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Mother Bruce and His Baby Birds

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Bruce Wayne understood fear. He spent his life in its grip. As a child in a blood-spattered alley, as a businessman who held the lives of thousands, as a masked vigilante who trade blows with demons and madmen, Bruce Wayne understood fear. He knew how it felt--that teeth-rattling, rib-crushing, pulse-racing sensation--and he knew how to push through it. He knew how to pack his fear into a cage, lock the door tight, and ignore it until the job was done. Bruce Wayne knew fear intimately.

Nerves were another story. Bruce Wayne did not get nervous. Batman did not get nervous. Yet here he was, wrinkling his pressed Italian slacks with a death grip on his knees in an effort not to tug on his turtleneck for the tenth time this evening. Or check for fear toxin symptoms for the third time. Or--

Bruce frowned in distaste as he reached to quench his parched mouth, only to find his glass empty. Again. Of course, Alfred was by his side in a moment with the carafe, but the damage was done.

“Bruuuuuuuuuce,” his young companion whined, noticing the shift in focus. “You’re not even listening!”

“I was,” Bruce replied after taking a sip of his water. He gestured at the cup of gelato across from him. “And I don’t care if Arthur Pennypacker says gelato contains the required daily serving of calcium. Alfred will not let you survive on gelato alone.”

Jason grinned and shook his head. “Okay, fine, I guess you were sorta listening. But Jenny said it, not Art. Art’s the fathead that stole Eddie’s gym shorts and ran them up the Academy flagpole.”

Ah, that explained it. Art’s pantaloon prank had been the story before. Bruce must have missed the transition amid his fretting.

Jason stuck the pink plastic gelato spoon in his mouth and licked it clean with a noisy slurp before taking it out again to point accusingly at Bruce. “You don’t normally miss nothin’--anything!” he corrected quickly with a sharp side glance at Alfred before returning his attention back to Bruce. “You’ve been fidgety and weird all night.”

Bruce raised his chin slightly and looked down his nose at the boy sitting across the table from him. “I do not fidget.”

That earned him an eye roll. “So you’ve been weirdly not fidgety.” Jason lunged across the table and tried to poke Bruce’s shoulder with his spoon. Bruce leaned back out of his reach, but that didn’t deter Jason from continuing his point. “You’re all stiff. Stiffer than normal, I mean.”

The grin was still there, a bright smile full of pleasantly crooked teeth that leaned into each other like birds in a winter wind, but the corner of Jason’s mouth twisted hesitantly. Trust Jason to pick up the anxiety that prickled under Bruce’s skin. They’d gotten better at reading each other in the months since Bruce had pulled Jason off the streets, but Jason had always been gifted at picking up the scent of unease. Dick, Bruce’s outgoing ward, could read emotions. Jason could read tells.

Bruce tilted his head infinitesimally to study Jason. “Did you have a good time tonight?” he asked quietly.

Jason nodded enthusiastically as he sat back in his chair. “The best! Going to the Knights game and catching the ball! And eating all those hot dogs! And the gelato! And--” Jason stopped bouncing in his seat to try to catch the small burp that puffed between his lips.

“Sorry,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Guess I ate too much.”

Bruce smiled in response as Alfred tut-tutted good-naturedly from the kitchen. Jason settled back contentedly in his chair. “I mean, it wasn’t even my birthday, and we got to do all this stuff!”

Jason dropped his spoon back in the empty gelato cup and ran his fingers over the stitching of the baseball on the table. That ball. The Knights first baseman had been up to bat and sent the pitch cracking in a beautiful arc straight toward their section. Jason had lunged to catch it and had nearly given Bruce a heart attack with how far over the fence he had leaned. Only Bruce’s crushing grip on the tails of his official Knights jersey had kept the boy from tumbling with his prize onto the green. But Bruce had reeled in his charge with the baseball grasped firmly between bony fingers, and the hitter had come over after the game to sign it. Jason had been thrilled. He had gone over every moment of the game as they left the stadium and returned to the manor, gelato in hand, to cap off their day at the little wooden table in the alcove off the kitchen.

Did’ja see Bruce? The ball just KSHEWWW! And I was like I GOT IT I GOT IT and WHOAAAA! And then I snagged the ball? I thought I was gonna miss it for sure! And then after, Raul Huezo right there in front’a me! Just like, pshew! Did’ja see Bruce?

Jason had gone almost squeaky in rapture as he repeated the story over and over. Bruce thought he could have listened for days.

“Did...”

Bruce’s gaze had been on Jason’s fingertips as he remembered the day, but at the hesitancy in the boy’s voice, his gaze snapped back up to Jason’s face. The smile was gone, replaced by a pensive purse of the lips.

“Did... I mean, it’s not my birthday. And we did all this fun stuff. Is everything okay?” Jason’s eyes were on his thumb as he scraped his nail against the ball’s red thread, but he looked up when Bruce didn’t answer immediately.

“Bruce?” Jason’s nostrils flared in panic as he pressed his lips together tightly for a moment, then said, “This isn’t one of those things where you do a nice thing to make an awful thing seem okay, right? Because you know I don’t need that. I’m tough. I can take it. You just, just tell me whatever, and I can-- Did I do something? Honest, B, whatever it is, I--”

Bruce reached across the table and laid his hand across Jason’s, stopping the side-to-side rocking of the ball on the laminate wood.

“Jason,” Bruce said softly, working his way around the lump in his throat that had stopped him from speaking a moment ago. Behind him, he could hear Alfred pause his dishwashing at the sink, allowing a heavy quiet to fill the house.

Wide blue eyes brimming with barely repressed panic stared back at him, and Bruce had to remind himself to soften his own expression, to smile.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Bruce promised gently. He rubbed his thumb over Jason’s scabbed knuckles once, then again as he tried to calm the boy. “Nothing’s wrong. You haven’t done anything wrong. But there is something I want to talk to you about.”

At Jason’s nod, Bruce stood and pulled his chair around the table corner. As he sat down again, Jason swiveled to sit sideways in his chair so their knees knocked together briefly, worn denim against silk-cotton blend.

Bruce opened his mouth, then stopped, unsure what to say or how to start. He had practiced in his bedroom for hours, pacing up and down the rug the way he might rehearse an important board meeting or press release, pummeling and finessing his little speech until it was exactly how he wanted it. And yet now every last word streamed from his brain like bats from a cave.

“Bruce?” Jason prompted again, voice squeaking slightly.

Bruce cleared his throat and forced himself to speak. “Have you been happy here, Jay-lad?”

“Yeah, B. I-It’s the best.” High praise, but Jason’s voice was thready and soft, worn thin by uncertainty. His gaze fluttered across Bruce’s face, trying to pull meaning from the set of the mouth, the crease of the eyes, the angle of the brows.

“And you know you have a place here, no matter what, right?”

Jason’s throat bobbed as he swallowed hard and nodded.

This wasn’t the speech. This wasn’t the plan. For once, he was going to have to give up control and let the moment unfold how it may.

“It’s important to me that you know that. This is a safe place for you, and it always will be, but I’ve been thinking...”

Here it was. Spit it out, Wayne! But Bruce faltered again and looked over his shoulder toward the sink.

Alfred stood silently, dish towel and freshly rinsed saucer in hand. When their eyes met, the butler dipped his chin once ever so slightly. Go on, Master Bruce. It was enough.

Bruce turned back to Jason and sucked in a fortifying breath. “I’ve been thinking a boy deserves more than a safe place. He deserves a home. And Wayne Manor is and will be that for you, Jason, no matter what, but I wanted to see what you thought of making it official.”

Bruce reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a carefully folded sheath of papers. He unfolded them and placed the entire stack on the table in front of Jason so that the boy could clearly see official seal of the family court of Gotham and the full title of the adoption paperwork. It was all filled in, Bruce’s brisk scrawl having been wrangled into something more legible. The only spots left blank were the lines for the signatures of the adoptee, proposed adoptive parent, and the judge.

Jason reached for the paperwork with his free hand, then let go of the baseball to lift the paper up so he could study it fully.

For once, Bruce couldn’t read the expression on Jason’s face. He was surprised, that much Bruce could tell, and perhaps still confused. But beyond that...

“You want to adopt me?” Jason croaked.

“Yes,” Bruce rushed to answer. Maybe if he explained, Jason would understand, and the horrible swirling, fluttering sensation in Bruce’s stomach would still.

“Yes, I do, but not if you don’t want me to. And if you don’t want me to, then nothing has to change. You can still live here with me and Alfred and go to school at Gotham Academy and help with the extracurriculars. I don’t want you to feel like you have to say yes, Jason. But I’ve thought long and hard about this and--”

Whatever else Bruce’s panicked mouth had been about to say was lost as Jason dropped the paperwork and flung himself at Bruce. Bruce hunched forward, both to pull the boy to his chest and to keep his chair from toppling backward at the force of the collision.

For a moment, all was still. Bruce had stopped breathing entirely, and it felt like Jason had as well. Bruce gripped Jason tightly, struggling to keep the preteen from falling out of his precarious half-perch on Bruce’s lap and onto the floor. But Jason was clutching Bruce just as tightly, gangly arms wrapped around Bruce’s neck and face pressed into Bruce’s chest. Tentatively, Bruce lowered his face to Jason’s hair and breathed in the smell of shampoo, sweat, and ballfield.

After a moment, when Jason had yet to move or speak, Bruce murmured into his scalp, “Jay-lad?”

For a moment, Bruce thought he had imagined the whispered yes, but then Jason lifted his head and turned suspiciously red-rimmed eyes up to meet Bruce’s gaze.

“Yeah, B,” Jason rasped, “I’d like that a lot.”

Thank God. Bruce hadn’t realized how badly he wanted Jason to say yes until right then. As relief and joy and gratitude spiraled out to flood his entire body, Bruce tightened his arms into another hug.

“Good.” The word was rough with emotion, nearly grunted, and Bruce could feel Alfred’s gaze, so he tried again. “I’m glad, Jay-bird. I’m so glad. Welcome home, son.

Chapter Text

It was a family joke that Cassandra Cain was Bruce’s favorite. It wasn’t true, of course. Bruce loved all of his children equally, to an extreme precision that was sometimes painful to maintain. However, it was true that Cassandra was different than the others, and not just because she was the only girl at the Manor.

Bruce was not a fool, despite what those around him might sometimes believe. He had constructed for himself a towering standard of excellence toward which he strove daily, and he was excruciatingly aware every time he fell short of that standard.

He knew he was a poor communicator. He knew he could be stubborn, inscrutable, taciturn, overbearing, hypocritical, inaccessible, and a dozen other things, and not just because his children sometimes screamed them into his face. (And heaven knew he usually deserved it when they did.) Rather than being obtuse or unaware of his own flaws, he was instead hyper-sensitive to them and of the countless ways he fell short when the problem wasn’t one he could punch or kick or logic into submission.

Sometimes his fights with his children felt like bad dreams, ones in which Bruce stood outside his own body and could only watch as he failed to choose the right words, the right actions, the right path. Worse was when he was instead very present for those fights, so self-assured in his own wisdom and righteousness that he charged forward heedlessly, until a censorious look from Alfred or the return of sheer common sense shone a beacon on the damage he had left in his wake.

A slow-motion trainwreck with Dick, a violent explosion with Jason, a silent freeze-out with Tim, it didn’t matter. Either Bruce couldn’t force himself out of his frozen indecision or he made the wrong choice and the fight spiraled into a mess that would take days or even months to fix, depending on the damage. It was one of the great mysteries of Bruce’s life that he could effortlessly be smooth-talking Brucie, shrewd businessman Mr. Wayne, and that inept fool who consistently blundered with his own family.

And that was why Cassandra was such a blessing. Calling her his peaceful child wasn’t entirely accurate, but she did bring peace to him. Despite their numerous differences - gender, age, race, upbringing, and so much more - they understood each other and could maintain that understanding without speaking a word.

Better that they didn’t, in fact.

Spoken language was not one of Cassandra’s many strengths, but she could read bodies the way Tim could read a financial report. Bodies were books to her, with muscles, tendons, and bones as text, stitching together and moving to create full tales of intent, meaning, and expression.

So with Cassandra, Bruce could just be. She could read as much from a breath as Dick could from a full speech from Bruce, and with a greater rate of accuracy. And he could read her, or at least she let him do so. In many ways, she was still as much of a mystery as his other children, but she spoke in action and stillness, her movements and pauses as eloquent as a soliloquy. It was a language a man who moonlighted as a physical shadow could appreciate.

And when they fought, it wasn’t because Cassandra misunderstood Bruce’s terse words or doubted his intent or the reverse. When they fought, it was because they understood each other perfectly well but simply disagreed.

Still, Bruce was aware that, as the adult, it was his job to understand her and make himself be understood, and that any failure in communication was his fault, not hers. So if he botched what he was about to attempt, if he didn’t explain what he wanted and why, or if he pushed for something that she didn’t want, that was on him.

Which would explain why he felt slightly nauseated as he slipped into the Manor ballroom.

Cassandra was practicing. Bruce knew both from his education in the Gotham social elite and his own love of culture that when Cassandra danced ballet, her form was impeccable. But often his wild girl slipped into a style all her own, moving smoothly from ballet to waltz to contemporary to the low slink of a predator and back again without a pause or hitch, and that was when she was grace incarnate.

The lights were off, the only illumination coming from the floor-to-ceiling panes of glass that stretched along the west wall. The late afternoon sun shot rich beams across the marble floor but didn’t reach where Bruce watched just inside the door. Bruce’s entrance made no audible noise over the rich thrum of violins and lilting flutes that spilled from the sound system, but Cassandra knew he was there. He could tell the way her frame angled slightly toward him, like a flower toward the sun.

But that analogy wasn’t right. He was nothing like the sun. If anything, he was a weary but grateful traveler, pulled off his path by the beauty and soul-ease of the little blossom.

Bruce was content to watch and wait until Cassandra was finished with her practice before saying what he came to say, but the track changed, and suddenly Cassandra was standing in front of him, one hand outstretched.

Come.

Bruce knew Cassandra could read his smile in the slight softening of his mouth and also his refusal in the firm plant of his feet. And he read in her own sunny smile just how pleased she was about the former and how little she cared about the latter. So when she grabbed his hand and pulled him out onto the dance floor, he went.

Violins and flutes had been taken over by a grand piano, a cello, and a bass drum. Cassandra pulled Bruce into the opening position for a waltz, but smiled again as she moved his hand to her shoulder before settling hers on the (relative) small of his back.

An arched brow. Would he let her lead?

A foreshortened exhale. Amusement and an acceptance.

At the top of the beat, they began to dance. Thanks to Alfred’s insistence that he be classically trained in all subjects befitting a gentleman, Bruce knew the proper steps and carriage required. He hadn’t been led by anyone since he had been paired with Heather Battaglia in the seventh grade, after her impressive growth spurt and before his, but Cassandra was graceful enough for the two of them, despite being two heads shorter.

They danced in silence, flitting from golden pools of light to shadows and back again, exchanging gentle conversation through the language they knew best.

How was your day?

Does your shoulder still hurt?

It’s good to see you.

I’m happy you’re here.

When the music ended, they stood together for a beat of silence, Cassandra smiling and Bruce clinging to the peace the moment had brought as a defense against his returning nerves.

“Cassandra,” he said, voice rumbling deep in his chest.

Cassandra quirked an eyebrow and wrinkled her nose playfully. She had intimated once that Bruce was better named Bearman when he used that voice.

Relaxing his forehead to concede her point, Bruce stepped back so she could see his hands. Spoken language might not be Cassandra’s strength, but she was making solid progress with sign language. Bruce wasn’t quite as adept (to his chagrin and his various children’s amusement), but he still found it useful when trying to communicate certain concepts. Like custody papers. And judges. And adoption agreements.

“I want you to stay here with us,” Bruce said, trying to supplement his halting signs with words.

I am here, Cass pointed out with a tilt of her head.

“Permanently. I want you to be... to be a part of the family. For good.” Bruce ground out the words, then clamped his lips shut.

He couldn’t help but remember another conversation like this one, how blue eyes had watched him as he babbled like a fool. The memory hurt, sharp and deep like a stab to the ribs and overlaid by the ghostly pressure of a long-ago embrace.

Bruce took a deep breath, letting the pain wash over him and away. How much of that Cassandra caught, he wasn’t sure. Probably all of it, playing across his face and body like an IMAX feature. She was still watching him, head tipped to the left, brown eyes slightly narrowed.

You want... Cassandra’s hands faltered, which made Bruce’s own eyes narrow. Cassandra didn’t stutter in word or in gesture. She was utterly still for a heartbeat, then finished her signs. You want to be my dad?

Bruce sucked in a breath. Dad? He was a father to all the children at the Manor, but a dad? He was Bruce or B or Batman or, sometimes, Hey buttmunch. On his playful days, Jason (another sharp pain, another breath) had called him old man and Pops. But not dad.

“I... want you to be my daughter.” Bruce picked over the words carefully, so as not to cut himself or Cassandra with any hidden edges. “I want you to live here. To have a family.”

He flexed his fingers instinctively, fighting the nerves that made his bones ache, then signed in tandem with his words. “Yes. I want to be your... your dad.”

Bruce had jumped off buildings that scared him less than that that quick tap to his forehead that transformed father into dad. But he did it, and then forced himself to hold Cassandra’s gaze. Life was much easier when he could just disappear behind the blinding glare of the bat signal.

Whatever Cassandra read on his face and frame seemed to answer what she needed to know. Her neck straightened, the questioning tilt gone. She smiled and lifted her hand up, fingers splayed wide, and touched her thumb to her forehead twice in quick succession.

“Dad,” she murmured as she stretched up on tiptoe. Bruce ducked his head out of habit and let her kiss his cheek even as he felt himself buoyed away on a cloud of happiness. “My dad.”

Chapter Text

Damian Wayne was not angry. Bruce was 87% sure this was true. Popping a fry in his mouth, Bruce eyed his youngest out of the corner of his eye and amended his assessment--84% sure.

Damian always looked angry to some degree, and Bruce had less experience reading this child compared to the others. Missing the first ten years of a boy’s life will do that, especially when compounded by a seven-month-long disappearance into a time stream. Bruce had been back for some time now, but he and Damian were still feeling each other out.

Bruce wondered if Dick had given Damian a verbal primer the way he had Bruce.

He’s your son, alright, Dick had warned him. It could have been a compliment. The wry grin meant it probably wasn’t, at least not entirely. When Damian’s scared, Dick had explained, he looks mad. When he’s tired, he looks mad. When he’s sad, he looks mad. When he’s pensive, he looks mad. When he’s uncertain, he looks mad.

And when he’s mad?” Bruce had asked drily.

He looks homicidal. Dick had paused, then added, And is, so watch out for that.

So what was Damian really feeling now? And why?

Bruce mulled over the mystery of his son’s emotions as he looked out over the Gotham skyline. The night had seemed typical, as far as patrol nights went. Not too busy, but also not too quiet. A quiet Gotham night often meant rouble brewing, but this night had been... normal. Arkham had stayed dormant, leaving the shadows to muggers, burglars, drunkards, and a couple bumbling attempted murderers. Batman and Robin had concluded patrol by stopping at Damian’s favorite food stand for chickpea shawarma and fries, and now they sat side by side on a rooftop ledge, booted feet dangling over Gotham. Their city.

Damian had been a little quieter than normal, Bruce realized as he reviewed the night. However, Bruce also knew that the boy’s usual, irregular flow of chatter normally came from Damian’s conflicting desires--impress his father with his knowledge and opinions, or remain aloof from the man who had replaced “his” Batman. Tonight, Damian had trended more toward the latter, so did that mean this was about Bruce? Or even about Dick?

Bruce snuck another look at his youngest. Damian’s gaze was on the glittering city spread before them, but his eyes were unfocused. His movements were almost robotic as he brought the last of his meal to his mouth and took a bite. There was a crease between his brows which meant deep thought, most likely. And Bruce had felt several times like Damian had been on the verge of speaking, but only silence had followed.

Had Dick been the one in the cowl, he likely would have tried to tease it out of the boy. Bruce could hear his ward’s chiding voice over the urban hum of traffic below.

Don’t let whatever it is fester. Just ask him what’s on his mind, you emotionally constipated toadstool. He’s just a kid. Even if he bites, you’ve been bitten by worse. And he’s your son, Bruce.

It was good advice. Logical, pragmatic, healthy. Advice that Bruce might even give to someone else, if pressed. But not advice he could take. He and Damian didn’t have that kind of relationship. Talking only seemed to make things worse. With all of his children. Especially if they were upset.

Bruce had sunk so deeply into his blue funk that he almost physically startled when Damian’s shrill voice shattered the silence.

“What do you plan to do about Drake?”

This was another reason it was best not to pry. When you turn over rocks, sometimes you might not like what slithers out.

Bruce had stilled for too long in the wake of the question, but now he forced himself to move. Damian’s gaze followed him as he plucked another fry from the container and popped it into his mouth. Chewing gave him another second and a half to order his churning thoughts.

“What do you mean?” Bruce asked, choosing his tone carefully.

He could do emotionless well, but his children had a bad habit of reading it as anger. If this conversation was going to go where he feared, he wanted to reserve anger for deeper in. Instead, he chose placid with a hint of artful cluelessness that was more Brucie than Batman, despite the domino on his face and the cowl on the ledge beside him.

The older children might have hesitated, sending the trap lurking beneath the still surface. Damian had not earned that wisdom yet.

“His father is dead.” Factual. Direct. Brutal in its remorseless lack of varnish. Bruce’s stomach twisted.

Timothy Drake and his father had never been close until a series of strokes put the elder Drake into full-time care. Tim, still recovering from his work rescuing Bruce from the time stream, found himself with another adult to care for, and had thrown his all into managing his father’s health. Seeing his father’s need as a second chance, Tim had attempted to repair their relationship as well and had spent all his free time at his father’s bedside. Bruce had supported him, placing as much of Tim’s business and mask responsibilities on hold as Tim would allow. Unfortunately, not even the combined wealth and influence of both the Drake and Wayne estates could protect a weakened immune system from a rampaging, drug-resistant infection.

Jack Drake had passed away in his sleep three days ago. Tim had been devastated--not just for the father he had lost and the official end of his tiny family, but also for the lost years he would never be able to recoup.

Having cut back so far on patrol during his father’s illness, Tim had abandoned his suit entirely to withdraw deep into funeral planning and estate management. Bruce had offered to cover all of Jack’s medical and funeral expenses, but Tim had insisted it be left up to him.

He’s my father, was Tim’s mantra, one he would repeat often without looking up from his paperwork. I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of him.

The others offered what support they could. Even Damian had seemed to understand that their usual fights and vitriol needed to be put on hold during Tim’s time of mourning. Bruce had hoped the ceasefire would eventually grow into a permanent truce between the boys, but it seemed now that he had been overly optimistic.

His father is dead.

Jack Drake was dead, and his son was no longer fulfilling his duties as Red Robin. Jack Drake was dead, and the vultures had begun circling mere hours after the official pronouncement, looking for a way to perch on the only living heir to the Drake estate. Jack Drake was dead, and, to Timothy Drake’s primary antagonist, the upheaval over the last three days presented a perfect opportunity to oust the interloper once and for all.

“Yes,” Bruce agreed, his voice flat and dangerously calm. “Tim’s father is dead, and he is in mourning.”

Damian’s lips pursed. “His father and his mother, I believe.” Dark eyes stared at Bruce, as if willing him to make the connection via telepathy.

“Yes,” Bruce agreed again. “Janet Drake is deceased as well.”

“Drake was ostensibly still under his father’s care,” Damian continued stubbornly. “It is my understanding that American law requires a minor to have a guardian, and he is considered underage by your legal system.”

Bruce turned away from his son to look out over the city again. “Yes.”

There was a short huff of exasperation from the younger Wayne, a pause, and then, “Charles Drake has been open about his intention to seize custody.”

“He is Tim’s uncle.” It was difficult to say as an objective fact rather than an invective to spit out, but Bruce managed. He had only met Jack’s younger brother briefly at the funeral, but he loathed the man.

He has all of Jack’s self-absorption and arrogance with no real care for Tim. No grief for his brother, Bruce had snarled to Dick later than evening. He's a shark circling a shipwreck.

Charles had swanned in to the funeral like it was a social gala and had immediately tried to take control of Tim. Tim shouldn’t stay with the Waynes, Tim should come back to the hotel immediately after the burial, Tim should let Charles sit next to him at the service, Tim should hire someone to take care of the estate sale. It had taken all of Bruce’s remaining willpower not to rip the man’s hand off Tim’s shoulder as they stood together after the service. The rest had been used to keep from decking the man after he had confided in that sly, undertone way rich men used when speaking to each other above the masses that while he was grateful to Mr. Wayne for seeing to his nephew, Wayne could rest assured that Charles would be taking on the burden from now on.

But the fact remained. He was Tim’s uncle and closest living relative. He and his wife were financially stable, well-connected, and had sons close to Tim’s age. Legally speaking, there was no reason to bar them from claiming custody.

“He is an odious lout who whistles through his nose and uses too much cologne,” Damian retorted. “He and Drake are well-suited.”

Bruce’s head whipped back around, bat-glare in full force as he opened his mouth to say something he might or might not regret later, but Damian wasn’t finished.

“As much as it would please me to be rid of the interloper, I must look to our advantages.” Now it was Damian’s turn to look away. As he spoke, he began smoothing the hem of his cape against the cold concrete ledge, brows tightly bunched. Bruce’s gaze sharpened further.

When he’s scared, he looks mad. When he’s pensive, he looks mad. When he’s uncertain, he looks mad.

“I find Drake’s substandard level of competency to be a hinderance and a nuisance, but having an extra body in the field is an asset regardless. I must also admit that his skills in research and investigation are... acceptable, and that at times it can be a benefit to Oracle to have backup.”

Damian’s speech had slowed considerably, and while he still spoke through gritted teeth, Bruce wondered if he detected a faint thread of discomfort behind the thick layer of haughtiness.

“Also,” Damian continued, his young voice quieting until he was scarcely heard over the blare of traffic horns far below, “Grayson says he was vital in the day-to-day operations of Wayne Enterprises during your... disappearance. And instrumental to your return.”

Damian shivered against the chill night wind and pulled his cape back around his arms before speaking, once again all forthright and business-like. “You are the most powerful and wealthy man in all of Gotham. It is certainly within your power to adopt Drake, if you feel you must. For the good of the city and the company.”

Adopt...

Bruce was proud of all his children. There was no one in the entire galaxy more proud of their children than he was, no matter what Clark said. But sometimes he was still caught off-guard by the roaring strength of that pride. He would catch one of them smiling over breakfast and have to struggle to breath against the weight of emotion. And now to feel that way about Damian, who had first arrived unwanted and untrusted... If he stepped off the ledge now, Bruce half-believed he would float like Superman.

Damian was still waiting for a response, though he still did not look at his father. Bruce’s jaw flexed as he considered his words carefully.

“There are many things I can do but shouldn’t,” Bruce admitted. “One would be making this choice for Tim. Another would be attempting to replace his father within a week of his death. Tim should be with his family.”

But we’re his family. The cry of Bruce’s heart seemed for a moment reflected in the irritated gleam of Damian’s dark eyes as he looked over at his father, and Bruce braced himself for another argument. But after a breath, Damian nodded curtly and stood, seemingly satisfied that he had laid his case out as best as his pride would let him.

“To the Batcave, then. The reports will take longer without Drake around to complete them.”

----

Bruce tried to push the conversation from his mind over the next week and a half. Tried and failed. Damian’s words were a constant hum in the back of his mind. Even without the glow of pride they brought with them--of all people to suggest he adopt Tim, Damian was the one to bring it up--Bruce was aware of how easy it would be to pull Tim into the family. He was family, even if not legally. He was Bruce’s kid, a brother to his children, a valuable member of the team, an asset to Wayne Enterprises...

But he was not a stray puppy to take home, and Bruce would not be so brutally insensitive as to attempt to take Jack’s place when the man hadn’t even been gone a week.

Tim might be Bruce’s son, but Bruce was not Tim’s father.

Bruce wasn’t sure if Tim would remain in Gotham once Jack’s affairs were settled. Even if the boy wanted to remain, none of the grasping relatives that had descended for the funeral lived in the area. As the king rat that had clawed his way to the top of the pile, Charles would likely have the final say and would not want to be away from his thriving business on the West Coast. Tim would conclude his business, then go to live with Charles Drake, and would likely never return to Gotham again. Tim’s internship at WE would be transferred to a satellite office, should he choose to continue with the program. He would graduate high school, attend an Ivy League university, and go on to become a man that would make his father proud.

It was what was best for Tim, Bruce reminded himself as he walked through the Drakes’ side yard. He deserved a normal life, if that’s what he wanted, one filled with family. Bruce would always be grateful for Tim’s stubborn intrusion into his life, of course, and he would miss the boy once he was gone, but he could not and would not keep Tim from his family. Even if he did think the lot of them made crocodiles seem cuddly.

Bruce shifted the tray in his arms to one hand and pushed open the door into the Drakes’ kitchen. Tim had been in the mansion all day, cataloguing items for the estate sale and boxing up the few items he wished to keep. The rest of the birds had offered to help and been rebuffed by a quiet Thank you, but no. I need to do this myself.

Bruce understood, but when Alfred had prepared a lunch to take to the neighboring house, Bruce had quickly volunteered for the task. Tim’s childhood had been a lonely one, and he was probably better suited than most to handle solitude, but Bruce knew from experience how quickly the rattling loneliness of an empty house could corrode the soul. Besides, Alfred wasn’t the only one who felt better knowing Tim was living off something other than Red Bull and granola bars.

Having approached from the side of the house, Bruce had missed the Mercedes Benz in the driveway, but the sound of voices on the other side of the kitchen door made him pause to listen.

“I still don’t understand why you insist on doing this unnecessary work yourself.” Charles’s moneyed drawl, while no more exaggerated or obnoxious than that of other elite men around Gotham, made Bruce’s nostrils flare with disgust.

“This is my house,” came Tim’s quiet response. “These are my parents’ things. I want to do it.”

From the sound of it, they were on the near side of the long dining room table where Tim had spent most of his lonely childhood dinners. There was a low, whining scrape of metal on wood as something was picked up.

Bruce nudged the door with his shoulder just enough to be able to see through the crack. Tim and Charles stood where he had guessed, Charles with his back to the door and a silver teapot in his hands. Tim stood facing him, one hand on the cardboard box on the table marked “Family Silver.”

Tim looked... well, like a boy whose last living parent had just died, Bruce supposed. His hair was washed and carefully combed, his clothes clean and wrinkle-free with the sleeves of his hoodie pushed up to his elbows. There was a streak of dust across his jeans, but otherwise he was presentable. Oh, but his face. The usually imperceptible dusting of freckles on Tim’s nose stood out against his pale skin. The crease between his eyebrows that had appeared during Jack’s convalescence had deepened, and his eyes were red-rimmed and highlighted by dark smudges that spoke of teary, sleepless nights.

“As long as this mess is wrapped up quickly.” Charles’s tawny head was bent slightly toward the teapot that he bobbled from hand to hand, so he missed the way Tim’s already solemn face tightened further. Not that Bruce thought the man would care at all even if he had seen.

Mess? Mess?! The man’s brother was dead, his nephew orphaned, and he treated it all as an inconvenience.

“We have tickets on the 10 AM flight back to the West Coast on Sunday. Anything you haven’t finished by then can be taken care of by someone else. I have a board meeting Monday morning that I will not miss.”

Tim’s lips parted slightly, and Bruce’s stomach clenched at the shock scrawled across the boy’s face. Had Charles not discussed anything with him at all? Bruce knew Tim had fought to stay in the mansion after the funeral rather than stay with Charles, but surely his uncle had been by since then. Surely they had talked about Tim’s future and what would happen next.

“I can’t leave,” Tim rasped. “My... my life is here. I live here. In Gotham.”

Charles didn’t even bother to look Tim’s way, instead turning slightly to hold the teapot up to the light. “Don’t be silly. There’s nothing for you here. Your parents are dead. Your belongings are being sold. I’ve arranged a buyer for the house, and your father’s assets will be liquidated and held in trust for you until you come of age, with me as your legal trustee and guardian. What could you possibly have to keep you in this dismal little city?”

Bruce’s fingers tightened on the tray, a poor substitute for Charles’s neck. Me. Us.

“Ba--” Tim slammed his teeth together so tightly that he risked cracking a crown. Better cracking a crown than saying Batman’s name and trying to explain that to Charles. “What about Bruce and the Waynes?”

Charles laughed. He actually laughed. “Don’t be silly.” He waved the teapot dismissively, then set it down on the table. Tim immediately snatched it back up and placed it in the box where it belonged. “Your internship can be transferred to my company. I’m sure we can find a place for you at Drake Holdings.”

“I’ve been living at Wayne Manor for ages now,” Tim explained, his voice climbing with something akin to panic. “I can’t just leave them. Not after everything they’ve done for me.”

“They’ll be happy to be rid of you, I’m sure,” Charles retorted, his tone as light as if they were discussing removing a stain from a tablecloth. “Bruce Wayne is a powerful and busy man, and as one myself, you can take my word that he will not mind in the slightest. Do you honestly think he’ll be sorry to no longer have you underfoot? You were a nuisance that he took in-- well, come to think of it, I don’t know why. Charity, perhaps. Or a rich man’s whim. Whatever the case, he will be pleased to have his home free of interlopers.”

Tim’s head had dropped under the weight of Charles’s words, but the use of Damian’s favorite insult made him visibly flinch, a reaction that was lost to Charles as Bruce pushed open the door and stepped into the dining room.

“I had no idea we were so close that you could presume to know my wishes, Charlie,” Bruce deadpanned. He took vindictive glee in the way the younger man tried to hide his jolt of surprise, but Charles’s smug smile was firmly in place as he turned around to face Bruce.

“Ah, Mr. Wayne, we were just discussing young Timothy’s return to the West Coast. I was telling him that I saw no reason for him to continue his internship at your company when mine can accommodate him just as well, though I’m sure he was grateful for the opportunity.”

“So I heard.” The rumble in his voice was enough to carry a note of warning, for if Bruce had heard that, what else had he heard? It was enough for Charles to chew on for a moment as Bruce placed the tray on the table and stepped next to Tim.

“Alfred sent me with lunch,” Bruce murmured, “and instructions to extract a promise that you’ll be over at five for dinner. He wants your opinion on the sauce for the pasta puttanesca.”

Tim nodded, and Bruce gave him a ghost of a smile as he placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and squeezed before turning back to face Charles.

“We’re always happy to have Tim. He’s brightened up my home for as long as I’ve known him, and we all take comfort in having him around.” Bruce took a breath. “I wouldn’t dream of meddling, but if you’re worried about making your business meeting, we’d be happy to keep Tim longer while you do whatever it is you do.”

If he were a wise man, Bruce would have kept his tone in keeping with his words--light, helpful, earnest. But he could feel the stuttering rise and fall of Tim’s shoulders beneath his hand, so instead the last few words were tinged with Brucie’s entitled sneer. Charles Drake might be a big fish on the West Coast, but this was Gotham, and he was Bruce heckin’ Wayne. Here, Charles was less than nothing.

Charles’s own smile had frozen in place and was now in danger of cracking. “Too kind of you, Wayne, but it’s best that I get Timothy out of your way and home where he belongs.”

Get his trust fund out of my way and into yours, you mean. Bruce’s fingers tightened on Tim’s shoulder. “Tim has never been ‘in my way’ or in the way of anyone in my household. In fact, I’m curious why you’re so insistent about this, Chuck, if you have so little regard for the boy. If you think he’ll be such a bother to you, just leave him here.”

“He’s my nephew,” Charles said as he reached out and pulled Tim towards him.

“And he’s been my neighbor for years,” Bruce retorted as he tugged Tim back. “Lived in my house for years, in fact. I’ve never seen you in Gotham before now, never even heard your name. So why the sudden concern?”

Charles was starting to turn an unattractive shade of mauve. “I am his family,” he sneered, voice raising as he attempted to pull Tim back over like a human-shaped tug toy. “It is up to me to make the decisions--”

“Are you?” Bruce snapped. He yanked hard on Tim’s shoulder, pulling the boy until he stood hidden behind Bruce’s broad back and Bruce could step toe-to-toe with Charles Drake. “Because in my experience, family means being there for a person, not appearing like a damned vampire when a bank account is suddenly up for grabs.”

Charles opened his mouth to protest, but Bruce cut him off. “What’s Tim’s favorite brand of coffee?”

Charles blinked. “What?”

“Coffee. Favorite brand. Come on, that’s an easy one. Something any family of Tim’s would know. No? What about his favorite movie? What does he want to do with his life? Where does he want to go to college? What’s his favorite flavor Skittle? Come on!”

Bruce was crowding the other man now, looming over him like Batman over scum on the verge of breaking. With every unanswered question, his rage grew and his sorrow deepened. He knew. He knew all these things and so much more. How had Timothy Drake gone from the pushy nuisance on his doorstep to as much a necessity of his life as his own lungs? What would his days be like if they didn’t start without Tim at the breakfast counter, half-asleep in his bowl of Kix? Or his time in the office without afternoon session spent elbow to elbow with the smartest kid he’d ever known, pouring over blueprints and specs from R&D? How empty would his nights be without Tim’s dry cracks over the comms, riling Damian and goading Dick to laugh so hard he cried?

When he’s sad, he looks mad.

Bruce’s heart was breaking, and his rage was thunderous. Charles had retreated so far that Bruce now had him pinned against the far wall, his innocuous Brucie persona shattered by the reality of his muscular shoulders and murderous glare.

“What’s his middle name?” Bruce demanded, nearly shouting now. Charles had yet to answer a single question. “WHAT’S YOUR NEPHEW’S MIDDLE NAME, CHARLES?”

God help him, if Charles didn’t answer, he was going to--

“Bruce!”

Tim had been shouting his name for some time, but Bruce was only now aware as Tim’s hands gripped his wrist and hauled him backward. Bruce stepped away, chest heaving and clenched fist shaking. Charles, wisely, stayed where he was.

Bruce looked down at Tim’s horrified face and leaned against the table, anger fleeing before the oncoming wave of guilt and shame.

“I’m sorry, Tim,” he murmured. “I told myself that this had to be your decision and no one else’s. I don’t want to make it for you.”

Bruce reached out and cupped Tim’s face, rubbing his thumb against the boy’s cheekbone the way he used to do for Dick and Jason after a fight. “I’d fight for you,” he promised quietly. “If you wanted to stay, I’d fight for you, and I promise you that I’d win. But this is your life and your choice. And he is your uncle.”

Behind him somewhere, Charles spoke up again. “I am! And as his de facto guardian, it’s my place--”

“He’s a douchebag,” Tim interrupted, his voice unsteady but quickly growing firmer. “My dad didn’t even like him. Always said he was an opportunistic parasite with bad taste in opera and worse taste in wives. They hadn’t even talked in years.”

Tim reached up and covered Bruce’s hand with his own. “Can I really stay, Bruce? I want to stay. I never wanted to go, but I thought I had to. Please let me stay.”

Charles was still squawking away somewhere in the background, but Bruce paid him no mind. “Of course you can.” Bruce slid his hand to the back of Tim’s neck and pulled the boy into a hug. “I’m sorry you ever thought otherwise. I know I can steamroll people, and I didn’t want to do that to you. But you will always have a home with me.”

Tim threw his arms around Bruce’s waist and gripped tightly as he buried his face in Bruce’s shirt. Bruce’s chest was broad enough to muffle any tears or shuddering breaths, and Bruce closed his eyes as he enjoyed the feeling of holding his... his son.

When he felt Tim was stable enough, Bruce stepped back but kept his hand on Tim’s shoulder. Together they pivoted to face Charles, who had worked himself into something high-pitched enough to rival Harley’s laugh.

“I’ll be petitioning for custody of Tim,” Bruce said, his words cutting through the other man’s ranting. “Given my shared history with the boy, my residence in his hometown, ample evidence of my care for him during his parents’ neglect, my resources, my team of lawyers, and my ample ties to every judge in Gotham, I’m confident in my chances.”

Bruce’s granite face split into a sharky grin as he leaned toward Charles and the other man scrambled backward. “You might be his uncle, Chuckie boy, but I’m his family.”

The grin softened as Bruce looked down at Tim and gave his shoulder another squeeze. “Come on. We can come back tomorrow and do some more packing, but for now it looks like we have some calls to make.”

At Tim’s nod, Bruce slung his arm around the boy’s shoulders and pushed past a stammering, apoplectic Charles.

“Bruce,” Tim asked as they headed for the kitchen, “all those questions you asked. Do you know the answers?”

Bruce didn’t even pause. “Koffee Kult Dark Roast. The Princess Bride. Something in mechanical engineering, maybe, but you haven’t decided for sure. CalTech or MIT. Green. I’m not an idiot, Tim.”

Tim laughed.

Over his shoulder, Bruce called, “Goodnight, Chaz. Be sure to turn off the lights when you leave.” With that, Bruce strode out the kitchen door with his son, headed home.

----

Eleven months later

Bruce sat down on the couch with a small sigh and passed a mug to his newest son. “So?” he asked. “How does it feel?”

Tim’s lips twitched as he accepted the coffee, and he shrugged. “Pretty good,” he admitted. “Not gonna lie, I’ve spent most of my life judging pompous rich boys with hyphenated last names, so it feels weird to be one. But it’s pretty good.”

They had just returned from the courthouse where Timothy Jackson Drake had been newly declared Timothy Jackson Drake-Wayne. Dick had taken off work to be there, as had Barbara and Stephanie. Alfred, Cassandra, and Damian had come as well, and Clark and Diana had sent their well wishes. Even Jason had been invited, but his truce with Bruce was still too new, and Bruce suspected the sight of his “replacement” in the same courthouse where Jason had gotten his own papers signed was too much for him. But he hadn’t tried to shoot Tim over it, so that was a start.

The weeks after Charles’s stormy departure hadn’t been perfect. Tim was still grieving and Bruce had been unsure of how much of a role Tim wanted him to have beyond “man who lets me sleep in his house.” But as Bruce had predicted, his many advantages had flattened all objections Charles had thrown in their path and Judge Martinez had approved the Tim’s transfer of custody to Bruce’s care.

About six months after Tim had permanently moved into the Manor and five months after the new family had moved into the old Drake place, Bruce finally gathered his courage to heed the prompt his youngest had given on that chilly rooftop.

He had called Tim into his study and had laid out the different options Tim had at his disposal between now and his eighteenth birthday.

“We can leave things just as they are,” Bruce had explained. “You stay here as a minor under my guardianship, and the only thing that changes when you turn 18 is you become your own man. You can stay here until you’re my age for all I care, but it’s only legally mandated until your eighteenth birthday.”

Bruce had hesitated, pausing to straighten the papers on his desk with his fingertips before continuing. “Another option is you let me adopt you. I think Charles has reached the end of his bag of tricks, so you don’t have to worry about protecting yourself from him or any of your other relatives. And I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to replace your dad, because I’m not. I couldn’t. But it would make things... final. Official.”

To his surprise, Tim had laughed. “Bruce, you replaced my dad the first time you ragged me for pulling an all-nighter. Or sat up with me when I got that demon cold and couldn’t breathe. Or freaking used the Bat-glare on me to try to make me eat peas. Jack never did any that stuff. He never noticed me enough to care.”
Tim walked around to Bruce’s side of the desk and slung his arm across the seated man’s shoulders. “Jack’s my father. He always will be. And I’m glad we had what time we did after he got sick. But you’re my dad. A piece of paper from a judge won’t change that. But I wouldn’t say no to that piece of paper either.”

And now they sat together on the couch, father and son, as so decreed by the court system of Hudson County.

“Gotta be honest,” Tim said after taking a sip of coffee. “I half-expected Damian to call in the League for a raid on the courthouse or something. Didn’t think the little gremlin would allow the shades of Wayne Manor to be thus polluted.”

Bruce only smirked into his mug as he watched his youngest wrestle on the floor with Titus.

At the courthouse, as Tim had approached the bench to sign the judge’s papers, Dick had leaned over to Bruce and nodded toward Damian at the end of the row. The young boy had sat with his arms crossed, chin tilted up and his nose high in the air, the picture of disgusted arrogance.

“When he’s happy,” Dick had whispered, “he looks like that.”

Chapter Text

“Forrrrrr he’s a jolly good fellowwwww! And nobody can deny!”

The corner of Bruce’s eye twitched ever so slightly as his eldest finished leading the rest of the room in a boisterous round of cheers. Based on the grin on Dick’s face, the degree to which he had been off-key had been deliberate. And based on the mischievous glint in his eyes, he knew Bruce knew and was pleased.

Bruce twisted his mouth into a scowl that no one believed and adjusted the angle of his birthday crown with all the dignity a grown man could muster while wearing a glittery cardboard crown that read Birthday Boy.

The day had started so peacefully. Bruce had slept past 6 AM for the first time in months and then been served breakfast in bed with his morning paper. The house had been empty, his children already having claimed plans weeks in advance. He hadn’t minded. The day hadn’t had much meaning without his parents. Other than a few simple affairs over cake when Dick had been young and insistent, Bruce had never bothered to celebrate the day as an adult.

Bruce had spent the majority of the day mired deep in Wayne Enterprise quarterly statements in his study and would have been content to remain so up until time for dinner and patrol. But then a raucous mob of what had sounded like tailgating elephants had burst into his study, and Bruce’s hand had been halfway to the nightstick he kept under his desk before he had realized he wasn’t under attack, at least not in a conventional sense.

The hellions he called his children had surrounded him, jammed a farcical paper hat on his head, and hauled him to his feet. Tim and Jason had dragged him out of the study with helpful pushes from Damian and Steph from behind while Cass and Dick followed, chanting, “PRE-SENTS! PRE-SENTS! PRE-SENTS!”

Babs was waiting on the couch in the living room, her chair tucked in the corner of the room, and Alfred stood in the far doorway, arms laden with presents. He placed the entire stack in Bruce’s lap as soon as the children had pushed him into the waiting wingback chair, and the mountain of brightly colored ribbons, striped papers, and rustling tissue paper was almost enough to keep Bruce from missing the warmth of being crushed on all sides.

The gifts had been good, necessary things that pleased Bruce.

A new cashmere sweater from Cass.

A set of small but intricately carved push daggers from Damian.

The latest Star Wars DVD from Steph.

A Shakespeare insults mug from Jason.

A set of Tajikistanian teas from Tim.

A cravat from Alfred.

A pair of surprisingly soft Superman-branded dress socks from Dick.

They were little things to a man that had everything, but everything to Bruce, who couldn’t have conceived of such a day just a few years ago.

Bruce settled back in the chair, for once in his life content to relax. Everyone he loved was here, safe, and, as far as he could tell, happy. Any breaths over birthday candles later in the evening would be wasted. He could wish for no more. With an unvoiced sigh, he let his eyes roam the room as his heart soaked up the happy noises of his family.

Directly before his feet, Damian sat cross-legged on the plush Persian rug, Titus’s monstrous head in his lap. Damian’s hands gently worried the dog’s velvet ears, making Titus’s tail thump happily. How far he had come from the murderous little boy who hid his insecurities behind hatred and arrogance. He still wasn’t the easiest or most open child, but he was trying, and that was all Bruce could ask.

Behind Damian, Jason leaned against the fireplace, talking quietly with Alfred. The marble mantle dug into the shoulder of his leather jacket as he lazily flipped his lighter cap open and shut. What once might have seemed menacing was now only a habit, just as the lighter itself was only a habit. Jason was on his third attempt to stop smoking, and Bruce hoped that this time would stick. Bruce’s eyes roamed over his secondborn, still a marvel to him after all this time. That Jason could be alive was at times more than Bruce could comprehend.

Sometimes Bruce would catch the same expression of wonder on Alfred’s face as he looked at Jason, but just now, Alfred seemed intently engaged in whatever discussion they were having. Jason’s latest read, perhaps, or the latest episode of Masterpiece Theatre. Alfred never failed to bring out the softer side of Jason that the younger man otherwise kept guarded, and Jason brought to Alfred’s eyes a light all his own.

Bruce’s gaze drifted to his left, where Stephanie sat on an ottoman and slumped back, half lying in Cass’s lap. Cass was methodically braiding gift ribbon into Steph’s hair and quietly laughed at something Steph signed to her. His beautiful girls. One was his daughter, legally and emotionally. The other occupied a nebulous in-between that no one had bothered to define beyond the stamp of Trusted and Family. He had faltered with both of them in different ways, but here they both were, twin beacons of joy and resilience.

Crammed up next to Cass was Tim, who was gesticulating wildly. His blue eyes were alight as he and Stephanie bickered over some meme, Cassandra laughing with delight between them. Bruce had come so close to letting Tim walk out of his life without a word. Sometimes the near miss would hit him, knocking him askew, and he would have to pause for breath. They still hit rough patches from time to time, but Bruce believed they were stronger for it, and he had learned from past. No matter what happened, he would never stop fighting for his children.

Next to Tim, not at all minding the cramped space, Dick and Babs were having a quieter but no less smile-filled conversation. Dick had his arm across the back of the couch behind Babs and as Bruce watched had reached over to tuck a piece of her bright red hair behind her ear with gentle affection. Their on-again-off-again relationship was currently on, and while Bruce worried about future fallout, he was happy for them. Dick had grown into a fine man, far beyond a younger Bruce’s wildest dreams, but Babs brought a steadying contentment to his life, while Dick managed to tease more smiles out of Babs than anyone else Bruce had ever seen.

It was because Bruce was enjoying one of those smiles that he caught the look Babs gave Dick--a quick, pointed prompt urging Dick to... to what? Bruce’s gaze drifted to Dick’s face and he blinked, his subconscious catching what his brain was slower to see. Tim had shifted on the couch again, his apparent attention on Steph and Cass, but his elbow had jabbed backward and into Dick’s side, making the other man jolt slightly in irritation.

Was irritation the right word? Or...

Dick twisted around to glare over his shoulder at Tim, only to get a wink from Steph. As Bruce watched, Dick’s throat bobbed with a dry swallow, and he turned away from the other three to look down at Damian. Damian was giving Dick a similar look to Babs’, but with far less subtlety.

Bruce sat up in his chair, suddenly wary. He must have been squinting suspiciously, because Dick caught the expression and laughed.

“Greatest Detective over here knows something’s up, you guys,” Dick announced as he extricated himself from the couch and stood. “Might as well get this show started.”

Around the room, bodies shifted to turn their attention back toward Bruce. Damian scooted backward toward the fireplace with Titus to allow Dick center rug.

“So, uh...” Dick began, then paused to lick his lips.

Despite the many admonishments of his family about the need for an “open and welcoming expression” (or, in Jason’s words, “you gotta stop bat-glaring out of the cowl, buttmunch; it’s freaky”), Bruce’s mouth dipped into a wary frown. Was Dick Grayson, spotlight lover and natural performer... nervous?

Was something wrong? Had something happened? Was he moving away? Was he quitting the force? Was he sick? Had Bruce done something wrong? Bruce’s brain quickly conjured then rejected scenarios in rapid succession, but couldn’t manage to slow his pulse. Dick shuffled his feet, then unfold a piece of paper from his back pocket. Having something to hold seemed to help. Dick rolled back his shoulder and lifted his chin, once again the ringmaster in the spotlight.

“Bruce,” Dick said, “I’ve known you since I was ten. You took the worst day of my whole life and somehow made it less terrible. You took me home, gave me a place to call my own, someone to talk to when I had nightmares, and a purpose to keep me going. We haven’t always seen eye to eye, and there are things I would go back and change if I could, but I would never change choosing to live here.”

Dick paused to clear his throat, then continued, “I have lived more life with you than I have without. You have been my partner, my confidant, my leader, my protector, and my friend. You were there to catch me every time I fell. You’ve been a father figure when I needed it most. But there was something I’ve wanted for a while now, and I was wondering if, even though it’s your birthday, you wouldn’t mind giving a gift to me. I think maybe you owe me for the cool socks.”

The room rustled with chuckles as Dick tucked the paper back in his pocket, then crossed the room to pluck an envelope from behind the couch before returning to Bruce.

“Here,” Dick murmured before thrusting the manilla envelope into Bruce’s hands.

Bruce fumbled for a moment with the metal tab, then opened the envelope and pulled out the thin sheath of papers.

PETITION FOR ADULT ADOPTION
Section 52-A0k-77
ADOPTION OF __Richard John Grayson__
The undersigned respectfully petition the court to adopt __Richard John Grayson__ and to have the adult’s name changed to __Richard John Grayson-Wayne__.

There was more down below, but Bruce’s gaze had shot to the very bottom where Dick’s name was carefully printed and then signed. Bruce Thomas Wayne had already been filled in. All that remained was a blank space for his signature.

Bruce reached up and touched his fingertips to the top of the page, afraid that he would touch Grayson-Wayne and make it disappear. He had thought Dick didn’t want to be adopted, had been to afraid of trying to replace John Grayson when Dick was a boy, and then Dick had grown up, and...

“I thought about just going by Wayne.” Dick’s voice was soft but still audible in the hush of the crowded room. “But apparently it’s a real pain to re-embroider the uniform, so this way I can just go by the first part at work. And I like being a Grayson, but I wanted to be a Wayne, too, and I figured you didn’t mind when Tim did it, so...”

Bruce had to swallow hard against the lump in his throat. “No,” he said, voice rumbling deep in his chest, “no, I don’t mind.”

He pushed himself to his feet, papers clenched tightly in one hand, and reached with the other for his son. Dick was already moving to meet him and they pulled each other into a rough hug, Dick clinging like the spider monkey Bruce had teased him of being when he was a little boy. The crown lay forgotten on the rug.

“So this is okay?” Dick breathed into Bruce’s ear. “I know I’m a little old.”

“More than okay,” Bruce assured him. “I’m sorry I didn’t do it sooner myself.”

They held onto each other for a moment, giving Bruce time to make sure his eyes were dry before he pulled back and clapped Dick on the shoulder. “How long have you been planning this?”

“I’ve been thinking about it a long time,” Dick admitted. “It’s not all that hard, though. I asked a notary at work to point me in the right direction, and after that it was just a matter of picking up the right forms.”

Bruce looked down at the papers in his hand again and shook his head in wonder.

“I went and picked them up last week,” Dick continued. Bruce had barely registered the new, mischievous note sneaking into his voice before Dick added, “I mean, I was already there with Jason and everything, so I figured, what the heck.”

If the room’s silence had been anticipatory before, the air was downright vibrating now.

Bruce looked up at Dick and the wide grin splitting his face, then across at the younger man who had pushed himself off the mantle and was stepping forward to join them.

“Tadaaaa,” Dick cheered quietly as he made jazz hands. “Congrats, Dad, it’s twins.”

Jason pulled an identical, if creased, sheath of papers from inside his jacket and thrust it at Bruce. He gave an uneven shrug, shoulders falling one after another like dominos.

“I got tired of being dead.” Jason’s smoker rasp deepened and his blue eyes darted uneasily. “And I figured if you popped off again, I better be legally cleared to get my hands on my share of the loot, so...”

To Bruce’s distant surprise, his hands didn’t shake as he tucked Dick’s papers under his arm and unfolded Jason’s. The same words were printed across the top, but instead of Richard John Grayson-Wayne, the form read James Peter Wayne.

Once again, Bruce found himself tracing letters with his fingertips, certain that the dream would end at any second.

A voice--Bruce’s, Bruce realized after a delay--asked, “James?”

Another shrug as Jason jammed his hands into his back pockets. “Found out Catherine’s maiden name. Todd only tied me to Willis, and I can’t be Jason and keep my cover. But I still wanted to be Jay.”

Still wanted to be Jay-lad. Bruce wasn’t sure if he was hearing what was really there or his own desperate hopes, but he didn’t care. The papers fluttered from his grasp as he lunged forward and yanked both boys into his arms. The rest of the room forgotten, Bruce gripped them both by the back of their necks and held on tight as one and then the other wrapped their arms around him. He closed his eyes and held his breath, muscles quivering.

“Thank you,” Bruce whispered. He turned his head and rested his forehead against Dick’s hair, then turned the other way and did the same to Jason’s temple. “Thank you both. Thank you.”

Abruptly, he released them both and spun on heel, announcing, “I’ll put my gifts in my room and we’ll have cake.”

Moving as if all of Arkham were on his tail, Bruce swooped up the papers from the floor and the gifts and all but fled the room. In the hall, he paused to suck in a deep breath and caught Steph’s awed pronouncement.

“You guys made Batman cry.”

Chapter Text

On Bruce’s desk sat a new photo in a simple black frame. It showed a group of people standing at the bottom of marble courthouse steps, arms around each other. Bruce stood in the center in an impeccably tailored suit and floral tie that had been a Christmas gift from Selina. He had his arms thrown over Dick on his left and Jason on his right, and a rare smile on his lips.

Dick was in uniform, hat under his arm and his hand on Damian’s shoulder. He had a party horn in his mouth and seemed to be giving it his all. His other hand was looped behind Bruce, two fingers thrown up in bunny ears.

Damian was dressed as the miniature of his father, missing only the tie. He had his nose tilted haughtily in the air and his arms crossed, as if to proclaim to the world that this nauseating display was beneath him. But it was hard to miss the way he leaned into his older brother.

Babs sat on Damian’s other side, one hand reached up to cover Dick’s on Damian’s shoulder, the other wrapped around Stephanie. Stephanie had been pulled down seconds before the camera flashed and still had her feet up in the air, skirts caught in a twirl. Her eyes were closed as she laughed. Alfred stood behind both of them, his hands resting on the back of Babs’s chair and his mustache slightly crooked from a repressed smile. Stephanie had one hand twisted back, fingers gripping the edge of his coat.

Jason’s too-cool-for-this shades and matching smirk were undermined by the arm he had wrapped around his father’s waist. He stood with his weight shifted to one foot, throwing him toward Bruce, shoulders relaxed. A single shock of white hair tumbled down his forehead, spilling from a ratty Gotham Knights ball cap.

But never could there be Jason without some mischief. His other arm was casually draped over Tim’s shoulders, both trapping the other boy and supporting him as Tim recoiled. The camera had frozen the two of them a split second after Jason had jammed his wet finger into Tim’s ear. Tim’s mouth was caught wide open, teeth glinting in the sunlight as his outraged yelp transitioned into laughter. He was partially pitched forward, hand flailing toward Jason for support as Cass used his shoulders as a springboard to launch herself in the air. She floated behind Tim, black hair flying about her face, one arm lifted and fingers spread wide, red high-tops kicking at the air.

Bruce saw the photo every time he came into work. Every time he looked at it, he felt the warmth of his family around him and heard their laughter in the air.