A crushed diet Coke can clinked along the black asphalt. Unused napkins flapped in the wind until they hit a dim street lamp. A few orange and brown tinted leaves stirred. The wind tugged on his cape, but it didn’t make a sound. He could almost hear Dick’s chatter softly filling the quiet stakeout or Jason snickering about the time Batman spent finding surveilling places, so his cape could flair dramatically. He could see Tim focused and silent, determined to be the best Robin.
Batman did not sigh, nor did he regret the fact that all three Robins were off the streets and safe tonight. However, Bruce Wayne would be lying if he said he didn’t miss having a partner. He would never admit it, but he found himself wishing for anything to break the monotony of staring at the same building for the last few hours. His eyelids tugged and demanded to close, and it was through pure force of will that they remained opened.
He had grown used to giving at least part of his attention to his partners. He never had known when Dick would decide to walk backwards on his hands to one side of the roof and almost tumble off because he hadn’t been paying close enough attention, nor when Jason would decide to take off because people were in trouble and a camera could do a stakeout just as well. Then there was that one memorable moment when Tim had fallen asleep in the exact position he had started the stakeout in; it had taken Bruce a full fifteen minutes to realize what had happened. Part of Bruce envied Tim’s ability to fall asleep anywhere, even a light doze might help his near constant exhaustion. Without a partner, he couldn’t allow himself to blink.
His mind distracted him with yet another memory. One night of surveillance had been crashed by a newly minted Batgirl, who was wearing nothing but a spandex clad costume. Batman had tried to tell her no. She crossed her arms and stared at Bruce for a full sixty seconds before she told him that he could either teach her here where he could keep an eye on her or she’d observe from another rooftop. Either way, he wouldn’t be able to chase her off and surveil his target. Dick cackled. Batman told her to leave or he’d tell her father. If anything, she looked even less impressed and threatened to do the same to him. Dick’s laughter cut off abruptly. The boy immediately sprouted denials and promises that he hadn’t told Barbara Gordon anything.
“Oh please,” she had said with an eyeroll. “There is only one man in the city who could afford Batman’s gadgets, and it sure is convenient that every time Robin was reported injured, Dick came to school with the same injury.”
Taking Barbara on as his second apprentice had been a mistake. He knew he would regret the decision the moment the three of them drove back to the Batcave in the crowded Batmobile that hadn’t been remodeled with a backseat yet.
Barbara Gordon didn’t play by anyone else’s rules. Batman had far less control over Batgirl than he did over Robin. He told her no metas in Gotham, and she ignored him. Even worse, she silenced communications with the cave during a fight and put Nightwing in danger. He was no longer the leader of the Justice League, so he couldn’t bench her from Young Justice, but he could lock her out of his cave and refuse to partner with her.
She had put Dick’s life in danger. It wasn’t something Batman was likely to forget or forgive. Batgirl was competent but clearly too emotional for the job.
The rustling of leaves pulled his attention back to the street in front of him. He blinked behind his cowl and realized that the number of leaves had changed without him noticing. Batman had gotten lost in his thoughts on patrol; Bruce couldn’t remember the last time that happened. This was unforgiveable. Being tired was no excuse, he’d have to retrain his ability to concentrate. He had over 300 possible matches of vans, even after his cross-referenced search with multiple department of motor vehicles. The tire tracks may have helped, but they were far too generic to reduce the search to smaller numbers. Discouraged by his lack of any other lead, he began the tedious process of crossing off the list the old fashion way. Eventually, he would run into a criminal who could connect him to the mastermind who had orchestrated the heist of the kryptonite.
Despite the fact that Batman was ninety percent positive that Lex Luthor was behind the most recent stunt, he had no evidence to offer law enforcement to charge the man. The length of the investigation hardly mattered. A crime of this magnitude could put Luthor away for life. That was worth the slow, methodical process of building a solid case.
A white van pulled into the driveway across from Batman. Fortunately, his lapse hadn’t cost him this time. A Hispanic man exited the van and headed into his home. Batman silently descended to the ground and checked the van. Opening the back door, the van was filled with various paint and painter’s tools. He checked for kryptonite readings, but his scanner reported no traces of the alien element. He shut the back door of the van and grappled back to the rooftops. His body felt heavy as he fell into the Batmobile. He placed the car on autopilot and closed his eyes while his car drove him home.
Arriving back at the cave, he was aggravated to find Batgirl copying information from the Batcomputer to a USB.
“I locked you out of the Batcave,” Batman growled.
“And I hacked the lock,” Barbara informed him without taking her eyes off the screen in front of her. “I noticed your tire track and DMV cross referenced search. I pulled-”
Batgirl disconnected the USB from the computer and stood up to face him. Her fists planted on her hips, she said, “I narrowed your search to 15 possible and 4 highly possible vans, but if you don’t want-”
If Barbara rolled her eyes, he didn’t see it behind her mask. However, he suspected exasperation rolled off her in waves. “There was a rosary and a saint necklace hanging from the rearview mirror.”
Bruce had noticed that detail as well, which hadn’t helped him lower his search. It wasn’t enough. “There are over two million Catholics in Gotham City alone.”
“Yes,” Barbara agreed. Her left hand tightened its grip on the USB. “But I recognized the picture of the saint. It’s Saint Amand of Flanders.”
That didn’t mean anything to Bruce. He could hardly keep up with inane number of Catholic saints, nor did he see the connection.
“He’s the patron saint of taverns and bars,” Batgirl continued. “But more importantly, there’s a bar called Amand’s, where they sell blessed St. Amand pendants. I pulled the home address of everyone who lived within a five, ten, and fifteen mile radius of the bar.”
That was…impressive. Batman hadn’t noticed the particular saint, nor had he guessed the importance. It was sloppy work. He should have ran an image diagnostic. Bruce wanted to rub his eyes. When was the last time he slept for at least six hours? There were too many leads to follow up with, and he didn’t have a partner or a team to handle half the load. Still, he hadn’t made such asinine mistakes since his first few years a vigilante.
“What was the information you needed?”
Batgirl stared at him for a moment before answering. “A new drug called purple has hit the streets in Miami. I think it’s connected to Gotham and Bludhaven’s smash.”
“That was Nightwing’s case.”
“I know that, but he uploaded all his files to the Batcomputer through his backdoor in the system.”
Dick had a backdoor into the Batcomputer? It was perhaps not as surprising as it should have been. Barbara, obviously, thought he knew about. Otherwise, she’d never mention it casually. Batman would need to flag the backdoor to monitor the situation. Had Nightwing discovered the Arkham Asylum recordings? If Dick knew Harley’s demands, he would suit up immediately. Batman had to prevent that at all costs. Nightwing wasn’t ready to be back in the field.
Placing the USB in a pouch on her utility belt, Batgirl relaxed her posture. “Aqualad returns tomorrow. I’ll be taking a team to Florida to monitor the situation and hopefully, find some answers.”
Batman turned towards the locker rooms, which used to only have a male side – before Barbara had shoved her way into their lives. Barbara, who never took no for an answer and reminded him uncomfortably of a much younger Bruce Wayne. He wanted to rip off his cowl and pinch the bridge of his nose to stave off the oncoming headache. He was grateful for her assistance but also annoyed by her presence. That was…how he often felt around Clark.
He grunted in reply.
“With all three Robins out of commission, you’ll be without back-up.”
He turned back to look at her now. She was near her motorcycle and not looking at him. Bruce didn’t think he’d ever get used to the idea that his partners worried about him. There were many things he could have said to her, but he knew none of them would have been reassuring. Instead, he took a page from Dick’s book.
“Nonsense. I’ll have Agent A.”
Shaking her head, Batgirl snorted and swung her leg over her bike. “Stay safe, Batman.”
Her bike roared to life, and she was out of the cave before he thought to reply.
If Bruce indulged in a too hot and too long shower, there was no one to complain about it. He rested his head against the cool tile and closed his eyes while the hot water cascaded down his back and steam filled the room. Five minutes, then he’d move. He needed to update his case files, research Barbara’s nineteen possible vans, and see if his search for David Cain pinged any recent results. He would find Cassandra’s father and neutralize him. It would be another late night. Plus, in the morning he had an important merger meeting for Wayne Enterprises.
Five more minutes. Then he would get out and start working.
Bruce stumbled through the front door as his work week finally ended. He was beyond exhausted and needed a nap. He had been so tired during his last meeting with Lucius that the man refused to let Bruce drive home. He would have argued with his long-time friend, but he couldn’t remember what they had been discussing. Lucius mumbled something about something. Bruce hadn’t understood him, but he had gathered that it wasn’t complementary. Before the CEO found a suitable reply, he had been bundled in one of his limos and driven home. There had been something wrong with the limousine, but Bruce couldn’t figure it out. Just a tingling sensation in his brain that something was off.
“My heavens, Master Bruce. What happened?” A voice called to his left.
“Alfred!” Bruce shouted. That was what was wrong. Alfred hadn’t driven his limousine home. He blinked his father looked annoyed with him. He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong this time, but he knew he had disappointed Alfred. That made him sad.
“Yes, well, one would think you’d refrain from repeating such activities then.”
Bruce blinked and stumbled. Alfred caught him, just like Alfred always did. His mind felt hazy like he couldn’t make out the sharp edges of a picture.
“Have I been drugged?”
Alfred sighed as he helped Bruce up the stairs. “No, Master Bruce. This is the result of 60 consecutive hours without sleep on top of a long three weeks without proper rest.”
That made sense. He was very, very tired. The pair made it up to his room. Bruce faceplanted on his bed. He slept.
Bruce woke up groggy and confused. No light was shining through his curtains, so it was the middle of the night, but he had no recollection of falling asleep the night before or even making it to his room. He stretched his arms overhead. His sore back protested the movement. However, he had ended up in his bed, he hadn’t slept in an ergonomic position.
Walking into his bathroom, he turned on the faucet and splashed cool water onto his face. His reflection looked haggard and older than Bruce remembered being. How old was he now? 38. Far too young to look like a fragile middle-aged man. He grabbed a towel and buried his face in it for a moment. Then he replaced the towel and grabbed his robe, cinching it at the waist. He needed a cup of coffee.
He shut his bedroom door silently. The lack of light in the hall told him that the other occupants of the manor were asleep. He shuffled silently down the stairs. The heated floors kept his bare feet warm as he walked into the kitchen. He turned the light on and immediately felt his skin crawl. He wasn’t alone.
“Good morning, Master Bruce,” Alfred greeted, and his tone was glacial. Bruce was unashamed to admit that he wanted to turn around and go right back to bed.
“Good morning, Alfred,” Bruce responded from habits long ingrained to him by his British butler. He turned to look at his father figure, who was also wearing a warm robe. Slippers clad his feet. Alfred rested the book he had been reading on the wooden table beside him where a cup half filled with tea rested on its matching saucer. Alfred had clearly been at that table for an extended period. “What time is it?”
Alfred hummed at him and made a point of glancing at the clock above the stove. “It’s 3:23am.”
Bruce winced in reply and turned to the refrigerator to reheat some leftovers. Part of him wanted to turn around and go back to the safety of his bedroom, but he was Batman. Batman wasn’t a coward. Dumping a casserole type dish onto a plate, Bruce opened the microwave and heated the food. Over the sound of the machine, Bruce could hear Alfred staring at him.
When the microwave beeped, he grabbed a fork and joined Alfred at the table.
“Are you going to say anything?” Bruce asked. He would not squirm as if he was ten years old and in trouble.
Alfred continued to stare at him and took a sip of his tea. “Would it matter if I did?”
Bruce bit down on his food and accidentally clamped the fork with his teeth. A tingling sensation filled his mouth and peaked his irritation further.
“If you want me to apologize-”
The sigh Alfred gave in response was loud. Bruce stopped speaking immediately.
“No, Master Bruce. I don’t want you to apologize. I want you to change.” Alfred stood up and took his teacup and saucer to the sink. He didn’t turn around when he finally spoke. “You missed the last two family dinners, and I’m not sure when the last time Tim and Cassandra saw you out of the cave. Are you aware that Tim is behind on his shoulder’s physical therapy? Or that Cassandra’s expressive language capability has flourished under Ms. Gordon’s tutelage, but both are exhausted by the process?”
“You cannot keep taking children in and expecting me to raise them. You need to make a decision. What is more important them or your mission?” Alfred left the room without waiting for Bruce’s reply.
Tightening his grip on his fork, Bruce was angered by Alfred’s words. How dare he suggest that he didn’t care about Tim and Cass?! Hadn’t he just taken dinner to his sons in Bludhaven, and he had taught Cassandra how to run a simple DMV database search. He had.. he had… His mind blanked. Had he spent time with Tim since his parents died?
Surely, Tim would have come to him if he had wanted to talk about it. Dick had all but demanded the attention he needed. He woke Bruce up with tear-filled eyes after nightmares and pleaded with his new guardian until Bruce capitulated and allowed Dick into his bed. He sulked and pouted when he wasn’t feeling well and performed a detailed circus trick when he needed Bruce’s affirmation. Since Tim hadn’t asked for his attention, Bruce had assumed the youngest Robin hadn’t needed it.
He shook his head. He was a damn fool. Tim wasn’t Dick. The third Robin was the least like Batman’s first partner. Tim had never once communicated his needs. He expected to be forgotten. He expected to have to take care of it himself. Bruce wasn’t any better than the Drakes.
He would have to make it up to Tim. Getting him back into school and into a proper physical therapy routine would need to be the first steps. He added those to his mental to do list.
Bruce covered a yawn with his hand and shuffled to the counter to make a pot of coffee. He needed to finish checking down the vans with only two left he should be able to finish this weekend. He was fairly positive that the merger for Wayne Enterprises had concluded favorably, but the CEO didn’t doubt that Lucius had threatened to resign again. Lucius Fox had low tolerance for anything he deemed Brucie or Batman bull. There were still no leads on David Cain. He added learn speech therapy to the list as well. It would be another long day, but Alfred was right. He needed to give Tim and Cassandra as much attention as he gave his cases.
Retrieving his laptop from the study, Bruce pulled up a few videos on expressive language while he drafted the adoption paperwork for Timothy Jackson Drake. By the time, Timothy staggered into the kitchen for a cup of coffee, Bruce had ordered several different workbooks for Cass, learned a great deal about the neurology of expressive language, and printed the adoption forms.
“Good morning, Tim,” Bruce greeted.
Tim visibly startled and splashed hot coffee onto his hand. Cursing, he set the cup down and grabbed a paper towel.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Tim hissed, annoyed. “What are you doing in the kitchen?”
“I didn’t want to miss you.”
Open suspicion laced the boy’s face. “Why?”
Bruce felt as if he had missed a step in this conversation, but he had no idea where. “I heard you have been neglecting your physical therapy.”
The suspicion was replaced with resignation. Tim grabbed his coffee with his good hand. He held it close to his chest as he spoke. “There’s no point in it.”
Bruce reeled back. “You cannot ignore your injuries. They will become a hindrance in the field.”
Tim blinked and stared at Bruce owlishly for a minute. “Bruce, Dick is almost ready to return. When he does, Jason won’t be far behind. Barbara’s leading cases. Cass is better at hand to hand than any of us. You don’t need me anymore.”
The air left Bruce’s lungs unexpectedly. “Tim,” he floundered.
“It’s okay, Bruce. I was only ever a fill-in. I’m better at the tech stuff anyway.”
“NO!” Bruce erupted, spilling the remains of his coffee on the freshly printed adoption papers. He placed one hand on Tim’s uninjured shoulder and the other cupped Tim’s elbow. He crouched down, making sure that he and Tim were at the same eye level.
“You are Robin.” Grey blue eyes widened in surprise. “You are my partner. If you want to stop, you may stop. But you will not stop because you do not feel inferior. Do you understand?”
“I,” Tim verbally stumbled. “I don’t –”
Bruce’s grip tightened on Tim’s shoulder. “Do you understand?” He repeated.
“Yes,” Tim said, refusing to meet Bruce’s eyes. They would work on that.
“Regardless of your decision about our nightly activities, you will resume your physical therapy immediately. You are far too young to have permanent shoulder pain. We will start today downstairs at 9:30. Now,” Bruce stood up and guided Tim to the table. “I drew up adoption papers for you.” He felt Tim’s muscles stiffen underneath his hand. Bruce released his hold and continued, “It’s your choice, Tim. You will always have a place here regardless of a legal document, but if you wanted to make it official.” Bruce allowed the offer to fall in the silence.
Tim didn’t look up, and Bruce was afraid he had made a mistake.
“May I think about it?” He whispered.
Tim nodded and began to retreat out of the room. He turned suddenly and launched himself at Bruce. Tim’s arms wrapped around Bruce, and Bruce returned the hug. The awkward feeling of regretting the decision faded away. Now if only he could find a way to legally adopt Cassandra.
That evening as Bruce prepared for patrol, he was surprised to find Tim seated at the Batcomputer wearing his Robin costume.
“What are you doing?” Batman growled.
“You were right, Batman. I’m your partner. It’s time I started acting like it,” Robin informed him. He tapped the comms he was wearing once. On the computer behind him a map was displayed.
A shadow moved on his right. Batman turned to see Cass step out of the darkness. She wore all black and moved as if she were nothing more than a shadow.
“Better with partners,” she announced.
Robin smiled at her. “Since I can’t be in the field, Cass can watch your back.”
A thousand and one denials rose up in Batman. He hadn’t trained Cass. She deserved to not have to fight. He didn’t need her help.
Cass glided in front of him. “Better with partners,” she repeated. Then, she handed him a light purple pony with dark purple hair with a bright pink stripe in it. He knew the pony was from that terrible show Dick had loved. Other than that, he had no idea what the thing was supposed to represent, and he certainly had no idea what to do with it. Cass looked up with him with trusting eyes.
Bruce closed his fist around the toy. Then he placed it in one of the empty pouches of his utility belt. Tim snickered behind him, and Cass stuck her tongue out at him. Batman ignored them both.
“What’s your name?” Batman growled.
Cassandra beamed at him. “Black Bat.”
Batman nodded and headed towards the Batmobile. Black Bat jumped into the passenger seat with a delighted smile on her face. He started up the engines and drove them out of the cave.