persephone's in hell - Chapter 3 - Whiskey (2024)

Chapter Text

Before the fall, Mirjana’s favourite stories to tell were that of Death, and his many faces.

She’d jerry-rig one of the industrial torches – the kind that sweltered white hot under the tarp of her tent – and sit him and the equestrian’s kids in a circle to tell them scary stories about the Kirkegrim. Mirjana had a great spooky voice, and she’d cast the light upwards to catch the sharp planes of her face, her bulging eyes, and the crawling motions of her fingers. Dick had always been more fascinated than afraid.

The Kyrkogrim, she would say, all warbling and wailing, the church grim, is the first to be buried in the graveyard. This holy hound, it stands revenant over its departed neighbours. It is the first to die and so must die to protect the souls yet living. It is buried alive in the foundations of the house of worship and remains there, vigilant, until the graveyard is empty once again, and the bones so entombed have long since turned to dust.

Once, Dick had asked: why a dog? Why not an elephant? An elephant is stronger, kinder, and smarter.

This was true, obviously, but mostly Dick just really liked elephants. Dogs were alright, especially the dancing ones at the show, but he’d rather spend an eternity with Zitka. With Zitka, he could ride on her back as a ghost and pull pranks on the parishioners, which sounded a lot more fun than being around a dog.

And Mirjana had leaned down and told him: because the hound, buried alive in stone and dirt by his master, still stays in the graveyard because he is commanded. He obeys the hands that hurt him. He will never leave, and never forsake his duty. It is the dog’s nature to heel, you see. You see?

He hadn’t understood what it meant to heel, then. He does now.

Dick sees the Manor approach him up ahead, tall on the hill, and immediately turns left onto the bridge. He wonders if the Titans have already arrived and engaged with Bruce. If they’re in the Cave waiting for him, or angrily drinking coffee in the parlour with Alfred. They’re adults in this time, they can wait a little longer.

The traffic is properly bad by the mid-afternoon, but that’s expected. It’s easy enough to weave between them on the bike, a chorus of honks and shouts behind him that’s drowned out by the rattling ringing that starts up on the inside of his helmet. Once across the bridge, out into the clear road, he chances to look down at the handlebars, where the touchscreen in the centre is lit up green and yellow. O, the contact reads, and before Dick can swipe away the call connects with a buzzing snap.

“Dick?” A synthesised voice says in a flat tone. “Are you there?”

Oracle, Dick figures. The information broker who worked with Bruce and the League and the Titans alike, hauling through reams of data to track Deathstroke across the East Coast. She, as Roy had identified her. Not many people with that clearance could stay in Gotham city limits, out from under Bruce’s direct control, and even fewer had the capacity to outpace the Cave’s hardware. It doesn’t take a genius to put a face to that name.

“Hi, Babs,” Dick says.

There’s a distinct pause, then the buzzing abruptly stops, and he hears a heavy, familiar sigh.

“Hey, Wonder Boy,” says Barbara Gordon, her voice a little hoarser, a little deeper, and a lot more tired. “What gave me away?”

“Roy called you she.”

She snorts.

“It took that much? You’re losing your touch.”

“My second guess was Nygma.”

Babs properly laughs then. “Oh? That might be the worst thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“You could rock a bowler,” Dick says, leaning to his left to round a corner as the light turns yellow. “I assume he still likes hats.”

“Sure, and that stupid cane. With the patterned suit.”

She’d look a bit like a carrot, Dick thinks privately, but says instead: “The question marks would bring out your eyes.”

More laughter. He can hear more voices distantly at her end, but too indistinct to make out. Higher pitched rather than a rare, rumbling bass. Not Bruce.

“I can’t help but notice you’re not going to the Cave,” Babs says finally.

“Nothing gets by you, does it?”

I wouldn’t try to be co*cky – I’m the only thing stopping Bruce jumping you from above.”

That at least explained why his journey south had continued unimpeded so far. He hadn’t even caught a glimpse of Wally again – meaning they’d probably converged on the Manor, guessing that’d be his destination. Not a bad assumption, really, because it meant that he had time. Time and luck, if everyone else was acting about as obtuse as they’d been so far. Hopefully no one was giving Garth too much grief for the lifted communicator.

“Thanks for that, then,” Dick says sweetly, and slows to a stop at a light. Putting his left foot down to stay upright, he chances a glance around, up at the rooftops. “Guess I owe you one.”

There’s a comically loud scratching noise, like a stock-sound effect of a marker on a whiteboard.

“You owe me a hell of a lot more than one,” Babs says. “For the record, I told them you threw the communicator into the Atlantic.”

It’d been suspiciously dormant since he’d put it in his pocket, so that made sense too. Forget Gotham – whatever Babs was doing was well beyond the Cave. He idly wondered if she could outmanoeuvre Vic in the Tower if she wanted, or even take control of the Watchtower far above them. It’s hard to imagine that she wouldn’t at least try. Good for him that she seemed more interested in helping Dick at the moment than inhibiting him. He’d need that.

“So you know where Deathstroke is too, right?” Dick asks, very faux-casual. He continues east, back towards the water.

You,” Babs tells him, sounding amused. “Are not subtle, you know that?”

“What’s the point of trying to lie to the person who’s gonna help me out?”

The traffic starts to die off a little the further from the centre he goes. He sporadically checks the rooftops again, but still nothing. Dick is under no allusions that he entered the city without Slade’s knowing, but Slade staying here at all, after encountering Bruce, means that he thinks there’s some chance he’ll be able to complete whatever job landed him in Gotham in the first place. Dick remaining in this body, despite Bruce having captured the thing that transformed him, implies that there’s something Slade still has that’s preventing a reversal of that transformation. Ergo, it won’t end until Slade is stopped.

Dick says as much to Babs.

When the line goes quiet, in Dick’s mind he can see Babs frown and rub at the bridge of her nose.

“What’s the plan, then?” Babs asks, but she doesn’t immediately say no. Rather, she just seems curious. “There are easier ways to kill yourself than go after Deathstroke on your own. You forget he knows you in this time, Dick.”

“It’ll be easier to figure out if I know what I got hit with. Did Bruce say? Or is he being cagey?”

It’s a Seal of Solomon,” Babs says. “Very old school, according to our source. Deathstroke was hired to take out a hit on an occult collector and then steal the ring it was carried on. It’s used to bind wishes, traditionally, which is what Bruce thinks happened to you.”

That explains the mark on his chest if Slade had wished for him to be like this. Not unexpected. The wording of it might be important for reversing it without blowback, though magic always turned out to be a pain in the ass. Dick just hums to himself.

“So Slade needs to unwish it himself, then. That makes it harder.”

Seems likely.” Babs tells him. “I assume Bruce was hoping no one else would figure that particular detail before he got you back in the Cave. Chalk it up to his normal, sanctimonious disposition.”

“I’m more surprised by his restraint, that he’s not still running around in the daylight.” Good news for Dick, though. “It’s not like him to let a mercenary run around unchecked.”

“I think he has other priorities right now, Dick.”

More typing. He’ll have to put on an act that’s considerably more distressed now that he’s on a bike that clearly belongs to a future-him to anyone smart enough to look. And even that relies on a Deathstroke who thinks he can outplay him by pushing on emotional buttons Dick didn’t even know he had. He had to make it believable that whatever had happened after Jason had grabbed him warranted fleeing from Bruce entirely and returning to a hired hitman. Thank God Dick was born knowing how to put on a performance.

“If you cover me, I can draw him out, and make a proper plan,” Dick says.

Alright, well, now you still just sound like an idiot,” Babs tells him. “Explain to me why I shouldn’t just drop a pin on the bike and let Bruce grab you with the Batplane?”

The Batcopter would be easier to manoeuvre in this sort of dense urban environment, but Dick doesn’t want to give her any more ideas.

Because this way will be less of a logistical headache for you,he replies, talking out of his ass. Cause I assume dealing with Bruce is about as easy as ever. And –” he hesitates, “– because it’s my job.”

It’s still his job. He’s not going to let Slade prance around Gotham just because Dick ran away from the fight. That, and he doesn’t want to face Bruce again yet. Not until he proves that he’s good enough for this, still. That he truly, really, isn’t replaceable. His best was the best, Donna had said, but Dick needed to act on that, to prevent any further harm that he caused. That’s what being Robin was, even if Dick couldn’t wear his own cape anymore.

That, and if it’s at all possible, he’s taking the chance of turning back before he has to see Bruce.

“You never change, you know that?” Babs says, all patient indulgence. “You’re extremely stupid, and once Donna stops shouting at Bruce she’s going to shake you until your brain leaks out your ears.”

“She’s at the Cave?”

Her and Roy Harper are having a competition about who can be the loudest without pausing to inhale.” She seems to take a moment to listen in on whatever they’re doing at the Manor, and must find it amusing because she chuckles under her breath. “It’ll keep him distracted, at least.”

That brief, twisted terror in his gut returns, but he manages to dismiss it just as easily. They want to help him, is all. And after the rooftop, despite all their anger, he can’t imagine Roy or Donna airing out his mother’s death in front of Bruce or the birds cage worth of Robins he’s collected. More likely, he figures as he turns another corner, they’re questioning his parenting, his morals, and whether he should be trusted with someone else’s care. Like they used to, in his time back at the Tower.

It seems a little silly now – they’d turned out to be a lot righter about things than he ever had.

The plan, then?” Babs says, like she’d asked him more than once while he’d gotten himself distracted. “I’m keeping Deathstroke off you, but that won’t last. Much longer and he’ll know you’re not alone.”

“Drop it, then. For a little bit. It needs to be convincing.”

“And what are we convincing him of?”

“I want to know what he did to me.” Dick pauses, then continues. “Bruce found me, and I know the truth. I’m angry. Hurt. And unsupervised.”

That won’t be a stretch.” He hears her start typing again. “You’d better just be stupid, not suicidal. Don’t go running off with Deathstroke until the friend I’m sending after you gets there.”

“I’m just gonna try to get him to unwish the spell, that’s all,” Dick tells her. “Or at least give me some kind of clue about what he said to trigger the ring. I won’t fight him unless I absolutely have to.”

She humphs at him, sounding disbelieving, but nothing else pings, and no plane descends on him from above.

“The – the friend,” Dick asks. He tightens his grip on the handlebars. “It’s not…?”

“It’s one of mine,” Babs says, as if that clears anything up at all. “Relax, she’ll be the last one to sell either of us out to a Bat.”

Truly how strange it was, for this whole new network to exist in Gotham that’ll fall on the sword for Dick rather than stabbing him clean through. The Titans’ animosity was at least familiar, but Babs’s casual indifference to what both of them knew Bruce would want, and what would make him angry, was extremely weird. Besides, he’s not sure he can deal with another Jason.

“Thanks, Babs,” He breathes in, breathes out. “You’re sure… she’s not…?”

Babs laughs, but this time it’s energised, and a little cutting. Like when she’d win at chess by figuring out how to check him in the first five plays. She’s moving her pieces on a board in front of her, and everything is sliding neatly into place.

“I don’t think you’ll mind this one,” she tells him. “You’re not the only person who doesn’t want Bruce around, in the present. Stay focused, don’t be stupid, and keep your eyes out for an angry Catholic.”


Because Slade Wilson is a drama queen, Babs’s intel says he’s back hiding out in Robbinsville. He was always one for irony.

As he approaches the water he can begin to map the run he’d made in the dark that morning, and Dick tries to work himself up into something resembling desperation and panic. It’s hard – truthfully, his equilibrium has returned to him, and he’s never felt more stable. He can see the light at the end of the tunnel. His hands are firm on the handlebars, and his heartrate is steady and sure.

The only way this will work is by playing into Slade’s ego, and the only way to do that was to convince him that he’d won. Granted, this is made more difficult by Dick having stabbed him earlier, but nothing to do about that. He didn’t even have the knife anymore, left somewhere behind in his apartment in Queens, so a grovelling, theatrical performance would have to be enough. Forget the neck, Dick should’ve aimed for his eye instead. It’d save him the grief of having to bring up some fake tears.

The only reason he’s here is because he wants something from you,” Babs says in his ear. “He’ll grab you and run the moment he can. He won’t take any more chances.”

“I know.” Dick leans off the throttle enough that he can free one hand at a time to shrug off the jacket and toss it into an alley as he passes. Briefly, he checks to make sure the escrima are still disguised beneath the fabric. His sweater’s gotten kind of gross again, which is good, and the helmet has flattened whatever careful progress Donna had made with his curls. He’s sure he looks a mess. “Hopefully he’s desperate enough to get a little sloppy.”

Slade had banked on his emotional response when he’d shown that video of the new Robin. Now Dick knew he was in the future, and he could use that to his advantage. He’d run from Jason and the Titans and wanted answers from Slade. Everyone else was lying to him. Why had Slade hurt him like this? Could Slade get it to finally stop?

Etcetera. With any luck, the dangling carrot would be too tantalizing for Slade to refuse.

At the next turn, he ditches the helmet. Squeezing his eyes shut, he lets that dormant exhaustion hit again, and the world briefly blurs as he opens them again. I am very sad, he thinks. I am very sad, and nobody loves me.

Somewhere out there, he’s sure Wally’s sneezing.

It’s easy to make his way back to where he’d run from the safehouse, and as he does so the hair on the back of his neck stands on end. Babs’s blanket protection has lifted, and now he’s being watched. Dick grits his teeth, letting a tremor start in his hands, pronounced enough that the handlebars swivel a little under his grip, and visible to anyone paying attention. Dick’s breath quickens. The manufactured faux-panic sets in.

He can’t be caught indoors, so instead he makes a big show of stopping abruptly at the lamppost he’d scaled up to the rooftops, sliding so the bike lands on its side and grates loudly against the tarmac. Dick scrabbles to his feet like it’s an immense effort to stay upright, and subtly looks around. Relatively quiet, still – there’s a single, unmarked delivery van on the corner, and a strewn pile of mutilated rentable e-bikes beside it, but all the blinds in the apartments are drawn, and otherwise the only sound of traffic is from a street or so over. Quiet, calm, and not at all suspicious.

Bending over, as if his chest is hurting him, he keeps moving, picking up speed. He pivots, hitting the narrow walkway beside the building instead of marching back through the back door, making show of inspecting the pipes bolted to the outside, the bags of trash by the wall, the narrow windows. It takes no time at all to hear the familiar, muted thud of steel-toed boots across the roof, and Dick accelerates his breathing, as if he’s close to panicking. Rabbit, he thinks, and fox.

He doesn’t think about Grant. He definitely doesn’t think about Joey, and how Joey’s father has apparently gone from trying to kill him outright, to tolerating him enough to have some kind of antagonistic back-and-forth. Did Slade mourn Joey, the way Dick himself now is?

Slade doesn’t bother with pleasantries – he drops down hard from above, landing with a loud thud behind him to block Dick’s easy return to the street, and then rising up to his full height. The fact that he looks like sh*t makes Dick feel slightly better about himself, because while the wounds have healed completely, Slade is still without his mask, and his armour is showing visible signs of wear.

No helmet will force Slade to rely on observation rather than diagnostic analysis, so it’ll be harder for him to check how fast Dick’s heart is racing, or the unsteadiness of his gait. That’s an advantage for Dick that he can’t afford to overly rely on.

Slade’s mouth curls, and his eye is pitch. Dick turns to meet him, and theatrically recoils.

“What did you do?” Dick asks. Angry, hurting. Disbelieving of the horrors. “Slade, what the hell did you do?”

“You think you can talk to me like that and live, Grayson?” Thud, thud, thud, as Slade approaches, but he doesn’t move to draw a weapon.

Ah, okay. Minor miscalculation. Turn, spin, stay light on his feet and try a new direction. He has to be convincing, and convincing means being hurt and stupid, not actively suicidal.

“Where the f*ck are we?” Dick says. When Slade reaches him, he tries to give him a solid shove. Slade grabs his wrists, easily, and Dick starts to thrash. “What the f*ck – where the f*ck am I?”

"Had a run in with Wayne, did we?” Slade asks mockingly. An actual, proper smile threatens to grow on his face. Hook, sinker. “You never quite know when to quit, do you? All that fuss, and you just come crawling back.”

“I’m – not –” Dick, tries to kick out, and just hits armour. Slade makes a noise akin to a chuckle. “Let go.”

“No, I don’t think so.” Slade transfers the hold on his wrists to one hand, then strikes him hard across the face. Pain. A rush of blood to his head as he falls, Slade being the only thing keeping him upright. Dick gags, his empty stomach rolling. “This seems to be the only way to get anything through your skull.”

Another hit. The world spins, but thankfully his mind doesn’t leave him. Screwing his eyes shut, Dick listens as he’s pushed up against the wall, the brick cold and coarse against the back of his head. Crying would be too much, surely. As it is, he’s grateful for his empty stomach, and hopes that his concussions aren’t stacking.

“I didn’t want to do this, you know. It must’ve been awful,” Slade says in a soft voice, as if he were a butcher holding a lamb with a knife at its throat. “Wayne must’ve done something terrible to make you come back here, to me.”

“How many?” Dick rasps. Slade leans in a little, though he undoubtedly heard exactly what he said.

“Speak up, Robin.”

“How many have there been?” Dick makes a show of swallowing, then tilts his head to look into Slade’s eye. It’s a little blurry, but he’d have to be blind to miss the smug, undisguised satisfaction of Deathstroke’s face. “You said – you said one. How many have there really been?”

"Surely Wayne would’ve explained everything,” Slade says. “Why would he lie to you about something like that? Or maybe that Robin you ran off with said something. The one that kills people, now.”

“Don’t,” Dick croaks, closing his eyes again. “Don’t – don’t, just stop it -”

“I meant what I said.” There’s a touch on his chin, almost gentle as it moves his head from side to side, until Dick is forced to meet Slade’s gaze again. “There’s no one quite like you. Maybe that’s why Wayne keeps getting those children killed.”

The shudder is real, though it’s more from revulsion and anger than grief, as Slade might suspect. In his head, he sees Roy emerging from the shadows behind him and cracking Slade over the head with his bow. It’s a nice thought.

“No,” Dick says again. “No, no, no, he said –”

“What did he say, Grayson? What promises to you did he break? You’ve seen what he values in a partner, how important you are to him. How replaceable. What kind of a life is this, that you’ve been abandoned by your father?”

By some miracle, the hold on his wrists loosens, then falls away completely. Dick risks taking another swipe at him, clawing at Slade’s face, but Slade only bats him away easily with barely any force. Dick props himself up against the wall, blinking furiously, chest heaving, then scrubs his hands through his hair. His cheek is still smarting badly, but his cold fingers against his flesh helps ease some of the pain.

“No,” Slade says quietly. “I suppose he never was, was he?”

Dick just shakes his head silently, thinking about how to manoeuvre them out of the alley. Slade might try and push them back upstairs, which would be bad, unless he had a vehicle somewhere close by that Babs could tag. Not that he’d be going to some other location with Deathstroke but. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.

“What’re you going to do now?” Slade asks. “He’ll come looking for you, you know that. He’ll want you bent under his thumb. There’s nowhere you can hide in his city by yourself.”

“This is a nightmare,” Dick says, almost inaudible. “I just need to – I need to wake up. I can’t go back.”

“Wayne can’t help you with that, or he would’ve done it already. You said it yourself – you don’t know what’s happening.”

Dick keeps shaking his head. So close, he’s so close.

“What happened to me?” Dick asks, his voice thick. “Why am I – why am I like this? I need – I need to fix it.

Slade holds his eyes, and leans in. The world fades out a little, as Dick manages to stay calm.

“What did you do?” Dick asks in a whisper.

“You were in the way,” Slade replies. “That’s all. I didn’t lie to you, Robin. I wanted you to go away, where you wouldn’t be a problem anymore, and look at what happened. Look at what you became.”

He’s not pretending when he suppresses a flinch, nowhere fast enough for Slade to miss it, and his posture continues to relax. Whatever Dick is in the future, Slade attempted to get rid of, and he must’ve worded it weirdly enough that the Seal manifested the spell in a weird way. Easy. Slade’s voice lowers again into a murmur, barely audible past the loud beating of blood in Dick’s ears. He sees a flicker of movement at the entrance of the alley. Not yet, he thinks desperately. Not yet, not yet.

“I can be convinced to help you,” says Slade. “Undo what’s been done. We can negotiate the terms of your service, once we’re out of the city.”

Then a voice from the street says: “You really think you’re leaving here alive?”

At first Dick thinks it’s a priest – the purple stole and gold crucifix at her throat speak more of a holy man than a vigilante – but then she draws a crossbow from her thigh and shoots Deathstroke clear through the right hand with an arrow. The angry Catholic, then. Dick hadn’t expected it to be quite so obvious.

Slade snarls, stepping backwards to dodge the next shot, and pulling Dick back towards the wall with his free hand. Theoretically, Dick could try to play this is as Bruce sending someone else after him, but he doesn’t know how familiar Slade is with this new person, and he can’t exactly run the risk of getting her or himself killed by pushing a little too hard on Slade’s buttons. The last thing anyone needed was Dick getting smuggled out of the East Coast when he wasn’t old enough to buy a shot for himself.

Now that the cat’s completely out of the bag, he’ll have to try and finangle the counterspell out of Slade the old-fashioned way. Staying limp and ducking his head down as Slade moves to the hilt of his sword, Dick reaches to grab the escrima at his belt and sends it straight up under Slade’s jaw with a crack! He staggers, and Dick scuttles out of the way, drawing the other stick and landing two more hits over Slade’s ears until he properly drops with his eye screwed shut. He handsprings up and over, spinning to dodge Slade blindly reaching out to pull him back. Hopefully the late arrival is comfortable taking Deathstroke one on one.

“Here!” The woman says, and grabs his arm as he clears the alley. Dick lets her, without dragging his heels too much, and tries not to be annoyed about it. She forces a grapple gun into his hand. “We need to get you –”

Slade appears from the darkness and swings his sword right at her neck with a bellow of rage. In one motion the woman draws a knife of her own, blocking the hit and parries both blades down and away with a loud metallic scraping noise. Deftly, she pins the sword and swings out, striking at his stomach with her heel. Slade blocks, thrusting up with the sword and forcing her back, Dick dodging out of the way. Stab, strike, hit. He lands a fist to her shoulder, and she knocks him off balance by firing another shot at his thigh, catching on where the plates had dented and separated from the under-armour.

Go!” The woman shouts at him.

Dick doesn’t. Instead, he tosses the gun away and launches the escrima in his left hand, pelting it past the woman and forcing Slade to raise the sword again to block. The woman swoops under, twists, then lands a heavy roundhouse kick to the side of Slade’s throat, snapping his head back and throwing him off balance as she continues the momentum and lands another, this time to his temple. Slade lands, rolls, springs up and slices through the holster on her leg with a knife before slamming his palm to her chest and knocking her over with a loud oomph!

Slade spits out a mouthful of red to the tarmac, and Dick seizes the brief distraction to run, jump over the woman, and push up off his hands to land with his legs around Slade’s neck, spinning back until he’s low enough to the ground to pull Slade off his feet. There’s blood on his jeans, smears from Slade’s crooked nose, and the woman rises to fire two more shots from a second crossbow. Both ricochets loudly off his shoulder pauldron.

“Still need people to fight your battles for you, kid!” Slade shouts, his mouth twisted. He draws his second sword, snaps it to his side, and Dick loosens up, bouncing on his feet as Slade swings and strikes air. “I wonder why I was wasting my time on you!”

Up, back, again. Dick is smaller and faster like this, because Slade’s overshooting just enough to make it possible to dodge each devastating hit. He manages to bring the stick down hard on Slade’s wrist, but then isn’t fast enough to completely avoid the kick to his ribcage, that doesn’t break bone but sends him falling off balance, rolling into a backwards tuck and falling into a crouch.

The woman stands in front of him again, weapon raised, cape billowing behind her.

“Stand down, Deathstroke,” she says. “But if you don’t, I’d still really love the excuse.”

“You can’t stop working with killers, can you kid?” Deathstroke calls at him over her shoulder, and lobs something in the air.

It explodes into a white-hot beam of light, filling his vision with black dots and reducing the world’s noise to a deafening, high pitched ring. Dick falls, hands over his head and head between his knees, struggling to regain focus, struggling to come back to reality. He falls, landing hard on the pavement. Dick lies there until he can feel his body again, and he can crack his eyes open through the tears, and he can hear that the fight has continued, slowly escalating in volume. Winded, world spinning, he hears several more successive shots, from both the crossbow and a pistol, and a shout as the woman is hurt bad enough to exclaim. f*ck. f*ck.

Staggering, he shakes himself until he trusts he can walk, and slides the remaining escrima back into his beltloop. The grapple, discarded in the gutter, takes several grabs until he can hold it with any confidence. Dick crawls to his feet, then up over the hood of the van until he can climb onto the sagging awning of a supply store. Watching, the woman takes another hit as Slade pivots on his feet, until she successfully kicks the pistol from his hand and cartwheels away. Slade is otherwise impeded and currently gloating, but Dick still has a chance to change his mind.

New plan. He just has to be the one to end the fight and prove Slade wrong.

Panting, Dick forces himself to focus on the shiny point protruding from the grapple gun as he holds it aloft and begins to run. Calculating draw distance, the height of the fall, the sun in his eyes, the speed he’ll need to reach. It’s easier than breathing. He’s never known anything else. Inhale, exhale. Catch, release.

He fires. The tug is a lot stronger than he’s used to, and he’s pulled off his feet as his arm is almost yanked from its socket. The speed is good – he won’t overshoot. He releases the gun, watching it continue out of his reach, and locks his arms at his chest to angle his body down further, continuing to accelerate. All in the timing, his Tati says. You must know where everything is in the air around you, if you are to fly.

Dick does, as he always has. And maybe Bruce Wayne can put a hundred people in red and green, but this is Dick’s alone.

Early, very early, in their partnership, Dick had spent hours in the unused, subterranean gymnastics rig in the Cave, practising how to fall. There was no footage of the final moments of his parents’ lives, no hard data aside from the memorial in the Gazette and what Bruce had collected for the conviction, but Dick saw the performance each night in his dream. He knew the exact speed they were moving when the cord snapped. He knew the draw distance to the next bar. He knew how they folded in space to break the fall. He calculated this, painstakingly, and then figured out how to land on his own. From this height, he would live when the Graysons, plural, did not.

The danger of the quad is the speed that builds with each turn. To be caught in the air risks stripping the flesh from the hands of the catcher, of breaking bones and snapping tendons and falling to the ground. His Tati’s hands had been calloused to stiffness, rendered invincible by a lifetime flying on the bars, and his mother’s had been the same. To fly is to know how to land, after all, and how to protect those who’d catch you. No one has been there to truly catch Dick in a decade.

Deathstroke’s armour is like Bruce’s – tactical grade, designed to stop bullets. It can take a lot of gunfire before the breastplate threatens to crack, many cuts before its structure is compromised. But Dick isn’t a weapon – he’s a Flying Grayson.

He spins, once, twice, thrice, then again. The dizziness is a return to the wires, and the open sky above the Big Top. He completes the last rotation, building speed, accelerating rapidly, and then launches himself right at Slade’s chest with a –


Slade makes a noise like a decompressing balloon, a long, winded gasp as he’s knocked off his feet and thrown backwards. Dick follows his momentum, continuing to roll so his ankles don’t shatter. The armour ruptures, splintering straight down the middle as marks from his fight against Jason buckle beneath the strain. Slade’s eye pops wide, bright with spots of red as tiny capillaries burst. He opens his mouth – to maybe say something, or shout – but Dick rolls forward, tucking his head and arms as Slade hits the ground with a heavy thud, and Dick springs up, rolling over and over until his knees fail him and he falls onto his stomach, sliding to a stop.

For a brief moment, head pressed to the road and eyes screwed shut, he lets himself picture the smell of sawdust, the sound of thunderous applause, and the rig far above him, casting long shadows from the spotlights. Briefly, so briefly, as with each quad he does, he returns home. Then, as it always does, the moment snaps, and he returns to himself in the present.

Dick inhales tarmac, his head spinning as he staggers up to his feet, holding his fragile ribs. Deathstroke is sprawled prone, taking shallow, laboured breaths through his armour, that’s split clean apart. He looks, Dick thinks with satisfaction, like an ugly orange turtle that’s stuck on its shell. Hopefully Babs is still watching from the sky and has the foresight to take a screenshot.

The woman in purple, crossbow still held aloft in her hand, begins to jog towards them, her cloak spilling out behind her. Her smile is all teeth, and she’s got a hand to her ear, muttering something into a comm. Babs, he assumes.

“Are you hurt?” The woman asks, approaching him cautiously, like a skittish animal. “Anything broken?”

Dick shakes his head, then looks down again as Slade struggles to speak. Spittle leaks from the corner of his mouth as he tries to lift his head and fails, skull cracking back against the tarmac. His blue eye bulges, watering in the sunlight. Bending over, Dick’s careful to pick up the bloodied sword, keeping it away from anywhere Slade could try to make another grab for it. Dick stares down at him, in a grim reversal of the rainy altercation on the roof, only hours before. The urge to kick him is immense.

“What did you wish for?” Dick asks. The rune on his chest burns. “What did you ask the ring to do?”

Slade tries to spit at him, but more drool just catches on his cheek.

“f*ck –” inhale, exhale “– you, kid.”

“What did you wish for?” Dick repeats, then lifts a foot to press it down over Slade’s abdomen, where the coloured outer-layer of the armour has fallen away. “Unwish it, take it back, and this can end.”

Slade grins, all bloody teeth. A crimson bubble pops where his lip has split into two.

“What’s – what’s in it for me?”

“A long walk off a short pier,” says the woman in purple. She’s got the crossbow held at her side and is staring down at Slade in unobstructed contempt. Upon closer inspection, she looks about Roy’s age. Future-Dick’s age. Dick wonders if they’re friends.

“You like the game,” Dick says to Slade instead. “It’s something we’re obviously still playing together, or you wouldn’t have tried to recruit me in the first place.”

“You sayin’ you like me, Robin?”

“I’m saying being a threat to me is good for you, right?” Bad men with bad morals who take an ego hit when Dick kicks their ass are so predictable. Dent and Sionis are just the same. “It’s flattering. Makes you look good. What’s it mean that you decided to take the easy way out? What, was me at thirty too much of a challenge for you?”

Deathstroke’s face twists into actual anger, and he goes to try and stand until the woman clocks his own gun very loudly and holds it to his head. Dick tries not to eye it warily. Babs works with her, he thinks, and Babs wouldn’t work with a killer.

“Don’t talk sh*t that you don’t understand,” Slade says. His voice is a little clearer, so his throat is starting to drain of fluid, and his ribs are knitting back together. They’re running out of time. “What it – what it means.”

“Means you decided to try and win a fight with a seventeen-year-old. That’s embarrassing.”

“You ever think, Grayson, how you got yourself into this situation? You don’t remember at all, do you? How you lost to me? To Wayne? To your own name?”

“Thanks for your input, Dr. Seuss-lite,” Dick replies.

That, at least, confounds Slade long enough for Dick to deliver a hard kick to his solar plexus, expelling the air from his lungs, and making his eye wide again. Slade snarls.

“Unwish it,” Dick says again. “And we can forget how you rely on magic to fight me. The game can start again.”

There’s no point trying to appeal to Slade’s morality, because the only thing Slade respects more than getting even is money, and Dick would die before giving him a penny. No, Slade is dangerous because he’s smart, and predictable because he likes playing with his food before eating it. The humiliation of this particular defeat will just make him bite back harder, the same way Grant’s death had. That can’t be avoided – his anger tended to swing like a pendulum. Thankfully, at least, that meant it tended to move in a direction that was easy to calculate.

Slade apparently, at least, respects Dick enough in this time that he didn’t just choke out a seventeen-year-old version of him while they were along in that safehouse, which would’ve been the objective smart thing to do. It’s easier to transport a body than a Robin, after all. He could’ve hogtied Dick and dragged him out of Gotham kicking and screaming, but the idea of recruitment had clearly been an enticing enough thought to have risked showing that video. Slade likes the game. Dick being his enemy is a good thing in that line of work. Potentially, Slade has more to lose by killing him, in this time.

They stare at each other.

“Unwish it,” Dick says again.

“I’m not a witch,” Slade replies. “You really think I care that much about the details of a job? I wanted you outta the way. Didn’t know it’d kick you outta the costume to when you were in between work. Abra-cah-f*cking-dabra.”

Slade most certainly does know about the details of his work, or he wouldn’t be quite so difficult to deal with. The woman makes a point of pulling out a communicator. It buzzes as messages start to come through, and while Dick can’t see the screen, the meaning is clear – they’re about to have company. Dick doesn’t want an audience for this, and he has to imagine Slade doesn’t either. Deathstroke the Terminator does not thrive on the currency of shame.

“Unwish it,” Dick says. “Send me back.”

Slade keeps staring, unblinking, as his eye slowly heals back to healthy white sclera. Whatever he sees during his inspection he must find funny because his lip curls again.

“I make it,” he says in a rasp, “undone.”

A wave of heat hits, striking square in the centre of his ribcage and making his heart skip a beat. Dick looks his knees, struggling to stay upright, his eyes furiously watering as his throat is stripped dry and the world burns. Inhale, exhale. Something unlocks, like working out a knot of muscle, or cracking his neck after a bad fall. Within him, it settles. The light dims. He can feel the call of – something, distantly. Calling him home.

Slade is looking at him through his bloodied eye, darkly amused.

“Didn’t work,” Slade says. “Still a little boy trapped in a grown man’s life. Pity.”

“No,” Dick tells him. There’s only one thing left to do. “It did. It worked.”

Then, to his surprise, Slade gives an approximation of a laugh.

“Guess,” he starts again, and swallows. “Guess that’s one you owe me, Grayson.”

“Nah,” Dick says. “I’d say we’re even.”

Then he brings down the hilt of the sword to Slade’s head.


The Huntress – Helena, she tells Dick in her hoarse voice – calls Babs again from an earpiece in her mask, and carefully stays in his line of sight. She’s less obvious than Roy and a lot less abrasive than Jason, and her perfunctory kindness seems genuine. Even better that she rummages in a pouch at her waist and gives him two fancy protein bars, the kind with chocolate chips, that he tries hard not to immediately inhale. While his stomach rolls unpleasantly and he tastes bile on his tongue, he manages to keep them down, and swallows furiously to try and wash out the dry, sticky pain in the back of his throat. Without prompting, she hands him a purple flask full of orange Gatorade.

She’d restrained Slade to a lamppost with a set of magnetic, power-locking cuffs, then escorted Dick back into an alley, in the shadow of a discount electronic store. He watches as van passes, pulls out, and hurried voices load Deathstroke into the back. Makes sense Babs would have her own cleanup crew if she worked remote, though no one specified who. Considering the time of day, it was very unlikely they’d be Bats.

The continued radio silence from the communicator, or anyone else in the city, felt momentous. Babs truly had the power to work miracles, because given the height of the sun in the sky without Dick having arrived at the Manor, he could only imagine that Bruce has started chewing drywall from rage.

Helena, too, was entirely comfortable telling Dick just enough personal information to know she was in on the gig about Batman, the Cave, and the Mission in general, and seemed to possess a distinct distaste for all three.

“– to the Clocktower,” Helena’s saying, then waits as Babs says something in response. “Since when do we care what he wants?”

She turns to look at him, a hand co*cked at her waist. Her dark eyes, shrouded by the mask, are unreadable.

Helena pauses, then says: “No, I’m not.”

Dick takes the time to look around, and sees she’s parked her own bike behind a dumpster, just barely out of sight. It is, thankfully, relatively unassuming with limited violet detailing, so unless his driving’s taken a hit from the concussion, it won’t get him mobbed on the open road. Ideally, she’ll be as amenable to parting with it as she was the protein bars.

“Tell him to go f*ck himself,” Helena says to Babs, then inspects Dick closer, like she’s trying to judge his reaction. Babs had said she didn’t like Bruce either, so no bets about who she was talking about. Helena waits a bit, listening, then, “I’ll ask first, alright?”

She hangs up, puts her hands on her hips, and lets out a heavy, pained sigh.

“You alright?” She asks gruffly. “I should check your eyes, anyway, but I suppose if things were really dire you wouldn’t landed that hit without breaking your neck.”

“I’m okay. I had it handled, but thanks for the save.”

Helena scoffs at him, then stares when Dick doesn’t say anything else.

"That was your idea of having it handled?” She asks. “I don’t need to explain what it looked like was happening.”

“I wanted to see if I could get him to say the spell on his own,” Dick says. “Or to at least explain why he did it in the first place, though I guess convincing him before he dragged me out of Gotham would’ve been a bit of a stretch.”

“Wonderful,” Helena mutters to herself, tapping at the mask again. “I’d say I expected better, but why would I lie?”

“How would I know?” Dick snaps.

There’s a pause, where that careful, thoughtful expression on her face starts to rankle more than comfort, but ultimately she just hands him another bar from her belt and stays silent until he unwraps it and takes a bite.

“Oracle said you were touchy,” Helena says. “But maybe I would be too, though it’s not like he’s my father.”

“He’s not my father either,” Dick says defensively. It itches when she just stares at him instead of replying. “We have that in common.”

“We have a lot of things in common, actually,” Helena says, after another pause, and then changes the subject after looking at his expression. “Babs was using you as bait to catch a mercenary. Are you okay with that?”

“It wasn’t baiting. It was… consensual baiting. Mutually agreed baiting. Baiting for the greater good.”

“Was the greater good dodging the Bat for longer?”

“Why the hell do you care?” Dick asks, mystified.

“I work with kids for my day job,” she tells him. “You wouldn’t be the first to dabble in passively suicidal behaviours to avoid a call home, slick.” She leans in a little. “To be honest, the you I know is a jackass, so it’s a little refreshing to see that at some point you had a little bit of sense.”

“Thanks. I think.” He swallows the rest of the protein bar. “Oracle said you don’t like him, so it’s kinda weird you’re working so close in the same city.”

She grits her teeth. “I’ve been the Bat too, y’know. When he decided that this city wasn’t worth saving.”

What? Dick blinks owlishly at her, almost bemused. The idea of Bruce abandoning Gotham felt entirely alien. Impossible. Bruce would scuttle every person and relationship in his life before he turned away. Such a thing wasn’t possible.

Helena, seeing this, actually smiles. It softens her face considerably.

“The Bat is the protector of Gotham,” Helena says. “But that’s something no one man can be, see? Just because it was his creation doesn’t mean no one else can wear it and protect the people of this city.”

More than just a man, Cassandra had said. A symbol. That fear transforming into hope, like Dick had always wanted. He wondered, idly, if Bruce had taken control over each person wearing the Bat, the same way he had with Robin’s R, or if it was something that had, absurdly, escaped his grasp. The Signal, after all, had acted with Cassandra over Bruce and the new Robin.

“I guess that’s kinda what Babs is still doing now,” Dick says. “Even with that new Batgirl. But without Batman’s branding. And the miserable isolation. At least, she seems to still have friends.”

Helena’s expression curdles and, bizarrely, a dark flush appears on her cheeks. Dick looks away and doesn’t think about it. He doesn’t want to know, ever. The communicator starts ringing again, and Helena looks at it gratefully, then back at him.

“Like I said,” she says. “Are you going to keep hiding from him? I’ve got a place with more protein bars to hole up in. Or we can find someone else to beat up. This city is full of scumbags.”

Dick doesn’t want to think about how big Batman’s rogue gallery has gotten in the decade since his time. If nothing else, Gotham was running dangerously low on bad puns or book references to exploit for villain names.

“No.” He rubs at his chest, where the rune is still burning. “B has what I need to go home, so. I need to go to the Cave.”

“We can probably extract that for you. Babs knows a guy.”

“What guy can break into the Cave?” Dick asked nonplussed. Unless they were on the League – maybe Wally could get in and out fast enough, but that’d be a stupid waste of time. He needed to stop running away. “Besides, it’s my problem. I want this to be over.”

Helena blows out another breath, and puts away the comm.

“Also,” he continues. “I need to borrow your bike.”

She surrenders it easily, enough to make him suspicious that it was coming to him third-hand and she’d already pinched it from someone else, but hands him a purple helmet with that same, built in connection to wherever Babs is logged in. Kick him in the balls, was all she'd said as she'd waved him off and returned to the rooftops. When he peels back out into the street, the fresh, jagged pothole is the only remaining evidence of Slade’s time in Gotham, and whoever Babs had called to collect him was well on their way to whatever supermax facility he would undoubtedly escape from.

The manufactured jitters he’d forced himself into feeling return suddenly as he’s crossing the Kane bridge, and Bristol appears up over the horizon like a storm cloud. The traffic thins, the lawns manicured, and the space between each house grows into acreage. Without slowing, he arrives at the solid brick fence and its steel gate, which is already swinging open for him as he arrives. Dick doesn’t let himself think, doesn’t let himself feel that deep, swooping foreboding in his stomach, like he’s preparing for a great, terrifying fall, and instead hits the throttle.

I am the grim, returning to the graveyard, Dick thinks as he snakes up the drive, my bones are buried beneath the earth, and still, I will always return. I will always heel. It’s all I know how to do.

It’s approaching summer in this new time, and he sees the fresh, pink bulbs and ropes of thorns as Alfred’s roses begin to bloom. The smell, sweet and almost sickly, catches in his nose along with fresh glass clippings and the distant taste of salt, made worse by the humidity. The trees along the west side of the house are the same, too – although a half dozen new saplings have been planted closer to the hedge, young enough to still be bound with wicker and string. He sees a car and two bikes he doesn’t recognise parked beside the house, the gravel torn into a wide, dark gash, as if their riders had stopped abruptly and sprinted to the house.

Then, at last, he looks up.

The Manor is… the same, in the abstract. Its shape fits on the lawn the way it always has, but it’s off, still. Menacing and jagged in ways it wasn’t, in Dick’s time. Sharper, more foreboding. Its stone walls seem stronger, the windows darker, the chimneys reaching upward like clawing fingers, the pikes along the roof bared like teeth. No, it’s not the same at all. This is Bruce Wayne’s fortress, for the present. An outpost in a war.

“Babs,” he says, and there’s a quiet click as the radio turns back on.


“I need you to do me a favour.”

“Of course.” From the tone of his voice, there’s no mention of payback this time. “Want to turn around?”

“No.” He swallows. “No, I need – I need you to turn off the cameras in the Cave.”

A long, static pause. Babs is a busybody know-it-all at heart, and she’s probably been watching Bruce at the same time she’s talking to him. But he doesn’t want – he doesn’t want this to be looked back on. Picked apart and shared. Dick doesn’t want it to be another puzzle for Bruce to replay on the computer, trying to figure him out. He doesn’t want it to be anything more than a clinical report in his file, without detail or audio. Bruce has already given so much of who he is away. He just wants a clean break.

“All of them?” Babs asks.


Another pause.

“Please, Babs. Even you. Please.”

He hits a large stone, and his teeth rattle. Dick has to tighten his grip on the handlebars to keep control of the bike. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if she says no.

“I won’t be able to help you if I can’t see you, Dick.” Babs says, but he can hear her typing again.

“You said Roy’s there. And Donna.”

Ye-es,” Babs replies, drawing out the word. She doesn’t sound especially thrilled. But they, at least, won’t find anything he says surprising. He knows that no matter what, it won’t be a question of whose side they choose to stand on. “A certain neurotic someone wouldn’t be happy about it, though.”

Like that’s ever mattered to her. She hasn’t had any patience for Bruce since that first time she jumped off a building and almost ripped her arms out of their sockets. But truthfully, she sounds more concerned about him that she does about whatever retribution Bruce might reign down upon her. Still, it’s not like Dick will be around to see that.

“Besides,” she continues. “I can’t cover, if I don’t know what’s going on.”

I want to help you, is unspoken. Too bad Dick isn’t above playing dirty.

“You said we were still friends.”

When Babs speaks again, her voice is soft. “We are, Boy Wonder.”

“Then I guess you’ll hear all about it, when I’m back.”

That is probably a fat f*cking lie, and he thinks Babs can tell because she gives a very deep, very tired sigh, but loudly hits a button anyway. Whatever. Dick, this Dick, the Dick he is right now, doesn’t have to worry about that. He only has to concern himself with the immediate present. You’re welcome, he thinks to himself darkly, to the older body locked somewhere away in the rune on his chest, cause I’m not doing this for you, either.

“Thanks, Batgirl,” Dick says. He hears her sniff, but there’s a smile in it too.

“Nobody’s called me that in a while, Robin.”

“I guess that just makes me special.” He’s lingering on the call, at this sole point of familiarity in Gotham that doesn’t feel painful, just melancholic. Babs had been replaced too, in some form, though he wonders how much of that was her choice. If she’d left willingly.

“You’re something, alright.” Her tone is fond. The moment holds.

“Goodbye, Babs.” He disconnects the call.

Dick eases off the throttle, easily parking the bike a distance from the others, as the red one on the left is in danger of toppling over entirely. He removes the helmet, and for lack of any other options, gingerly places it on the seat as he dismounts. The world is quiet, aside from sporadic birdsong and the sound of crashing waves, far in the distance. In another world, he’d be coming back from the Tower after a long shift or carrying a full satchel of study prep with him. As it was, he had Roy’s sweater and a single escrima, and a growing feeling of profound, inescapable dread. Still, it persists.

The front gate had opened for him as he arrived, though by Babs or Bruce’s grace he doesn’t know, and then neatly shut behind him. The varnished front door still has its intricate floral doorknocker – its presence despite obvious, extensive renovations makes him wonder if that was Alfred’s influence – and he jogs up towards it, jamming his hands into his armpits to stop his fingers from trembling. He drops them almost immediately as before he can even reach to knock, the door swings open. The bolt wasn’t even drawn back, meaning someone had been waiting for him on the other side, and had probably watching him since he made the turnoff from the highway. Dick prepares himself for Alfred’s greying, uptight disapproval, or Roy’s unabashed concern, or even Bruce’s smothering, frigid temper, but what he gets instead is just. Some guy.

He’s Dick’s height, white, with long dark hair that hangs over his face. He’s been chewing on his lip, enough that the flesh has split and beaded tiny spots of blood along his mouth, that clicks audibly shut when he sees Dick standing in the doorway. The guy in the photo on the fridge with the skateboard, Dick realises. What was it Jason had said? That one of the new Robins looked like a basset hound.

Dick squints at him, and he looks back, a visible crease in the middle of his brow. Well, Jason was right about that one at least – he kinda resembles a purebred, the sort Vicki Vale would keep in a fancy purse. There’s that same, unsettling feeling he got watching Jason move, though, they both stand like they’re preparing to jump from a great height, leaning into the balls of their feet. His eyes linger on Dick’s throat and his swollen eye, and his expression just gets more fraught. He reaches out, like he’s going to hold Dick by the shoulders, and then restrains himself. That unfamiliar familiarity makes Dick’s heart hurt.

“You – you’re alright,” the guy says, expelling a deep sigh of relief. Gotham accent, though a slightly different inflection than Jason. “We thought –” Dick neatly sidesteps him. “Hey!”

He’d hoped it’d be Alfred left upstairs, because at least then he’d know what to expect from his British, detached sympathy. Alfred was always very sorry about Bruce, about the arguments, about the injuries, but just as Dick did, all he knew was to heel. Bruce wasn’t Alfred’s son, and he wasn’t Bruce’s. Instead, they kept biting at each other’s tails, round and round in circles. Dick didn’t want to hear another contrived speech about the Bat, or Robin, or the mission from this person living in his old home. He didn’t want to hear some terrible, bastardised retelling of what Dick’s parents meant to someone who had never known them in life.

The sooner he escaped this person the better. Cassandra and the Signal were in Bruce’s shadow, but a distance from Dick’s loss. He’d spent so long worrying about Bruce, picking at himself thinking about what he’d say when they finally reunited, that he’d ignored the possibility of encountering the others who’d worn his name. Jason had been a violent, exposed nerve that still carried the weight of dying at Bruce’s side. Dick doesn’t know what he’d do if he ran into the little Robin from the rooftop, the one with the bruised eye from Dick’s own hit.

Dick keeps his eyes firmly on the polished wooden floor, the Persian rug, the ornate skirting boards, so he doesn’t have to look round the foyer and concentrate on the end table he doesn’t remember, or the pair of boots belonging to someone he doesn’t know, placed hurriedly against the wall in a way Alfred would’ve found distasteful a decade in the past. He can pretend it is the same. He can pretend that he isn’t the intruder in this place.

"Dick,” the guy says, easily keeping pace with him. “Dick, wait.”

Dick doesn’t. There’s new art hanging above the grand staircase. He pivots, turning into the hallway into the morning room, towards the study. The concussive difference in everything makes it feel like the walls are closing in. Everything is darker. It smells different.

The guy, irritatingly, doesn’t seem to be taking the hint. Instead, he picks up his pace and goes to stand in the doorway, keeping his posture carefully relaxed with his hands in his pockets. He’s not very convincing. There’s a nervous twitch in his left eyebrow. It seems like he’s almost looking past Dick, to someone else out of reach. No mystery who that might be.

“Get out of the way,” Dick says, impatiently.

“I think we should talk first,” The guy says. “I’m Tim.”

“Good for you.” Dick goes to move around him again, and Tim steps to block him. “What, you want to wax poetic at me about Robin? What Batman stands for? Save if for when the other guy’s back – apparently he’s way cooler with a lot of things than I am.”

“About…? No,” Tim says, sounding confused. “No, Dick, I want to talk about you. So Bruce doesn’t see you and go absolutely mental.

Dick has never wanted anything less in his life. His eyes flick down to Tim’s kneecaps. His jeans are so baggy it’s almost hard to tell exactly where the joint is located, and the way he’s slouched doesn’t help. Then again, he doesn’t exactly want to hurt another Robin, no matter how apparently emotionally divorced they all were from each other. No matter how loyal they were to Bruce. Tim, steps back, balancing on his left foot.

“Easy,” Tim says. “You almost took one Robin out, earlier.”

He says it like it’s a joke, like Dick strikes out at him on the regular, and maybe that’s even worse. His stomach twists, enough to cramp. Is that what Dick is now, too? Does he hurt kids the same way Bruce does?

He mentally shakes himself. Donna wouldn’t let him do that. Roy wouldn’t let him do that. Carefully inspecting his face, Tim drops the smile.

“Hey, I think –”

“I,” Dick says, abandoning civility, “do not f*cking care what you think.”

There’s another brief back and forth as he tries to get through the door again. Dick wants to throw his hands up in frustration, or start shouting, or kick over the ugly floor vase that apparently survived whatever else the Manor’s been through but manages to refrain. No more ammunition, to any of these people. If he can’t handle this guy, what’s he going to do when he finally sees Bruce?

“What did you think I was going to say about Robin, then?” Tim asks insistently. “Dick, who exactly do you think I am?”

“Does that matter?”

“It does, very much.” Tim steps towards him, and it takes effort not to step back. “I thought – Donna said they’d explained this to you.”

Had they? Honestly the talk on the floor of Jason’s apartment and the conversation on the rooftop were a little foggy in his head, both from the way his head kept spinning and the total, crushing relief he’d felt from finally escaping the nightmare. Cassandra had called him the North Star, but that could mean distance as well as guidance. Dick just shrugs awkwardly, looking away.

“Look, I know you were –” Tim stops, thinks, then tries again. “I’m sure this has been very hard for you.”

“Bruce sure knows how to pick ‘em.” Dick says flatly. “What exactly do you want me to say?”

What will it take for you to leave me alone?

Tim goes to smile again, then drops it.

“Is that why you’re looking at me like that?” He asks.

“Like what?”

“Like I’m – I don’t even know! Like you hate me!”

“I don’t know you enough to hate you,” Dick retorts. “I’m just a little tired of people who don’t know me trying to give a pep talk on Bruce’s behalf.”

“We’re not strangers, Dick,” Tim says, and steps a little closer. “Maybe not right now, but in this time. I care about you. You’re my – we’re Robins.”

“Great. Which one were you, then? Apparently Robins are a dime a dozen these days, cause Bruce keeps dropping them like flies. Jason was number two, so you’d be three or four.” And the little one was five, presumably. “How’d it end? Did you die? Disobey an order?” Dick feels his lip curl. “Or did he just get bored of you?”

Tim recoils, though seemingly more from confusion than genuine hurt, the same as Jason had. Like Dick wasn’t reacting the right way. Like having a spine at all and refusing to bend was unexpected and wrong. Like Dick was supposed to just roll over and take it.

“That’s not fair. I don’t know what Cass said – what Jason said – but we don’t just follow Bruce blindly because we don’t know better. We’re here because we want to be, because what we’re doing is important.”

“But you’re still here, in the house. You’re working with him. You were his Robin, you said. It kept going after you too, right? And you’re just fine with that.”

“Of course,” Tim says, confused. “Batman needs a Robin. You know that.”

Batman needs a Robin. But he doesn’t need you, is unspoken. Dick bristles, hands spasming at his sides as he tries not to start throwing things, screaming, kicking, biting, anything to make this guy hurt. Tim was fine with it, that same bastardisation, that bloody legacy, just as Future-Dick seemed to be. How could what Donna said be true then?

“Do I?” Dick asks in that same, flat voice. “Does he need a Robin, or does he just need someone else?”

Another pause, and he can see Tim working through that in his brain. With dull amusem*nt, he realises the easiest way to catch someone off guard in the future is to not take any sh*t.

“If it’s…” Tim stops, starts again. “Donna said you’d just been fired, in your time. From being Robin. I was fired too, sort of. It’s really hard. I get that. Thinking you’re losing your home for the second time – that’s painful.”

“Yeah, I’m sure Bruce told you all about it.”

“No.” Tim shakes himself. “No, I mean – I was there that night in the circus. I remember your parents falling. It’s… it’s one of my earliest memories. One of the worst.

In that moment, Dick is so perfectly, incandescently angry, that he almost ascends to a different state of being entirely. His face crystallises, hardens to diamond, and the effort not to reach out and strangle this guy where he stands is so immense that he is rendered immobile. Bruce will take any part, use anything from Dick’s loss, his grief, except Dick himself. Some kid who happened to be there that night thinks he has the right to Dick’s name because he was a witness to that immense, unspeakable tragedy.

There is no part of Dick’s life that is his alone.

“Get out of my way,” Dick says, in a voice that is not his.

“I think that’s – you’re misunderstanding what I’m trying to say,” Tim says, raising his hands out in front of him placatingly. Dick slaps them out of the way, hard enough that the skin on Tim’s wrist immediately reddens. Tim grits his teeth. “I’m sorry. Hang on, Dick –”

“I,” Dick says, desperately trying to keep his voice steady. “Do not care what you think. I don’t care what Bruce told you, and I don’t care how it makes you feel. You don’t get to stand here and tell me that we’re close, or that I’m fine with this, or that I’m not acting right because you know some future version of myself that doesn’t exist. I’m not interested in debating with someone who got sent up here to do his dirty work.”

“I’m not doing this for Bruce!” Tim replies, his voice raising. “I’m doing this for you!”

What are you doing for me?” Dick snaps back. “Aside from proving every f*cking fear-gas trip real? You have no idea what it’s like – I lose everything and then twelve hours later there’s five kids he’s gone through, in my costume, trying to tell me about my life and how I’m supposed to feel. You have no idea what –”

What Robin means. Dick breathing heavily, puts his head in his hands. He tightens his grip on his hair, squeezes till his scalp tingles, then releases again. In, out. Seeing Bruce is going to kill him if he can’t even handle this. He wants to hate Tim so badly. He wants to tell Tim to run.

“Batman chose the Robin,” Dick says, voice grating. “I know that, alright? I’ve seen it. He chose a new kid, over and over, after he got rid of me. And then he kept choosing and kept ditching kids right up to the present. It’ll never change. Nothing I do can make it change.”

His best was his best. That was so hard to believe, now that he’s in the Manor. Even if Bruce had kept hurting people, Dick was the one who started in the first place. Dick stares down at his sneakers, ruddy and dirty from the fight against Slade, with the sole of the left starting to peel from the canvas. He can hear the mounted clock ticking, and Tim’s shallow breaths, but otherwise the Manor is silent. He hopes Babs honoured her word. He hopes Tim is the only one who’ll ever see this. When he risks looking up at last, Tim is staring at him still, but his expression is soft. Gentle. The same as Roy had been – like he was afraid of Dick shattering.

“You’re right,” Tim says at last. “Listen, you’re right. Batman chooses the Robin. But you don’t think that we didn’t also get to choose? That any of us wouldn’t have chosen to be Robin? To be like you?”

Dick stares at him, and Tim grabs his hand, pulling it to his chest. He can feel deep lines of scar tissue on each palm, long since healed. It’s not a proper grip – it’s a bit too sweaty. But it’s a good grasp, the kind that’s ready to tighten and catch someone who’s falling. Someone has taught Tim this. It’s a flier’s hold.

“You were my Robin,” Tim says, hushed. “I don’t think you get what that means yet, but that’s alright. You were mine, and Jason’s. You don’t know what it was like, wearing the mask, carrying the name. Being Robin and getting to know you.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dick tells him in a croak. Because how can he? Dick hadn’t even spoken the words aloud until this morning, let alone telling the Titans or anyone else. He didn’t want Tim to know. They’d all gotten to wear his colours and stand at Bruce’s side. Dick wants to keep his mother to himself. He wants to be selfish. “Even if you were – even if you were there, that night. You don’t know.”

“Maybe not.” Tim’s hand tightens. “But, Dick, I need you to understand. I became Robin because you wouldn’t. You’d moved on to something better. You knew it wasn’t something you wanted anymore. When I chose, because I saw what Bruce became without you, without – without Robin, it was bad. I took the job because somebody had to. What you’d made was so important. But then it got really hard to separate myself out as me again, on the other side.”

Dick couldn’t imagine a world where he’d turn away from being Robin. After the anger in him had settled from that last, violent row with Bruce, he’d contemplated crawling back and begging for another chance.

“Look, I don’t know…” Tim hesitates. “It’s my fault – you weren’t happy with me the first time we met either, and I kinda underestimated how upset you’d be with me now. About this. I guess because I came in so much later, I didn’t realise what it’d been like for you when this happened.”

“You said you got fired too.”

Tim smiles, ruefully, and gives him this weird look, like Dick just said something sad.

“Kind of,” Tim says. “Well, I mean – yeah. Technically. But it wasn’t like this. Things were… complicated. Very bad. I wasn’t in a good place. Someone I love very much trusted me to be more than Robin, but I didn’t want to let go. It was all I had. It felt like they were taking away the only good thing left.”

Dick doesn’t say anything, but scratches at his chest with his free hand. The rune throbs, but the pain is sedated, and distant. Like Dick’s body is no longer entirely his own. As if he’s about to emerge, sticky and raw, from a cocoon.

“You don’t know me,” Tim tells him. “And you don’t know us, yet. And you’re right, I don’t really know you either. That’s why I sounded a bit –” he looks almost bashful, and casts his eyes upwards, “– I guess if you don’t know what I mean, I sound like an asshole. But there’s a history between us now. It’s not fair that I’m talking to you like you’re in on the joke.”

“We have an in-joke about my dead parents,” Dick says flatly.

“What? No! I mean there’s context to what I’m saying.”

“About my dead parents.”

Tim looks like he wants to give him a shake, but thankfully refrains. Instead, he searches Dick’s face, maybe looking for anger or offensive, but really Dick is just so, so tired. The Titans hadn’t gone into specifics about the other Robins, and Jason had just been angry, so he’d kind of accepted that the new kids were out of his reach, and well within Bruce’s control. He hadn’t really thought about – being there, with them. About being close at all, outside of Bruce’s influence. Of losing Robin, but trying to keep his mother’s memory intact, even if he was never truly honest about its purpose. Of being important and cared for. Of being loved.

It made his heart feel strange.

“When I say I was there that night, I don’t mean – it’s not about me,” Tim says quietly, still holding his wrist. He rubs his thumb gently back and forth. “But you were kind to me, then. Before. I remember it so clearly. Seeing you and Bruce after changed everything. I knew you before I knew Bruce. You did a quadruple somersault on patrol, once. I saw it from a distance and I just knew. No one could move in the air like that, even the actual aliens on the League.”

“The quad’s not in the Robin for Dummies playbook, then?” Dick asks. Bruce had been on his case for the quad being flashy, but he hadn’t been able to deny its effectiveness, especially if Dick hit all four rotations. Embarrassing that it’d apparently got him caught in some capacity.

Tim scoffs at him.

“As if,” Tim says. “Maybe if I wanted to launch myself into a coma, or a back-brace.” Tim eyes Dick, carefully, then offers: “Trainsurfing blindfolded, though. You loved it. Used to scare the sh*t out of me, when we first started, because you’d make bird noises and tell me I was getting swooped.”

Dick had gone trainsurfing with Babs, more than once, but she’d used to make fun of him for it. Trainsurfing wasn’t the trapeze, and it didn’t hurt to do alone, or with someone who wasn’t his mother. It was something he’d share. Something he still shared, evidently, enough that Tim looked back on it with fondness.

Who are you, to me? Dick had asked Cassandra, in the hallway at Jason’s apartment. He’d been so afraid of the answer. He’s even more scared now, with this boy looking at him like – like he doesn’t even know. Something holy.

“Who –” Dick starts to say, and Tim’s eyes widen in preparation of the question, before he cuts off. Movement in the shadows, by the study door. Soft, careful steps on the balls of the feet to mute the sound. Avoiding the creaky board by the dresser. The familiarity with remaining unseen to observe.

Tim notices a second later and turns with an exasperated expression on his face.

“Oh great,” he says. “Never a private moment in this house.”

There in the doorway, a darkening bruise below his eye, is a boy with a scowl on his face.



In truth, prior to the revelation on the rooftop in Queens, there were two sole witnesses to Robin and Dick’s legacy of grief, once Haley’s had left North America. Bruce, who’d draped his woollen coat over Dick’s shoulders that night on Amusem*nt Mile, then torn away the canary yellow cape from him a decade later. Who’d handed down that loss, trimmed neatly of the Grayson name, and buried Dick along with it.

The only other was another orphan, the last surviving son of a dead world.

Before the Titans and Kara, when Dick was still in pixie-boots and the League roster could fit in a minivan, he’d sat on the edge of the Daily Planet building, kicking his heels out into the air, and watched as Superman – Clark Kent! He was on first name terms with Superman! – cradled two foil wrapped brisket sandwiches in his cloak. The alliance was very new, then, and Bruce had spent a long-time sulking, strutting around with his shoulders up to his ears and muttering about kryptonite.

Clark, however, had been breathlessly cheerful, and very patient as Dick asked about flying – what the wind felt like moving that fast, and how he calculated his speed, his break distance, the angle to best turn a corner without slamming into a high-rise – because Bruce in his heavy gear and heavier landing blows still didn’t quite get what it meant to soar.

“The cape helps,” Clark had said, and flicked it up off his shoulders so it caught the breeze like a crimson flag. “But it was good that I started practicing in cornfields when I was young. Better I destroy a tractor than a city bus, y’know?”

Dick had spent a long time chewing on his sandwich, which was still deliciously warm.

“I hate mine,” Dick had confessed in a whisper. The drag on his cape was almost unbearable and made it hard to somersault in the air. He always had to be extra certain about where he was landing, and Alfred had had to install a separate release clip on the collar so he wouldn’t strangle himself by stepping on it. “But, well, B insists.”

Clark had nodded conspiratorially, looking very amused. They’d sat in companionable silence, until Dick had eaten his sandwich down to the crusts and removed one of his gloves to wipe up the grease with a napkin. Clark asked:

“Your work – I know it’s sometimes a little different than what I do. You’re so young. Why start so early?”

Because if I didn’t, who would? Dick had thought, a little annoyed that Superman was trying to question his capabilities. But he was having a nice time, and encouraging Bruce to make friends was a little hypocritical if he didn’t do the same thing, so instead:

“A baby girl,” Dick had said. “Freeze had frozen the downtown subway rock solid, so they were stuck in there for almost an hour. Super cold.” Even thinking about it, his skin started puckering. “There was a mom and her kid in the last carriage. I was the only one small enough to reach them. I used my cape to keep them warm, but the baby was wearing a little Robin onesie.”

Clark laughed, delighted. “Really? You’re beating me for official merchandise, then.”

“It was crocheted. The mom made it herself, she said. Because she’d named the baby Robin.”

The woman, Nancy, stammering in frigid embarrassment, had explained that Dick had saved her from a Riddler scheme during the seventh month of her pregnancy and then named Robin in honour of his efforts. Dick didn’t entirely remember it, but he’d felt a warm, awed flush as tiny baby Robin had yawned in her mother’s arms, wriggling delightedly and reaching her little fat fists for the lapels of Dick’s suit. The tiny embroidered R over her heart made his own beat quicker. This is what I’m doing it for, he’d thought, very pleased. This is what she’d want. This is how she’d want to be remembered.

“My first time seeing someone else wearing the shield,” Clark had said. “It was a young man in a comics shop. I guess he’d made it himself or drawn it on with fabric paint. It was a little lopsided.” He’d laughed, and absent-mindedly tapped over the shield on his own chest. “It felt – amazing. Like I was someone worth celebrating in that way, no matter how small the gesture. But honestly, Robin, the first thing I thought wasn’t really kind.”

Dick had frowned. “What do you mean?”

“The shield,” Clark replied, and turned a little so Dick could see it fully. “The name Superman works so well, I suppose, because it’s seen as an S, see?”

Dick, feeling more than a little embarrassed, nodded his head, but Clark hadn’t seemed offended.

“It’s my family shield, from the planet I was born,” Clark had said quietly. “The House of El. It was branded on the side of the ship when I arrived here as a baby. I didn’t know…” he swallowed, ponderous, and Dick hadn’t dared say a word. What he was learning, what he was being told, was far too precious. Clark had made sure to say planet I was born rather than home-planet, he noticed. “I didn’t even know the word Krypton, until much later. Growing up, my parents and I had to do everything in the dark. Everything about me was a mystery – where I came from, what I could do, what I couldn’t. It was terrifying. I talked about the corn fields, earlier, but Robin, I was so scared I’d hurt someone by accident. I was scared someone would hurt my family to get to me, and what I could do.”

Dick pulled up his legs and rested his chin on his knees. He had felt very cold, suddenly.

“The shield is an honour to wear,” Clark had said. “Really. And to see that loss – of Krypton, of my mother and father, become something more on a world a million miles away is so special. They’ll never know the Kryptonians, but I’ve made it into something humanity can care about. Something people love and respect. Something worth making yourself and wearing. A bunch of artists put up a moral of me down at Fort Hob’s, and kids in costume take photos with their parents because they want to see the world be better, and they think I can be a part of that. But it was still hard, in the beginning. I chose to wear a symbol that was important to me, and now others know that symbol as something else. My grief, my confusion, my parents who found me in a field and protected me my whole life, now exists externally to that. To something that can be printed on a shirt and be worn by someone else with pride.”

Without meaning to, Dick found himself saying: “That’s a bit like Robin, for me. Robin was from my family, too.”

Clark had paused, and it was obvious he’d tried very hard not to react from managing to chisel a portion of personal information out of Dick. Then, his face had turned very gentle.

“We’re similar, then,” Clark told him. “In our grief. Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me, Robin. Though I admit, I thought you and Batman just had a fun birds and bats type naming convention.”

“No,” Dick had said, and found himself lowering his voice. Being honest about it after so many years felt strange. “We’re partners. We – it’s a little complicated, but we both chose our names for different reasons. We help each other. We want to make things better. But Robin was how I honour the people I’ve lost, too.”

He couldn’t compare two people to a whole planet in a distant galaxy, but it still really felt that way, even four years on. Like Clark had transformed this profound, unspoken loss, Dick sought to do the same. He wanted to protect those he loved, even in death. Knowing a gift from his mother was now seen as a hopeful symbol in a dark city… truly he could do nothing more. That would have to be enough.

“That was only once, though.” Dick had said. “And besides – it’s different. Seeing it, with baby Robin. It was like they were living on through that. I don’t know how I’d feel if that’s transformed in some other way outside my control.”

Clark had thought about that for a long time, then said: “Everything is so precious that sharing it is painful.”

Then he’d turned to look at Dick carefully.

“Do you know what you’ll do,” Clark had asked. “When that grief is shared without you?”

At the time, Dick hadn’t had an answer. Five years later, and now he knows.

The boy – Robin, Dick thinks with trembling revulsion – is looking back and forth between Tim, the hold Tim still has on his hand, and Dick himself. Closer, in the clear light without a mask, if Dick had any doubts about who the boy’s father is they would leave him now. His complexion is darker, his short hair threatening to curl, but there’s no mistake. It’s like looking at the Bruce captured in the sporadic portraits taken after the Wayne’s death, when his sullen, pointed face hadn’t yet broadened from training under a dozen different masters. It’s uncanny, really. Puts him very off kilter.

This kid can’t be older than thirteen. In Dick’s time, then, he’s already been born. Was there a literal countdown to the end of Dick’s time at the Manor? Had Bruce known a son of his own was about to come knocking?

“Timothy,” the boy says. He even sounds like Bruce – that same hodgepodge collection of accents that sounds both sincere and disingenuous at once.

“Damian,” Tim says, and drops Dick’s hand. Dick rubs at his wrist. “What – how long were you lurking there for?”

Damian shuffles, and with anyone else Dick might’ve said it was from nerves, or awkwardness, but that was hard to believe with so stern an expression. Instead, Dick realises, Damian’s looking past them, at Dick’s ear or the wall behind him, rather than making direct eye contact. The same as Bruce does, even after a decade of living with him in the Manor.

“Richard,” Damian says stiffly, and twitches, like he’s going to rub at his eye again, and stops himself. Dick’s stomach twists. He’s still young. “It’s good to see you’re – well.”

Damian looks at him, like Dick has some reply he’s supposed to give, but Dick is sick of the answer to a puzzle he doesn’t have the pieces for so instead he just says:

“I thought you’d duck.”

Damian turns rigid, arms at his sides.

“It was a cheap blow,” he replies. “One I didn’t expect from you.”

That was encouraging, at least. That Future-Dick didn’t make a habit of hurting children, no matter how angry he was.

“A cheap blow that landed. Still, I didn’t want to hurt you.” Not truly. It wasn’t this kid’s fault any more than it was Tim’s, really. Whatever distance Dick had to this new Robin, whoever this new Robin’s father was, should not deny him kindness. Then, Dick looks between the two of them. “You have a problem with taking a hint.”

Funnily, they both seem to take offense to that, glaring sideways at each other with identically irritated expressions. Tim and Damian aren’t really similar at all physically, but in mannerisms they were almost alike in ways that didn’t entirely remind Dick of Bruce. Like they were close enough to unconsciously mirror each other. More of that weird feeling in his chest.

I didn’t,” Damian says at the same time Tim starts: “That wasn’t –”

They break off in a huffy silence and look at each other again. There’s a pronounced crease in the middle of Damian’s brow, and the way he’s looking down his nose at Tim despite being several inches shorter makes Dick think of Alfred. Tim had said he and Dick were close, but it was hard to tell if the detached, cold reception from Damian was a family trait, or a sign of sincere disconnection between Dick and his successor. He’d been upset on the rooftop with the Signal, Dick remembers, but that might’ve been from that same profound fear of losing control that Bruce baked into everyone around him.

“You seemed…” Damian says at last, then stops. “I wanted to speak to you. You were – troubled, when you saw me earlier.”

Tim blows out a breath. “We already –”

“You’re wearing my costume and my name,” Dick interrupts. “You expect me to be happy about that?”

“Your legacy is intact,” Damian retorts. “I thought you’d be pleased.”

I thought you’d be happy, sad, something else. Dick was getting déjà vu. “Then I guess you don’t know me at all.”

Same as the kick, that clearly connects hard. Damian’s face flattens, and Tim grits his teeth. The Titans wouldn’t let him stop caring, they wouldn’t let him stop trying to preserve his parents love, their hope, their light. That’s how he knows, truly, that Dick would never, ever be okay with this. Maybe he’d grown softer to the thought, like Tim had said, enough to have some sort of relationship, but he can’t imagine any genuine closeness. It’s too painful to see his family’s colours dulled to ash grey, to be passed on by Bruce and changed beyond recognition. He wonders, idly, if Tim had been fired for Bruce’s son.

“We’ve been over this,” Tim says tensely, but trying to placate the two of them. “Damian, if you were listening you should’ve heard that Dick doesn’t –”

“You’re honoured,” Damian says, louder this time. “You’re remembered! It’s decade after you and the same suit is worn in Gotham.”

My costume was red and yellow and green,” Dick replies. “You don’t look like a Robin. You look like a Bat.”

If that last blow was bruising, this was a knockout. Damian, Dick knows, immediately understands what Dick actually means. Another sign he was a Wayne – Bruce had that same, supernatural sense of knowing when he was being sniffed out.

They both recoil, moving properly away from Dick for the first time, and giving him enough space that he can step around them entirely and enter the study. It feels – muted, silent. The tall, broken clock is the same, though the hands are a different shade of brass now. The reading chair’s been replaced, and the rug, and the bookshelf has been built up to the ceiling and is still threatening to overflow. Dick doesn’t get much farther into the room before he’s stopped, again, and lets out a loud, frustrated breath.

“The uniform had been altered already, before me,” Damian says, raising his voice. He shoots a look behind Dick, to where Tim is standing. “I wore green when I started. I returned the costume to its original colours, in your image. What’s your problem with me specifically?”

“My problem isn’t with you,” Dick says. “My problem’s with Bruce. My only issue with you is you won’t get out of the way.”

“Father –” Damian stops, flushing. Ding, ding, ding. “Father wasn’t there. This was between the two of us.”

“Sure. You and future me, who can’t come to the phone right now.”

“Dick, you were there for that,” Tim interjects, and Dick peers around. “What you’re talking about – about not having control, or Bruce taking it from you… you were still there. For us. We’re close. You have to know that – you were around for every Robin.” He stops, winces. “Almost every Robin.”

That just makes everything worse. He didn’t understand – the Titans said he still cared. Wally had insisted that they hadn’t let him become like Bruce. Trying to connect his feelings to another version of himself that was not only placid about Robin but approving seemed impossible. Absurd. He could feel nothing but anger and disbelief.

“Is it really that strange to you that you’d care about us?” Tim asks softly. “I know how important Robin is to you – I think we all do.” Damian says nothing. “Why is it so weird that you’d be a big part of our lives, too? What’s stopping you from believing that?”

Breathe in, breathe out. The only way out is through.

“You want me to believe that I’d ever be good with this. But you’re still not listening. I don’t care about whatever happy family Bruce decided to build himself after he’d decided he didn’t want me around. I chose to be Robin, you chose to be Robin, Jason chose to be Robin, and look what f*cking happened. Maybe – maybe I got my backbone ripped out, but I know who I am. I know what I care about. How can you not understand that what I care about is that my name was taken from me and is being used to hurt kids?”

That’s a lie of course – Dick cares about this, about all of it, so very, very much. That’s why he wants it to be over. He wants to stop feeling the kind of heartbreak that bursts his chest open and drowns him. The rooftop in Queens had been a profound relief, but now that sinking dread had returned. He wished Donna had told him about this. He’d be able to keep his temper if he knew there were even more people with a deep, unsettling understanding of what he was going to become. He wished he’d known that distance he’d built in his head, of Bruce acting completely outside of Dick’s control rather than

Happy family is a very generous way of describing the people in this house,” Tim starts, but Dick keeps going:

“I was fired fourteen hours ago. f*ck a family – Bruce didn’t even want a partner. He didn’t want anybody. Now he’s got an actual baby Wayne to run around with, and you, and a new Batgirl, and some other guy who gets to run around Gotham in the daylight. You just don’t get it – I was with him a decade, and he didn’t even want to be – to be –”

A father. That pain returns, in the face of Damian Wayne, who’s gone steadily greyer and more upset. But really, what right did Dick have to complain about it in the end, when he’d been just as rigorous in maintaining that boundary as Bruce had been? Maybe, deep down, he’d hoped that Bruce had cared enough to keep him around regardless, even if Dick was no longer of use to him.

Dick scrubs his hands over his face again, then looks at them through his fingers.

“If I wanted you to know what Robin means to me, I would’ve told you,” Dick says. “But I didn’t, clearly. So you can stand here and tell me how close you are, or how sad it was when you watched my parents die, but in truth I can count the number of people who know how I feel right now on one f*cking hand. People I love, who’re waiting for me downstairs. Now, get out of my way.”

Neither of them move. Dick wants to tear his f*cking hair out.

“Richard –”

“My name’s Dick. My parents called me Dick. Anyone I give a sh*t about calls me Dick. People who don’t know me call me Richard. People who think I’m crass call me Richard. The only one with an excuse is Alfred, cause he’s British and I think using hypocorisms would kill him. So,” he looks at Damian, “which are you?”

Damian’s mouth clicks shut, and for the first time he catches Dick right in the eyes. There’s – something, there. Even more so than with Tim. Some deep buried, painful uncertainty, like everything Dick’s doing is wrong. Like he’s being mourned.

“It’s what you asked me to call you,” Damian tells him at last, strangely subdued. “It’s a sign of respect.”

“Is it?”

“Yes!” Damian insists. “You’re just assuming the worst of me, but I’m not Father. You’re treating me like this is all my fault that this happened, and it’s not fair! I didn’t take Robin from you. I was your –”

Tim says at the same time: “We were your –”

“My what?”

Another look at each other, and in unison they both decide not to answer. Dick manages to get a little closer to the door before he’s stopped again. The pain in his chest increases as his heartrate picks up. He has to get out of here, now.

“You’re certain we don’t know you,” Damian declares. “Well you don’t know me, Ri – Dick. You can’t arbitrarily decide my intentions, or my priorities. I know enough about Robin because of what you’ve shared. It’s changed because the world changed, you’ve said so to me yourself. Even if it’s often for the worse.”

“Thanks,” says Tim.

“I was being truthful about Father – I knew you before I knew him. He was… absent, when I took the position.” Damian hesitates. “When the position was given to me. I was by your side. It was something I earned. This respect I have – that was something you earned in return. We had that understanding, because I was your partner.”

“What am I, chopped liver?”

Damian ignores Tim, with what seems like trained practise, and just keeps looking at Dick. Dick’s head throbs. His partner – like what, Dick was Batman? Had been Batman? He’d kind of assumed that was something neither Bruce or the Titans would’ve ever allowed.

Or maybe – maybe did that mean that future-Dick had done the only thing he really could and tried to protect a Robin in the same way his mother had. Bruce had taken that choice from him, that right to his own legacy, and Dick had fought to preserve it the only way he could. The act of mourning, not shared, but instead transformed. He hadn’t stopped caring. He’d never stopped.

Had he remained in spite of Bruce, rather than because of him?

“Partners,” Dick finds himself saying quietly, with some degree of grief. There’s a hand at each of his wrists, varying in grip, and though his hands spasm, he doesn’t shake them off. “Who’s the last one?”


“The last one. Five, Jason said. Who’s the last one? The last Robin.”

Oh,” Tim sighs out a breath, then winces. “Her name’s – Stephanie was the fourth. After me. She doesn’t like Bruce either.”

“She was one of the ones that died, then,” Dick says tiredly. A girl Robin. He wonders if Stephanie knew Babs, or Cassandra. Tim had said he hadn’t been close to all the Robins, so he hopes that someone in her life had been kind. “How?”

“She wasn’t really dead,” Damian tries to be reassuring. He’s not particularly successful. “Not entirely. It was a ruse.”

“Steph technically flatlined, but she recovered,” Tim says, giving Damian a small shove. “She’s going really well. She’s doing pre-med at Gotham U, actually. It’s cool.”

Dick… doesn’t really know what to do with that. His chest hurts. Jason, Tim, Stephanie, Damian. “I really let him keep doing this, despite everything.”

“I know you had a rough time with Jason, in the beginning,” Tim tells him. “Or – not with Jason, with Bruce. In part because it’s so difficult for Bruce to talk about now, and he’s never been one for apologies. You weren’t super close because you were off being – doing your own thing. With the Titans. But I know you still cared. I think you gave him the first suit, just after he’d started.”

Dick almost jerks away but doesn’t get far. The little porcelain elephant, sitting chipped on the kitchen island in New York, that Jason had given him with that bizarre, monumental sincerity. Dick hadn’t understood that at all, given how Jason had spoken about him, about Bruce. Had it been a casual gesture, or some sign to the older Dick that when he returned, Jason remembered that kindness, despite the anger and pain and death that had followed?

“You don’t always agree with Bruce,” Tim says. “I think anyone who knows you would say that. It’s –” he hesitates. “It’s complicated. But Robin’s always been a such big sticking point between you, and I guess I didn’t quite appreciate why until now. I didn’t have any experience when I started, and I had to come on pretty strong to try and get you back into Gotham, but you still weren’t – you could’ve been really unkind. Once I had the suit, you took time for me. It wasn’t perfect, but that was so important to me, working with the first Robin. Being your Robin.”

Dick stares at the ground. And still, it persists.

“And even then, I wasn’t just Robin around Batman. It was so much more than that, for us. Cass said you’d met – well, there was a point where there were Robins in Gotham and no Batman, because that idea, that idea of hope, stayed behind even if Bruce was gone. Kids who’d never known Bruce thought it was important. Doesn’t that mean something? Doesn’t that mean that even if it’s changed, or different than what it was, you’d built something worth protecting?”

“Besides,” Damian says with proud authority. “You can’t claim all the credit. What I’ve accomplished is mine. What I’ve made of myself is mine. Anything else that happens is ours, and Batman’s. It’s your legacy, not your leash to hold. We act on our own.”

Like Jason? Dick wants to ask, but doesn’t. That was before both of their time, apparently, so really the only one who can give him an answer for that is waiting for him in the Cave. He feels a bit suffocation, with the oxygen leaving his lungs and refusing to return. The thought of Dick returning, of trying to preserve his mother in name if not in memory, to each successive child that was put in Dick’s place. But surely there was always some great price to pay to do good, even if the cost to pay it took everything he had. Had the Dick of six months from now, of a decade from now, see that and paid it willingly?

“That’s why we can sneak you past Bruce,” Tim says.

“Bruce won’t like that.”

“Damian can distract him with some uncharacteristic affection,” Tim says easily. “Or a smoke bomb. Last resort is we throw Alfred.”

Dick just blinks, trying to wrap his head around that. “That’d probably pop out his hips.”

“Not Alfred the butler,” Damian tells him. “Alfred’s a cat.” He looks at Tim. “And you won’t be throwing any animals at anyone, unless you want to launch yourself at Father from the Bat-trebuchet.”

“Roy’d probably be game for that,” Tim says.

“Yes, I imagine Harper’s head is dense enough to give Father a concussive brain injury.”

“You named a cat Alfred?” Dick asks, still about three steps behind.

“He’s a tuxedo,” Damian says, as if that explains anything. He turns back to Tim. “Troy can fly, so I imagine that would be the quickest means of leaving the Cave. Unless Oracle pings West, I suppose.”

“Donna could throw the cow at him.”

“Stop talking about violent animal abuse as a solution to this problem, Timothy,” Damian snaps. “Or I’ll get Titus to defecate in your bed.”

“What’s the cow?” Dick asks. “A rabbit?”

“No,” Tim says. “The cow is a cow.” He shakes himself. “My point is, don’t think we’re gonna ambush you from behind, okay? I was only up here because I thought I’d be a friendlier face for you than Bruce.”

Damian scoffs. “You would’ve been better asking Kyle to do it.”

They look ready to start an argument with each other, but Dick needs to keep moving before he lays down on the floor and never moves again.

“The ring,” Dick says. “It’s in the Cave?”

“He’s hidden it,” Tim says. “But it’s pretty unlikely we won’t be able to find it. He retrofitted the computer half a year ago and we were all around for that, so it’ll only be like a soup-spoon in a haystack.”

I need him to give me the ring back, so the spell can be undone,” Dick says. “Donna and Roy clearly haven’t gotten anywhere or else I wouldn’t be like this. He’s waiting for me. It has to be me, no one else.”

He stops, swallows.

“When I ask, will you leave?”

They both go to open their mouths to try and argue, but he holds up a hand. It’s very strange that they both obey, the same as Babs had when he’d asked. It was a new kind of power, not born from fear.

“There’s some things that need to be mine, okay?” Dick says. “Just mine. I don’t have anything left, here, even if some of it was my choice. And,” he hesitates, then continues: “I’m going to hurt him. Maybe badly.”

Tim and Damian look at him, with Tim folding his arms. They do not, however, make any move to dissuade him. Instead, Damian reaches to pop the glass cause of the clock open and turn the hands until the hidden door releases with a click and swings open. Stone stairs sloping downwards in a curve are revealed, and he can hear that familiar drip, drip, drip.

“We can help,” Tim offers, at last.

“No,” Dick says again. “You don’t know him like I do, I know that now. It has to be me.”

The only way out is through.

Without looking back, he descends into the darkness.


The first thing he notices is the smell – it’s clean.

The Cave is about as impregnable as is possible for a human to achieve on Earth, but it’s never been truly cut off from the outside world. Stalactites drip crystal rain into the water far below. Bats roost in shadows, unfurling to yawn overhead. The raised platforms are dug from rock and stone, and occasionally pebbles would loosen and crumble into dust. Rivers, buried even deeper underground, make the computer terminal shake. The darkness is absolute. Loam and the fragrance of overturned dirt always reminded Dick of a grave. The draft sometimes made Alfred sneeze.

This, though, was a different space altogether.

Clinical – it almost smelt like a hospital. The light is blue and makes him cast a hand over his eyes. Everything is impeccably pristine, and looking up he can see that the ceiling’s been reinforced three times over. The industrial spotlights beam down pockets of glaring white – over the dinosaur in the far corner, rows and rows of shiny vehicles befitted with metal bats on the bonnet, a fleet of boats and a sub moored in the water, a data-centre flickering with a hundred tiny lights – but amidst the hardware are lines of glass cases, each individually lit and vacuum sealed shut. Costumes in the hundreds, from all stages of conception and execution, literal metal armour and a cowl carved into the realistic head of a bat.

Dick continues, and as he makes his way lower he gets a better look at them. A Batgirl suit, in purple rather than grey, beside another that looks close to what Cassandra wore. More armour, this time with proper wings propped beside their case. Robin costumes too, some with tights and some without, and all different capes. He watches as the R changes shape, the colours darken, the vest gets heavier, the belt more cluttered, and the green disappears.

Then he looks up and sees his father.

Dick stops so suddenly that Damian almost runs into his back, and quietly swears as he trips over Tim who hisses something in response. Dick doesn’t hear that at all – completely transfixed on the case and its contents – and instead finds himself stumbling forward, blind to the uneven stairs and the voices that’re audible as they echo from the platform below. The crushing pressure in his chest is back, throbbing in place with his heart, but all he can do is stare.

The suit in the case is blue and gold, with a deep neckline and high collar, and with embellished gold feathers across the shoulders, like the wings of a bird. The cuffs at the wrist, the armour neatly sewn into the forearms and waist, are different and impractical for a proper routine. It stands too tall, at a height that would make flying precarious, but everything else is the same. This was made for the trapeze. This is his Tati’s suit, reconstructed from one similar what he’d worn the last time he ever fell. This was the Flying Graysons, reborn again. His parents, remembered.

Dick stares, the reflection from the polished glass capturing his own, haggard face, hovering above the collar. It’s so stupid, but he drinks that sight in like he’s starving for it. He looks just like his Tati on the night he died. Like how his Tati and his mother remain, on a poster trapped behind glass in an apartment in Queens, immortalised in a future Dick hasn’t lived. A poster that Dick himself, as he is, did not know still existed. It would’ve been very difficult, and very expensive, to locate so rare of a collectible more than a decade after Haley’s lost their star troupe.

He finds himself grabbing at the front of his shirt, right over where the Seal sits on his skin. Like the Robin suits, and the poster, and this new costume, and Martha Wayne’s pearls, all kept clean and neat and stale in glass, safe from the world and the sun and unkind eyes. The panopticon of Bruce Wayne’s grief, terminal and unchanged and always witnessed. Bruce Wayne, refusing to let go.

N.W.001, says the plate at the bottom. What was it Slade had called Jason? Discount-Nightwing.

“Dick?” A hand at his elbow, the touch so light it’s barely anything at all. Still, he jerks away and almost falls, turning to look at Tim. “Hey, sorry. You alright?”

No, not at all. Dick, rendered mute, just shrugs. Damian cranes around him, sees what Dick had been staring at, and gets a pinched expression on his face. Dick doesn’t want to know what anyone thinks of the suit, given that everything else here is so bleached of colour. Everything else hurts too much. Robin was taken, even if Dick was still there to see it. This suit, too, appears to have been lost to him.

He’s going to be gone soon, anyway. No point in lingering. No point in feeling anything but resignation.

The Titans are below, and they’d probably fight this whole damn house for him if he asked. Instead, he continues, with Tim and Damian in awkward silence at his heels. Dick doesn’t see a cow or a cat, but instead a larger gym packed into a corner, the floor thick with sparring mats and a huge rack of blunted wooden weapons. Above it is a trapeze, hung in preparation for a workout. There’s no net.

He rounds a corner, and is able to finally look down, and see the Cave for its full, cavernous size.

The terminal, always large, is now enormous, and even from a distance he can see Babs’s green O icon again in the corner, muted and silent. Smaller auxiliary machines too, connected by dense optic-fibre cables, and cooled by a ducted system Dick can feel from here. A car is parked in the immediate bay, as if stopped in a hurry. It looks more like a tank than anything Dick had seen Bruce use before.

Dick hears Roy before he sees him.

“– ignoring what he wants anyway, otherwise you would’ve handed it over when we asked!”

There’s a pause for a reply, but it’s at too deep a tone for Dick to make out. Bruce.

“Acting like you’re doing this altruistically doesn’t make you any less sanctimonious,” Donna snaps back loudly. From this distance, he can see her throw her hands in the air. “Consider why we took those measures to keep our distance from you.”

“He had to pick between you and Deathstroke and he chose Deathstroke!” Roy shouts. “Maybe it’s time to get a f*cking clue, Bruce!”

Finally, he hears in that rumbling bass: “I understand he ran from you too. Suffice to say you aren’t standing on any moral high ground, here.”

Dick stops at the top of the stairs leading down to the platform. They’re obstructed a little by the car and a monitor, but he can see Roy and Donna are out of the civvies, with Roy in that red and black suit, and Donna in what looked like the night sky, with a crescent moon crown holding her hair back from her face. Beside them is Alfred, the butler not the cat, holding a tray.

Bruce remains hidden from him, for now. Dick swallows, and it hurts to breathe. His body trembles.

Roy says: “Jesus Christ.”

Maybe they’d heard him approach, or her eyes found his automatically, as he always did her, but Donna turns a half second before Roy, and they both see him on the stairs. He must look truly awful, because their faces go from angry to pallid in seconds, and they dodge around Alfred to walk quickly up towards him. Alfred, following their gaze, startles and comes close to dropping the tray.

Roy stops just short of him, the moment of hesitation invisible if Dick wasn’t paying such close attention. Tell me to back off, it means, and I will.

Before the rooftop, before the chase through Gotham and the drive from New York, Dick might’ve recoiled. But now his knuckles are smarting, and the mark is burning a hole through his chest, and he needs some kind of familiarity more than anything in the world. He needs someone who knows him and knew him. So instead, he just drops his shoulders, and keeps his hands loose.

Roy sees this, comes close to properly smiling despite the redness in his eyes, and reaches out to lift Dick off the ground with enough force that his teeth rattle.

“You,” Roy says cheerfully, like Dick can’t hear how fast his heart is racing. “Are gonna send me to an early grave, y’know that? What’s gonna happen once I go grey at thirty, hmm?”

“But it’ll be such a look for you,” Dick replies, kinda muffled. He curls his hands in the back of Roy’s coat. “Might finally act like a respectable adult. And I’m okay, anyway.”

“I hope that’s not your blood.” Donna, though he can’t see her past where his face is smushed into Roy’s collarbone. Her tone is breathless relief, though that might be because she only just stopped shouting. “You’ll only make Garth feel even worse.”

“S’not mine.”

“It’d better not be Deathstroke’s, either. Think of my hair, Dick.”

Dick, perhaps wisely, says nothing. They can both tell regardless, though, because Roy stiffens and Donna’s voice goes cold.

“Dick, I swear to the Gods –”

He pushes a little and Roy lets go immediately, so Dick can move back a-ways with Roy’s hands still on his shoulders. Donna leans around him, running a hand over the fresh bruise on his cheek, and tilting his chin to the light to get a better view.

“I needed to stop him.”

You didn’t –”

“I did. You don’t like admitting it, but it’s still my job. It’s the reason I’m like this. I needed him to turn me back, and he did. Kind of. It was something that I had to do, and I don’t care if it freaked you out.” Dick breathes in, breathes out. “Call it payback for the kidnapping, but I’m not apologising.”

Donna and Roy look at him, very seriously, and then at each other. They’re standing close enough together that Roy’s eyes almost cross.

“If I apologise about getting Wally to grab you,” Roy says, sounding very tired. “Will you promise me to turn around and let us deal with this for you instead?”


“Okay then.” Roy’s not angry – he smiles dimly, like he’s still sad. “Well, I’m sorry anyway. Seems like I’m getting a lot of things wrong today.”

“S’alright.” Dick reaches up and grabs Roy’s wrist but doesn’t move it from his shoulder. “It’s still appreciated.”

He hopes they know that, really. All four of them. If nothing else, to know that they kept him caring, enough that he was willing to bear the impossible load of more children with his mother’s name – no small feat. Shuffling on the stairs, and Donna straightens to look over Dick’s head at the company waiting at his back.

"You're still alive,” Tim says from behind him. “That’s good. I thought I’d have to call the League.”

“Wally’s pacing a hole to the centre of the earth,” Donna tells him. “I think trying to deescalate the situation will be more productive for everyone.”

“Is that what you people were doing?” Damian asks. “Is shouting at all volumes normal diplomatic behaviour for purported adults?”

Roy, with clear practise, just rolls his eyes. He’s artfully blocking Dick’s view to the terminal, Dick notices with chagrin. He’s giving Dick one last chance to turn away and run. That’s all I’ve been doing, says the voice in his head, I need to look him in the eyes myself. I need to prove him wrong. Gently, Dick extricates himself from Roy’s hold, stepping artfully to the side just as Alfred reaches them, hurrying up the steps.

That hurts, too. The look on Alfred’s face is one of exhausted disbelief. No doubt stretched thin from playing peacemaker for Bruce.

He looks so much older, and his moustache has gone fully grey, but his suit is just as clean and he’s standing as ramrod straight as he was the last time Dick saw him. He’s left the tray beside the keyboard in an odd display of abandon, and he looks at Dick with a hand over his mouth. Strange that he would abandon his charge below.

“Richard,” he starts. “My boy –”

If Damian calling him Richard stung horribly and didn’t fit right, then Alfred slipping on courtesy and dropping the Master entirely felt almost intimate, like a parent would a child. His eyes itch.

“Alfred,” Dick says, and walks past him. “Can you take these new guys back upstairs, please?”

With uncharacteristic emotion, Alfred grabs his wrist as he passes, forcing him to turn back. As he does, Alfred grabs his other forearm, preventing him from moving away. His fingers feel like iron bands. There’s spots of sweat on his forehead, and Dick notices that his shirt is bunched beneath his waistcoat and the tails are sitting a little haphazard. The Alfred of his time would’ve died before company saw him this rumpled, no matter the hour. When Dick was younger, he’d been half convinced that Alfred slept in a vacuum sealed bag so his suit wouldn’t rumple overnight.

If he stopped paying attention to the people at his back and the bone-tired, exhausted panic on Alfred’s face, it would be like any other night, with Alfred’s huffy, uptight concern as he sewed Dick’s wounds shut, and perhaps a treat to soothe his hurt – a hot cocoa, mixed from a solid block of chocolate over the stove, or a baked madeleine still warm from the oven. His stomach churns.

“Master Richard – you’re hurt,” Alfred says thinly, and grabs at his chin to check the bruise over his eye. Dick shakes him off, and Alfred’s lips thin to paleness. “Please, I – I’ll call for Doctor Thompkins. You aren’t well, sir. You shouldn’t be on your feet.”

“That’s not necessary.” He peels Alfred’s hand off his other arm, and steps away. Alfred follows him, tucking his hands at his waist. Dick sees his wrists shaking. “Alfred, can you please take these guys upstairs?”

“What?” Tim interjects, at the same time Damian says: “Us?”

Alfred ignores them, but seems to remember propriety and keeps a distance from Dick, though he still seems desperate to reach out.

“Your face,” he says. “Master Richard, please, you shouldn’t be –”


Alfred stops. Dick tries to remember the last thing his Alfred had said to him – before he’d left yesterday, but it keeps blurring together with his return to the Cave after Shrike. When Alfred had held him close, espousing apologies for the time during Dick’s absence, and told him that he could always turn away from the cowl and cape for good. Alfred hadn’t cared his suit was crooked then, either. Dick wasn’t his son, and he wasn’t a Wayne, and they both knew where Alfred’s loyalties would always, truly, lie. But still. He holds out his hands, and Alfred takes them hurriedly. The skin of his palms are soft and wrinkled, but his grip is tight and steady.

Alfred’s eyes search his face, drinking him in. Dick wonders what he’s seeing.

“Alfie,” Dick says again. “Please, go upstairs.”

I don’t want to hurt you if I can possibly help it. Alfred had stood aside for every hurtful thing Bruce has done in the time Dick’s known him, but he’d always offered platitudes after the fact, to soothe the sting. Ultimately, Alfred had always tried to the greatest extent that he could. It’s as about a gentle rebuke as Dick can manage, but Alfred doesn’t leave, and neither do Tim and Damian. Alfred’s hold only tightens, and Donna moves, like she’s prepared to separate them.

“My apologies,” Alfred says, and moves to press his forefinger against the tear duct of his right eye, then repeats with his left. “I am having trouble – composing myself. You gave us quite a fright.”

Yes, it was easy to imagine that Bruce had made everyone’s lives around him positively hellish since Dick had escaped him on the bridge. All of them, Donna and Roy included, look truly wrung dry. But Dick doesn’t want Alfred present for this, standing omniscient over Bruce’s shoulder as they scream at each other, like a pat on the back and a teabag will make the pain truly subside, make Dick confident of his place in the house, or force Bruce to be honest about why he was –

“I think it best if we speak, first,” Alfred says firmly. “Sir, I understand the nature of your… arrival, or your memory of me may be tenuous, but –”

“What is there to say?” Dick asks him. “You’re still here, aren’t you?”

Alfred stops, looking like he’d taken a solid bite from a lemon. He mops his brow. This is possibly the closest Dick’s seen him to truly losing control. Rather than an indomitable silhouette, he finally appears mortal, and aging. Small.

“You’re upset, I can appreciate,” Alfred tells him. “But you must understand, whatever you think, that Master Bruce truly doesn’t –”

“Alfie,” Dick interrupts. He clutches at Alfred’s hand, and Alfred returns the squeeze. “You can’t control him, and you don’t control me. You’re not his father, and you’re not responsible for what he does. That’s what you’ve always wanted, so I need you to leave us alone. I don’t want to end this between us unkindly, okay? Please. For me.”

Once again, Alfred is silenced, as are Tim and Damian behind them, who finally stop muttering to each other. Truthfully, if Alfred refuses there is being of neither heaven nor earth that could truly make him budge if Bruce wanted him to stay. Dick knows that. Alfred knows that. That’s why he needs to go. Dick desperately needs him to go.

“As I hope,” Alfred says at last. “That you do not think of me unkindly, lad.”

Dick is so, so aware of Bruce’s eyes on him, even shielded by Roy. Surely he can hear them clearly from where he is. He’s running out of time. Once again, he prays Babs kept her word. He says nothing, and only looks at Alfred, waiting for him to move. He knows about the suit, but none of the details. Dick’s mother had been shared with Bruce in solidarity, and Bruce had not shared that with anyone else, as much as everything else of Dick’s seemed to be fair game. He didn’t want that to change.

“We will grant you some small privacy, then,” Alfred tells him, in a murmur, like it’s painful to say. “Granted Miss Troy and Mister Harper may remain with you, until your due departure.”

Roy opens his mouth to say something, maybe to try for a second push to get Dick out of the Cave entirely and back up into the daylight, but Damian interrupts before he can start:

“We can’t just leave.”

“Master Damian –”

“He’s made us the accessory to his harm,” Damian replies. He awkwardly looks at Dick out of the corner of his eye. “I deserve the right to redeem myself!”

“It’s not about you,” Dick says, and moves further towards the landing, leading downwards. “You said so yourself.”

“But there’s still – you still won’t give a chance. Me a chance.” That seems to be the sticking point, more than anything. Dick wonders how much of that came from him, as an adult, the first time Damian put on the suit. “I want – I want to prove it.”

“You said it yourself, right? That I care, now. About you.” Both Tim and Damian take a second to digest that. “And the reverse is true. So, I need you to prove that. This is me giving you that chance.”

Dick looks up and meets Tim’s eyes. He’s frowning, and keeps casting looks down to where Bruce is still hidden from him. “You were there for the during and the after,” he says. “But not the before. That isn’t something you get to have, no matter how close we are. This is mine.”

“You don’t need to do anything for us,” Tim sounds a bit like Babs had, during that last call before his arrival. I can’t help you if you won’t let me be there for you. “If you’re worried about the Robins, don’t. We can just grab the ring and vamoose.”

“Sure,” Roy says. “Should be easy now that we’ve got him nice and pissed and obstinate.”

Bruce hasn’t come to meet them, because he knows that Dick will heel. He knows he just has to wait.

“No,” Dick says again. “No, I need to talk to him first.”

It’s not just a matter of going home anymore. It’s about everything Dick has let slide, no matter the intention. It isn’t fair that Bruce keeps hurting people in his name, regardless of the outcome. Bruce has spent a long time acting carelessly with the memory of Dick’s family. Maybe Dick a decade older can’t do anything about it, but he can. Right now.

Loving someone too much, loving them completely to the point of ruin, sometimes just isn’t enough. Regardless of how Bruce feels about him, Dick would not be in this much pain if he didn’t care about Bruce, and it still didn’t make a difference. He needs Bruce to love him enough to change.

“This probably won’t end well, honey,” Donna says quietly, and Dick can only shrug. “We’ll stay up here for you, then.”

Some look passes between Tim and Roy, and maybe it’s from that heavy, tired expression on Roy’s face, but Tim finally acquiesces. Putting his hands up, he backs away a little, and continues to move so Damian and Alfred can follow them. Alfred hesitates, knotting his hands behind his back again, and swallowing audibly, but he does not try to speak. None of them stop staring at him, until they’re up far enough that they pass the curve of rock, and half disappear from sight, leaving Dick with Roy and Donna, and the shadow down below.

Damian, the new Robin, tilts his head very slightly as they turn the corner, then slowly drags his hand across his chest, then taps two fingers to the side of his neck. Fly away, and I’ll catch you, he says without speaking. Call, and I’m there.

Dick can do nothing but turn away, grabbing at his own chest.

Then, finally, he descends to the terminal. It’s as if he liquifies – he’d been grimly resigned about Slade, but that determination melts into the worst anxiety he’s ever felt, and it feels like every part of him starts to shake. One step after the other, his feet slipping inside the oversized sneakers. All he has left is the single escrima, and the rune on his chest, and his body that’s sitting weird on his bones. He aches, and finally stops to stand across the desk to the figure poised, scowling at the enormous, curved monitor lit with a hundred different tabs.

Death, atop his pale horse.

Bruce is mostly in costume still, despite the hour, and seeing him without the cowl with the Cave so full makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Then, Bruce raises his head from where he was sitting, and looks right at him.

He’s – older. More lines around his mouth and eyes, spots of grey at his temples, that same weird misalignment to his shoulders and back. His hair’s shorter, cropped at the sides, and there’s a line of dark stubble on his chin. He’s still big, even in the suit, but it hangs on him differently, and Dick could see new reinforcements around his joints and chest, compensating for Bruce’s body as he aged. Everything about him seems darker, shadowed, even under the fluorescent light from above.

His eyes, though. His eyes are still the same, that bright, clear blue, and they stare right through him,

They’d been horrified on the bridge, at seeing what had happened to Dick, at how he was running away. Now, though, they were calm. Sure. Dick was in his castle, and Bruce was in control. Roy and Donna could shout themselves hoarse, but Bruce could not be dethroned here. He held all the cards.

All Dick knows is to heel.

There was some strange relief, Dick found, to knowing that despite everything, despite the insistence of Cassandra and Damian and Tim, he did still know Bruce, deep down. That much, at least, hadn’t changed. This was Bruce assessing and preparing to strike at an artery.

“Dick,” Bruce says in that low, rumbling bass.

That staccato trembling returns, starting at his brain and travelling to each individual bone, through his mouth and down to his feet. His shape shrinks, stretches. His chest burns. He is returned to himself, thirteen and beaten bloody by a bat, with his arm in a cast and taut gauze round his head, as Bruce took Robin from him for the first time. He’d left on his own, then, and returned triumphant to Bruce’s side. It’d felt like victory, despite the heartbreak. It always begins and ends with Bruce choosing to take.

“You made a bad call,” Bruce says at last. His voice, like Donna’s, is hoarse. Dick can feel rather than see Roy’s temper climbing back up again. “You were reckless, engaging with Deathstroke the Terminator without establishing contact. Without making a plan.”

Without me, is unspoken. That’s cute, thinking he has that right anymore.

“I was doing what you wanted,” Dick finds himself replying. “I figured I wouldn’t be missed.”

Though he’d never say it, he’d always found Babs and Bruce similar in this way – it was easy to clock when they’d started visualising a conversation as a chessboard and begun calculating how to move the dialogue back and forth across an invisible table. Dick was probably the same, really. He just had to figure out Bruce’s play.

Bruce stands and casts a shadow to Dick’s feet. It takes immense effort to not retreat into Donna.

“Oracle was hiding you.” Not a question.

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

Bruce’s lip curls, and it’s not a smile.

“Wilson had mobilised to traffic you out of the city,” he says. “It was luck he was apprehended without casualties, and without you being seen. Careless.”

If he wasn’t in pain, if the Seal wasn’t burning dully beneath the sweater, if he wasn’t very aware of an older Roy at his back, it’d almost be like a debrief after a Titans mission. As Dick had slowly loosened the Batleash, Bruce’s intense interrogations about his time away from Gotham had escalated in length and intensity. But now, Dick is not taking a lecture from a guy who’d decided he didn’t want a Robin, and then went to get more than one killed, he is not.

“I’m sorry, I assumed from our last conversation that big boys don’t need partners,” Dick replies, carefully keeping his face flat. “But you never were good at keeping your word, were you?”

Bruce pauses, and Dick can see him visibly recalculate.

“You didn’t plan to return to the Cave.” Also not a question. “You know Wilson couldn’t have pursued you here.”

“Why would I have?” Dicks asks, curious about the answer. Bruce ignores him.

“That was an unnecessary risk.” A grimace. “You were very fortunate that he was easy to contain. It would’ve escalated, if you hadn’t – “

“But I did.”

Bruce stops entirely, every part of him statuesque and immobile. He inhales deep enough that his nostrils flare, and his head straights again so he’s standing over Dick, the light from above casting his face into intense shadow. A long, shuddering moment passes, where it feels like Dick’s heart is about to beat out of his chest.

“He was left running around the city until I drew him out. Until I stopped him,” Dick tells him, sharply. It’s – it’s petty, he knows it’s petty. It’s not what he wants to say at all, really, but he wants to prove Bruce wrong. “Turns out I had to do your job for you first. I came to get the ring back. Not for a lecture.”

“Was that what this was? Risking your life to make a point?”

White pawn to e4. Aggressive opening.

“Is that not what you’re doing?” Dick retorts. “Seems like you’ve spent the last decade and change trying to prove something. I learnt from the best then, I suppose.”

“The only thing this shows is miscalculated risk-taking,” Bruce replies, firmly. “You weren’t considering your options. You ran rather than call for help. You engaged rather than retreated. Being how you are, what if you’d encountered someone worse? Would pride be worth that?”

Pride?” Dick says, incredulous. “You think – I stopped being your partner yesterday. You relinquished that right. I don’t want a diatribe from you about what I decided to do to stop a murderer while you were here arguing with my friends. Give me the ring.”

“Times have changed.”

“Not for me!”

Bruce exhales deeply, then rolls his shoulders back. He only grows taller.

“I wasn’t devoted to the cause, you said,” Dick says. “That’s pretty rich now, considering you couldn’t even keep your own word six months after the fact.”

“You don’t understand the situation,” Bruce replies in that calm voice.

“What is there to understand? You lied! You took something that was mine and gave it to someone I didn’t even know! How dare you do that?”

“Robin is Batman’s partner, and Batman protects Gotham City and her people,” Bruce says. “The mission, our dedication to the world, takes precedence. It always has, even when neither of us are here to see it.”

Infuriating. The same circular, pointless argument as they circled the drain for the one hundredth time. Bruce with brisk smugness, and Dick left seething. All pain was public, between them. They understood what it meant to be stripped bare and seen at the lowest point, at the greatest pain. So the Waynes were never truly Bruce’s, the audience at Haley’s that night, people like Tim, were inextricably linked to the Graysons. That just seemed to mean that anything that Bruce deemed his fell into his power and was to be used as he saw fit.

He wonders if Helena's bitterness to Bruce was from him abandoning the city, or him wrestling control from her when he decided to return. For all his talk, had Bruce been as hospitable with his own symbol as he had been with Dick's?

“This isn’t some bat symbol you pulled out of a nightmare. Robin was mine. Robin is mine. Why did you take it from me?” Dick asks, voice cracking. “Why did you decide you had that right?”

“Dick,” Bruce says with a deliberate, tender slowness. Gentle, like talking to a child who feared a punishment. “Calm down.”

Fathers don’t hurt their children. Good fathers don’t hurt their children. His Tati had been a father and a teacher both, but Dick had never feared him during their short time together on this Earth. His Tati stripped his own hands raw to catch Dick in the air, to save him from falling. He’d tried to save Dick’s mother at the cost of his own body. Dick had defeated a killer with his father’s skill. His Tati, even in death, protected Dick still. But Bruce isn’t Dick’s father. What father would hurt their child this way? What kind of love is this?

“Why did you take Robin from me?” Dick asks again. His voice is already – it trembles. He can’t keep the volume right. It’s stuttering all over the place, as he desperately tries to stay calm. “You took it, then you gave it away. Why?”

And Bruce – Bruce smirks at him.

The Bruce Dick knows would never have considered himself a Stoic – he understood the world was too chaotic to be endured with temperance. Still, Bruce valued deduction and reason above all else, and while he worked out of empathy as both Bruce Wayne and the Batman he rarely let himself believe emotions steered his opinion, whether for good or bad. Unfortunately, that meant he tended to inflate irrationality with temper, with losing control. If someone was bothered with his decisions, it was because they were being illogical. If Dick was upset, Dick had lost the ability to rationally explain himself, and thusly what he was saying wasn’t as considered as Bruce’s own argument. Bruce’s anger was righteous. Bruce only acted for the greater good.

Bruce watches him, a decade older and greying and lopsided, and there’s the tiniest shape of a smile at the corner of his mouth. Bruce knows what’s coming – Dick is going to start shouting, start getting emotional. Bruce will refute him, the same as he’d always done. They’d argue, and Bruce would win. They’d enter their standard period of not speaking to each other, then Alfred would initiate a reconciliation or Bruce would recruit him to a case or Clark would talk to him over coffee, and the cycle would continue. Bruce is smiling because he knows how to handle Dick. He knows how Dick gets angry. A decade later, and nothing has changed at all.

Well, except for Dick.

That cold, glacial calm settles over his shoulders, tempering the burning rage into something sharper, harder, and easier to aim. He doesn’t raise his voice, he doesn’t look back up to the Manor, or Alfred on the stairs, or anyone else.

Instead he pivots, grabs one of the fine porcelain teacups and, in a single motion, hurls it straight at the giant monitor, directly behind Bruce’s head.

The screen shatters, exploding glass and enamel outwards in a rain of glittering shards. Bruce has to duck, covering himself with his hands, and for the first time Dick can tell he’s surprised, like he had been on the bridge. He’s lost equilibrium. He doesn’t know what Dick’s going to do, and that renders him a man rather than something more. His eyes are wide open.

Dick is extremely aware of the others, poised on the stairs still, but true to their word they don’t interfere, and don’t break them apart, although he could almost hear their elevated hearts from where he stood.

“Are you paying attention, now?” Dick asks in that quiet, steady voice.

Bruce doesn’t reply, he just waits with his hands still cupped over his head. One of the porcelain shards has sliced his forehead, and a tiny pinprick of blood wells just above his eyebrow.

“I asked you a question,” Dick says.

“I am paying attention.”

“Don’t act stupid, Bruce. You know what I f*cking mean.”

Bruce drops his arms, straightens again, and something in his face visibly shifts, like he’s seeing Dick clearly for the first time that he descended the stairs. Is it Dick he’s seeing, or the older version locked in the Seal?

“You wanted to leave,” Bruce says. Dick’s mouth drops open. “You’d moved on from our work together.”

“Because you kicked me out of your life,” Dick snaps. “What the – you don’t want me around, so you just decide that it’s time to grab a new model? I wasn’t some random you pulled out of the air. I was supposed to be your partner!”

“You were already distracted,” Bruce says. “It was clear that this city wasn’t a priority for you anymore. You were reckless on patrol and putting yourself at risk. You were hurt on my watch.”

“I’m in college! I have friends! This was – this was my home! You don’t just get to assume things and then punish me for it!” Dick laughs. “I’m risking myself, but recruiting kids even younger will just fix that problem for you, will it?”

“The parameters were different,” Bruce says, dismissively. “They were closely observed. The limits of independence were much shorter. It was easier to deter bad decision making. If they didn’t follow orders, they lost the right to work with me.”

“We both know that’s a f*cking lie. What, you start them young, and then hope they leave on their own by the time they’re grown enough to make decisions on their own?”

“Then I did you a favour, letting you leave,” Bruce replies. “If that’s how you want to take it. You wanted to do things your own way, and I obliged.”

“I wanted respect! I wanted to be equals! You were treating me just like you are now – something to control, or put in your pocket when you don’t need me anymore!” Dick inhales, and it sounds an awful lot like a sob. He has to swallow it back, fight back for equilibrium. “Bruce, I trusted you. I trusted you with something important to me, and this is what you did with it.”

“They needed Robin, just like you did.”

“Oh, they needed my parent’s memory?” Dick says, incredulous. “They needed my costume, my name, my place here? There wasn’t any other solution you could think of with that genius intellect of yours? Jason told me you had a new kid in six months. Tim said he had to take the job himself because you needed someone. No, I think that deep down it’s always been about you, what you want, and then the moment that kid grows a backbone or f*cking dies you turn the dial back and go get another one.”

“Don’t talk to me about Jason,” Bruce snaps, still looking at the wall behind him. “Or what I’ve done. This is a life you haven’t lived yet.”

“You’ve had four other f*cking kids!” Dick cries back. “You told me you didn’t need me and then you replaced by four times over! Bruce, what the hell am I supposed to think?”

Jason had open contempt for Bruce, even more so than Roy had. By Dick’s estimation, he also hadn’t been honoured at Jason’s altar. Jason had died as Robin, then returned, and carried the same baggage Dick did about being replaced, even if it had festered into violent, lethal anger.

“Whatever Jason did –”

“Jason didn’t do anything,” Dick interrupts. “To me. Lucky, that. I heard he’s a murderer. I heard he hurts kids. I heard you got him killed.”

Bruce slams a fist on the desk, so the remaining, intact teacups rattled audibly and the whole tray shook. Noise from behind, like Donna’s about to jump in and intervene, so Dick throws out a hand to stop her but does not turn. This is Bruce losing control to the point of honesty. He has to force it out.

“That doesn’t concern you,” Bruce says.

“Doesn’t concern me?” Dick replies. He throws his hands up, ignoring the twinge in his chest. “They died in my costume, after I got fired for getting shot. It’s my name! The persona I created to honour what I’d lost got someone murdered and you’re still lying to me!”

“Saying what you don’t want to hear doesn’t make me a liar.”

“It makes you a hypocrite!” Dick snaps back. “I got hurt – so what? I get hurt all the time. Worse than this. I almost died and you still let me be Robin again. Now kids are actually dying and you’re still going. Just stop f*cking lying to me and tell me why!”

“I already told you why.”

Bullsh*t,” Dick replies, his voice raising. “It’s really not about what they needed, was it? Not really. Did you just tell yourself that to feel better?"

“Being Robin taught discipline,” Bruce says. “With Jason, it provided structure, and a home. With Tim, he gained the confidence to lead. Damian has learned to connect with others. I used what you’d created to help others, Dick. Robin was still needed, even if you were gone.”

“What about Stephanie then? She was Robin too, right?” Bruce’s face darkens, and twists. “Tim said I’m a part of their lives. That I care about them, even after what you did. You’re seriously telling me that I’m fine, have been fine, with how things have changed? You’re going to tell me that I never said a word to you after the fact, about how you took my family from me?”

“You accepted Jason and Tim,” Bruce replies. “With Tim especially, you took him into the field. What difficulties we had remained between us.”

“I don’t believe you. After – after I got out of WITSEC, this was something I confided with you. When you overstepped in the beginning, I forgave you. I see now that that was a mistake. I see now that you were never going to stop, were you?”

“Not believing me doesn’t make it any less true.” Bruce swallows. “And I honoured what you told me. I kept it private, like you’d asked me as a child. It wasn’t something I was ever going to share – it was going to be your decision if you chose to. And it doesn’t change what we made when you were younger. Everything that Robin is now came from that.”

“But why Robin at all?” Dick says. Begs. His breath quickens. “Why? You still haven’t – you need a partner, you don’t need a partner. Kids need Robin, you need Robin. What the hell does Robin even mean to you, then, if it’s not just another accessory to control? Why does the name even matter? Why does any of it matter?”

Bruce doesn’t answer, instead he co*cks a hand on his belt, looking away, with a half-scowl on his face. In another life, he’d just be thinking over a case, or planning how to ditch Lex Luthor at an event, or trying to emotionally recover from a League meeting. Now, though, in an argument, it just means he’s trying to disengage, and slip out of Dick’s grasp. Dick can’t let him escape. Dick needs the truth so he can make it stop.

“Explain to me!” Dick says, louder. He spreads his hands. “What the hell does it mean? What exactly have you transformed it into, that you just can’t let it go. No matter what happens to the children who wear it, or who gets hurt? What does it mean?”

Bruce says: “It means you.”

Dick stops, recoils. The act of breathing becomes impossibly heavy, suddenly. He blinks once, twice, shaking the salt from his eyes as he tries to think of – something, anything to say, but finds no words. He just doesn’t understand at all.

Bruce continues: “I – because I missed you.”

Dick stares at him, chest heaving and breath short in his lungs, fists clenched at his sides and hot and cold and shaking and steady all at once. Bruce doesn’t look away from the table, or the terminal, or the shadows in the corners of the cave. Because Bruce missed him? All this – all this pain, and confusion, and loss, the panic before he’d woken up in the safehouse with Deathstroke, and the dread at leaving the Manor for the first time, all caused by a man who lashed out at every kindness and then punished others for feeling hurt.

Dick can’t – Dick can’t –

“You miss me?” Dick cries out, incredulous. “Bruce, I’m standing right in front of you and you won’t even look at me!”

Bruce’s brow is heavyset, staring past him at the wall.


Finally, Bruce’s eyes lock on his, and it’s excruciating. He sees grief. But more than that – there’s the profound, encompassing terror. Bruce is so, so afraid of him, of what he’s going to say, of what Dick’s going to change. Good, says the nasty little voice in Dick’s head, it’s about time he gets to feel like this, that grief you feel of losing everything. It’s what he deserves. Dick won’t be here to see the fallout, but that doesn’t mean he can’t try.

“You miss me,” Dick says, going back to that dead voice. “And you can’t even say it to my f*cking face ten years later.”

“You know that I miss you.”

Do I? I’m here, and you still can’t be honest. You can’t just – you can’t even just apologise. Because you’re not sorry. You’ll never, ever be sorry, will you?”

“You were gone,” Bruce says, as if he hadn’t spoken. It’s like a damn breaking. “I hadn’t realised – I missed you. I missed what we had. Robin was more than just us. Gotham needed Robin.”

“You’ll never be sorry,” Dick says again, putting his head in his hands. He squeezes at his hair to till his scalp stings. “You’re really trying to justify this, and you can’t even say sorry.”

“You were angry at me,” Bruce continues. “About Jason. I handled it – badly. It felt like I was mourning you, because I’d lost what you’d brought to my life. That light was gone. I didn’t – I didn’t plan to take on a new Robin. Jason didn’t have the experience for it like you did. But he had that same joy. I knew he wanted to do good. And I knew I didn’t want to be alone.”

“Stop,” Dick says.

“Then, after. The grief was… it almost killed me. I was cruel. What I thought I was giving to you turned out to be something I needed, to remind me what I was fighting for. You and Tim gave that back to me. You stayed in his life, you worked with him as a partner. You taught him what it meant to be Robin. You were there.”

Dick shakes his head, teeth rattling in his head.

“Dick,” he says, and his voice, still impossibly deep, starts to soften. “I was so afraid. I am so afraid of losing you, of losing anyone. When you were hurt by Harvey, when you were shot, I was afraid I would die along with you. You know that.”

“Bruce, just stop.”

“I knew that if I fell, you’d be there. You were there for Damian when I couldn’t be. You kept the city together in my absence. When you were younger, I sent you away, and I regret that.” He inhales, exhales. Then, so quietly: “I never stopped missing you. I never wanted you to leave my life. You know what you mean to me.”

Dick bends, arms clenched round his waist to stop from vomiting. His tongue is heavy in his mouth, his throat impossibly thick, so breathing is an enormous effort and speech is impossible. All he can do is shake his head, over and over, but Bruce doesn’t stop. The pain splinters outwards from his heart. He still can’t say it. He still can’t say it aloud.

There’s a ruckus from – somewhere else, indistinguishably angry voices, but Bruce keeps talking.

“I want you to understand that every action I took,” Bruce says, “was to help. That Robin became something greater. You were - you are - better than I am. Better than I'll ever be.”

“Stop,” Dick tries to say, but no sound comes from his mouth. He knows what happens next. He knows he’ll break. “Stop, stop, stop.”

Bruce approaches, slowly, like he had when he was two decades younger, like he had after Two-Face, like he had after Croc. Keeping his hands clearly in view, softening his face, lowering his voice as you would to a frightened animal. Dick is powerless to stop him as finally, finally, Bruce takes him in his arms and holds him close, and the world around them disappears.

Dick puts up a brief fight, but his raw hands only slide off the breastplate, and his sobbing, burning breaths start to quiet as he inhales, exhales, and tries so hard not to cry. Fingers card through his hair. A chin is rested on his crown. Dick stills.

Bruce had been frugal with affection in the beginning, immediately after Dick’s arrival in the Manor. Then he must’ve realised what those bitter, lonely years after his own parents’ deaths had been lacking – the kind touch of someone who understands that exact kind of pain and could, for some brief moment, make it go away. Bruce had been careful to offer comfort after nightmares, proud claps on the back after a successful shift, standing sentinel at Dick’s back, no matter the odds. He’d fumbled with it a little, duly unfamiliar with how to treat a child that craved company, family, home, more than anything. But still, he’d tried. He’d never made Dick guilty for asking. It was always something he’d given, and taken contentment in soothing Dick’s fears, his grief.

Then, perhaps, Bruce had realised he’d been treating Dick a little too much like someone irreplaceable.

Horrifyingly, as Bruce holds him, as he’s swallowed by the cape and the lights in the Cave seem to dim, Dick finally finds his heart slow, his body relax, and his brain quiet. That panic, pervasive even in sleep, with the Titans, in New York, dissipates. Bruce Wayne successfully blocks out the entire world, and all Dick has left to feel is heartbreak.

I am the dog, Dick thinks, screwing his eyes shut, all I know is to heel.

“My boy,” Bruce says, pressing his mouth to Dick’s hairline. “Robin.”

Against his will, Dick finds his hands raising, knotting in the back of the cloak as Bruce draws him in closer. Many things have changed, but not this. No matter what Dick tries, no matter how far he runs, he will always return. No matter what Bruce does, he’ll always come crawling back. He keeps his eyes shut, his face to Bruce’s chest, and breathes and breathes and breathes. He prays he doesn’t cry.

It feels like it’s yesterday. It feels like Dick can delude himself that this has just been some new, extended variation of the nightmare, and he’s just woken up in his room and everything is just the same as it was the day before. Kory will call later, or he’ll meet Joey at the tower, or see Donna and Roy, still skinny and seventeen, and won’t feel like he’s missing something he doesn’t remember.

He can’t let this go back to how it was. He needs to – he needs things to change.

Vision. Stagnation. Liberation. Destroy the rot at the source to save the flesh.

“I can’t forgive you for this,” Dick says so quietly it’s as if he said nothing at all. Still, he can feel Bruce freeze. “I can’t, Bruce. Not for this. Not ever.”

The grip on the back of his neck tightens as Bruce goes entirely taut. Dick wonders what his face looks like – anger? Disbelief? Maybe pain of his own. It doesn’t feel like relief, though. It’s as if Dick is twisting the knife that Bruce impaled through his own body. This, in turn, was liberation.

The only way out is through.

“I’m not him,” Dick says, just as soft. “But he’s me. And I can’t – this is unforgiveable. What you’ve done isn’t something I’m capable of forgetting.”

He waits for Bruce to say something, but it’s like he’s struck dumb. Instead, Bruce’s heart picks up, audible to him even through the suit. He can feel the muscle in Bruce’s hands spasm. Slowly, with clinical precision, he turns the knife.

“I thought it was my fault,” Dick says in that whisper. “When Jason told me – I thought it was me. If it’d been me instead, they wouldn’t have died. If I was enough, you wouldn’t have gone looking for someone else. Bruce, why would you do that to me?”

Nothing, still. There’s muttering from behind them, like one of the phantasms watching them has started to speak, or wants to pull them apart, so he pitches his voice even lower.

“You hurt me before I could hurt you,” Dick tells him. “But that’s not fair. You’re never fair about that. You say you missed me when I was right in front of you. I would’ve died for you, and this is the world I wake up in.”

“Dick,” Bruce says, then stops again.

“She was my mom,” Dick says. He closes his eyes so tight it hurts. “Bruce, she was my mother. How dare you take her from me? How dare you decide that what you want to do with her is more important? Why would you do that to me?”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

Stop lying.”

Dick goes to pull back, but Bruce doesn’t let him. His grip tightens, the cape eating him whole until the entire world is dark. It makes him think of sitting at the terminal at eight, half asleep with bloody knuckles, and Bruce laying it over him as he continued to type. A warm, comforting black. Now, instead, he’s drowning.

“Let go.”

“You don’t understand,” Bruce says in that hoarse whisper. “You don’t – Dick, you don’t understand.”

“Don’t I?” Dick asks. “Let me go, Bruce. Please.”

A finger at a time, Bruce draws away. It’s painfully slow and excruciatingly reluctant, but it means it gives Dick time to adjust to the light, blinking furiously to stop his eyes watering. Noise, too returns – the drip of the water, the humming of the computers, the scuttling of creatures far above. Their audience, too, has quietened to lonely spectres, almost out of Dick’s attention. Hands on his shoulders, and his attention goes to the Bat before his eyes, then up to Bruce’s face. He looks wrecked.

“That’s not what I wanted,” Bruce says again. He’s so careful to meet Dick’s eyes and hold that contact. They look glassy and red, Dick realises, like Bruce had been caught staring into the sun and was struggling to recover. Dick doesn’t feel anything at all.

“I don’t believe you,” Dick tells him to his face. “Too much’s changed. I don’t belong here, anymore.”

He wants to turn around, to check and see if anyone is still behind him. It feels like it’s just him and Bruce, trapped in this bubble, but he doesn’t want to look away. He needs this feeling to last. He needs Bruce to understand, even if he won’t be here to see it.

“I need the ring,” Dick says. “Please give it to me.”

Bruce doesn’t move.

“Bruce, I want to go home.”

“I didn’t want to lose you,” Bruce says, almost imperceptible. It’s only that they’re standing so close together that Dick can make it out. “This isn’t what I wanted.”

“Maybe you’re just going to have to live with that,” Dick says at last, and Bruce’s mouth clicks shut.

He waits, again, as if Dick is going to give him a different answer, or roll over and show his belly, and is left despairing. Dick’s knocked the pieces askew on the chessboard, and now there’s seemingly nowhere else for Bruce to manoeuvre without admitting defeat. Dick watches as he tries to adjust back into Bruce Wayne, the adult, rather than Bruce Wayne the child, who’s desperately holding on with both hands, while simultaneously pushing everything away to try and protect himself from another, more painful loss.

Dick is so tired of Bruce using him to hurt himself.

“You don’t understand,” Bruce tries again.

“I do. It’s just not a good reason,” Dick says. “Do I know all this? In your time? Have you told me?”

“You know.”

“Do I actually? Honestly, I don’t think I want to grow into the person that’d be okay with what you’ve done,” he says, and watches Bruce ashen. “Don’t forget – you turned away first, not me. I really thought that you,” he grabs at the front of his sweater, “that you didn’t – didn’t want –”

Bruce takes his hand again, and Dick doesn’t have the energy to shake him off.

“She was my mom,” Dick says again in a whisper, and Bruce’s hold tightens around his wrist. “You don’t get to decide what’s right for them. The same way I wouldn’t bury the pearls or burn the portrait. Your honoured dead can’t replace mine, Bruce. You took that from me.”

Pinpricks of sensation start in his ribcage, then cascade outwards until it’s hard to breathe again. He pants audible, trying to blink past it, but instead it sinks in deeper, compressing his lungs. When he looks down, his fingers seem to change shape before his eyes.

“That’s enough.” Donna. “Bruce, we’re out of time. We need to use the ring.”

“Not until we talk, properly,” Bruce tells him, and doesn’t move. “This isn’t – Dick, we aren’t finished.”

Dick just looks at him. What more is there to say, that isn’t just the two of them talking in circles, always speaking just past each other and thick with hurt? It was his own fault, really. He should’ve known that more than Bruce being unthinkingly unkind, or purposely malicious, it was always going to be Bruce thinking he knew best, to the detriment of all others. The kind of selfishness that spawns from loss. Something Dick believes the Titans might have managed to protect him from.

Truly he could do nothing more. That would have to be enough.

With pronounced reluctance, Bruce unstraps a gauntlet and, rather than typing in a code, or pulling out a lockbox, simply reaches into the pouch at his waist, and removes a rounded metal case, carved in the shape of a closed skeletal fist. With his thumb, he pops it open, and worn on the hand’s index finger is a dull bronze ring, polished to a shine. Its circular face is blank, but upon its reveal it begins to glow white hot.

Pain radiates from the centre of his chest, enough that Dick staggers, Bruce grabbing at his arm with his free hand, holding him upright. More hands under his arms, as Donna props him up. He tilts his head back, the world spinning, and sees her jaw, her nose, the curls of her hair. She says something, but it’s like she’s speaking underwater. Everything hurts again, and he’s so, so tired.

“– not done,” Bruce is saying. “Not yet. I don’t know if it’s safe.”

“He’s in pain,” Donna replies. “We wait any longer and he might be torn apart. Zatanna cleared it, Diana cleared it. You said you didn’t want to hurt him. Bruce, we have no right to keep him here.”

“Not yet,” Bruce snaps. “He’s not –”

“Bruce,” Dick says. All the focus in the room turns to him, and he holds out a hand. “Bruce, I want to go home.”

Bruce looks – frazzled. Disturbed. His hair is standing up at wild angles. His age is so stark to Dick, now, but really he just looks closer to the Bruce Dick saw yesterday, the angry Bruce who cast him out, only now reeling from some new, impossible loss. It’s like seeing two sides of a coin simultaneously. He looks – he looks contrite. As if he’s going to kneel at Dick’s feet, and bow his head in repentance, at the altar of a god.

Too bad it’s just not enough for Dick anymore.

He almost expects a fight, for Bruce to start throwing blows and shouting, but Roy takes the case from Bruce easily, deftly removing the ring and then gently, so gently, placing it on Dick’s palm and wrapping Dick’s own fingers up until it is gone from sight. It feels like it’s melting his flesh. Dick can’t entirely make out Roy’s expression properly, past the black spots and the spinning and the encroaching dark, but he still knows it’s kind.

“We’re here,” Roy says. “We’ll be here, when you come back. Do you know what to say?”

Dick does an approximation of a nod, and fumbles with the tongue in his mouth, forcing it to move, to shape the words, to free him. All the while, Bruce does not look away, mouthing silent words at him in a language Dick is too young to understand. Dick doesn’t hesitate.

“I make it,” Dick tries to say, “undone.”

It hits at once – heat that burns the bruises and his scraped knuckles and feet and his head and his heart and his body – then a strange, cosmic heaviness. He hears shouts as he falls, as hands rush to grab him, to pull him from the floor. It doesn’t make a difference. He’s pulled under, powerless to fight, feeling himself slip through Donna’s grip like sand as he is unmade, and changed. He hears thunderous applause, he thinks, or maybe it’s just the river far below, singing him to sleep. When he dies quietly, for the last time, it is gentle. As everything about him, as he is now, or was, simply ceases to be.

The only way out is through.

The last thing he sees are Bruce’s eyes, wide open and so, so blue.


He is lost, stagnant and adrift in the dark. He fights, but his body is sluggish and slow. It hurts too much to move, until a hand presses down over his eyes, gentle and warm.

“Sleep, Robin,” says a voice. “C’est sur. You’re almost back. I’m here.”

Then, finally, he is gone.

persephone's in hell - Chapter 3 - Whiskey (2024)
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Introduction: My name is Jamar Nader, I am a fine, shiny, colorful, bright, nice, perfect, curious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.