When they had first met, Dick Grayson had been a broken machine. When she'd looked at him, she could see the pieces in the depths of his glazed blue eyes, disjointed cogs and snapped wires and a lightless screen. In her heart, she knew that people were not machines. They were not pliable in such a way, that she could just stick her fingers in and try and figure out the problem just through trial and error. She could not program a person to love her, nor could she fix them with a touch. But still, she remained by his side, and her broken machine would smile.
But none of it was real. Not at first. It took time to mend broken things, and time was what pulled Dick Grayson from his stupor. Not her. It had never been her.
I'm going to fix him, she swore once; one of the early days, when there was an imbalance wherever Dick Grayson stepped. He was so tiny, but the shadow cast by him could swallow the entirety of Gotham whole. He was subjected to teasing. He was pitied, and he was bullied, and he never said a word to suggest that he was unhappy. But then, he wasn't the type of machine that would.
Barbara watched. She liked watching him, because he was always on the move, and she admired that. Something so broken, but so full of life? He was remarkable. But she would be embarrassed to say so. Instead, she watched, and Dick Grayson was shoved rather harshly into a metal ringed fence. It had been a sunny day, and the sun was beating through the thick overcast of grayscale Gotham clouds. The afternoon had been muggy, and sweat clung to her neck and her back, discomfort easing its way into her stomach as she kicked her swing to a stop. Beside her, an older girl, Bette Kane, merely glanced at her and sighed.
"What is it?" Dick asked, surprised. She could see the sunlight streaming into his eyes, casting through them into nothing. It made her sad.
Another boy grabbed him by the front of his Gotham Academy sweater vest, and he scowled impudently. "You're not in the circus anymore, so stop with the stunts!"
"I didn't do anything," Dick objected weakly. He looked confused, and startled, and Barbara couldn't stand it. Couldn't they see? They were only causing further damage to his internal hard drive!
"You did a flip!" The boy pushed him, and Dick fell, his mouth parted in shock. Barbara dug the heels of her shiny black shoes into the sand, kicking up a cloud as she pushed away from her swing. The rusty metal chains clinked behind her, entangling with one another and falling apart in a dance of clicks and clacks. Bette called after her, her own heels skidded against the sand.
"Barbara, what are you doing?" The older girl's voice had been bewildered. "Just leave it!"
"Excuse me," Barbara said, pushing through the throng of bullies that had gathered around Dick Grayson. She stepped easily between him and the other boy— a boy she had not bothered to learn the name of, because he did not, in fact, interest her at all. "Sorry, I didn't mean to break up your… uh, fun. But negative slurs like 'gyp' aren't exactly condoned here."
"What?" The boy looked incredulous. "Are you going to tell a teacher on me, or something? Oh, no! Wait, Barbara, are you gonna sic your dad on me?" His eyes narrowed. "Grow up!"
"Yes, and no," Barbara said, folding her arms across her chest. "And if you don't leave right now, I'll tell them you hit me too. How do you think my dad will react to that?"
It seemed to get the reaction she'd been hoping for. She smiled smugly as the boy spluttered, eyes going wide. "You little liar!" The boy jerked his hand around at the other boys surrounding her. "It's our word against yours! No one's going to believe you."
She cocked her head, her body still hovering protectively over Dick Grayson's. "Really?" She drew an eyebrow, and she stepped forward, forcing the boy to step away from the ring of children as she invaded his personal space. "Wanna bet?"
It was a silly tactic. Only an imbecile would fall for it. And of course, he did. He grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her away from him. And she took advantage of the close contact, and the caught attention of the recess monitor. She let a shrill scream escape her lips, stunning the boy momentarily. It was all she needed.
"Let go of me!" she shrieked, her voice carrying over the lull of laughter and voices. She twisted in his grasp, her eyes meeting Bette's as she rushed forward. Then, much to Barbara's satisfaction, the boy pushed her. She tried to make the landing dramatic, but still realistic. And she did, in fact, smack her forehead against the concrete. That had been an accident.
"You're just as much of a freak as he is!" the boy accused. She smiled to herself, but let it slide away when Bette appeared with the recess monitor, her eyes ablaze.
"All of you, get inside!" the monitor barked. "I want you in the principal's office, and those two in the infirmary."
"Wait, but she was the one—!" one boy objected. The monitor merely glared at him, and that shut him up fast.
"Gordon, you little—!" The boy she'd manipulated into assaulting her was forced away, as was the gang of boys, leaving her with a worried Bette Kane, and a bemused Dick Grayson. Also, a bleeding forehead, but she chose to ignore that.
"Barbara, what were you thinking?" Bette gasped, helping her to her feet. The blonde completely ignored Dick, which Barbara thought completely defeated the purpose. "Don't you ever think things through?"
Oh, Bette, Barbara thought gleefully. You have no idea!
She'd wheeled on Dick then, offering him a hand. He stared at her for a moment, before taking it, pulling himself very lightly to his feet. "You didn't have to do that," he said, his voice very soft. "I mean, I could have handled it."
"A thank you would be nice," Barbara scoffed, raising her head high. She was taller than him by a few inches, but she could see the curiosity in his eyes, the way it cut through the darkness and the confusion and the sadness. And it reached her. And she could hear a gear snapping back into place. "Bette, did it look like he was handling it?"
"I don't care." Bette scowled and grabbed her arm. "I'm taking both of you to the nurse."
"But I'm fine—" Dick said, his airy voice slipping into a whine. Bette looked at him sharply, and she grabbed him by the arm as well. All the way to the nurse's office, Dick was stealing glances at her. She could tell he was making his own assessment of what type of person she was, just by her play at being a victim. She could hear the wheels turning. It was fascinating and terrifying.
When they were left alone, he looked at her. And he smiled wide. "You're a manipulative witch," he said brightly. "But you probably already knew that."
"Wow, thanks," Barbara replied, wiping a bit of blood from her forehead and grimacing. "You're a real charmer too, Grayson."
"You can call me Dick." He looked at her, his tiny body slumped forward, and she could practically see his skeleton beneath the clothes and skin and muscle. Yes, it was human. Not machine.
"It's a great nickname," she teased, flattening her skirt. "I'm Barbara Gordon."
"I know." He glanced away, still smiling a little. "We've met, remember?"
"Well…" She didn't think he'd remember that. He'd been far more broken then. "Yeah. I guess. Oops."
"I'm really sorry you got hurt because of me," Dick said. She rolled her eyes. "I mean, I know you meant for it to happen, but still. Gosh, and people think I have a flair for the overdramatic!"
"It's a gift," she giggled. "Nothing circus level, but hey, it's all I've got to work with."
He smiled at her again, and it occurred to her that she might have gotten more than she had bargained for.
She didn't know when exactly he'd turned from being her personal project to becoming her best friend. It had just happened, as paint discolored over time, and memories became lazy hazes in the back of minds. Their relationship had been built on her dire need to get her hands on his broken little mind, and his strange need for affection and attention. She'd grown up learning how criminals' minds worked, how to put them away, how to make them tick. He'd grown up with people all over the country loving and adoring him, praising him for his talents and his looks and his personality.
But it had happened. Somewhere between sharing snacks at lunch, and sharing clothes when needed (his hips were skinnier than hers, so his trousers tended to be a little tight for her, but he seemed to like swimming in her tees and polka-dotted pajama pants), they had formed a very odd codependent friendship. She made friends fine. She was clever, and she knew it, so she could suppress her anxious quirks to make people deem her normal. Dick did the opposite. He liked to flaunt who he was, let people see his strangeness and adore him for it. He had teachers wrapped around his finger in a day, and made it so other children either wanted to stay as far from him as possible, or coddle him to death.
It had taken her a while to realize he'd done it to her too. He'd manipulated her into loving him, and wanting to be the center of his attention. That had hurt. So she'd decided to push him away, in a way that only she could. She made excuses when he asked her to come over, to swim, or to explore, or to play at fighting (sometimes they were knights, or sometimes they were ninjas, or sometimes they were just fighting to hurt each other— was that dysfunctional?). She pretended to be busy with school, busy with gymnastics, busy with staring at her ceiling and pretending her phone had died. Eventually, he either caught on, or he got too busy for her too.
She didn't know what to think of him. He was no longer the broken machine she'd plucked from a scrap pile, and she was no longer certain that she could twist people into doing exactly what she wanted them to do. No, he did that now. He was good at it. He was smart, and he was witty, and he played her game better than anyone else. He took her efforts and twisted them back unto her. She loved and hated him for it.
"I'm walking you home," he declared one humid afternoon. They were thirteen, and they scarcely saw each other outside of school anymore. She missed him, but she told herself she didn't. She'd fixed what needed fixing, and now she only stuck around for… what? His company?
"I thought Alfred was picking you up," she said, her lips closing around the straw that poked out of her milk carton. Dick studied her with his large blue eyes, which were brighter now— but haunted still, like a dilapidated house overblown and torn apart, but still beautiful when the sunlight hit its dusty interior.
"He's supposed to," Dick said slowly. "But I know your dad is going to be late today—"
"And you knew that how?"
"—And since I know you so well, I know that you're just going to walk home. Which is telligent." He smiled at her, his sleek black hair slicked away from his face, allowing her to see the genuine concern in his features. She looked down, setting her milk aside.
"Telligent is not a word, Dick," she sighed. He rolled his eyes, turning toward her and throwing one leg over the bench he was sitting on, leaning toward her with his hands planted before him.
"Okay, we've been over this," he insisted, exasperated. "Language is consistently evolving, and it's only natural that new words pop up as derivatives of old ones."
"It wouldn't be a derivative, it would be a back formation."
"Well, whatever," Dick groaned, pouting a little as he rocked back and forth on the bench. "I no speak this language good, ha ha ha. But anyway, back on topic. I'll just tell Alfred to pick me up at your apartment. Cool?"
"I can take care of myself, Dick." She turned away from him, tucking a stray red curl behind her ear as she picked at her french fries, tearing them apart to peer at the fluffy potato guts within the golden crust.
Dick looked surprised. He shook his head fast. "I don't doubt that!" He looked away, and she found herself watching him through her eyelashes, taking in his body language. He was hunched forward, leaning as close to her as possible without causing discomfort. His eyes were big and sad, and she could hear the soft whirring of gears within him, pleading with her. She wished she could ignore them. "But… Babs, we… we never hang out anymore, and well… I'm not doing anything tonight, and you're not doing anything tonight—"
"I have karate."
"Dick," she said, eyeing him with disdain. But he was looking up at her with large, imploring eyes, and she hated it. She looked away fast, but the expression had burned itself inside her mind, and she felt horrible. Was she such a horrible person for not indulging in the whims of Dick Grayson?
"Babs," he gasped, mimicking her tone. "Come on, please? When was the last time we just hung out? Dick and Babs time? I know I haven't been around lately, and neither have you, but… like, be honest. Have you missed me at all?"
"Of course I have," she said gently. She had to be delicate with him, or else she might cause something to short circuit within him. "But…"
"But…" She bit her lip, and her shoulder slackened in defeat. "Ugh, fine. You can walk me home."
Dick let out a whoop of victory, reaching over to hug her, but she shoved him back by the elbow. Sometimes when she thought about why she was so adamant on not allowing him to get exceptionally close to her, she realized it was because she was scared of him. She was scared of how well he knew how, how well he could twist her to do his bidding. But still, she cared for him. That was the child in her. She loved him as the person who knew her inside out, and she hated him for the same reason.
The walked home later that day, and the rumble of distant thunder ushered them forward fast. The thickness of the autumn air caught them by surprise, and though it was chilly, sweat was forming beneath the layers of their uniforms. Dick complained mildly, before shrugging off his blazer and shoving it in her messenger bag. They chatted amiably for a small duration of the way, avoiding shady places, and ducking out of the paths of seedy-looking people. They were both very careful when they had to be by themselves in Gotham. It was natural.
The first drop of rain had startled her. She'd stopped, blinking down at her bare arm, watching the droplet of water dissolve against her skin. "Uh oh," she whispered. Dick glanced at her, and then up at the sky, and he grinned wickedly. They still had quite a way to go until they got to her apartment, and that was the trouble. But he enjoyed this, and she couldn't help but smile as he gave her a playful shrug.
"Race ya, Gordon!" he cried, just as a mist of rain began to drizzle upon them. He bolted forward, and she groaned in response, adjusting her bag so the heavy books would not smack against her hip. And then she ran as well, weaving between passersby, her voice drifting with the wind, as the rain grew heavy, pattering against her pale skin and licking at her curls. The cotton of her shirt stuck awkwardly to her skin, and she caught Dick around the waist while he'd stopped at a cross section, cars whizzing past, spraying dirty water into the already rainy air. She'd misjudged her attack, though, thinking that he would merely shrug her off like he used to. Barbara's weight forced him back, and before she could release him, he had her by the front of her sopping oxford.
They both shrieked as they collapsed into a puddle, dirty water sloshing into her mouth and eyes. She gasped and spluttered, water chilling her arms and legs, creeping beneath her skirt and under-shorts. She grimaced and thrashed, sheets of rain beating down on top of them as they struggled to sit up. When they did, he was cackling, still gripping the front of her shirt, and she was flushed red as she tried to pry his fingers from her chest.
"Dick, let go," she spat, shoving him back into the slosh of rainwater and scum. She folded her arms across her chest self-consciously, her entire body feeling awkward and hot, despite the frigid autumn temperature. "You just groped me, you jerk!"
Dick continued to laugh, his entire body drenched, and his hair losing its gelled look and sticking to his forehead and ears. "There was nothing to grope!" he teased, pulling himself from the puddle and ducking when she swung her bag at his head. Then he ran again, forcing her to gather herself hastily and run after him. If running had been uncomfortable before, now it was a double dose of awkward, her entire body wet and her clothes sticking strangely, hugging very closely to her skin.
She ended up tugging his blazer out of her bag when her vision became so bad that she could no longer see Dick in front of her. She used it as a makeshift umbrella, grateful for the shield as she stumbled through the downpour, her shoes squeaking and slipping against the slick ground. There was water lodged inside them, which was bothersome, but really Barbara could not think of a place where water as not at that point.
He caught her by the arm when she'd stopped to catch her breath, coughing from the remnants of dirty water in her mouth, and shuddering from the cold. Dick was still smaller than her, and she sort of wanted to shove him into another puddle for being such a little shit. But he looked worried, and he held her arm very gently, so she felt that there was no way she could justify it. They hurried the rest of the way together, clinging to each other as they shared the blazer's meager protection from the pouring rain.
When they got to her apartment, they were both shivering so badly that she could feel his teeth chattering. They half ran, half fell into the living room, hugging each other close for warmth. Barbara tossed the blazer aside, listening to it plop against the wooden floor. For a moment they stood there, his face buried against her shoulder, and his sodden hair tickling her neck. They both smelled like petrichor and sweat and mud, intermingled and damp.
She slipped away from him, kicking off her shoes and wrinkling her nose as her socks squelched against the floor, soggy and stained. "I feel gross," she whined, dropping her bag beside her shoes.
Dick nodded in agreement, and he began to unbutton his own oxford, which was sticking to his scrawny chest, translucent and pale. She stared for a moment, as he tore the shirt away, giving a shudder as he balled it up and dropped it at his feet. She frowned at him, not really blaming him for wanting to take the shirt off— she was feeling the need to strip too, really, but she would wait until she got some privacy.
"What are you doing?" she gasped, spinning away from him as he worked at untangling his legs from his pants. "Do that in the bathroom!"
"What?" He sounded confused, and she shook her head, her neck and cheeks flaring with heat as she clapping her hands over her eyes. "Babs, you've seen me naked. It's not really a big deal."
"I've never seen you naked!" Barbara knew that wasn't exactly true. But it had only been one time, when she'd walked in on him changing, and she'd merely swiveled around and slammed the door shut. They'd never spoken of it. She felt so awkwardly warm, and she didn't like it at all, nor did she like how comfortable Dick was with stripping down in front of her.
"Okay, whatever you say. Can I have some clothes?"
"Get them yourself!" She pointed blindly, her heart hammering in her ears. "You know where my room is."
"Barbara, I'm wearing boxers. Chill out, it's okay," he said, laughing a little. That only made her feel worse, and she barely stand how mortified she was. She turned back to face him, her hands falling to her sides. Dick was, indeed, wearing boxers, and he was smirking at her with his arms folded across his bare chest. "What's your deal, Babs? Do I whelm you?"
She scoffed, running her fingers through her stringy red hair. "Go put some clothes on, asshole," she said, her eyes narrowing at him sharply. "Before my dad comes home and tries to shoot you, or something."
"Sure," he chirped, brushing past her. She watched him disappear, her eyes glued to his protruding shoulder blades. She turned away, shaking her head— she'd been staring, but… but only because he was so skinny. Right?
Barbara peeled her socks off, grimacing as the stuck stubbornly to her faintly freckled legs, and then she went into the kitchen to fill up a pot of water. She climbed onto the countertop, her wet knees slipping against the granite, and she grabbed a pair of mugs from the top shelf of the pantry. Slipping down and fixing her soaked skirt, she set the mugs down and reached for the hot chocolate mix that her father always kept beside the toaster. Then she yelped, clapping her hands over her mouth as a pair of hands pinched her waist, causing a ticklish jolt to run through her stomach.
"Oh my god," she gasped, spinning around to smack him. But he simply ducked away, laughing brightly. She rubbed her stomach, scowling at her happy friend. Sometimes it was easy to forget how broken he'd been. He was wearing an oversized shirt of hers, and a pair of flannel pants that seemed to fit him fine. She could see his collarbone, and there was a towel around his neck. He handed it to her, ruffling his damp hair. "If you don't keep your hands to yourself, I'm going to tell Bruce you sexually harassed me."
"I sincerely doubt that," Dick chuckled, peering up at her as she dried off her hair, mopping up the water trickling down her neck. "Babs?"
"Hmm?" She glanced at him as he took the towel from her fingers, his slender hand slipping beneath her hair and gently pushing her head down so he could scrub the grime from her cheek. The close proximity didn't bother her so much as the strange look he was giving her. His fingers were very cold against her neck, which was uncomfortably hot. Their foreheads bumped together, and Barbara tried to take a step back, but she was stuck between Dick and the counter. "Um…"
He stared at her for a moment, his mouth falling open. He looked as if he wanted to say something— yes, she could sense that from his gaze, hear the nudging command within the ticking of clockwork inside his brain. She could feel his chest moving, and she could see his own face heating up as his eyes widened, and he took a step back, his fingertips sliding against the remains of rainwater that clung to her neck.
"Y-you should go get changed," he said, his dark hair curling around his eyes. It looked very fluffy as it dried, and he looked uncertain for a moment as she nodded briskly, rushing out of the room.
Oh no, she thought, letting out the breath she'd been holding. Oh hell no…
The machine she had fixed had taken on a life of its own. And now there was a chance she had fallen in love with it.
After Barbara became Batgirl, it became harder and easier to hate him. He simultaneously became the most infuriating person in her life, and the most amazing. Robin and Batgirl were… inseparable and insouciant. He led, and she followed, and they built off each other, their movements echoing and fluid. Batman trusted her to Robin for the most part, and even after Jason Todd appeared she was with Dick. It was a change from the short time when they had spent very close to no time together at all, since now they tended to see each other so much she was sick of looking at his face. (This was not true. She actually quite liked his face.)
Jason Todd had not been as battered on the inside as Dick Grayson had been. However, he was still a fractured little thing, and he hid it behind layers and layers of coarse words and haughty smiles. He was sweet, though, and she admired him for his spirit. Once Barbara had asked him why he wanted to be Robin, and Jason had replied that he believed that everyone should have the chance to be saved as he had been saved.
He wasn't calculating or manipulative. He had no desire for attention or a need to be loved. He could continue running without it. But he was a happy machine, and so she had figured that he could sort out his fissures on his own.
She had been wrong.
"What do you mean he's gone?" Barbara asked, pulling off her glasses as Zatanna, M'gann, Artemis, Karen, and Raquel all peered at her curiously. Their girl's night at the cave had been great so far— they'd kicked out all the boy residents just for the evening, leaving them with free reign to wander in their pajamas and eat Wally's food reserves.
"Girl, I thought we agreed no boys or work," Karen sighed, as M'gann worked at braiding her thick brown hair.
Barbara waved Karen off as Zatanna crawled beside her, her bare shoulders bumping against hers. "Tell Nightwing we'd all be happy to have him here," Zatanna said, smirking as the rest of the girls rolled their eyes.
"Uh, speaking for those of us who have boyfriends—" Artemis started, smirking right back at Zatanna.
"Everyone, shhh!" Barbara snapped, grabbing the remote control to the television and muting it. They all watched her with varying expressions. "Now, repeat. What do you mean he's gone?"
Dick's voice was quiet. Thick, and shuddering, and it scared her. She clutched her phone tightly, her heart drumming in her ears. "He's gone," he repeated. "He… Babs, the Joker— h-he took Jason, and— and—"
She rose to her feet, running her fingers through her hair. "You need back up? I'll suit up right now, just tell me where."
She saw Karen roll her eyes, and the others looked equally grumpy. But no one objected, because when it was an emergency, they understood it. She reached over Zatanna, grabbing her shoes as the dark haired girl winked. "Is everything alright?" M'gann asked slowly, leaning forward as Barbara stuck the cell phone between her shoulder and cheek. She slipped on her flats, listening to Dick's rattling breath. He was being too quiet.
"Nightwing?" she asked.
"He's… h-he's dead, Babs."
She stood for a moment, her innards turning to ice and locking her in a perpetual state of disbelief. Barbara Gordon had always been the type of person who could easily keep her emotions in check. If she was a machine, then she was the best machine. She ran fast and smooth, no complications, no error. She wasn't afraid to be proud of that. But at that moment, it was very easy to forget herself.
"No," she said. "No way." Jason was too bright to falter. There was no possible way.
Dick said nothing. She looked down, and she could hear her breathing becoming too fast, too erratic, and she turned away from her friends as they all looked at each other questioningly. "Barbara?" Artemis asked, her voice very gentle. She shook her head, and feeling shell-shocked and dizzy.
"Where are you?" Barbara asked, her voice too tight. She should have been with them. Why had she not been with them? "You know what, I— I'll just track your call. Stay where you are. Is Batman with you?"
"No." He sounded so small, she could hear the little bits of him falling apart, gears grinding to a halt and rusting over the course of a minute. "I… I left him. I couldn't be with the— the—"
"The…? The body? You… you're sure it's…?"
"Okay," she breathed, squeezing her eyes shut. "Okay, I'm going to be there in just a few minutes. Don't go anywhere, and don't…"
"Don't tell the Team," he choked. She froze, and she turned her head to look back at the girls, who were looking just about ready to suit up themselves. "Promise me you won't."
She took a deep, shuddering breath. It sounded like a sob. "I promise." He disconnected after that, and she fumbled to get his coordinates as she turned, her vision blurring as she typed.
"Hey, is everything…?" Raquel asked.
"Yes— I mean… no, it's…" Barbara scrubbed at her eyes, her throat constricted too much for her voice to be clear. "I'm sorry, I have to go."
She hopped over the couch, her feet clapping against the floor, echoing throughout the cave as the fled. No one stopped her, or questioned it, and she was grateful, but she was also so… scared. She was scared for Dick Grayson, who had healed so nicely, so wonderfully. He was defined by the people who he loved, and who loved him in return, and so…
Barbara Gordon had work to do.
She found him on the roof of a bakery. She knew why, but she didn't want to think about it. She hadn't had the time to change, so she had to be very careful when running through Gotham. She got to the roof the hard way, taking the fire escape until it ended and scaling the rest of the way. He was sitting on the edge, his body curled up tightly against the wild winds.
"Dick?" she called, her voice wavering against the gusting air. He did not budge, and that worried her. She approached him slowly, and saw that he was shaking. His entire body was trembling, and the way he held himself… he only had to lean an inch, and then he would be gone. She took a deep breath, her body feeling rotten from within. She carefully sat down beside him, placing a hand on one quaking shoulder. "Tell me what happened."
He looked up at her, and she saw that his expression was hard. He hugged his knees tighter to his chest, his masked eyes narrowing. "The Joker," Dick said, his voice clearer than it had been on the phone, "took Jason to a warehouse. There… was a bomb. We got there too late."
"But…" She shook her head, her own body beginning to quiver involuntarily. "But… how? Why?"
"I don't know." Dick stared at her, and his entire body went rigid beneath her fingers. "I want to kill him."
That was odd. Barbara looked up at him, shocked, and she could hear the gears within him realigning themselves. She didn't like the sound. She didn't like what type of machine he was becoming. "No," she whispered. "You don't."
"But I do," he choked. She could feel him breaking apart, slipping through her fingers, and she searched his face. "I've never wanted to hurt anyone as much as I want to hurt the Joker right now. I… oh, god…"
He grabbed her by the shoulders and he fell forward, nearly crushing her with the weight of the hug. He clung to her so tightly that his fingers dug into her back, between her shoulder blades. He rested his chin on her shoulder, and she listened to him breathe for a moment, panicked rasps tickling her ear. She closed her eyes, and she could feel a sob clawing at her throat, but she could not allow it to escape.
"Don't let me do it," he whispered, his voice desperate and small.
Barbara shook her head, not trusting her voice. She raised her hands, gently placing one on his head, and the other on his back, and she listened as he breathed in deeply, and muffled a scream against the skin of her neck. After that, she couldn't suppress the sob anymore, and it sounded strangled as it fell from her lips.
"You won't," she murmured, tears stinging her eyes. She ran her fingers through his hair, softening the trembling of his body as he began to cry. Tears leaked from his mask, and they tickled her skin as her dug his face into her neck, clinging to her slender frame as if he was about to be sucked away. Perhaps he was.
When he calmed down enough, she slid them both away from the edge, collapsing on the roof with her chin in his hair. It was awhile before either of them could speak again, a while of them simply holding each other. She didn't know what to do, and that made her feel incredibly inadequate. The scrawny boy she'd tried to protect years before was now too big to fit in her arms comfortably, and he was so strong that she feared that she would not be able to pry herself free even if she tried.
She wasn't sure what had happened to him after that. Dick Grayson became… distant, to be sure. After they graduated high school, she was lucky to see him once a week. Whenever they had Team missions, he would be there, but… it was not the same. He was broken again, in not in the same way as he'd been when they had first met. That had been simple to fix. Give him a little love, and some semblance of stability— a reason to live— and he went on fine.
Now he was broken in a way that forced her to keep from him. She didn't know if he knew, or care if he did. She knew he slept around, and it only bothered her when she let it. When asked if she was ever interested in Nightwing, she'd reply that it would ruin their dynamic, and also he was actually an idiot when you got to know him. For some reason, none of the junior members of the Team believed her on either part.
They gossiped. It was hilarious and frustrating, because she knew it would all get back to Dick somehow. Couldn't they just let things be?
"Wait, so him and Batgirl have never had a thing?" Cassie asked Tim, blinking confusedly. "Like, never never?"
"Not that I'm aware of," Tim said slowly. He seemed uncomfortable with the topic. Rightfully. "I mean… yeah, no. They just act like they do."
What was that supposed to mean? "Well," Jaime said, "I sort of doubt they'd ever tell us if anything ever did happen, you know? All of you keep your personal stuff so locked up, I wouldn't be surprised if you were dating someone, hermano, and didn't tell us."
Tim's mouth opened, and then it shut. Barbara peered at him curiously. Well, this was news to her. "What?" Cassie gasped, leaning forward. Tim scrambled back, his shoulders hunching. "No way! Who is she? Oh, it is a girl, right?"
"I'm not—!" Tim gasped, flinching as Bart flung an arm around his shoulder.
"Can't tell us?" Bart asked eagerly, green eyes bright. "Is it a spoiler?"
"That… no! I'm not dating anyone!" Tim shook his head fast, looking down at the ground.
Barbara stifled a shriek with her hands as a pair of hands pinched her waist, sending a sharp ticklish feeling through her stomach. She spun around, punching Dick hard in the chest as he chuckled, not bothering to fight back. "I told you not to do that!" she hissed. It was too late, though. They'd already spotted her. She saw Tim turn a faint pink color, and he bowed his head in shame.
"Eavesdropping?" he asked, his smirk seeming natural. Sometimes she couldn't tell the difference anymore between the fake smiles and the real ones. "Ah, has it come to this? My, the manipulative witch has lost her touch."
"Shut up," she said, scowling at him. "That was a long time ago."
"But I remember it so well," he sighed, still smirking. "You were a bit of a bitch, I'm going to admit it. But damn, I thought you were badass."
"Uh, thanks?" She rolled her eyes and brushed past him. "I think? Is something wrong, you just cursed like, three times in a row in front of the kids."
"I think they're a bit preoccupied with the issue of Robin's girlfriend." She could tell that that smile was real. It made her happy to see, and she felt a bubbling of warmth as he walked beside her. The Team didn't get to hang out like they used to, not with the Cave gone, but they managed with what they had. Barbara was just glad they all made an effort to hang out outside of missions.
"Does he actually have a girlfriend?" Barbara asked, surprised mostly because Tim was so shy.
"I'm not sure if you can call her that," Nightwing laughed. "But… he's been meeting up with a girl a lot lately. Training her."
"What?" she gasped, yanking him to a stop. He blinked down at her, his eyebrows raised. "And you're just letting him?"
"Um," he said, his lips quirking in amusement. "Does this not sound familiar to you at all?"
"That was different!"
"Well for one, you never trained me behind Batman's back."
Dick sighed and shook his head. "I know he's doing it, and by the time Batman comes back it'll be too late to do anything. I don't really see the harm. Plus, it's a girl."
She stared at him incredulously. "Do we know anything about this girl?" she asked slowly.
"She was one of the abductees, so you've met her. Tiny, blonde. Mouthy."
"Her?" Barbara wondered how any of this had come to be, and she suddenly felt the need to have a very long talk with this girl. "If anything happens, I'm blaming you."
"Anything like what?" Dick asked as they swiftly scaled a fire escape, settling on a platform. "Tim finds a friend in Gotham that is alive? What's so bad about this, Barbara?"
She winced at his tone. Tim Drake was… a machine that refused to break. Barbara believed it was because he had never fully been assembled in the first place. He was natural being alone for long periods of time, and socially he did all right. But she knew that the two people Tim confided in the most were a gravestone and a hologram. (The hologram was now as dead as the boy it had memorialized.)
"I just don't want to see him get hurt," Barbara said gently. "Or her, for that matter."
Dick watched her behind the lenses of his mask. It was rare that she saw him without it anymore. He smiled, but it was a pitiful excuse for one. "Have some faith," he said quietly. "I think Tim will really help this girl. And she'll really help Tim. It'll be good."
"If this works, remind me to buy you coffee or something." Barbara slid to the grimy, rusted floor of the fire escape platform, and Nightwing plopped carefully down across from her. Their legs were a strange entanglement, but it had been a while since she'd cared about proximity between her and Dick Grayson.
"How about dinner instead?" Dick suggested, resting his legs lazily on top of hers. She shrugged in response, her head falling back against the metal bars behind her. It had been awhile since the two of them had just sat together and talked. She missed this. She missed him, and that… that had been the thing that scared her when she'd been younger. The fear of needing him.
"Sure, Boy Wonder," she said. "I'll buy you like, a Whopper Jr., or something."
"Yikes! Are you trying to get me fat, Babs?" He cocked his head, and pressed a hand to his chest. "I'm horrified and intrigued."
"Actually, it's because all of the money I get from working goes into school funds," Barbara said, smirking at how startled he looked. "But, yeah, you could do to gain a few pounds."
"Barbara, if you need money—"
"I've had this talk with Bruce," Barbara said, her eyes narrowing at him. "I can manage it. You guys practically paid for the entirety of my education so far. I can do this, Dick."
He watched her, his expression unreadable. She found that it was very hard to read him as of late. It hurt, because when they'd met, she had read him like a book and gotten her fingers inside his head within weeks. Now, when she even saw him, she had to focus to try and figure out what he was thinking. And even then, it was a guess. She wished she could see his eyes, because they would tell her everything. Maybe that was why he never took it off.
"Babs?" he asked, studying her was she peered up at the sky, distracted by the swirl of clouds.
She looked up, startled at the sudden pressure on her legs. "Get off," she groaned, wiggling her feet as Dick sat on her thighs with his knees digging into her hips. "Dick, you're not twelve anymore, you can't do this."
"Do you remember that one time I groped you?" he asked, his face hovering above hers. She barked a laugh, her eyes rolling as she sat up straighter.
"One time? Dick, I think it's safe to say you've done your fair share of groping. Like, you've probably felt me up more than any boyfriend I've had."
"I deny the existence of said boyfriends because I've never met them," Dick replied, grinning a little. It wasn't a real smile— she didn't think so, anyway.
"I tend not to introduce boys to my very close, very attractive billionaire's ward of a best friend, because it really gives them self-esteem issues." She sighed, glaring up at him. "Now get off."
"You think I'm attractive?" he teased. He leaned forward, his masked eyes narrowing. That made her angry, so she reached up and dug her fingers beneath the edge of the mask. She tore it away, and she smiled in satisfaction as his deep blue eyes were revealed to her. They were just as large and sad as she remembered them to be.
"Now I do," she said, grinning up at him. This wasn't weird, or anything. This was just how they were— or at least how they had been, when they were younger. Now they were rarely alone enough to be so strangely intimate.
It must have been something she said. Otherwise, she couldn't fathom why he would kiss her. It had been a soft, sudden thing, and for a moment she hadn't even realized they were kissing. That sort of thing had never happened before. And sure, she'd imagined it, but she'd stopped entertaining the idea of it actually happening back when he had been dating Zatanna.
The sensation was very strange. It was probably because of who she was kissing, not the kiss itself. She was sitting, wide eyed, while his eyelashes tickled her cheeks, and there was a rush of different emotions that ran through her, but somehow her most coherent thought was, oh, god, I hope the Team doesn't walk out and see us. It was a few moments before the kiss really went anywhere, and even then she was too shocked to respond.
He had one hand against her waist, and the other toying with her hair. She could only blink, feeling warm and confused, because she had no idea what had brought this on. Her back was digging against the metal bars behind her, and the pressure of his lips increased until she finally responded, leaning her head up to his. She felt him smile against her, lips moving easily over hers as she circled her arms around his neck.
They broke apart, breathing each other's air, and she felt his hand snake from her waist to the small of her back. "Um," she whispered, their foreheads bumping against each other. "What is it exactly that we're doing?"
"Kissing?" Dick laughed, the sound very low, and it tickled her cheeks.
"No, I mean… you know, what does it mean? For us?" She nearly choked on her words as he kissed her again, less tentative and more needy. Barbara took a deep breath, drawing the air from his mouth, and she let him play with the red curls that rested on her shoulders, pulling her closer and closer until she could feel his chest rising and falling. This time, when they broke apart, he merely moved his lips downward, and dragged his teeth across her jaw until he reached her ear.
"What do you want it to mean?" he murmured. He brushed her hair back, and she sighed, a thousand different emotions toiling within her. His face was flushed, and so was hers, likely, but… she wasn't so concerned about appearances at that moment.
She pulled his face back from her ear, biting her lip nervously. "Just…" she said softly. "Just let it mean something."
For a relationship built on manipulations and codependence, she wasn't sure why she was so surprised. She wasn't sure why it had taken so long for this to happen. But she cared very much whether or not Dick Grayson was using her. Because he was her best friend. He was remarkable. He was her broken machine, and now he was… toying with her. She didn't know how to feel about it.
He stared at her, and he looked surprised. His blue eyes were big and alarmed, but he smiled anyway. It reached his eyes, and something sparked within them. A broken circuit, perhaps. He leaned forward, his lips pressing to her forehead, and he hugged her tightly.
"Let's get dinner," he urged, slipping off her lap. "I'll pay. Mostly because I'm starving, and your puny budget leaves me with no other choice. Also, it's only gentlemanly of me, right?"
"Yes, because straddling a girl on a fire escape— that is some real class, Dick. Alfred would be proud."
"Is that a yes to the dinner?" he asked, taking her hands. She looked down at them, and she smiled a little.
"Yes, free food sounds lovely," Barbara said, leaning forward and kissing his cheek. "But can it be a place where normal people inhabit? I swear to god, the last time I saw you in your civvies was your birthday. Maybe."
"Done." He pulled her to her feet, dusting her off carefully. "Hey, Babs?"
He slipped an arm around her waist, kissing her hair quick. "You're kind of remarkable, you know that?"
She could only laugh.
Whoa, double whammy, not only did I not write angst, I wrote FLUFF! This is a first for this fandom.
I wrote Barbara as really cold and viciously smart in the beginning because, idk, i feel like really smart people just have a lot of issues. Barbara would be a terrifying villain. Like, sometimes I think about it, and idk how Jason didn't destroy the world, evil Bats are actually like the catalyst for the apocalypse. Anyway, I wanted to write the evolution of their relationship. I feel like their unresolved sexual tension would haunt them for life. (obviously i resolved it)
The Jason part could be cut out, but I'm going to consider it sort of like a beta for whatever I decide to do in Fall and Fail.
Alright, well I have to get back to writing SoD tomorrow, and then when I finish that I'll get back to Fall and Fail. I was just in dire need of some DickBabs when I wrote this. There's not enough. I needed more.