Actions

Work Header

Unspoken (Unhearing)

Chapter Text

Bane wakes to light—so much light it burns his eyes, sears into his skull like red-hot coals.

The pit had always been dark, just that small circle of sky to scorn those down below, or worse, act as a false sense of hope for the fools that believed they could make the climb. He had given up on the sky long ago, learned his lesson after countless attempts and countless broken bones—a price he paid dearly for, as others were quick to take advantage of such weakness.

Instead, he embraced the dark.

he had, for what seemed like an eternity now, crawled away into the farthest depths of the pit to die his slow death. Darkness had wrapped him up and cloaked his disfigurement as best she could, let him believe in the haze of morphine that he was still the man that others had named The Bane of the Pit.

But now…now the light accosts him from every side. Lanterns the likes of which he’s never seen, shaped like iron bars and glowing white as the sun, are strung across the white walls above. Beside him, a box filled with moving lines and colors lets out a steady high pitched noise. His body won’t move, but he casts his eyes about and sees large glass panels and light—daylight!—flooding through and blinding him.

He is no longer in the pit.

He gasps, the sharp intake of air dragging through his lungs like grit, causing bandages to stretch across his face. A weight on his chest stirs. Too weak to lift his head, he casts his eyes down and sees dark hair and pale skin pillowed on top of him.

Talia, he thinks. He struggles against the heaviness in his limbs, desperate, wanting nothing more than to run his fingers through that short hair like he’s done so many times in the past, hold her close, feel the warmth of the fire that burns inside her.

The head stirs, raises, and the brown eyes that meet his own are not his Talia, not his habibti, but belong to a young man. It shouldn’t be possible for his heart to break any more than it has, and yet something inside crumbles. A low cry claws out his throat, seizes his body and makes him writhe, convulse with anguish. The dark haired man strokes a hand across his chest, eyes wide and panicked.

Why?” Bane croaks. “No..more...”

A thumb brushes under his eye, smears wetness across his skin. Crying. Bane didn’t think he had any tears left to shed.

“K-kill me…please…no more,” Bane pleads, staring into the man’s eyes.

He smiles. The man smiles, genuine and warm like he’s never seen before. Bane doesn’t understand how he can smile like that in the face of Bane’s suffering.

“Why keep…me…alive?”

“It’s okay,” the man says quietly, patting Bane’s chest.

“Answer me…boy!” Bane spits, feels his lip burn and tear with the stretch.

“It’s okay,” he says again. Bane sees it, then, that there is no comprehension in the man’s face at all, no sign that he’s heard Bane.

And oh, Bane had seen men like him in the pit before. Broken, after a fight, a fall from the climb, or some sort of blow to the head. Reduced to the intelligence of a child—or worse—hollowed minds inhabiting bodies that still moved. They never lasted long. His own agony subsides a fraction in his pity for this boy. If he were able, he’d snap his neck to give him a quick and painless death liked he’d done for a few others.

Seeing him calm, the boy smiles bigger and nods his head. “Wait here,” he says, before standing and leaving the room.

Time slips by. The darkness pulls him under, gives him some reprieve from the searing brightness.  He dreams, fragmented, sometimes harrowing, sometimes soothing. Voices drift around him, their words foreign and lost in the haze of sleep. Talia’s voice washes over him, and it calms the incessant ache inside, like it’s done for so many nights before.

At least he will die, knowing she will live free under the sky. At least he will die with that memory of her rising from the depths of hell.

He thinks he’s died when he opens his eyes and her lovely face stares down at him, haloed in brightness, smiling radiant as the sun.

“Hello, friend,” she says.

Chapter Text

Weeks are spent in a splotches of pain and drugs. He remembers very little, only wakes long enough to find new bandages and agony wrapping his body. The worst is when he opens his eyes and tries to speak, only to find his teeth clenched, unable to move. He growls and trashes until a needle is pushed into his skin and he drifts away again.

Sometimes Talia is there, the cool touch of her hand against his cheek the only balm from the pain, but only sometimes. Others come and go, doctors and healers, but the boy—John, Talia had called him—is the only constant.

Bane hates him.

John touches him all the time—the back of his hand to Bane’s forehead, fingers at the inside of his wrist, his head on Bane’s chest when he wakes. It is unwanted and unwelcomed, and Bane can’t do anything to stop him but growl. And John just smiles, pats his chest and mutters a simple ‘good’ or ‘it’s okay’, as if Bane is the invalid and not this pathetic boy.

But Bane is the invalid, and it makes his anger flair even more.

*

His strength comes back slowly, and consciousness lasts longer. He snarls and curses between his teeth whenever John nears. It shouldn’t feel so triumphant when he can move enough to thrash the blankets onto the floor and send the stands by the bed crashing. Real triumph comes a few days later, when John tries to touch him and Bane catches him across the face with his nails. John stumbles back and touches his cheek where blood is just starting to well up.

John starts to act wary around him after that, and Bane starts to feel alive.

*

John pulls a chair up next to Bane’s bed and sits slowly, tongues his split lip. The black eye Bane had given him earlier is dark and swollen still. Bane clenches his fist and John’s eyes jumps to it, and he leans away slightly. He opens his mouth a few times, pauses, takes a deep breath and looks Bane straight in the eye.

“Look,” John says, voice forceful and louder than he’s ever heard. “You’re obviously…coherent now, so I think it’s time we talked.”

Bane stares. He’s never heard John string more than two words together before. Now…now he sounds intelligent.

John sees his surprise and smirks. “Did you think I was slow or something? You’re not the first. Everyone assume if you don’t talk you don’t think, either. Stupid.” The last word is directed at Bane.

Bane narrows his eyes and tries to sit up, and John raises his hands in a placating gesture. “Sorry, probably not the best way for me to start this talk.” John taps his ear. “I can’t hear. Anything. And without being able to see your mouth I have no idea what you’re saying. The wires in your jaw aren’t going to come out for a few more weeks, anyway. So I thought…maybe I could show you some signs, and it’d help a bit.”

John makes a strange motion with his hands and says “John” at the same time. Bane raises his brow, and John repeats the motion.

He makes a fist and tilts it up and down. “Yes,” he says, then continues on making gestures. “No. Help. Doctor. Pain.”

Ah, Bane realizes what he’s doing now. He and Talia had something similar in the pit, a silent motion so they would not attract the attention of the other men. Simple things like hide or wait. What John is doing is much more complex, and Bane watches him blankly as he moves through more words.

The last word he shows Bane is leave. Bane raises his hand and mimics the strange gesture. John’s eyes widen and he nods, a small smile tugs the corner of his mouth. Bane makes the movement again, then points at John. The expression drains from his face, he nods walks away.

*

Over the next few days any time John comes near Bane would signal leave. To his surprise, John would go with only a glare as response.

He still wakes to find the boy’s head resting on his chest. John learned to rouse quickly, and Bane only gets a good hit in on occasion now.

Today he ducks out of the way before Bane’s hand can connect, and slips out of the room with a smug grin.

*

Another week passed. It surprises him that as he recovers, the things that drives him mad is not the pain—the pain he is used to—but the stillness.

Days in the pit were about survival, every moment filled with thoughts of rations, supplies, blankets against the cold, where the prisoners fell in terms of enemy or ally. Even resting he had to be aware of the people around him.

Here, in this room completely devoid of danger, his skin crawls.

When John is in the room he’s at least a distraction. Bane studies his little ticks, like the way he rocks his head when he reads, the way he taps things around him subconsciously. Now that he knows about John’s lack of hearing the signs are easy to see—noises get no reaction, but he’s hyper-vigilant when it comes to movement and vibrations.

Before, when Bane would get a good hit in John would retreat across the room. But now, when he uses the sign leave John exits the room entirely. It is too still, and he realizes that this is the first time in his life he’s truly ever been alone—there was no such thing in the pit.

He starts to regret sending John away.

*

This morning John is slow to wake. Bane has his hand tangled in John’s hair by the time he stirs, and he tenses, waiting for Bane’s strike.

Instead of hurting him, Bane loosens his hold and runs his fingers through the strands instead. It’s soft like Talia’s, but thinner, fine as threads of spider silk.

Bane lets go and raises his hand to make a fist. John jerks away so fast he nearly topples the chair he’s in. He eyes Bane warily. Bane relaxes his hand and makes a fist again, looks from it to John.

John makes a fist and then flexes it up and down. “Yes?” John asks.

Bane mimics the movement and nods his head.

“Yes…what?” John says.

Bane sighs. He makes the yes sign, then leave, before holding up his hand and waiting.

“You don’t remember the other signs, do you?” John asks, and Bane shakes his head.

John shows him the signs again, and this time Bane follows his movement fervently. After he can repeat them all without help John nods. “I think you’ve got’em,” he says.

Yes, Bane says.

John starts to stand but Bane waves at him, motioning for him to sit back down.

“What?” John asks.

Yesyesyes, Bane signs.

“You want more signs?”

Bane nods his head.

John laughs. “Alright…let’s start with the sign for more.”

Bane stops telling John to leave after that. Instead he keeps telling him more.

Chapter Text

Only junkies, gangbangers and idiots hang around the Narrows after dark. Seeing as John doesn’t belong to the first two groups…he snorts, sinking farther into his jacket. Two sizes too big and one season too light equals freezing his ass off.

The drop off was supposed to happen over an hour ago, and John’s starting to worry something happened to the client, or Dexter gave him the wrong address. Taking off now means not getting paid, which means not eating tomorrow, which means hiking out to the middle-class parts of Gotham and picking pockets. Rents due soon, too, and Black Jack Cody may scalp for a shitty apartment, but he also offers a legit address to put on paperwork, and is one of the few people willing to take in the out-of-luck system kids and street rats.

A man steps under one of the lamps on the other side of the street and scratches the left side of his nose twice. Finally, jeez. John hurries over.

“You got my message?” The burly guy says.

John blinks a few times, points to his ear and shakes his head. It’s better if people don’t know he can read lips. He may be disabled, but he likes an upper hand.

The guy laughs. “Ah, the deaf runner I’ve been hearing about,” he says. He pulls out his wallet and counts out three twenties. John reaches for them and he snaps them away. “Ah-ah, where’s my message?”

John pulls the envelope out from inside his coat, holds it up in one hand and makes a grabby motion with the other.

The guy plucks the envelope out from his fingers and slaps down the bills in his open hand. “I feel sorry for you kid, you ain’t gonna last long in this city.”

John ignores him and tucks the bills into his jeans, already heading down the street.

*

The warehouse district is Anarky’s turf. Normally John would steer clear, but it’s the fastest way back to the apartment, and a detour would take him to the waterfront (Penguin’s playground), or Croc’s neighborhood. During the day they were safe enough if you kept your head down, but at night people had a tendency to wander in and not wander out.

He glances up at the quick flashing light in one of the abandoned warehouses and freezes. The unnatural staccato can only mean one thin.

Gunfire.

John drops down into the closest alley and flattens against the wall. He just barely makes out a shift in the shadows, slipping out of a broken window 20 feet up the warehouse. The form scrambles partway down the building, slips, and falls hard.

The warehouse doors burst open and a man runs out, handgun held in front of his face. John shifts back and his foot knocks something. A soda can rolls away from him and into the street. The gunman’s head snaps his way.

Oh, hell no.

John spins and runs down the alley. Brick explodes next to his head and he flinches, stumbles out and turns down the road, sneakers skidding on the pavement. God, he doesn’t know where the guy is, but he can’t look back, can only run as fast as all get-out. He slips into another alley and climbs up a fire escape so fast acrobats would be jealous.

Leaning on his knees, John gasps for air, gives himself five seconds. He takes off across the building, leaps the narrow gap to the next one and rolls. He pops up and—

Comes face to face with wide blue eyes and a round face. A kid. A fucking kid.

John glances back just as the gunman’s head pops over the roof he climbed up. “Run,” John says. He grabs up the kid’s wrist and pulls. The kid’s uneven steps mean John half drags them until they both stumble to a stop at the edge of the building. The next roof is farther down, farther away…a big leap.

The wrist suddenly jerks out of his hand and he turns as the kid dashes forward and soars across the open space. They hit the edge of the rooftop, scramble for a second, and are up again.

John takes a deep breath, four steps back, and prays to any and every saint worth a damn and jumps.

He hits the roof hard, rolls across the rough surface and feels the skin scraping even through his clothes. Hands are pulling on this jacket, and John follows the kid. All stations are down—he can’t hear, can’t see through the tears in his eyes, can’t feel anything accept raw skin and jarred joints. His wits come back in time to keep him from plummeting face first down the fire escape.

His feet barely have time to touch the ground before John’s face slams into the wall. Gasping, he fights against the weight pinning him down until the cold barrel of a gun presses against his temple. His whole body seizes up.

Before his panic can set in the weight is suddenly gone. John spins around just in time to get splattered across the face with warm liquid. The man stumbles back and drops his gun, and the kid…the kid is wrapped around his torso, digging a knife into the man’s throat. He collapses at John’s feet and the kid climbs off, takes John’s hand.

They run.

*

The smell of iron sticks in John’s nostrils.

Adrenaline fades alone with their steps, and the kid starts limping bad. John doesn’t allow himself to stop and take stock until they’re in a residential area, lamplights chasing away the underbelly of Gotham’s finest. He wipes at his face with his shirt, only manages to spread the filth around. His stomach turns, but he swallows it down and focuses on the kid instead—he’s good at shoving things down with something else to focus on.

In the light John can finally see the kid is a girl. An angelic nightmare—sweet cheeks red from running, short brown hair plastered to her head with sweat. Blood, soaking her hands like a kid just got done finger-painting. Her eyes are wide, still tinged with panic, but she meets John’s stare.

“You okay?” John asks.

“Why did you help me?” She asks.

“Er, that man was going to kill you.”

“Yes.”

“So…it was the right thing to do?”

She frowns, brows furrowed in confusion as she tries to puzzle him out. “But why do it?”

John…has no answer for that. He thought it was pretty self-explanatory.

The girl starts to speak again, but turns her head to look around. John grabs her by the chin and turns her face towards him. “Look at me when you speak,” he says.

Pain races up his arm, and he turns to try and ease where the girl has his wrist twisted backwards.

“Do not touch me,” she says, teeth bared.

“Okay, Kay! Ow!” She lets go and John stumbles back a step. “Listen, I’m deaf, alright? I can’t tell what you’re saying unless you look at me.”

She tilts her head to the side. “What does that mean?”

“Deaf?” he asks. She nods. Er, usually he has to explain it to the really young boys at St. Swithin’s, but this girl has to at least be ten. “Means I can’t hear anything.”

“How are you talking to me now?”

“I see the words on your lips.”

Her eyes go wide. “That is like magic.”

“Sure,” John says. Not really. “Look, we need to get off the street. My place ain’t too far from here, and you don’t look like you can go much farther.”

“Do not presume to know my strength,” she says.

“Kind of already felt your strength, thanks,” John says, rubbing his wrist. “But your ankle looks busted. And you just killed…“ he swallows down a wave of nausea. “We can’t walk around covered in blood.”

“You wish to take me to your home.”

“Yeah.”

She’s silent a long time, her eyes slowly working up and down John, calculating and wary. She nods, as if satisfied with whatever she sees. “I am Talia,” she says.

“John.”

Chapter Text

John thought he was having a bad night before—getting chased by gun toting Anarkists really should be up there—but it doesn’t compare to stepping inside his apartment.

All hell breaks loose.

Maybe he should’ve explained to Talia that he roomed with four other guys. She obviously has trust issues—can’t blame her, it’s not like the lot of them didn’t, either.

And maybe he should’ve told the guys that he was running as a messenger with deliveries too questionable for good ol’ FedEx to handle.

And maybe, just maybe, they should’ve washed up in a park drinking fountain instead of coming in looking like axe murderers.

Everyone’s yelling. John’s fairly certain he can feel their shouts pinging off his skin like a sonar, because his hair stands on end. He can’t focus on any one person long enough to understand what they’re saying, but he gets the gist of it.

“—thought you were dead!—“

“—who the hell is—“

“—been doing all night, Blake! We—“

“—stupid dumbass with your—“

Next to him Talia tenses. When John glances at her he can tell she’s about ready to bolt, her teeth bared like a wild animal.

Michael steps forward and grabs John’s arm to get his attention. Despite his looks, big, muscular, and covered in tattoos—they hide the burn scars that make him self-conscious—Michael is the farthest thing from a thug as you can get. His hand moves to John’s face, tentatively running across skin, checking for injuries.

Talia is suddenly in between them, John’s shirt clenched in one of her fists and a knife brandished in the other.

It hits him, then, that this girl could kill them. This girl just killed someone.

“No, no!” John yells, so loud his throat hurts.

Dick and Aaron drag Michael back as Talia swings, cutting into the air where he just was. John grabs both her wrists and tries to hold her back as she lunges.

“—will not touch him! He belongs to me, I will not let you!” She’s saying.

“Talia stop!”

She turns her head towards John, but keeps her eyes on the guys. “I will not let them harm you, John. Let them try, Bane taught me how to fight.”

“They aren’t going to hurt me. These are my friends,” John says.

The fight goes out of her suddenly. “They belong to you?” She asks, looking at him.

“I…don’t know if I would put it that way. We look out for each other. You shouldn’t hurt them.”

Talia nods slowly. Reluctantly, John lets go of her wrists, and she slips the knife back under her shirt.

John goes to rub his face, noticed the blood on his hands and decides against it. “Okay…okay.” He waves his hands towards the guys. “I’m not going to spend another minute looking like Carrie’s male double. Shower now, questions later. Dick, grab some clothes from my bag.”

He doesn’t look so see if anyone listens, just keeps his head down and guides Talia to the bathroom and locks the door. She has a sour looks on her face when John crouches down in front of her. “Listen, what happened earlier…that man with the gun? He was going to kill me,” he says.

“Yes,” Talia says.

“You saved my life. And I—I’m so sorry. I’m sorry you had to do that.”

“It’s alright—“

“It’s not! There wasn’t any other option, but…It’s not alright.”

“I am not afraid of them, John. I’ve killed many men, they will eventually learn that I am not one to be tried,” she says.

Her expression is so level, so calm, at makes his blood run cold. He shifts his gaze from her mouth to her eyes, and she raises her chin defiantly. There’s something hard and violent in her stare, anger burning just under the surface—a forest fire threatening to consume.

He knows that anger well, keeps it buried behind polite smiles and feigned helplessness. Despite how alone John feels at times, that’s not entirely true. Father Reilly and Dick helped him learn how to live in a world gone silent, how to act the right way, stay out of trouble, stay off the streets. How to wear the mask society offered him in order to survive.

This girl, he wonders if she’s ever had anyone to help her like that.

He feels strangled, the words grating in his throat when he speaks. “Talia, you can’t. You can’t. That can’t happen again.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s wrong! Because there are rules, laws, that have to be followed.” He chokes. “For Christ’s sake, you’re just a kid!”

Her face softens, and she flicks her eyes away from him. “I don’t understand. Things are so different here than where I grew up. Killing was necessary.”

“Where did you grow up where that would be necessary?”

“Hell on earth,” she says.

John swallows. “You’re right…things are different here, so you need to learn to follow the rules. I can…I can teach you. Let me help you.”

Talia stares looks at him, eyes searching his face. She raises her hand and lightly runs her fingers over his brow, cheek, lips. “You and he are so alike,” she says.

“Who?”

Talia smiles. “You can teach me, John. I will be yours, and you will be mine.”

Chapter Text

John and Talia scrub in the shower until their skin turns pink and the water sputters cold. A pile of clothes sits just inside the bathroom door. It may have been locked, but Dick can pick a lock like a toddler can pick a nose. John hands Talia one of his shirts—she’s small enough that it hangs on her like a nightdress. He pulls on sweats before opening the door. Dick leans in the hallway across from him, arms folded and eyebrow cocked. Pissed.

Are you in danger? Dick signs. He’s one of the few people John knows that has a decent grasp of ASL. They grew up together at St. Swithin’s, and Dick was one of the only boys willing to learn when Father Reilly offered to teach them.

Not right now, John says.

The blood?

John hesitates. Killed a man.

Dick’s eyes go wide. You?

John shakes his head and glances back into the bathroom pointedly.

Should we be worried about her? Dick asks.

John chews his lip, unsure how to answer that. The grimace on Dick’s face says it was answer enough. She saved my life, I owe her. I’m going to help her, John says.

“Fucking hell, Blake!” Dick says.

“Just get everyone together in the living room,” John says.

#

Michael, Aaron, and Marcos crowd together on the sofa, while Dick takes the ratty recliner. John scoots the coffee table back and perches on the edge so he can see everyone easily, and Talia settles down next to him.

“You all know the rules: one at a time. I’m too tired to try and keep up with all of you,” John says. “Where do ya want to start?”

They all start talking over each other, of course. Groaning, John drops his head in his hands. There’s a pull on the bottom of his shirt, and he glances down to see Talia’s small hand fisted in the material. He gives her knee what he hopes is a reassuring squeeze and looks up.

“Alright, you all suck. I’m letting Dick ask the questions,” John says.

“You always let Dick go first!” Marcos says, crossing his arms and sinking back into the couch.

Dick smirks. “That’s because I’m Blake’s favorite.”

Talia tugs on John’s shirt. “Why does he call you Blake?”

“John Blake, it’s his name?” Aaron says, the silent duh clear on his face.

“You have more than one name?” she asks.

Technically three, Dick signs, and John glares daggers. He and Father Reilly are the only people John still keeps in contact with that know his full name.

“Most people do,” John says. “John is my given name, and Blake is my family name.”

“Your country’s customs are very odd,” she says.

“Hey, can we get back to the whole question answering thing?” Dick says. “Because I want to know how the hell you two ended up killing someone!”

“Killing—“ Michael goes white.

“How else do you think they ended up looking like extras from a horror movie?” Marcos says.

“John…you didn’t,” Aaron says, and looks on the verge of being sick.

“He did not,” Talia says. “I did.”

All four guys turn to look at her.

“What happened?” Dick asks.

“John distracted one of my captors while I was trying to escape their building. He tried to kill John, I would not let him. I owed John.”

That’s not technically accurate, seeing that John fucked up while trying to hide, but he figures that’s not something Talia needs to know right now. “What were you doing there?” John asks.

“I was looking for my father. Those men said they would take me to him, but refused to let me leave later. They said something about being handsome, but I do not know what they meant.”

“Ransom!” Marcos sits up and snaps his fingers. “Your old man must be loaded!”

“What is ‘ransom’?” Talia asks.

“It means they wanted to trade you for money,” John says.

“Ah. They are not the first to try. I have escaped many men who wished to use me to gain favor with my father.”

“Hold up,” Dick says, rubbing his temple. “Who’s your father?”

“Ra’s al Ghul.”

“Whoa, whoa, wait, you’re the kid of Ra’s al Ghul?” Marcos says.

“You know who he is?” Dick says.

“No, I know who she is. There’s a lot of talk going around, everyone wants to get their hands on her.”

“Who’s everyone?”

Marcos stars ticking off his fingers. “The Anarkists, Penguins crew, The Bruisers—hell, I even heard Falcone is after her.”

The Anarkists and Bruisers were relatively small fish, contained to The Narrows. But Penguin and Falcone were bigtime, old-school mobsters, and they didn’t play gang-tag like the other guys.

“Why would they want her if no one’s heard of this Ra’s guy?”

“I’ve heard of him,” Michael says. He sinks into the couch when everyone looks at him. “He’s not…part of any gang, mob or whatever. S’got no territory in Gotham, but…he’s respected. Got influence.”

“He was a mercenary,” Talia says.

“A merc that’s respected by the mob, and loaded enough to ransom? That doesn’t sound right,” Marcos says.

“Talia, how did you get separated from your dad, anyway?” John asks.

“I was not separated. He does not know who I am, I was born after he left my mother,” she says.

“…you’re telling me everyone is after this girl, except the one person we actually want to find her?” Dick says.

Aaron blanches. “What if they find her here? What’ll they do to us?”

“Aaron’s got a point. If any of them find out we’ve been hiding her, we’re toast. This ain’t a game,” Marcos says.

“Whoa, wait a sec, what happens to ‘we take care of our own’?” John says.

“She’s not a Gothamite,” Marcos says.

“No, but she’s a kid that’s got no one else. What does it matter if she’s from here or not?”

“Blake’s right,” Michael says. “We’re all lost boys, or somethin’. Not just Gothamites, Narrow kids, or street rats. We don’t pick and choose who needs help.”

Dick rubs his forehead. “Except we’re all legally on our own. Black Jack Cody won’t be happy if he finds out we’ve got an underaged kid here.”

“Then we just make sure he doesn’t find out. Hopefully it’ll only be until we find Talia’s dad,” John says.

“And if we don’t?”

“Then I’ll figure something out.”

“Blake,” Dick says, fingers twitching like he wants to say something just between the two of them. “No offence, but how are you going to take care of a kid?”

“I can take care of myself,” Talia says, chin up.

“Yeah, no. Seeing that you aren’t taking care of yourself right now, drop the grown-up act. What would’ve happened to you if Blake hadn’t found you tonight?” Dick says, pointing at Talia. Before she can answer he turns to John. “And you! What were you doing in Anarky’s territory after dark anyway?”

“I…was working,” John mutters.

“Excuse me?”

“I was running messages for Dexter, alright?” John says, folding his arms.

“Jesus, Blake!” Dick yells.

“It’s not like you haven’t.” It’s true, and not just Dick. He’s fairly certain nearly everyone in the room has done work for Dexter before. Even more dangerous work, if they were being honest. He knows as much as Marcos is trying to get out of the gang life, he’s occasionally sold some drugs. Michael’s bounced at some of the clubs are bars. Maybe Aaron’s the only one that’s been able to avoid the pull of Gotham’s underworld, but he’s not like the rest of them, came from a decent family and has a normal job, no juvi record.

No one says anything for what feels like minutes. Dick raises his hands. Should I spell it out for you, John? He signs. You’re not like me—not like us. You’re deaf, disabled, handicapped! The Narrows chews up people like you and spits them out in the gutter. You’re supposed to be using what options you have to get out of this place, not get dragged into it. No illegal work, you promised me!

I didn’t have a choice, John says. Dick’s about to argue and John quickly adds, Later. We’ll talk about this later.

*

Dick’s packing up his things from their room when John walks in, Talia in tow.

“She can have my bed,” Dick says. “I’ll bunk with Michael for now. I figured she’d be more comfortable that way.”

Their apartment has three rooms, two beds each. They’re always full, with so many kids struggling to get off the streets, get a chance at a normal job, a normal life—a chance to get out of the Narrows. Kevin, the man who shares a room with Michael, hasn’t shown up in over a week. No one wants to say it, but their pretty sure the bed will be up for rent the next month, a new kid to fit into their group. It’s just the way things work.

“Thanks,” John says.

Dick slings his bag over his shoulder and nods his head. He pauses as he goes to step past them, and shocks John by pulling him into a crushing hug. It’s warm, and a little painful, and John wonders if this is what it would’ve been like had they actually been brothers, family, like the images he’s seen on T.V. Maybe Dick is just as starved for affection as John is—as maybe every system kid is—despite his tough guy attitude. John should say something, thank you, or I’m sorry, but nothing really encompasses all of what he means.

Dick pulls back, punches John hard in the arm and leaves.

Talia watches them silently, something in her expression pained. John gives her a smile. “We’ll figure out how to get you to your dad, okay?” he says. “But right now let’s sleep.”

He gets her into bed and turns off the lights. “Just shake my shoulder if you need anything,” he says, curling up under his blankets.

Sleep’s almost taken him, his mind foggy, when he feels the covers shift. A warm body curls up against him, and Talia’s hair brushes under his chin. He freezes, not sure what he’s supposed to do, when a half forgotten memory grabs hold of him—his cheek pressed to a soft cotton shirt, arms folded around him, lips pressed against the top of his head. Hesitantly, he wraps his arms around Talia and holds her close as he drifts into sleep.