in good humor. Apparently Joey’s mother and Kole, the not-quite-official-Titan who lives in their house and whom Joey is not-quite-officially-dating, have started conspiring about something, and he’s started to be slightly terrified that he’s going to get home from a mission and find out they’ve designed him an embarrassing new costume or something. Though Dick has seen Joey wear Tamaranean clothing without turning a hair, so he’s not sure what he’s afraid of.
Maybe shirtlessness is more embarrassing here, on a planet where there’s a nudity taboo. Or maybe he doesn’t trust their color sense. Or maybe it’s reflexive wariness about his mother. Dick is certainly wary of the woman, would be even if she wasn’t the head of an international mercenary spy firm. She married Slade Wilson. And later shot him in the face and kicked him out of her life. Both of those actions have to have required metaphorical balls of steel.
He suggests lots of lace. Joey gives him the finger. Everybody thinks Jericho’s such a sweetheart. Hah.
Eventually, and with no drama whatsoever, the duplicate wakes, straightens without disturbing the chains strung to cuffs on his wrists and ankles, and faces the door, expressionless. Vic said that the prisoner has no detectable cybernetic components, but there’s still something very robotic about him.
Shortly thereafter Dick excuses himself from the monitor room to bring his clone, or whatever, some food, because healing abilities or not he seems basically human so he probably needs to eat, it’s been over eight hours since they arrested him, and they’re not cruel. In Dick’s sleeveless white shirt, it’s more noticeable that he’s thinner than Nightwing—Dick hasn’t got much body fat to speak of, but his double has none, and somewhat less in the way of visible muscle bulk, too. Though with the world they live in and that healing factor, that doesn’t mean Dick’s going to bet high on himself in an arm-wrestling competition based on looks alone.
The food is just breakfast cereal, in a Styrofoam bowl, and the spoon is the especially bendy plastic kind, but the doppelgänger still toys with it in his fingers like they’ve handed him a weapon. Well, even if he actually can weaponize the thing, the cuffs should slow him down enough to prevent it being a problem, and it’s not like Dick intends to leave him unsupervised.
He hunkers down just inside the locked door—companionable, hopefully; his head is about three inches lower than the other guy’s. That should cut some of the menace of being the jailor guarding the only exit. The little folding table he carried in is light enough that if his double kicks it at him, it'll just flop over.
“So,” he says, when about half the Frosted Flakes have disappeared with smooth, precise movements and what’s left are no longer crunchy, “I get that you think you’re me,” and here the copy shifts a little, blows out a little air through his nose, a fairly subtle sonata of scorn, so yeah, he’s not accepting that interpretation of his reality any time soon, “and we’re not arguing about that one right now, but what I don’t get is, why’d you attack the Flash?”
The stranger with his face sticks another spoonful of sodden flakes into his mouth, with a little bend to his eyebrows like he doesn’t understand why Dick’s even asking, but whether he thinks it’s stupid or not, his answer’s important. They need to deal with him, and to do that right, to do it fairly, they need to figure him out. What he is. Why he’s here.
So he waits, even as the other man chews methodically, swallows, and then sits in silence for another second.
His patience is rewarded. More or less.
“He wouldn’t let me go.”
The statement is devoid of emotion, in the same oddly formal cadence he used to insist about his name, but it matches what Wally could remember. That’s the oddest thing about this whole situation, that the homicidal copy of him got in this far and then was trying to leave. They couldn’t find anything out of place in the control room. No tampering. No access records on the computers, and no data-carrying devices on the infiltrator’s person, so if he came for information, he was smuggling it out in his head, after erasing his tracks so well Cyborg can’t find them.
He can’t have been made for infiltrating Titan Tower, either, or he would’ve been trained to take advantage of his resemblance to Nightwing instead of attacking the first person who spotted him.
Dick pulls a wry face at the man whose reaction to being detained got him chained to a prison cot. “Overreaction much?”
The same pause as before, another puzzled bend of eyebrow and really, did they grow this clone completely brain-damaged? In case that was too confrontational, he adds, “I mean, I know Flash can be annoying, and he thought you were me so he probably wasn’t respecting boundaries, but you didn’t have to get that mad about it.”
“I wasn’t mad.”
He says it quickly. Not hurried, but it’s the least consideration Dick’s seen him give any action besides the biting last night, and there’s a shade more intonation this time—he sounds vaguely surprised that Dick thinks he was mad at the guy who he beat most of the way to death.
“Then what did you hit him so much for?” Dick fires back, with twice the bewilderment. No confrontation, careful now. Being casual seems to be working. He seemed to have lethal intent, but on the other hand he had weapons and didn’t use them. Of course, if he’d taken the time to draw one he might not have managed to hit Wally at all. But still.
His double hesitates again, this time like he’s gathering himself for a mighty effort. Sets the spoon down on the plastic table surface, and stares into the depths of the white foam bowl. “He wouldn’t let me go,” he repeats. “Couldn’t hit once and run; he’s faster. Had to make sure he stayed down.”
Dick can follow the warped logic of that. “Okay, well, one, you could have tried asking him to let go, maybe? But a more important two, you sure seemed like you were trying to kill him, when the others got there, even though he was already down and out. What’s up with that?”
Again with the eyebrows. They are really not reaching each other here. Duplicate doesn’t seem surprised by the implication that Wally survived; maybe he knows Raven by reputation. “If he recovered, he’d want revenge. I have enough powerful men after my head without adding one who can search the planet on foot.”
Combining the ideas ‘Wally’ and ‘powerful man’ in that ominous tone is actually pretty hard, even though with his current level of Speed Force connection he’s right up there with the rest of the greats. There is still so much wrong with that speech. Dick doesn’t even know where to start. “Didn’t you think about everyone else who’d be after you, if you killed him?”
A shrug, like being wanted for murder by the entire hero community is everyday life, and much less worrisome than personally offending the Flash. (Dick is going to need to get second and third opinions on everything he’s reading into these gestures; he thinks he might be projecting. He’s not used to reading his own face.) “No one would have known it was me.”
“Yeah, thanks for trying to pin that on me,” Dick grumbles, stomach twisting at the thought. A second Flash dead in two years, all the evidence pointing to one of his best friends…
Shrug again. “Didn’t know about you.”
Bizarre. Dick shakes his head, tries to set aside his preconceptions. They are getting in the way. “What were you even doing here?”
“Don’t know.” Tiny shrug, and then the copy sets his plastic spoon down in his foam bowl, tilts his head and offers, “Happy to leave.”
It’s a joke, Dick realizes, which is awesome in terms of the creepy factor—makes him seem significantly more human, even if his expression still didn’t change—but not helpful when it comes to deciding what to do with this dangerous stranger who looks like him. Who is very clearly a person, an individual, and to all appearances completely convinced that he is the real Richard Grayson.
Who does he think he’s talking to, Dick wonders. Are they both looking across the cell and thinking ‘he doesn’t know how to act like me?’
He blows out a sigh and scrubs a hand through his hair. Leadership is such hard work sometimes. “Okay,” he says, with a quick smile, deciding on a new tack, “what do you really, really not want us to do?”
His clone looks at him with such blankness for so long he nearly cancels the question and tries again, but then My-name-is-Richard-Grayson replies. “Please don’t…set me free with all my weapons and money?”
For a second Dick takes him completely literally, thinks it has something to do with knowing he’s a danger to others and wanting to be contained, but then something in that non-expression, the way the funhouse mirror head’s still tilted, clues him in, and he can’t help laughing. Another joke. This guy is full of surprises. “You,” he informs the prisoner, letting his grin linger, “are no Bre’er Rabbit.”
“I was thinking of the Goose Girl,” is the calm reply, and Dick hisses through his teeth. Not so much at the reference itself, the impersonator tricked into outlining her own hellish punishment, but because that was a story his mom used to tell him. Somehow, this impostor knows.
But it isn’t said cruelly, so he keeps his peace and shakes his head again. “I’m not trying to trap you. I just want to get a sense of what you don’t want, so we don’t accidentally stick you inside your worst nightmare trying to keep you from hurting anyone.”
Eyes that just fail to match what he sees in mirrors search his face, and then the false Grayson dips his head. No trust, but a risk analysis that falls on the side of answering. He’s decided he has nothing to lose by exposing this weakness. Which means he thinks it’s likely enough to happen anyway that admitting he’s afraid of it can’t make a difference.
Or he’s running an actual con, of course, but then why make the briar patch joke? Multi-level reverse psychology? “My hunters. Don’t let them have me.”
Powerful men, he’d said. Dick nods, absently. “Who?” he asks, more out of curiosity than anything. They do need to find out that kind of thing, especially if the people in question are likely to come knocking, but really at the moment it’s not a top priority. They aren’t handing this prisoner over to anyone but the Justice League. He just wants to know.
It once again takes the man a little while to decide whether to answer him, but Dick knows his considering face now, and crouches patiently while his duplicate finishes the bowl of cereal and pushes it aside. This is just what he was hoping for, after all: some of his earlier questions probably gave away more than he got out of the answers, but the Titans are in a position of power right now; they could afford it. And now he’s established some level of rapport.
“The Owl,” the prisoner confides at last, with a gravitas not at all due to the name of somebody Dick’s never heard of. He makes a note to look into this Owl person, and then forgets it completely when the prisoner adds even less willingly, “Slade Wilson.”
He starts up out of his crouch, unthinking. “Slade’s after you?” They’ve almost been getting along with the Terminator lately, in a hostile distrusting kind of way. They have an uneasy peace. Horrible suspicion settles in his gut. “Did he make you?”
The clone looks at him with a face that says, I believe you’re stupid, but not that stupid. It’s almost identical to one of Bruce’s expressions, actually, but Dick has never seen it aimed at him with this undertone of murder if the implicit command is not obeyed. (Other people, yes. Not him. And he's never believed in the homicidal intent this way.) “Of course not,” the man with his face says. Clicks his teeth together, and adds, withering, “Bruce Wayne did that.”
Dick knows his jaw drops. He takes a graceless step backward into the comforting solidity of the wall.
Stop, he tells himself, regaining his composure. He, or whoever sent him, is just trying to get a reaction out of you. You and Bruce might have spent a while on the worst terms imaginable without actual vows of vengeance being involved, but you know he wouldn’t do this.
And if he ever did, the copy he made damn well wouldn’t resort to murder that easily!
The Deathstroke theory is both less disturbing and slightly more plausible, whatever the chained killer on the cot thinks. Even if Slade would have less in the way of both means and motive.
But most likely is this third party, the Owl. New on the scene, or someone old under a new name. Who may be trying to get at Bruce through him, and very likely is the reason his duplicate knows their identities. Why he is so certain that he is Richard Grayson. Dick shakes his head. “That doesn’t sound like him,” he says.
There’s that silent scorn again, stronger than ever. “You know him?” copy-Grayson says. He continues giving very little in the way of nonverbal cues, but Dick is fairly sure he’s not the only one using this opportunity to get his double’s measure.
Dick chuckles, a little weakly, and runs his hand through his hair again. “Does Dick Grayson know Bruce Wayne,” he repeats. “Wow.”
The more questions he gets answered, the fewer theories are compatible with the data. Of course that’s your goal in any investigation, narrowing the possibilities down until you arrive at the truth, but if you run out of theories altogether you’ll know you went wrong somewhere, trusted bad information or made a leap of faulty logic, and have to start over. And testimony is always the trickiest leg of any case—incredibly useful, but horribly unreliable. In this case, it’s almost all they have. That needs to change.
Eyes narrow now, watching him, the clone repeats, “Dick.”
Nightwing shrugs. “It’s what people call me. I’m told it’s only sometimes meant descriptively. Listen—” He raises a hand to gesture, and realizes that sometime in the last several seconds the young man chained to the bench has gone tenser than he’s been since before the breakfast cereal. It can’t be the hand itself; the prisoner didn’t startle when Nightwing jolted upright, has not displayed specifically physical defensive body language, and he isn’t afraid of being hurt. He’s afraid of something, but it isn’t pain.
That flat challenge from last night is back, as his double searches his face. “Anyone could know that,” he says.
Nightwing blinks. “Know what?”
“They mentioned it in interviews. It doesn’t mean anything.”
His enunciation has gone hard again, and he holds the eyes of Dick’s mask. “My parents called me Dick. Dickie.”
He’s right. That is a matter of public record, if you’re willing to dig a little for ancient news coverage of the Flying Graysons. It doesn’t prove anything.
But now they know that he thinks he had parents.
“Yeah,” says Nightwing. “It’s always been my nickname, too.” He sees the way the other man breaks eye contact, head glancing away left while the right shoulder comes a fraction of an inch forward. Defense. Rejection. Still not the physical kind. “You…” he says, suspicion solidifying. “You don’t think I’m real. Do you.”
His double gives a minimal shrug of one shoulder. “Illusions. Holographic systems. The Circus has a shapeshifter.” He scrapes his eyes across Nightwing’s chest. “My replacement is thirteen. I don’t think you’re a clone.” Dick can’t detect any stress on the ‘I’ or ‘you,’ and isn’t sure it’s even meant to be there. Since apparently their prisoner doesn’t believe in a single thing he’s seen or heard since he got here.
And how do you prove that you’re you? To someone apparently convinced that reality is an elaborate hoax, no less. To your own delusional clone.
Bruce probably has a protocol for this. Dick doesn’t.
Logic actually seems like a safe first bet. “Why would we do that?” he asks. He wants to ask it gently, but is instinctively sure his duplicate will distrust gentleness, even more than Jason did the one time he tried it. Like Pantha, or any other young hero he's worked with who's been through too much, and has no history of just treatment to fall back on. “Why go to all this trouble to convince you that you…” Don’t exist. Aren’t real. Are my clone.
A smile, then. Cold and thin and painfully cynical, enough that it reminds Dick of the night years ago when Robin was interviewing every dockside prostitute he could find about the john he and Batman suspected A) had murdered Lacy Lisa Levoutte and B) was State Senator Andrew Biggs. Frustrated, around two AM, he asked one woman if she even cared. It could be her next.
She smiled, just like that—different, with cheap plum lipstick laid on heavily and stained imperfect teeth and a woman’s weary posture, but still. Like that. If it’s not him, it’ll be some other big man. It doesn’t matter. There’s no getting justice for us. Nobody cares, kid.
We do, he told her. Batman and me. We care. We’ll get him.
“People,” his doppelgänger says, so bitter it’s weightless. “Can say no.”
Because he was just thinking of that streetwalker—he was eleven years old and thought she was ancient but in retrospect she was probably not quite thirty—Dick’s first association is straight to sex, no means no, and he thinks for a second the guy is saying it’s all a complicated Titans scheme to sexually assault him and pass him off as a sexbot with no human rights, or something. Then he gets it.
Maybe it is sex he’s talking about, and maybe it isn’t, but this isn’t about what they can make some hypothetical third party think. The imaginary hoax is all aimed at him, Dick’s double, my name is Richard Grayson. Telling him he isn’t a person. That that name isn’t really his. That he has no human rights.
That there’s no point trying to say no. To anything.
The point is that light bitterness, that old familiar acceptance of a status quo that offers you nothing, no protection, no justice, no hope. We care, Robin had told that woman, the most disinterested of all the potential witnesses he’d questioned even though her own life could be on the line. She’d smiled again, nothing joyful in her eyes, nothing seductive in her posture, and answered, I don’t.
Nightwing feels anger rising in his gut, anger edged with a little shame.
“Did someone,” he begins, and then doesn’t bother to finish, because obviously someone did. Someone told him he wasn’t a person, that he had no right to refusal, to choices. Someone used him. Someone.
He says it was Bruce Wayne, but if Dick had thought it was even a little possible before, he doesn’t now, because Batman has a nearly infinite capacity for cruelty under the right conditions, and he is somewhat prejudiced against anything that isn’t a normal human, and on top of that he’s an enormous asshole, but this kind of treachery is beyond him.
Bruce never tried to force Dick to be Robin. Tried to make him stop, a few times, but always gave in when he insisted. Never tried to force him to stay. Got really upset when he dropped out of college, but didn’t actually apply any direct pressure to get him to change his mind. He won’t work with you except on his terms, and once you’ve agreed to them he can be an appalling autocrat a lot of the time, but. He had every opportunity to try to mold Dick Grayson into the kind of person who would follow orders before his own heart. And he didn’t.
Somebody tried to break his double’s will, and his double escaped. And here’s Dick, making nice and asking questions and insisting the guy isn’t real.
Which he isn’t. Because Nightwing is instead, because he thinks that Batman did this to him and that is not possible, because he doesn’t know how to use his face and has a mysterious healing factor. He cannot be the real one. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have rights. And Wally’s going to be fine, so Dick thinks…he can afford to care.
“Listen,” he repeats. Reaches up, strips off his mask. Seeks out those identical, strangely flat eyes, which lock onto his and don’t flicker. “Richard. You honestly only went after the Flash with intent to kill because you believed it was the only way to survive?”
He didn’t say that, but Dick’s starting to believe he didn’t say it because he took it so completely for granted.
Richard nods. Obviously, says his eyebrow.
Dick believes him. He takes a slow breath, and breaks eye contact. “Okay. Keep helping us figure this out, and we’ll do whatever we reasonably can for you. I promise that no matter who comes asking for you, we won’t hand you over without a really good reason. Especially not to anyone evil. Not to Slade, and not to Bruce either.”
The fugitive looks at him, and nods. He probably doesn’t believe it. If he really doesn’t know how he got into the Tower, if he really thinks this is a complicated gaslighting scheme to convince him he isn’t a real person and has no right to make his own choices, he has no reason to believe it. Dick said it anyway. He means it.
Clones are people too, when they have minds of their own.
“So if you’ll just answer a few more questions, I’ll leave you alone for a little bit. Okay?”
Richard nods again.
“Okay. What’s ‘Blaise’?”
“Flash.” Richard sees his bafflement; clarifies. “The younger speedster. Redhead. High-energy. Likes fire. Blaze.”
Okay. Eerie. Not that Wally’s all that much of a pyro in reality. Dick wonders where that came from. (And his cowl was up, earlier, so how does Richard know his hair color? Or that he’s the younger of two? That isn’t public knowledge, even if most of Central and Keystone know Wally’s not the same Flash. It’s not just Nightwing’s secret ID. They totally have a leak.)
And this means Richard tried to address Wally by name in a conversational way, immediately before trying to beat him to death. Which means he either knows something about putting people off guard, or he’s significantly crazier than he seems. Dick’s actually leaning toward option a. In spite of all the delusions.
He’s met a lot of crazy people, is the thing, and he’s met a lot of brainwashing victims (he’s been a brainwashing victim, not that long ago, and had to be rescued from himself), and while Dick may be biased, Richard gives him more of the latter vibe than the former. Especially since exact physical duplicates of people don’t just happen.
They can follow up on this stuff about pyro Wally later.
“Okay. Thanks. Second question, why is Slade Wilson after you?”
That look again, like Dick should already know the answer to that, and he’s not buying for a second that he doesn’t. “I killed someone important to him.”
Well, shit. Dick has no intention of going back on his word, especially if it means letting Deathstroke dice his double, but he’s not looking forward to dealing with a complete breakdown in relations with the Terminator, as he either mistakenly targets Nightwing or attempts to kill someone under Titans protection.
Especially because the guy on monitors right now is probably related to whoever got killed. Or…not. Deathstroke can have friends, right? Fake Richard Grayson didn’t necessarily kill Jericho’s mom or anything. They’d have heard about that, anyway. Joey lives with his mom; he saw her a week ago, before she left the country on a Seekers Inc. mission. She almost definitely did not get killed on that mission by Dick’s doppelgänger.
(Unfortunately his life is weird, so he has to maintain the ‘almost.’)
He could push, but not with Jericho watching and without having had a chance to confer.
He’s kind of low on questions that can get quick answers. He’s leaving as much to buy time to get his own thoughts in order as to give his double a break. Last one. He hesitates a second, then goes for broke.
“I know your name, but if someone asked ‘what are you?’ what would you say?”
Richard scowls. “Don’t waffle,” he grates, apparently more annoyed by Dick’s attempts at delicacy than the dehumanizing nature of the question. Then the expression is gone, and he looks as blank as he did during his interrogation in the small hours of the morning. But he answers the question, flatly. “I was a Talon.”
“Talon,” Dick repeats.
“Of the Court of Owls. I left. It was the correct decision,” Richard states. Decidedly. As though Dick was going to tell him he should go back.
Talon of the Court of Owls? Seriously?
Dick nods. Hoping he’s giving nothing away, though he goes for a nonjudgmental thoughtful look because his own locked-down-nobody-home face is a: not very good (unless he’s under so much stress he’s punched his way straight through to the other side) and b: angry-looking when it does engage. “Okay,” he says, and doesn’t push. “Thanks for talking to me.”
Richard holds onto the edge of the cereal bowl when he tries to take it, and for a second Dick thinks there’s going to be really stupid tension over a Styrofoam dish after everything was going so well, before the prisoner hunches over his breakfast and drinks down the sugary milk left in the bottom. Uh, yeah, Dick did kind of neglect beverages.
“I’ll be back with lunch, if not sooner,” he says, giving the guy a small smile as he stacks the plastic spoon into the empty bowl. Richard doesn’t smile back, but he does nod, and his eyes seem a little less cold. Though maybe Dick’s just imagining that.
Nightwing looks up expectantly at the camera, and the door slides open. Slides shut behind him. He slumps back against it, for a second.
Jericho watches, after the cell door seals, as the monitor room empties around him. Keeps his attention almost entirely on the camera that gives the best view of the prisoner, where he sits on the cot. Waiting to see what he will do now that he’s alone, after that strange little drama. Like a play performed through mirrored glass.
‘Richard’ releases his weight slightly, sinking back into the wall. Crosses his shackled wrists in his lap. And sits. And.
It’s still disquieting, even after plenty of time to get used to it. Dick’s familiar face, drained of personality and drawn tight over its bones with a different kind of hard living. Each limb placed deliberately, neither tense nor relaxed. Like tools, temporarily put away, until they’re needed again. It makes sense, Joseph thinks, that their prisoner speaks of himself as an object, some of the time. He moves like one.
But not like someone who experiences life as a mind-self that is simply contained in a body, with a gulf between the two: after sinking into so many people’s selves over the years, and having been in contact with each of their souls in the time that he controlled their bodies, Joe has developed a good eye for what the most common self-conceptions look like on a reflex level, and ‘Richard’ draws almost as little line between thought and flesh as Dick does. Which means that if his limbs are tools, so is he. Even if, according to him, he isn’t letting anyone use him right now.
Yes. It’s unsettling. Wrong, at a deep level, like no few of the things he’s seen working with his mother, and much more frequently since joining the Titans. But at this point, hours into monitoring duty—mostly just boring.
Dick’s obviously compromised. Joe can’t say he isn’t himself, now, and he couldn’t conveniently take over the questioning anyway, unless the clone knows sign—his unique methods of intelligence gathering are too intrusive to use on a cooperative prisoner, with no lives at stake. So he can’t really help, though he itches to. Except by standing the watch, like this.
He lets out a gusty sigh, loud with all his breath, and twitches his hands in resentful half-signs. It’s never quite as satisfying as muttering to himself aloud would be, and he stops, cards his fingers through one sideburn, and settles back in his chair to watch nothing continue to happen. Which leaves him very few alternatives to thinking.
Wintergreen, Jericho thinks, finally, after all this time trying not to. Yes. Wintergreen. That’s the most likely. After all, Dad doesn’t have anyone else left. Probably it’s old Major Wintergreen who’s dead. Who Slade Wilson will be coming to avenge.
Now that he’s acknowledged the nagging thought, he tries not to let himself dwell on the whiskered old gentleman who was like an uncle to him, once upon a time. Who told funny stories and always made sure to give equal amounts of attention to Joey and Grant. Shuts all that away in the same mental box where he keeps the memory of his father across the dinner table, laughing with his head thrown back, young face under shock-white hair; evenings in the yard together with his dad correcting his form when he threw a ball or a punch; dad’s voice in the next room patiently explaining to Grant why math is actually useful in real life. He loves his father. That's never really been in question. He even knows his father loves him. But...
Joe has never understood how Wintergreen can believe loyalty means supporting Slade in making terrible life choices. That that’s an appropriate way to repay the debt of his life. If any of his friends ever decided to deal with a severe personal crisis by becoming Deathstroke the Terminator (or, you know, any rough equivalent to entering a field like ‘deadly mercenary’), he would consider it his duty as a friend to convince them to stop.
Wintergreen helped. He’s never understood that.
He watches the prisoner lower his eyelids over hollow blue eyes, and allows himself another sigh. He doesn’t know that William Wintergreen is dead. It’s just the most likely thing, because Grant made his own terrible choices and died, and Mom’s okay, and who else is there? Of course, on the other hand, his parents have been divorced for almost a decade. It wouldn’t be surprising if Slade had started dating again.
…it wouldn’t even be surprising if his new girlfriend has been murdered by Nightwing’s delusional lookalike. Because that’s the kind of life they live.
The life his father chose.
Joey folds his arms, sits back in his swivel chair, and watches his team's prisoner.
:] Jericho is also my favorite. And (avoiding) Slade Wilson is a relatively major part of Greywing's life at this point, so. My Wilson Family Feels are seeing the sun. And seriously, the dynamics between Deathstroke and the Titans back then, I can't even. (They forgave him for the Judas incident wayyyyyy too easily. I guess between Joey loving his dad and Gar&Slade's weird coffee date of reconciliation...)
The brainwashing thing refers to the fact that Dick spent about half of our 1987 being forcibly indoctrinated into the Church of Blood. They nabbed him while he was off being depressed about Kori's political marriage, so no one even realized he was missing for a while, and after they did it still took a good bit of effort to get him and Raven out again. (This was the period when Jason joined Donna's Titans, btw.)
In my patchwork timeline of how even, this was about a year ago and Dick's as together as he ever is, but. Very relevant incident. It will come up again.
Chapter 5: to you than all the force
Man, Jericho was really grim closing out last chapter. v_v; Angst backwash from when he came back as an evil ghost, I think, though he always was a pretty epic moper when he was worried about people. If I had not made a pretzel of time, Danny’s very presence would mean that Joey’s doom drew nigh, but since Pantha’s here too, wheee ignore doomful timelines! :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Talon?” Kori asks, when Dick gets upstairs. It’s almost eight in the morning at this point, and she (gorgeous as always) and Gar and Raven and Danny and Donna are hanging out at the breakfast bar, even though two minutes ago they were apparently downstairs with Joey, watching the monitor feed from Richard’s cell. Must have scrambled to beat him here, while he was getting his head straight. They know him too well.
“This is not a TV special,” he tells them all dryly, and sinks into a chair near enough to the bagels to grab one without getting up again. “Cream cheese?”
Danny levitates it right to him, which is the kind of thing he does when he’s trying to be ingratiating. Dick raises an eyebrow at everyone impartially as he cuts his bagel open. “Talon. Yes. Have none of you ever heard the rhyme before, seriously?”
“I have,” says Danny, and Gar nods.
“Yeah, but…” their green shapeshifter adds, with a wavy hand gesture that means something like, ‘I’m pretty sure you know more than I do about this; spill.’ Donna raises an eyebrow. Starfire and Raven are both serenely patient; it looks like Raven made Kori her special tea. Man, Dick wants caffeine.
He shrugs and makes a grabbing gesture at the coffee, which Gar obligingly grabs for him and passes over. “It’s all I’ve got either. It’s an old nursery rhyme,” he tells the girls, as he pours. Kori’s from another planet, of course, and Raven from another dimension, and he guesses this is just one of the many little things that got left out of Donna’s celestially arranged early life story. He’d be surprised that Arella never sang it to Raven, but he knows they were never all that close, and that kind of creepy poetry was probably not welcome in Azarath anyway. “From Gotham, originally, but it’s spread pretty far, for something too creepy to get published in your average Mother Goose collection.”
“Sounds about right for a Gotham heritage piece,” says Donna, grinning, and Dick rolls his eyes.
“Yeah, we get some of the same kind of tourists looking for the Court of Owls that hang around Poe’s grave in Baltimore. Even higher percentage of them wind up in need of rescuing than normal tourists.”
“What does the rhyme say?” Kori prompts, and Dick shrugs, brandishes his cheese knife, and recites,
“‘Beware the Court of Owls / that watches all the time / ruling from a shadowed perch / behind granite and lime. / They watch you at your hearth / they watch you in your bed / speak not a whispered word of them / or they’ll send Talon for your head.’ Accounts vary on what Talon actually is,” he adds, scooping up some cream cheese and slathering it on generously. He needs some comfort food right now. “A giant owl that eats naughty children, mostly.”
Batman got mistaken for it a couple of times when he was starting out, looming in windows at night with the ear-spikes and the cape.
“But that’s not what the poem says,” Raven states, eyes narrow with consideration beneath her white hood. She’s the only one in costume besides him, which means she’s probably been up and working for hours already, but she doesn’t have that bone-china look she gets when she pushes herself too far, so someone must have made sure she slept. “Talon is sent if one discusses the secret rulers. Of—where?”
“Uh, Gotham,” Dick allows. “Sometimes people still say it with ‘Gotham’ in the third line, but it makes the line too long and makes it less creepy if you’re not actually in Gotham, so mostly not.”
“He’s an assassin,” states Gar baldly and, okay, Dick knew that. He just wasn’t thinking too hard about it.
“Was,” he points out. If his inferences are correct, Richard rescued himself. That’s not easy. That’s one of the hardest things there is. “He got out. And keep in mind who he said ‘made’ him.”
No way in hell.
Even if Richard doesn’t lie, his information is suspect.
“It was a very good interrogation,” Kori says into the slightly uncomfortable bagel-munching silence that ensues. She smiles, all warmth, and he’s so lucky to have her. To have her back. He doesn’t even care that she’s technically still married. She’s here.
Donna kicks him under the table with a smirk and he tries to get rid of the unprofessional expression he was presumably making at his girlfriend. (She’s lucky Terry’s off peering over shoulders at an excavation, is all he has to say. He is not above petty vengeance.)
“Yeah, he was all clammed up,” Gar agrees brightly, flashing teeth in his best Hollywood grin. “And you got him answering everything. Way to go, man.”
Dick shrugs. “It wasn’t exactly an interrogation; that’s why it worked. He was sitting down there waiting for us to break out the thumbscrews, and I’m pretty sure he was determined to refuse to say anything just on principle.” He squints a little at the far wall, turning Richard over in his head. “I’m…not sure anybody’s ever been nice to him before.”
Raven nods. “He was resigned to torture,” she announces. “Angry. He confessed his fears honestly, though not exhaustively. You confuse him.”
It’s handy to have an empath around. Enough to make him let go his annoyance at having his conversation spied on. And Dick can’t help grinning wryly at the last item she lists. It’s mutual.
“So you wouldn’t say he’s lying?” Donna asks, rolling a grapefruit across the table at their mystic.
Raven shakes her head and slices open the grapefruit, passing the larger half to Kori. Melancholy half-smile. “He doesn’t know what we want to hear.”
As good a reason as Dick has ever heard for resorting to the truth. He wonders what Richard is going to keep hiding, and what inaccuracies he’s going to share with them, all in honesty.
“Why’d he bite me, anyway?” Changeling inquires, through a mouthful of banana, brandishing the band-aid that covers the tooth marks on his wrist. He sounds less angry than he was last night; apparently he’s not holding a grudge.
Dick thinks he can actually answer that one. “Dominance behavior,” he says. “Wasn’t it?” he asks, when he’s collected a funny look or two, especially from Danny. “You were staring him down. Like a dominant animal, a wolf or something. I think he was warning you off as hard as he could.”
Gar snorts, does not take offense, and swallows. “So assassin-you is feral? Great.”
Dick shoves about a quarter of his bagel into his mouth and shrugs while chewing. He knows what he saw. Combined with the idea that his clone (or whatever, Dick can keep an open mind) is apparently on the run and has been at least long enough to check into one hotel, buy one cup of coffee, and steal at least one wallet, and with the fact that for all his insistence on his existence and his name, he didn’t resist being referred to as something that was made…biting Gar might be a good sign. Not of mental stability, admittedly, but of independence and honestly not wanting to be used again.
Of course, that kind of rage at being controlled could spiral into a murder spree, especially if he starts to chafe at capture or confinement. Dick’s seen it before. He’d rather not see it from someone with his face.
They’d best go carefully.
“So about Bruce Wayne…” says Danny, and Dick shakes his head. “What?” their youngest team member asks, all blinking innocence. He doesn’t really do innocent very well. “You really won’t talk about it?”
Dick swallows the big lump of bagel all at once, wincing a little. “Nope. And from now on, only the person on duty is allowed to monitor his cell. I was serious about this not being a TV show.”
“But it’s interesting,” Danny persists. The young genius has presumably long since bagged and tagged the evidence vis-à-vis Batman that Dick has been kind of sloppy about around team members, and which Richard’s insistence on the full name last night can only have bolstered, but it’s never been explicitly discussed, and the idea that Bruce might be behind some kind of hideous cloning-and-brainwashing project apparently strikes the teenage spy as kind of juicy. Dick gets it, and he actually trusts Danny not to report these things to CBI or he wouldn’t have him here, but damn this kid needs sensitivity training.
Probably his job, if anyone’s. Dammit.
“I know,” is all he says. “But he’s not a in a good place, mentally, so I’d like to give him as much space as we can. I don’t want to go down there, get him to open up, and then come upstairs to find out people are laughing at him.”
“We weren’t laughing,” says Kori.
“I know, Star.”
“You’re sure the Court of Owls isn’t real?” Donna asks abruptly. Everyone looks at her, and she shrugs. “I know it’s an urban legend, nursery-rhyme kind of thing, but myths and legends…”
“Are true kind of a lot,” Gar agrees, gulping down a grape. Point. Donna got her powers from the mythical Titans and Raven is half archdemon, and plenty of people in Gotham itself don’t even believe in Batman.
Everyone’s looking at Dick expectantly. He takes a swallow of coffee and admits, “I’ve never had any reason before today to think they were, but…no. I’m not sure.” He makes a face. “I’ll…talk to Batman.”
It’s completely likely that, if Bruce has uncovered an ancient conspiracy lurking in the shadows of Gotham, he wouldn’t have told Dick. He’s not in town, after all; he doesn’t need to know. And if Bruce has no information but there is something like that stirring, possibly gearing up to regain power, then Batman needs a heads-up, stat, before everything goes to hell. Especially since if Richard’s any indication Bruce is likely to be their first target.
And Dick is both more and less reluctant than usual to talk to him, because even though he knows Richard is wrong, he could really use some reassurance that Bruce can’t possibly be responsible for this…but he’s not convinced a conversation with the man is going to be a source of reassurance. Not that he thinks Batman’s gone evil. But he could have done something stupid and had it go wrong, and not told anybody. He’s not a big sharer.
Maybe he should call, but try to get Alfred on the line, or Jason. Bruce replaced him, after all. He’s not likely to try cloning someone he’s given up on. Right?
Dick wishes Jason hadn’t been too busy with ‘stuff’ to come to the party. Then he could have been counted on to report everything to Bruce, saving Dick the trouble.
…Richard mentioned that his replacement was thirteen years old. Jason turns fourteen soon.
Jason is a brat, but Dick would never want anything bad to happen to him.
“Sounds swell, Dickster,” says Danny, levitating the coffee pot over to himself to refill his mug. There was a brief period of struggle over whether he should even be drinking coffee right after he joined, which he met with a statistical analysis of the caffeine content of several major soda brands aimed at children, and photographic evidence of himself drinking coffee under his parents’ supervision.
Since Dick went through a similar routine with Bruce around the time he started high school, he didn’t fight that one that hard. Though Danny’s ‘if I’m old enough to risk my life in the field, I’m old enough to drink stimulants’ made him wince a little. “He seemed thirsty, can I bring him a bottle of water? Sound him out?”
Sending someone else in with a bottle of water is actually a pretty sound idea, but Dick frowns. “Aw, come on,” Danny complains. “I’ve done a lot of preliminary interrogations. People always underestimate me because of my age.”
“Gar,” says Dick. Changeling’s good in close quarters; most people find it hard to manhandle a gorilla, especially one that suddenly turns into a boa constrictor. “You do it.”
“Yeah, you. See if he’s holding a grudge over whatever exactly made him bite you, see how he reacts to your bandage. You can try if he goes a couple of days without a violent incident, Danny.” Teenage scoff-sigh, and a scowl at Gar, but acceptance. “Changeling? You up for this?”
“Sure,” Gar shrugs. He’s out of grapes, and doesn’t seem willing to stop slouching back in his chair to get more. “He doesn’t bite nearly as hard as I do. Now?”
Dick doesn’t have to think about it before he shakes his head. “No. Give it about an hour.”
“If he’s that thirsty…” says Kori. She’s much more comfortable with outright violence than cold-blooded cruelty, which they have in common even if she doesn’t take inflicting combat deaths nearly seriously enough.
“He just had a bowl of milk, and I want to give him a little while to unwind.”
If he is a recently made clone, a lot of Richard’s uncanny behaviors might be the result of being badly undersocialized, in which case he might burn out on conversation pretty quickly.
Raven’s smiling slightly, which is always a good sign. She stands up. “I should get back to work,” she says. “I will tell you if I learn anything,” she tells Dick, as she brushes imaginary crumbs off her dress. (There has to be magic involved in the stain resistance of that outfit. Dick grew up with Alfred doing his laundry and his whites never stayed that white.) He nods an acknowledgement, and as Kori thanks Raven for the tea Donna says,
“See if you can get him to commit to a position on Wally’s condition, would you?”
Gar shrugs, glances at Dick. “What do you think, Fearless Leader? Am I cleared to risk provoking the feral assassin-wing?”
The most unique thing Dick’s duplicate was carrying, come to think of it, besides the probably-stolen billfold, was the packet of hydration supplement. He can’t be that thirsty at present or he would have drunk the milk right away rather than ignoring it for their whole conversation, but maybe he’s had bad experiences with having fluids denied, or something.
“Make sure he gets the water,” Dick says. They’re trying to build trust here, after all. “Even if you have to throw it at him.”
Gar grins. “Can do. Okay, about an hour, you said? Want to hit the gym until then?”
Dick is tempted. But. “No can do,” he sighs. Duty calls. Donna, whose fault this is since she cornered him into it, is smirking at him again, and he makes a face. “I have to go call home.”
Wow. I'm actually fond of Danny Chase, but damn does he try to take over any scene you put him in. It's no wonder he and Gar don't get along. (Meanwhile Donna is apparently Dick's sister. Heh. The Terry in question is her husband Terry Long, whom I do not like.)
By the way, when I'm not messing around with time for my own comfort and convenience, Jason is around two years older than Danny, not eight months.
Chapter 6: of soul and wind and tide
So I only put this on hiatus for about a year, that wasn't weird right? I blame Gar. 100% the fault of that green guy.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After their impromptu breakfast conference split up, Dick retired to his Tower room and locked the door—it isn’t that the team doesn’t know who he is, and by inference who Batman must be, but he still values his privacy and this will only be harder if he has to worry about picking up another uninvited audience. He glares at the phone like it’s a venomous snake that’s curled up on his desk and started nagging him about his career prospects, then closes his eyes and takes a long, centering breath.
It’s midmorning at this point, on the Tuesday following a three-day weekend. Bruce is probably asleep and Jason should be at school, assuming they haven’t gotten caught up in some epic case, as Batman and Robin tend to do, especially given the opportunity of a legitimate day off school. Either way, if he calls the Cave he’ll probably have to leave a message, which his cowardly side approves of but which won’t help his intel-gathering goals.
House it is. He squares up to the phone, lifts the handset, punches in the Manor’s number from memory. Half a smile pulls at his mouth, remembering that time Bruce leaned out of his office to ask his secretary to look up the Manor number for him, so he could call Alfred to pick Dick up from Wayne Tower; the looks of incredulity on everybody’s faces that Bruce Wayne didn’t know his own phone number. Batman never gets enough credit for his sense of humor.
The smile falls away again as Richard’s haggard face flashes across his mind’s eye.
As he listens to the ringing, he changes his mind half a dozen times about whether this is a good idea. What’s he going to say? ‘I have a brainwashed superclone of me here, and he says Bruce created him. I’m over ninety percent sure that can’t be right, but if you could just give me a hand with these last few percentage points…?’
Click. “Wayne Manor,” says Alfred’s voice, formal and cool, but not hard.
“Hey, Alfie, it’s me.”
“Master Richard!” Warmth rushes in, and Dick grins. It’s nice to hear. “You don’t call often enough. Will you be coming home for the weekend again?”
Dick winces. That was the reason for the last three times he called, making sure he wouldn’t be in the way if he dropped by, but now he’s built up expectations. Alfred can be such a grandmother sometimes. “No, I’m kind of wrapped up in something. Sorry.”
“Well, hopefully you will have extricated yourself by Master Bruce’s birthday party in three weeks. You did receive your invitation?”
One of the best parts of moving out was exempting himself from Bruce’s black-tie affairs. “Uh, maybe? I haven’t picked up my mail recently. But that’s not the point.”
“What is, then?”
“I, uh…” He wanted to talk to Alfred instead, but now he can’t think of a good way to broach the topic. Bruce is easier, because he doesn’t worry about being rude to Bruce. This unconcern extends to having him rousted out of bed. “Can I talk to Bruce?”
“I’m sorry,” Alfred says, actual sympathy rather than chilly brush-off, “Master Bruce left for the office not half an hour ago.”
Since it’s him, on a secure line, ‘for the office’ means for the actual office, and Dick glances at the clock. Quarter past nine. “Kind of an early start for him, isn’t it?”
“Master Bruce has been staying in somewhat more in the evenings, during Master Jason’s convalescence.”
Dick frowns. “Jason’s sick?”
“He was shot three times in the torso by the Mad Hatter.”
What, no. Jason was fine when Dick invited him to the party a week ago. And he’s spent at least two days recovering, for Bruce to have established a pattern of less patrol since, so sometime between last Tuesday and last Friday, he got shot. Badly. Listening to Alfred’s flattened intonations, he probably almost died. And no one, including Alfred, bothered to tell Nightwing.
(The kid would have been so pissed off to die to someone like Mad Hatter. Which is a stupid thought because if Jason was dead he wouldn’t be around to be angry about how it happened, obviously, and this would be a completely different, much more horrible conversation, and be happening days ago.)
Dick shakes off the uneasy feeling of having somehow jinxed Jason into getting shot with half-formed resentful emotions, and says, “But he’s going to be okay?”
“His life is out of danger, certainly. Doctor Thompkins predicts that he should make a full recovery, without long-term impairment.”
God, that hadn’t even occurred to him, and it should have. Being permanently disabled by injuries sustained in the field is one of those nightmares he tries not to look at too hard. “God. Well. That’s good news, at least.” He shakes his head, hard. “Look, Alfred. The reason I called…has Bruce been acting…weird, recently? For him, I mean?”
“You mean apart from his reaction to Master Jason’s injuries?”
Dick’s getting the feeling Alfred blames him for his not having known. Which is all kinds of unfair. “Yeah, Alfred. Apart from that.”
“Not particularly. He has reopened the subject of retirement, for one or both of the duo, but Master Jason is staunchly opposed to the proposal.”
Well, he would be. Dick always was, until the last time. Damn, he hates being the last to know. “Could you maybe tell me this stuff sooner, Alfie?”
“What timeframe would you consider convenient?”
Dick may or may not growl slightly in his throat. “Look. I don’t call because he doesn’t even have time for me when I’m there in person. You guys could always call me, you know! What do you want? I’ll be home next Friday, if I can, okay? I’ll watch his back for a night since Jay’s laid up, maybe we’ll fit in dinner. Okay?”
“Very well,” says Alfred, and he sounds much less stiff—possibly sorry for giving Dick a hard time, because last Dick checked Alfie didn’t actually blame him for leaving. Things must be tense at home, if Alfred’s letting his feelings get out of hand.
Not a good sign.
“Just, in the meantime—tell him we have to talk. Soon. Tell him it’s about what happened to Flash. Ask him…what he knows about the Court of Owls.”
There. That had sufficient hooks for Bruce not to brush him off. And Alfred can be counted on to notice if Bruce reacts weirdly to the question.
“I will pass your messages on, Master Richard.” Alfred’s voice is grave. Maybe the seriousness of the situation got through in Dick’s tone.
Alfred lets him hang up first, and then Dick turns, takes three steps, and flops facefirst onto his bed. Uuugh. And he forgot to leave a message for Jason. He should’ve told Alfred to tell the kid he was rooting for him, or something.
Oh well. He’ll make it up next time he visits. Shot three times in the chest and nearly dying is not the kind of thing you bounce back from in less than a week. They can…play Mancala, or something. Jason is weirdly good at Mancala. And probably it’s something he can play without aggravating his injury.
He lies on his face for half an hour before picking himself up and going to look for Changeling and some bottled water. Finds the water first, and when Gar isn’t in the gym rather than search the whole Tower, Nightwing ducks into Ops and asks the duty officer—not unexpectedly Cyborg—where to find him.
“Down in the cell with, uh, Richard,” Vic says, like Dick should know this. Glances at the bottled water in his hand, and obviously can’t help smiling as he figures him out. “Nobody wanted to interrupt your call.”
Dick rests the cool side of the water bottle against his forehead. His team. Honestly. “It hasn’t even been an hour.”
Vic shrugs. “Gar figured forty-five minutes was close enough. You want me to bring up the surveillance on screens?”
That would spare him missing any more of whatever’s going down, admittedly, but even if Vic’s offer was motivated partly by his own curiosity, Dick doesn’t want to be underfoot. He also appreciates that Cyborg hasn’t been abusing his override abilities to snoop on his own account. “Nah,” he says, smiling. “I’ll just head down.”
Vic does a thing with his eyebrows that probably means ‘darn, I wanted to eavesdrop’ but shrugs. “Suit yourself.”
Donna’s on monitors when he gets down there; she looks around when he opens the door and grins. “Hey, nobody but the person on surveillance duty is allowed in here,” she says.
“Shut up,” Dick answers, not quite as cheerfully. “You know I didn’t mean me. What’d I miss?”
On screen, Changeling is casually tossing a sealed bottle of water from one hand to the other as he stands just inside the door.
“Seriously, though,” he’s saying. “You gotta be kidding me, here. You just blundered in past our state-of-the-art security system accidentally, and you don’t remember doing it? What were you, drunk off your head?”
Richard is watching him, and…Gar has moments, alright. Where one of the animals he turns into comes out in his body language and he seems imperfectly human in a way his coloring never manages. All of them have them, really, the times when whatever abnormality makes them fit to be Titans rears up and makes itself visible in what should be a normal interaction. Dick knows he mostly does it himself when he’s angry or worried, and goes distant and unyielding to be ready to handle whatever’s about to hit him. Or when his temper flares, and the fact that he knows exactly how to hurt people comes across, even if he has no intention of actually doing it.
Never in a million years could he manage the cool inhumanity that’s on Richard’s face right now.
It’s weirdly like watching a mongoose corner a snake. Part of Dick wants to take bets on the winner. Last he checked, they were one for one, bite and backhand. That was with Richard restrained and outnumbered, but then, he still is.
Gar snatches the bottle out of the air again and hunches forward a little, conspiratorial. “Okay, how ‘bout something else. I hear you thought the Flash was somebody called Blaze, that’s why you pounded him into the floor so hard we’re going to be scrubbing up speedster blood for a month. Blaze is that scary?”
“He blows people up,” Richard says.
From the way Gar does his best not to startle, that’s the first thing Richard’s said in a while. “Just…out of the blue?” he rallies. “I mean, you jumped straight to the nuclear option. Don’t you normally wait to see if people are actually planning to blow you up before you beat their faces in?”
Richard does Bruce’s ‘you belly-crawling idiot’ look again, and Gar makes an offended noise. “The Dash,” Richard says, and it’s impressive how withering he can be without any real tone in his voice, “is allied with Owlman.”
Gar gives a puff of air, then slouches a little harder against the door and melts down into the world’s mossiest-looking orangutan. “Break it down for me,” he says, as Richard fails to turn a hair at this simian alteration. The bottled water almost disappears into his long-fingered hand. “Owlman is?”
“Master of the Court of Owls.”
“And Dash is?”
“Ah-ha,” says the orangutan.
In the monitor room, Donna shakes her head. “I can’t believe this is working.”
“Gar is very annoying,” Nightwing says. Rather pleased with himself, actually. “We already knew he got to Richard. And honestly he talked to me best when he was trying to wrongfoot me. So.”
It’s interesting, come to think of it. Richard may not have much real reason to refuse to talk to them in the first place, but he’s still letting himself be baited surprisingly easily. He definitely has counterintelligence training, so what’s up with that? A trap? An error in programming? Does he just not care?
Absently, Dick cracks the seal on the bottle of water he's still carrying and sips at it.
“So,” the green ape says in the cell below, “you’re saying you figured Flash was out to get you because his uncle has a deal with your old boss. Your old boss has a hit out on you?”
Richard shrugs. A merest twitch of motion. “I ran.”
“That’s the whole reason?”
“It’s enough.” Richard shifts, slightly, his borrowed cotton shirt sliding against brushed steel. The chains clink.
“Okay. So you tried to kill Flash because you thought he was Blaze, who would either explode you or hand you over to Dash who would hand you over to Owlman, who’s pissed off at you for quitting your job without permission. It’s like a regular game of Telephone. Or possibly World War One.” He looks to Richard for commentary; Richard gives him nothing. Gar hunches forward, the dramatic eyebrows that come with his current body emphasizing his exaggerated cajoling expression. “Come on, man. I’m not asking a lot here. I told you I’m not holding a grudge about the teeth unless you gave me a disease. Relax.”
Richard is unimpressed.
Gar lifts the water bottle again, holds it out. Not close enough for Richard to actually reach, but it’s an offering gesture, not a taunting one. “Drink?”
Richard doesn’t move. “What do you want,” he says, at least two seconds too late to be natural.
“Words, my gnaw-happy spitting-wing-image; you produced already. You want or not?” After another second Gar lets the bottle sink to the floor. “No trust,” he laments.
“Trust.” Richard’s lip curled, for a fraction of a second, as he barked out the word.
Long, furry green arms are crossed. “Hey. You tried to kill one of us. We haven’t done anything to you. I mean, you hurt me worse than I hurt you.” And that’s the thing: Changeling struck Richard while he was in their custody. He was getting teeth out of his wrist, but it was still less than strictly appropriate. If their prisoner believes they’re going to hurt him, Gar definitely laid part of the foundation for it. (Which is another reason why he’s Nightwing’s first choice for this; he’s going to be a factor in any attempts to make Richard feel secure, so he might as well speak for himself.)
Richard doesn’t bring any of that up. “You’re keeping me in a cage.”
“It’s not a cage,” Gar argues.
“I had enough of that for a lifetime.”
Changeling grins, which is quite a sight on an orangutan’s wide mouth. “So you’re saying,” he says, and turns into a bright green parakeet, fluttering at what was his face level a second ago, leaving the water behind on the floor. “You Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?”
Richard’s blank expression seems particularly blank, and Gar makes a disappointed scoffing sound and turns back into himself, now standing. “No? Nothing? Tough cell.”
In the viewing booth, both Dick and Donna rolled their eyes at the forced reference, and Donna went so far as to groan, even though Gar wasn’t there to appreciate it. Dick laughs a little, now, at Gar’s frustrated expression as much as the one he suspects is what bafflement looks like on his double.
“Look,” Gar says, lounging against the wall now. “You’re freaked out. I get that. I don’t like cages either.” That’s a rare moment of sincerity from Changeling, though he clothes it in enough casual disregard to maybe fool someone who doesn’t know him. “But we’re not trying to be decent because we want something from you. We’re being decent because we’re basically decent people, alright? Even our Fearless Leader.” He bends down and picks up the water bottle. “You’d have gotten this no matter what you said.” And then he lobs it underhand so it hits the cot and rolls back, bounces off the wall and hits Richard’s hip.
Looks up at the camera and signals for escape, and Donna opens the door.
“Thoughts?” Nightwing asks, when Changeling joins them. In the cell below, Richard has opened the bottle of water with careful deliberation and poured a large drop onto the inside of one wrist. He seems to be waiting to see if anything happens. What does he think they gave him, hydrochloric acid?
The green guy shrugs. “He tries to be stoic but he’s actually pretty easy to goad. He’s more than a little feral, you were right, and some of the same stuff worked on him that works on animals. If we were planning to keep him as a pet I’d say I made great progress.”
But they aren’t. Nobody is sure what they are planning to do, which Dick is aware is undermining the planning process.
Gar grins. “He has no idea what we want from him, and it’s pissing him off.” In his cell, Richard has taken a small sip of the water—Dick is inclined to characterize it as ‘cautious’ but there’s none of the body language or facial expression that usually goes with caution so he knows he might just be projecting, that this testing procedure might be habit, or a studied insult aimed at the cameras, or a lot of things that have nothing to do with anything as emotional as uncertainty.
It was actually kind of a relief to see him being pissy at Gar and be reminded that Richard actually has a personality, as good as he is at acting otherwise, so Dick isn’t being as sarcastic as he sounds when he says, “Wonderful.”
Changeling takes his eyes off the screen roll them at Dick. “I’m starting to think he seriously has no idea how he got here, either, and it’s freaking him out. So yeah. No trust, assassin-you is way feral. Didn’t learn much that’s new except the Dash-is-Blaze’s uncle thing.”
“And he’s frightened of Owlman,” says Donna. Dick quirks an eyebrow at her, and she shrugs. “He mentioned not wanting to be handed over to ‘the Owl’ before, before you got focused on the Terminator.”
“You’re right,” Dick affirms, nodding. How had he missed that? Because he’d been leaping ahead with the possible implications of what Richard had said, and then Bruce had come into it. “We knew he tried to kill Flash because he was afraid. This time he revealed that what he was primarily afraid of was Owlman’s reaction to his having quit being Talon.”
“I guess ‘Owlman’ is the boss of the Court of Owls?” Gar shakes his head. “Do we believe in the Court of Owls?”
“We’re still figuring that out,” Dick answers.
Oh! Should note for the record that Jason's getting-shot episode here is a thing that actually happened in actual 1987. He recovered with astonishing alacrity, as he did from all his hospitalizations because DC was into the gritty realism of getting the kid hero hurt, but not so much the dull grind of his actually being benched for a plausible period of recovery.
Chapter 7: or the glare of wings overspreading
For this story, I think three months actually counts as a rushed update. ^^ Titan talk! Donna was the most physically powerful Titan of her generation, but Kori could beat her because her training was better.
Pantha (who as I've mentioned is a sign that I'm ignoring Titans Hunt) is a rogue experiment from recurring foe the Wildebeast Society. Her arc centers around issues of identity; she doesn't actually know if she's a woman they made more like a panther or a panther they made more like a woman, but she gets really offended if you call her human. She is angry absolutely all the time and has special ragged speech bubbles and font to express just how gravelly her voice is.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They give it a few more hours, for their own sake and Richard’s, and because the League hasn’t called asking for him yet so maybe they won’t. Dick hits the gym after all, and finishes off with a sparring session against Donna that involves being thrown into a large number of walls. She’s been the physically strongest Titan on every version of the team she’s belonged to, and it’s honestly a little nostalgic fighting her because Dick needs to go back to the tactics he used as a kid, when everyone he fought was out of his weight class and getting pinned down was the worst thing he could let happen.
Not that he doesn’t need that approach in real fights a lot still, considering the kind of opponents they face, but it’s rarely fun when he’s this overpowered.
“Yield,” Troia recommends when she finally catches him, pressing down a little harder.
“This could be considered a compromising position,” he points out, because he’s a jerk.
She snorts, and is not at all flustered. He never thought he’d miss when they were fifteen and she had a minor but embarrassing crush on him. “Say uncle.”
“Close enough.” She lets him up.
“Whew.” Dick comes to his feet, brushing at the back of his head where he knows there will be dust in his hair. It builds up faster than the vacuum-bots can handle it.
“I get winner,” Pantha rumbles from the sidelines, and Dick gestures grandly, presenting Donna to her as a gift.
The gym door hisses open almost as soon as he’s yielded the mat, and Cyborg ambles in. Working out is fairly pointless for him these days, when all his limbs are metal, but he has specialized physiotherapy exercises to maintain his remaining muscles and often comes down here to test new adaptations even when he isn’t in the mood for a spar. Whatever he came down to do, though, his eyes fall on the current match in progress and he heads over to join Nightwing spectating, as Pantha eels bonelessly around a jab.
“Hey,” Dick greets.
“Anyone heard from Raven since brunch?”
Vic shrugs. “She’s meditating. She asked me to turn off all alarms in her room except the ‘Tower destruction’ one, because anything short of that was less dangerous than being startled out of what she’s doing.”
Dick shakes his head and wishes for the millionth time that they had another mystic capable of, if not keeping up with Raven, at least keeping an eye on her and following her trail if need be. The closest they have is Lilith, and she isn’t here and doesn’t truck with astral projection anyway. It bothers him to have a teammate technically in the Tower, but utterly cut off from support. “Thanks for the heads-up,” he says.
Pantha loses her bout, to no one’s real surprise. She’s good, but she fights mostly on instinct still, and you need a lot of technical cleverness to beat an Amazon of Donna’s skill level without overpowering might. (Even if she’s not, technically, an Amazon.)
Donna bounces on her toes, one fist high. “Oh yes, winner and still champion!”
“Do I have to call my girlfriend down here to pound some humility into you?” Dick jokes.
“No. Shut up, I’m having a moment.”
Pantha hisses resentfully and hauls herself up into her customary crouch. “You cheat.”
“You overextend all your lunges.”
“And you have claws. If you can think of a way for the two of us to fight without powers, I’ll take you up on it,” Donna says, not sounding like she thinks it could ever happen. “And I’ll still win.” She winks, though, and Pantha doesn’t get any angrier.
She twists her head to look up at Dick instead, and her tail lashes. “The Talon…” she says. Which shows the power of the Titans gossip chain, considering that information was first shared with five people that don't include her about three and a half hours ago. “He really believes he’s you.”
“He’s not,” Dick feels the need to clarify. “I’m me.”
Pantha rolls her eyes at him. “When he finds out he’s wrong,” she says, and even through her customary gruffness just enough vulnerability shows for Dick to wince internally. Of course Pantha identifies with Richard. With having been made and having to find your way to who you are. She may even pity him, as much as she’s able; at least she never had to deal with thinking she knew who and what she was and having it ripped away. “He’ll take it hard,” she grumbles.
Vic says, “Can you think of a good way to break it to him gently?”
Cyborg is another who knows the feeling of not being entirely human, of having to doubt you’re even a person. He’s never lost as much as Pantha, never had to face such extreme doubt as to who or what he is because he’s always had his memories, but.
“Too late for that,” Dick says, after giving Pantha a beat to proffer any ideas, as unlikely as that was. She doesn’t exactly do gentle. “It’s already been made clear we think someone made him.
"The weird thing is,” he continues, because this is the really bizarre thing, even more than Richard’s having no particular reason to be here that he’ll admit to; that he insists on claiming Dick’s identity while blithely claiming that Bruce Wayne created him to serve as Talon to the Court of Owls, “so does he.”
No one else knows what to make of that either.
“Go talk to him again,” says Vic.
Dick does, because at this point anything else would just be procrastinating.
“Hey, Richard?” Dick doesn’t knock, because he isn’t actually offering options about whether he enters, and pretending to would just be tacky. He probably doesn’t need to give a warning, either, since he wasn’t moving all that sneakily and his double is solidly trained, but the courtesy costs nothing. He starts entering the code. “Coming in.”
The door unseals, he pulls it open—and pulls up sharply, because Richard has raised his head and smiled at him. It was clearly a deliberate gesture, and the problem with it wasn’t that it was stiff and unnatural—it was perfect, it looked almost exactly like he does when he smiles. (At least, when he smiles where he can see himself.) But it somehow still got nowhere near the eyes.
And even so, for the first time since the initial shock of seeing his doppelganger mobbed by half his team, Dick’s ability to set up a clear distinction between them wavered, in that second. It’s like looking at himself, if he’d had his soul scooped out. (It’s nothing like the recordings of himself broken by Blood, and it’s everything like it, and Dick acknowledges that he is way too emotionally dependent on having somebody to punch for his emotional equilibrium but he would really like somebody to punch right now.)
He shakes it off, gets inside, closes the door again. Knows he gave away his gut-punch horror all too clearly for that split-second.
“People do that,” Richard observes. There’s a studied disinterest in his voice that Dick is pretty sure is his approach to dry humor, though maybe that’s wishful thinking. “Only sometimes. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong.”
“It’s the eyes,” Dick says, though he probably shouldn’t. Right now, Richard can only impersonate him briefly, except maybe to strangers. In fact, maybe that was the real point of this whole endeavor—to get Dick to spend enough time talking to his duplicate that Richard has the chance to learn all his mannerisms and tics.
Probably not. He doubts there’s enough to be gained from that to be worth giving up the advantage that comes with no one knowing there’s such a thing as a spare Richard Grayson walking around, to make them wary of possible impersonation. You could learn to do a perfectly serviceable Dick Grayson impression based on fairly readily accessed video footage—hell, you could do better than Richard has so far based on just that one TV interview he did when he was sixteen.
“The eyes,” Richard muses tonelessly. “I’ve practiced the shape. Sometimes it works.”
“When you’re feeling something else, it tends to show through,” Dick informs him. As someone much better at smiling in general, he’s still had fake smiles betrayed by pain in his eyes. How nothingness fits into that he isn’t sure, but obviously it does.
Richard looks dubious. “I don’t make…unconscious expressions.”
Dick shrugs. “I think your feelings show more than you think.” Because no, Richard doesn’t make expressions like normal people do, but he does emote, occasionally. The fear and anger they could see on him when he was first captured weren’t conveyed normally, but they were there. In the tension of his wrists and shoulders and the speed with which his eye flicked from one Titan to the next, not panicked but hyperalert. It was probably easier to pick up for them than for most people, being used to trying to read teammates and friends who aren’t as human as they look, or don't look as human as they are.
The difference between emotive cues trained by culture and the basic animal communication written into instinct, maybe. There really is something feral about his double.
Richard takes a second to frown, and that at least looks natural; kind of stiff and definitely intentional, but not wrong. This may indicate sincerity. “What do you want?”
“From you?” Dick shrugs. “Well, more information is always good. We’re still trying to figure this whole thing out.”
The tip of his head, the almost pouty way his lips poke out—sardonic, but not the way Dick does it, not even the way Bruce does, and that’s possibly the most disconcerting thing yet. “You don’t believe me,” Richard points out.
“I don’t think you’re lying,” Dick replies.
Richard smiles at him. That plum-lipstick smile again, thin and cold and bitter. He hasn’t given up, but he has no trust in him, either. “How kind.”
Dick takes a sharp breath. That expression did touch his double’s eyes, but he’s not sure that didn’t make it worse. And Richard clearly doesn’t believe for a second that he isn’t real. He remembers a whole life—and the only way to measure how real it’s likely to have been is to drag his life story out of him. One curt sentence at a time.
Nightwing feels exhausted just thinking about it.
Once again, he crouches beside the door to Richard’s cell, and looks across the room and slightly up, at the man occupying the cell’s chains and cot. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he says. “We honestly want you to come out of this okay, if you can. I, personally, don’t want to keep you locked up forever. But right now all we’ve got on you is a bunch of mysterious pronouncements and the way you almost killed the Flash. The faster we learn, the more control we’re likely to retain over what happens to you.”
It isn’t a lie, though threatening a prisoner with the Justice League is weird. Dick has way more loose cannons on his team. He is willing to acknowledge this has to do with the Titans’ far less stringent membership requirements.
He wonders what Bruce would do, if he had Richard in for interrogation. Batman’s methods of gathering intelligence can get really violent, sometimes. But there’s no urgency here, no race against a clock. No reason to beat or break or threaten.
(And maybe Batman would already know everything they’re trying to ask but no. Dick cannot believe that of Bruce, even if Nightwing feels obligated to suspect it of Batman. It’s what he was trained to do, after all.)
“You can torture me,” Richard says. Not with defiance, or even grim acceptance. It’s casual, an offer—an invitation, almost. You can call me up if you need a ride. You can crash on my couch tonight. You can torture me.
It was one thing hearing Raven say he was resigned to it; this is another.
“I won’t,” Dick says. And that’s the truth. He thinks Richard almost believes him. “We won’t.”
Whatever life he’s lived or been forced to remember living, that makes him expect that and not even bother to fight it, Dick is determined that his team will not be reinforcing it. And he knows as he thinks it that what professional detachment he’d managed to hold onto has now collapsed.
If Richard is playing him, he is damn good.
Dick says, “I wish I understood.” Because saying he understands would be condescending. There’s too much he doesn’t know and too much he can’t believe for that to be fair.
“No you don’t,” is the reply, so scornful he might as well have saved himself the trouble and taken the ruder, less vulnerable option.
“Yes I do,” he snaps back, because he may pity this bastard but that doesn’t mean Richard gets to tell him what his own feelings are.
His double looks up, and God, do his eyes get like that when he glares? He doubts it. He hopes not. (It’s not very useful for the terrifying in his glare to be in the eyes, anyway; they’re usually hidden.)
“Let me tell you a story,” Richard says. And he’s speaking especially clearly, which Dick is now certain is a sign of tension, and his body’s not-moving seems a little more rigid. The flare of expression is gone again already, and his face is a mask, but he’s still holding Nightwing’s eyes.
“Okay,” Dick says, even though he doubts his agreement is actually required. Lack of protest would probably have been more than adequate. He’s sure this will be enlightening, one way or another.
“Once upon a time,” says Richard, and there’s that reckless challenge in him again, just faintly in the angle of his chin and the way he still isn’t looking away. “There was a family of birds. Little birds. Robins.”
Dick tries not to react.
“The mother and father were famous fliers, and their one little chick was already learning, even though his flight feathers had not grown in. A prodigy! they said, and showed him off to everyone.”
There was no real intonation in that last sentence, no overt mockery. Just a sing-song recitation, as though this was a real nursery story.
“The robins lived in a moveable nest, traveling with other creatures with special talents, and one day, they came to a city of owls. The king of all the owls saw the smallest robin flying without wings, and said, What a clever little bird. I want that bird as my servant. And all the other owls said yes, of course, because he was King, and because that was much better than giving him any of their own fat, stupid chicks.
“So one day, when Mother Robin and Father Robin had left the nest, some of the owls stole in among the traveling beasts and carried the little bird away to court, where the king passed him through fire and steel to reforge him into a feathered sword.
"The Owls taught him to fly soundless through the night, and rend and tear their prey for them, and never to sing into the dawn as little birds do, because he was the Sword of Owls, and there is no singing there.
“But Mother Robin and Father Robin had found their empty nest and sent up a cry. And all about the Owl-King’s forest they went, with their little voices, Where is our fledgling? Who has been in our nest? Everyone in the City of Owls turned them away, told them to be silent, but they twittered on.
"Until the King sent two weasels to catch both birds, swallow them down and scatter the bones.
“Mother Bird bit back hardest, leaving her beak’s mark in weasel flesh, but both Robins were killed, and the owls told the stolen fledgling that he had been sold by sire and dam into their service, and in time he believed them, and began to forget he had ever been anything but an Owl.”
There is a note of finality to this sentence, and for the first time since he started to talk, Richard moves, a convulsive flex of his fingers almost exactly like a raptor sinking talons into its prey. Dick can almost see the blood.
That breaks the spell, somehow.
“That isn’t the end of the story, though,” Nightwing points out steadily. “You got away.”
Richard blinks at him, then rolls his shoulders as if the stillness is a physical prison he has to break out of, flicks his fingers in an obvious gesture of dismissal, as though to suggest that it was the end of the part of the story that matters.
“And then,” he says, like he’s doing Dick a huge favor, “one night the Sword Owl was sent into the nest of the Prince of Robins to slaughter the chicks there, but the Prince heard them screaming as they died and came to fight him off, and so the smallest fledgling did not die of its wounds, though it would never sing again.
“The Sword Owl was afraid to go back to his King with this failure, and fighting the orange-breasted Prince had reminded him of when he, too, had been a Robin. And so he looked and found that his charcoal wings had grown in, and flew away into the sun. The King of Owls and the Prince of Robins both swore to hunt him forever. The End.”
That still wasn’t the end, of course, but it comes a lot closer.
Robins. Holy God.
“Okay,” Nightwing says. “Okay. Thank you for the story.”
“It’s the true story.”
“I get that.”
“I had parents,” Richard says, implacable. “They fought for me. My mother died with our enemies’ blood on her teeth.”
Leaving aside that disturbing imagery, which Richard seems to consider comforting, it’s obvious that continuing to challenge this belief would be equal parts stupid and cruel.
If someone tried to tell him his parents—or Bruce, or Alfred, or Kori, or old Jack Haley, or even Babs or her dad, or Roy or any of his friends, anyone he cares about, let alone everyone—was a figment of his imagination, or a false memory someone had written into his mind, he’d fight it. Of course he would. What with the world he lives in, the possibility of some of his memories being false, in spite of all the mental defense techniques Batman trained him in and all Raven’s attempts to help him keep his shit sorted, is very real, and when he thinks about that…well, he tries not to. Dwelling on that kind of thing is a good way to drive yourself crazy.
“Of course they did,” he says, even though he doesn’t believe it. “I’m sorry.”
Richard smiles that awful smile again, and then goes dead.
After a full minute of half-lidded eyes and nothing but shallow breathing to indicate that his double is more than a vaguely malicious mannequin, Dick decides to accept the hint that the interview is over.
He wanted out, anyway.
See my 'Grey Feathers' series for a less bird-metaphor-based version of Richard's backstory, btw. It's come to my attention that sometimes people read this fic without reading the series it's a spin-off from, and while I designed it to be able to stand alone that still seems a bit odd. >>
Chapter 8: the soot-smudged silhouette
Haha nearly nine months. I kept holding this back until I could make time to reread the entire ’85-’89 Titans run to make sure I had the details right, then finally remembered I don’t care. It's in the tags, dammit.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Kori’s waiting for him in the hall when he comes out. Not right outside the door, not where Richard could potentially see her, but a little way up, near the corner that leads toward the elevator. He can tell as soon as he looks at her that she was in the surveillance booth during Sword Owl’s Story Hour. She must have rushed down.
“Did you switch shifts?” he asks, because he memorized that schedule as soon as it was drawn up and this should be the middle of Joey’s second round of guard duty. If she did switch shifts, then the cameras are currently unmanned, and he’s going to have to scold her.
Kori shakes her head. “I stayed after mine was over.”
“Kori.” Nobody ever does what he tells them. It’s awful. The only thing worse than being leader of this outfit would be not being leader, and having to do what somebody else told him. (It’s amazing heroes ever work in teams ever.)
“I want to know. I won’t gossip about it, Dick, but I…” The vulnerable face, he has no defenses against the vulnerable face, the one where her lips draw in until they almost make a circle and the arch of her eyebrows inverts and her eyes are all the way wide, without any of that brash confidence or serene indifference she brings against most obstacles. “When we first saw him standing over Wally, we thought he was you. We didn’t know if it was…mind control, or possession, or—but I didn't recognize the difference.”
“Kori, you…there’s no reasonable way for you to know the difference between me being mind-controlled and my exact double accidentally impersonating me. In the middle of a fight, even.”
Starfire shrugs. “Maybe not, but…when I didn’t know this time…how can I be sure I would know if it had been done on purpose?”
Ah. Another of those questions. It’s…not as bad as trying to be sure you personally aren’t currently brainwashed, but it’s another of those things where the search for true certainty can rip the ground out from under your feet. There’s no easy solution. “I won’t be mad if you start quizzing me whenever you start to wonder,” he offers. “Just, no sex questions in front of people, okay?”
It works; Kori smiles, a burst of air out her nose that counts as about one third of a laugh. “Maybe I will. But right now, I…I need to study him. Until I understand the nature of the difference. Until I know.”
He doesn’t know if that will work, but he understands the impulse. Kori seems to read some hesitation in his body language, and her eyebrows bend again. “Or…do you need this to be private even from me?”
It by definition can’t be private, there always needs to be someone watching for safety’s sake, especially if Dick is in the cell because it’s never impossible that Richard might incapacitate him, swap their outfits, and try to switch his way to freedom. It’s embarrassing how much he feels like cutting down the audience size is a way to get some privacy anyway. “It’s…okay as long as you don’t gossip,” he says.
“The story he told,” Starfire says, too kindly, and Dick turns away.
Plenty of his friends are pretty handsy, so he could have done that in a variety of company and gotten a comforting grip on the shoulder, but Kori’s the only one who presses herself up against his back, breasts yielding against shoulder blades; a moment later, her palm smoothing down his chest, her forehead resting lightly on the crown of his skull. (He isn’t sure he’s actually ever told her that he likes how she’s taller than he is, makes a note to say it out loud sometime. Except how do you say nothing feels safer than the way your girlfriend can fold you up in her arms, without sounding pathetic?)
“I know it wasn’t true, Dick,” she says.
“Parts of it were.”
He hesitates; Kori murmurs,
“Died falling. Extortion racket. It was petty,” and it shouldn’t surprise Dick how angry that still makes him, all these years later. His parents were killed for the sake of protection money from a circus. He loves the circus, but all their profits get funneled right back into the show, covering pay and upkeep and veterinarian’s bills and all the rest of the overhead. It was the organized crime equivalent of shaking down a particularly stubborn first grader for lunch money, and Zucco had two of the world’s greatest acrobats murdered for it.
It’s not that it would be any better if it had been for a multimillion dollar scam, or pirate treasure or something, but. At least their lives wouldn’t have been valued as so completely cheap.
Kori’s exhalation ruffles the hair at the back of his neck. He’s told her a little of this before, but they’ve never traded details. He knows she’s been through a lot more than he has, has used words like tortured when she speaks of it, of what she went through after her father gave her up for the sake of Tamaran. But she only really talks about it when they’re already arguing, when he isn’t in a place where he can listen because he’s too angry.
He doesn’t want to pressure her. Kori isn’t a secretive person; if she isn’t talking about it, it’s because she doesn’t want to. When they’re together, they usually focus on the present, on being happy. He’s feeling a little guilty even now for dragging her down with his mood. Her thumb strokes the top of his collar bone, not quite hard enough to tickle. “A warrior’s death in battle should never be a cause for shame.”
“My mother wasn’t a warrior.”
Brave, certainly—out of a couple that lived death-defying odds, she was the risk-taker. Dick never feels closer to her than when he starts over somewhere new, learning a new city, reaching out to new neighbors and colleagues. But he never saw her fight anything. Not the way they fight, not with violence.
“Anyone can die a warrior, if they go down fighting.”
Dick shakes himself a little, and the hand that has been drawing soothing circles on his chest pauses, starts to draw away. He presses his weight back against her, and she understands, holds on. “How did you know that was the part that was bothering me?” he asks, smiling a little. She hasn’t exactly been able to help, but she knew exactly what to focus on. “Why not Batman?”
“You tend to smile, when you worry about him.”
Dick pulls away involuntarily, then continues the motion enough that he can twist around and stare at her. “I do what?”
“It annoys you, to worry about Batman. Probably because he will never stop giving you reason to be worried. Being angry about being worried usually makes you…” She pauses, looking for the right words, which is really uncommon with her these days. “Aggressively cheerful,” she decides.
She knows him entirely too well. Dick lets out his breath, and lets himself sink back into the curve of her arm. If he was feeling just a little more burned out, he’d probably rest his head on her shoulder, but he doesn’t. If he thought she would let him get away with it, he’d probably kiss her hard and let things go on from there until they needed to move things to one of their rooms, and put this conversation off indefinitely. “You’ve got me there,” he admits. “So if I wasn’t being aggressively cheerful to teach my worry a lesson, what did I look like?”
He’s thinking more than usual about his own facial expressions, having spent so much time trying to read Richard’s.
Kori is silent, for a moment. “Very sad,” she concludes. “And very private. You never talk about your parents,” she adds.
And she’s right, taking everything into account; from her perspective it must have been obvious it was the use Richard’s story made of his parents that was getting to him most. He hopes no one else can read him so well.
He’s glad it was only her and Joey, in the surveillance booth. There aren’t many people he trusts more. Maybe no one. Well, there’s Donna.
Once upon a time, he trusted Batman with everything in him, but he’s not a child anymore. (After everything they’ve been through, it’s hard to wholly trust anyone, anymore. And if he feels that way, his double…)
He sighs. “They’re in the past,” he says. They belonged to Dick Grayson, and even though he trusted his friends here with that name years ago and they call him by it, Titans Tower has always been Robin and then Nightwing’s place. Dick Grayson tends to retreat to a public face and an identity to slip back into in private downtime, and he knows it’s a bad habit but it comes so naturally. “I finished mourning them a long time ago.” And Richard hasn’t, he realizes, that was what was so disquieting. It’s a rawer wound than Bruce’s parents even are, and that’s strange.
Kori squeezes him, comforting with softness over hard muscle and actually she and his mother would have gotten along really well, wouldn’t they. He’s never thought about it before. Maybe he didn’t know his mom that well, losing her when he was only eight, but he’s almost sure he’s right. Mary Grayson would have liked Starfire.
(The Goose Girl wasn’t the only story she used to tell him with princesses in it.)
Dick straightens up, and Kori lets him go. He tips his head up to drop a kiss on her cheek, a thank-you, and then turns to head up the hall. “Come on, I want to check in with Vic. I’m kind of amazed we haven’t had any new emergencies yet.”
Kori does come along, and follows him into the elevator. “Jinx,” she says.
“I’d knock on wood,” Dick replies dryly, “but our Tower is too futuristic for that.”
Vic’s back in Operations, just like Dick expected, even though he finished checking for signs of system intrusion hours ago. “Did you eat?” he asks. Because he can hardly throw stones at anyone else for being too keyed-up to relax as long as they have this Talon thing hanging over them, but shuttling back and forth between the computers and the gym is not a lifestyle.
Cyborg rolls his human eye. “Yes, Mom. There’s pizza in the fridge.” He picks up a stack of papers, stapled at one corner, that don’t look like they were run up on the printer here. “Here. We got the results back, on the cheek swab we took from our guest last night. DNA tests all say he’s you. No anomalies, nothing to account for the magic healio deal even.”
Cyborg offers him the print-out, and Dick takes it, flips through absorbing only half the information. “Thanks Vic.”
Now Vic rolls both his eyes. “Don’t hurt yourself. Listen, I’m up on the monitor roster in a couple hours, is there anything you want me to watch for?”
“Based on the data so far, if he does anything without a visitor to prompt it we’ll all be surprised.”
“‘Anything,’ roger that,” Vic tips a two-fingered salute. Kori laughs. Dick accepts the ribbing philosophically, and Vic adds, “There’s an open file on the LAN labeled Subject Strigiform where people have been jotting notes. There’s no tag for who created it so I assume it was Chase. I’ll just add anything I notice to that.”
Nightwing makes a note to read that, too. “Sounds good.”
“And hey, Dick.” Cyborg’s voice has sunk into a register you very rarely hear, a little too gentle for his usual style of reassurance, and without the bleakness or the anger that comes in when he’s upset for himself. “Remember this guy is dangerous. Okay?”
Dick grins. “Of course I know he’s dangerous, Vic. He’s me, but meaner.”
“You but brainwashed and crazy,” Vic mutters, then realizes what he said and winces. “Aw, sorry man, I didn’t mean it like that.”
Dick holds up both gloved hands. He’d say it happens to everybody sometimes, but that would be jinxing the people on the team it hasn’t happened to yet, so he won’t. “Hey, I got my butt kicked by this team while brainwashed and crazy, we’ve got this.”
Vic laughs at him and kicks him out. Fair enough, even if he doesn’t actually have the authority to do that. Kori comes with and they go grab lunch before splitting up again. Kori is probably going to go spy on Richard some more.
Dick goes back to the gym and spends some time on the rings, trying and failing not to think too hard.
He remembers, not that long ago, the Hybrids that Mento sent against them—fighting for their lives against people who had control of little besides their tongues, at best, but who used those to talk endlessly about how they didn’t want to hurt them, how they had no choice because of Steve Dayton’s mind control, how if the Titans would just let them rescue their captured comrade, they could go away without Dayton forcing them to kill anyone.
(Wally got turned to stone in that incident, actually, but it didn’t last long.)
Dick sends himself somersaulting off the rings—much too low to get the quadruple in, but he started upside down and spins through two and a half full rotations and sticks the landing like you can almost never afford to do in the real world, and as he flies he remembers Pteradon, a courteous and cooperative captive especially for someone with wings bound down to a chair, more than willing to tell them all he could, getting halfway into the second sentence before breaking off to scream with the pain, to beg please, master, please, don’t hurt me, don’t kill me!
And then seconds later burst his bonds and lunged at them, smirking, because it was his master’s command.
They forgave Dayton, in the end. All the Hybrids. They’d been dying before he mutated them—they might be monsters now, but they were alive, and they had one another for company. He had burned away the powers of the Mento helmet along with the madness it had kindled in him, so he had been harmless, and he had been so sorry.
It still made Dick uncomfortable, leaving them with him, when he had violated them so horribly—he didn’t like to think of Pteradon having anything to do with the person who’d made him say please master don’t hurt me. But it wasn’t Nightwing’s decision to make.
He swings himself back up onto the rings. Iron Cross.
Besides, Dayton was so broken. And still paraplegic. He needed someone, and his whole family is dead, except Gar. Just because their ghosts had convinced him to start accepting that fact didn’t mean it was going to be easy, and Changeling might love his adopted father but he doesn’t like him, let alone want to become his caretaker. They’d kill each other within a week, albeit probably in a more metaphorical sense than Dayton had been trying while insane.
(Gar and his adoptive father make Dick and Bruce in comparison look like they’re still the well-oiled machine they were when Dick was Jason’s age, or even Gar’s. It’s sort of impressive, just how dysfunctional a relationship can get between people who don’t actually wish each other any harm.)
Maltese Cross. Hold.
If Dayton hadn’t been a hero before he became a villain, the Titans’ decision might have been different, but with the madness gone…he was one of them. And the Hybrids had the right to choose for themselves. Dick knows that.
Raven was so proud, to have been able to save everybody for once, and Gar was so relieved. And it was good, great even, a resolution where nobody died, or even went to prison. And yet.
What Blood did to his mind, both times…what Trigon did to Raven…the mind control Dayton used…Mad Hatter’s little tricks in Gotham…on and on, each type has its own unique footprints, and while the mutely horrific force of psychic or magical brainwashing is faster, and harder to resist, it’s also easier to put behind you. It segregates itself. Not perfectly, and Dick still wakes up in a cold sweat sometimes thinking he can feel the foreign fingerprints on his brain, but for the most part what’s real and what’s a construct are pretty easy to distinguish, once you’re in a position to start sorting it out again. A lot of the time, without active maintenance those constructs collapse all on their own.
The simpler stuff is actually harder to shake off, the ordinary forms of mental conditioning, things like the work the Church of Blood put in to break him and Raven down, to soften them up for the direct attacks—that’s real damage, organic harm, things the mind did to itself in reaction to what was done to it, and that’s harder to get rid of, because it stays no matter how defeated the villain is. It lingers. It scars.
(Every muscle in his body is trembling with exertion from holding himself parallel to the floor this long, and he finally lets himself relax, until only his hands are still stiff, holding fast to the rings as he hangs in place. He could let go, but he won’t.)
Dick knows that, even though he doesn’t usually think about it. The best way to make that kind of thing go away is to ignore it, to act like everything is okay, until it is again. That’s what everyone he knows does. It works, mostly. He starts swinging his weight back and forth again, idly, working out the tension that tries to set in.
Richard…the genescan came back as a perfect match, which makes it more likely he really is a clone with implanted memories, not an existing person altered into a Nightwing copy. And that is a forcible brainwashing case, technically, but without the handy segregating effect because there was no real self before, to go back to.
Richard could still build one, though. In fact, it seems like he’s been trying.
And in that case, does it really matter whether he’s the childhood kidnapping victim shaped by old-fashioned conditioning he believes himself to be, or a clone with implanted memories?
Aside from how he should relate to the memories of killing, if there were no real deaths to regret. But Dick isn’t sure Richard even understands guilt, yet, so that’s not an immediate problem. Either way…if he’ll let them help, they should. He’s terrifying, but he’s a victim.
Hanging upside-down with his toes toward the ceiling, Dick lets out a sigh. He’s too close to this, he knows. His judgment about his own double is not going to go as far as he’d like.
The ‘Team Titans’ storyline that was retconned out by Zero Hour brought us Future Nightwing, who eventually turned out not to be Dick Grayson but some random guy forcibly altered to look and think exactly like him. So if you thought Dick's body/brainwashing theory was stupid, know that this is an actual thing he is scheduled to encounter in his actual life.