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Between the Lines

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It had been just another bad night in a series of bad nights. Bruce wasn’t sure if the recent wave of petty crime was due to the appearance of a new arms dealer in town or if it was just coincidental, but he’d been so busy dealing with the crime wave directly that investigating the source of it had been severely delayed. Batman and Robin had been so busy, in fact, that help had needed to be called in this night. Nightwing and Red Robin, who had both taken time away from other projects to help slow the surge of crime in Gotham. And they’d been doing well keeping up despite being nearly run off their feet the whole night. Bruce just hoped it would be enough to give them some breathing room, allow Batman to get one step ahead. Ultimately, only time would tell if their efforts tonight had made a difference.

It was late when Bruce called them all in to debrief on the top of the Gotham Bank’s Data Centre. They’d finally reached something of a lull after hours of running around the city like madmen, trying their hardest to get to the next crime, often in just the nick of time. Bruce could see the weariness in his two former sidekicks stance, could even see Robin fighting off the same edge of exhaustion that had settled in on all of them. The boys had worked hard tonight. Done well. Bruce was even thinking of cutting the debrief short and calling it a night.

It was Damian who heard a noise from the neighbouring alley. Bruce’s eyes narrowed as he listened. Indeed, there was an odd shuffle that could be faintly heard echoing off the nearby buildings. The wind was still tonight and the sound was much too loud to have been caused by one of the local rats. It was out of place. And probably human.

“Robin, stay here while I go check it out,” Bruce said as he neared the edge of the roof, pulling out his grapple gun from the side of his belt. He didn’t have to look at Damian to know he was scowling at his back.

“But Father…” Damian protested.

“Stay with Nightwing and Red Robin. I’ll call you if I need you,” Bruce replied sternly. Then he leapt, firing his grapple line simultaneously, not giving Damian, or anyone else, the time to respond to the order. He felt the familiar tug of resistance from the line as he reached the valley of his swing. It was a familiar comfort.

Until it wasn’t.

The noise was deafening, echoing off the buildings around him. It took Bruce only a moment to realize that the resistance of the line in his hand had vanished. That he was free-falling.

“Oh my god!” he heard somehow above the noisy echo of the breaking line, above the roar of wind rushing past his ears. Tim’s voice. His mind raced with possibilities, but he willed it to focus on his single best option. The backup lines. They all carried them for exactly this reason. Bruce twisted, reaching for the smaller gun at his belt.

Then he heard the sudden sound of another grapple going off nearby. Saw a red blur. Felt the air leave his lungs as he was plowed into by a large body, one of the strangers hands securing itself on his utility belt, a failsafe in the event that he slipped. Bruce would never admit it openly, but the events between the point he was grabbed and the point he felt his feet hit the solid ground of the roof were little more than a blur.

He collected himself quickly, slowing his breathing, regaining his bearings in seconds. When his eyes eventually moved up to survey his surroundings, he was met first with the stark face of Red Robin, grapple in hand and ready to go, though held slack as if he’d given up before firing. As he let his gaze fall further over the roof, he caught sight of Nightwing. Shock written across his pale face, breathing heavier than usual. Damian squirmed in his iron grip like an angry kitten, the only one of the three boys to not look as though he was seeing a ghost as he gazed at Bruce with an annoyed scowl. Bruce wasn’t sure if it was directed at him or Dick.

“So what’s the story, old man? You been trying to cut costs on equipment or something?” He could hear from beside him. His savior, as it were.

“Jason,” Bruce stated, confident they would not be overheard. He hadn’t known the Red Hood had even been out tonight, never mind close enough to act as a first responder. It was entirely possible he’d been the source of the noise Damian had heard earlier.

“Unhand me, Grayson!” Cut through the air, loud and obnoxious. Bruce watched Dick’s grip on Damian yield rapidly, as if he’d just been burned. As if he hadn’t realized he’d been holding on at all. Damian shook him off with a huff before scurrying over to Bruce, pointedly cutting off Tim’s path in the process.

“What happened?” Tim asked from behind Damian, purposefully beating the boy to the question. Bruce suppressed the sigh that threatened to escape. Even in times of stress it seemed like those two were always trying to compete with each other. Alfred had written it off as sibling rivalry, just as it had been, and often still was, with Dick and Jason.

“I’m…not sure,” Bruce admitted. He had seen no reason for the line to break so suddenly, no warning signs that it was destined to fail before it did. “Hood, did you see anything from your vantage point?” Bruce asked. Jason had probably been on or near the ground when the line broke based on his trajectory. If anyone had seen anything, it would have been him. But Jason simply shrugs, shaking his head.

“Just the line breaking,” Jason said simply. Bruce hummed in response. A mystery then. That didn’t sit well with him at all.

“How coincidental that you should be in the area the exact moment Father’s line breaks,” Damian spat out with a glare in Jason’s direction. Bruce couldn’t be sure if the boy was actually suspicious or if he was just trying to one-up another sibling, but he knew there was no scenario where Jason didn’t react poorly to the accusation.

“I was coming to find him, you little asshole! You guys wanted information, remember? Or did you only want that from one of the teachers pets?” Jason spat back at him, predictably angry. Bruce couldn’t see his face from under the helmet, had no idea just how much Damian’s words had angered him, but Bruce did know that Jason had nothing to do with the incident. He had indeed asked Jason to gather information days earlier and what motive could Jason have had to cut a line only to save him a moment later? Subtlety had never been Jason’s style to start with. If Jason had cut Bruce’s line, he’d have made sure everyone on that rooftop knew he’d done it. Bruce knew he had to step in.

“Robin! Red Hood had nothing to do with this,” He told Damian sternly, feeling the beginnings of a headache starting just behind his eyes. He watched as Damian’s face turned into a sulk, but Bruce felt no sympathy for him in that moment. He had no desire to feed into Damian’s obsessive need to cut down his siblings, nor his sulking, tonight. Not after what had just happened. Instead he turned his attention back to Jason. Back to the job. Back to that which he could control. “What have you found out?”

“This new arms dealer? I’m pretty sure he’s local, but it looks like he’s been manufacturing off-shore. No one seems to know what his end-game is yet, but the word on the streets is that he pays well if you’re willing to do his dirty work. I think he’s doing most of his recruiting in Crime Alley. There aren’t a lot of people there who would turn him down,” Jason said with a tinge of bitterness colouring his tone. Bruce quirked an eyebrow under the cowl. It would imply a link between the dealer and the recent crime surge if there were suddenly a swarm of people wanting to get paid for crimes they were already more than willing to commit. “He hasn’t approached me directly yet, but a couple of his goons made it sound like he wants to talk to me at some point,” Jason added. Bruce nodded. He wasn’t sure if he approved exactly, but it was something they could use.

“Nobody plays both sides of the coin quite like you do, Jay. Have you found out what they’re dealing exactly?” Tim asked from where he’d stood stationary, just behind Damian.

“Funny you should ask. I did a little shopping before I got here,” Jason announced, motioning to the bag slung over his shoulder. Bruce couldn’t help but be pleased. Jason had done good work. More so than that, he was working with them instead of against them for once. It was a feeling Bruce could certainly get used to.

“Awesome,” Tim said enthusiastically with a half-smile. Damian simply huffed again, crossing his arms and turning away from them in distaste.

“Good work. Let’s retrieve the other end of this line and head back to the cave so we can start analyzing the weapons Red Hood acquired tonight,” Bruce said, so pleased about tonight’s turn of events despite the close call moments earlier, that he’d even allowed praise to slip out of the mouth of Batman.

“And analyze the line,” Tim reminded him, “For the record, I do not want to be the one who has to tell Lucius he’s losing his touch,” Tim added in with a light, joking tone. Bruce couldn’t quite keep the smirk off his face at the joke, at the image of having to do exactly what Tim had described.

“Perhaps Pennyworth can do it,” Damian added, and it kind of…sounded like he was trying to continue the joke, actually. He didn’t really pull it off, but the fact that he had tried at all was strangely encouraging.

“Not a bad idea. Alfred does have more tact than all of us combined,” Jason commented with a shrug.

“My level of tact is unprecedented,” Damian informed him with a sour look, arms crossing over his chest once again. But even Bruce could see he wasn’t overly serious this time. It didn’t stop Tim from scoffing at the very thought.

“No it isn’t, you little gremlin,” Tim commented dryly, unimpressed.

“Finally something me and the replacement agree on,” Jason teased as Damian scowled back at them. Bruce found this all an odd comfort, his boys almost getting along. Maybe it was simply an aftereffect of the euphoria one feels after a near-death experience and nothing more, but deep down he knew he always enjoyed having his family happy and together, even under less than ideal circumstances.

“I…I’ll get the other end of the line and meet you guys back at the cave. Okay?” Dick’s voice filtered across the rooftop, a slight tremble just barely audible. Bruce had nearly forgotten he was there at all. He hadn’t asked any questions, nor joined in the banter, which was unusual in retrospect. Bruce let his gaze move up to his eldest. He was still too pale. Withdrawn. It was an odd look on the normally confident and jovial young man. It must be autonomic, Bruce concluded. A biological response to the sudden shock of the line snapping. Fight or flight, most likely. It was a logical conclusion, and probably had merit on some level, but despite the solid logic, Bruce couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was still something wrong.

“I can help you,” Tim offered, turning to his elder brother. Maybe he had noticed that something was off about Dick too, or maybe he simply wanted to inspect the scene himself. Now was not the time for Bruce to ask.

“As if he would need your assistance, Drake,” Damian said loudly enough for all to hear. Bruce could see the content look on Tim’s face change once the words were out. Falling into a slight frown. This, Bruce did understand. It wasn’t a simple contest for his own affections between Tim and Damian, but somehow it had also become a contest for Dick’s favour too. Bruce would never tell his youngest boys this, but this whole rivalry was nothing short of ridiculous. It was clear to anyone with half a mind that Dick cherished them both as his little brothers. Loved them both dearly. But childhood trauma was never overcome without a fight. Damian was critically insecure, a result of constantly having to live up to unobtainable standards, and Tim had spent most of his childhood neglected to the point where he considered it normal for people to forget he even existed. Bruce knew how deep scars like that could run, and neither boy had ever completely shaken the feeling of inadequacy bred into them at a young age.

“Good idea. Red Robin and Nightwing will examine the scene and retrieve the other end of the line before meeting us back at the cave. In the meantime, everyone will keep their use of the grapple lines to a minimum until the fault can be determined. No arguments,” Bruce said. A direct order as clear as any he’d ever given.

No one protested, nor showed any sign that they found the plan distasteful. At least for now. His Robins had traditionally displayed a rebellious streak that ran for miles, and he was sure at least one of them would do something that would cause him to shake his head in exasperation before the situation was fully resolved. He didn’t question the compliance tonight. It was late. They were all tired, bruised and battered from the busy night. He would inform Batgirl and the others of the situation with the lines tomorrow morning. Right now, all he wanted to do was get everyone back to the cave.