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never be the first to believe

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Tim woke to the scent of cordite and the sounds of a coffeeshop drive-thru. As a result, he kept his consciousness a secret, noting the space available to move in the car (spacious model, passenger seat), checking his bonds (insultingly low-grade and escapable) and injuries (no new ones, save that he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten here).

“Hey, Timmy, what’s your coffee order?” Jason Todd asked, from three feet to his left.

Tim opened his eyes and was surprised to find they were not at a Gotham Coffee. Or a Starbucks, or any other major or local chain. He knew most of them in the tri-city area. His gaze turned to Jason, who looked a little more impatient now than he had been when Tim first woke up. The man who was usually the Red Hood jerked his head at the coffee woman, who waited just inside the drive-thru window. They should have ordered back at the speaker, but apparently Jason was insisting on doing it this way.

Tim rattled off his order and she turned away to make it. Tim kept staring at the sign.

“Java Posh is a Maryland coffee brand,” he said, pulling the memory from some useless long-ago list of major corporations.

“They also have some sites in Philadelphia,” Jason commented.

“Are we in Pennsylvania?” Tim asked. His stomach twisted with dread; he had meetings to attend this afternoon, Stephanie and he had a date night tonight and she’d made him call off patrol. They could not be in Pennsylvania right now.

The woman turned back with their coffees and Jason exchanged cash for the life-giving fluid before settling Tim’s cup into the center console’s cupholder. Tim waited to ask again until Jason had pulled the town car back onto the residential streets.

“Where are we?” Tim repeated.

“Hickock. Still in New Jersey, just far enough from Gotham that there’s no plausible reason for B to think I’m breaking our… agreement, you know?” Jason’s eyes remained focused on the road as they took the onramp onto the freeway. “Drink your coffee.”

“You realize these restraints are pathetic,” Tim said, feeling he could give away this much information safely. Jason should know better. Much better, actually, than this.

“I did my research. I don’t have a chance with me driving and you two feet away, not unless I did some off-the-wall shit that would have gotten coffee lady’s attention quick. So, you have free use of your left hand. My intel says you broke two fingers, so you can hold the coffee but not much else without giving me some warning. And you know I’ll wreck this car if I have to.”

Tim’s right hand was restrained to something under the seat that didn’t seem to have a lot of give. Solvable, and as Jason said, it would be easy to do what he wanted while Jason was driving.

“How did you get me this far?” And whose car was this?

“The truth, or would you like a face-saving lie that we can both pretend to believe?”

Tim groaned and reached for the coffee. “Which board room did I fall asleep in?”

“Your office. For once. But intern Jared noticed and called the car company, which showed up in record time.” Jason gestured with one hand at the car around them. “And then they ‘took you home.’”

“Why not just wake me up?” Tim hissed. “And don’t even get me started on how I don’t have an intern Jared and I’m really suspicious that he and the car company driver look astonishingly similar.”

“Guilty. And as Bruce has always said, if Tim falls asleep on patrol, it’s because he made poor decisions about how much sleep he needed.”

Tim gaped at him. “He—he doesn’t say that.”

“No, he doesn’t.” Jason grinned. “But let’s say that I say it. Now, to business. Sorry I didn’t get the copies of the agenda printed first, but I was busy finding a wheelchair to get you out of the building.”

Tim dropped his head into his left hand, groaning. “You realize I do have to go back there, right? And explain what that all was?”

“That doesn’t sound like intern Jared’s or Driver Ulysses’ problem. Both of them are more concerned with finding their respective missing twin brothers – and solving the terrible murder of their mother, which took place ten sad, sad years ago.”

Great. He’d made up backstories for covers with a four second half-life. Tim took a sip of the coffee and found it passable. “The agenda?”

“You know I’m not allowed in Gotham.” Jason’s voice had gone flat, as if the humor had just dropped out of it.

Tim nodded. Bruce had never spoken much about his attempt to ‘bring Jason in’ after shooting Penguin a year ago. Tim only knew the particulars from a surveillance camera some kids had set up to catch ‘Bat on Cat’ rooftop action. The fight had been brutal and one-sided; Batman launching not one but two ambushes on the Red Hood, who responded with mostly defensive maneuvers. Jason only escaped both times because of Bizarro and Arsenal’s intervention. That second fight… Tim would have been interested/horrified to see the x-rays.

Then, Bruce had gone to find Jason after Roy’s death at Sanctuary and had reiterated to him then that he couldn’t come back to Gotham. As Tim remembered, Damian had had some kind of blow-up with Jason soon after, but that had been north of ten months ago now.

“And?” Tim prompted.

“And I need to be in Gotham, for something.”

“That sounds like a Jason problem, to be brought up with Bruce,” Tim said, throwing the older man’s words back at him.

“It’s not a Bruce thing.”

“So why’s it a ‘me’ thing? You have other people—”

“Because you and me got along, Tim. I get along with Kate, Steph, Cass, too… sure, but they’re…”

“The other family black sheep? Grey sheep?”

“Everyone tries to step in time to Bruce’s beat,” Jason said, sounding like he was tending towards the irritable now. “I need someone who can make sure I can stay in Gotham for a while without Bruce getting suspicious or doing his usual ‘just checking up on you’ stalker act that, yeah, he does even when I’m not in the state. I don’t ask myself a lot of questions about why the demon brat was able to find me ten months ago in Texas.”

“I’m going to need more information before I help,” Tim said, because functionally, nothing had been said yet. Jason closed off, all his attention going to the freeway.

“Why?”

“Because we no longer share that thing that makes people do favors for each other without asking for compensation or explanations. ‘Trust’? You familiar with it?” Tim knew he was sneering. He didn’t like that he was sneering but he also didn’t like that Jason appeared to think Tim would say yes automatically. Sure, they’d shared waffles, shared intel, fought on missions together; they’d often known one another’s mind before the rest of their siblings, but those bonding experiences alternated with homicide attempts. Ignoring the ongoing nature of the situation would make Tim an idiot and he didn’t care for the characterization.

“Gotham has the best hospital,” Jason said. “I need to get something fixed. It’ll lay me up for a couple of weeks. I’d ask someone else but…”

But he didn’t have anyone else. Tim had seen Artemis and Bizarro’s disappearance on the surveillance cam, knew Arsenal was gone, Starfire and extended hospital stays didn’t mix, and the Bats were off-limits.

“Bruce’d let you do that in civilian mode,” Tim said. There may be a way to undercut all of this angst before it got into full swing, though with Jason, the ‘swing’ in question had usually started weeks before Tim was brought in. “It defeats the purpose of no killing if you stop people from getting life-saving medical care.” He hesitated. “But it’s not that bad, is it?”

“No. Bruce just won’t leave it alone, you know that. He’ll want to know what it is, how it happened, and that’s if he lets me stay in the hospital with all the nice, innocent civilians.” Jason’s lip curled before he glanced at Tim again and forced himself to relax. “I solemnly swear I am not infiltrating Gotham in order to murder or maim anyone in or at any of the hospitals, regardless of their legal affiliations. There, that’s an oath worthy of the fair folk.”

“Actually, fairies would probably have the loophole that it might not be your purpose to kill or maim but it is still something you could do,” Tim replied, idly releasing his right hand from its restraints.

“Then I also swear that I won’t do that.”

Tim decided to cut to the heart of the matter. “You want to talk about Penguin?”

“We can talk about how he deserved it and secondly how I didn’t actually kill him, according to Bruce. Why are you mad anyway? You’ve always understood that some people need to die. Not saying I did it in the best way, but—”

“It’s not shooting Penguin that bothered me,” Tim interrupted, though he was careful not to make it sound like an accusation. Jason assumed everyone was angry about him for the killing policy, all the time. It made for a reassuring baseline sometimes; whatever got him in trouble, Jason would default to ‘it’s because I kill people, isn’t it?’ and then he and Bruce would have a fight. Tim found it tedious.

“Then what?” Jason sounded like he doubted it.

“You know my parents were out of town a lot when I was a kid,” Tim said.

“Yup, Tiny Tim and the Army of Nannies. Coming soon to a theater near you.”

“When they weren’t around, or called out, or,” when his parents decided he was old enough to stop sending daily nannies and send twice-weekly ones instead, “—unavailable, I’d have the TV on as background while I worked on projects.”

“I’m tracking.”

“You chose to kill Penguin on live television, Jason. Hundreds of Gotham kids potentially watched you shoot a downed man in the eye with intent to kill. No matter who he is or what he did to you, that is a traumatizing event to witness.

Jason blustered. “I saw—”

“You saw terrible things as a child that you shouldn’t have seen. That doesn’t mean that what you did was justified or that it wasn’t injurious to someone else.” Tim finished off the coffee and subtly unrestrained his right hand. “Bruce, Dick, the rest of the family, they have their reasons for being angry with you about the incident and yeah, I’m not thrilled about your methodology either. But kids watched that. Some of them were like me, where they won’t have anyone who changes the channel, or covers their eyes, or talks them down, or even tells them that most people don’t do things like that.” Had anyone said this to Jason before, about the incident? “Sometimes—a lot of the time, I think it’s better that Red Hood can’t work in Gotham anymore. People trust you, but when they don’t know where you stand, they can’t trust you. Even in Gotham.”

Jason’s expression twitched as he considered the argument. “…yeah, that’s why you’re the smart one.”

“I do have that distinction.”

“I seem to remember a whole bit about you trying to kill Captain Boomerang, though. Tell me, does hypocrisy go down well with coffee?”

“Because being sneaky about it and seeking out television cameras to stream it live aren’t different things? You can’t throw Boomerang at me, Jason. I—” Whoa. No. Don’t say anything else. Tim shut up abruptly. Thank God, Jason didn’t seem to plan on forcing the question.

“Fine, Replacement. You made your point, I understand your point. Now will you help me remain out of the Bat’s radar while I’m in Saint Frederick’s?”

“I need proof.”

Jason sighed dramatically and pulled the car over onto the side of the two-lane road. Tim recognized the tone of sigh as one that meant Jason would acquiesce and he was just annoyed at the necessity. Seconds later, his phone pinged with whatever Jason had just sent him. The Red Hood set the phone in Tim’s left hand and pulled the car back onto the road.

Jason,” Tim breathed after several minutes’ analysis, as he tried to establish that what he was looking at was what it looked like. He knew the fighting pattern too well, had seen the surveillance footage. “Did he do all of this?”

“Seeing as the Pit would’ve healed pretty much everything else, yeah. Roy was trying to make me see some other people before he… but we were caught up in a case and then he was dead and I had the case to work.” Jason swallowed. “Some of all that is the Pit though. I heal fast and it’s not always concerned with proper healing, just fast.”

“How are you even functioning with—”

“Not great. Obviously. You think I’d ask to come into Gotham if I thought I could get it done anywhere else?” The Red Hood had focused entirely on the road by this point and Tim had to resist the urge to try and visually assess his physical state. Now that he’d seen the x-rays, it was concerning to think that Jason was even driving. “They’re telling me that if I don’t have the surgery, for my spine at least, I won’t be able to walk in six months.”

“That’s…” Tim stared at the readouts again. His understanding of the unjust medical repercussions of ‘one bad day’ for Batman were going to war with the legal responsibilities of Red Hood for shooting Penguin. Jason wouldn’t live long in a wheelchair, not with the life he’d led and his lack of a support network. He wasn’t Barbara, to plant himself at the center of a network and become indispensable; without field work, he’d lose his mind.

“I’ll help you,” Tim said, putting away his phone after saving the files.

“And not tell Bruce?”

“If you notify me of the dates you’ll be in town, the hospital you’ll be checked into, and any and all communications you intend to be sending, I’ll distract him. He’ll know we met today, because you’re an idiot and you kidnapped me from Wayne Enterprises, but I won’t tell him what you wanted to meet about. Agreed?”

Jason nodded once, attention on the road. A half-smirk danced across his face. “Yeah, sure. But you tell him everything after I kidnapped you took place outside of Gotham. Out of the county, preferably. Use your coffee cup as evidence.”

“Agreed.”

They drove in silence until they reached Gotham’s city limits, where Jason took the last exit before the Robert Kane bridge.

“Unless you’ve got a serious leg injury, I’m not heading back into Gotham,” Red Hood said, leaving no room for disagreement as he pulled up in front of a well-trafficked grocery store. “For all I know, he’s noticed you’re missing and got sensors set up by now.”

“I doubt he’s even noticed,” Tim said as he climbed out of the car, already summoning a ride service with his phone. “He doesn’t keep close tabs on anyone except Damian, and I think even they were on the outs for a while.”

“He should start,” Jason replied, shifting gears into reverse without moving the vehicle yet. “Might seem counter-intuitive for me to say that, but he needs to pay more attention.”

Tim took the empty coffee cup. “Stay safe, Jason.”

“Be careful, Replacement.”

It wasn’t until after Red Hood had driven away that Tim considered how different the two farewells were. Stay safe – as if the world were out to get Jason and all he could do was try and avoid it. Be careful – as if Tim were surrounded by danger and needed to mind how he navigated it. This was going to be a long month.

#

Jason texted Tim the dates he intended to be at St. Fredericks at 3:45 in the morning on a Tuesday. Well, that answered the question of whether or not Jason held down a 9-5 civilian job. Tim contacted one of his Wayne Enterprises’ underlings and orchestrated a sudden, pressing event that would require Bruce to be out of the country, starting the day Jason would arrive in town and ending a week later. That would give Jason time to have the operation and (hopefully) address any complications or delays.

Just to be on the safe side, he arranged for a minor issue regarding Wayne Enterprises’ licensing to come to a head the day after Bruce’s return, which might actually distract Bruce for a week as he tried to get to the bottom of it. It wouldn’t stop him patrolling – none of this would stop Batman’s Crusade – but some of it might prevent him from helicopter parenting Jason for the hell of it. Damian’s birthday was also coming up around that time and Bruce would be bogged down with how to celebrate his favorite son and whether or not to invite ‘Ric Grayson’ to the party. Tim could have told everyone the answer to that: Ric would be invited, Ric wouldn’t come, Damian would be aware of both facts. It exhausted Tim to remember that no one had ‘fixed’ Ric Grayson’s amnesia, in their family, where so much was reversible, and Ric was still walking around trying to hide in plain sight.

Tim hadn’t thought Jason would want him there for the operation (which was 8:15 a.m. on a Wednesday morning with a required arrival time of 6:05, if anyone was wondering).

So, it was a surprise when he got the phone call.

“We will need a next of kin representative present,” the nurse on the other end said, as if she had given this notification a thousand times before.

“Present?” Tim echoed, already heading out of the Wayne Enterprises’ offices because no, this wouldn’t be going away. “He’s a consenting adult and I’m sure his will is up to date. Why would you need me present?”

“Company policy. We are a private hospital, Mr. Drake-Wayne.”

Damn Jason’s distrust of Gotham General, no matter how much Tim understood it. “I’m on my way. Are you delaying the start time?”

“As it happens, the anesthesiologist is also running late, so we are behind schedule.” There was still a frown in her voice. “Though you really should have been here at his check-in.”

Tim could mentally hear Jason’s explicit reply to that comment, wondering why he’d need anyone else and what the [expletive] they thought Tim was gonna do in an operating theater and so on.

“I’m on my way,” he repeated, getting into the car and switching the call automatically to the hands-free speaker system. He usually hated driving, just stressed him out in general, but it was convenient to have it on hand sometimes, knowing that he’d scanned it for Bruce’s trackers, that no one could take pictures of the license plate, and that he could drive wherever he wanted without explaining himself to a chauffeur. Which was good on days like today, because most people had a purpose for peacing out of work at this hour of the morning and driving to the hospital.

When he arrived, he didn’t see Jason. They had him remain out in the lobby, even as a harried-looking woman bustled into the hospital with a word or two to say about Gotham traffic and speaking with reception about the arrival of her 6:05. Jason. Tim recognized her face from the website, under the ‘Anesthesia’ section. When the woman heard Jason had arrived earlier than even his start time, she checked his chart again, murmuring to herself as she headed back. Tim waited. Fifteen minutes after her arrival, he attempted to start working on his phone, only to find that there was no signal in the lobby. He waited another hour. Then, he wandered the halls until he found the hospital’s terrible coffeeshop and a wifi signal strong enough for his phone to light up with messages.

First and foremost, his department was wondering where he had gone in such a hurry. He reassured them that he was sick, suddenly, more like food poisoning than the flu, and would need the day off. Second, there was Alfred, who had been contacted by Tim’s staff and wondered what was happening, since Tim had not come home. Tim had answered this one with a phone call, just to assure the butler that he hadn’t been kidnapped or someone had stolen his phone. And lied, of course, that he just needed time away from work to focus on a project today. He’d be back tomorrow. No, he wasn’t actually sick.

Finally, there was a text from Bruce, which just read: ‘where are the Hausler reports on the server?’

Tim sent him the exact location, as well as copies of said reports, and straightened as he heard a code violet being called, in conjunction with the doctor who should be doing Jason’s surgery. If the hospital worked under the same codes as Gotham General… violet meant violent. Combative. Both words that described Jason Todd.

Tim thrust a five-dollar bill onto the coffeeshop counter to pay for his drink and headed at a fast pace back to the surgical lobby. This hospital was large and confusing but he had anticipated he would need to make it back quickly. Still, he found himself out of breath with worry when he got there.

“Is it Jason?” Tim asked, practically looming over reception.

“Sir?”

“The code violet—”

“Another department, Mr. Drake,” one of the receptionists said, smiling at him with a patient expression. Her shirt had little dancing fairy frog princesses on it. Such a strange thing to see a grown woman wear, in a hospital, but most of them were dressed like that. Was he in the wrong ward? He felt himself beginning to panic.

“Then, the doctor’s leaving?” Tim said, aware that the women needed to get back to her work.

“Can I just get one more peek at your identification? Then I’m happy to help.”

Tim went through the rigmarole again and this time the woman ‘verified’ him so he wouldn’t have to do it again… then told him Jason was still in surgery, the doctor wasn’t going anywhere, and it could be several more hours, so Tim went and sat down again. He must have fallen asleep. He woke up when the anesthesiologist left, woke up once again to find the restroom, and once more to head off to the coffeeshop wifi, where he dealt with more messages from Alfred, Bruce, and surprisingly, Ric. Even after a year, Ric would still send group messages sometimes, asking ‘am I allergic to anything? It just seems like, y’know, you guys would know’. Once, he’d asked, ‘What’s this scar from?’ and sent a picture and Bruce hadn’t said anything in reply but ‘Slade.’

Today’s question to the group was ‘if I let somebody else take over my suit, do I get in trouble?’

An old question, then. All of them knew he’d handed off the Nightwing suit, or tried to burn it, more than a year ago. Tim texted as much, phrasing it in a more reassuring context, and skimmed the rest of his messages. He couldn’t stay in the coffeeshop too long; there was too great a risk someone might recognize him or he might recognize someone else and then he would have to maintain a lie to them, on top of everything else. And if it got back to Bruce, no lie would stand up under the scrutiny.

He finished his second coffee and returned to the lobby. Reception told him Jason was done with surgery and stable, then sent him into a private room to sit with the surgeon, a patient-looking young man who repeated the assurance that Jason was stable. The surgery had been a long one and, due to the sensitivity of the area and his apparent sensitivity to medication, he had been under regional anesthesia through most of the procedure. He’d fallen asleep immediately after (and during, a few times), but Tim could see him if he wanted? Tim didn’t “want”. This response appeared to surprise the surgeon, who repeated that the surgery was complete, that Jason wouldn’t be able to receive visitors for some time, but if Tim wanted—

“Unless he asked for me, he wouldn’t want me seeing him like that,” Tim finally had to interrupt. “I’m here because you said you wouldn’t do the surgery if I didn’t come. You’ve jeopardized his privacy with regard to our father already, just by making me do that.”

The surgeon straightened the tiniest bit, though his voice remained calm. “Is there reason to be concerned about your and his father?”

“No.”

“He waived all family contact information and declined visitation, aside from you, but didn’t mention a security risk. St. Frederick’s takes the safety of its patients very seriously—”

“That’s private,” Tim repeated. “So, move him to the private room or whatever when he’s stable and I’ll check on him when he’s capable and wants to see me. He wanted to get this done here because you’re supposed to be the best, not because he wanted me to hold his hand.”

“I can do that, Mr. Drake,” the surgeon said. Tim felt gratified at the lack of offense in the surgeon’s voice – maybe Jason had chosen well after all. “Would you like to talk about the recovery process?”

“He already said he’ll be in the hospital five days.” So Tim was distracting Bruce for eight to fourteen.

“And after that?”

“He’ll remain at home to recover,” Tim lied, because he didn’t have a damn idea where Jason planned to go once he was out of the hospital. Answering ‘he’ll probably leave town’ was a surefire way to get in trouble with the discharge nurses and ‘he’ll probably crash in the cheapest hotel he can find’ was another. Honestly, he should’ve asked Jason what his plans were, post-hospital stay. Tim had just never thought he’d be here for this part. Jason had made it sound direct, as if he could sign all his own paperwork and coordinate his progress independently, and Tim just needed to play goalie for Bruce.

Maybe it was because he’d been dealing with severe pain for months, plus the residual Pit effects speeding up his healing factor, and just thought everything would work out afterwards. Had Jason ever had a normal hospital stay? Tim hadn’t wondered before, but he wondered now.

Meanwhile, the surgeon’s eyes narrowed, making him look like a slightly myopic ferret.

“At home… with your father?”

“Oh, God no. He’ll stay at his home,” Tim said, hoping Jason wouldn’t kill him for this when he woke up.

“On his paperwork, he marked that he lives alone.”

“Like a lot of people.” Tim could hear himself getting defensive. The surgeon picked up on it too.

“I’m not trying to offend you, or insult him, Mr. Drake. Jason seems like a very active young man who is used to doing things on his own and… carrying his own crosses. With patients who are accustomed to physical prowess beyond the norm, a slow recovery can be challenging. He shouldn’t be left alone for 24 hours or longer, though he’ll probably tell you that’s what he wants. Optimally, he shouldn’t be left alone for longer than eight hours. You didn’t ask for this. I understand that. But if not you, there will have to be someone assigned to his care, whether a nurse or temporary assistant… someone.”

Tim doubted Jason would compromise one of his safehouses by letting a nurse visit on a daily basis. Plus, Bruce would notice in a heartbeat if one of Jason’s safehouses started getting used, even the ‘uncompromised’ ones he wasn’t supposed to know about. And if Tim rented a new place, installed Jason in there, and hired a nurse, Bruce would have some questions about the expenditures, or at the very least have Damian tail him to the new address. And Damian still didn’t like Jason.

He sighed.

“I understand,” Tim said. “When he’s conscious, I’ll come back and he and I will discuss what that’ll look like.”

“Thank you.” The surgeon stood and extended a hand. “He’s lucky to have you.”

“Tt,” Tim shook the offered hand and tried not to sound too much like Damian. “He wouldn’t even want me here for this.”

“But you are, and that matters.”

Someone knocked gently on the closed door and the surgeon, after checking to see if Tim had any other questions, opened it to speak with a nurse. Tim inched past them into the lobby – and froze. His company in the lobby, other Gothamites waiting for people to get out of surgery, had their cell phones out as most tried to get a photo of the celebrity lounging at the reception desk.

Though he should be out of the country, Bruce Wayne stood at reception, wearing his usual charming expression and trying to weasel some kind of information out of the registrars, who were not having it. If Tim had thought the princess frogs looked welcoming before, now they were harsh and unforgiving.

He wondered if he could slip out before Bruce saw him.

The man glanced over his shoulder and put an end to the wondering. “Tim!”

So much for that plan. “Hi, Bruce. Why are you at the hospital?”

“Someone told me you had food poisoning.” Bruce approached him, arms open for a hug that Tim tried to shrink away from (and failed). “Saw your car in the parking lot as well. Are you all right? Was it that Mediterranean food truck? I told you, kiddo, you don’t need to try poke from everywhere.”

“It’s fine.” Tim managed to push Bruce away. “I just got paranoid with the spleen and all but nothing’s wrong. I was just leaving.”

Bruce smiled warmly at the surgeon, who knew better than to say anything. “Kids, they’ll get you all worried every time.” He extended a hand. “Bruce Wayne. And you are?”

“Kyle Hannigan. Nice to meet you, Mr. Wayne.”

Tim could see the wheels turning in the surgeon’s mind, and unfortunately, knew that Bruce would extrapolate miles of data from just the surgeon’s name.

“Hannigan, eh? I’ve heard wonderful things about your work in spinal fusion. It’s very little known, but I’ve had some back trouble myself in the past and even stumbled on your paper, back in 2003, 2004.”

“Thank you.”

“Oh, don’t mention it.” Bruce looked down at Tim, pretending that he just realized Tim was still there. “But I won’t take up any more of your valuable time. I should get Timothy home. You all finished here, champ?”

#

Thank goodness they had separate cars. Unfortunately, it didn’t mean that they weren’t in communication the entire time via the damn hands-free speakers in Tim’s car. Half of him wanted to hang up the second Bruce’s call rang through.

Instead, he answered.

“Did you need something from Dr. Hannigan?” Bruce asked, without greeting him.

“Research. He’s always busy and the best way to get face to face is to be in that room.”

“If you’d come to me, we could have made an appointment. Brought some of my x-rays, medical records. He’d be very interested in the casework.” Bruce said all of this so detached, as if he weren’t talking about handing off his own medical history to a stranger, just to get some R&D nonsense.

“Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind,” Tim said.

“You could have told your W.E. team,” Bruce continued and yeah, he wasn’t buying this excuse at all. “’Food poisoning’? Tim.”

“Yup?”

“I am a detective. You are a detective. This is not professional. The Russia trip alone…”

Tim said nothing. It would only incriminate him.

“You did a good job planning it, Tim, but you underestimate how many times you’ve tried to outwit me. And, there’s Damian, who tried something identical years ago. You and he think very similarly about things, he just doesn’t always think them through… and it reminds me what to look for.” Tim could hear the smile in Bruce’s voice. It was hard to juxtapose that voice against the fact that they were only here because of things Bruce had done in a fit of rage. That the only proviso Jason Todd had had about undergoing a major surgery was that Bruce couldn’t know his second son was in Gotham in a vulnerable state. Even a year later. A year.

“What were you hoping to do?” Bruce asked, Batman’s growl beginning to thread into the question.

Tim wasn’t in the mood to lie to Bruce. Sure, that was exactly what he had signed up to do, and he needed to say something or Bruce would try to hack the patient list, or withdraw some shell corporation’s donations to the private hospital, or offer Dr. Hannigan a new surgical wing in exchange for breaching HIPAA guidelines and telling him what Tim was there for. Tim didn’t think the surgeon would go for that, but everyone had their price. And he couldn’t very well move Jason to another hospital without attracting attention.

Damnit, if he’d just gone back and seen his ‘brother,’ Bruce might have gotten bored in reception and left.

Switching to a more illegal method of driving (getting pulled over right now would get him out of this conversation anyway), Tim added another person onto the call, hearing Bruce’s confusion as a phone began ringing in the background. Tim couldn’t call Damian, or Alfred, or anyone else who would take Bruce’s side in wondering what the hell was going on with Tim’s hospital trip. So.

Ric picked up on the final ring, sounding out of breath.

“Tim?”

“Tim and Bruce, actually,” Tim said with feigned brightness, pretending they conference-called Ric Grayson from their cars all the time. “How are you doing?”

“Um, fine.” It sounded like he was walking to a parking lot. “Just finished at the gym. Are you—are you guys in Blud?”

“No,” Bruce said. “Tim just wanted to hear your voice.”

“Aw,” Ric said, sounding both alarmed and flattered. “That’s nice. Little weird, Timster, but nice.”

“I also wanted to ask if you had any availability for Damian’s party,” Tim said. “I know it’s difficult for you, but he still likes seeing you.”

A lie. A malicious lie, actually; Damian liked seeing that Ric Grayson was alive and well, but the thought that Ric didn’t know him anymore ate the child up… so it was good, technically, that Ric never came to family functions. But he should be invited to Damian’s party, and it was out of the question to make Damian invite Ric himself.

“I, uh, what day is it, again?” Ric said, in a quieter tone than before. “His…”

“We’re having the party Saturday,” Tim said. “It’s technically on the 23rd.”

“Oh.” A pondering silence. “I… I am open that day.”

Tim felt his throat close up, both with surprise and concern. “A-ah,” he stammered. “And you’d be open to coming.”

“Yeah. I mean, the kid… if he wants me there, ‘s kinda rude to be pretending I don’t… look, if everyone can be adult about it, I have no problems with coming. Just try to keep the staring to a minimum, alright?”

After working out the details, Tim got off the phone without realizing that he’d also escaped the hospital conversation with Bruce. He’d have time to think up a plausible excuse, but also… now he would have to tell Barbara that Dick might be coming to Damian’s birthday.

#

Jason made a conscious effort not to laugh. It worked, for the most part.

“You never call just because you want to hear my voice, Replacement,” he teased.

“That’s because you’re usually screaming something at me. What’s with the elevated painkillers?” Tim said, checking the paperwork at the end of the Red Hood’s bed. It was day two (technically hour 76) following the surgery, and Jason had fallen asleep and woken up three times during the course of Tim’s visit so far. At least there was cell service and wifi in his private hospital room.

“They got mad when I tried to get out of bed,” Jason replied. “Think they figured something stronger would make me fall over if I tried again. Hey, did you know a code violet means—”

“Yes, Jason.” Tim replaced the chart. “And I have to tell you something. Are you sitting down?”

Jason shot him a baleful look and gestured weakly at where he reclined in the hospital bed. “At this point, the only further expression of shock I could do is pass out, you little brat. Besides, what’s more shocking than Ric Grayson agreeing to a family function?”

“The fact that the doctor doesn’t want you recovering alone for one to three months,” Tim said, taking the Band-Aid approach to delivering the news. Jason blew a raspberry at the ceiling.

“Ah, hell, it’s not gonna take that long.” He tried to shuffle himself up on his elbows and, flinching, stopped.

“You have three days left here, Jason,” Tim said. He doubted his ‘older’ brother was making too many phone calls from the hospital bed to get other arrangements made. “You have several options—”

“Did you already tell Bruce I was here?”

Tim had thought nothing in this conversation would surprise him. He was wrong.

“What? No.”

“The doctor thinks ‘our father’ did this,” Jason said. “And he’s met Bruce. So. When’d you tell him?”

“Bruce followed me here, but he knows nothing about this. The doctor knows because I said having me here endangered your privacy and then we talked a little about your housing situation because, let’s not get off track, you need actual housing. With supervision. I’m here to talk about options. The manor isn’t one unless some miracle happens. I know that. I understand that, so we need to plan. Please?”

Jason watched him suspiciously for a long moment until the Red Hood finally ducked his head. “Fine. Go.”

“Go, as in…?” Tim glanced at the door in confusion.

“No.” The word came out with more urgency than Jason had meant for it. “No,” he repeated, quieter. “Go with the… with the options. Whatever thirteen-point bullet list you came up with while you drove over here, or something. I asked you to make sure Bruce didn’t find out I was in Gotham. I should… trust… you to do that.” Jason shifted, trying to hide the discomfort. “So?”

Tim pulled up the list on his phone. “Okay. Option one.”

Chapter Text

Damian’s birthday had never been an extravagant event and this year wasn’t an exception, particularly since it was the first time ‘Ric,’ rather than ‘Dick Grayson’ was attending. The Bats observed the rituals: a nice vegetarian meal, Alfred made baklava (which Damian had long ago announced was ‘passable’), until finally the two youngest Robins, somewhat awkwardly, headed for the Cave. Ric had followed along with the rituals and took to this one too, operating on instinct until the trio’s path arrived at the grandfather clock. Damian glanced back at Ric, then peevishly began adjusting the clock’s hands, leaving Tim to explain.

Because it was his birthday and he thought shouldn’t have to explain these things on his birthday, probably. Tim fought back a scowl.

“Ah, Ric, you don’t have to be here for this part,” Tim said, hearing Damian trigger and push open the grandfather clock’s mechanism with the whoosh of quiet air.

“What are you going to do?” Ric tilted his head a little to the side to peer around Tim. “I mean, I got the feeling I should follow you down here, so it must’ve been something I used to do.”

“Tt. Don’t let him come, Drake,” Damian said, already tromping down the stairs. “He’ll only be injured.”

Ric’s eyebrows lifted. A tight, daredevil smile slid onto his face. “Is that a challenge?”

No,” Tim said, even as Ric pushed past him. “No, you will actually get hurt. I’m serious. He’s serious.”

“Then why are you two taking your lives in your hands? I’m guessing I taught you whatever this is. Bet I can still do it.” Ric had already reached the bottom of the stairs and Tim had to close the door and hurry after him. By the Batcomputer, Damian began to look alarmed that Tim hadn’t gotten rid of their amnesiac sibling yet.

“Because it’s a Robin thing,” Tim said. “It’s a birthday thing. Yes, you and I used to do it, and you were training Damian to do it, and… it’s just dangerous if you don’t remember Gotham, or if you have any kind of misstep…”

A strange expression replaced the daredevil grin on Ric’s face. “…is it… something to do with running?”

“Yeah.”

“And jumping across rooftops.”

“Mmhm.”

“Blind... folded...?”

“That’s an accurate summary, yes.”

“Drake, I am not waiting,” Damian announced, blindfold already in hand and striding towards the garage. Tim made a noise of frustration.

“You are not doing this alone!” he called after the retreating Damian. The kid scoffed, his pace not slowing, and Tim was reminded of literally all the other texts he had gotten from Jason over the past few days. Mostly hand gestures.

“Yeah, I agree,” Ric said suddenly, hands shoved in his pockets. “Neither of you should be doing this alone. Have you even done it without me before?”

“You may not remember, Grayson, but this is not the first time you have missed a birthday,” Damian called from out of the garage coldly. “Drake, I’m leaving!”

“Damian! Okay, Ric, no, you are not coming.”

“Pretty sure you’d have to have a growth spurt to stop me, Tim.” Ric had already vanished into the uniform area and returned seconds later, wearing one of the training suits. It wasn’t hard to find a spare domino, and a spare blindfold, though assisting him in suiting up felt like inviting Tim’s own doom. Bruce was bound to notice Dick had—that Ric had left the manor with them and would come tearing after the Robins like an avalanche. Even when it was just Tim and Damian, Bruce pretended he didn’t know what they were going out to do, because if he stopped them, they’d wait until later and do it then. It was tradition and Bruce should know nothing stopped tradition.

Even so. Ric wasn’t tradition. Ric was taking a risk with the son they had already half-lost.

“This is a terrible idea,” Tim whispered to himself as they got on the cycle. Not to mention the bizarreness of Ric Grayson riding behind him on a motorcycle when in literally every other lifetime, Nightwing insisted on driving unless incapacitated. At hearing the words, Ric knocked lightly on Tim’s helmet.

“Hey, it’ll be fine. I’ve already been shot in the head. What’s a little fall off a building?”

“Well, for one, there might not be a convenient dumpster,” Tim replied.

“Then you’ll just have to scrape me off the sidewalk,” Ric said. “Hell, sometimes they even say blows to the head are good for memory loss.”

“No, I’m pretty sure they’re not,” Tim said, fully aware the other man was joking but also aware that it wouldn’t be a ‘blow’ to the head if anything went wrong – it would be, as Ric had colorfully illustrated, a scrape off the sidewalk. Tim kept driving though. No one would be able to talk Ric out of participating now anyway. Even with amnesia, Dick didn’t like being left out of dangerous games.

#

“Oh my God.” Three and a half hours later, Ric threw himself onto the city gym’s roof and pulled off his sweaty blindfold, leaving the domino beneath. He couldn’t stop laughing. “Oh my God.”

Sometimes he regretted giving up Nightwing, but only on nights when it turned out that ‘that guy’ had done things like this. The composite roofing beneath his hands and feet had never felt as solid and reassuring as it did right now; contrasting with the swaying platforms he had landed on as a kid, after the trapeze.

Next to him, he heard Damian land and kneel. At first he thought the kid was checking his vitals, then he heard the chuckling. It didn’t escape Ric’s notice that Damian wasn’t nearly as out of breath and adrenaline-jolted as Ric himself was. “You are not supposed to do backflips on this exercise, Ric.”

“Were you peeking?” Ric demanded, his own laughter turning into a cough. He pushed himself up to a sitting position, taking several deep breaths. “Ruu-ude.”

“We were waiting for you to do something stupid, so. Yes.”

Ric planted a damp hand on Damian’s head and ruffled his hair. “Happy birthday, Robin.”

“Thank you, Nightwing.” Damian shook the hand off, removing his blindfold as he did so. He ran a hand through his spikey hair and registered immediate disgust. “Ugh, you messed it up!”

“If I ‘messed it up,’ what are the legion of chemicals you put in your hair doing to it?” Deep breaths and careful posture finally begun to pay off as Ric caught his breath. Damian just ‘ttsked’ in irritation, trying to repair his damaged hairstyle. Yeah, the kid was definitely on the edge of puberty. Ric could remember, in flashes, having an equal level of concern for his own hair. One more thing being shot in the head had taken, for now.

Shoving away the maudlin thoughts, Ric took in their surroundings; the relative hush of the city gym, which had been so soundproofed that only the faintest grunts of effort could be heard from below. The whir of machinery for those getting in a morning ‘jog’ in safety. At 3:30am though, it wasn’t so much a morning jog as an after-midnight one.

“It’s funny,” Ric began. “I don’t remember this activity, but I still feel like there’s supposed to be another person. Did anybody else do this with you two?”

“Tt.” Damian stood and stretched. Ric could read discomfort in the movement and wasn’t sure why – or why Damian’s response seconds later avoided the specifics of the question. “The girls are uncomfortable with it, except for Black Bat. You would not be remembering them.”

“Gee, your sisters don’t want to participate in a near-suicidal, free-running game on the rooftops of Gotham. How unexpected.” Ric grinned at the look Damian shot back at him. “It’s terrifying that I taught this to kids though. Didn’t you like… haven’t we all…”

“Died? Yes. But not while doing this. And you learned the skill in the circus, so I believe your exact reasoning was that we shouldn’t be allowed to fear the darkness.” Damian’s attention drifted to Tim as the final member of their group finally came leaping over the edge of the rooftop. No insults tonight about being ‘slow,’ so Tim must have been on some approved detour. Probably travelling a slightly different path where he could catch Ric if he fell.

“Red, did I do this with anyone else?” Ric asked. Tim shrugged, not having heard the earlier portions of the conversation.

“I think you tried to make it a date with Batgirl, once. Then you two had a long discussion about risky behaviors and psychological implications.”

“That makes sense.” Ric pinched the bridge of his nose. Batgirl – Barbara – and the memory of who he used to be always felt like a gentle war. He knew Bea had met Barbara, that ‘Batgirl’ had said everything was fine, but it always felt like both of them wanted more of him. Make a grand gesture. Do more than just love the person in front of him. Like he was failing in the one thing that people kept telling him ‘that guy’ had been good at: feelings. Maybe he was only good at it compared to a family that felt restrained. Performers, as much as he ever was, but performers in life rather than performers at work.

“Thanks for letting me come,” he said, again, trying to shove the dark (and getting mean) thoughts somewhere else.

“Tt. If you can prove yourself capable, you are welcome anywhere, Nightwing,” Damian said, probably intending the comment to sound gracious but it sounded insulting instead. Ric kept his posture languid, gazing out at the slow lights of the city in the foggy night. Most of the lights were still out – Gotham wasn’t Bludhaven and occasionally even respected its bedtime – and it certainly wasn’t their Big Apple neighbor. The sky wouldn’t make a try for daylight until seven and even that would be under a veil of grey.

“You might have brought Red Hood,” Tim said, with the air of someone walking on a frozen lake. “He’s never talked about it, but you might’ve.”

“He’s not invited to these? Like never, even before their fight?” Ric asked, without looking back. Tim tended to have two expressions when it came to Jason Todd. Ric’s looking back at him would shut either of them down into pleasant blankness. Tim wanted to be neutral in the fight. Ric had figured that out fast. He didn’t know how successful the kid had been.

“He’s not always in town,” Tim said, moving to stand next to Ric and remove his blindfold. The younger boy blinked a little as his eyes adjusted to the slightly brighter darkness of the city. “I always forget Gotham can be pretty, in the mornings.”

“Tt. Maybe if you stared at something other than a computer on occasion,” Damian said, injecting a thread of venom into the conversation. “And it’s 3:51, hardly ‘morning’ for the masses.”

“How long do they stay mad at each other?” Ric asked, trying to drive the discussion back to Jason and Bruce before the younger kids took refuge in their usual pastime of bickering. Though he was given to understand their actual ‘animosity’ bit had faded, Tim and Damian kept up appearances. Ric had only heard about the incident between Bruce and Jason secondhand, told as if they were two great titans (but not those Titans) duking it out on a rooftop. He knew Tim had seen the footage of the fight. Bruce was a lot less forthcoming about what happened, and the media wasn’t reliable, for all that it had shown Penguin’s body on every outlet known to man.

“Batman is not mad at Todd,” Damian replied. “He has made the limitations very clear and as long as the Red Hood doesn’t do anything stupid like keep murdering people or attempt to enter Gotham, Batman will ignore him.”

Ric frowned a little. “Sure, I get that, but that’s not what family does. Hell, that’s not even restorative justice.”

“Todd has demonstrated repeatedly that he cannot comply with Batman’s rules for Gotham and thinks only of himself. His past murders could be overlooked, were it not for his continued reckless behavior.” Damian’s expression shifted towards disgust. “Which probably made him a perfect fit for this kind of training.” He strode towards the edge of the rooftop, unholstering the grappling gun. “Enough about him.”

Ric didn’t move, knowing his frown had only deepened as Damian spoke. “Mm.”

Once Damian leapt off the roof and the sound of a cycle starting up became audible below, Ric got to his feet. “Tim, er, Red.”

“Yup.” Tim smiled wearily up at him and rocked back on one heel. “You ready? We’ll go sighted this time, y’know, for a change. And because our route isn’t going to pass over as many dumpsters.”

“Is he that bad? The Jason guy? Where does he go, when he’s on the outs with everyone like this?”

To Ric’s surprise, Tim seemed to war with himself on an answer as much as Damian had. And Ric knew Tim could lie, and lie believably, to pretty much anyone on the planet. One of those ‘Bat Baseline’ skills that the former teen CEO wouldn’t forget.

Tim did lie when he finally answered: “He’s resourceful. But, in answer to your question, they ‘stay mad’ at each other until they both stop being scared of one another.”

“Sounds like it’d take a while.” Ric tilted his head a little away, wondering if Tim’s expression would reveal anything more if he felt Ric wasn’t looking at him.

“Well, a year and counting, for this fight alone.”

#

Tim left Damian and Ric asleep on the couch in front of an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Dick’s new (and old) favorite show. As Robert Frost once said, Tim ‘had promises to keep and miles to go before he sleep’ – slept, really, if sleeping happened at all. Batman was still out on patrol; some in-depth case that kept him out long past the usual 3am return time. Tim begged off the MST3K marathon, despite having the invitation of both Ric and Damian. The reasoning behind Damian’s invitation was solely because Damian liked as many people as possible to validate laughing at MST3K and, on the shortlist of things Tim did that Damian liked, he laughed at pop culture jokes about bad sci-fi movies.

Instead, Tim told his second (or nineteenth) lie of the night, saying he would be working on his latest case until he went to work. He’d initially worried that Ric would want to go home and hence need a secret escort, but the former Nightwing seemed in no hurry to go home. ‘Why rush back to a big-ass apartment that I didn’t ask for and can’t fill?’ Ric asked, while Damian and Tim exchanged uncertain looks. The throwaway comment set an idea burning in the back of Tim’s mind, but the timing wasn’t right yet.

There wasn’t much about timing right now that was ‘right.’

Several days ago, Jason had moved from St. Frederick’s to one of Tim’s uncompromised safehouses – one he had set up to be entirely smart-home accessible. The Red Hood immediately complained about the smart-home features and would have kept complaining if Tim hadn’t told him that the alternative was hiring a nurse. After that, Jason agreed to the smart-home, agreed to stay put, and promised to check in at least twice a day with Tim via text. It didn’t seem like enough, but Tim wanted to believe it was. He didn’t have much flexibility with his schedule at Wayne Enterprises to check in manually. Before he knew it, he hadn’t seen the Red Hood since Jason moved in.

No doubt Jason was fine with the turn of events. The Red Hood had been thrilled to hear he didn’t have to go back to the doctor for two weeks after all, but guilt was taking its toll on Tim. He texted Jason every eight hours. Jason responded with emojis generally consisting of hand gestures.

Meanwhile, Bruce hadn’t gone on any of the diversionary trips or tactics Tim had originally planned to get him out of town. Instead the Bat homed in on any of Tim’s non-work activities. Tapped the phone lines more than usual. Battered the cyber safeguards Tim had set up against intrusion on Jason’s medical records. Cyberattacks? CyBatattacks? They should probably copyright that. No one had so much as breathed a word about the Red Hood though, so Bruce must not have any leads. Yet.

And finally, Jason’s attempts to be an untroublesome patient had only mixed success. The painkillers posed the biggest problem. Though Jason had tolerated them at the hospital, he refused to have the prescription filled once he was out. The side effects – mainly nausea and dizziness – meant he didn’t keep food down, in addition to the pain. The older Robin was doing more and more sleeping, based on Tim’s reading of the smart-home’s sensors and sleeping wasn’t an effective post-surgical treatment. Day two, Tim had suggested that Jason ask Hannigan for another brand and heard nothing back for the rest of the day until Jason’s mandated second check-in, which was an old video of Dick failing to set a record for front flips when Alfred the cat strode across his path.

By day three, Tim began to think telehealth was a terrible way to keep an eye on a sick Bat, filled the painkiller prescription, and sent it by secure drone to the safehouse. Jason texted him an emoji of the finger seconds after the drone indicated it had successfully completed its delivery. Tim set up a treatment schedule and set the safehouse’s voice assistants to remind Jason to take it.

Day four, he still hadn’t had any time to get there himself, but Tim sent takeout. Then left a voicemail ordering Jason to eat, seconds before stepping into yet another meeting. The Red Hood told him via text not to waste food; he could afford to skip a few meals. Based on the house’s reporting on his heart rate and vitals, Jason spent the rest of the day sleeping or doing the mild level of exercise he was allowed (or so Tim hoped).

So, when Red Robin pushed open the window that night, he fully expected that Jason would still be asleep.

Being slammed against the wall by the Red Hood was, actually, not even on the list of things he considered as possibilities.

Tim fought back, instinctively, and yelled the codeword for the lights as he knocked his assailant aside and into the couch. The piece of furniture scraped on the floor, knocking into the heavy coffee table. From there, several books fell with a rustle and a ‘whump’ onto the rug and Tim heard a coffee mug shatter as it (of course) found the hardwood floor. The lights blinked on, illuminating the Red Hood with fists raised. He had gotten into full gear somehow, including the traditional helmet, its white lenses glowing against the backlit face.

Red Robin dropped into a crouch, the back of his head aching from slamming into the wall. While this version of the helmet was less murder-y than others, it was also one he had unpleasant associations with. He pulled off the Red Robin domino, just in case Jason was still half-asleep.

“Jason, what the hell?”

“Why did Bruce talk through your scale?!” Jason didn’t advance. And talking, talking was good. But…

Tim blinked. “Um, my scale?”

“What the hell are you telling him?” The fists unclenched into faintly trembling hands. “What the actual hell, Tim?!”

It was really worrying that Jason had managed to get most of his gear on. Tim had forgotten Jason’s tenacity, somehow. Forgotten his size too; he could take Jason at his current weight and health status, but the Red Hood usually made up in brutality whatever he lost in physicality. Trembling hands didn’t mean weakness; it meant rage and trying to control it.

“If he didn’t say your name, I’m sure he doesn’t know anything,” Tim said, taking a cautious step away from the wall. “But if you dress up like the Red Hood and try to leave this safehouse on foot, I think he’s going to find out.”

Bruce could’ve accessed the scale’s connection to the Internet of Things and turned the speaker into a broadcast radio. Tim suspected the Bat would be more concerned, privacy invasion aside, about the bizarreness of Tim’s weight gain to approximately the Red Hood’s build, and then his equally dramatic weight loss. The conclusion would be that a friend was staying here – Kon, or Ric, or someone else (unless Bruce really had no idea what Stephanie weighed). Tim hadn’t mentioned a friend. Therefore, the scale had probably said ‘IDENTIFY’ or something similar and set off the already-unwell Red Hood.

Tim could almost hear the words ‘I’d rather fight him than stay here’ on Jason’s tongue, so he spoke first.

“I’m sorry I didn’t give you a heads-up that I was coming,” Tim continued. “I thought you’d be asleep, and wouldn’t want me checking in on you anyway, since you’ve been holding up your end of the bargain. Sort of. Pretty sure wearing Kevlar at this stage of your recovery is something you should discuss with your doctor.”

Jason grunted, easing back to brace himself on Tim’s couch. Fortunately, the couch had been purchased for its durability in the face of bodily fluids, emergency surgery cleanup, and sickness, rather than its attractiveness as a couch. In this situation, that was good, because there was no way in hell some part of Jason wasn’t bleeding. Tim just hoped it was external, rather than internal. Gearing up entailed a lot of twisting for someone who wasn’t supposed to and who had forgone painkillers.

“And obviously, now I can’t leave,” Tim said. The Red Hood’s breathing stuttered, so he amended the statement. “Not until you get out of uniform and go back to bed.”

In response, Jason stood, walked around the couch, and sat down with a grunt of defiant pain. Tim bit back his reaction of ‘don’t be a child’ and took a few steps further into the living room. When Jason didn’t react, he went into the bathroom. It was the work of a moment to disconnect the scale, mentally running through the catalogue of other smart-speaker enabled devices in the house. It’d take longer than it was worth to disable the home assistants, so Tim shut them all down with his phone. Jason wouldn’t be using them anyway – he hated impersonal voice assistants with the passion of a much older, much more crotchety man. Oh, but there was still the—

“Do you want to try the painkillers again?” Tim asked, popping his head out of the bathroom to get a line of sight on where Jason still sat.

“Already did,” Jason replied.

Uh oh. “When?”

“Maybe two hours ago? I missed it when that beeper you set went off, so I woke up and took them then…”

Tim checked the time on his phone, mentally calculating how long the particular brand Jason was using required between dosages. Whatever he’d taken and whenever he’d taken it, he would have to wait six hours from now to take it again, just so Tim could be sure. The knocked-down pain would creep back in full. Hell, that was how Jason had gotten the uniform on; he hadn’t been on the verge of fainting.

“Have you been taking them often?” Tim asked.

“No, ‘s the first time since.”

“Was anything hurting more than usual?” Tim meant it as a sort of catch-all question. Jason took it as a ‘don’t answer’ question.

Tim sighed. “Bed is going to hurt less than the couch when it wears off. Up.”

Jason made some noises that sounded like an apology, fidgeted a bit, and then pushed himself to his feet in one, too-fast movement. Tim took several quick steps forward from the bathroom door, reaching the coffee table even as Jason bent to brace himself on it.

“Damn it, Jay, go slow.”

The Red Hood’s gaze had become fixed on the broken mug shards, the pile of scattered books. As if the idea of navigating them to get back to the bedroom was moving out of his conceptual skill set.

“It’s fine, I’ll clean it up once you’re in bed,” Tim said, trying his hand at being soothing. The encounter had filled Tim with more adrenaline than would allow him to sleep anyway; an excuse to clean until he went to work would be ideal. He and the Red Hood never shared space for long, aside from missions and the rare family events Jason crashed, but he shouldn’t leave Jason alone.

“No, I mean—” The helmet looked up at him and it was as if this were a wholly different creature than the Red Hood, just someone wearing his chosen face. Looking out through it and speaking in a dispassionate tone. “Maybe I should just go, before he finds out. Don’t want him getting mad at you.”

“He’s not going to get mad at me,” Tim said, feeling exasperation creeping into his tone. And fear, because the comment revealed more about how Jason was thinking about this than the older Robin would have said directly.

“Y’never know, I’m not around anymore and you are harboring a criminal.” The Red Hood tried to avoid the conversation by stooping to gather up the cup shards with a gloved hand. A booted foot twisted to adjust as he bent, to correct his balance like they’d all done a thousand times, and then he was falling.

The speed of it all startled Tim, who jerked forward with surprise—Jason was a Robin, a Bat, an infallible creature, and he’d just fallen over on Tim’s floor. Landed hard, having knocked his side into the table as he went, and had made no effort to catch himself.

“Hood?” Tim took a more measured step forward, quickly. Panic pooled in his chest; a profound sense of dis-ease that he had been pretending Jason would be all right just because he had a home and someone checking in. He couldn’t get Jason killed. He couldn’t be the reason Jason was dead again. Swallowing hard, Tim knelt next to the Red Hood and released the catch on the helmet. Beneath it, Jason was pale and nonresponsive. No surprise there.

Fighting rising alarm, Tim stabbed at the call button on his phone, going from memory as he tried to get a response from Jason. He meant to call ‘Dr. Kyle Hannigan’, but when he glanced at the phone, it was calling his most recent text contact: Dick Grayson.

“Tim?” Ric picked up on the first ring, though it sounded like he had just woken up. He was probably still sitting safely on the couch with Damian back at the manor, a floor away from all the discreet medical capabilities of an urgent care clinic. Capabilities Tim couldn’t use for this.

“Damnit, not you,” Tim seethed, taking Jason’s pulse. He wanted to turn the Red Hood over to check for bruising on his spine but since it was his spine that was the problem, turning him over could further jeopardize everything. No one told Jason that though. Before Tim could stop him, the Red Hood had blinked into wakefulness and dragged himself onto his side and into a semi-fetal position, facing away from Tim.

“Jay? Jason, can you hear me?” Tim demanded, forgetting entirely about the phone being on speaker. In response, Jason convulsed and threw up – probably why he’d rolled over in the first place. Well, that answered the question of whether or not the painkillers were an option. Tim repeated the question. Jason grunted in the affirmative and began shivering. Oh, no part of this was good.

“Tim, where are you?” Ric’s voice cut through Tim’s growing panic. “I’ll come get you. Do you need an ambulance?”

“No, not for me—no, no I don’t need you and you can’t tell Bruce!”

“Hold on, Damian’s getting him.”

“Then stop him!”

“Tim,” Bruce’s voice cut in, evidently having inserted himself onto the conference call without permission or invitation. “What’s going on?”

Jason reacted bodily to the sound of Batman’s voice, even if it was just over the phone. The Red Hood made it to his feet and pivoted to face Tim before the younger man could even throw a hand out to stop him. When Tim also got to his feet, trying to gesture Jason wordlessly to sit down, Jason shook his head violently.

Too violently, as it turned out: the Red Hood pulled off the helmet and threw himself past Tim and into the bathroom. There were trains with less motivation, Tim thought, stunned. The sound of dry-heaving and cursing brought him back in time to stab at the speaker button, moving away from the bathroom door to reduce the byproduct noises. He wanted Jason in line of sight. Stupidly, the safehouse wasn’t set up for that and he hadn’t installed cameras in the bathroom because who did that, so he just had to sit. Bruce in his ear, the now suspiciously quiet bathroom on his other side.

“Nothing is happening, B,” Tim said. “I had a nightmare.”

“So you called Ric.”

“He’s always been the best at calming me down, you know that,” Tim said, though this conversation, right one right here, was having no calming effect whatsoever. He could lie but it wasn’t comforting to lie to people who had the capacity to make sure he hadn’t neglected someone to death. He’d never had to monitor a post-op, other than his own spleen, and that hadn’t been… his doing, as such. Jason had said he could handle this and he obviously couldn’t. Obligation made words stick in Tim’s throat, made him want to ask what Alfred was up to tonight. Instead… instead, he had...

“Put Ric back on the line,” Tim said.

“I’m still here.” Ric sounded less confused than Tim would have expected but, then again, he had heard Tim shouting at Jason earlier. “Some coffeeshops will be open by now. I’ll meet you and we can talk before you have to get to work.”

“The place on Blackwell,” Tim said. He’d have to send Ric corrected directions, once Bruce was off the line, but he could tell from Ric’s tone that brushing him off wouldn’t work. “Drive your car, just in case we take a while.”

“Can do.”

Ric called Tim back from the road, the sounds of his vehicle like a storm grumbling in the background of the phone call. “Okay. Where am I really going?”

Tim gave him the safehouse’s address. “Look, we’ll have to take someone to the hospital immediately. He fell over and I haven’t called his doctor yet, but fever is one of the warning signs of infection after surgery.”

“I’m not feverish,” Jason muttered, from where he had slumped and refused to let Tim help him, leaning half-over the bathtub and facing the toilet. “You just showed up when the painkillers left. Always did have terrible timing, Replacement.”

“That’d be more convincing if you weren’t shivering,” Tim shot back.

“You’d be more convincing if you were taller than Damian.”

“Is he a big guy?” Ric asked, unaware of the background conversation. “Do you have a stretcher, or can I lift him?”

Relative to Jason, Tim had planted himself in the bathroom doorway, which, in addition to blockading Jason’s ability to make a run for it, gave Tim a better look at whether or not Jason was leaving bloodstains on the porcelain. By the virtue of the uniform being dark tones and soaked in sweat, anything could be bleeding and go unnoticed, so long as it wasn’t dripping.

“I’m sure you could lift him, but a gurney or stretcher is going to be safer to reduce the risk of twisting,” Tim said. “An ambulance would call too much attention to the apartment. He could even walk out of here, but I’m worried he’d pass out on the way.”

“I’d. Be. Fine,” Jason growled.

“What kind of surgery, exactly?” Ric asked.

“Spinal.”

Suddenly awake, the Red Hood cursed him out this time, managing to push himself up onto one arm, braced on the bathtub, and actually get a foot under himself. Tim went very still. The other hand held a knife and the Red Hood was still cursing, a long and unbroken stream as he stepped around Tim in the bathroom’s doorway. Part of the stream of words had included ‘Don’t move’ as a key player.

Tim could take him down. Jason could have taken himself out just by bending down to strike, overbalancing, and knocking himself senseless on the doorframe. But Tim didn’t move all the same.

A charade, like the hand restraints in the car.

The Red Hood had nearly made it back to the bedroom, ostensibly to grab his duffel bag of other gear, when gravity took over. The knife hand stabbed at the wall, supporting Jason’s slow sink to the ground against it, in another position that couldn’t have been forgiving to his spine. His breath came in shaky long drags, like a jittery smoker, and his head rolled to the right so he could see Tim, who still sat in the bathroom doorway with the phone.

“That info will go right back to Bats, Tim.”

“I trust Ric,” Tim replied. Pointed silence came from the other end of the phone conversation. It felt strange not to hear back a mocking ‘aw, I trust you too baby bird,’ even though he hadn’t heard those words from Dick in over a year. He’d heard them from Jason more recently, in fact, which just meant the world was a weird old place.

“I didn’t ask you to do this so you could play nursemaid,” Jason said.

The knife still stuck out of the wall, steadily decreasing the safehouse’s resale value.

Even the movement from one room to another had bled color out of Jason’s face until Tim could imagine what he must have looked like climbing out of his grave. The thought, both a hellish nightmare and a precognitive vision, galvanized Tim into speech.

“No, the problem is that you’re not letting anyone play nursemaid and then attempting to die from curable complications in my safehouse. We’re not going to keep going back and forth about this.”

“Okay,” Ric said, nearly forgotten on the other end of the line. “I’m here, I think.”

“Anyone follow him?” Jason demanded. Tim repeated the question. He could practically hear Ric shrug and look around the parking lot of his apartment complex.

“No?”

“Doesn’t matter.” The Red Hood closed his eyes. “Gotta burn this place anyway.”

“Nice of you to decide that about my safehouse, Hood,” Tim said and got to his feet to open the front door for Ric.

His oldest brother looked uncomfortable for less than a second before spotting Jason. Ric hadn’t met Jason yet, which the Red Hood had joked post-surgery was ‘probably for the best.’ If he were he feeling better right now, he’d probably make a joke about infections, which would be in poor taste and Tim would have felt approximately thirty times better.

As it was, Ric’s eyes went round at the sight of the vigilante in full-gear (sans helmet), slumped against the far wall of Tim’s safehouse.

“You let him patrol like that?!” Ric asked, his voice full of horror.

“No,” Tim corrected. “He got in the outfit on his own. Ric, this is Jason, he’s been staying here a couple of days.”

Ric stepped forward with no hesitation and performed the checks that Tim had been too held back by self-preservation to perform himself. Bleeding, fever, concussion, dilated pupils, temperature, checking for bleeding again… Jason watched him the entire time, wearing a faint expression of bemusement. Since Ric didn’t remember anything, Ric had all the privileges of Alfred with none of the baggage.

“’m conscious,” Jason said, beginning to leverage himself against the wall and the floor as he stood. “And I think you—”

Something in his spine failed with the strain. Ric caught him with an arm around his chest, ducking under the larger form of the Red Hood before he could fall. Jason fought it for a second before realizing he wasn’t falling anymore.

“The hell, Dick?”

“If you think nobody had back problems in the circus, you really don’t understand how expensive health insurance is. Also, I’m Ric Grayson.” Ric looked back at Tim. “So, hospital?”

Ric ended up carrying Jason, though Tim put a collapsible stretcher in the back of Ric’s car just in case. When he slammed the trunk, Ric was waiting for him by the passenger side door, Jason still sprawled against him like a college partier too far gone to hold himself up. In Tim’s estimation (now more confident with a buffer), he was passing in and out of consciousness – like he had at the hospital – or having some kind of reaction to the painkillers. Jason didn’t tell Tim everything about why he didn’t want to take them and Tim was, at the moment, guessing that this might be what he’d wanted to avoid. The fall, the stupid scale, Tim being gone for longer than usual – it could have just built up in his system, along with a low-grade fever.

Trouble came in the form of a fourth figure, outlined in the parking lot’s singular floodlight.

Past Ric and Jason (and out of Ric’s line of sight), Batman stood, the white light glinting over the tips of the bat ears only. Tim made a quiet, instinctive noise to warn Ric, who looked at him in alarm, then matched his line of sight to spot Batman himself. The acrobat let a slow sigh escape between his teeth, the breath appearing as white smoke against the gradually lightening sky. Some internal timer must have clicked off in the same moment they noticed Batman, because the floodlight clicked off, leaving only the glow of some distant streetlights.

In the changing light, Batman had moved closer.

Jason noticed the silence in one of his flirtations with consciousness and straightened, looking to carry some of his own weight. “What’s—”

Ric’s hand tightened against his back, which the acrobat had until now been doing great at not touching. Jason grunted in pain and froze. Ric’s grip relaxed instantly when he realized the ‘assurance’ was hurting Jason, but the Red Hood still pushed back, reaching as if for a knife.

Batman took this as his cue, which it absolutely wasn’t, to take the final few steps forward that would bring him into conversational range. Tim had ended up with the car as a barrier between himself and Batman, but Ric and Jason were on the same side as the Batman, who Jason still hadn’t seen.

“Ric, is there anything you would like to tell me?” Bruce asked.

Ric didn’t look like he had expected to be acknowledged in this interaction at all and froze, guilt writ large across his features. Jason’s back was to Batman but his face dropped into shadow immediately, eyes shutting as if in prayer. When they opened, he wore no expression.

Ric, having watched this shift, cleared his throat.

“This young man collapsed in the parking lot. Tim wanted to be sure he got to the hospital.”

“Hn.” Batman cleared his throat, dissatisfied with this answer. “Jason.”

Time started again. Jason turned to fake a lean against the roof of Ric’s small car as he faced Batman. In actuality, the jaunty movement was Jason’s attempt to catch himself from falling altogether as he turned around. From the horror and surprise on Ric’s face, the acrobat knew it.

“Old man,” Jason greeted. Though turning around had hidden his expression from Tim, his tone attempted to emulate cool neutrality. Sweat ran down the side of the Red Hood’s face, his chest rising and falling a little too quickly to pull off casual. Ric took a step forward, playing the rare (for him) role of backup support, ready to catch Jason if his strength ran out. Batman took several more steps forward as well, though he was visibly taken aback when Jason didn’t retreat.

Tim cleared his throat to warn Batman off and caught a deadly look from Jason. He thought of the knife in his wall, the phrase ‘don’t want him getting mad at you,’ and could pair them together a little too easily for comfort.

“I thought we understood you wouldn’t be working in Gotham,” Batman said. Jason looked with mock surprise down at the uniform.

“Oh, this? Nah, someone moved my duffel bag and I figured leather fetishes are pretty socially acceptable these days. Plus, the jacket’s comfy. After all, you’ve got no problem with Jason Todd, right?”

Batman stepped closer. The mouth below the cowl was frowning, but what else was new.

“Something’s wrong,” Batman said.

“You’re gonna have to be more specific,” Jason drawled. He nudged one tentative foot backwards on the asphalt, shifting his weight ever so slowly to it. A glacial retreat. “I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire of ‘wrong,’ ‘evil,’ general ‘badness level being too high’…”

“Why are you in Gotham, Jason. The truth.”

“Tim invited me and I instantly achieved vampire status.”

Ric snorted. Batman, as usual, didn’t see the humor.

“We had an agreement. Tim does not have the authority to nullify it. Remove your weapons. We’ll go back to the Cave and discuss what you’ve done there.”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure, just let me see if I can get a ride,” Jason said, sarcasm rife in his tone. He pulled open the passenger side car door, flashed a usual grin at Batman, and… didn’t move. He couldn’t push off the car to get inside, Tim originally thought. That or he couldn’t overpower the knowledge of the pain that bending and twisting would incite the minute he moved. The car door hung open, the door chime merrily blinking every second or two, as Jason continued to lean against the car body. Ric put a hand on his shoulder and Tim circled the car, intending to help, but Jason shoved the hand away from his shoulder.

“S’fine. Maybe I’ll walk.”

The twist of Batman’s mouth had gone from displeased to alarm and deeper displeasure. “You’re injured. How badly.”

The Red Hood’s expression didn’t change and, with a clear effort of will, he climbed into the passenger seat, snarling: “I took care of it. Let’s get this overwi—” His speaking hitched and Tim knew the conditioned reaction to a stitch breaking well enough to recognize it. Problem was, Batman would recognize it too.

“Bruce,” Tim said, knowing that the use of his actual name would get Batman’s attention faster than anything else. “Jason is in Gotham for one, very specific reason, and then he will leave town.”

“You’ve helped him escape from prison in the past,” Batman said, in an equally definitive tone. “I understand that you and Jason get along, but he should not be working in Gotham, which is clearly what he’s been doing tonight. One of you is going to tell me what’s going on here.”

From inside the car, Jason raised a hand.

“I’ve apologized for everything that happened after prison,” he said, voice woozy from the effort of getting into the car. “Cleared the record before I asked for favors.”

Batman stared at Jason in befuddlement (always amusing on Batman), then shoved Ric out of the way and perched on the edge of the car seat next to Jason. Deft gloved fingers began to check his head. “Is he concussed?”

No,” Tim growled. “Get out of the car.”

“Oi, eff off.” Jason shoved Batman away from checking his pupils. “I don’t come to the manor and try to poke your eyes out. Anymore.”

The shove hadn’t been enough to even push Batman against the dashboard. All the same, the cowled figure got out of the car, scowling and perplexed. Tim knew Batman well enough to know that this was Batman’s version of ‘palpable alarm,’ at least for anyone besides Selina Kyle, Dick Grayson, or Superman. It must have occurred to him that Jason’s ordinary response would have been to scream defiance and physical violence, no matter how incapacitated he might be. A shove from Jason was akin to Batman asking someone not to punch him.

Speaking of personality changes, Ric had originally defaulted to ‘parents know what’s best’ mode, letting Batman push past him, but that mode had worn off now.

“What the actual hell?” Ric asked. “You have nothing to do with this!”

“Tim. Explain this. Now,” Batman ordered.

“Ric, do you have any trackers on your vehicle?” Tim asked. The acrobat shook his head – but not in puzzlement. He’d done the appropriate checks, destroyed the trackers, Bruce-proofed his life. Good. Tim had surreptitiously removed a couple of smoke bombs and flash-bangs and meant to retreat far enough to use them. At this time of day, they could slip into the morning commute without too much trouble and—

Of course, Batman sensed the risk and was on his feet, grabbing Tim’s wrist before Tim could throw one at the ground.

“I’m concerned,” Batman said, and he did sound concerned. “If he won’t talk to me, send over his medical records and doctor’s information. I assume he’s the one seeing Hannigan – his surgery dates are Mondays and Thursdays, which means it’s only been four days since the surgery. Have you been harboring him since—”

“Jason asked me to do one thing for him and that was to stop you from getting involved,” Tim replied, yanking his arm away. “So go away.”

Despite the cowl, Bruce managed to look lost, abandoned by those he trusted. Problem was, that was always how Bruce viewed problems like this. “I thought he knew he could come to me with something like this. We spoke after Arsenal died. He understood. We mended things.”

“I don’t think anything about this situation is mended, B.” Tim got into the backseat behind Ric, leaving Batman in the parking lot, alone. It was a concession and one he knew he’d regret. Bruce couldn’t stand being out of the loop. Jason couldn’t stand people being in his life that he hadn’t forgiven. Only one of those people currently lay unconscious in the passenger seat of an amnesiac’s car, unable to even run away when he wanted to.

The repercussions of prioritizing sucked, but at least it was easy to make a choice sometimes.

Chapter Text

The trio spent most of the morning in the hospital lobby, Jason slumped against Ric’s side while Tim called Hannigan – again and again and again. Around seven, Hannigan answered. One thing Tim could say in favor of the surgeon, he could listen with the best of them. They were in a room within thirty minutes. Hannigan arrived in the next thirty, even though this was one of his clinical days and he shouldn’t be in the hospital at all.

Hannigan took one look at Jason and prescribed three additional hospital days for observation and a round of stronger antibiotics. Naturally, Tim got a lecture on patient care and monitoring. When Tim got back, properly chastised, Ric grabbed his arm and shepherded him into the tiny bathroom to whisper that the nurses had been asking why Jason’s body kept trying to heal itself in bursts that defied medical logic.

“They’re saying nobody’s body stores up energy and then deploys it like this.” Ric ran a hand through the still-short fuzz that that covered his scalp. “That he kept the surgical site clean enough he shouldn’t be able to get an infection, but the bursts of healing are making him sick. I told them he’s had strange reactions to medication in the past, but I really don’t know if that’s true and they didn’t believe me. Tim, I have no idea what to tell them.”

“Even so, stick to that answer,” Tim replied. Ric made a face and Tim sighed. “I’m not explaining Lazarus Pit mechanics to a bunch of medical professionals who won’t believe me either. Anyway, we have other problems and… I’m sorry about it, but I’m going to need to depend on you today.”

In between making calls to Hannigan, Tim had been declining call after call from Bruce Wayne, as well as several from Damian, who wanted to know what was going on in the hours after their training exercise. Damian was an earnest kid, but he had attacked Jason and couldn’t be trusted to take Tim and Jason’s side in this. Tim trusted Ric. It could be because the acrobat wore a face Tim had grown accustomed to trusting; it could be that that face would turn out to be loyal to Bruce, but it was the face Tim chose to trust today.

“I have an hour before I have to go to work,” Tim told Ric. “They’ll have more questions and Jason will make a break for it if left alone.”

The acrobat struggled not to laugh. “I don’t think he’s going anywhere.”

“He’s a Robin. When they want to leave, they leave.”

“Is that what the knife in your wall was about?” The question came from left field and startled Tim.

“We… have a complicated relationship. He’s not dangerous. Ah, wait, he’s not dangerous, to me, right now, I’m 81% sure. And 99% sure he’s not dangerous to you.”

Ric took a breath, his eyebrows knitting together, and didn’t speak for a minute. While he came to his own conclusions, Tim pushed open the door to find the room outside still bustling with people. Jason kept quiet as nurses asked about the broken stitch, the signs of exercise beyond his capacity, and his refusal to take painkillers despite being incapacitated by pain. Ordinarily, the hospital would be happy to not overprescribe opioids, but Jason’s refusal presented as masochism delaying proper rest and recovery activities. The nursing staff didn’t appreciate this approach either. By the time Tim left for work, the Red Hood had finally accepted that Bruce wasn’t waiting around any corners to drag him back to the manor and had accepted that maybe painkillers would be all right. He seemed aware of and puzzled by Ric’s continued presence, a confusion that only got stronger when said painkillers kicked in.

Ric waved Tim off when he saw the teen was ready to go, saying he’d babysat more troublesome fares than a sleeping twenty-something. Reluctantly, Tim left.

Bruce called him thirteen times that day and showed up once. Tim avoided him by taking lunch off-site (a once or twice a year occurrence) and waiting to return until parking lot surveillance indicated Bruce’s fancy car had left the premises. Ric reported similar attempts at the hospital, but security held.

When Tim returned late that night, Jason had somehow acquired a Life Alert device. Tim picked up the small plastic button from Jason’s bedside table and frowned at the clearly marked ‘TESTER’ sticker on the back. The Red Hood was asleep, vitals stable, and – Tim checked his right arm – hadn’t removed his IV line.

“He tried to get out of bed six times,” said Ric from the darkness of the chair next to the bed and the drawn window blinds. “Actually got out his IV without flagging anything five times and without me noticing twice.”

“Thanks for staying with him.” Tim fought back the urge to apologize for co-opting the acrobat’s help. “Let me know what you typically make in a day and I’ll have it transferred to your bank account.”

“That’s not—”

“You didn’t sign up for this, I did.” Technically untrue; Tim had signed up to keep Bruce away from Jason while he was in Gotham. So far, he hadn’t done an excellent job of it if Jason was back in the hospital and Bruce was calling him every hour on the hour. Tim took the other seat near Ric, placing his back to the window to get the best possible wi-fi signal. Thanks to his long, hiding-from-Bruce lunch, he would be using the private VPN on his phone to continue working on work projects tonight. “You don’t deserve to sacrifice income for it.”

Ric got to his feet, uncertainty in his movements as he looked again at Jason, then at Tim’s engrossment in his mobile device. “You heard from Bruce?”

“You could say that.”

“What was with him, last night? I’ve never seen him that…”

“Intense?” The wi-fi connected, the VPN following seconds later.

“Angry. If he hadn’t realized Jason wasn’t injured, I think he would’ve started a fight. If we hadn’t been there, I think he would’ve led with a fight, no questions asked. That’s…” Ric glanced at the figure in the hospital bed but if Jason was pretending to be asleep, the fakery was undetectable. “That’s not who he’s been, when I’m there.”

“Go get some rest, Ric.”

“Jason should’ve told him he was injured straight off.” Ric shrugged on his thin jacket, shivering a little despite the climate-controlled hospital room. “Not that it’s any of my business.”

Tim’s teeth clenched and he forced himself to look up from the phone at the stranger who wore his brother’s face. “You’re right. It isn’t. Which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate your help, or you staying with him all day. Please send me the total for what you make in a day. Or consider it a favor that I owe you. Or—”

Ric held up a hand to stop him. “You’re my—you’re one of the Wayne kids, Tim. So is he.” A head jerk at the bed. “I’m going to help all of you out, when you need it. I’ll be back around noon tomorrow, take off to see Bea around five, then go to work. Don’t plan on paying me. I just have a little more time on my hands than you do.”

Tim’s humbled “thank you” was almost too soft to be heard. Still, Tim knew from the way the acrobat’s footsteps slowed on his path out the door, the quirk of a smile, that Ric had heard it.

“G’night, Tim.”

#

Once Jason stabilized, the Life Alert quickly surpassed the TV as the most interesting thing in the room.

“’Mister Todd, what is your emergency?’” began his straight line to literally every joke, followed by “’Yeah, um, I’ve been buried alive, well, I wasn’t alive when I was buried but I am now and I can tell you the plot number, I just need an ambulance or, hell, an Uber driver with a shovel… I’m not picky.’” Jason would stare at the device in mock surprise and announce that the staffer hung up. The usual call back lead-in was: “’Mister Todd, what is your emergency?’ ‘Yeah, well, now I’m asphyxiating.’”

Ric said he kept telling Jason the jokes were in poor taste. Jason would say the amnesia stole Ric’s sense of humor. Ric would then say something bleak, like he’d seen too many people die to make fun of the dead, and then Jason would say that his friends all used to find his jokes hilarious. Ric would ask who his friends were. Then they would both sit in silence for a while.

Despite this, Ric’s reports at the end of the two or three hours he spent at the hospital each day were upbeat. The acrobat seemed to be growing to like Jason and not just in a ‘what the hell is up with your dad?’ kind of way. It veered closer to a ‘today we snuck into the courtyard to pet a cat’ kind of way and, thank God, ‘today I stopped Jason from trying to see if he could parkour to the parking lot by using the exterior of the building’.

Their growing camaraderie fanned the idea in the back of Tim’s mind into an actual flame.

While Tim wouldn’t write off the safehouse, it had been compromised by Batman showing up. Tim couldn’t in good conscience return Jason there. Bruce would also be looking at all of Tim’s other properties for signs that Jason was holed up, and tightening security on any bolt holes Jason might have in Gotham. Essentially, all of Gotham was out of bounds, the way it had always been, and Tim needed somewhere else.

Ric’s ‘big-ass apartment’ was in Bludhaven, unfrequented by any Bats these days (except Ric), and benefiting from top-notch building security that was not owned or provided by Wayne Enterprises or its many shell corporations. Jason would need another month or two in recovery, while the meds, assigned physical therapy, and his problematic Pit-driven ‘perks’ put him back together. Bludhaven wasn’t Gotham and thus not part of Bruce’s ban.

To minimize the chances that Ric would agree, think it over, and then back out, Tim had decided he would wait on bringing up the idea of Jason staying with Ric until the night before Jason was due to be discharged. If Ric wanted to back out after that, Jason would at least be staying somewhere stable while they found a new place. Every day Jason spent in the hospital aggravated his stress level a little more, hence things like trying to parkour to the parking lot. If Ric flat out said no, Jason might run (or, worse, realize he could sign a voluntary discharge), rather than wait around to be discharged or for Bruce to discover him. All Bruce lacked at the moment was proof that Jason was staying in St. Frederick’s. Tim was the only thing standing between Jason’s location and Bruce getting that proof, short of a Bat sneaking in and going room to room (and St. Frederick’s security was enough to keep that from happening).

So, when Thursday night’s dinner at Wayne Manor rolled around, Tim could only imagine how much it frightened the Red Hood that both Tim and Ric were going. None of them had spoken to Bruce since the encounter in the parking lot. Tim had told Damian it was complicated, and nothing else. When Tim swung by the hospital to pick up Ric for dinner, Jason dragged himself out of his drowsy state, blinking hard.

“Good luck storming the castle.” Jason’s tone sounded just a little too alert to be casual. “If anyone asks, I’m taking care of a mark in Camden this week. If anybody shows up, I will take it as a personal act of aggression.”

“Flying out to Bermuda just to piss you off would qualify,” Tim agreed. “I’ll be sure to tell Damian.”

“Kid could use a week in Bermuda. Better, kid could use a week stranded in Bermuda. I know people who know some people…” Jason trailed off thoughtfully. Meanwhile, Ric took on an expression of mock-offense.

“Why don’t I get threatened with a free week in Bermuda?”

“Because it’s not a threat to you, big bird. Damian would be appalled at the lack of gyms and training facilities. You’d just… sit on the beach and get weirdly even more tan.” Jason’s gaze drifted back to Tim and he blinked hard again, trying to focus. “No hints at Gotham. No being snide. And don’t… just don’t talk about me. At all.”

“Right.” Tim tried to think of how to broach what he needed to ask without further aggravating the Red Hood. “You know he’ll bring it up though.”

Jason grunted.

“By the end of your… interaction, he was concerned, whether or not he has a right to be, and he hasn’t heard anything since.”

“Timmy, if you don’t think he’s already broken into their system and pulled my medical records and vetted Hannigan’s credentials, you’ve lost your mind.”

Tim scoffed. “What do you take me for? You said to keep you out of Bruce’s notice. You think that didn’t include medical records? Sure, I can’t stop him from researching Hannigan, and he refuses to leave the country, but your medical records are so hard to access from the outside of the system that he has to participate in nine different and exorbitant ransomware scams to get at them. He’s paid two of them so far, by the way. I’ve put the payouts toward your medical bills. Any files he does get his hands on are faked. Obviously, your doctors have to access the real ones, but the channels Bruce uses are saturated with minefields and red herrings right now.”

“God, you are scary, Replacement.”

“It’s my brand. Now. You have all the power. All the control in this situation. Do you want Bruce to know anything about how you’re doing? Not where you are, obviously, but we have to go into this with the expectation he knows I know where you are and how you’re doing. Probably Ric too.”

Jason typically defaulted to jokes. It would have been easy for him to default to jokes when sitting in a hospital bed, being told he ‘had all the power and control in this situation.’ Somehow, Jason resisted the urge.

“Nothing medical, nothing about treatment. He’ll probably study his own methods of attack to figure out if it’s something he could have done… and there’s nothing I can do about that.” Jason took a breath and scooted himself up on the pillows before casting a sidelong glance at Ric, who pretended not to listen. “Tell him the gear was because I had a layover at Gotham Airport that turned lethal. Ended up being compromised, injured, and fleeing on foot. If he believes that, he’ll believe I could’ve tried to collapse at your safehouse and you’d do the right thing. Well, the wrong thing in not turning me in, but the right thing in making sure I wasn’t gonna die on your front porch. And I didn’t come to him because I don’t have a death wish.”

“Do you want to give him any way to reach you?” Tim asked, committing the shaky story to memory.

“I’ve burned enough phones on trusting Bruce,” Jason said. “There’s no reason he needs to be able to contact me.”

Tim’s expression eased into neutral. “You do know what he does when he can’t get in touch with people.”

Both Ric and Jason snorted at the same time, a trait the younger had probably picked up from the older in the first place.

“Yeah, well,” Jason said. “I’ll take my chances and lock my windows. Oh. But.” He took a pained breath. “Just because I don’t want him feeling like he needs to track me down and beat it out of me, tell him I’m sorry about the publicity of the Penguin murder. That goes for you too. I’m not gonna back down from what I did. It was right. Needed to be done, or at least attempted. But it didn’t need to be done in front of cameras, or all of Gotham, no matter how much sick enjoyment they mighta gotten out of it.”

Tim blinked. Unexpected maturity from Jason Todd. Wow. “I think I can convey that message.”

“’Convey’ Ric some takeout too. He keeps sitting in here eating hospital food and brings in nothing but cereal in ziplocs when he visits. Someone needs to fix his diet or he’s gonna die.”

Ric ruffled Jason’s hair on their way out, murmuring that he’d be back afterwards to say goodnight and pick up his car. Jason replied that he’d try to have it back in the parking lot by ten, in that case.

It was a good start to a night where Tim would have to ask if Ric wouldn’t mind having Jason as a roommate for a couple of months. While it would have driven Tim up the wall to try to live with either of them – Jason with all their history or Ric with not remembering him – maybe they could get along with each other.

#

If maturity from Jason was unexpected, Bruce’s lack of appreciation for the apology in absentia was right on cue.

“I see,” he said, when Tim had finished relaying the message and apology. The patriarch of the Bat clan took a scoop of mashed potatoes with displaced seriousness. “A trip to Bermuda seems sudden, given his recent injuries.”

“It was, but as you know, Jason is all work. And honestly, that’s all the time I wanted to spend playing answering machine for him tonight,” Tim replied. “How is the Hausler case coming?”

“You know we don’t discuss work on Thursday nights.” Bruce passed the mashed potatoes on to Damian, who was pretending not to be eavesdropping on the conversation. “Dr. Hannigan experienced a hiccup in his clinical schedule, approximately four days ago. Cancelled several appointments. Does that have anything to do with Jason?”

Damnit. Tim’s eyes narrowed. “You know, Damian had been saying you were having trouble with your hearing, but I didn’t think it was so pronounced.”

The youngest Robin kicked at Tim under the table. “I said no such thing! Father, I said no such thing about your hearing.”

“Y’know, if we’re talking about family, we should really be talking about Ric!” Stephanie interrupted, picking up Tim’s nonverbal cry for help cue with all the ease of a magician grabbing a rabbit out of a hat. Which, when it came to Bruce management, she sort of was. Ric shot her a bemused, if uncomfortable, expression from where he sat next to her. She grinned back.

“Hey, with all the dysfunction in this family, we have to celebrate the people who come back voluntarily, even if it is to fill a Tupperware and run.”

“I have already prepared such a Tupperware for you, Ms. Brown, though I will advise you once again to invest in some to bring with you,” Alfred admonished, appearing with dessert on a small side trolley. “We have had to add a new line item to the household budget.”

Steph shrugged, visibly craning to see what might be on the trolley. “I keep trying, but I’d have to clean it first, and I’m out of dish soap.”

“There must be a solution to such a dilemma,” Alfred suggested, removing the domed lid to reveal small cups of fruit. Ric’s expression didn’t fall so much as go mute.

“Use hand soap?” Steph suggested. “I’ve got a bar of Irish Spring somewhere…”

“You wound me, Ms. Brown.”

“Steal Tim’s dish soap?”

Alfred sighed long-sufferingly. “If you must.”

“Tim. I need to come over.” Steph leaned faux-dramatically towards Tim and clutched his hand closest to her. “It’s very important.”

“How will I clean my Tupperware?” Tim couldn’t help grinning.

“Oh God, the cycle continues, the vicious, vicious cycle!” Stephanie dropped her head onto the table before popping back up like a jack-in-the-box. “We could move in together? Or pool our resources and buy giant Tupperware? Communism. Socialism. An eternal stockpile of leftovers.”

“Brown!” Damian snapped. “Eat. Stop talking. No one wants to listen to you and Drake discuss… eugh, whatever it is you plan for your disgusting conjoined future.”

“Agreed,” Bruce said, stepping into the conversation. “Ric, perhaps you can tell us a bit about your work.”

The acrobat shook his head. “Nothing exciting.”

“Ah. Hobbies?”

“Keeping in shape. Seeing someone. The usual.”

“Ah, yes, Barbara had mentioned. Since you have been at St. Frederick’s routinely for the past three days, I hope your female friend is in good health.”

Ric closed his eyes for a long moment, took a breath, and spoke tonelessly, “Come on, don’t drag me into this.” His voice brightened artificially. “Hey, did Tim and Dames tell you we went – do you two call that game something? Is it even a game?”

“Did you take him ‘trazing’?” Bruce asked, his voice dead serious. Damian glanced away, while Tim stared at Bruce with a less than polite smile. Coming on the heels of talking about Jason, it wasn’t a much better topic, but at least it wasn’t Jason himself.

“We figured he’d be all right.”

“Trazing is… training and hazing?” Ric said. Tim hid his grin and served himself more of the vegetable dish.

“You made up the name,” Tim said. “You were very proud.”

“Oh my God, that nightmare,” Stephanie muttered, dropping her head into her hands. “You know I’m all one to keep up with you, but that’s a parkour-themed death wish.”

“Then we’ll invite you next time, Brown,” Damian said, finishing off the last of his dinner. “If that is the end of our contractually obligated ‘family time,’ may I be excused?”

Tim sat up a little, reflecting that Damian rarely asked to be excused from Thursday dinner. The answer was usually ‘no, you have to stay until everyone is finished,’ but tonight Bruce frowned slightly and nodded. Tim and Ric exchanged glances. Ric’s continued presence only added to the strangeness of Damian leaving. The youngest Wayne wouldn’t leave a burning building if Grayson stayed inside, just for the pleasure of his company. Abandoning the dinner table during one of the first times Ric had attended constituted a massive departure from character for Damian. Tim looked to Bruce, not liking any of the answers he was conjuring up.

“Does he have an event tonight, B?” Ric asked, the better of the two of them at sounding casual. The familiar nickname made Bruce’s expression twitch a little with recognition and pain.

“No,” Bruce replied in a voice one could balance rocks on. “He is following up on a time-sensitive lead.”

“And what is that lead?” A suspicion already burned in the back of Tim’s mind; a time-sensitive lead that happened to need following up on while Ric and Tim were otherwise occupied at the manor. Bruce took a breath and interlaced his fingers, taking on the likeness of the ‘mastermind’ characters Tim saw so often in anime. People who decided what was best for everyone and typically viewed the world over the tops of their spectacles, judging it worthy or unworthy. If he or Ric or Stephanie asked to be excused from the table, the request would be denied.

“I hope we can discuss this with civility, Tim,” Bruce said.

“You do remember the brat tried to kill him last time they were in the same bar?” Tim asked. “Of all the people having trouble with civility in this family, I don’t think I’m the one you need to look at first.”

“He knows better now.”

Tim felt a little vindicated at the regret in Bruce’s tone – the layers lying beneath it that said much more had happened than just ‘Damian realized he pinned the blame on the wrong person’ – and yet it wasn’t enough. Someone needed to talk to Bruce about this and Tim had sworn to Jason that he wasn’t going to say anything, but the Red Hood had been right. Bruce couldn’t leave injured people alone.

“Someone should be keeping an eye on Jason, if you two are not.” None of them made a move for the fruit cups. “Damian will keep his distance.”

Tim stopped responding to Bruce, instead texting Damian promises of dire retribution if he followed through on stalking Jason. Damian responded with ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ Tim listed several of the reasons, vaguely aware that Ric had started arguing with Bruce in the background. Damian typed and erased and typed again, self-censoring for a good minute, before responding with ‘Then he won’t know I’m there.’

‘Just don’t go!’ Tim texted desperately.

“Tim.” Bruce sounded serious enough that Tim’s head jerked up involuntarily. “I need to know why you allowed him into Gotham to work.”

“He wasn’t working, he got stuck here on a layover as a civilian, like I said.” Tim fought the growl in his throat. “And it’s none of your business even if Jason Todd, the human being, your sometimes son, was in Gotham on purpose. You don’t control the movements of civilians, which is what he’s been while he’s here.”

“You must have advised him not to come to me. He knows he’s not supposed to be in the city.”

“I didn’t say a thing. I didn’t want to take sides in this. This is between you and him, but this isn’t the right time to solve it, and sending Robin after him isn’t the right way to solve it, ever.” The growl sounded more and more like a strangled cry, one that was attracting Ric’s concern. Bruce watched his phone and hadn’t notice Tim’s growing agitation, no surprise, but Ric’s expression radiated worry, as did Steph’s. Tim fought back his emotional response and mouthed ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, sorry.’ Flashed a smile that convinced neither of them.

He ignored Bruce and kept texting Damian, who now took great pleasure in texting him things like ‘just parked,’ ‘we paid for this wing you know,’ and ‘this fool keeps his password AND USERNAME under the keyboard.’ A period of almost three minutes went by before Damian sent him anything else and Tim could hear the disgust in Damian’s voice when he received the next text:

‘Idiots. He discharged himself the moment you left.’

Tim frowned at the phone, turned it so Ric and Stephanie could read the text over his shoulder. The resulting hissed inhalation and sigh was all the confirmation Tim needed to know that Ric had left his keys at the hospital, as well as the car. Tim glanced at Bruce, who had made a contemplative noise and was engrossed in his own phone. Safe to assume that he had learned the same thing. Tim’s next glance was to Stephanie, who wore the expression that said she had seen this all before. He hadn’t brought the entirety of Jason’s situation to her, just because it would be easier to deny things to Bruce if she didn’t actually know things, but she knew the history and the current situation. Knew Tim wasn’t in danger. Knew Bruce could be dangerous if he thought he had a right to be.

‘I’ll check J’s usual haunts,’ she texted Tim and left without any further comment, even abandoning the Tupperware she had been promised.

Tim expected the Bat to make another play for information, but Bruce hadn’t looked up from his phone. This didn’t make sense until Tim’s cell phone chimed, an obnoxious ‘cha-ching’ noise that he’d set it up to play whenever Bruce paid one of the ransomware scams. Bruce looked up at Tim, mildly irritated – and the phone ‘cha-ching’d again.

“I wanted to be polite about this, Tim,” Bruce said, apropos of nothing. The phone continued chiming merrily in the background. “But we are discussing the health and location of one of my sons, who has evidently escaped your care and returned to Gotham. Damian can’t access the medical records without an elevated level of security.”

Tim swiped the ransomware notifications away and pulled up Jason’s number. The files Bruce was paying for were bogus, but Tim needed a secure, non-Wayne Manor connection to warn Jason without risking the other man’s safety and location. The Red Hood had already fled in Ric’s car, but he might not even know Damian was there. If that was the case, he could be stalked out of town without realizing—

Oh God, and he shouldn’t be driving with painkillers on board. Tim needed to catch up to Jason before exhaustion or waning adrenaline did. With his unique reactions to medication, that could be anywhere from fifteen minutes, to an hour, to a week. Tim left the table without being excused and Ric followed on his heels. Tim had the feeling it wasn’t all concern for his car.

“Master Timothy.” Alfred momentarily stood in the doorway, blocking Tim’s exit. The butler’s hands were empty of dishes, rags, or anything to suggest he was engaged in another task. Tim’s stride stuttered to a stop and Ric nearly rammed into him.

“I realize you are deeply engaged in some variation on the theme of avoidance, but might I ask if Master Jason has left hospital prematurely, due to fear of discovery from Master Bruce or Master Damian?”

Tim nodded. Alfred turned a look of muted lasers on Bruce, who had risen and was (Tim suspected) preparing to gear up and follow them.

“Master Bruce, you may recall committing to attending a panel tonight with the Gotham Children’s Association. I realize you typically avoid such engagements but you had agreed to speak specifically as a single father of adopted children. The event begins in the next half hour, so I’m afraid any child-chasing will have to wait.”

Bruce looked flustered, setting the phone down on the table. Tim’s phone cha-chinged again as he did so.

“Alfred, this is about Jason,” Bruce protested.

“And you already have three children out looking for him tonight. Might I suggest that if he would flee a hospital to avoid discovery or conversation with you, you should give him some time before he does himself greater injury.”

Tim ducked out of the room at that point, Ric close behind. Alfred’s lectures had a way of catching anyone who stayed in the room in the crosshairs.

#

On the car ride to the venue, Bruce Wayne occupied himself trying to remember what the Gotham Children’s Association did. The Waynes were philanthropic, almost by default, and he was happy to reflect that approach in his adult life, to know that the money he committed made the lives of children better. But… none of the boards he sat on had ever accused him of being a particularly active member. He had to call out of board meetings more often than he showed up. He outsourced the annual reviewal of organizational audits and budgets to Tim, who only needed fifteen minutes to send back ‘Bruce Wayne’s’ detailed notes on the nonprofit’s strengths and weaknesses. He slept through strategic planning meetings.

In short, having him on the board meant clout in the nonprofit world, but they never got Bruce Wayne.

He got out of the car at the clubhouse the Association had borrowed for the night, having decided (and Googled) that this organization provided housing and other services to young single mothers and their children. Yes, right, because Tim had needed to get all sorts of governmental licensing done so they could legally say they did that. Now, he needed to remember what the panel tonight was about.

“Mr. Wayne!” The executive director, a balding man on his second career, would never stop sounding surprised that Bruce had actually shown up. “How’s the family?”

“They’re all right, Aaron, good to see you.”

Bruce let himself be ushered into the low-ceilinged, one room clubhouse, where a folding wall had been pulled across the room to discreetly hide the bar portion from view. Folding chairs upon folding chairs were set up to face the long table for the panelists at the front. He signed in. Someone was still setting up microphones at the front of the room. It felt surreal to be here, while he knew Jason was out there, in a car somewhere, injured, his motivations uncertain. It was one thing to know that might be the case, another to know it for certain. The thought made Bruce’s chest tighten, more uncomfortable than the old suit he had worn in hopes of ‘fitting in’. He knew from experience his ‘old coat’ would still cost more than the coats of everyone else in the room combined.

Aaron chatted him over to his seat but didn’t linger long as other members of the organization and attendees started arriving. Bruce met and re-met individuals from throughout Gotham and the surrounding areas. One woman was convinced she had seen two of his sons at a Java Posh coffeeshop earlier that month in the car ahead of her.

“Keep in mind, I didn’t have a lot of sleep on board, so I coulda been seeing anything,” she said, laughing a bit to herself as she settled down in a panelist’s chair next to Bruce. “The older one was such a generous tipper though. Marcia, my friend who runs the place, couldn’t stop gushing about him.”

“You… try to instill them with values,” Bruce said weakly, and asked about her children. She smiled and said she didn’t have any – she worked with Gotham U as an adjunct instructor in Adolescent Psych and volunteered as a counselor with both the Association and the local resources for survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Bruce’s heart sank a little further. He was beginning to remember what the panel was about.

#

He had been asked to serve as a representative of the board, first and foremost, but secondarily as a single father of adopted children. This was rare enough that it transcended the inherited wealth and other factors that made him non-standard, such as growing up as an orphan himself. Bruce hadn’t thought about why. They wanted him because he was Bruce Wayne, because he brought in visitors and increased donations just by being there, because he had good answers as to why he had wanted to adopt, because he had endured great trauma as a child himself. Those reasons, those facets of his persona, were polished. The citizens of Gotham knew the answers as well as Bruce would. No one would question him.

And for the most part, they didn’t.

The moderator had the panelists introduce themselves, then asked Dr. Justine Monahan, Bruce’s new Gotham U friend, to tell them how violence in the home affected a child’s developmental ability.

Bruce found himself unable to tune out the dialogue without telegraphing his disinterest to the rest of the attendees and his fellow panelists. Sleeping or checking his phone sent an equally bad message. So, he sat and tried to look interested and bland.

Dr. Monahan wasn’t saying anything he didn’t know. Children being exposed to or experiencing violence in the home had a negative effect on their physical, emotional, and interpersonal development. Naturally. And because a child could not escape the situation, their fear and stress compounded over time. It meant making decisions as an adult ran along neural pathways that had been formed in fear or dread or chaos.

‘Death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person, Bruce.’

Jason’s words from the diner suddenly ran through his head, unbidden and unexpected. Bruce pondered them for a second, not sure why they had come up now. He’d thought at the time Jason was talking about his own death and resurrection. He usually was, but now the statement just seemed barbed, as if Jason were thinking of specific incidences that had gone south. His relationship with his siblings. With Bruce. Arsenal’s death, his teammates’ disappearance.

Bruce forced his mind not to wander, to continue following the lecture.

Since a child was trapped in this situation, Dr. Monahan explained, they often learned not to trust their caregivers. They didn’t develop a sense of basic security or trust in the world, in systems, or in other people. She listed the types of trauma, all fourteen or so, and the psychological and social consequences. Bruce began to feel like sinking into his chair. Some of the types applied to all of his children. Some applied to himself. Most applied to Jason, based on the boy’s hints of his early life or… experiences since. The boy had known far too much about how to live on the streets when Bruce found him.

Dr. Monahan covered the need in Gotham for affordable adolescent psychiatry and affordable therapy for young mothers who had experienced abuse in their childhoods or partnerships. She reiterated that the consequences of abuse didn’t ‘go away’ once the abuse had ended or the child had become an adult. Psychological responses to abuse and witnessed abuse varied widely depending on situation, environment, and the child’s development up to that point, so—

‘Thought you could get rid of me that easily, huh?’

The memory of the words, laughed and panicky in the rain, cut through Bruce’s focus. It was back when they were Batman and Robin, back when they theoretically trusted each other though even then, Bruce had had his suspicions about Jason. Nevertheless, the boy had pulled him from the bay, Alfred said later at the risk of his own life, and Bruce had reassured his Robin that Jason would be the only one to ever decide to leave. He’d remembered those words when they had their fight. It had seemed like poetic justice, at the time.

He hadn’t remembered the fear buried in the joy of Jason’s voice that night by the water, the fact that Jason had no one else, the air still coming in great gasps to replace the bay's water. There are worse things than death. Like abandonment. Like continuing to live when everything collapses around you. Bruce knew that from experience.

He dragged his mind back to the panel, internally chanting that this had nothing to do with Jason. There was just so little else to focus on here that he didn’t already know. He understood how the cycle of abuse worked, and it made him unhappy, but, logically, there was little he could do about the situation aside from serve on boards like this and ensure that the organization continued to exist and remain financially solvent. And, of course, serve Gotham as the Bat.

There was no room for unpacking trauma, his or anyone else’s, in the guise of the Bat. There was only the vow to stop crime and never to kill. Stopping crime could divert Bruce from thinking about anything other than the injustices being performed and how to stop them. Crimefighting became a puzzle, a long game of chess in which the right sequence of moves saved people and stopped crime.

Each of his Robins understood the sequence of priorities before they were allowed in the field. Jason understood it better than most, only Jason didn’t see it as a puzzle so much as retribution. Justice.

As a child, Jason’s coping mechanisms had forced Bruce to try to understand fear and anger that he had never allowed himself to feel because he channeled them into the Bat. Repetitive behaviors, for instance, that Jason practiced and couldn’t explain other than they ‘worked for him.’ It took nine months to stop him stealing items from around the manor. He probably never would’ve stopped punching holes in the wall if Bruce hadn’t made him Robin. A broken leg, early in his Robin career, had sent him into a depressive state so serious that Bruce worried he would injure himself.

Alfred had suggested gently that the child might benefit from outside counsel. It had been in the back of his mind, but Bruce hadn’t done anything, and the urgency eased once the boy's temperament started to even out. His death underscored that Bruce was always too late to save what he loved. His return brought back all the original issues Bruce hadn’t known how to deal with, compounded with post-Lazarus trauma that Bruce wasn’t certain the child would be able to process. Uncertain that anyone could.

He tried not to think about it now, in the middle of this panel. Tried to keep his focus on the external, the environment.

The next panelist, Amelie, an older woman with glasses and a kind yet stern face, got up to speak, clasping her hands behind her back in an affectation of military stance. She explained that she grew up a ‘military brat,’ until her father’s discharge for sustained injury when she was five, when they moved out of military housing. He eventually became addicted to the painkillers and couldn't find a job. The story went downhill from there, sliding into a life of abuse, teenage rebellion and more retaliatory abuse, to Amelie’s partners as an adult, and the children she had to shepherd through it alone. Bruce could only think of how he could have stopped each of the abusers in their tracks.

Amelie's hands flexed and unflexed behind her back as she said that most of her abusers said they were only hitting her to get her to shut up. 'That made it my fault, after all,' she said. 'Talking too much. Saying what they didn't want to hear.'

Even if Bruce were to say something - anything - these people would only see contextless disclosure, a scandal Bruce Wayne brought on himself. He kept his jaw locked. He could only wait for the panel to end so he could… he didn’t know what he could do.

Jason battled in the way his sons always did, with words and sarcastic tones and defensive posturing, while Batman fought soundlessly. That night had been an exception. Bruce maintained an outwardly placid demeanor as his mind screamed at him, free from the restrictions of being psychologically Batman and instead trapped as Bruce Wayne, who felt things and understood repercussions. It had been an exception. He had been angry, hurt, betrayed that night, and Jason had just—

Been caught in the headlights.

He shakily took a sip of water while Amelie finished her narrative, wrapping up with an overview of how the Gotham Children’s Association had helped her over the years with her youngest children, helped her children with their grandchildren when Amelie herself couldn’t afford to. Finally, the moderator opened up the panel to Q&A. Bruce sent up a whispered prayer that it would be brief. That no one would ask him anything.

The whisper was doomed to fail. About halfway through the Q&A, a nervous-looking young man raised his hand. He sat next to an older woman who looked old enough to be his mother and who had been checking her phone with a harried expression all evening.

“Yeah, this question is for Mister Wayne,” the young man said, voice quavering a bit. “I’m Derek.”

“Hi Derek,” Bruce said, keeping his tone warm. “What’s your question?”

“Ah, my mom and I – well, me, just me I guess, recently got custody of my nine-year-old from my ex. She’d let some things happen around her that… well, they shouldn’ve happened. And you’re a guy who’s adopted a lot of kids, from different families and some of them are older. And I’m just… you don’t talk about that part of things much, when it comes to your family. And I understand that! I completely do.” For a young man uncomfortable with public speaking, Derek’s eyes felt like they were boring into Bruce’s soul.

“So my question. How do you make sure they know you’re there for them, even though you haven’t… I don’t want to do the wrong thing and I’ve never experienced what my daughter has and I thought, maybe we’re a little the same, because I know you saw your parents… pass, but you didn’t grow up in a rough home. To my knowledge.” Desperately. “Sir.”

Bruce had the sudden and overwhelming certainty that his answer was what people would take from this panel. It shouldn’t be. They should take literally anyone else’s information, absorb that, rather than whatever babble Bruce Wayne was about to spout.

Still, he had to say something. “Thank you for asking, Derek. You’re right, I didn’t grow up in a household of abuse or violence, beyond my parents’ murder. Many of my children have witnessed and experienced terrible events. You know of some of them from papers and interviews, I’m sure. Vicki Vale is a big fan of the Wayne family tragedies. And it’s only fair to tell you all I feel like an impostor sitting up here, looking like I know what I’m doing as a parent in that situation. I can say with some certainty that it’s the suit’s doing, not mine.”

He let the chuckles from the audience fade out before continuing. “Each child is different and developed within a radically different household. I’ve never had a ‘cheat code,’ as my youngest would put it, to help them get through their experiences. Some of my children have benefited from therapy, others have shunned it, and for some isn’t an effective option. I’ve watched them hone their physical prowess, extracurriculars, or put all their efforts into making friends in order to move healthily through their experiences. They are, frankly, more honest about identifying and avoiding one another’s ‘triggers’ than I am. I can be a tad distracted and self-absorbed, again, as you will know from the papers.”

He didn’t think he could muster the strength for one of Brucie Wayne’s winning smiles, so he didn’t try.

“Honestly, I struggle to work with their experiences, because their experiences don’t match how I understand the world to work. All I can say that I try to do, consistently, is remind them that they are loved and appreciated and s…”

Just say it. Say it. Say it or they will think that you don’t create a household that embodies this, say it, tell the lie, just one more time. Tell them your children are—

“Safe,” Bruce said. “As safe as any of us can be in Gotham, as safe as anyone can be in the world we send out children out into. Help them believe that you are a source of safety and support. No matter what they do. I can say, with certainty, that I’ve failed in that task many times. I am… I am committed to trying to do better, for each of them. My advice is to rely on the support of your mother, as a healthy role model, and agencies like the Association. Find books, lectures, and people to talk to. Talk to your daughter and find appropriate people for her to talk to. If you can’t afford therapeutic support for her, as Dr. Monahan said, speak to Aaron. That goes for anyone in the room. If we need to get a program started or hire a staff person or two, that can go on the table for the Wayne Foundation’s next funding round. We exist because of Gotham, after all. We need to make sure its sons and daughters grow up loved and supported.”

At some point, he had stood up to make this declaration. He didn’t know when. He sat down. They applauded.

Hypocrite, his mind screamed. Celebrity hypocrite. As if you’re better just because you waited until your children were old enough to hit back before you hit them. As if you didn’t hesitate to utterly reject your son the second you saw him stumble. As if you aren’t a trainer of child soldiers.

They’re not soldiers, I never called them soldiers, I never wanted soldiers.

But they choose the role so they can bring you pride. Isn’t that the same thing?

He saw Derek thank him for his response but didn’t hear his voice over the rush of self-loathing in his ears. The panel rumbled on like a locomotive churning to a slow and final halt. Bruce refused himself the right to check his phone, to send out another place for Damian to check, or to a request an update from Tim, Ric, or Spoiler. He’d downloaded the files from Tim’s ransomware scheme but didn’t know what they might do to his phone, certain only that the proceeds probably paid for Jason’s medical bills, which would be more revealing than Tim knew. A suspicion had been percolating in the back of his mind for days while he wondered why Tim would go to such lengths to keep him out of Jason’s medical history.

“Bruce.”

The panel had let out, Bruce realized suddenly. He’d been engaged afterwards, shaking hands and answering some questions, but none of it had required him to get up from his seat and it had been done on autopilot. Now Aaron was shaking his shoulder.

“Oh. Sorry.” Bruce got to his feet. “Thank you for having me.”

“Ah, just wish I didn’t have to kick you out,” Aaron responded brightly, collecting the name cards from the table and beginning to take down signage. “We only have the space ‘til nine.”

“What happened to the Turnadale Hall, from November?” Bruce asked, looking around for something he could do.

“We cut the budget for events, remember? Turnadale’s got that flat rate of two grand for four hours, whereas the VFW will let us have this place for about $75 if we’re out by nine.”

“Fiscally savvy,” Bruce said, mind still half on Jason.

“Hey, don’t worry about hanging around here,” Aaron said, heading towards the front of the room to collect placards from the podium. “Jean’s almost done with the sound equipment and you look worried about a kid.”

“It’s that obvious?”

“Mm.” Aaron nodded into a duffel bag full of cords. “Go on, git.”

“Aaron.” He didn’t know why he’d said the man’s name, but Aaron had already straightened from the duffel bag, looking expectant and untroubled – at least until he saw Bruce’s face.

“And now you look like a man having an existential crisis,” Aaron said, half-turning already. “Jean is, ah, a bit better at this than me—”

“No, it’s just a question.” Why was he still talking? Was it because this was a nonprofit? That must be it. The only ‘clean’ part of Gotham he could think of, people who knew him and yet, maybe, would give him an honest, non-barbed answer. “Do you… ever realize that you thought you were one kind of person and you thought certain actions were excusable because that’s who you were, only to realize… you aren’t that person?”

“And maybe you never were?”

Bruce felt disproportionately relieved that Aaron had picked up on what he meant, rather than staring at him without comprehension and asking him to clarify. Bruce didn’t think he could.

“…ah,” he said, pretending Aaron’s confirmation answered his suspicions. “So this is just a thing people experience.”

It was believable, to say this as Bruce Wayne, who had done many things publicly in the paper that didn’t match up with a typical single father. For all Aaron knew, he could be talking about realizing he wasn’t a good enough father to his children because he took so many business trips out of town.

Aaron nodded, one corner of his mouth pulling into a not-quite smile. “Afraid so. It’s why no one gets to ride on the assumption that they’re a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person. It’s easy enough to fool people, but the inconsistencies’ll drive you mad if you try to think of yourself in default terms like that. No one’s all one thing or all the other. If you want to be the person you think you are, you have to be them all the way through... that’s my armchair psychology borrowed from a wife working in psych, anyway.” The smile grew a little more genuine, more concerned. “Everything all right?”

“Yes, I’m… I’m sure it will be fine. Thanks for having me.”

Chapter Text

Bruce went home. He considered dozens of other options, hundreds of scenarios where things worked out in his favor or against his favor, depending on how the fates willed it. No part of him thought the favorable outcomes were plausible. No part of him thought he could stand up to the storm of unfavorable outcomes. He emerged from the car certain only that he had a right to know what was happening with Jason... and found Damian sitting on the front steps of the manor.

Strange. Damian didn’t often wait for him to get home and when he did, he waited in the Cave.

“Damian,” he greeted, getting out of the town car. “Is something wrong?”

“I failed to locate Todd. The others insisted I return.”

“Did they say if they found him?” Bruce hated the querulous tone that had found its way into his voice. It didn’t suit the Bat, who should be in control at all times and yet hadn’t felt in control since Selina left him a note and walked away.

“Brown said they found evidence that he left Gotham,” Damian said, evidently irritated that his blonde nemesis had been more successful in picking up the Red Hood’s trail than he had. “If he has, he won’t be stupid enough to return, regardless of ‘injury’. I’ve made calls to Grayson and Drake to demand their progress, but neither is responding anymore. The tracker on Drake’s vehicle is also glitching, but they were heading to the mountain passes out of Bludhaven when it lost signal. I believe that—”

“Thank you, Damian. I don’t intend to follow them.”

His youngest sat back on the step, momentarily stunned. “Ah. We’re going to patrol then, very well—”

“No. We’re not patrolling tonight either.”

Damian’s forehead furrowed and Bruce could see the sequence of questions coming together and rushing through his son’s mind. The reasons for calling off patrol were few and far between. They rarely varied from being sick or incapacitated, having a more pressing concern (which Jason Todd would potentially qualify) or being out of the country, which – for all Tim’s attempted machinations – Bruce was not.

“Is… something wrong?” Damian asked, having exhausted all other potential options. Bruce shook his head, stepping around his youngest to enter the manor.

“No.”

“Did I do something?” The sudden emptiness in Damian’s voice, so full of concern and urgency just a second ago, made Bruce look back. He saw the boy and had to remind himself that what he saw wasn’t what was. If Damian was sitting on the front steps waiting for him now, it probably meant he had been sitting there hours. Cold. Tired. Trying to deliver the news of his own failure to locate the Red Hood, the fact that his siblings and allies had brushed him off as troublesome and untrustworthy.

Bruce turned around. “You didn’t do anything, Damian.”

“Should I have?” The question followed his statement like the moon followed the stars. Bruce shook his head and moved to continue inside. For all that he didn’t want his youngest worrying, he also didn’t Damian getting involved at this stage, more than he already was.

Instead of accepting this action, he heard Damian get up from the front steps. “Father.”

When he looked back, he saw Damian’s face had tightened with anger. Bruce knew that expression, in part because it was Damian’s attempt at masking frustration with Bruce himself, and so he saw it a lot.

“You should not lose sleep, or a night’s patrol, over concern for Todd. Mother and Grandfather raised me on far harsher tactics and your instruction was…” Damian paused, looking for the right word. Bruce wanted to steel himself against it, knowing that however Damian ended this sentence, it would feel like a knife in his ribs. “…a balm, by comparison. Todd calls his history tragic, but it is only really a tragedy because he came out half-forged.”

Bruce had been ready for the judgment and still cringed internally. “That’s not your decision, Damian.”

“Aren’t I qualified to have an opinion?”

“What your mother and your grandfather did to you was not right.” Bruce kept his voice low, steady, and tried not to wonder how he was talking at all, for fear he might stop. “It doesn’t excuse anything else that anyone does. You wouldn’t tell me to begin treating Tim or Ric as your mother did?”

“Of course not, they are too old.”

Bruce pushed back his revulsion at the practicality of this answer. “And you would not advise me to begin treating you—‘training’ you—the way your mother and grandfather did, at this point in your development?”

“If you thought it best, I wouldn’t argue.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“I would prefer it if you didn’t,” Damian answered, rocking back on one heel in a posture Bruce could almost recognize as defensive, buried as it was under layers of superiority complex making up for feelings of inferiority. “While the methods are effective, I have learned what I need to from pain. The physical repercussions would prevent me from effectively engaging in missions, from leading my team or maintaining the respect of my peers and superiors, who would perceive the injury as weakness. And it would shame me and you.”

“I don’t need a paper on the reasons it’s a bad idea. I’m wondering why you think you need to justify it at all.” He dreaded that the answer was going to be along the lines of ‘since you and Mother and Grandfather all use physical means to keep people in line, there must be merit to them.’

Damian met his gaze head-on. Bruce had learned a long time ago that it didn’t mean the child was comfortable with what he had to say, only that he felt it needed to be said. “Because I have burned my bridges with Todd. I’m tired of giving him chances to betray me, when he has so many times betrayed you. Your guilt is misplaced anyway. You said no mercy and in return, he shot Cobblepot in Gotham, in full view of cameras, on a whim. You were only upholding your word.”

“That’s all?”

At last, Damian’s gaze broke away and to the side, his expression twitching. “Perhaps not.”

Bruce waited.

“Todd sought me out, when we originally partnered. I thought he wanted intel, or to ingratiate himself. He’s tried it before with Red Robin and Nightwing, who were intelligent enough to reject his clumsy efforts at family. I gave him the opportunity because he had something I needed.”

“And?”

“And he was an adequate source of information, for a time. He treated me as an equal, which was more than anyone else in the family was doing. When I thought he had betrayed me and my team, I was upset because I should never have trusted him. I let his respect for me be my own downfall and then he had the—” Damian gritted his teeth a moment. “When I went after him, he wasn’t even acting like Todd. Shambling, numb, passive. I thought he was underestimating what I knew, so I drew him out. This also took longer than usual. Father, stabbing him in the leg didn’t anger him. Surprise and irritation are not anger.”

“Nn.” Bruce stifled his instinctive ‘don’t stab your brothers in the leg’ retort then wondered, abruptly, why he wouldn’t say it. He would say it if Damian had stabbed Tim (…again), or Signal, or Nightwing. He had the sinking feeling, revisited from the panel, that it was because it was Jason.

“When I finally made him angry… all he wanted to discuss was how he had wanted to be allies. Not that idiotic ‘be my Robin’ speech Red Robin and Nightwing have heard from him, but… the perspectives that we shared when it came to our enemies. I was ready to do anything to win that fight, and instead of taking his opportunity, he did everything possible to incapacitate me without killing me.”

“And?”

Damian finally met his gaze, expression unreadable. “It is my opinion that Todd has fractured with longing for this family. Pennyworth as much as agrees with me on this. He can’t kill us, because we are the last people he holds any affinity for. He also can’t be near us, because he will kill as soon as he finds reason, calling it justice. He only knows how to betray trust and he will never obey your rules. Allow him to roam, if you have to, but maintaining his ban from Gotham is the healthiest possible outcome for everyone involved. He is capable of understanding that barrier, reinforced as it was. Any backtracking now is tantamount to allowing a stray dog to stay in the yard.”

Shame and horror collided in the pit of Bruce’s stomach and he wanted to blame it on Talia. On Ra’s. On anyone. It wasn’t that Damian’s reading on the circumstances was inaccurate. It was that he could hear himself – the Batman rationale and practicality – in the sentiment. He enforced the Red Hood’s ban from Gotham by punctuating it with an eviction that had kept Jason out of any country’s criminal or hero circulation for months. Most ‘stray dogs’ wouldn’t return to that. Most would have more survival instinct. He found that his teeth had sunk into the inside of his lip, subtle enough not to be noticed but getting deep enough to draw blood. He nodded once to Damian, indicating comprehension.

“I’m not going to force you to apologize to him or trust him,” Bruce said. “But I need to get to the bottom of this.”

“Whatever misplaced obligation you feel because of his legal status is just that. Misplaced.”

“It’s not that.”

Though, in all honesty, Bruce wasn’t sure it wasn’t ‘that’. What Jason technically was was complicated. A legal entity affiliated with Bruce Wayne that no one heard from and whose unlikely resurrection narrative could be missed by anyone not paying attention to the Wayne family. Bruce began the long walk down to the Cave, pulling up the portal to access St. Frederick’s medical files out of habit, at this point. Highly likely to be fakes, but the question was why Tim would bother safeguarding the real files to this extent or, for that matter, attempt to keep Bruce out of town and harbor Jason. Tim didn’t even like Jason Todd, as Bruce understood it. Most of his children tolerated Jason, when he wasn’t making attempts on anyone’s life, but he wasn’t …

Bruce discovered that he didn’t appreciate where this train of thought was leading. It didn’t match what he had told Jason when they separated outside the diner either, that they had each other’s backs. He drove his thoughts back to the phone and files at hand. Physically holding the key to what three of his children weren’t telling him, it felt like an oversight not to investigate. If he investigated all his children except Jason, didn’t that further isolate the Red Hood from the family? Alfred had made enough barbed jokes about his ‘spying because he cared’ over the years; what was this if not a different form of caring?

Besides, he reminded himself. Jason had gone in for deep covers before. Fleeing a hospital to avoid Bruce’s attention did not suggest a trustworthy reason for being here. The Red Hood had deceived Tim in the past; it wouldn’t be hard to deceive Ric right now, and Bruce would be damned if he would be deceived and his family hurt because he had been distracted by some panel and memories of context that evoked his own guilt.

If the trip to Gotham was planned, as Bruce was certain it was, why would Jason not approach Bruce? If it was unplanned, Jason should still have approached Bruce for help. The phone held the answers.

‘I know that wasn’t easy for you,’ Jason’s voice rang in his head, remembered from the moments following their hug outside the diner. ‘Hating me and all.’

At the time, Bruce had been about to drive off in one direction and Jason about to walk off in another. The words felt like a clue now, the first clue that Jason regarded himself as Damian did: a stray dog in the yard. Damian might have said something similar, when he was young and insecure and angry – “You don’t want me! You hate me!” – but to hear it casually from Jason, an adult capable of interacting with intractable people like Bizarro and Artemis, should have dropped a lead weight into Bruce’s stomach.

Maybe it had. Maybe he’d simply been too preoccupied with Ric and with Selina to think about Jason’s need for anything beyond verbal reassurance that it was fine if they didn’t see eye to eye all the time. All he remembered registering at the time was that the boy hadn’t been snappish or overly emotional. He’d took that to mean things were going well. He could tell Jason about Arsenal, make sure he didn’t wade into the mess of Sanctuary vengeance, reinforce that the gate to Gotham was shut, and leave. In and out.

Bruce opened the medical files and immediately noted inconsistencies. They weren’t even billed to the correct dates of surgery, though the billing numbers looked accurate. After a minute or two, he pulled up the phone’s calculator application. Moments later, opened a backdoor into the hospital’s billing system. It was for the best that he knew what was going on, after all.

#

Leaving might have been a bad idea. One of many, Jason thought, gazing up at the sunroof in the ceiling at Ric’s car. He hadn’t noticed the feature last time, being half-asleep and all, but this time, he’d wasted no time opening the motorized window to the sky. The blast of cold night air had immediately gone to war with the heater and their battle continued as Jason parked and reclined the seat.

Stealing Ric’s car was not a bad idea. Stealing a bit of this genuine quiet after the solid white noise of the hospital for days was not a bad idea. Parking halfway up Mount Danmany wasn’t a bad idea. By those numbers, he was on a winning streak.

His phone chimed again, and he groaned, flopping around one hand to try and find it in the center console. Not turning off the sound was a bad idea, but he didn’t feel he had the physical coordination to un-recline the driver’s seat and turn it off now. Without any remaining painkillers on board, sitting up sounded like another bad idea – which would put the bad/not bad idea scale at 3:3 and he didn’t need that kind of grief in his life.

Ric claimed he didn’t use this car for much and Jason was beginning to think that statement was a lie. Ric had lived in his taxi, the first couple of months, and Bruce must’ve bought this beast (and probably rented wherever Ric was living now) when he found out. In that time, Ric had made the car his own, complete with the scent of old French fries and grease hanging in the air. In his peripheral version, Jason could see loose Lucky Charms scattered on the floor behind the passenger seat. Snack time, Ric? Good grief.

Jason returned his attention to seeking out the constellations he remembered from camping with Dick. He hadn’t left Gotham just to get away from Gotham – he’d left because, as hipsters said, ‘the mountains were calling.’ Paranoia had been shrieking in his ear too. Only an idiot wouldn’t notice that he was getting discharged tomorrow and that Timmy hadn’t brought up any alternate housing plans.

So, Jason had planned this out, making sure he modified his painkiller intake early enough that he could drive, accounted for Ric’s hella-fast, untraceable car and its often-unattended car keys in his hospital room, and plotted how long it would take him to get to the motel Ric wouldn’t remember ever driving past. He’d waited until the two of them left to unhook the IV (which had been modified for the better part of four hours anyway), got dressed, and gathered up his duffel bag. Bless Ric, the amnesiac had actually brought Jason clothes when he asked. Poor guy would catch hell from Tim for that.

Couple of signatures on a voluntary discharge sheet and Jason was gone.

It was great that Tim had been willing to help. That was… it was really moving, but Jason had overestimated the kid’s ability to break free of Bruce’s orbit. Now, right now the Batfam were probably discussing how to install Jason in the criminal wing of the hospital before starting arrest proceedings.

Why else wouldn’t Tim have suggested an alternate housing plan? Or asked Jason what he wanted to do? Jason had made some calls, but his network was set up for mobility, the kinds of people who could step out of a rideshare with a sniper rifle disassembled in a violin case and spend the night on a warehouse rooftop. His network didn’t work with physically-impaired people who needed to be within an hour of Gotham but not in Gotham for the next few months.

So, Jason signed the papers while they were still an option. He’d driven to Bludhaven, then past Bludhaven and up into the mountains. He’d passed the motel he meant to stop off at half an hour ago, which was where ‘the mountains were calling’ bit got into his travel plans. He found a pull-out spot on Mount Danmany’s scenic roadway, overlooking the cities and the bay, and leaned back to watch the sun set over the Jersey coast.

From here, he could see the lights of everything from Blud to Gotham to the Big Apple, off in the distance, but he could also see the sky. He wouldn’t be seeing that from the criminal ward of the hospital. Once the sun slipped below the gleam of Gotham’s blinding skyline, he closed his eyes and attempted to shove back feelings about… everything. They meant well. He had absolute confidence that Tim meant to find him help and that Ric meant the best in every action he took. Ric Grayson wanted to be a good guy. Tim wanted to be a good guy. Bruce wanted to…

He couldn’t get the thought to extend to Bruce anymore.

Some part of his callous, unreliable narrator of a mind said ‘I don’t hate him. I just can’t be him.’ Whispered that this was just the way it was and had always been. Things would be easier if Jason gave up on Gotham. Giving up the Bat family of misfits wouldn’t even be that hard; it was just the city he needed to get out of his bones, like a wasting disease. Stop coming back to Gotham and you could have a life. A permanent break wouldn’t cost anything other than your hometown. Is it really that expensive a price tag when you don’t have a partner, a job, kids, anything to tie you here? You don’t even have friends in Gotham, why do you keep coming back? It’s not like the people of Gotham need or want the Red Hood. They have the Bat. You’re just coming back home because you used to know people here, but they’ve all died or moved away, Jason. They’re not here.

He cleared his throat and addressed the sunroof in an imperious tone: “Little one, either look at the stars or go to sleep, but if you continue with this pity party, I swear by Mistress, I will end it for you.”

It didn’t have a patch on Damian’s mimicry, and Artemis would have kicked his ass for even attempting the impression, but it stopped the train of thought. He fidgeted and tried to find a balance between the cold and some attempt at warmth. He reached for a blanket of dubious sanitation he’d seen in the backseat, but cringed as the twisting motion elicited a stabbing pain in his back. Okay. Fine, not moving that way.

Instead, he wriggled until he got to a position where he could grab a corner of the blanket and wrestle it back down and over himself, slightly relieved to find that cereal didn’t fall out of any creases in the fabric. Whatever he’d done to his back in that movement, it had sapped all his desire to sit up, drive down the mountain, and re-find the motel. Didn’t matter. If he wasn’t in Gotham, Bruce wouldn’t follow. That was the rule. He could exist, if he was far enough away.

With one boot, he found the controls for the sunroof and made sure it closed fully before, with the same boot, hitting the button that turned off the car. It got cold in the mountains, but between the insulated car and the blanket and his jacket, he was in no danger of freezing to death. Jason closed his eyes. When his phone chimed, he fumbled for it until he found it, turned the sound off and the battery saving mode on. There. Now it wouldn’t die, and he wouldn’t have to sit up and figure out Ric’s phone charging station. Everybody won.

“Night, Arty. Night, Biz.” Silence reigned for a minute, as the others ran through his mind. Always the ‘others.’ The ones who had come before and after his world had fallen apart.

“Night, Kori.”

Easiest to say goodnight to. Since she was still alive and all. The only one who’d survived.

“…night, Roy.”

#

Tim didn’t enjoy muscling past motel staff, impersonating federal officers, or making oblique references to nineties’ horror detective shows. Ric appeared to enjoy all three, which made sense, it being a showmanship thing and all. Tim trailed him out of the motel lobby, across the parking lot, and up to Room 301, which Jason had reserved and never checked into. Coming here was the longest of long shots, because Ric’s stolen car wasn’t even in the parking lot, but Tim was playing along. The car’s lack of a tracking device was a whole other discussion they had had on the way here.

“Why don’t you have a tracking device on your own car?” Tim had asked, as they barreled towards the motel, easily crossing the distance in half the time it would’ve taken legally.

“It’s not mine, it’s Bruce’s,” Ric replied, apparently channeling the traditional 90’s detective hot on the trail of his missing partner. “And now, apparently, it’s Jason’s.”

Tim kept to himself that it sounded like Ric thought losing his car to Jason was a suitable backlash at Bruce. They both knew that writing the car off as a loss wouldn’t bother Bruce half as much as not being allowed to know where Jason was and what he was doing. Tim had already ranted that the ransom Bruce had paid to get access to the falsified files totaled more than thirty grand. Ric’s car topped out in the price range at $50k (minus taxes). Given the careless way with which Bruce had paid out the ransom, out of nothing more than annoyance, Tim worried what he might do if he couldn’t find Jason. Hire Deathstroke? Falsify some evidence to get Commissioner Gordon on his tail? Grab Superman and claim that Jason was a threat to Gotham?

The thought left him concerned, trailing behind Ric as the older man opened the door to Room 301. No lights shone in the window, though that could be explained if Jason wanted to stay hidden and/or sleep. The cold bed with its untouched covers resolved any remaining doubt. Jason hadn’t been here.

“Where would he go?” Ric asked. The acrobat had wandered over to the bed and turned the light on with an absent flick of his fingers, illuminating his frown when the dim yellow pall spread across the room. Dick Grayson wouldn’t have asked Tim where Jason was. Dick would have been full of guesses, full of energy and concern. Not this passive stranger who didn’t know the Bats and was, to his mind, following Tim around the countryside in the dead of night. Tim squinted in the new light, contrasting sharply with the dull glow of the parking lot.

“It’s not like him to ditch a reservation, unless he thought he’s been compromised,” Tim replied. Ric glanced out at the parking lot, though the light’s reflections on the interior of the window made it impossible to see out.

“Well, would he head east from here? We probably don’t have a lot of time, Tim.”

“I don’t know.” Did Ric have to sound so much like Dick? Tim knew it wasn’t fair of him to be judging Ric based on tone but the acrobat sounded so close to his brother, even while doing all the wrong things. Like now, Ric had picked up a tourist brochure from the end table and was turning it around, assessing the attraction. “We aren’t tourists,” Tim found himself grumbling.

Ric looked up. “I’m just looking.”

“He’s missing and you’re…!”

You don’t know anything, and your face says you should know everything and you don’t, you don’t, you don’t. DAMNIT. Tim swiped a hand across his eyes, too violently to escape notice. He heard the action reflected in Ric’s voice, suddenly contrite.

“Tim? Shi—hey, buddy, I’m sorry, I’m not distracted— I just don’t know what we should do next.”

“It’s not that. You just look like him,” Tim said, falling back on a tried and true method of distracting Ric: reminding him how much he was still Dick Grayson. He ruined his own deflection however, unable to stop the memory: “Dick used to take Jay hiking around here sometimes though, back when Jason was Robin and I don’t know where they went and he... he—” Another swipe. “He just knew everyone. He’d know where to find Jason.”

“You make it sound like I don’t know anyone so, first of all, that’s rude. And second, you’re crying, so I can’t even get mad or Bruce would get mad at me for harassing you.” Ric circled the bed, part of him remembering he liked hugs, but the rest of him remembering he wasn’t that person, seconds before he got to Tim. They stood there awkwardly for a beat as Tim forced away the part of him that screamed about ‘feeling things.’ Ric still held the brochure in one hand and glanced down at it, then off in the direction of the mountains. They were no more than a blacker-than-sky outline to the east, this time of night. Now that Tim was looking in that direction, they looked like the kind of direction Jason would head to escape everyone.

“I do… remember liking it out here?” Ric gestured with the brochure at the mountains. Probably clinging to some hope that they wouldn’t have to talk about feelings and that Tim would regain his composure. “Climbing Bluejenny Peak, Allafish Mount… I don’t remember the people or the circumstances, just the feeling of being above everything. Even driving Danmany’s nice. Don’t know why I drove it though.” The acrobat looked suddenly puzzled at his own memory. “Weird. It’s perfectly climbable. Even hikeable. But I remember driving.”

Tim hummed. “If one of you got injured, a driving tour of a mountain would be the easiest way to get out of the house. Alfred would sign off on it, even if Bruce wouldn’t.”

“I don’t remember breaking—” Ric interrupted himself with a laugh. “Then again, I don’t have the best memory, do I?”

Tim snorted. “I’ll remember for you then. No, the only broken leg you’ve had was when you were still working with Bruce alone. Medical records for Jason are the spottiest of all of us, but I’m pretty sure he broke his leg early on in his Robin career. You made a few efforts to bond, before everything went sideways …the timeline is about right and Jason remembers those kinds of things.”

More accurately, Jason remembered things he had ‘fouled up.’ When he and Tim were first working together, the sheer number of apologies seemed at first that the Red Hood kept a laundry list of sins he had to reconcile, itemized by Bat family member and beginning with Tim. Tim had actually been peripherally involved in Jason’s apology to Damian, which had taken six weeks and been delivered in the form of a letter delivered by a trained eagle (which Damian had donated to a local avian sanctuary). Jason remembered random shit and would certainly remember a broken leg and a trip up a mountain with ‘Big Bird.’

Ric had already headed for the car when Tim’s phone rang. Bruce. Batman hadn’t attempted to call in almost three hours, Tim reflected, his finger hovering over the ‘answer’ button. Then again, if he answered, the detective might triangulate his call based on the nearest cell tower and recognize the motel as one that Dick and Jason had passed more than five years ago and retrace their journey and—

Tim gave up and answered. If Bruce found them, he’d find them.

“Bruce, I—”

“I was wrong. To push.” Bruce’s voice crackled in Tim’s ear, more… hesitant. More upset than Tim would’ve expected. “Do you have any leads?”

“Not exactly convincing to say you know you pushed for intel and then ask me if I know where he is,” Tim said, deadpan as he kicked against the pavement on his way to the car, deliberately slowing his steps. “He’s not at the motel where he should’ve checked in. If there’s any point in telling you not to trace us.”

“I know I—” A sigh. “Do you know if he’s safe?”

The word ‘safe’ seemed to cost Bruce something, but Tim couldn’t figure out what. He shrugged a shoulder, though he knew Bruce wouldn’t be able to see.

“Ric has an idea. We’ll let you know if it pans out. Again, if you’re in a gracious mood, could you not follow us?”

“I know you two are more than capable of handling things, but if you need me—”

“We’ll call.” Despite all the kicking and slowed steps, Tim now stood outside the car, just outside the radius where it would pair up with his speaker system. This wasn’t a Ric kind of conversation. “I have to drive now.”

“If—when you find him.” Bruce sounded desperate. “When you find him, I want to speak to him.”

“Yeah, everyone knows,” Tim said, running through the usual catalog of ways to get Bruce off the phone. Sure, he sounded desperate but it wasn’t unusual for him to recategorize Jason based on the passage of time and events that happened to Bruce personally. He was… he was actually a lot like detectives in a procedural. One personal life sort of thing changed, followed by a breakthrough, and the case was closed. Everybody went out for drinks and then went home happy.

“The files weren’t that difficult to decipher, Tim.”

Tim was suddenly paying attention. “…come again?”

“His injuries are my fault, which means I need to apologize to him. In person, when he’s ready to see me.” Here, Tim could hear the same torment that always entered Bruce’s voice when he spoke about Jason, all the hate and blame and hurt. This wasn’t a clear-cut path to forgiveness, it was hacking through a thicket of sins. And it sounded like Bruce had been using the scythe for a while now. Still, he hadn’t yet said he had forgiven Jason and… damnit, why was Tim managing this call?

“Maybe this isn’t the best time,” Tim said, intentionally letting the sentence drift. Not wanting to say, flat out, that whatever Bruce was feeling might be temporary and not wanting to say this was progress either. He didn’t know how to categorize this change and, right now, felt like saying ‘you remember how earlier tonight I said I didn’t want to play answering machine for Jason Todd?’ He willed himself silent. What he thought wasn’t important right now, in more ways than one.

“Tim, if you can forgive him, work with him, when he’s wronged you more than anyone… and if I can tell him that we have each other’s backs, and still fail to earn his trust enough to come to me with this… I can’t. I have to speak with him.”

Tim tried to interrupt again and Bruce cut him off – not with the typical aggression of Batman, but the quiet urgency of Bruce Wayne.

“There’s no point in telling me otherwise. I know I caused this. The medical files from the hospital may have been falsified, but I researched the procedures billed until I totaled the amounts to your ransom.”

“Shit,” Tim breathed. The man really knew. Bruce had back-engineered an explanation of benefits and put together what had happened. Why hadn’t he thought of that? The back of his mind, the clinical part not currently experiencing a nuclear meltdown, reminded him that he knew a lot more about burying files and hacking security systems and suits of armor than he did about institutionalized healthcare documentation. This didn’t absolve his guilt, or the numb fear that stole over him. Aside from just ‘feeling bad’ about the documentation, it meant Bruce might be able to better target Jason’s weak points in the future. Nausea gripped him at the thought; he didn’t want to have thought it, didn’t like that he couldn’t immediately reject it as nonsense. Bruce, naturally, had no idea of Tim’s struggle and cartwheeled along his own journey of self-discovery and loathing, in that order.

“Please, Tim, tell him I’d like to speak with him. Whenever and wherever he feels most comfortable. I trust his judgment. And yours. I just… I’ve no other way of getting in contact with him.”

“G-g’bye, Bruce.” Tim hung up. Noting the look on his face, Ric had already scooted over into the driver’s seat of Tim’s car, looking concerned but not pressing for details when Tim slipped into the passenger seat. He hadn’t meant to take sides in this. He didn’t mean to influence anyone’s perception of anyone else. No one even said Tim was fully on Jason’s side in this, they just assumed because he wasn’t being a complete asshole that he must think Jason was— he didn’t—oh God, and now Jason would hate him, because Tim couldn’t even keep Bruce out of some medical records.

“So, Danmany?” Ric poked ineffectually at the radio to try and call up some tunes. Tim paired his phone with the car’s Bluetooth speakers and nodded. The numb feeling in his chest was turning to torpor and he wanted to sleep. Indefinitely.

“Danmany. Watch for pull outs, unless you know of camping sites up there.”

Ric picked up on the deadness of his tone. “Is Bruce…”

“He can wait.” Tim leaned his head against the window. The opening strains of an Imogen Heap song played quietly in the background, curated from a long-ago ‘Dicklist’ (yes, Dick had named it) of artists and songs that nobody thought he’d like, and yet did. He dragged himself out of the lethargy. “Thanks for driving.”

“Thanks for letting me come,” Ric replied. Tim looked at the acrobat in his peripheral vision, unsure where to read the sarcasm into the statement. Ric kept his attention on the road, like a professional taxi driver, and wore an earnest, focused expression. “He shouldn’t be alone. You shouldn’t either.”

“I can take it.”

Ric didn’t argue with this, just let several minutes pass by before saying, as if it were an afterthought: “So how long has your check engine light been on?”

“Three months.”

“Yeah, you shouldn’t be doing this alone.”

#

“Jason?”

“Ric, God, no, don’t wake him up.” Movement, the chirp and ‘kerchak’ of a car door opening. “I said we could carry him.”

“You also said he wakes up unpredictably, Tim, and I’ve met Damian. I’d rather wake up an unpredictable sleeper than have them wake up while I’m trying to pull them out of a car.”

“MmnnB’gbird?” Jason peered at the face that had opened the backseat car door in front of him, barely lit in morning’s stark shadows. He recognized the voice. Had woken up to it too many times to fear it. “ssDick, right?”

“Ric. So close, partner.” Ric reached in and pushed the button to turn the car’s heater on. “I see you found my blanket.”

“Lucky Charms,” Jason said, going with the last thing he remembered thinking about. Ric shifted position to get a glimpse of the aforementioned cereal on the floor.

“Well, if I’d known you were going to steal my car, I would’ve invested in an actual box,” Ric said, grinning. He turned the expression on Tim, somewhere out of sight from where Jason reclined. “See, he’s already doing better.”

“Good, then it’s an excellent time to ask if he can room with you for the next couple weeks,” Tim said from somewhere outside Jason’s range of vision. The Red Hood tried to sit up, figure out why Tim sounded like Connor had died all over again, and found himself too stiff with cold and pain to move. Cool. The bad ideas took the winning prize for the night, good game everybody but ‘sleeping in the car’ was by far the worst idea he’d had. Ric opened another one of the doors and relocated Jason’s legs to the ground as if he’d done it a thousand times.

“Mngh?” Jason said intelligently.

“You’re moving to the passenger side and I’m driving,” Ric said brightly. “Ordinarily I’d just roll you over the center console but that seems like a wholly bad idea, so we’re gonna go around the hood. Pun not intended.”

Tim sounded strained. “Ric, did you hear me?”

“I did, Tim, and it’s not the time to—”

“Bruce wants to talk to him, and I don’t think that’s a good idea at the moment, so we need somewhere else.” Tim sounded way too serious to Jason’s waking ears and that registered as alarming when Jason could barely find his feet beneath him. He did, though, finally pushing himself to his feet and feeling Ric’s arm wrap around his waist. God, he hated this. Give him an hour and he wouldn’t have any trouble walking around the hood of a car; an hour and a half and he would be out of the state, but no they’d had to show up while he was still sleeping, the assholes.

“Look, I’m—” Jason stumbled and Ric gripped him a little tighter. “Tim, I’m sorry you’re stuck in this. But you can’t force Ric to—” His understanding began to catch up to the conversation and realize that reality didn’t match up with his understanding. Wait. What?

“You are already forcing Ric to be up here, because I can’t damn well carry you,” Tim said, voice icy. “What were you thinking, leaving the hospital?!”

“…that you were gonna put me in the criminal ward?”

Tim squinted, trying to see the sense in this. “We what?”

“You didn’t ask where I was going to go, and you went to the dinner, and I knew I was getting discharged tomorrow and I’m not stupid, Tim. I’m sorry I didn’t—I didn’t plan this right, but I’m not in Gotham now.” Breath seemed like a shorter commodity than usual. “So I don’t have to go to Ric’s or… anywhere else. I can get farther away. I just need a head start.”

Ric mouthed something to Tim over Jason’s head and Jason squinted up at him, trying to read lips from an inconvenient angle. “I’m not trembling, it’s eight in the morning on a mountaintop, it’s cold, you salamander.”

“Jason…” Based on his tone, Tim had been ready to be angry and now found that he couldn’t. Jason’s facts were well-researched – if nothing else, his paranoia was always backed up in triplicate – and that tended to frustrate people who took him as the most reckless of the Bats. “You could have brought it up with me, rather than booking a motel and stealing a car on an assumption.”

Tim crouched in front of him. All Jason could think about was that the situation should’ve been reversed – Tim was the smallest of all of them, barring Damian; had the most to lose from an injury, and yet Jason felt Red Robin loomed over him in this situation. Tim also looked like he’d been fighting with Bruce – Jason was more than familiar with the exhaustion, the numb and sleepless look in Tim’s eyes was one he’d seen in his own, more than once.

“…I can’t just crash with Ric against his will, Replacement,” Jason said. “He’s a full-grown-ass amnesiac adult.”

“Who I’m pretty sure would appreciate free rent for two months,” Tim said. The look that crossed over Ric’s face (even at this weird angle) didn’t constitute rejection. Jason assessed this. Frowned.

“Only if I get to pay it.”

“Of course,” Tim said. “Ric, does that sound all right to you?”

Though Ric didn’t say ‘no,’ Jason could feel the frustration radiating off him at being put in this position. He couldn’t blame the acrobat, especially as Jason had attempted to escape from this family twice in the past two weeks and had failed both times.

“You don’t gotta say yes, circus guy,” Jason said. “I know we keep meeting like this, you with the ability to stand up straight and me sprawled in your car like the Titanic lady, but I promise: you let me steal the car, this one time, and I won’t come back.”

If it were Dick Grayson, the expression that Ric shot him would have been coded with a Benchley novel’s worth of subtext, including concern for his well-being, irritation at the veiled threat that he wouldn’t return, incredulous that he would attempt to steal a car (given his history of attempting to steal That car) in his current condition, and irrational fondness.

Since this was Ric Grayson, it just looked like concern. Concern that trumped the frustration of having an unexpected roommate on offer for two months.

“Tim, whatever else Bruce said, he definitely still can’t go back to Gotham?” Ric asked, returning his attention to Tim as the kid straightened.

“I…” The question caught Tim off-guard. Real worry hovered in his voice, hushed with hesitation and… guilt, for some reason. His shoulders hunched as he shrugged, pretending to be casual. “I wouldn’t try it, before he talks to Bruce, which Bruce can’t dem—isn’t demanding that he does.”

“Then yeah, he’s staying with me.”

Chapter Text

Bruce’s first review of the medical records demanded immediate response. He hadn’t killed Jason that night, but he had come damnably close. He’d known that much even when fist broke body armor, connected with muscle, jostled bone.

Reallocated bone, more accurately, looking at the billed procedures. That much he hadn’t known.

With the panel and the conversation with Damian still fresh in his mind, Bruce called Tim and said the words that would tie him to this guilt quickly and without exception, before the feeling could dissipate or turn inward. This was something he needed to say to Jason, not to himself over the next five years while he built a mountain of regret around it.

And he could usually depend on Tim to hold him to his stated intentions but… not tonight’s Tim. The version of Tim who answered the phone sounded distant, not seeming aware of or trusting enough of Bruce’s change of heart to get angry or be more than passively disbelieving. That, also, felt like a loss. His gut told him that Tim had changed sides weeks ago, maybe even months, and had no patience left for Bruce.

Had he been imagining that Tim was being honest with him over the past year, while he really loathed every determination Bruce made and comparing it against the reality of what he knew? If Damian had seen the potential ally in Jason Todd, Tim could have seen the same, could have decided to countermand Bruce’s decree himself.

And if Jason had blamed Bruce for these injuries and never brought it up with him… had Bruce lost that relationship for good as well? Ordinarily the Red Hood would have taken any and every opportunity to shove Bruce’s transgressions down his throat. These injuries would have qualified.

The guilt from the panel returned, an undertow Bruce felt swirling around his waist as he thought about the context of the event. He had twice ambushed one of his sons, a boy who had experienced extreme violence and death in his short life, and refused to make further contact after this beating except to provide notification of the death of one of the boy’s only friends. No part of him had taken joy in that notification.

By the same token, no part of him had wanted to provide the notification in person and he certainly hadn’t wanted to see the Red Hood after their last parting.

When he arrived at ‘Viv’s Diner,’ buried in the southern end of Tennessee, Bruce had been too surprised at Jason’s resigned preparedness for another fight to feel anything else. He told Jason he wasn’t there to fight and the boy went still like a hare, weight shifting only when one of the thugs around them groaned. Bruce had to instruct Jason on what was expected in their encounter. Sit. Drink coffee. Listen to me. Talk about your feelings (Alfred says). Goodbye. Their hug, and the philosophizing, was all Jason had directed.

His lack of… of agency, confused Bruce now, though at the time it had seemed a proportionate reaction to Bruce finding him out of state.

He was glad he had already called Tim to tie himself to the guilty feeling, though it went against every fiber of how Batman did things. He shouldn’t have to wait to close out this issue of apologizing to the Red Hood; the matter had waited long enough already. Still, he wondered if Tim and Ric’s lead was good. How far Jason had gotten. Which roads he might have taken. If the boy knew that he shouldn’t even be driving for two weeks after that surgery. If it would really be so bad if he got in the Batmobile, followed the boys’ cell phone signals until he found them.

“Master Bruce?”

“Alfred.” He looked up from where he had the medical files spread out across his screens. The real ones this time – after finding out what exactly was wrong, he had unpacked Tim’s method of disguising the actual files until the evidence – a HIPAA violation writ large – lay scattered in tabs across his monitors. Alfred’s attention was drawn to the screens, where he took in Bruce’s handiwork, in both senses of the word.

“I’d hoped to find you asleep at the computer, but I see you’ve immersed yourself in the issue, against all encouragement.” Alfred squinted a little at the dates in the corner of the medical files. Assessed the hazy black and white of the x-rays. “These injuries were received over a year ago.”

“Correct.” Bruce knew better than to think he could tell Alfred to go.

Alfred said nothing but continued looking at the images. There were moments the butler could be more British than others and this expression – this outwardly-composed, focused demeanor – was one that frightened Bruce most.

“… you know that it is not my intent or practice to monitor your conversations with your children,” Alfred said. “I must take it on faith, the majority of the time, that you demonstrate some level of functional parenthood when I am not present. When it comes to my attention that you haven’t, I offer, however I may flatter myself, grandfatherly support.”

Verbosity usually indicated that Alfred was being ‘sassy’ and could safely be ignored, but not when he was like this. Bruce could feel the conversation swooping inward like a peregrine, getting keener with each word.

“So I must ask you this appalling question, in response to these appalling images. I expect a one-word response. Have you apologized to Jason Todd for this?”

“No.”

“I see.” Alfred hadn’t looked away from the images before, abruptly, stepping forward to swipe them away with a rush of keystrokes. Bruce must have made a noise (he hadn’t intended to make a noise), because the butler turned the mask of British professionalism on him. “Then I must make a few statements.”

Bruce grunted.

“I note that you have attempted to turn the course of at least ten individual lives against one member of your family, based on your personal objection to his choices. You have done nothing to support him through the death and disappearance of his support systems, other than what I can only assume was stilted notification of a death. By comparison, Batwoman contacted me specifically last year to tell me she gave Master Jason a ride and left him walking westward. Still walking, a month after you two had met up. Robin launched a one-child vendetta against his sibling and yet you could not be bothered to do more than require a briefing when Master Damian found the actual assailant. A briefing in which Jason Todd was a footnote, a dead end who walked away from the confrontation.” Alfred took a breath, appearing to search Bruce’s face for an indication of understanding before he continued.

“Every communication received has indicated your son is becoming nomadic,” Alfred said. “He has always sought identity and in response, you have taken his hometown, his affiliations, and watched as everything burned away. You do not have the right to see his medical records without his permission. I should not have seen them without his permission. I…”

The butler appeared unable to think of words with enough clout to reach Bruce. The mask had slipped while he spoke. Alfred looked his age now, looked like a grandfather who had seen too much in his years to tolerate what was happening.

“Your relationship with the man you called your son is no longer functional, Master Bruce.”

“But it doesn’t have to be lost,” Bruce said. “I called Tim. I don’t have Jason’s number so I—”

“Master Timothy already made his requests clear for the night. Of course, you have violated those already, but I must remind you they exist. I also can’t order you upstairs, just as I could not force Master Damian to speak to Master Jason rather than attack him, but I will ask you to leave all of them alone tonight. Your absence does not communicate disinterest. As you’ve demonstrated, and Master Timothy will know, your interest is oppressively present. It is not helping.”

“Alfred, I’m trying to apologize to him—”

“Why? Because you had a moment of guilt after a year’s passage?”

Bruce blinked. “It wasn’t—it isn’t a moment.” Now that the files had been closed, nothing stood between him and the growing feeling of helplessness. No points of contact with Jason, no way to extrapolate more information from the problem, he’d already contacted Tim and wasted the opportunity to gather more information. There was Ric, of course, but Ric was with Tim and would take his side against Bruce.

The question returned: Was he losing Ric too?

With this thought, Bruce realized that Alfred had been speaking. Was still speaking. Rather than reveal he hadn’t been listening to the continuing lecture, he grunted and, somewhat stiltedly, asked the butler to see about setting up the spare bedroom.

Alfred stared at him as if the order had been given in Urdu.

“You believe they would bring Master Jason back here?” Alfred sounded floored.

“Where else would they take him? Their intention was to keep me from knowing he was in Gotham and that’s done. My connection to him may be… damaged, but Tim will understand that you can still provide better, more discreet medical care than anyone else in his life. And you have always had a strong relationship with him. I can keep out of the way as long as he wants me to, I just—”

It came back to the phrase ‘I have to know where he is,’ no matter how much he told himself he didn’t have the right to know. It wouldn’t sink in.

Neither could Bruce honestly say that the manor was the safest place for Jason, not with the knowledge of what he’d done – with what he had to apologize for – but the fact remained that the manor was the most stable, secluded location for recovery. It remained logical to bring him here. Maybe Bruce could stay at one of the city safehouses, or the Wayne Enterprises’ apartments. Somewhere close. Just so he knew where the boy was. If the Red Hood recovered elsewhere, somewhere not his home at the manor, he would likely never return to Gotham – he would never reach out. Bruce would never be able to apologize.

Alfred was speaking. “They won’t return him to a place he doesn’t want to go, and I wouldn’t advise them to. He is not a child and you don’t have the legal ability to direct his care, conscious or unconscious.”

“I have to apologize.” It felt as if Bruce put his voice on cruise control, locking it at a certain low pitch and never allowing it to accelerate in volume. “I’ve already lost him once.”

“This is not about that. More importantly, it is not about you,” Alfred said, his tone similarly metered. The butler was unmistakably angry. One more person turning against Bruce.

Bruce could think of a thousand things to say in response, but they were being shouted down by the growing voices of recrimination in his mind. This was about what he had done. He could see the Batman reflected in the images of x-rays burned into the back of his mind; the notes on similarity of brutality in various physicians’ scribbled shorthand notes and the nurses’ case files. Gotham physicians, especially those in the prisons, had seen enough of the vigilante’s fighting techniques to recognize and ‘diagnose’ them.

After the surgery, they noted the patient being a flight risk. Refusing painkillers. ‘Insufficient post-operative care, unstable housing situation’ had been added to his files when he returned to the hospital from Tim’s safehouse. Batman’s handiwork—his own handiwork—and he couldn’t sit and wait, feeling guilty about it while Jason had no idea he recognized his error.

“The vow against killing is about more than going down that road and never coming back. It’s about redemption. We have to be able to get what we had back. I don’t want to lose him again,” Bruce said. The words felt and sounded hollow. Alfred must have sensed the same.

“As I mentioned earlier, everyone is aware what you want,” the butler said. When Bruce did not reply, Alfred left, fulfilling the intention he’d stated fifteen minutes ago.

Bruce didn’t leave the computer bank. It felt like a case now, one of the cases where he was in free-fall, having solved its mysteries but finding that all the intended victims were already dead or that the chain of events set in motion were unstoppable.

He reopened one of the case files in the manner of a smoker sneaking a single cigarette. The one about the escape attempts.

Five escape attempts from the hospital room. Academically, Bruce had known that Ric was visiting St. Frederick’s every day after the safehouse incident, but he hadn’t thought practically about why his amnesiac oldest son would be visiting Jason. Jason had better sense than to undertake a major surgery and then force his recovery, but the escape attempts remained glaring on the case files.

The Voluntary Discharge notation with the transportation noted as ‘unspecified’ read as sarcastic more than anything else, while Dr. Hannigan’s signature at the bottom suspiciously resembled Jason’s forgery style. Ric had probably been there to prevent such attempts. Damian’s presence couldn’t have set Jason off, if the Red Hood knew he was coming at all. One tiny thing that wasn’t Bruce’s fault, in a mess of things that were.

He sat there until he heard the Cave’s door open at four a.m., accompanied by the sound of his youngest son yawning. Damian padded sleepily into the Cave, Titus at his side, and hardly hitched in his stride as he spotted Bruce.

He asked if either Drake or Grayson had checked in, Bruce told him no, and Damian went to the training area with hardly another word. Bruce thought about offering to train with him but, when he stood, found that weariness had soaked into his bones. His eyes, blurred from staring at the screens, would be no use against Damian’s fresh vision, sharp and watching for openings in his form.

On his way up the stairs, he tried to call Tim again. Tim didn’t pick up.

#

When it came to optimistic façades, Dick Grayson could beat out a dolphin, but that that chipper mentality hadn’t made it to Ric Grayson.

Short as it was, Ric and Jason’s trip back to Bludhaven managed to be awkward and quiet. The moment they had begun driving, Jason offered an apology for the housing arrangements. Ric’s complicated expression and response (“…it’s fine.”) had established an unshakably uncomfortable mood and Jason settled into the seat, too sore from the night to be snarky. He didn’t know how Tim’s drive went, only that Tim had looked like he would have appreciated more company than the radio as he got into his car.

About a mile out from Ric’s apartment, the acrobat glanced in the rearview mirror and commented that Tim was coming with them. Jason shook off the half-asleep state, checking out the navigation and their surroundings.

“Why wouldn’t he?” Jason asked.

“Kinda assumed he was going to treat it like his responsibility was done, once he’d matched you up with housing,” Ric replied and it was just… so casual that Jason snorted.

“I’m not gonna say you’re wrong, the kid can be a bit of a robot, but seeing as he didn’t sell me out to B at the first, second, or third opportunity, I’m going to say he’s got more than a passing interest in this plan succeeding,” Jason replied.

“So why run?”

“Because I have complicated and irrational trust issues and many of them have to do with Tim.” God, Jason wanted to stretch and yet the movement would probably aggravate every muscle in his entire body. He looked at Ric out of the corner of his eye. “Sorry he sprang this idea on you.”

“Nope, don’t try to fix it for him, I’ve already got my argument planned out.”

“Your mouth says that, but your face says he did something that made you remember he’s like, seventeen.”

“Is he seriously seventeen?”

“You tell me, you’re the one who gets invited to birthdays.”

Ric’s face settled into its grumpy-concerned expression again. “He got upset when we couldn’t find you, is all. Then Bruce called and that didn’t seem to go well, and he just shut down until we found you.” They pulled onto a thoroughfare, heading for a sliding iron gate at the entrance to Pinegrove Apartments. Not as ostentatious as Jason had expected but miles better than Nightwing had taken when he first struck out on his own.

“’Upset’?” Jason echoed, catching on the one word he didn’t associate much with Tim Drake.

“…it’s not helping me to look like the other guy and not be the other guy, and it’s not helping Tim either,” Ric muttered. “He kinda got… emotional when we got to the empty motel room. He’s a smart kid, knows how to hide it most of the time, so I keep forgetting he sees somebody else when he looks at me.”

“Feeling like your own worst enemy?”

“More like my face is.” Ric put the car into park and made sure Jason got out safely. While they were thus engaged, Tim’s sedan circled the parking lot three times. By the fourth time, Ric fought a smile as he murmured that there weren’t any visitor spaces and that served Tim right for not checking first. They should just let him circle.

The smug look turned guilty after a second and what Jason thought of as ‘the bleeding-heart Grayson’ emerged, all apologetic. Ric texted an explanation to Tim and the sedan took a hard right, out of the lot. Several minutes later, Tim reappeared on foot in one of Dick’s blue hoodies, checking his phone and then the building to make sure he had the right address. Jason privately thought Tim looked a little better than before, if still guilty and tired as hell, but the hoodie was a dead giveaway of wanting to hide something. Tim didn’t hoodie.

“So what’d B want?” Jason asked, before Tim could take a breath or compose himself. Tim’s eyebrows furrowed and he shifted position to shove both hands into the hoodie’s front pocket.

“To inform me I’m not as clever as I think.”

“Oh, those are my standard Friday night calls from him,” Jason said brightly. “I’m happy to bequeath them to you. What was he ragging on this time? Spare no detail.” Since their little group had been standing more than two minutes without moving, and it looked like this would take longer, he sank back into the passenger seat, grunting a little with the exertion.

“He has your medical records,” Tim said, which explained the dead dog expression in his eyes. “And he wants to talk to you.”

“I got the ‘wants to talk’ part from back at the car, thanks, and I think you know where he can shove that idea. The medical records are…”

Honestly, that was a little upsetting because it meant Jason would have to deal with Bruce directly, at some point. Tim looked like he already knew that though and Jason didn’t feel up to talking anyone down from crying or working himself up to getting angry about it. Anger tended to drain energy. He needed said energy to get to wherever Ric lived and pray he had a nicer-than-average couch. And a shower. And spare toothbrush.

Jason adopted an impassive expression instead. Artemis always told him his impassive face looked constipated but Dick, hilariously, couldn’t read it at all and Tim tended to gloss over Jason’s expressions anyway, so everybody won with this.

“You’re right, it’s annoying, and one of the main reasons I wanted him not to know I was in Gotham, but you did your best, Tim. I get that.”

The miserable expression deepened. Tim wasn’t making eye contact now. “I’m sorry. I…”

“Hey, it’s the Batman on his home turf. I grabbed the best guy I knew, and he couldn’t keep the Batman out of my shit, so that’s how it is.” Maybe Jason wasn’t that terrible at impassive; no one had called his bluff yet. He reached out an arm for support, knowing it would mean more to Tim than more reassurances. “Help me up to whatever mansion Ric lives in so he can get your guys’ fight out of the way.”

Tim moved to help him while simultaneously casting a worried look at Ric. “We’re fighting?”

“Go ahead, lay in, I love listening to the Replacement get in trouble,” Jason said, attempting to not overbalance Tim as he found his footing. The car was too low for this nonsense. He should’ve stolen an F-150, an SUV, something with some power behind it. Tim managed not to drop him and they hobbled for the exterior door. Ric moved to pass them with the keys and hold the door open.

“Normally, I’d try to have the argument when Jason wasn’t around, but you’ve removed that option,” Ric said to Tim, while they shambled by. “With all the revelations I’ve had about this family the past week or two, I’d be pretty thick not to realize you manipulated me into saying yes.”

“Um.” If Jason’s ‘impassive’ expression needed work, Tim’s guilty expression could have gotten him convicted.

“I’d volunteered to help you whenever I could, yeah, but your timing when you asked me to house Jason? That was calculated, Tim.”

“It wasn’t supposed to happen right then,” Tim murmured.

“But you waited!” Ric said. The little trio walked into the complex courtyard, where a nicely-maintained area of paved walkways wound their way around parcels of healthy grass. Somewhere out of sight, a water feature gurgled. “You waited until literally the night before his discharge and then you waited until the least convenient time possible to bring it up.”

“Not my best plan, but he needed to stay close to Gotham and my networks in the surrounding area aren’t robust.” Tim readjusted his grip on Jason’s arm and Jason shifted to carry a little more of his own weight. This arrangement didn’t seem to be reassuring Tim and the farther they went, the more concerned Jason got about falling. Fortunately, Ric led them towards an elevator, tucked just inside the interior of the complex. They would only have to hang in there for a little longer.

“I’m not faulting your thinking of or asking me,” Ric continued. “I’m faulting your timing. I get busy, sometimes I don’t even pick up the place.”

Jason managed to keep his snicker very quiet. Ric still glared at him.

“I’ve just seen how ‘the other guy’ lived, Ric. You’re not gonna shock me.” Jason grinned.

“I pick up when Bea comes over, or when I have guests,” Ric said, sounding irritable right up until the word ‘Bea’ left his lips and he appeared to remember he had a girlfriend. The statement set off a chain of events: the elevator arrived (4th floor, Jason memorized for later), Ric set urgently about texting her, and Jason stumbled a little over the elevator threshold while straining to see who Ric was texting. Tim cursed quietly at suddenly having to take more of Jason’s weight.

“What, too heavy for you?” Jason snarked.

“Says the guy who shouldn’t be lifting milk jugs right now,” Tim shot back.

“Ttch. That’s not even a thing.”

“It’s literally in your post-op paperwork.” Tim stopped in front of room 407 without being told.

Ric rolled his eyes and unlocked the door. “It’d be nice to pretend I still had some elements of secrecy in my life.”

“So… is our argument over?” Tim asked Ric. Jason nudged Tim aside and shifted his weight to the convenient kitchen doorframe, just inches inside the front door. He didn’t feel capable of taking a tour of the whole space, but he could see the entire living room from here. The kitchen was fully enclosed and to his left, containing all the usual amenities and containing a second opening to the rest of the apartment. The living room had a large, openable window on the north-facing side, a couch, TV, two-person dining room table, and a tiny home speaker system. Some gym rat stuff was piled in the corner but otherwise, the place was remarkably clean for Dick. Ric. Whatever.

Jason pushed away from the doorframe and shuffled over to the surprisingly-pristine couch. Before flopping facedown onto it, he looked warily back at Ric, who had broken left and out of sight into the kitchen.

“Seems a bit late after I slept in your car, but anything I should know about this couch?”

“I’m allergic to something in the stuffing,” came Ric’s called reply from inside the kitchen. “Nobody’s so much as farted into it. And no, Tim, we’re not done. Get in here.”

Tim trudged into the kitchen, casting a final, envious glance as Jason eased onto a comfortable position on the couch. Priorities ran through Jason’s head: a shower, a toothbrush, some of the prescribed painkillers. Probably not in that order. Getting back up to get them though… that sounded way more difficult than drifting off to the sounds of Tim and Ric’s argument.

Murmurs about ‘manipulative behaviors,’ and ‘abundance of opportunities’ and ‘delay of asking for help’ made their way into Jason’s consciousness. All standard accusations in standard tones. Nightwing and Red Robin weren’t the shouting type in arguments, unless they were arguing with the Bat, in which case the rules for everybody went away.

Jason stayed just awake enough to hear the ping-ponging of dialogue, a constant thrumming background noise against the pounding of anxious thoughts about needing to charge his phone, to shower, to brush his teeth, to take painkillers, to find the wi-fi password. Before and in case he had to leave again, he should do all these things while he had the chance—

No, you’re not leaving again. You don’t have to leave again. For once, the thought didn’t feel like a lie or a vapid reassurance. He didn’t have to run. He wasn’t even in Gotham. He didn’t have to run anywhere. He lay still, listening to Ric and Tim argue about something that had to do with him but wasn’t something he’d done, and didn’t feel… like they wanted him to go away.

Finally, quietly, he heard Ric ask: “Do you understand why I’m upset, Tim?”

“I get it,” Tim said, his voice quieter than Ric’s. “And ‘m sorry for… expecting you to say no and being all ‘Bruce’ about manipulating your answer.” A pause, then a little louder: “How are you so much better at confrontation now?”

Jason could almost hear Ric’s grin. “Well, they tell me I was a cop for a while, and now I’m a cabbie. Bringing up touchy subjects is a hell of a lot easier when the other person’s listening to me and isn’t drunk or belligerent.”

“Or Bruce.”

“Or Bruce.” Both of them were silent for a beat and Jason could feel himself swimming back to actual wakefulness. Bruce’s name set off too many alarm bells to do much else. Unfortunately, their discussion continued too quietly to eavesdrop on. Jason decided to take steps to feel human again instead. Not to run, just to feel human. It took minutes to maneuver his way off the couch to find the bathroom and steal a toothbrush, but everything came a little easier now.

He wasn’t in Gotham and no one would drag him back to Gotham, so he might as well figure out how Ric’s shower worked.

Chapter Text

Following Jason’s installation at Ric’s apartment, things went slowly. The best kind of slowly, in Jason's opinion: where no one had too much interaction with anyone else and no one was left alone for days at a time.

Ric worked long, irregular hours and stayed out even longer with Bea most nights. If Jason had been able to handle himself in a fight, he would have been out in the bars with them – making in-roads with local information brokers, getting a sense of the Gotham-to-Blud crossover. He needed to get the ‘Red Hood’ out and about. Technically, Bludhaven was probably too close to Gotham to ‘take over’ as the Red Hood, and, the way their lives worked, Ric would eventually remember everything and kick him out of the city. Realistically, Jason loathed recovery periods and would’ve killed to get out of this one. Criminals measured time in the number of months the Red Hood had been out of commission. Every day was another entry in the ‘depreciating value’ ledger.

His routine didn’t even feel like a life: sleeping, sneaking in exercise routines, or using Ric’s sluggish wi-fi to help Tim on cases. Lonely as hell too.

In between research periods, Jason sent Tim all the inane cat videos he used to send Dick. Tim’s increasingly aggressive responses kept Jason feeling capable of eliciting human response and that… was good, at least. He went on gradually lengthening walks (as a civilian). The latest goal was to see if he could walk as far as the movie theatre on Penny and Laramie, sit through a two-hour movie without devolving into agony, and walk back.

Goals kept his mind off the thought that he was a vigilante and should be practicing grappling off buildings, not practicing walking and sitting.

Movie day came. In keeping with Bat-communication strategies, Jason waited until he knew both Tim and Ric would be knee-deep in work to shoot them a text of where he’d be. He didn’t have to tell them at all. It was just…

Once people went up a mountain for him in the dead of night, he felt he owed them something.

Tim’s response came through immediately.

‘Can you tell the paramedics to text, not call, me when you faint? I’m a lot more responsive to text.’

Ric didn’t say anything.

The hike itself, about 2.3 miles, wasn’t even what Jason would call a hike in any other situation. Or a jog. Or a morning warm-up. Artemis would have called it running to the store. There were moments when he enjoyed having a version of Artemis in his head, making him strive to do better just to keep up with her… and there were moments (like now) when it made him feel like a failure. Biz remained in a class of his own, but Artemis was still just close enough to human endurance for Jason to think he could keep up.

With another eight blocks to go, he sat down heavily on the bus bench at Laramie and Bernard. He wasn’t an Amazon. The Pit healing didn’t fill in enough of the gaps to keep him from doubling over, winded, which he did now, staring at the asphalt below. At least he’d watched the bus pull away a minute before. There was no chance he would hold anyone up or have to explain why he was breathing like a train.

God, Artemis would have been so frustrated. Biz would’ve carried him, with or without his consent. The big lug was always…

His mind chose that moment to flash back to the memory of holding a gun to the back of Bizarro’s head. Of all the memories of holding that power, he remembered that one first, remembered it most. Feeling like George in Of Mice and Men, ready to strike down one of the only people who trusted him. He hadn’t, he hadn’t though, Jason told himself, well aware that breathlessly repeating that to himself alone at a bus stop was making passers-by uncomfortable.

Still, the idea of getting to his feet remained outside the realm of possibility. His mind drifted, catching on the Of Mice and Men idea. What had George and Lennie been again… migrant workers? And they wanted a farm with rabbits. He remembered that much, a big overriding theme throughout the book: get a farm, keep some rabbits. The Kents probably kept rabbits. What were the odds Jason could say screw everything, go live with the Kents in Kansas and tend rabbits, without losing his mind?

About the same as his odds of being able to leave Gotham permanently, he reflected. He wasn’t rabbit material.

Jason didn’t realize how deeply he had been buried in his thoughts until the next bus arrived fifteen minutes later. Half a dozen people filtered off, nothing more than shoes stepping off a bus and striding away—until a pair of expensive sneakers stopped in front of him.

“…Todd?”

Damian. Perfect. Jason straightened from his slumped position to make eye contact. Damian was in street clothes and that damnable reddish-gold hoodie. He’d been in street clothes last time and that hadn’t stopped him. Jason dragged himself to his feet and started trudging in the direction of the movie theatre, not sparing another glance or word for the youngest Robin. Damian dogged him, sneakers scuffling against the curb.

“Got another dart for me, brat?” Jason asked.

“Tt. Not everything is about you.”

“You’re in Blud.”

“Only because the people at the theatre here do not know how old I am. It has nothing to do with your presence.”

Shit. That meant they were heading to the same place. Jason eased off his breakneck stride, originally intended to avoid Damian’s ‘tracking’ him, and hoped that Damian would speed up and leave him behind, as if they’d never seen each other. The kid kept pace at his side instead.

“Aren’t you still 5’1?” Jason asked. Maybe he could irritate Damian into leaving.

“5’2 and a half,” Damian said. “There are shorter adults.”

“You don’t look old enough to drive, much less get into an R-rated movie.”

“Theatre-owners today do not care about age.”

Jason snorted. “The fact that you’re in Blud to see a movie suggests they do in Gotham.”

Incensed, Damian moved to stride past Jason – then his step hiccupped. He’d had an idea.

“Perhaps you can be of use, Todd.” Damian pivoted gracefully to face Jason, his expression having shifted to something sly, head tilted a little in faux invitation. Nothing good could follow that.

“Probably not,” Jason replied. Damian had demonstrated he could go from ‘casual conversation’ to ‘assailant’ at the turn of a conversation and Jason didn’t want to be anywhere near him when that change happened.

“You are over the age of 18,” Damian said. “And I do not want this trip to be wasted time if the ticket-sellers are… reluctant.”

“Last time you used my age to get you in somewhere, it didn’t end well.”

“I don’t have any reason to be angry at you. Today.” Damian spread his hands, attempting to build on the ‘innocent’ impression.

“Again, things I thought last time. Find your own way in.” Jason turned back towards the bus stop.

“Tt. After your triumph last time, I didn’t think you’d be such a coward.”

“Maybe I’m just not eager to find out if you can garotte me in a darkened theatre. Bye.”

Jason made it back to the bus stop, checked the timetable, and sank onto the bench again. The sun had poked its head out from behind the clouds and he leaned forward, letting the warm morning sun reach him. It would be at least thirty-five minutes until the next bus to Ric’s, which would take another fifty minutes to go two and a half miles. Blud Public Transit wasn’t known for its efficiency. He would still have the opportunity to see how long he could manage sitting without serious discomfort—

A shadow blocked the sunlight. He squinted and looked up from the now-familiar sneakers to the scowling teenager who owned them.

“You can’t seriously be taking the bus back to Grayson’s after walking all this way.” Damian stood over him, arms crossed.

“What I do is none of your business and no one said anything about Dick.”

“You were heading in the direction of the theatre.”

“Coulda been heading for the library.”

“The library is on the other end of town. Besides, you would have told me you weren’t going to the theatre, if you weren’t.” Damian appeared to realize his pose wasn’t intimidating Jason and buried his hands in his pockets instead. The scowl that followed suggested he wasn’t going away.

“Why are you bothering me?” Jason leaned back, giving up on the idea that Damian would go quietly on his way and leave Jason to bus-spotting. “I said no. That’s always been enough for you where Tim was concerned. Pretend I’m Tim, and Tim said no, and you can go away.”

“Drake has nothing to do with our discussion.” Damian looked in the direction of the movie theatre again. “You’re going to make me late.”

“You seriously think I care that you’re inconveniencing yourself by talking to me?”

“You owe me this, Todd. You have no idea how much complaining I have to endure about you on a daily basis.”

Jason stared at him. “Who the hell is complaining to you about m—oh. Like… Bruce?” He almost didn’t say the name, in case he was wrong, but it was the only conceivable person to be complaining to Damian about Jason.

“For every word he does not say to you, he says sixty-four to anyone who cannot leave the room fast enough. He said he would not force me to apologize to you and yet he does nothing but dither about how best to do so himself. You can do nothing less than make it up to me by getting me into this movie.”

“Let’s be clear, I owe you nothing.” Still, Jason thought about it. Namely because his back was beginning to twinge with discomfort from sitting at the bus stop and he had wanted to get to the theatre today. Safer to go with Damian’s blessing than without it and having the brat stalk him anyway.

“…no sneak attacks,” Jason conceded/asked. “On your honor as a… well, on your honor. Pretty much all you care about.”

“On my honor. Only move quickly.”

“Nn.” Jason grunted, moving with exaggerated slowness to his feet. “Not sure who told you speed was an optional setting, but they lied.”

Damian jogged ahead of him. Jason could hear the scowl in his voice. “Don’t be obnoxious, Todd.”

Minutes later, Damian’s irritation had turned to bafflement. He stood at the end of the block, watching Jason shamble after him. “I’m surprised Drake and Grayson do not simply pull you around in a wagon.”

Meanwhile, Jason attempted not to return to train-like breathing. “So you miss a few… previews…”

“Is this actually as fast as you can travel?”

Jason let himself be goaded into putting on a burst of speed, passing Damian and heading into the next crosswalk in perfect timing with the ‘walk’ signal. Damian must have deemed this speed ‘acceptable’ because he shut up after that, allowing Jason to lead the rest of the block to the theatre’s ticketing line.

“Two, for…” Jason began once they arrived, then glanced down for clarification.

“The 2:30 showing of Bloodwar,” Damian finished. Of course.

Other than assuming the boys would want to sit together (they didn’t), the ticket sellers didn’t give Jason and Damian any trouble. In under four minutes, Jason had stocked up on popcorn, Damian grouchily agreed to consume Corn Nuts, and Jason dropped Damian off in their preselected seats and moved a couple rows down, into an aisle seat. Moving to a row out of Damian’s line of sight would only piss him off and Jason didn’t want to fight that battle. He just needed to be on the aisle and out of garroting/drugging/sneak attacking distance. Trusting Damian didn’t come easy, not after having a barroom dart plunged three inches into his thigh last time.

Jason had done worse to everybody in the family, of course, but not recently.

He hadn’t given much thought to movie selection, other than what worked with his timetable. ‘Bloodwar’ earned its R rating with several assassinations, though the gangster flick focused much more on strategies to gain territory and forced the viewer to decipher a thick Irish brogue that left Jason wondering if Damian needed subtitles.

Around the second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film, Jason’s back began to complain beyond the dull ache it had been clocking in at for hours. Shifting, he braced his boots on the back of the unoccupied seat in front of him. From several rows back, he heard Damian ‘tsk.’

Forget him. The stretch didn’t help with the discomfort anyway. His mind helpfully supplied the idea that it felt like someone had been carving fragile designs into the bones of his back, like a metalwork artist or something. The deeper Jason breathed, the more it felt like this metalwork-designing asshole had left sharp edges behind.

Thanks to snagging an aisle seat, Jason could move to lean against the wall without having to climb over anyone. Standing worked for a full six minutes, in which time the onscreen gang war really took off and people were yelling important plot points in unintelligible accents. Then, Jason attempted to sit down again, see if he could salvage his understanding of the plot.

No dice. He tugged himself back to a standing position before even fully relaxing into the seat. He would be standing or lying down for the next few hours, or it felt like the metalwork would try and do something artistic to the skin of his back.

It’s probably in your head, he reminded himself, returning to his lean against the carpeted wall. Hannigan wouldn’t leave exposed shards of metal in your back. That’s a Joker thing to do. A Hugo Strange thing to do. Definitely a Pyg kind of thing.

The thought of what circumstances could have led to metal shrapnel in his back latched onto his train of thought. He had no doubts about what had actually happened, wasn’t panicking, wasn’t anything other than annoyed. This was a surgery thousands of people had across the world, every year. It had not been performed, or informed by, any of Gotham’s rogues.

Standing still aggravated the ache in his back—not as much as sitting would but more than lying down would. Therein lay the problem: he was safe in the carpeted dark, visible only in the intermittent flashing of the screen. If he went out into the lobby, there would be lights and people. He would have to buy something, sit down somewhere, or leave just to avoid attention. He looked too suspicious to linger in a theatre lobby without inciting comment and he couldn’t explain, “No, no, I left the guns at home for precisely this reason.”

And then there would be the trip home. If it hurt now, several hours of walking wouldn’t do him any favors. He’d have to sit eventually or wait for the bus and cling to a handrail the entire trip. There wouldn’t be anywhere to lie down, not with anti-homeless laws and locations where common sense dictated not to lie down if he could help it (curbs, bus seats, benches…).

The thought of the upcoming trip home soured his disposition towards staying until the end of the movie. Jason headed for the lobby. Whatever happened to this gang of Irish dudes he couldn’t tell apart, it wasn’t worth staying.

He wasted several minutes wandering the maze-like halls until he found the restroom. It wasn’t until he was walking out into the main lobby that he realized he hadn’t needed to wait for Damian to finish up. They’d made no arrangements. Damian had made it clear he didn’t need Jason for anything other than a ticket into the film. Once that obligation was expended, their truce wouldn’t hold more than thirty seconds. Damian had probably left already, and Jason should think about ways to get home that wouldn’t feel like stabbing himself in the back.

At least, that would’ve made sense.

Instead, Jason found Damian standing by the front doors. Though he wore civilian clothes, Damian was every inch a Robin, scanning the exiting patrons like a particularly pissed-off usher looking for those who hadn’t paid. His eyes lit on Jason and – went flat. It was too late to pretend he hadn’t been looking for the Red Hood.

“You need something else?” Jason stopped some ten feet before he reached Damian, the flow of patrons continuing around him like fish in a stream.

“You vanished.” Damian didn’t move from his position, though he did pull out a phone and start texting.

“Doesn’t explain why you’re waiting around for me.”

“Partially to see if you were facedown in one of the theatre aisles and they would call an ambulance for you. We have outdated statistics on how long it takes Bludhaven EMS to respond in this area.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Jason shouldered the door open and headed out into the fading afternoon, squinting a little at the bright grey sky. “Again, bye.”

Jason let the theatre door drift shut behind him in hopes it would cut Damian off. No such luck: Damian rammed the door open after him and trailed in Jason’s wake.

“It’s after five on a Friday and you’re attempting to walk back,” Damian said.

“And if I wanted an escort, I would’ve called our resident ex-cop.” Jason zipped up his coat, which helped a little in supporting the strain on his back. “Piss off.”

“If you wanted an uneventful trip, you would be taking the bus.” Damian glanced up at Jason, his eyes barely visible beneath the shadows of the hoodie. “This isn’t a good day to test the limits of your recovery.”

“You don’t take the bus much if you think that’s a safe zone, pipsqueak.”

“Tt. If I’m keeping an eye on your lunatic decision of the day, you will be fine.”

Jason nearly let anger take the wheel but course-corrected. “Am I supposed to be comforted by the idea of you as my guardian angel? Cause that’s not happening.”

Damian scoffed. “Well, what would you prefer, Todd? I suppose I can stay out of sight. You could even pretend you’re being independent. You can hardly be opposed to that.”

The anger pushed through the dam. “‘I can hardly’—do you even remember last time we fought?”

“Yes—"

“You betrayed me. I’ll admit what I’ve done to you is shit, what I’ve done to the family is shit, but we were working together and…” Jason shook his head, trying to frame his thoughts. “Whether or not we’ve ever thought of each other as allies, I don’t like hitting kids. I don’t like threatening kids, when I’ve got my head screwed on right. I certainly don’t enjoy kicking your ass just for you to pull some bluff that should have landed you in a therapist’s office or a 72-hour psych hold. That’s what you all would’ve done to me, if I strapped a friggin’ bomb to my chest to win a fight.”

Damian said nothing.

“I’m not asking for you to be anything other than what you are, but if you think that being ‘out of sight’ – or being around in any way – is going to make me feel comfortable or safe, you’re lying to yourself,” Jason said.

“As if you do anything else,” Damian muttered.

“Sure I do. Secrets and lies are the backbone of the family, but if I’m telling you something, it trumps what you told yourself. So hear this: I’m in Bludhaven. I’m in civvies. I’m not your job. I don’t need you pulling a Batman and pretending you care if I get mugged because ‘every life is sacred.’ Got it? Bye.”

Jason started walking and kept walking until he couldn’t hear the sound of Damian’s footsteps next to him anymore. It didn’t mean he’d left, per se; he could be responding to a fight, or hiding, or plotting. Spotting a bus pulling up near him, Jason got on and clung to the handrail until the next stop three blocks down, then took the next northbound and the next westbound until, finally, he arrived a block from Ric’s apartment complex, certifiably alone.

His back wanted to murder him. Ric’s face when Jason stumbled into the apartment said he wanted to do the same.

“What the hell were you doing?” Ric demanded, his tone more Dick than the disaffected cabbie voice he liked to paint himself with. Jason shrugged and nearly fell onto the allergen-infused couch.

“Went to the movies.”

He fell asleep before Ric could get clarification.

#

Ric didn’t seem enthusiastic about upgrading his apartment’s security, so Jason did all the lease-checking and oblique office-calling necessary to check out what was and wasn’t allowed. Once everything checked out, he began to ‘tinker.’ The resulting repairs should’ve kept out any Bat, rogue, or civilian. The two and a half-week project also replaced sending cat pictures to Tim. In appreciation, Tim sent him GrubHub vouchers and physical therapy Groupon opportunities.

Jason hadn’t told him yet that the unpredictable healing seemed to be accelerating past what would be acceptable in civilian physical therapy. Another couple of weeks and Jason would be in the wind. He might owe them texts of where he was while he was living with Ric, but after this was done, everything could get back to normal.

About two days into the security system’s testing phase, the window opened.

Since it was after eleven at night and Ric wasn’t due home for another several hours, Jason had no qualms about pointing a gun at the entering figure. With his free hand, he muted the episode of Dirk Gently he’d been re-watching.

“State your business,” he drawled from the couch. “We’re all good on religions and girl scout cookies and if you were hoping to steal the TV, it’s in use.”

“I would have called. I didn’t want you to run,” Batman replied. The gun wavered, slightly, before Jason lowered it. Batman hated guns. No point in pointing one at him when he could a) disarm Jason where he sat and b) outmaneuver Jason, period. He’d regained the weight and a (comparative) lot of mobility, but he still wasn’t grappling, patrolling, or sparring, which meant Batman outclassed him in every way that mattered.

“Yeah, what d’you want? Ric’s not here, in case you have a weekend check-in or something.” Jason knew they didn’t. Batman took a couple of steps closer to the couch and stopped when Jason rose to retreat.

“I’m not in Gotham. We never said anything about Ric,” Jason continued. He hoped the underlying panic in his tone didn’t make it through to Batman.

“I’m not here to fight. How is your recovery going?” Batman asked.

“You don’t need to make small talk. Like I said, Ric’s out.”

“I’ve been—your welfare has been of great concern to the manor,” Batman said, sounding as if he’d chosen the words ahead of time. That alone made Jason straighten. It suggested what Bruce had been saying to Tim about wanting to talk was still rattling around his head a month later, which was damn near unheard-of in terms of half-life for Batman’s guilt.

“Well, you can tell Penny-One I’m great, thanks. Ric could use another invitation to dinner and some cooking lessons though.” Jason unpaused the episode.

“I’m not here on Penny-One’s orders,” Batman said, over the noise of Dirk and Todd arguing about lightbulbs. “Tim may have mentioned I wanted to meet with you?”

“Old man, you have wanted to ‘meet’ with me a hundred times. Usually right after I shot someone and especially if it was a member of the family.”

“I think you know this isn’t about that,” Batman replied. “You’ve apologized to the family, individually. Even to Damian.”

“For everything worth apologizing for,” Jason snapped back, pausing the show again. “And I’ve apologized to you for everything I’m gonna, so why are you here?”

“I didn’t come here expecting any apologies from you.” Batman seemed to run the words through some internal filter, hunting for weaknesses in the sentence structure. He corrected himself: “There is nothing else that I need or expect you to apologize for. I came because… I needed to know you were all right.”

“Could’ve texted Tim or Ric.”

Batman grunted. “I wanted to see you. You are my son, however much I’ve screwed that up. And I wanted you to know that… I love you.”

Jason tensed. Some renegade part of him commandeered his mouth and responded: “Yeah, you don’t fucking mean that.”

Batman drew back. The analytical filter ran again. “Yes. I do. I do mean that. All of it.”

“Nah. And like I said, Ric isn’t here, so you can go.” Shit. Jason felt he’d been in the clear with everything he’d been saying prior, but this was getting into the range of cocky. He could probably get out of Ric’s apartment if Bruce took offense, but Jason was still tapping out at about fifteen minutes at a dead run, rather than the usual 90 minutes. The duffel with his gear was in the back bedroom. He shifted, wishing it was closer at hand. Batman’s gaze dropped to follow his foot and the cowl darkened, somehow.

“Why do you keep thinking I want to see Ric?” Batman asked, exasperation creeping into the gruff tone.

“You’ve got a better chance that Ric’ll believe whatever you’re selling.”

“Ric isn’t the one I’ve wronged here. Tim—Tim told you that I accepted your apology?”

Batman sounded like he’d agonized about it, like he hoped Tim hadn’t betrayed him and redacted information. Like he still had one son who thought he was worth trusting. Jason reluctantly confirmed it (“Yeah, Tim told me.”) and Batman visibly relaxed.

Moving slowly to telegraph his movements, Batman turned to close the window blinds. “You remember when we spoke at the diner? We were peaceable then. I’d like to be peaceable now. I’d like to talk.”

“Uh huh.” Some part of Jason’s brain screamed that shutting the blinds wasn’t the action of someone who meant well. It just kept screaming it, even as Bruce kept talking, removed the cowl and stowed it non-threateningly over the end of the couch, but Jason couldn’t very yank open the blinds without inciting comment.

“Not to argue,” Bruce continued. “Not to fight. I’ll stay as far away from you as you like. If you tell me to leave, I’ll go. Just… sit, Jason.”

Jason looked at him, unblinking, for a long moment. It felt like one of those moments where if he could tell Bruce to go, and Bruce actually went, he could never talk to Batman again. However, if he tried to play that card and Bruce didn’t go, Jason didn’t like his odds, having already shown his hand at being uncooperative. Safer to play along.

Plus, if he could make it to the duffel bag in the backroom, he could probably get out the back window in a straight shot and swing to the opposing building. Gotta make that first grappling attempt sometime. Even if Robin was covering the window, as he probably was, both Bats would be too concerned about fatally injuring Jason to use the usual levels of force. Neither was too familiar with Bludhaven, which gave Jason another exploitable advantage.

“Talk then,” Jason said.

#

Bruce hadn’t expected to get this far. All he could think as he removed the cowl was that he didn’t deserve to be here, creating a Hawthorne effect where he couldn’t be sure if Jason stayed because he wanted to stay or because Batman had burst in on him. He’d… tried hard not to burst in. He’d tried to wait for the boy to approach him. Laid awake in bed, thinking about the fact that Jason thought of him with such disdain he could easily put Bruce out of mind, live his life elsewhere without thinking or missing the Bats, after what Bruce had done to him.

Jason had always come back before, he told himself, but that was before. Before Bruce banned him from Gotham, from any hope of reconciliation. One more reason he didn’t deserve to be here: Bruce didn’t know how to begin their conversation.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the injuries?” Bruce asked. Jason shrugged. He’d returned to his seat on the couch, half-lit in the light from the television. Onscreen, someone had been paused in mid-machete swing.

“Yeah, Tim told me you knew now,” Jason said.

“I was worrie—I apologize for intruding on your privacy,” Bruce amended, trying to stick to the script of acceptable dialogue he had compiled before he came here. He’d wished he could go to Tim for support when he was putting it together, but Tim would have stopped him from saying anything at all. Whatever else had happened between them, Red Robin demonstrated a new protectiveness of Jason’s physical and mental health when it came to Bruce. Probably because, aside from the Joker’s homicidal intentions against the Batfamily, Bruce was the greatest actual threat Jason Todd faced.

“Just didn’t want you getting hung up on stuff from a year ago,” Jason muttered. “That all? We good?”

“Jason—you must have known I didn’t mean to—”

“Cause lasting damage? Yeah, no, I figured and it’s a big factor in why you didn’t know.” Despite the bitterness in his words, the boy sounded sincere. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve still got your six.”

Bruce suppressed a flinch at the echo of their diner conversation. “It wasn’t fair of me to tell you that.”

“Why, ‘cause you think I don’t have your six or you don’t have mine?” The bitter tone rang through now. “We have each other’s backs, Bruce. Pretty sure that’s line four, article nine of signing up for the Robin internship program. Right under telling them, ‘and you should get some therapy because I didn’t realize how broken you were’ in your will.”

Ordinarily, he would stop any of his children when they argued in this manner. Jason argued this way most often, bringing the conversation back to the bleeding wounds that, when asked about, he would claim he had long ago moved past. Perhaps, at some level, he had, but these travesties were his only weapons now against the onslaught of small injuries. Damian’s attack and accusations in Texas that Bruce hadn’t addressed because he was fighting with Damian. The loss of Arsenal and the fact that Bruce had only sought him out to tell him and re-ban him from returning to the only place he might find support. Being nearly strangled in the Cave by Bane – an incident both Nightwing and Robin sought him out about for months afterward and Jason never spoke about. Ever.

Bruce sat down on the floor across from Jason, who stiffened, though Bruce was still at least four feet away.

“I’m sorry that was what was indicated,” Bruce said. “I’ve—I’ve been told I’m broken, or that Batman is broken, by so many people that I say it to others without… without thinking. I don’t think you’re broken,” Bruce said. “I wanted the best for you. I wanted to be the best for you, for everyone.”

“You want to be Batman,” Jason interrupted. Bruce nodded, though he wasn’t sure their definitions of Batman quite aligned. Certainly not with the venomous undercurrent in Jason’s voice.

“When Cat left, and you shot the Penguin, I aligned myself against you. Because you were… angry, and you had lied, and you succeeded in criminal intent that moment where I failed at being anything other than Batman. I lost Selina and a part of myself that had lov... then you shot the Penguin and betrayed me in the process. I could tell myself you violated our agreement and that bringing you in was my duty. It could be a... distraction. And when I got there…”

Something in Jason’s expression had shut down, the moment Bruce began explaining. No matter how many words Bruce added, the life wasn’t coming back to his expression.

“You weren’t damn well trying to bring me in,” Jason said and changed position, bracing one foot on the floor.

“No. And I should have been, both times we fought that night. You have to understand – I’m not making excuses. But a week later, I wouldn’t have even done the same thing.”

Jason snorted. “Yeah, no, I got off easy. Days later, you were too busy breaking KGBeast’s neck and leaving him in the snow. That’s put me right off ever threatening Dick again, y’know. Your no-killing rule gets more draconian every year.”

Bruce had prepared no words for the statement and it struck him momentarily dumb. Jason had been carrying around the violence happening to the KGBeast as something that could happen to him, if he mis-stepped seriously enough.

“I… I wouldn’t—!” Bruce began, finally, but Jason interrupted.

“No, because that’s the KGBeast. Dick is your son. I know what you’ll do for your children.”

Bruce knew that if he stood to protest, Jason might start retreating and Bruce wouldn’t be able to get him back. The conversation would be lost, if it wasn’t already. He didn’t have anything else to say except for ‘I’m sorry.’ No excuses of emotional strain, or adrenaline, or Red Hood’s repeated reckless behavior.

He needed something bigger. ‘I love you’ had already been rejected as a falsehood. Alfred could have told him that would happen, if Bruce had consulted him before coming, but the words ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’ left his mouth so rarely that they usually satisfied his children. The thought nauseated Bruce.

“I’m sorry I did this to you. That I haven’t treated you like a son, a Robin, or even an ally.” He felt regret thickening his throat and it was hard to speak past it when his usual reaction was to go quiet and menacing. “That I’ve welcomed you in and shut you out in turns and encouraged the family to do the same. You shouldn’t have to be on your own. Somehow, that’s become the only constant.”

If Dick were here, his acrobat son would make a joke about bats being social creatures, flying out of the cave in a swarm, returning in a swarm, not one small creature out on its own in the night. But Dick wasn’t here. Instead, Bruce had Jason, whose hand twitched towards the television remote, resisting the urge to un-pause the episode and drown Bruce out. They had to be better than this; this was their opportunity.

“I don’t want you out of the family. I can’t see eye to eye with you on some things, but I never want anything like this to happen again. I never want to be so far gone in my feelings that I can’t see you. I want the best for you, Jason,” Bruce continued. “I understand if ‘the best’ is something I can’t offer, but we can… we have to have a better relationship than this. If you're willing.”

“Bruce, Batman is built on the assumption that you are what’s best.” Jason’s chuckle was quiet and contained more hurt than Bruce had expected. “You can’t put a sliver of Batman aside and say ‘but I get that this part’s screwed up and it can never be the best.’ That’s not who you are. You don’t second-guess and you don’t carry acceptable sins and failures around. Not like I do. It’s why you’re not letting me just fade, or get away.”

“You’re the one who keeps coming back to Gotham, Jay.”

“More fool me, okay.” Jason got up from the couch and Bruce thought for one cold moment that he’d lost him. But the boy kept talking. “But the idea that you’re going to accept you’re not capable of coming up with the best solution to a problem? That’s a joke. That’s handling the JL to Hal Jordan for the rest of time. You’re not letting go. You’re saying you’ll step back for now and then try harder when I least expect it. I can’t keep doing that. You welcomed me back into the family as Wingman, a long, long time ago, but nobody but you and eventually Tim ever pretended that was the right move. Maybe it wasn’t.”

Bruce realized then that Jason had retreated not to avoid Bruce, but to hide that his teeth were chattering. Though the shadows in the room did a good job of hiding it, his jaw kept clenching unnaturally. Tim had a similar habit under duress – between them, his Robins were always training Bruce on each other’s tells.

“I believe it was. And no, Jason, I don’t believe I’m the best solution to every problem,” Bruce said, his tone wandering into the realm of protest. “I have to be ready to work alone, to live my life upholding my vow. Yes, that looks like a God complex, as I’ve been told by literal gods. But I don’t believe I’m unflawed or that there haven’t been moments where I am compromised. You know this.”

“‘Upholding your vow’ makes Batman the solution to all crime. Like you just said, attacking me wasn’t really about anything I’d done—”

“That’s not what I said—”

“I heard what you said. You never give your rogues the opportunity to explain their reasoning, do you? Why should you get it? Why didn’t I?”

Bruce fell silent. One of Jason’s hands, the one further from Bruce, clenched into a fist.

“Batman has to be the best solution to crime. Since you can’t kill your rogues to end crime, you have to beat the evil out of them, day after day after day. This is just one more time you tried to use your fists and it happened to be on me, because damn if I’m not a persistent evil, and you didn’t put the brakes on because hell, I’m a Bat. Was a Bat. I can take it. I didn’t tell you anything went wrong because it’s not… it’s not…”

Jason’s shoulders tightened; he shook his head at the couch for a moment, eyes shut in concentration. His teeth had stopped chattering, though Bruce wasn’t sure if the reaction had stemmed from nervousness or rage. When he finally continued, it was in an even tone.

“Because it doesn’t make a difference to your mission. It just makes you feel bad for a little while. I figured that out eventually, while I was at Roy’s, listening to his bad Alfred impressions. All I do when I yell at you is make you feel bad, if you agree with it at all. You may think I enjoy that, you know, ‘cause I’m the loose cannon, but I don’t like wasting my time. Now, if you’d killed me, something would’ve changed about Batman. And I wouldn’t have had to waste much time on it.”

The words had the effect of a charged lightning rod. Bruce went very still. “What change.”

Jason stared off to the side at one of the darkened walls, moving through a complex series of half-formed expressions before continuing.

“You once told me that swearing not to kill kept you off that dark path you wax poetic about being unable to walk down and come back. That’s fair. I’m pissed, but that’s your right. But the way you chose? Your way, working in Gotham’s revolving door of crime, leads to enough pent-up rage that you are nearly killing people on a nightly basis.”

Ah, the Batman part of Bruce’s mind said, He’s exaggerating to fit the narrative.

“Yeah, I’m the blood-drenched one, but that’s a choice I’m making,” Jason continued, his voice growing a little thinner with stress. “I’ll admit to those sins. You’re just… doing everything but pulling the trigger and then thinking that means you’re nothing like me. That you don’t have to fight it becoming rote, or convenient, or dramatic punctuation. If you had killed me, something would have changed about Batman, because you couldn't pretend anymore. And neither of us could pretend that the only option that night would've been to kill me. The Gotham PD might've seen it that way, no judgment there. But the Batman and Bruce Wayne would know putting me down for shooting Penguin wasn't a proportionate use of force. To use GCPD language.”

Bruce had to interrupt at that point: “As I said, there have been incidents where I was compromised, or dealt out violence too easily, but there is a difference in philosophy. I don't kill. You know better than to conflate one or two incidences with—”

Jason shook his head, smiling to himself before Bruce had even reached the end of the sentence.

“Like I said, the only way you’d consider listening to me about this is if you’d killed me. Since you didn’t, there’s no point in discussing it.”

A well-worn worry line appeared between Bruce’s brows. “I’m listening. Don’t pretend it doesn’t matter.”

“It did matter. But between the surgery and whatever regenerative healing the Pit left me, everything got fixed. No long-lasting repercussions. Your kids still have my number if you need an emergency tag-in, but you’re free to go, as far as this shit is concerned, because there’s nothing I can say that makes a difference to you. Which I realized, which is why you weren't supposed to know about the surgery, weren't supposed to know I was in Gotham, and really weren't supposed to come looking for me. Since you did all those things anyway and came by to apologize... good job. You’ve apologized. You're off the hook. Thanks for trying, at everything else.”

“I didn’t come here to be let off the hook,” Bruce said, the tone emerging with a ferocity he hadn’t intended. Jason shifted back a step. “I came because..." There was nothing left to say on his scripts, no pre-approved dialogue other than returning to desperate phrases like 'I don't want to lose you.' Or 'I love you,' which would probably be flat-out rejected again.

"I came because of everything you just said, regardless of how true or untrue I find it, because it came from you. They're not new words to me, but they're new coming from you. That matters. You could come back to Gotham, as Jason Todd, and we could find a path forward. I don't want to be another adversary in your mind. We could be better than that.”

“I’d like you to go,” Jason spoke without even seeming to consider the idea. The next word was uncharacteristic, presented without the confidence or sass Bruce so closely associated with Jason: “...kay?”

The words in Bruce’s throat tugged down at the corners of his mouth until it felt like his jaw must be visibly dislocated. While Bruce wasn’t as skilled at reading body language as Cassandra, Jason’s stance in the shadows projected his disappointment and sadness. Bruce should go. But… this was the longest, more successful dialogue he’d had with his second oldest in years. Jason could be bluffing, testing the waters of Bruce’s interest, or even be unaware of what he wanted.

“Jay—"

“You said you’d go.” Light from the television shifted along Jason’s pant leg as he moved a little towards the door to the back bedroom. The stance became unmistakably tense. “You’ll have to schedule a follow-up with my assistant, see if he can find a slot for you.”

He’d bolt, Bruce realized, recognizing in Jason’s stance a clear preparedness to break a window, out of gear, if Batman didn’t leave right now. Bruce took a breath and apologized again. Jason shrugged, his expression disaffected… or feigning such.

“Get some sleep,” Bruce said, heading back towards the window. As he did, Jason shifted away from the back room, returning to his original placement on the couch. Maybe Bruce hadn’t forced Jason to consider Ric’s entire apartment compromised.

“Lock the window on your way out.” Jason eased himself back onto the couch with false casualness and un-paused the episode. “Ric’s testing a security system.”

Chapter Text

Ric arrived home just after 3 a.m. to find that that the atmosphere in his apartment had changed. Why, and when, were two questions unanswered by the tomb-silent space. The only light in the main room, aside from what shone in from the complex’s hallway, came from the open window and the glowing red end of a cigarette, held in the shadowy fingers of someone sitting on the windowsill.

Jason being awake wasn’t a surprise. Neither of the former Robins slept sound (or normal) hours and practically took turns having nightmares. Ric had woken up more than a few times, and woken up Jason in turn, to rhythmic knocking on the wall, whenever Bea didn’t stay over and wake Ric up herself. Ric never remembered his nightmares, Jason never spoke about his, and neither pushed the other for details.

However, smoking wasn’t Jason’s usual coping mechanism. Ric didn’t even know where he’d been hiding the cigarettes. A glance to the ceiling for the green glow of the smoke detector came back dark.

“Took ‘em out.” Jason had spotted Ric’s line of sight and waved one of the deactivated devices in two fingers. “I’ll put ‘em back. Pay for any heating bills too.”

“Who’s gonna pay for your hypothermia?” Ric asked, locking the door behind him. “I can hear your teeth chattering.”

The cigarette’s glowing end wavered erratically as Jason held it out to exhale. They must be Bea’s, Ric realized. She had likely stashed some here after the last time she quit (which was flattering in its own way), and Jason had found them.

“Bea’s gonna kill you,” he told Jason.

“Many have tried,” Jason said, stubbing out the spent end. Ric was about to protest at the damage to the windowsill when he realized Jason had already found a banged-up coaster to use as an ashtray. Jason still looked up at Ric’s intake of ready-to-be-angry breath, a look of anxiety in his eyes.

“Whoa, something happen?” Ric asked.

“Late night.” The expression vanished. Jason suddenly looked like he regretted stubbing out the cigarette and slipped off the sill, taking the makeshift ashtray into the kitchen where Ric heard the faucet gurgle to life. With Jason thus occupied, Ric investigated the window, hoping he wouldn’t find what he was looking for.

A clear set of incoming scuffmarks stood out on the white surface. Distinctive ‘Bat’ bootprints, and too large for Robin or Red Robin.

“Jay?” Ric called into the kitchen.

“Mm?”

“How’d the security system hold up?”

An angry clatter came as Jason presumably dropped the coaster into the sink, clanging against the metal sides. “It’s shit. I’ll have to start over.”

Ric eased himself to sit on the windowsill after wiping it clear of the ash Jason had missed. He had gone over by three hours on his planned shift tonight but that came with the added bonus of having gotten a quiet fare to Queens and a $100 tip for his trouble. After the silence of a long drive and knowing Bea would already be asleep at her home, Ric felt awake and good to go for a conversation. Judging by Jason’s red-rimmed eyes and the fact that the stubbed-out cigarette hadn’t been his first, Ric’s ‘roommate’ wouldn’t sleep unless he talked anyway. Ric shot off a text to Tim and asked him to swing by the apartment during his patrol. No urgency, he emphasized, it’d just be good to have a Bat around who was actually on their side.

“So, tell me about it,” Ric said, setting down the phone.

Jason’s dark shape moved to lean against the exterior kitchen wall. “I don’t know what he did to get in. The window was just opening all of a sudden. Must’ve known you were out because I don’t think he came planning to talk to anybody else.”

“And?” Ric crossed to the side table to switch on one of the soft lamps Bea had bought him. Overhead light could be glaring, this time of night, but he didn’t know if he could conduct an entire conversation with Jason visible only in silhouette. Jason squinted a little at the sudden light – they both did – but it wasn’t a deal breaker for the conversation.

“And he got his conversation, made his apology, rah rah Batman,” Jason said.

“Invited you back to Gotham?”

“I think he’d invite me to dine with him in Valhalla if he thought I’d come.” The growl in Jason’s voice dared Ric to do anything so stupid as to ask if he was okay.

“You leaving?” Ric asked.

“No. I’m in Blud. He doesn’t own the whole damn state. Yet.” The growl in Jason’s voice had lessened a little.

“Good.”

Ric waited.

“And how was your night?” Jason asked innocently and Ric had to resist the urge to shake him. Ric had amnesia, he wasn’t a buffoon; they were discussing Bruce breaking into the apartment and the idea that that was the end of it was laughable. Never mind that Bruce hadn’t needed to break in anyway; the man should’ve had a physical key because he rented the damn place, but no, Bruce had had to break in and now Jason was going to be… Jason about it. Ric adopted the poker face he usually wore while driving.

“Well, somebody broke into my home, so that kind of sucked, but my roommate chased them off without shooting them, so, silver linings, I guess. And I got a hundred-dollar tip on a quiet fare to Queens. Course, I’m guessing now that that was because a crime boss got wind that Batman was in Blud and wanted to avoid an encounter. Which would explain the tip and the quiet. ”

“See, there are perks to having me around.” Jason’s face became briefly lit with the flare of another cigarette. When Ric raised an eyebrow, Jason huffed and crossed the room to hold the cigarette outside the window, raising an eyebrow in response as if to say ‘happy now?’

“I’m just glad you didn’t shoot up the wall,” Ric said.

“In a residential condo with people living on the other side? Give me some credit, Dick.”

Ric wasn’t sure if the slip was unintentional or an attempt at a joke. Either way, he filed the tone away for later follow-up.

Jason took another long drag on the cigarette, blinking at the thick haze that covered Bludhaven by night. Sometimes Ric understood why Nightwing had chosen here to operate; he could imagine losing himself in the haze and the crime and the endless work because it made a difference to someone… and then someone would look at it the way Jason was right now. Like it was just a flat plane of street noise and fog, interrupted by screams and crying and only once in a while by laughter. Jason must have been thinking the same thing, because he shook his head and looked inside the apartment instead.

“God, I’ll never understand how you all stay in cities,” Jason said. “Much less one city, like you damn well claimed it.”

“Jobs.”

Jason’s bark of laughter was the first laugh Ric had heard from him in a week. “Yeah, you’re real hard up for funds, Ricky.”

Ric waited for the other to continue this sentence, but Jason seemed in no hurry, finishing out the rest of the cigarette.

“He seriously came all the way to Blud to tell you he was sorry and leave?” Ric asked.

“Nah. Wanted to know about the surgery and why I hadn’t told him. Wanted me to be part of the family. Hit all the goalposts of the right things to say.” His tone drifted again; Ric could hear Jason second-guessing himself, which only added to the strangeness of the night. Jason’s baseline mood seemed to oscillate between righteous anger, mild pissed-offed-ness, and gut-wrenching apologies; little time existed for second guessing.

“Did you hit all the goalposts of what you wanted to say?” Ric asked. “You’re sounding like there’s stuff.”

“Touched on ‘em. Most of ‘em. I can’t get into an argument with him yet, so that’s a whole… thing.”

Ric cocked his head to the side, an invitation for elaboration.

“He feels automatically threatened by anybody in the thirty feet of his precious suit. Bats fly high, you know. Out of range. And I grew up a street kid in Gotham, where you learn to argue big and loud, be a punk, or you’ll get curb-stomped. So, I have instinct, he has ‘preferences,’ and neither of us switch them off well.” A muscle in Jason’s jaw tightened and he grimaced, continuing: “I can do diplomacy with everybody else. Not Bruce. There’s too much history. I tend to get close, get loud, and it sets off all the alarm bells in the back of his mind that he should be ‘subduing the threat.’ Points to me, his arguing skills go to hell. Points from me, he might decide, based on said history, that I’m,” Jason imitated flicking a switch. “Too angry to be ‘safe’.”

“Did he seem violent?” Ric asked, wondering in the back of his mind what he could even do about it. Jason had been working on the security system for weeks and had better knowledge of Bat-tactics than most. If they wanted stronger security efforts, they’d have to have him switch residences and Ric wasn’t sure Jason would stick around for another move.

“No. Pretty sure he sees me as a flight risk, not a threat.” Traces of anxiety were threaded through the statement. It had probably been a long time since Jason hadn’t been a ‘threat’ to Bruce. From where it sat on the windowsill, Ric’s phone chimed with a text – he ignored it even as Jason homed in on the sound.

“Will he be back?” Ric asked.

“Didn’t sound like it. He left disappointed. I’d probably have to, like you said, shoot up a wall to get him back here.” Jason snatched the phone and checked the received text. “Oh good, Timmy’s coming over.”

“We did have a break-in. Thought we could use a Bat on-site.” Ric hoped the explanation would hold its own weight, even as Jason scoffed.

“Hey, as an ex-Bat, I kept this place damn safe.”

“You’re the one he’s here for!”

“Which is a Jason Todd problem. Red doesn’t need to be involved. Bats has already demonstrated he’s not gonna drag you into it. Only one without a choice here is prob’ly Robin. And Alfred, though I doubt he signed off on this visit.”

Had it been a different night, Ric would’ve left Jason to this grumpy, somewhat melodramatic point of view. But, with the quiet shift and knowing Tim was on his way to watch their backs, it felt ridiculous to go to bed knowing that Jason would continue fidgeting around the apartment, ruining his lungs with cigarettes and avoiding sleep. Ric cast his mind back to Tim’s stress in the motel room over not finding Jason and wished, not for the first time, that this family was a little better about asking for what they needed. At least with fares, he got an address or a place name to head towards. Working with the Waynes was just guessing 24/7.

“How would Dick help you?” he asked. Jason made a derisive sound.

“No offense, he wouldn’t.”

That was new information. Everyone had been telling him the sunshine shone out of the acrobat’s fingertips (yeah, no one had said fingertips), so hearing that Dick had ever opted out of an opportunity to help was… odd.

“It’s his dad too,” Ric said, the words feeling very strange coming out of his mouth. “His dad beat up his little brother, who eventually ended up in the hospital, and now their dad has broken into the apartment they share so he can have a private conversation with his victim. Dick would do… nothing about that?”

Jason didn’t appear to know what expression to make. Shock was a major contender, followed closely by wariness and confusion and something that Ric didn’t want to think of as hope. Expressing hope meant Ric having a grasp of the situation within the context of ‘this happened to my family’ was more than Jason had thought likely. Which meant either he had an extremely low opinion of Ric’s intelligence (possible) or it was so out of character for Dick to give a shit that Jason didn’t trust it (likely – damnit).

“I—I don’t know what he’d do,” Jason amended and now the second-guessing was giving way to all-out uncertainty. “I don’t think he’d think about it like that. I don’t think anyone thinks about it like that. ‘cept Alfred.”

“Dare I ask why?”

“You’re already helping with housing. Don’t drag up Dickshit if you don’t have to. I’m serious.”

Fine. Ric tried to go to bed. It didn’t come naturally to leave things alone, especially when he could hear Jason fidgeting around the apartment; the shutting of the window then, a half hour later, its opening again. When Ric came out into the little hallway from his bedroom and flicked on the light, Jason was sitting on the floor with his back against the wall, bleary-eyed over a laptop screen. He looked like a terrible Tim cosplay, complete with puzzled expression and tapping unhappily at the keys.

“Jason.”

The glow of a laptop screen from a low angle flattered no one, but on Jason it was downright concerning. He looked up at Ric, expressionless, or maybe that was just the exhaustion and the late hour.

“I’m not Dick,” Ric said. He was tired of telling people this. “If you need to talk about something with him, you talk about it with me.”

Sometime in the past hour Jason had recollected his thoughts and with clarity had come his usual snarkiness. He smirked at Ric and refocused his attention on the screen, shaking his head.

“Nope. Sorry. Memories being gone isn’t the kind of thing that sticks around. Not for people like us. It’s nice, what you’re doing, but eventually you’ll be Dick Grayson again and he’s going to see all these ‘trust-building exercises’ as cheating.”

“Bullshit,” Ric replied. “This is who I am now. Get used to it.”

Jason ignored the tone. “Maybe, if I was on the Batclan train believing this whole amnesia thing is permanent, I’d try, but no. This is temporary. This is purgatory for you. Limbo, transitory. Other synonyms.”

“If they think it’s so permanent, why didn’t they drag me back to being Nightwing?” Ric countered.

“Because Bruce wants what’s best for you and in a rare turn of events, he’s letting you decide what that looks like.” Jason flinched a little at his own statement, as if running his finger over a paper cut, and tried to return his attention to the laptop screen. “And I’d argue they’ll call on you the next time Gotham has a Bat-level crisis, no matter who you think you are.”

“Then that call’s gonna go to voicemail. Or we’ll cut a deal where I go if you go. They’ll never see a team-up coming.”

Jason shut the laptop and shadows cloaked the room, battled only by the small light in the hall. He sat very still for a long moment, almost invisible, and Ric wondered if he’d gone to sleep.

“Ja—"

“We don’t team up,” Jason interrupted, in a flat, low tone.

“Why.”

Realizing the statement had been too dark, Jason tried to veer back to snark: “Because last time I asked for Dick Grayson’s help, he spent the entire time flirting with my teammate.”

Ric conceded that that sounded like what he’d heard of Dick. He hoped that wasn’t the heart of whatever this was though, or he was going to have to downgrade his understanding of Jason’s maturity by half a dozen steps. Instead, he took up a lean against the wall and provided an ultimatum: “I will change the wifi password if you don’t get to the core of what this is.”

To Ric’s relief, this threat appeared to adequately frustrate Jason into talking.

“Because—damnit. Because Dick Grayson wants people to be happy. So… so he’s gotta be happy. He’s gotta forgive everybody, because you can’t make people happy if you’re mad at them. He said that at a press meeting once, so if it sounds like a children’s story, it’s because it was reported by an actual 5’10 child.”

“And he can’t forgive you,” Ric guessed.

Jason’s expression twisted a little in discomfort, and he shrug/nodded. “With everything I’ve done, he sees me and part of him rears back in alarm and the other part pushes him towards me like, ‘look, it’s a friend!’ He tries to forgive me, because he’s decided to live his life like he has to keep trusting every damn dog that’s mauled him, and he can’t. No part of him forgot being mauled, he’s just tried to segment it into a different part of his head and it screams from there that I’m fucking dangerous, that I tried to take away people you loved and who the hell allows me to keep running around doing shit."

Jason glowered at the ground a little longer. It continued to be strange for Ric to see him second-guess his own words, visibly weighing what needed to be said and what couldn't be said. And the fact that Jason behaved as if their relationship going forward depended on choosing the right words, in the right order, in this moment.

He glanced up at Ric, committing to another strand of words: "I used to get the Bat-call for crisis events, and you’d have to work with me and you… you just suck at hiding rage, Ricky. Dick always had a hundred interpersonal dramas going on, and he never wanted to be reminded of things he couldn’t get over.”

Internally, all of Ric’s newfound skills as a cabbie and as boyfriend to a bartender sighed. He didn’t sigh out loud, because he could read between the lines of Jason’s tone. If Dick’s anger was that apparent, it meant he was angry at himself more than anything – at being unable to forgive Jason and being reminded of that every time he saw the Red Hood.

Ric had already found that experiencing anger at himself tended to trump the ‘hide anger at other people’ rule, which meant that when seeing Jason triggered feelings of self-loathing in Dick, Jason then perceived those feelings as anger at Jason himself, who probably had his own feelings of self-loathing to trigger, and Ric suddenly felt like banging his head into the wall repeatedly at the insanity of the cycle.

He needed to buy Bea more drinks and do more listening, if this was what she was doing every shift.

“Did you ever tell Dick about this theory?” Ric asked, without allowing the wall-banging idea to fully take root as an option.

Jason shook his head. No, of course he hadn’t said anything. God forbid anyone in this family talked about things before they came to a crisis point.

“So you just carry around an image of yourself as a dog that mauls people.” Ric didn’t know how else to move the conversation forward, other than by leading Jason into a different train of thought (again, skills he was learning from Bea). “It’s very badass.”

“Tim’s got his brand, I’ve got mine.”

“Pretty sure you’re better than that.”

Jason looked floored by the statement, as if distant alarm bells had started ringing somewhere in his mind at the inaccuracy. He slid the laptop off his lap and onto the floor next to him. Ric was coming to realize tonight that the younger man did have significantly more expressions than righteous anger, pissed-off, and apologetic. There was also shocked and speechless, both of which Jason was currently demonstrating.

“You don’t even—” Jason began, but Ric interrupted this time.

“I’m what’s real. I can take you feeling all sorts of shit about Dick, believe me. But people who give a shit about you – like your siblings are supposed to – don’t let you walk around pretending you’re a dog who mauls people.”

Jason got to his feet, a process which still took about thirty seconds longer than he seemed to think it should. Ric suspected it was one of the primary reasons he avoided sitting on the floor.

“You don’t need to make up for things you have nothing to do with.” Jason set down the words like a barrier and, if Ric had actually wanted to be relieved of the responsibility of this fractured family dynamic, it would’ve been easy to just take it at face value. He didn’t have to deal with this. Bed was finally starting to sound pleasant and sleep accessible. He could step off, let Jason continue researching other housing options, let it slip.

Instead, Ric said: “So, you planning to treat me as a non-person until I’m Dick again?”

“That’s not what I said,” Jason said, sounding a little wary and a lot tired. Good, now that they were both tired, they would be on equal footing.

“Doesn’t change what’s happening. You said this is purgatory for me. Maybe it is, but it was hell. For the first few months, I was so angry I did nothing but drink and flirt with the bartender until I went back to sleep in my cab, and did the same thing the next day. Then Bea told me that if I had access to financial help, like frigging Bruce Wayne, I should damn my pride and take it. Because I’d be in a better position to help other people, she said, who could help other people, who could help other people and Bea isn’t ‘purgatory-adjacent,’ by the way. She understands people. The Bats might talk them off rooftops, but she makes sure a lot of people don’t end up there in the first place. She’s definitely the reason Ric is talking to you right now and didn’t tell you and Tim to get out of his life.

“So I’m not dead. I’m here,” Ric said. He shoved Jason slightly on the shoulder, not hard enough to destabilize, just hard enough to remind the younger man that he was solid. Present. Both things that appeared to be important to Jason. “You and I don’t have baggage. Seems like you do with everybody else, but you don’t have to with me. I’m surprised you’ve kept coming back and trying with the family, to be honest.”

Jason kept looking at the hand on his shoulder, expression growing increasingly torn. Not knowing what else to do, Ric decided to pat Jason’s shoulder a couple of times (his hand was already there anyway). Surprising him again, Jason didn’t move away or make a sarcastic remark, though he did stop making eye contact. Silence persisted for several more seconds before giving way to a sigh.

“I keep losing people.” Jason’s words barely cleared the threshold of audible, but Ric had been listening for them. “This stupid family is the closest thing to invincible I’ve found. An’ I could be friends with the Kents, I guess, but I’m not rabbit-people and I feel like the Kents’re all taken at this point and if Bruce found out I was friends with his best friend’s family, he’d just keep an eye on me that way. My people keep dying or disappearing an’ I’m running out of ways to meet new ones. So.” The rushed sentence ended in almost a raspy whisper, uncertain of itself.

When it became apparent that Jason wasn’t going to say anything else, Ric sighed and let ‘Dick’ do what he wanted. What the remnants of Dick perpetually wanted to do with people in distress, whatever their previous baggage had been.

Jason hadn’t expected a hug and so was unprepared to move out of range in time.

It felt, for the first few seconds, like hugging a cat that had no intention of being hugged: Jason’s posture went concave until Ric worried the movement would aggravate his healing back, not unlike a cat’s fur going the wrong way. Then Jason rolled his shoulder blades, as if to suggest hugging was normal and not cause for concern at all, which was a hilarious nonverbal lie. Ric—Dick— still hadn’t let go, so Jason finally had to settle, muttering obligatory complaints as he did about Dick only ever having one solution to problems he couldn’t punch. There might have been a failed joke or two in there about betraying his ‘street cred.’

“I forgive you for mauling me,” Ric said. “You can tell Dick I said so.”

“I forgive you for bein’ in purgatory,” Jason said in that same controlled undertone.

They had a moment of silence before Jason chuckled and tugged away from the hug. Ric let him – hugs were really a ‘Dick’ remnant anyway and Ric tended to quickly regret the entire decision.

“What?” Ric asked, referring to the amusement.

“Nothin’. Just… you’re in purgatory and you’re dating a girl named Beatrice and she makes you a better man…”

“So?”

“You aren’t a big fan of the Divine Comedy, are you?”

“Is that a new show?”

Jason was still chuckling when Ric turned out the lights and went to bed, though Ric spared a second to check the unread messages on his phone. Sometime in his and Jason’s conversation, Red Robin had texted to confirm that the area was secure, though he wouldn’t be visiting the apartment itself.

Good. All things considered, Ric felt comfortable calling the night ending on a high note. At some point, he mused, they would have to have an actual, family meeting on neutral ground. He rolled this thought around in his head for a moment, wishing he could think of an alternative option, but treating the incident as isolated to the two of them wasn’t working. He texted the musing to Tim and finally, finally went to sleep, even as morning light began to tint the walls of his room periwinkle.

Chapter Text

Tim’s patrol kicked off with the sound of a tsunami warning (false alarm, as it turned out), and went downhill from there. By the time Ric texted him to swing by Bludhaven, Tim almost texted back to tell him that the Bats did a lot more than hang around places to prevent things that might happen and where he could shove his ‘swing by’ idea.

Spoiler, having read Ric’s text over Tim’s shoulder, tempered that impulse.

Reluctantly, Tim asked for more information. Upon learning Batman had already visited Jason like one of Scrooge’s three spirits, agreed that it would be good to have a fully capable Bat in the vicinity. It meant he wouldn’t be sleeping at all, or might be crashing at one of Nightwing’s long-disused safehouses, but that was nothing new.

“You can spend the trip thinking of ways to spend our dateiversary,” Steph told him, already planning her route uptown where a bank robbery was in progress. “I’m thinking Thai and some movie where the physics don’t make sense.”

“Haven’t we watched all the Fast and the Furious movies?” Tim asked, half-joking, half-begging. The bandwidth required to do all the physics calculations watching Fast and Furious movies wildly outpaced his capacity and the dates spent watching them devolved into Tim pleading with the screen to ‘stop doing that’. He had similar feelings about Captain America’s relationship with his shield. Steph loved both the films in question and Tim’s typical reaction.

“There’s a new one. It’s the most American-looking movie I’ve ever seen. You’ll love it.” She grinned, an expression he’d learned to watch for over the mask as her eyes crinkled up and were almost lost in shadow. “Get going. I’ll pester the Bats and let you know when I know the Big Bat’s back in town.”

“You’re the best.”

“Preaching to the choir.” She flipped off in the direction of the robbery, leaving Tim to descend, find his cycle, change its configuration from ‘Bat’ to ‘civilian,’ and put on some civilian clothes. When travelling from Gotham to Bludhaven, it was much easier to go in civilian clothes, especially if travelling by cycle. Interestingly, people didn’t tend to get upset when Bats came tearing back into Gotham from Bludhaven. It was more when they saw their heroes leaving Gotham that people got (understandably) concerned.

After arriving at the Bludhaven apartment complex and stashing the cycle, Tim shot off an ‘I’m here’ text to Ric, noting that he’d missed texts from both Steph and Damian on the way.

‘Babybat’s in Blud looking for you,’ Steph had texted. Then: ‘Sounds like he was with the Bat earlier.’ Then: ‘Gotham confirmed, just saw Batman over 33rd and Klosterman. No Robin.’

Damian’s text followed: ‘Brown says you’ve been called to Bludhaven. Meet me at these coordinates.’ A latitude and longitude pinged the moment Tim read the text.

‘I’m already on mission,’ Tim replied, trying not to sound as irritable as he felt. ‘Go home.’

‘Batman is back in Gotham. Ric is with Todd. You’re not needed.’ And the coordinates were sent again. Tim glared at the text for a long, decision-making moment before texting Ric that he was in the city, Batman was back in Gotham, and Tim wouldn’t be coming by the apartment yet, though he would be sticking around the rest of the night. Also, his battery was low so texting should be kept to a minimum. Accordingly, Ric didn’t reply.

Tim found Damian wearing full Robin gear on the roof of Bludhaven’s movie theater, legs tucked up under him in a meditative pose. Bruce had made sure they could all meditate in the field, because a panicking, uncentered teenager couldn’t help anyone, but it wasn’t common practice when working solo. Too much could happen. It always felt stressful to Tim, to be both present in the world and deliberately separating himself from it in a time of crisis. As recent tragedy had demonstrated, it was all too easy to gun down someone on the edge of a building. Plus, didn’t Bludhaven have some ‘Nightwing’ vigilante-wannabes running around now? None of them could afford to get arrested in Bludhaven. Certainly not Damian.

They hadn’t said a word to each other yet and Tim was already regretting coming.

“Long night?” Tim landed lightly at the edge of the rooftop and took a moment to retract the grappling line. When he looked back, Damian had leapt to his feet.

“I have had shorter. Come on.”

“I heard Batman brought you on his Blud run.” Tim fell into pace behind the younger Robin.

“As backup.” Damian spat out the words, his step quickening while he approached the edge of the rooftop at the rear of the building. “I didn’t bring you here to blab about Father. I noted several weeks ago that there has been a dramatic increase in substance use and corresponding mortality rates around the theater, and—”

Tim did some quick mental calculations around the vague ‘several weeks ago’ and came up with several plausible options. “Wait, why were you in Blud at all?”

“To investigate the spike, try to keep up.”

The answer sounded too rehearsed. Particularly given that a) the R-rated ‘Bloodwar’ film had come out a couple of weeks prior, b) Gotham theaters had never been impressed with the ‘son of Bruce Wayne’ act, and c) it sounded very Damian to go to Blud just to avoid asking his father to take him to a movie. Tim gambled on the logical deduction.

“So was your movie any good?”

“Acceptable except for the company.” Robin tugged the black hood up and leapt down onto the fire escape, still managing to land with low levels of noise on the metal structure. “Much like now. Are you helping or talking?”

As they descended, Damian briefed him on the blueprints of the theatre and where tonight’s anticipated shipment was located, based on his earlier recon. The fact that he’d done recon on his own came up as a red flag in Tim’s mind, but he’d learned to pick his battles with Damian. The thugs were holed up in what was once a speakeasy, located within the cinema basement. Bludhaven had dozens of these abandoned spaces, which had been intermittently used and discarded as the city’s cops were bribed, replaced, or grew consciences and tried to restore order. Damian was adamant that the Bats probably wouldn’t even have to fight indoors, not if he could lure them out into the alley, where he and Tim could pick them off one by one.

It wasn’t the kind of plan Damian usually asked for help with. The arsenal they faced wasn’t significant either, compared to most of their fights and based on Damian’s recon. Still, if Damian thought he needed backup, he probably did. Tim wouldn’t complain about being called in – as long as they got to the bottom of this soon. Once briefed, Tim took up a supporting position, keeping an eye on the sky for any unwelcome vigilante ‘support,’ and Damian vanished inside to roust the expected five to ten thugs.

The resulting fight in the alley took eleven minutes. Tim had time to keep track because it was glaringly obvious that Damian didn’t need him... and that Robin hadn’t worked with any partner other than the Bat for some time now. Every time Tim spotted an opening and moved to assist, Damian would cut off the effort, seemingly without even noticing that he’d blocked Tim’s line of attack. Pointing it out would have just pissed him off, so Tim held back his comments and, eventually, withdrew to let Damian work out whatever this was. From that vantage point, he noted that, adding to the weirdness, Damian was working in total silence. Robin usually couldn’t resist an over-confident remark or two, even if he didn’t go in for the usual level of banter.

Still, by the end of the fight, Tim had thrown all his points into being analytical to avoid taking Damian’s head off. Either something had seriously upset the younger Robin or…

“Did you call me here to show off?” Tim asked, once Damian finished restraining the thugs. “Because that’s what I’m coming up with.”

“No,” Damian said, looking back at him through narrowed eyes. “I called you to pick up the slack. Obviously.”

“What slack?”

“What do you mean, what—I was… are you making fun of me?” Damian had a broad deck of cards when it came to what emotion he wanted to display; his current reaction was strictly limited to surprise and indignation. Honest, in other words.

“I’ve been doing nothing for the past eleven minutes, Robin.”

“Weren’t you…” Robin frowned beneath the domino. “Hn.”

Okay. Change tactics. “I think…”

“Did you want a medal?”

I think, you’re compromised, somehow, but it’s not affecting your patrol.”

Damian made a noncommittal sound and directed his attention back towards the entryway to the building.

“Which means, you wanted me here to verify if it’s affecting your patrol.”

Another noncommittal sound.

“…you wanna talk about it?”

Instead of replying, Damian strode towards the entryway, saying something about clearing the space and making sure Bludhaven PD would be able to find the shipment. The statement was delivered off to the side and not in Tim’s direction, never requiring Damian to meet Tim’s gaze; whatever was bothering him, it ran deep. Tim opened a private line over their comms (‘Fine, I’m on your six.’) and followed him through the entryway.

The entry was more of a break in the building’s envelope than a door, leading to a steep handful of unlit and decaying basement stairs. The thermals showed nothing living down here but rodents; due diligence required that they sweep it before calling the police department. It wouldn’t send a good message if the Bats left any intelligent and heavily-armed ‘surprises’ for the police.

Finding nothing in the stairway, the pair emerged into the reception area, lit by a collection of dimmed electric lanterns. The lanterns wouldn’t be any use in finding the shipment unless they were brighter, which would attract attention, so both Damian and Tim left them on the antique reception desk where they sat. Damian ducked into the coat check room (only one entry and exit) and Tim took up position next to it, keeping an eye out for any unusual shadows.

“So what did B have you doing?” Tim asked. Damian grunted, reemerging from the tiny room to crouch behind the reception desk.

“Guarding a window. I thought it inappropriate and told him as much, but he has been a nuisance, moping around the Cave and such. I hoped getting the apology he insisted on making out of the way would help.” Damian emerged from beneath the desk with several semi-automatics in hand, which he and Tim spent a moment unloading the ammunition from before moving into the next room – still close-quarters but featuring a good-size bar and accompanying shelving… and practically nonexistent lighting, compared to the lanterns in the room beyond. The comms allowed the Robins to speak quietly, picking up vocal inflections that would be inaudible to everyone else.

“I did not expect Hood to have a point to his argument.” Damian scowled into the darkened room ahead of them and crept forward towards the bar. “You of all people know how insufferable he is when he has a point.”

“Still in the dark as to said point,” Tim pointed out.

“He believes Batman has become blind to his own brutality. I… struggle to argue.”

Tim hummed and thought ‘shit.’

He had hoped that Dick had this conversation with Damian when they were Batman and Robin and Tim was persona non grata.

“What makes you say that?” Tim asked. He knew better than to try and make the question sound casual, like Dick would, so he went for a ‘disinterested’ tone and busied himself rifling through the far side of the bar’s various drawers. Almost immediately, he found a key taped beneath the counter.

“Physical and emotional responses,” Damian replied. “Increasingly blurred lines between allies and enemies. I thought I was the only one who had noticed the degradation, but if Hood has noticed, it’s common knowledge.”

Tim ripped the key off the tape, unsure how to respond to this. They all saw different sides of Bruce Wayne, of Batman, and where the two collided. Dick chalked Batman up to a deliriously unhealthy coping mechanism for Bruce’s trauma which nevertheless drove him to help the city of Gotham. He’d told Tim once that being Robin let him feel like he could save Bruce, the way Bruce had saved him, and that forcibly taking Batman away would drive him mad. So Dick needled and nudged about change but was careful to never totally shut Bruce out or give him an ultimatum. And Batman and Bruce maintained some kind of balance, until Dick left, and Jason died.

As a result, Tim’s relationship with Bruce Wayne was forged in a fracture – misnamed, unwanted and underestimated – and meant Tim saw more of Bruce than he should have. Dick’s rebellion against Batman challenged Bruce to be more emotionally mature than he had ever let himself become. Jason’s death fragmented what Bruce thought he was fighting for. And Tim… Tim believed that the right partner could patch Bruce back together. He just wasn’t the right partner, maybe. He’d believed that for a long time, even as he had to broaden the definition of ‘not the right partner’ to include Steph, and Damian, and Cass, and Duke – exemplary people by anyone else’s standards. They all just kept duct-taping or forgiving things and Dick and Alfred kept gently reminding Bruce that the Batman didn’t have to be the only answer. Bruce was already leaving a legacy. He didn’t have to die the Batman to solidify it. And in that way, they got by.

They had all held their breath when marriage was on the horizon, willingly embracing the hope that a life-long partner might be able to do for Bruce what family had not. As usual, when the Bats dared to hope, things fell apart. Spectacularly.

And now even Damian, raised by the League, could see it.

“Is it something you all associate with me being here then?” Damian asked and now Tim could hear the strain in his voice. “If even the black sheep knows—”

“No. It existed before you and has nothing to do with you. Everyone came to their own reasoning about Batman alone, at different times. No one blamed you,” Tim said, before the younger Robin could derail into all-out scorned/vengeance mode. He didn’t say what Dick had always said: That Bruce was better with Damian, that seeing a child mirroring his actions had made the Batman take stock of himself and temper the violence. That for all the pair fought and disagreed, Bruce bled his heart and soul into the child and Damian gave it back in as much love as he was capable of, a supply that grew over time.

“We came to our own conclusions and then… we try to stay unified,” Tim finished. Like a family, he’d always told himself. Like siblings, not that he would know. Batman was all most of them shared, aside from each other.

“And you’ve left me out of this ‘unity,’ what a surprise,” Damian said, voice still barely above a mutter.

“Nobody left you out on purpose, Robin. Telling ten-year-old you not to trust your father wouldn’t have helped you. You might never have trusted Nightwing. You sure as hell didn’t trust anyone else.”

“I was not given a selection of highly trustworthy partners,” Damian sniffed, watching Tim head for the door nearly hidden behind the bar. It was locked, which made it the gambling den and/or the arsenal – or the stockpile. Tim motioned Damian closer as backup and fit the key into the lock.

The door had opened several centimeters when Tim heard Damian’s breath hitch in his throat, a stutter of something suddenly remembered. The younger Robin snatched at Tim’s hand too late. “Red, there’s a trapdoor in the—”

The door had already swung open to reveal a surprised twenty-something blonde man in a Nightwing costume.

Tim stepped swiftly backwards; the man matched his movement with a lunge forward that was impressive in its transition from surprise to action. With his left arm, Tim bracketed Damian out of the way, relocating the younger Robin towards the hinges of the door where it would be more difficult for the blonde Nightwing-wannabe to attack him, if he managed to pivot.

Regrettably, this action put Tim’s back to the door, where another Nightwing – a woman – swung down from the ceiling (ah, that would be the trapdoor) to land expertly on Tim’s shoulders and begin pummeling his head. Tim displaced the woman’s position before she could get a lock on him and retreated from the doorway aka. clown car of wannabe Nightwings, back into the spacious-by-comparison main room.

Damian had taken on Blonde Nightwing. The man had foolishly installed and now triggered some kind of light bracelets on his costume, which made him highly-visible in the dim light, so he was catching grief from Robin. Another thirty seconds to a minute, maybe more. Two Nightwings would have been more than enough, but Tim felt, rather than heard, another swing in through the trapdoor and land with a thump. They had a heavy fighter?

A heavy Nightwing. The sentence didn’t even make sense.

“Robin, final check!” he ordered, snapping the bo into a defensive position. Robin tsked an affirmative and broke away from his fight, Tim tagging in so fast the blonde Nightwing looked staggered. The other Nightwings moved to flank him as Tim gave some ground, getting his bearings while he still could. Nightwing ‘Prime’ didn’t appear to be here, which was great. The guy had at least 40 pounds on Dick’s compact frame and preferred brawling and MMA to acrobatics. Tim did not prefer brawling and MMA to acrobatics, particularly in a low-ceilinged basement with three other assailants, none of whom he’d fought before. The heavy had axes. Who the hell carried axes?

Tim pondered what could’ve led to this life choice while fighting, keeping his mind busy. The Nightwings certainly weren’t going to pose any mental challenge. He just had to keep them here while Damian checked the place for anything the Nightwings might miss while they fought Robins (i.e. ‘the idiot check’ honed by years of working in Gotham: are there un-sprung traps, a group of ice-blooded super-soldiers, a big bad who’s technically a zombie and won’t show up on thermals, anything that will get these idiots killed). The Nightwings had noticed Damian’s departure, but there appeared to be dissent in the ranks about chasing a kid. In the low lighting and without Prime’s guidance, the group was struggling with the Robins’ unpredictability. Again, good.

Tim was pretty sure Nightwing Prime was a cop.

Presumably, the rest of the Nightwings were also cops.

Cops might respect an adult vigilante’s choices, but they were likely to have strong feelings about minors running around their city in costumes and picking fights. Tim couldn’t afford to lose to them.

“Clear,” Damian said, the single word audible only in Tim’s comms.

“Get out, get up high,” Tim replied. “Tell me when.”

“Tt.”

Damnit. That wasn’t an agreement sort of sound. Tim knocked out Blonde Nightwing and hurled one of the flashbangs in his belt close enough to attract attention. Both Nightwing Axes and Lady Nightwing dropped their pursuit of Tim to check on Blonde Nightwing and Tim tore towards the darkened hall with the stairs. He rammed into something squirmy and Damian-shaped on the way and caught the younger Robin in his free arm, manhandling him up the stairs and back towards the alley. Not into it, however.

The red and blue lights of cop cars were crammed like candy into both alley exits.

Tim bit back a curse, almost able to hear Damian’s smugness in his silence. The younger Robin gripped Tim’s arm, dragging him out of the entryway and towards a completely hidden set of ascending stairs. Two flights and they were at the rooftop doorway.

“Tt,” Damian said, shouldering the rooftop door open. “You were right, there was no point in calling you to pick up the slack, you would have run right into—”

“Hi, kids.”

Tim had been following Damian, so his visibility to the roof was impaired, but it wasn’t Batman’s voice. Only one other person would have been waiting for them on the rooftop, knowing they had just escaped from the basement and found the alleyway blocked off. Damian muttered something vulgar in Arabic and bolted to the left, Tim went to the right. Both of them headed off the roof, but only Tim’s path took him over the alley where the police were clustered, so he got all of Nightwing Prime’s attention.

Damian had probably planned it that way, the demon.

Several cops took a shot when Tim glided over the alley but none connected. He reminded himself that this was Bludhaven and Blud didn’t altogether appreciate its vigilantes, but the reassurance hit a pothole when no one shot at Prime. Maybe Bludhaven could just distinguish between its vigilantes.

Prime travelled well by rooftop. Not well enough to keep up with a Bat, so Tim played up his own panic to conceal the fact that he could have easily lost Prime as a tail. If he did that, Prime would chase down Damian, who would have a harder time losing him while dressed as a traffic light. The ‘careening panic’ apparently convinced Prime, who slowed his pursuit. It was almost nice to be chased by someone who didn’t want Tim to end up as a smear on the sidewalk. Definitely easier.

“Lose the suit,” Tim said quietly into his comm, once he’d gotten Prime at least two blocks away. “Meet me six blocks northwest of the alley. We’re lost getting home from the movies.”

“I know how to construct a cover, idiot,” Damian shot back.

But not how to watch my back, Tim decided, intentionally calculating the next jump to take him down between buildings. To Prime, it would look like a fall and, if the cop was anything like Tim expected, he’d react with the appropriate levels of panic. He did. From where he had plastered himself beneath the fire escape and against the wall of the building, cloaked by the dark color of his cape, Tim watched Prime descend. Minutes passed. Prime didn’t come back up to check the fire escape.

And that’s that, Tim thought as he slipped in one of the apartment complex’s windows and pulled on the compact civilian clothes from his utility belt (yes, it did in fact have everything in there). He had to move quickly. Once Prime realized Tim hadn’t splatted on the street, he’d have the police combing the area or… whatever it was he did as a cop-turned-vigilante.

It took an agonizing seventeen minutes for Tim to find Damian, who had managed to get in two fights since changing into civilian clothes and had to keep switching locations.

“I hate Bludhaven,” Damian announced, upon seeing Tim.

“You’re the one who wanted to go to the movies here, Dames,” Tim said. Now that they were out of costume, all remnant of code names and secrecy had to be dispensed with. Damian strode to the corner to check the streets, cross-referencing them with his phone’s map.

“My entire family appears to prefer Bludhaven, I had little choice in the matter.”

“Huh?” Tim had been on point all night and his attention was beginning to flag. Plus, he’d just remembered that Damian’s cycle would likely be back in the cop-filled alley by the theater.

“Father would rather be here than in Gotham. You have affiliated yourself with Todd, and therefore Bludhaven. Ric is here.”

“That’s not your entire family.”

“Do you think I would be here, speaking to you, if I had anyone else who would talk to me, Drake?”

Tim blinked. Okay, wakefulness was called for. Too bad, sing-songed a background part of his brain, and he forced himself to avoid mentally drifting off. It wasn’t just that Damian was willing to chat, it was that Tim now had to act as the adult in this scenario of them wandering Bludhaven in the wee hours of the morning.

“Hold on.” Fumbling for his phone, Tim pulled up a rideshare app, only to note that his battery was now dangerously low. Like, the rideshare wouldn’t get to them before it died, low. He put the phone away, seeing a thousand problems with that plan anyway. Tim was technically seventeen and could only just squeak by with most rideshare drivers when he had to call for a pickup. They wouldn’t let him ‘accompany’ a minor like Damian and wouldn’t take Damian alone – Tim would be concerned about any driver that would. Even if they did, he couldn’t take Damian to Ric’s, not without having a way to announce it to Jason first, and Damian was too young to drive out of costume. Changing back into costume would get them noticed, as would attempting to steal back the cycle from the alley. Damnit. Damn everything about this.

“Okay, uh… was there… anything else you wanted to talk about? When you called me?” Tim asked, putting away the phone and squinting at the street signs. Didn’t Nightwing have a safehouse on Blackwell and something? They could make it there… it might have electricity…

“I thought Todd would come back the moment Father apologized,” Damian said. Something in his tone nudged Tim out of his focus on where they were staying that night. Damian wasn’t avoiding looking at him, but neither was the younger Robin seeking out his full attention. When Damian saw he had it anyway, he looked away.

“Almost all of Todd’s complaints are designed to get attention. I realize this, Father never does. For weeks, he has done nothing but worry about how to apologize and ply Todd back to the manor. And… Father said the right words. He never says the right words. You know that, you know he can’t—” Damian made an angry, aborted sound of frustration. “I would have come back when Father and I were fighting if he had… tried. As hard as he is trying for Todd. But as usual, Todd wants the moon and stars and uses Father’s weakness for him as a bargaining chip.”

“Maybe he’s arguing for something that matters more to him than getting Bruce,” Tim suggested. It cost him to suggest things like that when Damian was ranting (i.e. what Dick used to call ‘opening up’). If the younger teen decided Tim’s statement was incorrect, he’d break off the honesty entirely and go for correcting Tim’s assumptions. In this instance, Damian just looked up at him, confused and doubtful, and the expression looked so strange on his face that Tim could see why he’d thought himself compromised tonight.

“Nothing matters more to Todd than Father,” Damian said.

Tim felt a little sick. “No. I think Bruce nearly killing him might’ve… ended... whatever they had.”

On the heels of the words, Tim wondered suddenly, frantically, if he should be explaining that merely ending a familial relationship didn’t forgive or excuse the actions. That they – he and Damian and Duke and the girls and Alfred and Ric – had to figure out how they wanted to work with Bruce. And with Jason. More than a year after the fact. Why had they left it a year? Well, Tim sort of knew: because Jason typically vanished and came back in a completely different persona. Sometimes that persona was psychotic, which made it hard to assess how much of Bruce’s activities were proportionate to Jason’s presented level of threat at the time. And what kind of sanctions could realistically be imposed on Batman if he was using disproportionate force?

“Todd knew the consequences of wearing the Bat crest to murder someone. He should have expected Father to carry them out.”

“Because protecting the image of Batman should mean more to Bruce than not maiming Jason?”

Damian had been facing away from Tim when he spoke, so he couldn’t see how, or if, the words had affected the younger Robin. When Damian glanced back at him, his eyes were flinty with irritation but there was no skepticism. Something closer to injury, Tim decided, and wasn’t sure what, exactly, had injured Damian.

“Why argue his case, Drake? Todd broke Gotham’s trust in the Bats and Father’s trust in all of us. You can’t be stupid enough not to realize everything Todd does hurts you. He has tried to kill you more than anyone.”

Of all the people, Damian got it. It made sense and it didn’t. Damian shouldn’t understand Tim best but maybe it was all that energy they put into loathing each other; hatred and ‘knowing thy enemy’ coming out the other side as being known, intimately well, by someone who wouldn’t hesitate to call Tim on his bullshit.

“Because it doesn’t have anything to do with me,” Tim said. “It’s—it’s Bruce doing that to one of us.”

“It’s Todd—”

“It’s us.” Tim didn’t shout, exactly, but ‘emphatic’ was close to the right word. “You can’t—you can’t establish that there’s an ‘us,’ and a ‘them,’ and then move someone in and out of the ‘them’ column at will. We—you and I don’t get along, but I’d kill Bruce if he hurt you. Hurt Steph. Dick, Babs, Cass, Duke.” He didn’t need to say Alfred. They’d all go to war for Alfred.

All trace of the flint and the injury vanished, but Damian’s schooled blank expression still said more than he meant it to.

“I don’t know what I would do if he hurt you.”

’Throw a party’, a dark part of Tim’s mind murmured. Damian wasn’t the only one who could keep his expressions on mute.

“You don’t have to do—”

“If it were unwarranted abuse, I would stop working with him. I have made my opinions on this known to him already.”

A coil of horror circled in Tim’s gut at the thought Damian thought there was ‘warranted’ abuse, but Damian had grown up in a nightmare. A quiet, shamed voice at the back of his mind whispered, ‘that would mean giving up Robin for you.’ And that was what Damian was saying, wasn’t it? Maybe he hadn’t thought about how much he was promising, but it made Tim feel a little guiltier about shutting the younger Robin out.

Shrugging off the thought as best he could, he motioned Damian to follow him. Nightwing had a safehouse around here; it’d make a reasonable crash site until his phone was charged, the cops had moved along, Jason had stabilized, and they could get a pickup from Ric, the family’s own personal taxi driver.

“Thanks for the offer,” Tim tossed over his shoulder. Damian’s reply held a sulky tone.

“Tt. It’s simple self-preservation. If Father had that level of trouble distinguishing between allies and enemies, it’s only a matter of time before that fight would come to me.”

Again, the coil of horror rattled in Tim’s stomach: Damian had already thought about Bruce as a threat. Jason’s argument had credence with Damian because he already feared that one day, he’d be on the wrong side of Bruce’s vow. Tim’s steps stuttered. He knew Damian’s laser-like attention would have caught the motion.

“Damian, he hasn’t… anything, right?” God, he hated that Damian forced him to finish the sentence, couldn’t jump in with a reassuring and resounding ‘no.’

“No.”

“Good.” Tim took it at face value. He didn’t want to think of it any other way right now.

“But Timothy—”

“Yeah?” This time, Tim kept his stride even. He had their heading, course set for the Blackwell safehouse, and Damian would not be allowed to derail him with a cheap tactic like calling him by name.

“What you said. You have to understand. He loves us. All of his… children. His allies. Even Todd.”

“I kno—”

“I wasn’t finished,” Damian said. Tim shut up.

“But he’s concerned that he is losing us over this. Todd, then you, then Ric, probably myself soon after. Losing those who have known him longest. Brown has been out of his reach for years and Cain knows herself well enough without him to survive, I am not worried about them. He will want you to bring everyone home. A lynchpin.”

Because Damian wasn’t a lynchpin and the kid knew it.

“Good to know the quest to be Dad’s favorite is alive and well,” Tim quipped.

“It is staggering you consider yourself the smart one,” Damian said, striding past Tim towards the safehouse door. Tim hadn’t thought he even knew where they were headed. Damian began dismantling the security, long out of date by Bat-standards, and kept talking. “He has lost Kyle. Essentially Grayson, and then Todd. Now he stands to lose several others in close chronological proximity. Father handles loss by making dramatic vows and by fighting, viciously when enraged, blindly when bereft, and calculating only when he can detach himself from the problem at hand.” The lock clicked and opened. “As Todd noted tonight, Father does not let go easily. Don’t find yourself between columns, Drake.”

Tim didn’t follow up on the statement, since Damian had immediately been distracted by the mothball and cigarette stink of the small space. Since the security had been intact, it was safe to assume Jason had crashed here, once upon a time, and smoked indoors. The battered floor bore traces of bleach, which suggested the visit hadn’t been entirely voluntary: Jason usually tried not to bleed on things and the cleaning up after himself when he did was something of a trademark.

Damian approached the dust sheet-covered couch and gave it an experimental kick. It thudded woodenly; several mice fled out of a tear in the fabric’s base. Damian shot Tim a flat look.

“I heard you like animals,” Tim replied, approximating the look with his tone.

Damian struggled not to look amused. “Rodents are lower on the totem pole.”

“There’s a giant spider colony living in the bathtub,” Tim announced, after checking. “I did try.”

In the few seconds of his absence, Damian had already taken over the single queen-size bed. “How nice for you.”

Tim hesitated, making a show of plugging his dead phone into the wall, then shoved the kid to the side of the bed (honestly, who needed to sprawl on a queen-size and why had Nightwing even needed a queen-size bed in a safehouse?) and thunked his head down on the opposite pillow. There was an obligatory 1.9 minutes of angry sputtering from Damian about Tim’s being an inferior Robin and as such should take the floor. Tim waited this out until, huffing, Damian quieted down.

“I didn’t mean to leave you out,” Tim said, once he was sure Damian was too close to sleep to be defensive. “We’ll… figure this out.”

“I miss Grayson,” Damian said, in a close-to-sleep voice from the other side of the bed.

“Me too.”

#

Damian woke to the sound of Darth Vader’s breathing. A high-quality recording, but dragged out of the tinny speakers of a smart phone and thus, unimpressive. He sat up and found Drake in the exact position of the night before, having crashed hard and unlikely to regain consciousness for some time. That was fine; Damian didn’t need him for anything and it would irritate Drake to lose time on account of his own weakness. Damian glanced at the phone screen – a candid picture of his father eating a burger with utensils – and answered. His father started speaking before he even said ‘hello.’

“Tim, where are you? I can’t find Damian.”

“Then I suppose I’m solving both of your problems.”

“Damian.”

“I spent the night in Bludhaven.” Damian unplugged the phone from the charger and began moving to the bathroom. Not because he cared about letting Drake sleep, he would just rather spend time in the same room as spiders than with Drake.

“Without calling?”

“I told you I had business to address here. You didn’t ask how long it would take.”

Father hesitated. Calculating. Then, in a careful tone that could never be careful enough to allay the implication, he asked: “Why are you answering Tim’s phone?”

Seconds later, Drake flinched violently awake when Damian dropped the phone on his head.

“Confirm you’re still alive,” Damian snapped. Drake, disoriented and groggy, fumbled for the phone, which was swiftly making its way to the floor.

“D-Dames, what’s…”

His questing fingers managed only to end the call, the photo of Bruce disappearing. Damian rolled his eyes as his older ‘brother’ peered down at the blacked-out phone, then blearily at Damian. Pieces started to visibly shuffle themselves into place until Drake groaned, using the formerly questing hand to massage the bridge of his nose.

“M’ sorry. Hell, do—do I need to… call him back?” His tone made it clear he would rather spend the rest of the day without caffeine than talk to Bruce. “I will – I don’t want him thinking you—”

“You said my name, he knows I didn’t kill you,” Damian seethed. “Get up. Your W.E. duties started two hours ago and I’m on my final days of allowance for tardiness.”

Drake had managed to scoop up the phone and become distracted by something on the screen, and so was less upset by the ‘you slept late’ news than usual. His eyebrows knit together, uncomfortably similar to the expression he had worn most of the night before.

“What,” Damian demanded.

“Just—Ric wants to have a family meeting. Neutral territory. With Bruce.”

“Tt. I imagine the idea has not yet been presented to Todd then.”

Drake hadn’t gotten off of the bed. Worse than that, his expression was a thousand miles away and still calculating. As if the world was a string of numbers and he had to start at the end and work his way to this point. It must be an interesting way to live but Damian was short on time.

“Drake, move.”

“Does he still think you’re a threat to his allies?” Drake asked.

“I’m not discussing this with you.” Damian pivoted to head into the bathroom. If Drake was going to waste time, Damian might as well see if there was running water in addition to the electricity. If he had to relocate spiders to take a shower, so be it. He smelled like patrol and he wasn’t going to school like that.

“Just in general, I’m not trying to… say anything about him or… or you, I just need to—”

Damian whirled and shoved him. Drake had been in the process of clambering off the bed to follow Damian and fell back, tumbling off the furniture in an uncoordinated heap.

“Drake, you don’t ‘need,’ you ‘want’ to know! You are not subtle when waking up, so shut up about my father, get on your feet, and we can leave this hellhole of a city, all right?”

Drake got uncharacteristically quiet (‘okay, okay’) and gathered up the phone charger. Neither of them had slept under the covers so they left the bed unstripped, except for the pillowcases (DNA from hair was so problematic it was a wonder they didn’t all shave their heads), which were packed out and tossed in the dumpster behind the corner coffeeshop.

They didn’t talk any more about Bruce, which suited Damian. He never seemed to leave their conversation though. When Damian made a joke about life at the manor, he saw Drake flinch. Probably thinking, for the first time, of what would happen if Bruce were somehow to be deemed ‘unfit’ as a guardian for Damian. Good. If Drake wanted to ‘help,’ he should take into account that Ric couldn’t assume guardianship responsibilities until he was 25 and found fit and willing. Alfred couldn’t (wouldn’t) leave Bruce. Todd was neither old enough or likely to be found fit and willing. Given his U.S. citizenship and U.S.-residing parent, Damian could be deemed a ward of the state. Drake, with his own dealings avoiding such status, would know the threat that posed. Under no circumstances would Damian allow himself to be sent like a package back to Nanda Parbat because Timothy Jackson Drake got panicky and overcorrected.

Drake sipped his coffee, wore an expression that said he had thought of all of these things as soon as the caffeine took hold and texted Ric to request a Gotham-to-Bludhaven transport for Damian. The pair parted ways without Drake having said anything else about the neutral family meeting.

‘Unity.’ Yeah, right.

Chapter Text

Taking the cycle, even civilian-ized, to work raised more questions than Tim wanted it to. It was an ‘old-gen’ Ducati because Tim had trouble letting go of a good thing, especially when he had retrofitted said ‘good thing’ to be one of the most maneuverable vehicles he’d ever used. Red Robin didn’t need to be the fastest in their fleet (he had let Damian claim that petty privilege) and had sacrificed some extra RPMs for the unique privilege of saving Damian’s hide approximately twelve times now when Robin’s bike got away from him. He made sure Robin knew the exact count too.

Unfortunately, people recognized the civilian mode of the bike as belonging to Tim. He’d been seen heading out of town last night and now the rumor mill churned with stories about his ‘Bludhaven lover’. He texted Steph that he was, apparently, cheating on her. Seconds later, she sent back a ‘what? Again?’ message and his stomach dropped before she sent him a gif of an internet celebrity they both liked, asking if he was ‘TRYING to get punched with her legs’. They shot gifs back and forth while Tim caught up on the morning and tried to steamroll his way into the afternoon’s task list.

The surprise hit around three thirty that afternoon, when the rumor mill turned to ‘Brucie’s got a new ride.’ Tim had been coming out of a meeting, still waiting for the second 24 oz. coffee to kick in, when his interns bustled by with the gossip. He stopped. Pulled out his phone and the requisite cameras around Wayne Enterprises. He found Bruce on the fourth floor, boisterously chatting up some of the Finance staff who Tim knew for a fact despised the man’s existence. ‘Brucie’ was favoring his right knee and gesturing less with the left hand than with his right.

Good, injuries meant would take him several seconds longer than normal to find Tim, if that’s what he was here for. Having located Bruce, Tim switched cameras to get a look at the ‘new ride’ in the parking lot.

The red sports-car parked next to Tim’s cycle made the smaller vehicle look like a remora hiding in the shadow of a shark. More than that, Bruce had anywhere in the underground garage to park, including his designated spot and had chosen to park next to Tim’s cycle. There would be no way of getting within range of his cycle without triggering an alert of some kind to Bruce.

Cursing under his breath, Tim finished his coffee and closed out of the security cameras, chucking the empty coffee cylinder in the trash a little harder than he’d meant to. Damnit. He didn’t want to be the lynchpin. Or between columns. Or here.

His phone chimed. For the second time that day, his stomach dropped with dread, imagining that Bruce had found him on the security cameras the same way he had found Bruce and would prevent Tim from escaping using traditional means (i.e. walking, running, stealing the Waynecoptor).

It was Ric.

‘I know youre busy but what do you think about it?’

Tim had never responded to Ric’s suggestion of a neutral family meeting. He hadn’t intentionally ignored it, hadn’t even forgotten about it, but it wasn’t the kind of thing where he slammed out a response on the fly: ‘Yes, I want Thai food tonight’. ‘Maybe we can go to the movie Tuesday.’ ‘No, I don’t want to sit down with my emotionally-repressed family and talk about how things are really, fundamentally broken and I’m worried about my kid brother.’

Wait—no, not that last thing. He wasn’t worried about Damian, except that he was, but maybe it didn’t have any basis in anything. Maybe he was seeing something where there was nothing. His chest hurt to think about it, and the discomfort made it hard to type out a message even when it wrote itself in his head. He didn’t want to feel himself sending those words out into cyberspace, making them real and implying that he thought that Bruce was… dangerous. Obviously Bruce was dangerous; he’d fought Dick before, fought Jason; he’d even tried at one point to strangle Tim when he was under the influence of fear gas and thought Tim was Jason Todd. Even when Jason wasn’t alive he was trying to get Tim killed – Tim thought, and then felt uncharitable about it.

Damian had shoved him off the bed at the very idea that Bruce posed a threat to Damian. And if that was how Damian reacted, how would Bruce react?

The apologetic side of Tim’s mind kicked into high gear with deferments: Damian and Bruce were different people, wildly different people, and Tim was certain that a) he was the only one thinking about this and b) he didn’t want to be. And, technically, he wanted options c, d, and e, which were to have a stable family unit, about six more hours in today specifically, and for Steph to hate physics-defying movies.

A large hand came to rest on his shoulder, causing him to flinch in surprise and realize exactly how far down the rabbit hole he’d let his mind drift. Far enough that even an injured Bruce had had time to ascend five more floors, get two coffees, and find Tim.

Tim reached for one of the coffees Bruce held, deciding in the same moment to pretend he hadn’t been startled. “Security camera spying again?”

Bruce relinquished the drink, Tim noting the tremor in his left wrist as he drew back. “Turnabout is fair play. I thought you might be less uncomfortable if you had some warning.”

“Are you saying you bought a million-dollar car to stir office gossip and pique my curiosity?”

“I’m saying it might do the public image some good if we don’t look like we’re fighting,” Bruce said. Tim looked at him the same way Damian had looked at Tim the night before, when the mice ran out from under the sofa. For someone with such a strong poker face of his own, Bruce wilted a little under the flat stare. “And I’d like to speak with you. Come on, I’ve cleared your schedule.”

“Have you considered that I was in late? This is your empire, Bruce, I’d like to help it keep running.” Tim held out some hope that he could wheedle his way back into the office, but Bruce latched onto the wrong part of the sentence.

“Right, you spent the night with Damian in Bludhaven. I was glad to hear you boys were getting along.”

Tim gritted his teeth, keeping his expression neutral. Shouting at Bruce about how Damian had felt so uncomfortable and compromised by being told to guard against Jason’s escape would have felt good but would solve nothing more than breaking Damian’s trust and making Bruce feel guilty. Neither outcome was useful. Never one for sharing words in public if he didn’t have to, Bruce led the way to the parking garage with Tim trailing in his stride. The former Robin refused to dedicate more than 30% of his attention to wondering where they were going. He allocated the other 70% to completing the tasks he’d planned to get done in his full slate of meetings, texting more gifs to Steph, checking the security cameras outside of Ric’s apartment complex, checking a text from Alfred confirming the successful pickup of Damian’s Robincycle from the now-vacant alley – all with the coffee cup wedged in the crook of his arm.

Moving at what seemed like a glacial pace, Bruce passed by both of their vehicles and headed out of the parking garage, which made Tim’s steps slow, but he followed Bruce into the late afternoon shadows and across the street. Though the Wayne-funded park was directly across the street from Wayne Enterprises, visible from nearly every window on the east-facing side, the Waynes rarely made it here. Tim said as much, throwing Bruce a bone of conversation, and the stoic man nodded.

“We do tend to think parks are for other people,” Bruce said.

“Is this far enough that we can be ‘other people’ then?”

They had come to the tennis courts, abandoned at this time of the afternoon as the temperature dropped and the only things blowing through were red and orange leaves. Bruce shrugged one shoulder in a ‘yes, I suppose’ movement and turned, plunging a hand deep in one suit pocket. Picturesque as the stance was in the warm afternoon sun, Tim knew it wasn’t posed, at least not intentionally.

“You know about last night,” Bruce said.

The vice on Tim’s chest tightened. “Not really.”

“But you were in—”

“I didn’t take Damian back to Ric’s. We worked a case.”

“Oh.” Bruce considered this. Didn’t ask why Damian had called Tim to come help him with a case. Didn’t ask anything that Tim would’ve expected, would have hoped he would ask if the situation were reversed and Bruce hadn’t known where a younger version of Tim was all night. Part of him was flattered Bruce considered him an adult and thus Not Necessary To Worry About and the other part kept up a running commentary of ‘whatifIweredeadwhatifIwereinjuredwhatifIwere'—

“You haven’t spoken to Jason then,” Bruce rumbled, finally.

“Nope. I was at work. I’m usually at work, Bruce.”

“I know some of you keep in contact,” Bruce said and his words (not his tone, his tone was as even and unemotional as it ever was) sounded like a harried father, just trying to keep track of his children with their gadgets and their gizmos. And, in the face of the harried father, stood Tim, the one who could be relied upon to know what to reveal and what not to reveal, what was important and what would shatter trust with his siblings.

Tim swallowed.

“I was with Damian. Then work this morning. No contact with Jason.”

“Did Ric say how Jason was?” Bruce’s voice came across as slightly amused, chiding. “I noticed you aren’t mentioning—”

“Talk to them.” The words felt like they tore themselves out of his throat, but they sounded normal. That was what counted. “If it’s a Ric issue, talk to Ric. If it’s a Jason issue, you don’t get to talk to him until there’s mutual consent. Mutual. Or you can ask Damian, who you dragged along, what he felt about the whole thing. Unless you only wanted to talk to Damian this morning because you assumed I’d taken him to Ric’s and he could get you more intel.”

It was a low, low blow and Tim felt both shame and relief at the alarmed expression that flitted across Bruce’s face, the honest ‘no’ rising to his lips.

“I intend to talk to Damian,” Bruce said. “I know I upset him this morning.”

“All I got out of him was that you thought he’d done something to me and that was why he was answering my phone. Do you really think he’d be so stupid as to kill or maim me and then answer my phone?” Privately, Tim’s stance relaxed somewhat at knowing that Damian, at least, was worthy of being talked to under his own merit.

“Tim, I said no such thing.”

“He knew what you thought. Cass isn’t the only one who can read nonverbal signals.”

Bruce’s brow had furrowed into several lines deep enough to look like the cowl. A young couple wandered by, tittering about the stiff breeze whipping through the park, and the pair stood in silence until they passed. An abandoned tennis ball had dislodged itself from the court fencing and rolled around inside the enclosure. Tim suspected Bruce was watching it as well, anything to avoid eye contact.

“I don’t know what to think, Tim,” Bruce said. “It’s misstep after misstep. When I focus on one, I stumble into three others. Traps for myself that I have no idea how to dismantle. It impacts Damian, Jason, Dick, everyone I come in contact with.”

Tim wanted to tell him that what he was describing was a need for serious therapy. Of course, a separate and sizeable chunk of him wanted to say ‘that’s not my problem,’ chug the coffee, and leave the park. He leaned back on the heel of his loafer and considered the consequences. Coming back from this conversation after ten minutes without Bruce would only get the rumor mill chugging along on ‘oooh, Brucie and the prince had a fight.’ Plus, Bruce said he had cancelled all of Tim’s appointments; Tim’s showing up would good as confirm that he was countermanding Bruce’s direction. He stayed put, sipping at the coffee and watching the tennis ball chase leaves around the enclosure.

“I know it impacts you too, Tim. I ask a lot of you.”

“I ask a lot of myself. You don’t get to pick up the tab for the entire family’s problems,” Tim said, because it was easier than standing in silence and staring down at a coffee container that now felt depressingly light.

“And thank God for that.” The smile Bruce attempted was too ‘Brucie’ to pass muster and faded quickly. “We have always been stronger working together. You knew that, from the beginning, when you made me take you on as Robin.”

“It certainly works for the people we’re up against.” Tim couldn’t count how many times the Bats had fought the unholy team-up of rogues. Catwoman AND the Joker AND the Riddler AND the Penguin? Bruce had a bad rap for adopting children but maybe he was just trying to build up numbers against the insanity of Gotham.

“Anyway. Thanks for the coffee. I should get back to work.”

“You haven’t heard anything from them?” Bruce asked. Tim recognized the tone as a ‘casual’ voice, with just enough bleed-through of Bruce’s actual discomfort and grief to be noticeable, confirming, as Damian had said, that Bruce worried he was losing them. Despite what Damian, and a good many of his coworkers said quietly, Tim wasn’t an emotionless robot.

“Only that break-ins do not help people with trauma. You have to back off, or Jay is going to feel like even Bludhaven is off-limits. And you can’t drag Damian along on your… just… why would you even have him there? I don’t understand what you’re doing. I don’t think you understand what you’re doing. You need to stop trying to fix it before you hurt someone, if you haven’t already.”

“I didn’t hurt Jason.” Bruce looked suddenly pained and added, recrimination in his tone: “Last night. I didn’t hurt Jason last night.”

“But when you came back from Blud, you went right back on patrol.” Tim eyed Bruce’s right knee, aka the reason it had taken them eleven minutes to walk to the park from the W.E. building’s façade, rather than the usual four minutes. Bruce also held the coffee cup in his right hand, not having even sipped at it, which suggested the left wrist was injured to the extent of a fracture. “And now you’re sporting more injuries than I’ve seen you have in three months. Did Alfred remind you that you count as a person getting hurt?”

“You said you didn’t know what was discussed last night,” Bruce said. Tim focused on the tennis ball, avoiding eye contact, only to discover he’d lost track of the tennis ball while playing detective.

“I don’t know what was discussed. Damian just mentioned some things he overheard and then, with the phone call this morning and you being injured now… I don’t know. Clearly, someone got hurt and you were being reckless.” He shouldn’t have said the next few words but they trickled out anyway: “Maybe in a few months this should be a whole family discussion. Somewhere outside of Gotham.”

Bruce’s frown was back and rapidly accelerating towards crisis levels of broodiness. “I appreciate your concern, but this isn’t a ‘whole family’ issue. It’s between myself and Jason and we will come to terms privately. Mutually.”

“It isn’t just you and Jason though. You’re injured now because you couldn’t fight Jason but you had to fight someone, you’ve come to blows with Dick before, and Damian…” Now that the words were out there, Tim couldn’t back away from them.

“Damian what?”

“Damian is similar to Jason. They both know it. When the only son you still have living at home is a mirror of the son you do nothing but fight with…” Tim’s throat fought against the words and his mind intentionally put the brakes on finishing the sentence. Bruce’s expression had gone frighteningly grim. Regret lived in that expression too, but it was principally composed of revulsion and anger and hurt, all rolled into one expression pointed at Tim.

“I am not a threat to Damian. You have no basis for that assumption, Tim.”

Tim couldn’t find words now, because he hadn’t wanted to say this to Bruce in the first place.

“You were right in your original statement,” Bruce continued, but there was nothing congratulatory about his tone. “I think it would be best if you allowed me to speak to Damian and Jason privately. I’d like you to refrain from speaking to them about this until I have the chance to.”

“B—”

“What you are saying could destroy the family. Damian still struggles to trust me. Jason stands with one foot in the door and then we’ll lose him, again. Ric trusts you, he’ll side with you to ‘protect’ Damian, and Gotham will have a house divided, its members forced to choose sides in a war based on your conjecture. No.”

“I don’t want a war, I want to know Damian is—"

“Damian is safe!” Bruce shouted, near-desperately, before catching hold of himself, expression returning to the controlled, even level it had maintained before they got into the ‘gritty’ part of the conversation. The word 'safe' seemed to trigger something in him, loosely linked to guilt of some kind, and Tim didn’t want to delve too deeply into what it was.

“Good. Then I’d like to go back to work,” Tim said. Bruce’s jaw clenched and he seemed on the verge of repeating ‘don’t suggest things to your siblings’ but he squashed the impulse. He didn’t call Tim back when the younger man headed back to Wayne Enterprises. Tim wasn’t even sure when Bruce came back that afternoon, only that the sportscar was seen leaving the parking garage by 5pm.

Texting Damian was always risky when it was about Bruce. Instead Tim shot off a text to Ric, asking him to check in via text with the brat sometime that day. Ric worked late and might be too busy, but he would probably get to it sooner and generate less suspicion than Tim would.

‘What do I say?’ Ric shot back, an hour or two later.

By that time, Tim had gone nearly underwater with work and stared at the four words, not quite up to brainstorm what to text a child who had never liked him.

‘It doesn’t matter. Send him a picture of the Blud skyline. Or a dog in your cab. He likes animals.’

If Bruce wanted the lines of communication shut between Tim and Damian, Tim would just damn well open one by proxy.

#

77 hours later found Tim blinking uncertainly at the date in the corner of the computer screen. He wouldn’t deny that it had felt like a longer day than normal. The first six hours could be chalked up to playing catch-up from the ‘morning off,’ the next 19 had been dedicated especially to the company’s supposedly-secure payroll system encountering a hiccup in making direct deposits, the hiccup being that it didn’t make them and refused to make them.

Fortunately, Wayne Enterprises was established enough that the entire staff didn’t just walk off or contact their lawyers first thing payday morning, but most went to their supervisors, who then went to their supervisors, who then went to Tim. His entire day (the 19 hours) became allocated to calls, arguments with out-of-state billing companies, and authorizing payments to cover the employees most in jeopardy. A good section of Gothamites lived paycheck to paycheck, despite W.E.’s above-average compensation.

The following eight hours were spent determining why the company reserve didn’t kick in to just pay everyone and then notify authorized parties that payroll wasn’t working so they could deal with it as an urgent, not ‘house-on-fire’ issue. After that was addressed, it was a blur of catching up on all the things that became crises when they went unattended for 24 hours, and then…

Tim closed his eyes tight and looked away from the screen, wincing. He didn’t remember going home, so he must have been here. Had he really seen the cleaning staff three separate times? He’d probably thought they were just taking a really long time cleaning the building. The last time they came through, a couple of hours ago now, one had left a pile of candies on his secretary’s desk, along with a container of coffee, which he had registered. He had already had coffee at the time, so he’d forgotten about the gift until now.

Setting his rudeness aside, he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. The coffee was probably still there. He navigated the treacherously dark interior of his office, got to the door, and stepped into the equally-dark reception area of his office. Someone had turned off his motion-sensitive lights, probably in an effort to make him move around or go to sleep. Most of his staff got worried if no one saw him leave the building over the course of 48 hours. Bruce would be notified and would probably send Tim a sternly worded text or a private car, depending on the mood he was in. Tim wanted to tell them all to go to hell so it was, in the long run, a good thing the office was empty.

Damn though. He had missed three days of patrol. His dateiversary with Steph was tomorrow (or… had it been today?). He recalled the texts Ric had sent him over the last few days, but nothing concrete had been proposed. Too many of them were personal ‘how are you?’/‘u doing okay?’ queries, which left Tim with the options of either lying or spending too long explaining how he was, so he ignored them. He would put out the fire of Ric being mad at him later.

He located the coffee, which had long since gotten cold, and drank it.

Three days. Pulling out his phone, he tried to scroll back through the messages from Ric, squinting at the bright, blurry little screen in an attempt to make out the words. Looked like Ric had gotten increasingly worried about Tim’s not texting back, and the thought played merry hell with Tim’s sleep-deprived emotions. He sat down on part of the desk, closing his eyes.

“Text Ric Grayson—”

The phone interrupted before he could get any further: “Contacts show Dick Grayson. Is this acceptable?”

“Yeah. Text Dick Grayson: ‘Sorry, I’m fine. Long couple of days. Jay hasn’t bolted, right?’ Send.”

It sent. He drank a little more of the coffee and surveyed the exterior lobby of his office. There was solace here, in the dark, and with no screens to grab the eye. His posture against the desk slumped a little and he decided to shift to the floor. The security camera footage could be erased later because he knew what it looked like, even as his mind tried to shutter with sleep. ‘Teen CEO passes out in own office; details about WAYNE HEIR’S ADDICTION on page 4!!!’

A low whistle came from across the lobby. Tim recognized it and didn’t bother to open his eyes.

“Did you drug my coffee, Jason?” Tim asked. The whistler snickered.

“Kid, you are four days out of sleep, I don’t need to drug your coffee. The coffee, which Julio the new maintenance man gifted Mr. Drake as a thank you for navigating the payroll issue, was just to get you out of your office.”

“If Julio is related to your Jared and Ulysses personas, I’m throwing this coffee cup at your head.”

“First, I’m flattered you memorized their names and second, I’d love to see you try to hit me. Scratch that, I’d love to see you hit anything you intend to hit.”

Wasn’t worth it. Tim set the coffee on the floor and let his head thunk back against the desk, peering through half-lidded eyes in the general direction of Jason. His exhaustion abated slightly when he realized this meant Jason was in Gotham, in a W.E. building and he forced his eyes open, squinting into the shadows.

“You’re in Gotham. Should you be—”

“No, but Ric is a better getaway driver than burglar.” Jason’s voice had moved closer and Tim could hear the undercurrents of discomfort now. He tried to play it off, break the tension. Something.

“If you say you’re stealing me, we’re going to find out what I can hit with the coffee cup,” he said.

“Hell no, you’re stealing yourself. Remember? I’m not supposed to lift milk jugs. Or coffee-chugging teenagers. Up, Replacement.”

Tim shifted to his feet and Jason allowed him back into his office (“One minute. One.”) to save his work and collect whatever he needed to leave. Only upon reentering his office to leave did it hit Tim how bad the room actually was. Jason had found a light switch, which illuminated the room at the same time as sending the long-waiting migraine stabbing through Tim’s left eye. More coffee than any one person should be drinking clogged the trash can. Post-it notes littered the workstation, filled with handwriting in various stages of legibility. After flipping on the offending light switch, Jason returned to the lobby and took Tim’s abandoned phone hostage. From there, he announced that Tim had 97 unread text messages. The thought of checking them now filled Tim with dread: he usually had none.

From the lobby, they skulked to where Ric waited in the parking garage below. Tim drifted towards his cycle, sitting where he had left it more than three days ago, and Jason clapped a hand on the back of his neck, steering him towards Ric’s idling car.

“Nah, kid, if you can’t throw, you’re not gettin’ on a motorcycle.”

Ric had already gotten out and opened the passenger side door.

“You realize this definitely looks like a kidnapping,” Tim said, wearily clambering into the vehicle. “Seriously. You just manhandled me into the car.”

“Cry me a river,” Ric said and slammed the door once Tim was in the vehicle. Traces of anger were in the movement and Tim started tapping a finger on the car windowsill to keep himself awake. Jason got in the backseat with a grunt and arranged himself in a semi-sprawled posture that must have been moderately more comfortable.

“Step on it, Ricky,” Jason ordered as Ric got back into the driver’s seat. “I don’t want to find out Bats is keeping an eye on the cameras and me without my helmet.”

Tim sank a little deeper into the seat, reaching a hand back to retrieve his phone from Jason. The older man grabbed the hand, unlocked the phone with Tim’s fingerprint, then batted the appendage away. Tim made a noise of moderate dismay.

“You’ve spent enough time staring at screens. Even the brat was worried.” Whatever Jason was doing on Tim’s phone seemed to take up most of his concentration.

“Damian was worried? Weren’t you keeping in contact with him?”

“Sure, but he’s not the type to appreciate talking to middle-men after a fight.” Jason hit send on… something. “There. Now he has a cat gif from you. Proof you’ve alive and he can stop whining.”

Alarm bells would’ve blared, if Tim had felt more awake, but as it was, they rang distantly, like a fire alarm in another building. He’d known Damian was texting him. Damian’s texts had been easier to ignore than Ric’s, because Tim could have texted Ric with plausible deniability. Any communication to Damian would have pricked up the Bat’s ears and Tim wouldn’t have been left alone in the office to work.

“I’m not supposed to talk to him,” Tim muttered and flailed towards the backseat for the phone. Pretended to flail anyway, until Jason predictably leaned forward to sneer and Tim could elbow him in the face, snatching the phone back from his loosened grip. Jason shifted abruptly back, sniffing but not seriously injured.

“What do you mean, not supposed to talk to him?” Ric asked. Despite piloting them out of the labyrinthian parking garage, Ric sounded like he hadn’t missed a word.

“Private,” Tim replied, half-distracted by adding another layer of security to the phone, now that he was going to be in close proximity to the idiot in the backseat for who-knew-how-long.

“He said you think Bruce’s a threat to him,” Ric said. “So not all that private and he has no idea why you’re not talking to him.”

Tim felt dread crash into the sleep debt and emerge as a whole new form of misery. He pushed himself back against the seat but there was going to be no escaping the questions now.

“Bruce stopped by work to talk to me and, he might’ve gotten wind of that, and he might have… asked me not to say anything.” Tim’s feelings hadn’t changed, his thoughts hadn’t changed; they were just charged with guilt and fear now, trapped in a car with some of the only people who might be able to give informed agreements or disagreements and they probably already had opinions but they weren’t sharing. They were waiting for him to go first. “And I… I’m probably wrong about it, Bruce probably isn’t a threat, definitely not all the time and it’s likely that Damian’s… Damian’s hard for me to deal with. And I don’t know that Bruce…”

“You can picture someone gettin’ fed up with the kid,” Jason said, his tone untroubled. “You go out every night, see it, eventually you’re gonna look at home and see it there too.”

The misery lifted for a bright second before Tim remembered who was speaking and how dark Jason’s perspective on Bruce was bound to be. And Ric was amnesiac. Why had he felt like they would be impartial? The misery descended again, filling him with the certainty that now he had to fight for Bruce because maybe Jay was biased about this, maybe—

“Okay. So we established why you weren’t speaking to Damian. But I didn’t think you were the type to let Bruce tell you what to do,” Ric interrupted. Tim looked up, surprised at the gentleness of the change in subject. It was the closest to ‘Dick’ Ric had ever sounded.

“I—"

From his pocket, Tim’s phone pinged. Repeatedly. He glanced at the device and found that Damian was sending him angry text after angry text, demanding a reason for his silence and whether or not he thought he could solve anything with ‘a cat gif, Drake?!’. Tim texted ‘sorry. Later.’ and silenced the phone. ‘Later’ he would probably be sleeping, but Damian didn’t need to know that.

“I didn’t want to make waves, immediately after our talk, and after that I just got… busy,” Tim said, continuing his initial answer to Rick. The pauses in his speaking bothered him, since losing verbal communication was usually an elevated step on his sleep deprivation list. First came physical symptoms, then delegation ability, then social niceties, then verbal coherency, and then the ability to code. He wasn’t sure how he’d developed that particular pattern, but it was what it was.

“’Busy’?” Jason echoed. “Busy is Red Robin shit. Tim Drake just dropped off the planet. He hadn’t left that office in days.” Jason addressed this last comment to Ric, who grimaced and glanced at Tim with a mix of appall and concern.

“That’s not healthy, Timmers.”

“Oh God, Jason’s nicknames are rubbing off on you.” Tim massaged his forehead. “I didn’t mean to get busy, there was just… I couldn’t solve it.”

“But there’s like a whole team of people there, right?” Ric sounded dubious now, as if Tim were coordinating the crisis for his own validation.

“All of it was at the executive level,” Tim said. “Parts of it are proprietary and parts of it were international and people wouldn’t get paid and, it’s like it was specifically set up for...” His brain caught up to what he was saying. Jason barked a laugh from the backseat, apparently having come to the same conclusion.

“He beat you at your own game.”

“What?” Ric asked, glancing sidelong at Tim from the steering wheel as they pulled onto the freeway. They were heading towards Bludhaven, Tim realized, but couldn’t bring himself to get upset about it.

“When Timmers was first planning to get Bruce out of Gotham so I could recover, he set up a whole bunch of tasks and crises and shit so Bruce wouldn’t be suspicious. Bruce mowed through all of ‘em and found out on the day-of,” Jason explained merrily. “And he knew Tim put that shit together. So.”

“So he put together a maelstrom for Tim and he walked right into it,” Ric finished, with a now-sympathetic glance at Tim. “Payback’s a bitch.”

“He planned to talk to you and Damian,” Tim said. “Separately. Before I could… infect you.”

“And yet he didn’t manage to talk to me.”

“Which is objectively hilarious,” Jason pointed out.

“And either he didn’t talk to Damian or the kid is desperate to get in contact with you because he wants to talk about it.”

Ric’s phone rang through to the car’s speaker system almost as soon as he had finished the sentence: Damian Wayne calling. Tim smiled without mirth. Ric shot him a look, then stabbed at the ‘answer’ button.

“Hey kiddo, I’m drivin—”

“Is Drake on patrol tonight?” Damian’s voice, full of reproach, came through the car’s speaker.

Tim checked the time – nearly nine p.m. – and tried to remember where he had left his closest Red Robin suit. The safehouse on 36th and Gotham Way would have been closest to the W.E. building, but Ric had already gunned the engine onto the freeway and now the closest would be the roof of a Gotham Coffee outlier branch in Bludhaven and how would he get back to Gotham?

Scowling, he tried to run up to the sentence, push through the migraine: “I gotta get a suit—”

“Hell no, he’s not on patrol tonight,” Jason interrupted. “And your dad should know exactly why, so what do you want, brat?”

“Father had something to do with this?”

And that answered the question of whether or not Bruce had had the courage to talk to Damian. Tim closed his eyes. He didn’t like bragging about what he accomplished in certain timeframes, but Bruce had put the entire company’s payroll in jeopardy in order to bog Tim down; Tim had dealt with that, and several other fires, all in the same timeframe, and yet Bruce couldn’t have two conversations with his sons.

“He’s mad at me for the same reason you’re mad at me and decided it’d be safer if I were super-busy. Grab Steph to patrol with you, you can both complain about how badly I run my life, that’ll be fun.” Because yeah, she hadn’t texted Tim, but he was 99.2% sure that today should have been the day he took her to the movie. She’d give him hell next time she saw him, but Steph was gracious enough to let him remember (or not remember) things when they were mutually important. They were vigilantes; it was par for the course that prioritization was at the whim of the day. It wasn’t good, but it was true.

“I have no wish to involve Brown in this.”

“Yeah, neither does Bruce.” Tim felt both Ric and Jason’s attention fixate on him and opened one eye to assess the situation. Oh, right. “I might’ve… mentioned the idea of a family discussion. To him.”

“A what?” Jason said, elongating into what had to be a deeply uncomfortable position, his back ramrod straight. Regrettably, it also made him look his full, not-inconsiderable height. “No. The whole family doesn’t need to know about this.”

“They already do!” Tim shifted towards the door, both for ease of access and so Jason wouldn’t be directly behind him. “And there’s a kid living at home and—”

“I am still on the line, Drake, and I thought you understood that I don’t need your ill-advised ‘protection’ against my own father—”

“Bruce is a dick but he’s not going to do what he did to me to anyone else because no one else ranks that low, Tim,” Jason hissed. “You bring up this idea to the family, everyone’s gonna blame me for starting it and they’re gonna assign Cass to B for the rest of her life. That kid’s been through enough without babysitting her only decent father figure for malicious intent. Who the hell told you the family should be involved?”

“Me,” Ric said. His tone hadn’t changed: still the easy-going driver who had piloted them out of the parking garage and continued steering them towards Bludhaven. “After he broke in.”

Jason sat back against the seat, startled. “Dick.”

“Gonna read that one as an insult,” Ric replied. “And I did it because, in case you forgot, you were upset. Hell, I don’t appreciate my home being invaded either, not when my entire life’s been taken from me, I rebuilt it, and then some asshole in a batsuit thinks breaking in is okay because he really, really needed to for his emotional health. That’s shit, Jason, you know it, and the Waynes can’t keep pretending they don’t know it’s happening. So no, Tim, you’re not seeing things that aren’t there—”

The words yanked on Tim’s emotions, twinging the sleep deprivation like a bow string. For a sudden juddering moment, he thought he was going to cry at the affirmation. Ric kept talking, thank God, and the moment passed.

“If everyone knows, then everyone has a voice and a responsibility to say something. If Bruce isn’t listening to individuals, he’s gonna listen to a group. And maybe Superman, if we need an impartial third party.” Some of the earlier heat in Ric’s voice was evening out. “He’s been doing flyovers every once in a while, anyhow.”

“Yeah, cause calling in Bats’ superpowered best friend is a good idea in case he disagrees with you,” Jason muttered.

“Superman is friends with Nightwing,” Damian pointed out over the car’s speakers, sounding as if he surprised himself with the recommendation. “He will recognize the issue if Father leaves the conversation or refuses to participate. The family need not agree with one another about this, however… Father taught me certain principles around killing and the importance of life. If even Father can’t keep them, I cannot be expected to comply.”

“And there goes our ‘kinder, gentler world’ version of the demon spawn,” Tim murmured. Ric cast him a sidelong glance and Tim closed his one open eye.

“Why did you need a patrol buddy anyway, brat?” Jason asked, directing the question at the speakers.

“Because Father has not allowed me to patrol with him for days. I have patrolled with Brown since my last patrol with Red Robin and she is staying in to ‘study’ tonight. Thomas is at an away camp and Cain had to follow up a lead in Bucharest.” A beat. “Father’s intention to patrol alone appears to be a method of self-flagellation.”

“Shocker,” came from the backseat.

“Is he all right?” Tim said, over the older man’s derisive comment. “He was already injured when I saw him days back.”

“Nothing of consequence yet, but I do not appreciate this behavior going unchecked. Ordinarily, Grayson or you would have been able to play some role in stopping him. Or Kyle. He is ignoring all communications from Gordon.”

Tim yawned, screwing his eyes up tight against the idea of patrolling. “I can—”

“Don’t even try, Replacement.”

“This isn’t going to go away, Jason. You know this is how he handles things. He won’t mean to, but he’ll get himself seriously injured and then someone will have to circle back so Gotham has coverage while he’s down.” Tim didn’t have to say that the ‘someone’ would be him. Ric wasn’t working the vigilante gig, Jason wasn’t allowed to work in Gotham, and they needed someone wearing the cowl, even if it wasn’t Bruce. Tim did not want to be shoved into that position.

“Tt. Resolve this, Drake.” The speaker clicked off. Tim slumped back in the seat and tried to think of ways to stop Bruce from throwing himself after every criminal in Gotham. Because hey, if nothing had worked over the past couple decades, motivation should make a difference, right?

The speaker clicked again, as if someone else had gotten off the line.

Jason made a noise of deep-level frustration and Tim nudged Ric to take the next exit, towards his suit. 77 hours wasn’t that long – he could grab the suit, take a cab back to Gotham, work with Damian. He had told the kid he wouldn’t leave him alone and yet that was what he’d done for three days.

Jason grasped at his arm for a second when Tim got out of the car, scowling deeply. Tim drew back, trying to read the other man’s body language to determine if Jason was going to throw him back into the car. Instead, Jason squinted up at the Gotham Coffee.

“My treat.”

“Uh, what?” In his mind, Tim was already on the roof of the building, grabbing his spare suit and calling a rideshare.

“I’m buying you coffee, idiot. If I can’t stop you from patrolling, I’m making damn sure you make it back to Gotham. And knock off early, alright? I’ve made sure the half-pint knows this is a favor.”

“Ja—”

“Don’t. Get. Killed. Have Damian watch your friggin’ back and don’t piss off Bruce.”

“…okay,” Tim agreed, seeing the venomous look in Jason’s eyes and recognizing that he was being allowed to patrol on Jason’s permission alone. “Sorry. Thanks for coming to get me at work.”

“Pssht. I owed you for that thing.”

“Which thing?”

“You don’t gotta be a shit about it, Replacement.”

One massive coffee and a rideshare later, plus some pills to knock back the migraine, Tim realized Jason had never followed up with them verbally on the idea of a family meeting. He texted Ric as much and headed on patrol. Honestly, he could only track so many Bats at a time.

Chapter Text

When Bruce left Wayne Enterprises, after speaking with Tim in the park, he had every intention of speaking to Ric and Damian. He got so far as the on-ramp for the bridge to Bludhaven before pulling off and parking in a grocery store parking lot. Streetlights flicked on. People scuttled by the big red vehicle with only passing glances to see if the driver was inside or if some idiot had left it running unattended.

The ‘idiot’ ran through options. Ric’s apartment was off-limits, because Jason was there. He didn’t know Ric’s schedule or when his lady friend visited. His right knee – the driving knee – was already making mute complaints about the stop-and-go traffic on the way to Bludhaven. If he left Gotham now, he wouldn’t make it back to begin patrol and Damian would take it as yet another expression of distrust.

Bruce turned the wheel back toward the Gotham-facing street but didn’t put the vehicle in drive. The aching knee was a reminder that the Bludhaven visit the night before had been one long mistake. After Jason asked Bruce to leave, he had been swamped with feelings and shoved them at the totality of Gotham’s criminal population in hopes of purging them. Some of the population pushed back. Bruce pushed back harder – too hard.

Hence the wrist. Hence the knee. Hence the fact that he had allowed Damian to stay in Bludhaven when Bruce returned to Gotham. He didn’t recall Robin’s argument, but it must have been convincing enough to allow him to stay. When Bruce arrived home, early that morning, and found that Damian had never returned, he worried. If the boy had come back and seen the severity of the night’s events, if he had decided Bruce was an inadequate teacher unable to uphold his own principles, if he’d left

Damian was a child. An assassin child, League-trained and battle-hardened, but a child alone in one of the two most violent cities on the eastern seaboard.

Calls to Damian’s phone went unanswered. His comm remained out of range. Bruce was about to crawl into the Batmobile when he finally heard Alfred’s insistence that Spoiler said Damian had joined up with Red Robin. Bruce had called Tim, in a panic, and was momentarily struck dumb when Damian answered.

Everything else was off limits. Damian despised emotional displays and Bruce had told him he could stay in Bludhaven, and he had to say something, and it couldn’t be ‘but I shouldn’t have let you stay there alone, I was upset, I wasn’t thinking of you.’

Once emotion was ruled out as a response, the Bat presented a fear Bruce thought he no longer carried: Why was Damian answering Tim’s phone? Damian never liked Tim. What if Damian had heard Jason’s argument, seen Bruce’s methods in Gotham that night, and decided that there was no point in allowing Tim, the ‘imposter,’ to live on sufferance? Despite his years of distrust in the child, Tim wouldn’t expect Damian to try to kill him now. Not again.

Similar panic went through his mind when he visited Tim at Wayne Enterprises. Tim’s arguments were thorough and ruthless, it wouldn’t be hard for him to sway the family to his side. Bruce’s panic, faltering words, uncertainty, would be interpreted as hiding malice. The others would remember his actions in the past, see him as he taught them to see the criminal population (‘he’d know all about superstitious and cowardly, wouldn’t he?’ the Jason in his mind sneered), and Bruce… had to fix this. He needed time – hours, days, not the seconds he would have when Tim reached out to his siblings.

The storm with the payroll system had been brewing for months and it had taken a nudge from Bruce to get it started before he left. If Tim were truly underwater, he could come to Bruce for help, but Bruce didn’t expect him to.

Doubt prodded at his mind about that decision. If he were being honest, he doubted all of the decisions, doubted the motivations behind them, doubted that he could find the words to connect with Ric or Damian without doing something wrong again. Tim’s work situation would give him time and the best use of that time would be to withdraw, analyze, and regroup before Bruce tried to talk to Ric or Damian. Besides, it was nearly time for patrol. There was no room for doubt in patrol.

He turned the wheel towards Gotham.

#

This would take time, advised most of his research efforts. Time, and patience, and microscopic movements. Bruce considered punching the computer. He had not raised a family that waited around for (and probably wouldn’t recognize) ‘microscopic movements.’ The computer would then gaily suggest anger management courses and Bruce would go out on patrol.

When Tim had made contact with Damian the night before, he had… listened in, though it was getting harder and harder to argue to himself that he had a right to, after the computer’s many (valid) points. The boys’ conversation demanded that he do something, so he went on patrol.

Patrolling did nothing to ease the pressure. He had to do something.

‘Something’ had led him here, sitting outside a Gotham Coffee in one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods, listening to the ebb and flow of Saturday conversation around him. Waiting. Attempting to move as little as possible.

Aaron showed up eight minutes late, dressed in a business-casual button-down that suggested he didn’t know what to expect from Bruce Wayne. The woman beside him wore a cotton blouse and gray slacks. It was odd to see her without a task, as Bruce had always known her to be winding up speaker cords, engaged in conversation, coordinating volunteers; performing quiet, firm tasks while her husband extraverted his way around a room.

“Bruce!” Aaron nudged past a cluster of iron patio tables. “Bruce, Jean. Jean, Bruce Wayne.”

“Most of my clients avoid high-profile locations, Bruce,” Jean said, shaking his hand. “Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable elsewhere?”

“I have it on the best of authority that Vicki Vale is out of town this weekend, so for once, I can afford to be out on the town and I’m confident in your discretion.” Bruce gestured companionably at the coffeeshop’s interior. His left hand trembled but neither of his companions appeared to notice, or at least didn’t comment. “Coffee?”

Within minutes they were arranged in a private corner of the outdoor seating area, partially concealed from the walkway. Bruce had taken advantage of the cloister many times to meet with people he couldn’t be seen with publicly (including, on several occasions, Cat). Aaron, hands wrapped around the base of his drip coffee to keep them warm in the autumn chill, adopted the neutral expression of a bystander. Bruce had asked him to be present, but it was clear the man took his role as secondary to that of Jean’s. The woman had set a notebook on the table but made no move to open or write in it yet.

“What would you like to talk about, Bruce?” she asked.

He had worried he wouldn’t be able to form the words and was relieved to find they came: “My sons. Mostly, my sons.”

He had to walk her through it then: the ages, the civilian-approved descriptions of why they were or weren’t part of the public sphere, and recent events. He talked about Cassandra, a little, but the conversation came back to Jason, Damian, Ric, and Tim. Jean nodded at the appropriate times, never wearing an expression that said more than it needed to but encouraging enough to keep Bruce from deciding this was a terrible idea. It was, of course, but there were a lot of reasons for that.

“And lately?” she asked.

Lately.

The conversation from the night before blared through his mind and he had to fight it back to find the words that weren’t just ‘I’m losing them and I’m hurting them’.

“They’ve noticed my mistakes. They’re realizing – they’re deciding I can’t do better.”

Jean’s expression didn’t change. “When did that start changing?”

Bruce encapsulated what he could into bite-sized, PR-safe information. He had a lady friend; it didn’t work out. He and Jason had had a fight, things became physical, they were essentially estranged. Ric similarly wanted to go his own way.

It felt like taking pictures from space when the truth of the situation was that there were oceans of betrayal and landmasses of alliances and complex bridges and tunnels. Sweat from the strain of filtering the explanation made Bruce’s shirt cling to him, transcending the chill of the day. Truth burned in his stomach. Calling Dinah Lance would have been better. Even if everyone knew – maybe everyone should—

Aaron’s bystander mask had slipped and he looked at Bruce with that same percolating mix of curiosity and concern that he had worn that night at the panel. Bruce had never told him what happened that night, just ran out the door.

“But it started when Jason needed to be in Gotham for a medical procedure,” Bruce said. “He didn’t tell me and I… reacted poorly. Everything I do to approach him now makes it worse.”

No response.

“And if I let him go his own way, he’ll run, as soon as he’s recovered. He can live without me.” The words, aloud, sounded like prophecy. “He’ll leave and I won’t know if he’s hurt or safe or angry or happy or dead or alive. If I respect his boundaries, he’ll decide I don’t care about him.” Bruce hadn’t known that until the words came out of his mouth but the statement… fit. He had withheld trust from Jason at critical times, until his silence, whether from a short or great distance, meant that Jason thought nothing he did could bolster that baseline. “He already believes I don’t care about his opinion.”

“Do you?” Jean asked.

“Yes, but he’s not… he isn’t right.” Bruce felt a scowl twitch through.

“Does that matter?”

“Of course it matters, it’s how he thinks about me, what he tells his siblings, what they tell themselves and the people who know us.” What the only world he cared about thought of him. When had he started caring about that to this extent? Batman only cared insofar as they were still his allies; Bruce Wayne was—oh.

He had never tried to talk about this as Bruce Wayne before.

Ah.

“Bruce?” Jean leaned forward, eyebrows knit together. She still managed to appear less worried than Aaron, who looked about to call 911. The man had had more one-on-one experience with Bruce Wayne than Jean had and watching the alteration in personality was probably alarming.

“I’m fine. Thank you, Jean. Aaron. Perhaps this was a mistake.” Another one to add to the litany.

“Maybe in such a public place,” Jean conceded. “If you’re accustomed to detaching from your feelings, you might be surprised by how many you actually have.”

She leaned back, the expression of concern easing, but made no move to get up or put away the still-untouched notebook on the table. No urgency existed around the woman; as if Bruce could sit there, stone-like, for all time and she would remain present. Dick carried a similar aura around him, but the acrobat had never been the type to be still; he drew people along after him, never moving so fast they couldn’t keep up, and somehow charmed them into explaining their woes.

Bruce missed him.

“Bruce Wayne?” came a voice from the street and Bruce’s head jerked up.

“Kent.”

The Midwesterner stopped by the alcove and, upon seeing Aaron and Jean, adopted a contrite expression. Clark plunged his giant hands deep into his jean pockets and smiled helplessly. Please, Clark had never been helpless in his life, save when kryptonite was involved.

“Gee, sorry all, I just saw Bruce and thought—well, you know him, he’s such a good time! Can’t walk by Brucie Wayne.”

“I’d argue that you could,” Bruce said, charging the sentence with self-deprecating humor and knowing that Clark would hear the steel. You aren’t welcome, you aren’t wanted, go away.

Clark stepped over the short ironwork fence that separated the alcove from the public curb. “Not this time! See, I’m actually on a mission from Mr. Pennyworth.”

Damnit.

“Brucie had quite a fall on Friday and shouldn’t be out of the manor,” Clark explained for Jean and Aaron’s benefit, as Bruce tried to rush through introductions.

“Exaggeration,” Bruce snapped. “One branch buried in the Aspen snow—”

“Alfred was happy to provide enough gory details for a full-page spread in the paper if you refused to come home,” Clark said, his intonation a promise that he would write such an article if Bruce didn’t fall into line. Bruce adopted the usual beleaguered playboy mask with difficulty.

“No, no need to trouble all of Metropolis with my antics this week. I’m sorry,” he addressed Jean and Aaron. “It looks like my keepers have decided I’m under the weather. Thank you for meeting me, but… raincheck?”

“When he’s not bursting his stitches to be out here,” Clark suggested cheerfully and damn him.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce said, both for the inconvenience and for the presence of Clark Kent like a friendly yet looming Samoyed. He also wanted the pair of them to leave before he tried to stand. Fortunately, Jean and Aaron were already rising to depart.

“Don’t be sorry,” Jean said, the notebook vanishing into one of her pockets. “I appreciate the opportunity to meet you.”

“Excuse me?” He’d attended board meetings, both Jean and Aaron had met him before—

“The man behind the public face,” she clarified, without heat and with an assessing glance at Clark. “We’ll reschedule.”

“Thank you.”

Clark waited until Aaron and Jean had made their way to the edge of the outdoor section of the café, exited the little ironwork gate, and vanished around the corner before returning his gaze to Bruce. After a moment, the Midwesterner sank down into the chair across from him and snagged an abandoned, untouched scone from an adjacent table. Bruce sat and… hated everything.

“How did you find me?” Bruce asked.

“You’re bleeding.”

“I am not.” Not significantly, anyway. What was it Dick and Damian always told each other? “Just a flesh wound—"

“I have it on good authority that a mutual friend of ours put away 53 criminals last night and managed to break a wrist, require 47 stitches, some internal, and left the house secretly with a concussion that caused no less than four noted blackouts last night.” Clark listed the injuries by rote, but Bruce could hear the tremor in his voice. “That may not be of concern to you, but I’m concerned that our mutual friend is trying to kill himself. I will stop you if you try to get out of that chair, Bruce.”

Bruce slumped back a little, feeling the stitches in his stomach pull nastily at the skin as he did. “Fine.”

Clark twisted back to look into the direction Aaron and Jean had gone. “Jean Metzger, right? Psychotherapy?”

“How.”

“Alfred said you wrote down her name near the manor phone. That’s not like you.”

“No, it isn’t.” Bruce mentally tallied the number of stitches he could predict bursting before he got home. Alfred would be upset. Alfred was already upset. And he hadn’t made any real progress on figuring out what to say to the boys.

“Bruce?” Clark asked.

“Nn.”

Clark watched him in deep concentration, thinking in that long, patient way the other man had of thinking about things, more suited to Kansas than to the urgency of New Jersey. The thought annoyed Bruce. Clark didn’t belong here, with his values and his boy scout methodology and his secure family relationships—

“Why is our mutual friend patrolling alone?” Clark asked. Bruce sat straight, tearing at least three stitches in the process.

“Because he needs to.”

Clark’s eyes went wide, hands twitching to splay fingers in an an instinctive pacifying gesture. “Whoa. Okay.” He gave Bruce a moment before continuing: “First, we’re alone. Second, at the moment, you are sitting at a Gotham Coffee, outdoors, after spending a very rough evening last night out on the town. Third, you are meeting a married psychotherapist. I am asking some very basic questions, B.”

The married part did reduce his cover’s deniability. Bruce hadn’t thought about that. He hadn’t thought about a lot of this, though it had seemed like the most logical course of action after listening to the phone call and patrol failing to solve things.

“Dinah didn’t seem an option. And Sanctuary is… well, this isn’t work-related, anyway.”

“Does ‘this’ have anything to do with Jason?” Clark asked.

It had to do with everything – the totality of failure to communicate that was Bruce Wayne, compounded by the blood that was beginning to seep into the left hip of Bruce’s dark gray slacks. Clark’s jaw tightened as Bruce tried to push himself to his feet again. He gave up before making it halfway and had partial success in sitting back down without tearing more of Alfred’s work from the night before.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Clark said. The friendly tone was leaving now, replaced by something with steel in it. “Alfred brought me up to speed on some of it.”

“That saves me the trouble.”

“And Metzger?”

“If the problem is with me, I have to do something.”

“In this condition.” Clark’s poker face was on par with some of the greatest but his deadpan said exactly what he was feeling.

“I overheard the boys. Last night,” Bruce said.

“Overheard means spied,” Clark guessed.

Spied, then. Haven’t you ever—”

“I have to make specific efforts not to,” Clark said, reminding Bruce tacitly that they were different people, facing the same pressures in different ways.

“I’m addressing this, Clark.”

“And what is it you are addressing?”

“I’ve hurt them. Hurt Jason. But I have not lost sight of myself or the mission. I’ve never intended to…” His chest tightened. Clark was looking at him with the skeptical eye of an evaluator and Bruce felt irrationally angry at the Midwesterner again. Why should Clark get to sit there in judgment, he had a child in costume didn’t he—

Bruce’s vision went static. When it returned, a waiter was walking away, having left a glass of water in front of him. Evaluator Clark had gone and Worried Clark had replaced him.

“You there, Bruce?”

Bruce took the water with his good hand and drank. It was empty in a surprising amount of time. That, or he’d blacked out again.

“Bruce.”

“Yes.” At some point, Clark had moved to crouch beside him and the look of panic in his eyes was new.

“You shouldn’t have left the manor,” Clark told him, voice a mix of angry and concerned.

“I don’t have time. If I’m the problem, I need to fix it to fix the other—this is logical, Kent.” He was the detective, he solved the problem, and if he was the problem, he had to solve the problem. He couldn’t do that from the manor. He couldn’t wait for full functionality, not if his children were at the end of the rope and Jason had waited long enough and Bruce needed to handle this. They were his children. He should be better, and he wasn’t. That had to be addressed. Now. Missteps and traps. You dismantle the traps, Bruce, and you stop taking wrong steps.

Clark sighed heavily and buried a cellphone in his pocket. Bruce had never seen him remove it. “Days, even weeks… it’s not going to be fixed to a timeframe.”

He knew that, obviously, but he had to get started or it would take longer and his family would get frustrated and leave him. He needed to add value, to fulfill the Mission and be someone in the meantime. Be the Bat, or they would see what he was when he wasn’t Batman and he could always understand someone leaving Bruce Wayne—

Somehow, he was in a taxi. Clark was getting in beside him. The taxi smelled like takeout food and faint vomit undercurrents – not a taxi that Bruce would have called for himself. Had he walked here? Was Clark leaving a car behind? Maybe Clark had flown here. No, no, that didn’t make sense. How did the man get around in civilian clothes?

“Stop worrying about that,” Clark said and Bruce realized, distantly, that he must have been puzzling the problem out aloud.

The moment the taxi arrived at the Manor’s front door, Alfred ushered (and Clark semi-lifted) Bruce into the waiting wheelchair. The humiliation component began to click into place then. Clark followed, commenting on the décor and asking after Damian’s schooling and if the Gotham paper had fired Vicki Vale yet.

Once they settled in the Cave’s medical bay, the total count of injuries was eleven broken stitches (Alfred was more irritated at the blood loss and the fainting) and excessive stress following the concussions.

“Why is it so in character that you would try to start therapy while you’re bleeding out?” Clark asked. Bruce grunted.

“Fine. We’ll go back to earlier. You’re patrolling alone,” Clark said. Bruce nodded. He had told Damian that, three days ago, maybe earlier. He had thought of it at the time as being temporary, until he could have a real conversation that wasn’t a misstep, but now, after eavesdropping last night, he could see where the boy would get confused. He had meant to shut Damian out so he wouldn’t get hurt… instead, it became an opportunity to lose control on patrol without consequences. Selfish. Ah. Another misstep.

“It’s not safe for Damian, right now,” Bruce said.

“Someone is after him?”

“No.”

An expectant pause.

“I’m…” Bruce tried. It took an effort of will not to look up at the stairs of the Cave, knowing that his hyperintelligent youngest son, the child who wrote 119-page papers on theoretical physics and adopted a new rescue animal every six weeks, was somewhere listening. Probably. Bruce had taught him to do things like that. Alfred’s efforts had paused as well and it was weakness to say anything, it was dangerous to be this. He wasn’t even dressed as the Bat. He was stuck being Bruce Wayne and being… this.

“I don’t know if it’s safe for Batman to be around Robin,” he said.

Clark looked at Alfred sharply. “Has anything—”

“Not to my knowledge, sir.” Alfred turned his attention to the shadows of the Cave. “Master Damian?”

“You were listening.” The boy stepped out of the darkness, tone like a sword being trailed along a wall. “On the phone, last night.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I do not require an apology, I require privacy,” Damian seethed. “Drake requires your apology.”

“Tim?”

Damian pointedly assessed Bruce’s health from where he stood, just outside the medical bay. Bruce knew it didn’t look good, with the blood and the stitches and the fact that it felt like a jack hammer was drilling against the inside of both ocular sockets.

“What if there had been a crisis, Father? What if there is a crisis?”

“This isn’t a crisis.”

“This series of self-destructive tantrums places the burden of Batman on Timothy.”

“No one said that.”

“No one has mentioned contingency plans for Batman for over a year,” Damian shot back, the characteristic strain in his voice that appeared when he was trying not to yell. The boy could be so professional and clinical when he didn’t care about the person or situation but when he did, he became his age. Bruce attempted not to muse on where that quick might have originated.

“I have told you for years Drake is an idiot without self-preservation skills and you have dismissed my concerns as rivalry. His patrol last night—”

“Tim patrolled?” From what Bruce had heard, he had been certain Jason and Ric would refuse to let Tim patrol.

“If you can call it that. I required a partner and was left with a sleep-deprived idiot who let himself be knocked off a roof.”

“He shouldn’t have done that. He could have called me at any time to help with the work—”

“If you level a lance at Drake, he will see it as a test and impale himself on it. I thought you knew that.” For once, the brunt of Damian’s fury was directed at Bruce, rather than Drake’s referenced incompetence. “And since the entire machination was to keep him from speaking to the family, why would he call you for support?”

“Tim knows—”

“No. He doesn’t. No one knows what to make of this and the only thing we are in agreement about is that the family needs to meet. Not just because of Todd. You removed me from patrol, defeating Robin’s purpose. Kent, your name has come up as a neutral third party for this meet.”

Clark’s expression shifted from bemused tolerance to wary consideration.

“I’m not neutral,” the Midwesterner said, great care in his voice.

“You are fond of Father. You are fond of Grayson. You see the bone-headedness in each. You are a neutral and informed party.”

“Hn.” The Bat in Bruce wanted to hurry Damian along so he could explain matters to an undoubtedly confused Clark. Damian’s broad-legged, arms-crossed stance announced that he would be resistant to being shooed out. Besides, part of Bruce’s mind had been co-opted with concern for Tim and a wave of second-guessing his own mind: Yes, Tim was stubborn. Bruce had known that it was unlikely Tim would call him for help, regardless of how bad things got, but the teen was supposed to have a basic understanding of boundaries. It had never crossed Bruce's mind that Tim would become aware of Batman’s risky solo patrols and project having to take over as Batman in the event of an injury. And Tim hadn’t asked for help from anyone with that either, despite it always being a Nightwing-to-Batman conversation in the past… had they really not set up any contingency plans for Batman since they lost Dick?

Missteps. Complications and traps. In losing himself for a moment, he had dropped everything on the child who paid too much attention to Bruce’s health and functionality. He hadn’t been thinking, he had been fighting and dealing and pushing through damage and he… he was a father. He had responsibilities. He was supposed to…

Bruce stared at the shrouded upper regions of the Cave and tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t be another mistake. He didn't even know where Tim had spent the night, if not here.

“All right, Damian,” he said. “We’ll call the family together. The manor—”

“Not in Gotham.”

Bruce tried to channel patience into his tone. “It will be hard to secure somewhere where we can meet without suspicion. If we are in gear, we might be able to—”

“No. No gear. Todd will reject the idea outright.”

“I would think Jay would feel safer in uniform.” Bruce realized what Damian was saying seconds after he spoke and corrected himself: “Ah. Jason’s uniform is not the problem.”

“You have further explicitly told him that he can no longer be the Red Hood. He is hardly likely to show up in that persona to meet with the Batman.”

Bruce mentally ran through the approved locations, using the new parameters. No uniforms, outside of Gotham city limits, in a location where none of them would be mobbed by paparazzi. A neutral location, which ruled out small islands that Bruce owned or Wayne Enterprises properties.

“There is a small bar in Texas,” Damian said, before Bruce could suggest anywhere. “Texas laws make allowances for minors and the setting is innocuous. We can rent it out and claim to be hosting a family reunion.”

“Texas is a long way to go to establish neutral territory.”

“Gotham has a population of ten million. Texas has a population of 28.7 million, 268 thousand square miles, and does not care what happens in New Jersey or who is important there. Todd is certain that the bar is in no way affiliated with the Wayne family and made reparations after an earlier altercation.” Damian made a derisive noise. “Because as usual, Todd is the one we have to worry the most about.”

Suspicion settled into Bruce’s gut. “Damian, is this the bar where you stabbed Jason in the leg?”

“Neutral territory means both parties feel comfortable there, Father. I know the blueprints, as does Todd. There is no advantage or disadvantage in its location.” Damian tilted his head to an imperious angle, taking in Clark with the gesture. “Is this acceptable to you?”

Clark’s eyebrows climbed towards his hairline – he nodded all the same. Bruce shifted up onto his elbows and nodded.

“Yes. Alfred will—no. Let us know how you want to move forward, and we’ll make the arrangements. Clark, if I could have a moment alone, with Damian?”

Once Clark had taken his leave, politely rebuffing Alfred’s offer of tea, Bruce turned his attention to his youngest, who stood motionless and expectant.

“I’m sorry, Damian.”

“As I said, Drake requires your apology.” Damian shifted his weight onto his back foot, expression closed off, as if shunting emotion into a funnel.

“I’m sorry that it has come to this point. That I’ve handled it this… poorly, with all of you.”

“I don’t labor under the delusion that you are a well-adjusted human being.”

“Damian, whatever Tim… believes, and what Jason believes… about me... I love you. I love you all. I should never have… I won’t… communicate through violence, Damian. I never should have with Jason, and I never intend to with you, or with any of the family. It’s wrong.”

Damian’s expression stayed impassive. “I know.”

“Whatever this conversation is about, or includes… I want you to be safe. All of you. I’ve never meant to hurt more than I can help you. I’ve failed Jason. We can discuss that, and do what the family feels is fair. I just… I want you to know, from me, your father, that I never want to communicate to you through violence.”

“I understand.” Damian looked at him head-on, holding his gaze with disquieting stillness. “But you are underestimating how much I know. I grew up under Mother and Grandfather’s tutelage. I know what you are describing. You have not been that to me.” He let Bruce absorb the information for a moment before continuing. “But the others have longer memories. Constant supervision implies a lack of trust and you have demonstrated what happens to those you can't trust.”

He turned to go. "I will communicate the meeting arrangements to Pennyworth once they have been determined. Everyone will arrive on equal footing."

He was gone before Bruce could say anything else. The feeling left him wrong-footed: do nothing, do not research the bar in Texas, do not tap phones, do not go on patrol, don't even plan contingencies for Batman. There was nothing but the echoing question of the border between supervision and trust. Jason had asked as much long ago, when Bruce first gave him dispensation to work as an Outlaw in Gotham to root out the underground cartel. Back then, Jason had shot the mayor at point blank range in order to administer a bio-tech antidote.

'Why didn't you just trust me?' Jason had asked, standing post-fight in his newly-compromised bomb shelter beneath the police station.

With his non-IV'd hand, Bruce freed the cellphone from the pocket of his (blood-soaked and now-destroyed) pair of pants and went into the medical records of Oswald Cobblepot.

The media had reported 'critical condition' a thousand times and Bruce had never looked closely at the records, pre or post-Cobblepot's recovery. It wasn't necessary when Red Hood shot Cobblepot so publicly, removing all traces of doubt. Now, knee-deep in the records, he found that the medical team removed shards of Penguin's monocle from his brain. They never found a bullet. For whatever reason, one member of the medical staff had entered into the notes, the Red Hood shot Oswald Copplepot with a blank and fled the scene. Shot him at lethal range, certainly, and that wasn't great, but firing a blank meant Jason never meant to kill Penguin.

Bruce closed out of the records. He had had no way of knowing, except asking, but having to ask meant someone had the ability to lie, and he had already felt lied to enough that night and... it had been so easy to put Jason there, again.

Every part of him railed against Jason's argument that he couldn't detach himself the way he used to, that the violence was a crashing, insatiable thing that drew conclusions about 'good' and 'bad' and forgot histories. But, unable to lean on any of his usual methods of distraction, Bruce could only work the problem with the evidence at hand and the sinking feeling that Jason might be right.

Chapter Text

Ric had expected to turn the car homewards seconds after dropping Tim off at the ‘Haven annex of Gotham Coffee. After all, Jason had been twitchy their entire time spent within Gotham city limits. The conversation with Damian hadn’t improved things.

Instead Jason settled painfully into the passenger seat, reclined it with a grunt, and said: “Okay. Head back to Gotham.”

“Why?” Baffled but accustomed to obeying the ‘fare,’ Ric signaled to get back on the highway.

“Timmers’s no good for patrol tonight,” Jason said, addressing the ceiling. “But unless we wanted to literally kidnap him, he’s gonna play this out.”

“Shouldn’t it be his call whether he’s okay to patrol?” Tim seemed so capable the night they went running across rooftops with Damian, the nights he’d visited Jason in the hospital – then again, that person didn’t match up with the shambling wreck Jason had retrieved from Wayne Enterprises.

“Oh, it’s his call,” Jason said, tone dry as deserts that Ric didn’t remember visiting but still came to mind. “Us waiting is for Damian’s benefit. We give Red one hour. If we don’t get a call that he’s in some kind of crisis, we go.’

Damian called twenty-eight minutes after they parked. Red Robin had been knocked off a building.

#

The following morning, Ric woke up with two ex-Robins crashed in his living room and one definitely-not-Robin, who had let herself into his bedroom during the night. He nuzzled into her hair. Judging by the lack of light through the drapes and the fact that his body felt like a solid bar of lead, it couldn’t be later than four, four-thirty in the morning.

“Mmn, you’re lucky my brothers didn’t kill you,” he murmured.

“Pretty sure the big guy knows how I unlock the door by now,” Bea replied. “The skinny one – is that Damian?”

“Tim.”

“Is he all right?”

Ric gave her a hazy overview of the night. She knew all the Bat things, the off-limits things that Batman would have insisted Ric never tell anyone. Tough. Ric couldn’t pretend Nightwing wasn’t a part of his life or that the Bats didn’t continue to be part of who he was, and Bea was a part of who he was. Denying the role the Bats played in forming who he had been meant he wouldn’t have welcomed Jason and Tim in. Probably. Did normal people let strangers crash on their couch? Probably not. Damnit, it felt like never knowing what was Ric, what was ‘Nightwing’ and what was—

“You’re upset.” Bea pressed her forehead against his chest, disrupting his spiraling thoughts. “It’s okay.”

“Just… I didn’t mean to get… involved,” Ric said. “I said this wasn’t me and now they’re taking over my house.”

“It’s okay if you share traits with him, Ric.” He felt her smile against him. “I’m in love with Grayson, not Ric and not Dick. All of you.”

He wanted to be here, in this moment, with Bea. At the same time, he wanted to know what he had learned from other relationships – she was so there, so present and right, and every encounter felt like the first date for Ric. He said as much and she sighed in something circling affection and exasperation, like twin stars.

“You’re enough.” She shifted position, head against the base of his neck so he could rest his chin on her head. “You, right now, are enough.”

“And if I go back to sleep?” he teased and felt her grin.

“You’re still enough, but then we’ll miss brunch hours and you have to convince the big guy to make us breakfast.”

“Mm, ’m good with that,” Ric said and went back to sleep.

When he next woke up, the harsh lighting in his bedroom suggested late afternoon had crept in. Bea had nudged him awake and the look of urgency on her face made him sit up fast. Camisole, shorts – she’d been up for a minute. Tim lingered awkwardly in the doorway behind her, still in his Red Robin gear. He hadn’t been coherent enough to change into Ric’s spare clothes the night before. He looked like he was still trying to assemble himself now.

“Something wrong?” Ric sat up, including both of them in the question.

“Um… what happened last night?” Tim asked with a sidelong glance at Bea.

“What do you remember?” Ric asked. Tim’s eyebrows lifted and he pulled meaningfully at the fabric of the suit.

“I’m in a Red Robin suit, Ric, I thought you might have some suggestions.”

“Oh.” The puzzle pieces clicked into place. “You don’t have to worry about Bea. She knows.”

“She knows.” Expressions fought for dominance on Tim’s face for a few seconds. “She knows… everyone?”

“Basically.”

Again, a battle of expressions, until Tim put all of them aside and smiled at Bea – the smile more ‘Timothy Drake-Wayne’ than ‘Tim.’

“All right. Nice to meet you, Beatrice Bennett, of 1600 Jameston Blvd, Apartment 1J, weekday bartender of The Prodigal, alternate Saturday volunteer of Kings Park—”

“Tim!” Ric snapped.

The younger man’s jaw clenched and he stopped. Assembled more of himself. Tried again.

“You’re right. It’s not her fault you can’t keep other peoples’ identities secret.” He took a breath. The smile moved towards Tim – tired Tim – again. “Sorry, Bea. I run backgrounds on everyone, it’s nothing personal and… not fair to blame you for knowing things you didn’t ask to know.”

Ric rubbed the bridge of his nose as Bea waved off the apology, commenting about being ‘recorded on enough town hall livestreams that she had already been doxxed six times.’ Whatever ‘doxxing’ was, the way Tim’s eyes narrowed meant that would probably never happen to Bea again.

“What the hell is wrong?” Ric asked.

In response Tim glanced back at the main room and Ric realized that Jason hadn’t come to investigate, despite his stated enjoyment of Ric and Tim’s fights.

“Dames told B that we were having a family meeting,” Tim said. “Jay took off.”

“Damian—but isn’t that way ahead of what we discussed?” Ric fumbled his phone off of the nightstand, clicking a button to reveal the twenty-seven angry text messages shooting back and forth between Damian and Jason. The most recent – from Damian at 1:09 that afternoon – read: ‘Wasn’t this what you WANTED?’

Ric closed out of the messages with a sigh. “I should’ve seen that coming.”

“How could you?” Tim tried to roll his left shoulder, elicited a small chuff of pain in the attempt, and he moved back towards the living room. “Also, who dislocated my shoulder? Feels like—”

“Damian. You got knocked off a building, if you don’t remember, and he had to grab whatever he could to stop you going splat,” Ric said, following Tim. Bea brushed his arm, a nonverbal indication that she would give them time alone, and headed into the master bathroom. Seconds later, the shower started up.

Tim didn’t appear to notice, already rooting through Ric’s cabinets in search of coffee supplies. “Should’ve scanned it for damage before he shoved it back into—”

“Jason did that and he scanned it first. Damian was terrified he’d broken you.” Ric got a cold compress out of the freezer and held it out to Tim, who pretended he couldn’t see it. Ric clapped it on his shoulder and pretended, in turn, not to hear the younger man’s yelp.

“Damian doesn’t do terrified for me," Tim said, holding the compress to his shoulder with one hand as he kept looking through the cabinets with the other.

“Then whatever it’s called when he stops trying to needle everyone and doesn’t take his eyes off you and asks Jason hyper-specific questions about how long you had been at work and what had kept you there.”

“Then I don’t… I don’t know what that is.” As if not being able to interpret Damian was the final straw, Tim gave up on the hunt for coffee. Ric pulled the single-brew coffeemaker and its box of plastic cups, unused since he moved in, out of the cabinet. Fortunately, Tim seemed to know what to do with the items from there and moved to the sink to fill the dispenser with water.

“You shouldn’t have been on patrol,” Ric said, over the sound of the running water.

“Damian shouldn’t be patrolling alone.”

“So ground him. Is that the term? Grounding?”

Tim shut the faucet off violently. “I’m not Batman.”

“But weren’t you trying to be Batman?”

“Someone has to be, but that doesn’t mean I can tell Damian to do anything.” Tim set the water to boil in the coffeemaker and leaned back against the countertop, holding the cold compress in place with one hand. With the other, he set his phone on the counter and began texting someone.

“Are your car keys still here?” he asked Ric, not looking up.

“You think Jason would steal the car again?” Ric glanced at the bowl where Bea had convinced him to start keeping his keys after breaking into his own apartment six times. “And they’re still here.”

“No… I don’t really think he’d try that again...” Tim’s words were slow as he tried to multi-task with the texts. “He took his gear… but I don’t think he’s gone far… and the gear is just… preventative.”

“You know where he is?” Ric didn’t like the sound of the word ‘preventative.’

Tim nodded, sending a couple more texts. “Pretty sure he’s at Haven Wells.”

Despite the bar being only a mile from the apartment, Ric hadn’t been inside. What he did know was the types of fares he picked up from outside the Wells: nobody sober and most of them bleeding quietly all over the taxi’s backseat. The Wells’ patrons accounted for his spending more than a few late nights with a saltwater solution and dishwashing detergent, hunched with a washcloth over the backseat of his cab.

“But he’s not running?” Ric clarified.

“Depends on what you consider running and what you consider sulking.” Tim grimaced, skimming one of the newest texts. “Unless you want to go drink with him, I’d suggest waiting until he calls you for a ride.”

“Is he… is he likely to get in a fight?”

“Not when he’s dressed as someone who put a bullet in the Penguin’s head.” Tim closed his eyes and made an unhappy noise. “Sorry. I just… I don’t have the energy to drag him back right now.”

“No one said you had to.”

“But isn’t that what this whole thing is about? That someone should be looking after Jason? And if it’s not us, who—”

“Hold up,” Ric interrupted. “There’s a line to looking after people. Jason’s an adult. He wants to go drink, that’s on him. He decides if he calls me, I decide if I pick him up. Let’s be honest, I probably will, because I’m not a dick, but that’s my choice. Would he react well if you went after him?”

“Not historically, no.”

Pieces were clicking together in Ric’s mind. “Is that why you went on patrol last night? You felt responsible for Damian?”

“Someone has to be.” Tim seemed to catch himself in the repetition but didn’t recant it.

“That’s Bruce’s job.”

Wrapping his hands around the mug of coffee, Tim sat down on the kitchen floor, curled into the corner of the cabinets. The action effectively pinned the compress over his shoulder, so he no longer had to hold it in place. There was no outward distress in his expression, just stillness and a focus on the coffee that went beyond simple caffeine addiction. Ric set another cup of coffee brewing and perched on the counter.

“Tim?” he prompted.

“And if Bruce isn’t doing it?” Tim said, mostly addressing the coffee mug. “Someone needs to be—”

“Not you. You know it’s not on you. How does Damian benefit if you get yourself killed trying to fill in for Bruce?”

More pensive coffee-staring, which Ric interpreted as ‘I have no good answer for that.’ Good, maybe the thought would stick in Tim’s mind. Ric shifted his attention to the coffeemaker then and went hunting for some creamer – he couldn’t remember if the stuff expired, like, ever.

By the time he had assembled his coffee, Tim was still holding the mug upright but had officially checked out: eyes closed, breath even, head rocked against the cabinet. Ric removed the mug from his hands, half-expecting a disappointed whimper at the action, and set it safely on the counter before heading off to find Bea.

There had to be some kind of all-day brunch place they could crash.

#

Haven Wells didn’t really have a sign so much as a faded, hand-lettered name on the side of its brick wall, facing the parking lot. The lights in said parking lot were spaced too far apart to provide any sort of safety. With only five dedicated spots, not a lot of people drove here anyway. The Wells was in a long-running feud with the owners of the Szechuan restaurant across the lot, which owned the other five parking spots. Ric saw tow trucks almost as often as he drove by.

Tonight found his cab idling at the curb. Jason’s text message (‘Pick-up at the Wells? Double your rate’) suggested he wouldn’t have to pour the Red Hood into the cab, but Ric wasn’t holding out a lot of hope for an easy trip. Drinking away family drama had never worked out well, in his experience.

He sent another reply: ‘Meter’s running. I’m out front.’

‘in alley gimme minute’

Four minutes crept by. Ric sighed, shifted the vehicle into drive, and maneuvered into the place where 90% of the really bad Haven pickups happened. The Wells staff ushered people into the alley if they were going to have a fight, so the Szechuan restaurant couldn’t document fights out front and argue to authorities that the Wells was a blight on the area. But, in the anonymity of the alley, fights usually got stab-level bad.

The last time Ric saw the Red Hood in gear had been in Tim’s apartment. Jason was nearly delirious with pain and paranoia then. If pressed, Ric wouldn’t call the experience intimidating.

The red helmeted figure caught in Ric’s headlights tonight cut a different figure, seconds from using the momentum of a thug’s punch to propel him into the side of the brick building. Even with the windows shut, Ric felt like he could hear the thug’s fist crunch into the wall. The Red Hood sidestepped the thug’s next blow, fueled by blind rage as it was, and worked him back towards another assailant who was picking himself out of a collection of trash cans on the other side of the alley. Efficient, a sort of ballet even as the Red Hood wavered on his feet. Well, Jason had been here since at least five; some intoxication was to be expected.

Ric put the cab in park, blocking the alley exit.

On the bright side, if Ric’s cab was sitting there, the goons couldn’t call anyone in to mow down the Red Hood. On the downside, Ric could get violently rear ended if the goons called backup who decided they didn’t like what he was doing.

Jason knocked the pair of thugs into one another and stepped back just in time for a large bouncer carrying a truncheon to step out of the bar’s back door. The bouncer came out speaking and, from the shape of his mouth, in a loud and commanding tone. The windows kept out street noise, which included whatever was being said, so Ric rolled down the window just enough to let some of the sound in.

“I took it outside, what’s your problem?” The helmet’s vocal filter removed most recognizable features from Jason’s voice and what emerged was the ‘Red Hood,’ an sardonic, inhuman voice. The bouncer’s grip on the truncheon tightened.

“You seem like the type who’s gonna try and come back in,” the bouncer said.

“Nice ‘a you to be worried about the cowards, but I got everybody I meant to out here and I got enough kickass for all of them.”

Ric opened one of the doors a crack – the whole cab lit up as the interior lights came on.

“Hood!” he called.

The helmet didn’t twitch in his direction. “N’now, Dickie.”

“What’s this, your fan club?” the bouncer asked, not moving from his position in the doorway. The thugs were beginning to stir from where they had been tossed, a position not necessarily in Jason’s periphery. There were more than Ric had expected, at least six and all of them in states of ‘seriously angry.’ Ric left the engine running and got out of the cab.

“G’back in the hack. I got this,” Jason said, without turning.

The guns were still holstered. They stayed holstered, as the alley again devolved into a fight and Jason started collecting and redistributing knives. In under two minutes, he had six, redistributed in the non-vital appendages of his attackers, and was ‘cleaning up.’ He was a little less drunk with the exertion of energy but slowing and even more dehydrated than he would have been. They needed to get out of here – for that much at least, Ric could be backup.

His attention focused on the best way to convince the swaying Red Hood to head to the cab, Ric noted the incoming threat seconds after it dropped from the roof.

He had seen the Nightwings in action a few times and become familiar with how they entered a fight. An aerial drop, and then a midsection blow for maximum damage while the assailant was still in an ‘ambushed’ mindset. Red Hood, as the only combatant still standing and armed, would be the clear target. Ric had no idea what a blow to the abdomen or the back would do to Jason, at this stage of his recovery, and the Nightwings’ collective reaction to being shot at was Bad.

Ric was blocking Nightwing Prime’s kick before he realized he had left the side of the cab.

He didn’t remember taking a step forward. Hell, he didn’t even remember thinking something basic, like ‘I’ve never gotten out of the cab for a Wells fare before.’ He had moved, wrapped up in the image of Jason, drunk and fighting, being killed or maimed by a well-meaning vigilante who rightfully assumed that someone in an alley fight should be able to take a punch.

“I don’t get paid if you knock out my fare,” Ric told the Nightwing.

Nightwing Prime, also known as Alphonse Sapienza, watched Ric with an appraising eye. He was taller than Ric’s own 5’10 and almost as muscular as Jason; if he had a fraction of Ric’s acrobatic skills, he posed a real threat in a fight. Ric hadn’t meant to know the man’s identity, it just… something in him had put it together, the moment he was this close; that the cop who occasionally wandered into the Prodigal and sat in the back at City Hall meetings was moonlighting as Nightwing Prime.

“You’ve got skills, cabbie. You a vigilante too?” Prime said, pushing out of the kick and making an almost-too-quick motion with his hand towards someone unseen.

“Nah, I’ve just done more than three pickups at the Wells,” Ric said, forcing a grin and moving out of the block. Behind him, he could hear scuffling – Jason in a fight – but he didn’t want to break eye contact with Prime to check on it. “So, am I losing my fare?”

“’fraid so,” Prime said, tone untroubled. “Gold?”

The Red Hood grunted in discomfort and Ric heard the distinctive sound of body armor slamming into the ground. He winced.

“He’s down,” a female voice answered.

Jason’s words were strained: “Who the hell is wearing your Discowing suit, Dickie?”

Ric chanced a glance over his shoulder. Another Nightwing – the woman in gold – had pinned the Red Hood helmet-down on the alley concrete and was relieving him of his still-holstered guns. Jason didn’t move. The bouncer snorted and went back inside – whatever this was, from his perspective, it had been dealt with. The thugs, what few were still conscious, slunk towards the mouth of the alley to tend to their wounds in private, skirting Ric’s cab as they did so.

“It’s never great, but the Wells is bad enough that we’re getting Gotham’s nightwatch now?” Gold asked Prime. “This is the third in the last couple weeks.”

“When the big one shows up, we’ll get concerned,” Prime told her. “For right now, ‘Red Hood’ can spend a night in the drunk tank and we try to unpack the weaponry issue. Doesn’t look like anyone’s sticking around to press other charges.” he added, with a glance at the thugs. “Cuff him.”

At the statement, Jason came fully back to himself and shoved Gold off him with a force that surprised both Nightwings. Somehow, he’d reclaimed the guns in the same violent motion. Gold hadn’t had the chance to pull out handcuffs, certain he was pinned and down.

“Thirteen sep’rate johns headin’ upstairs in four hours. Fifteen shelter kids comin’ in after it’s dark an’ drinking for free. Three headin’ upstairs. In four hours.” Jason attempted to roll to his feet and made it into a half-crouch with one arm thrown up as a secondary block. He didn’t seem able to fully straighten up. “Aren’t you cops?! Do something about it!”

“And you came here solely to help,” Gold said, her disbelief clear.

“I’m in trouble for havin’ eyes and bein’ able to do math?” Jason snapped, shifting his weight onto his back foot in preparation for either a run or an attack.

“You’re in trouble for public drunkenness and carrying in New Jersey, actually. Unless you’re carrying some documentation you’d like to present? I thought all you Bat people were anti-guns anyway.” Gold removed handcuffs from her uniform.

“Batman has nothing to do with me.”

“Obviously, or he would’ve kicked your ass for this stunt.”

The helmet hid all trace of facial reaction, but Jason attempted to straighten, shifting weight to be ready to run. Ric’s mind raced. The Nightwings had to know he couldn’t run, that between the alcohol and dehydration he was in no shape to fight, and that he didn’t pose any more of a threat to anyone.

“Hey—he did call a cab,” Ric said, leaning into the last of his thoughts. “And, uh, my meter’s running so he’ll already be paying out for this adventure, and no one is here to press charges, so what if we just—”

“He has unlicensed firearms, cabbie,” Prime replied. “You want that kind of heat on your cab?”

“It’s the Blud, I get a lot of people in my cab.”

“Nightwings, if I can be of assistance?”

Ric had no idea Superman could be that quiet. The metahuman had dropped wordlessly out of the sky behind Jason like a descending angel. Both Prime and Gold were as caught off guard as Ric was: Prime’s mouth dropped open; Gold’s hands stilled on the handcuffs. Quick on the uptake, the Red Hood swore and tried to move away, only for Superman to catch his wrist. With anyone else, Jason probably would have tried to flip them – even drunk, he knew better than to try that with Superman.

“I apologize for the intrusion,” Superman asked, addressing Prime. “You go by… Nightwing Prime, correct?”

Prime nodded, shut his mouth, and attempted to regain some level of composure.

“Yes. Ah. Hi… Superman.” Prime checked the alley for any remaining assailants. “Uh, should I be aware of something else going on here? It’s the Wells, sure, but we understood this as being a bar fight.”

“No, I’m stepping in as a friend to the Bats.”

Prime took a second to process this, his expression shutting down as he came to some conclusions he didn’t like. “So, this is the kind of thing where it’s all who you know.”

“I respect what you and the Nightwings are doing,” Superman told him. “The original Nightwing and I were on good terms and I appreciate that legacy carrying on. Red Hood’s situation is… complicated. The Bats are trying to resolve it.”

“All due respect, but don’t give me that. He’s carrying, he’s drunk, he’s out of whatever area he ‘protects’—”

“No one in this alley would willingly present identification for their weapons, Nightwing Prime. The Red Hood has not killed, or fired at, anyone and seems to be, however ill-advisedly, trying to pursue a corruption case in this bar. I’m happy to leave that to the Nightwings to follow up on. Red Hood will not be working in Bludhaven.”

The way Superman said things, it was hard not to believe him. He had all the gravitas of Churchhill, imparting orders with the confidence of someone making the most reasonable of suggestions. Prime still looked dubious, Gold looked like she was about to snap back a retort – and did.

“What about the Robins?” she asked, planting a hand on her hip. A look of puzzlement crossed Superman’s face. She elaborated. “There were two kids running around a drug bust a few days back. I don’t know what Batman’s got going on, kicking ass like a madman over in Gotham, but we don’t want his birds treating the Blud like their sandbox. All right? We see them again, they’re arrested.”

“They won’t be working in Bludhaven either,” Superman said, again with the certainty in his tone.

“I mean, if the Bats wanted to start working in Bludhaven, they could be a little more transparent. Common decency, you know?” Gold tilted her head as the Red Hood started laughing. “I say something funny, helmet head?”

Jason shook his head, still held in place by Superman’s steel grip on his arm, and said nothing. Prime glanced at Gold, who shrugged. What were they going to do after all, fight Superman?

“I don’t want to be told what to do in our city again,” Prime said, removing and readying his grappling gun. “Is that all right with you, Superman?”

“Reasonable request,” Superman said, expression and tone warm but professional, free of any trace of patronizing. “I’ve been a fan of your work, I’ll make sure the Bats know you have the city in hand. This is more a Gotham issue than anything to do with lack of confidence in the Nightwings.”

“…thanks.” Prime nodded to Superman, then once to Ric. He seemed unhappy about the turn of events, but not enough to argue. “See you, cabbie.”

Once the Nightwings had gone, all the thugs having vanished some time before, Superman’s attention shifted with laser-like focus to Ric’s cab. “You were here to pick him up?”

“He… yeah.” Ric tried to focus on the sequence of events. Superman was… unexpected. Powerful, unassuming, and unexpected. “Uh, did Batman send you?”

“No,” Superman replied. “He doesn’t know—”

To both of their surprise, Jason sagged at the statement, all his reserve energy bleeding out of the effort to stay in fight-or-flight mode. Superman’s grip on his wrist was now the only thing keeping him from falling. Superman frowned, pulling the Red Hood up and looping the formerly gripped arm around his neck. With this new support, he led the stumbling younger man back towards the cab. Ric followed, determined not to lose the thread of this conversation in his own confusion and, frankly, being starstruck.

“Then why are you here?” he asked. Superman slid Jason into the cab’s passenger seat, leaving the door open in case Jason had to be sick – and to keep the lights on, in case Jason thought he would be able to slip away. Ric hovered by the driver’s side, maintaining what felt like a badass expression. He hoped it looked badass too.

Judging by the way Superman smiled when he saw it, it didn’t.

“Robin solicited me as a neutral party in the family conversation you’ll be having,” Superman said, circling to the rear of the cab so they would have some privacy from the Wells’ alley door. Ric did the same. “It occurred to me that you and I hadn’t even met.”

“Ric. Though I guess you know the other guy.” Ric watched Superman’s face in the dim light, looking for the inevitable disappointment people adopted when they realized how much he wasn’t Dick Grayson.

“I’m Clark,” Superman said, almost too quiet to be heard.

“N--nice to meet you,” Ric said. The words came out sounding as stunned as he felt: he knew Superman’s first name. Dick Grayson had probably known his full name. Superman wasn’t part of the Batfamily, he wasn’t telling Ric this for convenience’s sake or because he expected any echo of who Dick was to surface. He just… trusted. Trusted Ric. Implicitly.

“You as well.” Superman glanced back at the cab, where Jason had pulled off his helmet and was resting his forehead against the dashboard. “The Red Hood’s back is still in too poor a condition to be fighting.”

Right, x-ray vision.

“Not my call.” Ric leaned against the rear of the vehicle, keeping an eye out for any delivery vehicles he might have to get out of the way for. “Dami—sorry, Robin told Batman about the meeting before we’d even talked about when and how. Hood found out and took off.”

“The conversation wasn’t his idea?”

“No, or… if it was, I don’t think he thought anyone would make sure it… happened.”

Would this take long? Superman probably had better things to be doing than standing out in the Bludhaven chill, shooting the breeze. But, when Ric cast a sidelong glance to see if the metahuman was looking to leave, Superman was watching him.

“You need something else?” Ric asked. “I don’t know anything else about the conversation bit. Damian started that up and Tim’s still in bad shape from last night and—”

“No. Wondering how you’re holding up is all.” Superman nodded once at Jason’s figure in the cab. “That’s the second unconscious Bat I’ve had to transport into a cab today. Keeping an eye on them is hard.”

“No shit. If they were just a little better at taking care of themselves, it’d help. Tim--shit, Red Robin’s better at it, but he still went on patrol last night. He could’ve died. It’s not like there’s safety rails for bad nights and these kids are throwing themselves off buildings.”

Superman listened, nodding at the appropriate times. Ric had to trust in the metahuman’s x-ray and heat vision to be monitoring the Red Hood’s condition. There were water bottles in the front seat, if Jason was coherent enough to twist off a plastic cap, he could start rehydrating but, of course, that was up to him.

“You got kids?” Ric asked.

“…two.”

“Bit’a hesitation there.”

“It’s complicated.” Superman’s attention drifted towards the sky, where Bludhaven’s thick fog obscured all hint of stars. It felt odd to probe him for information but hell, what other metahumans were going to seek out Ric Grayson? None, he hoped; honestly, he wanted none.

“They vigilantes?” Ric asked.

“In their own rights. The younger—I trained him to control his powers. Anything that happens after that is his decision. The older… gets complicated.”

“But they’re not your partners.”

“No. The Bats are the only ones who work the way they do, merging family and work.”

“Huh.” Ric found his mind following some new paths at this revelation. “My parents and I… we worked together in the circus. Acrobats. It’s not… safe, but it was a legitimate career. They trained me. I thought… I thought this’d be more like that.”

“Some aspects are the same,” Superman said. In the quietness of his answer, Ric could hear his suspicions confirmed.

“And others aren’t,” Ric said. “My parents—they loved me because I was their kid. All of me, whether or not I liked doing what they did, which I did cause I was a kid and, when your parents are badass acrobats in the circus who will let you work with them, you friggin’ love the circus. But now… I don’t work as an acrobat and I’m okay with that. I mean, the cab driving might not be permanent but—”

He looked back to said cab, hearing the click of a door opening: Jason had moved from the passenger seat and opened the backseat door in search of more comfortable accommodations. Ric had looked back in the exact moment Jason was looking at him, the younger man’s eyes bleary with exhaustion and drink.

“’m sorry. Shouldna let him,” Jason said, gripping the car’s doorframe. It wasn’t clear whether he had been listening to their conversation.

“Who?” Ric asked, aware that Superman was now looking back as well.

“I let Red patrol. He coulda died and I let him go out to protect the demon and I knew it was a bad call with nobody to watch his back. I shouldn’ve…” His grip on the doorframe tightened, gloves creaking. “Now the Bat’s too obsessed with me and feeling bad to mind his actual kids. I shouldn’ve come back here.”

“Hood, just… get in the car, okay?” Ric said. Thankfully, Jason obeyed and Ric let out a long sigh of relief as the cab door shut and the car jostled while Jason sprawled out in the backseat. Hopefully using an arm as a pillow or something because even if it was Ric’s cab, some gross shit went on back there and—

Superman was watching him again.

“Look, I should get him back before someone in there calls the actual police,” Ric said. “We good?”

“He doesn’t know how to thank you right now, but he would.”

“Who? Jason? He’s good about thanking and apologizing, after everything goes to shit. Besides, I don’t need—”

“Bruce.” Superman glided off the edge of the cab and a little further, towards the street. The metahuman’s feet didn’t touch the filthy street. “You’re a testament to resiliency, Ric Grayson, and doing far more than can be expected of you. I hope you know that.”

“I get the feeling it runs in the family.” Ric circled the cab to yank open the driver’s side door. “So, saying it’s not expected is a little off-base.”

Ric didn’t wait around for a response, getting in and shutting the door. Jason had killed several of the water-bottles, rolling around the passenger side floor along with his helmet. The owner of the helmet lay unconscious in the backseat. He stirred a little when Ric fired up the cab and threw it into reverse.

“Dick?” came the half-awake murmur from the backseat.

Ric was all talked out. He piloted the cab backwards out of the alley and shifted into drive. “Close.”

Chapter Text

Was flannel appropriate?

Bruce had read Damian’s email a minimum of eleven times; enough times to memorize the no-more-than-200-word missive. An address, date, and time. An RSVP requirement. An admonishment for no capes and no weapons, civilian wear appropriate for a bar or family gathering. A brief agenda that Bruce kept unpacking and repacking to try and find nuances. And, finally, a post-script at the bottom suggested that Damian or Tim could be contacted for more information. He hadn’t contacted either of them.

Two things, primarily, were giving him trouble about the communication, aside from the agenda. First, that his email had been separate from any of the other recipients, so he had no way of knowing who was invited. There could have been verbal invitations issued as well, the results of which would be unknown.

The second problem was whether or not flannel was appropriate.

The meeting would be some ways north of Fort Davis, which was the closest landmark of civilization Bruce recognized. The unincorporated community in which they were meeting had a population of no more than 600. Bruce could have bought Disney passes for the entire town and cleared it out for the meeting (he hadn’t, but the idea had occurred to him).

“Your flight is scheduled for Thursday afternoon at 4pm, sir,” Alfred said from the doorway. “Concurrently, Bruce Wayne will be jetting to a Lake Michigan resort, so you may want to make an appearance at Dresden Lodge there on your way back. Master Damian has asked not to be included in that leg of your journey.”

“Thank you, Alfred.” It took a moment for the words to process, then Bruce caught up. “My flight.”

“Your flight.”

“You’re—you’re welcome to join us, Alfred.” He needed Alfred to be there, these were his boys, his grandchildren and Bruce, obviously, was incapable of talking to them without damning himself.

“And I thank you for the invitation. This is something that you, and your children, need to address between each other and the family. I will remain a part of your life, and theirs. My presence would only muddy the purpose of the meeting.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I have called you to account for decades, Master Bruce, with little success. It is their job to bring up their grievances and your job to listen or rebuff, as appropriate. Neither you nor they should defer to me as an arbiter. They know, as Master Todd has always known, that I will be available as a support to them regardless of your respective disagreements.” Alfred took a step closer to skim the section of the walk-in closet Bruce was mulling over. “Flannel, denim, and a winter coat would suffice, I think. Reeves County will not be as cold as Gotham.”

Bruce wanted to protest, having more ideas spurred by the wrong footedness of the situation, but how childish was it to argue ‘see, you have to come, I can’t even make up my mind about clothing’? But it wasn’t the clothing, and he wasn’t a child, and Alfred had every right not to come.

#

Jason planned to rent a car.

It was a little tricky, but he had long ago assembled the necessary documents to operate as alive while legally dead, and such documentation allowed people like ‘Todd Harper’ to rent a car. He had passed the six-week minimum of avoiding post-surgery flying, but there was something much safer-feeling about the idea of driving to rural Texas. If needed, he could skip over the border and disappear. Hell, if needed, he could drive away and wouldn’t be stuck heading directly back to the airport, where Bruce could have people waiting to stop him.

Given Dr. Hannigan’s insistence at their latest appointment, Jason invited Tim to join him as emergency backup.

It being Saturday, the teenager had claimed a corner of Ric’s apartment, set up his laptop, and was playing some kind of online game. Jason was of the opinion something had broken a bit in the kid’s head after getting knocked off the roof, because Tim was doing normal-kid things like playing online games. Switching to tea during the day. Dozing off. Actually letting his arm rest from the dislocation.

And, right now, looking up from his laptop with an expression that said Jason was joking.

“There are 750 airports in the state,” Tim said. “We’re meeting in arguably the most isolated part of said state. And you want to drive nearly 2,000 miles. After back surgery.”

“Fine, you don’t wanna come, fly. I’m driving.”

“You will get yourself killed.”

The swelling argument hit a hiccup as Ric’s key clicked in the door and the oldest entered, depositing several boxes of takeout on the counter. Given the smell of sesame oil and garlic, he and Bea had been out at Chinese food, which mean leftovers for days.

“Besides, I already bought plane tickets,” Tim said, setting the laptop aside with the game on pause. Clearly, he saw Ric as potential backup.

Jason shrugged. “Then return ‘em. I never agreed to this shindig anyway, so if I’m goin’, I’m going on my own terms.”

“What’s the problem?” Ric asked, emerging from the kitchen with an egg roll held between two fingers, a hand cupped beneath it to catch dripping sweet and sour sauce. “Also, there’s Chinese.”

Once the problem had been explained (and the egg roll devoured), Ric gaped at both of them for a second before confirming if Jason knew a literal billionaire was paying for the flights. And that a flight would take about six hours, while a drive would take at least 29 hours. And if he knew choosing to drive was flat-out insanity.

Jason shrugged. “You actually can’t stop me.”

Tim massaged his forehead. “No. But it’s reckless as hell, Jason. You’ll go in and out of cell service. You’ll have no backup and you can’t fight a rural landscape for medical care.”

Reckless. Rash, foolhardy, gonna get yourself killed. Again.

It had been a minute – and by a minute, he meant approximately 14 hours – since Jason had revisited the Ethiopian prison in his mind, stone walls and his blood on the floor while someone laughed overhead. The details were there, falling into place like crystals when twisting a kaleidoscope, with the similar effect of distorting his perception. He tried to blink away the memory, focusing on the road trip.

“So? I’ve gotta get back on my feet sometime.”

“Didn’t you already try that picking a fight at the Wells?” Tim asked.

“A fight I would’ve won, if not for the cadre of Wingdings and Super Scout.” He had had to tell Hannigan about that too, make sure he hadn’t slipped any discs or something. Batman had trained them all to work through pain and, when there was always enough of it to go around, it was hard to tell what should be addressed. Hannigan had given him a clean bill of health but emphasized he was not ready for bar fights.

“They could’ve killed you,” Ric called from the kitchen, where he had vanished to start putting away the takeout.

“Bullshit. None of those wannabes want to get pulled in for manslaughter,” Jason called.

“God, it’s like you’re on antibiotics and just started feeling better,” Tim muttered into his laptop screen. At the same time, Ric said loudly: “They could’ve killed you accidentally. Jason, I know you hate to hear it but—”

“Then why are you tellin’ me what I don’t want to hear? Why lead in with that?”

“You’re still fragile.”

“You’re right, don’t frigging want to hear it.”

Because ‘fragile’ went right back to being panicked in Tim’s safehouse, to being unable to stand after Batman’s beating, to learning he’d been replaced, to waking up battered in the coffin, to seconds before the explosion. Back and back and back and it was all wrong.

‘Fragile’ was a word for glass. The Red Hood couldn’t be placed in the same category as a unicorn figurine or a bird’s bones. ’But they do snap as easily, don’t they?!’ He swallowed hard. He didn’t need this today.

“Tough, because it’s getting said,” Ric continued from the kitchen. “If you don’t want to go, that’s your call, but you’re not using a suicidal method of crossing the country to announce you don’t want to. Plus, you’re asking someone else to go, which means you know it’s a bad idea, at some level.”

Jason twitched out of the memory. “Uh?”

Ric repeated himself loudly, still audibly Tetris’ing in the new takeout boxes among the old takeout boxes. Happy to defer the argument, Tim returned to his game, though Jason had no doubt he was listening to every word. Better than Jason was anyway. Once the memory started kicking him in the shins, it got too hard to argue. Jason waged a battle on two fronts, fighting both the memory of when his choices got him trapped in an exploding warehouse and Ric’s argument that the solo road trip was too risky right now.

Unsurprisingly, Ric (i.e. the flight) won out. There would, however, be an additional rental car waiting for pickup in Odessa Airport, secured in Todd Harper’s name.

“Because I don’t want to be stuck being your chauffeur if things go south,” Jason said. His voice sounded calmer than he felt. He could feel the anger retreating as the argument ended, taking his energy with it. The word ‘fragile’ remained, conjuring with it all the memories he couldn’t figure out how to suppress.

He took up position in the corner, close enough to watch Tim continue to play the game on the laptop – some action-adventure stealth thing – but not close enough to require conversation. Unfortunately, the game failed to be distracting enough to deter the flashbacks.

He went somewhere else, inside his skull, and didn’t know how long he stayed there.

When he came back, the light in the room had changed. Everything about Tim’s body language said he knew precisely what had happened. The teenager’s positioning had changed too, the laptop was plugged in now instead of on battery power, and Jason could hear the washing machine chugging away.

“Miracle of miracles, is Ric doing laundry?” Jason asked, trying not to flinch at the sound of his own voice.

“He doesn’t have any backup linens and couldn’t tell me when he last washed his sheets,” Tim said, glancing up briefly from the laptop. “Did you want any of those leftovers? I’m gonna grab some in a minute.”

The idea of food nauseated him; Jason shook his head. Tim went back to his game and Jason watched, noting distantly as the laundry machine beeped – disconcertingly loud – and Ric swore at the dryer for not doing its job. Jason sat and watched until his back started informing him that sitting on the floor, even braced against the wall, was uncomfortable. Tim looked up, monitoring Jason’s shuffle from the wall to the couch, which concluded with Jason flopping into the cushions and pulling a throw pillow over his head. Logically, some part of him knew it was only three or four in the afternoon. Too early to sleep. Too drained to be awake.

“Jay.” Ric’s voice, somewhere above his head. “Take the bed.”

“Nah, ’s—”

“Bea’s coming over for a movie, Tim might spend the night. You’re gonna sleep better in a bed.”

“You’re ’lergic to the couch.”

“Nothing some meds won’t fix.”

So Jason found himself, with very little memory of the transition process, curled bonelessly on Ric’s bed. The room had higher-quality drapes than the living room, blocking the little sunlight left in the late fall day. The walls didn’t keep out much sound, but Jason preferred it that way, able to pick out Ric and Tim and eventually Bea’s voice; the sound of popcorn being made, the hip hop and revving of engines that heralded the beginning of a Fast and Furious movie.

Safe sounds. Sounds that weren’t a maniacal clown laughing or the whistle of a crowbar being ‘backhanded’ or ‘forehanded’ or… or anything.

He didn’t sleep soundly, but he did sleep. Sometimes that was the best he could hope for.

#

Once Jason vanished into Ric’s room, Tim re-opened the video chat window with Barbara, who smiled with anxious relief when she saw he now wore a headset, complete with microphone.

“Roommate problems?” she asked, her voice coming in clear through the headphones.

“Kinda. Give me another minute,” Tim told her, picking up the laptop. “I’m relocating.”

Once he had trailed the laptop cord out into the hallway outside of the apartment, well out of earshot of Jason or Ric, and established that he was still within wi-fi range, he settled in and continued. “It’d freak him out more to know exactly how much orchestration is going into this.”

“It’s all right. Not the first time I’ve had to coordinate through the text functions of a game. Anyway, I’ve arranged travel for me, Cass, Stephanie, Kate, and Duke. Basically everyone who might have had a financial or geographical reason for not going. Clark politely told me he’d fly himself.”

“Great. And I’ve got me, Ric, and after some discussion, Jason. He was arguing for the right to drive.”

Barbara winced in sympathy. “So just Alfred, Damian, and B left?”

Tim’s smile flattened. “Alfred’s not going.”

“Oh.” Barbara’s eyebrows furrowed but she eased the expression out with practiced calm. “I see.”

“I also made courtesy invites to Huntress, Bluebird, Azrael, and Batwing. They… felt that if it was this private, they shouldn’t be there.” Tim couldn’t fault them, since he wasn’t sure he wanted to be going himself.

“And what is it about, Tim? Damian is avoiding everyone and saying that it’s all in the email.”

“I guess to him it is.”

Barbara adopted a reading tone. “’Agenda: To discuss the suitability of Batman in his current capacity as defender of Gotham and this mission’s bearing on Bruce Wayne, also of Gotham, and associated vigilantes. This invitation is only intended for the addressee and should not be shared. Non-responding or uninvited parties will not be tolerated.’ In all seriousness, are you designating Damian as the bouncer?”

“Thanks for that mental picture, but no. He’s not.” Tim sighed. “And that… that is the shortest version of what’s being discussed. You know Bruce and Jason fought. In gear.” He was in a hallway; security cameras or no, he would have to phrase this carefully.

“Last year, right? It was before…”

“Yeah.” Before Dick. “I saw the footage, originally, and all I knew was that it looked bad. But… we all take serious damage.” There were minefields here: Barbara had lost the use of her legs. Tim had lost his spleen. Most of them had died or nearly died in service to Bruce’s mission. Batman’s mission. When had he started confusing those?

“I’m tracking,” Barbara said, saving him the trouble of babbling other explanations for why Jason’s specific experience mattered.

“Right. And Jason had Roy’s support, only Roy was trying to balance both his issues and get Jason to see a professional. Then Roy went to Sanctuary. Jason got worse and it must have gotten… really, really bad, because by the time he hunted me down at W.E., they were telling him to get surgery or he wouldn’t be able to walk in six months. He feared Bruce so much he didn’t want to ask permission to be in Gotham as a civilian.”

“I could have helped,” Barbara said.

“You could’ve, and I don’t really know why he didn’t ask you. I don’t know why he even homed in on me. All I know is he thinks Bruce can’t tell when to stop anymore. Not just because of what happened to him, but in general.”

“And this is to discuss that.” Barbara allowed a little skepticism into her tone. “Tim, at the time, Jason had shot Penguin in the face. I’ve seen that footage. Dick talked about nothing else, initially worried that Jason should be apprehended, that he would show up as a Nightwing-impersonating murderer again, or go after you. By Dick’s reckoning, Batman simply let the Red Hood off.”

“I’m not contradicting you. But—here, your eyes are as good as mine.” Tim forwarded her the original footage of the fight. “If you have any suspicions about injuries based on that footage, consider them confirmed. And then made worse by some rushed Pit regeneration. We’ve all fought, obviously, but is this how family should be fighting? Even when someone has messed up?”

Barbara would draw her own conclusions and, judging by her appraising, somewhat distracted image on the screen, she was watching the video on mute during the conversation with Tim. Even without dialogue, there wasn’t much ambiguity about how angry Batman was.

“Thank you for the information,” Barbara said, returning her full attention to Tim. “You said Ric will be there?”

“Yeah. We’re asking a lot of him, but I think he wants to be there for this.”

“He should be.” There was a surety in her voice that Tim couldn’t walk back to anything obvious. “Is there anything else you need my help with?”

“Yes, actually. The Nightwings in Bludhaven are putting together a file on Ric after they saw him in action a few days ago. I don’t want to put Batman onto them by using the usual scrubbing methods, so…”

“I’ll remove what they have.”

“Great.” Tim could stop worrying about it. “It’s under the codename Cabbie.”

“Of course it is.” A flurry of background keystrokes. “Found it. I’ll pull it.”

“Thank you. From both of us.”

#

The flight out of Newark had been delayed by an hour.

Damian texted Drake immediately. Drake, almost as quickly, confirmed that they were taking different airlines in different terminals – there would be no chance of running into one another, despite the delay. Thus reassured, Damian took a deep breath and thunked back against the metal and plastic chair. The last thing they needed was for Todd and Father to choose to go to the same restroom at the same time. A problem easily avoided if they weren’t both flying commercial, like common folk.

The jet would be en route to Lake Michigan by now with no one on it. Father probably wished they were on it and not just to reduce the ecological waste of sending an unoccupied jet 700 miles. All through security and now, in these horrible chairs, his father hadn’t relaxed. This tenseness undercut one of the bonuses of travelling incognito, which was that Father didn’t have to put up the affable charade of Brucie Wayne. He could wear flannel and pretend to read a thriller novel.

Damian, on the other hand, had to wear a Hot Topic t-shirt, torn pants, and an insufferable clip-on earring. The only part that wasn’t irritating was getting to play as much Cheese Viking as he wanted, because it fit in the image of a ‘punk teen’.

The only thing missing was a feminine presence. Kyle probably would have gotten a kick out of completing the tableau – sporting a massive blonde wig, ludicrous heels, and a Dolly Parton impression. Helping them all be as far from themselves as possible.

Damian queued up the next level of Cheese Viking, instructing himself not to think about the woman who had almost been something to Father. They hadn’t talked about the email… or anything, really.

It felt like sitting next to a stranger.

#

“You know, if you think about it, it’s like we’re all showing up at the parlor scene in a murder mystery.”

Stephanie shouldered open the door to the bar (‘Gene’s,’ as the flickering exterior sign read) and held it open for Barbara and Cass. At the last minute, Duke had bowed out of the meeting; a student he was tutoring was closer to failing than either of the pair had thought and Duke reasoned helping someone graduate was a bigger deal than ‘…whatever this is, honestly.’

Barbara waved a two-finger salute at the bartender – a bearded man in his thirties – who finished depressing a glass in the rinser and offered a chin jerk of greeting.

“You with the reunion?” he asked.

“If that’s what the kid called it.” Barbara approached the bar, taking in the wooden paneling and ‘dive’ décor of dartboards and pool tables as she did so. She understood why Damian had picked the location as ‘neutral ground’. She could picture Jason in this place. She didn’t like that she could, but it wasn’t hard to imagine him hunched over the bar, keeping to himself, nursing something stronger than he felt. It was a good place for misery.

In the corner, she spotted an angular, pale woman in a flat cap, straightening from a successful break shot at the pool table. Kate must have arrived early to scope the location. Stephanie and Cass had (somehow) already acquired sets of darts and were impressing a group of young men. Thankfully, they weren’t competing against the locals. Their collective skills could’ve deteriorated the situation quickly or turned into the girls having to pretend they were romantically together to ward off unwanted attention.

Satisfied that all current companions were accounted for, Barbara ordered a ginger ale.

Being here reminded her of visiting the Prodigal in Bludhaven. Of Bea. And Dick. It had been their ‘thing’ to go out for Chinese food and she hadn’t seen him since he drove her to… to the airport, she thought. She couldn’t remember where she had been going at the time, only that Dick’s cab gave her a lift. Ric’s cab. It was Ric now.

She had accepted that a long time ago, and yet when it came to thinking about him, memory corrupted like a hard drive.

“Hey.” Kate slid in next to her at the bar, signaling for another of whatever had previously filled her glass. “I see they talked you into this.”

“I’m surprised you came,” Barbara replied.

“Well, I’m pretty sure someone’s going to maintain that I shouldn’t be here.”

“It won’t be me.”

Kate lifted her glass. “Cheers to that then.”

Barbara toasted her in kind, waiting until they had both taken a sip before continuing: “Do you need any more information?”

“About why we’re here?” Kate shook her head. “Bruce pissed someone off. Or lurked a little too much. He does that.”

“I know.”

“Last time I was in contact with Bats… well, it wasn’t even him. It was Red Hood, on a long walk to nowhere. We fought a faux-Grundy with a pitchfork together.” She took a contemplative sip of the newly-refilled drink. “I’d just learned about Arsenal then. And Hood… I’m not saying we’ve ever gotten along with him and his team better than Hector and Achilles, but to find him walking? Getting his ass kicked in Nowheresville America, willing to take a ride from me and Renee, because he had nothing else?” Another sip. “Todd may be over 18 – damn if I know – but he’s too young for that. I’m not even going to start in on why the kid would be carrying a crowbar.”

In her peripheral vision, Barbara could sense Cass, closely watching Kate’s movements. Their last interaction had been a fight over Clayface, as far as she remembered, but Cass was unlikely to revisit the argument now. Kate raised her glass in a toast, also sensing Cass, and shifting her body language ever so slightly.

“I was invited,” Kate said.

“I know,” Cass replied, tone noncommittal. Kate’s expression flickered towards remorse.

“Keeping well?”

“I keep well.”

Before Kate could add anything else, Cass’ attention glided to the door, where Bruce and Damian had just entered. Damian’s grim expression didn’t waver as he looked around the room – probably checking for his brothers – though he should’ve known their flight was nearly an hour and a half later than his. Stephanie lunged over to challenge him to an all-out game of darts.

Bruce settled in at one of the tables. He looked like a lost model for an outdoorsman magazine, clad in a too-new flannel shirt and winter coat. Cass took a seat next to him, pulled out her phone, and began playing a timing-based game.

Bruce remained there, mostly unmoving, as Stephanie won one of the three games of darts with Damian, Kate updated Barbara on a road trip she and Renee had taken recently, and the general population of the bar took their leave before the reunion’s official ‘start’ of 3pm. At 2:55pm, the bartender accepted the check covering the rental fee and collateral deposit from Damian. His eyes went a little wide at the number of zeroes, then narrowed as he returned his attention to the teenager he was receiving said check from.

“What’d you say your parents do…?”

“One runs a criminal empire. You would be wise not to question the authenticity of this check.”

“Got it, kiddo. Just know, if it bounces, I got a lot of rough and tumble people on hand.”

“You won’t find more rough and tumble people than this family,” Damian snapped. Simultaneously, the door to the bar swung open and Jason entered, wearing a softshell jacket and with a backpack pulled over one shoulder. The bartender snapped his fingers and pointed at him, which had the effect of stopping Jason in his tracks. Tim bumped into him from behind.

“Todd, right?” the bartender asked.

Jason’s face could not have said ‘shit’ any louder if it had a volume control. He recovered, as if it had just been a surprise the bartender knew his name.

“McDougal, right?” he echoed back, shambling up to the bar and tossing his backpack under it with too much care to pass as casual. He hadn’t so much as glanced at Bruce, but Barbara would place bets on his being able to draw a bead on the man without flinching. “Saw your neighbors had to tear out those sumac trees after all.”

Caught off-guard, McDougal’s face twitched in a half-smile. “’Bout six months back. I told them sumac wasn’t gonna be worth the bother, but what do I know, eh? You got a good memory there!”

“Only for Master Gardeners,” Jason replied.

McDougal folded up the check and tucked it carefully in a back pocket. “We gonna have any trouble tonight, Todd? Or is this your family?”

“No trouble tonight.” Jason waved away the bartender’s wary look aimed at his jacket and leaned obnoxiously against Barbara’s side, forcing a grin. “I like this one too much.”

With a final look at Bruce, massive and brooding at the corner table, McDougal nodded, double-checked the check in his back pocket, and grabbed his wallet and phone from beneath the counter. ‘Can’t argue with good money,’ he murmured, and left. Jason froze the act in place, tracking McDougal’s exit, not looking at Bruce.

“We have the site until 9pm, Todd. I have already swept for bugs,” Damian told the older man. Jason nodded once, the act easing the slightest bit. Barbara noticed that he still checked behind him for Tim, tensed up when he couldn’t find the teenager, and relaxed when he saw him disappearing into the restroom. All in the space of a few seconds.

Damian kept talking: “I instructed everyone to come unarmed.” Damian eyed the jacket as one might investigate a particularly unsquashable spider.

“Then you should’ve removed the darts,” Jason replied, eyes on the restroom door. It was something that he would’ve snapped traditionally and yet these words came out soft. Venomous and tired at once. He appeared to realize this and forced a twitch of a smile. When no conversation was forthcoming, he drifted to the opposite corner of the bar from Bruce, leaning against a wall that gave him a view of the door and the nearest window. Cass’ gaze followed him across the room. Then, with a final hand on Bruce’s unresponsive shoulder, she followed Jason.

Ric showed up not long after, Clark on his heels. The two chatted like old colleagues about trapeze leotards translating to bad costume ideas. As they entered, Ric was chuckling, calling back over his shoulder to the metahuman: “Well, it’s not my proudest moment realizing an adult woman is wearing a costume twenty-year-old me designed.”

Chuckling, Barbara thought to herself. The last time she had seen him, chuckling seemed out of reach, as if the Dick Grayson who chuckled or laughed without mockery had left the building forever. Even compared to the Dick she knew, though, this was brighter. A less troubled man, at ease with himself and his heart, and that was strange.

Ric paused when he caught sight of the room, the tables and chairs they had collected into one meeting unit, and he sought out Jason and then Bruce, gaze barely tripping over Barbara (but it did trip, for a second).

“All right then,” Ric said. “Glad you all could make it. Let’s get started.”

Chapter Text

In the silent seconds that followed, Ric realized that he had positioned himself as leader of the meeting. It had felt natural to say something, as the last to arrive and with the ‘neutral third party’ at his back, but he had no intention of stepping into the role of facilitator.

The grating of one of the heavy wooden chairs disrupted the sudden silence – Tim tugging a chair out from the collection of tables and taking a seat. The chair’s legs scraped against the warped floor as he pulled it back in. Thank God, the rest of the family took the lead, filling the room with the momentary noise of scraping chair legs and the creaking of seats until they were all seated, uncomfortably, at the combined-yet-separate tables.

Tim cleared his throat, but before he could get a word out, Damian made an announcement.

“We should conduct introductions, for Grayson’s benefit. I am Damian Wayne. I am Robin.” Taking in the stunned expressions around the table, he glowered in response. “Gordon and I checked the site for bugs. We would not meet here were it not secure.”

When a number of surprised glances were cast to Bruce for confirmation, he lifted and dropped a weary shoulder.

“I’m Bruce Wayne. Batman. This is Clark Kent, a trustworthy friend of the family and I’ll vouch for him.”

The other introductions came smoothly, except for Jason’s.

“I run the Outlaws,” he said, the last in a circle of introductions. He had taken a seat between Clark and the quiet woman ‘Cass,’ positioning himself almost as far as possible from Bruce’s position on the other side of the table cluster. Jason’s hands were buried in the jacket pockets and he had adopted a casual posture, one leg braced over the other.

“Operating as the Red Hood,” Damian corrected.

“I dress up sometimes. People might call me that.”

“Fine then.” Damian turned his attention to the rest of the table. “We are here to discuss the mantle of the Batman and the approved roster of Gotham’s protectors. Each of you are here because of your engagement with Batman.

“During the past two years, Bruce Wayne has undergone serious strain. The taunting of Bane, the personal loss of Kyle, the injury of Nightwing, and the betrayal of Red Hood, as well as a host of other malicious villain activity. It has been argued that he is compromised in execution of his role.”

“Wait, we’re here to talk about Bruce’s mental health?” Kate scoffed and leaned towards Bruce’s location on her right. “Cousin, I could have told you this decades back. It is not good.”

“We are here to talk about the power Batman possesses and what holds it in check,” Damian replied. “Try to restrain your comments, Kane.”

“So this is a conversation about control?” Clark asked, his tone mild. From his perspective it had to look ridiculous, Ric reflected. A human man who dressed up as a bat every night worrying about what havoc he could unleash on a single city in New Jersey.

“Not everything is about control, Kent,” Damian said as Jason said: “Yeah, essentially.”

“The argument,” Damian continued, voice loud enough that there could be no other protests. “Is that he may be using excessive, near-lethal force in an unmonitored fashion. Recent encounters with KGBeast, Mr. Freeze, Bane, and the Red Hood, a former ally, all—”

“A former Robin. My son,” Bruce said, rousing himself from silence. “We’re not going to pretend—”

“I think this is going to be easier if you don’t bring family ties into it, Bruce,” Ric said. The only way to keep Bruce on track was going to be heading off how they were talking about this at the pass. At least, for a while, it was going to have to remain… de-familied.

“I agree with Ric. If we get caught up on semantics, we’ll be here all day,” Tim said, picking up the conversation from Damian. “We’ll begin with that though, since it’s… well, why we’re here. To recap: Red Hood tried to kill the Penguin in Gotham, violating his ‘no killing’ agreement with Batman. Batman’s reaction went beyond subduing him. If it weren’t Batman doing it, we would have had a conversation about brutality a long time ago. After that, Batman banned Red Hood from Gotham. The point where this gets messy is that Hood has been a frequent and trusted ally… when he’s sane.”

In a different context, it seemed like a moment when Jason would have made a joke about his sanity. Ric even found himself glancing down the table to where Jason sat, pushed slightly back from the table. He was watching Tim dispassionately, though his mouth had twitched at the addendum. Tim pretended he hadn’t seen it.

“Red Hood and Batman both made mistakes that night,” Tim continued. “No one is arguing that. But Batman has one guiding principle: protecting Gotham from crime without using lethal force. ‘No killing,’ essentially. This defines Batman, his relationship with the police, criminals, and his allies. And, despite this principle, he beat Red Hood in a rage. The Pit’s regenerative properties even tried to heal some of the damage before it healed naturally, which suggests a lesser person would have died.

“If Batman can beat a former ally to that extent and then move forward as if nothing’s happened, without even talking about it to his team, is he still going to stop for an enemy? Yes, Jason tried to kill the Penguin, but—”

“He hadn’t. He didn’t,” Bruce said. Realizing the statement puzzled the rest of the table, he leaned forward. “Jason.”

Jason didn’t move – unpanicked but a rabbit vs. a raptor nonetheless. “S’up.”

“I know about the blank.” The words seemed dredged from a deep well of guilt and Bruce fixed his gaze on Jason, though he addressed the rest of the table. “I looked into the Penguin’s medical records. The Penguin was shot with a blank, expertly fired to drive glass shards from his monocle into his head, leaving him near death. Probably to remove Penguin from the board while Red Hood continued working in Gotham.”

To avoid Bruce’s intense gaze, Jason looked longingly at the bar. When he spoke, his tone was dry: “So?”

“If I had asked what was happening, you would have told me.”

“Yeah, ‘cause we have such a trusting relationship—”

“We did,” Bruce said. “It’s why you were working in Gotham at all. I was trusting you and stopped, the minute you did something I didn’t understand. I knew you were upset that night… I thought it was guilt. Self-preservation.”

“Again, so?” Jason got up and headed behind the bar, muttering something about how much they all took Alfred for granted. After a moment, he returned with a glass of water and a red-lidded container of pretzels, the latter of which he plunked on the table in front of Stephanie. ‘Batsnacks,’ he muttered in an undertone, and Stephanie grinned, with more than a trace of sympathy.

Though Jason circled back to his chair, he didn’t immediately sit, or look at Bruce. “I was dealing with a lot of crap that night. I wouldn’t have been in the mood to tell you even if you asked. Anyhow, ’s not like I’m the first Robin you’ve kicked the crap out of for doing stuff you didn’t like.”

Ric zeroed in on Tim, who shook his head. Puzzling. If Bruce had attacked Damian, for any reason, Ric felt confident every member of the family would have taken swift and decisive action. Stephanie put her hand on Ric’s arm and leaned close to whisper: ‘It’s you.’

That didn’t make sense either. Ric wouldn’t have put up with someone beating him, not after growing up in safety with the Graysons. Sure, he’d seen families coming to visit the circus who got angry at their kids. Kids with unusual bruises. Careful kids who didn’t stand too close to their parents and flinched at uplifted hands. The circus folk knew how to deflect situations going south and were comfortable enough being hated or shouted at to take a blow or a verbal tirade otherwise meant for a child, so he knew what it looked like. He had assumed that ‘Nightwing’ had been someone who intervened in those kinds of situations too. Not someone who…

“That can’t be—” he was murmuring to Stephanie when Barbara took a breath, leaning forward a little to speak to the group.

“Jason’s right. When Dick became Nightwing, their fights started going beyond verbal. It was difficult to distinguish between their sparring matches or a bad patrol. Dick once confided in me that he didn’t know where he stood with Bruce if Nightwing and Batman were arguing. I’d argue he knew exactly where they stood. Batman’s mission took precedence.” She addressed Bruce now: “If you couldn’t trust him to support your every move, you didn’t want him in your life.”

“That’s not… you know I never wanted Dick to be part of this,” Bruce said.

“But he became part of it! And he had no idea what was family and what was work. In the name of being Batman, you put Robin in positions that required he place enormous trust in you, just like you taught him to. When Nightwing did things you couldn’t agree with, you became ‘unavailable’ – to Dick Grayson and to Nightwing. We can’t talk about Batman being compromised in the mission, without talking about how Bruce Wayne created and then conceded a family in service to it.”

Barbara’s tone had grown angry enough that she visibly reeled herself in and shifted her attention to the blonde girl, a couple of seats to her left. “And Stephanie, I don’t want to speak for you…”

“Yeah, no, I’ve got my own messed-up family dynamic to deal with, thanks much. But…” Stephanie fidgeted a little. “Yeah, when I was Robin, I could see where I’d fit. If I hadn’t had a home to go back to. You’ve got a giant-ass house, B-man. You’ve got a butler. And Tupperware. And gaming systems. I could put up with Tim being there, even. Being Robin is being part of something, it makes you permanently part of something useful.” Stephanie glanced over at Cass, who had leaned her head on Stephanie’s shoulder, and she sighed a little.

“If it’s been there since you were a kid, and it goes away, it’s… scary. Like, am I useless now, if I’m not doing that?” She lifted an eyebrow, looking appraisingly at the tables’ other occupants. “None of you get to repeat my therapy musings, got that? I’m starting a youtube channel, and I don’t want to see any of you yanking my material. And Bruce, just to clarify, the answer is no, I’m not frigging useless without you. All I did as Robin was unlock the magic I already had inside. And then die. And then come back, like all true badasses.”

Ric could have blinked and missed it – Stephanie had died too? As Robin? The hard-edged blond girl had electrifying energy and it wasn’t hard to picture her as Robin but, to imagine her dying in that role? As Jason had, at fifteen; as Tim had, apparently, a year or two back; as Damian had, at… eleven? Twelve? Something in his stomach churned at the idea. Younger than he was, and he’d been shot in the head. Four of the ten people in this room had died and that was what he knew of.

“Speaking of Tim,” Stephanie said, snagging the unattended container of pretzels and twisting the lid off. “Pretty sure you were ‘compromised’ the minute you agreed you needed a kid keeping you in check.”

Across the table from her, Tim went very still. He had been massaging his left shoulder and looked, frankly, blindsided to be drawn into the discussion.

“We aren’t here to talk about—”

“Your whole argument for bringing the protocol back was that Batman wasn’t going to survive, Tim. A bunch of adults should’ve had this conversation then.”

“With a billionaire who just lost his son?” Tim asked. “No one dares talk to Bruce Wayne, and he wasn’t really reaching out to anyone as Batman. Jay died. Dick wouldn’t come back. Someone had to be there, and I was running around on rooftops anyway, and I…” His voice faltered, his hands fidgeting beneath the table, and he looked so young. “I could help. I was useful. I’m not saying I’m not part of the problem, that I didn’t make myself fit into a dangerous role, but… Bruce would have died. I could make that less likely. So I did.”

In Ric’s peripheral vision, Bruce looked physically ill at the statement. Ric suspected it had been a long time since Tim had spoken his reasons for wanting to be Robin out loud. At seventeen, it was a well-thought-out explanation, even a bit defensible. For a thirteen-year-old, it was an alarming absorption of responsibility for an adult’s health and safety.

Ric remembered Tim standing outside of his apartment complex then, wearing a too-large blue hoodie and sunk low with shame at losing Jason’s medical records to Bruce’s interference. Maybe that was just Tim at heart. He felt capable of doing everything for everyone, so he took it on as his job to do so.

“That was not your job,” Kate said, drawing Ric’s attention back to the moment. “You shouldn’t have even known who Batman was. ‘Compromised,’ a kid figured out Batman’s identity!” She turned on Bruce: “And to keep it hidden, you made him part of it. That’s not parenting, that’s indoctrinating.”

“I could help. Batman always helped the city and it wasn’t helping him,” Tim protested. “Even if I hadn’t known how to get in contact with Batman, there would have been copycats. If Duke were here, he’d probably remind everyone that at one time we had dozens of Robins, enough to threaten the Court of Owls, and none of them were being trained by Batman.”

“I didn’t want a partner,” Bruce said, growing firmer now in his defense. “I benched all of you when I thought it wasn’t safe. I asked all of you, I made it clear to all of you that you didn’t need to follow me into—”

An eruption of protests followed: “Bruce, it was the only reason I was at your house!” “Pssht, because only you get to punch crime.” “Because you’d let me operate in Gotham without you? Sure, B-man.” “It’s my birthright!”

Ric didn’t add his own thought – that being Robin sounded like the closest thing he would have had to Haly’s circus – because Clark’s powerful voice cut through the arguments: “None of these children were able to make that decision, Bruce.”

The others quieted.

Clark continued. “Kate, obviously you are capable of making your own, adult choices. There seem to be degrees of impact here – some of you know where you stand, others don’t. Barbara, Stephanie, and the absentees are on the periphery. They can expect to be treated with somewhat terse professionalism… including some… let’s say ‘baked-in’ gender assumptions. The Bruce Wayne I know is less willing to perform violence against women, even in the rogues’ gallery.” He spread his hands. “Call it archaic if you like, but we are who we are. I don’t consider it a poor quality.

“But… being closer to the center of the Wayne family is dangerous. Dick’s circumstances were unique. I remember, Bruce, you were a frantic and attentive father. Dick had learned exceptional skills from his parents, he was overcoming exceptional trauma. You two mirrored each other, made each other better. You tried to shield him, knowing you couldn’t protect him. You were capable. Enough.”

Bruce’s expression throughout the dialogue remained fixed, brow furrowed and shoulders tight. No sign of protest. Clark continued.

“But Dick left. And when you encountered Jason… you wanted back what you had lost. I don’t think you wanted anything but the best for Jason, but Batman is everything to you, Bruce. You were better than nothing for Jason, but the Robin lineage should have ended when Nightwing came into his own.” Clark’s voice didn’t betray any hint of preferring Nightwing, but there was history there; a pride that accompanied the phrase ‘came into his own,’ a pride so strong Ric got a rush by proxy.

“We mourned with you. But maybe we didn’t understand, still, what a Robin was. Tim did, took up the mantle, and it continued. Stephanie, perhaps the first true intern, came on the scene and then, suddenly, there was Damian, Cassandra, Duke. They are all your children, to a degree, and your apprentices. Neither role gives them the power or the responsibility to monitor you in your work.

“If, as Barbara says, you require they treat you with complete trust, then they can’t question your judgment. The situation becomes that Batman works alone, able to dispense incredible violence without anyone in a position to question motives or degree. The night you beat Red Hood, you had gone out alone. You benched Robin, days before you and I met, and bloody patrols followed. So dire that Alfred sent me out after you.”

The chair creaked as Clark settled back in it, his expression haunted. “Whether they’re your children or your colleagues, they’re right to be concerned.”

“I…” Bruce’s jaw tightened. “Are you asking me to defend my choices for most of my life, Kent?”

“No. I don’t think anyone can ask anyone else to do that. I’m asking everyone here what can change.”

“No more Robins,” Kate said. “Done. Easy. Tiny here has seen too much combat anyway.”

Damian leapt to his feet, chair banging back on the floor. “You were invited as a courtesy, Kane!”

“He just said having a bunch of kids monitoring Batman isn’t working! Obviously not, when he can beat the shit out of them.”

“Most of us aren’t Robins anymore, or weren’t ever Robins,” Barbara pointed out. “We weren’t monitoring Batman anyway.”

“And I’m not suggesting anyone try to take that on,” Clark said. “All that’s been said is that an apprentice can’t and shouldn’t be expected to hold Batman accountable.”

“So we need someone of equal strength to act as a monitor,” Tim said.

“Ruling out villains and anyone already working their own territory, that’s cropping it down to near-nothing.” Barbara frowned, examining the table with a pensive expression as if scanning through a mental database of candidates; diagonally across the collection of tables, Tim did the same thing.

“What’s your big friend, Bizarro doing these days?” Kate asked Jason.

Jason shrugged a shoulder and reached to collect the container of pretzels – the movement neatly concealing the immediacy of his change in demeanor. Bizarro, Ric pondered… the name sounded like one of the missing ‘Outlaws.’

“I’ll let you know when I find out,” Jason replied, spinning the lid off the container.

“It’d have to be someone…” Tim began, then trailed off from the sentence. Ric focused on this hesitation, trying to catch his eye. Jason, noticing Ric’s attention, flicked a pretzel at Tim, connecting with his forehead. When Tim’s head came up, Jason jerked his head towards Ric.

“’Someone’?” Ric prompted, when he had Tim’s attention.

“Someone of equal cunning,” Tim said, absently beginning to massage his left shoulder again. “That complete trust you mentioned earlier, it means Bruce can out-plan just about anyone. If he decides to do something, no matter how impossible, he can do it and he can make it look however he wants to. Midnighter could—”

“I’m not bringing Midnighter into Gotham,” Bruce said.

“I don’t know who Midnighter is,” Ric whispered to Stephanie, who waved a hand dismissively and explained he was ‘someone who teleports around and rips people’s heads off. Generally, a good guy.’

“You said rule out Robins, but no one can beat or hide anything from Cass,” Stephanie said, louder and to the group. “Maybe—”

“No.” Jason got to his feet, the chair behind him juddering backwards. “Don’t put this on Cass.”

Ric recognized the opposition from their conversation some time ago in the car and held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Not Cass. We’re in agreement there. Not Cass.”

“Can defend myself,” Cass said, looking bemused. “But okay.” She looked up at Jason, who was still standing, and gestured at where he had been sitting. “Thank you. Okay to keep talking?”

“Sure,” Jason didn’t sit and hadn’t relaxed one iota. “Ric, you might want to let the littlest Robin blow off some steam before he straight-up explodes.”

Ric glanced over at Damian, one seat over from him, and saw the younger boy’s face red with emotion.

“You… good, kiddo?” Ric asked, grateful when Barbara leaned back so he could better communicate with Damian. The container of pretzels had migrated down to this end of the table (he hoped it wasn’t Kate’s idea of a joke about small children needing snacks) and Damian glared at them before switching said glare to Ric. His eyes were bright.

“What they are proposing is that your entire legacy was a mistake and should be discontinued, which you’d know if you were here, Grayson,” Damian said. “I have spent my life training to work with my father and now Todd proposes that the role is ineffective and should be made a redundancy.”

“No one is saying you can’t be Robin,” Ric soothed, already wondering if there was any way to get the kid to another room where he could calm down. Damian didn’t get upset easily but the conversation was drifting that way and he seemed the type to take public emotion badly.

“That is exactly what is being said! Robin supports Batman, Robin is necessary to Batman. You’re saying it’s not, and never was. How dare any of you?!”

“Damian, we—” Tim tried to interject, and Damian’s head whipped to him. Ric noticed now there was a sheen of moisture in his eyes; Tim probably couldn’t see it, given their respective distances. He leaned a little back in his chair to check access to the door.

“You never argued against Robins when weaseling your way in, Drake,” Damian said, his tone almost a growl. “You’ve never believed I should be Robin.”

It was Tim’s turn to tense up, wincing a little as the action twinged his shoulder. “Because you got killed doing it. You never should have been out there, at ten—”

“Pfft. Everyone’s died—”

“That’s a problem, not a fucking badge!” Jason interrupted, still standing, his posture singing with tension. Damian glowered down the table at both Tim and Jason, both small hands braced on the table as if he was auditioning for the role of a major businessman. Being 5’2, plus the Hot Topic t-shirt and spiked earring post, didn’t help him cut an imposing figure, but Damian tried.

“I’m Robin. Don’t lie to yourselves in thinking this conversation will take that away from me.” After encompassing the rest of the table in the fierce sweep of his glare, he sat down again. “However. The issue of Batman benefiting from the enrolling of a monitor is still on the table. Have there been any ideas from our brainiacs?”

“I can make some calls,” Barbara said. “I’m not low on ideas, but it’ll take time.”

Her gaze shifted to Bruce and the hesitation Ric imagined everyone was feeling played out on her face. The distinct, unsettling feeling of telling a person in authority that they had been deemed unfit and that the current situation was imbalanced in their favor and had to be remedied. That the person couldn’t be trusted to police themselves.

Bruce’s body language, and general silence, suggested he already knew and was bearing this all out as a sort of penance. The word stuck in Ric’s mind: paying penance.

Was that the only reason they were here? On Bruce’s sufferance? What was going to happen when it had actual repercussions for the Batman, the thing that consumed Bruce’s whole life? They needed more than banal acquiescence, followed by reluctant, probably temporary implementation. Bruce needed to know why they were here.

“Bruce,” he found himself saying. “Putting the question of Robins and monitors on hold. You didn’t want to have this meeting.”

“I did not,” Bruce rumbled.

“Why have it then?”

Bruce looked at the far wall, as if he thought answers were going to appear in the dartboard-cluttered and dart-punctured wooden panels. Then he looked back to Ric. Every other time he’d looked at Ric, it was as if he were searching for Dick Grayson somewhere in there. This time, Bruce just looked through him – seeing only the ghost.

“Jason would come. And… I thought it was the only way to keep you all,” Bruce said.

At the first three words, Jason made a sound caught somewhere between derision and pain. The involuntary noise got muffled beneath the scrape of his chair as he retreated behind the bar – intentions unclear. Ric wouldn’t deny that a drink sounded fantastic right now, but he hoped that wasn’t it.

From where Ric sat, he faced Tim, Cass and Clark. Short of Jason, Bruce’s declaration had the clearest effect on Tim, who looked full of longing for a fraction of a second, before cloaking it under professional detachment. Cass tracked Jason’s departure, giving Ric a view only of the back of her head. When she turned back to the table, she seemed to have taken the entire room’s aura in a snapshot, her eyes dark as she gazed at Bruce.

Clark was watching Ric, undistracted by the movements around them. So, Ric held onto his attention as a reason to continue speaking.

“Why… wait until now to bring us in, then?” Ric asked. “I mean. This all started with not talking. Like you said. You kicked Jason out and told him not to come back. You stole his medical records despite extreme efforts to keep them from you.” Anger started scratching at his throat, Jason’s reaction and the atmosphere of silent screaming in the room digging at him. “You sent scouts when you were asked not to interfere. You restricted the ability to communicate and spied when we did.”

‘Scratching’ became ‘burning;’ an inflammation like the first week after the bullet came out, when he had wanted to open his scalp up again just to get relief. Words began coming on fast.

“You endangered yourself when you didn’t get what you wanted, which puts an entire city in jeopardy. You didn’t want to talk to us, you wanted to have us. You broke into my apartment to talk to someone who had done nothing but try to stay out of your way. I don’t care what the hell your reasoning was then, you fractured any chance of trust we could have, and I don’t think you even noticed.”

Tim had gone white. Ric chanced a glance to his left, to Barbara and Damian, and Barbara’s expression – if he was reading it right – was absolute pride. Next to Bruce, Kate was grinning.

“Well, cousin?” she asked Bruce, when Ric paused for breath. “Rebuttals?”

“You… you would know, Ric… if you remembered. I just… I just want you to be safe. I know I haven’t communicated that well. I know that.” Bruce did better at making eye contact during this sentence.

“Nothing you have done has made anyone in this situation safer,” Ric said, fighting the impulse to get louder in response to Bruce’s controlled answer. “Spying and manipulating and casting out people does not make them safer. It doesn’t make you a good or attentive parent, it makes you an insecure figure with insane amounts of knowledge, control, and funding. Bruce Wayne is frightening. Not just Batman. Bruce Wayne.”

“You would argue I was safer with my mother, Grayson? With my grandfather?” Damian said, the inquiries like tiny, sharpened daggers. “Why do you keep speaking when you don’t know anything? The issue is violence, not safety, and we are addressing it. Has Drake been poisoning your—”

“Damian, enough,” Bruce said, looking over at the youngest. “He’s not wrong.”

“You agree with him?” Damian went from sneering to horror in a breath. “You agree with him. I told you that—”

“I’m afraid of losing you. All of you. And… I…”

“All afraid,” Cass said and Bruce’s head jerked up from where it had sank. Cass folded her hands on the table, scanning the table again to look for confirmation in body language – much as one would look for nods. “Afraid. All risking fear and loss. To be here for help.” She scowled, looking for the right word. “Asking for help. Giving help. You need to ask too. For other help. And stop trying to control.”

Bruce took a shuddering breath in. The man who was Batman looked more like Tim than Ric had ever seen him: averting eye contact, shoulders creeping up until he forced them down and unbowed his neck. Somehow, the first word out of Bruce’s mouth still wasn’t the right one.

“Jason—”

“Stop making me part for this. Please.” The statement came from behind the bar and Ric realized, a little startled, that Jason had never reentered his line of sight on the far side of the table, with or without a drink. Tim headed behind the bar before Ric even made it to his feet, so he eased himself back into his chair. Clark, with his x-ray vision, didn’t look alarmed. Whatever was happening, it didn’t pose a threat to the group.

“When you say ‘all,’” Ric said, venturing out onto the uncertain conversational ground. “I don’t think you can assume that includes Jay.”

Kate’s grin had vanished and her corresponding look at Bruce was full of venom. “No kidding. Did you seriously try to fix beating the kid by cornering him in an apartment?”

“Grayson.” Damian had circled Barbara’s chair and now stood next to Ric’s chair, wearing an expression less furious than earlier but no less trapped by his own emotion. “Todd is an outlier. I am safer because of Father. You of all people can’t argue that Robins were a mistake. You can’t argue that I am worse for it. You can’t… no, no, it’s ‘how can you’—you need to understand. We – you and I — were… you can’t take this away just because you don’t remember.”

Damian’s voice grew choked. “We were the best, Grayson. You can’t not be here, and then say it was all a mistake. You… you don’t…”

Ric got to his feet as unobtrusively as possible, shuffling the younger boy backwards so he could exit. Barbara had made sure he had a clear path to the door, probably reading his glance minutes ago, before he had even needed an exit. The table had devolved into Kate calling out Bruce, supported by Stephanie. Tim and Jason were still sequestered behind the bar, so no one stopped Ric as he guided Damian outside.

The temperature dropped several degrees the moment he opened the bar’s front door. It was dark too, but he didn’t see an exterior light switch and didn’t want to chance throwing the entire barroom space into darkness.

They would have to make do with the light of the waxing gibbous moon.

Ric closed the door, sat Damian down on the dingy bench near it and, after fidgeting a minute, knelt in front of his younger ‘brother.’ He took a breath, unsure of what words he could conceivably say as someone who ‘didn’t know anything.’

Then Damian gasped out a sob.

Ric moved forward on instinct, almost catching a headbutt from Damian as the boy’s head slammed into his collarbone. From that position, Ric caught maybe one of every four words that made it through the outburst of misery.

What he did catch was that Dick Grayson was the reason Damian was Robin at all. When Bruce had withheld the title because Damian was too young, too close, too violent, Dick had made him Robin soon after Bruce died. He had shoved ‘Drake’ out of the way in favor of Damian. Ric had no other context for these events and it didn’t seem the time to ask for clarification.

What did matter was that – from Damian’s perspective – Ric thought the most transformative moments of Damian’s life were a mistake. Damian was a bright kid; he’d told himself it wasn’t Dick thinking these things, that Ric remembered nothing and had current events alone to go on. It wasn’t working. Hence, the sobbing.

After several minutes, Damian pulled himself back, shaking with emotion, and yanked something off of the left side of his head. The earring, Ric realized. The spike must have been digging into the side of his head. Damian stared at the glinting post in his hand, before the shaking started to turn into agonized laughter, his palm trembling.

“Why haven’t you remembered?” he whispered, looking up at Ric. “Are you happier?”

Ric felt like his heart stopped for a minute. A solid thirty seconds at least: words rising in his throat, guilt crashing against the cliffs of all he didn’t remember.

“Buddy…” he managed. “Oh… buddy… Dick wouldn’t trade you for this.”

Thank God, he didn’t have long to try and stammer additional responses to an unanswerable question. The exterior light over their heads flicked on. Clark nudged open the front door a moment later. His expression was empathetic but – probably to avoid Damian’s ire – not openly sympathetic.

“Do you need a few more minutes?” Clark asked. Super-hearing, Ric realized. Clark could probably tell that the worst of Damian’s crying jag had passed and maybe even deduced that Ric would need conversational rescue.

“Tt. We will return.” Damian swiped his eyes and got up from the bench. “Only if you recognize no one asked you to be arbiter, Kent.”

Ric was starting to realize why Dick Grayson was friends with this guy.

#

Jason didn’t like that he was behind the bar but, at this current moment, he would have been hard pressed to find anything that he did like about the situation.

“Jay, we’re just talking,” Tim said, crouched at his side. Some part of Jason’s mind had switched into overdrive, wanted to yank the kid out of sight and fire over the counter, like a bar fight. Bar fights, bless them, made sense. Other parts of his mind shouted that one down, reminding him that Steph, Cass, Babs, Clark, almost everyone on the far side of the counter – they weren’t his enemies. Those parts also reminded him dryly that bullets could go through the wall and Ric and Damian were right outside. Everything screamed that he needed to calm down.

That was all. So simple. Calm down. Any normal person could calm down. What was he, stupid or something? Damnit, that wasn’t helping.

“Jay?”

“Working on it,” he said through gritted teeth.

He heard the door open and close – Clark calling Ric and Damian back in, no doubt – and he needed to get up and go back to the table. Breaktime over. Even his back was in on this plan, stabbing pains of protest shooting up his spine at his constrained position. The muzzle of the pistol leaned treacherously against his thigh too, an ongoing suggestion of a tried and true way to run from the situation.

Tim moved to conceal himself behind the bar next to Jason, arms wrapped around the loose pair of slacks he had chosen as civilian wear. The voices screaming at Jason to get Tim into ‘safety’ behind the counter calmed down a bit. He could think.

“Awfully close, Replacement,” Jason said, trying to turn it into a jibe. Tim didn’t react much, running one thumb over the other.

“You came to me for help. You must have known, if you came to me, that something like this was going to come out of it.”

“Ah, Timmy. You have it… you have it so hilariously backwards.”

Tim stopped fidgeting with his thumbs. Intelligent, sure, but not always great at the not-telegraphing-tenseness, once you knew him.

“Where did I get it backwards?” Tim asked.

Jason resisted the urge to shift position. Tim being this close meant he would be hyper-sensitive to unexpected movement from the guy who had once tried to kill him.

“I came to you – not Barbara, not anybody else – because you’re the one the Bat would send after me first,” Jason said.

“We aren’t close—”

“No, but you’re subtle. Damian’s not. And you’re the one B’s most afraid of losing.”

“So you thought you’d steal me first.” Scorn filtered into Tim’s voice.

No.” He knew he had said it wrong by the way Tim flinched back, but he couldn’t think of a way to soften it now. “No. But you know what happens to those he’s afraid of losing. You’re old enough that you have your own life. Things fell apart between him and Dick at that age. He never got there with me, because I got blown up, and you know what’s happened since. You’re… you’re going to leave him, ‘cause you’re smart as hell. And I don’t want you to be alone when that happens or get stuck there. And without Dick…”

“You… did this, so I would…”

“Nah. I’m not that nice. I did need a doctor, and somewhere to live, and someone I could trust. That was you, Tim. And if there’s some way I could help you in that process, great. I mean, that helps me sleep at night. But as far as Bruce goes... he’s been installing canaries in his coal mine for years and maybe… maybe this is how I could say I don’t want you playing canary. Or Damian. Or Cass.” He closed his eyes, because it blotted out for a moment the possibility that he would be aiming over the counter.

“You wanted to help Batman, Tim. That’s… admirable. But Batman needs a monitor. And if he won’t agree to one, then Batman needs to stop. Here. Now. Because Bruce has never been well and unwell men with a lot of power don’t tend to put the brakes on themselves.”

“You can’t throw this kind of trust at me out of the blue, Jason.” Tim sounded tense. Jason couldn’t blame him.

“I did though. And you bore it out. Nah, it’s not fair. But we’ve always been the outsiders in the family. Unfair is the whole game.”

Tim’s hands clenched at one another for a second, deep enough to mark. “Don’t remind me.”

“Don’t fall into the trap of believing we’re not, then. God, I wish…” He wished he could tell the younger man that Bruce was reliable, trustable, that Bruce would always give Tim the benefit of a doubt or appreciate efforts or laud praise on the things that needed to be praised. But it wasn’t true, and he was a country mile from being able to lie that well. “You’re amazing, Tim. But Bruce is more worried about losing you than he is about being a dad.”

Dad.

God, what a word. What a word to apply to Bruce. Saying it felt like he had to scrape it from the back of his throat, dredging up what he had wanted Bruce to be when he came back from the grave. It made him want to slip out the back door of the bar and run.

Thinking like this wasn’t helping.

“Jason?” asked a voice from over his head. Striving not to jerk the weapon up along with his gaze, Jason looked up. The upside-down face of Clark Kent peered down at him. From this angle, it was hard to read expressions, but he looked perplexed. Or sympathetic. Maybe both.

“Damian has informed me I am not supposed to be acting as an arbiter, but we would appreciate your return to the table,” upside-down Clark said.

“Sure.” He pushed himself to his feet and, using the counter as a steadying point, reached down a hand to Tim. The kid looked uncertain but grasped the proffered hand with his good, right hand and Jason helped him up.

“He really wants you back in the family,” Tim murmured, in the several seconds they were close enough to speak.

“He can keep wanting, then.”

Bruce looked up with beleaguered hope in his eyes when Jason and Tim retook their respective seats. The expression made Jason’s stomach roil and he regretted eating back at the airport. Forget it. This would be over soon. Like a nightmare, he’d wake up before long.

Tear streaks scored Damian’s face and Ric had switched places with Barbara in order to be next to the youngest Bat. Jason decided not to mention the changes.

“So. What’d you want to say, B?” he asked instead.

“Excuse me?”

“Before we took a break. You called me out. What’d you want?”

Myriad emotions flickered across Bruce’s face, a battalion of suppressed, strangled-in-infancy reactions that made even Kate’s dispassionate demeanor take on a cast of alarm. Bruce seemed to realize, mid-way, that he couldn’t control himself and come across as earnest at the same time. He spoke, making more eye contact with the table than with Jason.

“…will you tell me if you’re taking care of yourself?”

Jason fought back the trebuchet answer: ‘Don’t your spies tell you all that?’

“What are you talking about?” he asked instead.

Bruce’s shyness took a hit with this reply: the man looked up at him, hurt in his eyes.

“I’m still your fath… Jason. Please. You know I care for you. That I would help, if I knew you needed it. I need you to… I’m asking you to tell me, or Alfred, tell someone at least, that you’re taking care of yourself. I want to be there for you, when… or if, you’ll let me.”

Potential responses flooded Jason’s mind and he had to stop and sift through them a moment. The table’s occupants were staring at him. Again, that sinking feeling of misappropriation struck him.

“Would you define anyone at this table as ‘taking care of themselves’?” he asked.

“I… I would,” Bruce replied.

“Tim had two broken fingers when I took him, unconscious, from his office. He slept nearly an hour until we stopped for coffee. Average day for Timmo. It takes a three-day endurance run like the one you threw him into to get him to sleep eight hours. Ric got shot in the head on the job, but we’ll leave that one alone, shall we? Then there’s leaving Robin in Blud, where you don’t communicate well enough with out-of-town vigilantes to prevent your sons from being hounded through the streets.”

Jason’s fingers tapped against his hip, acting on their own until he realized how close they were straying to the gun. He plunged both hands into the jacket pockets, grasping at the inside of the fabric to keep from drifting too close to the weapon. Just a nightmare. Wouldn’t last too long after this. Soon, he would be in a car, speeding through Texas brush.

“This isn’t about work, Jason, and I am not asking for much—”

“And yet it’s still more than I want to give you.” His breath was harder to come by than it should be. Jason grimaced, retreating. “You have other people who want things from you. I don’t.”

Bruce got to his feet, slower than normal, and leaned against his knuckles on the table. “Please.”

The vulnerability of his posture prodded at Jason’s chest, demanding a response in kind. Jason needed to leave, before he caved and promised to call Alfred every week or something. This – the urgent, broken man in front of him – was only an aspect of Bruce. It was the aspect Jason wanted, the apologetic portion who wanted him as a son all over again and who was capable of loving him and forgiving him… but it wasn’t who Bruce was. It was just the part that said, ‘I see you and I understand’ and all the Robins had flocked to.

“…all right, everybody, good talk then,” Jason said, pushing back the tide of rising panic with mental promises of the car. The drive. The end of the nightmare. All super close.

“We’re left with Babs makin’ some calls about a monitor and you all deciding what happens with Robins. Very productive and it’s only 7:37. Great job, Batfam. Best of luck with…that.” Jason gestured at Bruce, in tandem with retreating towards the bar to collect his backpack. “I’m ou—”

“You are not leaving before we reach a resolution, Todd,” Damian said. All trace of the tears had vanished. In Jason’s experience, that was how Damian cried anyway. Talia had no room in her regime for kids who couldn’t snatch back their self-control, no matter how overwhelming the situation.

“Watch me,” Jason replied.

Too flippant, he realized, hearing Damian’s chair grate backwards and the tinny drone of an electrical prod charging. The sound alone sent him back to their last fight: Damian had no sense of degree of force when tazing someone, much less how much electrical charges to the jaw flat-out hurt. Jason had spent some time feeling guilty about kicking the kid’s ass after that, but not too much time, once 'tazer-to-the-face’ became a recurring theme in his catalog of nightmares.

Instinct kicked in: Jason moved to a standing position from his crouch, clutching the backpack strap in one hand and the other resting on the butt of the still-holstered pistol. His back didn’t like twisting, not after the plane flight and car ride and sitting for hours, but he strengthened his stance all the same. If his back wanted to give out, it could do it later.

“Don’t try it, baby bat,” he hissed, letting the pain slither out that way. “I made my promise to you, not fifty feet from here, about what would happen next time you came after me.”

“We are here, thousands of miles from Gotham, because of you, and you’re running,” Damian snapped.

“No, we’re here because you thought it was important for me to come,” Jason said, sidestepping towards the door. “You whistled, I came. That’s how this works. Every time, every frigging time, and no, B, maybe you didn’t ruin my life, hell, you’ve probably kept me alive longer than Gotham would have, but I’ve never been anyone’s hunting dog. You don’t own me. Or them. And I want to go. I need to…”

“Jason.” Clark’s voice, compared to Jason’s, had all the majesty of his superpowered alter ego, quelling a dispute using the tiniest output of power. It froze Jason in place, even as Clark continued: “Before you go. Please. What do you need?”

“I—”

After starting with so much vigor, Jason’s sentence staggered after the first word. He needed to be free of Batman, but he couldn’t imagine losing Tim and Ric and all of them. Thank God Alfred wasn’t here; he would have agreed to anything to keep the butler’s respect. Still, Alfred wouldn’t want him running from this. Stay. Answer. For Alfred.

He listed to the left to brace his weight against the backpack’s. It compromised his mobility a bit. Bruce and Damian were both standing, but too far to snatch at him. He wanted to believe Clark wouldn’t. If the meta really wanted to stop him, Jason wouldn’t be going anywhere.

“Damian needs to be the last Robin,” he told Clark, because Clark could… could make that happen. “Bruce needs a monitor now, and when Damian outgrows Robin, there’s no more. That’s what I need.”

“Tt. You’re patronizing me,” Damian muttered. At least the prod’s charging whine had vanished.

“Patronizing an unqualified Robin is handing them a death sentence,” Jason shot back. “This has nothing to do with your skill.”

“I agree to those terms,” Bruce said, before Clark or Damian could say anything else. “Will you stay in contact?”

“I…”

He held still. For Alfred’s sake.

Also, for the way Babs was looking at him right now, and the way Tim was not-quite looking at him, because avoiding eye contact was as much his thing as it was Bruce’s, and for the gut-punched way Ric was looking at him. Jason couldn’t read anything into that expression though; not ‘give him another chance’ and not ‘break all ties with these lunatics.’

At its core, what he had told Ric in the apartment was still true: the Bats were the closest thing to invincible he had found, in a world where Jason’s people died or disappeared with bone-chilling frequency and he was so tired of that happening.

“I…”

And if he really cut these strings, and they stayed cut, would he go into free-fall? The next time he saw a Bat, would it be because he’d successfully pissed off the Justice League or the Teen Titans and one had been called in to stop him? And it would just be him, because his people would have vanished again. A dog that kept mauling people, needing to be put down.

But… Ric had said he wasn’t. The rest of them, even with he’d done to them, they were here, they were listening. The street kid in him in him simultaneously screamed for free-fall and wept for this, for almost everyone at this table.

“Jason—” Bruce began.

“I told you,” he interrupted, settling on a reprise that hurt less than everything else. “Your kids have my number if someone's dying. If it comes down to calling me or someone in this room dies, call me. But you and I, Bruce… we’re not family. That's... that's gone. The manor isn’t my home. I’m the Red Hood, because that's mine. I’m not a ‘Bat.’ So, if there’s a checkbox for me in your head, next to all the other kids you’ve amassed, just… draw a line through it. That’s all I want from you.”

Jason fumbled behind his back for the doorknob. Bruce wouldn’t be capable of ‘agreeing to those terms’ and he didn’t want to be here when the man said no. He needed to be out of the bar, where he was surrounded by people he had tried to kill and who had usually tried to stop him in turn. It wasn’t running though. They had resolved the discussion that they came to have, and he was choosing to leave. Not running.

He didn’t want to leave alone. Not really. He didn’t want to be alone following this.

He left anyway.

Chapter Text

For a full minute after Jason left, Bruce continued standing, continued staring, at the door that had just closed. It seemed to Tim like he thought Jason would be swinging back in to use the restroom, grab a handful of pretzels, issue a (verbal) parting shot.

All shots had been fired though. The bar lay hushed in their wake.

Finally, Damian broke the silence with a sigh. The youngest Bat slumped back down in his seat looking… not ‘sullen,’ exactly, but there was no resurgence of the strong emotion from earlier. The tazer seemed to have been a gambit – one that was ultimately successful – but flickers of guilt flashed in microexpressions across his face.

“Damian, why did you bring a weapon,” Bruce asked, his tone surprisingly gentle to Tim’s ear. Bruce’s standard action after arguments was to withdraw, immediately and without pause. Bury pain or disappointment from sight, cut it out of the picture. This wasn’t that. Bruce was actually… responding.

“Because Todd was going to bring a gun,” Damian muttered.

“You didn’t know that.”

“He did, didn’t he?” Damian rocked back in his chair, arms across his chest, back curled as a counterbalance. Back to defensiveness. “I assumed all you fools would obey the rules because of the ‘family’ we no longer are and there was no telling where the conversation would drive Todd psychologically.”

“Don’t draw first on him again,” Bruce said. He looked wounded at the ‘family’ comment but seemed to view it as too large to address in the moment.

Damian’s expression pinched. “That’s not logical, Father.”

“Provoking Jason has never been logical.” Bruce turned his attention to Clark, about to speak to his friend, then stopped himself.

Instead, with unnerving focus, Bruce looked around the entire table, never fully setting his gaze on any one individual. It was something that, when Batman did it, came across as intimidating yet inquisitive. ‘Brucie’ rarely did anything like it, much too serious for the persona.

Tim could only guess Bruce was trying to make each person feel ‘seen’ with the unsubtle gesture – a communication technique pulled directly from some weird textbook. An attempt at intimacy. Bruce Wayne without Batman, without ‘Brucie;’ an injured Bruce Wayne, intent on being fully present in the moment. With so little practice, the action didn’t come naturally.

It came so unnaturally Tim wanted to cringe in secondhand embarrassment.

“Are there additional points to be raised?” Bruce asked the table’s occupants. Stephanie’s gaze drifted to the door, darted to Clark, Cass, and then back to Bruce.

“So, are you going to say anything like ‘go after him’?” she asked. “Like, the minute we leave the room, you ask someone to hang back, follow Jason?”

“No.”

“Then I really don’t know what we’re going to discuss later,” Kate deadpanned. “The wig is in the car and everything.”

“Stephanie,” Bruce said, ignoring the comment.

“No, I get it. And I believe you. Jay is safe. And I don’t have a secondary point.” Stephanie checked for anyone waiting for a break in the conversation and, when she found no one, she kept going: “Other than, yeah, is Damian right? Is this not a family now, aside from blood relations? Tim, Dick – sorry – Ric, and Cass joining me and Babs on the ‘periphery’? ‘s a good word, Clark, describes where most of us have usually ended up.”

Tim’s stomach flipped. He hated how slowly he was processing today. Jason had talked him into drinking tea instead of coffee at the airport and the lower caffeine content was failing him now.

He didn’t want to be on the periphery. He hadn’t even considered that Bruce might feel like he had to superimpose his new dynamic with Jason on everyone. It wouldn’t even really affect Ric and Cass. The family had already disseminated, as Bruce had feared; Tim was just one of the last ‘weird ones.’

He could feel Clark’s gaze on him, probably noting the racing heartbeat Tim hadn’t bothered to conceal, despite his years of training. What would be the point?

Bruce straightened to include the entire table in his response, bracing his hands on the back of the wooden chair in front of him.

“I hoped, for a long time, that you would all consider each other partners. Even siblings. I… I thought I knew how to do this, from working with Dick, and I’m… sorry, for all the confusion that has caused. You aren’t... you aren’t obligated to view each other as anything other than colleagues. I think of you as… I hope the majority of you think of me as…”

His hands clenched against on the chair in front of him, left wrist trembling badly at the action. The involuntarily action was more intimate than the eye contact had been.

“Please let me be a support to you, if not a parent. I don’t want to lose…” It took visible effort for Bruce not to look in the direction of the door and the loss it signified. “I know you as people. It’s not about being in or out of Gotham’s Bat roster. I care for... I want to learn how you are, from… you.”

“And if anyone here says no to that?” Stephanie challenged. “If Jason isn’t a Bat anymore, what are you going to let him be?”

“I want him to be anything he…” Bruce cut off the sentence, shaking his head. He took a steadying breath instead. “The Red Hood should be considered an ally, but he’s a free agent. No one should police his activities. Do not – I ask you, not to assist him in murders. Stop them, if you safely can. If the GCPD objects to his activities, they can deal with him themselves. If the Commissioner can’t put together enough of a team to address a single human with limited resources and funding, then Batman is doing too much of the GCPD’s work anyway.”

“And Jason Todd?” Ric said, his tone flat.

“Jason Todd is a resident of Gotham and can move freely in it. As he requested, I won’t be monitoring or asking any of you to keep tabs on him. In or out of the city. I… won’t make contact with him. If he is arrested in either persona, and one of you chooses to bail him out or rescue him, I won’t question it. If he is… compromised and poses a lethal threat to himself or the populace, please deliver him to the appropriate authorities. If I encounter him in this state, I may call one of you in for support. I… will. I will call you in for support.”

“There will be a monitor, so that probably won’t be necessary,” Tim said. He heard his own voice as if from a long way off, daring to remind Batman of what the future would include.

“Define ‘compromised,’” Ric said, no reduction in the suspicion in his voice.

“Incapable of dialogue,” Bruce replied, after a heartbeat of hesitation. “Or unable to recognize you or control his actions. Gotham has its share of mind-controlling and magic-using rogues, I don’t want him used as a pawn in…” he trailed off. “I ask you to speak to him, before assuming certain actions are under his own power.”

“Tt. As if we would have a conversation with an addled criminal before engaging,” Damian muttered.

“You will genuinely attempt conversation before anyone draws a weapon on him,” Bruce said and there was the rasp, the urgent tone that Tim had been keeping an ear out for. “Assume that GCPD will shoot first. If you are involved, you are the best chance of deescalating.”

Something in his tone deflated then, defeated: “All of this may be moot. Gotham is probably the last place Jason will want to work.”

The control in his voice was beginning to bleed out, slowly and steadily, into undercurrents of loss that Tim recognized from long, long ago, when Bruce would realize he mistook Tim for Jason. Or after Damian’s death, when he tried everything to get the boy back. This time, there was no force or villain to blame. Bruce held onto the chair like a lifeline in a stormy sea of shame.

“I will not surveil Jason,” Bruce repeated quietly. “Directly or indirectly. If… if any of you wish for similar measures to be taken, so we can maintain a relationship, I ask that you contact me. I will inform Alfred that this is a priority and he will ensure that I don’t… become unavailable to you.”

Silence fell over the room then, the conversational energy spent and oppressive melancholy settling in its place. It had to be nearly eight.

“Then I see no need to extend this unnaturally,” Damian announced, kicking off the chair so it returned with a clatter to all four feet on the ground. “Gordon, Drake, convey your recommendations for a monitor to Kent by the end of the week. The rest of you, communicate as needed. Remember that eventually I will replace Father as Batman and ‘familial’ relationships are unlikely to matter to me as much as professional ones. I do not curry favor so easily.”

The youngest Bat shot a look of appraisal at Bruce. “I’ve chosen to abide by Father’s rules. But, if Todd takes his ‘exemption’ as a green light to go on a crime spree, I will assist the GCPD personally. Cain – Black Bat, that is – did you sense any indication of Todd's intentions?”

Cass raised an eyebrow. “Wanted to leave. Left.”

Tim suspected she could have said much more about Jason’s mindset and, in remaining silent, was respecting his privacy. Damian ‘hrmphed’ and pushed himself to his feet, muttering ‘so be it.’

“Clark, will you be staying here overnight?” Barbara asked, stifling a yawn. “Cass, Steph and I are sticking around to go hiking tomorrow.”

“I specifically told you I wasn’t going hiking,” Steph said, interrupting Clark’s answer of ‘I hadn’t decided.’ “Multiple times.”

“Yes, but then you let me buy your plane ticket,” Barbara replied. "And hiking aside, you did tell me this whole situation made you want to punch a mountain."

Cass smiled over at Steph, a mischievous light in her eyes. “Mountain race. Good training.”

“Yeah, for search and rescue teams.” Steph already had her phone out and had wandered over to the bar to look for the wi-fi password (if one existed). “Nope. The nearest hospital is an hour away from here and I’m not dying in a crevasse in nowheresville, Texas. I have way more badass plans for my second death. I'm gonna see if I can switch flights... ooh, there’s still a seat available at 10:25."

“Tt. Don’t expect to sit next to me, Brown,” Damian said.

Clark looked with surprise at Bruce. “You’re both flying back tonight? That’s awfully late.”

“Damian insisted,” Bruce replied, the exhausted tone easing a little with the discussion of travel plans instead of intense emotion. “I’m travelling to Michigan at 10:05. Damian will be flying into Gotham on the 10:25.”

“That’s the same flight as Tim’s,” Ric pointed out. “Damian can ride with us. Between the three of us, we’ll keep each other awake.”

“I find that configuration acceptable,” Damian said. “Grayson has never taken less than eleven minutes to change a tire and Drake is competent only with motorcycles. A flat tire could remove you both from the roster permanently.”

“Thank you, Ric, that would be appreciated,” Bruce said. He turned his attention to Clark then, somewhat uncertainly. Oddly, it seemed as if Clark could read his hesitation.

“Want some company?” Clark asked. “I think there’s a 10:12 to Metropolis I could catch. If you’re buying, of course.”

The airport, being nearly an hour and a half away, meant travel plans had to be put in motion almost as soon as they were made. As the pair headed for the door, Tim heard a murmured ‘thank you’ from Bruce to Clark, adding to the ever-growing tally of things that Bruce just didn’t do. If he needed to thank anyone, or apologize to anyone, he did it in complete isolation, so he didn’t need to indicate he had been in any kind of, well, need.

From Clark’s expression, it looked like he had his own plans for the trip. Bruce might end up regretting agreeing to a ride-along, when the ride-along had known him for most of his adult life and had just been present for This Conversation.

Meanwhile, Tim’s phone felt like it was burning a hole in his pocket. Jason had walked out alone, would be driving alone, would be alone until he actively reached out. Tim took the device out and turned the sound back on. Then told it to play any message from Jason at a louder volume, then with a specific ringtone, then allowed it to play at any hour. Sure, future Tim would hate this choice; current Tim needed to make it.

Steph had been drawn into a half-baiting argument with Barbara and Cass about whether or not she was sticking around for hiking tomorrow – her finger poised above the ‘confirm flight change’ button on her phone. She must have seen his phone out, because his phone chimed (at normal levels) with a text from her: ‘I think that went well.’

He smiled at her, hoping, for once, the conflictedness of his expression would communicate more honesty than an emoji.

‘do you want me along in the “dead and amnesiac robin support car”?’ she texted, then said aloud: “I’m stealing these pretzels, so if anyone wanted to woo me to their side, now’s the time to do it.”

Cass broke away from her assessment of the room and looked through narrowed eyes at Stephanie. “Batgirls. Hiking.”

“Hey, I’ve been a Robin AND a Batgirl. I’ve got no strings to hold me down, Cass. And I told you, I’m not staying overnight just to wake up at an unholy hour to go hiking in November.”

“Darts.”

Stephanie looked over at Tim, conveying in a glance that if he needed her in the Robins’ car, it would be a sure thing, and gave Cass a serious nod. “You’re on.”

It was a role Dick would have carried off, in another life: making sure the entire Batfamily didn’t slump off solo to their respective destinations, dragging their hearts behind them. Because the atmosphere in the rest of the room was grim: Damian arguing that since Bruce and Clark left, the rest of them should immediately leave as well (probably so he could get safely upset in the car), Ric trying to glean what little clarity he could from Kate and Barbara about “deaths”, and Tim… sitting here with a phone.

Stephanie was right. That was as good as it could have gone, aside from Damian’s… moment. Bruce seemed to have taken everything to heart. No more ambiguity about being family and coworkers and what he and Damian had to pretend they were. Tim was nearly eighteen; family wouldn’t even matter in six months.

He kept repeating it to himself mentally, hoping the idea would take. Everyone grew up. Damian needed to feel like a son, so he could stay in that role, as long as it was safe. And it would be safe; there would be a monitor, he was the last of the Robins. And Bruce… maybe Jason was right, maybe Bruce did consider them all interns, not children, and Tim… maybe Tim had been the one confusing the issue this whole time, confused mentorship for family, as Bruce had.

Minutes passed of this unrewarding spiral. Finally, Steph returned to the table and rested a hand on his head. He leaned into the motion and heard her sigh, semi-happy, semi-frustrated.

“You need to stop worrying, Tim,” she murmured.

“But Cass is way better at darts than you,” he needled in response, his eyes closed. “And you hate early morning climbs.”

“Then joke’s on you, because Cass lost. So, with the default of Team Batgirl, I can only resolve to ride in the Robin car.”

Tim opened one eye to peer across the table at where Cass stood. The young woman wore a sly, mostly sympathetic smile, her head tilted a little to the side.

“She practices,” Cass lied. When Cass lied, the person being lied to knew exactly, and only, what Cass wanted them to know. She’d thrown the match, Steph knew she’d thrown the match, and the pair had decided Tim needed more emotional support in this than he thought he did.

“Well,” he said, looking up at Steph. “What if I go up against you on behalf of our car and I lose too?”

“Then I guess I’d really get to know Batwoman.” Steph looked in the woman’s direction, only to find she had slipped out when no one was looking, and Barbara and Ric were now in close conversation. “Or not. Either way, I’m not hiking. Let’s call it a forfeit.” She ruffled his hair. “Plus, I know how to change a tire if something drastic happens to Damian.”

“I can change a car tire,” Tim grumbled, getting to his feet. “They just have different shapes from motorcycles. And given that tazer stunt, you can make sure I don’t do anything drastic to Damian.”

#

If Ric had felt more awake, he would have spent some time demanding to know what kind of family spent unaccompanied minors on cross-country flights that left at ten thirty at night. He wasn’t, so instead he pulled open the back seat and let Tim and Steph climb in. Damian was already slamming the passenger side door. Well, at least he wouldn’t have to argue the kid out of driving lessons.

The first twenty minutes of the drive was Damian attempting to justify why he had brought a tazer and Tim not buying a word of it. Fortunately, both teenagers’ stamina for an argument was waning, fast. Ric dared to hope they would eventually both fall asleep.

At long last, Stephanie derailed the sniping session with a question: “So, Tim, is Jay meeting us at the terminal?”

When Tim didn’t say anything immediately, Ric checked the rearview mirror. Tim looked thrown – like he had at the table when drawn into the conversation about dead Robins – and uncertain.

“I… I don’t know, I… what I heard from that was don’t contact him. So I haven’t. There’s a ticket for him to come back to Bludhaven, if he wants it, so… we’ll just have to wait and see if he shows up at the airport.”

“But you’ve checked your phone, like, 63 times.”

“Yeah but he doesn’t know that. We’ll just wait. And see.”

“…Tim.” Stephanie’s tone was chiding and Ric cast a glance, somewhat hesitantly, towards Damian slouched in the passenger seat with his feet up on the dashboard. Damian’s eyes were open, he was listening, but for once, not ganging up on Tim in a moment of weakness.

“I would,” Tim protested. “I would… I don’t know what to say.”

“Give.”

The light shifted in the backseat as the phone changing hands and Ric heard the expert clicking of onscreen buttons. Again, the shift of light as Stephanie tilted it to face Tim.

“There,” she said. “ ‘Should we find you in the terminal?’ Low-pressure as hell. He says ‘no’, we don’t try, and we know he’s okay but doesn’t want to be with people. He says ‘yes’, we have a scavenger hunt. He says ‘fuck off, see you never’, we have grade-A, primo Jason Todd, who wants us to leave him alone.”

“…I guess that’s fine,” Tim said, his agreement followed a second later by the ‘whoosh’ of a sent message.

“Tt,” was Damian’s only comment on the interaction. When Ric glanced over again, his eyes had closed. “Can’t even send his own text messages.”

But, when Tim’s phone chimed – ear-ringingly loud – forty-five minutes later, Damian’s eyes snapped open. He focused on the windshield, appearing to run through whether or not he wanted to comment on the interruption. The darkened backseat lit up with the cellphone’s light.

“He say something?” Ric asked. Damian would never admit he cared, at this rate.

“He switched flights,” Tim said. “He’s already in a boarding line.” The pause afterwards suggested that that wasn’t all Jason had written but it was all Tim thought everyone needed to know. Ric’s phone vibrated gently in the cupholder with a new text. Damian investigated Ric out of the corner of his eye: a silent question. Ric shook his head slightly: he’d check the text, whoever it was from, when they got to the airport.

“I’m glad,” Ric said. There was a lot more to it then just that, of course. Leaving the way Jason had, heading for parts unknown after a conversation like that… there was so much that could have happened, and could still happen… but hadn’t.

The car travelled along in silence for several minutes, wrapped in the blanket of that relief. Jason cared enough to tell them – or even lie to them – that he had made it to the airport and changed flights. He wouldn’t be coming back to Bludhaven, but he had made it somewhere.

A thought occurred to Ric: “Um… Tim. You’re not going to…”

“Check and see where the ticket was changed to? No.” Tim didn’t sound offended at the idea that he would. “But it was the first thing I thought of.” A sigh. “We all have to get better about this.”

“Tt. We practice certain habits because they are beneficial, Drake.”

“Is that what you told yourself when you packed the tazer?”

“If you two don’t stop bickering about the tazer, I’ll change all of our flights, turn around, and we’ll all go hiking in the morning,” Ric said. The pair shut up and he had a moment of déjà vu then, from walking into the meeting a few hours ago, of stepping into a role he hadn’t meant to take up. He was becoming their older brother.

After Bruce broke in, and the incident at Haven Wells, he was definitely Jason’s older brother.

He hadn’t meant for this to happen, and it still felt like the most natural thing in the world.

They drove on. The airport was nearly two hours away – less, this time of night with very few other cars on the road and limited police patrols – and radio signal kept going in and out. When Ric checked the rearview about twenty minutes later to see how the backseat passengers were doing, Stephanie flashed a small smile at him. Some of Tim’s dark hair was visible against her face in the mirror; he’d fallen asleep on her shoulder. Ric checked Damian’s position and found that the youngest Bat had also drifted off, head tucked into the bottom of his hoodie and arms crossed over his chest.

“So how are you,” Stephanie whispered with exaggerated enthusiasm.

“Wishing I had a few more of my memories,” Ric whispered back.

“For the conversation back there? You probably don’t,” she said, maintaining the whisper.

“Are you doing okay?”

“Bruce fired me a long time ago,” she said. “I don’t need a lot more clarity about how we get along.”

“I’m… sorry. Feels like I started all this, being Robin, and now I don’t even remember.”

“Hey,” Stephanie said, without animosity. “It’s not all bad. Gotta lot of skills I can drop on my resume and never explain how I got them. And my family life was shit, and I was doing something about it on my own. Bats wanted to make sure I stayed alive. Sure, Clark's kind of right, we shouldn't have made that determination ourselves, but we did anyway. We wanted Robin to be what we needed it to be. Wanted Bruce to be more than he… is.” She went quiet for a moment. "It happens. I'm glad you're finally -- finally -- dealing with it. I'm sorry it's cost Jason. After what he's done to Tim in the past, I haven't always been his biggest fan, but... he doesn't deserve that."

Ric kept his eyes on the road, trying to coax away the guilt stirring in his stomach. “I’m glad you’re around for Tim.”

“Aw, thanks.” She nudged something with her foot and Dick heard the shifting of snacks in their plastic container. “In that case, you can share my pretzels.”

“Thanks, but no.” They were getting close to the airport and, being this unfamiliar, he needed to focus. Tim would be groggy waking up and he wasn’t sure if Damian, not being a driver, would be familiar looking for signs.

“The car rental agency’s exit is coming up in three miles on your right, Grayson,” Damian announced, his tone strong but not loud – almost as if he were trying to let Tim sleep longer. “But you will want to pull off at the next exit, unless you want to pay the exorbitant on-site fuel fees.”

…or Damian could be far more competent in reading signs than Ric had assumed.

#

Shepherding a groggy Tim through security nearly cost them their respective flights. Ultimately, it didn’t, but there was no time for Ric to check the texts his phone kept chiming with. By the time he had a moment to breathe, the flight attendants were securing the doors for their flight to Bludhaven and asked everyone to change their cell phones to airplane mode. Ric had no intention of being charged eight dollars for in-flight wi-fi.

Sleep came unbidden. He woke up when they landed in Bludhaven, and then he had to be in charge of his own destiny again – exit the plane, get out of the airport, summon a ride. Ordinarily, he would have asked Bea, but it was a ridiculous hour, at this point, and he had asked a lot of her lately, and… he yawned, switching from the rideshare app to texting.

Whose idea had this timing been? Maybe the Bats had so much trouble functioning because they were constantly sleep-deprived and running on crisis mode. It would explain a hell of a lot.

As he switched apps, the ride texted that he was sitting in morning traffic, ten minutes out, so Ric took a seat on one of the concrete benches. He’d gotten some strange looks, going through security without any luggage, and had thought Jason bringing the backpack was more preventative than preplanning.

After reading the ride’s text, he opened Jason’s stream of texts. Finally. The entire series of cup-holder vibrations from several hours ago had been from Jason.

‘Thanks for that. All of it. ALL of it.’

‘Fuck the lack of italics in texting.’

‘Take care of yourself’

‘And the kids, if you get the chance’

‘They’re closing the doors’

‘Is it okay if I’

‘Didnt meant to send that yet’

‘Is it okay if I say hi if I’m in Bludhaven’

‘Doors bye’

“Rich?” someone called from the through-way and Ric looked up, startled into action. The calling-out driver was standing half-out of the vehicle, squinting at him in the dim fluorescent lights. The car model was right, so Ric got up, striding towards the vehicle.

“It’s Ric!”

“Arnold,” the driver said, and got back inside. Ric followed him, pulling up the chain of texts again almost as soon as he had settled into the seat. ‘Arnold’ tried to open conversation – about the flight, the radio, his brother who did comedy over in Gotham – and Ric had to interrupt the man, cabbie to cabbie, to say he would already get tipped, sans conversation. Arnold nodded once and obligingly pulled back into Bludhaven’s clogged morning traffic.

Ric read the texts another seven times.

Started and deleted a response eleven times.

Finally sent just one.

‘Back in Blud. You’re welcome any time.’

His phone vibrated immediately – so fast Ric wondered if there was a glitch or if Jason had already been writing to him – but the text was from Tim.

‘Told him B agreed, no pursuit or monitoring orders.’

‘You get in safe?’ Ric replied.

In response, Tim sent a selfie-style shot of what Ric assumed was his Gotham apartment. Not the safehouse Jason had stayed in but Tim’s actual, lived-in apartment. Damian was curled on one end of the couch, facing the door but definitely knocked out. Stephanie had been caught mid-movement, tugging a plaid, warm-looking blanket over Damian; the open door of Tim’s bedroom lay beyond.

‘Do you think this’ll work?’ Ric texted. He couldn’t stop himself; he’d been trying to wind down, to not think about it, not let his mind buzz with all the questions about Bruce, and Jason, and a monitor, and if any of this would last.

‘We can make it work, if we keep at it.’ Tim texted, with the optimism of someone who probably wanted to go to sleep more than anything else. ‘It may not seem like much but this is…’

’This is further than we’ve ever gotten. And I think we can get somewhere from here.’

Chapter Text

Another eight months passed.

They got Dick back.

There was drama attached to the ‘getting back’ of course. With a situation like ‘selective amnesia’, there was always going to be drama around the restoration of Dick’s memories. Even knowing that, Tim hadn’t expected the Court of Owls to be involved – would’ve created contingency plans if he had suspected as much – and really hadn’t expected it to be some long-term plan to turn Ric into a Talon.

But all that drama and chaos and final tearful reunion(s) had led to being here. To sitting next to his oldest ‘brother’ again, eating street food, sitting concealed in the shadow of a roof structure at three a.m., following a successful joint patrol in Bludhaven. They were almost two weeks after the return of Dick Grayson, rather than more than two years into Ric Grayson’s emergence.

The thought of all that time lost in ignorance made a lump rise in Tim’s throat. He was trying to focus on keeping the burrito’s contents from escaping the aluminum foil – which felt rather like trying to keep down the many stammered apologies rising in his throat. Both efforts were a losing battle.

“I’m sorry,” Tim said again, mostly muttering it into the foil. “Again. I feel like if I hadn’t been gone, I would’ve thought of the Court.”

“Red. You were dead,” Dick said, halfway through the first meal they had shared in over eighteen months. Everything felt like – everything was – the first in two years. First non-reunion conversation, first patrol, first time hearing Dick’s voice over the comms.

“I wasn’t—”

“Doesn’t matter, we all thought you were dead. I still… I’m still so insanely happy you’re not.” Dick chewed contemplatively for a moment, then glanced over at Tim, the corners of his mouth quirking upwards. “You’re supposed to say the feeling is mutual.”

“I didn’t realize you were fishing for compliments.”

“Well, I’m certainly not getting any from Robin. He’s finally got some height on him—”

“Two inches.”

“—but that ‘you’ve gone soft’ attitude hasn’t gone anywhere. Poor kid. How’s he been? He’s never gonna tell me himself.”

“He took it rough. Everyone did.” Tim leaned back on his hands, trying to read in Dick’s body language what the acrobat wanted to know. It would have been easier with the light of the city to see by, but he hadn’t wanted to position Dick anywhere near the edge of a rooftop while they caught their breath. He had been inconspicuously strategizing positioning like that ever since they got Dick back. He hadn’t done it for Ric, and kept feeling distantly guilty for not having taken the same considerations. They were the same person.

“But Robin checks in with me weekly. Confirms that ‘my obnoxious plans are working,’” Tim said, yanking his thoughts back from the dark path of Ric vs. Dick.

“Obnoxious plans?” Dick echoed.

“Uh. B’s… coping mechanisms. And Sentinel. Some of the changes about the family. It’s… getting attributed to me. Though in Robin’s mind, it’s more like ‘blamed on.’”

At the end of the day, it had shaken down to that one point: these were Tim’s plans, devised to support Jason’s agency, re-engage Ric, and create guiding principles for Batman in the long term. It made logical sense to lay the changes at his door, but it hadn’t been where he wanted them placed.

“Sentinel.” Dick shook his head. “That whole concept’s a trip. Where’d you find him?”

“JLA contact.”

Dick looked startled. “B asked the JLA?”

“They don’t know everything. Just that he needed an adult partner who could keep up with him and that the current Robin would be the last one.”

With the JLA’s help, the Bats emerged from the search with Arnolt Walden, a 30-year-old humanoid who had spent most of his life being the equivalent of a Jedi Knight for the Green Lantern Corps. Due to an accident in receiving his ring, Walden couldn’t fully access its power and couldn’t be safely assigned to a full quadrant. Between his physical training, age, and finite powers, he could keep up with Batman and had the diplomatic skills to recognize disproportionate force. Detective work… Walden was learning. They couldn’t lean everything on Sentinel anyway; some part of this had to include Bruce being an active participant in the process.

Dick unfolded some more of his burrito’s foil, chuckling a little. “Sounds like negotiating for ‘confident cat needs large, chill companion for long-term placement in Gotham.’”

“You disapprove?”

“No. I just… B agreeing to someone else monitoring Batman’s activity? That’s… that’s bigger than I thought he could… it’s against everything he’s ever believed. It assumes that he could be guilty of criminal activity while fighting crime.” His following glance at Tim was searching, looking for some kind of camaraderie. “I didn’t think he was capable of handling that big of a blow to his pride, Red.”

“He agreed to it,” Tim affirmed. “It took some adjusting.”

They had all left the meeting in Texas understanding that what had just happened would take effort to carry forward. Bruce now had to adhere to rules. Rules that would never culminate in getting Jason ‘back.’

Life-altering rules; frustrating and insulting rules that assumed he couldn’t be trusted to use proportionate force in ‘his’ city. He bore them out, but it wasn’t without instances of storming around the manor. He shouted more – then apologized. Alfred would no longer allow him to sink into week-long broody silences. Tim had a feeling that Jean Metzger – the psychotherapist Bruce saw every Tuesday – had decided not to let him get away with much either.

Bruce had chosen to see her in his public persona, keeping it only as quiet as any public figure would keep their mental health. There had been some quiet buzz about the sessions, but on the whole, no one really cared. Bruce had left the Gotham Children’s Association board, citing inexperience, but assuring them the Wayne Foundation’s door (and coffers) would remain open. Tim had quietly remained as a volunteer to help them with their bookkeeping.

“Might take me some adjusting too.” Dick didn’t seem sure if he wanted to start this dialogue, scowling at his own words for a moment before continuing. “He sat me down. Like, we didn’t have a conversation on patrol or while we were sparring and you know B, we only ever have conversations when we’re doing something Bat related. Everything else is Brucie or maybe some legal stuff. If he has to.”

Tim nodded. He was familiar.

“But he asked me to the manor, and then asked me where I wanted to go for lunch. Outside of the manor. I thought Agent A always… but then we drove to town. B and me.”

Tim nodded along. Pre-family meeting, it would have been the kind of thing where the family started checking on whether Hush was an active threat right now, or Clayface, or if Mad Hatter was in town, because Bruce didn’t go out with the family. Not unless the manor wasn’t safe.

“We got to the restaurant, where… you have to understand, I never expected this to actually be a lunch.” Dick chuckled. “I thought he would pull the Birdwatcher routine, announce I should capitalize on being off the radar again, and… make me disappear.” Dick’s brow furrowed and he crammed the last of the burrito in his mouth. The indecorous vacuum technique was how Dick always ate and yet now, it seemed to Tim like a kind of desperation. An attempt to make up for all the meals he had lost with family and friends, while the world moved on around ‘Ric.’

He also noticed that Dick hadn’t said whether he would have agreed to disappear, if demanded.

“But there we were, at O’Dougalls, which is… well, it’s technically a cop bar and it’s really quiet in the daytime. B’s looking at me all dazed and I’m trying to convince myself that we’re not here to get the best nachos on Gotham’s east side.” Dick shifted position to tuck his legs up under him in a position midway between relaxed and ready to move as he gazed out at the city. His gaze went a funny sort of distant.

“And then we sat down. And we ordered.”

“Nachos?” Tim asked, gently as he could.

“Not actually their best batch,” Dick conceded with a grin. “But, he…” Again, the distant look. “He apologized. For… for a lot of things. Said that he… he’s been talking to someone, someone on the level, and that he didn’t realize even he can’t… do, what he does. Mentally.”

“Oh?” Tim’s knowledge of Bruce and Jean’s conversations was limited to what Bruce chose to share, but he’d had his own suspicions for a long time. Being Bruce Wayne had been eclipsed by being Batman, sometime after Jason’s death, as if it pounded in the stake of being the other persona. But… for Bruce to realize that… that would be progress.

Dick did a periphery check before responding, made sure the only open comms channel was private, then turned that off too. Even then, he was silent several more seconds before responding. Post-Ric Dick was tense, bordering on paranoid, and Tim would grant him all the clemency he needed.

“Bruce Wayne turned into Batman, a long time ago,” Dick said. “Bruce said when he was talking to the person… he realized he doesn’t know what Bruce Wayne thinks about things. He knows what Brucie thinks. He knows what Batman thinks. But he’s been Batman so long, spent so much time building the legacy, that he doesn’t know who Bruce really is. He’s starting to think the Cat knew the same thing and that’s why she… did what she did.”

Tim took a bite of his burrito, which he was definitely saving as a long-term, conversational-avoidance piece.

“Red?” Dick asked.

“No, that… tracks,” he replied.

“But B seeing anyone about emotional stuff, that’s a strange idea all by itself. I didn’t think he’d ever want to… deal, with what he feels. I guess I finally bought into believing Batman was a way to deal with it. A better way. Useful, way.”

“Taking care of grief shouldn’t be graded based on how useful the method is to other people,” Tim replied. Ric had said that to him, in one of the early months. His heart sank to think that Dick had grown so far apart from the truth – so accustomed to Batman – that the statement didn’t come to mind.

Dick nodded in slow agreement. “What about you? He sit you down? He said he’s sitting down with little D too, from time to time, check in. Without mask stuff going on.”

Tim wanted to employ the conversationally avoidant burrito defense but… damnit, he was supposed to be better than that. “Um.”

“Red.”

“It took a while for him to get to me.”

Literally and figuratively. At first, Bruce had tried to catch Tim at work. That hadn’t gone well because he really didn’t understand how much Tim was doing on a normal day and how unethical it felt to solve personal problems on work time. Pre-family meeting, Bruce probably would have waited in the parking garage until Tim was done. Things being what they were, Bruce had sent a text asking Tim to dinner; Tim could choose the place and time. Tim declined again. Bruce modified it to coffee. Tim agreed.

“And did you get what you needed? When he did?” Dick asked.

“Probably. Sure. Maybe.”

In the solitude of the coffeeshop, tucked away at a back table, Bruce had sat and listened and asked questions about Tim. Just Tim. There were no questions about anything that could benefit Bruce in any way other than knowing about… Tim.

He had thought he wanted that, but it turned into long silences, alternating with panicked bubbles of conversation, fading back into silences that Bruce had traditionally filled with talk about missions or tasks that needed doing. Their best work had never been conversational; it had always been Tim succeeding and Bruce praising the success. Trusting Tim to continue being exemplary. There was no triumph or success to be found in a conversation about Tim’s daily life.

When Tim finished rambling, the coffee long since finished, Bruce had nodded. He had asked what Tim needed from him, if anything, to move forward with what he wanted to do.

Tim hadn’t had a response ready to go.

“I…” Tim murmured, now, on the rooftop with Dick. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

He lived in that grey state now, trying to formulate a non-emotional reason to engage Bruce. Then, as that state stretched into a yawning maw without resolution, why he wanted to keep Bruce with him. Ric had grown to be a bolster, moving towards the relationship Tim had once had with Dick, but now that Dick was back and remembered nothing of being Ric, Tim felt adrift. Not drowning, but adrift, with only Stephanie following him out onto the metaphorical raft.

“It’s weird that he’s trying,” Dick said, here, now, unaware of the grey and the whirring of anxious thought through Tim’s mind. “I got really used to him not trying. I even thought, at first, that my death changed him, the way Jason’s did. That this was some kind of emotional whiplash or trauma or… like I should be doing damage control for him.”

“For once, that’s not on you,” Tim murmured, calling himself back to the here and now. The wandering path that was his relationship with Bruce, in light of what Jason had begged him what to do, could wait.

“Cheers to the truth. And speaking of Jason,” Dick continued. “How’s he doing?”

“Has B brought him up?” Tim asked, setting down the rest of his burrito. He recognized his mistake the moment Dick snatched the item up and reinitiated the food-vacuum impression. Dick shook his head, gauging Tim’s reaction to this food theft.

“No. He just texted me this morning. Said he’ll be in Bludhaven this week and wanted to meet up. I didn’t say anything yet.”

“He probably doesn’t know you’re back to yourself,” Tim replied. Everything following Dick’s retrieval had been crazy, trying to reintegrate Dick as a man out of time and stamp out the resurging Court. Meanwhile, Jason had spent the last seven months in Argentina, passing in and out of cell phone contact. Tim wasn’t sure what he was doing.

“Probably not. Looks like he and Ric got along, so I’m sure that’s who he’s here to see.” Dick pulled out the phone, which Alfred had insisted he carry on patrol tonight, from one of the suit’s invisible pockets and began scrolling back through a conversation. “They have text messages going way back. I haven’t gone through all of them, ‘cause I’ve got someone breathing down my neck about a taxi license that needs renewing, and I have to relearn what I was doing with… Bea, and… I guess I’m wondering how much I should be worried about Jason Todd in all that.”

“I don’t think the word is worry. You could tell him you’re yourself again, see if he still wants to meet.”

Dick was staring fixedly out at the city. “How did he meet Ric?”

“An accident, really.” Tim recapped the night Jason had fallen and he had meant to call Dr. Hannigan, then shared as much as he knew about the pair’s interactions since then. It wasn’t much, certainly not enough to remove the confusion from Dick’s eyes.

By the time Tim finished, his stolen burrito was nothing but a memory and some crumpled-up foil in Tim’s pocket. Dick’s expressions oscillated between regret, anguish, and exhaustion during the retelling – Tim had included an overview of the Texas family meeting, just high-level enough to provide the outcomes.

“Guess I’d better deal with it sooner rather than later then.” The undercurrent of stress and irritation in Dick’s voice was a vocal red flag. Tim forced himself to say the words that would head the conflict off at the pass.

“He wasn’t manipulating you, Wing. I wouldn’t have let that happen. If anything, I was trying to get you back into the family using him. He trusted Ric.”

“Yeah, because Ric didn’t know enough to... argh, Red. How can you be sure about him? With all the…”

The exhaustion was winning out in Dick’s voice and Tim knew the kind of pictures running through his mind. Everything that happened after Jason came back; the attempted murders on the people Dick loved, the heads in duffel bags, the death threats. When Bruce had died, lost to time; the outright psychosis. Trying to kill Tim. The disruptions, no-shows, and verbal abuses since. Pit crazy or not, the conflicts all walked back to a single face.

Making it a priority to reconcile with that person, after losing two years to amnesia, had to feel very much like taking time out in the middle of a citywide crisis to make sure living conditions in Arkham cells were adequate.

“I get why you’re suspicious,” Tim said. “You don’t have to trust him. You don’t even have to see him. I’m just asking you not to bait him. Don’t show up as a surprise to announce Ric was a sham and remind Jason of everything he’s done wrong. He knows. He does remember. I don’t know for sure, but I think Ric pulled him into friendship, insisted that they could get past it, against Jason’s reservations.”

Receiving that kind of trust and bond, then to have it withdrawn by the same person because they remembered his sins, would only solidify Jason’s self-loathing. If there was any way that could be avoided, Tim would argue for it. There was no gain in reigniting self-loathing for something Jason couldn’t do anything more to make right.

Dick stared at Tim, brow furrowed. Ordinarily, Dick didn’t anguish about decisions – it wasn’t in his nature – but Jason had always been an area of ‘you should’ in Dick’s psyche. He ‘should’ be nicer. ‘Should’ try not to start anything. ‘Should,’ but ‘couldn’t,’ so he compensated with humor and the barbs shone through.

“…he doesn’t have any right to me just because he made friends with amnesiac me,” Dick said slowly.

“No. But you have the option of respecting amnesiac you’s choices. And Jason, he’s… he’s not what he was after his death. Or who he was after B died. He hasn’t been for a long time.”

“I… I get that,” Dick said, veering towards defensive. “I’m not who I was either, after... it’s two years of… of scars I don’t remember, and being out of form, and B not being B, and having four Nightwings in the city, and seriously dating a woman I don’t even know, and... God, Tim.”

For the first time since Dick had come back, anger tinted his tone. It was easy to say ‘anger,’ but with Dick, the actual emotion being expressed had about six overlays at a time: anguish, impotency, the furious railing against time for having stolen two years from him and giving them to some ‘Ric’ person, bone-deep grief and fear. Things happened in two years, and it was impossible to know the scope of the changes in a fortnight.

Dick got to his feet, bouncing on his heels to try and get rid of the energy. Tim suspected a race was going to be in their future, despite recent burrito consumption.

“It feels like I’ve lost so much time,” Dick continued. “With Robin, you, the family, just… the things I was working on. As me. Part of me says great, I had a chance to explore new horizons, but that wasn’t me. I was hijacked on a two-year vacation that I don’t remember and now Jason Todd wants to visit whoever the hell I was on that vacation?? I…”

He broke away from the half-started sentence and started for the edge of the rooftop.

“Can’t he wait?” Dick said, his voice fierce. “He doesn’t want to see me anyway, so it’ll be awkward as hell. I shouldn’t have to make time for him just because he’s in town.” He looked back at Tim, searching for validation. “He’s not even looking to see me.”

“He’ll be happy you’re back,” Tim didn’t know how confidently he could promise this but said it anyway. “He never believed it would be permanent. Even when everyone else did.”

Dick stopped bouncing, forced his breathing to slow. He withdrew his phone and, after another long moment, tapped out something to someone. The phone was tucked away again.

“…race you back?” Tim asked, getting to his feet.

In response, he got his first grateful smile from Dick Grayson in over two years.

Tim won the race.

#

Dick’s text had been to the point.

’Dick Grayson is now handling all of Ric’s responsibilities. Still want to meet?’

Hunched in the back of a licensed Salta cab headed for Martín Miguel de Güemes International, Jason stared at the text. Tim might’ve told him about this. Then again, Tim had no requirement to tell him and Jason had been out of the country months. Maybe this had just happened.

Jason was getting better at that – the not assuming it was because someone hated him thing. The considering reality and other factors thing. And, he could own that his timing for anything but humor had never been great.

’Yeah,’ he replied.

Dick sent back directions and a time that night – no guidance on masks or not and Jason didn’t want to confirm his suspicion: Dick expected this to be a masks thing, would show up as Nightwing and expect Jason to show up as the Red Hood, loaded for bear. It was how they always encountered one another after all.

Hours later in one of Bludhaven International’s bathroom stalls, Jason rifled through his duffel bag, coming up with a pair of old jeans and a dark gray Gotham Knights hoodie. He could have gone in what he was wearing – nicer jeans, cotton shirt – but both felt gross from the long flight. From the airport, he hailed a taxi to his Bludhaven storage unit, retrieved one of his bikes, and headed to the coordinates Dick had given.

They took him to a Gotham Coffee Jason recognized as the one where Tim stored a spare Red Robin suit. It was a multi-level, standalone deal – roastery on the bottom, coffee-shop and study area on the second level – and Jason was nearly an hour earlier than the arranged meeting time of seven thirty.

He settled into one of the study area’s plush chairs facing a wall of picture windows, intending to make his way through a massive drip coffee before Dick showed up. The flight from Argentina was nearly a day long, but he hadn’t wanted to push back on the date or time Dick suggested for fear of losing it altogether. His back complained a little with the length of time spent sitting, but he was almost a year out from the surgery. He didn’t spend as much time worrying about his spine shattering when he took a blow from behind anymore.

Bruce had had his back broken once, Jason had remembered at one point. He had been surprised to find that the thought was clinical. No automatic spiral in which he panicked about what he’d lost with Bruce. No second-guessing the operation or medical professional he’d chosen. No wondering if Alfred or Leslie could have done it with better skill; logically, they couldn’t. More concern for the patient, but compassion didn’t translate to proficiency in a medical specialty.

Glancing out the window, Jason saw a blur of distant black and blue, leaping between rooftops and heading away from the coffeeshop – working. Several people on the street below had noticed the same thing, people lifting their phones to try and get a good shot of one of Bludhaven’s Nightwings. Well, he assumed there were still multiple Nightwings. Dick might have run them all off the minute he got in.

An hour later, when no one matching Dick’s description had wandered into the Gotham Coffee, Jason set down the empty coffee cup and sighed. Moving like he knew what he was doing got him to the kitchen and inventory area. From there, to the exterior door. It was the work of a moment to find the rooftop access ladder.

Jason pulled himself over the edge of the roof to find Nightwing – actual Nightwing, not one of the sixteen others running around – perched on the far barrier, watching him. The physical build and weight were Ric’s – but there was one clear indicator someone else had come home.

“I see you prioritized fixing your hair,” Jason said, settling into a position leaning against the opposite barrier of the roof. Ric had been growing out his hair over the past few months, keeping it long enough that he could pull it into a thin ponytail he was absurdly proud of. Dick had cut it back to the length it had been when he was shot, keeping it just long enough to hide the scar.

“Ponytails are way too easy to grab,” Dick replied. His gaze had fixed on the Gotham Knights hoodie and jeans and his expression turned puzzled. He looked down at the Nightwing uniform with a trace of sheepishness.

“I guess I’m overdressed,” Dick said. “Sorry.”

“Just flew in, this was what I was wearing,” Jason said. “But it does mean we’re not meeting inside.”

“Guess not.”

An awkward silence stretched between them. Jason wished fervently that he had asked Tim for a more comprehensive briefing – what Dick knew now, what he didn’t know, what he had thought when he heard Ric and Jason were friends.

“Well… congrats on pulling off the whole Mufasa thing and remembering who you are,” Jason said, keeping his tone light.

“I don’t remember all of it,” Dick said. “Ric… that’s all gone.”

“Surprised you signed off on meeting up.”

“I saw that he said you were welcome in Bludhaven any time,” Dick replied, somewhere between gracious and reluctant. “I decided to honor that.”

“ ’ppreciate it.”

Dick shifted position so he was leaning against the barrier, arms crossed – no doubt waiting for Jason, as the arranger of the meeting, to move the conversation forward. Meanwhile Jason was finding himself tongue-tied in a way he hadn’t expected.

‘Brothers’ wasn’t the right term for what they were – less so now than before – or, if they were brothers, only in the way of estranged siblings. The kind of wholesale brokenness that only happened when people were supposed to be close and weren’t.

“Red fill you in on much?” he asked. With luck, the kid had given Dick a full download or something so he wouldn’t have to explain his divorce from the Bats, the Batman conundrum, or how invaluable Ric’s support had been.

“Not enough. I haven’t been back long,” Dick replied. “Were you and Ric working on something? Maybe you can give me the overview.”

“No. Ric was pretty adamant about not being Nightwing, and Hood isn’t working in Blud or Gotham.”

“So, we meet up… as civilians?” Dick seemed to be trying to grasp this idea, the difficulty tinting his expression with frustration. Jason not being dressed as Red Hood had thrown him and the fact that they typically met up out of costume pushed him even further from stable ground.

“I swing by, off and on. Red might’ve told you I’m out of the family. Not my name was ever included in the newsletter anyhow.” Jason was doing his best not to sound bitter, but that one slipped through. Regrettably, Dick caught his tone and ran with it.

“Might have something to do with the whole attempted murder thing.”

“Oh, sorry, is it time to re-up my apology to you for being batshit seven years ago?” Damnit. He wanted to grab the words and shake them until he stopped staying stupid things. He took a breath. “Because I will. Apologize, again, if you need that.”

It wasn’t like it mattered to his pride. Dick wouldn’t want to have Jason checking in with him, so this would be the last time he swung by Bludhaven solely to visit. Tim’s schedule never allowed for many ‘in person’ visits, so Jason maintained contact with him mostly via intermittent texts, saying what countries he would be in if Tim needed any intel, asking Tim how he was doing once in a while. There was no way to know without asking him outright, and hell, the kid knew Jason cared about him.

Same with Ric, though Jason had honestly reached out to Ric more. Ric was good at emotions. Tim tried but couldn’t always manage to turn off the detective, the constant percolating of information, Googling, diagnosing, sending referrals. Sometimes, Jason needed words, not solutions, and Ric had been good at that.

But this, this was a farewell visit to Ric. So he hadn’t wanted to skip it, no matter how awkward it got.

Dick was shaking his head. “I don’t need your apologies, Jason, I’m just wondering what you wanted.”

“To say bye, I guess. To Ric,” Jason clarified. “Guess I missed the boat on that though. Figures, I wasn’t in the hospital when you originally woke up as him, missed the going-away party too.”

“Red said he wasn’t able to be at the hospital then either,” Dick said. After a moment’s hesitation, he pushed himself out of his crouch and crossed the rooftop to perch next to Jason. It was an extension of trust, allowing them to have this conversation as former Robins. Plus, Jason was in civilian clothing; Dick was probably able to put aside some of the Red Hood memories he carried around.

“Didn’t know that,” Jason said.

“How did you find out then? Did Red call you?” Dick tried for a grin. “Swing by to punch Nightwing and find out there were four of them?”

“Kinda.”

The smile faded, replaced by a quizzical expression. In response, Jason fought not to hunch his shoulders, remembering that this was Dick-who-didn’t-like-him, Dick-with-baggage. It would’ve been easier with no memory of Ric to operate on, however unrealistic that was. He’d gotten used to Ric wearing Dick’s face, the fact that they could be friends in spite of everything.

That had always been cheating.

“Wasn’t for months afterwards,” Jason said, already wondering if he wanted to tell this story. “Robin hunted me down, in Texas. He thought I’d betrayed his team, set ‘em up for a massacre or something. He’s always been your Robin. Thought if I couldn’t get near the Bat, I could… ask you to call him off. I was hurtin’. I’d told the kid if he came back, I’d kill him, and I didn’t wanna have to kill him and I didn’t trust him to stay gone.”

“That’s when a thing called self-control comes up.”

“I was hurting,” he snapped. “I am not responsible for safeguarding the life of a brat with shitty communication skills who doesn’t know any better than to hunt me down and stab me! Fuck, Dick! What do you think I am?!”

Beneath the domino, Dick had the grace to look mildly embarrassed. Still, frustration tinged the expression and there was no apology for the jibe. He hadn’t moved away though. Maybe some part of him knew Jason was right.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there,” Dick said. “You still haven’t said how you found out about Ric.”

“I scoped out what the Nightwings were doing,” Jason replied, concentrating on calm, deep breaths. “Obviously, they’re not you, and you come down like bricks on people jacking your gig, so you must’ve been out of commission. I went to your place in civvies. You’d moved. Always thought you might ditch Blud and go back to Gotham one day but, obviously, not an option to check out that line. I did some digging, heard about a skinhead pool shark with a bitchin’ scar who stuck up for women. Found you at the Prodigal.”

Dick swallowed and avoided eye contact. “Didn’t realize it had taken you that long.”

“Wasn’t your job to know.”

That night – his fourth night of hunting for the Real Nightwing – Jason had sat in the shadows of the Prodigal long enough for Dick to win four games of pool, fend off two solicitations from friendly women and one from a tentative young man, and end a barfight. Dick had then proceeded to get bewilderingly drunk.

Heavy drinking had never been his ‘thing,’ so it didn’t take long for the proof to overwhelm his tolerance. Jason helped the bartender (an attractive woman with dreadlocks) haul Dick off the bar’s counter and towards the door, a cab already on its way.

There had been a moment – a couple of seconds – when Dick had focused on Jason through the drink.

“Hey, Dick,” Jason had said, yanking the other man’s arm over his shoulder. “Gotta say, the cue ball look is not doin’ you any favors.”

“’m not Dick,” Dick said, violence in his tone. “’m Ric.”

“Bit late to the game with that switch, but all right. So, you hanging up the fingerstripes?”

“What?”

Even drunk, Dick should be recognizing euphemisms about masks, but Jason had pressed on.

“I’m having problems with your protégé,” Jason said, ignoring the strange looks like bartender was shooting at him. “You still talking to the kiddo? Rockin’ the black and blue?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who the hell are you?” Dick’s head swung to the left, towards the bartender. “Oh, hey Bea, sorry… I’got…”

“Does he know you, Ric?” Bea asked, casting a dubious glance at Jason, who tried to look unthreatening. After all, he was helping her nudge Dick towards a cab and Dick, for all he was an acrobat and ‘compact,’ wasn’t the easiest to lift. It was doing a hell of a number on his back, which had been crankier and stiff ever since Damian’s thigh-stabbing incident. He remained focused on helping Dick. Bea’s suspicion tempered.

“I don’t know this guy,” Dick was replying, violence erasing itself from his tone in favor of sullenness. “ ’s the ‘mnesia thing from the bullet. I mentioned. ‘member? Woke up an’ they all think I’m this Dick and I don’t know that guy. Or this guy.”

“Sorry,” Bea had told Jason, not sounding entirely sorry. “Maybe check with his family, if you know them. Ric doesn’t remember a lot of people.”

“They want the other guy,” Dick – Ric? – had said, addressing the ground. Despite the mulish tone of his voice, there was misery there, misery Jason recognized too closely for comfort. The feeling of standing on a doorway, hand raised to knock, and knowing you weren’t the person they had wanted to come back.

The feeling lit a candle in Jason, burning hot enough that it was going to come scorching out of him if he didn’t help Dick and leave. Leave before he made plans to do something stupid, like go ram his motorcycle directly into the Batcomputer and demand to know why Bruce was abandoning another Robin. All that would accomplish would be getting the shit kicked out of him, again, and arrested. Bruce was rich, he’d make something stick. He’d pushed those thoughts down with herculean effort and focused on… ‘Ric.’

Jason lifted Ric into the cab, pushing back the wave of empathy because his oldest ‘brother’ was glaring drunkenly at him from the vehicle’s shadows while Jason tucked his legs in.

“Y’know what, my mistake,” Jason told him. “You seem like a cool dude. I just confused you with somebody else.”

“Well… don’t.” Ric flailed for the cab’s door handle, rattling off an address to the cab driver as he did so. Jason memorized it in order to check in on him later that night.

“Yeah,” Jason said, wrapping up the memory. “That was how I found out. So I left.”

He hadn’t intended to go down this rabbit-trail with Dick and wasn’t sure why he’d said it. No one had heard that story before, not Tim and definitely not Ric, who had been too drunk to remember the incident. Bea, bless her, had never given Jason away.

Maybe he was telling it to Dick now because it was a farewell visit. Because it was something that Jason alone remembered and Ric hadn’t and Dick didn’t know and…

“Okay.” Dick sat very still next to him, hands braced on the edge of the roof barrier as if it were a bulwark against the world. “Yeah. I don’t remember that.”

“Ric didn’t either.”

“Hn.” A beat passed as Dick mulled over this new piece of information. “Red… said you were living at my – at Ric’s apartment. For a while.”

“Yeah. Months after with the… well, I got laid up.”

“And you were friends?”

“Ric didn’t know better. I don’t expect anything from you.” Maybe he should have said it out loud: ‘This is a farewell visit, Dick Grayson, I don’t expect you to pick up anything you don’t remember dropping. Thanks for tolerating me when you had amnesia.’

“But… it’s over a year, for you.” Embarrassment tinted Dick’s voice, which wasn’t an emotion Jason had expected to hear from him. “A year of us actually getting along, even though you must have told him some of what you’ve done. And what I’ve done, or not done.”

“I don’t know where you’re going with this, Wing.” Now was his chance to drop in the goodbye: “This is the last time I was planning to—"

“Maybe I don’t want to lose that.” The words came out in an uncertain rush – more to be sure that they were said than because of emotional distress. Jason shifted to brace both feet on the rooftop, rather than leaning heavily against its barrier. Dick noted this shift in position and modified his own to match, planting both of the suit’s slick boots on the dark surface, no longer relaxed.

“Isn’t it worth keeping?” Dick asked, the uncertainty waning from his tone. “It seems like it was worth it to you to keep coming.”

“I have your number, Wingding. That’s about as close as you’ve ever wanted to be.” What was Dick doing? Conflict had writ itself large across his expression since Jason’s wrapped up the story and had now totally replaced the irritation of earlier. Dick took a breath and yeah, they were heading for an actual conversation.

“Jay, think of it from my perspective. I get shot in the head and forget everything. You find out, you don’t use that information against me. When you do need help, you reach out to Red, even though it’d be easier to manipulate me. You and I connect anyway. Somehow, in all that mess, problems that have been around decades found answers. And now… you communicate and visit, even when you’re not in need or forced to by injury. That’s why we’re standing here.”

“Uh…”

“It’s not my fault I forgot but, at some point, I decided to trust you. I might’ve lost a lot in two years, but I don’t think I lost my… judgment. I was still me. And I decided to trust you. Based on who you are.”

Jason nodded. His teeth gritted, because even with years between him and the activities, it cut away at whatever he was calling his soul these days.

“So, I have to own who Ric was,” Dick said. The words were turning into more of a statement, something he was charging with conviction. It was a cute epiphany, but Jason wanted nothing to do with being a ride-along on Dick’s personal journey back from amnesia.

Anger came to hand as soon as he beckoned for it: “Nightfling, no one’s asking you to own your damn amnesiac alter ego, and I definitely didn’t show up for you to play ‘house’ with who Ric was.”

I’m not,” Dick snapped, and some part of Jason grinned at the reciprocal anger. Anger was real, anger was solid footing for both of them.

“Besides,” Dick added, before Jason get a word in. “You had to own everything you did when you came back from the dead, whether or not you were in your right mind. Red can work with you better than I can, and if anyone should have the right to hold things against you, it would be Red. Ric made good decisions. Ric forgave you, because he could see how much you needed to be forgiven when I couldn’t get past what you’d done.”

The grin Jason had allowed himself wilted as Dick kept talking. He thought they had both been angry, but this wasn’t anger – this was moving further and further from anger. Shame roiled in him and he began shaking his head, attempting to forestall the incoming flood of words from Dick.

“I need to forgive you. I want to forgive you,” Dick said. At the same time, Jason heard himself saying: “No, it’s not the same and you don’t, you don’t need to—”

“I do—”

“You can’t. That’s not a thing you do! Ric could because he didn’t know, but YOU can’t because you are you. It’s bad, Dick, everything I did deserves everything that you can’t— it’s not something you can forgive, not with the way you are, and that’s fine.” Jason was keenly aware of how loud his voice was getting, how it would carry from a rooftop.

“No, it’s not,” Dick said and damn him: his voice was controlled, charged with contemplation and regret, and it wasn’t fair. Jason’s sentences rattled on like a runaway train.

“Hell, I wouldn’t forgive me either! It’s—it’s not wanting to be friends with a dog that mauled you. Not that I’m—but you don’t have to try to do that. We can just avoid each other, it’ll be fine.” Jason kept saying the word fine and didn’t seem to be able to stop. “With leaving the family, not working in Gotham, I won’t see you, we’ll never work together. It’ll be—”

“I don’t want to leave it broken,” Dick interrupted. He sounded like Ric for a moment: simple and unyielding.

“Dick—”

“I forgive you, Jason. You’ve been a different person for a long time. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to admit that.”

He meant to counter with further protests but hearing the words, hearing the actual words… he sat down heavily on the roof, startling Dick into scooting back a couple steps.

“Jay?”

Rejection wasn’t an option. It was nearly impossible to reject forgiveness. Jason could reject Bruce saying ‘I love you,’ or ‘I’m sorry,’ or anything that felt like entering into an agreement or commitment. Being forgiven? Dick gained nothing by that. Nothing. Had never tried before, because it would have been a lie. Jason in turn had never asked for it, not from Dick, because it wouldn’t have been given.

He wished he had worn the gear. Or at least the hood.

And it was so stupid to forgive Jason, so completely and utterly Dick in its naivety. Paralyzing, more than anything, with terror following close on its heels, because he had written off any connection with Dick Grayson as lost a long time ago. It felt like finding a bridge where there had been a chasm and then being told that Jason had built the bridge, with no memory of doing so. And there was no need for Dick to do this. Jason wasn’t part of the family. He had come here as a farewell visit.

Dick was attempting to attach a kite string to him instead.

“Jay?”

“I…” Jason looked up at Dick, realizing suddenly that he had to say something in response. What did one say? “You mean that?” Shit. “I mean, thanks.”

He got back to his feet, brushing off the jeans and taking a few nervous steps backwards. He didn’t know if it was the emotional stress or the drip coffee turning to acid in his stomach, but he wanted nothing more than to abandon ship on the conversation. Find some food, hide away in a safehouse and watch a movie that didn’t need much attention.

“You shouldn’t have…” he began, then changed tactics. “This is the last time I was coming by, so it’s okay if the forgiving thing doesn’t… work, for you. You won’t have to see me. Ric and I just got along.”

“And he’s still around, somewhere in here,” Dick said, taking a few steps forward. “But if I remember correctly, I’m the one who knows of your love for chili dogs and B-grade horror movies.”

“It’s been a long time since I did either of those things,” Jason said. He could still flip over the edge of roof, clamber down, vanish. It might be easier than letting Dick continue this train of thought.

“That doesn’t mean you don’t like them,” Dick replied. Then, tentatively: “How long are you in Bludhaven? We could—”

“This a joke to you?” Imposter syndrome snarled from somewhere deep inside Jason, clawing at his insides, because they weren’t friends, couldn’t be friends just because... “We can’t fix our clusterfuck of wrongness with some chili dogs and Attack of the 50-foot Woman. I’m not letting you slap a band-aid on a wound that needs stitches.”

“Dramatic. But I’m not here to dispense band-aids.” Dick hadn’t gotten upset, surprisingly. “Forgiving you is a stitch, Jay. I’m not pretending that alone holds the wound together.”

“Maybe I don’t want to stick around until you get bored either. I spent too much time and effort getting the fuck away from this family to let you—”

“I accept that we’re not family.” Dick swallowed hard after he said it, but it had that ring of truth around it, like his forgiveness had. The way Dick looked away as he spoke, the guilt in his posture, it all spoke to knowing that Jason was out of the Bats for good. “I’m still coming to terms with that. And with new Bat stuff. And with all the things that changed while Ric was running the show. If I have to adjust to all of that, find my place in it, I think… I think I should work on this too. Even if I don’t “need” to. Even if it makes me realize what a shitbag I’ve been to you.

I realize I don’t deserve you coming back and visiting. That’s a lot to ask of you, and might bring up… memories. I don’t know. I don’t even know what’s hard for you, as the reigning badass. I barely know what’s hard on me, talking to Red about B almost…” Dick chuckled to himself, a scared small sound. “Pushed me over the edge. And you and I have always been…

“But if Ric was worth it, I want to be too. Somehow.”

Jason’s chest hurt and yes, part of him wanted to bolt. Other parts of him still heard the ring of truth around the words, because Dick didn’t generally speak to him like this. Jason could count the number of times they had spoken like this on his fingers. Maybe on one hand.

“You don’t have to,” he managed. He couldn’t form the words ‘I don’t want you to,’ just like he couldn’t ignore Tim’s calls or put off answering his text (for more than 24 hours) anymore.

“I want to. The person who doesn’t have to is you,” Dick said. Again, the chasm crossed by a bridge: it had been years since Dick had presented him with a choice, rather than an order.

It was also one of the first conversations in years where Jason didn’t feel like Dick considered him an active threat. It wasn’t just the clothing – Dick knew from experience Jason was just as lethal in street clothes – and it wasn’t the lack of displayed weapons. It was that the conversation wouldn’t get back to Bruce. Raised voices and emotional displays hadn’t corresponded to calls for backup or calling him unhinged. Their talk wouldn’t be analyzed for information divulged. A pin denoting Red Hood wouldn’t be repositioned on the Batcave map accounting for rogues’ movements.

They were just talking, the kind of conversation they could have had in a secluded coffeeshop if Dick hadn’t made a stupid assumption and come as Nightwing. Then again, if he had chosen otherwise, they might not have talked of the same things.

“…I’m getting dinner,” Jason said finally, an answer that wasn’t an answer, and grasped the guardrail of the access ladder.

Dick didn’t protest – didn’t move – most of his effort going into maintaining a poker face. Ordinarily, the acrobat’s poker face was superb, but today he met with only limited success: the muscles in Dick’s neck flexed with the effort not to speak, mouth fixed in a straight line so as to avoid turning down at the edges. Jason looked away as he began his descent, trying to convince himself it was the usual lie. Dick felt bad about him because he felt bad about everything right now and hated knowing that now he couldn’t repair what they had so irrevocably damaged.

“Stay safe, Jason,” Dick said.

He paused, grip tightening on the ladder’s railing. Tim had said the same thing.

Stay safe.

How often had the family hoped for that for him, that ‘stay safe’ was the first thing they thought to say when he left? How often after he died had they thought it might be the last time he saw them? To Bruce, it had to be knowing how Jason was and what he was doing, making his safety an element of control and security, but to Tim, to Dick…

They wanted to know he was all right, in a world that had already murdered him once, brought him back, and he had tried to burn them all in return. Even in the face of that, even Dick Grayson wanted him safe.

He looked up, not having fully descended below the lip of the roof yet, and took a deep, shaky breath. He hoped he wouldn’t regret his next words, told himself they weren’t an agreement; nothing in him was beholden to Dick Grayson’s suddenly hopeful expression.

“You can come if you want.”