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When Damian was six, his tutor tried to kill him.

Damian had completed a particularly complex assignment and his tutor had laughed and smiled and given him a hug. It was not so unusual an occurrence. The man was his favorite and besides, Damian had been a sentimental fool at six years old.

So he allowed the man to hug him.

And he got stabbed in the back with a knife for his troubles.

Even with the wound, even at six years old, Damian had managed to get away. He’d escaped into the hallway where his mother had taken one look at him and handed him her sword. The weapon was longer than Damian was tall and it was heavy, made even heavier by the stab wound slowly bleeding the life out of him. But Damian had taken the sword anyway. And when the fight was over and Damian’s favorite tutor lay dead at his feet, his mother had stood tall in the doorway and told him:

“If they’re close enough to touch you, they’re close enough to kill you. Never forget that.”

Damian didn’t. He never forgot anything.

It took him exactly two months and three days to realize that Talia had orchestrated the whole affair, had ordered his favorite tutor to kill him, just to teach him this lesson. The realization only served to drive her point home.

Never trust. Never let down your guard.

Never let them touch you.

*****

The first time Richard Grayson tried to give Damian a friendly pat on the shoulder, Damian had thrown him into a wall.

The motion had been pure instinct, a gut reaction to someone stepping into his space. Grayson had landed on his feet like a cat and looked at Damian with those wide, guileless blue eyes of his, surprise written in large block letters across his face.

“I do not like to be touched,” Damian informed him haughtily.

Grayson’s eyes narrowed.

Damian didn’t know him well enough at the time to realize it, but Grayson had just accepted his words as a challenge. Looking back, it was the moment Damian should have realized he was doomed.

Thus began one of the most intense battles of Damian’s life, a war of wills between two opponents who would rather die than surrender. At every opportunity, Grayson would reach out for Damian, intending a pat on the shoulder, a brush of fingers through his hair, a friendly nudge with his elbow or knee, or—worst of all—a hug.

Damian met every attempt with violence. Once, he even bruised the older man’s ribs.

And Grayson only laughed.

“One of these days,” Grayson threatened, mouth set in his biggest, most absurd grin.

“Why do you persist?” Damian demanded as he blinked and looked down. Watching Grayson smile was like staring into the sun.

For once in his life, Grayson became serious. He crouched down so he was eye-level with Damian and said, “Because you’re family. You’re my family. And I swear to you, Damian, I will never ever hurt you. Not like she did.”

Damian startled. He hadn’t told Grayson that. He hadn’t told anyone that. Not even Father. Not once. Not ever.

And he’d forgotten something important, too. Or perhaps he’d never truly understood it in the first place. For all he acted like an insufferable idiot, Richard Grayson was sharp. He’d been Batman’s first Robin. Had built his own team of superheroes. Had become his own man as Nightwing. Had been good enough to pick up the cowl and be the hero Gotham needed, the hero he’d never wanted to be. He wasn’t the Detective, not by any means. But he saw things the rest of them didn’t, had an instinct for people in a way Father never had.

The realization surprised Damian. He didn’t like to be surprised. He liked even less that Grayson saw he was surprised.

“You will,” Damian said, voice as low and vicious as he knew how to make it. “Everyone always does.”

“Not me, kid,” Grayson promised him, smiling like he knew the punchline to a joke Damian had never heard. “Let me show you.”

And—somehow—he did.

It started so small between them, the trust that went deeper than the partnership they had on the streets. Small enough, in fact, that Damian didn’t realize it was happening until he was already in too deep to ever claw his way out.

It started with Grayson teaching him how to ride a bike on the long gravel driveway leading up to Wayne Manor on a hot summer day, the older man laughing brightly as Damian mastered the trick of it in three minutes flat. It started with Grayson telling him stories of Father, his blue eyes wistful and angry in turns. It started with Grayson showing him how to use the parallel bars in the gym, demonstrating the best ways to flip and twist his body.

It started with Grayson teaching him how to fly on the trapeze strung high above the Cave floor. Damian had never felt more free in his entire life. Never felt more alive than in those moments.

It was the first time Damian smiled because he meant it, not because he wanted something and a smile was the right tool for the job.

Grayson gave him these things, these precious memories that had no bitterness attached to them.

In return, Damian did something he never did. He gave back.

He gave Grayson lessons in Arabic, so they could speak to each other in Damian’s mother tongue. He gave Grayson a finely-made throwing knife that Talia had gifted him on the occasion of his first kill. He gave Grayson copies of his favorite books and then gave him quiet afternoons to read them side-by-side on the cozy couches in the Manor’s library.

But it was only after Talia came with her Shadows to Gotham, only after she tried to reclaim Damian, only after Damian told her no, that Grayson broke down that final barrier.

Because Grayson fought for him. No one had ever done that before, not like Grayson. Talia had fought for Damian because she thought she owned him. Ra’s had fought for Damian because he was his heir. The Shadows had fought for Damian because he was their master. His father had fought for Damian because they were blood.

Damian was none of those things to Grayson.

But Grayson fought for him anyway. Because he wanted to. Because he chose to.

And in those final moments of their battle with Talia, when the smoke was settling along with the realization that his mother had lost, Damian stood with his back to Grayson and allowed the older man to put both hands on his shoulders.

His mother stood tall and defiant. “You’ve forgotten what I taught you,” she said.

“No,” Damian told her. “I haven’t. But he’s not you.”

And even though he couldn’t see Grayson’s smile, he could feel it—brightening the darkness around him until the whole world was sunlight.

Chapter Text

“Your ankle is broken,” Jason said, lounging against the alley wall like he owned it.

“No, really?” Tim shot back through clenched teeth, trying to will the pain away so he could stand up and finish the mission. “I hadn’t noticed.”

Jason regarded him from under the red helmet as Tim gathered his legs beneath him. Agony flared as he jostled his ankle against the pavement. Tim briefly wrestled with unconsciousness and won.

“What are you doing?” Jason asked. Tim glared, sucking in short, sharp breaths through his nose to control the nausea roiling through his stomach. The concussion he’d sustained while falling off the roof certainly wasn’t helping.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

“It looks like you’re trying to get up so you can chase after the guys who jumped you,” Jason said frankly, still making no move to help. Tim couldn’t decide if he was grateful or not. He didn’t particularly trust Jason, but he also wasn’t sure he was going to make it to his feet without passing out. Or vomiting. Or both. “Which would be dumb,” Jason continued. “Since your ankle is broken.”

“They’ll get away if I don’t,” Tim growled. “I’ve spent a month tracking their operation. If I don’t get to them tonight, they’ll pack everything up and set up shop somewhere else.” He managed to gather his weight on his good foot, with his injured leg stretched before him. From there, he reasoned, it should be easy enough to push himself upright.

Probably.

Maybe.

If only his muscles would stop shaking.

Jason sighed theatrically. “I’m so going to regret this,” he muttered. Before Tim could ask what he meant, Jason continued, “Go home, Replacement. I’ll get your guys.”

Tim’s head snapped up to stare at the other man. “What?”

“I’ll go after them. Just get back to the Batcave in one piece.”

Tim regarded him warily, ignoring the steady throb in his leg. “You’re being nice to me. You’re never nice to me.” Suspicion flared. “What are you up to?”

From the stiffness of his shoulders, Tim was pretty sure Jason was glaring at him. “I’m not up to anything, you…you birdbrain. You’d honestly rather I let you chase after those assholes with one good leg? They tossed you off a building!”

“I can manage,” Tim said automatically. Even though he was pretty sure he couldn’t.

Jason threw his hands in the air. Tim could imagine the exasperated expression on his face easily enough. “Fine! You want to die tonight, knock yourself out. Don’t come crying to me about it afterward.” He started to walk away.

Tim stubbornly tried to push himself to his feet. The wave of pain that swept through him was so strong that it took him a moment to realize he’d ended up back on his ass.

“Wait,” he gasped out at Jason’s retreating form.

Jason stopped, but he didn’t turn around. Tim supposed that was the best he was going to get.

“You…you’re right. I’m not catching anyone tonight. At least, not alone. Will you…?” his throat closed over the words.

Jason turned slowly. He made a beckoning motion with his fingers. “Come on. You have to say it.”

Tim gave as vicious a glare as he could manage under the circumstances. Jason didn’t budge an inch. So Tim took a deep breath and forced the words out of his mouth.

“Will you help me?”

“What’s the magic word?”

Tim chucked a birdarang at him. Jason dodged the projectile easily.

“Magic word?”

Oh, Tim could hear the grin in his voice. Jason probably looked like the Cheshire Cat underneath his helmet.

Please,” Tim gritted out. He couldn’t decide if the nicety hurt more than his ankle. It was a close call.

“That’s better,” Jason told him. He jogged back toward Tim. “You should call yourself a ride.”

Tim shook his head hard, ignoring the way it made the world spin around him. “This is my op. I’m not going home until it’s done.”

Jason folded his arms. “Pretty sure we just had this argument and—news flash—you lost.”

“I’m not saying I’ll do anymore fighting,” Tim explained. “Just get me to a nearby roof and I’ll quarterback the mission while you do the heavy lifting.”

“As fun as it sounds to have your dulcet, paranoid tones right in my ear during a firefight, I think I’ll pass,” Jason said.

Hood,” Tim complained, aware that he was dangerously close to whining.

"No."

"It's either this or I go on my own," Tim threatened, wondering what alternate reality he'd stumbled into where putting his own life at risk could make Jason more likely to help him. 

Jason heaved a frustrated sigh. “Fine,” he agreed with bad grace. “Let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

“What exactly am I looking at?” Jason asked as he eyed the boarded-up widows of a long-abandoned restaurant four blocks down.

Tim pressed his back to the wall behind him and took a moment to get control of his breathing before he answered. Even with the homemade brace Jason had cobbled together for his ankle, the pain of grappling up to the rooftop was making it difficult to concentrate. His foot was now sending little pulses of agony up his leg in time with his rapid heartbeat.Tim shifted a little, hoping to find a more comfortable way of sitting.

He only ended up making things worse.

“Drug ring,” Tim answered shortly, swallowing down some bile. “Well, among other things. The GCPD has been struggling to crack this case, so I said I’d help out. If we can catch these guys, Gordon will be able to flip them on their bosses and start moving up the food chain.”

“And I care because…?”

“Because the guy at the very top is the Penguin.”

Jason let out a low whistle. “You do dream big, Gimpy. I’ll give you that.”

Tim bared his teeth a little at the new nickname, but otherwise let it slide. He honestly wasn’t sure why Jason was helping him right now and didn’t know how far he could push their fragile peace before it broke.

“You’ll need to switch your comm over so I can talk to you,” Tim said instead, setting his mind on the mission. “The frequency is—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jason cut him off. “Already tuned in.”

“I knew it,” Tim breathed. “You do eavesdrop when I’m on patrol.”

“Not just you, sweetheart. You aren’t special,” Jason snarked, getting to his feet. “Anything else I need to know before I go fuck some shit up?”

“No. Just…” Tim took a breath, hoping he wasn’t about to go too far. “Don’t kill anyone.”

Jason laughed. It wasn’t nearly as reassuring as Tim hoped it would be. “Be back in a few,” he said and vaulted over the edge of the roof.

Tim let his head thump gently against the wall and prayed he hadn’t just made a huge mistake.

He watched with bated breath as Jason made his way toward the old restaurant, using the run-down apartment buildings nearby as cover. The last fifty feet or so were exposed concrete, a wide-open parking lot with nowhere to hide. But Jason covered the ground easily. Apparently, the thugs had thought tossing Tim off the roof meant they were in the clear.

Idiots.

“There’s a door in the back,” Tim told Jason, adjusting the comm device to sit more comfortably in his ear.

"Don’t be boring,” Jason admonished, his voice coming back loud and clear.

“Wait—” Tim protested, but by then Jason was already kicking in the front door. What happened next was an agonizing ten minutes of screams and gunfire and confusion that Tim could hear both through the comm and echoing from the street. At last, the old restaurant fell silent.

“Hood?” Tim called. “You there?”

I’m here,” Jason replied after a beat. “No one’s dead. I’m going to tie these assholes up and leave ‘em for the GCPD.

“Copy that. They got anything interesting laying around?”

Ummm,” Jason hummed. Tim waited impatiently for him to look around. “A shit-ton of drugs—pills mostly. Some weapons I’m guessing they don’t have permits for. Found some cash in the safe I just cracked and—hey now…

“What?” Tim prompted, when Jason fell silent.

Hmm? Oh nothing. Nothing to worry your little head about,” Jason replied.

“Hood,” Tim complained.

Replacement,” Jason shot back in the same tone. “Shut up for a minute, will you? I’m a little busy wrapping up your case for you.

Tim clenched his jaw so tightly his teeth ached and fell silent. He watched from his perch as Jason slowly dragged body after unconscious body from the building and across the parking lot. After the fourth trip, Tim asked, “Why don’t you just leave them inside?”

Because,” Jason said. Tim waited for more, but Jason didn’t elaborate.

Six henchmen and several crates full of illicit goods later, Jason made his way back to the rooftop where Tim was waiting. He tossed the younger boy a clear packet with a few pills in it.

"Got you a sample,” he said.

“Thanks,” Tim replied, tucking the packet into his utility belt. “Did you call the police?”

Jason removed his helmet, revealing sweat-soaked dark hair and a red domino mask covering his eyes.

“They’ll be alerted in a moment,” he said, watching the restaurant expectantly.

“What—?” Tim started to ask, before a wave of heat and sound crashed over him. The boarded windows exploded outwards as a massive fireball engulfed the building and sent bright orange flames licking hungrily into the night sky. Car alarms down the block started blaring noisily, accompanied by the howling of terrified dogs.

“They had C-4,” Jason sighed happily. “I love it when they have C-4.”

Tim stared at the burning wreckage, aghast.

What the hell?” he demanded as soon as he found his voice. He could hear sirens wailing in the distance. Lights flickered on in the buildings around them. “What the actual hell is wrong with you? We could have…there could have been evidence…I was going to search…” Tim was so worked up he could barely form a coherent sentence.

“Huh.” Jason looked at him. “You probably should have thought of that before I blew up the building.”

“How is any of this my fault?!” Tim shouted, throwing his hands into the air. His head was pounding furiously, which only served to make things worse.

“Relax, Replacement,” Jason told him calmly. Tim had never wanted to strangle someone so badly in his life. He settled for calling Jason a name that would have made Alfred scrub out his mouth with soap.

Jason’s mouth twisted into a smirk. “Someone’s cranky,” he said. “Must be past your bedtime. You owe me for this, you know.” His face took on a speculative cast. “Although…you could pay me back right now…”

Before Tim could register what Jason was doing, the older boy had gotten in close and stolen Tim’s comm from right out of his ear. Tim reached up to swat him away, but Jason skipped out of range and crushed the device under his bootheel.

“What are you doing?” Tim snarled. Jason didn’t answer. Instead, he reached into a pocket and pulled out his cellphone.

“And who are you calling?” he demanded as Jason dialed a number and put the phone to his ear.

Jason put a finger to his lips. “I’m on the phone,” he mouthed. Tim seethed quietly and debated throwing another birdarang at him. Not that it would do much good.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Jason said after a moment, clearly talking to person on the other end of the line. “No, I didn’t kill anyone. Jesus. Why do you always ask me that when I call you at three in the morning with police sirens in the background?” He huffed a sigh. “Apology accepted. Look, I found something that belongs to you. You should go pick it up.”

A glimmer of an idea sparked in Tim’s head. He wouldn’t…Jason wouldn’t…not Jason

Jason nodded against the phone. “Yeah. Broken ankle. Think he’s got a concussion, too. Kid fell off a roof. Can you believe it, Dickie?”

Whatever color Tim had left in his face evaporated along with his rage. “You called Nightwing?” he asked, horrified. Dick’s mother hen instincts were the stuff of legend. Tim was going to be smothered to death by his older brother’s well-meaning concern.

Jason grinned viciously at him, but somehow his voice was all innocence as he said into the phone, “No, I don’t think he’s well enough to go to the Cave. You should probably take him to Doc Thompkins, get him a full physical. Yeah, I think that is a good idea. You should definitely call B.”

Tim groaned and buried his face into his hands. “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you,” he chanted, knowing perfectly well that Jason could hear every word.

The older boy ignored him and rattled off their coordinates for Dick. “Better get there fast,” Jason added. “I told him to stay put, but he’s a stubborn little prick. Mmhmm. Sure. No problem. Just don’t get used to it.” He disconnected the call.

Tim lowered his hands and glared at Jason as ferociously as he knew how. Jason only laughed.

“Can’t thank you enough for the assist, Replacement,” he said. “I have some…non-Bat approved errands to run and you’ll be keeping B and Nightwing busy for the next hour or so. Sorry about your comm, but I couldn’t have you giving the game away.”

“Bastard,” Tim growled.

"Well, you know what they say,” Jason grinned cheekily. “Never look a gift Robin in the mouth.” He slid his helmet back on and locked it in place.

Tim clenched his jaw. “I hate you,” he said again.

“Feeling’s mutual, kiddo,” Jason assured him. “See you around.”

And then he was gone.

“Damn it,” Tim muttered, slumping down against the wall. Jason was the worst.

But he’d also helped. Even though he could have walked away. Even though he didn’t have to. Tim didn’t quite know what to make of that.

Maybe next time he'd find out.

Chapter Text

As always, Bruce arrived at the table first.

“Morning, Alfred,” he said, his voice warm and unguarded in a way that was growing rarer and rarer these days. The result of spending too much time as the Bat. Too much time being a symbol and not a man.

“Good morning, Master Bruce,” Alfred said, placing the plate with Bruce’s steaming breakfast down with expert precision at the head of the table. Bruce sat, a hardly-there wince flashing across his face as the movement jostled the cut on his side. Alfred set his jaw and said nothing. Bruce was a man grown and one of the best fighters in the world—which was saying something considering the world contained flying, bullet-proof aliens and immortal Amazonian demi-goddesses.

And yet, the knowledge wasn’t enough to stop Alfred’s heart from hurting every time Bruce came home injured or tired or beaten. It wasn’t enough to stop his worry every time Bruce donned his mask and went prowling. It wasn’t enough to stop his relief every time Bruce came home alive.

“The paper,” Alfred said, reaching over to hand Bruce that morning’s edition. Bruce glanced at the headline and Alfred retreated to the sideboard to retrieve another plate and bowl just as Damian walked through the door.

“Father. Pennyworth,” Damian greeted, his sharp eyes assessing as always. He was already dressed in his school uniform, not a hair out of place.

Alfred blinked, seeing for the briefest of moments not Damian, but Bruce at that age—a young, too-solemn, terribly bright schoolboy, holding together the ragged pieces of a world that no longer made sense. Alfred blinked again and the vision was gone. He placed Damian’s breakfast before him, successfully hiding a rueful smile as Bruce greeted his biological son.

In the long, trying years following the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Alfred had often wondered if Bruce would have children of his own. He’d always imagined someone a little more cheerful, like Bruce had been before everything changed. Though given the twists and turns Bruce’s life had taken, Alfred really shouldn’t have been surprised by the irascible, infuriating, stubborn, good-hearted, soul-wrenchingly vulnerable boy that Bruce’s son had turned out to be.

It gave Alfred no satisfaction at all to watch Bruce slowly realize what hell it must have been to raise him all those years ago. He definitely wasn’t smug about it. Not even a little bit.

Well…maybe a little.

“Falcone’s on the front page again,” Bruce said as Alfred took up a position by the door.

Damian’s expression hardened. “We’ll have to move against him soon.”

Alfred cleared his throat loudly, pointedly. There were rules to breakfast. And rule Number One was absolutely no vigilante business at the table. Alfred had made it quite clear to his charges that if they had a problem with that, they were more than welcome to make their own meals.

It was a highly effective threat.

And indeed, both Waynes were glancing at him sheepishly.

“Sorry, Alfred,” Bruce said. He stared at Damian until the boy muttered his own insincere apology.

They were spared a lecture by Tim’s arrival. Unlike Damian and Bruce, both immaculately dressed and groomed, Tim was a bleary-eyed mess, the way he always was when he finally slept after too many wakeful nights. His flannel pajama bottoms were overlong, hems run ragged from being dragged across the floor. His t-shirt was little more than a mass of wrinkles. Sleep-tousled black hair poked out from under the blanket Tim clutched around him, a fuzzy mockery of the hooded capes the boys sometimes wore when they patrolled. Alfred gently took Tim’s elbow and led him to the table, helping the boy find his seat. A mug of steaming black coffee was already waiting for him. Alfred carefully placed it in the boy’s hands.

“Hey there, Tim,” Bruce greeted, an affectionate smile in his voice, on his face.

Hnngh,” Tim groaned unintelligibly, staring at the cup nestled in his hands like he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

“You’re supposed to drink it, Drake,” Damian snapped after a moment. Tim blinked owlishly and did as he was told. Alfred gently smoothed the blanket across his shoulders and left him to it. Tim wouldn’t be alert enough for food for another ten minutes at least.

“Useless,” Damian muttered under his breath, eyeing Tim with disdain.

“Master Damian,” Alfred said reprovingly as he stepped back to wait for his next charge. Alfred normally didn’t intervene when it was just name-calling, but Tim wasn’t conscious enough to fend for himself at the moment.

Damian flashed him a look, but dutifully turned back to his conversation with Bruce. Alfred knew he was the only one who caught the slight upward tick at the corner of Bruce’s mouth, a surefire sign that the man was amused. Alfred was glad he remembered his own scoldings at this very table.

A large figure in a worn red hoodie trudged through the door. Alfred made no move to help Jason as he grabbed a plate and made it up himself. Even on the days that Jason swallowed his pride and stayed at the Manor, he liked to make a point of showing off his independence. Some rebellions, like setting his own place at the table, were harmless. Others, like turning the gardens into a shooting range, were not. Alfred and Jason had had a Talk after Jason had tried that last one.

No one messed with Alfred’s flowerbeds.

After loading his plate, Jason turned toward the others, hesitating as he debated who he disliked least at the moment: Damian or Tim. A prompting glare from Damian sent Jason to Tim’s side of the table. He smiled at Alfred as he passed, face lighting up in genuine affection. Alfred nodded in return, letting the warmth show in his eyes. He would have hugged Jason, if he’d thought the boy would allow it. Alfred still couldn’t believe sometimes that Jason was here, alive and well. Or, at least, alive and healing. It was nothing short of a miracle, one Alfred was grateful for every single day.

“I’m heading out tomorrow,” Jason announced to the table during a lull in the conversation. Bruce’s full attention diverted to his second eldest.

“Where?” he asked.

“Business trip,” Jason answered shortly, one hand snaking out to steal Tim’s coffee mug from right between the younger boy’s fingers. Alfred was there a moment later, replacing Tim’s cup with another before the boy could utter so much as a sound of protest. Tim blinked down at the fresh coffee and then up at Alfred.

“Th’nks,” he murmured in something approximating English. Alfred patted his shoulder and returned to the sideboard, preparing his final plate as Bruce engaged in battle of wills with Jason.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” Bruce said, just a hint of a growl creeping into his tone.

“Nope,” Jason replied, letting the ‘p’ pop insolently.

“You know I’ll figure it out.”

Jason slurped his stolen coffee loudly in response, just to prove a point.

Bruce glared.

Alfred ignored them both and set the place next to Damian, bracing himself for what was about to bound through the door.

“Morning everyone!” Dick beamed, oblivious to the tension in the air—or, at least, pretending to be oblivious to it. He skipped into the room like he was restraining himself from cartwheeling across the threshold. Which he probably was. Alfred had caught him in the act on too many occasions to count.

“Aw, Alfred, you’re the best!” he exclaimed, seeing his breakfast ready and waiting. Alfred gave the boy—no, man now, he reminded himself—a fond smile in return.

“A well-known fact,” Alfred agreed.

Dick laughed, and even Jason and Bruce managed to forget their feud long enough to smile at his answer.

“Grayson,” Damian said, nodding at his older brother as the man sat down next to him.

“Sleep well, Dami?” Dick reached over to tousle Damian’s perfectly combed hair. Damian scowled and swatted him away, but Alfred knew the boy was pleased by the affectionate gesture.

“Tolerably,” Damian answered, patting his hair back into place.

“Awesome. How about you, Tim?” Dick said, shifting his attention to the next youngest. Tim gazed into his coffee, completely oblivious to them all. “Tim? Tiiiiim? Timmy? Timbuctoo?”

“For the love of—!” Jason exploded. “Will you shut up? He’s obviously a zombie right now, Dickhead.”

“Love you too, Jaybird,” Dick grinned at him. His attention immediately bounced to Bruce, asking the older man something in the same, irrepressibly cheerful, loud voice. Dick didn’t seem to notice the way Jason’s eyes narrowed dangerously, didn’t seem to notice the tiny throwing knife that slipped from Jason’s shirtsleeve into his waiting hand. He definitely didn’t notice the one that Damian palmed in his defense.

Alfred did. He glared at both boys. The weapons disappeared in a hurry. Food was consumed with suspicious innocence.

After another five minutes or so, Tim joined the land of the living. “What time are we leaving for WE?” he asked Bruce as he finally started in on some food.

Bruce frowned at him. “You’re staying in today.”

“But the board meeting!” Tim spluttered around a mouthful of eggs. Jason and Damian pulled twin faces of disgust.

“We made a deal, Tim,” Bruce said sternly. “You hardly slept this week.”

“I slept last night,” the boy protested.

Bruce shot him a look. "For more than two hours?"

Tim blinked. "Yes," he answered, just a beat too late.

Alfred decided to settle the matter.

“Master Timothy, the next time you lie about your health, I will remove all coffee from the premises for a month,” Alfred promised, his tone mild.

Tim gaped at him in horror. “You wouldn’t,” he whispered, unconsciously clutching his mug closer.

Alfred fixed the boy with a stern glare. “I would.”

“Give it up, Tim,” Dick told him, reaching across the table to pat Tim’s arm comfortingly. “You can’t fight Alfred.”

“You can’t fight him and win,” Jason corrected.

“It’s true,” Bruce said, leaning back in his seat. Thoroughly outnumbered, Tim admitted defeat.

The group began breaking up not long after that. Dick, though he had been last to arrive, was first to finish. He bounded out of the room with the same energy with which he had entered. Jason slunk after him, scarred hands stuffed into the pocket of his sweatshirt. Alfred caught him by the door.

“You’ll let me know when you leave?” he asked quietly.

Jason’s eyes flicked toward Bruce, but he nodded.

“And you’ll tell me where you’re going?”

“Alfred,” Jason protested softly.

Alfred placed a hand on his shoulder. “I worry, Master Jason.”

Jason’s expression softened. “I promise I’ll tell you.”

Alfred smiled at him. “Thank you.” He gave the boy’s shoulder a final squeeze. “Off you go now.”

Jason gave an ironic salute and slipped out.

“Hey, wait!” Tim called after him. He pushed aside his unfinished breakfast and stumbled after Jason. “You’re leaving? Who’s gonna cover your territory?”

“Not you,” Jason snarled from down the hall.

“Good thing I wasn’t offering,” Tim shot back. The sounds of their argument disappeared, swallowed by the thick walls of the Manor.

 Damian stood from the table when Bruce did. Alfred stepped forward and began collecting the used dishes.

“Pennyworth, I shall return with my things in a moment,” the boy informed him.

Alfred didn’t bother looking up as he gathered another dirty plate. “Master Bruce will be driving you to school this morning.”

The man in question paused in the act of pulling on his suit coat. “Will I?” Bruce asked, the wariness in his tone a mask for his surprise.

“You will,” Alfred said firmly.

Bruce wisely chose not to argue. “I’ll pull the car around.”

Damian disappeared through the door. Bruce sent Alfred a questioning glance.

“Far be it from me to tell a man how to raise his son,” Alfred said primly.

Bruce’s lips quirked upward. “But you’re going to do it anyway.”

He was. “You need to spend more time with him—”

“We spend every night patrolling together.”

—outside the masks,” Alfred finished. He looked up at Bruce. “Boys need to know their fathers care. Especially boys like Damian.”

“I…maybe you’re right,” Bruce said, after a long silence. “Even through everything, I always knew my father loved me.” He looked at Alfred. “Both my fathers.”

Alfred smiled at him, stoutly ignoring the pricking in his eyes. “Have a good morning, Master Bruce.”

Bruce smiled back. “You too, Alfred.”

Chapter Text

Today, Jason is off crime lording in his neighborhood when a familiar and decidedly unwelcome figure in blue and black decides to pay him a visit.

“Red Hood,” Dick says. “I have to take you in.”

Jason snorts.

Good luck with that, Dickie.

Dick tenses, feet spread, hands up, eager for action. Jason can still read the older man’s body language, can see he’s ready for a chase.

So Jason gives him one.

They run the whole length of Jason’s territory. He’s in a sporting mood, so he lets Dick get close a few times. Eventually, Jason grows bored and decides enough is enough. He drops a few smoke bombs and when those don’t work, a few explosive charges, and makes his escape.

But Jason’s no fool. He saw the look on Dick’s face.

He’ll be back tomorrow. 

*

Today, Jason is in the middle of wiping out the last dregs of a human trafficking ring when Dick shows up. The former Boy Wonder gets there so fast that Jason takes a moment to ponder if he’s being tracked somehow. He’ll have to check.

“Red Hood. I have to take you in,” Dick says.

Jason shoots a guy in the face—because damn it, you don’t leave a job unfinished—and takes off.

Dick pulls even with him too soon. Much sooner than Jason expected.

They fight.

Or, more accurately, they dance.

Because when you know your opponent as well as Jason knows Dick, that’s what it is: a deadly dance of fists and feet and steel.

Dick’s technique has improved over the years. He’s gotten faster. And somehow more flexible. Jason hadn’t realized that was possible.

Unfortunately for Dick, Jason’s gotten better, too. And he’s had other tutors—teachers that Dick doesn’t know and never saw. Jason’s got a few tricks up his sleeve now.

He uses one of them. Dick gets some bruises and a bloody nose.

Jason gets away.

Later, he finds a tracker on his suit, under the collar of his jacket.

Very sneaky, Dick.

Jason ditches the tracker.

Tomorrow, he’ll be a free man. 

*

Today, Jason’s only crime is getting out of bed in the morning.

Apparently, it’s enough.

“Red Hood. I have to take you in.”

Ugh. Seriously? Can’t Dick think of anything better to say?

Jason darts through the alleyways of Gotham, forcing Dick to give chase. He heads for the metro stop he knows isn’t far off. He checks his watch as he runs. God, he hopes this thing is accurate. And that everything’s running on schedule. Otherwise, he’s going to be a good deal flatter at the end of this night.

Also, a good deal deader.

Meh, details.

The subway is right on time. Jason launches himself across the track moments before the train pulls into the station. Dick is stuck on the other side until the train pulls out. Jason’s gotten lucky.

Or maybe he’s just that good.

Tomorrow will tell. 

*

Today, Jason has blood on his hands.

His target is a drug dealer who spends his days selling to kids and his nights beating the shit out of his girlfriend. In summary, he’s an asshole.

Correction. Was an asshole. Past tense.

Jason doesn’t feel guilty in the slightest about that.

Dick appears as Jason is making his getaway. Jason was slower than he should have been. His asshole target had put up a fight. Jason had been attempting to assess the damage and lingered too long. He’s not injured, but there’s an uncomfortable tightness in his chest where his body armor stopped a bullet and his grappling gun is broken, clipped by a stray shot during the fighting.

But he hears the words:

“Red Hood. I have to take you in.”

And his feet know what to do.

They run.

Dick is fast, but Jason is faster. He knows this area. What’s more, he knows his escape route. He’s planned it out. Has the map safe in his head. He’s going to get away. Like always. Just one more jump across those rooftops and—

His foot slips.

The fall comes quickly, announced by the swoop in his stomach that is one-part dread and one-part relief. He’s up too high. His grapple is broken.

He isn’t going to survive this one.

But at least it will all be over.

Again.

Jason!” a voice screams above him, harsh and broken and terrified.

Something snakes around his ankle and tightens like a vice. A second later, Jason jerks to a stop, crying out as Dick’s grappling line pulls agonizingly taut on his leg. He breathes through the pain as he swings gently back and forth. He isn’t going to be able to run for a while. Probably will walk with a limp tomorrow…

Tomorrow…

Dick caught him. Like a fish on a hook.

There isn’t going to be a tomorrow.

He’s still trying to figure out how he feels about that when Dick hauls him back up to the roof. Jason pulls himself over the edge, ready for Dick to assault him with restraints the moment he’s on solid ground.

But Dick just.

He just looks at him. Reaches out and brushes his fingers across Jason’s helmet like he can’t quite believe Jason is real.

And then he turns around and walks away.

It takes Jason longer than he’s proud of to realize why. 

*

Today, Jason is limping through a cemetery, collar pulled high against the damp chill in the air. He doesn’t like cemeteries. He avoids them when he can. The sight of all those tombstones, the thought of all those coffins buried under the earth makes him remember—

Darkness.

Dirt.

Can’t move. Can’t breathe.

Where am I?  

Can’t get out. Can’t get out.

Can’t breathe.

                           Can’t breathe.

                                                       Can’t breathe.

                                                                                    Can’t breathe.

A sharp gust of ice-water wind against his face, frigid and shocking.

Jason shakes his head.

He isn’t under the ground. He’s above it. He’d gotten out. He’s out.

Breathe.

He finds Dick kneeling in front of a small gray headstone, so still he might have been carved from stone himself. Jason wonders how long he’s been sitting there. A few hours at least, judging by the damp state of his clothes and hair, the paleness of his cheeks. Jason purposefully doesn’t look at the tombstone. He doesn’t need to. He knows what it says.

He kneels down next to Dick.           

Dick doesn’t move.

He reaches out and puts his arm around the older man, pulling him close.

I’m here. I’m real. I’m alive.

Dick takes a long, shuddering breath and leans his head against Jason’s shoulder.

They don’t speak a word.

Tomorrow, things will go back to normal. Tomorrow, they will be enemies.

But that’s tomorrow.

Today, they’re brothers.

Chapter Text

“Oh good, you’re all here,” Tim said, walking into the lounge like it was a complete surprise to see all his brothers in one place instead of the predicted result of his own meddling. “I need a favor.”

Dick looked up from where he was sitting on the sofa with Damian. “You said we were having a movie night,” he said accusingly.

Damian frowned. “Drake told me that he had a message from Father.”

They looked at each other and then at Jason, who was sitting on the windowsill, one muddy boot resting negligently on the painted wood.

“He told me he had upgrades for my tech,” Jason said, his hands busy playing with a silver lighter. The steady rhythm of the little golden flame sparking on and off was almost mesmerizing. “I told him to fuck off.”

“Then why are you here?” Damian demanded.

Jason flicked the lighter shut with sharp click. His scowl was ferocious. “Because the little shit hacked me and reset all my passwords. He threatened not to give them back unless I showed up. I’m being blackmailed.”

“It’s not blackmail,” Tim corrected. “It’s extortion. You were a crime lord. You should know the difference.”

Jason’s reply was long, expletive-filled, and contained many horrifying suggestions for what Tim could do with himself.

Dick clamped his hands over Damian’s ears. “Stop corrupting him!” he growled, nodding his head toward a visibly displeased Damian.

Tim snorted. The idea of someone being able to corrupt Damian was laughable. The kid had been raised by assassins, for Pete’s sake.

Damian clearly agreed. He pried Dick’s hands away and hissed, “I am not a child.”

“You literally are,” Jason scoffed at him.

Damian’s expression darkened in a way Tim recognized all too well. He decided to get back to the matter at hand.

“You can fight World War III later,” Tim said, folding his arms and drawing all attention back to himself. “Right now, I need you to focus.”

Dick scrubbed a hand through his dark hair, somehow managing to make it look even better than it had before. “You mentioned a favor?”

Tim nodded. “Anarky is planning something big in the next few weeks and I can’t be everywhere at once. I need your help.”

His oldest brother sighed. “I would, Tim. You know I’d help in a heartbeat, but I’ve got my own case. There’s this—”

“It’s Clayface,” Tim interrupted.

Dick’s brows drew together. “You don’t even know what I’m—”

“It’s Clayface.”

“But Clayface is locked up!”

Tim stared at him flatly. “It’s Clayface.”

Dick huffed a sharp sigh. “Fine. How do you know it’s Clayface?”

“I did some digging during my free time and found clay residue at three of the crime scenes. I’ve alerted the authorities to keep an eye out. I’ve also created an algorithm for our facial recognition software that will scan for certain aberrations. The minute Clayface decides to change his shape anywhere in the city, I’ll have him. Does that free up your night?” Tim asked sweetly.

“Holy hell,” Jason breathed before Dick could answer. “When do you sleep?”

Tim looked at him. “I don’t.”

“…Right.”

He glanced back at Dick. “So?”

Dick made a helpless gesture. “Guess I’m all yours.”

Tim smiled. One down, two to go.

He turned to his next victim.

“Jason,” he said.

The boy in question leaned back smugly. “This oughta be good,” he said. “How did you plan on convincing me? I don’t have a case for you to solve.”

“No,” Tim agreed. “But I figured good, old-fashioned bribery would do the trick.” 

Jason’s eyes narrowed. “I’m listening.”

“I’ve got a backdoor built into every database in the city—including the GCPD, Wayne Enterprises, STAR Labs, and the Batcomputer, to name a few,” Tim said. “You help me and I’ll give you and the Outlaws access.”

Jason’s expression turned predatory. “Unrestricted access?”

“Unrestricted, but not unmonitored,” Tim answered, a hint of warning in his tone.

The older boy fiddled with his lighter, considering. “B wouldn’t be too happy about that.”

Tim held his gaze. “B doesn’t have to know.”

Dick made a little noise, but didn’t say anything. Tim kept his eyes on Jason and was rewarded when the other boy smiled—sudden, sharp, and vicious. 

“Alright, Replacement,” Jason said.  “I’m in.”

And then there was one.

Damian folded his arms when everyone looked his way. “I will not be so easily swayed,” he informed Tim.

Tim raised an eyebrow. “I can make you cave with three words.”

“Doubtful.”

“You. Jon. Batmobile.”

Damian cleared his throat. “Where exactly will you be needing me?” he asked, his tone unnaturally polite.

Jason pointed a finger at Tim, expression incredulous. “What kind of voodoo shit was that and where can I learn to do it?”

“Me too,” Dick said, raising a hand.

Damian glared at them both.

That was blackmail,” Tim said in answer to Jason’s question. “I told you there was a difference.”

Jason flipped his hand around so that he could use a different finger to gesture at Tim.

Tim ignored him. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?” He rubbed his hands together briskly. “We’ve got work to do.”

Chapter Text

Dick swung across the rooftops, his sharp eyes scanning for trouble. He’d been on patrol for a few hours and done nothing more than stop a single, pitiful mugging.

“Come on,” he muttered to himself. “I’m bored.”    

Hello, you’ve reached 1-800-ORACLE,” Babs’ voice chirped in his ear. “For directions to the nearest fight, press 1. For dirt on local criminals, press 2. For a perfectly-timed sarcastic quip, press 3. For more options, press 4.

“Hey, O,” Dick laughed. “Please tell me you have something for me.”

Sure do! There’s a cat stuck up a tree about two blocks away.

“Oracle…” he whined, twisting his expression into an over-exaggerated pout. He vaulted across the gap between two buildings, turning his face toward the security camera on a nearby storefront. He was rewarded a moment later by the sound of Babs’ laughter echoing through his comm.

You should be more careful,” she warned. “You don’t want your face to get stuck like that.

Dick crouched on the ledge, taking a moment to catch his breath. “I’d still be pretty,” he shrugged.

Babs snorted. “Not as pretty as you were when you had that allergic reaction to one of Poison Ivy’s plants and your face swelled up like a balloon.

Dick scowled. “We agreed never to speak of that again.”

I have pictures.”

“I hate you.”

And to think, I was going to send you to track down a couple assassins. But if you hate me, I guess I can call someone else…

“I take it back!” Dick said hurriedly. “You’re my favorite person in the world. And so much prettier than me! Please send me after the assassins!”

Babs laughed and rattled off an address. “Better hurry,” she added more seriously. “I don’t think they’ll be there long.

“On it,” Dick said, reaching for his grappling line. He paused on the edge of the roof. “You were kidding about the cat, right? ‘Cause if it’s on my way…”

He could hear Babs rolling her eyes. “Yes, I was kidding. Now, go!

“Yes, ma’am,” Dick grinned and shot into the night. “So—assassins? Why are they here?”

Well, I hate to speculate, but I think they’re here to kill someone.”

“You know what I meant.”

Yeah, I do. Problem is, we don’t know who the target is. Facial recognition grabbed the assassins at the train station this morning. I’ve been hunting them down ever since,” Babs informed him. If Dick strained his ears, he could hear the faint sounds of her fingers clicking against a keyboard. “Normally, I’d delegate to the police, but one of them has racked up enough kills to warrant a little extra caution. Plus, you were bored so…

Dick executed a perfect forward flip with a twist and asked, “Is the big man going to be joining me on this little adventure?”

Not unless you do something stupid and get yourself hurt,” Babs retorted instantly. “Otherwise, no. Batman’s been appraised of the situation. If you really want, I can get him.

“I’m good, thanks,” Dick said, alighting on the roof of his destination. “These guys aren’t even League trained. Should be cinch.”

And now you’ve jinxed it. Something is going to go terribly wrong.

“Relax, O. I’ll be fine.” Dick leaned over the edge of the roof, glancing down the front of run-down apartment complex. “Do you know which room? Or do I have to knock on every door?”

Third floor, second window from the left,” came the swift response. “And Wing? Don’t be an idiot and throw yourself in head first. These guys aren’t completely incompetent.

“You got it,” Dick agreed cheerfully. He anchored one end of his grappling line to the rooftop and took a running jump off the ledge. Mid-swing, he twisted his body around and crashed directly into the window Babs had indicated. Dick rolled to a stop amidst a shower of glass in a sparsely decorated living room.

What did I literally just say?!” Babs hissed in his ear as two surprised assassins ran through the door from an adjacent room, guns ready in their hands. Dick surged to his feet, closing the distance between them in an instant.

“What?” he asked, knocking both weapons aside. “I went in feet first.”

“…you are soooo lucky Batman has a no-kill rule, Boy Blunder.

“Yeah, yeah,” Dick said, tossing the smaller of the two assassins across the room. “I’ve heard that before. You still love me.”

I really don’t.”

Dick narrowly dodged a punch. “Liar.”

You maybe want to concentrate on the fight you’re having?

“You’re no fun.”

“I’m not here for fun,” the assassin in front of him snarled as he whipped out a knife.

Dick shook his head, readying his escrima sticks. “That’s cool, but I wasn’t talking to you.”

The battle was swift and brutal. Whoever these men were, they’d had training and lots of it. Dick winced as a couple blows slipped past his guard. His suit absorbed most of the damage, but there was shallow slice along his ribs that was slowly leaking blood. It was probably time to stop messing around. One precise hit sent the assassin’s knife clattering to the ground. The man stumbled back, clutching at his broken wrist. Two moves later, the man was unconscious.

Behind you!

Dick spun and sent the assassin sneaking up on him crashing to the floor with a swift blow from one of his escrima sticks. He didn’t get back up.

"Thanks,” Dick said breathlessly into the comm, stowing his weapons. He investigated the wound on his side. Nothing life-threatening. “How’d you know he was there?”

You do remember that I installed cameras into your suit weeks ago, right?

Dick’s eyebrows arced upwards. “You did?”

Nightwing,” Babs huffed. “We had, like, six conversations about it. You were standing right there when I was making the modifications!

Dick pulled a face. “I thought you were just messing around.”

How the hell have you survived all these years?” Babs demanded.

“It’s the hair. People don’t want to hurt someone with hair as good as mine,” Dick joked. He reached into his utility belt and pulled out some zip ties.

 “Didn’t you used to have a mullet?

 “That’s irrelevant.”

He disarmed and restrained the unconscious assassins. “So I guess I’ll have to wait until they wake up to question them about their target,” he sighed.

Or,” Babs said, “you could take a look at that laptop sitting on the table behind you.

Dick frowned, turning to look. “You know I’m not good at the hacking stuff.”

Sweetheart, that’s what you have me for,” Babs laughed in his ear. “I swear, you’d fall apart without me.

Dick smiled. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I probably would.”

Chapter Text

School was a waste of time.

Damian couldn’t wait to get home and wash the stink of this purgatory from his skin. He could have been doing something useful with the seven hours he was forced to spend at Gotham Academy—hunting leads, patrolling, training. He was smarter than everyone in his classes by a mile, had learned the material they were plodding through when he was barely more than a boy.

There was absolutely no point to him being here.

Except that his father had decreed Damian couldn’t patrol as Robin unless he attended his classes.

So Damian gritted his teeth and bore it.

The reasoning for his father’s edict did not escape him. Damian knew that Bruce wanted to give him some semblance of normalcy, perhaps even a chance to socialize with his peers. There were just two problems with that logic.

One—normal for Damian was spending every waking hour honing his mind and body to become the perfect living weapon, not sitting in a classroom.

And two—Damian was extraordinary. He didn’t have peers.

At least the school day was over. He could finally return home and turn his attention to worthwhile matters.

From around the corner, there was muffled thump and the sound of laughter.

Damian’s adrenaline spiked, his mind shifting into high gear.

He knew the sound of someone getting hit almost better than he knew the sound of his own voice.

He rounded the corner, taking in the scene at a glance. Three large boys—all of them seniors and all of them big—were standing over a fourth boy, who was crumpled on the ground, hands clasping at his stomach, gasping for air. His things were littered across the hallway floor, papers scattered, folders torn.

Damian’s eyes snagged on a binder with “Gotham Academy Mathletes” written on it in bold letters.

He let his backpack fall to the ground with a thud.

“Get up,” one of the larger boys ordered. He was blonde, with a cruel face and a distasteful smirk on his lips. Damian didn’t know his name. He didn’t know any of their names. He made a point of not knowing.

But when he saw the boy on the floor cringe and curl in on himself, Damian knew that policy was going to change. Blondie and his friends were going to be the subject of a very thorough investigation tonight.

Damian stalked closer. No one had noticed him yet.

“I said get up,” the blonde boy repeated. He cocked his fist and swung.

Damian stepped up and caught the blow one-handed.

Everyone froze. Damian used their surprise to his advantage. He twisted the blonde boy’s arm with one hand and shoved him hard with the other. His opponent stumbled back half a dozen paces, until his friends steadied him.

Damian stood in front of their would-be victim.

“Walk away,” he told them.

The boys hesitated. Damian knew what they saw when they looked at him: a spoiled, stuck-up brat who believed no one at Gotham Academy was good enough because he was a Wayne and they were not. He’d worked hard to cultivate that image. It kept the others from prying into his life, held any attempts at friendship at bay.

It also, he recognized, did not make him a particularly threatening figure in their eyes. Especially considering he was shorter than Blondie and both of his friends by several inches.

So for a moment—just a moment—Damian let the mask he wore at school slip and showed them a hint of the real person underneath. A warning of sorts—green skies before a tornado.

They flinched back and were gone without another word.

Damian turned to the boy on the ground behind him.

When he didn’t do anything other than stare at Damian with wide, dark eyes, Damian asked, “Are you hurt?”

The question seemed to snap the boy back to reality. He scrambled on the ground for his things, gathering them up with hands that shook. He was even younger than Damian had realized at first, just a freshman, and a small one at that.

Damian bent and picked up the few papers that were closest to him. He handed them to the boy, but let him climb to his feet on his own.

Some things you had to do yourself.

“Did they hurt you?” Damian asked again.

The boy shook his head vehemently, papers clutched to his chest like a shield.

Damian nodded at him and began to walk back down the hallway where he’d left his own things.

“Why’d you help me?” the boy blurted suddenly, looking unnerved by his own audacity.

Damian hesitated a moment, but when he spoke, it was the truth that came out.

“My brother was a mathlete.”

“Oh,” the boy said, surprise written all over his face. Like he’d been expecting a completely different answer. “Did they…” he took a deep breath. “Did anyone pick on him?”

“Yes,” Damian answered. Dick had never told him so explicitly, but Damian knew him well enough to read between the lines.

“Did they ever stop?”

Damian met his gaze squarely. “After he stood up to them.”

The boy looked down, scuffing his sneakers against the carpet. “I want to,” he said, his voice shaking a little. “I just…they make me feel so small.”

Damian took a step closer, waiting until the boy was looking at him again to say, “They only have as much power as you give them.”

The boy stared at him for a moment, before shaky smile broke out over his face. “You get that off a fortune cookie or something?”

Damian tilted his head. “An assassin, actually.”

The boy’s eyes went wide.

Damian winced internally. That might have been a little too truthful.  He cleared his throat. “Sorry. I’m…” He reached for something to fill the awkward silence. “It was a joke. I’m not great at humor.”

“Yeah,” the boy laughed weakly. “You might want to work on that.”

“Yeah,” Damian shrugged, uncomfortable. This was the longest interaction he’d had with a schoolmate. He didn’t like it.

He also didn’t…not like it.

Damian shook his head at such a disturbing thought and went for his bag once more.

“So…I’ll see you around?” the boy called after him, voice timid and hopeful all at once.

Damian took a breath. “Sure,” he said, seemingly unable to stop himself. “I’ll see you around.”

Chapter Text

“You know it’s called a punching bag,” Tim scolded. “You aren’t supposed to shoot it. You aren’t supposed to shoot down here at all. I don’t care how bored you are.”

Jason didn’t bother to turn around. “I didn’t shoot anything.”

“I can see the bullet holes in the bag. There are six of them.”

“That proves nothing.”

You’re still holding the gun,” Tim all but growled. Jason stifled a grin. He loved provoking that furiously exasperated tone out of Tim.

“Circumstantial evidence,” Jason informed him, flicking a piece of imaginary dust off the barrel of his glock.

Tim threw his hands in the air. “God, you’re annoying. Sometimes I think you’re even worse than Damian.”

Now Jason looked at him, unable to stop the horrified expression on his face. “More annoying than the demon spawn? No way. He’s the fucking worst.”

“Who’s the worst?” Dick’s voice called from the elevator as he stepped out into the cave. Damian trailed him like a malevolent shadow.

Jason groaned and shot a glare in Tim’s direction. “See what you did?” he demanded. “You said his name and now he’s here. Don’t you know he’s like Beetlejuice?”

Tim frowned. “You have to say Beetlejuice’s name three times to summon him. I only said Damian’s once.”

“Yeah, well, the brat’s a lot vainer,” Jason muttered. Tim snorted a laugh.

Damian settled in the large chair in front of the row of computer monitors while Dick approached his brothers, one of his trademark beaming smiles plastered all over his face.

“Would’ve come down sooner if I’d known you were here, Jay,” Dick said, clapping a friendly hand to Jason’s shoulder. Jason shook him off, but with less vehemence than he once might have. He didn’t mind the hand. Much. But it wouldn’t do to encourage Dick. Jason knew the older boy. If he let Dick put a hand on his shoulder, sooner or later Jason would be roped into one of Dick’s ridiculous bear hugs and then it would never stop.

Damian glanced at Tim and then Jason. “Forgettable Robin. Dead Robin,” he greeted.

“Oh, fuck no,” Jason snarled, bringing up the gun in his hand. Dick was between Damian and Jason in an instant.

“You’re not allowed to shoot him,” Dick reminded Jason sternly.

Jason gave him a plaintive look. “I promise I won’t kill him.”

“You can’t knee-cap him, either.”

“What about—?”

“Also not going to let you shoot him in the shoulder.”

Jason huffed an aggrieved sigh. “How about a graze? He wouldn’t even need stitches.”

“Maybe a few stitches,” Tim suggested, watching Damian’s satisfied smirk through narrowed eyes.

No,” Dick told them both.

“Fine,” Jason snapped. He holstered his gun with bad grace. “But if he calls me Dead Robin one more time…”

“You’ll what, Todd?” Damian asked from the chair. He hadn’t so much as flinched when Jason pulled the gun on him. “I am superior to you in every way.”

Jason leaned around Dick so he could glare at the little terror. “The Shadows trained me, too, kid. And unlike you, I’m still allowed to kill people.”

“You are not,” Dick said.

“Could if I wanted to,” Jason countered sulkily.

“You sound like a child,” Damian sniffed.

“Says the ten-year-old.”

“I’m thirteen.”

“Whatever.”

“So, Jay,” Dick said in falsely bright tones, clearly trying to head-off another argument before the weapons came out again. “What brings you by? You working a case or something?”

Jason mumbled something unintelligible under his breath.

Tim laughed. “Alfred invited him for dinner. He couldn’t say no.”

“Ah,” Dick smiled. “Makes sense.” Most everyone who met the Batman assumed he ruled over his flock with a firm, Kevlar-clad fist. That assumption lasted right up to the second they met Alfred.

Dick glanced at his other brother. “What are you doing down here, Tim?”

“I wanted another look at the batarang redesign. Bruce says the new explosives are too heavy—mess with the balance. Apparently, they go way off-course when you throw them.”

“You’re playing with explosives and you didn’t call me?” Jason said. “I’m hurt, Replacement.”

Tim glared at him. “I’m not Robin anymore. You can stop calling me Replacement.”

Jason frowned. “I thought that was your name.”

“Screw you.”

Language,” Jason teased, following Tim to the table with the batarangs. “What would Batman say?”

“Thank god you don’t have a mouth like Jason’s,” Tim quipped immediately.

Jason shook his head. “Too many syllables for Bats.”

“You’re right,” Tim admitted. “He’d probably just grunt disapprovingly.”

“You really think you’d get a whole grunt?” Dick asked, joining them. “I bet it’d just be a stoic look.”

“Or a glare,” Jason suggested, though it was clear his interest in the topic was waning. “Show me what you’ve done to the batarangs.”

Tim passed him a prototype, walking him through the redesign.

“I wouldn’t do that, Todd,” Damian warned as Jason hefted the piece of equipment.

“Don’t worry, the arming mechanism is disabled,” Tim informed his youngest brother, just as Jason ran his fingers over the center of the batarang. Something beeped. Tim, Dick, and Jason froze.

“Not since this morning,” Damian said smugly.

Jason spun and hurled the batarang with perfect precision toward the far end of the cave, where they kept the targets for exactly this kind of weapon.

But the batarang curved unexpectedly, streaking toward the computer system. Damian dove out of the chair, rolling out of the way as the main console exploded in a shower of glass. The youngest Wayne climbed to his feet and stalked over to the rest of them like an affronted cat, all stiff-legged with cold fury. For a long time, no one spoke.

“Huh,” Jason said finally, staring at the still-sparking wreckage of the computer. “I see what Bruce means.”

“Father will be most displeased,” Damian said. He was glaring at Jason as though he suspected that the wild throw might not have been an accident.

“You can say that again,” Dick agreed.

“Jay—” Tim began.

“Yeah, yeah,” he snapped. “I’ll take care of it.”

Tim eyed him warily. “You will?”

“Sure,” Jason said, ignoring the proud look Dick was giving him. “I got this.”

What. Happened.

All four boys spun toward the elevator guiltily. Bruce had his arms folded, blue eyes flicking between the wreckage of the computer and his sons.

Jason stepped forward. Bruce’s gaze immediately focused on him with such sharpness that Jason wondered how he didn’t feel it cutting into his flesh. He cleared his throat.

“I can explain,” he said.

“Start.”

Jason adopted a noble, self-sacrificing expression. “It’s Tim’s fault.”

What?” Tim snapped, whirling on him.

Dick burst out laughing, head falling into his hands. Even Damian looked faintly amused.

Jason gave Tim a big, shit-eating grin.

“Told you I’d handle it,” he said.

Chapter Text

Dick folded his arms, mouth pinched as he watched Bruce take down Damian for the sixth time.

“Again,” Bruce growled, making no move to help Damian off the mats. The kid was sweating and bruised and tired. Not that it made any difference to Bruce.

Or Damian, for that matter.

“I was right to go in alone,” the boy panted, hands curling into fists against the ground.

“You were reckless and disobeyed a direct order,” Bruce shot back. “You didn’t do it because it was right, you did it to prove you were better. So get up and prove it.”

“B, that’s enough,” Dick said. If they kept going like this, Damian was going to over-extend himself and get injured. Everyone in the room knew that.

But still, Damian staggered to his feet. But still, Bruce slid into position.

Dick resisted the urge to bang his head against the wall. He should have known better than to assume that common sense would work on the two most stubborn idiots in the world.

Damian was back on the mats again in two minutes flat.

“Again,” Bruce said.

Dick pushed off the wall in a frustrated motion and went to Damian’s side. “Look at him, Bruce,” he said angrily, gesturing to his little brother. Damian's chest heaved for air; his muscles visibly trembled. “He’s done.”

Bruce’s eyes hardened. “I didn’t hear that from him.”

Dick muttered a few choice words under his breath and helped Damian sit up. The boy was tired enough to let him, which was a red flag in and of itself.

“Come on, kiddo,” Dick begged. “Call it.”

Damian’s jaw clenched in an all too familiar way. “No.”

“Hard-headed stupid…” Dick groused as he got Damian up onto his feet. He leaned down as if examining a bruise on Damian’s shoulder and whispered in the kid’s ear, “He blocks with his left and hits with his right. You’ve got one more round before I end it for you.”

Dick pulled back. Damian glanced up at him, a spark igniting in his gaze. Dick winked and stepped off the mats.

The next fight ended with a very surprised Bruce flat on his back, staring up at Damian.

“I’m done now,” Damian declared. He swaggered off the mats and headed for the showers, shooting Dick a smile on his way.

Bruce pushed himself upright. “You sold me out.”

Dick raised an eyebrow. “You were being an ass.”

Bruce regarded him for a long moment. All at once, the fight drained out of him. He winced. “Please. Tell me how you really feel.”

Dick grinned. “Anytime, B. What else are Robins for?”

           

*****

The bell jangled as the door to her clinic opened. “Patient for you, Doc,” a familiar, rough voice called.

Leslie Thompkins stepped into the waiting area, a little surprised to see two of her typically masked clients standing there in civilian clothes at two in the afternoon. Jason was wearing jeans and a thick leather jacket, still menacing even without the helmet and guns. He was also smirking at Dick, who wore casual clothes, a sheepish expression, and a sling on his left arm.

Leslie zeroed in on the sling. “What happened?” she asked.

"Asshole broke his arm,” Jason answered before Dick could. He sounded positively gleeful about the injury. Leslie frowned. She’d thought Jason was past his vindictive phase.

"Come on back,” she said, waving a hand at them both. “Let’s take a look.”

A short while and some x-rays later, Leslie confirmed Jason’s diagnosis. “It’s not a bad break,” she said, studying the lighted images on her board. “But you’ll be out of commission for a while.” She opened a drawer and removed some plaster. Blue, obviously. At this point, she didn’t even need to ask.

Dick obligingly sat and offered his arm.

“So what happened?” Leslie wanted to know as she set to work.

Dick—bright, chirpy, talkative, never-met-a-story-he-didn’t-like Dick—pressed his lips together and said nothing.

Leslie’s eyebrows rose. Now she was really curious. “Were you on patrol?”

Dick sighed. “No.”

“Motorcycle accident?”

“No.”

Leslie glanced at Jason and then back at Dick. “Then where were you?”

“One of the safe houses,” Dick answered reluctantly. “You were closer than the Manor.”

Leslie’s brows drew together, a new set of possibilities occurring to her. “Sparring accident? Training exercise gone wrong?”

Dick shook his head both times.

“Go on, Dickface. Tell the nice lady what happened,” Jason said from where he was slouching against the wall of her exam room.

Dick sighed again. “Tim messed with the voice modifier on Jason’s helmet. Made him sound like a twelve-year-old girl on helium.”

Leslie tilted her head to one side. “And how does this relate to your injury?”

“Yeah, Chuckles?” Jason asked pointedly. “How does it relate?”

Dick glared at Jason and said, “I laughed so hard I fell off a chair.”

Leslie stared at him. “You…you broke your arm falling off a chair?” she repeated, exasperation and incredulity warring in her tone.

Dick sighed for the third time. “I know,” he said wearily.

“You’re a menace,” Leslie shook her head. “You shouldn’t be allowed to cross the street without supervision.”

“Amen,” Jason said with feeling.

*****

Bruce was panicking. He never panicked.

“Alfred,” he called, trying hard to keep his voice level. “Where’s Dick? I can’t find him anywhere.”

And he’d tried. He’d searched the Manor from top to bottom, even checking in the secret passageways and little hidey-holes that he was pretty sure Dick hadn’t discovered yet. After his second examination of every room with no success, Bruce had gotten worried. He was the world’s greatest detective and yet, somehow, he’d managed to lose a nine-year-old circus boy in his own damn house.

Alfred’s stoic expression didn’t flicker. “This way, Master Bruce,” he said, leading the way to the ballroom.

Bruce stepped inside, hardly bothering to glance around. The ballroom was enormous and empty, with no place to hide. “I already looked in here,” he said.

Alfred cleared his throat and pointed up. Bruce tilted his head back. His mouth fell open.

Because nestled in the sturdy branches of the largest chandelier was a tiny figure in a too-big sweatshirt, curled up and most definitely asleep.

“Huh,” Bruce managed.

“Indeed,” Alfred agreed.

*****

“Commissioner Gordon,” Dick Grayson greeted smoothly, a wide, friendly smile on his face. Tim Drake-Wayne stood just off his elbow. Both boys looked sharp in their tuxes and surprisingly mature. When had they gotten so old?

When had Jim gotten so old?

“Boys,” Jim said, dredging up a genuine smile. “How are you? I can’t remember the last time I saw you.”

“Well, you’re a busy man,” Dick allowed graciously. “And it’s been a while since one of us was kidnapped for ransom.”

“Dick,” Tim admonished, half-despairing, half-laughing.

Jim shook his head. “If that’s what’s been keeping us apart, I can’t say I’m too mad about it.”

“Me, too,” Dick agreed. “So, any vigilante sightings recently?”

“Dick,” Tim said again, a little more insistent. “This isn’t really the place.”

Jim’s eyes flashed around well-dressed crowd, picking out all the city officials who had come to Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser for the GCPD.

The same city officials who publicly denounced the vigilante known as Batman and his proteges, even as they privately acknowledged how badly Gotham needed them. Which somehow translated into the official policy of the GCPD being to arrest Batman on sight, but the far more practical policy of lighting up the Bat-Signal every damn time one of Gotham’s psychos got loose.

“Oh, it’s fine, Tim,” Dick said. “Commissioner Gordon has the best stories. He used to tell them to me when I was a kid.”

“You have a few stories of your own now,” Jim said, dodging the subject as artfully as he knew how.

“That’s true. I’ve met some of the Bats myself,” Dick acknowledged. He leaned forward and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “My favorite is definitely Nightwing.”

Oh god,” Tim groaned, the disgusted sound coming straight from the depths of his soul.

Dick’s grin only widened.

Jim felt like he might be missing something there.

Chapter Text

Get up.

Dick can hear the words, loud and clear. Like a voice, speaking in his head.

Bruce’s voice.

When he’s knocked down, it’s always Bruce’s voice.

Get up.

It’s an order. He’s been trained to obey orders—to follow them instantly and without question, especially when lives are on the line.

But there’s only one life on the line now:

His.

Dick doesn’t know why that makes it so much harder. He does know that if he fails tonight, someone else will finish the job. Maybe not right away, maybe not easily, but they will.

Back at the circus, he never flew with a safety net. It feels odd to know he has one now. Like he’s not totally responsible. Like maybe it’s okay to give up. Like maybe the world won’t end if he just stops.

Get up.

But he’s just so tired. Everything hurts. Every piece of him. He can’t remember a time before the pain. Did he ever not hurt? What a miracle that must have been.

Get up.

Why should he?

Bruce isn’t here. Alfred and Tim and Jason and Babs all think he’s dead already.

And Damian thinks…

Damian thinks…

Damian doesn’t think at all.

Because Damian is…

He’s dead.

Not in the pretend way Dick is dead. Not even in the real-and-then-not way Jason was dead.

He’s gone.

And Dick can’t…he can’t handle that. He’s broken inside, and every day he breaks just a little bit more.

Pretty soon, there’s not going to be anything left at all.

Get up.

The voice isn’t Bruce’s now. It’s softer, younger. But no less commanding. No less insistent.

Get up, Grayson.

Dick spits out a mouthful of blood and stands.

Chapter Text

Duke gaped. He was pretty sure he looked like a fish. Somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to care.

“You guys live here?” he said, for maybe the tenth time. “This place is a freakin’ palace!”

“Manor,” Damian corrected, also for the tenth time. He settled on the sofa next to Dick, close enough that they could be touching, even though they weren’t.

Alright. Apparently, the tour was over.

“Aww, he doesn’t even swear!” Jason said from where he was sprawled sideways across an armchair, his boots propped up on an end table. Duke thought Jason’s disregard for the furniture was pretty brave for someone who lived in the same house as Alfred. “That’s fucking precious.”

“Jay,” Dick sighed wearily. “Come on. Language.”

“Sorry, Princess,” Jason said. “Didn’t mean to fuck with your delicate sensibilities.”

Jay.

“What?” Jason asked, disgruntled. “I guarantee the kid’s heard worse.”

“I have, actually,” Duke agreed. So far, he’d worked out that it was better to just agree with the things that Jason said. Damian fell under that category, too, but the kid was so annoyingly arrogant that Duke had a much harder time following through with him.

“That’s not the point,” Dick said.

“Can you not?” Tim asked. He was sitting in a chair opposite Jason and hadn’t looked up from his phone once since Duke entered the room. “You’ve had this argument a million times.”

“Not in front of Duke, we haven’t,” Jason pointed out.

Duke cleared his throat. “That’s really okay,” he said. “I’m good.”

Dick smiled at him and Duke suddenly felt like the two of them were the only people in the room. Which was…huh. How did Dick do that?

“Why don’t you take a seat?” the older man suggested. “Bruce will be here soon, I’m sure.”

Duke nodded in agreement, before realizing that the only remaining seat was the spot on the couch next to Damian. Who was glaring at him. With murder eyes.

“Uh, I’m fine,” Duke said.

Dick laughed. “Relax, Duke. You can sit down. Dami won’t bite,” he said, running a hand through Damian’s dark hair. Duke was positive that if anyone else in the world had tried that, they would have been left with a bleeding stump.

“Of course, he won’t,” Jason agreed. “He’s much more of a stabber.”

Dick threw Jason a sour look. “You are not helping.”

“Yeah, but he’s not wrong, either,” Tim said, still typing away on his phone.

Dick turned toward him, eyes wide and betrayed. “Tim,” he complained. “You’re supposed to be on my side!”

“Enough,” Damian commanded. He looked at Duke. “You may sit.”

Duke hesitated. He didn’t like giving Damian the idea that he could order him around, but he did feel pretty awkward just standing there in the middle of the room. So he sat, making sure he was as far from Damian as the space would allow.

“Smart move,” Jason whispered to him, catching on immediately.

 “So, are you guys, like, it?” Duke asked, hastily changing the subject. “Or do the other Batpeople live here, too?”

Batpeople,” Tim snickered. Duke flushed.

“Cass stays here sometimes,” Dick said, shooting a look at his younger brother that the other boy completely missed as he scrolled through something on his screen.

“Cass?” Duke asked.

“Orphan,” Dick supplied helpfully. “You haven’t met her yet. She’s awesome.”

“She’s alright,” Jason said, with what Duke was beginning to recognize as feigned nonchalance.

“She’s awesome,” Tim reiterated, finally looking up. “Jason’s just mad because Cass likes me better.”

“Ignore him,” Jason told Duke. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s adopted.”

So are you,” Tim shot back, exasperated.

“We all are,” Dick pointed out.

“I’m not,” Damian said smugly.

Tim rolled his eyes. “Yes. Please. Remind us all who the blood son is again. I’d almost forgotten.”

Damian glared. Somehow it was even more murdery than before.

“Is it too late for me to back out of this?” Duke asked. He was kidding. Mostly.

"Sorry, kid. You’re in it now, ‘til death do us part,” Jason said. He appeared to consider this and then added, “And maybe not even then.”

“You’re joking,” Duke laughed.

Jason said nothing.

“He’s joking, right?” Duke asked, looking to the others for confirmation.

Silence.

“Right?” Duke asked again, smile slipping from his lips. “Guys?

Chapter Text

Tim was worried. Not I’ve misplaced my phone worried. Not I accidentally crossed Alfred worried. But actually, deeply worried. As in, I think my brother might be in serious trouble worried.

Batman was off with the League. Alfred was busy maintaining Bruce Wayne’s alibi. Damian was learning about Truth, Justice, and Apple Pie at the Kent’s. And Jason was occupied doing whatever it was that Jason did. Shooting things. Explosions.

The usual.

Which meant it was somehow only Tim who had put the pieces together. Every single one of them was a world-class detective, and yet only Tim was aware that something was badly wrong.

Which was honestly just typical. Normally, Tim would roll up his sleeves and take care of the problem himself. It was amazing how much a genius vigilante insomniac with access to not one, but two fortunes could accomplish on his own.

But not this time. If Tim had learned anything from his time with the Titans, it was that some things were too important to do alone. And this…this was definitely one of them.

Tim took a deep breath and picked up his phone. He scrolled through his contacts, frowning when he didn’t see the name he wanted. After a moment’s thought, he back-tracked and selected the name “Asshole.” He’d changed it out of spite a while back. He would probably have to change it back.

Eventually.

He counted silently in his head, teeth worrying at his lower lip. After the fourth ring, a gruff voice answered, “You better have a damn good reason for calling me.”

“Dick’s missing,” Tim blurted.

“Missing? Come on, Timbo,” Jason groaned. “I bet he got distracted by a mildly-attractive redhead walking down the street and forgot to call in.”

Tim shook his head, aware that Jason couldn’t see the frustrated motion. “It’s been three weeks.”

“So it was a very attractive redhead, then,” Jason corrected himself. At Tim’s angry silence, he added, “He probably went dark. Happens all the time. Or maybe he just doesn’t like talking to you. I sure as hell don’t.”

Tim ignored the jibe and played his trump card. “I hacked his computer. The last case he was working on was about the Court of Owls.”

There was silence on the other end. Then:

Shit. Alright, I’ll be there in twenty.”

 

*****

 

Jason’s bike roared into the Batcave. Tim waited impatiently as the older boy cut the engine and clambered off. Jason was in full Red Hood regalia, his guns looking very out of place in Bruce’s sanctuary. Tim knew that Jason mostly used rubber bullets these days, but it was the principle of the thing. Bruce was adamant about his no-gun rule.

Which was, of course, why Jason always carried them now.

“What have you got?” Jason asked, pulling off his signature red helmet to reveal hard eyes and disheveled black hair. The fact that he’d passed on an opportunity to call Tim some kind of demeaning name told the younger boy exactly how concerned Jason was. Tim was a little touched, though he would never admit it. He knew Jason had problems with Dick—hell, Jason had problems with all of them—but when it came down to it, family was family. It was nice to know that Jason still understood that.

Tim typed a few commands and pulled up a series of documents he’d swiped from Dick’s computer.

“This was the case Dick was working on last,” Tim said. “From what I can tell, he uncovered a string of murders which he believed had been carried out by the Court’s Talons. It looks like he decided to go digging into the Court’s business. He called me and Alfred and Damian just after Bruce left to check in. Said he was working on something—though he didn’t mention it was this.

Tim took a fortifying breath. “That was three weeks ago. The last time he logged onto his computer was two days after he called us. He’s not answering his phone, his communicator, or any of our emergency frequencies. His apartment and safe houses are empty. I’ve scoured security footage, satellite imagery, newspaper articles, police reports, blog posts, even social media feeds and there’s been no sign of Nightwing or Dick Grayson in all that time.” Tim stopped and forced himself to steady his heart rate. “I think he’s been taken. I think the Court has him.”

Jason scrubbed his fingers through his already messy hair, his movements betraying his uncertainty. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Dick won’t be happy if we go bumbling into his case for no reason.”

Was he sure? What kind of question was that? Didn’t Jason know who he was talking to?

He typed a few more commands and pulled up a list of names. Most of them belonged to prominent figures throughout the city. “These are the people Bruce suspects have ties to the Court.” He exited the list and pulled up photos of two men and a woman. “A few days ago, these three cleared their schedules and disappeared. They all resurfaced yesterday and resumed business as usual, like nothing had happened.”

Jason frowned. “And you think—what? They attended some kind of Court gathering?”

Tim looked at him. “That’s exactly what I think. I think they were called in to celebrate the return of the Gray Son of Gotham,” he said seriously.

“Shit,” Jason swore. “This is all kinds of messed up.”

Tim couldn’t agree more. The Court of Owls had had some weird kind of fixation with Dick ever since he was kid. They believed—and kept on believing, despite Batman’s best efforts—that Dick was destined to become the greatest of their brainwashed, genetically mutated foot-soldiers, the leader of their Talons.

The fact that Dick didn’t want to be one of their trained killers didn’t really seem to matter to them.

“Have you told Damian yet?” Jason asked.

Tim shook his head. “Not until we find something concrete,” he said. “You know how he is about Dick. If we tell him Dick’s missing without any kind of lead on where he is—”

“That bloodthirsty little demon will go crazy and start stabbing everyone he can get his hands on,” Jason finished with a sigh. “Yeah, alright. Good call.”

Tim wisely decided not to point out the irony of Jason calling anyone bloodthirsty. “Thanks. I’ll bring him in when we have an actual lead,” he said instead.

Jason raised an eyebrow. “That’s twice you’ve said we. What exactly do you need from me?”

“If I’m right, those three are our best bet at finding the Court’s base—and Dick,” Tim explained. “I need them to talk.”

Ah,” Jason said. “You want me to crack some skulls.”

Tim winced. “Maybe not literally, but yes. They know there are lines I won’t cross.”

“But they don’t know that about me,” Jason nodded, an unreadable expression on his face. “Okay. Where do I find these assholes?”

Tim pulled up the addresses and sent them to Jason’s phone. He stood, gathering up his utility belt.

“Uh, where do you think you’re going?” Jason asked.

Tim didn’t look up, his hands busy clipping his collapsible bo staff into place. “I’m coming with you.”

“I think that kind of defeats the purpose of asking me to interrogate them.”

Tim rolled his eyes behind his mask. “They won’t see me, idiot. But I want to be there. I can help.”

Jason took a step forward, forcing Tim to look up at him. Out of all the Robins, Jason was the only one who’d gotten close to Bruce’s intimidating height and bulk.

“If you do this, then you follow my orders, understand?” Jason asked. “I can’t have you interfering and ruining things at the last minute.”

Tim raised his eyebrows. “Why would I need to interfere? Unless you’re planning on actually killing someone…?” He let the question trail off, the almost-accusation hanging heavily in the air between.

There was a dangerous glint in Jason’s eyes. “You came to me, remember? Are you going to trust me or not?”

Tim clenched his jaw, unhappy with Jason’s non-answer. On the one hand, Jason had promised Bruce he wouldn’t kill anymore. On the other, Jason wasn’t exactly the most stable guy—especially when that homicidal Lazarus Pit rage took over. Despite the fact that he’d worked with Jason before and (sometimes) considered the older boy a brother, Tim was very aware of the fact that Jason was pretty much always one really bad day away from killing anyone dumb enough to step into his crosshairs.

But Dick trusted Jason. Dick trusted Jason with his life. Dick trusted Jason more than he probably should, if Tim was being honest.

Still, though.

“I trust you,” Tim said. It was what Dick would have done.

Jason’s smile was sharp as a razor’s edge. “Then let’s go get some answers.”

Chapter Text

There was something about old, abandoned warehouses that set people on edge. Maybe it was the dark, secret corners where the mind could imagine all manner of nasty things lurking. Maybe it was the terror of not knowing where you were.

Or maybe, it was the fact that you knew that no one would be able to hear you scream.

Jason smiled grimly under his helmet. It was the last one that did it for him. Though he had to admit, warehouses were a lot more fun when he wasn’t the one tied up.

He took another look at his prisoners, sitting all trussed up and blindfolded on sturdy metal chairs. A cold wind plucked at their hair and clothes, coming in from the broken windows at their backs. The view showed a sharp, unforgiving drop-off onto a concrete parking lot several stories below.

It had been laughably easy to abduct these three and bring them here unnoticed. Jason was a little surprised at how good Tim had proven to be at kidnapping. Turned out all that plotting little Timmy did was pretty damn useful. The kid needed to get a hell of a lot more sleep, get off his high horse, and stop living off coffee, but still.

Credit where credit was due.

"Are you going to get started anytime soon?” Tim’s voice buzzed in his ear.

Jason glared down at the floor, knowing there was no way Tim could see it from where he was hiding on the first floor of the building, finishing off the last of their preparations. The kid had no sense of dramatic timing.

"And stop glaring at me,” Tim added.

Jason suppressed a surprised laugh. Maybe the Replacement wasn’t hopeless after all.

He unfolded himself from the chair he’d been using and walked quietly over to the prisoners. The three of them jumped and twitched, trying to pinpoint where the sound of his boots was coming from. One by one, Jason yanked off their blindfolds, letting them blink and gasp as their eyes adjusted to the harsh pool of light that surrounded them.

“Who’s there?” the man on the left asked. He was wearing a pair of ripped flannel pajamas. Jason and Tim had grabbed him right from his bed.

Jason ignored the question, circling the group, sticking to the shadows. From the way their eyes moved, he knew that they could make out the vague shape of him in the darkness, but nothing more than that.

Which was just the way he wanted it. Nothing was half so terrifying as the things the mind imagined itself.

“What do you want with us?” the woman asked, the steel in her voice making Jason raise his eyebrows. He could already tell she wouldn’t be the one to crack.

“I’m going to ask you a question,” Jason said, the synthesizer in his mask making his voice sound all kinds of menacing. The man on the far right jumped at the sound. Jason kept an eye on him. He was pretty sure he’d just found the squealer. “Answer it, and I’ll let you go. Don’t answer, and, well…that’s when things will start to get messy.” He paused for a moment, making sure he had their full attention. “Where is Dick Grayson?”

Flannel Pajamas shook his head. “Who?” he asked. Jason was glad the helmet covered his expression. Boy, was that man a terrible liar.

Jason moved so that he was behind the prisoners again, forcing them to crane their necks if they wanted to keep an eye on him. “Let’s agree to skip the part where you deny all knowledge and jump right to you giving me answers,” he said. “We all know that you belong of the Court of Owls. We all know that you have Dick Grayson. Just tell me where he is and we can get on with our lives.”

“Go to hell,” Mrs. Stick-Up-Her-Butt snarled.

Jason gave an eerie laugh. “Already been,” he said. “They sent me back.”

Squealer let out a little moan of fear. The woman hissed at him to shut up. Jason struggled to contain his mirth. He knew Dick missing was serious and all that, but damn it if he wasn’t enjoying himself. Just a bit.

"Seriously?” Tim scoffed in his ear. “Did you practice that line in the mirror?”

Jason ignored him. He circled back around, letting the edge of the light catch his form. “Now, I’m not very good at math,” he said, unholstering one of his guns and tapping it against his thigh. He didn’t miss the way his prisoners watched the movement with frightened eyes. “But there are three of you here and it seems to me that I only need one of you to tell me what I want to know.”

He let that sink in for a moment before adding bluntly, “First one to talk gets to live.”

“If you’re looking for Dick Grayson, then you’re one of Batman’s,” the woman shook her head. She was a tough old bitch, Jason would give her that. “You won’t kill us. Everyone knows that Bats don’t kill.”

Jason leaned forward slowly, getting right up in her personal space. He was so close, the woman could probably see her own reflection in the shine of his red helmet.

“I’m sorry. Did I not properly introduce myself?” he asked. “I’m the Red Hood. Formerly Robin. Formerly beaten to death by the Joker with a crowbar. Very formally gave a shit about Batman’s rules. Currently pissed as hell and ready for some fucking answers.” He gestured to his uniform with the hand still holding the gun. “So if you think this symbol on my chest is gonna save you from a nasty death, guess again. ‘Cause honey, I ain’t that kind of Bat.”

There was the sudden, sharp stench. Squealer had pissed himself. Nice.

“We’re not going to tell you anything,” Flannels said, puffing out his chest and trying to sound brave.

Jason stayed where he was, his only movement the slow turn of his head to fix Pajama Man with an impassive stare. “You’re not?”

“I’m not,” Flannels confirmed, though his voice trembled as he said it.

Jason nodded slowly. “Okay then.”

He reached over with his free hand and grabbed the back of Flannels’ chair, dragging the man to the broken windows.

Flannels twisted in his bonds, suddenly panicked. “Wait! Wait! Don’t do this! Please don’t—!”

Jason tossed him—chair and all—out the window. His scream lasted six seconds. There was a sickening crunch. Then silence.

“You bastard!” the woman screamed. “You fucking bastard!”

Squealer was shaking and moaning in his chair.

"What the hell?!” Tim yelled in his ear.

Shut up!” Jason snapped at all three of them. Mercifully, they all fell silent.

He took a deep breath. “I’ve been extraordinarily patient. That’s done now. I will ask one more time: Where is Dick Grayson?”

“The Talons will kill you for this,” the woman told him.

“Maybe,” Jason allowed. “But it won’t be in time to save you.”

There was a bleak silence as the prisoners weighed the truth of this statement. Jason gave them another second to volunteer an answer to his question. When no one spoke, he gave a theatrical sigh.

“Alright,” he said, grabbing Squealer’s chair. “Time to go flying.”

“No—WAIT!” Squealer bellowed. “I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you everything!”

Jason paused, giving the man enough time to spit out coordinates. When Lady Bitch didn’t react, Jason shook his head.

“You’re lying,” he said and continued dragging the man to the window.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Squealer sobbed. And then the truth came spewing out of his lips, nearly impossible to understand between his tears and the woman’s cursing.

“You got all that?” Jason asked quietly into his comm when the man was done spilling his guts.

"Yes,” Tim answered, his voice still tight and angry.

“Good.” Jason let go of Squealer’s chair and stepped around so they were face-to-face. “If I find out you lied again, I’m going to come back here and I’m going to be very unhappy. But until then…” He raised his gun and shot it point-blank into the man’s heart. The tranquilizer dart knocked him out almost instantly.

“You too, sweetheart,” he told the woman, shooting her square in the neck. Her head slumped forward, chin dropping down onto her chest. Jason left the two prisoners in their seats and went downstairs to join Tim.

The younger boy glared at him ferociously from behind his mask. “A little warning would have been nice,” he hissed.

Jason shrugged. “You did alright. I mean, you caught the guy. And great sound effects--you really sold it.” He glanced at Flannels, now untied and lying on the floor, unconscious and completely unharmed.

Tim grumbled something unflattering under his breath that Jason graciously chose to ignore. He knew Tim had had his doubts about trusting him. He knew that playing by the Bat’s rules tonight would do a little to assuage that doubt in the future. He knew that Dick would be proud of him for keeping things PG-13. It was kind of why he’d done it. Using trickery instead of actual violence to get intel…it was what Dick would have done.

But Jason also knew, with absolute certainty, that he would have killed every single member of the Court of Owls if it meant saving Dick. Depending on what state they found Dick in, Jason still hadn’t ruled out the possibility. No one deserved what the Court did to its Talons. Especially not his idiotic, too-perfect, big-hearted brother.

He didn’t mention any of this to Tim, of course. Couldn’t have the Sleepless Wonder worked into a tizzy before the rescue was even halfway done.

“What’s our next move?” he asked instead.

“We need to confirm this intel is real,” Tim said, immediately distracted from his anger.

Jason inspected his gun carefully and holstered it. “Hit the streets?”

Tim shook his head. “Back to the Batcave. I’m sending out the drones.”

“Lead the way.”

***

Jason eyed the video feed playing on the monitor for the dozenth time. “I don’t like the look of that labyrinth.”

“Me, either,” Tim frowned.

Jason scrubbed at his eyes tiredly. If Dick really was down there, he was in some pretty deep shit.

He said as much to Tim, watching as the younger boy’s face pinched with worry. “We’ll get him out,” he said, determination making his voice fierce. “I swear we will.”

“Yeah. And to that end…I guess it’s time to make that call,” Jason said. “I’ll go prepare the holy water and garlic.”

“Garlic’s for vampires, not demons,” Tim said as he pulled out his phone, dialed a number, and set it on speaker so Jason could hear.

“I like to cover my bases.”

Damian picked up after the second ring. “Drake,” he said, in that annoying way of his. Jason could hear another voice in the background chatting away without pause. “I don’t need you checking up on me. I am perfectly capable of—”

Tim didn’t let him get any further. “Dick’s been taken.”

Jason heard one, sharp intake of breath.

“I’m on my way.”

The line disconnected.

 “So that’s it?” Jason demanded. “We’re just going to wait for him to get here from the middle of butt-fuck nowhere, Kansas?”

“Smallville,” Tim corrected absently, tucking away his phone.

“Same difference.”

“He should be here,” Tim argued.

“I am here,” Damian said, appearing in a whoosh of blue-and-red wind. He was already wearing his Robin uniform, small face tenser than usual.

“The hell?” Jason growled, head whipping around. Beside him, Tim had instinctively dropped into a defensive crouch. “How did you…?”

“Hi!” A boy in a Superman shirt and blue jeans stepped forward, black hair charmingly disarrayed. He looked even younger than Damian and inhumanly cheerful.

“What is this, the toddler brigade?” Jason muttered to Tim as the two of them shook off their surprise.

The new boy frowned at Jason. “I could punch you into space,” he said. He looked immediately guilty. “I mean, I wouldn’t. ‘Cause that’s wrong. But I could.”

Jason raised an eyebrow at him. “Do you know what it feels like to be shot by a Kryptonite bullet?”

“No.”

“Threaten me again and you will.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Tim said, stepping in between the two of them. He gave Jason a reproving you-should-know-better glare. Jason ignored him.

“Agreed,” Damian said. “Jon was just leaving.”

“But I can help!” exclaimed Superman-lite.

Damian gave his best Batman scowl. On Bruce, it was intimidating. On Damian, it just looked like the kid was constipated. “This is Bat business.”

Jason rolled his eyes. Bat business. Even if Damian hadn’t been the spitting image of Bruce, Jason still would have known the two of them were related. Only a Wayne could possibly be that dramatic.

“Fine,” Super Infant sulked. “But call if you need me. I’ll be listening.” He tapped one of his ears significantly and disappeared in a blur of too-bright color.

“God, he’s shaping up to be even more annoying than the original,” Jason said. He glanced at Damian. “How do you stand it?”

“He is adequate company,” Damian sniffed. He turned his attention back to Tim. “Where is Grayson?”

“With the Court of Owls.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“Yes.”

Damian adjusted the straps holding his sword. “Then what are we waiting for?”

Jason exchanged a glance with Tim, whose jaw clenched with what Jason could only assume was some sort of heroic resolve.

“Let’s go get our brother.”

Chapter Text

Damian’s blade was slick with the blood of Talons. Or whatever it was these undead fiends had running though their veins.

“What was that you were saying about not killing people?” Todd yelled across the battlefield as Drake rammed the tip of his bo staff through a Talon’s skull.

“You know it doesn’t count when they’re already dead!” Drake yelled back, pulling his weapon free in a spray of black ooze.

Damian executed a perfect flip, decapitating a nearby Talon with a vicious backstroke in midair. His face was a mask of impassivity, but inside, Damian felt sick with horror. Not because of the killing; killing was no hardship for the grandson of Ra’s al Ghul.

No, what made Damian’s heart quail was the fear that if they found Grayson—when they found Grayson—there might be nothing left of him but a twisted, brainless shell.

A world without Dick Grayson and his infuriating optimism, absurd grin, and heartless disrespect for personal boundaries was unthinkable.

And yet here Damian was, thinking about it.

He comforted himself with the knowledge that if these Court of Owls sociopaths had harmed a single hair on Grayson’s head, Damian would personally hunt them down and tear them to shreds. It would be a poor recompense, but he would take what he could get.

“Hurry up,” Damian growled at his companions, flinging out explosive discs with deadly accuracy and leaving two more smoking corpses crumpled on the ground. Drake and Todd finished off their own opponents and regrouped.

“This way,” Drake said, pulling up a holographic map of the labyrinth and darting off down one of the pathways. Damian and Todd followed close behind, weapons at the ready. A dozen twists and turns later, Drake held up a hand, signaling a stop.

“There’s some kind of lab up ahead,” he whispered. “Holding cells are inside. I’m betting Dick’s in there.”

Todd reloaded his guns. “Alright. I’m first through the door. Red Robin, you follow close behind. Robin, guard the entryway.”

Damian bristled at the order. “That is the most asinine—”

“We don’t have time to argue this!” Drake hissed. “Someone needs to guard the door—it’s the only way in or out. Do you really think we took out all the Court’s soldiers back there?”

Damian scowled, but fell silent. The older boys took this as tacit agreement and focused on the mission.

“Breach in three, two…” Todd counted down softly. On one, he charged forward, crashing through the door, guns outstretched. Drake was swift on his heels. Damian gritted his teeth and took up a position just outside, sword at the ready.

“All clear,” Drake called after a long moment. Damian itched to join them inside the lab, but he held his position. He was a professional, after all. Unlike certain others he could name.

Shit,” Todd’s voice hissed. “There’s dried blood everywhere. You don’t think it’s—?”

“I don’t know,” Drake cut him off grimly.

Damian’s heart skipped a beat. Blood? How much blood? Enough to indicate that Grayson was…that he was…

No. No. That couldn’t be true. Why the hell wasn’t anyone saying anything? Damian usually couldn’t get the inferior Robins to shut up.

As if he’d heard him, Drake called, “No sign of Dick. But someone was definitely kept down here. It looks like…” the boy paused and Damian could hear him swallowing down his nausea. “It looks like they tortured him.”

Damian’s knuckles turned white as his grip tightened on the hilt of his sword. The Court of Owls was dead, Father’s rules be damned.

“Where to next, Replacement?” Todd asked. Started to ask. He hadn’t gotten the words all the way out of his mouth before there was a soft impact and a surprised oof as the air rushed from his lungs. There was a hard thud. Damian’s mind supplied the image of Todd being flung against the wall.

“Dick!” Drake called, his voice equal parts relieved and panicked. At the sound of Grayson’s name, Damian’s heart soared. But Drake’s next words brought him crashing back down to Earth.

“Dick, stop! It’s us! Don’t do this!”

The unmistakable sound of bone snapping and Drake’s agonized scream brought Damian crashing through the door and stumbling into a scene he knew would haunt his nightmares for years to come.

Grayson stood over Drake, his bare chest heaving, arms still outstretched from the move that had broken Drake’s arm. His head whipped around toward the doorway as Damian entered, once-cheerful face now twisted with mindless rage. Damian swallowed hard at the sight of the wounds littering Grayson’s chest and arms, still red and fresh and raw. Dark lines like black ink snaked across Grayson’s pale skin, so strange looking that it took Damian a moment to recognize them as veins.

But his eyes. His eyes were still blue and not the falcon yellow of the dead things the Court called soldiers. And sure, it wasn’t Grayson looking out from behind those eyes, but that didn’t mean his brother was gone. Not yet. Not completely.

Hope was an unfamiliar feeling to Damian. Grayson was good at hope. Stupidly good at it. To the point where Damian was half-convinced that the older man might actually believe in unicorns and the power of true love’s kiss or some other foolish nonsense. Damian, on the other hand, thought hope was childish at best and dangerous at worst. It was far more sensible to be realistic about things.

Right now though, Damian clung to the tiny spark of hope in his chest. Because if he calculated the odds of actually getting his big brother back when this was over, he would weep from despair.

Besides, it was what Grayson would have done.

“Grayson, if you can hear me in there, know that we will save you,” Damian promised quietly, the steel in his voice an almost tangible thing. Grayson glared, no trace of recognition anywhere in his handsome face. His brother left Drake on the floor and took one, menacing step toward Damian.

Todd hit Grayson from behind like a freight train, bringing them both to the ground.

“Get Red out of here!” Todd barked, struggling to contain Grayson. Todd might have been bigger and heavier, but Grayson was so flexible that holding him down was like trying to keep water in a sieve.

Damian ran to Drake’s side and hauled the older boy to his feet. Drake was pale and sweating under his mask, but he didn’t faint, even when Damian’s accidentally jostled his broken arm.

“Forget me,” he panted. “Help Red Hood! We’ve got to snap Dick out of it!”

Damian gave Drake a gentle nudge toward the door and turned back toward the battle. He sheathed his sword—he couldn’t risk stabbing Grayson—and took the first opening he could.

“Come on,” Damian huffed, grabbing one of the older man’s arms and pinning it behind his back. Todd saw his chance, kicked his way free, and gained his feet. “Fight it! You’re stronger than this!”

Grayson gave an animal grunt and flipped out of Damian’s hold, somehow managing to send Damian flying halfway across the room in the process. Damian rolled to his feet, running back toward the fight as Todd engaged Grayson once again.

“Stay…still…you…son of…a bitch…” Todd gasped between blows. In a fair fight, Todd and Grayson were much more evenly matched. But this was not a fair fight. Todd was trying to incapacitate Grayson without permanently hurting him.

Whereas Grayson was trying his absolute hardest to murder Todd.

Damian launched a low spinning kick, attempting to sweep Grayson off his feet. Ever the acrobat, Grayson dodged out of the way. Todd took the opportunity to go for one of his guns—the tranquilizer, Damian realized—but Grayson was on him too soon. There were two quick blows: one that sent the gun soaring across the room and another that sent Todd crashing into the far wall. Todd groaned and slumped down, clutching at his side.

And then it was just Damian and Grayson.

Damian had sparred with his oldest brother many times before. He knew Grayson’s fighting style inside and out. He knew the way the older man moved, the way he breathed, the way he laughed when somersaulted through the air and the way he groaned good-naturedly when Damian landed a hit. Never, not once, in all of those training sessions, in all the times they’d patrolled together on the streets, had Damian realized that Grayson had been holding something back.

Now Grayson moved like lightning, flashing from one strike to the next with deadly precision and breath-taking grace. Every restraint the older man had ever placed on himself was gone; every blow was a killing strike. Damian had been trained by the best—the League of Assassins, Batman, and Grayson himself. He could tell, almost the moment a fight began, who would win and who would lose.

Damian knew with terrifying certainty that he was going to lose this battle.

“Get me a clear shot,” Drake called from across the room. As he dodged Grayson’s punches, Damian managed to catch sight of Drake holding Todd’s tranquilizer gun in one hand, his body leaning against the wall for stability and support.

A clear shot, Damian mused bitterly. Impossible. Not with the way Grayson was flipping all over the place. Not with the way this fight was going.

Only one solution, then.

“Be quick,” Damian warned Drake. Then he took one step back, dropped his arms, and stopped fighting altogether.

Grayson was on him in an instant, large hands wrapping around Damian’s throat, intent on squeezing the life out of him. Damian struggled instinctively, futilely. The edges of his vision faded to black.

And then Grayson’s hands were gone and the man himself was crumpled on the ground, three tranquilizer darts sticking out of his back.

Damian wheezed for air, collapsing to his knees beside Grayson’s still form. Ignoring the pain in his throat, Damian reached out and brushed two fingers across Grayson’s neck. A slightly erratic, but strong pulse jumped under his fingers. Damian closed his eyes in relief.

A groan brought him back to the present. Damian looked up to find Todd limping over, hand clutching at his side—broken ribs, if Damian had any guess. Drake joined them, one arm hanging limply.

“So,” Todd huffed, looking down at Grayson. “Which one of us is going to carry this big lump out of here?”

*****

 

It took one full week for Grayson to open his eyes. One full week of desperate trial and error, searching for a way to counteract the drug the Court of Owls had injected Grayson with. One full week of sleepless nights, curled uncomfortably in a chair at Grayson’s side. One full week of what ifs and doubt and fear.

But the moment Grayson blinked open those clear, blue eyes, looked at Damian, and said his name, made every single second worth it.

“Grayson,” Damian acknowledged, hiding his knee-weakening relief behind his usual scowl.

“How do you feel?” Drake gushed, eager for attention. Grayson looked over at him, frowning at the sight of rigid cast around Drake’s arm.

“I…I did that,” Grayson said, his voice small.

Damian glared at Drake. And then at Todd when he replied, “Yup. You went a little fratricidal on us there. Not still feeling that way, are you?”

“I broke your ribs,” Grayson said, staring at Todd’s side and then at the fading bruises around Damian’s throat. “And Damian…God, I almost killed you!” His voice broke. He reached up to cover his eyes with one hand, clearly hiding tears.

“Grayson. Richard.

Grayson ignored him. 

So Damian huffed an aggrieved sigh and clambered up onto the bed, snuggling into Grayson’s side. Damian disliked physical contact, but it was Grayson. He needed this.

Grayson recoiled slightly from his touch, hand moving to reveal frightened eyes. “Don’t! What if I…?”

“Nonsense,” Damian snorted, not moving an inch. “You would never hurt me.”

“But I did,” Grayson answered, voice wracked with guilt.

“That wasn’t you,” Damian said firmly. Drake echoed his sentiments. It was the first intelligent statement Damian had ever heard him make.

Slowly, tentatively, Grayson’s arm came down around him and pulled him close. “I’m so sorry,” Grayson whispered into his hair.

“Don’t be. Though if you must feel guilty, you can make up for it by swearing never to go after the Court by yourself again. You imbecile,” Damian added, though without any real venom. He was far too relieved to be slinging insults.

“I guess I deserved that,” Grayson chuckled weakly. The sound made Damian want to smile. He didn’t, of course. Bad enough that he was letting Grayson hug him. He had to draw the line somewhere.

The bedframe groaned as Tim hopped in on Grayson’s other side, joining the hug. From somewhere off to one side, Todd said, “I’m willing to call us even if you don’t make me do…whatever this is.”

“I love you too, Jaybird,” Grayson said, sounding better by the second.

Ugh,” Todd shuddered. “Don’t make me hurl.”

“You guys are the best,” Grayson sighed.

Damian pushed himself up on one elbow, not quite leaving the circle of Grayson’s arm. “By definition, only one person can be the best,” he said. “It’s obviously me.”

The ensuing argument left Grayson breathless with laughter. Damian thought he’d never heard a better sound in all the world.

Chapter Text

Clark floated high above Gotham, letting the sounds of the city wash over him. He focused, tuning his hearing to find a familiar, rock-steady heartbeat, the strongest he’d ever heard from a human.

There. The rooftop. Skulking in the shadows.

Typical.

Clark alighted on the roof a minute later.

“Superman,” Bruce’s Batman growl was never particularly pleasant, but even Clark could hear the displeased undertones. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Then you should answer the League’s calls,” Clark retorted. “We’ve been trying to get a hold of you for—”

“I’m busy,” Bruce interrupted. “You and Wonder Woman can handle League matters.”

“Well, it’d be nice to know whenever you’re not going to be available,” Clark huffed. “Just so we don’t have to worry about whether you’re dying in a ditch or something—”

“Well, hello,” a voice purred from behind him.

Clark startled and turned. A woman in a skintight leather suit crouched on the far edge of the roof. Most of her face was covered by tinted goggles and a hood with…cat ears? Clark didn’t have more than a second to process before her blood-red lips tilted upward in a dangerous smirk.

“Didn’t know you were the type to break rules, Superman,” she said, standing with a kind of feline grace with made Clark wary. “Don’t you know Gotham’s off-limits to people like you?”

She slunk forward, one hand reaching down to toy with the whip on her belt. “Unless you came looking for trouble…”

“Uh,” Clark stuttered incoherently, completely taken-aback. Who was this woman?

Beside him, Bruce’s jaw clenched. “Cat,” he said warningly.

The woman didn’t look away from Clark, but her smile widened. It was a distinctly off-putting expression. “Bat,” she replied evenly.

“Play nice.”

The woman bit her lip, gaze positively predatory as it slid over Clark. “What if I don’t want to?”        

“We both know he couldn’t handle you.”

“Hey!” Clark protested, his brain finally unfreezing.

They ignored him.

“I suppose,” the woman sighed. She looked over at Bruce. “It’s going down. If you want Two-Face, we better move.”

Bruce nodded stiffly. “Go. I’ll follow.”

The woman cast one last hungry look at Clark. “Lois Lane is a lucky woman.”

Clark gaped, too dumb-founded to stop her as she sauntered to the edge of the roof and leapt into empty space.

Clark replayed her words in his head. Had she brought up Lois because of the interviews Clark had done as Superman? Or because…?

“Does she know?” Clark asked Bruce bluntly.

“No.”

Clark sighed in relief.

“Maybe.”

“Damn it, B!” Clark groaned.

“Glasses are not a disguise,” Bruce shot back. Clark glared. They did not need to have this particular argument again.

“Do I need to worry about her?” he demanded.

“No,” Bruce said. This time he sounded certain. “She only likes causing problems for me.”

“B…”

“I’m handling it.”

Clark’s eyes narrowed. He tilted his head, focusing his hearing once again. Bruce’s heartbeat was steady as always, his breathing even. Too even. The way it was when he was hiding something.

“Rao,” Clark swore incredulously. “You like her.”

“Get out of my city, Superman,” Bruce growled and launched himself off the roof.

Clark grinned. “That wasn’t a no!” he yelled after his friend.

Silence was his only answer.

Clark took off toward the Watchtower, still grinning hugely. Diana was going to love this.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Alfred,” Dick said, padding into the kitchen. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes,” Alfred said. He was in the midst of prepping ingredients for what looked like a batch of Dick’s favorite cookies.

Dick smiled. It was the first good thing that had come of his unannounced visit to the Manor. He’d thought that having some time and space from Bruce would help him reconcile with the old man. Certainly while Dick had been with the Titans, he’d felt like he might be ready to forgive and forget.

But actually seeing Bruce again—Bruce and his stupid, glowering face and the monumentally terrible way he expressed emotions—had made Dick furious all over again.

Of course, seeing Jason running around as Robin hadn’t made things better.

“I was wondering if you would help me, Master Dick,” Alfred said, snapping Dick out of his reverie. “As you can see, I have my hands full here.”

“What do you need?” Dick asked instantly. He’d do anything for Alfred.

“Would you pick up Master Jason from school?” Alfred asked.

Dick recoiled.

Okay, he’d do anything but that.

“That’s not a good idea,” Dick told him.

Alfred cracked a couple of eggs expertly into a bowl. “May I ask why not?”

“You know why not,” Dick said hotly. “He stole Robin!”

“Oh?” Alfred said. “I wasn’t aware that Master Jason had circumvented our security and broken into the Batcave.”

Dick glared. “You know what I meant.”

Alfred picked up a whisk. “I’m afraid I’m a bit slower than I used to be,” he said primly. “You shall have to explain it to me, Master Dick.”

“Bruce just gave it to him,” Dick said angrily, feeling the hot burn of tears behind his eyelids “Robin was mine. It was the name I took to find justice for my parents and Bruce just gave it away without even asking me."

“And that’s Master Jason’s fault?” Alfred asked.

Dick stopped. “Well…” he fumbled. “I…I mean…”

“I see,” Alfred said in a tone that made Dick feel like he was ten years old and had gotten caught practicing his aerial flips from the chandeliers all over again. “So, you are angry with Master Bruce and taking it out on Master Jason.”

“What? No!” Dick protested. “I mean, yes I’m mad at Bruce, but Jason is annoying and rude and he doesn’t even care what Robin means!”

“Have you ever told him what it means?” Alfred asked.

Dick shuffled his feet. “No,” he admitted.

“I see,” Alfred said again.

Dick crossed his arms. “I don’t like him,” he said defiantly.

Alfred stopped everything and looked at him. “Master Jason is alone and hurting and his entire world has just been turned upside down. His parents are gone; he has no friends here. He’s been given something that he does not think he deserves and he worries every day that it’s going to be taken away from him.” Alfred raised an eyebrow. “Does that sound at all familiar?”

Dick looked down. He remembered what it was like to lose his old life and be swept up by Bruce Wayne, by Batman. He remembered worrying that he was going to screw up and lose Robin. He remembered what it was like to be alone and heartbroken and lashing out at everyone.

He remembered.

“Yeah,” he answered softly. “It does.”

“Well, it’s not,” Alfred said and Dick looked up, confused. “Because this time there is someone here who could help Master Jason, who could be a friend to him—a brother, even—if only he stopped misdirecting his anger.”

Dick frowned. “A brother? Really?” he asked doubtfully. “And how exactly would I do that?”

"With patience, and understanding, and a good deal of compassion. But most importantly, Master Dick, you just decide to," Alfred informed him. He turned back to his ingredients. "And you can start by picking up Master Jason from school."

Dick wasn’t totally sold, but he recognized that Alfred might be right about one thing: he was misdirecting his anger. And that much, at least, wasn’t fair.

“Fine,” he gave in. “But I’m taking the Lamborghini.”

Alfred favored him with a knowing smile. “Very good, Master Dick.”

 

*****

           

Dick parked the car and got out. He walked around and leaned on the passenger-side door, watching as a wave of kids in uniform washed over the front steps of Gotham Academy. After a few minutes, he spotted Jason, his uniform disheveled in a way that Dick figured was some sort of adolescent rebellion. Jason looked up, caught sight of Dick waiting for him, and scowled.

Dick scowled right back.

Reluctantly, Jason headed for the car. He hadn’t even made it down the steps when a tall, handsome boy accosted him. He said something to Jason, making his friends laugh and Jason ball his hands into fists.

Dick’s eyes narrowed.

The tall boy said something else and Jason’s expression went from simply dark to positively murderous. He shoved his way past the boy and stomped toward the car as the people around him laughed some more.

Okay, no.

Dick started toward the steps.

“Where are you going?” Jason demanded as Dick passed him.

“Wait in the car,” Dick said, keeping his eyes fixed on the tall boy.

“Dick—”

“Wait in the car,” he repeated. He fixed a big smile on his face and walked up to the tall boy, ignoring the odd looks he was getting from the other students.

“Hi,” Dick greeted, bright and cheerful and friendly. “What’s your name?”

The tall boy stared down his nose at Dick, his gaze both mocking and bemused. “I’m—”

"Oh, wait,” Dick interrupted, laughing a little. “I don’t actually care. See, the only name that really matters in this conversation is mine.”

The tall boy frowned and gave him a once-over. “And who are you, exactly?”

Dick put his hands in his pockets. “I’m Dick Grayson.”

The boy’s eyes widened slightly. One of his friends blurted, “You’re Bruce Wayne’s other kid.”

“Yep,” Dick confirmed. His expression turned cold as he channeled Bruce at his most frigid. “And the next time you decide to mess with Jason—even a little bit, even at all—I will bury you.”

He stared down the tall boy for a long minute, letting the kid know he was serious. When he felt the message had sunk in, Dick smiled again. “You have a nice day, now.” He turned away.

“Hey!” the boy called after him. “You can’t talk to me like that!”

Dick spun back slowly. He was still smiling, but all the warmth in his eyes was gone. “Yeah?” he asked. “What are you going to do about it?”

The boy looked taken aback by Dick’s question. He cocked a fist uncertainly, glancing around at his friends as if to make sure they had his back.

"You're a little far away to throw a punch. Here, let me help you," Dick laughed and strode forward, only stopping when he was nose-to-nose with the other boy. “Give me your best shot.”

The boy took two big steps back, his eyes wide. “You’re crazy!”

“Completely,” Dick agreed. “That's something for you to keep in mind the next time you decide to have some fun at Jason's expense.”

The tall boy swallowed hard. “Whatever,” he said at last. “You and your charity case brother aren’t worth it.”

Dick’s smile disappeared. “That’s the last insult you get,” he said very quietly. The boy blustered a little, but he was beaten and everyone knew it.

“So glad we had this chat,” Dick said and walked back to the car, slow and confident, like he owned every inch of ground he stepped on. He’d learned that walk from Bruce a long time ago.

Jason was waiting for him by the passenger door, arms folded.

“I thought I told you to wait inside,” Dick said mildly, crossing over to the driver’s side.

“I don’t take orders from you,” Jason snapped. They both got in and Dick pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road.

Jason made it a whole three minutes before he exploded. “Why the fuck did you do that? You don’t even like me.”

Dick’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. There were a million things he could say in response to that accusation.

But Alfred was right: it was time to make a decision.

Aw, hell, he’d already made the decision. He’d made it the second he saw those kids picking on Jason.

Alfred was going to be so smug.

“Yeah, well,” Dick replied. “You’re part of the family now. Only I’m allowed to give you shit.”

He glanced over and saw Jason staring at him, something open and vulnerable in his gaze. As soon as he caught Dick looking, Jason glared and cleared his throat.

“You shit-talk me, I’ll shit-talk you,” he warned.

“As if you could find anything to make fun of me for,” Dick teased.

Jason scoffed. “Your name is literally Dick.”

Dick made his eyes as wide and innocent as he could. “But I like Dick,” he protested.

“Jesus,” Jason muttered. “Do you even hear yourself?”

“What?” Dick asked. “Don’t you like Dick? Everybody likes Dick!”

“Oh my god,” Jason groaned. “You are so fucking embarrassing.”

Dick bit his lip to keep from laughing.

It wasn't going to be easy and it wasn't going to be perfect, that was for sure. But maybe--just maybe--Dick would give this whole brother thing a shot.

Chapter Text

She spoke the language of silence

Every step a word

Every glance a paragraph

Every expression a declaration

Words might lie

But the body never did

If you knew how to read it

All it ever told you was truth

Though her brothers doubted

She knew

The thing that connected them

That bound them

Was not

Pain

Or

Loss

Or

Suffering

It was love

And if they just looked

Her brothers would see it too

They would see that love was

Jason

Standing on a rooftop

Screaming

I hate you

Into the cold air

His shoulders tense and stiff

Fists clenched

But

His feet firmly planted

Solid and unmoving

Rooted deeply

Unyielding

Because he would rather stay and fight

(and fight)

(and fight)

Than walk away

Than vanish

Than leave them behind

Love was

Tim

Hunched over a computer

Fingers relentless on the keyboard

Hunting for clues

Never stopping

Never resting

Dark circles under fever-bright eyes

Making the world as safe as he knew how

So that no one else could be taken from him

Love was

Damian

Sword in hand

Spine stiff

Jaw clenched

Determined

Standing in the shadows, but fighting for the light

His words pushed away

But his eyes

His eyes told a different story

Love was

Dick

Smiling and bright

(A graceful curve in the air)

Avenging and dark

(A brutal blow to the chest)

Hurting

Hurting and hiding it

Because he would gladly

Fall

If it meant everyone else could

Fly 

She wished they could see what she did

Wished they could know

That love was

Tints of motion

Hues of stillness

And all of it

In shades of red and black and blue

Chapter Text

There were days when Tim felt like he was on top of the world. When everything in his life—as Red Robin, as CEO of Wayne Enterprises—just seemed to go perfectly right.

And then there were days like this one.

It had all started with Professor Pyg.

No—no, that wasn’t true. It had all started this morning, when he’d stumbled into the kitchen for his morning cup(s) of coffee.

Someone (Tim suspected Jason. Though it could have been Damian, the little gremlin) had broken into his apartment during the night and stolen all his coffee and replaced it with decaf. He’d had to subsist on the stuff for twenty minutes until he was able to walk himself over to the coffee shop around the corner and down the largest dose of caffeine that they could legally serve him.

And then, he’d gotten the alert that Professor Pyg was snatching people off the streets in broad daylight and Tim had spent hours trying to track him down. Which was frustrating because, while Pyg was a lot of things, clever wasn’t really one of them. At least, not by Tim’s genius-level standards.

He blamed the decaf coffee. Even drinking a small amount had made him slower. He wondered idly if there was a way he could halt its production world-wide, and if so, how much money it would cost.

Later. He’d figure it out later.

Of course, once he’d caught up with Pyg, the man had refused to go down without a fight. Tim had rescued the victims, but he’d been cut up pretty badly in the process. He was grateful he could blame the blood loss for the subsequent disaster of a chase across the rooftops which had ended with Pyg getting away and Tim lying in a dumpster.

Well, the blood loss and the decaf coffee. He was going to murder Jason. Or Damian. Whoever had broken into his place.

He heard footsteps approaching from down the alley. Tim gritted his teeth and reached for a batarang, pushing aside the starburst of pain that the small movement caused.

The footsteps stopped. A familiar, cowled head peered down at him.

“Red?” Steph asked.

Tim groaned. Out of all the people in the world who could have found him, it had to be Steph. He was never going hear the end of this one.

“Are you okay?”

“Except for everything, I’m perfectly fine.” Tim tried to smile up at her. “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” Steph drawled. “I hate to break it to you, but you’re kind of lying in a dumpster. And you’re bleeding. Like, a lot.”

“Am I?” Tim joked weakly. “Hadn’t noticed.”

“Hmm,” Steph hummed, lips twitching into a smile even though her eyes were worried. “Let’s get you out of there.”

“I can manage,” Tim wheezed as he tried to sit up. He only got about halfway before he sank back with a moan of pain.

“Yeah, I can see that,” Steph said. “Come on. Give me your hand.”

With Steph’s help, Tim managed to half-climb, half-roll out of the dumpster and into the alley. As soon as he was on his feet, the world tilted worryingly. Before Tim knew it, he was on the ground, legs a tangled heap under him.

“You dumbass,” Steph growled at him, slapping a bandage across his wound and applying pressure. “If it was this bad, why didn’t you call for help?”

“I had it und—”

“If you say under control, I will murder you, Timothy Jackson Drake-Wayne. Just see if I don’t.”

“No names in the field,” Tim muttered.

“Shut the hell up,” Steph ordered. She reached out and activated the emergency beacon on Tim’s utility belt.

“Aw, come on,” Tim whined, noting distantly the way his words were beginning to slur. “I don’t need an extraction.”

“I don’t know why people think you’re the smart one,” Steph told him. “You’re the dumbest person I know.”

“Love you, too,” Tim said, letting his head lean back against the pavement.

Steph huffed. “Remind me to punch you when you’re all better.”

“That seems like it wouldn’t be in my best interests,” Tim said. He frowned, wondering if he was imagining the roar in his ears. But then the Batmobile fishtailed into view and came to a rumbling halt. Tim closed his eyes in resignation. 

A minute later, he was being scooped up in a pair of strong arms. He opened his eyes and was confronted by the outline of a tightly clenched jaw.

“B?”

“Don’t talk,” Bruce growled, lowering him gently into the Batmobile. “You’re in enough trouble as it is.”

“I’m having a really bad day,” Tim confided. “It’s all ‘cause of the coffee. It was decaf.”

From somewhere over to the side, Tim heard Steph snort.

“I always knew his last words would be about coffee,” she said.

“Hey!” Tim protested softly. His eyelids felt like they weighed about a million pounds so he let them flutter closed again. “‘m not dying.”

“Just wait ‘til Alfred gets a hold of you.”

Tim had a really clever reply. He totally did. It was on the tip of his tongue, but luckily for Steph, he passed out before he could say it.

Damn decaf coffee.

 

Chapter Text

“I get it, I do,” Steph huffed. “I know it’s dangerous out there. But I can take care of myself and he needs to…” she trailed off, staring at Tim. Who was glancing down rather obviously at something held just out of her sight-line beneath the table the two of them were sharing at the diner he’d dragged her to.

“Tim,” she said evenly.

Tim jolted and glanced up. “Yes?” he asked, a guilty look flashing across his face. He was easier to read than an open book.

Steph shook her head incredulously. This kid was Robin?

“Were you even listening to me?” she asked.

Tim nodded emphatically. “Of course!” he exclaimed, even as his eyes darted down to his hand and back up to her.

Seriously, this kid?

“Let me rephrase,” Steph said, folding her hands on the table. “Were you listening to me and texting someone under the table?”

Tim’s shoulders slumped. He placed his phone on the tabletop, the very figure of defeat.

“I wasn’t texting,” he said. “I swear I wasn’t. It’s just…STAR Labs has this new level of encryption on their servers and I’m so close to cracking it and I had just had this epiphany while we were sitting here and I needed to write it down before I could forget—” he cut himself off with a gulp, catching sight of Steph’s expression.

“But I swear I was listening,” he added quickly. “Before. I can multi-task pretty well. It’s actually a skill I’ve been developing—not that that’s important right now. ‘Cause it’s not. Listening to you definitely is, though. Which I totally was doing…”

Steph bit back a smile as she listened to Tim ramble on. She wanted to be mad. She really did. But she wasn't.

“You’re lucky you’re cute,” she said over Tim's fumbling attempts to dig himself out of the hole he'd made.

Tim stopped talking abruptly. He blinked at her a couple of times, processing, and then a huge grin spread across his face. “You think I’m cute?”

Steph rolled her eyes. “Guess I have your attention now.”

 

*****

 

In hindsight, inviting his friends to the Manor might not have been such a good idea.

Or rather, inviting some of his friends to the Manor might not have been such a good idea.

“Where’s Bart?” Tim asked, trying to hide the panic in his voice as he realized he’d lost sight of the speedster. Again.

Kon tilted his head to one side, listening. “Upstairs. North wing.”

“Thanks,” Tim said and rushed up the stairs.

“We’ll just…wait here, then,” Cassie called after him helplessly. Tim ignored her in favor of pushing his legs faster. A crackle of lightning directed him toward the family’s private wing, where everyone’s bedrooms were. Tim swore under his breath and redoubled his efforts. God forbid Bart went digging around in Jason's room. Or Dick's. Or—

“Whoa, whose room is this?” Bart asked, peering through the door he’d just opened.

Tim skidded to a halt, dread slamming into him.

“Bruce’s,” he answered, grateful that the man in question was literally on a different planet at the moment. At least it gave Tim time to prepare for his own demise. Set his affairs in order. Write a will. Buy a coffin. That sort of thing.

Bart stared at the room. And then at Tim. And then back at the room.

“But there’s a bed in it,” he said.

Tim raised both eyebrows, edging towards the door so he could close it. “And…?”

“He sleeps in a bed,” Bart said.

“What, did you think he slept upside down hanging from the ceiling?” Tim asked, finally getting the door shut. He breathed a small sigh of relief.

“I mean…I didn’t not think that…” Bart muttered.

“You know he’s not literally a bat, right?” Tim said.

Bart sighed. “Yeah, I know.” His face visibly brightened. He snapped his fingers. “The Batcave. How have I not seen the Batcave, yet?”

And with a flicker of electricity, he was gone.

Tim curled his fingers into fists.

“Kon,” he called, voice hardly louder than murmur. “Could you…?”

There was a loud bang and a sudden “ow!

“No fair!” Tim heard Bart exclaim from downstairs. “You’re not allowed to use TTK on me!”

“Yeah, well, you’re not allowed to give Tim a heart attack,” Kon shot back.

Tim grinned as he made his way to the stairwell. “Thanks, pal.”

 

*****

Tim hesitated on the stairs, looking back at Bruce. He was still wearing his uniform, but the cowl was pulled back, his face illuminated by the harsh light of the monitors.

“You staying up to work on the Zsasz case?” Tim asked.

Bruce’s eyes flicked up toward him. He gave a single, sharp nod.

Tim took a step toward him. “Want some company?”

Bruce’s expression didn’t change, but Tim was getting better at reading the other man’s silences. He wasn’t entirely inscrutable, but you had to know where to look. It was all in the eyes.

“You don’t have to,” Bruce said quietly.

Tim descended the stairs fully. “I want to,” he said. “I don’t like leaving things unfinished.”

“Me, either,” Bruce said, turning back to the screens. Tim pulled up a chair and settled in.

About an hour later, when Tim’s stomach rumbled embarrassingly loud, Bruce stood. “We need coffee. And food.”

Tim looked up. “Alfred’s asleep.”

“I’ll get it,” Bruce replied.

Tim’s lips twitched. “Really?”

“I know my way around a kitchen,” Bruce said defensively.

Tim looked down, hiding a smile. “That’s not what Alfred says.”

Hn,” Bruce grunted, sounding miffed. He padded toward the stairs.

“Try not to burn the house down!” Tim called after him.

Bruce grumbled something under his breath, expression as dark as a thundercloud.

But Tim could see his eyes. Whoever said Batman never smiled had no idea what they were talking about.

 

Chapter Text

Dick glanced impatiently at his watch and then out the window of the café, scanning the street for the tenth time.

“Come on, kid. Where are you?” he muttered under his breath. He and Damian had made plans to meet for lunch after Damian’s half-day at school, but now the boy was running nearly thirty minutes late and Dick was starting to get worried.

Had something happened? Some emergency that Dick was unaware of?  He shook his head and tried to calm himself down. Damian was perfectly capable of taking care of himself. If something had happened, Damian could handle it.

Besides, Damian would be pissed if Dick went looking for him and it turned out to be nothing. Although realistically, Damian would be pissed if Dick went looking for him and it turned out to be something, too. The kid was prickly. It was one of his charms.

Dick drummed his fingers on the tabletop and checked his watch again.

Yeah, screw it. He was going.

He was just pushing his chair back when Damian came racing inside, the blazer of his school uniform bunched up and held tightly in his arms.

“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Damian panted and took his seat. Dick slowly followed suit, eyes trained on the jacket his little brother had yet to relinquish.

“Whatcha got there?” Dick asked cautiously, waving off the waitress. Until he knew what was going on, he didn’t want anyone near their table. Damian had somewhat…unconventional ideas about what was acceptable to bring into public spaces.

Namely anything with a sharp, pointy end. And sometimes minor explosives.

Damian’s expression turned hard and guarded. Dick instinctively knew that whatever the boy was about to say was going to be a lie.

But then a tiny, black-and-white furred head poked its way out of Damian’s coat and meowed softly.

Dick raised an eyebrow, a smile curling on his lips. “Who’s your new friend?”

Damian looked down at the kitten in his lap, then up at Dick. “I rescued her from an alley. She was starving,” the boy said, defiance in every line of his body. Like he was expecting a fight.

Like he was expecting Dick to be mad at him for showing compassion to another living creature.

Dick leaned back in his chair, using every ounce of his training not to let slip any sign of the anger burning in his chest.

One of these days, he was going to have a very long, very pointed conversation with Talia al Ghul about child-rearing. He had a speech all prepared.

He’d practiced pieces of it on Bruce a number of times.

“I’m glad you saved her,” he told Damian, when he was sure he could keep his voice even. “I didn’t know you liked animals.”

Damian blinked, clearly unprepared for Dick’s easy acceptance. He looked down again at the kitten, stroking one gentle finger down the center of its forehead.

“I’m not supposed to,” Damian admitted, like he was sharing a dirty secret. “Caring is a weakness.”

“No, it isn’t,” Dick said fiercely, springing forward in his chair. “It isn’t,” he insisted, when Damian frowned doubtfully. “Caring is what makes us strong. It’s what makes us better, Dami.”

Damian pursed his lips, still looking down at the kitten. “Perhaps,” he said at last, sounding more tentative than Dick had ever heard.

Dick watched him for a long moment, weighing his options. It was best to lead by example, right?

He sent a silent prayer to whoever was listening that Alfred would agree. He knew Bruce wouldn't be able to stop him if Alfred fell into line.

“What’s her name?” Dick asked.

Damian glanced up, confused. “Her name?”

He shrugged. “We’ll need to call her something if we’re going to take her home.”

Damian’s answering smile was slow and surprised and lit up the entire room.

Dick decided suddenly that he didn’t care if Alfred objected.

They were keeping the cat.

Chapter Text

If Jason had known what the Lazarus Pit would do to him, he would never have allowed himself to be thrown in it.

But he didn’t know.

And then it was too late.

The Lazarus Pit was…it was…even after living with its effects, Jason still didn’t know how to describe it.

It was like drowning in an ocean of rage, and every time you clawed your way to the surface for a breath of air, more water came pouring down your throat.

It was like having the ground drop out from under you, so that you were falling endlessly into a darkness with no beginning and no end.

It was like stomping down on the accelerator of a car, hurtling yourself toward the sharp cut-off of a looming precipice—going faster and faster and faster and faster, but somehow never getting any closer to the edge.

It was all of these things; it was none of these things.

But mostly, it was everything. When the Lazarus Pit rage had you, there wasn’t room for anything else—just the desire to rip the world to bloody shreds with your bare hands.

The first thing that broke through that titanium wall of mindless fury was a memory. Not of Jason's mother or his father. Not even of his death.

It was a memory of him and Bruce.

He feels like shit, achy and feverish in a way that has him regretting ever getting out of bed that morning. But Robin is the best thing that’s ever happened to him, so he puts on the uniform anyway and gets ready to go on patrol.

Alfred stops him. Forces him to leave the Batcave and sit on the coziest couch in the Manor while he brings some homemade soup, piping hot.

Jason complains about it the whole time, dragging his dirty boots up onto the cushions in petty protest. He knows, deep down, that Alfred is right—Alfred is always right. Going out on patrol like this, when his head feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton and mothballs, is a surefire way to get himself killed.

He doesn’t care. He doesn’t want Bruce going out there without him. What if something goes wrong? What if Bruce gets into trouble and Jason isn’t there to help?

Worse—what if Bruce realizes he’s made a mistake in training Jason and decides to take Robin away from him? If Jason loses Robin, he’ll have nothing.

And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Jason’s had nothing before. He grew up in Crime Alley, for fuck’s sake.

But it’s easy to have nothing when that’s all you’ve ever known. Now that he’s had something—now that he’s had this?       

Jason’s pretty sure that losing Robin would break him in ways he can’t even begin to imagine.

But then Bruce is there—cowl-less, heavy cape draped over one arm as he leans over the back of the couch.

Taking a night off every once in a while isn’t a crime, Jason. So, what are we watching?”

Two sentences, and suddenly everything is better.

Jason falls asleep leaning against Bruce’s armored shoulder, the TV blaring in the background. It’s not comfortable.

It’s the best night’s sleep that Jason’s ever gotten.

After that, more and more of himself started coming back. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses—in fact, almost none of it was. But eventually, Jason got himself to a place where he could be in the same room with someone else and not try to murder them immediately.

It got easier when he started to think of himself as two different people: Regular Jason and Lazarus Pit Jason.

Regular Jason was almost (but not quite) the same kid he’d been before. Almost because no one got killed by the Joker and resurrected by the League of Assassins without coming back just a little bit different.

Lazarus Pit Jason was another story entirely. Regular Jason didn’t remember much of what Lazarus Pit Jason got up to, but a lot of it seemed to be destroying anything that came into arm’s reach—up to and including any person stupid enough to be in the same room as him at the time. Talia assured him that Lazarus Pit Jason hadn’t actually killed anyone.

Jason wasn’t sure that he believed her.

There were several reasons for this, but the main one was that Jason couldn’t fathom why he was still here with the League of Assassins after all this time instead of back home in Gotham with Bruce and Alfred and even that annoying asshole of a sometimes-brother, Dick.

Face with a mystery, Bruce would have gone digging for answers on his own. Alfred would have asked sharp, unrelenting questions until he found the truth. Dick would have charmed the information off someone.

But Jason was Jason. So, one day, he asked Talia bluntly, “Am I your prisoner?”

Talia raised her eyebrows. It was one of her favorite non-expressions. She was similar to Bruce in that way, though Jason was sure both of them would have resented the comparison.

“You are not a prisoner,” she told him. “You are a guest.”

“Then why isn’t Bruce here?” Jason demanded.

“I’m sorry?”

“Bruce should have come for me by now. I bet he’s already tried. How many assassins did it take to beat him?” Jason wanted to know. It was something he wondered a lot—how many times Bruce had tried to get to him, if he’d gotten hurt in the attempt.

He must have gotten injured, Jason reasoned, though it hurt his heart to think it. Otherwise, Jason would be back in Gotham right now.

Talia folded her hands in her lap. “The Detective does not know you are here.”

Jason gaped at her, positive he’d misheard. “What do you mean?”

“He thinks you’re dead.”

Jason’s first thought was: 

How the fuck did Bruce miss the fact that I clawed my way out of my own coffin?

His second thought was: 

Oh god. Oh god. Bruce still thinks I’m dead. I have to get back.

“I have to get back,” Jason said aloud, his voice panicked and desperate. “I have to get back to Gotham. Bruce—he’s probably a mess right now. I mean, I died and that’s totally not his fault, but he’ll think it is. And then he would have gone after the Joker and killed him for it, which—okay, thank god, honestly—but Bruce hates killing and I just…he needs to know. He needs to know I’m still alive.”

Jason bit his lip, forcing himself to stop rambling. He was with Talia so often these days that sometimes he forgot to watch his mouth around her.

 

Talia stared at him, and if Jason hadn’t known better, he would have sworn that there was pity in her gaze.

“I will take you to Gotham,” Talia declared.

Jason’s heart stuttered with joy. He was so relieved, he almost didn’t hear her add, “But I do not think you will want to stay there.”

If Jason had been thinking clearly, he would have asked Talia what she meant by that.

But he wasn’t thinking clearly.

And then it was too late.

Because a week later, Jason found himself on a familiar dark rooftop in Gotham, watching with a numb kind of horror as Batman dropped into nearby alley to fight some of the Penguin's goons with a kid in red and green and yellow at his side.

Jason had died. He’d been buried. He’d ripped off all his fingernails and beaten his hands raw and bloody fighting his way out of his own goddamn coffin. He’d been stolen by the League of Assassins and then thrown in the fucking Lazarus Pit for good measure.

And Bruce hadn’t noticed.

Because Bruce had been busy training a new Robin—had been busy opening up his home to some other kid with dark hair and an unhealthy obsession with danger.

Bruce hadn’t noticed Jason was back because he didn’t care to look.

He’d replaced Jason.

Bruce had replaced him.

“There’s something else I need to tell you,” Talia said, placing a hand on Jason's shoulder. Jason tried to look at her, but he just couldn’t tear his eyes away from the kid who’d stolen the only good thing he'd ever had.

“The Joker is still alive.”

There was a ringing sound in Jason’s ears. He suddenly felt like he was looking at the world from a long way off.

“What?” he gasped, fighting for breath from lungs that refused to work properly.

“He’s back in Arkham. He killed a guard two days ago in an attempt to escape. They managed to stop him, but…well. It’s only a matter of time before he’s out again. I’m sorry,” Talia said, her soft voice sounding loud as a gunshot, loud as bones snapping under the swing of a crowbar in Jason’s mind.

And there it was—the rage, drowning him, eating away at his heart like acid, burning him alive from the inside out.

Bruce hadn’t noticed that Jason was alive. Bruce had replaced him.

Bruce had let his killer go free.

But that was Bruce’s problem, wasn’t it?

He let all the killers go free.

Why should Jason’s be any different?

Jason had thought—in the furthest, most hidden corner of his mind—that he mattered to Bruce. That he was Bruce’s son and Bruce was the father-figure Jason had always wanted and never had.

But it was clear now that none of that was true.

Bruce had replaced him.

He’d let Jason’s killer go free.

Whatever line had separated Lazarus Pit Jason from Regular Jason was gone. Maybe it had never been there in the first place. Maybe it had just been Jason all along.

“I don’t want to be here anymore,” Jason said. He didn’t notice the way his voice was shaking, the way his body was trembling with barely-contained fury.

“Where do you want to go?” Talia asked.

“I want…” Jason struggled, trying to turn his feelings to words and his words to actions. What did he want?

He wanted his city back, wanted to take it from Bruce, wanted to rip it from him and watch as he lost everything the same way that Jason had lost everything.

He wanted to tear the bright yellow R off that pretender’s uniform because whoever that kid was, he didn’t deserve the name of Robin--or the way Bruce would inevitably fail him.

But mostly…mostly he just wanted to kill the fucking Joker. Slowly. Preferably with a crowbar. And then a bullet in the brain—just to be sure.

He wanted all of that and more.

And Jason suddenly knew how to get it.

“I want you to train me,” he said. “Teach me to become like you. Teach me everything he never wanted me to know.”

Talia’s grip on his shoulder tightened. “Why?”

“So that this city can finally get the kind of vigilante it deserves,” Jason said. “Someone who does what needs to be done. Someone who deals with problems—permanently.”

“And what about the Detective?”

Jason clenched his hands into fists. “He’ll just have to get with the times.”

“I have known him for a long time,” Talia said warningly. “The Batman does not bend.”

“Then I’ll break him,” Jason said simply.

If he had looked at Talia in that moment, he would have seen the triumphant gleam in her eye, the viper’s smile on her lips.

But Jason didn’t look.

And then it was too late.

Chapter Text

“He’ll be alright, won’t he?” Dick asked, watching as Alfred adjusted Bruce’s IV. It didn’t feel right, seeing Bruce lying down, pale and quiet and still. Bruce was…he was Bruce. The Batman. A force of nature. And this…he wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“He just needs rest, Master Dick,” Alfred assured him. “His injuries are not life-threatening.”

Dick breathed out a shuddering sigh of relief. He’d known that Bruce was going to be fine. He had. But it still felt good to hear out loud.

“It will be a while before the two of you can go on patrol,” Alfred continued. “He’ll need time to recover.”

Dick blinked. “But what about Mr. Freeze?” he asked. Battling the rogue was what had gotten them into this mess in the first place.

Alfred smiled tightly down at him. “The police will handle it.”

Dick worried at his lip with his teeth. He and Alfred both knew the GCPD weren’t a match for Freeze. Villains like him were Batman’s responsibility. And since Dick and Bruce were partners, that meant he was Dick’s responsibility, too.

“I should help them,” he said.

Alfred’s gaze hardened. “Absolutely not. You are not, under any circumstances, to go out on your own.”

A glimmer of an idea sparked. “What if I wasn’t alone?”

I’m certainly not going with you, Master Dick. And I will not let you out of this house as Robin unless you are accompanied by someone who equals Master Bruce in skill and ability,” Alfred said, laying down his conditions with the air of a man revealing a winning poker hand.

But Dick only grinned, his expression full of mischief. “Not even if they were bulletproof?” he asked.

Alfred paused. His eyes narrowed. “I’m listening.”

 

*****

 “You shouldn’t have come here,” Freeze sneered as Robin narrowly dodged an icy blast. “You aren’t ready to fight without Batman holding your hand.”

“We felt bad about the way things ended,” Robin shouted back, tossing a couple of sharp projectiles at him mid-backflip. Freeze shot them out of the air. “Besides, don’t you think it’s ice to see us?”

Freeze ignored the pun. It really wasn’t one of the boy’s better ones. “Us?” he repeated.

A nightmare figure in black swung down from the ceiling on a line, stumbling a little as his feet hit the ground. Freeze grinned delightedly.

“Seems like you should have given yourself more time to recover, Batman,” he taunted. As Batman straightened slowly, Freeze added, “Or maybe you really are that eager to die.”

Batman said nothing, just stomped forward, heavier on his feet than Freeze had ever seen him.

“Yes, definitely eager,” Freeze said. He raised his weapon and fired.

The blast hit Batman directly in the heart. For a moment, Freeze was stunned that the vigilante hadn’t dodged. He always dodged.

But then a triumphant laugh exploded from his chest as he watched the Batman become a solid block of ice.

He’d won. After all these years, he’d won.

Freeze turned to deal with Robin, but the boy was staring at Batman, his shoulders shaking.

“Tears,” Freeze smirked. “How sweet.”

A strangled sound slipped past Robin’s lips. “I’m not…” the boy said, a strange, breathless noise burbling up through his throat. “I’m not crying.”

No, Freeze realized with a start. The boy was laughing.

Crack!

The sound tore through the air like a gunshot. Freeze spun, eyes going wide as the ice around Batman shattered into a thousand pieces. He gaped soundlessly as Batman shook away the remaining shards and strode forward like nothing had happened.

“That’s…that’s not possible,” Freeze gasped.

Robin cartwheeled into view. “He’s been working out,” the boy informed him as he whipped past. “Eating more protein. That sort of thing.”

Freeze didn’t even see the punch that took him down.

 

*****

Bruce opened his eyes, awareness creeping through him like a thief in the night. He slowly cataloged his surroundings, from the dark paneled ceiling of his bedroom in the Manor to the IV hooked into his hand to the large, unmistakable figure sitting as his bedside.

"Clark,” Bruce said, his voice little more than a rasp. “Why are you here? Did something happen?”

Clark jumped a little in his chair and looked over at Bruce. “You’re awake!” he exclaimed, completely ignoring Bruce’s questions.

Bruce pushed himself slowly upright. “Did something happen?” he repeated, dark eyes unwavering.

Clark smiled at him reassuringly. “No. Everything’s fine.”

Bruce frowned. “Then why are you here?”

“You’re my friend, Bruce,” Clark said, more than a hint of reproach in his voice. “I was worried about you. Do I really need any other reason to visit?”

Hn,” Bruce grunted, begrudgingly allowing himself to be convinced.

“Bruce!” a voice yelled from the doorway. Ten seconds later, Bruce was being tackled back to the mattress by an armful of excited ten-year-old. He gasped quietly, trying to get his breath back. That didn’t stop him from reaching up to ruffle Dick’s dark hair.

“Hey there, chum,” he said. “You do alright while I was out?”

Dick snuggled into Bruce’s side, wide blue eyes staring up at him. “Yes! Uncle Clark wore the Bat-suit and we went patrolling and then he punched Mr. Freeze so hard that he was…” Dick grinned so widely that Bruce thought his cheeks might split, “…out cold.”

Bruce’s eyes darted to Clark in time to catch the guilty wince that flashed across his face.

“No other reason to visit, huh?” Bruce growled.

Clark glanced nervously toward the window. “Oh no!” he exclaimed weakly. “I can hear someone calling for help in Metropolis…” He half-rose from the chair.

“You don’t hear a damn thing,” Bruce snapped. “Sit down.”

Clark sat.

They both ignored Dick’s mocking snicker.

“Clark,” Bruce started, but Clark beat him to it.

“I didn’t use my powers. I didn’t do anything you couldn’t do,” he said, speaking so fast that Bruce had to concentrate to catch every word. “I even used a grappling line to swing across the rooftops.”

Dick snorted. “He’s really bad at it. He kept crashing into buildings.”

Bruce did not let himself enjoy the mental image Dick’s commentary provided, but resolved to find security footage of the incident later.

For research purposes. Obviously.

Clark’s gaze didn’t waver from Bruce’s. “From the moment I left the Batcave to the moment I returned, I was completely human. I swear.”

Bruce relaxed infinitesimally. Even he couldn’t doubt Clark’s sincerity.

Until Dick said, “Except for when he got frozen solid and he busted out of it like he was breaking a piñata! It was awesome!

Bruce’s eye twitched. “Clark!

Chapter Text

“Damian,” his father called from the entryway.

Damian set aside his book and stepped into the hall. There were three people standing near the door: his father, Clark Kent, and a boy with dark hair and blue eyes who looked too much like Kent to be anything other than his son.

The first prickles of suspicion hooked into Damian’s mind. He glanced at his father and saw that, yes, he was in on…whatever this was.

Kent smiled at him. “Hi, Damian. This is my son, Jon. I thought you two could get to know one another.”

Damian scanned the boy from top to bottom, from his wide, too-hopeful eyes to his rumpled t-shirt, ripped blue jeans, and scuffed shoes.

Damian looked back at Kent. “No, thank you,” he answered.

Damian,” his father growled. “Don’t be rude.”

The smaller Kent—Jon, Damian supposed. Calling him the smaller Kent even in his head was too much of a hassle—shoved his hands in his pockets and turned toward Kent, a small smile curling at the corner of his mouth.        

“He’s exactly like you said!”

Kent nodded, the same small smile on his face.

Damian’s eyes narrowed. What did that mean?

“Clark and I have some business to discuss. Why don’t you give Jon a tour of the house?” his father asked, in a way that made it clear that it was not a request.

Damian clasped his hands behind his back. “Very well,” he acquiesced, mind already spinning, looking for advantages. Perhaps he could leverage some good behavior here into convincing his father to let him patrol on his own.

The adults disappeared into the depths of the Manor. Damian eyed Jon as the other boy bounced forward.

“I’m really excited to finally meet you,” Jon said. “I’ve been bugging Dad about it since I found out he actually, like, knew Batman’s secret identity. It’s gonna be so nice to be able to talk about superhero stuff with someone who isn’t a billion years old.”

Damian took a deep breath. He reminded himself that he’d once spent four days hiding in a crawlspace in order to execute the perfect ambush on an unsuspecting target. Playing babysitter for an hour wouldn’t kill him.

Even if the boy insisted on talking the entire time. Which seemed increasingly likely.

“This way,” Damian said, when Jon paused for breath. He dutifully showed the other boy around the first floor, stopping in the lounge and portrait gallery.

“It’s just so cool that you’re Robin,” Jon chattered on as they peeked into the ballroom. Damian led the way toward the dining room and the kitchen. “I keep asking my dad if I can go fight bad guys with him and he keeps saying no. It’s totally unfair! I mean, I’m basically invincible! You’re all squishy and you still get to fight people!”

Damian stiffened.

Squishy?

Jon didn’t seem to notice. “I can already fly and lift a car and stuff. I’m ready to get out there. I have my own cape and everything—wow, that’s a big kitchen. It’s gotta be at least four times the size of ours back home…”

Damian tuned out the rest.

If he was going to be stuck with Jon, he might as well do something productive with his time. During his tenure as Robin, Damian had compiled files on every active superhero. He’d seen enough of the world to know that just because someone was good today, didn’t mean they’d be good tomorrow.

And if that tomorrow ever came, well, Damian would be prepared.

But Jon Kent was new. Damian knew almost nothing about him.

It was time to change that.

There were at least fifty different ways Damian could kill someone using what he found in the kitchen alone. Of course, if Jon’s claims of invulnerability were correct, none of them would work on the half-Kryptonian.

Additional input was required.

A smooth, practiced motion sent the small knife in his wrist sheath into his waiting palm. He stepped past Jon, as if getting ready to lead him to the next room, and manufactured a stumble so that the blade scraped against the back of Jon’s hand just as their shoulders collided. A quick flick put his weapon back in its place.

Jon jerked back, fingers grazing the back of his hand. The skin was unblemished, though it was clear that the boy had felt something.

Note: Target possess Kryptonian invulnerability, but maintains a higher level of sensitivity. May be more susceptible to pain.

“Apologies,” Damian said. “The home theater is this way.”

“You guys have a home theater?” Jon said, eyes lighting up. He dropped his hand, the incident clearly forgotten. “That is so cool! I feel like I would spend all my time in there…”

And on and on and on. It was far too many words. This was what came of having two journalists for parents.

Damian got back to the problem at hand.

If Jon shared his father’s strengths, it seemed logical that Jon would share his weaknesses as well: Kryptonite and magic. It also seemed likely that Jon was not as fast or strong as Superman. Nor, Damian speculated, would he heal as quickly. If so, eliminating Jon—should he ever become a threat—would be a simple matter.

“Hey, are you even listening?” Jon demanded, waving a hand in front of Damian’s face. “What’cha thinking about?”

“I’m plotting your murder,” Damian snipped, his patience fraying at the edges.

Jon paused, a look on his face like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not.

“You’re kinda weird,” he said at last.

“I am not,” Damian shot back immediately. He wasn’t.

Was he?

No. Certainly not.

“S’ok,” Jon said soothingly, patting him on the shoulder. “I didn’t say it was bad. I think we could be friends.”

Damian clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, uncertain how to respond to such a declaration.

Note: Target is entirely too trusting.

“I’ll take you to the library now,” Damian said. He meant to roughly pull himself away from Jon’s hand on his shoulder, but the action ended up being much gentler than he’d intended. Jon grinned at him and motioned for him to lead the way.

By the time Damian and Jon had finished the tour, Kent was ready to leave. Something about an emergency in Metropolis he needed to see to. Damian begrudgingly returned Jon’s cheerful wave as the two Kryptonians hurried out onto the gravel drive and shot into the brooding, gray sky.

An unwelcome thought wormed its way into Damian’s head as he watched them depart. As much as he hated to admit it, the world needed Superman. There were, after all, large things from space that occasionally needed punching and Kent fulfilled this role adequately.

Yet, it was a demonstrable phenomenon that Kent aged. In time, he would grow old and feeble. It would happen to all the older Kryptonians, at one point or another—if they didn’t fall in battle first.

However it happened—whenever it happened—the world would eventually need another Superman.

Damian had a feeling he’d just met the only candidate.

He sighed internally. Yet another hero he was going to have to add to his watch-list. It was starting to be too much. There were only so many people he could keep a protective eye on. Grayson was practically a full-time job as it was.

He shook his head as he returned indoors. He couldn’t see a way around it. Jon Kent was going on the list. The boy would one day wear the mantle of Superman and he’d never even seen a battle yet. He was going to need help. And training. Lots and lots of training.

Damian figured he was probably the best man for the job.

It was most definitely not an excuse to maybe see Jon again.

No. Certainly not.

Chapter Text

Tim sat on the edge of his bed, staring down at the camera in his trembling hands.

He thought…he was pretty sure…

No. There was no point in lying to himself.

He knew Robin was dead.

Tim breathed out in a slow, steady stream. He’d read somewhere that taking deep, even breaths was a good way to stay calm. He hoped it was true. He didn’t feel particularly calm.

Jason Todd was dead. Robin. The Boy Wonder. One-half of the Dynamic Duo. How had nobody noticed? Why didn’t anyone care?

Maybe, Tim reasoned, it was because they didn’t understand. Everyone looked at Robin and saw a kid standing in Batman’s shadow. A side-kick. A student. A dependent.

They didn’t see what Tim saw. They’d never seen what Tim had seen.

Robin didn’t depend on Batman.

Batman depended on Robin.

Robin was the light to Batman’s darkness. He was Batman’s heart. His compassion. His mercy. His smile. And without a Robin…Tim shuddered to think what Batman might become.

Tim took another deep breath and broke down the problem in his head, like he was laying out pieces of puzzle.

Here was what he knew:

Gotham needed Batman.

Batman needed a Robin.

Jason Todd was dead. Dick Grayson wouldn’t—or maybe couldn’t—be Robin anymore. And it was becoming increasingly clear that Batman would never choose a replacement on his own. Jason’s death had changed him. Pretty soon, it would break him.

If Batman broke, Gotham was doomed.

And no one—except for Tim—knew what was going on.

Tim hefted the camera, putting his eye to viewfinder. How many nights had he spent like this, looking at the world through a lens? Tim felt safe behind the camera. Seeing, but unseen. Knowing, but unknown. Everything was easier when he removed himself from the picture entirely.

But if Tim was honest with himself, he didn’t want a world where things were easy. He had too much of that in his life already.

Tim examined the pieces of his puzzle again. Yes, the logic made sense.

Gotham needed Batman.

Batman needed a Robin.

Batman wasn’t going to choose a new Robin.

Tim slowly set the camera aside.

Maybe it was time a Robin chose Batman instead.

Chapter Text

Roy's life had taught him a number of hard lessons, but he'd always felt the most important was this:

Cherish the good moments--because you never really know when you might get another one.

And this, he thought, kicking his heels through the empty air as he sat on the edge of a skyscraper, dawn breaking on the horizon, was going to be a great one.

“No. No way,” Jason said, shaking his head vehemently. “It was definitely my idea to glitter bomb the Bat-suit. You were way too goody two-shoes to even consider pulling a prank on B. Still are.”

“Um, excuse you,” Dick said. “I’ve been pranking Bruce since before you were born.”

Roy leaned back on his elbows and settled in to enjoy the show. It wasn’t often that he got together with both Dick and Jason at the same time, but when he did…oh boy.

Jason shot Dick a look. “Since before I was born? Remind me again just how much older you are than me, Mr. Mathlete?”

Dick rolled his eyes. “You know what I meant.”

“I forgot you were a mathlete,” Roy snickered quietly. “Nerd.”

“Hey, being a mathlete was very cool,” Dick protested.

Jason scoffed. “Only someone who wasn’t cool would say that.”

“Big words coming from a man who reads Jane Austen in his free time,” Dick said pointedly.

“Dude, zip it. You know how he is about Austen,” Roy said warningly.

While at the exact same time, Jason said, “Insult the lady again and I will shove you off this fucking roof.”

“Sensitive topic,” Dick said, wisely raising his hands in surrender. “Got it.”

“Just because you’re an uncultured idiot doesn’t mean we all have to be,” Jason muttered, clearly not over it.

I’m uncultured?” Dick laughed. “The last time you went to one of Bruce’s charity events, you stepped on a woman’s toes so hard during a waltz that she had to be carried off the floor.”

Roy snorted at the mental image as Jason spluttered.

“Ok, first of all, that woman was a walking pile of dicks with a pretty face,” Jason said hotly. “And secondly, she was only using me to get noticed by Tim, which I so did not want to deal with. I literally only had two options to get myself out of there: step on her toes or snap her neck. She’s lucky I went with the first.”

“Wow,” Dick said. “Those were literally your only two options? I swear, you’re the most dramatic one in the family.”

Me?” Jason gasped. “Bruce dresses up as a giant bat to fight crime because of a vow he made as an eight-year-old and you think I’m the most dramatic?”

“Bruce doesn’t count. He’s, like, the galactic emperor of drama. It’s not the same thing.”

“Oh man,” Roy breathed. “This whole conversation is gold. I'm gonna have so much dirt on the two of you.”

Roy was suddenly the intense focus of two sets of blue eyes.

“You really want to play this game, Harper?” Jason asked, raising an eyebrow.

Roy raised one right back. “You don’t scare me, Todd.”

“Roy, honey, I love you, but don’t get into a pissing contest with Bats over who knows the most embarrassing secrets,” Dick said. “It’s us. It’s always us.”

“True,” Roy agreed. “But you can’t embarrass me. I have no shame.”

Roy watched with amusement as both his friends tried to come up with a counter-argument and failed.

“Fuck,” Jason swore after a long moment. “He’s right.”

Dick mock-scowled at Roy. “You win this round.”

“You know, I’d ask you what kind of shit you have on Dickface, but I’ve got enough stories to last until the end of time,” Jason said.

“You’re one to talk, Mr. Darcy.

Jason hardly even glanced at Dick. He just shoved him off the roof.

Dick’s scream of rage (or maybe it was delight? It was hard to tell with Dick. There was nothing he loved as much as flying) dwindled into the distance.

Roy peered down. “Should we…?”

“He’s fine,” Jason said shortly. “He has his grappler. I checked.”

Roy grinned at him. “Aw, you do care.”

“Shut up or you’re joining him.”

Roy laughed, free and bright and easy. “You don’t scare me, Todd,” he said again. “Not even a little.”

Chapter Text

Selina enjoyed a good game of cat-and-mouse, and not just because it went with the territory of being Catwoman.

Mostly she liked it because she won.

Ivy had argued—more than once—that there were no winners and losers when it came to cat-and-mouse.

She was wrong. There were always winners and losers.

And Selina didn’t lose.

Bruce had come the closest to pinning Selina down, but they both knew that he only caught her because she wanted to be caught. No one else in Gotham could come close to touching her.

The first night Selina realized she had a shadow, she was breaking into a stuffy socialite’s apartment to steal an emerald ring that had caught her eye. The fact that the woman had publicly smeared Bruce Wayne in the tabloids three nights prior had absolutely nothing to do with Selina’s choice of target.

She just really liked the ring.

The theft itself was so easy, Selina was tempted to try and make things more interesting by letting the security camera get a glimpse of her. But she was a professional and she had a reputation to maintain. She was in and out in less than ten minutes. No one saw her.

And yet, on the way back, Selina knew that she was being followed.

It wasn’t Bruce. She could tell that much. Bruce liked to swoop in—big, dramatic goober that he was—and this shadow definitely wasn’t swooping.

Her first guess was that it was one of the Robins or perhaps even Batgirl, but whoever was on her tail was small and fast and didn’t move like any of the various masks Selina had come to know over the years.

But if the little mouse wanted to play, Selina was more than happy to oblige.

It took her five minutes to lose the shadow.

The next night, it took her half an hour.

Selina couldn’t believe it. No one got better that fast. Selina knew Gotham’s rooftops better even than Batman. She knew exactly how to move, where to step, when to jump in order to get from point A to point B faster than anyone in the city. The first night, Selina would have sworn up and down that her little mouse was an amateur. 

The second night, Selina felt like she was playing her favorite game with a seasoned professional. She’d lost Nightwing in less time. Whoever was haunting Selina’s rooftops was good and they were getting better. The few glimpses Selina had caught of her pursuer had proved that. It was as though her shadow had studied the smooth way Selina moved across the city the first night and somehow managed to copy it during the second.

The third night, Selina knew she’d have to use more than just her speed and agility if she wanted to keep winning. There was a hidden ledge—invisible from the rooftops—on a building near the Bowery. Selina led her shadow on a merry chase across Gotham, before vanishing into her hiding spot. She hoped to finally get a good look at her pursuer.

And the plan would have worked, except this was Gotham and there was no such thing as a quiet night in Gotham.

A woman’s shrill scream split the air, coming not two blocks north of Selina’s location. Selina didn’t consider herself a goody-goody like Bruce and his flock, but she didn’t hold with women getting molested on the streets. There were a number of men who had learned the hard way that Catwoman had sharp claws. And that she definitely wasn’t afraid to use them.

Selina gave up on the game and set out in the direction of the scream. She found the alley she was looking for quickly and took in the scene at a glance. Four big men in dark clothes, laughing as they manhandled a struggling, sobbing woman up against the alley wall. There was another man lying unconscious on the ground—probably the woman’s husband or boyfriend or something. Right now, he didn’t matter. Saving the woman did.

But before Selina could make her move, a dark shape streaked into the alleyway, moving so fast and fluidly that Selina couldn’t even follow the first few seconds of the fight.

All she could see was that there had been four men harassing a woman. And then, a moment later, there were only three. The fourth was lying halfway down the alley—either dead or unconscious, Selina honestly couldn’t tell.

In his place stood a girl, her small frame lit by the glow of the streetlamps. Selina’s sharp eyes catalogued Asian features, a fringe of dark hair, and an expression of absolute and utter serenity.

It seemed Selina had gotten a glimpse of her little mouse after all.

One of the remaining thugs shook off his surprise and stepped toward the girl menacingly. Selina only had time to take a half-step forward, because in the space of a breath, the girl had struck three blows—one with each fist and one from her right foot.

The man dropped soundlessly.

The girl turned toward the final two attackers. She smiled.

Selina settled in for some entertainment.

It was, in a word, brutal.

But if she’d been asked for a second word, Selina would have chosen beautiful.

And watching the girl fight, Selina realized suddenly that for the first time in her life, she might have been wrong about who the mouse was.

Furtive movement pulled Selina’s eye to the rooftop across from hers. He was hiding—and he was doing it well—but he couldn’t hide from her.

The Bat was here.

He was here and he wasn’t interfering.

He was just…observing.

Hovering, actually. Like he used to do when his little Robins went solo for the first time.

Selina’s eyes flicked from Bruce back to the girl.

Hmmm. Now there was a thought she hadn’t considered. She really shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Bruce was never going to stop adopting children.

Confident the situation was being handled, Selina slipped away. She wanted confirmation of her theory, but she could wait until tomorrow to get it.

The fourth night, Selina’s shadow didn’t appear. Then again, Selina didn’t expect her to, not after that little show last night. Instead, Selina set herself up on the rooftop of Wayne Enterprises and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long.

“Cat,” Bruce said.

“Bat,” Selina acknowledged, unable to stop the smile curling at the corner of her lips at the sight of him, all brooding and overly-serious.

“What do you want?” he prompted.

Right. Down to business.

“Girl, dark hair, fights like a whirlwind,” Selina described shortly. “She’s one of yours?”

Bruce grunted. “Maybe.”

The tone of his voice, the stiffness of his shoulders, even the way he braced his legs told Selina more than his one-word response did. The girl was definitely one of his and she was new and Bruce was having a hell of a time controlling her—which only mattered because she’d already wormed her way into his heart and he was worried about her. Not that Bruce would ever admit that.

Selina sighed to herself. Bruce felt things more deeply than anyone she’d ever met. He was also horrible at expressing those feelings. Dick had once called Bruce emotionally constipated within her hearing. The term had stuck with her. It was so incredibly accurate.

And funny as hell.

“What’s her name?” Selina asked pointedly.

Bruce was silent for a long time. At last, he answered, “Cass.”

Cass. A nickname, no doubt. Probably short for something. Selina was sure she’d find out exactly what soon enough.

“She’s been following me,” she told him.

A muscle in Bruce’s jaw ticked. “I know.”

Selina narrowed her eyes and got to the point.

“You know that one day, you’re going to have to choose who to pass the cowl to,” Selina said, without preamble or pretense. She could feel Bruce watching her intently, like she was the only thing that existed in the entire world.

“I know,” he said again.

Selina pulled off her goggles and hood so that he could see her face. So that he could see how serious she was about this.

“She’s the one,” Selina told him.

She could feel Bruce’s frown, even if she couldn’t actually see it behind the mask.

“You’re sure?”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You aren’t?”

“How do you know?”

“How do you not?”

Bruce breathed out slowly through his nose, the way he always did when his patience was beginning to thin. “Selina—”

Selina smiled and gave herself a running start to jump off the ledge and into the night. She swung herself down onto the next rooftop and paused. She looked back over her shoulder expectantly, willing him to give chase.

He did.

He always did.

Chapter Text

Dick waited until he’d settled Damian down enough that he was sure the boy wasn’t going to enact the Bruce Wayne Four-Step Plan to Dealing with Emotional Crisis™, which went as followed:

Step 1: Have emotions.

Step 2: Pretend your emotions don’t exist.

Step 3: Dress up as a bat.

Step 4: Beat the shit out of some criminals.

Not that Dick could particularly blame Damian this time. He was pretty close to chickening out and following the Bruce Wayne Plan himself tonight.

But he’d promised himself a long time ago that he wasn’t going to be Bruce.

So he squared his shoulders, went back to the Cave, and did the right thing.

“Tim,” he said. “I’m glad you’re still here.”

Tim shrugged. He was striving for impassivity, but Dick knew him too well for that. Tim was clearly exhausted and in more than a I-stayed-up-all-night-working-on-a-case kind of way. It was the kind of exhaustion that only set in after weeks of constant stress and worry and fear and heartbreak. The kind of exhaustion that said the next hit just might be the one that finishes me.

It broke Dick’s heart. He’d helped make Tim feel that way. He hadn’t meant to, but what did that matter? He’d still done it.

“I know I said it earlier, but I need to say it again,” Dick told him. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.”

Tim shrugged, focusing his gaze on the floor. “It sucked, you know?” he said quietly, his voice rough with unshed tears. “I mean, I know it sounded crazy, but this family lives and breathes crazy. I expected some doubts—I was ready for that. Just not from you. You’ve never not believed in me, not when it mattered. And that…that hurt.”

Dick took a deep, shaky breath and willed himself not to cry.

“I know,” he said. “I’m so sorry, Tim. And…” he hesitated, but the whole point was to get things out in the open, so he launched himself headfirst into the next minefield. “I’m sorry about taking away Robin. About how I handled it, I mean. I could have done better.”

Tim looked up sharply and Dick held his breath. He always forgot how intense Tim could look when he was really focused on something, like nothing else in the world mattered. Dick felt like an insect pinned to a card under that sharp gaze.

“You’re sorry about how it happened,” Tim repeated hollowly. “But not that you did it.”

In for a penny…

“No,” Dick said. “I’m not sorry about that.”

Tim’s expression closed off entirely. Dick thought he’d never looked more like Bruce than in that moment.

“Just let me explain,” Dick asked. Tim gave him one, stiff nod and Dick continued.

“Damian needed to be Robin,” he said. “He needed a purpose. He needed a home and a family. Otherwise he would have gone back to Talia and started killing again. Or worse.”

Dick shuddered to think what Damian might have become without the responsibility of Robin grounding him firmly on the side of the heroes. He loved Damian fiercely. Somehow, that little standoffish, aggravating brat had wormed his way into Dick’s heart and Dick had no intention of ever giving him up.

“So that made it okay to just shove me aside?” Tim asked flatly. There was anger in his voice now, despite his claims earlier in the night that he was over it.

And the thing was, he probably was over it. At least in the sense that he'd left the costume far behind. Tim had accomplished incredible things as Red Robin and really come into his own.

But Dick knew all too well how the sting of losing Robin festered, even after finding a way to move on.

“Look…ah, fuck,” Dick swore, running a frustrated hand through his hair. “I’m explaining this all wrong.”

Tim folded his arms. “Then explain it right.”

Dick took another deep breath, trying to organize his scattered thoughts. “Batman and Robin—they’re partners, right?” he started. “They complement each other. They can work alone, sure, but they always do their best work together. Because they each have something the other doesn’t.”

Tim raised an eyebrow. “And we didn’t work well together? That’s what you’re saying?”

“Let me finish,” Dick begged. Tim gave him another nod.

“Batman and Robin,” he started again, “they’re partners. But they’re not equals.

Tim opened his mouth, probably to argue, but Dick beat him to it.

“No, listen to me, Tim. I’ve had more than half my life to think about it,” he said. “They’re not equals—none of us were ever equals with him. He needed us, yes, and he respected us. But when it came down to it, he was always the one calling the shots and that was never going to change. It’s not fair, but it’s true. Why do you think I left?

Tim’s lips thinned into an unhappy line. “Maybe that’s true,” he conceded begrudgingly. “Maybe. But you’re not him.”

“No,” Dick agreed. “I’m not. Which is why you couldn’t be my Robin. Because you and me, Tim, we are equals.”

Tim blinked, looking taken aback. Dick had said it before, when he'd first handed Robin's mantle to Damian, but he got the sense Tim hadn't been listening then.

He was listening now, though.

Dick pressed his advantage. “We work well together, there’s no denying that. I’ve never denied that. But you were ready for so much more than I could give you. I’m sorry it happened the way it did. I’m sorry I made you feel unwanted—that was never…I never meant to do that. I love you, Tim, and I will always want you fighting by my side. But not like that. You were ready—you were more than ready—to fly on your own.”

Tim stared at him for a long time, a number of emotions flashing across his face. Dick did his best not to parse through them. Whatever Tim was thinking, he deserved to think it in private.

At last, he said, “I’m not going to pretend I’m totally okay with it, but I can see where you’re coming from.”

Dick’s shoulders sagged. “I understand,” he said.

“And I’m sorry, too.”

Now it was Dick’s turn to stare.

Tim smiled tightly at him, that weary sadness still lurking in his eyes. “You were hurting, too. Bruce was gone, you were Batman—even though we all knew you never really wanted the cowl—and you were stuck taking care of a demon assassin child who’d just lost his father. It must have been…it was a lot.”

“Yeah,” Dick said, his voice hoarse. When he’d come down to the Cave, he’d expected anger. He’d hoped for absolution.

He’d never anticipated compassion.

God, Tim really was the best of them.

He cleared his throat. “I get that it’s probably too soon to ask for things to go back to normal, but maybe we could go upstairs? Have some hot chocolate, for old time’s sake?”

Tim’s smile got a little brighter, a little less sad. “Substitute hot chocolate for coffee and you’ve got yourself a deal.”

Dick stepped toward the elevator and was relieved when Tim followed, even though he’d just said that he would go with. The journey up to the kitchen was quiet and a little awkward. Neither one of them was exactly sure where they stood, at the moment.

He let Tim enter the kitchen first, turning to flip on the light switch. Dick stayed facing away and gathered his courage for the third time that night.

“I know you probably don’t want to,” he began softly, “but I’d really like it if you stayed.”

“Oh, thank god,” Tim practically sobbed. “I missed you so much. Never leave me again.”

Dick blinked back a sudden burn of tears. “Tim,” he choked out. He turned to face his little brother. “I missed you—”

He stopped, realization striking. “You were talking to the coffee, weren’t you?”

Tim looked up, still cradling the bag of coffee grounds in his arms. “Sorry,” he said, unapologetically. “It’s just that this stuff is so good and Alfred refuses to tell me where he buys it…Were you saying something?”

Dick couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing and god, did it feel good.

“Can I hug you?” he asked, still laughing.

Tim looked bemused. “You’ve never asked before.”

“I’ve never been this much of an ass to you before,” Dick countered.

Tim grinned slowly. “Yeah, you can hug me.”

Dick didn’t need to be told twice. He sprang forward and wrapped his arms around Tim. He pulled back almost instantly.

“Tim, you have to put the coffee down. It’s ruining the moment.”

And finally—finally—Tim gave a laugh of his own. He set the coffee back on the counter and Dick nearly cried when Tim hugged him back just as fiercely.

Alright, so maybe he did cry.

But that was okay. It was more than okay.

Because his little brother was finally home.

Chapter Text

Tim was almost finished with his patrol when Alfred called his name over the open comm line.

“What's up?” Tim asked, ducking into an alley and pausing in the shadows.

I’m sending you a set of coordinates,” Alfred said. “Nightwing hasn’t moved in about an hour and he’s not responding to my calls. You’re closest to his location.”

Worry pricked at Tim’s heart. He was already moving before the coordinates came through. “I’m on it,” he assured Alfred. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I find him.”

Keep us updated,” Bruce chimed in.

“Copy that,” Tim replied.

Fifteen minutes later, Tim used his grappling gun to swing up onto the rooftop of a tall building. He landed lightly on his feet and readied his bo staff.

“Nightwing?” he called softly, eyes scanning the darkness for any sign of trouble.

There was a groan from the far end of the roof. Tim’s sharp eyes picked out a dark form crumpled in the shadows. Tim collapsed his staff and rushed forward.

“‘Wing?” Tim asked, kneeling at his brother’s side.

Dick stirred at the sound of his voice. He groaned again.

“‘Wing, what’s wrong?”

“Everything hurts and I think I’m dying,” Dick moaned.

“Oh my god. Oh my god,” Tim panicked, adrenaline flooding his veins. His hands fluttered over Dick, carefully checking for injuries. He found none. “You…you’re not hurt. Are you hurt?”

Dick sneezed violently and shivered. “I have a cold.”

Tim’s first reaction was overwhelming relief.

His second was rage.

“You asshole!” Tim hissed, sitting back on his heels. “I thought you were actually dying!”

“I am,” Dick insisted. “I’m freezing and my bones ache and I think I may have coughed up one of my lungs three rooftops over.”

“You are such a baby,” Tim said, shaking his head, even though he really shouldn’t have been surprised. This was just like Dick. The man could break every bone in his body and not say a word because he didn’t want to worry anyone, but give him the sniffles and he suddenly became the world's biggest wimp.

Tim tapped into his comm. “I’ve got him.”

Is he alright?” Bruce asked.

“Yes, he’s alright.”

“I’m on death’s door,” Dick called out.

“He’s got a cold,” Tim said with a glare. “I’m bringing him back.”

I shall prepare the requisite supplies. And please tell Nightwing that we will be having words about open lines of communication upon his return.

“With pleasure,” Tim said. He turned to Dick as the line went dead. “You’re in big trouble for turning off your comm. Why’d you do it?”

“It was too loud and my head hurt. I was going back, anyway. I just stopped to rest for a second…” Dick trailed off, his words slurring a little. Tim removed one of his gloves and placed his hand against Dick’s forehead.

“Yeah, you’ve got a fever,” Tim sighed, some of his anger draining away. “Why’d you go out on patrol if you were feeling this bad?”

“Thought I could push through it,” Dick mumbled, curling in on himself as he shivered some more.

“Alright, no way are we swinging back to the Cave,” Tim said, making an executive decision. He got back on the comm. “Is there anyone nearby who can give Nightwing a ride? I’m not letting him walk back.”

Tim recognized the sound of Jason’s long-suffering sigh before the other boy spoke a single word.

Ugh, I’m closest. Lucky me,” Jason muttered. “But if he gets me sick, I’m shooting him and then you.

“We’ll meet you on street-level,” Tim said. “And Hood? The death threats are getting a little old.”

Death threats never go out of style,” Jason retorted. “Just like leather jackets and beating up criminals instead of going to therapy.

Tim rolled his eyes. “Just get here.”

Yeah, yeah. See you soon.

Tim pulled his glove back on. He got an arm around Dick and helped the older man stand. “Come on. Let’s get you down to the street.”

“Thanks, Timmy,” Dick said, stifling an ugly-sounding cough.

“You’ll notice that I’m not throwing any of your old lectures about taking care of yourself in your face,” Tim added.

“I appreciate it.”

“I’ll just leave that to Alfred,” Tim said. “And B. And Damian.”

Dick somehow managed to sneeze and groan at the same time. “Just kill me now.”

“No need. Apparently, you’re already dying.”

“Not fast enough,” Dick muttered darkly. “Dami’s going to yell at me for forever." 

Tim shot Dick a look. “I wonder who he learned that from.”

"I thought we weren’t doing the I-told-you-so thing,” Dick complained.

“Pssh, like that was ever gonna happen,” Tim scoffed.

 

*****

Alfred woke Bruce in the early hours of the morning, the lines on his face deeper than usual.

“Master Dick's fever spiked,” Alfred explained shortly. “I tried to hook up to an IV for fluids, but he keeps pulling it out. Short of strapping him down, I cannot get him to remain in bed.”

Bruce rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stood. “I’m coming.”

It was only a couple of feet from Bruce’s room in the Manor to Dick’s down the hall. In the time it had taken Alfred to wake him, Dick had managed to stumble his way to the door. He sagged heavily against the frame, clearly letting it support the majority of his weight as Bruce came hurrying to help, Alfred trailing at his heels.

“Come on, chum,” Bruce said softly. Even in the dim lighting of the hallway, Bruce could tell how flushed and sweaty Dick looked, could see the glassiness in his eyes and feel the heat rolling off his skin without touching him. Alfred was right: he’d definitely taken a turn for the worse. “You need to lie down.”

“No,” Dick mumbled, pushing at Bruce’s arms weakly. “…need to…they need me…”

“Who needs you?” Bruce asked, avoiding Dick’s flails and getting an arm around Dick’s chest to hold him up. It was obvious that Dick wasn’t fully conscious of what he was saying—maybe even hallucinating. They needed to get him cooled down and hydrated immediately.

Dick’s head lolled onto Bruce’s shoulder as he squinted up at the older man. “Bruce?” he slurred.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Bruce confirmed, nodding at Alfred to step past them into the room and get the IV ready. “Let’s get you to bed.”

No,” Dick struggled against his hold, nearly managing to bring them both crashing to the ground. “Where’re Jay and Timmy and Dami? They’re not safe, B. I have to…I have to get to them…”

Bruce gripped Dick more firmly and started hauling him back into the room. “The boys are safe, I promise.”

But Dick kept fighting. “No. No! I have to get to them. Please, Bruce. Please. Help them.”

Bruce swallowed hard against the lump in his throat as he listened to Dick sob and beg to see his brothers, even though he was the only one in danger. He stopped trying to drag Dick back inside and instead pulled him into a hard embrace, running soothing fingers through his sweat-drenched hair.

“Shhh,” he breathed. “It’s okay. They’re okay. It was just a dream, Dick.”

Dick's face burrowed into the crook of his neck. “Please,” he begged again, so softly that Bruce almost missed it.

“Alfred,” Bruce said, trying and failing to keep the roughness out of his voice. “Wake up the boys. He needs to see them.”

“Of course, Master Bruce,” Alfred said, nearly running out the door.

Dick was too weak to fight him anymore, so Bruce half-carried, half-dragged him back into the bed. He was just reinserting the IV when Damian came tumbling into the room, dark hair mussed with sleep, but his eyes wide with alarm.

“What’s wrong?” Damian demanded, almost falling over himself in his haste to get to Dick’s side. “What happened?”

Dami,” Dick sobbed, making a weak effort to sit up. “‘m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Damian and Bruce both pushed him back onto the bed.

“Hush, Richard. You have nothing to apologize for,” Damian told him. Bruce needed a moment to compose himself at the tenderness in Damian’s voice, something he so rarely heard from his youngest.

When he looked up, Damian was pinning him with a sharp look. “What happened?” he asked for the second time, his hand busy cradling one of Dick’s cheeks. Dick nuzzled into the touch, still murmuring slurred apologies.

“Yeah, what the fuck is going on?” Jason called sleepily from the doorway. He and Tim entered the room together, Alfred just behind them. Tim looked worried and wasn’t trying to hide it. Jason was trying to hide it, but the swift way he moved to Dick’s bedside gave him away.

“His fever’s worse,” Bruce explained shortly as he stepped aside to give them room. “He's hallucinating that something happened to all of you.”

Tim immediately ran around to the other side of the bed and dropped to his knees so he could take Dick’s hand. “Hey, we’re here, Dick,” he said. “It’s me. It’s Tim. I’m okay. We’re all okay.”

“Timmy?” Dick’s fevered eyes searched the room blindly. Bruce withdrew to Alfred’s side.

“Do you have something to knock him out? He needs rest,” he whispered, trying not to disturb his sons.

Alfred nodded. “I’ll do it now,” he replied, turning to the neat row of medical supplies lined up on a metal tray on the dresser.

Tim was squeezing Dick’s hand. “I'm right here. I’m alright, I promise.”

Dick made another effort to sit up. This time it was Jason who held him down, his scarred hands unusually gentle.

“You gotta stay still, you big idiot,” Jason said.

Jay,” Dick gasped. “…I tried…I tried so hard…”

Jason sat on the edge of the bed, his hands on Dick’s chest turning comforting instead of restraining. “Easy now, alright? You did just fine. We’re all here.” He glanced over at Bruce and Alfred, clearly wondering what was taking them so long to get Dick sedated.

Alfred moved forward with an efficiency born of long practice. He injected the contents of a syringe into the drip bag. Not long after, Dick’s eyes fluttered shut, his body going limp against the mattress.

Bruce sighed. “Alfred and I can take it from here. Why don’t the rest of you go back to bed?”

“I’m staying,” Damian said immediately. His hand hadn’t left Dick’s face yet. Tim nodded his agreement.

Jason didn’t say anything, but his silence made his answer obvious enough.

Alfred and Bruce shared a look. It was immediately clear that neither one of them had the heart to kick the boys out.

“Alright,” Bruce agreed. “But if you’re here, you’re helping.”

Tim stood immediately, though he seemed a bit reluctant to let go of Dick’s hand. “Where do you need us?”

 

***** 

Dick’s fever broke sometime in the afternoon. When he woke that evening, it was to the sight of his entire family sprawled in various places across his room, all of them fast asleep.

Dick smiled tiredly, if a bit bemusedly. He had no idea what they were all doing in here or at what point in the night they'd shown up. Sure, he'd joked to Tim about dying, but he hadn't been serious about that. He only had a little cold, after all.

But it put a warm, contented feeling in his chest to see his family gathered in one place, just for him.

How in the world had he gotten so lucky as to have all of this?

His eyes slipped closed and he fell back into a dreamless sleep before he could come up with the answer.

Chapter Text

Dick burst into Bruce’s study. “So, Gotham Academy just called,” he said.

Bruce looked up from his laptop, silently asking the question.

Dick took the hint. “Apparently, some kid thought it would be a funny prank to leap out from around a corner and surprise Damian.”

Bruce’s eyes widened. “Tell me no one’s dead,” he begged. No one in the Wayne household reacted well to people leaping out at them—a hazard of patrolling Gotham’s streets—but Damian was by far the worst. He’d been trained since infancy to deal with all sudden threats with swift and lethal force.

“No one’s dead,” Dick assured him quickly.

“Thank god,” Bruce breathed in relief.

“But it is possible to stick a ballpoint pen all the way through someone’s hand, in case you were wondering. And there was something about a protractor?” Dick added, brow furrowing in confusion. “I didn’t quite catch what he did with it, but I gathered it wasn’t pretty.”

Bruce winced. “Tell the school I’ll cover the hospital bills.”

"Tell them yourself,” Dick said, leaning against the doorway. “You have to go down there to pick Damian up from the principal’s office.”

“Right,” Bruce sighed, closing his laptop and standing.

“You know, I’m feeling much better about our decision not to give Damian a surprise party for his birthday,” Dick said. “Getting impaled with a dessert fork is pretty low on my to-do list.”

Bruce shot him a look and hurried out the door.       

 

*****

Most of the time, Jon’s dad tried to keep their regular lives and their caped escapades as separate as possible.

But sometimes—like the annual Kent-Wayne picnic—all the rules went out the window.

“I still think he can secretly fly,” Jon insisted, watching as Dick gave in to Kara’s pleas and launched himself across the field in a series of dizzying handsprings that ended in a flip so high off the ground it looked like gravity had malfunctioned. “It’s the only explanation.”

Damian made a small, scornful noise in the back of his throat and delicately turned the page of the book he was reading.

Jon sighed. He’d hoped that he and Dami would just be able to hang out today—without a crisis or a mission or the two of them sneaking around somewhere that ended with Jon being grounded by his mom for a month.

But Damian seemed to have other plans.

Jon fiddled with the blanket they were sitting on, bored out of his mind. “Wanna ask Conner and Tim if they’re up for a game of baseball?”

“Baseball? With four people? I hardly think so,” Damian said, not looking up from his book.

“Ooookay,” Jon said, drawing out the word as he thought hard. “What about soccer or something?”

“Not interested.”

“Well, what do you want to do?” Jon asked, giving up.

“I should think that was obvious,” Damian said, turning another page

Jon huffed at Damian angrily and picked himself up off the blanket. He stomped over to the picnic table, where Conner and Tim were busy setting up a chess board, and threw himself onto the bench next to Conner.

“Everything okay?” Conner asked, trading a look with Tim.

“It’s just Damian,” Jon complained. “I wanted to hang out with him, but he’s being so…ugh.”

Tim reached across the table to pat Jon’s arm sympathetically.

“I get it. Friendships between species can be tricky,” Tim said sagely. “I mean, you’re perfectly normal and he’s a demon from the fiery pits of hell. Not a lot of overlap there.”

Conner choked on a laugh.

Jon frowned. “He’s not like that.”

“Give it time,” Tim counseled.

“Okay,” Conner said, cutting in. “I’m going to take over now.”

“Please,” Damian’s voice drawled from behind them. “I’m dying to know what the clone thinks of me.”

Jon and Conner both jumped and whirled in their seats.

“How the hell did he do that?” Conner murmured, far too quietly for anyone who was human to hear.

“No clue,” Jon muttered back, his gut churning guiltily.

Tim grinned at his little brother, the expression on his face far too smug. It was clear that he, at least, had known Damian was standing there. “Hey, Damian.”

Damian scowled. “Drake.”

Jon—who knew from experience what Damian’s murder face looked like—quickly stood. “Come on,” he said, grabbing Damian’s arm. He dragged him away from the picnic table with just a hint of his super-strength.

When they were a few feet away, Damian extracted his arm from Jon’s grasp. “You don’t have to manhandle me.”

“Sorry,” Jon said, the words tumbling out of his mouth faster than he could stop them. “And I’m sorry about what Tim said. It’s my fault, anyway. You were reading and I just want to hang out and I—”

“It’s alright, Jon,” Damian said, cutting him off. “I don't blame you. Drake is an imbecile."

Jon breathed a sigh of relief, but tensed up again as another thought occurred to him. "You're not going to try and get payback are you?"

"I’m not going to do anything," Damian replied. "Father lectured me last week about keeping things in perspective and I see his point."

Jon looked at his friend, surprised. “That’s…wow, Damian. Good for you,” he said. Damian wasn’t usually so…mature about being mocked, especially by his brothers.

Damian nodded. “I'll admit, I didn't understand at first, but I've since realized he was giving sound advice. Attacking Drake in the moment may be satisfying, but it’s hardly productive. Father was right: it’s far better to see the big picture. One day, Drake will forget this slight and let down his guard. And that is the day I will have my revenge.”

Jon scrunched up his face. “I don’t think that’s what your dad meant.”

Damian gave him a haughty look. “Of course it was. I've given it a great deal of thought. But enough of this. If you don’t think of something interesting for us to do in the next five minutes, I’m going back to my book.”

 

*****

Damian disabled the security measures on the Batplane with ease. He'd done it several times before and was familiar with the procedure now. He was just about to climb aboard when Drake burst into the Batcave.

“I thought we’d had a break-in,” the older boy grumbled, taking in the scene at a glance. “I should have known it was just you being an idiot.”

Damian clenched his jaw. Father must have added a silent alarm since the last time Damian had stolen the plane. He should have known.

“This doesn’t concern you,” Damian said. “Leave.”

“You really think I’m just going to let you steal the Batplane?” Tim asked, incredulous.

“You cannot stop me, Drake,” Damian growled. “I am Damian Wayne, Ibn al Xu’ffasch, heir to the Demon’s Head. You cannot hope to best me in a fight."

“Yeah, I’m not gonna fight you,” Drake said.

Damian hesitated, thrown off his stride. “You’re not?” 

“Nope.”

Damian stepped toward the plane, eyes scanning the cave for some kind of ambush, wondering what game Drake was playing.

“In that case,” he said, “I’ll be off.”

“Okay,” Drake said, seemingly unconcerned.

Damian glared, still inching forward. “Alright, Drake. Clearly, you have a plan. What is it?”

“No plan,” Drake shrugged. “It’s just that Bruce left Dick in charge around here while he’s gone. If you steal the Batplane, you’ll get him in trouble.”

Damian stopped.

“Your argument does not sway me,” he said after a moment.

“Sure,” Drake said.

“I cannot be so obviously manipulated.”

“Of course,” Drake nodded.

“Frankly, your efforts are pathetic.”

“Completely pathetic,” Drake agreed.

Damian shot one, last longing look behind him. “It just so happens that I have urgent matters to attend elsewhere,” he said, stepping away from the plane.

“Uh-huh,” Drake grinned.

“Not a word.”

 

Chapter Text

Murphy slouched against the wall of the warehouse, taking a long drag from his cigarette. He hated this.

Hated the damp, gloomy weather that made everything he owned smell moldy.

Hated working the long nights and sleeping all day long so that he never got a glimpse of the sun.

Hated his stupid boss and the black eye he’d given Murphy the other day for having the audacity to ask for a light. If he'd had been any other person in the world, Murphy would have kicked his ass for that. But throwing down with one of Black Mask’s lieutenants was a bad idea. Picking a fight with a guy like that meant you didn’t get to live to see another sunrise.

Most of all, though, Murphy hated being in Gotham. Ordinarily, he would have avoided the city like the plague. Gotham was weird as shit, with enough caped freaks running around to give anybody the heebie-jeebies.  

But you had to go where the work was and Gotham’s underworld was always working.

You,” his boss' harsh voice called. Murphy straightened up and tossed his cigarette to the ground, grinding it out with his heel. “Go walk the perimeter. Make sure there are no surprises waiting for us.”

Murphy tried not to glower as his boss ducked back inside. He hadn’t even waited to make sure his orders were obeyed, the prick. Still, it wouldn’t do to get caught lurking around. Murphy pulled out his handgun and prowled off into the night.

The stacks of huge, metal shipping containers were eerie in the darkness. Murphy had been around the block a few times and didn’t scare all that easy, but it was hard not to imagine shapes lurking in the shadows, especially with the dark clouds drifting overhead.

He’d almost completed a full sweep of the area when he heard the sound of hushed voices coming from nearby. Murphy quietly hefted his gun and slipped around the corner of one of the shipping crates. He crept toward the noise, eyes squinting into the darkness. At last, he pinpointed the source: two man-shaped shadows crouching atop a crate, looking in the direction of the warehouse.

Murphy raised his gun. Whoever these asshole were, they were about to have a really bad night.

And then there was a break in the clouds and the full moon shone through, glinting off a bright helmet, redder than blood.

Murphy flattened himself against the nearest crate, adrenaline pumping through him as he tried to tuck himself even further into the shadows.

He might not have grown up in Gotham, but he knew the fucking Red Hood when he saw him.

Fucking hell.

Murphy brought one hand up to cover his mouth in an attempt to stifle the sound of his breathing. Sure, he had a gun and he didn’t think he’d been seen, but if Murphy took a shot and missed (which, in the darkness and with the way his hands were shaking, was a real possibility), he was a dead man.

He also didn’t dare sneak back the way he’d come. What if he made a noise? What if the Red Hood turned around?

Again, dead man.

No, it was better to just wait it out and pray the Hood and his companion made their move soon.

Fuck his boss and the rest of them. Murphy wasn’t paid enough to take on a vigilante.

In the following silence, the conversation atop the crate was easy to hear. Murphy tried not to listen in, but he couldn’t help it.

“…I asked for intel, not the fucking cavalry,” the Hood was saying, his voice deep and distorted. “This is my case, in my territory. I had it covered.”

“O counted forty-two men in there, helping Mask move his product. That’s too many even for you,” his companion countered.

Murphy felt his heart flutter in fear and wonderment. How did they know how many guys were on the crew? Who was O? A spy? A traitor?

He peered up into the darkness. From this angle, if he craned his neck, he could just make out Red Hood and his maybe-friend. The other man was dressed in all black, but Murphy spotted electric blue stripes running down his arms and across his chest.

He wracked his brain, trying to remember which vigilante dressed like that. It wasn’t Batman (thank the fucking lord) or Robin. Those two, Murphy knew. Hell, the whole world knew the Dynamic Duo.

As for the rest, it was hard to keep them straight. The fuckers were just a little too into dress-up, in Murphy’s opinion.

But blue stripes and Gotham seemed vaguely familiar. Night…something? Nightowl? Nightrobin? Nightboy?

Ugh. He couldn’t remember.

And then Murphy heard the Hood say, “Yeah, but numbers are only a problem if you’re trying to incapacitate everyone. I was just gonna kill them.”

Murphy’s blood ran cold.

Jesus fucking Christ.

“You shouldn’t kill people,” Nightlad said reproachfully.

You shouldn’t kill people,” the Red Hood mocked in a sing-song voice, managing to convey an impressive amount of vocal range despite the modifier in his helmet. “That’s what you sound like, ‘Wing.”

Nightwing. Of course. That was his fucking name.

“I do not,” Nightwing protested.

“Do, too.”

…and now they were bickering like children.

What even was happening right now?

Nightwing sighed. “It’s fine. I get it. You’re still mad because the Gazette reported that I was taller than you.”

“You are not taller than me,” the Red Hood growled, sounding so menacing that Murphy almost shit himself.

But Nightwing just smiled. “Not according to the Gazette.”

“Yeah, well, it’s an easy mistake to make when you never get down from that high fucking horse you sit on.”

Oooh,” Nightwing teased. “That was dangerously close to witty banter. I think I’m finally rubbing off on you.”

“I swear to fucking god, dickhead, I will kneecap you.”

“No, you won’t.”

Okay, either Nightwing was clinically insane or he was way braver than Murphy originally thought, because it took guts to laugh at a guy who was a legend for sticking a bunch of heads in a duffel bag just to send a message.

“Can we get a move on with the plan, please?” a new voice called. Murphy cringed into the shadows as another figure swooped overhead and landed noiselessly on the crate beside Nightwing.

Murphy bit back a groan. What was this, a fucking mask convention?

“Hey, Red,” Nightwing greeted. “You got the lay of the land?”

Wait, another Red? Didn’t they have any other colors to choose from?

“Yep, best approach is still from the south,” the second Red answered. His voice sounded younger than Nightwing’s, but a good deal less cheerful. The boy (teen, maybe? It was hard to tell) was speaking in a clipped, self-assured way that Murphy associated with the hard-core professionals of his craft, the ones the bosses paid top-dollar for to get a job done right. “Our window of opportunity is closing, though, so it’s pretty much now or never.”

“I would’ve been done already if I didn’t have to wait for you ass-hats,” Hood grumbled.

Red Number Two snorted. “He still mad about that Gazette article?”

I am not shorter than him!

“That would be a yes,” Nightwing replied dryly.

Murphy frowned. There was something so curious about watching these three interact. Only people who’d known one another for a long time spoke to each other like that. If Murphy didn’t know any better, he’d almost say that they were all friends.

Which was impossible. Wasn’t the Red Hood a crime lord in his own right? Why would Nightwing and the other guy be friends with someone like that? They should have been fighting each other, not working together to take down one of Black Mask’s operations.

It just didn’t make sense. Murphy felt like he was missing something—something obvious that would make all the pieces fall into place if only he could just see it.

Though truth be told, he was getting a little too invested in this conversation. He shouldn’t be trying to figure out the vigilantes. He should be praying they didn’t look down and spot him. He was already lucky they hadn’t seemed to notice him.

“I hate you so much,” the Red Hood told the others.

“Aw, I love you, too.”

Wait, what?

“Enjoying the show?” a voice whispered in his ear.

Murphy’s heart did its level best to punch through his rib cage and run away into the night at the sudden appearance of Robin directly in front of him. Yes, he was a kid and Murphy felt like the world’s biggest chump for surrendering to him immediately, but the kid also had a big fucking sword digging into the soft skin of Murphy’s neck, so self-preservation won out over pride.

Plus, if he surrendered to Robin, maybe the Red Hood wouldn’t murder him. The kid wouldn’t let the Hood do that, right?

Right?

“On your knees,” Robin instructed. “Weapon on the ground and hands behind your head. No sudden movements. And don’t even think about calling for help.”

Murphy obeyed quickly. “You got it, kid. I don’t want to end the night as a corpse.”

“Holy shit,” he heard the Red Hood say in the background. “Was that guy there the whole time?”

“If you imbeciles spent more time looking instead of squabbling, you might have noticed,” Robin scolded.

And even though Murphy was in deep shit, he found it odd that the youngest vigilante was the one dishing out reprobation.

Great,” Red Not-Hood grumbled. “He’s going to be insufferable now.”       

“Ugh, right? This night blows,” Red Hood agreed.

“Good work, Robin,” Nightwing called. Robin visibly preened at the praise.

A glimmer of realization popped into Murphy’s head. The way these vigilantes talked to each other…it was more than just friendship. It was—

Murphy’s train of thought was suddenly and sharply derailed by the hilt of Robin’s sword crashing into his skull. When he woke up in a GCPD holding cell with a pounding headache, he didn’t even remember thinking it at all.

Chapter Text

Steph knew that Bats didn’t cry. She knew that. They had a certain badass image to preserve. Bruce's gold standard of Bat-hood was not to show any kind of emotion at all—or indeed, even have emotions. Steph recognized she wasn’t going to achieve that particular goal. Nor did she actually want to.

She didn’t feel too bad about it. After all, Dick was far too everything to ever be accused of being emotionless and Jason’s angst was legendary. And that didn't even begin to cover the bottomless pit of adorkable anxiety that was Timothy Drake.

Still, Steph understood that there were certain standards to uphold when one ran with the Bats and crying fell short of just about every single one of them. But after a nasty fight with Scarecrow’s henchmen and the last vestiges of the fear toxin working their way out of her system, Steph just couldn’t seem to stop the hot tears from sliding down her cheeks.

She pulled her knees into her chest, hoping the deep shadows on the remote rooftop she’d chosen to hide on would stop anyone from noticing her. Theoretically, Steph knew she should be used to effects of fear toxin—she’d been exposed to it enough times in real life and in training. But tonight…Steph didn’t know if she’d been hit with a particular potent batch or if she hadn’t been quick enough with the antidote or if she was just worn down. 

In the end, it didn't really matter why. The end result was the same.

She hated Scarecrow. She hated his fear toxin. She hated how weak and useless and stupidly girly she felt right now.

“Spoiler?” a voice called quietly from the far edge of the roof.

Oh god. Steph shrunk deeper into the shadows, burying her face in her knees. Of all the people who could have found her, why did it have to be Damian?

“I followed your tracker,” Damian said. His voice sounded a little closer now. “I know you’re here.”

Shit. She’d forgotten to disable her tracker. Rookie move, Brown, she scolded herself. She knew better than to leave a tracker on when she wanted to be alone. She blamed it on the toxin. The stuff always made her a little screwy.

"Spoiler,” Damian said from right above her. Steph jumped. She hadn’t even heard him get close.

Stupid ninja training, she thought bitterly, spinning so that her back was to the younger boy. Any vigilante worth her salt was able to move silently, but Damian took stealth to a whole new level. They’d played hide-and-seek once inside the Manor—a “training exercise” Dick had called it—and Damian had disappeared so thoroughly that only Cass had been able to find him again.

“Why are you sitting up here?” Damian demanded impatiently.

“Go away,” Steph snarled, hoping the anger would mask the wobbly quality of her voice.

There was a pause.

“Are you injured?” Damian asked. His voice was a little kinder. But only barely.

“No.” Steph scrubbed at her cheeks surreptitiously, knowing she was going to have to face the kid to get him to leave. She willed herself to stop crying, but the memory of what the fear toxin had made her hallucinate kept flashing across her mind. The tears continued.

Spoiler.”

Steph honestly didn’t know if Damian had picked up that disapproving tone from Bruce, Alfred, or Dick. Maybe all three.

"I’m fine,” she snapped, turning her head so she could shoot a glare at him.

Another short silence.

“Are you crying?” Damian asked disbelievingly.

Steph buried her head again quickly, trying to hide her sniffles. Great. Just great. Of course the kid had seen her tears. At night. In the shadows. From under the edges of her hood.

Just…of course.

“Go away,” Steph said again, absolutely loathing herself for how her voice quavered.

“You fought Scarecrow’s men tonight.” Damian’s voice was unusually noncombative.

Steph didn’t bother to answer. It hadn’t been a question.

“Is the fear toxin still in your system?”

“Took the antidote,” she mumbled, more tears falling.

She expected a sharp reprimand or a scathing comment or maybe for Damian to just turn around and leave. He'd come to make sure she was alive and he'd accomplished his goal. No need to stick around.

So Steph was stunned when Damian huffed a quiet sigh and sat down next to her. He didn't say anything. He wasn't even looking at her, really. He was just offering her the quiet comfort of his presence.

For some reason, that just made Steph cry harder.

And yet, still Damian didn't say anything. Just stayed by her side until her tears finally began to subside.

Steph sniffled and wiped her nose, feeling oddly embarrassed and wrong-footed.

"Robin, I--" she started, even though she had no idea how she was going to finish that sentence.

Damian beat her to it. "It's...okay," he said. He reached out and awkwardly patted her atop the head.

Steph nearly choked in surprise, spinning so she could look at the boy fully. “Did you just—?”

It was hard to tell in the darkness, but Steph was pretty sure that Damian was blushing.

“Nightwing says that physical contact can ameliorate emotional distress,” he muttered defensively.

A quiet laugh bubbled up through her chest and escaped out into the air. Steph immediately felt the better for it. Yes, this was what she needed: a bright, warm feeling to chase the last of the fear away.

“I’m not Titus,” she chuckled.

Damian was definitely blushing. “If you don’t wish for my assistance—” he began stiffly, pushing himself to his feet.

“Oh no,” Steph said, springing up after him with a spryness that belied her earlier emotional exhaustion. “You’re not getting out of this that easily.” She grabbed the younger boy in a hug that would have made Dick proud.

“Unhand me!” Damian cried, struggling a little in her grasp. Steph could tell he didn’t really mean it. If Damian had wanted her to let go, he would have made her let go.

“Nope,” Steph said, pulling him closer. “You’re ameliorating my emotional distress.”

Damian stilled, though he held his shoulders stiffly as a token of resistance. “You are my least favorite female Bat,” he informed her without any real bite. “The others would never subject me to this. Orphan--”

"If Orphan wanted to hug you, there’s nothing in the world that you could do about it,” Steph told him.

Damian made a noise like he wanted to argue, but seemed to think better of it. “I shall pray that such a day never comes,” he said at last.

After a long moment—maybe slightly longer than Damian was actually comfortable with—Steph drew back, feeling somewhat like a normal human again. Finally.

“Thanks,” she told him.

Damian pulled his hood up to hide his face, a sure sign that she had embarrassed him. “Of course,” he said, like it had been nothing at all.

Steph grinned down at him. “You’re my favorite assassin-trained Robin.”

“I’m the only assassin-trained Robin,” Damian said. “The distinction is hardly an honor.”

But Steph could tell he was pleased all the same.

Chapter Text

“Go away,” Jason snarled, ducking behind a crate to avoid a burst of gunfire.

Tim punched a man in the face and ignored Jason completely. The asshole.

“I don’t want or need your help, Pretender,” Jason tried again. He honestly didn’t understand why the younger boy was here. Sure, Jason had established a tentative détente with the others, but all that meant was that they were refraining from trying to kill each other on sight.

Or rather, Jason was refraining from killing them on sight. The rest of the Batclan had merely agreed to stop trying to arrest him.

It didn’t mean they were good. It didn’t mean Jason forgave them. It didn’t mean they were a family again.

And it definitely didn’t mean Jason wanted a Bat barging in on his case, in his fucking territory.

Especially if that Bat was Robin. Though Jason supposed it could have been worse. It could have been Bruce who came crashing into his operation and waded into the fight without so much as a by-your-leave.

Still. Having his own replacement nearby was bad enough.

The worst part was that Jason really couldn’t do anything about it. He couldn’t have it out with Tim and fight off these fuckers. He could only growl threats in between bursts of violence—which the other boy steadily ignored.

Jason watched as Tim took down two men with a flawless twirl of his stupid little staff and reassessed his earlier statement.

Turned out, the actual worst part was having to admit that the kid was helping to turn the tide.

Jason threw himself furiously into the battle, the bitter edge of his Lazarus Pit rage boiling just under the surface of his skin. It wasn't as bad as it used to be. The Pit's hold on him was fading with time, but Jason didn't think he'd ever be free of it entirely.

He knew it was dangerous to fight this way—that it made him careless—but he couldn’t help it. Something about having the Replacement nearby set him on edge.

Jason waded into the fight recklessly, taking dumb risks and somehow getting away with them. For a while, he let the rage guide him where it willed, a haze of green coating his vision and giving the world around him a nightmarish quality.

The sound of a quiet gasp pulled his focus sharply to the present, the rage dying away instantly.

Jason turned in time to see the Replacement falter and collapse to one knee, his hand pressing against his side. An unconscious man lay crumpled nearby, the wicked-looking knife in his hand coated in blood.

Tim’s blood.

Shit,” Jason breathed. Just his fucking luck. Of course, the Replacement would pick this fight of all fights to get himself stabbed. He grabbed Tim and dragged him behind some cover, using his free hand to fire a wild hail of bullets across the open space. Hopefully, that would keep everyone else’s heads down while Jason dealt with this little shit-show.

Tim was already pale and sweating by the time Jason propped him up against the wall. Blood was spilling from between the kid’s fingers, even as he put pressure on the wound.

Shit. Shit. Shit. This was not good.

“Don’t you pass out on me,” Jason growled. “I'm not carrying your skinny ass out of here.”

Tim’s laugh came out sounding like a strangled cough. “You have terrible bedside manner.”

“Watch it. You're already on thin fucking ice.” Jason bent to examine the wound, pushing Tim’s blood-slick fingers aside for a moment so he could assess the damage. Fuck but the wound was deep.

“How’d he even get past your guard?” Jason demanded, moving Tim’s hands back so he could keep applying pressure. “You have a fucking staff! He shouldn’t have gotten anywhere near you.”

Tim pressed his lips together and said nothing.

Jason’s eyes narrowed. He recognized that look. Hell, he’d invented that look. The kid was hiding something. Jason reconstructed the sequence of events in his mind, considering the angle of the wound and where Tim must have been standing. Everything slotted into place with terrible clarity.

“Fuck,” Jason whispered, a cold rush of horror and shame and guilt sliding through him. “You took that blade for me.

“Bad angle. Woulda…killed you...” Tim grunted, his words slurring with pain and blood loss. Jason realized that if he didn’t do something soon, the kid was going to give up the ghost right here, right in front of him.

And suddenly when he looked at Tim, Jason didn’t see the boy who had replaced him, the boy who had stolen his life and his purpose in the world.

No, all Jason saw was a fellow Robin.

And no more Robins were going to die.

Not like this. Not tonight.

“Hang on,” he muttered to Tim. “Just hang on. I’m going to get you out of here.”

 

*****

Ever since Jason had clawed his way back to life, he’d had more near-death experiences than he could count. Between his rivalry with Black Mask and other assorted Gotham villains, his war on crime, and his on-again-off-again feud with his family, Jason regularly flirted with the Grim Reaper. Hell, most of his exploits with the Outlaws ended with a bang.

Literally.

Though, to be fair, Jason and his team were responsible for about ninety percent of those explosions.

The point was, living his second chance on the knife’s edge between life and death just seemed natural to Jason. It was where he belonged. He accepted the risks. It was his life, after all. If he was going to die again, Jason was going to make damn sure he died on his own terms this time.

But this…having someone step in and take that choice from him—having Tim decide that his own life was worth less than Jason’s…Jason didn’t know if he could bear it.

Which was why he was currently sitting in a chair in Tim’s darkened hospital room, staring at the unconscious boy like he might be the most dangerous thing in the world, listening to the steady beat of the heart monitor. Jason hated sitting there, hated being in the room, hated Tim for being so fucking heroic in the first place.

He should go. He knew he should go. 

He just...couldn't.

The door swung open and Jason tensed. It took him all of a second to recognize the lithe figure of Dick striding into the room. Jason had never seen anyone else—hero or civilian—move that gracefully.

The older man went straight to Tim’s side, all his attention seemingly focused on the still figure in the bed. Jason didn’t let himself be fooled. He knew Dick had seen him.

“Leslie said he’s going to be fine,” Dick said, one hand moving to Tim’s face and smoothing back the boy’s hair in a tender gesture.

Jason didn’t answer. He’d already gotten the full report. His immediate reaction had been overwhelming relief. Then shock—because Jason hadn’t expected to be relieved that the Replacement was going to live. And then the guilt had set in and Jason couldn’t seem to make it go away.

“Were you hurt?” Dick asked, still gazing down at Tim. When Jason said nothing, Dick pressed, “Jay. Injuries?”

“I’m fine,” he snapped, wishing he was allowed to smoke in the hospital. Talking to Dick was barely palatable with cigarettes. “Not a scratch on me. He—” Jason cut himself off abruptly.

Dick looked at him for the first time. “He what?”

Jason swallowed hard. “He saved my life,” he whispered, the shame of it flooding him. “Why would he do that?”

Dick answered Jason’s question with a question of his own. “Why wouldn’t he? I’d have done the same thing for you. So would Bruce.”

“But I tried to kill him!” Jason burst out, leaping to his feet to furiously pace across the too-clean floor. “Why would he…? I just…I don’t understand….”

Dick looked down at Tim. “He idolized you, you know. A part of him still does, I think."

Jason stopped pacing so abruptly it was like he’d slammed into a brick wall.

"What?" he asked roughly.

“He never knew me as Robin, not really. You were the one he watched," Dick explained. "He looked up to you. He thought he’d never live up to your example. You were the hero he wanted to be."

Dick looked at him and Jason felt the weight of his bright blue gaze like a physical blow. "You want to know why he saved your life even after you tried to take his? Because that’s the kind of person you inspired him to be.”

“I…” Jason faltered. That wasn’t…that couldn’t be true. Jason was not a person that a kid like Tim looked up to. He wasn’t one of the good guys. He wasn’t a perfect little soldier like Dick or an unyielding force for justice like Bruce. He was just a fucked up kid fighting in a fucked up world because fighting was the only thing he was good at—the only thing he knew.

He didn’t inspire people. He wasn’t the inspiring type. He just…wasn’t.

And he especially didn’t inspire Tim. Not nerdy, fierce, determined little Tim. The Replacement. His replacement.

It just wasn’t possible.

This was...it was all too much. Things had been way easier when Jason was trying to kill everyone. At least the world had made sense then.

“Bruce is on his way,” Dick said suddenly, not dropping his gaze. “I'm guessing you’re not ready to see him yet.”

Jason shook his head wordlessly. The threat of Bruce's presence seemed to unfreeze the part of him that hadn't been able to leave. Jason made his way to the door, absurdly grateful that Dick was giving him an out. He couldn’t deal with all of this right now.

He paused on the threshold. “Will you…?” He cleared his throat and forced himself to say the words. “Will you tell me when he wakes up?”

Dick smiled at him, a hopeful light in his eyes. “Of course, Jaybird. Of course.”

Chapter Text

“We’re just so excited to have you here,” the nurse exclaimed from beside Clark as they walked down the wide hallway of the Metropolis hospital. “I wish you could have seen the children’s faces when we told them the Justice League was coming to visit!”

“It’s our pleasure,” Clark said, smiling down at her. He genuinely meant it. Being Superman was rewarding in so many ways—and exhausting in about a million others. He was honored to protect the people of Earth, to protect his home, with the gifts he’d been blessed with.

But sometimes, Clark just got tired of punching things. It was nice change of pace to be doing some good as Superman without getting into a fight.

“Green Lantern and the Flash will be here soon. They’re finishing up some League business,” Clark heard Diana assure the hospital administrator. Clark was walking slightly behind the two of them and he could tell that the administrator, a balding man in his late fifties, was already more than halfway in love with the Amazonian princess.

Clark didn’t blame him. Diana had that effect on most people.

Just ahead of Diana and her new admirer, Bruce glided soundlessly through the halls, his dark costume wildly conspicuous under the bright, fluorescent lights. No one—not the administrator or the doctors or the nurses—had tried to talk to him yet. Even in full daylight, Batman was intimidating as hell.

“We have our usual volunteers doing the rounds as well,” Clark’s chatty nurse friend told him. “They’re good souls. The children love them.”

“Who are the volunteers?” Clark asked. “Maybe we can speak with them once we’ve finished with the kids.”

“Oh, they’d love that!” she beamed. “I’ll see if I can arrange it. We’ve got some entertainers wandering about for the kids who can’t leave their beds. I think we’ve got clowns today.”

Clark looked at her, alarmed.

“Did you say clowns?” he demanded, right as the small group rounded a corner and nearly collided with a man in colorful purple overalls and paint all over his face.

Three things happened almost simultaneously:

Bruce's heartbeat stuttered.

Clark took a step forward.

Bruce socked the unsuspecting clown right across the jaw.

And then it was over.

The clown collapsed, a fist-shaped smear in his makeup.

A shocked silence descended, as if no one in the hallway could quite believe what had just happened.

Diana recovered first. She was all smiles and charm as she hustled Bruce off into an empty room and reassured the hospital staff.

Clark scanned the clown. “No broken bones or internal injuries,” he assured the nurse who had jumped forward to help. “Except for a headache when he wakes up, he should be fine.”

The nurse sat back, glancing at Clark with a gleam in her eye. “That’s handy,” she said. “I think you might be in the wrong profession.”

Clark smiled at her and said sincerely, “I assure you, ma’am, I took the easier job. I could never do what you do.”

She shook her head. “Someone raised a charmer,” she muttered at him as she waved off her colleagues. “Think you can carry him to a bed for me?”

“Of course,” Clark agreed immediately. He scooped up the clown and followed the nurse to a nearby empty room.

“I feel I should apologize for Batman,” Clark said as he gently set the man down. “He’s not normally like that.”

“Hmmph,” the nurse grumbled, adjusted the pillows under her patient’s head. “That’s not what I hear.”

“He’s from Gotham,” Clark tried to explain. “They’re…sensitive about clowns over there.”

“Hmmph,” the nurse said again, though she sounded marginally less angry. Clark counted it as a victory. He was about to try again when he heard a familiar crackling sound at the edge of his hearing, growing closer by the nanosecond.

“If you’ll excuse me,” he said apologetically, “I can hear the others arriving. I should go greet them.”

“Go on,” the nurse waved him away.

Clark started toward the door, but hesitated before crossing the threshold. “If there are any more clowns in the building, you might want to keep them away from this wing.”

The nurse sighed. “I’ll take care of it.”

Clark gave her his most winning smile. “Thank you,” he said. He ducked out just as Barry came skidding to a halt, carrying Hal piggyback.

“I still don’t see why you couldn’t have just flown here,” Barry complained, setting Hal down.

“Because it’s way more fun to make you do the work,” Hal retorted. “What’s up, Supes? Are we late?”

“No,” Superman answered. “We were delayed.”

“Where are Batman and Wonder Woman?” Barry asked looking around. But Hal had already seen what was in the room just beyond Clark.

He grinned hugely. “Batsy punch out another clown?”

Clark sighed. “Yes,” he admitted. Bruce was going to be so mad that Hal had found out.

Hal’s grin got even bigger. “Tell me he did it in front the kids again.”

Clark winced. “No, not this time. Thank Rao.”

“Maybe we should stop bringing him on these visits,” Hal laughed.

“Maybe we should just call ahead and warn the hospitals about the clown thing next time,” Barry suggested instead.

“Yes,” Clark agreed, nodding at Barry. “That. We are definitely doing that next time.”

“So, any guesses as to how much money Bats is about to donate to this place out of guilt?” Hal asked.

“A lot,” Clark said, sighing again. Poor Bruce. It wasn’t his fault he had certain, violent reflexes when it came to clowns. “We should go. The kids are waiting.”

“Right,” Hal said, rubbing his hands together. “Aw man, I can’t wait to make fun of Spooky for this.” He bounded off.

Barry rubbed the back of his neck. “Are we about to see Green Lantern become Batman’s first murder victim?”

“Don’t worry,” Clark said. “Diana would never let it get that far.”

“Because she’ll just murder Green Lantern herself if he gets too annoying?”

“Exactly,” Clark agreed. “Come on. Let’s find the others.”

Chapter Text

Tim rifled through the explosion of papers and folders strewn across the table.

Where was that file on Two-Face? He’d had it just a second ago. He remembered holding it in his hand and then setting it down…

The Batcomputer chimed at him. Tim glanced up at the screen, a fistful of papers still held in each hand, to read the message flashing there.

“Program error: source input invalid.”

Program error?

Program error?

What the hell? He’d checked the parameters for the search himself not three minutes ago. They were fine! They were perfectly fine.

A fluke, that’s all it was. It had to be.

He reached for the keyboard, realizing belatedly that his hands were full. Tim dumped the papers unceremoniously and typed in a quick series of commands to get the Batcomputer running the search again. He seriously needed those results. He had to confirm if Talia al Ghul had met with Lex Luthor yesterday. An unholy alliance between those two would mean trouble for the entire world.

Tim turned back to the table, scowling at the mess.

Seriously, where was that file? He knew he’d had it. Just a second ago…it had to have been…

He plunged in again, ignoring the soft flutter of pages drifting to the ground around him. Was that it? No, no that was some old casework on Bane. What was that still doing out? Tim could have sworn he’d put it away last night. He picked it up and tucked it under his arm. He’d get to it in a moment, just after he found…

The Batcomputer chimed again. Tim looked up.

“Program error: source input invalid.”

“Come on,” Tim growled. He reached for the keyboard again, jabbing down a little more forcefully than necessary. “Work, goddammit.”

And now he was back to the mountain of case files. Why did they even keep printed files anyway? It was stupid and obsolete and a waste of paper and he couldn’t find anything in this goddamn mess.

Alright, honest to god, he was done now.

Where was that stupid Two-Face file?

He reached blindly for his coffee mug and brought it to his lips.

…and it was empty. When had that happened? He’d just gotten a fresh cup—

The Batcomputer chimed.

“Program error: source input invalid.”

Tim gave a wordless cry of rage. What the actual fuck was wrong with this stupid fucking computer? Why wasn’t it working?

And where, in the name of all that was holy, was that damn file?

He didn’t have time for this. He still had a proposal to prepare for the Wayne Enterprises’ board and Vicki Vale was sniffing around again and he needed that dumb file to—

He eyes snagged on a slip of paper, covered in medical jargon.

Shit. Shit. That was the toxicology report from the Scarecrow’s latest iteration of fear toxin. Bruce had needed that hours ago. God, what was wrong with him? Couldn’t he get anything right? Scarecrow and Bane and Talia and Luthor and WE and Vicki Vale and goddamn Two-Face

Tim didn’t even realize he was hyperventilating until the room tilted on its axis and he was suddenly on the ground.

God, he couldn’t…he couldn’t breathe…he couldn’t…

He couldn’t.

And then there was a large hand on his chest, right over his heart.

And then there was a deep, soothing voice saying, “Easy. Easy there, Tim.”

And then there was a pair of concerned blue eyes staring into his, blurred by the tears Tim didn’t even know he was crying.

“You’re having a panic attack, Tim. Count to four as you breathe in, hold it, and then count to four as you breathe out. Can you do that for me?”

He tried. God, he tried so hard. But Tim could only make it to one before he had to start all over again.

“That’s good. You’re doing great. Keep trying for me, okay?”

Tim tried again. And again. And again. Because even though he was positive he was about to pass out, Tim knew that not obeying that voice wasn’t an option.

It took time. Tim had no idea how much. But eventually he managed to get from one to two. And then from two to three. And finally from three to four.

Bruce leaned forward, peering into Tim’s face. “You back with me?”

Tim nodded sluggishly, worn out and not trusting himself to speak just yet. Bruce’s hand was still on his chest, warm and grounding.

“I’m going to ask you some questions and I need you to be honest,” Bruce told him, a hint of Batman’s growl in his voice.

“Okay,” Tim managed to rasp. His throat hurt. He had no idea why.

“Are you injured?”

Tim shook his head.

“Verbal answers,” Bruce commanded.

“No,” Tim responded.

“Did something in one of the files trigger you? Were you having a flashback?”

“No,” Tim said again.

“When was the last time you slept?”

Tim had to think about that one.

“After we wrapped the Poison Ivy case.”

Bruce was silent for a moment. “That was almost four days ago.”

Tim shrugged, careful not to dislodge Bruce’s hand.

“How many cups of coffee or other caffeinated beverages have you had in the last four days?”

“I don’t know,” Tim replied honestly.

“What case were you working on?”

“Um,” Tim frowned. “Mostly Two-Face.”

“Mostly?” Bruce prompted.

“Well, and Scarecrow—you needed the reports. And I was doing some background work on Bane. And then an alert for Talia al Ghul popped up and I was trying to get it to work and the stupid computer just wouldn’t—”

Tim’s chest tightened up again. He tried to draw in a breath and only got to two.

“Nice and easy,” Bruce said, his voice soothing. “Deep breaths.”

Through herculean effort, Tim managed to get his breathing even again.

“You’re done for the night, Tim,” Bruce told him, his voice gentle as a caress and firm as a concrete wall. “You’ll take tomorrow off as well. We’ll reassess from there.”

“What?” Tim yelped, somehow finding the energy to lift his head and stare at Bruce with wide eyes. “Bruce!”

 “I’m not letting you work yourself into the hospital,” Bruce informed him.

“But nothing’s done!” Tim protested. “I never leave a case unfinished.”

“You can tonight.”

The sheer unfairness of it all overwhelmed him.

“But that’s not what you do,” Tim snapped.

Bruce sighed. “That’s different.”

“How?” Tim demanded.

“Because I…because it’s different when it’s you,” Bruce said, clearly changing his mind about what he was going to say at the last minute.

Humiliatingly, Tim felt a fresh wave of hot tears sting his eyes. “Look, if you think that I can’t handle it…that I’m not good enough—”

“No,” Bruce cut him off. “That’s not…No.”

“Then why?” Tim bit his lip to stop it from trembling.

“Because…” Bruce struggled. He took a deep, steadying breath. “Because it’s always different when it’s your kid.”

Tim’s breath caught in his throat.

Oh. Oh.

He hadn’t known…he hadn’t realized

Bruce was scrutinizing his face. “Tim?” he asked. It was one of the few times—maybe the only time—Tim had heard him sound uncertain.

If Tim had been more awake and less emotionally-compromised, he would have second-guessed himself out of the Batcave and probably into the next city.

But he wasn’t. So Tim leaned forward and flung his arms around Bruce.

It took Bruce a mere second to respond in kind, gathering Tim close. Tim couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this safe.

He closed his eyes.

Just for a moment, Tim promised himself.

Just a moment…

Chapter Text

Friday, 10:30 a.m.

He’d only just arrived and already Tim was regretting his decision.

“I swear I wouldn’t ask if I had any other option,” Dick said for the millionth time. He was laying it on thick with the puppy-dog eyes and damn him, but it was working. “But Bruce had to go dark for his case and Alfred’s out with the flu, so I needed someone to watch him.”

“Why can’t you just do it?” Tim asked, his reluctance clear in every word. He and Damian glared each other down from opposite ends of the room.

“Because Wally sent an SOS about fifteen minutes ago and I have to go,” Dick said. “I’ll be back Sunday. I’ve already gotten Jay to agree to come help you tomorrow.”

Tim was impressed. “How? Did you sell your soul or something?”

Dick grimaced, pulling on his jacket. “Or something,” he agreed cryptically.

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Damian snarled.

“Then look me in the eye and tell me you aren’t planning to go on patrol with a broken arm the second I walk out the door,” Dick retorted.

Damian said nothing.

"Exactly,” Dick said. He walked over and pulled Damian into a hug, mindful of his cast. “I just don’t want you to get hurt. More hurt,” he added. Damian muttered something into Dick’s shirt and stepped back.

“Promise me you’ll stay in?” Dick asked.

Damian sighed. “I promise.”

Dick smiled at him fondly before turning to Tim.

“Walk me to the door,” he said. Tim obliged, ignoring the death glare he was getting from Damian.

When the brat was out of earshot, Tim looked at Dick. “You know that promise was bullshit.”

“Oh, definitely,” Dick agreed. “We didn’t get the guy who broke his arm and Dami’s itching for revenge. The girls are watching the city so all you have to worry about is keeping him inside.”

“How hard could it be?” Tim joked.

Dick didn’t smile. “Don’t underestimate him. He fights dirty.”

“Okay, sheesh,” Tim said.

“And there’s like a forty percent chance he may try to stab you at some point,” Dick added, scrupulously honest.

What?

"It’s fine. It’ll be fine. I’ve pretty much broken him of the stabbing thing,” the older man assured him. “Mostly.”

“Oh, mostly,” Tim repeated sarcastically. “Well, I won’t worry then.”

Dick put both hands on his shoulders. “Timmy, seriously. Thank you. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Oh man. Tim was pretty sure Dick’s sincerity could crack a literal heart of stone.

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered and allowed Dick to hug him. When they pulled apart, Tim said, “Tell Wally he better not get you killed. I’ve got a Kryptonian clone on speed-dial and I’m not afraid to use him.”

"I’ll let him know,” Dick laughed. He pulled open the door and started toward his motorcycle. “Good luck!’ he called over his shoulder.

"You, too,” Tim said.

When he stepped back inside, Damian was standing right behind him, clearly sizing him up.

“Don’t even think about it,” Tim warned.

Damian tilted his head, the expression in his eyes all too easy to read.

Too late.

 

*****

Friday, 4:45 p.m.

Tim quietly closed Alfred’s bedroom door and stepped into the hallway. He felt bad subjecting Alfred to canned soup. Had their positions been reversed, Tim knew Alfred would have made something from scratch.

But at least the stuff in the can was edible. Tim hadn’t been entirely certain anything he whipped up would have been.

Definitely not worth the risk. Not with Alfred.

Had it been Damian on the other hand…

Tim shook his head. The day wasn’t even over and he was already considering poisoning the kid. That wasn’t a good sign. Though all things considered, Tim thought it was rather fair. He rubbed at his hastily bandaged ribs, the cuts on his chest still aching.

“Forty percent chance of stabbing,” Tim scoffed to himself. He should have known Dick was low-balling it. The two of them hadn’t even made it an hour before the knives came out.

At least Tim had gotten his revenge. He hoped Damian was enjoying his time-out in his thoroughly locked, secured, and booby-trapped bedroom. No way was the kid getting out of there any time soon.

Tim was about to head to his own room for a well-deserved rest when a smoke alarm downstairs starting blaring. He raced for the stairs, tracking the sound to the kitchen. A small fire danced on the stove, black smoke curling upward. Tim lunged for the fire extinguisher and quickly got the situation under control. Crisis successfully averted, he leaned against the counter, the adrenaline in his system helping his mind spin through the possibilities.

Had he left the stove on? Maybe. But Tim was self-aware enough to recognize that he was a little (a lot) paranoid. He always triple-checked the stove after he’d finished using it. Could he really have been that careless?

He jumped as an alert screeched from the smartphone in his pocket. Tim yanked the device out and glanced at it.

“That little…” he growled and sprinted for the door.

By the time he caught up to Damian, the boy was attempting to saw his way through a steel-mesh net with a batarang as he dangled six feet off the ground. He’d been neatly caught in one of the many traps Bruce had placed around the grounds of the Manor.

“You started a fire?” Tim yelled at him.

Damian gave up his futile escape effort in favor of glaring at Tim. “You activated the Manor’s defense systems,” he stated. “I did not anticipate that.”

Tim ignored him. “What if that fire had gotten out of control? Alfred is upstairs, you little asshole!”

Damian shrugged as best he could given his uncomfortable surroundings and the cast on his arm. “I knew you would handle it.”

Tim clenched his jaw so tightly he thought it might break. “Fine. Then you can handle sitting up there for a while.”

“Drake!” Damian snapped. “Free me this instant!”

Tim shook his head. “We’ve got about two hours until sunset. I’ll let you down then.”

Damian bared his teeth and hissed at him, like he was some kind of wild animal. Tim recoiled slightly. He had no idea how Dick dealt with this kid.

“Keep it up and I’ll leave you in there all night,” Tim warned.

The boy fell silent.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Tim said.

 

*****

Friday, 7:33 p.m.

Tim looked up warily as Damian approached. The boy was still subdued from his time in the net, a mug of steaming coffee held in his good hand.

“I’m not sorry about trying to escape,” Damian told him. “But I should not have put Pennyworth at risk. That was uncalled for.”

Tim raised an eyebrow. “I might find it in me to forgive you,” he allowed. “Someday.”

Damian set the mug down in front of Tim. “Truce?” he asked.

Tim gave him a look.

The barest hint of a smile crossed Damian’s lips. “Only for the next twenty minutes,” he clarified.

Tim sighed through his nose. “Sounds about right,” he said. But he took the offered mug.

A minute later, he was spitting hot coffee onto the cream-colored carpet.

Yeah, that was gonna stain.

“Did you…?” Tim spluttered, trying to get the taste of something that was definitely not coffee off his tongue. “Did you lace this with a sleeping agent?”

Damian pursed his lips. “You are more observant than I gave you credit for.”

“Okay,” Tim said, standing. “That is it. I’m done playing nice.”

 

*****

Saturday, 7:20 a.m.

Jason found the two of them in Bruce’s study. Tim was working on a case on his laptop, nursing a black eye, a split lip, fresh bandages around his sliced ribs, and a badly bruised foot.

Damian was zip-tied to the chair across from him, glaring daggers as he tried to break free.

“I think I might have made a huge mistake,” Jason said, taking in the scene at a glance.

Tim closed his laptop with a snap. “Too late,” he said, standing. “The little demon’s all yours. He’s due for food and a bathroom break in about fifteen minutes. I’m going to bed. Don’t wake me unless he tries to burn the Manor down again.” He limped from the room.

“Again?” Jason called after him. “What do you mean again?"

 

*****

Saturday, 11:07 a.m.

Tim woke with a start and glanced blearily at the clock. He’d been asleep for almost four hours. Not bad, all things considered.

The previous day came flooding back in a wash of aches and pains and flashes of memory. He sat still and listened hard. The house was utterly silent. Maybe Damian had escaped.

Or maybe Jason and Damian had murdered each other.

The second option seemed more likely to Tim.

Mindful of his injuries, Tim got out of bed. He crept downstairs, expecting to find little more than wreckage and ruin. By the time he’d peeked in the third room, he was frowning. Everything looked fine—not a single, gaudy heirloom out of place.

Huh.

After another ten minutes of searching, Tim found Jason and Damian in the lounge. Damian was sprawled across the couch, fast asleep. Jason sat in the chair opposite, entirely unharmed, nose buried in a book.

Tim gaped.

“How?” he demanded quietly, trying not to wake Damian, through it was probably a futile endeavor. Damian was a light sleeper—a byproduct of growing up among assassins.

Jason’s head snapped up. “Oh, it’s you,” he said, relaxing again. Damian didn’t so much as stir at the sound of their voices. “Have a nice nap? Alfred’s doing well, by the way. I think he should be up and about by tomorrow.”

“How did the two of you not destroy this place?” Tim spluttered. “How did you get him to actually sleep?

Jason shrugged, infuriatingly calm. “He’s really not all that difficult. I don’t know why you had a problem with him.”

Tim’s eyes narrowed. His gaze darted from Jason to Damian and back again, mind whirring with suspicion. He’d never seen Damian sleep this deeply. Never.

“Holy shit,” he realized. “You tranquilized him.”

Jason shrugged, utterly unrepentant. “It was either that or shoot him for real. Twerp’s lucky I accidentally pulled the wrong gun.”

Jay,” Tim huffed. “That’s…”

“Genius?” Jason suggested with a smirk.

Yes. Although, Tim would die before admitting it.

“Awful,” he said instead. “Dick’s gonna flip.”

“Don’t care,” Jason stated flatly. “Dickface told me to keep him inside. He never specified as to how. So really, that’s on him.”

Tim shrugged. It kind of was.

He settled into a chair. “How long have we got until he wakes up?” Tim asked.

Jason glanced at his watch. “Eh, another hour or so.”

“And then?” Tim asked, curious.

“And then I shoot him again if he doesn't behave,” Jason said, hefting his tranquilizer from where he’d stashed it down the side of the chair cushions.

Tim shook his head. “You might be the worst babysitter in history.”

Jason shot him a look. “You had him tied to a chair earlier.

“...Okay, I don't really have a response to that," Tim admitted.

"At least we know one thing for sure," Jason said. "Dick's never gonna ask us to do this again."

"Oh, thank god."

Chapter Text

Sunday, 8:04 a.m.

"Hey, Dick,” Steph said, putting the phone on speaker so she could keep making breakfast. “What’s up?”

“I kind of need a favor,” Dick said. “Are you busy today?”

“Nope. What do you need?” Steph asked distractedly as she fumbled with the egg carton, almost dropping the whole thing on the floor.

“I was hoping you could watch Damian for me.”

Steph paused. “I thought Tim and Jason were doing that.”

“They were,” Dick agreed, sounding tired and disappointed all rolled into one. “But I just got off the phone with Dami and it's clear someone else needs to go over there.”

Warning bells started ringing in Steph’s head.

“What about Alfred?” she asked. “Or…hey, weren’t you supposed to be back by now anyway?”

“Alfred is still recovering,” Dick replied. “And yeah, I was, but this mission with Wally is taking longer than I thought. I just need one more day.”

“I…um…I have a thing,” Steph scrambled, searching for an excuse.

“You just said you weren’t busy,” Dick pointed out.

Shit. She never should have admitted that.

"I’m allergic to babysitting?” Steph tried instead.

Please, Steph,” Dick said, sounding so desperate that Steph felt her heart melt. “If Damian goes out and gets hurt, that’ll be on me. And I couldn’t bear that…I couldn’t…

“Okay, okay, I’ll do it,” Steph found herself saying. Anything to stop Dick from sounding like that.

Thank you,” Dick told her, grateful enough to almost make Steph feel guilty for trying to put him off earlier. “Look, all you really have to do is make sure he doesn’t leave the Manor for patrol.”

“Yeah alright,” Steph said, rubbing her forehead. “I can do that.”

“You’re a life-saver,” Dick told her. “I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise. I’ll let Timmy and Jay know you’re gonna take over. Thanks again, Steph. I mean it.”

The line disconnected.

Steph stared at her phone.

Oh god. What had she just done?

Breakfast plans forgotten, Steph grabbed up the phone and dialed the one person who might know what to do.

“Hello?” Babs answered after the third ring.

“I need you to tell me I didn’t just make a huge mistake,” Steph said.

There was a pause. “What did you do?”

“I agreed to babysit Damian.”

Babs snorted. “You made a huge mistake.”

“Is there any way I can get out of it?”

“Fake your death again?” Babs suggested.

Steph glared at the wall. “Not helping.”

“Sorry,” Babs said, not sounding sorry at all.

Steph groaned. “Why’d Dick call me? Why didn’t he ask you?”

“He did,” Babs told her. “I said no.”

“I wanted to say no, but then he got all sad and I couldn’t help it,” Steph said. “How do you refuse him? I can never say no to him.”

Babs laughed. “We dated, remember? I’m immune.”

“Ugh. That’s not something I can use,” Steph sighed. “You got any advice for me?”

“Yeah, don’t do it.”

“Not. Helping.”

"Think of it as a training exercise,” Babs offered. “What would you do if you had to take Damian down in the field?”

“I don’t know, I’d probably…” Steph trailed off. “Oh. Oh. I’ve got an idea.”

 

*****

Sunday, 9:30 a.m.

Tim and Jason met her at the door, coats on and ready to go. Steph’s eyes went wide at the sight of Tim’s busted lip and bruised eye.

"Did Damian do that?" she asked. Tim nodded.

“And he’s all yours,” Jason said, brushing past her to his parked motorcycle.

“Nice to see you too!” Steph called after him. Jason smirked at her over his shoulder and gave her a little salute.

Tim lingered for a moment.

“Under any other circumstances, I’d have your back,” he told her.

Steph raised her eyebrow. “But babysitting Damian is a bridge too far?”

Tim shuddered. “Never again,” he vowed.

“Anything in particular I should watch out for?”

“Yeah,” Tim said. “Everything.”

“Gee, thanks,” Steph deadpanned.

Tim patted her on the shoulder and limped past her. “Good luck,” he said. “Trust me, you’ll need it.”

Steph took a deep breath and stepped inside. She turned to close the door. When she turned back, Damian was standing right behind her, his broken arm held tightly at his side.

“Oh shit!” Steph cursed, feeling her heart jump in her chest. “Don’t do that!”

“Now that I've rid myself of Drake and Todd, I will get out of this house,” Damian informed her. “You cannot stop me.”

“Okay,” Steph said, getting herself under control.

Damian frowned. “Okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Steph said.

“You’re...going to let me leave?” Damian asked slowly, as if puzzling it out. "What about Grayson?"

Steph shrugged. “If you're in good enough shape to beat up Tim, you're in good enough shape to be on the streets. You clearly want out and I’m not particularly interested in fighting you. So let’s make a deal.”

Damian eyed her warily, like she was a species of animal he’d never seen before.

“What kind of deal?” he asked.

“You really shouldn’t be patrolling during the day anyway, so while the sun is up, you stay here and behave. But when the sun goes down…”

“When the sun goes down?” Damian prompted.

“You can leave,” Steph stated plainly.

“And you won’t stop me?” Damian pressed.

“I won’t stop you,” Steph confirmed.

Damian’s gaze narrowed. “Promise.”

Steph held up her right hand, like she was taking an oath in court. “I promise.”

The boy clicked his tongue. “You are wiser than the others,” he stated.

“You got that right,” Steph agreed. “So, what do want to do?”

He hesitated. “I...suppose I haven’t had time to sketch anything in a while.”

Steph nodded. “Cool. You need anything?”

“I have more than enough supplies,” Damian told her. He bit his lip and then added, “You may join me. If you wish.”

Steph was pleasantly surprised. “I’m not much of an artist, but I’ll give it a try. You’ll have to give me some pointers.”

“I can do that,” Damian assured her. He led the way into the Manor.

Steph grinned to herself.

So far so good.

 

*****

Sunday, 7:15 p.m.

It turned out that Damian was decent company when he wasn’t being all dark and murderous. The kid was sharp and sarcastic and a veritable wealth of information. He was still smug and superior, but his obvious good mood blunted the edges into something more bearable. For the first time, Steph thought she might understand why Dick liked the kid so much.

All too soon, the sun set. The two of them brought dinner to Alfred and then headed down to the Cave. Damian kept glancing at her, his shoulders tense, as if expecting an attack at any minute. But Steph just sat down in the big chair in front of the Batcomputer and left Damian to his own devices. He disappeared into the changing rooms and reemerged some time later in full Robin regalia, the effect spoiled by the thick cast on his arm.

“I’m leaving,” he announced, a challenging tilt to his chin.

“Alright,” Steph called back, not moving an inch.

Damian nodded once and turned toward the exit.

Only to find Cass standing in his path, seemingly materializing from thin air as she stepped from the shadows.

Damian yelped and jumped back.

Now you know how it feels, Steph thought, a little smugly. She settled in to enjoy the show.

“Go back, little brother,” Cass told him gently.

Damian whirled on Steph. “You promised you wouldn’t stop me!”

“And I’m not,” Steph answered easily. “She is.”

Damian growled and spun back around. Cass smiled down at him affectionately.

“I can take you,” he said to Cass, but even Steph could hear the uncertainty in his voice.

Cass didn’t move an inch.

“This isn’t fair!” Damian tried again.

Cass just kept smiling.

“She promised I could leave!”

Cass’ smile widened.

Damian stood there a moment—maybe two—before hissing in frustration. His shoulders slumped in very obvious defeat.

Steph stood and walked over. “Come on,” she told him. “Let’s go back upstairs. I’ll make some popcorn and maybe some hot chocolate and we can watch a movie.”

Damian glared at her through his domino mask.

“That sound good?” Steph persisted.

His lips pressed together. “Not a musical,” he said defiantly.

Steph shared an amused glance with Cass over the top of Damian’s head.

“I think we can arrange that,” Steph told him.

 

*****

Monday, 10:17 a.m.

Tim's name flashed across her caller ID as the phone buzzed on the table. Steph answered.

"Checking to see if I was still alive?" she teased.

“Yes," Tim said, utterly serious. "How’d it go? I didn't see any reports on the news that Wayne Manor was destroyed, so something must have gone right.”

“It really wasn’t that bad,” Steph told him. “We did some art projects and he helped me make dinner for Alfred. And then we watched a movie and went to bed.”

Tim laughed. “Yeah, right. What really happened?”

Steph shook her head. “That is what happened.”

“Come on, Steph,” Tim cajoled.

“Tim, I’m being serious.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. And then—

How? Are you magic? You must be magic.”

Steph rolled her eyes. “Nah, I’m just better than you.”

Steph,” Tim complained. “Seriously. How? There were two of us and we had to tranquilize him to—”

“You tranquilized him?” Steph asked, horrified despite herself.

“Well…not me…I didn’t…Jason…” Tim spluttered, backtracking.

“Oh, do not even,” Steph warned. “No wonder Dick took you off babysitting duty.”

“It was self-defense!” Tim protested.

“You know Damian’s going to get revenge,” Steph told him. “But the lecture from Dick is going to be so much worse.”

“I know,” Tim groaned. “Want to help me flee the country?”

“Under any other circumstances, I’d have your back,” Steph told him.

She could hear the rueful smile in Tim's voice as he replied, "But missing out on my suffering is a bridge too far?"

Steph grinned. "Now you've got it."

Chapter Text

“I put up with a lot of bullshit, but this crosses a line!” Gordon yelled. Bruce hadn’t seen his old friend so worked up since…well, since the last time this happened. “What the hell were you thinking?”

Dick bowed his head, at least having the decency to look ashamed. Jason and Roy were a different story.

“You should be thanking us,” Jason said unconcernedly, his smudged red helmet gleaming dully in the half-light.          

Gordon looked apoplectic. "Thanking you?"  he repeated. “The city is burning.”

Jason brushed some ash off the shoulder of his leather jacket. “Yeah, but like, just a couple blocks of it.”

Roy plucked at his bowstring idly. “Those buildings were ugly anyway.”

“You have to understand,” Dick interrupted, somehow managing to convey earnest puppydog eyes from behind a domino mask. Bruce had certainly never taught him how to do that. “This whole area was overrun by Black Mask’s people. We had to flush them out and...well, no one died.”

Jason and Roy quickly glanced at each other and then away. A muscle in Bruce’s jaw ticked.

Gordon whirled on Bruce. “You promised me this wasn’t going to happen again. You said you would confiscate their explosives.”

“I did,” Bruce growled.

“Like we didn’t have back-up explosives,” Roy scoffed. “Come on, what do you take us for? Amateurs?

Gordon threw his hands up in the air. “Out,” he stated. “I want them out. Out of my sight, out of my hair, out of my goddamn burning city.”

Bruce stepped forward. “I’ll handle it.”

Oooh,” Jason snarked. “You can't tell 'cause of the helmet, but I'm really, really scared right now.”

Roy snickered quietly.

“Back to the Batcave,” Bruce barked at them. “Now.

Jason and Roy shrugged at each other and ambled off to find their bikes. Dick lingered behind.

“On a scale of playboy tabloid disaster to someone invaded the Batcave, how mad are you right now?” he asked.

Bruce glared at him and said nothing.

“Shit,” Dick swore. He always cursed more after spending any significant amount of time with Jason and Roy. “That’s your mass breakout at Arkham glare. That’s not great.”

Bruce watched as he bounded after the others. “Hey, Hood!” Dick called. “He’s actually really mad!”

No new leads on a case mad? Or watched someone with a Bat-symbol commit murder mad?” Jason clarified.

"He’s approaching Arkham breakout levels.”

“Fuck,” Jason said.

“Is that bad?” Roy asked.

“A little,” Jason said.

“Yes,” Dick said at the same time.

Roy sighed. “Man, you promised me fun this weekend.”

Jason swept his arms wide as if to indicate the still-smoldering fires around them. “And were you not entertained?”

Roy laughed. “Yeah, yeah, okay. It was a blast.

Dick grinned. “Yes! Puns for the win!” He high-fived Roy, before remembering himself and glancing back at Bruce.

Who was now clenching his fists so hard that the leather of his gloves creaked ominously.

“I think we just made it worse,” Dick stage-whispered to the others.

“Oh, definitely,” Jason agreed. “That’s his Alfred told me to stay home face.”

“How can you tell?” Roy asked curiously. "He looks exactly the same."

“Ex-Robins,” Dick and Jason chorused.

Bruce drew a deep breath.

"Batcave. Now.

“Alright, alright, we’re going,” Jason said, flapping a dismissive hand in Bruce’s direction. He and Roy climbed on to their motorcycles. Bruce headed for the Batmobile, keeping one ear on the boys’ conversation in case they decided to make a run for it.

“‘Wing, you can ride bitch with Arsenal,” Jason was telling Dick.

“Why?” Dick demanded. “My bike’s just down the street.”

“Um,” Roy winced. “About that…”

"We blew up your bike,” Jason said flatly.

Seriously?” Dick complained. "I left you two alone for two seconds..."

“It was Arsenal’s idea."

“Liar,” Roy shot back. He looked at Dick. “But I promise you, your motorcycle did not die in vain.”

Dick clambered on behind Roy, his face a picture of unhappiness. “Fine. But you’re getting me a new bike. And I want all the upgrades.”

Roy grinned, all teeth and recklessness. “Done and done.”

“You have no idea what you just asked for,” Jason warned him, his bike roaring to life beneath him. Dick’s answer was lost to the wind as the three of them tore down street.

Bruce started the Batmobile and gunned it after them. He’d heard enough. After tonight, he was banning those three from working together in his city ever again.

Chapter Text

Damian slipped through the Manor like ghost, replacing the listening devices Pennyworth had removed earlier in the week. The old butler had rules about civilian spaces remaining unmonitored.

A matter of trust, he’d called it. And one that apparently all the Bats respected, even Father.

Damian didn’t understand Pennyworth’s agitation. After all, it was much easier to trust people once you knew all their secrets.

Voices echoing from the kitchen caught Damian’s ear. He tiptoed toward the doorway, expertly sidestepping the creaky spots in the floor, and took up a position to one side of the slightly ajar door.

“He never takes any time for himself.” That was Grayson’s voice, oddly serious for once. “If he isn’t at school, he’s training. If he isn’t training, he’s on patrol. If he isn’t on patrol, he’s working cases. It’s not healthy. Damian needs more.”

Damian’s spine stiffened. They were talking about him.

This was why he needed the listening devices.

“He’s focused on the Mission,” Father replied. “I won’t punish him for that.”

“No one here is talking about punishment, Master Bruce,” Pennyworth interjected. “The boy needs fun.

“I know it’s hard for you to tell the two apart sometimes,” Grayson added slyly.  

Hn,” Father grunted.

"Come on, B,” Grayson continued. “I don’t understand why you’re fighting this. You did it with me. You went out of your way to make sure I had friends—Babs, Wally, Roy, Donna. You tried to give me time to be a hero and a kid.”

“It’s the only reason I can think of that you let him say so many puns,” Pennyworth added primly.

“How dare you,” Grayson said in what Damian recognized was mock-outrage as Father chuckled a little. “Bruce deeply appreciates my mastery of the spoken word, don’t you B?”

“Yes,” Father said dryly. “That’s exactly right.”

“See? Told you.”

“If we could return to the matter at hand…” Pennyworth interjected.

Yes, Damian thought, narrowing his gaze. Please do.

He needed to know exactly what they were planning for him so he could determine the correct amount of retribution.

Father sighed quietly. “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve noticed it, too. But Damian isn’t like you, Dick. I’m not sure he knows how to just be a kid. I doubt Talia ever gave him the chance.”

Damian’s jaw clenched. His mother had trained him to be the best. There hadn’t been time for foolishness. He’d thought his father, of all people, understood that.

“Then it’s a good thing that he is no longer under her care,” Pennyworth said firmly.

Father was quiet for a long time. “What if I hurt him instead of helping him?”

Pennyworth’s voice gentled. “That’s exactly what you said when you took Master Dick in."

"It was," Father agreed after a moment. "And if I remember correctly, you told me that fear was no excuse for not trying."

"Yes. Rather fine advice, if I do say so myself," Pennyworth said. "Which you nearly ruined by panicking and attempting to call Clark Kent to see if his family would take Master Dick in."

Grayson burst out laughing. “You were gonna dump me on Clark? Bruce! Come on!”

“You know, that might not be such a bad idea with Damian…” Father said thoughtfully.

"Oh. Oh!"  Grayson exclaimed. "Yes! You absolutely should. God, why didn't we think of this before?"

Damian jerked away from the door as if he’d been slapped. He didn’t want to listen anymore. He didn’t need to listen anymore. He crept away from the kitchen and headed straight for the Batcave.

So what if his father didn’t want him? Damian wasn’t going anywhere. He’d fought hard to come here and he wasn’t going to give up just because Batman wanted to throw him away.

Damian didn’t need their help or their friendship or their stupid fun. He could take care of himself. No matter what, he still had the Mission and that was all that mattered.

The Mission was all that ever mattered.

 

*****

A week later, Damian tilted his head to the side, working out a tense muscle in his neck. Sneaking in an extra hour of training before sunrise had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now he was behind on casework and he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to meet his self-imposed deadlines.

Damian knew his efficiency levels were lower than normal. He would have liked to blame the annoying hindrance of school or the every-day distractions presented by living in the vicinity of Pennyworth and Grayson.

But the truth was that Damian was just tired. It was shameful to admit—even to himself—but the extra workload was getting to him. Despite his superior genetics, the constant cycle of training and detective work and patrolling and follow-ups and gear maintenance and schoolwork was exhausting. There were some days Damian just wanted to scream.

But he didn’t.

Because Mother had trained him better than that.

Because Father never let the Mission get to him.

Because Damian wouldn’t give anyone an excuse to send him away.

He had no other choice. He’d just have to power through.

“Damian,” Father called from the open doorway, the bight lighting at his back casting his face in shadow. “Do you have a moment?”

Damian stiffened, then forced himself to relax.

Too late, though. Damian knew his father had already seen his tense posture.

“I suppose,” Damian allowed, barely civil. “What do you need?”

“Two things,” Father said. “First, I’m cutting back your hours in the Cave.”

Unfamiliar icy panic flooded Damian’s veins. What had he done wrong? He opened his mouth to protest, but his father cut him off.

“I never should have allowed you to take on so much work in the first place,” Father told him. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the help—I do. But you need time to just be you. And I’m going to be better about providing that time.”

“Do I get a say in this?” Damian demanded, hiding his fear behind a solid wall of anger.

Father’s shoulders set stubbornly. “No.”

Damian clenched his jaw hard. At least Father wasn’t taking his patrolling privileges away. Damian could find other ways to sneak in training and casework. He would just have to be stealthier.

“What was the second thing?” Damian prompted after a moment. Better to get this over with now.

Father stood very still and even though Damian couldn’t see it, he could feel the other man’s gaze on him. “Grab a coat. We’re going outside.”

“It’s not cold out. I don’t need a coat,” Damian stated mulishly.

“Humor me.”

Reluctantly, Damian pulled on a coat. He followed his father down the main staircase, though the hallway, and out the main doors, maintaining a sullen silence the entire way.

The flash of panic returned, stronger than ever, when Damian saw what was waiting for him in the backyard. Because there was a tall, muscular man in blue with a billowing red cape floating a few inches off the carefully manicured lawn.

Damian hadn’t been trained to be the best for nothing. His panic quickly gave way to steely calm. He reached for the Kryptonite he’d stolen from the Batcave a week ago and brandished it at Superman, falling into a fighter’s crouch.

“Um, Bruce?” Superman asked. Damian was viciously pleased to see him edging away from the shard of glowing green rock.

“Damian,” Father snapped. “Put that away.”

“No,” Damian replied defiantly. “I’m not going with him. I don’t care if it’s easier for you.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Damian saw his father frown. “What are you talking about?”

“I will not live with the Kents,” Damian stated slowly and clearly.

What?” Superman yelped from his new position all the way across the lawn.

Father ignored him. “You heard us,” he said, realization in his voice. “In the kitchen.”

“Yes,” Damian admitted.

Father took a step toward him. “It’s not what you think.”

Damian said nothing. He was pretty sure it was exactly what he thought.

“This…this was a gesture,” his father said, stumbling over his words a little. “We did this with Dick and Jay and Tim and the girls, too. It’s a…reminder, I suppose.”

“Of what?” Damian asked, not moving from his defensive position.

“When I first became Batman, it consumed me. I had no life outside the mask. But that’s no way to live, Damian,” his father said. “And I don’t want that for you. I want you to know that it’s okay to let go sometimes.”

“So…” Damian said slowly, his father’s words starting to filter through. “You’re not sending me away?”

His father finally broached the distance between them and put a large hand on Damian’s shoulder. “Never.”

Something in Damian’s heart eased at that single word, spoken with such certainty that it left little room for doubt.

But…

“Why did you call him, then?” Damian demanded, jerking his head toward Superman. He wasn’t going to relax, not yet. Not until he understood.

“I wanted to let you have some fun,” his father explained. “I asked Clark to take you flying.”

“Oh,” Damian breathed, hardly aware that he’d made a sound at all.

So maybe he didn’t approve of the Kryptonian—or aliens in general, for that matter. So maybe he was still a little unsure about this whole fun thing. So maybe he didn’t want his father to think all was forgiven so soon.

But Damian also definitely, one hundred percent, positively wanted to go flying.

He hesitated. Should he really give into this? He didn’t need fun. He had the Mission. He’d always had the Mission. And this...this was new and sudden and different.

His father’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “I can make it an order, if you would prefer,” he said. “But I’d rather not. I’d rather this be something you chose.”

A choice?

Mother had never given him choices.

Damian looked down at the Kryptonite in his hand and then up at his father.

“He won’t take me away?” he asked, hating how small his voice sounded.

“Never,” Father repeated.

Slowly, Damian handed the Kryptonite over. Father tossed it back toward the house.

Superman drifted over, light as a dandelion seed in the breeze. “Sorry for surprising you like that,” he said, his smile achingly sincere. “You ready to go up?”

Damian nodded wordlessly, his voice caught in this throat.

Superman picked him up carefully. Damian could feel the caged strength in his arms and had an uncomfortable moment of realization that he would be entirely dependent on Superman once they were in the air.

Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe he shouldn’t have given in so easily. Maybe he should demand to be taken back right now—

But then his father was dwindling into the distance and the Manor was a tiny point of light in the darkness and then Gotham was spread out before him like a field of stars and then they were breaking through the low-hanging clouds and seeing an unending expanse of actual stars and…and…

Was this what it felt like to be free?

“Doing alright?” Superman asked quietly, somehow managing not to break the spell of wonderment that had stolen Damian’s heart.

Damian nodded, still unable to speak. He wanted to stay here forever, far above it all where nothing and no one could touch him.

“Let me know when you’re ready to go fast,” Superman said.

Scratch that. Damian really wanted to go fast.

He said as much to Superman.

“Then here we go!” the Kryptonian exclaimed.

And for the first time that Damian could remember, he let go and just lived.

Chapter Text

Dick shrugged on his heavy leather jacket as he followed Jason to the door of the Manor.

“What’s the point of taking the bikes if you aren’t gonna race me?” Jason complained again.

“The point is that you’re still legally dead, Jay,” Dick sighed. “What exactly do you plan to do when we get pulled over?”

Jason smirked at him over one shoulder as he pulled the door open. “Who said anything about getting caught?” He turned to walk out the door and stopped so abruptly that it looked like he’d slammed into an invisible wall.

Dick peered around him. A woman of unearthly beauty stood on the front step, her long, raven hair braided away from her statuesque face. Her features were almost too perfect, like something to be admired on a work of art.

But there was the warmth in her eyes as she smiled at them—bright and fierce and real—that was more beautiful than anything.

“Diana!” Dick exclaimed, a huge grin stealing over his face. He pushed past Jason so he could give the woman a hug. Diana returned the embrace, arms holding him just a little too tightly. Unlike Clark, Diana sometimes still had trouble minding her strength.

“Dick,” she greeted him fondly, pulling back, but leaving her hands on his shoulders. “It’s good to see you. How’s your knee?”

“All healed! What are you doing here?” Dick asked.

“I needed to speak to Bruce about something,” she answered. She looked over at Jason and her smile softened. She released Dick and reached out to sweep her fingers along Jason’s cheek. Dick watched with interest as his brother flushed bright red.

“I’m so glad you’re back. You were sorely missed,” she said, her words ringing with sincerity. Diana leaned forward and brushed a kiss into Jason’s hair. “Welcome home, little one.”

With a final smile and wave, she stepped past them and into the house.

Dick looked over at Jason. His brother was still frozen and completely pole-axed.

“Helloooo,” Dick laughed, waving a hand in front of Jason’s face. “Earth to Jaybird!”

Jason released a long shuddering breath and came to life. “Oh my god,” he said, voice faint and fluttery. “Oh my god. Wonder Woman kissed me.”

Dick snorted. “Yeah, on the forehead. And she called you little one.”

Jason glared at him, the expression lacking its usual bite. “Shut up. You don’t get to ruin this for me. Wonder Woman kissed me. This is the best day of my life.”

“You know,” Dick said, “I’d always wondered what swooning looked like. Now I know.”

Jason studiously ignored him. “Best. Day. Ever.”

 

*****

“You know what’s the worst?” Jason growled, pacing back and forth across the carpet like it was his mission to wear a hole through it.

Roy leapt up to sit on the high back of the couch, his feet resting on the cushions. “Billionaire vigilante fuckboys?” he guessed.

“Billionaire vigilante fuckboys,” Jason confirmed vehemently. “You know why?”

"'Cause they’re privileged, self-righteous assholes?” Roy offered, starting to get worked up even though he had no clue what had set Jason off. It didn’t matter. Both of them had issues to spare when it came to their former mentors.

"'Cause they’re privileged, self-righteous assholes,” Jason agreed. “And you know what else they are?”

Roy opened his mouth to respond, but another voice beat him to it.

“Judgmental, selfish pricks,” Kory said from where she was floating near the window, sunbathing in the warm afternoon light.

Jason squinted at her. “How’d you know that?”

She made little humming noise. “You had this exact conversation last week when the Green Arrow helped with our case. Or was it the time before that, when Batman patrolled Jason's territory in Gotham? Or the time before that--"

"Okay, okay," Jason interrupted. "You've made your point."

“Doesn’t make any of it less true,” Roy grumbled.

“Damn straight,” Jason said, exchanging nods with the archer.

“If they are that much of a nuisance, why not take them out?" Kory asked, her bright green eyes opening just a sliver. "I could do it for you."

Roy coughed in surprise, almost falling off his perch.

“Gee, Kory, that’s…uh…that’s one hell of an offer,” Jason said, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “But let’s…maybe not today.”

“Alright,” she said indifferently.

"Is that a thing on Tamaran?" Roy wanted to know. "Family members just offing each other?"

Kory shrugged. "My sister has tried to kill me many times."

"Your sister's evil," Jason pointed out.

"Yes," Kory said evenly and went back to sunbathing.

Roy beckoned Jason over to the couch. "I think Kory might actually be the scariest of all of us," he whispered.

"I am," Kory answered from across the room.

Jason grinned. "She is," he agreed.

 

*****

“Hood,” Tim growled into the comm for the third time. “Damn it, I know you can hear me!”

"Red Robin? Babs' voice called through the speakers. "You're aware this is an open line, right?"

Tim huffed an aggrieved sigh. “Yes, I'm aware. Hood won’t answer my calls even though I know he’s listening. He always listens.”

“What do you need him for?”  Babs asked, sounding curious.

Tim ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “He was supposed to come in and update his case files weeks ago, but he keeps dodging. He knows that if he actually answers me, he’ll have to come up with a legitimate excuse—which he totally doesn’t have.”

“Hmm,” Babs said thoughtfully.“I think I have a solution."

“Be my guest,” Tim told her.

Babs cleared her throat. “Emma Woodhouse never should have ended up with Mr. Knightley.”

You shut your mouth,” Jason’s voice snapped over the speakers, loud and angry.

Tim could hear the grin in Babs' voice. “Gotcha.”

Ah fuck!

 

*****

Jason pushed himself upright with a groan, leaning heavily on the alley wall. He was bruised and bloody and his helmet was completely destroyed.

And he was pretty sure he had a concussion.

All in all, not a great night.

“So, this is like the third time this month one of us has found you beaten to a pulp,” a voice called from above. Jason scowled as Steph leapt down from the fire escape and approached. “Should we be worried about you?”

“I’m just going through a rough patch,” Jason said, spitting some blood onto the pavement.

“Your whole life is a rough patch,” Steph muttered.

Jason glared at her.

Steph glared back. “What?” she said. “I’m not wrong.”

Jason slumped against the wall. “No,” he said. “You’re not. Fuck my life.”

“Yeah,” Steph agreed, looping one of his arms around her shoulders so she could take some of his weight. “Fuck it. Safe house and medical attention, then pizza?”

“Pizza first?” he asked hopefully.

“Nice try.”

Jason heaved a long-suffering sigh. “You’re no fun.”

“‘Cause bleeding out is such a hoot.”

“Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.”

Hood.

“Ugh, fine. Let’s be responsible or whatever.”

Chapter Text

Jason’s completing his final equipment check for the night when there’s a faint click and the door of his safe-house swings open. Jason’s got his back to the wall and his gun drawn on the entryway faster than an eye-blink.

Because anyone who can slide undetected past his proximity alarms and pick the custom locks he made is serious trouble.

The slight figure in red and green that steps through the door with his hands held high is not what Jason is expecting, but he doesn’t change his assessment. Or lower his gun.

For all his faults, the Pretender is serious trouble.

“How did you find me?” Jason demands.

The Replacement keeps his hands up and tries his damnedest to appear non-threatening. It sets Jason on edge. This has to be a trick of some kind.

“I just want to talk,” the kid says.

“Like hell,” Jason growls, glancing around at the various shadows in the safe-house to make sure Bruce isn’t somehow lurking in one. “You know, just because I let you live once doesn’t mean I’ll do it again.”

The Pretender’s expression tightens. Jason recognizes the stubborn look on the kid’s face. He sees something similar in the mirror almost every morning.

“Please. This is important.”

“Right,” Jason scoffs, edging toward the door. He circles to one side, knowing the Pretender’s training will force him to move in order to keep the gun in his sight-line—thus clearing the path to the exit. “You just wanted a nice, friendly chat with a wanted criminal. I’ve played this game before, kid. You keep me occupied while dear, old Brucie sneaks in the back. Well, I don’t think so. I’ve got some business to handle tonight.”

Please,” the Replacement says again, more urgently now that Jason’s almost to the door. He takes a step forward, but pulls back sharply when he sees Jason’s finger twitch on the trigger. “Bruce doesn't know I'm here. I’m trying to help you.”

Jason laughs, short and sharp and harsh. “Fuck you,” he says sincerely.

And then he’s out the door and into the night. 

 

*****

Jason pauses on the rooftop across from the run-down warehouse owned by the Falcone crime family. The Red Hood’s lieutenants have been battling a flood of drugs and guns on the streets for months and now Jason’s finally tracked the problem to its source.

When he’d returned to Gotham, Jason had made it damn clear to the other gangs in town that the Red Hood was going to be calling the shots from then on.

It seemed like Falcone needed a little reminder on that score.

Jason’s all too happy to give it to him.

He readies his grappling gun and fires it at the building opposite, intending to swing down into the alley below him. He almost makes it to the ground before something hard and heavy slams into him from the side, tearing the line from his grasp.

His training kicks in with a vengeance. While he’s still in the air, Jason manages two blind hits on his assailant, sending the other body careening off him. Jason hits the ground hard, rolling the way Dick and Bruce taught him to take most of the sting out of the fall. His attacker’s worse off—Jason hears him collide with the side of a dumpster with a sound loud enough to wake the dead.

Yells split the air, coming from the direction of the warehouse. Jason picks himself up with a grimace.

So much for the element of surprise.

He reaches for a gun and faces his attacker.

Only to find the Pretender peeling himself off the sidewalk with a muffled groan.

“Okay,” Jason says evenly, cocking the gun. He is so fucking done with his replacement. “Now you die.”

He says it mostly to scare the kid—he’s not really gonna kill him, just rough him up enough to teach him a lesson—but the Pretender smiles wearily and clutches at a shoulder that Jason can tell is dislocated.

“If you still feel that way when this is all over, you’ll know where to find me,” the kid says. “But I couldn’t let you walk in there. Not when I could stop it.”

A wave of dizziness crashes over Jason all at once. His knees tremble and give out; the gun falls from nerveless fingers.

“You fuckin’ drugged me,” he accuses, slumping uncontrollably toward the ground. Part of him is almost impressed. He hadn’t even felt the sting of the needle through the harsh impact of the Replacement’s mid-air collision.

The yells are getting closer. Falcone’s thugs are going to be on them any second.

“Don’t worry,” the Replacement tells him, cradling his bad arm. The determination in his voice is an almost tangible thing. “I won’t let him get you.”

Jason’s vision tunnels to black.

 

***** 

Jason wakes with the mother of all headaches and a renewed thirst for vengeance.

The little shit wearing his uniform is fucking dead this time. Jason’s not messing around anymore.

He stumbles to his feet and sags against the brick wall of the alley. A glance at his watch tells him he’s been out almost three hours.

It takes Jason a moment to realize that the streets are quiet. He has auditory enhancements in the helmet, but Jason can’t make out a single sound coming from the direction of the warehouse and that…

That can’t be good.

He takes another deep breath and wills his head to clear. It doesn’t really work, but Jason plows on anyway. He scoops up his gun from the ground and cautiously makes his way toward the warehouse. It’s dark and empty and the door’s hanging off its hinges and Jason’s got a very bad feeling about this.

He goes inside anyway. And it's not because he suddenly remembers that the Replacement was injured in the fall and would’ve had to fight off Falcone’s men hurt and alone.

It’s not.

How could the kid have been so stupid as to intervene, anyway? Jason has a fuzzy memory of the Pretender’s voice saying, I won’t let them get you.

Which is ridiculous, because Jason can definitely handle himself against Falcone’s thugs.

At least, he can when he’s not being ambushed and drugged in an alley.

Fucking Replacement.

Jason gets his first inkling that something isn't right when he comes across the unmistakable signs of a battle. There are spatters of blood on the floor and the wall—though not enough to denote a serious injury. Jason recognizes the kind of cuts-and-bruises handiwork that Batman’s proteges leave behind. The Pretender was here, then, and he’d put up a fight.

But what catches Jason’s eye is the smear of white along the wall. He runs a finger through it and it lifts easily, caking on the fabric of his glove.

It looks like…if Jason didn’t know any better he’d say it looked like face paint.

But why would Falcone’s men be wearing face paint? It doesn’t make any sense.

A little further down the hallway, Jason discovers a scrap of dense black fabric with yellow lining. It’s a piece of Robin’s cape. Jason clenches his jaw and presses onward, moving with a little more urgency.

He stops short at what he finds in the main room.

There’s blood. A lot more of it, gathered in spatters and small pools and streaks across the floor. Jason knows intimately what the aftermath of torture looks like and he knows he’s looking at it now.

Ignoring the sickening twist in his gut, Jason takes a couple steps forward. There’s something crumpled on the ground in the very center of the room. When he gets closer, Jason can see that it’s the rest of Robin’s cape, spread out so that the yellow interior faces up toward the ceiling. There are three words scrawled across the fabric, written in blood:

Ha Ha Ha

Jason’s heart turns to ice.

And he realizes that he was wrong before, about what the kid’s last words to him had been.

It wasn’t, I won’t let them get you.

It was, I won’t let him get you.

Oh god. Oh god.

What had Tim done?

Jason swallows down bile in his throat and almost turns away, but something under the cape catches his eye. He reaches down and brushes the cloth to one side, revealing a second message, nearly illegible in the smeared and sticky blood.

Come and play.

Jason hasn’t felt the rage of the Lazarus Pit tearing up his insides and burning down his spine and clouding the world in a haze of poison green for months.

He feels it now, though. Welcomes it like an old friend, even though he knows what it means.

A lot of people are going to die tonight.

But he’s going to make damn sure none of them are Tim.

Jason reaches up with a shaking hand and turns on his comm. He’s already dialed in to the Bats’ main frequency; he often eavesdrops on the others to make sure he can avoid them on the streets.

Barbara’s voice is the first to crackle over the line.

“Nothing over the police scanners. GCPD hasn’t seen anything.”

“I’ve finished my sweep of Arkham and the surrounding area. All clear,” Bruce’s voice says, clipped and harsh in the way it always gets when he’s terrified out of his mind. They already know Tim is gone, then, and they can't find him. “I’m moving on to the Hill.”

“Copy,” Barbara says.

“Nothing on cameras, but the Batcomputer is still sifting through footage,” Alfred chimes in.

“I’m looking, too,” Barbara informs them. “Nightwing? Spoiler? Status?”

 “Financial district and city hall are all clear. No sign of Robin,” says a female voice. Jason doesn’t know Stephanie Brown well, but he can tell she’s scared and trying to hide it.

“I’ve cracked two of the Hood’s hideouts. Nothing yet,” Dick says. Jason jolts at the sound of his name. Of course they're looking for Tim in his safe-houses. Of course they think he took Tim. 

But then Dick's voice continues: "I don’t like this, B. The Hood could be hurt…or worse.”

Jason is...he doesn't know what he is. He almost can't comprehend it. Tim's gone and the others are still taking the time to look for Jason, after everything he's done.

"Keep searching,” Bruce orders.

Jason drags himself far enough out of his daze to activate his mic. “Don’t bother. I’m here.”

Someone gasps; Jason can't tell who. And then the floodgates open.

"Oh thank god, Little Wing!”

“Where the hell have you been?!”

“Do you know where Robin is?”

“Are you hurt? Do you need medical attention?”

“Location. Now.”

The outpouring of concern threatens to dampen the Pit’s influence, so Jason shoves it all aside and says, “The Joker has Robin.”

"We know,” Bruce tells him. “He sent a video to the Cave about an hour ago. We’ve been trying to zero in on the location ever since.”

Jason closes his eyes and tries hard not to imagine what kind of video that sick fuck had sent, but the tone of Bruce’s voice tells him everything he needs to know.

"We thought he had you too,” Dick says, an obvious tremor in his voice. “We thought—”

“I’m fine,” Jason says shortly. He stares down at the message at his feet. Come and play. “And I know where he took Robin.”

Jason and Bruce haven’t been on good terms since Jason’s return. That’s the sort of thing that happens when your vigilante mentor and surrogate father figure replaces you before your body is cold and then you rise from the dead and try to murder everyone as payback.

But right here and now, in this moment, there’s no hesitation or doubt in Bruce’s voice—there’s nothing at all but absolute and implicit trust—as he asks, “Where?”

Jason reads the coordinates written under the Joker’s message.

“Converge on that location,” Batman orders. “No one goes in alone.”

“You know it’s a trap,” Barbara says. “He wouldn’t tell us where to go, otherwise.”

“If it’s a trap, then Robin’s already in it,” Dick answers. “We don’t have a choice.”

“Exactly!” Stephanie exclaims. “We have to get Robin!”

“We will,” Bruce promises.

“See you there,” Jason states. He shuts off his comm.

Jason makes exactly one stop along the way to the rendezvous point. When he arrives, he finds the others gathered three rooftops down, getting the lay of the land.

Bruce pairs up Dick and Stephanie and sends them off to crash in through the upper floors on his signal. Jason volunteers to cover the back entrance while Bruce takes the front.

A heavy hand on Jason’s shoulder stops him before he can leave to take up his position.

“No live rounds,” Bruce growls at him. “No killing.”

Jason almost wishes Bruce could see the expression on his face under the helmet.

“Don’t worry,” Jason hisses, letting the rage of the Pit bleed through his skin. “I won’t be using bullets.

He hefts the weapon he’d stopped to pick up on his way over. Bruce’s grip on Jason’s shoulder tightens to point of painful as he takes in the crowbar in Jason’s hands.

Jason wrenches himself free and stalks to the edge of the roof.

“As for the no killing thing,” he says, “I’ll do whatever the fuck I have to. Robin won’t die tonight.”

Even with auditory enhancement, Jason almost misses the echo of Bruce’s voice.

“Robin won’t die tonight.”

Chapter Text

Barbara is right: it’s definitely a trap.

There’s a freak in a clown mask pointing a gun at him as Jason bursts through the door. Jason’s already moving as the clown fires. He breaks the man’s wrist, then strikes out with his crowbar, landing a blow to the man’s head. He goes down and doesn’t get up.

Jason looks at the half-dozen other clowns gathered in the hallway.

“Alright,” he says. “Which one of you fuckers wants to die next?”

The consensus seems to be all of them because they charge. Jason sees green and grins much the same way a shark does when it smells blood in the water.

It’s over fairly quickly for the clowns. Jason takes a certain amount of savage satisfaction seeing them fall under the swing of his crowbar. He knows that it’s probably fucked up to fight with the weapon the Joker used on him.

He’s far enough gone in the Lazarus Pit rage that he doesn’t care.

“Uh, Batman?” Stephanie’s uncertain voice calls over the comm line. “We got a situation up here.”

“There’s a bomb,” Dick says, taking over.

“Can you disarm it?” Bruce asks, only a little breathless. Jason can hear the sounds of breaking bones in the background.

“No,” Dick says. “The Joker…this wiring is bat-shit crazy. Um. No bat-related pun intended. The bomb’s on a timer. We’ve got five minutes.”

“He might be able to detonate remotely, too,” Jason pitches in. He’s cleared the hallway and is looking for the stairs.

“I’m on my way,” Bruce says. “Nightwing, Spoiler—keep searching for Robin. He’s the priority.”

“Understood,” Stephanie acknowledges.

Jason takes down two more clowns and finds what he’s looking for. He ignores the stairs going up, instead descending to the basement level. The Joker is chaos personified. He doesn’t have patterns and he’s not consistent—except for the fact that if there’s a chance to screw with Bruce, he’ll take it.

So if the bomb’s on the top floor, that means Tim’s got to be at the bottom. The Joker likes to make Bruce choose. He seems to think if he puts Batman in the right situation, sticks him between a rock and hard place enough times, Bruce will break.

Jason knows better. He’s tried to break Bruce. And if Jason can’t do it, he’s pretty sure no one can.

He demolishes a handful of clowns, disables two trip wires, and slogs through a spray of poison gas, grateful for the state-of-the-art air filters in his helmet. All the while he can hear Dick and Stephanie fighting their way through what sounds like an army of clowns in the upper levels. Eventually, Stephanie drops back to defend Bruce while he disarms the bomb; Dick pushes forward. Jason knows for certain now that Dick isn’t going to find Tim up there.

Because there is one door at the end of the room and it’s suspiciously devoid of traps.            

Which means there’s definitely a trap, just one that Jason can’t see. He triple-checks the door, the handle, the lock, the frame. Still nothing.

There’s definitely, definitely a trap here somewhere.

Jason cuts his losses and takes three steps to his right. He plants a series of low-level charges on the wall, retreats to a safe distance, and blows right through the plaster. He emerges through the smoke and dust of his make-shift door to find a circular chamber lit by a single, bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling from exposed wires. Tim sits underneath, slumped bonelessly in the chair he’s tied to, face and body beaten to hell—at least, what Jason can make out under the rips and tears in the Robin uniform.

There’s a moment where Jason thinks…where it seems…

But then Tim makes a small noise and his head lolls to the side.

“Hood,” he murmurs hoarsely, words hardly louder than a whisper. “Get out.

“Talk about a dramatic entrance. There was a door right there,” the Joker’s voice echoes around the chamber. Jason’s eyes snap up and fix on the two-way glass at the far end of the room. He toggles a switch on his helmet and brings up x-ray overlays.

Oh, yeah. There’s another room on the far side. The fucker’s here. He’s not watching from a secondary location.

“Hood, is that—?” Dick’s voice cuts out sharply, interrupted the soft sound of a blow making impact.

“I’m glad you could make it,” the Joker continues, his voice sending shivers of revulsion crawling down Jason’s spine. “You’re the little birdy I wanted to play with tonight. Thought it would be a nice reunion—you, me, and Batsy. Just like old times. Then this little chickadee had to go and ruin it. He’s not nearly as fun as you; passed out after only an hour of playtime. Kids these days, am I right?”

“Hood’s with the Joker. And I think he’s found Robin,” Dick’s voice comes back on over the comm. He sounds out of breath. “Must be on the bottom floor.”

Jason’s jaw clenches. The others know now. He’s out of time.

He drops the crowbar and reaches for his gun in one smooth movement.

“Jason, no,” Tim tries.

Jason fires. The glass cracks on impact, but doesn’t break—a spider-web of almost lined up dead center on the Joker’s forehead.

“Naughty, naughty,” the Joker admonishes. He hadn’t even flinched when Jason fired.

Jason empties the rest of his clip into the glass. It still doesn’t break, but it’s a close thing.

“The bomb is disarmed,” Bruce’s voice says in his ear. “Hood, we’re coming to you.”

Jason knows the Joker isn’t eavesdropping on their comm line, but he must have some way to monitor on the bomb because he laughs suddenly.

“Oh, well done, Batsy,” he cheers. “I knew I gave him too much time. Ah well. Guess it’s time to call curtains on tonight.”

Noxious fumes flood the chamber. Readouts scroll quickly across Jason’s heads-up display. Joker Venom, at twice the normal concentration. The air filters in Jason’s helmet hold up just fine.

Well that’s anti-climactic.

There’s a spluttering cough. Jason stomach drops as he hears Tim’s cough turn to a groan to a throaty chuckle to a full-blown manic laugh, just on the edge of painful.

Jason freezes, paralyzed with indecision. The potency of the Joker Venom all but guarantees Tim will start suffering permanent damage in the next ten seconds. Jason has the antidote in his belt. He can save Tim.

But the glass in front of him is cracked and the Joker is right there. In ten seconds, Jason can reload, empty his clip, and end that psychotic murdering fuck once and for all before he escapes out the door Jason can see in the other room.

In ten seconds, the Joker could be dead.

And so could Tim.

“Choices, choices,” the Joker taunts, like he’s reading Jason’s mind.

Robin won't die tonight.

“Fuck,” Jason swears. He sprints for Tim.

The Joker sighs. “So disappointing. I guess that’s why they say never meet your heroes.”

Jason ignores him and pulls the syringe out of his belt, plunging it into Tim’s thigh, close to the vein in his leg. After a scary couple of seconds, Tim’s laughter trickles to a halt. He slumps in the chair, so close to unconscious that it makes no difference.

Jason drops the syringe, reloads his gun, and aims it at the glass.

It’s too late. The Joker is gone.

But Tim is alive.

*****

Almost two weeks later, Tim tracks him down while Jason’s on patrol in the Bowery. Jason decides to lead the kid on a merry chase across the rooftops before ditching his ass. But then he sees the slightly awkward way Tim’s managing his grappling gun and realizes he’s still healing. Jason considers making Tim chase him anyway, just to drive home the lesson that only idiots track down dangerous enemies in hostile territory alone and injured.

But he doesn’t. Jason doesn’t need the kind of heat that’ll bring. People really don’t appreciate enough how fucking terrifying Alfred Pennyworth is when it comes to the health of his family.

He waits for Tim to catch up with him on a low rooftop with no security cameras and plenty of shadows.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he growls when Tim lands, stumbling only a little at the impact.

“It’s a free country,” the little shit replies.

Jason folds his arms. “You haven’t heard the stories? Apparently, this neighborhood belongs to the big bad wolf.”

A smile twitches across Tim’s face. “You sure that’s the fairy tale you want to use, Little Red Riding Hood?

Jason snorts. He can’t help himself.

“Nice,” he acknowledges and flips the releases on his helmet, pulling it off. He takes a moment to enjoy the cool breeze tousling his sweat-soaked hair. “What do you want?”

Tim’s smile fades into a far more serious expression. “To say thank you. You saved my life.”

“Don’t,” Jason interrupts, holding up a hand. “I don’t want…don’t thank me.”

Tim studies him for a moment. “Okay,” he says.

“You’re a colossal dumbass, you know,” Jason adds. “Going after the Joker alone like that.”

Tim rubs the back of his neck. Jason thinks he might be self-conscious. “That wasn’t exactly the plan,” the kid admits. “But even knowing how it turned out, I wouldn’t change what I did.”

Jason shakes his head and reiterates, “Colossal. Dumbass.”

Tim makes a face and pulls out his grappler.

“How’d you know?” Jason blurts.

Tim stops. “What?”

“How’d you even know where to find me? What case I was working on?”

Tim shifts on his feet. “I keep tabs on you,” he admits quietly.

Jason huffs. “Smart,” he says. “Always keep one eye on the guy who tried to murder you.”

“That’s not—” Tim begins to protest. Jason shoots him a look.

“Okay, maybe at first,” Tim relents. “But that’s not why I do it anymore. Not for a long time.”

The two regard one another. Tim seems to be waiting for Jason to speak, but Jason feels like something has swallowed his tongue. After an awkward minute or two, Tim turns, clearly intending to leave.

The dam breaks.

“Why?” Jason asks. He’s not sure what he’s asking, exactly. Why do you keep tabs on me? Why did you try to warn me? Why did you take my place with the Joker?

Tim turns back. He seems to struggle with an answer, opening and closing his mouth several times as he searches for the right words.

Eventually, the kid shrugs helplessly. “Because you’re Robin,” he explains, like it’s the only thing that makes sense.

Something warm settles in Jason’s chest, right in the vicinity of his heart. It takes him a moment to place the feeling, because it’s been so long since he’s felt it.

“No, Tim, I’m not,” Jason says. Tim’s eyes widen behind his mask; it’s probably the first time he’s ever heard his name coming out of Jason’s mouth. “You are.”