Dick comes home and rings the doorbell. He's forgotten to make a copy. Again.
Jason opens the door.
"Shush. I finally put him to sleep. I've got baby vomit all over me and I haven't taken in a shower in, like, sixty hours, so please, if you wake him I will..."
"Jason." Dick makes soothing motions with his hand over Jason's chest. The warmth feels good, seeping into his shirt. "It's all good. Everything's gonna be okay. Daddy's home."
Jason relaxes, even as he frowns. Dick smirks.
"Go. Make it a hot bath. Take as long as you need."
Dick goes inside. Bruce is asleep in the crib, clutching the soft blue blanket. A cherub. We'll do right by you, Bruce. This time. We'll do it right.
When your father gets de-aged, your first thought is oh shit oh shit oh shit please tell me its reversible.
But when your father is Batman, a severely depressed and self-destructive vigilante whose crusade is slowly consuming his life and relationships, and whose only wish is to get his parents back, your second thought (if you're Dick Grayson) is I hope it isn't.
So maybe it was morally questionable. But Alfred approved. And in the Family, having Alfred's stamp of approval was the same thing as God himself giving you the go ahead.
"I can't raise my son again."
Alfred had left summarily. Dick and Jason had moved into the Manor. Life went on as normal.
And baby Bruce? He babbled, happily unaware that second chances so precious are rarely given, and always at a cost.
Damian Grayson-Wayne stares down at his father.
His father stares up defiantly.
“Father, I will not have you playing with Hello Kitty. Not in place of the excellent toys I bought you last week. I insist you give me that abominable chew-toy.”
Father does no such thing. Damian decides extreme force is necessary.
Dick is coming up the stairs with the laundry basket when he hears Damian’s wails. He drops it and rushes in to room, prepared for anything.
“He bit me!” Damian points accusingly at Bruce. Bruce is all innocence.
“Damian?” Dick puts his hands on his waist. “Did you try to take something from him?”
“Ih,” says Bruce. Damian looks flustered.
“That bastard is accusing me of something false!”
“Damian. Out. Now.”
Dick scoops up Bruce in one arm, and his laudry basket in the other. He goes downstairs singing. Damian stares after with eyes of resentment.
“You always take his side!”
Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne always have coffee on Thursdays and discuss League strategy.
Clark sees no reason to interrupt their tradition. Although the coffee may have to be swapped for something…else.
The League has been preparing for another Thanagarian invasion. Since they barely survived last time, and that was when they had their strategy leader, Clark isn’t feeling so good about their odds now. Hence the visit.
“So if you could just give us your opinion…”
“Beh!” Bruce opines.
“Everything he says has a double meaning,” says Clark, impressed.
“You know, if you’ve just come here to mock our baby, then you can show yourself the door.” Jason says brusquely.
“No mocking intended.”Clark looks thoughtful. “Do you think some small part of him is still in there?”
Jason looks at Bruce trying to fit a square through a very circular hole in the shape-sorter bucket thingy.
“There are times I doubt it.”
Tim misses Bruce. The old Bruce. Not the Bruce currently sitting on his lap with a more-than-regular-amount of stink emanating from his diapered underside.
While changing and powdering his mentor, Tim sighs. A teardrop rolls down from the corner of his eye. He quickly wipes it away. Dick insists no one show any other face of life around the baby except happiness.
But he always had told me I could become the World’s Greatest Detective. And maybe training your mentor in return isn’t so bad. I could be all gruff and grim, and scare the shit out of him.
Tim smiles at this reflection.
It's Bruce's birthday. The old Bruce's. The entire family gathers and watches old home movies.
Bruce teaching Jason to ride a bike. Alfred and Bruce arguing about Damian's 'gardening'. The one Steph had made, where she dangled spiders into Bruce's partially open drooling mouth when he had collapsed one night after patrol.
There are not a few wet eyes after that. Jason pretends there's 'onion air' in the house. He misses Bruce, although he'd cut off his right arm before he ever...
During his last days, Bruce had been woefully tired and sleep deprived. He and Jason had patched things up. Somewhat. Bruce had gone to the extent of breaking into Eminem: "when I'm gone just carry on, don't mourn, rejoice every time you hear the sound of my voice..."
That was when Jason knew Bruce was losing it. But maybe in hindsight, he wasn't, so much.
Of all the things Jason Todd had seen himself as growing up, being a stay-at-home dad was not one of them.
If he'd found Bruce exasperating before, then now, sitting in his high chair, with his lordship refusing his cranberry apple oatmeal porridge (which Jason had toiled at for a full twenty minutes) and regurgitating what looked like last week's breakfast, Jason could take his own eyes out.
Jason had gone to this fancy-shit parenting store in a mall and bought some fancy-shit recipe books with fancy-shit ingredients in them. Then he'd come home and drawn up a full grocery list, and summoning his chauffeur (hell yes, Jason had a chauffeur) instructed him to get everything on the list, from No. 1 all the way down to no. 217.
And now, Bruce seemed more interested in eating his own hair.
Jason takes Bruce to see Leslie.
"He's not normal. He can't keep down his breakfast, and seems to find non-edibles interesting, including his own shit."
Leslie laughs. Martha Wayne had walked through this same office thirty-five years ago, and complained of the same problem.
"It's common. Children are curious by nature, and knowing your father, you can expect a greater than average amount of curiosity. He is at the oral stage of psycho-sexual development. Just feed him things with an interesting texture, and let him explore with his own hands first. Don't worry about making a mess."
"Easy for you to say," Jason grumbles.
"You know, Jason, nobody would have thought you had it in you." Leslie looks at him.
Jason stands up. "Why, 'cause I'm a tough guy and carry a gun? Trust me, sometimes shitty parenting can produce--"
"A desire to give back something different?"
Jason has said too much. But with Leslie, things don't leave the office. He knows. He nods and swallows.
"Thank you, Leslie."
"It was my pleasure. Oh, and..." Jason turns, Bruce in his arms. Leslie gets up and walks up to him. She kisses Bruce.
"Second time's the charm," she smiles.
Okay, so, after re-reading this chapter, I realize what Jason says could be misinterpreted to mean that he thinks Bruce was a shitty parent. Just clarifying that isn't the case.
Damian, Tim and Dick have gone shopping at Wal-Mart. Okay, so maybe they're just there for the sight-seeing. And to show off their baby.
After the first thirty-five compliments or so, Damian and Tim are preening.
"You know, this isn't so bad."
A modeling agency talent scout had approached them, and had been firmly refused by Dick.
"Oh. Are you the father?"
"We all are," Tim informed him. Damian elbowed him in the ribs.
"I'm his son," Damian clarified, nodding towards the baby.
The talent scout had beat it after that.
Damian sees a pile of boomerangs for sale. Cheap knockoffs of the Aboriginal patterns, but still.
"Father," he says. "Look."
"Okay, Damian, I think we need to have a talk," says Dick, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Stop calling him 'father'. The poor kid is going to grow up very confused."
"Then what do I call him?" Damian demands. "I can't exactly call him Bruce, now, can I? I have some standards of decorum."
"You don't have to call him Bruce if you don't like. But choose something different."
"How about Abee?" says Tim.
"What?" says Dick.
"It's 'father' in Arabic."
Damian looks pleased with the suggestion. "Abee." He rolls the word around on his tongue. He'd never gotten to use it before.
"That sounds okay, " he says grudgingly.
"Why does your name get to come first?"
"What about my name? I change his diapers!"
"Ew! That sounds like we're in a polyamorous relationship!"
"Father is still a Wayne."
"But how're we going to explain where he came from?"
"Okay, that's enough!"
Bruce Todd-Grayson is eight months old. He totters around drunkenly, much to the secret amusement of everybody.
"This book says he's not supposed to walk until ten months!" says Jason.
"Tell him that." Dick says, doing laundry. Why was he always doing laundry?
Like a bicycle, Bruce falls the moment he stands still. There's some weird physics involved, but Tim can't figure it out.
From the moment he could gaga-googoo, the one name Bruce has picked up is Damian's.
He follows Damian everywhere.
"Dada!" the moment Damian enters the house.
"Dadoo" Bruce wails outside, when Damian is bathing and has closed the door. Really, there is a limit. Damian is not going to allow his father into his bathtub.
"Da!" when Damian is practicing his drills outside.
"Yes, we get it." Tim says wearily. "He's your favorite son.
"Really, parenting is such a thankless job."
Tim nurtures a martyr complex.
Bruce's other favorite person in the world is Clark. This may have something to do with the hover-rides he receives around the Manor when Clark comes to visit.
Clark is extremely fond of Bruce. He gets him pears and sweet potato pies and Superman t-shirts (the last are thrown out).
"Is it weird for me to say I like him better this way?"
"You're asking the wrong person," says Jason.
"I mean, I miss him, you know, when I'm not with him, but--it's hard when he's right here, and he's so happy!
"I never realized the happiness he had the potential for. Just what his life had taken from him. I think we all made fun of Bruce for moping so much, and put it down to his personality, or something. But he was once just as happy as the rest of us.
"You're doing a good job."
"The idea is to stay alive," says Dick Grayson.
"No one in this family can afford to take the risk of dying. Or we undo all our good work."
"That means no more vigilante nonsense," says Jason.
Tim and Damian both send up a shout.
"What about my work with the Titans?" says Damian.
"We'll find a different leader. And you can still continue to coordinate from the ground, like Oracle used to."
"Lian does perfectly fine," says Tim.
"Lian is not Bruce. She is not pre-wired to go down a dangerously self-destructive path. I made a promise to Alfred. A promise I intend to keep. You're either in the family or you're out."
"What about Gotham?"
"Let's see. Let's take a head count. Batgirl. Spoiler. Orphan. Batwoman. Huntress. Black Lightening. The Signal. Bluebird. Katana. Black Canary. Catwoman, sometimes. If anything, we're overcrowded recently. As long as there is no Batman, the Joker remains unmotivated. I think Gotham will survive," says Dick.
"You can't turn your back on Father's legacy!" Damian screams. "I for one will never, as long as I live--"
"Cut out the melodramatic crap. You are Damian Wayne. That is your fucking legacy. You can paint like fucking Michelangelo, and you're hella smart. Your father wanted the best for you. He wasn't strong enough. But we are." Jason finishes.
Tim claps with a sardonic smile on his face.
"Everything I've given to this family. And you're just going to drop the bomb. Just like that. You're in or you're out?"
"No. Fuck you, Dick. You and Jason adopt the baby. Damian's fucking related. You know the only one that threat applies to? Me!
"I worked the hardest of all of you. I kicked fucking ass. I was never good enough. It was always you give me your best. Then you give me more. And then, when I finally had a father, you dare! You fucking dare!"
Tim storms out.
Timothy Jackson Drake. Go home. You are not needed.
Every Batman needs a Robin.
I said go home!
The punch connecting with his face. The wall of pain crashing into him. The sound of cracking bone. Tim, with his face streaming red, the Earth swimming around him.
This is what I was born for.
Tim sends out a shriek into the night.
Tim is sitting on the roof of the carriage house, his hands wrapped around his knees.
"Can I join you?"
Tim shrugs. Dick approaches him cautiously, as with a wild animal. He swings his legs over the stile, and dangles them.
"You know, I had this dream. Before.
"You and Damian get caught in one of Firefly's traps. You scream for help. I can't move. You know, that weird crawling sensation in your dreams, where you can't move forward or behind. You can only watch.
"I watched you both get incinerated. I watched you turn into ash, right before my eyes. It felt like hours. You both were screaming, right until the end. I was crying, when I woke up.
"And you know the first thing I thought when I got up? 'Bruce would never let it happen.'"
"Yeah, I get it. And now Bruce isn't in any position to save us. Hence the ultimatum."
"You know, in Roma culture," Dick says musing, "dreams are keys to another world. An alternate reality, if you will. A warning you are receiving from your other self, or something like that."
"Please don't tell me you made this entire decision on the basis of a nightmare."
"No. But when I got up, shaking, you know who I find awake too? Jason.
"He'd had a similar dream. His worst fear realized. Losing the two of you.
"Tim. Don't leave, man. You've got a life ahead of you, here. To lose you, is to lose everything Bruce built. You're right, you worked the hardest of all of us. Bruce poured his best work into you. He fashioned you with his own hands. You are the archetypal Robin."
"And without Robin, who am I?"
"I don't know, Tim. Neither do you, I'm guessing.
"Why don't you find out?"
Dick and Jason get married at Whitechapel Hall. Bruce is their bridesmaid.
The entire Justice League turns up uninvited, mostly to see Bruce ambling up the aisle in a sequined shocking-pink gown, scattering petals. There is general merriment at Bruce's expense.
"At least now he can never become Batman," says Tim, looking at Hal Jordan holding up his iPhone and grinning from ear to ear like he'd won the fucking lottery. "All the blackmail fodder would be too much."
"But why a dress," Damian moans. "Are we raising father to be gender-fluid?"
"Would that be so bad?"
Damian mutters something in Arabic, which sounds to Tim like 'go fuck your donkey'.
"So. Speech." says Clark. Everything falls quiet. "Since you don't have a best man" (Dick and Jason had wisely avoided choosing between Tim and Damian), "one of you is going to have to tell us the proposal story."
"Whoo!" Stephanie cheers.
"So. Basically. Jason slips the ring into my coffee," says Dick peremptorily. "I have to go to the hospital and get it pumped out of my stomach."
"And at the end of the day, he even forgot to propose. He felt he'd done his end, and the rest was on my shoulders. So I have to kneel, there in the hospital ward, and propose to Jason with his own fucking ring."
There is general applause. A few tears are wiped away.
While everyone is distracted by the wedding cake (which Steph and Cass had put together last night, and no, it wasn't anything bat-related) Bruce runs to Clark, tripping over the hem of his dress. "Kaak!"
Clark scoops up Bruce, and flies out into the night. Bruce whee's.
"Our son has been kidnapped," notes Jason, on his third glass of champagne.
"I noticed. But Bruce is badass. Like that baby, you know, in Baby's Day Out.
"Let's be irresponsible parents. Just for tonight.
"Dance with me, beautiful." Dick holds out his hand.
Dick and Jason sway to Celine Dion, while Clark shows Bruce the Aurora Borealis.
Damian starts a self-defense class: Damian's Self-Defense Academy for Children. He only takes applicants under six years.
The ad promises that 'from the ashes of your children's childhood, men will be made. Bones may be broken, but what will emerge will be stronger'.
So far Bruce is his star pupil. But that may be because Bruce is his only pupil.
"No bones will be broken," warns Jason, "or trust me, some more bones are gonna break."
Damian tries assiduously to teach his star pupil the art of stillness and concentration. "At your age, Father," he admonishes, "I had already mastered Karate Blue Belt! You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I insist you behave!"
Father obstinately refuses to behave.
Damian resigns after three weeks.
Wayne Enterprises is having the much-anticipated merger with LexCorp. After Luthor went to prison, Talia Head has sold Luthor's company, in bits and pieces, to all his competitors. Wayne Enterprises gets the lion's share.
"For my beloved," Talia smiles.
Her beloved doesn't look very appreciative. He's grimacing. Talia's Gucci Bamboo is too strong on his nose.
Talia bends down and places a chaste kiss on his cheek.
"What is another thirty years, beloved, when I have waited whole lifetimes for you? Maybe this time, we will start on a new footing."
"Alright, that's it. Out. Stop wooing our son." Dick pushes her out the door.
Selina Kyle is another matter. After she gets the birthday invite for Bruce's first, she shows up with a basket full of kittens. Now kittens are a gift a baby can actually appreciate.
Selina immediately becomes Bruce's favorite animal.
"Do you find it weird?" asks Tim curiously.
"I'm not the one who gets to clean his diapered bottom."
Selina has a vague idea of dropping in on a twenty-year old Bruce Wayne in her catsuit and scandalizing him horribly by, say, kissing him. But those notions slowly disappear when Bruce looks into her eyes. A familiar mist develops. Another set of blue eyes, another lifetime ago. Baby wails, soft breaths, larger-than-life kisses. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
The life we lead is not safe for children.
My daughter. My precious. My kitten.
Selina pushes Bruce away. Bruce wails. He has grown to like the cat lady, who smells of bath salts and sunny rooftops.
Selina walks out the door, her eyes swimming.
It had been Bruce's baby. Bruce knew. It was his baby she had thrown away.
To be Catwoman.
And now, Helen is gone. She has a good life. She has wonderful friends. She has love.
All Selina has is a rock in her heart.
"Are we going or are we not?" Damian asks, tapping his foot.
"We're going." Dick says firmly.
"We're not." Jason mumbles firmly.
Tim and Jason are zombies. Tim because it is his default state, and Jason because Bruce had a stomach ache last night, and he and Dick had taken shifts soothing the colic.
But somehow Dick manages to be sunny and chipper as always, while Jason is sleep-walking in the general direction of the car, being firmly herded by Dick.
"We're going." Dick announces.
"Today of all days. We want to give him a surprise."
"More like a heart attack," Tim mutters.
"Pennyworth has announced his explicit intentions not to be involved in father's second upbringing."
"Yes. But what if he misses his Brucie every once in a while? What if he wonders what his boy is doing right now? And what if he feels he can't call and ask after him because he doesn't want to intrude into the family he walked away from?" Dick argues.
"That's a lot of what-ifs," observes Tim.
"Yes. Now get in."
Pennyworth has settled down in Snowshill, an out-of-the-way hamlet in Gloucestershire. His days are spent reading Shakespeare, tending to his flowerbeds, and playing scrabble with the neighborhood ladies (with whom he has hit it off quite charmingly, thanks to his cultivated sense of humor and taste of the world). His days are filled with peace and quiet. And when the undercurrent of longing emerges, he writes poetry to soothe his soul.
They herd into the car.
"Why can't we just ask Clark to carry us there?" Jason asks. "It's a ten-hour flight!"
"Clark is not our personal ferry service." Dick says.
Damian harrumphs. "And what is the use of having super-powered beings as close personal allies if one cannot rely on them in one's time of need?"
Dick starts the car. Tim falls asleep.
He suddenly swims back into consciousness. "Connor!"
Connor and Tim have mutual crushes on each other, unbeknownst to either of them. They are both keen to seize any opportunity they find to see each other, and are equally keen to avoid any awkward conversation.
Connor appears after one phone call. He's in his pajamas.
"Um...sorry, yeah, we need you to fly us to Gloucestershire," says Tim half-apologetically.
"It's a pleasure, Timothy." Connor says, blushing.
They land in Gloucestershire after 10 seconds. Bruce has thrown up. The others aren't looking so good, either.
Damian kicks the door of the car open and rushes out into the hedges, doubling over. If he'd known, he wouldn't have stuffed himself with Jason's waffles and eggs. He mentally curses Jason.
Connor looks sheepish. "Sorry...yeah, I haven't done this before."
"It's okay, man," Dick says. "We're sorry. For...you know...the early morning call."
Connor flies off. Tim looks after him.
"Do you think he sleeps in those pajamas?"
"That would be the general idea of wearing them to bed, yes."
Tim mentally makes a note to buy himself a similar set.
Alfred gets up. He stretches. He gets into his fur flip-flops, and walks into the kitchen. He puts a cup of water on heating and makes himself an Earl Grey. Then he grabs the newspaper and the tea, and walks into the living room. Today, he's going to weed the Heliconias and rosebushes, and then in the afternoon he's going to repair Mrs. Winchester's sink pipe, the one she's been complaining about.
He feels young. And safe. He thinks of his young master. Alfred has been holding his breath ever since Bruce was fourteen. He's finally let it out.
Breathe. Master Bruce is safe.
Finally at rest.
Little did he know that Master Bruce was at rest much closer than he thought.
The doorbell rings. Alfred gets up, his joints creaking.
He opens the door.
Two men, two boys and one toddler. All looking various degrees of sheepish and nauseous.
Of course. It was Father's Day.
Alfred carefully arranges his face into neutrality, to hide the parade of emotions underneath: nostalgia, fondness, and a deep...somethingness. Something Alfred cannot find a word for, and suspects will never find.
"Masters Damian, Timothy, Jason and Richard. How very nice to see you."
They look down and around and away. Bruce is the only one who meets Alfred's eyes.
"Master Bruce." Alfred says softly.
They were waiting for this invitation, apparently, with some eagerness, because as one they all launch themselves towards the portal. There is some resultant discomfort.
"One at a time," Alfred says.
They file in.
And look around.
The cottage (for so it is) is painted a cozy summer yellow. There are flowers on the sideboard, and Turner's Fishermen at Sea on the wall. Two comfortable ottomans in eggshell white around a stained glass coffee table complete the look. Dick whistles.
"Something you've done with the place."
"I inherited most of it from the last tenant. The painting, for example, is priceless, but has been part of this village for decades. I have to say I feel it clashes with the ambiance."
This is Alfred's version of babbling, Dick realizes. He's nervous. Jesus.
"Have a seat. Please. Where are my manners?" Alfred says shaking his head.
"No, we're the ones who should be apologizing. We're the ones who just showed up on your doorstep, Alfred." Jason says. "In our defense, it was all Dick."
"Indeed." Says Alfred. Tim and Damian are already making themselves comfortable on one of the ottomans. Bruce is drawn to the flowers on the walls.
"Oh, that reminds me. I must congratulate the two of you," Alfred says. "My boys. All grown up." He hugs Dick and Jason.
"Um...okay..." Jason says.
Dick elbows him.
"I regret not being there at your wedding."
Dick laughs. "Don't worry, Alfred. You don't think I would have come without pictures, did you?"
"Indeed not," says Alfred dryly. "However, I must first see to your refreshments. You boys, pardon the expression, all look like hell."
Alfred serves them lemonade cookies and sun tea. They sit outside on the porch in old-people rocking chairs. Curious neighbors occasionally pass by, waving at Alfred and giving him quizzical looks. "My family," Alfred explains.
Dick's heart feels like treacle and sunshine.
Alfred has taken Bruce on his knee. Tears have sprung up in his eyes.
He doesn't bother brushing them away.
"Bruce," he whispers, tracing his ruddy cheeks with papery hands.
"Alfred." Bruce says.
"You will call me Mister Pennyworth, young man. I am no longer your butler."
Bruce sticks his tongue out.
"Hey!" say Dick and Jason simultaneously. "We're really sorry, Alfred. We have no idea where he's learnt to do that."
Tim looks slightly guilt-stricken.
"No matter. Two weeks here and I'll return him to you a perfect gentleman."
"No can do, Alfred," says Dick smiling. "Unfortunately, we've developed some pretty strong attachments to him."
"The mark of true parenthood." Alfred nods. "I am proud."
There are times Damian feels a crumpling hole in his heart. He knows that Grayson and Drake feel it too. The baby is not their father. The baby is going to grow up to be someone else. Their father's memories, his quirks, the way he would sometimes card his hand through Damian's hair, or sigh when he was working on a case, or grunt when a punch made contact. That was all gone. And that was what made a person, wasn't it?
It wasn't all DNA. Otherwise identical twins would be the same people. Everything that was father was gone.
Damian just wants to punch something. Sometimes he wants to punch the baby.
Usually he compensates for this by demonstrating an even greater degree of affection for him. Grayson has been telling him how much easier life is when you let go of the anger, and just skip to the sadness. Five years ago Damian would have laughed in his face. But now the anger threatens to claw out of his chest and into his life, and he seeks to understand it. There were forces beyond his control. Forces beyond anyone's control.
Darkseid. Who got his ultimate revenge on Batman by erasing him from existence. By reversing father's consciousness into the past, before his trauma, before he knew. Who he was. He could have killed him. But this was crueller. This way, he would always be there, taunting them, never quite absent. No gravestone. No finis. No mourning.
Like a ghost. Except crueller, because more innocent.
Damian goes outside and starts digging a grave, 6'2'' in length.
It's early morning, and the ground is hard. He has a hard time breaking surface. But he keeps trying.
Father. I am sorry. I never gave you the burial you deserve.
Two hours later, as Dick and Jason watch quietly from far away, Damian drags an empty coffin into the grave. He starts filling in the dirt.
"Come and help me," he rasps.
They come. The three boys pack in the dirt. Bruce is ambling towards them, followed by Tim.
"Whose we burying, Daddy?" Bruce is getting more precocious by the day. He knows all about graves now.
They look at him. Damian wipes the sweat from his eyes.
"Bruce." Dick says. He steps forward. "You are a big man now."
Bruce nods solemnly.
"We are burying a brave man. A hero.
"We are burying our father."
"Oh." says Bruce. He blinks. He's trying to understand.
"His name was Bruce. Bruce Wayne.
The boys all come around and form a circle. Bruce comes too. He wants to be a part of it too.
"Why was his name Bruce?"
"You were named after him." Jason whispers.
"Because he was so brave?" Bruce asks.
"Because he saved the world."
A slate-grey gravestone stands outside Wayne Manor, that simply says Father.