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Look! A Squirrel! The Saga of one extremely ADHD Batfam writer with too little time and too many ideas

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We begin with a reimagining of the Batfamily, if Bruce didn't go to the circus one particularly fateful night...but Zatanna Zatara did.

Let us be clear, dear reader, that this is pre-new 52 comic book continuity, in which Zatanna is of Bruce's generation rather than Dick's. Definitely not Young Justice. Cuz otherwise this shit would just be straight up weird. Not that its not anyway, but. Y'know. Degrees of weirdness. Its all relative.

In this particular era of comic book continuity, Zatanna and Bruce have a long history of being acquainted. Before he was Batman, when he was still traveling the world and learning from every teacher he could, he frequently visited circuses and carnivals and the like. They were where he learned escape artist tricks, picked up things from magicians’ acts like Zatanna’s (such as sleight of hand and misdirection, etc), and acrobatics. In many retellings of Dick's origin, its literally the reason Bruce was at Haly’s Circus the night the Graysons died - he came with a date, of course, but really he was there scoping out their act to see if there were any tricks he could learn from or incorporate into his own repertoire.

But just as Bruce knew Zatanna even before they teamed up in the Justice League, because he frequented circuses, carnivals and traveling shows that Zatanna worked with.....so too, is there every possibility that there exists a universe where generations of Zatara stage magicians had at times met or even become family friends with generations of Grayson acrobats.

So! AU where Zatanna was in Gotham visiting friends at Haly’s the night the Graysons died. And rather than watch Dick get shoved into an uncaring system when they took him away from his home and refused to let him stay with his circus family and community, the Mistress of Magic spirited Dick away and took custody of him herself.

Which of course leads to Dick being raised by Zatanna instead of Bruce, where he continued to work as a performer alongside her - but as her magician’s assistant instead of an acrobat. (Though he still kept up with his acrobatics thanks to Zee’s acrobat friends letting him train on their trapeze whenever he had the itch to fly again). Dick grows up learning all the escape artist tricks, all the misdirection and sleight of hand Bruce learned from magicians and later taught him, but straight from the source this time rather than via Bruce.

And eventually, Dick - child prodigy that he is - discovers that Zatanna’s act is the equivalent of hiding in plain sight, the perfect misdirection to cover up that she is a real magician, a homo sapiens magi, born naturally gifted in the mystic arts and one of the most powerful sorceresses in the world. Dick might not ever have her natural aptitude for her type of magic, but there are many kinds of magic in the world. And thanks to her work (both as a professional magician and as a reserve member of the Justice League and occasional superheroine herself) Zatanna knows all the other best and most talented magicians and sorcerers in the world. And many of those, Dick can learn from.

All of which leads to him eventually sneaking out at night as a vigilante on his own. Dick combines his acrobatics with things like knife throwing and flashy misdirection that disguises his actual conjurings and spellwork when in the midst of battle. His specialties are illusion magics, spells of disguise and manipulation of shadows...vanishing into smoke and conjuring temporary doubles out of mirrors, and much, much more.

Just enough of what he does isn’t real, villains never see it coming when Dick conjures a real fireball right after they’d identified just enough of the previous ones as harmless illusions, they thought it was safe to stop dodging. He makes up for not having the raw power of other magicians by capitalizing upon his ability to build and sell an act.

Eventually he forms the Teen Titans with other sidekicks like Wonder Girl, Speedy, Kid Flash and Aqualad…as well as Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl, protégé of the Batman. Even if you asked them, his best friends couldn’t say how much he’s actually capable of either. Though with them, its not because he doesn’t trust them....its just that he’s a total troll.

Dick always dismisses any talk of him being a sorcerer or calling what he does magic. Instead he just grins and winks and says he knows a few tricks, that's all. What he considers ‘a few’ or how far he stretches the definition of ‘a trick'....well, that’s anyone’s guess. His entire hero career and reputation spins out of the fact that as far as everyone else knows, he could be one of the more powerful sorcerers to walk the earth….or he could simply be a great actor who makes the most out of a relative handful of lesser spells that are within his capabilities. Even his own teachers can’t say for sure. Every time someone thinks they’ve got his range figured out, he mischievously pulls out a new spell his previous shows of power have never hinted he’d be capable of, just to keep people guessing.

And maybe Zatanna and Dick are back performing in Gotham one winter. Dick’s off visiting Batgirl while they’re in town as Zatanna takes a late night stroll and passes through Crime Alley. No particular reason, its just an expedient route and she's hardly someone who needs to be concerned by its reputation.

Which is when a homeless street kid named Jason Todd tries to pick her pocket.

Naturally, it doesn’t exactly work out too well, given who she is. But Zatanna Zatara is one to appreciate the irony of someone trying to pick her pocket…as well as impressed at how close he comes to actually managing it. She takes him to a diner to feed him, coaxes enough of his story from him she figures out he has no one to look out for him and will never trust Gotham’s foster system (not that she’d blame him, given what she saw of it when she first took custody of Dick and had her doubts about whether she was doing the right thing for him). And figuring since it worked out well for her the first time she went down this road, she offers Jason a fresh start elsewhere with her and Dick.

It isn’t long before Jason’s intellect and skilled hands prove equally effective at sleight of hand and magician’s tricks. Additionally, he's an eager student for every bit of actual magic his new big brother shares, along with what he learns from the teachers Zee and Dick both introduce him to. Over time, he gravitates towards different tutors and specialties than Dick. Illusions and mindgames, smoke and mirrors…that fits Dick’s natural showmanship and performer’s nature, but its not Jason’s style. Oh, he can bluff the hell out of anyone, make no mistake. Never play poker with him, and his natural bravado easily translates into working a crowd and playing a stage alongside Zee and Dick when they're all working. Its just not his preference.

No, Jason goes more for practical magic, straightforward approaches to achieving his intended results. Cut out the bullshit. Spells of primal force and elemental magicks. Charms and runes of strength, healing and protection that augment his capabilities when he wades into a fight fists first and just starts brawling. He’s not afraid to summon a demon or two and make a bargain to achieve his ends - he’s even got the names of a couple inked into his skin as tattoos, a summoning shortcut that lets him call on his personal faves in a moment of desperation. Even demons have trouble circumventing a summoning or breaking free of its parameters when those things are etched permanently onto his body.

Dick does tend to have a few elemental spirits always nearby and easily summoned without much notice or prep time, but Dick being Dick, in his case its just because he made friends with them. There’s a couple of wind sprites always hanging around on the off-chance he gets into a fight and might need their help. They find such instances to be extremely fun and exciting, and also they’ve adopted the fun little bird human who flies as a kindred spirit.

In contrast, Jason comes home one day and Zatanna catches him trying to change the coverings on a new tattoo without her noticing. She's not mad because he's fifteen and not supposed to be getting tattoos. She's not exactly thrilled about that either, but no, of greater concern to her is the fact that the tattoo is a name written in a long dead alphabet. A name she recognizes as that of a primordial demon she was extremely clear about being one of those forces beyond her teenage son's ken, and which he most certainly was not supposed to be messing around with.

Jason's expression tightens mulishly and Zatanna longs for the days when that was just purple prose she read in books sometimes while wondering vaguely how that even worked and what that actually looked like.

"Dick said I had to," her younger son says. He folds his arms across his chest defiantly. Zatanna closes her eyes and counts to five. 

"I did not!" her older son yells right on schedule. The air shimmers like heat waves rising off pavement on a hot summer day and Dick drops the cloaking spell he's been using to eavesdrop. She's not sure why he even bothered with the thing; they both knew he was there the whole time. Not because his spell hadn't been text book perfect and beyond even her ability to pierce mystically, but because Dick tended to forget all the magic in the world can't keep predictable behavior from being predicted.

"You literally said Jason, you gotta do the thing," Jason insists, doubling down. Dick's arms flail like an anthropomorphic windmill tripping on shrooms.

"No, I literally said Jason, don't do the thing," Dick shrieks, cartoonishly outraged. Zatanna fights back a small smile despite the situation. She's seen her eldest smoothly engage a minor deity in a verbal chess match as the fate of his fellow Teen Titans hung in the balance, all without once breaking a sweat. One blatant lie delivered straight to his face by his younger brother though, and he went zero to sixty in two point five seconds, skipping straight past the realization he was being played. Zee still had every intention of grounding her youngest for the next decade for being so dumb as to ink himself with a mystical tether to a demon that once ate an entire civilization - yes, ate - but that didn't mean she couldn't also be impressed at Jason's attempt at finessing himself out of this situation. He'd jumped straight to the only thing that had even had a prayer of distracting Zee from his teenage idiocy - Dick at Defcon Five. Now if only she could get him to apply that same level of forethought to things like oh, the possible longterm consequences of giving a supernatural Being of Mass Destruction a direct dial up connection to him....

Dick turns desperate eyes on her. "Seriously Mom, I swear. I said the actual words 'Jason NO.'"

"See?" Jason flings his arm at his brother in triumphant vindication. "Have you met me? Everyone knows that's code for 'Jason YES.'"

"Oh my god, I will curse you to rot the pages of every first edition you touch," Dick hisses dramatically. Jason pales briefly, but rallies.

"And really, how is this any different from when you slept with Batgirl and I said that was a really bad idea and its totally gonna end up biting you in the ass, and then you said that I shouldn't have told you to do it then?"

"That's completely different," Dick howls, reverting back to Windmill, Drunk In A Windstorm. "You said 'Don't be mad, but that new scrying spell I was trying accidentally locked on to Batgirl instead of Batman and I saw her walking home from school out of costume just for a second before I shut off the spell but spoiler alert, she doesn't wear a wig while in costume, she really is a redhead even with her cowl off, which means now you gotta sleep with her, like, we all know its gonna happen anyway now. PS its Barbara Gordon, that's the punchline, you're already obsessed with her, oh crap now you're gonna be insufferable huh.' Which by the way, I so am not. Jerk."

"Yes," Jason says slowly and with exaggerated patience. Zatanna's migraine builds and builds. "And then I said, 'Dick, no, stop, I was making a joke, you don't actually have to...' and you said 'No, but I gotta'. Your shirt was practically already off by the time I finished saying 'redhead.'"

"Well, duh! Of course it was! Have you met me?" Dick volleys back in what Zee really hopes is her eldest making a deliberate callback to her youngest's earlier crack, and not some bizarre teenage superstition that has him actually thinking nope nope those thoughts are in the Bad Place, Zatanna, its absolutely believable that Dick is actually still twelve and the boys are just using embellishing language to feel grown up. C'mon, if you try hard enough you can milk a good thirty more seconds of denial about your son's sex life, you're literally magic, you can do this.

The ludicrousness of it all is so effortlessly identical to his brother's idiocy just moments prior, Zatanna has a brief, uncharitable thought that the Graysons had a second child they gave up for adoption and nobody ever told either of the boys. She opens her mouth to put a stop to the nonsense, but what comes out:

"You slept with Bruce's protégé?"

Dick pauses mid-rant and fidgets uneasily. His eyes dart around the room as if expecting the Batman to appear, summoned by the power of his name. "Umm. Only a couple times?" he says slash asks, warily.

"On several different occasions," Jason adds gleefully. Zatanna rubs her temples and rounds on him before Dick can return fire.

"And you tried to scry Batman?"

"Umm," Jason stutters. Stops. Aims an accusing finger at his brother again. "Dick dared me to!"

"That's it! Curse coming right up," Dick snaps, fingers crooking into arcane gestures.

"Enough! Both of you!" Zatanna feels slightly guilty when both boys fall silent and hunch over, metaphorical tails between their legs. Even when they were being obnoxious, it was still weirdly charming in a way - eww, who even was she right now? Maternity was a mistake. Still, she couldn't find it in herself to bring down the full force of her ire when all they were doing really was being....ridiculous boys being ridiculous brothers. She sighs and contemplates telling them just to go to bed, they'd discuss it in the morning after she'd had time to cool off and think about it....decides god no, that risks all of this happening all over again. Splits the difference and calls it a night.

"Jason, you're grounded for a month for whatever you did to even get someone to give you a tattoo while under eighteen without parental approval. And you're grounded from any spells outside of lesson plans and homework assigned by one of your tutors until you can tell me in detail why I'm concerned your choice of tattoo was an absolutely terrible idea, and you can present me with no less than three different wards or counterspells that prepare for the possibility of that absolutely terrible idea becoming an absolutely terrible catastrophe. Not a word," she finishes sharply with a pointed finger, when he starts to protest. He sulkily subsides again.

"Dick, one word answers only, no explanations, excuses or qualifiers. You made sure Barbara knew exactly who you were and that you knew exactly who she was before you both....made it extremely awkward for me to look Bruce in the eye at the next Justice League meeting?"

"Yes," Dick says wincing.

"You used protection....each time on each different occasion?"

"Yes," her eldest says, examining the floor as if weighing the likelihood of it opening up and swallowing him whole.

"You're not being every gross stereotype of teenage boys as normalized by Hollywood, using or objectifying girls in the name of toxic masculinity - you actually have feelings for this girl?"

"Yes," he says firmly, meeting her eyes again. Zatanna nods, letting that linger as she absorbs both his sincerity and the passage of time. Where did the last decade and that little eight year old with the baby fat and chipmunk cheeks go? But then, this is good too, she decides, and she nods, satisfied. Course, a little embarrassment is good for the soul, she figures.

"You understand that the world is full of other smart, beautiful redheads you could have chosen to pursue with far less complications?"

"Be right back, have to go die now," Dick announces loudly, and Zatanna chuckles and takes pity on him. Jason's paler Irish skin goes red at the drop of a hat, but it takes a much higher level of mortal humiliation for Dick's darker skin to betray any kind of blush.

"Nothing to get all red in the face about, sweetheart," she says because okay, she can be kinda a bitch sometimes, look her kids had to get it from somewhere. Jason cackles, doubling over with mirth and Zatanna makes her exit while her youngest is too busy being amused at his brother's expense to remember he's ticked about being grounded.

She lingers on the other side of the wall, drinking in the sound of Jason's laughter and Dick's sulking, long enough that she's still there to overhear when Dick silences his brother's entertainment:

"Saved your ass, you manipulative little shit. Don't think I didn't know what you were doing there. You owe me for playing along."

"Yeah, yeah, all hail Benevolent Big Brother Dick," Jason grumbles, but there's gratitude beneath the grumbling. Zatanna's eyes narrow as she reflects on how much lighter a sentence Jason ended up with, compared to what her first instincts had intended. Well, crap. Dick hadn't been the one oblivious to all the layers of that little episode at all, had he? That was annoyingly humbling. Still, Zatanna shakes her head at herself and goes to bed with a smile. She respects the art of the con too much to be upset her children learned more from her teachings than she'd realized.

Well played, boys.

The brothers' respective preferences in summonings aren't the only places they differ. Where Dick has a half a dozen spells of invisibility or intangibility on stand by in case he needs to sneak into a heavily fortified place, Jason stays stocked up with an equivalent number of spells capable of just blowing the front door off its hinges.

Jason’s most likely got more raw power and talent than Dick in terms of natural magical ability to be drawn upon, while Dick has more finesse and outside the box creativity in making the most of what he's working with. And also unlike his brother, Jason's definitely not concerned with embellishing or disguising his true capabilities. Instead he just lets his magic do the talking.

Oh, the art of the con is still as much a part of him as it is Zatanna and Dick. He just manifests it in different ways. Where Dick likes to keep people on their toes and guessing at what he’s capable of, Jason’s more than happy to whip out a showy display of pure power to establish his bonafides. Its his intentions he likes to keep them uncertain of. He’s more mercurial by nature than Dick in many respects. Dick's unpredictable and whimsical in his specific actions, but they all fall well within the range of being chaotic good in theory and effect. Jason prefers a more chaotic neutral stance.

He likes to toe both sides of the line, making sure nobody ever takes his motivations - or him - for granted. He gets a kick out of people being obvious about trying stay on his good side in case they ever need him or his talents. Jason's not actually all that bothered by people only wanting him around for what he can do for them....as long as he can tell the difference between those people and the ones who are genuinely invested in having him around simply because he's him. If he’s gotta guess at what people want from him or their agendas, he’d rather keep all that out in the open and honest. On his terms, not theirs. Respect what he brings to the table or don’t invite him to the party. It’s that simple, as far as he's concerned.

And then of course, Tim Drake being Tim Drake, his inclusion into their little family happens exactly as you’d expect.

He literally follows them home one day.

His neglectful absentee parents are archaeologists, after all. They spend more of their time away at dig sites than they do at home with him. When they are home though, they make a show of caring, a spectacle even. They take him out to the circus and to shows, parading him in public so everyone can see what a nice family they all are and how much they dote on their only child.

So just like in canon, Tim’s there at the circus too, the night the Graysons are murdered. And in the years to follow, he’s at a number of the Zataras’ magic shows as well. Even without finding footage of a quadruple somersault performed midair between rooftops, Tim puts together that Dick and Jason are the two masked and mystical teen superheroes who spend as much time doing flips as they do weaving spells. Throwing punches as often as fireballs and vanishing via subterfuge as easily as they do by sorcery. 

And Tim's parents, being the kind of archaeologists who grew up as rich bored white Gotham elites who picked archaeology as their field of study because its not like they actually needed to work and they’d watched Indiana Jones so often, they were like, yes, excellent, I will model my life adventures and career path after this movie and its obviously accurate depiction of archaeology…So they’re the kind of archaeologists who have no actual respect for the artifacts they dig up and just like how they look in their home or behind glass museum cases with plaques about who donated them.

Tim however, is not dumb, way better than his parents, and has a lot of free time and a hobby of researching everything. So eventually he discovers the real origins of a lot of artifacts his parents have around the house, and determines that a) they really shouldn’t be here, and b) some of these have spiritual and even mystical reputations and power and are possibly very dangerous in the wrong hands or even just when removed from their resting places or lands/cultures of origin, so they really shouldn’t be here.

So the next time the Zataras’ magic show comes to Gotham, Tim (carefully) stuffs his backpack full of as many as he can carry, and he sneaks out to go watch the show. And then he follows them back to where they’re staying. He introduces himself and says he knows who they are and could they please help him return all these artifacts to where they belong and also hurry because some of them might blow up the world if they’re gone too much longer and that’s not WHY he wants to return them, like they should just because its the right thing to do, but he thought he should mention it because it seems like it could potentially be an important factor. He’d do it himself, except he’s not allowed to go on a plane without an adult. But he did write apology notes to go with each artifact for his parents taking them without asking, and also could he have their autographs?

Dick blinks cartoonishly large eyes, sweeps the ten year old off his feet into a giant hug and announces: “We’re keeping him.”

Zatanna tries to do this in an orderly fashion, of course. “Tim, where are your parents? Do they know you’re here?”

Dick huffs dismissively. “Irrelevant. We’re keeping him. Look how adorable he is, is there really anyone who could possibly appreciate his adorableness more than us? No. Ergo. We’re keeping him.”

Jason rolls his eyes. “He’s not a pet, asshole. And adorableness isn’t a word, stop making up words, I will punch you, I swear to God. But also yeah, we’re keeping him.”

Tim’s heart is having a full on meltdown at the thought that two of his heroes want him to stay, but he’s a Drake and Drakes are very big on Proper and Protocols and Decorum, and all kinds of other things gratuitously capitalized because Pretentiousness. He’s pretty sure this isn’t how things work. “I’m not actually supposed to be out by myself, so I definitely should be home before nine because that’s my bedtime…”

Dick takes him into his bedroom, drops him on his bed and says: “There you go. You’re in bed and its not even eight o’clock yet. Problem solved.”

“…I think it only counts if I’m in bed in my bed?”

Dick snaps his fingers and the headboard is mystically inscribed with"Tim”  in a flourish of colorful sparks. “See? Its your bed now. It has your name on it and everything. This can be your new room and I’ll bunk with Jay. We can’t have you share a room with him, he snores and you’re too adorable to inflict that on. Growing boys need at least eight hours of restful sleep.”

Tim chews his lip. He’s not entirely sure the older boy’s logic is sound, but when laid out in that fashion, it doesn’t sound completely unreasonable, right? He makes one last token attempt to get up. Jason sits on him. Gently, but still.

“Oh no, we’re holding him against his will. We’ve officially kidnapped him at this point,” Jason says cheerfully. “Mom, you better go find his parents and tell them their son is missing and being held hostage and won’t be released until they can explain to the police why their son’s kidnappers had to notify them that their son was missing and had wandered all the way through Gotham at night alone.”

Tim protests. “Its not a big deal. I do that all the time!”

Jason and Dick look at him. Look at each other. Look at Zatanna. Arch their eyebrows pointedly.

Zatanna sighs. As ridiculous as her boys are being, this has played out about how she expected it would the second she realized the ten year old was completely on his own and used to it. And face it, she says to herself. They’re only like this because she’s like this. She regrets everything except also she regrets nothing. Not that she’ll tell them that right now. They both look a little too smug in her opinion. Let ‘em sweat for at least a few hours.

“I’ll go see what the situation is and figure out what to do next. Stay here and don’t let him eat too much sugar. And if you watch TV, nothing R-rated.”

Dick rolls his eyes. “We know. We’re not gonna scar the kid in like, the couple hours you’re gone.”

“You made your brother watch The Babadook when he was eleven.”

“Well that’s different. He was being an ass. Timmy’s being adorable. Completely unrelated situations,” Dick says in the tone of someone who thinks they’re being reasonable.

Jason scowls. “Wow, are you seriously victim blaming me for the nightmares I got from that shit? Way to make fun of my psychological trauma, asshole.”

“Hey, I didn’t make you watch that movie. I told you to go to bed.” Dick idly examines his nails. "You’re the one who said you were too old to have a bed time and you could stay up as late as I could and anything I could watch you could watch too.”

“Oh please. That’s basic reverse psychology. You knew exactly what you were doing.”

“But Jay-jay, I thought you were too smart to ever fall for my tricks the way all my dumbass friends always do! Are you saying that’s not true? Did I actually manipulate my brilliant little brother who has always been much too clever and much too observant to ever be tricked into doing exactly what I wanted him to do? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Hey good news, Tim, neither of us will have to share a room after I murder this assface in his sleep.”

“Don’t worry Timmy, that’s just Jason-ese for I love you.”

Zatanna sighs again and leaves before they can see her grinning. She enables their antics far too much as it is.

Within a week, the Zataras officially have custody of Timothy Jackson Drake. The boys are pretty sure that’s way too quickly for it to have happened legally, and there might have been a spell or two speeding up the process. But they don’t actually care, so. Yeah.

Unlike his brothers, Tim is the only one to fully embrace the titles of magician or sorcerer. His mind is his strength, research is his specialty, and its just inefficient in his opinion to waste time with the acrobatics and brawling that come naturally to them but would need to be acquired skills for him. Instead he just devotes all his studying to the mystic arts, learning from teachers with all kinds of specialties, but also just as much from his research of old texts and his theorizing on the natures of various forms of magic and how they interact. He happily spends hours poring over a dozen different translations and scribbling notes as he goes, distilling complex rituals into new forms that allow for the substitution of more commonplace ingredients and thus greatly widen the scope of his repertoire.

He has a talent for doing all the legwork on a dozen different spells of incredible complexity and then leaving them ‘hanging’ - specially tweaked to allow him to leave just the last bits incomplete, easily stored in his eidetic memory and ready to be called upon and triggered in mere moments as he finishes the last bit of any given spell with just a few words. Thus doing in the heat of battle what other sorcerers would require hours to replicate.

All three brothers end up gravitating to different superhero teams as they grow older, but all of them have their reputations within the hero community at large. Its generally expected that if you have a problem that needs a magical solution, and you’ve got enough time for preparation and planning - you call Tim. If you need to blow shit up and in a hurry - you call Jason. And if you’re just plain fucked and need a Hail Mary - you call Dick.

You’re usually gonna get all three anyway though, so whatever.

At some point when Tim's around fifteen or so himself, the Court of Owls ends up trying to get their Talons on Dick, because they suck and are terrible and entitled and their only real possible value comes from being a wasted potential metaphor for how often everyone seems to have their own ideas or expectations for what Dick should be doing or saying or feeling at any given time, with most of the things others get pissed about him for in the comics essentially boiling down to Dick doing or saying or feeling things that don't match up to their expectations or presumptions, and that people wouldn't bat an eye about anyone else doing or saying or feeling, its just Dick's supposed to be different, he's doing (x) wrong, ugh he can't even be traumatized properly without him usually ending up apologizing to other people for the fact that he was the one who was just screwed over, weird, its almost like these things are connected. I mean whoops, this is story time, not meta about all the thoughts and feels I, the dastardly fourth wall breaking narrator, have whilst butthurt on behalf of Dick. My badness.

Ahem.

Yes, when last we left our intrepid heroes, rich entitled bastards with a pervy penchant for nursery rhymes and child assassins had set their sights on claiming Dick and turning him into their mindless zombie bird-themed killing machine. 

In all fairness, they did lead with the extremely persuasive argument of 'look we totally called dibs before he was even born, so.....step off??' 

Then they kidnapped him and attempted to turn him into their mindless zombie bird-themed killing machine.

Compelling argument though that may be, Dick's brothers are not impressed. They are, however, magical, hyper-competent and extremely petty slash vindictive.

All of which is to say, Tim turns the Court into a bunch of actual owls. And then Jason summons a giant murderous hawk-demon from another dimension that eats all the owls.

And then they wait for Dick to wake up from all the drugs the Court pumped him full of in preparation for The Ritual of Zombie Assassin Making. And Tim just has to ruin it, that asshole.

"You know, hawks aren't naturally the enemies of owls," Tim says out of nowhere. Well. Not out of nowhere so much as out of concern, because Tim's natural physiological response to being worried is to get pedantic.

"What," says Jason flatly. Which is his natural physiological response to Tim being. Y'know. Tim.

Tim shrugs, his eyes intent on their older brother, who is still making like Sleeping Beauty and sooooo gonna get razzed by them for that later, once the Worry and Anxiety have all exited stage right. "It just felt like you were going for a theme. Which is fine, I'm just saying, owls don't actually have natural predators. One might occasionally get killed by a hawk, but usually that's more of a territorial dispute and still pretty much an outlier in terms of statistics."

"Why would you even say that to me right now," says Jason flatly. Not asking, because its a rhetorical question and he's currently glaring the answer to it straight at Tim's back, and that answer is ugh you are such an annoying little shit sometimes.

Which is why when Dick groggily starts to come to, he's greeted by a soundtrack of:

"God, I'm so sorry, I'm just the worst for giving you information that you didn't know before, since clearly if you had you wouldn't have gone with a hawk!"

"Well what the fuck should I gone with, a demonic taxidermist? Like excuse me for being in such a rush to heap vengeance on the pretentious shits who kidnapped our brother, I didn't have time to go to wikipedia and figure out the most appropriate dramatic irony!"

"First off, why would you ever go to wikipedia as a source, we have literally had this exact argument several dozen times - "

"First off, are you seriously giving me bullet points right now. Seriously. Bullet points. Right now. That's a thing that's happening."

"You are such an infant. How are you five years older than me? I make one little critique and you bite my freaking head off - "

"What's happening?" Dick croaks out into one of the few synchronized pauses for breath. "Where are we?"

"The secret underground lair of an evil society of ornithologists who kidnapped you because your milkshake brings all the weirdos to the yard," Jason says crankily, still glaring at Tim. 

Not that fuzzy, barely conscious but always guilt-prone Dick could possibly know that its not actually him Jason's ticked at. Tim face palms at his middle brother because what are bedside manners, clearly.

"A bird-themed cult calling themselves the Court of Owls pre-selected you to be turned into the general of their elite zombie assassin army," Tim recites quickly, predicting Dick's likely request for further information.

"Well that's rude," Dick frowns. He cracks open one eye experimentally, winces when even the dim lighting is enough to give his pounding headache a booster shot. Tries the other eye. Nope. Both eyes are in agreement. Light is the enemy of all that is good right now. Ugh. Definitely rude. He likes light. How dare someone incite this unforgivable betrayal from his BFF, light? "I don't think I care for their recruitment strategy. Although at least they wanted me to be the Boss Zombie Assassin I guess."

"Yes," Tim replies dolefully. "That does appear to be the silver lining here."

Despite their antagonism of thirty seconds ago, Jason snickers. They're nuanced like that.

"Well his usual priorities seem to be in place, so I think its safe to say we got to him before they could do any actual brainwashing," Jason says. "All in favor of blowing this popsicle stand?"

"Wait, there are popsicles?" 

"No, there aren't popsicles in the evil cult's secret underground murder lair. Its a figure of speech, dumbass."

 "Hey," Dick pouts. He coughs once, weakly, but Jason's eyes narrow in sudden suspicion of Milking It Syndrome. "Be nice to me. I was just kidnapped and almost made an Elite Zombie Assassin Boss and my head hurts and is all fuzzy and you know how I feel about popsicles. You shouldn't joke about them if you don't have any, that's just mean. But uh, should we be rushing? If the bad guys are coming back soon I do vote for the not being here option, like, just in case turning me into the Zombie Apocalypse is still on the evil cult agenda."

He would manage to latch onto the Elite and Boss part of that info dump, wouldn't he, Jason muses. What's the timeline for how long you have to express sympathy for your almost-brainwashed brother before you can yell at him for being insufferable about it? Is half an hour long enough?

"No, its fine," Tim assures their brother. "We uh....were slightly miffed about the whole kidnapping you thing, and so we were.....efficient? I guess you could say? About making sure they wouldn't do it again. I turned them all into owls."

"And then I summoned a hawk demon that ate them. You're welcome," Jason adds, not about to be left out. Even if he's going to have words later about being characterized as 'miffed.' The walking almanac knows more words in more languages than anyone in human history, pretty much, and he goes with miffed. The fuck, Timmy. The actual fuck.

"Aww, you guys, that's so sweet." Dick beams at them. Albeit at somewhat lower than his usual wattage. Then his forehead wrinkles slightly in confusion. "Why a hawk demon? Do owls not like hawks or something?"

Tim smirks at Jason viciously.

"I hate you with the searing intensity of a thousand suns," Jason tells his brat of a younger brother. "Also, gonorrhea."

 

Zatanna then teleports into the middle of the room with a flash of light and a hurried rush to the side of her lying-on-the-ground, suddenly flailing eldest son.

"Gah, evil light is evil! Curse your betrayal!" Dick wails dramatically, flinging an arm across his face despite the visible effort movement is still taking. Because he really is just that invested in keeping his Melodrama Game on point, willing to play through the pain if necessary. Jason rolls his eyes. If nothing else, he can at least respect his older brother's ability to commit.

"What happened here?" Zatanna wastes no time before asking, even as she begins running her hands lightly over Dick and muttering chants to divine for unseen injuries or influencing substances. Tim catches her up to speed with another dry recitation of the day's events. It doesn't sound any less ridiculous the second time around.

"And you two decided to just rush right into the heart of a criminal organization's secret headquarters with no plan, no way of knowing what you were jumping headfirst into and no back up?" Zatanna snaps out in a biting tone that's 70% Frantic Motherly OMG I Could've Lost All Three Of You I Don't Know What I Would've Done and 30% How Are You Seriously This Dumb, No, I Really Want To Know, You Boys Share Zero Genetics So It Can't Possibly Be Mutually Inherited Dumbness And Yet Here You All Are Being This Dumb, How, Why, I Strenuously Object.

At least, Jason's pretty sure its 70/30.

Eh. Maybe 60/40.

He looks at Tim and they both shrug. "We left a note," Jason offers lamely.

Their mightily miffed mother - and Jason totally gets it now, good call on that one actually, Timbo, Miffed can totally be intimidating, turns out - is not even slightly appeased.

"Yes, I did see your note," Zatanna says, slow and dangerous, an ominous cold front that's frosty enough to reverse global warming. Jason shivers. "The one that read 'Dick kidnapped by crazy bird freaks. Went to go get him. Somewhere in Gotham's sewers. Ugh why is it always sewers, I fucking hate sewers. Be back later. Love, Jason and Tim.' That note?"

Jason's honestly not sure what the problem is. All the relevant information was there. Tim glares at him.

"I knew I should have written the note," he hisses like an angry cat. Jason rolls his eyes again, because really, what other weapon does he have against his brothers' Drama?

"We had time for me to write a note, Tim. We didn't have time for you to write an essay with fully annotated footnotes all properly accredited according to MLA approved guidelines."

"I can be brief!"

"Name one time that you have ever been brief about anything. Ever."

Tim hesitates.

"Just because I can't think of anything right this second doesn't mean it didn't happen! You're just putting me on the spot," he sulks.

"Whatever. I'm not going to apologize for being in a rush. We had an older brother to save from evil brainwashing birdwatchers, remember? Would everyone prefer we took our sweet time and got here and found Zombie Dick instead?"

Tim wilts. Their mother thaws. Jason savors the moment. He so rarely gets to enjoy the moral high ground. Its nice, really. He can kinda see the appeal from up here, actually.

"That's Elite General Zombie Dick to you, peon," Dick chooses that moment to interject. Jason inhales through his nose. Five seconds. Five whole seconds that lasted.

"Seriously?" He asks his older brother. Dick blinks innocently.

"I am very traumatized by my near undeath experience," he explains. "That's just my coping mechanism."

Jason's eye twitches.

Later still, Jason somehow winds up getting into it with the Joker of all people, in Ethiopia of all places. Seriously, what, he still doesn't understand how or why any of that happened. His life, man. So fucking random. 

But that's a story for another day. It doesn't end all that badly, all things considered, not nearly as bad as it could've. The moral of the story is essentially that six out of seven days, Jason is still the brother best avoided in dark alleys, but on the seventh day....Dick and Timmy are perhaps best avoided as well. 

And later still, some jackass with a Wizard of Oz fetish decides that Tim-napping isn't just the worst colossally bad fucking idea any misfiring synapses have ever conceived. In this AU though, we stan brothers who check, double check and triple check before calling a time of death, because like the saying goes, fool us once, shame on you, fool us thirty seven times in just any single given decade, then yeah, that's probably on us at that point....

But non-brother approved Tim Tormenting is highly frowned upon in this universe, so Dick and Jason make like the Brothers Grimm, sharpen their spells and go questing down a literal yellow brick road that Dick conjures to lead them straight to the mysterious Mister Oz. And one of these days, Jason would really like to know where Dick gets some of his spells, he really would. Because. Yeah. Never mind, that's best unpacked another day, he figures.

Truthfully, that's all a story for another day as well, as Dick and Jason and Tim probably need to compare notes first and clear up a few things among themselves. None of them are entirely sure they even get what all of that was even about at all. It all seemed very strange and unnecessary, the standard villain monologues were a lot less explanatory than usual, nobody ever really satisfactorily explained Why You So Creepily Interested In Our Baby Bro, Bee Tee Dubs, and the deeper down the rabbit hole they all went, the more every reveal seemed to lead to an increasingly smaller Russian nesting doll hidden inside in the previous one.

And maybe the bad guy was Superman's dead dad from Krypton, which...okay, weird, whatever. And maybe he was just a patsy and the real monster all along was this giant glowing blue guy who seemed to have every power imaginable except for the power to put on a freaking pair of pants? I mean, everyone needs a gimmick, I guess. And then behind that funhouse mirror they found maybe the real villain all along was some rando in a toga who called himself Ozymandias and claimed to have been a hero, and nope, nuh uh, Jason isn't buying that for a second, he says you named yourself in reference to a line that literally says Look Upon My Works O Ye Mighty And Despair and you're saying everyone just went yup, that checks out, we've got ourselves a hero here, pure intentions through and through? Nope, sorry, not buying it.

And Ozy's face got as purple as the costume that would've gotten him in the door to any frat party but not much else, and honestly, as much as it flaps in a firm breeze its not even a step up from Dr. Moons Over Manhattan's permanent residency at a nude ranch he takes with him everywhere he goes, more of a lateral move really....

And he opened his mouth to say something suitably villainous and to do something no doubt dastardly, but that's when Dick cut him off with a yawn and a "Oh my god I have never been this bored in my life, I honestly don't care. Literally nobody asked." And he conjured up his yellow brick road again, told them he had no idea which of them needed the brain, which the heart and which the courage, but like...discuss among yourselves, and then he and Jason punted all three losers off to see the Wizard except Dick shrugged after shutting down the spell and said that guy died, like, five years ago. Its just no one else there has figured that out yet. Whoops. Oh well.

Look, its as clear and understandable a resolution to that particular adventure as anyone else might have doled out over an unnecessarily padded number of weeks until the patience of everyone involved was stretched well past the point of reason, so....whatever. That's what happened, the end.

And then Jason blows some shit up until he feels better about how obnoxiously pointless all that was and there's lots of yelling about worst bad guys ever, is there no vetting process anymore, are the inmates running the asylum, has the whole universe gone mad. Which somehow segues into Tim yelling about is Jason seriously upstaging him at his own Dramatic Rescue, how is this about him, oh my god, can't I even get five whole minutes to angst without you carjacking the family Waah-mobile. 

Meanwhile Dick leans back contentedly against the one wall still standing as a convenient backdrop, and watches the baby bros go. And Mom says they don't have any family traditions.

He actually really enjoys these moments. At least the ones where nobody's yelling at him.

But again, as I said....really all that's a tale for another day. On this day, what remains of significance is the universal truism that no matter the universe, the timeline, the place or the time or the people.....

If there be a Bruce, then that Bruce is gonna Bruce.

And we all know what that looks like.

 

That is to say: 

Meanwhile, back in Gotham, events unfold in strangely familiar ways. Even if some of their usual players are currently preoccupied sojourning their way back across the dimensions before they're late for dinner and Momma Zatara has their heads. Adopted though her kids may be, Zatanna is still an Italian mother. And you do not fuck with an Italian mother's family dinner plans.

That's how people die.

But fractionally less dramatically than Zatanna sits awaiting her boys' late arrival to dinner with a A Damn Good Explanation For That, Bruce meets Cassandra Cain and rescues her from her father.

He’s still Bruce Wayne, even if events played out differently for his first three canon kids. So he does what any Bruce would do and adopts her.

And then Cass brings Stephanie home and says she’s a runaway and her dad was a villain and well, what’s Bruce gonna do, not adopt her? Don't be absurd.

And then Talia shows up on Bruce’s doorstep and shoves a ten year old Damian at him and says "Congratulations, its a boy. Please take care of him while I go and try and kill my father and sister without getting killed by them first. I’m not sure how long that will take but my father has managed to last six centuries despite countless betrayals so I suspect it might be awhile."

I imagine these events all happen roughly in the span of a month, because there is no such thing as a world where Bruce knows how to pace himself.

There’s also no such thing as a world where Bruce knows how to gracefully ask for help. But even at his most stubborn he’s capable of recognizing when things fall outside his skillset and his best move is to seek advice from experts in fields outside his expertise. Like parenting.

And his old friend Zatanna has raised three boys who are well loved and respected by the entire hero community, so she must know what she’s doing. Yes, absolutely, his frazzled mind decides. Zatanna will have all the answers. His logic is sound. He's double checked his math and everything. Yes, he has equations for this sort of thing. No, they're not scientifically or empirically accurate, but just because one has arbitrarily assigned numeric values to various events, decisions and possible outcomes in order to justify to oneself that one's intended course of action is Endorsed By Data and Scientifically Derived Conclusions, like....that doesn't mean those values are all arbitrary and the conclusions and data that derive from them are fictitious and meaningless.

Shhh, shhh, don't question that last sentence, just nod and smile and accept that you're just not quite brilliant enough to understand the genius that is Brucenometry, and that's totally understandable and the real reason Bruce hasn't shared the math system he invented with the rest of the world. We just wouldn't get it, you see?

(And yes, he absolutely calls it Brucenometry in his head, because despite what the Batmen of other universes would have us believe, all the eight year old incarnations of Dick Grayson are naught but a scapegoat for the emotionally stunted manchild who absolutely devised the labeling system of 'what if I put Bat in front of every word tho and that's how you knew it was mine, yes, good, this is obviously the most logical and efficient taxonomy possible, its practically the Occam's Bat-Razor of nomenclatures, huzzah I am the smartest in all the land, eat my Batshit I mean guano I mean crazy I mean shut up no you're dumb.' And if you don't think Bruce sounds like that in his head you're just drinking the Kool-Aid, dear reader. Pick up any issue where Bruce is having an emotional fight with someone and skip to where he insists on having the last word before sweeping dramatically into the darkness, and substitute that last word with 'nuh uh, your face'. It reads practically the same, I swear.

Anyway, thus Brucenometry is only Brucenometry instead of Batnometry because he came up with the math first. The math is literally how he calculated that combining crime fighting with his fursona was by far the most expedient route for building a better, brighter Gotham? Duh? Like if you don't get it, he really can't explain it any more clearly than that, and this is possibly one of the reasons he doesn't let the Martian Manhunter in his head. Well, that and all the equally Scientific Ponderings on how accurate a label 'Buns of Steel' is for Superman's butt, and how might this best be tested. Y'know. For Science.)

It's possible I've gotten off track here. I blame Bruce. Bruce blames Clark's ass. Its this whole thing.

Ahem.

So Bruce decides Zatanna has all the answers to all his questions, clearly. Because you see, Bruce knows practically everything that's worth knowing, so anyone who knows something Bruce doesn't already know, ergo, ipso facto, must therefor in conclusion be smarter than Bruce. And if they're smarter than Bruce, as smart as Bruce already is and knowing as much as Bruce already knows, well then, they must know literally everything.

Bam. You've just been Bat Logic-ed.

Bruce sends a message. He waits. He's expecting something along the lines of a call back, but one minute he blinks and the next minute Zatanna's in the middle of the disaster his new brood of three have made of his living room, hands on her hips, shaking her head as she looks around.

“What did you do?” She asks, exasperatedly.

He really doesn't understand why so many people take that particular tone with him. All of his choices are excellent and backed by Brucenometry. He can show his work and everything.

Bruce would respond, but he’s distracted by the three unknown variables. He admittedly had not expected her to bring all three of her boys along with her. Then again, they're magicians and magic always messes up his calculations. Its the worst. Stupid magic. He keeps himself from glaring at the teenager, practically still a teenager, and fully grown man chugging down a Pixie stick while playing what sounds like Candy Crush on his phone with his free hand. 

Zee just shakes her head at him when Bruce tries to turn her question back on her with a pointed look.

“They were with me when I got your message and they wanted to come. Given how non-informative and vague the information you gave me was, it seemed plausible they might have a helpful perspective. Don’t change the subject. What did you do.”

“In all fairness, I should clarify that we were mostly just bored,” Tim says dryly.

“Also, this sounded amazing,” Jason adds, smirking.

Dick bounces up and down. “I’m very excited to be here for this! By the way, what is this, what's happening, what's going on? I was not totally paying complete attention, maybe. Oooh, does this place have an indoor pool? I bet it has an indoor pool. God, I love how completely unnecessary old rich people houses are, its amazing.”

That’s when a ten year old mini-Bruce wanders in, parentage apparent in every premature scowl line on his face. “Father, who are these people?”

Dick emits a gleeful sound that lends credence to his spirit friends’ theory he’s not entirely human and just appears right next to Damian, sweeping him up into a hug. His brothers blink, unsure if he had a teleport spell they didn’t know about, or if his natural ability to seek out anyone in need of a hug like a heat-seeking missile could actually allow him to move faster than the eye can see. Could go either way, to be honest.

“Oh my god, he’s like a tiny baby bat, he’s adorable,” Dick says, words rushing out at a speed normally achievable only by speedsters.

Damian has frozen at the unexpectedness of his behavior, but the outrage swiftly sets in. “What did you just call me?”

“A tiny baby bat!”

“Not that, the other thing.”

“Adorable!”

“How dare you!” The ten year old produces a knife from somewhere and attempts a stabbing that results in said knife being transmuted into a Twizzler. Dick twists in that unnatural way only his body is capable of and somehow mid-hug still manages to eat the Twizzler, because why not, apparently.

“I’m keeping him,” Dick declares, right on schedule. "He is my new brother and also now my weekend favorite, sorry not sorry. Jason is now my Monday and Friday favorite and Timmy is my Tuesday and Thursday favorite. Wednesdays can be my me time."

"But Dick," Tim deadpans in a lifeless monotone, now absorbed in doing something with his own phone. "How can I not be your Wednesday favorite? On Wednesdays we wear pink."

Jason rocks back on his heels, rolls his head back on his neck and stares up at the room's high, vaulted ceiling despairingly. "I hate that I get that reference. I hate that so much. I just don't know if I hate Tim for saying it, Dick for being the reason he said it, or me for hearing it and getting it. Quick, somebody tell me who to punch, I can't make this decision, its too hard."

Zatanna pinches the bridge of her nose and exhales. Cass and Steph lurk in the doorway and stare at the scene, bemused. Bruce is statue still. It’s possible his complete inability to process anything that’s happening right now has computer-crashed his every system. See kids, this is what comes of spending too much time trying to emulate a robot. Don't do drugs. Stay in school. Emote.

“Dick, I know that worked out for you the last two times you tried that, but its not going to fly here. This child actually has an emotionally invested parent capable of providing for him, and I don’t believe the Batman is likely to relinquish his claim without a fight,” Zatanna says, her exasperation now redirected at her eldest.

Dick remains unphased; merely diverts his attention from Damian to the boy’s father, raking his eyes up and down Bruce as the older man reenacts the pose of Rodin's lesser known work: The Oh God, What Was I Thinking.

He sniffs. Once. Pointedly unimpressed. “I am willing to work out a shared custody agreement,” Dick says regally.

Bruce gradually twitches his way back into the realm of actual human activity and motion.

“What?” He shakes himself all over, a bit like a dog. Then he seems to reboot his higher cognitive functions as he draws up to his full height and towers over the younger man. “I’m not sure what you think you’re playing at here, but this is not why I called your mother and I do not need some boy barely out of his teens to tell me -"

Dick cuts him off, rolling his eyes even as Bruce, Steph, Cass and Alfred’s eyes all widen at the sheer novelty of that. Even Damian goes silent and still, no longer fighting Dick’s octopus like limbs as he’s too busy flicking his attention back and forth between Dick and Bruce like he’s a spectator at a tennis match, watching it unfold.

Jason and Tim just smirk knowingly. Zatanna regrets everything. 

“Yes, yes, we’re aware the Batman has a million contingency plans for any given scenario. We’re all very impressed. Your IQ is huge,” Dick says flatly. “Quick question though, how many of those contingency plans involve hugging?”

Bruce blinks. “What?”

“That’s what I thought,” Dick continues smugly. “Now, in your history as a crime fighter and a benefactor of numerous children’s charities, do you dispute that all children at certain times need to be hugged?”

“No?” Bruce answers uncertainly. He…has no precedence for this. What is happening right now.

“Mmm,” Dick hums, nodding. “And in your personal self-assessment and in light of all your established behavior to date, would you say with confidence that you are capable of always recognizing when a child is in need of a hug, as well as being able and willing to provide that child with said hug yourself?”

Bruce frowns. Everyone in the room takes that as a no. Seals in Antarctica look up and take that as a no, without any idea why they just did that or what it even is they just did. Also, what the hell is a no, they have no clue. They still somehow know the answer to that question was no.

“Exactly,” Dick says. “So, to sum up, we’ve established that your children need hugs, you need to be taught when and how to identify when your children need you to hug them, and until such a time as you’re capable of that, your children still need hugs. In conclusion, my services are direly needed and I am willing to teach you everything I know about providing adorable children with emotional support in exchange for the role of their designated Hug-Giver for the time being. Do you accept my offer?”

“I…” Still stuck on the unprecedented feeling of being at a total loss for words, Bruce is slow to answer. Not that it matters.

“Trick question!” Dick announces cheerfully. “There was no offer, its already been decided. I can start immediately. You're welcome.”

He shifts Damian to his hip with one arm and raises the other to offer the boy his hand for a shake. “Hi Damian, I’m Dick, I’m your official Hug-Giver for now. Nice to meet you!”

Damian shakes Dick’s hand, more out of confusion than anything else. Clearly, nothing in his training or experience offers him any obvious alternate response to Dick’s behavior. “Father, who is this man? What is happening? I don’t understand.”

“That makes two of us,” the goddamn Batman says helplessly. They can all see his face spasming, his muscles twitching as if periodically glitching while he tries to compute and come up with a course of action that adequately counters Dick’s….whatever the hell you describe Dick and his entire….essence, as.

Gods have tried and failed to accurately describe Dick and his whole….Dick-ness. The Batman never stood a chance.

Tim takes pity on him. He’s mostly preoccupied hacking the Manor’s wi-fi on his phone, trying to see if he can backdoor from there into the famed Batcave’s computers. No real reason, he’s just curious. But even barely paying attention, he can still tell the difference between Dick’s more generic ‘oooh a squirrel!’ ADHD reaction to all adorable children or animals in his general vicinity, and the genuine emotional attachment his brother has clearly already formed with the confused child assassin. It’s too late now. Whether he’s even realized it or not, Damian stopped trying to escape Dick’s hug practically from the word go, even if he is unconsciously using his confusion to blind himself to how he’s already started to sink into it. Not even Superman himself could pry the kid out of Dick’s arms at this point.

“You can try all you want to come up with ways to keep this from happening, but you’ll just be wasting your time and energy,” Tim advises, still intent on his phone. Two passwords down, nice. Only….ninety more to go? Jeez. Oh god, if he’s this redundant about his cyber security, he’s gonna try and be stubborn about this, isn’t he? Ugh, how inefficient.

“Look, no matter how many plans you come up with, it doesn’t matter what you throw at him or how convoluted or well-crafted it is. At a certain point Dick’s just going to say screw it and dig his heels in, and no offense, but I’ve seen him out-stubborn demons. He once got a Duke of Hell to release a claim on Jason’s soul by committing to “I know you are but what am I” until the ageless being composed of pettiness and spite got frustrated and gave up. My brother on a mission to dole out affection is an actual force of nature. Like hurricanes. Even Jason lets Dick hug him. And Jason hates everything.”

“Die screaming,” Jason says conversationally.

“See a therapist about your Cain complex,” Tim returns, equally pleasant.

“I thought I told you boys to be on your best behavior,” Zatanna says. Either exasperated again, or just still. Hard to say.

Jason cocks an eyebrow at her quizzically before looking around the room. “Umm, we are, aren’t we? I mean, we’ve been here for at least five minutes and nothing’s on fire or broken yet. You gotta admit that’s like, a record for us.”

Zatanna sputters helplessly for a moment before collapsing onto the couch with a sigh. “The bar is too low,” she mutters. "And don't think I didn't catch that bit about a Duke of Hell having a claim on Jason's soul at some point. We will be circling back to that later, at home."

"Dude," Jason hisses, glaring at his little brother. "Spoilers!"

"Sorry," Tim says distractedly, with a distinct lack of sincerity. "In my defense, we lie about a lot of stuff and I forget to keep track of it all."

"You have an eidetic memory."

"Okay, so I forget to care about keeping track of it all," Tim amends, shrugging.

"That's just because you never get in as much trouble as me and Dick. Helps to be the baby of the family," Jason grumbles.

Tim hums softly in agreement, tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth as he peers intently at his screen. "The perks are nice." 

Zatanna interjects as she eyes her two younger sons, a slight edge in voice. "Exactly how much stuff am I being lied to about? Ballpark figure."

Jason glares at Tim again. "You're a goddamn menace."

"I should probably be stopped," Tim agrees.

“Nonsense!” Damian’s aggrieved voice cuts over everyone else in the room. “I am an al Ghul, and heir to the Batman. If this tournament you speak of were truly a contest of champions, I would certainly have heard of it before now.”

Dick returns his glower with his usual beaming grin. “I swear by every being of both the higher and lower planes to ever lend me power or aid. Super Mario Kart is a test of manual dexterity, hand-eye coordination and reflex agility. Any true warrior should be more than capable of defeating all competitors at it.”

Damian stays trained on his face for a good minute, searching it for any hint of deception. Finally he turns and sweeps his imperious gaze around the room, jumping back and forth between his father to Jason and Tim, though the latter is still absorbed tracking to crack the thirty-sixth password to the Batcomputer. “Is this true?”

“Technically yes,” Jason says with the smirk to end all smirks. Sometimes his older brother is a total toolbag, but sometimes it really is like watching a master at work. How to Lie Without Telling a Single Lie by Dick Grayson-Zatara.

Damian harrumphs like the eighty seven year old that he is at heart, but with a secondary affirmation and no one speaking up to offer a counter-claim, his pride seems to allow him no alternative to accepting Dick’s challenge.

“Very well,” he says grudgingly. “I will engage you in this competition of supers and carts. But when I inevitably prove victorious, as consequence for your failure you and your babbling are to be banished from my father’s estate, never to return.”

“K!” Dick grins. “But if I win, you have to initiate three hugs a day for a solid week straight, at which point you may challenge me to a rematch and reclaim your honor.”

“Preposterous! One hug a day. No more.”

“One hug a day, but after two weeks I can challenge you to a rematch at my home instead.”

“I shudder to think what you might consider an acceptable abode. No, if I must vanquish you twice before you realize the folly of challenging an al Ghul, you shall return here only for the purposes of engaging in this ‘rematch’, and only after two months have passed, so that you may reflect on the futility of such.”

“One month, final offer.”

“Tt. Your terms are acceptable,” Damian decides at last. Dick’s already brilliant smile grows impossibly more blinding, as it is wont to do. The whole defiance of physics thing he does so well. Unprepared for it, the startled boy blinks, corners of his mouth twitching ever so slightly upwards before he regains his normal stern countenance. “Now lead me to these carts at once. I wish to see you defeated before supper, so I do not have to suffer your presence through my meal.”

“You got it, lil D!” Dick chirps happily, bouncing through the doorway and down the hall, where Cass and Steph exchange glances that condense an entire conversation to thirty seconds of back and forth facial expressions. They then race down the hall after the two. Damian’s outrage drifts back behind them.

“My name is Damian al Ghul-Wayne, you buffoon! It is a name of power and significance, heavy with meaning and intent. How dare you reduce it to a simple reference to physical stature!”

“Aww, I’m sorry bud! It was meant as an endearment not an insult. I give nicknames to all my friends and family. What if I called you Dami? Is that better?”

“….I suppose if my full name is too difficult for you to manage, Dami is at least marginally more tolerable. But only if it is understood that we are hardly friends!”

“Whatever you say, Dami!”

Their voices fade into the distance after that. Jason puts his hands in his pockets and strolls casually after them.

“That was amazing. My faith in humanity has like....risen reborn from the ashes. I might even believe in Santa Claus again? Not sure yet about that last part," he muses to no one in particular. "I’m so happy right now.” 

Tim shrugs and trails after him. If everyone else is going, well. No reason he can’t finish hacking the Batcomputer from wherever they end up.

Bruce watches them disappear down the hallway before staggering over to the couch and dropping down onto it next to Zatanna. He stares blankly at the wall.

“What.” He utters helplessly.

Zatanna pats his leg. “You get used to it. Eventually.”

And that’s how even when Dick’s adopted by Zatanna Zatara instead of Bruce Wayne, he, Jason, Tim, Damian, Cass, Steph and those to follow all still end up siblings in every way that matters.

Chapter Text

 

“I would be great at being a Kardashian,” Jason muses.

“Well you’re already 90% ass, so you’ve got that going for you,” Steph chirps brightly.

“Die, but for real this time,” Jason volleys back, equally pleasantly.

“I can’t believe the English major is suggesting I plagiarize him,” Steph says with eyes wide in mock bewilderment. Jason scoffs.

“What English major? In case you’ve forgotten, I never even finished high school, I was busy being de - “

He cuts off as Cass holds out her palm and Dick and Duke both slide ten dollar bills across the table to her, accompanied by groans. Tim jabs a finger at her with a scowl, half rising out of his seat in outrage.

“That doesn’t count, he didn’t even finish saying it!”

“Also, you’re cheating,” Damian adds on hotly, too incensed to notice he’s literally standing in solidarity with his most hated enemy. Though Tim catches it, if the slightly constipated look on his face is anything to go by. “Do you really think us so blind we can’t tell that Brown blatantly set that one up for you?”

“Don’t hate the players, hate the game,” Steph says sagely, as she and Cass split the take.

“What the hell just happened?” Jason asks. Duke gulps and flips up his hoodie turtle style as he slouches lower in his seat. No one else looks anywhere near the zip code of apologetic.

“Well we definitely don’t have a long-standing bet about how long you can go without bringing that up and where the clock restarts each time you do,” Dick says thoughtfully, eyes intent even as he stares off into the distance, like it’s an actual mystery and he’s really trying quite hard to scry out the answer.

“What?” Jason says flatly.

“In my defense, they were doing it long before I came along and they said it was like, a family tradition,” Duke offers.

“I mean, it’s not like we lied,” Tim shrugs. “Besides, it was Cass’ idea and she’s died twice, so it’s allowed.”

Jason redirects his ire on their sister. “Why are you the worst.”

She shrugs. “I died.”

“I used to think having a sister would be cool. I can’t believe you ruined sisters for me.”

“Bite me, little brother,” she says sweetly. His face flames. Detonation imminent.

“I’m older than you!”

“Not if you don’t count the six months you were dead,” she sing-songs. “Besides, Tim’s lying. It was his idea.”

Jason’s head swivels like a turret-mounted missile launcher. Tim chokes on his French fry.

“What the hell! That’s not tr - .” He trails off then, frowning slightly. “Wait, was it? Oh. Right.”

Jason’s eyes narrow, tension on the trigger, but Tim rallies and just shrugs unrepentantly.

“Eh. You’ve tried to kill me like three times. Suck it up.”

“Next time, I’ll be sure to try harder,” Jason growls. Tim smiles serenely and takes an extra obnoxious slurp of his milkshake.

“See? You’ve learned something new today. You’re welcome.”

“Why am I not live-tweeting this,” Steph wonders, yanking out her phone and sending digits swiftly flying across its keys. Dick leans over on her left to view her screen.

“Are you tweeting as Batgirl about her fellow vigilantes, or the random blond stranger always seen out with the Waynes but that no one can determine their connection to?”

“First off, I’m the exotic blond stranger, excuse you. Get it right. And second…I dunno. Either. Both. Does it really matter?”

“Well, it might if you actually do tweet the same content from both accounts and someone somehow manages to spot some kind of connection,” Tim says dryly. Steph scowls without looking up from her phone.

“Stop oppressing my shenanigans with your logic, Timbleton.”

“Timbleton?”

“It’s my new name for you. For it is both pretentious and douchey, as are you.”

Tim glowers. “Sometimes I honestly can’t remember why I went out with you.”

She shrugs. “You were a fifteen year old virgin and I have a killer rack. It wasn’t that deep.”

“Hey, you are still just the exotic blond stranger seen with us all the time, right?” Dick says suddenly, seemingly lost in thought. “Like, B didn’t adopt you since I last saw you or anything.”

“No, and you know you don’t actually have to ask me that every time you see me.”

He tilts his head to one side and hums as he thinks it over. “I mean I kinda do. You are always here, and it is Bruce. It’s not like he ever tells me when he adopts someone new so like, you could be my sister for four years before I even realized it if I didn’t ask.”

“Ooh. A sighting of Dick angst, spotted in the wild. Those are rare,” Jason snickers. Dick just eyes him.

“FYI, I still have footage of a certain Robin, age fourteen, singing Backstreet Boys. And I have Roy on speed dial. Tread lightly, Little Wing.”

“You said you deleted that!”

“I lied. I do that sometimes. I’m terribly problematic.” Dick beams, radiating beatific innocence. 

“Why have I not seen this footage?” Steph shrieks.

“Make me an offer,” Dick says as leans back smugly.

She wastes no time, fingers dancing across her keyboard again, and moments later Dick pulls out his own phone and reads her incoming text. One eyebrow arches significantly.

“That’s an offer, alright.” He frowns. “You came up with that quick. I’m either impressed or disturbed.”

Steph shrugs. “I get bored on stakeouts sometimes.”

“You can be dispressed,” Cass pipes up helpfully. Dick nods solemnly.

“An excellent suggestion, Cassandra, thank you. Just for that, I’ll send it to you too.”

“I will stab you,” Jason says dangerously.

“Just think, Jay, if you didn’t try and stab me all the time already, that might actually be incentive not to….oh whoops, finger slipped, just hit send, how terrible, much regret.”

“I feel like there’s supposed to be a life lesson in there somewhere,” Duke murmurs.

“Stay out of this, new kid on the block.”

“Does that make you Marky Mark or like, Donnie?” Tim wonders idly. He shakes his head at himself then, baffled. “Why do I know the names of the New Kids on the Block?”

Stephanie meanwhile is watching her phone with what can only be described as naked glee. It’s muted - she’s never one to share her spoils freely after all - but apparently that is more than good enough for now, as far as she’s concerned. Beside her, Cass intently stares at her own screen, shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

“I will kill you all someday, and when I do the courts will rule it justifiable homicide and I shall be vindicated.”

“Please, Todd. As if I don’t have contingencies in place to ensure you receive my vengeance even from beyond the grave, should I ever perish at your hands.”

Silence falls across the table as they all stare at Damian.

“See, now I’m dispressed,” Tim says. “Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to take a guided tour of your brain, but then I think why not wait til Halloween and sell tickets too.”

Damian glares at him, but to the surprise of everyone, Tim included, he reacts no further than that. A few seconds later though, Duke bolts upright in his chair across from him with a grunt of pain, directing his own baleful glare at the smaller boy. Damian just stares at him meaningfully and jerks his head in Tim’s direction. Duke rolls his eyes and sighs.

“Shut your facehole, Drake, you blithering dolt,” Duke says robotically. “Also, you are excessively diminutive for your age and nobody likes you. Allegedly.”

Once more silence reigns supreme.

“Oh shit, can he possess people now?” Jason asks.

Dick waves them all down, gesturing for quiet before he takes the lead, studying Duke with an intent focus. “I think I speak for all of us here, when I say: no, but seriously, what the actual fuck.”

Cass nods gravely. “What he said.”

Duke shrugs a half-hearted apology. “It’s nothing personal Tim. It’s just that Damian and I have an alliance, and part of the terms are I have to defend his honor, since - and I quote - ‘tt, the very notion I need assistance defending my actual person is laughable, Thomas, don’t be daft.’

“Wait, we’re doing alliances now?” Steph asks, because of course that would be the part that catches her attention. “I want an alliance. Cass, make an alliance with me.”

“Kay.”

“Whose idea was this alliance, anyway?” Jason asks. Duke just shrugs again, this time defensively.

“Hey don’t look at me, Dick’s the one who apparently thought it was a good idea to introduce Damian to Survivor reruns.”

All eyes turn to the eldest. In a particularly accusatory fashion.

Well, with the exception of Damian, as he has returned to his meal and is quite contentedly dining with a distinct air of smugness about him. (Even more so than usual.)

“What? I couldn’t get him to agree to watching anything else on TV, and then we came across some reruns and I thought it might appeal to him.”

“And you saw no potential drawbacks to him seeing appeal in the basic premise of voting people off the island?” Jason asks skeptically. Dick picks up a fry and studies it with clear deliberation and an equally clear attempt at avoidance. Subtlety, thy name is not Grayson.

“In hindsight, it’s possible mistakes were made.”

“I mean, at least now Dami’s attempts at casting undesirables out of the family are rooted in democracy instead of totalitarianism. That’s progress, right?” Steph asks. Heavy on the uncertainty.

“Right, and I have some beachfront property in Kansas to sell you,” Tim says sardonically.

“Nah, you keep it. I’ll just get it in the divorce when we get back together in ten years, marry, and I abscond with half of your fortune.”

“Wait, what?”

“Shh, just let it happen.”

“Hang on, back to this alliance,” Jason says, turning back to Duke. “So what are you getting out of it?”

“Oh, he has to do my calc homework for the rest of the semester,” Duke replies.

“Duke, you should have just told one of us you needed some help with your homework,” Dick says with an unmistakable note of concern in his voice. Duke shoots him a quizzical look.

“I don’t. I just don’t want to do it.”

“This is why Duke is the most valid,” Steph nods knowingly. Cass nods in agreement.

“Hey, did nobody else notice that in essence, Damian implicitly admitted he needed help protecting his feelings from getting boo-boos,” Tim pipes up oh so casually. The youngest among them narrows his eyes.

“In my spare time, I peruse the occult tomes recommended by Raven and the Zatara brat in search of a ritual that will make it so you never existed in the first place,” he says, matching his tone to Tim’s conversational one. Not deterred in the slightest, Tim just adopts an expression of over the top faux sympathy.

“Sucks you can’t just ask me for help. I already know where one of those is.”

“Dami, no!” Dick speaks up sharply. Their little brother slumps back in his seat and crosses his arms over his chest.

“I wasn’t actually going to do anything, Grayson,” he sulks. Dick snorts.

“You were absolutely about to jump on top of the table and kick Tim in the face. Don’t even try and pretend I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“I was an only child once,” Jason reflects with an air of distracted thoughtfulness. “I should have appreciated it more.”

“But then you couldn’t form an alliance with me, little brother,” Cass points out, equal parts sweetness and wickedness. He hesitates, visibly torn between wanting to protect his vaunted older brother status and agreeing to an alliance with the most feared of them all.

“You’re evil.”

She shrugs but doesn’t contest the point.

“I’ll form an alliance with you, Cass,” Tim says, smirking at Jason.

“No thanks.”

Tim’s mouth falls open and he looks between her and his now cackling older brother. “What the hell? You’ll form an alliance with Steph and Jason but not with me? Why not?”

“I’m chaotic neutral,” their sister explains sunnily, as she steals some more of Dick’s fries.

Chapter Text

In a universe where Jason never goes to Ethiopia that fateful week, and ultimately partners with Dick as Nightwing and himself as Flamebird in adulthood. Jason’s costume is the black and red version of Dick’s usual black and blue Nightwing costume, but with Jason’s own personal touches like his brown jacket, etc.

And they’re all-purpose vigilantes like the rest of the Batfamily, but they have their own additional focus specific to them: protecting abused children. Dick’s focus is more geared towards juvie and state sanctioned child housing, while Jason’s is more towards domestic abuse, but both have the same reputation: children in Gotham and Bludhaven know that Nightwing and Flamebird have eyes and ears everywhere, and that if it’s not safe to go to the adults in their life to report their abuse, just leave a signal for the brothers - their version of the Batsignal, specifically spread through Gotham schools via whispered rumors specifically for this.

Just draw in chalk or spray paint on the wall of your building the brothers’ symbol of a V shaped raptor (like on the front of their costumes) and once word of it reaches them via their network of kids keeping an eye out for those marks or Oracle sees it via one of her plentiful cameras, the brothers will come and figure out a way to help you.

It doesn’t have to be big or garish or eye catching, and soon the buildings of both cities, from low rent tenement buildings to wealthy mansions and juvie centers and even schools are dotted with small red and blue V shapes that most adults just dismiss as graffiti homages to the vigilantes known to have a soft spot for kids in particular.

Never recognizing them for the cries for help they are, because if there’s one thing the children of Gotham and Bludhaven guard zealously, it’s the secret of the red and blue birds in flight. It’s not a thing for adults, it’s just for them, and they never know when they might be the one who needs Nightwing and Flamebird to come and believe them.

Because that’s the power of their symbol - no matter who you are, who your parents are, if you send it they will come.

And they will believe you.

And Dick and Jason had their hopes for this, when they first conceived this idea and put it in motion. It was slow to catch on at first - hesitant - but they kept pushing it, kept making examples of the abusers they caught in ways sure to catch the attention of those who needed to see the message they were sending: the kids who had heard the rumor of what happens if you put up the brothers’ symbol, but weren’t sure if it was real, were afraid to hope.

And then, like snow rolling down a mountainside, it picks up steam. Becomes a movement in plurality rather than a singular motion. An avalanche. Birds rising up on the sides of many-storied buildings, reaching for the sky, desperate for freedom. It isn’t long before Dick and Jason are swamped, too many signals appearing and only two of them.

Doesn’t matter though. They made this their crusade for a reason. It needed doing. And they’ll keep doing it as long as it needs to be done.

But then a curious thing starts to happen.

An older boy happens to notice this scrawny kid in his building painstakingly drawing the symbol in chalk in the alley hardly anyone ever walks down unless they’re desperate. Casually watches which apartment the kid goes back inside to, recognizes it as one he hears a lot of yelling coming out of at all hours of the day - he heard some gossip in the lobby once, older neighbors clucking their tongues about the guy in that apartment getting laid off a couple months ago. The next time he sees the kid hanging out on the front steps of the building, almost like he’s trying to delay going inside as long as possible, he stops his buddies and invites the kid to come join their basketball game, as long as he doesn’t need to be anywhere any time soon. They tend to play all day.

A middle school teacher offers to give one of his students a little extra help after school, some one on one time to help her really get the hang of those equations she’s having a hard time with. She hesitates, thinks about the red bird someone spray-painted below one of the classroom’s windows last month. Thanks him politely, but says she’s going to ask her dad for help with it at home.

A blue bird is scrawled into the floor of the boys’ locker room at a Gotham high school when the wrestling team comes in to get changed for practice one day. They all look thrown by it, glancing around at each other and clearly wondering if it was any one of them who put it there, or someone from another team, maybe a football player. They know what it means though, and the atmosphere in that locker room is a little quieter, the rest of the week, a little more subdued. Less jokes of a certain nature, some of them visibly hesitating before making a joke that seems less funny now that they’re not sure if one of their buddies might perceive it entirely differently. Some of them start to ask each other one on one, whispered in private, in confidence, like….hey, you know like, if something like that ever did happen, you could totally tell me right? You know I’d have your back, right?

Some kids happen to notice one of the houses on their bus route has what looks like a bird scratched into a windowsill. They start to pay a little closer attention to the kid who comes out of that house each day, to join them on the bus. Notice some bruises they never thought twice about before, they’ve seen him getting his ass kicked on the playground and figured that was where they were from. And in time one, two, three even four different students have pulled aside a teacher to say they’re kinda worried about a particular classmate, even if they don’t mention why. She starts to pay closer attention as well.

Because see, the real power of heroes has always been in their symbols. In the examples they set. And the children of Gotham and Bludhaven have always had voices - they just needed to know there was someone out there willing to listen, before speaking up….where more than just the two Birds themselves might be around to hear.

And after all, kids saving kids. Kids saving each other. Kids saving themselves.

That’s always been the power of Robins.

Chapter Text

As much as the Batclan is hyped for being all mysterious and secretive and unknowable outside of Gotham, born and bred Gothamites have no illusions about the Robins and Batgirls and assorted others actually being one big chaotic family.

Its hard to draw any other conclusion when you’re an enforcer for Falcone’s mob and cowering on a rooftop (because that’s where all the really good crime happens in Gotham), and you're already down for the count - but that’s never a guarantee that more isn’t coming when its the Red Hood that just kicked your ass and like…you’ve done some Bad Shit - when all of a sudden, a purple caped and masked blonde girl vaults out of the shadows, shrieking “Glitter Bomb!” as she hurls a small sphere directly at the Red Hood’s helmet. Where it promptly bursts and showers the vigilante with well…glitter. 

The fearsome Red Hood, rather than being speechless like yourself, wastes no time before shouting after the fleeing vigilante: “What the fuck, Spoiler? I’m out of bounds, this is a designated safe zone!”

But she merely hollers back over her shoulder, “Whatcha gonna do, Hood, die mad about it?”

She then leaps dramatically off the roof, arms outstretched, toes pointed, suspended in a pitch-perfect swan dive for the brief moment before gravity takes hold…..allowing Red Robin to swoop out of nowhere on a grapple line, gracefully poised in a theatrical ballet-esque configuration as he scoops the airborne Spoiler up with one arm and somehow still manages to flip Red Hood the finger before the grapple line’s arc takes them both out of sight.

“Goddammit,” the voice synthesizer in the Red Hood’s helmet intones mournfully. “I actually have to give them points for that one.”

You scooch cautiously to the left, hoping he’s sufficiently distracted by….whatever the hell that was, look, its Gotham, you’ve seen weirder…but the Hood’s red helmet swivels in your direction. Turns out its no less intimidating for being all covered in glitter. “Did I say we were done?”

The fact that they’re all part of the same Batshit family is also pretty apparent, say, when you’re a hitman whose attempted sniping of some public official at some swanky late night gala is interrupted by Nightwing.

He’s not even supposed to live here anymore, what the fuck, your intel on this op is so fucked and you’re definitely going to kill your advance man for their shoddy recon work….and that’s when a demonic glow emerges from the depths of the alley you’ve ducked into.

It’s Nightwing, again, even though you could’ve sworn you lost him a full three minutes ago. But something’s definitely happened to him between then and now. Where blue lines usually cut a lighter path across the dark black of his costume, but otherwise blend with the rest of the material, now they stand out boldly in the darkness, lit with their own flickering luminescence.

Also, they’re now hot pink.

“Are you usually glow in the dark, or did you already hit me and I’m just concussed right now?” You blurt out. Which admittedly is not very professional of you, but whatever, this whole job has already gone completely FUBAR, and its not like you’re the one who looks like a glowing pink skeleton right now.

The vigilante scowls in a way that’s considerably more terrifying than you ever thought someone could look.

Y’know, while wearing the equivalent of an outfit made out of glowsticks left over from Burning Man.

“You’d think that three little brothers would be enough, but noooo. Apparently not. Someone, in their infinite wisdom, decided actually what I really need, is four.”

He says. As though that explains anything, let alone everything.

You blink. “Huh?”

Then a cackle resounds from somewhere above you, echoes of wheezing laughter bouncing down the brick walls of the alley to reach your ears. You crane your head back, looking up to see the bright yellow costume of the Signal perched atop a gargoyle two buildings over and three stories up. The younger vigilante strikes a heroic pose and thrusts his fist into the sky just as said sky opens up and the formerly cloudless night erupts in a ferocious downpour, allowing a timely stroke of lightning to flash and silhouette the posing hero dramatically.

Look, its Gotham. It just does that sometimes.

“Have no fear, Neonwing is here!” The Signal shouts from up above them, before collapsing into another fit of hysterical cackles. You vaguely remember that the new kid on the block is supposed to be a meta of some kind, have some kind of light powers, and you absent-mindedly connect the dots to Nightwing’s mid-chase…wardrobe change, just as the kid backflips out of sight.

The vigilante standing right next to you - pretty much within striking distance, you suddenly realize, as you opportunistically gauge how distracted he is by this….whatever…that definitely has nothing to do with you other than potentially being your get out of jail free card here - well, Luck Be A Lady Tonight, he’s still busy glowering up at the spot the Signal could last be seen at.

“Yeah, laugh it up now, buddy, but wait until I tell Robin who really forgot to feed his cat when he was off with the Titans last weekend!”

There’s a moment filled only with the sound of raindrops on pavement then. Nightwing still preoccupied. You still veeeeeeery slowly reaching for the spare gun you keep tucked in a special holster nestled in the small of your back.

Then Signal’s voice drifts down once more, faintly this time.

“I maybe did not think this all the way through.”

You strike then, while Nightwing looks about to respond again. Or at least, that’s the plan. In actuality, you yank the gun out of its holster and aim it in front of you, but that's as far as you get before an escrima stick lances through the air and impacts your forehead with enough force to knock you flat on your ass.

There’s the sound of footsteps mixed in with the rain now, before Nightwing’s glow in the dark, hot pink skeletal figure appears in your new skyward aimed field of view.

The vigilante puts his hands on his hips and scowls. “Hey, did you not see me trying to have a conversation with my brother here? Rude.”

You groan. Now you have a concussion.

Chapter Text

 

We enter unobtrusively through the dining room’s lone doorway. Our awkward approach is that of the mockumentary style; our hushed atmosphere is that of taking ourselves very seriously, because if we don’t, who will? 

Said dining room’s doorway is perfectly situated so as to allow only one point of entrance and exit. Also: maximum drama while doing so. The architecture of Wayne Manor was designed with a clear set of priorities in mind. We invite you to picture the airs of Downtown Abbey, but  as if skewing less towards the egalitarian passive aggressive stylings associated with British High Drama, and more towards the rather more direct passive aggressive stylings of American High Drama. 

As an example…where a British soap opera might depict someone dramatically gasping “Why, I never!” and clutching symbolically at their heart in order to convey they’re mere insults away from having a myocardial infarction, an American soap opera might instead depict someone dramatically yelling “Bleep you!” and then vaulting across the table to punch someone in the face in order to convey they’re really quite angry and the only way to fully express that is by starting a feud that will last 72 episodes and only end when one of them is murdered and replaced by their evil twin.

We hold no position as to whether the one is possibly termed 'better' than the other. Seriously. Stop looking at us like that. 

Attention deficit detouring aside, we unobtrusively enter through the doorway whose very singular purpose in the narrative is as a conveyance that this is the House That Drama Built. 

It should be added as an afterthought that only just occurred to us but is no less important because of its poor punctuality: the House That Drama Built also exists as a kind of metaphysical Drama vampire that cultivates an atmosphere of Drama whilst simultaneously feasting on the Drama it creates just to harvest as its crop of choice.

Quite nasty and shiver-inducing, to be sure, but let it serve as a good rule of thumb: Don’t trust centuries old rich people houses. There’s always something messed up about those places. Seriously. You know its true.

Proceeding onward, and despite having explicitly mapped out why its impossible to do so, we nevertheless manage to sidle into prime vantage points without being noticed. Look, we can do stuff like that because we’re magic, okay? Also fictional, and really just a tonal framing device introduced as a thin coat of varnish overlaying everything with the glistening sheen of crack fiction. Now shush and pretend we’re not here, which should be easy because we’re not.

The two family patriarchs, Erik Lehnsherr and Bruce Wayne, each sit at opposing heads of the excessively long dining room table that is almost certainly an indication one of Bruce’s direct ancestors felt a clear and urgent need to overcompensate for something.

Locked in an epic battle of wills that looks remarkably similar to the staring contest perfected by kindergartners everywhere, though that’s undoubtedly just a coincidence,the two titans of temperament face off in a face-off for the ages. 

Both steel-faced and with backs so straight the sight would make any right angle weak in the knees, these bastions of brooding are equally infamous for their rigidity and refusal to bend, even when they probably should - because sometimes its a battle over the fate of the world and a fight for the very heart and soul of humanity, yes, absolutely true, but other times their children just asked if they could have pizza tonight instead of meatloaf and it really didn’t need to escalate that quickly, but oh well.

Heedless of the judgment of fictional narrators as well as every person to ever suggest to them that their sphincters might actually benefit from the occasional attempt to unclench, the Master of Magnetism is an irresistible force while channeling the unleashed totality of his willpower through his steady gaze, as fixed and unwavering as the North Star itself. At the same time, his counterpart is an equally immovable object while planted firm and steady in his convictions, the imposing edifice of his impassive expression not likely to be eroded by the mere disdain of another mortal. Not when the Man of Bats has stubbornly stared down gods. 

Admittedly, the last one used the opportunity to blast him through time and space instead, but that’s the kind of risk one takes when matching an ageless deity ego for ego. It should not be viewed as an indication as to whom among these two mighty mortals might appear the victor when engaged in similar combat. Especially as neither is in possession of magic eye beams which technically should count as cheating, if you really think about it.

They match each other fractional eye squint for fractional eye squint. Both lost in the intensity of each other’s gaze in a way that regardless of tropes is less enemies to lovers and more enemies to psych, we’re still enemies and if our kids do tie the knot, I’m totally going to insist on hosting the wedding at my big-ass mansion and you can call that a power move if you want because it totally is, what about it?

In response to the challenge that’s conveyed with crystal clarity thanks to the power of crack, Erik’s own gaze narrows fractionally further as he reaches down with his mutant abilities until they chance upon a vein of iron miles deep. He then proceeds to push and pull on it in such a way as to make the earth shift beneath their feet.

He is not subtle about being the cause. That sort of thing isn’t really in his wheelhouse.

However, in the name of defending Erik from his children’s exasperated glares, it should be pointed out here that Bruce did in fact ask, what about it, and Erik did in his own fashion simply indicate what about it indeed.

Well. Sorta.

The initial clash of wills meeting wills subsides and assures both men that their opponent will be no easy pushover. With that, the concrete aspiring contenders retreat once more to their far sides. They proceed to keep eyes locked and faces solemn and still, neither taking their gaze off the other even while eating or responding to some conversation piece directed at them by another denizen of the dining room.

“This is quite the meal, Mr. Pennyworth. You are to be commended,” Erik says sincerely. His face is still as smooth as Lake Placid, with nary a Syfy Original killer crocodile lurking dangerously beneath the surface.

“Yes, truly some of your best work, Alfred, thank you,” Bruce adds completely deadpan, not to be outdone.

Eternally placing his professionalism above all else, Alfred waits until he’s out of the room and halfway to the kitchen before venting an exasperated exhalation of his own.

Of course, Wayne Manor does have excellent acoustics.

Elsewhere along the table’s lengths, Pietro and Damian also keep their stares deadlocked from across each other, never deviating throughout the entirety of their meal. Their detente, however, is more accurately termed an ‘arrogance-off,’ with each refusing to give way before a lesser opponent. If Pietro is remotely bothered that he’s deeply invested in establishing his superiority over a twelve year old, it doesn’t show.

Look, if he starts making allowances for age, where would it end? With him letting toddlers walk all over him simply because they managed not to blink first? Don’t be absurd.

On the other side of Pietro, Jason is gleefully lobbing conversational grenades down the length of the table. Seizing advantage of even the slightest lull, he packs every sparse moment of silence full of yet another philosophical hot take he’s strategically brainstormed to cause maximum conscience carnage. 

Each carelessly uttered but carefully aimed moral dilemma-turned-mortar fire is tactically engineered towards setting each and every highly opinionated diner to warring over the higher ground. There are always holdouts of course, those who instead hunker deeper down in their trenches in an attempt to wait out the bombardment without engaging. Persistence has never been something Jay lacks, however, so even the few duds that fail to properly detonate only end up followed by a rapid-fire encore the first chance he has to reload.

Meanwhile, Lorna downs a glass of wine like its a shot of tequila and she’s a veteran of the collegiate drinking experience. Then again, she actually is, even if most tend to forget that. It doesn’t quite lend the same weight to her resume as actual freaking superhero, you’re welcome for the planet’s continued state of existence does, so she doesn’t tend to lead with it. 

But that doesn’t mean that even this dubiously termed ‘skill’ lacks a time to shine. One does what one has to in order to make it through family gatherings when the family in question is hers, the mistress of magnetism maintains. Be sure to note both lower case m’s in the script of her full title, because sharing a powerset with her father doesn’t mean she actually has to indulge in silly shows of power with the sole purpose of establishing one’s right to self-brand with fully capitalized letters. 

She finds such things exhaustively tedious, as dull as they are droll, and as much as she loves her father, she could really stand to see him embarrass himself less in public, with his ridiculous insistence on those farces.

In his defense, the enemies that flee in terror upon such displays, wetting themselves all the while…well, clearly they’re suitably impressed. But that doesn’t mean Lorna can’t still be embarrassed for him. Honestly, would it really kill him to act his actual age of….

Oh hell. She’s not nearly drunk enough yet to try and make sense of her father’s age. 

Full disclosure, and also full awareness that her brother will never fail to bring up her own recorded instances of ridiculous grandstanding whenever its remotely relevant, and most other opportunities as well - yes, those happened, yes, she agrees they were ridiculous and necessary, but she also requests it be on the record that in all such instances she was either very young, very possessed, or very both.

Probably.

Look, the possessed thing happens often enough its not like even she can keep track of it. If she wants to squeeze a few perks out of that particular trend towards things that are obnoxious and unnecessary for five hundred, Alex, she’s damn well entitled.

And why, in the name of all the gods she hasn’t been teammates with and seen drunkenly stumbling around in their underwear at some point, is she picturing her ex Alex’s face when whimsically thinking of the Jeopardy host? Better question, why is she still not drunk enough to not give a shit if she does?

Ugh, if this leads to her having to admit Betsy was right and she’s begun indulging in her family’s tendency towards being excessive about anything and everything that keeps their minds off boringly pedestrian events like a break-up, well. That would really suck. 

Mostly because Betsy is unbearable when she’s right about anything.

Driven to extreme measures by the fact that her thoughts are being rude and contentious and mean to her, Lorna trades introspection for the potential hazards of engaging directly with her dinner companions. Risky as that may be. They could be more unbearable than Betsy, for all she knows. And bad things tend to happen when she gives strangers the benefit of the doubt. She usually ends up disappointed, or bored.

Also, possessed.

Girding herself with jaded detachment, Lorna resigns herself to the mortifying ordeal of having to know other people - people who when taking into account her sister’s track record with such matters, could easily turn out to be serial killers or even worse, annoying robots. 

Shuddering at the memory of the Pencil Sharpener That Walks Like A Man, she surveys the chaos she’d mistaken for white noise when still busy being her own entertainment. Its slightly livelier than she’d assumed it would be.

Lorna’s never lacked her father’s eye for tactical analysis and strategic scheming, to be clear. Its more that she’s absent his desire to see her molded into any kind of mini-me that could potentially carry on where he leaves off when he dies, as if no interruption has taken place.

But never mind her issues with her father, that she steadfastly refuses to refer to as Daddy issues. Coolly assessing the commotion around her, she decides the only role worth adopting here is that of the official fanner of flames. The only side worth taking is of course the only side ever worth taking: hers, obviously.

She wades in without any warning beyond a green-lipped smile that toes the line between bearing just enough menace to act as a threat, but never so much as to warn people to take sufficient precautions when facing her.

It’s been said that the difference between her and her father is that Magneto causes natural disasters.

Lorna is one.

Wasting no time before establishing herself as an enemy to all and a friend to none, as if she needs any, she sets up shop as a random sequencer with no allegiance or agenda other than making everyone regret insisting on her attendance. 

She deftly diverts Jason’s verbal volleys off their intended course with dry, sardonic wit and she wields sly insinuations like a racket with which she redirects grenades of great ethical weight at whomever strikes her fancy. She is whimsy: watch her do whatever the hell she wants. Object, and catch hellfire.

Rather than take offense at her interference, Jason tips his head to her in appreciation of her craft. Like calls to like, after all. Lorna decides in a burst of decisiveness that she likes this one, at least. 

She tilts her glass to him with a smirk and refills, topping off Kate Kane’s glass as well when the older woman holds hers out with a look that leapfrogs right over seduction and practically all the way to the morning after. She decides then and there that she likes this one as well. Two for two, look at that. And people say she’s anti-social. Distinctly recalling she’d taken a second look at Kate’s legs before sitting down, and adding in those eyelashes….

Well. Lorna’s never seriously considered taking another woman up on one of these looks before, but it wouldn’t wholly be accurate to claim she’s never thought of sending one to say…Ororo or Betsy a time or two herself. 

Or even a little accurate, actually, but that is neither here nor there.

Lorna thinks, though, that if she were to take up this particular woman up on this particular offer on this particular night - there might at some point be explosions. 

This is not a dealbreaker.

Look, she didn’t get her degree in geology because she held any particular interest in literally dull as dirt sandstone. Pyroclastic igneous rock formations, on the other hand…now that’s a different matter entirely. Fire pretty. Batwoman pretty. 

Okay, she might be a little tipsy at this point. She looks at her wine glass accusingly; she shouldn’t have to find these things out on her own. It neither confirms nor denies. 

Bitch.

Still further down the table, Dick’s usual charming composure has been knocked out and left tied up in a coat closet somewhere. With the anthropomorphic embodiment of the emotion Frazzled then stepping in to take his place, and not at all very obviously acting out of sorts, if the amused but completely unhelpful smirks of his siblings are anything to go by. 

The Dick-shaped entity seated in his place makes occasional token attempts to direct the flow of conversation like the maestro he’s usually known to be in such settings. In this particular setting and time, however, he mostly just manages to exist as a sentient display of the condition or state of being I Have Regrets

His attention flits from one person to the next as he periodically tries to distract everybody from plotting the murders of everyone else at the table. Or covering up the murder of someone else, as committed by one of their family members. Or from plotting to frame someone else at the table for murder. Or from broadcasting that they’d absolutely get to the bottom of any frame job and prove their relative’s innocence and see the real culprit behind bars. 

Also, he may or may not have to every so often stop and distract himself from plotting murders of his own.

Dick lands briefly on Jason every now and again with an “I know what you’re doing and would greatly appreciate it if you’d stop” glare. 

Its met each time by his little brother’s “I have no idea what you’re talking about, this is just how I partake in family gatherings, isn’t that what you want or should I just go home” mask of blatantly transparent faux-innocence. 

Jay’s expressions are practically close captioned, that’s how far he is from even attempting to bother with the whole thing.

Dick returns fire with a narrowing of the eyebrows that screams: “I’ll get you for this, and your little dog too.” 

Jason’s lip only upticks at one corner, his otherwise studied indifference sending back his crystal clear response: “Bitch, I died. What’re you gonna to do, threaten to go a week without trying to ambush me with hugs?” 

Dick’s jaw shifts like a tectonic plate movement, teeth grinding as he holds the glare. “You’re the worst.” 

Jason beams and tilts his head, eyes drifting upwards in silent contemplation, as if to say, “Well, we all aspire to great heights in our own unique ways.” 

“Allow me to congratulate you on your successful achievements then.” Dick’s now puckered expression fires barbs from a blowgun.

“If you really cared, you’d show me with a trophy. What’s a guy gotta do to get his brother to try and buy his love and affection,” said little brother lofts at him by way of an obnoxiously exaggerated batting of his eyelashes.

Next to Dick, Wanda has her elbow on the table, propping up her head in one hand as she lazily pokes at her food with her fork. She’s not even trying to hide how much she regrets every decision that led to this. She likes Dick, quite a lot, but clearly, neither of their families are fit for conjoined festivities. Lesson learned. 

Duke is shoving dinner roll after dinner roll into his mouth, as if afraid to risk missing out on anything by attempting more focus-intensive food handling than that. His eyes are feverishly bright as they dart from one length of the table to the other and back again. This is the best day ever. 

Tim and Cass are seated side by side and occasionally dip their heads together in hushed conversation. At other times they flick their fingers at each other in sign language just below the surface of the table. 

Periodically, Tim will then wade into one conversation or another, never staying focused for long on any one single conversation partner before moving on. 

If one were to view this whole….event…as an exercise in conversational warfare, one might be tempted to view Tim’s patterns of discussion as somewhat akin to guerilla warfare. Brief engagements not aimed at achieving any kind of victory so much as feeling out the oppositions’ defenses and tactics before withdrawing to form more firmed out plans based off the gathered intel. 

Dick closes his eyes and sighs as he sees Tim and Cass dip their heads together again. Right after Cass’ eagle-eyed gaze spent a few moments lingering on the wake of Tim’s latest ‘tactical retreat,’ which was plenty of time for their sister to soak in a fair amount of everyone’s reactions and responses.

Dick coughs into his hand. When Tim looks his way and meets Dick’s stern gaze with an inquiring eyebrow, Dick reaches a hand to the side of his head as if to smooth back a lock of hair. Instead he then signs with grimly dancing fingers, “Please tell me you and Cass aren’t using a holiday dinner together as a chance to develop contingency plans for taking down members of my girlfriend’s family.”

Tim cocks his head slightly and frowns. The only indication that his fingers are once again busy at work beneath the table is the slight ripple of movement along his upper arms. A few moments later, Dick’s phone vibrates with a notification. He slides it into his lap and reads Tim’s text.

“I’m sorry, I have no idea what you just said. I don’t speak ASL.”

Dick tilts his own head and fires an unimpressed look across the table. “Seriously?”

Cassandra pokes Tim in the side, sending him an inquiring look of her own. No doubt curious what he’d texted Dick to elicit such a response. Tim grins and answers her in swift, practiced gestures the little twerp makes no attempt to hide this time. Blatant ASL, just one of the several different sign languages they were all fluent in. Cass raises a hand to her face and hides her giggle behind the back of it, just as Tim finishes. Dick darts his sour face at her, texting her phone in turn.

“Et tu, Cass?”

She glances down at her own phone and then just shrugs at him, utterly unrepentant. Dick pinches the bridge of his nose. Okay then.

Pietro’s daughter Luna had long since retreated to one of the Wayne family dens to watch movies, citing a headache. No one doubted that the precocious young empath was just entirely uninterested in being in the vicinity of all their entangled and extremely loud emotions. 

Her father had briefly attempted to impress upon her the importance of being present with the rest of them for at least some of the dinner. His daughter had simply met his token effort at imparting politeness protocols with a pointed look first at him and then at Damian, who was at most two years older than her. 

Pietro had grimaced. In an ideal world, caving to her demands would not be easier than him just conducting himself like a mature adult for the duration of a single dinner gathering. But then, none of them came from an ideal world, and he suffered no illusions about being an ideal parent. And more importantly, in the grand scheme of things it was hardly like this was one of the really important battles, the ones that needed to be picked carefully. 

That was his excuse and he was sticking to it. And thus Luna had been excused to entertain herself with the Waynes’ vast video library.

Wanda’s twin sons thus far seem content to keep themselves busy with their own back-and-forth in the private ‘twin language’ they’d crafted over the years - more due to cheating than the existence of some preternatural twin understanding of each other. Neither boy pretends to have a clue how the other’s mind works. 

Essentially, Tommy just talks to his brother at full superspeed, while Billy has a spell in place that allows him to keep up and understand his twin no matter what speed his ramblings take. No one seems entirely sure what mechanism they have for Billy to speak back to Tommy in a way no one else ever picks up on, or even if such a mechanism exists at all. It’s entirely possible that due to the nature of their dynamic, they’d never found creating one to be at all necessary. 

That isn’t to suggest that Billy is a follower in temperament or by nature. Its more just that when dealing with Tommy, one either follows (or tries to play catch up slash does damage control) or else one waits until Tommy races off to do what he wants, for however long it takes for him to eventually figure out that nobody has followed or is even going to. Then finally racing back and submitting to following someone else’s lead, sulking all the while about how nobody ever listens to him about anything. 

Basically, letting Tommy take the lead in the more low-stakes engagements is just being efficient, in Billy’s opinion. The alternative takes way too long and his twin is a pain to deal with when in a heightened state of Sulk.

However, as to just how low-stakes or not this dinner actually is, well, that seems to be a matter of some debate between the twins, and not something Billy himself has even settled his opinion on. 

Frequent high-pitched squeaks occasionally sound out from their corner of the table, most too quick to even register for anyone other than their uncle Pietro, who currently is still preoccupied with his extended staring contest against his diminutive rival in all things pertaining to ego and attempted sovereignty

If anyone else were even to register their existence or frequency, the combination of squeaks and Tommy’s repeated glares at his brother might lead to the conclusion that Billy is repeatedly poking or jabbing his twin in order to rein Tommy in from leaping into some fray or another and escalating the already existing tension to biblical proportions. As is his wont. 

And Billy, at least, is enjoying his meal.

Well, he’s trying to, anyway.

But the closer he gets to completely clearing his plate, the more frequent Billy’s longing glances in the direction Luna had vanished become. Clearly, the teen is debating the merits of faking some ailment of his own and following his cousin’s example all the way to blessed, blessed relief from the chore of being the only one capable of saying “Tommy no” and actually producing an end result that isn’t just an accelerated timetable.

It’s not hard to tell when Billy’s inner war of his self-preserving tendencies vs his self-sacrificing tendencies is ultimately decided with a final score of Sanity: 1, Pointless and Unappreciated Gestures of Nobility: 0.

The seventeen year old sighs loudly and slumps back against his chair, his entire demeanor broadcasting an aura of “I give up” on so many clear wavelengths, it interrupts every skirmish currently in progress and results in every adult at the table sending concerned looks towards the twins’ corner of it. 

Billy’s crossed arms and the empty space his gaze is determinedly fixed on combine to clearly convey he has nothing to do with whatever has happened or is about to happen. 

Leading to every scrap of attention thus trekking further down the table to his twin, where Tommy is beaming with the brightness of a thousand supergiant stars about to go supernova and make a mess that will span galaxies and last for ten thousand years. 

His Aunt Lorna’s own penchant for pretty explosions and fireworks has nothing on his, other than seniority.

Tommy’s own family knows that gleam in his eyes well enough to be aware their own immediate reactions should be duck and cover. Unfortunately, the Waynes’ dining room affords few actual defensive positions, all of which are already occupied by members of the Family Batshit. Resigning themselves to the inevitable, the Family Maximumoff Damage brace for impact.

Not being familiar with the gleam in Tommy’s eyes themselves, but more than observant (and paranoid) enough to recognize the braced positions of the other family and adapt accordingly, the members of the Family Batshit are all quick to follow suit.

Wanda meanwhile takes the scant seconds before collision to close her eyes and try to recall why she ever wanted children so desperately she literally wished them into existence.

She’s got nothing. 

Dick uses the same time to gulp and take a deep breath, frantically trying to fortify himself with everything he knows of Wanda’s more….mayhem-inclined child. Hopefully he can use that intel to prepare contingencies for whatever fallout may follow in the next few seconds.

Ever the optimist, that one.

Into a silence stretching longer than a speedster in the spotlight has ever before allowed silence to linger - with Tommy clearly savoring the focused attention and abundant awareness of his Impact™ and reputation - the silver-haired teen grins with teeth bright enough to ignite the ensuing firestorm all on their own. The fateful words he finally utters almost seem overkill. At least until he finishes saying them and everything else ceases to matter, because boom.

Ignition.

“Hey Dick, if you end up marrying our mom, does that mean we can call you Dad?”

The silence that follows that particular detonation is akin to the death-knell of the dinosaurs, in the moments immediately after a giant asteroid wiped out 80% of life on the planet.

Then: anarchy.

“How dare you!” Damian launches himself out of his seat with what would normally be described as a hiss, were it not uttered at a decibel closer to being an actual sonic boom.

Jason looks like he can’t decide if he wants to fall to the ground laughing or fall to the ground tucking and rolling. To avoid having to make a decision, he grabs his until now untouched wine and guzzles it like a man who just found the only oasis in a hundred mile wide desert.

Lorna uncorks another bottle of wine and raises the whole thing like she’s toasting existence itself, on her way out the mortal coil’s exit-marked door. Kate thrusts her glass in front of Lorna for another refill. 

“I know many lesbians can and do have kids in any number of ways, but do you think its okay if I cite this as proof we’re the highest evolved life form and if I was meant to have kids of my own, God wouldn’t have given me such an obvious hint as to the opposite?” 

Kate absently muses to Lorna under her breath and out of the corner of her mouth, both of them still fixed on viewing the various diners turned statue-still by the Medusa like turn of the table’s conversations. 

“It feels like that’s one of those things people tell me I should keep in my head and just gets me in trouble when I decide to share it instead, but honestly, I can never tell.”

“You’re asking the wrong person,” Lorna whispers back. “I get possessed by this one psychic ghost enough that one of the few perks is I don’t have to worry about ticking people off anymore. Nowadays if I piss someone off, all I have to do is wait a couple of days and then say I was possessed again at the time. Then I just ask why the hell did nobody notice and dramatically make a lot of noise about that until everybody forgets what the hell they were even ticked at me for in the first place.”

“Ugh. Lucky bitch.” 

Lorna shrugs with the faintest of smirks. “It’s all about just working with what you’ve got.”

Elsewhere at the table, Duke is frozen with his mouth still stuffed so full his cheeks are puffed out like a cartoon chipmunk’s. The only movements coming from his direction at all are the twin orbs that are his eyes, currently imitating tennis balls being rocketed back and forth across the court by pro players who never miss a swing.

Tim and Cass are clutching each others’ forearms, the closest either has come to displaying a panic reaction in literal years. In Cassandra’s case, more like in her entire lifetime.

But the title of ultimate attention draw is for the moment a dubious honor bestowed upon the Wayne patriarch himself. 

Bruce leaps from his seat like an Olympic sprinter off the starting block, managing to catch up to his youngest before Damian plus Damian’s butter knife make it more than a foot towards Tommy. He snatches the twelve year old up by his waist, smoothly disarming his son and spinning around to plant himself between the boy and his target with the practiced and precise moves of the bedlam ballerina that he is.

“Umm,” Dick utters at last. His eyes fly wildly around the room as if seeking permission to land. They settle on making repeated loops of a race track that runs from Tommy’s smile of success to Damian’s enraged expression, and then to his own father’s attempt at a poker face: normally flawless, but now only warranting such acclaim if Bruce’s intention actually was to mimick the poker face of someone steadily ingesting lemons and nothing else throughout the course of a game. 

Its not Dick’s finest work, obviously, but to be fair he’s also quite busy,trying to will himself through the floor. Possibly the Earth’s core while he’s at it. Results are still pending.

Meanwhile, unnoticed by the inhabitants of the dining room, Pietro’s ex Crystal has arrived as previously agreed, so she can pick up Luna and their daughter can spend the back half of the holiday with her mother and the latter’s teammates. 

They were on their way to the dining room so Luna could say her goodbyes to her father, aunts, cousins and grandfather, when the current chaos had erupted.

Her own heroic impulses instinctively compelling her to charge in and attempt to help, Crystal’s tugged back by her daughter’s hand in hers. Knowing full well that Luna’s empathy-fueled instincts are superior to just about anyone else’s, Crystal halts and takes in the scene before them again, still with caution but with slightly less urgency.

“I suppose you have some idea what’s going on in there?”

Luna just smiles softly at her mother, as if shyly amused by the situation they’re witnessing.

“Did you hear how just when we were coming down the hall, Tommy said something about calling Wanda’s boyfriend ‘Dad’ if they get married?”

Crystal furrows her brow and nods; she hadn’t been paying that much attention, but one didn’t engage in superheroics (let alone marry and live with a hyper-active speedster) if one had poor situational awareness. Well one did, theoretically, but in such instances, one usually just died before gaining any kind of reputation or relevance.

“Well see, that set off Damian, Mr. Wayne’s youngest son and Dick’s baby brother - he was the one shouting ‘How dare you’ - “

“Don’t tell me this family has some kind of superiority complex about the twins or Wanda not being good enough for one of their own,” Crystal interrupted. The air around them crisped and heated even as a stray wind arose inside the manor and teased the ends of her hair into furious activity. 

She and Pietro might not be together anymore, but her fondness for him and certain other members of his family hadn’t ceased to exist simply because their marriage no longer did. Wanda had been her friend for years before she and Pietro even began to date, and her twins were still Luna’s cousins. All of which made them still family as far as Crystal was concerned. 

And she’d certainly put up with enough of her own family’s nonsense about nobody being good enough for one of them…more than she should have, to be honest, even if that was still ultimately the reason she’d cut ties with them and made her teammates her and her daughter’s true family. Crystal wasn’t about to stand idly by while strangers subjected her daughter’s cousins and aunt to more of that bullshit, even if they were hugely respected heroes of this universe’s Earth.

But Luna just shakes her head swiftly and decisively, and Crystal forces her metaphorical hackles to subside at her daughter’s apparent lack of concern. 

“No, its nothing like that. Well, Damian’s kind of a brat sometimes, but it feels like he only acts out like that when he doesn’t have instincts about how to react to a given situation and he’s embarrassed about that. He had some kind of messed up childhood none of them like to talk about too much. But honestly, he feels more jealous right now than he does anything else. Aunt Wanda gave us all a rundown before we got here, about Dick’s family and things to not ask them about or bring up, and what kind of stuff they’d been told about us for similar reasons. Anyway, she told us Damian didn’t even live with their family until a few years ago, and when he first came to live with them there was a year when Mr. Wayne was missing and most of them thought he was dead….and so Dick was basically Damian’s first real kinda dad even before Mr. Wayne got a chance to be, and even though he’s been the one raising Damian ever since he got back, it sounded like there’s a lot of mixed feelings and confusion and tension between him, Mr. Wayne and Dick ever since.”

“And of course your cousin just couldn’t resist poking the elephant in the room, once he’d been made aware of its existence, if only to see what would happen,” Crystal sighs. That boy….

Not for the first time when around her ex’s family, she finds herself reminded to be grateful for the relationship she and her daughter share, mostly due to her daughter’s willingness to be understanding of others’ flaws, her own included. Crystal makes sure to will forth a wish for fortitude in Wanda’s direction while she’s at it. Couldn’t hurt.

And of course, speaking of Luna’s ability to be understanding….

“Tommy was just trying to have a little fun, he honestly didn’t mean any harm by it,” her daughter defends the cousin in question. “I know he didn’t really have any idea how much of a reaction he’d get, and just how deep and strongly they had about this. And I know it probably sounds like I’m just trying to make excuses for Tommy to keep him out of trouble, but maybe this is a good thing, that he made this happen? Because I can tell they definitely don’t talk a lot about these things or let them out in the open instead of trying to shove them down all the time. So Damian feels jealous, probably because he still has feelings of seeing Dick as a father that he feels he can’t act on because he doesn’t want to upset their actual dad or cause fights between them.”

“And I can feel Mr. Wayne feels jealous too, but of how Damian feels and the fact that he acted on what was so clearly jealousy to everyone else, but also he’s upset at himself, probably because he thinks its not right for him to feel jealous towards his own son and specifically because he and his brother have such a strong relationship and Dick did such a good job taking care of him when Mr. Wayne couldn’t. And then Dick feels guilty but also a little upset at himself as well, maybe because he knows he has nothing to feel guilty for? I’m not sure about that part, I haven’t totally gotten a feel for their usual emotional dynamics. But also he feels jealous too, and of Mr. Wayne, most likely because he gets to be Damian’s father and on some level Dick wishes that was still him occupying that role.”

“Maybe you should be explaining all of this to them instead of me,” Crystal concludes when her daughter finishes her run-through in a rush of hastily accelerated words. Luna is leaning to the side, as if trying to be subtle about craning to look around her at the drama on the other side. 

“I will if they ask me to,” her daughter says, now sounding somewhat defensive of herself. “I don’t think they would have liked it much if I just tried to talk to them about all their feelings that they refuse to acknowledge or act upon, even just with each other in private.”

“Hmm,” Crystal just hums thoughtfully. Luna rushes to present the rest of her case, though Crystal still lacks a clear picture of just what the specific endgame is that her little schemer simply can’t resist trying to nudge things towards.

“Besides, like I said, maybe this was a good thing, Tommy got it out in the open where now they have to talk about it with each other, since its pretty undeniable to everyone. I mean everyone else in their family definitely feels kinda satisfied I think? No, vindicated. That’s it. I think they’ll be fine on their own. They all definitely love each other and if anything, the jealous feelings are all just from loving each other more than they feel they should or have a right to, because they don’t want to make one of their other family question whether they love them too. None of them have done anything bad or wants anything bad, they just need to talk it through.”

“Well that’s all good to hear, but it still sounds to me like there’s no real reason for us not to interrupt, and every possibility it might defuse some tension and give them all a little time to cool down before talking about things.” Crystal crosses her arms and looks down at Luna knowingly. 

She might be the best daughter Crystal could have ever wished for, and light years more mature than anyone else her age, but she’s still only ten and every ten year old has room for more maturing.

Sure enough, her daughter squirms guiltily. 

“I guess. But I still think its better to let things just happen on their own. You’re always telling me that my power isn’t permission to insert myself into the problems of everyone I meet. And that assuming otherwise can be bad for me too.”

“That’s true,” Crystal nods. All the same, her left eyebrow starts to climb. “However, another truth I’ve heard told to you by your father is if you ever feel guilty and are put on the spot for something, have two truths and a lie ready to explain yourself. And always lead with the lie.”

She loves Pietro still, she does, and she’s at times even painfully aware of just how much she always will. But their vastly different ideas about parenting were just one of the reasons they hadn’t been able to make things work. She vividly recalls the time she’s referring to…and the argument she and her husband had immediately following it.

Pietro’s stance had always been that children were just little versions of who they’d grow up to be, and didn’t need to be taught dumbed down versions of the advice no one would a problem giving to the grown up versions of them.

“I see nothing inappropriate in teaching her that,” Pietro had said stubbornly at the time. “I do the same thing all the time and I’ve never attempted to pretend otherwise. In fact, I clearly remember explicitly describing that as my life philosophy on one of our earlier dates, and if I recall correctly, you laughed and called me a charming knave at the time. And I am of course remembering it correctly, as I have perfect recall listed among my numerous attributes.”

They never did reach an understanding about that particular bit of parenting. Probably because that argument had ended up seguing into the make-up sex that had kept them married far longer than they probably should have been.

Not that the latter detail is of any relevance at the moment. She coughs awkwardly.

In the here and now, their daughter continues to fidget beneath her mother’s now imperious gaze and newfound resolution to not allow her semi-fond nostalgia to cause her emotions to waver.

“Fine!” Luna groans at last, throwing up her hands in as explosive manner as the usually contemplative girl ever does anything. “I also don’t want to interrupt or go yet because I still have some of the popcorn Mr. Alfred made me and its really good and also if you had to have dinner with some of the most tense and repressed people on two different Earths, and feel everything they were trying to pretend they didn’t feel, you would want to at least get to enjoy the part where they finally stop doing that and get all dramatic and dumb. Are you happy now?”

“Ecstatic,” Crystal says primly, fighting a smile at her daughter’s rare display of immaturity before remembering who she was talking to and ceasing to bother with the pretense. Besides, its not like she doesn’t have a point.

“But I believe we’ve also talked about people not being your personal entertainment,” she adds. It just feels like the kind of moment where she’s supposed to say something along those lines. Even half-heartedly. 

“But is it really my fault if people are being entertaining through no fault of my own, and I just happen to be nearby and have every right to just stay put until being right where I am stops being entertaining?” Her daughter counters.

The glint in her eye and the wry smile that says she knows she’s scented a moment of weakness and has no shame about pouncing on it - those are wholly among Pietro’s contribution to their child, and not anything Crystal can truly fault him for, at the end of the day. He is who he is, and part of that is who their daughter is, just as much as she is part of Crystal. She sighs and relents.

“If one of the Waynes catches us treating their conflict like a reality show and feels the slightest upset about it, it is your responsibility to either justify yourself to them too, or acknowledge responsibility for their upset. Whichever it takes to reverse the negativity you contributed. Understood?”

"Promise,” Luna says, bobbing her head repeatedly as she holds forth her hands, unprompted, to demonstrate that she has no fingers crossed as she did so. A follow up that has been normalized for years, given that crossing fingers behind one’s back is another one of the bits of parental wisdom Pietro had imparted upon their precocious daughter when she was younger.

Crystal just sighs once more and shakes her head fondly as she steps to the side and provides an unobstructed view through the open doorway across the room.

Back in the dining room, heedless of having garnered spectators to their spectacle, as well as equally heedless of the passage of time, the room’s inhabitants exist in a state of suspended animation. 

Everyone knows a reaction to what just happened is required. That the pregnant pause persisting since then demands a clear follow up to the blatant display of certain emotions from certain parties. All of whom are usually quite certain they’d rather witness the end of the world than see those specific feelings slip out into the open where anyone could see them and from that, draw certain conclusions.

Nobody is confused on that front. Not even their guests from an entirely separate universe.

But the unthinkable has happened nevertheless, and as it has been neither preceded nor succeeded by any hint of an apocalypse, there is no alternative. The naked display of previously avoided topics can not in any way be avoided at this point. What was done was done and now things have to be said or done as a result.

The problem lies in the fact that not a single person present has the faintest idea of what those specific things were. And thus no one seems interested in showing any initiative in ending the stalemate that has been forged from the uncommon uncertainty that was their only commonality.

 The rise and fall of chests are the only movements betraying that the tableau they set exists in all three dimensions, rather as a static snapshot someone had taken in commemoration.

And even breathing seems done reluctantly.

If cosmic entities such as Uatu the Watcher were prone to hyperbole, as the only other witnesses to the unprecedented anomaly, they might narrate that for a time it seems as though two of the most powerful and influential families of two different universes are fated to spend the rest of eternity existing in this rare moment. This endless moment where some of the most reckless, impulsive, tactical, analytical, insightful and decisive heroes to ever exist on two separate Earths……are all equally stricken with indecision and uncertainty as to what course of action to take next.

Who could even imagine what kind of consequences that might result in, for two entirely different multiverses? What deviations from intricately plotted grand designs that could cause, what opportunities might be missed, from the most potentially fortunate events that otherwise might stem from these various heroes’ heroics?

How far might the ripple effects of this seemingly innocuous moment in space and time reach? How many worlds might rise and fall, universes live and die, all because this one singular family, this comparatively tiny collection of dissonant souls who regardless of their frequent discord still manage to come together in harmony often enough to chart the course of cosmic events….

These unlikely conductors who at separate times are both the voices of the people, and the music of the spheres themselves? Their choices often doing more to directly affect various celestial bodies than the choices of entire civilizations added up across countless millennia?

Regardless of the degree of potential calamity, that remains a fate both universes will be spared their discovery of. For in this hour of need, where some of the prime movers and shakers of worlds sit motionless whilst hardly daring to breathe, all mutually frozen in their seats, all seemingly powerless to act or speak until someone releases them from this spell that has been cast upon the room and all within it….

Well, unto this unlikely conundrum, there arises an unlikely hero.

Not the hero anyone present deserves, perhaps, but certainly the hero they need.

And so it is that with great daring - and dare we say, even panache - a voice rings out loud and clear. One overflowing with bountiful mirth and a zest and zeal for life. Not to mention one brimming with reckless disregard for any potential consequences, even those not very dissimilar to the kind that have in years past made even the hardiest villains quail in fear…

And all at the same time, all undeniable, all contributing to the sudden spasm that erupts along the fault line that is Bruce Wayne’s entire face - that treacherous, forbidding chasm that exists at the edges of the two tectonic masses that are on one side his disapproval, and on the other side, the muscles that control his expressions…

Into that momentous stillness lands the only response truly appropriate, given the root cause of all of this.

“Awkwaaaaaaard,” Stephanie Brown sings out, half standing out of her chair to stretch across the table in front of Wanda and Duke in order to retrieve the gravy boat. She returns to her seated position and proceeds to slather her mashed potatoes with its contents, blithely paying no attention to the fact that all other faces in the room have swiveled to face her with stunned disbelief. “Seriously, I haven’t felt this uncomfortable since I farted in front of Superman.”

“When did you even get here?” Bruce frowns at her, exasperated enough that Damian is able to use his distraction to slip free of him and slink back to his own seat.

No one else has ever managed to achieve the depths of distraction Stephanie and Stephanie alone can push the usually unflappable Bat to. Or is it heights, and the joys of alliteration might need to be sacrificed upon the altar of accuracy? Whatever.

She pretty much considers it her superpower, though. She’s still working out how to weaponize it for use on other targets. Or even better, how to capitalize on it for use when living Whilst Reluctantly Capitalist. Currently, she’s testing market research along the veins of blackmailing Bruce into paying her a monthly allowance in exchange for her keeping her levels of Intentionally Irritating him to below a Level Four on a ten point scale. Its her own custom model in the fashion of the ‘rate the pain with a number from one to ten’ scale, but she’s taken the liberty of specifically tailoring it to Bruce’s condition of Suffering Stephanie the Supreme’s Presence. She’s pretty sure she’d ultimately settled on the title: “How much is my chewing gum while I’m supposed to be being sneaky causing you actual physical pain?”

There’s an itty bitty chance she actually picked something totally else on account of how she’d been super drunk at the time and she’s crap at reading her own handwriting so deciphering the notes she’d made while especially inspired were like….seventy percent guesswork.

But close enough, anyway, and also like, shut up and stuff. Wait. But is that really considered blackmail, technically speaking, or is it more like bribery? Not that it really makes a difference, but she does prefer being as precise as possible when listing her crimes slash achievements. It’s like. The principle. Or maybe the aesthetic? Whatever.

Really, though, this is just her and the Big Guy’s thing. Its just what they do. Their dynamo depiction of a duo doing things after their first take on being a Dynamic Duo detonated so disastrously. Yeah, she could never bear to part with her precious alliteration merely for the sake of precision. Its important to have clear priorities after all, and if it for whatever reason that probably will involve fifth dimensional imps, like, some nefarious ne’er-do-well demands she make a choice between alliteration and precision, well, she’s as of right now making an official ruling on which darling she’d kill first. 

Sorry, precision, but you just haven’t done for me lately what alliteration has brought me in joy and also usefulness.

“Wait, my bad,” she realizes suddenly, on account of how everyone is staring at her when all she’s doing currently is stuffing her face like a pro. And as hype as she is on her ability to make anything she does look like a Feat™, she’s pretty sure she doesn’t make it look that good. “What was the question again?”

Bruce faces her fully, arms crossed in an attempt to restore himself and his dominion to some semblance of its usual order, his face schooled back in his usual Mona Lisa smile aka stone cold impassivity. Which nobody here was buying, for the record. Big faker.

“How long have you been here?” Asks Stone Cold Steve Austin, wait no, the Stone Cold Steve Faker. Faker Austin? Ugh, this is gonna bug her.

Also, nobody here is buying his voice as being Forbidding right now so much as just Deeply Embarrassed Because I Had Feelings And They Distracted Me. Honestly, she should start keeping a tally. For what, she’s not sure, but you never know what might come in handy some day. There’s a whole TV show about hoarders to back her up on that supposition. See? Science, suckers.

“I dunno. Since way before dinner even started though. Dude, I’m literally on my thirds.” 

As if making a show of evidence, Steph shovels more meat in her mouth. She’s not entirely sure what they’re even having, like it could be veal or lamb or turkey for all she knows - look, she never got around to mastering “How To Solve the Mystery of Mystery Meat” or whatever. She’d been busy learning how to tell the difference in blood spatters, because like, meat may be murder sometimes but murder is always murder and thus takes priority. Soooorry

Point is, who knows what the fuck kind of meat it is, but its damn good and just further proof that Alfred is probably secretly God in disguise or maybe just a lower case g kinda one, but whichever, he and his culinary arts are definitely proof she’s too weak to ever walk the Way of the Vegan.

She finishes chewing fully before continuing. Because she’s a proper lady, obvy.

“And way to make with the Rudeness, B. I know I can pull off pretty much any look, but Fly On The Wall is not one of them. How dare you come for my self-esteem like this. I’ll sue you and get all your billions and use them to make a swimming pool of gold coins all Scrooge McDuck style, because its like, the one thing you could never and thus the perfect way to establish my dominance and stuff.”

“Has she seriously been here this whole time?” One of Dick’s girlfriend’s twin kids stage-whispers from the other length of the table. “How did we not notice before? Not exactly flying under the radar there.”

“I’m a goddamn social chameleon, that’s how, Cloud.” Stephanie jabs another meat-laden forkful in his direction for emphasis, on its way to her food hole. Ugh, bliss. “Also, I would be like, a kick-ass spy. But nobody ever gives me the spy jobs because everyone’s always like, you can’t be quiet or still or even serious for longer than five minutes, Stephanie, and I’m always like, umm, just because I choose not to doesn’t mean I can’t, but do they ever listen? Of course not.” 

The kid wrinkles his nose at her. “Why did you call me Cloud?”

“Isn’t that the name of the Final Fantasy guy whose hair you ripped off?”

“Is it? I don’t know, I’ve never played. And maybe he ripped me off, you don’t know,” Not-Cloud says, looking suddenly intrigued, though who knows by which part. 

Stephanie swivels towards Tim for confirmation. He looks back, vaguely irritated. 

“Why does everyone always look at me for stuff like that? I have no idea. When exactly would I have time to be a gamer in the first place? And for the record, back when I had actual hobbies, I used to skateboard.”

“Jeez, sorry, Tony Hawk. I didn’t recogize you cuz I was too busy giving you mad props for that sick wicked half pipe ollie oopsie.” Steph rolls her eyes. Then she cocks her head to scrutinize him more fully and maybe give him a serious answer. She settles for flapping a hand at him vaguely as she says, “And you just have like, a certain Quality about you or whatever. I don’t know what it is.”

“She doesn’t even live here,” Bruce says, almost plaintively. Y’know. If he were someone who does anything plaintively ever.

“She’s our guest,” Cass says, almost primly. Y’know. If she were someone who does anything primly ever. “You’re being rude.”

Steph plasters on her most injured expression, the better to make like Exhibit A when Cass sweeps an arm towards her for demonstration. 

Also though, oh shit, oh shit, look whose internal monologue stumble-stepped into a motif. She’s Emily Dickenson-ing this place up tonight. Finally, someone bringing a little class into the House of Ass. You’re welcome, all the ghosts of Bruce’s equally gloomy ancestors who definitely haunt this place on the regular.

“Yeah, Alfred has always impressed upon us that there are certain protocols for how we’re supposed to treat guests in our home, Bruce,” Tim adds in a tone that was equal parts thoughtful musing and suppressed merriment. 

He slides a smirk down the table to Steph. His own irritation of 7.5 seconds prior has completely evaporated into the ether, because that’s just how they roll. Look at them, making with the maturity like they’re just a couple of motherfucking bosses. She’s seriously so impressed with the both of them on their own behalves.

“If I were a betting man,” Tim continues nonchalantly, “I’d put down money that hanging on to guest privileges is one of the main reasons she turned down that adoption offer we all pretend we don’t know B’s definitely given her at some point.”

“Or maybe that’s just what you tell yourself, being the one whose dating history with Steph makes adopted siblinghood seem weird and icky and stuff,” Duke suggests from further down the table. He smirks, lounging in a way that looks lazy and careless to those uninitiated in the sacred Bat arts of being anal about everything at all times, like literally even when just looking at things. Because B-Man’s secret superpower is how to make anything boring, even things that are literally just using your eyes.

Though in defense of B but also like, the years of their lives they’ve all committed to obsessively training themselves according to his fucking anal doctrines anyway, like a bunch of absolute suckers, there is an upside to all that anal retention. Such as how people who make healthy but boring life choices would look at Duke right now and be like oh shit, that kid’s about two seconds from falling asleep like he’s a cat and that’s a super inconvenient place for him to fall asleep, which everyone knows is basically the same thing as Kitty Nirvana.

But meanwhile, the other teen still clearly shows all the checked boxes that spell out hey this dude could be ready to kick your ass in 2.5 seconds, like just give him a reason punk, he’s ready to go. Or at least, that’s how he registers to those of them with Bat-supersenses that aren’t actually super but really just the end result of lots of boring training exercises that honestly don’t sound anywhere near as cool so just let them have this.

Point is she totally lost track of her point, but then Duke follows up with an accusing pointer finger aimed at Tim, one appropriately dramatic and just like, making her so gosh darn proud of the latest castaway to wash ashore on their weird ass little Island Of Misfit Toys. Kids. They grow up so fast.

“Of course you wanna distract everyone from how you’re a Sister Depriver,” Duke intones, putting some super thematic bass into his boom. That right there, that little something extra…that’s how you make fucking art. Hot damn. “And as a result, poor Cass has to bear the weight of being the only girl in the Wayne clan all by herself. For shame, Timothy.”

“Yeah, Timothy,” Cass echoes smugly. “For shame.”

Tim shoots betrayed eyes at her, but its his own fault for forgetting the Cardinal Rule Of Cass: her allegiances are fickle and prone to shifting in the direction of greatest potential drama. Cass loves drama. Lives for it. Something about how refreshing it is to be able to immerse herself in the movements of people who are actively trying to speak or act in contradiction to what their body really wants to say, instead of just being lying douchebags who necessitate caution when they do anything similar.

The rest of them are split 50/50 as to whether that’s true and heartwrenching, or whether its well-played Cass bullshit aimed at distracting them from what a gossip-loving drama queen she really is.

“Whatever,” Jason says dismissively as he chimes in. He swipes the last few exchanges out of the way like they’re open apps he’s not using at the moment and he’s all uh, you can go now, losers. “The real issue here is that obviously the Old Man has never figured out how to interact with a teenager or young adult he hasn’t adopted or can’t adopt. Middle D over there is proof that even B’s vaunted no meta rule isn’t really a dealbreaker, so betcha the real reason Dickie and Tim’s Titan friends never come over is because their parentals are worried about B trying to snatch them up too. And since B adopts, fosters or otherwise absorbs via osmosis every other kid or teen he comes across, there’s never been a control group for him to practice his non-adoption-intending behavior on other kids. And no practice means no way of being perfect at that, and we all know how not being perfect at something makes B cranky as fuck.”

Duke takes a beat to contort his face into a Rubik’s Cube of half-formed and hastily discarded expressions. Most likely trying to work through whether Middle D counts as a weird-ass endearment for this particular family, or something he’s gonna be endlessly annoyed by if it happens to catch on. Its a process, especially considering it has to be filtered through the Jason to English dictionary first.

Finally he just shrugs in a lazy non-reaction that in Batspeak manages to count as a challenge. Basically a ‘try and guess what I decided if you can, chump.’ 

Jason’s face morphs Terminator style. The later ones, not the Governator model. He ends up displaying a mash-up: the smirk of inevitable victory meets the narrowed eyebrows of intent focus as bestowed upon a worthy foe. 

Then the whole piece makes like an Etch-a-Sketch and is wiped completely away before being replaced with an annoyed jaw clench. 

“Jay’s theory game is strong,” is the route Duke ends up taking though. “And here we thought the reason Bruce always says no about Superboy coming over is to prevent him from being a Brother Defiler. But all along it was just the insidious work of a Brother Depriver, with Superman himself being the culprit who told B hands off, this one’s mine. It all makes sense now! Superboy even fits the standard issue black hair and blue eyed, in store model.”

He tips his head towards the older boy in a gesture of appreciation for Jay’s detective work and connect the dots high score. Jason scowls back. By the standards of the Family Batshit, he’s clearly been caught off guard. With him so readily taking up the implied but not outright stated challenge teased by the younger boy, he’d completely failed to prepare for the compliments Duke then followed up with instead.

His siblings hide snickers behind faked coughs and gratuitous napkin usage. He’s netted himself an undeniable loss, according to the intricate rules and traditions of their family - ironically, many of which had been laid down by Jason himself when first established back in the misty years of yore. That mysterious, little spoken of era of legend and mystery, one that is nevertheless oft whispered of in hushed rumors and hearsay. The time before time, better known to the Bats and Birds as The Age of The First Two Robins.

If it had just been the family present, it might have been a different matter, but the presence of others changed things. Cuz see, in the eyes of anyone who isn’t a member of their observation obsessed and perpetually paranoid family, the relatively minute exchange between the two boys no doubt looked like Jason had been needlessly aggressive while the younger boy was just trying to pay him a compliment.

In a nutshell, Duke goaded Jason with what seemed like a challenge but didn’t technically count, so Jason’s attempt at responding to Duke’s not-challenge actually counted as the first actual sign of aggression, which Duke neatly side-stepped by already being in the process of paying Jay a compliment between the time Jay actually launched his challenge but before it actually landed.

Ergo, Duke wins. 

Look, if its hard to follow, that’s probably for the best. They’re all pretty sure stuff like that isn’t supposed to make as much sense as it does to them.

Jason huffs but then finally heaves a sigh and tosses a tight-lipped and grudging but genuine nod of acknowledgment down the table to Duke. Despite himself, he can’t help but be a little impressed by the kid, having already picked up on even the more minute ins and outs of their family’s complicated interactions. But then, of course the younger boy is as precocious as the rest of them. Their family could single-handedly keep the nature vs nurture debate going for centuries.

Duke beams back before licking the tip of a finger and painting a single stroke in the air in front of him. A clear declaration that this round of the Batkids’ never-ending game goes to him. Jason rolls his eyes but can’t exactly begrudge him his endzone dance. Its not like he’s known for being graceful and gracious in victory either.

Come to think of it, none of them are. Huh. That explains a lot, probably.

Its at this moment that Dick finally regains enough composure to make his presence felt again. 

Its understandable, really, the others acknowledge via conspiratorial looks of sibling solidarity that bounce their way rapidly across the table by way of their patented younger sibling network.

Anyone would have trouble juggling the combined stressors of introducing the girlfriend’s family, mediating their own eternal family mayhem, and on top of all that, seeing shoved into the spotlight his ‘shh, we don’t talk about that, what are you, new,” tendencies towards acting parentally protective and possessive of Damian, even with (and at times especially with) Bruce himself. 

Not to mention the occasional clashes over the parenting strategy, or lack thereof, that Bruce still manages at times to bumble like the perfect dope that he is. Because if anyone has super strong feelings about Bruce’s parenting and no patience whatsoever for watching their father repeatedly fail to learn from his mistakes, well. That’s all Dick’s territory.

So with all of that kept firmly in mind like the efficient little multi-taskers they all know how to be (when they feel like it), they’re all poised to lend Dick a certain amount of leeway in how much amusement they enjoy at his expense today.

In all fairness to them, its not like he makes it easy. They had perhaps overestimated just how well Dick was juggling the various stressors in play today. After all, you can take the acrobat out of the circus, but that doesn’t mean jack shit about whether or not he can juggle because that’s an entirely different skillset, duh.

Hindsight’s not just sometimes a bitch. Its sometimes quite bitchy as well. Ugh, their subconscious minds could be such brats, honestly.

Look, the point is, even as they all patiently watch their eldest brother struggle his way back to a state of coherency and and managing to be present in the actual present, they’re still expecting him to pop out the other side with something at least approaching poise.

Instead, they get an encore.

“Umm,” Dick utters at last. 

Tim buries his face in his hands. Duke tilts his head back and mutters prayers to some higher power. Cass closes her eyes and shakes her head slowly and sorrowfully. Lorna reaches across the table with her wine bottle and refreshes her sister’s glass. Wanda looks like she needs it.

Damian sits with arms crossed over his chest and scowl firmly directed at the table top, Judging Everything. Then again, that is still his default setting and pretty much what he’s been doing all night anyway. Say whatever else you want to about the kid, Steph reflects, but when he commits to a theme, hoo boy. 

Jason, meanwhile, has thrown himself bodily at his brother, clamping a hand over the older man’s mouth and stage-whispering with exaggerated emphasis: “Careful! You could set off the exact same chain of events and we’ll all end up trapped in an eternal time loop we can never break free of! I mean, its practically a guarantee, if you combine my knack for being in the worst place at the worst possible time, Tim’s shitty spleen-phobic luck, Cass’ destined to someday prove ironically prophetic name, and your own lightning rod-esque ability to attract cosmic-level catastrophes to you like you’re catnip and they’re really just a cute little furball named Fluffy McWhiskerson.”

“Must you always insist on going the extra mile when being ridiculous, Todd?” Damian cuts in testily. Also, cuttingly. 

“Shut the fuck up. It’s my coping mechanism for being part of a family that goes that extra ridiculous mile every damn day.” 

“And people wonder what possible reasons I could have for not wanting to be adopted into this family and instead hanging onto a golden parachute option?” 

Steph wonders aloud (and loudly) as she maneuvers the side of her fork around her plate like its a zamboni hard at work on an ice rink. Really, she just refuses to let a single scrape of Alfred’s home-made mashed potatoes go to waste. She’s not some heathen.

“You. You seem pretty smart.” That loaded statement and the finger pointed in her direction come courtesy of the Final Fantasy kid whose name may or may not be Cloud but probably isn’t, which is a shame, because Cloud is a pretty kick-ass name in Steph’s estimation. Not that anyone asks. Typical.

Also, where did they end up landing on the subject of what his name should be? Or is? Whatever? Was there a flowchart passed out at some point and she just missed it while busy being fabulous, or was this an actual oversight on B’s part and thus something they should all bring up as often as possible from now until the end of time?

No doubt spurred by a desire to be absent from whatever follows his twin’s newest train of thought, Billy raises his hand half-heartedly. No one bothers to point out the absurdity of raising his hand like he’s in school. He just seems like its a thing with him. He has that certain Quality, Steph decides.

“Can I be excused?”

Nobody seems sure who he’s asking, so its probably okay that nobody responds to grant permission. Besides, suffering through the awkwardness and drama like the rest of them is probably like, good for building character or something.

After about half a minute, Billy nods to himself as if that’s about what he’d expected. He lowers his hand again and uses it to prop up his head as he slumps over the table and idly sketches patterns atop the antique oak surface.

“I’m a galaxy-brain level intellect, you little Silver Whatever-the-Adorable-Baby version of a Fox is called,” Steph declares at last, jabbing her finger right back at the apparent Greater of Twin Evils. Y’know. To see how much he likes it. But also just because its fun to make like a drama queen in a place like Wayne Manor. Ambiance really is everything. “I even took my SATs and correctly informed the moderator that I was in fact there for the SATs and hadn’t gotten them mixed up with my ACTs.” 

“Hmm,” the twerp says then, not at all appearing to be taught a lesson by her dramatic finger pointing reversal. He sweeps his eyes over her, assessing. Given that she hasn’t decided yet if she even likes the little twerp, let alone what he’s trying to assess and also if she even gives a shit on account of she might not even like the little twerp, Stephanie splits the difference and settles for combining bitch face with her best “How you like me now,” pose. Let him make of it what he will. ‘Snot like she knows what she’s going for there.

Also, its probably rendered slightly less effective due to her forgetting to factor in that she’s sitting and not standing, but whatever, she commits like a champ. Also, she’s still at most 60/40 on the liking of the twerp, so who even cares, honestly.

“I used to be able to count on my own smarts,” Platinum Punk says, seemingly settled on an opinion at last. “But I naively gambled that away in the name of wishing upon a star for family or what the frick ever, and I forgot to set wish parameters for ‘and also please let them all not be completely nuts.’”

“Watch the ableism please, sweetheart,” Wanda says with a long-suffering sigh.

“Sorry, Mom,” he says with an eye roll that nevertheless seems to somehow satisfy her. “But see? I’ll get a lecture about my language, but I skip school with my friends to fight giant robots in Times Square and she doesn’t bat an eye. My family’s priorities are not like your Earth’s priorities.”

“Or my Earth’s priorities,” he adds as an afterthought. “Or any Earth’s, probably. Maybe not some really weird and out there Earth, but they don’t count, probably.”

“Well I don’t like it, certainly, but I don’t want to be a hypocrite,” Wanda says defensively. “When I was your age, I was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for being a mutant terrorist. All things considered, I have relatively few objections about how you and your brother spend your time.” 

Several members of the Family Batshit direct eyes that are ever so slightly on the wide side. She meets them with an unapologetic shrug.

“I had a complicated childhood. I got over it.”

Lorna snorts into her wineglass. Wanda shoots her sister an annoyed glare, but still amends her statement.

“Mostly, anyway.”

Lorna smirks and waves her glass in some attempt at a meaningful gesture. Who knows what its actually meant to be. She seems to accept the amendment, at least.

“Please excuse our dear little sis her porcine displays of condescension,” Pietro interjects in silky smooth tones that do nothing to hide the sharp edges thinly veiled underneath. “She didn’t grow up with us and our dear, doting daddy, yet has never lacked for opinions on what superior choices she would have made in our positions. The fact that she’s still made plenty terrible choices of her own, is apparently quite irrelevant.”

His green-haired sister opens her eyes artfully wide and projects feigned innocence. “None of those were my fault. I was possessed a lot by a very evil psychic. Who, if you recall, actually called herself Malice. The evil was right there in her name. Advertised. I was innocent. She was evil.”

Pietro swirls his own wineglass, unimpressed. The other set of siblings have clearly been down this road a time or two themselves. 

“I was primarily referring to your romantic history with a Summers. And not even the competent or aesthetically pleasing one, at that,” he drawls.

“She also had terrible taste.”

“Anyway, not to tear focus away from discussion of my dear auntie’s romantic selection process, as she and Uncle Pietro both lack the shame gene and they absolutely can and will traumatize all present via a thorough analysis of each other’s past partners in the most bizarre game of sexual chicken you will ever have the misfortune to witness…”

“Bold of him to make that claim when he’s never seen Dick and Jason do the exact same thing for the exact same reasons,” Tim mutters. Cass and Duke both nod. Jason glares, but seems stuck at the ‘come up with actual proof that he’s actually wrong’ stage of the rebuttal process. Dick has by now returned to the land of the living, but seems to have along the way decided discretion is the better part of valor as best guess is he’s currently preoccupied weighing the pros and cons of potential escape routes.

“Hey, Shiny Pokemon version of Sonic the Hedgehog,” Stephanie snaps her fingers and hopskips the focus back on the speedster in question. She waves her hand at the rest of the sound and fury occupying the table with them, as if to express just how much it all signifies nothing. “Just get to the point already and leave out anything else that these vile miscreants could possibly hijack and turn into tangents. You’ll never make it through a conversation in this house otherwise. Everyone here is expertly trained and practiced in the art of derailing the most obstinate and tunnel-visioned man in history from reaching his point whenever that point is deemed destined to make our day end poorly.”

“Some of us just happen to be better at that than others,” Jason says with smug confidence, twirling his butter knife lazily.

“Ironic, coming from the one trick pony,” Tim says dryly. Jason leans forward and raises his knife-wielding hand and Tim quickly raises his hands in a defensive gesture that’s clearly not meant to indicate he sees an actual threat, more just aimed at beating his brother to the punch with the rest of his punchline. “Sorry, I miscounted. I mean the one and a half trick pony.”

Steph clears her throat pointedly and looks back at Platinum Ken Doll. He just sighs in full gloom and slumps down in eerie symmetry with his twin. He definitely is the superior practitioner of the Sulk.

“Never mind,” he says melodramatically. “It wasn’t even a big deal anyway, just stuff I was trying to be like, snarky about or whatever, but the moment’s passed and it’s just kinda dumb and pointless without feeling like, natural or whatever.”

“Probably,” Stephanie agrees unsympathetically, because hey, when you’re right, you’re right. She doesn’t believe in coddling the youths, especially not the ones who are realistically only two years younger than herself at the most. “But you’ve managed to pique my interest enough that not knowing what you were going to say is randomly gonna bug me at 2 am or something obnoxious like that. Also, you started to praise my intellect and I don’t let things like that go unfinished. It sets a bad precedent. Now c’mon. Speak up. Praise me. Enunciate, so Damian can’t pretend he doesn’t hear you just because he’s trying to set the table on fire with just the searing intensity of his disdain.”

Damian responds with a gesture that he definitely didn’t learn from Dick, but on second thought, he probably did.

“That’s the spirit,” she said. “Keep on keeping on, slugger. If anyone can develop the ability to cause spontaneous combustion with nothing but willpower and spite, its Angst in the key of D Minor himself. I believe in you, kiddo!”

If she weren’t actually being full of shit about that, she might be in trouble from the glare Damian follows that with. Ashes to ashes and all that good stuff. But as rage-vision still refuses to make an appearance, the baby of the family in age and irony only retreats to the support of his high-backed chair. 

Looking more adorable than he’d hopefully ever comprehend, lest he attempt to weaponize that as an addition to his armory, he slouches down and mutters something that makes Jason’s eyebrows climb his skull like they’re trying to set a speed record for making it all the way to the top.

It’d been in one of the languages that Damian knew and that her own circle of languages learned share no overlap with, but she mentally repeats it sound for sound in her head until she locks it in. Anything that can make Jason look that impressed is worth knowing, and translating something phonetically from an unknown language is nothing Google can’t handle.

And by Google she meant Tim, but that’s what ex-boyfriends are for, right? She’s fairly certain she saw that on a T-shirt somewhere, which is basically the same thing as true.

Anyway. Back to the praises that are supposed to be being sung, and yet weirdly, she still hears no singing. Steph boomerangs her focus back down the table to Smugness in Silver, and oozes impatience and expectations out her pores at him like emotions are contagious and she’s a cooties hotspot.

Fumbling from a clear unease with this particular kind of spotlight, and also how it’d admittedly been a weird fucking night for everyone concerned, the younger teen at last manages to self-consciously eke out: “Look, I said it was dumb now. I seriously was just gonna make a joke about you being too smart to get sucked into a weird ass family with endless drama without having an escape clause, and I was just gonna be like, teach me your ways or y’know. Whatever.”

“Wait!” Stephanie stops him right there with a palm outstretched in the universal sign for hold the fucking fuck the fuck up. She leans towards him, and in a voice pitched low and even but vibrating with barely leashed intensity, she asks him the only question that could possibly matter now:

“Was that last bit actually part of the joke you were going to make? The thing you were trying to say from the get go, not just something you said right now because you got confidence diarrhea and stopped using the words good?”

“Uh, yeah?” He says warily.

Stephanie slaps both her hands on the table’s surface, loudly enough to make most everyone jump a little in their seats, and forcefully enough to rattle some dishware and make her inner monologue hiss oww and yell at her for unnecessary roughness. She ignores herself, on account of having much more important things to deal with. 

Launching herself to her feet, she leans into her palms where they press down on the table, giving herself a little bit of Loom to go with the gravity she forces onto her face. Glee is waging a valiant effort at retaking the lost ground, but she’s always insisted that she has excellent self-control, dagnabbit, and Stephanie Brown is many, many things, but she’s no liar.

Well, except for the times she is. But there are always reasons or like, extenuating circumstances for those.

Usually.

“I accept the honor and responsibility of being your Family Drama Sensei, and I shall teach you everything I know and also some stuff I make up just to fuck with you, because I’m not like Other Mentors. I demand and expect some giggles to go with the shits, or what’s even the point, y’know? First lesson: that was rhetorical! I say y’know a lot and when I actually expect an answer I’ll also be like omg hurry up, I aged 84 years waiting for you to say something already. Got it?”

The Twin That Could Have Probably Starred In Twilight blinks dazedly at her. He then turns to look at the rest of the table.

“Is she serious?”

“Deadly,” Steph intones, before one of these naysayers could nay on her say and potentially undercut her authority with her new minion. Uh, she means, like, henchkid. Sorry, sidekick. Shit. Crap - protege! That was what she has, a protege! Hah!

“For real?” He asks, doubtfully. She frowns. Is she stuttering?

“So real I make reality look fake,” she assures him gravely. He blinks some more. He does that a lot, she notes, like a Good Mentor who notices stuff about her mentee.

“Okay, see, because that wasn’t really what I was going for?” He says cautiously. 

She rolls her eyes. C’mon kid, she doesn’t bite, except for like, sexy stuff and eww no, he’s like twelve. Well sixteen probably, but that’s basically the same thing as twelve. Also they had a lot of work to do on the spine-having thing because this sorta bit right here is totally gonna make her look bad in front of all the other mentors, if it doesn’t exit stage right, like post haste. And what not.

She doesn’t say any of that that out loud though. She’s not sure they’re there yet.

“Like, I was aiming more for just….a…I don’t know, a hah-hah?” 

He leans back slightly, adding a little distance as he looks at her like she’s part of the craziness he needs help surviving instead of his sensei in all things suited to surviving the craziness. Ugh, she has so much work to do with this one. Its a good thing she’s always been pretty sure she’d make an excellent mentor, so like, qualifications. She has them. Obvy.

“La la la, I can’t hear you but also no take-backsies. You’re part of a legacy now. Or lineage. Or whatever the word is that’s not actually about dog family trees. Look, the point is by virtue of being my first ever protege and also the first protege of anyone who isn’t Dick or Babs who both don’t even count anyway because Reasons, you are now part of the grand tradition that is being a Bats and Birds person…partner…sidekick…thingie. Look, we don’t have the terminology all worked out yet. Like I said this is basically new territory except for Dick and Babs who don’t count and also Bruce, but he mostly communicates via grunts and scowls anyway, rendering most terminology moot.”

“What’s happening right now?” Her protege asks to no one in particular. Ugh. Unacceptable. She’s taking twenty points from House Twilight whenever she finishes reading those damn books and figures out just how that whole thing works.

“Okay, so the big takeaway from your first lesson here, because fuck that being cryptic noise, mentors who are always like ‘you have to figure out what you’re supposed to be learning here and then also learn it’ like, ugh, no. The worst, seriously.” 

Look, occasionally detours are probably inevitable, but the important part is that she remain strong when doggy-paddling determinedly towards her point, because good mentors can handle occasional detours and don’t treat them like Kryptonite that’s gonna kill them all when they’re literally just sparring in the Cave, like, perspective, have some, y’know? 

And also they don’t need to stop every couple hours into training so they can have temper tantrums because their kids are like, no dad, we can’t hang out today because that’s a thing that kinda happens when little kid people turn into bigger people people, like oh noes, gasp, horror. And then they have to go stomp around and make that everyone else’s problem because no matter how much they insist they’re loners, they actually really suck at being alone. Even though you’d think that mastering that particular skill would logically come first before you get around to training to say shit like “I am the Night, my dude,” with a straight face.

Its faintly occurring to her that she might actually have unresolved issues about Bruce and her brief apprentice-ship thingie with him. And also maybe its not super awesome conclusion and also the follow-up to all that bit of bother, all of which gargled a fair amount of donkey balls.

Ugh. Epiphanies are such losers. Literally who asked.

“Ahem. Anyway. Big takeaway. Teachable moment. Right. So yeah, first big thing is commitment. You start something, you see it through, got it? In this family and otherwise vaguely affiliated network of mentors and mentees, we don’t do take-backsies, okay? Its a matter of pride. Principle. Also, maybe brain damage. Like I said, this all really started with Dick, and he does get hit and shot in the head a whole lot, so admittedly, the rest of us do have some. Y’know. Questions. Now you sit there and absorb all that for a second. Like a sponge. See yourself as a sponge. Be the sponge. Good sponge.” 

Wisdom having been successfully imparted, Steph nods in satisfaction and then spins to take in the rest of the room, hands planted on her hips Wonder Woman style, because power poses are totally gonna be lesson two.

Her eyes find their way to Bruce easily enough, which makes sense seeing as how his scowl takes up half the room. Any room. Okay, at this point she’s willing to jot that whole might have issues thing down as okay so maybe she definitely has unresolved issues with Bruce. So what? She also has a protege, albeit one who probably does need some more convincing to fully be on board, but the point remains that like. Whatever. Suck her entire ass.

“Well,” she declares loftily, as if she’s not just talking directly to the B-Man. Plausible deniability, yo. Just because she’s willing to admit to herself that she maybe definitely has issues to still sort through, that doesn’t mean she has to like. Go around admitting that to other people. She’s not some kind of heathen. “I trust that we’ll all remember where we were when it was undeniably revealed that I, Stephanie Brown, do in fact have Wisdom and Experiences to share with the youths of tomorrow. As that is a thing that just happened. Lo!”

“I have witnesses,” Steph declares with the dial set all the way to Peak Drama, because look, if you can’t lean into the drama in Wayne Freaking Manor, life is empty and meaningless and that’s gonna be her supervillain origin story, probably. She throws out an arm towards the rest of the table, encompassing the dual rows of expressions that could best be described as bemused - if she were being generous and also lying out her freaking ass.

Still, she stands firm in the silence that follows her ringing proclamation, allowing not the slightest hint of self-consciousness slip free of her self control, because she’d literally just made a big deal about how it was all about committing, and Stephanie Brown might be many things, but a hypocrite is not one of them.

Well, other than - nope. Not doing that again. Upon reflection and careful examination of what really matters, accuracy also can be invited to suck the proverbial it.

Besides, there’s too much at stake for her to allow any weakness to betray her now. This is a momentous moment. Clash of the Stubbornness kinda stuff. She’s facing down Punky Brucester himself, and on his own turf of all places. Things like principles….and…and being right, all hang in the balance.

And yes, Stephanie is well aware that she has left even Peak Drama in the dust aeons ago, and they’re deep in uncharted waters now, with like, here there be dragons, lurking dramatically. So what if she’s being ridiculous? She maintains that he had started it, she’s like 99% she is being not at all irrational and unreasonable about that, and by God, she will have her vindication or she will have….whatever the tail end of that cliche goes like. Unless its death, because she kinda sorta already did that, and as far as she’s concerned it counted, and either way, she’s way over it and not looking for reruns.

All the while, Bruce stares her down with his face doing that resting I’m Judging You Face thing that nobody can be that oblivious to walking around with all the time, no matter what they may claim in liar-esque fashion. 

Though, for all her various unresolved issues with him or whatever, she can admit to herself that the man is a goddamn master of conveying a bitch could care less. She’d sat on gargoyles that had served more face than Mr. I Could Be Listening To You Right Now or I Could Actually Be Thinking Boring Rich Asshole Stuff Like Whats Up With the Stock Market Today, LOL You’ll Never Know.

She upgrades her ‘Think About Issues’ notification to a maybe consider talking to someone about some of this stuff level.

When Bruce’s carefully placid facade finally breaks, then, it doesn’t break so much as it freaking shatters. Further evidence of this definitely being her superpower, which means time to move on to asking like, ugh why such an obnoxiously specific superpower, tho.

“She doesn’t even live here!” Bruce thunders again. Or some synonym that still means loud and forceful but also being desperate and totes whining. The Big Guy turns to face his children imploringly. He throws an arm in Steph’s direction for accusatory emphasis. Y’know. All dramatic like.

Oh shit. Maybe she did pick up some things from him after all.

Ugh. Okay, never mind, its definitely epiphanies that are gonna be her supervillain origin story. Seriously.

Fuck those guys.

 

Chapter Text

The Ric Grayson and Talon storylines both end at the same time, and in the same way:

Great Grandpa Creeper Cobb successfully manipulates Ric into position to be brainwashed and become the Talon that Willie the Weenie has always wanted him to be…..this happens for like, two issues.

Then Grandpa Get Ye To A Graveyard Already fucks up….he accidentally brings Talon Ric within sighting distance of the Court’s latest crop of prospective Talon recruits, including a wee baby ten year old orphan being trained to be a future Talon.

And the essential corn kernel of Dick Grayson’s essence, deep down in his psyche, just fucking POPS like its Orville Redenbacher and someone just nuked it in the microwave.

And the real Dick Grayson comes shrieking to the forefront of Talon!Ric’s brain, nothing subtle about it. And the next thing his Rancid Relative knows, he’s being fucking impaled by his great grandson’s blades as said great grandson, who is supposed to be docilely brainwashed, what the fuck, he's going to have words with the Brainwashers about their work....regardless of any mind control deficiencies, the no-longer-at-all-brainwashed Dick is already halfway across the room, diving into the mass of other Talons like they’re a collection of bowling pins and he’s a wrecking ball straight out of a Miley Cyrus music video.

But instead of the caterwauling lyrics “I never hit so haaaaaaaard in love,” Dick’s accompanied by a soundtrack of him screaming:

“I will protect you, small child!!!!”

As said small child is just standing there, staring, like….dude, what?

And then Dick finishes absolutely demolishing everything undead and nefarious in sight like he’s the Tasmanian Devil on meth. And he turns to said small child and begins the process of Smothering, as his hands flutter all up and down checking for injuries but not touching, like:

“Did they hurt you are you alright you’re safe now cough once for I’m all good or punch me in the no-no’s if I’m making you feel unsafe, I will make sure you are totally safe from here on out, you are my baby now, I have decided, but like, only if you want to be.”

And small child is decidedly overwhelmed but Man-Who-Speaks-Like-He-Has-Pixie-Sticks-In-Place-Of-Blood-Vessels seems harmless, if weird, and is definitely preferable to the weird Bird Men who kidnapped him off the streets and tried to teach him how to kill people and make death threats out of nursery rhymes.

And he doesn’t have a lot of experience in other subterranean lairs to compare this one too, but he’s decidedly not a fan, so when Dick asks if he would like him to take him to see Batman and Batgirl and Robin and other superheroes who can also reassure him there will be no more homework on How To Torture People Good, he’s like…”yeah I guess. If you want.”

So Dick scoops him up with glee and takes off through the tunnels, yelling back over his shoulder: “Bye Greatly-Gross-Grandpa, hate you lots, don’t call, don’t write, you’re officially off my Christmas card list, hasta la neeeeeeeeeever.”

Thereupon he sets forth swiftly grappling across the Bludhaven rooftops, yelling"Parkour!"  just because he can and its fun. Its weirdly relaxing for his wee passenger, because look, this dude may be weird as fuck, but he’s clearly got the moves to protect him from the Undead Legions of Ornithologists and he seems too…fun to be evil.

Not in the Joker kinda way like he’s seen on TV in previous foster homes where its like, jeez dude, try hard much, but more like an adult who just quit a soul-crushing cubicle-dwelling corporate-craphole job and has suddenly been reminded that the sky is blue, flowers smell good, and there is a Santa Claus, Virginia.

Thus by the time they arrive at Wayne Manor, with no attempt made to hide where they’re going from his wee passenger’s eyes - Dick has already decided he’s keeping the kid, pending said kid’s approval but look, kids like him and he’s determined to bring his A game to the pitch meeting, so he likes his chances - said wee passenger disembarks in the Batcave but stays close by. Clinging to Dick’s side in an ever so slight way that allows for plausible deniability later, once he gets his bearings and also his bravado back.

“Dick?!” Comes the chorus of voices from the rest of the family. They're all there already, by great coincidence and in great defiance of the crapfests in their own individual titles, but also who the fuck cares. And Dick puffs out his chest, cuz he’s putting on a good show for his new kiddo, first impressions are important…

“Tis I, fam! The one true Dick Grayson has returned! Huzzah!”

Look, being completely oblivious to his Greatest Dork Energy coinciding with his Times He Most Attempts To Be Impressive, is like, Peak Dick Grayson characterization, you can trust me, I’m a doctor.

And Tim’s like, “Why are you dressed like a Talon?”

And Dick’s like, “Isn’t the better question why aren't you dressed like a Talon?”

Which makes no sense but shhh, I’m running out of steam here, don’t question the atmosphere, just let it be.

And Bruce is like, “Who’s your friend?”

With like…designs and agendas already in mind.

Because said wee Talon-to-be is cute and adorable and bravely trying to act like he is not at all intimidated by his surroundings and is in total control of what’s going on, like, he meant to be here, this is all according to plan, yes, excellent, everything is progressing nicely…

Which as everyone knows, are the three key essential traits Bruce looks for in prospective adoptees.

So Dick snarls and later blames it on residual Talon-ness, (they’re very territorial bird…assassin….people…). Anyway, the adrenaline is still high and also he has swiftly become attached. Whether kiddo knows it or not, Dick one hundred percent credits him with the brainwash-breaking...and thus when factored in with the cuteness quotient, what we have here is an instant recipe for Protectiveness slash Possessiveness that would be creepy and inappropriate if this wasn’t pure crack.

But crack it is, and thus Dick curls a protective arm around the kiddo like the lap-bar on a particularly turbulent roller coaster. He applies G-Force sufficient to keep even Superman from prying him out of his hands - but in a gentle, non-’crushing kinda way that might hurt the kiddo.’ Even though physics doesn’t work like that, except look, these are crack physics, they can and they do work like that.

And he’s all, “I already adopted him, so back off, Bruce, I’ll cut you. But also hi dad, I missed you. In spirit I mean, like I had amnesia and then I was brainwashed so technically its probably a reach to say I missed anyone but just roll with it. Also I can haz hugs now, please?”

And then Damian teleports in front of Dick amid a cloud of Disapproval that’s really just a cover for OMG-I-Was-Without-You-And-It-Was-Terrible-And-I’m-So-Glad-You’re-Back-But-Also-Who-Is-This-Interloper-And-Why-Is-He-Stealing-My-Hug.

“Tt. Grayson. Your absence was…less than desirable. See to it that this doesn’t happen again. Also what is that and why is it here.”

“Aww, Dami, I’m sorry. I promise to install a “please have the nearest available psychic reboot my brain in case of future brain damage slash amnesia” clause in my living will. And soon as I get a free second, I’ll break the fourth wall and blackmail the DC editorial staff into declaring me off-limits for all death, brainwashing and/or kidnapping plots for at least the next four major crossover events. I have naughty pictures. They’ll cave.”

“Hmph,” Dami says. He resumes staring pointedly at the kiddo, who juts his chin defiantly and stares back while clinging more tightly to Dick.

The Wee One may have very little clue what’s going on, but he’s a quick one and has at least picked up on the fact that Dick wants him and this other kid wants Dick. Which combined with the rescuing and the kicking of bad guy ass means Dick is probably Quality and In Demand and Of Value. Thus he figures he might as well stake a claim now and worry about whether or not to act on that or skedaddle later, once he’s got more intel. He’s a natural Bat, this one, but then, that’s probably why he was in Toddler Talon Boot Camp. He scored high on whatever weird aptitude tests they used to scope out talent, and by talent we mean murder-skills.

“Dami,” Dick admonishes his youngest brother. “This isn’t an it, he’s a person, and he was recently traumatized so promise me you’ll be on your best behavior or at least your ‘engaging in shenanigans with Jon’ behavior. And he’s not competition, you’re my Dames and my little bro, and he’s potentially your nephew, which is a whole separate category and no threat to you and your baby bro status at all, so retract the claws."

He holds his baby brother in bedlam with a pointed stare. Damian stares back impassively. Nevertheless, communication is had. Probably. Who knows with those two.

Dick continues: "If anything, the real danger is Pops adopting him and thus supplanting you as the official Baby Bird of our generation, so make like an ally and help me get that dangerous “I’m gonna adopt this kid so hard” gleam out of Bruce’s eye before it gets any gleamier. We’re still only halfway through my tearful reunion and having to cut Dad before we even get to cake would be a major mood-killer, but I’ll do it, I swear. Also, get your Baby Bird behind over here and hug me already, I have two arms.”

Damian rolls his eyes but obediently disappears and reappears nestled against Dick’s other side in the blink of an eye. The proper application of ninja skills has always been the pursuance of hugs and cuddles. Thus sayeth the crack.

“Hey, I do get cake, right?” Dick asks suddenly, looking around dangerously. “I was amnesiac and also brainwashed, I deserve cake, tell me there’s gonna be cake.”

“Well that answers whether or not we should be worried about this being an attempted infiltration or not,” Jason says, strolling over casually. “No impostor or brainwashing script-writer could ever duplicate the Essence de Dick so perfectly. Hey squirt. Welcome to the madhouse. I’m Jason, what’s your name?”

“Oh right,” Dick realizes, cocking his head. “Hey, what is your name?”

“Really, Dick?” Tim sighs, fondly exasperated. “I realize you like to jump from A straight to Z whenever possible, but steps B through Y aren’t usually just mere suggestions.”

“It hadn’t come up yet,” Dick defends himself.

“Yes, why would it have,” Duke muses from where he's leaning over and snapping his fingers in front of Bruce’s eyes, in a futile attempt at tearing his gaze away from the viable adoption candidate within 20 meters from him. Its probably best that they get this adoption thing inked out and signed off on as soon as possible - its the only thing that's definitively going to get that “Argh, I’ve spotted treasure ahoy” look out of Bruce’s eyes.

(And Alfred had been very clear in laying down the law after Duke’s own adoption. Bruce is forbidden to adopt any more kids himself until he gets a better handle on juggling the six he already has. Which. The past year has…probably not met Alfred’s standards on, so it doesn’t seem likely he’ll be waiving that requirement any time soon. And nobody wants to get in between the Unstoppable Force that is Bruce’s ‘must adopt all the orphans’ and the Immovable Object that is Alfred’s ‘must maintain at least a reasonable fascimile of order in this household, even if it is a total sham, appearances matter.’)

“Hey!” Dick protests. “I’ve been busy, okay? There was fighting and then there was parkouring and now we’re reunifying, and it wasn’t like I was just calling him ‘that kid’ in my head, I was calling him ‘my kiddo’ which is a perfectly reasonable identifier and thus more specific detail just….hadn’t been relevant yet!”

“So uh, bee tee dubs, what is your name, buddy?” Dick asks, looking down. His kiddo looks back up at him for a long, measuring moment, and then he shrugs.

“I’ll tell you in exchange for some cake. You said something about there being cake, but I don’t see any.”

Dick gets misty-eyed at that. “See? He already prioritizes like me. This was destiny! Also, you heard my kiddo, do we not deserve cake? It has been a very long day, there was murder and mayhem and more. Also, my creeper great grandpa was there being icksome, and you know how much that weirds me out.”

“Come along, Master Dick,” Alfred says then, appearing out of nowhere thanks to his Bat-Butler Magic. “And your young charge as well. I already have your favorite baking in the oven and it should be done shortly. Lemon meringue with raspberry layers.”

“That’s disgusting and I will not participate in any ceremony that treats that as part of a celebration instead of just a weird kind of laxative,” Jason says loftily, though it escapes no one’s notice that he's the first to the stairs.

“Shut your facehole, its delicious and amazing and you will like it or I will kick your ass,” Dick says, equally loftily.

“Boys,” Bruce says with a long-suffering sigh, as the threat of brotherly bloodshed is enough to finally shake him out of his orphan-induced stupor.

“At Mario Kart. I will kick his ass at Mario Kart, ugh, jeez, B, why do you always assume the worst of us?”

“Precedent,” Tim says dryly.

“Who the hell asked the Oompa Loompa Brigade to weigh in with all ninety of his pounds?” Jason calls back from the top of the stairs.

Cass comes up on Dick’s left, where the kiddo is one half of the sandwich made by him and Damian on Dick’s other side.

She smiles down at him when he directs his still very wide-eyed gaze at her, landing on her after his latest sweep of the cavern and all its contained chaos - as if trying to take it all in. Most likely in the hopes that if he can manage that, somehow the last seventy two hours of his life might suddenly make sense. He really is adorable.

“Don’t worry,” she beams at him, reaching out to pat him comfortingly on his shoulder, right above where Dick’s arm is still curled around it like a warm blanket - albeit one with the tensile hold of a python. “They’re all crazy, but only in the good ways.”

Duke scoffs as he slips ahead of them and starts taking the stairs two at a time. “It’s funny how you say that like you’re some kind of exception to the rule.”

“Bold words, little brother,” Cass calls after him. He only shouts back from the top in a booming voice, his words echoing down the narrow stone stairway dramatically.

“Am I not Batclan?”

“Oooh, is that a new thing we’re doing?” Dick asks excitedly. “Somebody catch me up, I demand context. I smell a story there.”

“It was Jason’s fault,” Tim says automatically. Dick nods.

“Sure, that tracks. Continue.”

Bruce trails after his brood of batlings and birdlets, sidling over to where Barbara is waiting for the elevator. The latter hanging back to watch the commotion with the air of one taking notes for repurposing in the form of future blackmail material. Her ever extending network of spies and informants makes so much more sense, suddenly.

He clears his throat while they listen to the hum of the elevator’s machinery as it descends to their level.

“I wasn’t really thinking of adopting the boy,” he says. Not at all sullenly, nor with a trace of defensiveness to be found.

“Of course you weren’t, Bruce,” Barbara says. She pats his arm fondly, with all the conviction of a kindergarten teacher whose student is attempting to claim innocence on the matter of a paint disaster perfectly matching the paint stains on his hands.

“I wasn’t,” Bruce mutters as she precedes him into the elevator.

Why does nobody ever believe him?