He's thirteen when he figures it out, and then he wonders where his brain's been for the last five years. Terry even told him once. Said it flat out: "I'm Batman."
Matt remembers laughing. Because how do you believe something like that when it's your jerk big brother telling you?
Short answer: you don't.
Longer, more complicated answer? You don't until that brother's been living away from home for three years, and then he comes back for a week after spring finals and you get a good look at him for the first time in what feels like twice that long.
And now there's this stranger in Mom's living room with Terry's hair and suck-ass taste in clothes, and—and something… else. Something Matt knows has been there for a long time, he just hasn't looked straight at it before. But now he is looking and thinking about what he's seeing, which is a lot more height than Dad ever managed plus some serious muscle. A smile that really isn't a smile, because around the eyes… yeah. He doesn't look too long there.
And then he's thinking about how Terry's at Gotham U. Didn't leave town for college, but he still moved out of Mom's place right after high school—like, the week after. Started living with Mr. Wayne full time, and seriously, who wants to move in with a freaky, way old geezer when they're eighteen?
He thinks about how Terry wasn't around much even before that. He remembers how pissed off and hurt he was about it, especially that one summer…
It was a bad year. Terry quit working for Mr. Wayne twice that year.
Matt sits down with his laptop and defines parameters for his best search program, then turns it loose on the news archives. After that, putting everything together is easy. So is sticking a transparent, water-impervious tracer to Terry's skin. He made it himself, tested it on his best friend. Geo still doesn't know he followed her around for a week, and he's going to keep it that way.
Finding the right radio frequency with his modified p-comm is harder, but hey, somebody in this family has to do the geek thing. Terry's going for a double in business and criminology, and wow, like that's not another enormous tip-off.
Bruce freaking Wayne. Matt rolls his eyes. He's crouched on the WE roof (no Powers in there anymore), searching with tech-enhanced eyes and ears. Highest building in the city, and thanks to Terry, he's got an in.
Terry's going to live to regret that. Unless he decides to drop Matt down a really deep hole. When your big bro's Batman and works for (Matt's ninety percent sure) the first guy to fill the suit, anything's possible.
Signals, voices and static. He's got a steady stream of them running past his left ear, then someone who sounds mostly like Terry says, "—the Hayward Station exit. I'll be right on top of you."
Matt locks the frequency in and someone else says, "En route. Watch your back. These twips had lasgun air support last time."
Her street name is Bluejay, although Matt thinks the original bluebird was called Nightwing. He was also a guy. This one…
Her voice is deeper than normal, almost a growl, but he knows Max Gibson when he hears her. If he didn't already know about Terry he might not, but since he does? Way easy.
The line goes silent. He watches the blip that's Terry move across his screen. A new voice says, "Base to B and J. This frequency is compromised. Rerouting."
Old, old voice, deep and rough, and it's a voice he knows, even if he hasn't heard it that often. Over the comm it sounds like the total absence of light and all the night terrors a kid without a dad will ever have. Matt mutters, "Shit," and twists the bud out of his ear before the high-pitched whine can take out his eardrum.
Says it again, "Shit," flips his laptop closed and swings himself into the access chute, and he didn't think the old man would nail him so fast. Reminds himself to never underestimate the real Bat ever again. Snickers because he's got a pretty good idea of the look on Terry's face if Matt ever said that within his hearing.
Even—or maybe that's especially monster buildings like this one have fire escapes. He left Geo's airbike on the fiftieth floor landing. If he can just get there—
The access chute drops him into the auxiliary stairwell. He rides the wide, spiral banister down to exit fifty, flies through the door, and, "Hey!" he's caught. Scruffed, and Bluejay/Nightwing/Max is standing in front of him with her arms crossed, and he doesn't need to look behind him to know who's got a grip on his neck.
He hears Terry suck air, sharp and surprised. Max's stance falters, her arms falling to her sides. She says, "Matt?" Like he's the last thing she expected. Last thing she needs.
Matt says, "Shit," for the third time this evening. He gets the feeling it's not going to be the last.
It's a cave. No, really. A Cave, complete with capital C, an army of small, shrieking bats, and three big scary ones. Well, two of them are trying to be scary. One of them couldn't be anything else if he tried.
Wayne is standing over him—make that looming over him, and Matt's always thought the word seemed kinda melodramatic, but it's like Mom says: there's a time and place for almost everything.
Wayne looms and scowls. Matt glares back and hopes he looks halfway badass instead of sulky. Then Wayne says, "What do you want?" and Matt… blinks.
He says, "Huh?" Because he—
Doesn't know, but—
Wayne's eyes are burning a hole in him. This is the Batcave and you don't lie in the Batcave, not even to yourself.
He can't stop himself from looking. Red and black and gold pulling at his brain and his eyes, and it's only a quick glance, but he knows Wayne catches it.
Maybe he didn't have a plan when he left the apartment. Maybe he didn't know what he wanted. Maybe.
"Bruce," and it's been a long time since Matt's seen his brother this pissed. "What the hell are you doing?"
Wayne turns his scowl in Terry's direction. Matt breathes a little easier. Wayne says, "I'm making him think, McGinnis. There wasn't a lot of conscious thought involved in anyone's actions tonight."
Terry goes red around the ears and shuts his mouth. Max's cheeks get slightly darker. Wayne turns back to Matt. "What do you want?" he asks again, and Matt… isn't going to lie.
"You know," he says, and jerks his chin at the Case without breaking eye contact. "I want that."
Out of the corner of his eye he sees Terry jerk forward. Sees Max's automatic lunge. And Matt has to look because watching Max shove Terry up against a rock wall then hold him still with her arm over his throat is totally schway.
The old man is watching, too—jeeze, his smirk really is kind of evil—so Matt refuses to feel guilty.
"No," Terry growls. He jerks against Max's hold and she slams him back into place. "You don't get him, too."
Oh yeah, he almost forgot. That's why he's spent most of his life trying to annoy the crap out of Terry. Because Terry's freaking annoying. "What are you, my brother or my mother?" he says, and he's glad Max's suit is up to the job, because the Cave is basically a really big hole in the ground, and Terry's looking really tempted.
"Both of you knock it off," Max says, and now she sounds annoyed—there's more than enough to go around. "How about we all calm down and discuss this like rational human beings instead of chest-thumping he-men. And by we I mean you."
"There's nothing to discuss," Terry snarls. "Matt's going home, and he's not coming back here."
Matt snorts, "Says you," and Max makes a pissed off sound and shoves Terry back again, and then Wayne says, "Enough."
And that's kind of… it.
Wayne says, "Let him go, Gibson. McGinnis, stand down."
It's obviously killing him, but Terry does it. He says, "You're not going to throw a thirteen year old kid at the streets—"
"You're right," Wayne interrupts him. "I'm not." He looks at Matt. "You do what I tell you when I tell you to do it, without hesitation. Disobey my orders once and you're out."
"Got it," Matt says. And wow, does he ever.
"Matt." Terry sounds like—like that guy from Greek mythology. The immortal one who had his liver eaten by eagles or something, and it happened every day because, you know, immortal, and his liver kept growing back. The look on his face is—it makes Matt's stomach do this weird clenching thing.
"I want this, Ter," he says on a rush. "I can do it, I know I—" and Terry reaches out and grabs him, and it's been a long, long time since he's done that.
"I know you can do it," he says into Matt's hair. "I… it's not about that. I don't want you to think that just because I do this, you have to."
"Pffft." Matt shoves Terry away and grins at him. "You're so dumb. If I didn't want to be here, I wouldn't have followed you."
"We'll discuss that later," Wayne says, and Matt's brain goes uh-oh. "Right now, you're going home, and you—" he looks pointedly at Terry and Max— "have patrol."
Max throws up her hands. "Thank you, god. I need to burn up some adrenaline before I crawl back through my window." She walks past Matt and Terry on the way to her bike, flicking Matt's forehead as she goes. "See you tomorrow, twip. Fyi, I'm gonna be tossing your butt around a lot. Get the kid some good padding, B."
She flicks her lenses down, swings her leg over her bike and guns it.
Terry pulls his cowl back on. "Guess I'd better get him back, first."
"Go. I'll take him," Wayne says.
The cowl looks not happy, but Batman says, "Fine. Stay out of the explosives, brat."
The batplane's backwash whips Matt's hair around his face, vibrates the stone floor beneath his feet. A flight of bats screeches by overhead.
"I'm going to make you better than any of them," Wayne says. "I don't want your death on his conscience."
Matt swallows. Hard. His vision is red-black-gold, and Wayne is a voice in a cave. He says, "Good," and meets Wayne's eyes.
Wayne looks at him for a long moment before nodding once, curtly. "Let's go."
Matt trails Wayne up the stairs, glancing back once. The gold R is sharp against black and red. Dangerous. He wants that.
There's a door at the top of the stairs. It's open and Wayne is standing in a pool of lamplight. Matt starts climbing again.
He's not Robin. Not even close. But he will be.