Batman smashed his way into the flat Stephanie had visited one hour ago. Her slurred statement of Facebook had Oracle check her messages, and sure enough, the apartment she had been visiting before her phone call matched the last known location of her phone’s gps. Bruce stormed through the flat to find a woman passed out on the ground in the kitchen. He turned her over to see her having a sort of epileptic fit, eyes not seeing anything and drooling uncontrollably.
He swore to himself, calling Robin to his location. Damian came only a short moment later.
“See her hair?” Bruce asked, to which Damian nodded. “Take out the clips. One at a time, and carefully.” Batman held the woman’s head up whilst Damian worked, ensuring she was breathing. One by one the hair pieces were removed, Robin working meticulously and gently, something which Bruce was somewhat ashamed to admit to himself he was surprised that Damian was capable of being. Her long grey hair then was laid straight out, trailing on the floor. Damian pocketed the clips.
“Mad Hatter?” He asked. The woman began to still, and Bruce laid her down on the ground, ensuring she could still breathe.
“Likely. Call an ambulance, then get those to Oracle.”
“You will find her? Stephanie?” Damian rarely referred to anyone by their first name, Dick being one of the few exceptions. Bruce knew Stephanie had made an impact on Damian when he was just ten years old, and he was glad to see how nervous he was for her. Damian was a good boy, truly.
“Go,” was all he could bring himself to say. He could find her faster if they knew who had taken her.
Damian nodded then jumped out a window, shooting across towards the clock tower. Bruce stood up, then made his way through to the kitchen, noticing immediately the powder on the counter. Jervis, or whoever had orchestrated this, was sloppy, which was a worry in of itself. Stephanie had managed to drink an entire mug and go as far as the lift down the hall before passing out, so that narrowed down the compound. He took a large enough sample, doing one last sweep of the apartment before leaving the way he came, heading back down the hall. He stared for a moment at the lift entrance. No sign of a struggle, most of Stephanie’s personal belongings had been taken with her it seems, but when she passed out she had dropped her phone, its screen cracking and laying within the lift that she had been dragged out of. He leant down and picked out the SD and SIM card that had manged to survive. He made a note to get her a new phone once this was all over with.
With the sound of the ambulance Damian had called arriving, Bruce left the building, heading back to his lab at the Manor. He had asked Dick to inform Tim of what had transpired, and he was dreading returning home. History was uncomfortably repeating itself, but this time he resolved to keep Tim involved in the search and recovery. Especially the recovery. He knew Tim was in a poor place and tended to be overly violent when Stephanie was involved. If Bruce could find a way to keep him away from whomever had taken her… but Bruce doubted this would be possible. He had to keep Tim focused on staying with her, helping her heal. Leave the punishment to the others.
His arrival at the cave was immediately met with chaos. Cassandra, who was trying to calm her brother down, looked desperately for help from their adoptive father. Tim threw her off and burst over to Bruce, gripping his arm.
He was crying.
“Tell me you have a lead. Please. Please.”
Bruce could not deal with Tim’s broken expression and tried to be as factual and cool as he could. “Maybe. Verity Keegan seems to have been used by Jervis Tetch to drug Stephanie with a high concentration of Flunitrazepam.”
“The date rape drug?” Cassandra asked. It was the wrong thing to say, as Tim’s face drained of the colour that crying had brought to his cheeks. Bruce brought the conversation back on track as quickly as he could.
“Oracle is checking, but the clips in her hair seem like something up the Mad Hatter’s inventory.”
Tim nodded frantically. “Then where was he last seen?”
“He hasn’t.” Dick’s voice floated over from the computer. “He hasn’t been seen for months. Escaped with a bunch of others in last March’s Arkham breakout. We got most of the big guns back in, but Jervis has stayed hidden for the past five months.”
Oracle’s mask popped up in the upper right computer monitor. “Robin handed over the equipment he used on that poor woman. It’s got Jervis’ stamp all over it. I can work on tracing him down, but I’ll need another pair of hands. Red Robin, you okay to work with me?”
Tim managed to compose himself enough to confirm he would be around as soon as possible. Bruce silently thanked Barbara for giving him work that would keep him off the streets.
“Robin and Black Bat will follow any leads provided by Oracle. Cassie go with Tim and meet up with Oracle and Robin. Nightwing… I want you with me. I have a theory, but I need a second eye on it.”
Dick looked deeply saddened by the request in a way that Tim couldn’t understand. It was one of their moments where the pair would converse without a word passing between them, something that even Cassandra could only get the drift of, never the specifics.
“Yes. Of course.” He responded quietly.
“Good. You are all dismissed then. Let’s bring her home.”
Stephanie woke to find she was in essentially a shed on a cheap and squeaky mattress. Her brain and limbs were still foggy, and she was unable to lift her head. She let out a broken sigh. Her wrist and cheek hurt, as if she had fallen at an awkward angle.
More pressingly, there were a pair of hands groping her, and she couldn’t raise her own to push them off.
“All awake?” She didn’t know that voice.
“Not really.” She managed to respond. It should have been biting, but instead it was soft and slurred.
The voice breathed a laugh, hands sliding further down her torso and their face came down from above her. They rested their cheek against hers, before turning to kiss it sweetly.
“…Tim?” No. It wasn’t Tim. The voice was wrong. The hands were wrong. Too clunky. Too… grabby. Tim never held her like that, even when they…
Stephanie realised with a jolt her inner and outer voices were getting muddled again. She managed to ask, “What… What happened?”
“I’ll tell you when you wake up properly okay?” An overly large forehead and tiny eyes came into view, upside down, and smiling. It just made Stephanie more confused. He circled round and sat on the bed next to her.
“…Bruce…I was on the phone to…” She managed to say, desperately trying to sit up, but it wasn’t working, everything moved too slow and too weakly.
He looked away from her face momentarily, and gently pushed her shoulders back against the mattress. His hands didn’t leave her skin, trailing down once more. She gasped at him at him momentarily cradling her breasts before she cried out at his hands slipping under her dress and leggings. She managed to grab his wrist.
And he did, hands moving away to his own lap once more. “Sorry. Yes. That wasn’t appropriate. Should ask permission first.”
There was a moment of silence, before the pieces clicked together in Stephanie’s head.
“I… am not going to leave here am I?”
The man smiled, gaunt and looking like a skull’s grimace. “You won’t want to.” The smile faded, and instead he just looked hungry. With that he leant over, reaching for something on a table behind her head.
“I had something made for you. Brand new. It will look lovely in your hair.”
“No.” She tried to reach up to push away, but he easily swiped her hands away.
“Don’t be rude. It’s a present. It’ll make you happy. Promise.”
That made her start to cry. “No! No no no no no.”
Then the clip was fastened to her hair and skull, and then she blacked out.
They were having an argument, Dick and Bruce, on their way back to the cave. Bruce’s suspicions had been confirmed regarding the Court’s involvement. They had been funding and supplying Jervis with technology, but for what in return, they were not sure. Jervis had made the choice to target Stephanie, another blonde young woman in his endless quest for an Alice figure who did not exist. If anyone knew where Jervis was hiding, it would be the Court.
But what to do about it?
“I am not having you go near them. This all may be just one giant ploy to swap one of my children for another.”
Dick immediately bristled at both he and Stephanie being referred to as kids, that Stephanie was somehow less valuable than he, but he recognized the strain Bruce was under.
“What then? We just let them get away with allowing Jervis do God knows what to Stephanie, huh? You’ve seen the previous girls’ corpses? He wrecks –”
“Oracle and Tim will find her before it happens. They’re the best.”
“Yes, they are but we are ignoring the best lead we have because of you being afraid!”
“That’s enough Dick!” He yelled as they screeched into the Batcave. He opened the door on the passenger side and waited for Dick to exit. “I am not having anyone going near the Court. There’s another way. There always is. We’ll find her. Get out and help Oracle from this end. When Jervis is found I want you and I to take him down. No-one else. Understand?”
Dick threw himself out of the car with a curse. “Fine. Whatever. If nothing shows up by the end of the night…” He threatened. Bruce didn’t respond, whirling the car around and shooting back out of the cave.
Mouth screwed up into a sneer, Dick stalked away up the stairs. He stopped when he saw Tim standing at the top of the steps, eyes wide and confused. He looked sixteen again, like his father had just died once more. The guilt from lying to him came back full force and Dick couldn’t bear to meet his eyes.
“How much of that did you hear?” He managed to ask.
“…Nothing. Not over the sound of the waterfall.” Tim scuffed his feet. “Alfred is upstairs. I needed to grab for Babs some schematics… Any luck?” He dared ask.
Dick knew he was about to make a mistake. He knew, but looking at Tim, he couldn’t stand the thought of lying.
“I need you to come somewhere with me. No-one else can know. Not yet. I need to show you something.”
“Bruce doesn’t want you to.”
“No. But we’ve been lying to you. I won’t do that anymore.”
Tim paled, if such a thing was possible, and nodded, following his big brother to his motorcycle.
Tim was more than confused when they reached his old home, he was utterly lost at what seemed like a pointless diversion. Dick parked the bike outside the front door and without checking to see if Tim were following, opened the front door. Tim rushed to follow, cape sweeping out behind him. They walked into the main lobby and into the lift. Once upon a time there was someone who worked the lift, now it was deemed suitable enough for the user to push the correct floor number. As they rose up through the building, Tim found his voice, albeit it was still quiet and nervous.
“What…what does this have to do with Stephanie?”
Dick didn’t reply, but his mouth twisted morosely. He led them to Tim’s old home, opening the front door with a key that Tim had no idea he’d obtained. They walked into the apartment. It was dark now, around 10 at night, so Tim switched on a lamp or two.
“The past few weeks, Bruce and I have been investigating the Court of Owls,” Dick began, walking away towards Tim’s father’s office. “We wanted to get a list of names of members past and current. At the very least, we could get started on weeding them out, for anything they could be caught for. Tax avoidance, murder, rape, human trafficking, fraud. Anything. The electronic smuggling that Cassandra and Stephanie busted the other day at the docks, it was supplied by the Court for Tetch. He’s on their… payroll, but what for we don’t know. He gets the material he needs for his devices, and the means to take Stephanie, but we don’t know what the Court wants him to do in return.”
Made sense so far, but… “Why are we at my old house?” Tim was almost afraid to ask. They stopped by the bookshelves. Dick looked at him with such intense pity Tim didn’t know what to do in response. He could only feel a pit of dread growing in his gut.
“Did you know your mom kept diaries? How much of your parents’ stuff did you go through after they died?”
It would have been a callous question if it weren’t Dick asking.
“I… I couldn’t bring myself to touch most of it. I didn’t have much to do with anything with my mom’s stuff after she was murdered. Dad gave me her jewellery; said I could give it to my family one day. But… no, I haven’t really touched her things. I took our photos and his work stuff from the computer after Dad died… The books, the stuff from the digs and travels… I don’t know. I just couldn’t.”
Dick turned away then, reaching behind a line of books and pulled out a diary. Before he handed it over, he took off his mask and looked Tim straight in the eye.
“Swear you won’t lie to me now.”
Tim stared back, the dread in his stomach making him almost afraid of Dick. He took off his cowl. If it had been any other time, Tim would have scoffed at his brother, but seeing the haunted look in Dick’s eyes made him respond solemnly.
It seemed to be enough, and Dick opened the diary, handing it over. Tim felt like crying for no clear reason. He didn’t want to be reading his mother’s notes, he wanted to find Stephanie.
But as he read through the pages, he muttered, “This is the year your parents died.”
Dick sighed sadly and nodded for Tim to continue. He turned through pages, going back to March. Dick’s parents had been murdered a few days before his ninth birthday, and a few weeks before one of European dates for Mother’s Day that the Circus celebrated. One of the last conversations Dick had with his parents was discussing a present he was making for his mother.
Tim reached the 13th of March and gaped at the words his mother had scribbled. He heard Dick’s breathing stop as Tim read through what was in front of him. His mother had no sympathy for Dick, no concern over the murdered aerialists, not even a worry over a toddler aged Tim for having seen two people fall to their deaths. There was, instead, a visible disappointment in what had occurred, and a worry that Dick was going to get adopted before he could ‘come home’. Janet clearly wanted Dick to get lost in the system, or for the Drake’s to take him home themselves, and she mentioned that Jack had laughed it all off, saying they’d just have to wait for the next gifted kid to come along to fill ‘the gap’. Whatever that meant.
Tim flipped forward a page of two, to when Dick was formally taken home by Bruce from the centre. All his mother had written in that date was two damning sentences that had been crossed out so harshly she had ripped through to the next page.
The Court’s not pleased. He can’t belong to us for some time now.
Tim looked up at Dick, who had started breathing again, albeit shallowly and unevenly. His eyes were wet. Not with sadness for himself though. He was looking at Tim with such a look of pity that is caused his heart to break from the panic.
“They were… when we went to see you. What… were they checking on your progress or…?”
Dick managed a nod. Tim frantically whirled through pages to see if there was anything else, but there was nothing as damning as his mother’s unfeeling March entries. He knew his mother to rarely lose her composure, so the events of that March must have truly irked her to write it down. Callous. And his father. Hadn’t he cared?
“Why didn’t I know about them? Bruce said when he was in the labyrinth there were children watching. Why wasn’t I treated like them? If they were members, I would have known right from the start… right?” He was desperately trying to find a reason, any reason, for Janet’s notes to have been a misunderstanding. Dick did not seem convinced.
“We don’t know. Maybe they weren’t privileged enough, maybe they didn’t want you to be part of it.” As if that were reassuring.
“My parents knew.” Tim choked out. Dick remained still, watching Tim process it all. “They knew, and…and they were going to hurt you… My dad… when he lost our money and business…when he found out I was Robin…”
His breathing got increasingly faster and shallower. Dick reached out to remove the diary from Tim’s hands, but Tim sharply pulled it back. He bit his lip and stared at Dick. Dick blinked, eyes wide and glassy, not sure who the betrayed expression on Tim’s face was directed towards, him, or his parents.
“I’m sorry Tim. I couldn’t hide this from you.”
“How long have you known?”
“Only a day.”
Tim nodded, as if the length of time Bruce and Dick held on to this knowledge made a difference.
Tim’s eyes widened. “Why did he not want to tell me?”
Dick gagged on his response, knowing that Tim was referring to their adoptive father. “You… He needed more time to figure out how to –”
“He doesn’t trust me.” The words were hollow, empty.
“He wants Stephanie home first. He doesn’t want anyone approaching the Court. They’re manipulative as hell Tim. We don’t know what they want yet.”
“They want you. They’ve always wanted you.” Tim shook his mother’s diary in Dick’s face, emphasising the point. “And if they’ve been funding Tetch then they know where he is.”
“No. Tim. I said to Bruce we’d give him until morning to find Stephanie. If we can avoid…”
“Now you’re just parroting him!” Finally, Tim yelled, anger overflowing. Dick stood there as he shouted. Tim so rarely raised his voice; anger wasn’t something that came naturally to him like it did Dick and Jason. He was like his mother in that regard. Tim had been somewhat proud of the fact, taking after her in some way after she’d gone. Now he obsessed over how he’d not ended up more like them.
“Don’t do this Dick! You tell me my parents were part of a monstrous organisation, one that wants to hurt my brother, kill my father and has gotten my girlfriend kidnapped and potentially murdered, and you expect me to not confront them? It is cruel what you’ve done, and you know it!”
Dick, unnervingly, kept his cool, though he still looked miserable. “Six hours. Give Barbara six more hours to find her. Saving Stephanie is the priority, not punishing faceless men.”
“She could be dead in six hours. The Court knows where she is! Black Mask had her for days whilst Bruce ran around aimless! I don’t want her to be in pain and you want me to just wait as if–”
He cut himself off abruptly, glaring down at the diary. His breathing got harsher, his hands shaking, until with a sudden jerk, he ripped out several pages of the diary.
It must have been slightly therapeutic, because he continued to rip and tear, wrecking the binding, finally throwing aside the book. He shoved past Dick and began to destroy the library.
Watching sadly, Dick did nothing to stop Tim’s destruction. Fragile items that Tim’s father had brought home on assorted digs from throughout the world were thrown the floor with aggressive shoves and shattered against the wooden floor. He stood on books, ripping and tearing pages as he moved. All his mother’s diaries were torn to shreds whilst Tim cried and Dick looked on, neither aiding nor stopping what could have been seen as a tantrum. Tim moved on to the curtains then, ripping the poles out of the wall, leaving the room looking like a bomb had gone off.
It seemed the office was not enough, as Tim then moved across the house, pulling things off tables, kicking furniture until it was broken, and generally destroying anything he could get his hands on. Dick followed, ensuring he wasn’t hurting himself, but not interfering. Finally, Tim reached his father’s bedroom. He moved almost as if he were drunk, gripping the walls, but Dick recognized it as just being blind with grief. Tim threw himself into his father’s closet, pulling out a heavy safe. He entered a code and reached in, dragging out tangled jewellery.
“Stephanie can have them. All of them. Mom has her wedding ring in the grave, everything else is here. Steph can do what she wants with them, wear them, sell them, bury them, I don’t care. They don’t belong to me anymore. Take them for me?”
Dick could spy assorted rubies and amethysts in amongst the diamonds and pearls. It was sadly fitting for the couple. He couldn’t refuse, so bent down, and as carefully as he could began packing them away into his assorted pockets and compartments.
One of the necklaces, a long gold chain with an owl figurine as a pendant, had bright rubies for eyes.
Tim left the bedroom, seemingly leaving anything that had belonged to his stepmother, Dana, untouched. His destruction was at the very least methodical. Dick eventually emerged to find him crumpled on the floor of the kitchen. Jack had died there, and Tim had found him on the floor, crying into the gaping wound in the man’s chest.
Finally, Dick went over and held him whilst he cried.
“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for what we would have done to you.” Tim said, burying his face into Dick’s neck. How like Tim to have his world view come crashing down, and yet here he was apologising to Dick for something he had taken no part in. Had no knowledge of. Dick tried to find the words to assuage Tim’s purposeless guilt.
“Tim… we are all with Bruce because we didn’t become what our family wanted from us. Cassandra, Damian, Stephanie… one look at who their parents are and how they were raised you’d think they were certain for specific path… and yet they chose to be here, with us, helping people. Hell, my great grandfather has certain expectations that I will literally die to avoid.” Dick held Tim tighter, constricting his arms whilst his chest heaved with tears.
“We experience trauma, then we make a choice in the face of that pain. Gotham is a shithole sure, but it doesn’t make us chose our life path.” He tried to reword what he and Cassandra had spoken of, upon her return to Gotham from Hong Kong, to make Tim understand. “That’s still in our hands. You can take that pain and promise to protect others from it. Or you push it on to others. Bruce made the former, that’s why he puts on that cowl, Jason made the latter, and now he can’t come home at all. Neither option makes the pain stop. But you made a choice too, right from the start, and ever since then you keep making the same choice. Consciously or not. You want to help Bruce, yeah? That’s why it started. I suppose you can imagine your parents are rolling in their graves but… Robin was always about family, our family. I named myself Robin because it was my mother’s nickname for me. I couldn’t hold on to much from them – life as a nomad doesn’t let you build up much stuff – but I could take her love, and give it a new shape. A new home. We chose that home. You did not choose your parents, or their actions. We can choose to make their wrongs right though.”
Dick pulled back, cradling Tim’s face. “Do you understand?”
Tim was staring at him with a sort of awe that Dick hadn’t been on the receiving end of for nearly four years. Tim sniffed, eyes starting to dry.
“I think I get… why you gave Robin to Damian now.”
Dick cooed and kissed Tim’s forehead. “He needed a home. He needed hope. I’m sorry I took it from you in order to give it to him.”
“I got it back. Took a while but…” Tim stated, resting his chin on Dick’s shoulder. They stayed still for a moment, whilst Tim eyed the house. “Six hours. Then I will go to the Court. Alone. They want you with them and to do it they’ve let Steph be taken. They can’t have either. I won’t let them. I… I also want to know what my parents were to them. Was my dad forced to leave after we lost our money and mom?”
Dick sighed. “Please take Cassandra with you. For me.”
Tim pulled away then, leaving Dick sitting on the floor. He shook his head emphatically.
“No. I can’t. I’m not taking your advice this time.”
He looked around the town house, the destruction he had done in his grief. He didn’t feel much guilt.
“Thank you, Dick, for telling me. It would have only hurt more the longer I didn’t know.” The smile he gave his older brother was utterly hollow, but Dick believed him regardless.