From beneath a pile of covers, Tim Drake-Wayne fumbled for the buzzing phone on the bedside table and then blinked blearily at the caller ID.
He hit the answer button as fast as he could, hoping it wasn’t an emergency. All traces of sleepiness vanished into a taut alertness, his limbs tensed as he braced for the worst.
“Drake,” Damian snarled, when the line opened. “What the hell did you do to Father?”
“Mmph?” Tim replied. His mouth apparently hadn’t woken up as quickly as the rest of him. “What.”
There was a long silence and then, with a strained acidity, “There is something wrong with Father and it’s your fault. Come fix it.”
“I didn’t do anything, buttface,” Tim protested. Six in the morning was too early to come up with good insults. He tumbled out of bed and patted wildly around on the bed for some pants. “Now stop blaming me and tell me what the fudge is wrong with Bruce. What do you mean something’s wrong? How is something wrong?”
There was no answer. Tim pulled the phone back and glanced at the screen. The little timer was blinking with the final second count of the call— the little shit had hung up on him, probably as soon as he’d given his demanding little order.
“Crappity crap crap crap,” Tim muttered, twisting one way and then another looking for a clean enough t-shirt. Bruce had been injured the last time Tim had seen him. There were so many ways things could have gone downhill quickly. He hopped over a pile of probably dirty laundry and scooped his shoes off the floor on his way out the bedroom door.
The phone rang and rang when he held it against his ear while jogging down the hall to the elevator.
“Damian, pick up.”
“See? Look what you’ve done to him,” Damian hissed, glancing at Tim across the doorway. They were both leaning on opposite sides of the door frame, peering into the den where Bruce was lying with a PS4 controller.
“He’s playing Minecraft, Damian,” Tim whispered back, rolling his eyes. “I cannot believe you dragged me out of bed at the asscrack of dawn for this. I showed him how to play it last week in case he wanted something to do while recovering.”
“You imbecile,” Damian snapped. “I know what Minecraft is, but he’s using my game system. And he hasn’t quit.”
“You can learn to share, you spoiled— wait. What?” Tim’s tongue stuttered and he looked over at Damian, who was biting his lower lip and looking, for all his anger, like a childish and frightened…well, child. Tim’s attention flicked back to Bruce, who was placing a long row of panes of glass.
“I told you,” Damian said, though his sneer wasn’t very effective, “there’s something wrong and it’s your fault.”
“He hasn’t…” Tim blinked at the screen, taking in the wide field of constructs beyond the wall of glass Bruce was currently building. “Since…was I here Thursday?”
“Four days,” Damian said, in a low snarl. “Pennyworth has been complicit in this utter breakdown. He’s eaten every meal here, slept here. This is all he does.”
Tim took in Bruce’s disheveled and greasy hair, the tangled mound of blankets balled up beside him on the couch. Alfred had said a few days off his feet was a good idea, but…this…
“Alfred’s been just letting him?”
“I said complicit, not permissive, you daft idiot. Do you honestly think Pennyworth could force Father to do…”
Tim tuned him out, letting the insults and ire wash over him as his worry honed to a sharp point directed at Bruce in sweats on the couch. He was cycling through inventory now and mumbling something.
“Hey, B?” Tim ventured.
“Shut up,” Damian shoved at Tim’s arm. He stood imperiously in the middle of the doorway, with his perfect posture. He raised his voice. “Father.”
There was a lazy, distracted growl.
“Bruce?” Tim tried again, dodging Damian’s second shove with a twist of his spine. “How are you doing?”
He didn’t even look back at them.
“It’s my console,” Damian said, his tone accusatory as he looked over and up at Tim. “Mine.”
One part of Tim told him to believe this was a cover for how worried he was, but the other part wanted to punch Damian’s mouth so hard his teeth fell out. Maybe if he hit him and Damian started screaming, Bruce would snap out of it.
Damian beat him to it, perhaps seizing an opportunity or maybe because he saw the way Tim’s fist tightened while considering. His small hand, hard as steel, hit Tim’s ear in a stinging strike and screw being a calm older brother. This was retaliation territory.
They spilled into the room behind the couch in a blurring tangle of limbs while they wrestled and punched and kicked while rolling on the floor. It wasn’t a clean, intelligent spar where they calculated each blow— they were both too skilled to risk giving each other the distance, so they swallowed the danger of keeping close and fought dirty and fast.
In the back of his mind, Tim was waiting for the stern order to stop, even as he yanked Damian’s hair and swatted a grasping hand away from his throat. His forehead slammed into Damian’s face the same instant Damian kneed him in the groin. His yelp of rage was more high-pitched than he would have liked Damian to hear, but Damian was busy holding his own nose while blood dripped through his fingers.
“Hn,” Bruce said, from the couch in front of them. There was a listless, “Boys. Enough.”
Tim rolled over on the carpet in the fetal position, trying to catch his breath while his vision cleared. Damian slumped cross-legged beside him, grabbing tissues from the side table and holding them to his face. When Tim’s whined panting leveled out enough to manage talking, he rolled to his knees.
“I am going to,” he gasped, “castrate you.”
Damian wasn’t looking at him. Damian was staring at the back of Bruce’s head, his teeth tugging at his bloodied lip.
Tim’s eyes followed his gaze and he swallowed.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. Call Dick.”
Dick found a whole row of younger siblings sitting in the hallway outside the den, lined up like scared ducklings. He wouldn’t have believed it was possible for Tim and Damian to sit so close together voluntarily without bloodshed, but there was only an inch of space between them.
Then again, there was a browned smear of blood on Damian’s swollen lip, so maybe he’d just missed the negotiations.
Cassandra was tucked up against Tim’s other side, her arms tightly crossed while she chewed on a chin-length lock of hair. Stephanie was pressed up against her, nibbling a cookie that never seemed to disappear. Duke was next to Damian, his arms wrapped around his folded knees, his bright headphones looped around his neck.
They all looked up in unison when Dick stepped around the corner, every eye locked on him in identical expressions of relief. He strode right past them, wordless, and snuck a glance into the den.
“How long?” he asked.
“Four days,” Damian said, hollowly.
“I’m sorry, Dick,” Tim mumbled. “I was just trying to give him something to do while he healed up.”
“And Alfred knows?” Dick asked, going over all of it again, even though Damian had robotically delivered his panic and vague details over the phone already.
“Do I know what?” Alfred asked, gliding past all of them with a tray of food.
“He’s just,” Dick gestured, “been like…that?”
“Resting? Ah, yes. It seems your father is capable of maturity now and then.”
“Maturity,” Damian choked. “Have you lost your—”
Dick shot him a warning glare but Tim was already jamming an elbow in his side. Damian cut off what he was saying to toss a few profanity-laced insults Tim’s way, and return the jab just as forcefully.
“You’re not worried?” Dick asked, studying Bruce in the den again.
Alfred’s tray, with coffee and a sandwich, was perfectly balanced on his hand. “Not in the least. You received my message?”
“I saw that you called,” Dick said, face twisting in confusion. “I didn’t…listen yet, I thought it was about…this.”
Now Alfred’s brow raised. He looked down the line of young vigilantes sitting against the wall.
“Tim?” Bruce called from inside the room. He sounded like he was waking up, alert after a long sleep. “Are you still here? I finished Minecraft.”
“You…finished…Minecraft?” Tim called in reply, confused. Dick saw the look that went from Duke to Tim and then back, the bunched eyebrows and bemused frowns. Tim climbed to his feet.
“That’s what I said,” Bruce answered. Dick, from his spot by the doorframe, watched him toss the controller onto a coffee table and unfurl his arms into a stretch. He was favoring his left arm, not extending it as much, smothering a groan at moving it at all.
The others, unbidden, crowded around Dick in a tight knot while Alfred went ahead into the room with the tray.
Bruce stood, one hand on his side to cradle an undoubtedly sore abdomen, and turned.
“Dick,” he said, first, a delighted smile tugging one corner of his mouth. It would have been a twitch to anyone else, but Dick knew him. Then, worry spread across his features.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Then, a second later, tight with fear, “Where’s Jason?”
“He’s fine,” Tim said quickly. “He stopped by and laughed at me and then left.”
“Master Jason is in the kitchen,” Alfred interjected. “He stayed to have tea with me.”
“Oh,” Bruce said. “Hn.”
It was clear he wanted more answers. Dick did too, for that matter.
“What do you mean you finished Minecraft?” Duke asked, standing on tiptoes to see over Dick’s shoulder. Damian had plastered himself stiffly to Dick’s side, bony shoulder digging into the spot right above Dick’s hip.
“I built Gotham,” Bruce said, his head jerking toward the screen.
“You built Gotham,” Dick said.
“Why do I suddenly have an echo?” Bruce asked, staring at all of them, still just outside the room. “Is everything alright?”
“Worried,” Cassandra said. “You…were playing.”
“Worried,” Bruce said, frowning. “Because I was playing…Minecraft?”
Everyone except Dick and Alfred nodded.
Bruce rubbed the few days’ old beard on his chin and stuttered helplessly for a second, before glancing at Alfred like waiting to be told it was some sort of joke. When the older man gave him nothing more than a slight shrug, the crease in Bruce’s brow deepened.
“I’m allowed to play a video game in my own damn house,” Bruce said, incredulously. “Alfred told me to stay off my feet for a few days and I stayed off my damn feet for a few days. I fail to see what the cause for concern is.”
“You built…all of Gotham?” Tim asked, bright red spots on his pale cheeks.
“Oh my god,” Dick said, a hand to his forehead. “I cannot believe you guys called me all the way from Bludhaven because he was playing a video game. Damian. Little D. Dames, light of my life, you told me he was obsessive and inattentive, and ‘couldn’t be reasoned with nor dissuaded,’ that he’d fallen to ‘Drake’s foul influence in a reckless, endangering manner.’ I’m sorry, B. They’re all just overreacting.”
“Drake instructed me to call you!” Damian defended.
“Hey!” Tim said, to Damian. “When have you ever done anything because I said to?”
“Well, I was not wrong,” Damian said, in a pitch dangerously close to a frantic, crying one. “Father has done nothing else.”
“You were really that concerned?” Bruce asked gently, looking at Damian. He still looked like he didn’t understand.
“You were playing! For days! You didn’t even notice when Drake split my lip!”
Razor-sharp attention snapped to Tim from nearly every direction.
“He kneed me in the balls, Bruce,” Tim said defensively.
Dick and Bruce sighed in perfect sync.
“All of Gotham?” Duke said, still waiting for an answer.
“It was something to kill time,” Bruce said, wearily. He sank back down onto the couch. “I didn’t intend to light the emergency beacons. I’m fine.”
“Uh-huh,” Stephanie said, speaking up for the first time. “Fine.”
“Dick?” Bruce said, slightly pleading.
“You’re sure you’re okay?” Dick asked. “Like…”
“I play video games! That’s not a cause for alarm!” Bruce burst out, exasperated.
“B!” A shout carried into the room, faint and growing closer as the voice continued. It was Jason. “Listen, B, this is fucking impressive but Ellison’s Bakery just isn’t there anymore.”
“I was there last week!” Bruce said, craning his head.
“Then you’re probably insane, because it fricking isn’t. It was demo’ed for a gas station last spring.”
“Is everyone going to question my sanity today?” Bruce asked, irritated, flipping a blanket around his shoulders.
There was a long silence. Bruce looked up to Alfred.
“I do not make a habit of giving promises I cannot keep,” Alfred said solemnly.
“Woah,” Jason said, stopping short in the hall with a tablet in his hands. “Where the hell did all of you come from.”
There was a mumble of literal answers from the knot around Dick and then embarrassed glances around the knot.
“Har har,” Jason said. “Dickiebird. Thanks for showing. I was nearly put on Demon-watching duty.”
“Don’t call me that,” Damian snapped, Jason’s hand catching his wrist as he lashed out. “You balding cretin.”
“Wait, I’m watching Damian? Why?” Dick asked.
“My message,” Alfred said calmly. “It has become necessary for me to accompany Master Bruce on his Tokyo trip tomorrow.”
“You were worried because I was playing a video game?” Bruce said again, as if stuck on this point.
“You don’t really…play,” Duke said, hesitant.
“Of course I play,” Bruce said in a near-growl. “Dick?”
He turned on the couch, the blanket around him staying in place.
“It’s…” Dick said slowly. “Well, it’s been a while, B.”
The tight group pressed against Dick seemed to do more to convince him than any words could have.
“None of you have seen me horse around,” Bruce said, and this time it wasn’t really a question.
“Not outside of training,” Tim said in a very small voice.
“The fuck are you talking about,” Jason said, shoving around the group to step into the room. He edged toward Bruce, a tablet in his hand. “We used to swordfight and play MarioKart all the…”
Dick closed his eyes as Jason, apparently processing mid-sentence, trailed off.
“Oh,” Jason said, in a very tiny, hollow voice, laced with anger. The anger was weak and without fire. He turned on Bruce. “You just…stopped?”
“I…” Bruce looked stricken.
“You did,” Dick said, for him, softly. “It’s okay, B.”
“I have to get ready to go to Tokyo,” Bruce said, standing abruptly. The grimace marring his features and the jerkiness of the motions gave away just how much the sudden movement hurt. He ignored the sandwich Alfred had just set on the table and took the coffee with him.
It was an excuse, plain as day— Alfred had probably already packed for him. Dick didn’t challenge it, and Bruce left the den through the other door.
“Thanks, Tim,” Jason said sourly. “Good job, kid.”
“What did I do?” Tim demanded, hurt.
Dick felt like he was watching the entire thing explode in his face, helpless to stop it, on the brink of watching his siblings tear each other to shreds and refuse to speak to one another for months.
He didn’t know how to fix this, how to soothe the tempers and real wounds they all carried. He tried and he tried and it was just never…enough.
“Swordfighting isn’t playing,” Damian exclaimed, as the group around Dick loosened and stepped back. Bruce was down the hall, out the other door, and he stopped with the mug in his hands.
“When I get back from Tokyo,” Bruce said, firm and resolved, “this changes. Damian, if you delete my file I will ground you. Jason. If the bakery is there, you owe me a dozen donuts.”
“What do I get, since I’m right, old man?” Jason shouted back, the tense fury and hurt slipping away into the background.
“You set the terms of your own bet.”
“The Ferrari. You know which one,” Jason said, sticking his head out into the hall.
“Done. I’m not wrong,” Bruce said.
There was a twinkle in his eye and it was only years of training and a quick, clever mind that kept Dick from calling Bruce out on the spot on how transparent this was as an attempt to give Jason a car.
“Hey, Bruce, can I make a bet with you?” Duke asked, watching Jason.
“We don’t gamble in this house,” Bruce said. “Just pick a car.”
“Bullshit,” Jason said, following Bruce as he disappeared up the stairs. “Come back here, you coward. I have terms and conditions.”
“Well,” Dick said, taking a deep breath as his nerves settled. “Good meeting, everyone, good intervention. I’m going to pound all of you into the practice mats after dinner.”
“Not me,” Cassandra said. “Pound you.”
“I’m going to pound everyone except Cassie into the practice mats after dinner,” Dick amended.
Cassandra nodded, with a satisfied little smile.
The controller buttons were hot under his tapping fingers as he rotated through weapons inventory in the middle of a firefight. Dick swore under his breath at the lack of ammo and then settled on one with some energy charge left in the blaster.
Against his side, Damian shifted and mumbled something incoherent in his sleep.
“Are you up early or late?” Bruce asked, stepping into the room while adjusting his tie. He looked ready to travel first-class and then go straight to a meeting. Any still-healing injuries were hidden beneath the fitted cut of the suit, and his face was clean-shaven again.
“Late,” Dick answered, pausing the game. He yawned, stretched, and looked at his watch. Four in the morning. “You going?”
Bruce was looking at Damian’s face squished against Dick’s leg when he nodded. On the floor, Tim snored and rolled over, whining about light. There was a narrow beam falling in from the hall.
“Get some sleep,” Bruce said. “Make sure Damian sleeps in a bed. I’ll be back in two days.”
There was something sour in Dick at the idea that he couldn’t make those calls by himself, that he needed instructions like he was some kind of babysitter. He knew it was automatic now, for Bruce, to parent, to direct, to order. It didn’t make it less grating.
“I think I can handle it,” Dick said tightly.
“Hn,” Bruce said. It wasn’t a noise of doubt, more an acknowledgment. Something in it made Dick look up from the paused screen to study Bruce’s face again.
The fresh shave and suit had distracted him before, but now he could see the circles still heavy under Bruce’s eyes.
“You okay?” Dick asked, switching tacks. “Did you get any sleep?”
“Hn,” Bruce said again, shaking his head. “I’ll sleep later.”
“This is too early,” Duke complained loudly, dragging a duffel down the hallway past the room. “Too. Goddamn. Early.”
At the noise, Damian startled in his sleep and sniffed and burrowed more tightly against Dick with a mewl of protest. The kitten-like noise got a chuckle out of Dick, and he didn’t miss the fond smile on Bruce’s face either. Bruce perched on the edge of the couch arm, his hands clasped.
Whatever he hadn’t voiced yet hung in the air with fragile expectation, growing heavier by the moment until it snapped or shattered or spilled or fled. Dick’s finger hovered on the button to resume the game, while he waited, that prick of concern back.
“We had fun together, didn’t we,” he finally said, to Dick, though he was still staring at Damian. For a second, his eyes flicked over to Tim.
In the corner of the room, Cassandra watched them from a deep armchair. Dick could feel her staring, awake all along but now attentive.
“We did,” Dick said. “It was the best.”
“I stopped,” Bruce said, slowly. “It bothered them that much?”
Dick’s heart ached in his ribs. He put a hand on Bruce’s arm, leaving the controller buttons behind. “They met a different Bruce than I did, but it doesn’t have to stay that way if it you don’t want it to. If you’re ready. I’m here if you want to talk.”
The hand that clasped over his in return was warm, and calloused, and pocked with scars. It felt familiar all the same, around his, like a school field trip all over again, or a direction in training. It was a hand that had held him from the worst night of his life, walked him through the remainder of his childhood, and out into the world after.
“I have to catch a plane,” Bruce said, which wasn’t yes or no. It was maybe, and that was a yes all of its own for Bruce. “We’re taking Duke to catch his flight, too.”
Bruce stood and ruffled Dick’s hair. Another long-ago gesture he didn’t know how much he’d missed until it was there again, pressing tears into the corners of his eyes. Dick looked down to hide them and composed himself, quickly, with a quiet breath.
“Call if anything comes up,” Dick said, voice steady. “We’ll hold down the fort.”
“Get jelly drinks,” Cassandra said from the corner. She ate a brownie from the plate balanced on her stomach, while she slouched.
“I told you they have them in the Von Son Market,” Bruce said, his voice quiet across the room.
“Then,” Cassandra said, her gaze drifting up to his, “I have to talk to people.”
“I have to talk to people,” Bruce protested. Alfred was waiting in the hall now with a coat, his silhouette in the doorway.
“Need practice,” Cass said sweetly. “Thank you.”
Bruce grumbled and rolled his left shoulder, wincing as he did so. “You’re a spoiled brat,” he said, his tone an affectionate and warm whisper.
“Learned from the master,” she said, raising a brownie in salute.
Alfred, waiting, made a noise suspiciously like a stifled laugh. He coughed, politely, and jostled the coat as a signal.
“Don’t burn the house down,” Bruce said, as farewell. “Don’t let Tim and Damian burn the house down.”
“B, I know you think highly of me, but I’m not a miracle worker,” Dick said, grinning. “I’ll do my best but check the insurance policy before you go.”
“It’s not too late to leave you,” Bruce said, to Alfred. The older man raised an eyebrow.
“Begging your pardon, sir, but I have plans in Tokyo.”
“Plans?” Bruce echoed. “I thought you were coming to make sure I didn’t pass out on the plane.”
“I have made the best of dire circumstances. I am confident the house will remain mostly standing in our absence.”
“Plans with who,” Bruce demanded, his voice rising a little in pitch.
“A gentleman never tells, sir,” Alfred answered, and Dick whistled, soft enough to not wake the younger boys.
“Kissing,” Cassandra said, wrinkling her nose. “Gross.”
“We’re going to miss our flight,” Bruce muttered, leaving the room a bit more hurriedly than he probably needed. Alfred winked at Dick, and then turned to follow.
“You think kissing is gross?” Dick asked, turning with a note of surprise toward Cassandra.
She stuck out her tongue. “Just trade spit, same thing. Conner always forgot to brush his teeth.”
“We have to find you better dates than Tim’s friends,” Dick told her solemnly. “That’s a low bar.”
“I have brownies,” she said. “I’m good.”
Two days passed without much incident. The most alarming was Dick being woken by Damian’s furious shout of “Intruder!” while he ran through the kitchen one afternoon with a flashing katana in his hand. He’d followed close on Damian’s heels only to find Jason under the hood of the Ferrari with a toolbox, removing the speed limiter on the engine.
“That blade’s too big for you,” Jason had said, calmly, the tip at his throat.
Damian had been in the act of withdrawing the blade, but responded to this criticism by poking Jason in the shoulder with the tip. It was only Dick snatching him around his waist and hauling him back, twisting to wedge himself between them, that had kept it from being a brawl.
If Jason had any soft spots, they were for kids. Unfortunately, Damian did not neatly fit into that category. Damian was one-hundred-percent pest of a little brother, as much as Dick adored him he knew this, and Damian wasn’t exempt from older siblings’ attempts to beat him down to prove they could. Jason, at least, tended to hold back until physically provoked; a word could set Tim off. Cassandra delighted in pouncing whenever the mood struck her, and making sure Damian knew it wasn’t much of a fight for her.
“You know what? Dishonor on you, and dishonor on your cow,” Jason had snapped, which is how Dick knew Jason was taking it in stride and still in a good mood.
“Batcow did nothing to you!” Damian had shrieked, hanging over Dick’s arm while he struggled. “If anything, you deserved it! You threatened to make her into steak!”
Dick and Jason had both blinked and looked at each other. Jason laughed outright and turned back to the engine.
In Dick’s tight hold, Damian had flushed bright red and kicked his heels against Dick’s shins. The sword in his hand was held precisely, at an angle, to not hurt Dick or himself— temper and immaturity were still a major part of Damian’s forte, stupidity about bladed weapons was not.
“Let me go,” he’d shouted, until Dick dropped him.
“The bakery’s gone?” Dick had asked, while Damian scowled and stomped off.
“It will be by the time Bruce gets back,” Jason had said, testing something with a wrench and then reverently pressing the Ferrari hood down until it clicked. He tossed the box and tangle of wires at Dick.
“Jason,” Dick had said, catching it. “What does that mean?”
Jason was already slipping behind the wheel and adjusting the seat.
“God,” he had exhaled. “I’ve wanted this car since I was twelve.”
“Jason,” Dick had said again. “What do you mean ‘it will be?’”
“Have fun babysitting,” Jason had said, shutting the door. He pressed a button on the dash and the garage door at the far end slowly rotated open.
Then he’d gone, with a roar of the engine, and Dick had tossed the speed limiter on the pristine workbench and key-hook set up on the way back inside, to hunt for Damian.
When Bruce returned, nobody was even home. Dick had taken Damian to a Bristol aviary to stare at the rehabilitating hawks in their plexiglass-surrounded environments. Dick downed a coffee with too much syrup while Damian perched on the fence railing right next to the DO NOT CLIMB sign and sketched the red tail hawk missing an eye.
They all trickled back in over the evening hours, except for Duke who was still in San Francisco, and Stephanie who had late afternoon classes. Bruce was asleep, and Dick could tell by the smell of rosehip and chamomile tea Alfred was drinking that Alfred needed to unwind, which meant Bruce probably hadn’t slept the entire trip.
Dick decided to stay one more night.
The light through the windows was waxing a pinkish gold with sunset, Damian was dissembling the speed limiter to study it, and Tim was slurping milk from a bowl of cereal as loud as he could in hopes that Damian would throw something and give him an excuse to fight.
At least, that’s why Dick assumed he was slurping. It might have just been that Tim was a bit weird that way.
Cassandra and Jason were…somewhere. It was a big house.
Dick was trying to read a pulpy police crime novel he’d bought ages ago, left at the Manor, and forgotten to ever pick up again. He was just starting to get into the story when there was a brush of air, a blur of gray, and then something hard smacked him right in the cheek.
He yelped, grabbing at the projectile, ready to fight. His hand closed around it and he froze.
It was a lightsaber.
A plastic toy lightsaber, the paint chipped by the button.
Tim stopped slurping, a fat drop of milk suspended on his lip, and he spoke around a mouthful of Lucky Charms, “Ith tha’ a lighthaber?”
As an answer, Dick pressed the button and flicked his wrist. Blue telescoped out from the hilt.
“Where did it come from?” Tim asked, looking around the room and even at the ceiling. “Do we just…have those?”
Dick glanced at the door. The threshold was empty.
“This is Todd’s doing,” Damian said, his eyes narrowed.
“Fight or surrender!”
The bellow was faint on the air, from the window facing the west lawn. They rushed for it in a single mass of motion and Dick pushed the huge frame of panels up, and open.
Bruce was on the lawn, backlit by the setting sun. The sky was aflame with oranges and reds fading up into a bold, cloudless teal. Bruce himself was twirling a purple lightsaber in one hand, and was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and his ratty old pink robe.
“What.” Tim slipped against the frame and dropped the bowl of cereal, milk and soggy bits of puffed grain splashing across the polished floor. He scrambled for the rolling bowl and spoon only to be sucked back to the window like a magnet.
“Has Father lost his mind?” Damian exclaimed. “Drake, this is disgusting. You’ve dampened my sock.”
He balanced on one foot like a small, irate flamingo, his wet toes held off the floor and away from the spreading puddle.
“I am justice!” Bruce roared.
“What the fuck happened in Tokyo?” Damian hissed. Dick smacked the back of his head with the flat palm of his hand and hissed in return, “Language.”
“I am surrounded by fear and dead men!” Bruce yelled, lightsaber pointed at Dick.
“Holy shit,” Dick heard, from a window above. Jason’s voice.
“Watch who you’re calling dead, old man!” Dick hopped out the window and landed easily on the soft, trim grass.
“Grayson, don’t encourage this madness! Drake, are they both ill?”
“Shut up, Gremlin, I’m watching.”
Dick took off running, lightsaber raised, a war cry spilling from his lungs.
Until he was nearly on top of him, Bruce didn’t move except to lazily spin his own lightsaber. The pink robe fluttered in the breeze like a ragged cape, and there was gauze taped over his side right above the waistband of the shorts.
Then they collided, Dick’s shout carrying away on the wind only to be replaced by the smacking click of plastic on plastic. It was frenetic and every time Dick’s blocks failed to stop Bruce’s blade, the contact almost stung but not quite. It figured that Bruce would use actual sword form and not let Dick slack off even when doing this, but Dick didn’t care, because it was fun. It was a brutal and breathless fun, fast enough to make his muscles ache for not warming up first.
A strange buzzing noise kept cutting into his concentration until he finally reeled back out of the reach of Bruce’s lightsaber to pant for breath and demand,
“Are you making the noise?”
The nnnnrrrrr cut off with a click of Bruce’s teeth.
“I always make the noise. Why aren’t you making the noise.”
“I’m…out of practice,” Dick protested.
“You’ve never done this with Damian? With his affinity for blade combat?” Bruce asked, an eyebrow raised, and Dick took the momentary lowering of the lightsaber as an opening and hurled himself forward.
There was a frenzy of exchanged blows.
“Damian,” Dick gasped, spinning and blocking, “has never seen—” he ducked and jabbed “—Star Wars.”
“What,” Bruce said, his incredulity clear in the flatness of his tone. There was a sliver of a teasing smirk. “You never watched Star Wars with him? What other gaps in his education do I need to rectify?”
With a breath in, a red haze over his vision, Dick’s blows became less scripted and formal. They rained down in a fierce storm, Bruce staggering back under the sudden onslaught and struggling to block them all.
It had stopped being a game.
“No,” Dick snarled, something broken between his ribs. It was oozing black bile into his words, like vomiting acid that burned everything it touched and left his throat raw. “No, he hasn’t seen Star Wars! No, I didn’t do everything I should have with him! I was trying and I’m still trying and don’t tell me to make sure he sleeps in a fucking bed. I put him to bed every night for a year!”
Dick didn’t know what expression Bruce had, if any, because he couldn’t see through the tears. It took another few seconds to register that the smacks of the lightsaber were landing on shoulder, not plastic, and hands were scrabbling to grab his wrists.
“Dick, Dick,” someone was saying, a deep and alarmed voice. “Dickie. Chum.”
The lightsaber fell when Dick’s arms went limp and he sagged forward, his knees like jelly, and all the raging noise was snatched away from his mouth and left behind only broken quiet.
“You left me,” Dick accused, hiccuping a sob. Arms were around him now, his face pressed into Bruce’s robed chest. Tears drenched his cheeks and the pilling, satin pink. “You f…f…fucking left me and I didn’t care that we didn’t play together anymore, I grew up and I knew things changed after Jay, I never hated you for that, but B, you fucking left….left me.”
There was a kiss like rain dropping off a tree branch, sinking into his hair.
The acid wasn’t done, seeping out of him and scorching as it went. It kept pouring from behind his teeth and into the air, all over him and Bruce on the lawn.
“I had to raise him and I didn’t know what to do. You weren’t there to ask and I needed you, Dad, I really, really needed you. Jason was so angry and taking it out on us, and I thought Tim was losing his freaking mind, and Cass just left and Babs was mad at me, and I had to just keep going without you.”
A hand cupped the back of his head and pressed him more firmly into warm, muscled chest. It took several minutes of crying to match the inhale and exhale of his own breath to the rise and fall of the chest. His ear was close enough to feel Bruce’s heartbeat, while he could also hear a soft, “Shh. Shh, chum.”
“I’m so sorry, Dick,” Bruce said, when Dick’s breathing evened out. Still, he didn’t move back.
“I tried to watch Star Wars with him,” Dick said, his hands trembling. He felt like he was trembling all over. “He told me it was stupid five minutes in, and I could…I can take a lot from him, but it was ours and I just couldn’t do it. It was one of our things and there was no way to make him understand that, then. I yanked the TV cord out of the wall and left him with Alfred for hours. I was such an awful brother, I couldn’t even…try to explain.”
“No,” Bruce said. “No, Dick, it’s okay.”
Bruce’s chin was tucked over his head and Dick inhaled deep, the sweat and soap and everything that was Bruce that he’d tried to inhale from the robe or a shirt alone in his most desperate, lonely moments that awful year.
“I’m sorry I ruined our lightsaber fight,” Dick mumbled, sniffling.
Bruce huffed a laugh and squeezed him, then let him go. Dick stepped back and dropped to his ass on the lawn and reached for the abandoned lightsaber.
“Did I hurt your arm,” Dick asked, remembering that Bruce’s left arm had been part of the handful of injuries a few days before. He felt too numb by catharsis to feel deeply guilty.
“No,” Bruce said. “I’m fine.”
Dick didn’t know if it was the truth or not, but it was what Bruce was willing to live with and in this small and selfish moment Dick was okay to just let him.
“So, who won?” Jason yelled from the second story window.
“It was a draw!” Bruce shouted back, sitting and then lying down next to Dick on the grass. He groaned and shifted. “I’m getting too old for red eye flights.”
“B,” Dick laughed, a little hysteric, a lightness in his chest like helium pulling him up toward the sky and something brighter. “I don’t think planes are your problem.”
“There are no fricking draws in lightsabers,” Jason said. There was a soft thud.
With a sigh, Bruce closed his eyes. “Did your brother just jump out of a second story window. Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.”
With a twist of his hips, Dick looked back at the house, at Jason rising from a crouch. “Yup,” he said.
“You go until limb loss, surrender, or decapitation,” Jason said firmly. “Come on out here, brats. This is your new favorite game.”
“We don’t have enough lightsabers,” Dick shouted, looking at the two they’d dropped.
“Go get in the Ferrari,” Jason ordered the younger two, who were following him and bickering. “We gotta go to Walmart.”
“Seatbelts!” Dick yelled after them. “Don’t let Damian drive!”
He flopped back beside Bruce.
“I’m getting too old to babysit,” he said, squirming on the ground to get away from a rock digging into his back.
“You’re a good brother, Dick,” Bruce said, looking over. “You did an incredible job with him. I’m proud of you. I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”
Dick shrugged and rubbed his eyes.
“We should watch Star Wars,” he said. “All of them. From the beginning.”
“I’ll make popcorn,” Bruce offered.
“You’ll burn it,” Dick complained.
“I’ll ask Alfred to make popcorn,” Bruce amended.
“Another round before they get back and thrash us?” Dick asked, rolling to his feet. He bounced on his toes and shook out his limbs. “He’s right. Limb loss, surrender, or decapitation. Pick your poison because you’re going down.”
With another groan, Bruce pushed himself off the ground.
“Be careful not to choke on your aspirations,” he said, snatching the lightsaber in one hand.
“You’re such a nerd,” Dick said. He raised the lightsaber. “Make the noise again.”
“Always,” Bruce said.
The sun slipped below the horizon to the clash of plastic blades.
Beneath the foyer entry table, Tim held his breath and watched. From his vantage point, he could see Bruce standing in the middle of the hall outside the formal parlor. The lightsaber was in one hand, while he held another hand to his side.
Small, socked feet appeared in Tim’s peripheral, creeping forward. Quick as a cobra, his hand snaked out and snatched Damian’s ankle and hauled him under. He dropped his own shiny, new lightsaber to clap a hand over Damian’s mouth.
“Shh,” Tim ordered in his ear.
Damian bucked and thrashed for a few seconds but quickly stilled, his stealth instincts winning over his desire to break free from Tim’s hold.
“I’m going to let you go,” Tim whispered. “Be quiet.”
Damian bit his hand.
Tim yanked it back and choked down his startled cry. His angry hiss was barely audible. “I said I was going to let you go, jerkwad. Gee whiz.”
“You’ve delayed my attack.” Damian scowled. They were mostly lipreading at this volume. “You may have lost us the advantage.”
“Shh,” Tim said, dragging him back. He let go when Damian gave an irritated shake of his shoulder. “Look. It’s a trap, numbnuts.”
“Stop calling me names,” Damian snarled. He darted out of Tim’s reach and sprinted toward Bruce.
From his hiding spot, Tim watched the triangle of cloth in the upper corner of the doorway flutter the second before the drop. Cassandra timed her fall just right to land immediately behind Damian. Lightning fast, her lightsaber rested along his neck.
“Cheating,” Damian sputtered, to Bruce’s pleased smirk. “Using levitation of any kind is cheating.”
“Not levitating,” Cassandra said. “Just good.”
“I’m good,” Damian protested. “You’re…you’re…” He struggled for the word he wanted.
“Better,” Cassandra supplied, when he whirled to face her.
Beneath the table, Tim cringed. Damian had turned his back.
Cassandra used her lightsaber to tap Damian’s nose. Guttural indignation stuck in his throat and he went rigid all over, scarlet with fury, but before he could raise his lightsaber to strike or— more likely— drop it and just fight her, Bruce moved.
Whether or not Tim succeeded at being a good brother, he did try, and Damian was on his team. Even if it meant giving up his admittedly horrible hiding place, he had to act.
He charged forward, silent as midnight, and brought his lightsaber up to intercept the one Bruce was swinging toward Damian.
A body tap was out according to the rules but Tim didn’t think they’d been paying attention to those since approximately five minutes after they climbed out of Jason’s Ferrari with lightsabers freshly torn from packaging. Jason had even paid for all of them, including some spares, which had surprised Tim.
For a moment, Tim and Damian fought back to back against Cassandra and Bruce, rotating to swap fights every few seconds. It was…fun. It was like training downstairs, but without the high octane need for perfection, without the do-overs and pushing just that little bit harder. It was like sparring with a good rhythm, to burn off energy instead of to end something as quickly as possible.
Then, Tim saw them, in shadows at the end of the hall.
Dick, and beside him, not fighting him, was Jason.
The little crescent of Cassandra’s smile told him all he needed to know.
“You traitor!” Tim roared, snatching Damian’s collar and backing up. “You sold us out!”
The trap had been for both of them. They’d counted, for some reason, on Tim actually rescuing Damian. But that also meant that Dick had sided against Damian, in the end, instead of jumping ship for him, which was a minor balm.
Jason and Dick were walking toward them, slowly, and they were enjoying the dramatic tension, the assholes. Sometimes, Tim really hated being the younger brother. Bruce and Cassandra had them all but cornered, too.
“We’ve gotta run for it,” Tim said, out of the corner of his mouth. “Retreat and regroup.”
“Tim, I can hear you,” Bruce said.
“On my count,” Tim said, and to his eternal shock, Damian nodded. “One…”
“Requesting permission to use excessive force,” Dick said from the hall.
“God, Dickie, we’re just going to do it. Don’t ask him,” Jason said.
The hairs on the back of Tim’s neck stood up.
Bruce said nothing.
“Two,” Tim said.
He took off, Damian at his side. He’d anticipated the jump on the count and unfortunately, so did Bruce and Cassandra. A lightsaber flicked across Tim’s back and he pumped his legs harder. They had to break through the line Jason and Dick had made, if they wanted to find hiding spaces— they’d been massacred within seconds on the front steps if they went the other way.
Predictably, the older boys stopped them.
Less predictably, Dick’s hand slipped right under the reach of Tim’s lightsaber and Tim was flooded with horror when he realized. Long, nimble fingers dug into his armpit, tickling, and beside him in Jason’s arms, Damian shrieked like a rabid banshee.
There was a wild scuffle and Tim broke free, dragging Damian after him. They fled down the hall, footsteps pounding the floor after them. They rounded another corner only to run headlong into Bruce.
“How…did you…” Tim heaved for breath, leaning over on his lightsaber. It collapsed and he stumbled.
“Cheating,” Damian accused again, also gasping for air.
Bruce lunged toward them, a sharp and looming motion, and they both shrieked and took off the other way, taking another turn. It was only two flights of stairs and five doors later that they collapsed in a small, unused room.
“I didn’t ask for this,” Tim said, gasping, but deep down he knew he was having the time of his life.
Next to him, face pressed into the rug on the floor, Damian was in a heap and making a noise like a broken engine trying to start. It was low and clicking and hoarse, and Tim leaned forward in genuine alarm, afraid he was choking.
He saw Damian’s expression, took in the shaking shoulders, and sat back on his heels.
“Are you…laughing?” Tim asked. “Holy shit. You are.”
“If you tell anyone,” Damian wheezed, “I will…rip out your tongue…and nail it to the wall.”
“I think that’s fair,” Tim said amiably. “C’mon, if we go squeal to Alfred he’ll probably give us snacks.”
“Todd gave him a lightsword, also.”
“Lightsaber. Alfred? Do you think he’ll…use it?” Tim asked, doubtfully. He considered. “Okay. Yeah, we should just stay here all night. That seems safest. They’ve gotta wear out soon, right?”
Damian, still slumped bonelessly against the rug, looked up. His eyes met Tim’s.
“Call Brown,” he said. “We require reinforcements. She can sway Cain to our side.”
“You know, that really bothers her,” Tim said, his phone already out and his finger on the screen. “When you call her Cain. She’s Wayne. And David Cain is a bastard.”
“Tt,” Damian said, though he looked thoughtful. He pushed himself up to sit on his knees and he traced a swirl in the rug with his extended lightsaber. His tone was icy, like razor-edged mountain rock, when he spoke in a near-whisper. “I dislike it when you and the others call me Demonspawn. I am…more than…I am not…merely…”
Sometimes, it stung Tim just how much Damian was like Bruce. He took a breath.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll stop.”
“This alliance is temporary,” Damian warned him, and wasn’t Dick always telling Tim to keep taking babysteps?
He pocketed his phone.
“You know what. Steph probably has a class or something. We’ll get her in next fight. Let’s go see if Alfred will have mercy on us. I bet if he wants to fight anybody, it’s Bruce.”
Damian nodded, still staring at the rug.
“I believe there was talk of a film.”
“Films,” Tim said, climbing to his feet. He offered Damian a hand.
“Do you think they will do this again?” Damian asked, glaring at Tim’s hand and standing without taking it.
“If he doesn’t, we’ll get Dick to come make him,” Tim promised. Or, it was something like a promise. It seemed to appease Damian, who collapsed his lightsaber only to immediately swing it open again.
“We may have to be on our guard to the kitchen,” he said.
There were footfalls outside the door. Tim froze, a finger to his lips.
“Tim? Damian?” Bruce called, softly. That was his stakeout voice, the quiet one that they still managed to hear perfectly. Tim didn’t know how he did it, even after asking.
“Father,” Damian replied evenly, his hand tightening on the hilt, while Tim was making frantic shushing motions.
“Jason and Dick turned on me,” Bruce said. “I’m here to propose an alliance. And then, we surrender.”
“Your plan is to ally and then surrender?” Tim exclaimed. He dragged the door open. Bruce was leaning on the wall, his hand to his side again. It was splotched red with blood.
“I popped some stitches,” Bruce said. “It isn’t serious.”
“You just want us with you so Alfred doesn’t yell at you as much,” Tim realized. “We’re pawns.”
“And I have you hostage,” Bruce said, a lightsaber suddenly at Tim’s throat, while Cassandra peeled herself off the wall outside the room and peered in, like a cheerfully malevolent shadow. She waved.
Bruce was doing the Darth Vader breathing sound with his own mouth.
“Bruce,” Tim said, the plastic tip prodding his neck when he spoke.
“Hn,” and more mask-breathing noise.
“This is the best,” Tim said earnestly. “You should have heard Damian laughing.”
“You miscreant!” Damian howled, lunging. Bruce caught him midair and disarmed him and while holding him tightly, pressed a kiss to his forehead that shocked Damian into absolute stillness.
“We’ve got some movies to watch. Boys. Cassandra.” Bruce strode off down the hall, limping, Damian still in a firm hold against his chest. He was doing the Vader breathing again. “And I need new sutures.”
“That sound scares Damian,” Tim said, while Damian was restrained and more than a body length away.
“It doesn’t! Father, he’s lying!” Damian squirmed uselessly against Bruce’s arms and then stopped when Bruce said something into his ear. Tim let them go ahead.
“Peace?” Tim offered Cassandra, holding out a pinkie.
She shook it. Her eyes glittered in the hall light.
“Til next time.”