It was time for Timothy Drake to make a choice, to go on and risk getting caught, or go back. He had excuses to be where he was, well thought out and completely plausible, but beyond that point… He knew what would happen if he got caught, and shivered at the thought. But he *had* to know what was being said so he took a deep breath and eased down the stairs slowly. He was listening so hard that at first he thought he imagined the voices, but after two more stairs he distinguished a lower male voice from a woman’s and knew they were real.
Three more stairs and he paused, frowning at the next one down. Tim knew from experience that it creaked when weight was put on it, not loudly, but maybe loud enough to be heard and while there was no reason to believe that they would notice, he didn’t dare take the chance. Skipping the stair wasn’t an option however; his legs weren’t long enough, so he carefully gripped the railing, turning sideways so he could step on the boards between the bars. His foot slid on the angle, wedging uncomfortably against the wood, but he persisted, squeezing the railing as tightly as he could with his hands and wishing he weren’t so small. It took four sliding, foot bruising steps on the base of the railing to get far enough past the squeaking stair, and when he put his feet back on a flat surface he breathed out softly in relief. Then he frowned at himself and made a mental note to go barefoot next time. He’d known shoes would make too much noise despite the protection they would have given him but the socks made his feet slide too much and he’d almost slipped right off the railing base a couple of times.
The woman’s voice rose slightly and worried that he was missing something important, Tim took the rest of the stairs, nice and *quiet* stairs, more quickly. When he got to the bottom he hurried across the hall and pressed himself up against the wall next to the door the words becoming clear.
”…tickets going to be delivered?”
”They’re going to be waiting for us at the airport,” The man answered, sounding a bit distracted, perhaps he was the one moving whatever heavy things were being shifted.
“Good… Did you pack our boots this time? Finding a decent pair in South America takes forever and I’d really rather not go through that again.” The woman sounded distracted too, a familiar tone when she was addressing Tim, but he didn’t usually hear it when she was talking to other people; she must already be thinking about the trip.
Another woman’s voice answered, so soft he almost didn’t hear the words, though that voice was far more familiar than the other two, “Yes ma’am. I took the liberty of packing your favorite tools in your carry-on this time, along with a picture of the boy.”
”What? Oh. Yes, thank you,” Distracted still, Tim told himself firmly. Distracted, not disinterested, no matter what his ears were telling him. “When is the flight leaving again?”
”Two hours. We’ve got just enough time to finish here and get to the airport,” He sounded satisfied, pleased with their skill at packing up and moving quickly, and Tim’s heart seemed to climb up into his throat as he pressed harder against the wall. There was no way to stop them, he’d tried before and… he didn’t want to repeat the results.
The second woman’s tone was neutral when she asked, “Do you want me to wake him to say goodbye?”
”Don’t bother, there’s no reason to get him up after he’s been sent to bed. We’ll leave him a note or something,” Still thinking of the trip, of work, not what she was saying; Tim didn’t think she was going to write the note.
“When should I tell him you’ll be back?”
Her tone changed to one of annoyance, “The same thing you always tell him, we don’t know. He knows by now that we can’t predict how long my work will take.”
Their voices were getting closer and Tim glanced around quickly and realized with a jolt of panic that he didn’t have anywhere to hide. By the time he decided to duck behind the curtains around the window the door was opening and light spilled out into the hall, catching him in the middle of moving.
He froze for a heartbeat before automatically straightening his back and lifting his chin, his eyes rising at the sound of his name, “Timothy Jackson Drake, what are you doing out of bed?”
His mother sounded disappointed and annoyed and Tim’s stomach seemed to twist into a sick knot; he’d made her angry, now they’d be gone even longer. He shouldn’t have gotten caught; he’d been stupid not to have a hiding place to listen from. He couldn’t believe he’d made the same mistake again. His parents had been gone for three months the last time they’d found him where he wasn’t supposed to be and he’d just been a baby then, now that he was older… He didn’t want to think about how long it would be this time. She’d be even more upset if he told her the truth so he used the excuse he’d read in a book, “I had a nightmare.”
In the book the little girl’s parents had picked her up and cuddled her into bed with them and promised they’d protect her, but Tim didn’t expect that, even if his parents weren’t leaving. Drakes didn’t do things like that.
His mother sighed and shook her head, saying patiently, “You know it wasn’t real Timothy, you’re perfectly safe.”
Hauling their suitcases out with him, his father stepped out into the hallway to give Tim a smile, “Of course he’s safe. Tim, three is too old for nightmares. You just tell those monsters that Drakes don’t get scared and they’ll leave you alone.”
”Yes sir,” Tim answered dutifully, moving over to Ms Mac’s side so his parents could leave.
”Be good Timothy, and work hard on learning your alphabet alright? We’ll go over it when we get back,” His mother gave him a distracted smile as she followed his father down the hall and Tim nodded and smiled back and promised himself he’d do better next time
Tim watched the woman’s face carefully, noting how she reacted to each introduction. Edward Fisher’s loud hello and energetic squirming made the skin around her eyes tighten, and Tim thought that she was probably worried that he was going to be like that all the time. Lisa Elington spoke so softly that Tim couldn’t hear her, and her father explained with a patient smile that she was shy. The teacher smiled at Lisa gently, but the corners of her mouth turned down just a tiny bit so Tim guessed that she was thinking about ways to draw Lisa out and make her comfortable. Anthony Renaldi was rude, and so was his mom, and Tim recognized the set of the teacher’s smile, even if he’d never seen it on her before. It was the same smile that his mother gave to people she didn’t like when she met them at parties; the one that said she was being nice because it was important, not because she wanted to. His mother was better at it than Ms Wainwright.
Marcus Johnson’s worn out old clothes and hurried mother seemed to worry the teacher until Mrs. Johnson knelt down to give Marcus a tight hug and promise she would leave work early so she could be waiting to pick him up after school. Then Ms Wainwright relaxed and put a gentle hand on Marcus’s hair and told them both that Marcus was going to have lots of fun and Mrs. Johnson didn’t have to worry. She made Emily Makowski’s parents the same promise and rubbed the girl’s back while she cried. Ms. Wainwright seemed used to the crying, but Tim could tell it upset her. The next two kids cried too, but the four after that were okay, and Tim judged her reaction to them too before he nodded to himself and carefully picked up his school bag.
Ms. Wainwright frowned when she saw that he was alone, but there was nothing he could do about that. Looking up at her he put out his hand, like his father had taught him, and said, “Hello, I’m Timothy Drake.”
He thought he judged the tone and smile correctly, because her frown turned into a real smile as she crouched down to shake his hand, “Hello Timothy. I’m Ms. Wainwright; I’m your kindergarten teacher. Are you all by yourself today?”
”Yes ma’am. My parents are out of the country, but Ms. Mac dropped me off,” Tim decided it would be a good time to give her his normal-little-kid smile, maybe she wouldn’t guess that he was the reason they were gone.
He didn’t recognize the look she gave him, she hadn’t given it to anyone else and he felt a flutter of worry in his stomach. What did he do wrong? “I see. Well I’ll meet them later I guess. Why don’t you go in and find a seat Tim?”
She put a hand on his shoulder to guide him into the classroom, and when Tim jumped and looked up at her, startled at being touched, he found that the look had gotten even worse. He hoped that he could find a way to make her like him anyway; she seemed really nice.
Tim liked Sherlock Holmes. He liked the way the detective thought and how he observed things and put together a story, and how no one could fool him for long. Tim decided that he could learn a lot from Holmes. Not just how to find out more about things that no one would tell him directly, which there was a lot of in Tim’s life, but also how to be useful. People didn’t like the detective, he was arrogant and he did things his own way and he didn’t have very many friends, but they *needed* him.
Tim was sure he could manage to be useful.
There was a particular spot in the study where Tim liked to read. The lamp was just bright enough without glaring off the page and if he brought a couple of pillows to tuck next to him the chair was almost his size. There was a table nearby, so he could take notes if he wanted and it was close enough to the door that he could sometimes hear the staff walking around in the halls. Best of all there was a picture of his parents hanging next to the chair, so it was almost like they were reading with him.
He found photographs to be comforting; he could look at them and he was there, wherever they had been taken. His parents didn’t take him on their trips all over the world, but in a way he’d gone too, without even being in their way.
His favorite picture, though, was of a place he *had* been. He had it framed and sitting next to his bed, even though it gave him nightmares sometimes, because the dreams were worth it to look at that photo and remember what it was like to be hugged so tightly and promised something he never would have dared to ask for on his own.
“Tim, can I talk to you a minute?”
Pausing on his way out the door, Tim turned back to obey the beckoning gesture he was being given. Mr. Henry wasn’t as nice as Ms. Wainwright had been, or as cheerful as Mrs. Shaw, but he really liked teaching, and he paid a lot of attention to his students. Tim liked that about him.
”Yes, Mr. Henry?” He knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. He was very careful not to get into trouble.
Smiling Mr. Henry moved around his desk to lean against it, a gesture that Tim knew was intended to make him feel more at ease, “I was wondering if you’d ever taken an IQ test. There isn’t one in your file.”
It was an odd question, and Tim frowned as he shook his head slowly, wondering why his teacher wanted to know, “No sir, I don’t think so.”
”I ask because I really think you should take one. You’re too smart for a normal second grade class and if you score high enough they’ll probably skip you ahead a grade or two so you get materials that are at your level,” Mr. Henry’s smile widened reassuringly; he would normally pat a student on the shoulder when he gave them that smile, but he’d stopped touching Tim almost as soon as the school year had started. It was unconscious, Tim was sure; he was just responding to whatever it was about Tim that made everyone act like that with him. He thought it would probably stop bothering him soon.
Tim frowned harder, “I would need my parents’ permission wouldn’t I?”
”Yes, and I know they’re out of town a lot, but there isn’t any hurry. They probably wouldn’t want you to move in the middle of the school year anyway. There would be a lot of things that would go into it, not just catching you up to the grade you’d be skipping up to, but also talks with a councilor so you and your parents would all know that you’d be okay with going to class with students older than you. You have time to talk to them, but I really think that you should,” Mr. Henry sounded really earnest, the way he did when he felt strongly about something.
Tim took a moment to consider. He knew that he would be okay skipping a couple of grades, intellectually and emotionally, but he also knew that the school system would probably make him talk to a councilor a lot to make sure he was alright. If he did that then the councilor would find out how often his parents were gone and they might not like it. *Tim* knew there was nothing wrong with his parents leaving him home so they could work, but he wasn’t sure how a councilor would feel about it and he didn’t want to worry his parents with that. So he nodded and met Mr. Henry’s eyes and lied, “Okay, I’ll ask them.”
He prepared for weeks first. He didn’t *want* to wait so long, he wanted to grab his camera and run out onto the streets as soon as the realization hit him, but Tim had stopped giving in to impulse a long time ago and this was not the time to go back to that bad habit.
So instead of going out and getting caught, either by criminals *or* his targets, Tim prepared. He analyzed crime patterns and news reports and combined both with what he knew of the men in question and from that he deduced patrol routes. He found a place to hide that would give him a good vantage point while keeping him out of harm’s way and practiced with his camera so he would know the flash was off without being able to see it. The clothes were easy, but he spent some time testing his shoes to find all the qualities he wanted, silent and dark in color, with good traction and no reflective material. In the few days before he’d went he lied, in actions and in words, telling Ms Mac that he wasn’t feeling all that well, so it wouldn’t seem strange if he went to bed before dark.
Finally he slipped out of the house, taking advantage of his knowledge of the staff and his neighbors to avoid being seen, and grateful for the first time in his life that his parents were gone. If he did get caught, he was reasonably sure he could convince Ms Mac not to call his parents in Brazil to tell them what he’d been doing, but if they were there in the house there would be no avoiding them finding out. They never would have understood and he didn’t want to upset them.
Finally they were there and he froze for one breathless second, watching with wide eyes… and then Robin laughed, a sound that went straight through him and sent him back to a circus and the feeling of strong arms around him, and he was raising the camera without conscious choice.
Tim hid the pictures of course, he would have loved to have framed and hung them, even if most were of a quality what he wasn’t proud of, but there was no way he could explain how he got them and it could be dangerous for Batman and Robin. Still, he knew where they were, and he could close his eyes and remember them. Remember the solid reality of his heroes, and know that the boy who had hugged him all those years ago was alive, breathless with joy and triumph and living the life of noble purpose that Tim had always wanted.