Bruce found his attention drifting toward the door. Not at the door, not exactly, since his attention would drift in the direction of the Manor’s front door, regardless of where he was, regardless of whether he could even see the door.
That morning he had woken groggy-headed and sore, hip still twinging from the fall and sudden stop. But for all the static in his head, Bruce had felt better than he had in a while. A side effect of going to bed before the sun for once, he supposed. The lemon and poppy seed muffins waiting on the kitchen counter had been a tacit reward from Alfred and one Bruce has indulged in with pleasure. He had curled up in the sunroom, a blanket thrown across his legs and a heating pack on his hip, a mug of coffee and two muffins balanced on the side table and case files spread about him on the chaise, interwoven with newspapers and other correspondence.
For Bruce, it counted as a lazy morning. The afternoon continued in much the same way. He attended to his stretches and standard workout, careful to work the hip but not overexert it. He saw to paperwork from Wayne Enterprises, analytics from the downstairs computer, and reports from the League.
He felt… not good, because good was out of his reach now, along with happy and content. But he felt like the day was one worth tolerating. Like some of the fog had lifted and he could look about himself without feeling like he was seeing down a long tunnel with no end in sight.
The jitters didn’t catch up with him until deep into the afternoon, and even once they arrived, Bruce was slow to notice. The case from the night before had tangled its fingers in his focus, drawing him in like the well-crafted puzzle that it was. It felt solvable now that he had slept and swept away the last lingering repercussions of the flu that had plagued him. Still, as deep as he was in his case files, Bruce still found his head lifting when feet passed the entrance to the sunroom. When the phone would ring, his attention would snag, lifted from the deep well where it had sunk to peer about in hopes of… something. He wasn’t sure what. But no matter how fully he lost himself to his work, Bruce found his attention swinging like a lodestone to the front door.
At dinner, the Manor was quiet. Bruce’s relationship with the silence of the Manor had taken a winding road throughout his life, but he had thought he had grown accustomed to the heavy, empty air. Yet as he worked in his study, as was his custom, he found his ears pricking to hear what wasn’t there.
It wasn’t until he was down in the Cave, cowl in hand and ready to depart, that Bruce fully resurfaced into awareness and said to Alfred, “It seems I’m flying solo tonight.”
“Yes, sir.” Alfred stood watching, hands clasped behind his back.
Bruce looked down and adjusted the cuffs of his gauntlets. “You said Robin checked in last night?”
He had already asked the same question this morning and received the same affirmation Alfred was giving him now. He had also come down and seen for himself the Robin costume neatly hung in its locker. It had been a dereliction of duty to leave the night’s clean-up to the boy, despite how sensible and prompted by need the choice had been. Guilt had hounded Bruce once he had awoken and perhaps that was what bothered him now. Guilt that he had taken his decrepit carcass back to the Manor to rest and had left a child to tote evidence to the commissioner, no matter the ease and relative safety of the task.
Robin is fine. He made it back. He’s fine.
Alfred confirmed this—again—with a nod. “I spoke to young Robin last night. He called up after depositing his costume and cycle. No injuries to report other than a scraped elbow and he was headed home to rest.”
Bruce tapped one finger against the cowl, then caught himself and frowned.
“He called this afternoon,” Alfred offered.
Bruce looked up.
“Homework,” was the short explanation given.
Oh. Tim often brought his homework over with him, preferring to work through the packets in the kitchen at Alfred’s elbow. Bruce had told him before to keep atop his studies and not let the mask interfere with his academics, so it was good he was taking that instruction to heart.
“You didn’t tell me he called.”
Alfred lifted one eyebrow. “You did not ask.”
That was an unmistakable rebuke and Bruce flinched from it. Shoving the cowl onto his head, he stalked to the Batmobile. “Don’t wait up.”
Patrol was quiet. Tim wasn’t chatty like Dick or full of sly asides like… but he was good about asking questions. He wanted to know and understand, and he had a knack for intuiting when Bruce needed to be pushed outside his own head. There was none of that tonight.
Bruce flew the skies alone and tried to convince himself that it was better this way. That he had missed the silence, the contemplation, the freedom of not having to watch out for the well-being of a partner. He tried.
Patrol ended early, the night not full enough to support a full deck of stalling. Bruce went to bed, for once unbruised and without dangling loose ends. He found it hard to sleep.
Morning dawned. Bruce woke. He worked out. His leg was back to normal with only the slightest lingering ache. There were no muffins, but there were scones, and Bruce avoided the small covered plate that was set aside with three extra scones. The pastries were still there long into the afternoon, after all the school buses had flung out across Gotham and began reeling back in to release their drivers.
Tim did not appear.
And that was good, wasn’t it? Bruce didn’t want or need a Robin, especially not a clumsy, bright-eyed kid from the neighborhood. The other… the other Robins, they had forced their way into this life by the strength of their own need. Robin was something they needed. Robin wasn’t even something Tim wanted. He had said so, to Bruce’s face even. What he wanted was to take care of Bruce, and wasn’t that just the most backward thing? He was a child. He had no business being on the streets, no business wearing the mask, no business trying to make Bruce’s health and well-being his burden to carry.
Bruce had tried to chase him off, as much as Alfred’s watchful eye and his own yawning need would let him. So it was good that, finally, he seemed to be succeeding.
That was what Bruce told himself, at least.
He told himself that through another silent dinner where he tapped his pen against the desk to mask the lack of chatter in the kitchen. He told himself that as he suited up, alone yet again, and drove off into the night. He told himself as he turned to point out movement to watchful eyes that weren’t there or slip a sprinkle of gummy bears into a hand that wasn’t outstretched.
Bruce had thought himself silent on patrol, an unwelcoming sphinx. Turned out he talked more than even he realized, if one could base it on the number of words he choked back that night, stillborn and unheard.
The night almost ended the same as the one before. Bruce eased into the seat of the Batmobile with a sigh and charted the course for home.
Somehow he ended up perched outside Tim Drake’s window instead.
To be clear, Bruce knew this was a bad idea. In fact, it was a Bad Idea, as Tim himself would type it. There was no reason for Batman to be skulking outside the home of Jack and Janet Drake, never mind that their car was gone. No, scratch that, them being gone made it worse, because it meant he, a grown man of possibly cryptic status but a grown man nevertheless, was hiding outside the window of a teenage boy.
A Bad Idea.
Especially since Tim was fine. He had spoken to Alfred yesterday, he was staying home and living life like a normal kid, he was fine. So why couldn’t Bruce turn off the strobing alarm in the back of his brain?
The light was on in Tim’s bathroom. A dead kid couldn’t turn on a bathroom light or make the water run. He was fine.
Still, Bruce waited for him to come out. He just wanted to see that the boy was fine. His patience was rewarded a few minutes later when Tim emerged from the bathroom.
Bruce was inside the room in a breath.
Tim looked up at him from the floor, mouth agape, his shriek of surprise still echoing.
“What happened?” Bruce demanded.
“Why are you in my room?!” Tim stammered, one hand pressed to his chest like a grandmother with a heart condition.
Bruce narrowed his lenses and stared accusingly at the misshapen ice packs duct taped to Tim’s right shoulder.
Tim’s eyes, on the other hand, widened. “Is there something wrong? Is it Agent A? Is he okay?”
Bruce held out a hand to help Tim to his feet even as he assured, “Agent A is fine.”
“Okay. Okay, good,” Tim breathed. A pause. “Then we’re back to why are you in my room?”
Bruce didn’t reply. It was a tactic that worked well with criminals, the stony silence.
Little boys, too, it turned out. Tim rested his other hand atop the ice-packed shoulder, jaw working as he turned away. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
He turned his back to Bruce and rummaged with one hand through a dresser drawer to pull out a pajama shirt. He was standing with bare feet and a bare torso, the knobs of his spine visible and shadowed in the dim light of the room. Tim always looked small, but he looked smaller now, bent and lumpy with the added ice packs.
Bruce bit back a sigh. “Come here. Let me see.”
It wasn’t that Tim always did as he was told. If that were the case, he never would have stepped foot in the Manor to begin with. But he wasn’t usually defiant for no reason, which was why Bruce was surprised when, instead of coming toward him, Tim took a step back.
Surprised and alarmed.
“Timothy.” Bruce had been speaking as himself since entering the room, his voice pitched quietly so as not to disturb the Drakes. But now he spoke as Batman, his command unyielding.
Tim slunk forward.
Bruce reached for him, then paused, sighed, and pulled a batarang from his belt.
Really, Tim? Duct tape?
Bruce could just picture Tim getting himself into a scrape at school or on an escapade of his own and then trying to patch himself up without his parents noticing. Heaven save him from the conceits of teen boys.
He had Tim sit, then carefully cut through the layers of tape to peel off the ice packs. Bruce tried to get Tim to tell him what he would find before he reached the skin, but the boy sat with his face blank and jaw clenched.
Bruce pulled away the last layer and held his breath as he surveyed the damage. It hadn’t been the mounds of ice packs that were misshapen but the shoulder underneath. The joint was swollen and clearly misaligned, the skin over it bulbous and mottled a dark, ugly purple. Bruce reached out to ghost his fingertips over the joint, but Tim hissed and pulled away.
“This isn’t recent.” Bruce could hear his own voice from far away, as cold and unyielding as the Gotham harbor in winter.
“It i—“ Tim began, but Bruce cut him off.
“This is from the other night.”
Tim hadn’t injured himself at school or in some reckless misadventure. He had hurt himself with Bruce. Bruce had hurt him.
“You hid this from me.”
Bruce, dizzy with lingering illness and exhaustion, had nearly fallen to his death that night, and Tim had lassoed him with a line around his leg. The move had saved Bruce but also strained his hip and sent him home, leaving Tim to finish the night alone. Bruce had let him finish the night alone, had extended trust he had thought earned, had taken Tim at his word that he hadn’t injured himself saving Bruce.
“You lied to me.”
Tim stiffened further and stared off at the far corner of the room.
“You broke the rule. The one rule I had for you, and you broke it.”
Two days. Two full days of lying and hiding.
“What did you think was going to happen?” Bruce demanded, temper mounting when he received no response. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Did you think your shoulder would magically pop back into place? That you could close your eyes and wish this away?”
Bruce was aflame. Tim would have crossed Gotham with that shoulder. Bruce knew he did, because Commissioner Gordon had confirmed that Robin had stopped by with the bag of evidence, and the Robin suit still hung in the Cave. What if something had happened? What if a criminal had cornered him, some two-bit thug with a gun and a vendetta against masks, or someone even worse?
“How could you be so stupid?” Bruce seethed, voice still low but as venomous as a snakebite. “You lied to me. You lied to A. You certainly lied to your parents. What kind of ridiculously transparent story did you make up for them? If they work out what’s going on, that’s it. For you, for me, for all of this.”
One irate parent. That’s all it took. One slip-up for Jack Drake to put the pieces together, for Janet Drake to see something she shouldn’t. They would link Tim to Robin, Robin to Batman, Batman to Bruce. His life’s work, his mission, his life, gone. And all because Tim decided to act like the silly child he was.
Tim had shrunk down in on himself, chin tucked under like a little boy. Tears shone in his eyes, gleaming in the caught light from the bathroom. Bruce didn’t care. He shoved down the pang of regret in his chest, because better upset than dead. That was what he saw, a vision worse than Batman’s identity plastered across every newspaper in the country. He saw Tim dead, discarded like garbage and bleeding out in some filthy back alley because he caught the attention of the wrong person and couldn’t fight back.
Tim mumbled something unintelligible.
“What?” Bruce snapped.
Tim visibly jumped, then swallowed hard. “They’re not going to find out.”
That they didn’t already know was a miracle unto itself. Just like a teenager, to think he could keep something like this hidden forever. There were always consequences. Always.
Bruce scoffed, loudly, derisively.
“You don’t think they’ll notice the Hunchback of Notre Dame hobbling through their living room? How you’ve managed to keep this hidden this long—“
“They’re not home.” Tim kept his head low, his gaze on the wood flooring between his feet. “They won’t... be back until next Friday. Probably.”
His voice was trembling. No, not trembling. Shaking. There was water rising in his throat, threatening to drown the words, but the words themselves stuttered and shook. A speech impediment, Bruce recalled from Tim’s stolen medical records. A mild one, worked out of him before he reached middle school, but one that could still appear in times of stress.
For all the dangers they had been through as Batman and Robin, Bruce has never heard it before.
And beneath the stammer, the words themselves were slowly settling.
Bruce looked to the bedroom door, remembering the dark windows, the empty driveway, the stillness of the house.
“I thought I could... pop it back in. Like the... movies,” Tim explained, voice barely above a whisper.
Bruce’s jaw tightened, imagining Tim trying to push his own dislocated shoulder into place. He would fail and it would be for the best. A success done by an amateur could cause untold damage. But a failure would have been… painful.
“It didn’t work.” Tim ground the heel of his thumb into the base joint of his other hand, pushing and crushing and grinding with a nervous intensity. “The internet said if I... iced it and elevated it, it could pop in on its own.”
He licked his lips, gaze still on the floor. “I was going to go to urgent care tomorrow. Tell them I fell off my skateboard.”
Except for all of it, it wasn’t a bad plan. Bruce could still feel his heart throbbing in the base of his throat. It was his turn to turn away, to run a hand over his mouth to stop the things he wanted to say.
He didn’t know what to do with the seething well of fire in his chest. He kept seeing Tim dead, but with someone else’s face. He wanted to yell, truly yell now that he knew the house was empty, but what right had he? Tim wasn’t his son. Wasn’t his responsibility. The lying and the hiding, those could be dealt with, but wasn’t the punishment for those to cut ties? If Tim’s place as Robin was earned by necessity of Batman needing a Robin, didn’t it stand to reason that Batman needed a Robin he could trust?
Bruce dragged a weary hand down his face and only just bit back a sigh before turning around to face Tim again.
Small. He was so small.
Again the fire roared. Tim had parents, living, breathing parents, so why weren’t they here? Their son ran wild in Gotham’s streets and they knew nothing. He broke himself in service to Bruce, and they weren’t even here to rain down the hellfire that Bruce deserved. How could they have a son and not be here to care for him?
If Tim were Bruce’s—
Bruce took a breath, held it, and forced it out as he wrenched his mind back to the problems in need of solving. There was a child with an injured shoulder. There was an empty house and absent parents. There was the issue of the lies, the concealment, and the broken trust. There were tears on Tim’s face.
One problem at a time.
Bruce cast about for the first solution and found it in a discarded hoodie wadded up in a chair. He shook it out, then pulled it over Tim’s head.
“Pull your good arm through,” Bruce instructed. “Leave the other inside and use the hem for support. Then put on your shoes.”
Tim did as he was told, even as he sniffed and asked, “Where am I going?”
Not “we,” Bruce noticed. At least he wasn’t wholly unaware of the potential consequences to come.
“To the clinic. You need an x-ray.”
Leslie would still be up. She would be able to verify how much damage Tim had wrought by delaying. He could put on a domino in the car, and Bruce could use the ride to consider whether he would ever be allowed to wear one again.
Tim mumbled something as he followed Bruce down the stairs. It could have been an excuse. It could have been an apology. It could have been any number of things.
Bruce pretended not to hear.