Christmas in Bludhaven
Tim Drake turned the wooden box in his hands. It fit together, slots and L--shaped wedges of wood arranged just so. He'd bought it as Steph's Christmas present. He hadn't wrapped it yet, Christmas still seemed so far away. But now, in Bludhaven, where the skies were gunmetal gray year--round, and the air tasted like frost, Christmas loomed, a cold mockery of the season. The sun had set and it was time to go out, but he couldn't seem to let go of the wood that had grown warm under his hands. It seemed the only thing in his life that was warm. To be honest, he hadn't even thought long about Steph, and that grief had been hijacked by the sucking loss that was his father's death.
He didn't hear the step but he knew she was there. She was waiting for him to put on his gloves, to be ready to patrol. It amazed him that he went out every night, that he managed to pull boots onto his leaden feet and sail through the crisp skies after her. It was rote, he decided. Muscle memory.
It was all he had left. Muscle memory. And an empty box.
Cassandra Cain had special, black, place in her heart for those cowardly and superstitious criminals who dared steal from the Salvation Army Santa.
Little matter that it had taken Barbara three tries to adequately explain their presence on the street corner. The people in the silly red suits were doing something nice for other people and for that they were afforded special protection. Her protection.
The criminals knew better in Gotham and if they didn't, they learned quickly. But Blüdhaven crooks were bold and mean and they suffered for their attacks on the few brave souls who rang the bell.
He looked down at her, the twinkling Christmas lights casting his face into a sinister, drawn shadow. He hadn't been eating and it was starting to show.
Cass released her prey reluctantly and secured its hands and feet.
Last year, he would have stopped her out of compassion. But not now. Now he lacked passion in all its forms and his decisions were as cold and calculating as the man who had inspired him.
But this time, he was wrong.
It wasn't enough. Not for this town. If she could learn charity, so could this ugly stepsister of Gotham.
Tim crouched on the roof, watching the children throw snowballs in the wan lamplight. He hadn't had playmates when he was little. He'd been friendly with some of the kids at school, but they never came over because his parents were never home.
A breath of wind ruffled his cape and a familiar red and blue costume appeared in his peripheral vision.
"So these are the new digs," Superboy said, hands on his hips as he surveyed the street. He nodded to himself. "Look almost like the last set of digs."
Tim watched the boys playing in the street, running for the cover of metal garbage cans. He didn't know who had told Kon he was in Blüdhaven and he didn't care. People knew where to find him now, just as he was slipping away.
"Why are you here?" he asked flatly.
He sensed, rather than saw Kon shrug. "'Chillin' in the 'Haven," he said. "Checking up on my best friend. Who is doing a way scary imitation of the Big Bad Bat."
"Get out," he said. "We don't need you."
Being Robin had brought him all the friends he'd always wanted. But it had stolen his father away forever.
"He looks terrible," Kon said, stirring the warming milk with a slotted spoon. It sloshed in the pan, rippling in a figure eight pattern.
The glare Cass directed at him translated to something between 'the guy just lost his father, his girlfriend, and his home and you think he looks terrible?' and 'duh'.
"Yeah, I just----" Kon shrugged. "He told me to get lost. I thought he'd want...people around." He watched steam rise of the milk and reached out to turn off the burner.
Cass leaned one shoulder against the cold--paned window and turned her head to watch the streets below.
"The city," she said. "It's mean."
"It's mean?" Kon asked, pouring the milk into two mugs. He dropped in heaping spoonfuls of cocoa powder and stirred vigorously. "Is it worse than Gotham? I didn't think anyplace was worse than Gotham." He handed her one of the mugs, which she took in both hands.
"The people. They have no hope."
Her eyes looked hollow and pleading over her hot chocolate cup. She raised it to her mouth and blew across the rim.
"Then why are you here?" Kon asked.
Cass looked back out over the city.
"Neither does he."
Dick Grayson popped off the high bar, executed a crisp half--twist, toes pointing to the ceiling of the cave, and regrasped for his dismount swing. He adjusted for his disrupted center of gravity and stuck the landing.
"I notice," Alfred's dry voice said from behind him, "that you are demonstrating uncharacteristic good sense in regard to your injury."
Dick glanced down at the arm he'd so carefully bound to his chest with medical tape. The sling had been hell to fashion on his own. He wasn't entirely sure whether Alfred was being sarcastic or not.
"Are those Christmas cookies?" he asked instead, swiping a gingerbread man from the tray Alfred held. "Already?"
"I thought it best to make them now, while I still have an audience," Alfred replied. He raised an eyebrow. "I had expected you to retreat at the earliest possible opportunity."
Dick glanced at his shoulder, but he knew that wasn't an excuse. He'd gotten up and walked away from worse before. He hadn't spent weeks letting Alfred baby him.
"What is it, Master Dick?" Alfred asked softly.
Dick unwound the gauze and flexed the hand of his damaged arm.
"My fingertips, Alfred," he said finally. "I can't feel them."
The first thing Tim noticed upon entering the apartment was that Kon had not gone home.
The second thing Tim noticed was that maps of Blüdhaven covered every inch of the kitchen.
The third thing that Tim noticed was that there was hot chocolate and that it smelled very good. He tried not to notice that.
He hesitated in the doorway looking at the only two people left in his world.
"I told you to go home," he said coldly.
Kon looked up and the world's biggest grin split his face. "Yes," he agreed. "Yes, you did. And I didn't listen."
That was nothing new, Tim thought. Fine. Kon was fairly invulnerable. He turned to Cass, with her hood down on her shoulders and a hot chocolate mustache on her upper lip. She reflected Kon's grin and he knew that she might be the toughest human being he knew, and that still wouldn't be enough someday.
"What are you doing in here?" he asked, stalking over to the table and forcing himself to ignore the cup of hot chocolate Cass pushed in his direction.
"We're making a plan," Kon announced.
Cass took up, eyes alight. "We're taking this city back."
Batgirl lay in wait. She prowled the rooftops, attention fixed on the bell--jangling man below. He wore a red suit and white beard, the badge of Blüdhaven's elite. Or rather, elitely protected.
"All right, Pops. Empty the kettle."
Batgirl was in motion before the words left the attacker's mouth. She'd recognized the aggression in the man's posture as he approached the hapless Santa and acted on instinct. She slammed her boot into his shoulder and spun for a biting rabbit punch to the chest. Robin's bo, a flash in the dark, slapped his wrist, knocking the gun he'd held to her feet. She knew from experience and from the way it hung limp, that the crook's hand would be numb for a good half hour yet. She pushed the gun away with her foot and watched Robin shove the robber up against the storefront.
"Talk," Robin demanded, the bo pressed up under the man's chin. "We want every detail about this little snatch and grab ring you guys have going. Names. Addresses. The works. You've terrorized this town long enough."
"And make it fast," Superboy added, pulling off his Santa beard and rubbing irritably at his chin. "This thing itches."
"I love it when a plan comes together," Kon announced around the candy cane tucked in the corner of his mouth.
A full map of Blüdhaven hung in Tim and Cass's living room. Kon had taken up residence on the couch and the map shared what living space he used. Red pins indicated the Salvation Army posts around town, and little black flags showed where they had nabbed would--be pilferers. Red flags warned of potential targets. Blue flags pointed out the two dingy buildings they had under surveillance. Patrol routes were mapped out in multi--colored highlighter, swooping around the city in elaborate clover--leaf patterns.
"How many?" Cass asked, perching on the back of the couch and nibbling at the middle of a slice--n--bake cookie. Kon had burned the outer edges.
"Seven robberies interrupted, nine robbers caught, and seven hundred thirty--three dollars and twenty--seven cents ---- mostly in change ---- recovered. I'd say we're making a dent in the criminal element 'round these parts. And that, my friends, calls for another cookie."
Cass passed Kon the plate but before he could choose among the least--scorched of the batch, the slam of a bedroom door echoed. Cass twisted around.
Tim was gone.
"How many times has he been shot in that shoulder?"
"Twice," Alfred replied, his hands resting on the back of the chair. The Oracle symbol took up most of the enormous monitor. "But I have had to stitch this particular wound back together more than once. He has not been especially careful."
"What else is new?" Oracle asked distractedly. "You think it's nerve damage?"
"I fear so. I cannot imagine what else would cause the tingling sensation and numbness he is experiencing." Alfred paused, drawing a regretful breath. "I fear my inadequate medical training may have ---- "
"Alfred. Don't." Oracle's voice was soft for the first time since he'd contacted her. "They do this...this thing to us. Where we think they're normal and we're at fault. And it's not true. It's them, Alfred, it's not us. We're just working with what we have."
Silence reigned in the Cave as Oracle worked and Alfred waited.
"How's his leg?" she asked finally.
"It seems to have healed fully," Alfred admitted. "He has gone to great lengths to prove so."
"Of course." Another long pause. "And Tim?"
Alfred's silence spoke more than his words. "Not well, I fear," he conceded at last.
Tim left by window. The sharp evening wind bit as his face, freezing the skin roughened by weeks of tears and spirit gum.
He felt like he was breaking apart inside.
For one moment, for one terrible, nearly--missed second, he'd been fine. He'd watched Kon pin another flag to the board and for just a second, everything had been normal. They'd done something good. They'd made progress. They were getting somewhere. He'd smiled. He'd smiled.
He hadn't quite smiled, but his mouth was twitching upward when he'd realized himself. He hadn't thought about Steph. He hadn't thought about his father. For just a second, being Robin was back what it was, what it should be. It was winning. Even just a little bit.
He saw danger and attacked. His cape whipped and his bo whistled as he spun forward. He moved on automation, delivering his blows with only the barest sensation of resistance.
When there was nothing left to hit, he looked down at the small girl, alone and out of place in the city night.
"I want my daddy," she said, burying her face in her stuffed bear.
Tim's answer came as involuntarily as his movements. "So do I."
"What is this?"
"I took the liberty of compiling a list of physicians specializing in nerve damage," Alfred answered primly.
"And what do you think I'm going to tell them?" Dick asked, crumpling the paper in his hand. "I get punched full of holes regularly and my body has finally started to notice? That I've been dressing up in a Halloween costume for over half my life and I'm not invincible anymore?"
"You will tell them that you were shot in the line of duty several months ago," Alfred stated, his voice as firm as it had been when Dick was a recalcitrant child. "And you will tell them that your continued workouts reopened the wound ---- twice, I might add ---- and if there is any chance of reversing such damage, it must be dealt with as soon as possible."
Dick flexed his hand. It moved stiffly and slowly. He stared at the play of muscle under his skin, as if pondering Alfred's words.
"I'll take care of it," he said dismissively.
"I certainly hope so," Alfred said, preparing to deliver his trump card. "It would be a shame to tell Master Bruce that you were unfit for duty."
It was dawn when Tim returned, peeping in the living room windows with the rose and gold rays of the sun. He was late and if anyone saw him crawling in the window of the apartment, it was entirely his own fault.
Cass and Kon were piled on the floor in front of the television, still in costume. Cass' hood was down and her head rested on Kon's shoulder. Kon's head was tilted back against the couch and he was snoring. An empty plate of cookie crumbs and several mugs were sitting on the coffee table. Two of the mugs were empty, the third filled with cold hot chocolate.
They had been waiting up for him.
Tim left the television on. He knew that if he shut it off, they'd both wake up.
In the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator door and began pulling out every breakfast item he could find. He couldn't remember how many eggs to make so he scrambled the whole dozen. Bacon, toast, jelly, juice. When he'd filed the table, he went to the living room and turned off the television. Then he locked himself in his room.
They were his friends and they deserved better.
The suit was as good as new. Alfred made sure of that. The Kevlar patch was nearly invisible, the bullet might never have rent the material. He didn't remember Alfred fixing it, but then he was unconscious for a substantial amount of his convalescence.
The compartments were empty, as they were whenever the suit was in storage. He filled them methodically, double--checking each clasp. He paused before helping himself to a few of Bruce's new toys. It was always better to ask first, but that wasn't an option right now.
As he finished his task, he heard the clock mechanism activate and the hidden door swing open. Bruce? No, Alfred, with his measured footsteps and cautious approach.
"I saw the doctor," Dick called as Alfred approached the uniform alcove. "I saw three of them."
"Would it be improper of me," Alfred ventured, "to inquire as to their diagnoses?"
"Crap shoot," Dick replied, zipping closed the false--bottomed bag. "Trauma--induced. Might be temporary. Might not."
He hefted the bag with his good hand. He was sorry for the distress in Alfred's eyes, but that did not weaken his resolve.
"I have to go," he said. "I've been away from Blüdhaven too long."
"It's not fair!"
Robin's bo slammed into a trash can, knocking it over and sending the lid tilting to the ground.
"Rob," Kon started.
"We nailed that guy three nights ago!" Robin shouted. "Three nights! What's he doing on the streets?"
"Um, I think they call it 'making bail'," Kon ventured under his breath.
"I don't believe this hellhole," Robin snarled. "Why are we bothering?" Kon and Cass watched him stomp around the alley, cursing the revolving door and impugning Blüdhaven law enforcement. Cass tilted her head as he raged at the corrupt criminal justice system but didn't interrupt him. She and Kon just waited until he ran out of steam.
It happened sooner, rather than later. Tim stopped talking, and paused in the middle of the alley, head bowed. After a long stretch of silence, Cass approached him and placed one hand on his shoulder.
"It's like you said," he murmured finally. "This is one awful, mean city."
A rustle in the shadows brought them all to attention and the dark shape that stepped into view surprised everyone but Cass.
"You're damn straight it is," Nightwing said, his mouth twisted up in a cocky grin. "Good thing we're meaner."
"So. Mr. Nightwing. Sir."
Dick looked up from the spread of maps and records spread across the Robin's Nest and raised one eyebrow. Kon twitched. Dick swallowed a laugh.
"Kon. Unless you're here to ask me for Batgirl's hand in marriage? You don't need to call me sir." Dick paused for effect. "I'm not Batman."
"I. No. Dude." Kon looked flummoxed. "Not that she's not smokin' or anything, but the Kid ain't quite ready to ---- um. Never mind."
Dick grinned. "What can I do for you?"
"Well. Thing is. I know this is your town and all. And I know it's cool that Ti ---- uh. Robin and my Li'l Buddy are here to take care of it for you and y'know, now you're back and...they're gonna help out. So. The thing is." Kon drew up and took a breath. "Do you want me to leave? Because I'm cool with that. I mean, Blüdhaven. Great city. Except for the blood thing...but yeah. You want me gone, I'm out of your hair. No problem."
Dick looked at him for a long moment, and then past him at the figure in the doorway.
"You're not going," Tim said. "I need you."
"Where are Kon and Cass?" Dick asked, landing lightly on the roof next to Tim.
"Up to no good," Tim replied absently as he studied the building across the way. He finished his survey and looked up. "They're in Avalon Hill, casing Blockbuster's old place."
Dick didn't twitch.
"They're a wacky pair, aren't they?" he asked casually.
"Not like you're thinking," Tim replied. "You're not contractually required to put the doom on Kon."
"I -- yeah, ok, it would have been fun." Dick rested his hands on his hips and glanced across his city. It seemed cold and foreign, barely six weeks gone. It moved on and forgot quickly. More quickly than Dick. "Look. I should tell you what's up here." He closed his eyes and turned his face into the wind. "I ---- I hate having to tell you. It was bad enough telling Bruce. I think it's worse admitting it to you. I want to do right by you."
"I know," Tim interrupted.
"About Blockbuster. I know I'm not supposed to know. But I do."
"Oh." Dick inhaled slowly. "And?"
"I still want to be you when I grow up."
Dick exhaled and couldn't help but smile.
Tim Drake knows the four stages of grief.
He doesn't remember the denial. Bruce has told him that the cuts on his hand came from trying to pull the boomerang out of his father's chest, but the memory just isn't there. Some nights he wakes up and expects to be late for school, thinks he hears his father's voice calling for him to get up. Sometimes he pretends the nightmares are just like they used to be. Just nightmares.
He doesn't think he bargained at all, although he does wonder. He wonders if he had given up Robin permanently, if he had given up Robin before his father found out, if things would have been different. He wonders if he had stayed home that night, if he could have saved his father or if he would be the one with the halved organs.
He has been angry and there's no denying that. It's always there, simmering under his skin, directionless, cold anger burning him. He rarely loses his temper. He rarely takes it out on the others. But he feels it day in and day out.
That leaves him only acceptance. And Tim's not quite ready to accept just yet.
Tim heard Cassandra approach, which was a courtesy on her part.
"What's going on?" he asked, without turning his head. The city spilled clunky and dirty at his feet and he wanted to stretch out and kick it.
"Nightwing," she said succinctly.
"Tell him I'll be in shortly."
"He's just worried," she explained. She kept her distance but she didn't leave.
"You know," Tim said finally, when it was apparent she was in for the long haul, "there's really five stages of grief. But one of them is depression. And it's not really a stage. You just. Are. You know?" It was a long shot, parsing the connotations with Cass, but she understood more than he expected.
"Depression. Sad." She ventured forward and sat gingerly on the edge of the roof beside him. "Yes." She looked out over the city without looking over at him. "When I think of...Dad...I feel sad."
"Dick doesn't understand," Tim said, suddenly driven by the need to unburden himself. Cassandra was a good confessor. "He and Jason, they were Robin because their parents died. My parents died," he said, the words rising involuntarily in his throat like bile, "my dad died, because I am Robin."
Tim's street clothes felt like a costume as he walked down a Blüdhaven street in broad daylight. He passed a Salvation Army Santa and stopped to dig some change from his jeans pocket. He dumped the entire lot into the kettle, nodding when the bell-ringer thanked him. It was a Christmas present for Cassandra, he told himself. Thanks for the night before. She wasn't a bad lot, really, for being as much of an extension of Batman as she was. She had sat with him for a fair bit the night before, taking the cold and the wind and eventually the snow before going back inside.
Kon had left pizza in the fridge for him, and a half-full case of Zesti. He'd also left the balance of another batch of cookies, this set still mushy in the middle. Tim had eaten three while the pizza warmed, suddenly hungry for something to fill the pit in his stomach.
Dick had dragged in a real Christmas tree. It was decorated with a lot of popcorn and not enough lights to go to the bottom, but it was definitely Christmasy.
There were six more shopping days 'til Christmas. Tim had to get busy.
"What are you watching?" Tim asked, approaching the television. There were cookies and Kon hadn't made them. That was reason enough to be social, he told himself. He hitched a leg up on the couch next to Cassandra and leaned toward the coffee table to swipe a Dick-baked snickerdoodle. The outside was crisp and the inside was soft and melted on his tongue. It wasn't quite Alfred's perfect recipe -- Dick had overdone the cinnamon by a bit -- but it was absolutely the second-best cookie Tim had ever tasted.
"It's a Wonderful Life," Kon explained. "Cass has never seen it before."
"Never?" Tim asked her.
Tim smiled at her confidence in using the word and settled back against the arm of the sofa to watch the movie.
He made it to the halfway point, to where Jimmy Stewart came home and picked up his child and sobbed about his failure in life. Something welled up inside him, something dangerously close to breaking him, and he bolted. The Robin suit wasn't easy to put on, but he was practiced at it and he was half-dressed before Dick knocked on the door.
Before he could knock again, Tim was gone.
He shouldn't have gone out alone.
He could hear that thought bouncing around in his head, taking on various voices he wasn't in the mood to hear.
He shouldn't have gone out alone. He shouldn't have gone out to face Blüdhaven without backup. And now he was paying for it.
He spun his bo steadily, dancing around in a circle, but he was surrounded and there were a lot of them. For the first time ever, he wished for a Blüdhaven police cruiser to happen by.
"Hey! You leave that boy be!" The voice was joined by others and Tim nearly dropped his bo in disbelief.
People were marching on the street, people with baseball bats and lamp bases, and tire irons. Dozens of people, all armed with household items and they looked angry. Tim's attackers glanced at each other and backed off, disappearing into shadows and alleys.
"Um. Thanks," Tim said, feeling extraordinarily lame.
"Ain't no big thing," said the man leading the pack. "You and your friends do us a good turn, we got your back."
Tim blinked. He knew why the man looked familiar. He knew why the all looked familiar.
They were the Salvation Army Santas.
"You two better get moving," Dick said. "Tim's out there alone and he's not exactly running in top form. I'll stay here and run comms."
Cass lingered as Superboy headed up the stairs to the roof. "Because of your arm?" she asked, her head tilting quizzically. Dick froze.
"Huh? What's wrong with his arm?" Kon asked, sticking his head back into the room.
"Nothing," Dick returned. He fixed Cass with a hard stare. "There is nothing wrong."
She gave him a look that clearly told him to cut the crap.
"It's getting better," he muttered. "And it's not why I'm staying behind. Now get out there and keep an eye on Tim."
Her face was inscrutable beneath her mask. She gave him one last measure before turning on her heel and hustling Kon up the stairs.
Dick turned away and flexed his hand. He tapped each finger against his thumb and wondered if he could really feel the touch or if he was just remembering the sensation. He crossed the room to the computer and typed in a series of commands.
"I know you're listening," he said. "I know you gave Alfred the list of doctors. Thank you. G'night, Babs."
"Why is there mistletoe?" Tim asked, watching Dick wrestle the plant from atop a step ladder.
"Because it's Christmas," Dick mumbled.
"And Cass and Kon are going to walk through that doorway any minute now."
Dick stopped and looked at the sprig in his hand. "Moving on," he declared, tossing it toward the nearest chair. "Got more lights?"
"No." Tim thought of the stash of gifts under his bed and ached for the still-unwrapped wooden box. "That was the last string."
"Just as well," Dick said, dusting off his hands and stepping off the ladder. "I -- " He paused and stared at his hand curiously.
"You ok?" Tim asked.
"Yeah, I just -- " Dick was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. "Who's that?"
"Cass and Kon must have forgotten the key again," Tim said, stepping over several rolls of wrapping paper. "I'll get it."
"'Kay," Dick said, picking up the fallen mistletoe in his left hand and glancing back up at the transom where he'd been trying to post it earlier. He'd nearly gotten it affixed when he sensed someone else's presence and looked down.
Barbara Gordon smiled up at him.
"How's that arm, Former Boy Wonder?"
Tim Drake turned the wooden box in his hands. The gifts he'd bought for everyone else were under the tree, along with all their presents to him and to each other. It was a mockery of Christmas but he couldn't fault them for trying.
Someone knocked on the door.
"Come in," Tim called hollowly, setting the wooden box in his hands.
"Hey." Kon-El poked his head into the room. "I know you're having a private thing here, but can I come in?"
"Thanks. Hey. That was for...her, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Tim admitted. "Steph."
"Yeah. Look. I don't want to do the whole, 'I know how you feel' thing because it sucks when people do that. But. Hey." Kon dropped something on top of the box.
Tim looked down. It was a picture of Kon and Tana Moon.
"Do you still miss her?" Tim asked.
"Yeah. I mean, I've moved on and all, but...yeah. 'Specially times like this."
Tim heard footsteps in the door and looked up. Cass was standing just over the threshold looking unbearably sad.
"She was my friend," she said, holding out a white cloth.
Tim didn't recognize it at first, but then realized it was the tear-stained handkerchief Alfred had given her for Stephanie's funeral. He reached out and she walked across the room and handed it to him. He slid the top of the box open and put the picture and the handkerchief inside.
"You want to put this in there, too?" Barbara's voice asked. She wheeled herself over to him and passed over a gold disk. "It was my last gymnastics medal," she explained before he had to ask. It thumped quietly in the wooden box.
"Got room for one more?" Dick asked from the doorway. Tim looked up in askance.
"Part of my circus costume," Dick said ruefully. "Looks a little small now, doesn't it?" It did, a scrap of red in his hand. It went in the box with everything else and Tim looked at their collected mementos before sliding the top shut.
"What do you say we go have Christmas?" Kon asked, standing up and dusting his hands together.
"Babs cooked," Dick added, waggling his eyebrows.
"I'm there," Tim told them.
He watched his friends file out of his room and then smiled as Cass popped her head back in.
"Bring box," she said.
He did, and followed her out to the room where the Christmas tree was set up. It twinkled and sparkled with lights and tinsel, and a dozen balls Dick had picked up somewhere.
She paused in front of the mantel, looking at him expectantly. He nodded and set the box in its place of honor.
"There's cranberry sauce," Cass said.
Tim raised an eyebrow. "And stuffing?"
"Yes. But cranberry sauce is better."
"Is not." He threw his arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
Tim dared one last glance back at the mantel. Their grief -- all their grief -- could wait 'til after Christmas.