Never where it’s visible.
That was the rule. Tim knew that rule well—bruises ringing his elbows, or red marks on his shoulders, or his father’s favorite, the belt, but never, ever where it could be spotted. The only rule. Because people were nosy and Bruce Wayne had practically overhauled Gotham’s foster care system seven years ago, and now people asked too many questions.
Tim tilted his face. In the harsh, stark bathroom light, the edge of the concealer meeting his skin was as obvious as day.
It was impossible to find a concealer that worked perfectly, but usually they were good enough for covering rope burns around his wrists, or mottled bruises up his arm from a fight with Killer Croc, or anything else that couldn’t be explained as a skateboarding accident. Usually Tim didn’t have a massive black eye stretching over half his face that looked like he’d decided to cosplay Two-Face.
Usually, his homeroom teacher didn’t take one look at him, go pale, and call the school’s social worker.
Tim had answered her questions perfectly and calmly—accidentally fell while doing a twist on my skateboard, I’m fine, it’s worse than it looks, I’ve been icing it—but Bruce had still been called in. Tim hadn’t been able to eavesdrop but Bruce had emerged from the meeting looking grave and Tim’s stomach had sunk through the floor.
Bruce put on a good façade of cheer, but his expression grew serious and contemplative every time he thought Tim wasn’t looking, and the pit inside Tim grew and grew.
It was obvious that Bruce wanted to talk to him, but Tim—didn’t want to hear it. Didn’t want Bruce to explain that Tim hadn’t been careful enough, and now there were consequences. Tim didn’t think that they’d rip him away from Bruce immediately, but they would keep a sharper eye, and if more Robin-bruises kept showing up…
Tim didn’t want to leave the Manor and Bruce and Alfred and sometimes Dick. This was—this was his home.
But he wanted to give up Robin even less.
Tim turned away from the mirror. He was wasting time. Alfred was out on errands, Bruce had some emergency meetings for W.E., and Dick wasn’t scheduled to stop by this weekend, which meant that there was a good chunk of the day where no one would care where he was, leaving Tim free to set up his safehouse.
It was the only solution that made sense. Tim wasn’t going to stop being Robin, and eventually there would be another bruise or another story or another incident that would make them take him away from Bruce and put him in a different family. It was much easier and simpler to sue for emancipation before that even happened, and while he was getting the paperwork together, he could also set up a new place to stay. Like a Batcave, but his very own, and decked out with everything he’d need so Bruce wouldn’t have to worry about him.
He was thinking of calling it the Nest.
Tim had gotten a pretty good deal on an apartment in Crime Alley—partly because it was in a part of town named Crime Alley—and he had a living space and a private garage that he could turn into a small bunker. He’d already set up the security on the place—he’d bought the apartment back when his father was still alive, as a contingency plan—but now he had to outfit it.
Clothes and furniture and stuff was last on the list. First was setting up the bunker. The garage had a sublevel storage place, so Tim could put his motorcycle in the garage and conceal the trapdoor leading into the storage space. The space wasn’t very large, but with judicious use of dividers—Tim marked out the plans in tape—he could have a small lab and armory.
The car didn’t fit into the alley where his private entrance led, so moving necessitated a lot of up and down and up and down until his legs were burning from the exertion, and Tim flopped down on a stack of boxes and groaned.
This would’ve gone a whole lot faster if he had someone to help him. But that was the story of his life.
Peeling himself off the boxes, Tim dragged the closest one to his harness to lower it into his bunker. And then climbed down to unhook the box and set it down, and climbed back up to attach another one. And down, and up, and down, and up, and when he clawed his way up the ladder, sweat-soaked and exhausted, to find that his garage had been invaded, Tim could only let his head knock against the ground with a grunt.
Of course. Just what he needed to top off this horrible week.
“You look like an overboiled noodle,” Jason Todd said critically.
His dear older brother.
Tim raised the middle finger while still trying to catch his breath. Jason tsked, leaning against the wall of the garage with his arms crossed, which was better than flying into a magical rage to again beat him to a pulp, but was worse than leaving.
Hood had turned more antihero than drug lord in the past few months, and even helped out on a case from time to time, but he’d made it exceedingly clear that he detested Tim, and Tim was not in the mood to be insulted.
“What are you doing here?” Tim asked wearily, peeling himself off the floor to crawl all the way out of the trapdoor. There was a saying about not showing weakness to a predator, but given that Jason had once stopped just short of turning him into a smear on the wall, he felt like the point was moot.
“Saw a lost little birdie, decided to snoop around,” Jason shrugged, “What are you doing here? Do you need a reminder to stay out of my territory?”
“You’re the one trespassing,” Tim pointed out, “I own this place.”
Jason slowly raised an eyebrow. “Do you need a reminder to stay out of my territory?” he repeated, significantly less pleasant, but Tim was exhausted and bitter and all out of energy to care.
“Fuck you, Jason,” Tim retorted, “You don’t own Crime Alley. I can buy a house wherever I want.”
Eyes flashed, burning a luminescent green in the semi-darkness, and Tim tried to remember if he’d packed his bo staff anywhere. “Cute, Replacement,” Jason said, unamused, “But if you set up a mini Batcave in my territory—” he kicked at a box of parts that clinked ominously, and Tim winced. “We’re going to have problems.” His smile was not at all pleasant, “And you remember what happened the last time we had problems, don’t you, Timmy?”
“You should really learn how to solve your problems without violence,” Tim unstuck his mouth to say.
“It’s working fine for me so far,” Jason said flatly, “Now leave.”
“It’s not a mini Batcave,” Tim pushed himself upright and dragged another box to the entrance. He just had two more to go. “And I’m not leaving.”
“Right, and I never died,” Jason’s glare was getting darker, but he hadn’t shot Tim yet. “Tell Bruce that if he wants to spy on me, I’m torching our deal.”
“Bruce doesn’t know I’m here,” Tim snapped back, “And newsflash, Jason, the world doesn’t revolve around you.”
That won him heavy, booted footsteps getting closer, and Tim continued to knot the harness around the box, not looking up, keenly aware that the open trapdoor was right next to him and all Jason had to do was plant a foot against his side and shove.
Instead, Jason moved to the trapdoor, and the ladder clanged as he made his way down. Tim suppressed his groan and finished locking the harness in place, peering downwards before he sent the box to an uncertain fate.
Jason wasn’t destroying anything though, just scanning the small space with narrow eyes. “You’re right,” he called up, “This isn’t the Batcave. This is a health hazard waiting to happen.”
“Fuck off, Jason,” Tim glared, “This is private property and you’re trespassing.”
Jason mouthed that back at him, his expression incredulous, “Wow, rich daddy really rubbed off on you, huh?”
Tim took a couple of deep breaths and suppressed the urge to scream. “We have the same dad,” he hissed, “And you can’t blame me for your goddamn issues—”
“You stole my place—”
“Well, I’m not going to be there for much longer,” Tim snapped back, “So you can stop making excuses.” And waited, still glaring, for the rejoinder. He didn’t get one.
“What,” Jason said slowly, “Is that supposed to mean?”
“Everyone knows you’re coming up with bullshit excuses not to go home, Jason, just because you can’t face your past—”
“No,” Jason cut him off, “What do you mean, you’re not going to be there for much longer?”
Oh. Tim pressed his lips together. He didn’t need to give Jason any more ammunition—except Jason was ascending the ladder now, and Tim scrambled back, but there was nowhere to run.
“Tim,” Jason said, and Tim didn’t think he’d ever heard Jason use his name in a serious voice, “What do you mean, you’re not going to be there for much longer.”
Tim bit the inside of his lip, but Jason’s expression was narrowed determination and Tim—Tim wasn’t ready for a fight. He exhaled slowly. “My teacher saw my bruise,” Tim motioned to the black and purple splotching that had undoubtedly become visible judging by the sweat streaks of concealer on his arms. “They called a social worker.”
Jason blinked in clear surprise, “Bruce is losing custody? Doesn’t he have like three million contingencies for this kind of situation?”
“Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Gotham’s foster care situation isn’t shit anymore, and if I keep showing up with bruises, no amount of fast talking will stop it,” Tim tried for sneering but only ended up with exhausted. “I’ll have to sue for emancipation sooner or later, and I might as well set up a new house in the meantime.” He wanted to tell Jason to get lost again, but if the Red Hood really had an issue with Tim taking up residence in Crime Alley, Tim might have to search for a new base.
“Sue for emancipation,” Jason repeated, slow and incredulous, eyebrows raised like he was waiting for Tim to tell him it was a joke.
“Did the crowbar turn you deaf?” was perhaps not as under his breath as Tim wanted, and his attempt to brush past Jason ended up with his face slammed against the wall and his arm twisted behind his back. Fuck.
Well, at least he already had an excuse for his bruises.
“You know what?” Jason growled out, “I’m not fucking dealing with this. You’re an idiot, and everything’s a little too green for me to enumerate the many, many ways in which you’re an idiot, so we’re calling in the big guns.” Tim heard the sound of tapping keys behind him. “Can’t stop being an annoying little shit for a second, I swear—”
“Like you have any goddamn room to talk,” Tim spat out, struggling against Jason’s grip, “You—”
A hand twisted into his hair and yanked his head back, and Tim was forced to break off with a yelp, meeting Jason’s gaze upside-down.
“Do not,” the older boy hissed, eyes flaming green, “Test my patience right now.”
Tim wanted to push. Wanted to hiss and yell and sneer until he got the fight he was looking for, until he could punch back, until he could take this raging ball of emotions—fear and frustration and it’s-not-fair and no-one-noticed-then-why-do-they-care-now and I-don’t-want-to-leave—and spend it with fists and fury.
But Tim knew that he’d lose that fight, and that was a little too self-flagellating for him. So he took a deep breath and went carefully limp, letting Jason manhandle him to his knees.
“What do you want?” Tim asked tiredly, staring at the blank wall with Jason’s weight bearing down on his shoulders.
“Right now?” Jason sounded distracted, still texting, “…Your car keys.”
“Car keys, Replacement, hand them over.”
Why, Tim wanted to protest, but it was Bruce’s car anyways, let him deal with it if Jason crashed it into Gotham Harbor. Tim fished the keys out of his pocket with his free hand, and Jason snatched them, letting go of Tim and straightening to his feet.
“Come on,” Jason said brusquely. Tim got up warily, rolling his shoulder to ease out the kink, but Jason made no motion to attack him again. Only rolled his eyes and beckoned impatiently as he headed for the garage entrance, “Sometime today, Replacement.”
“You want me to follow you?” Tim injected a healthy amount of skepticism in his voice. Every civilian knew not to follow strangers in Gotham, much less the Red Hood.
Jason’s eyes flashed, but the threat Tim was expecting didn’t come, and instead Tim got eyed with a scrutinizing stare. “Yeah, for a side trip. And if you come quietly, I won’t say another word about you setting up base in my territory.”
That sounded too good to be true. Jason didn’t make deals like that, not with Tim, which meant whatever he wanted had to be magnitudes worse.
“And if I don’t come quietly?” Tim crossed his arms. Even without his staff, he was sure that he could cause enough of a scene to ruin Jason’s plan.
Jason merely smiled, sharp and dark, eyes flickering.
On second thought, keeping his bones nice and unbroken it was. “Fine,” Tim snapped, “But we better be done by dinner.”
“Don’t worry, Replacement, I’m not planning on burying your body in the woods,” Jason snorted, and led Tim to his car.
It quickly became apparent that they were driving to Bludhaven. Tim tried asking Jason what they were doing, but Jason pretended like he didn’t hear him and turned the radio up so loud Tim nearly stuck his head out the window to get away from it.
At first, Tim had assumed that Jason was planning on wrecking the car and them, but Jason was not a half-bad driver. Certainly more careful than Dick. And his second thought, that Jason was planning to drag him into something criminal, took a hit when they pulled up outside Dick’s apartment building.
Of course, they could still be here for some grand larceny, or Tim could be a hostage-slash-human-shield, but his trepidation was chained by confusion as Jason parked and irritably gestured for him to get out of the car.
“Why are we here?” Tim asked as Jason led them up. Jason continued to ignore him, the lines of his shoulders tense. “Jason.”
“Replacement,” Jason mimicked in the same tone, still not looking at him, “Told you we were getting the big guns.”
“We’re going to see Dick?” Tim asked, caught somewhere between disbelief and plain surprise, but between the headache and low, pulsing irritation, he wasn’t in the mood to hunt for the trick. Jason didn’t respond with anything other than a snort, but they were in front of Dick’s door, and Jason knocked loudly.
The door swung open after a few seconds, like Dick had been waiting for it. “Here,” Jason said, tone distinctly annoyed, and Tim yelped as a hand planted between his shoulder blades and shoved him forward. “One idiot baby bird, as ordered.”
Dick caught Tim before he could fall over, and pulled him inside. “Thanks, Jay,” Dick said over Tim’s head, tugging Tim towards the couch. He felt abruptly vulnerable when Dick’s gaze focused on him, “Hey, Tim.”
Tim was confused. Tim was so confused he could probably bottle this feeling and give Nygma a heart attack. He was only thirty percent sure that he hadn’t accidentally fallen into an alternate universe, and his disorientation didn’t abate as Dick made him sit down, Jason swiftly disappearing into a different room.
“You okay?” Dick asked, his voice soft and his eyes worried and just—just Dick, the big brother in all the ways Tim had so desperately wanted, and Tim felt something crack inside him at the older boy’s concern. Dick’s gaze sharpened on the bruise covering half of Tim’s face, and he softly tutted as he brushed the edge of the discoloration, “That looks nasty—Jay, can you get a—”
A heat pack came flying out of the kitchen, and Dick caught it effortlessly before pressing the compress to Tim’s face. Tim couldn’t help but lean further into the warmth, tension eeling out of his spine at the relief.
“Thanks, Jay,” Dick called back. There was no response from the kitchen. “Hey, baby bird,” Dick turned back to Tim, “How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” Tim whispered hoarsely. He wanted to sink further, to collapse against Dick and let his older brother hold him tight, but he forced himself to stay upright. Better to wean himself away from it slowly.
Dick hummed at his response, his eyes sharpening the faintest amount, “Jason said something about you getting emancipated? When did that happen?”
Oh, so that was what Jason’s goal was here. Ruin his plan via interference. “I’m still compiling the paperwork,” Tim mumbled—and there was a lot of paperwork, it wasn’t only a deflection. Apparently unsupervised teenagers was not something anyone wanted.
“Can I ask why?” Dick asked quietly, “Did—did Bruce do something, or—”
What? Was that what Jason had told him? “No,” Tim said in a rush, “No, Bruce didn’t do anything, it isn’t—” he swallowed roughly and gestured to his face, “I’m not—they’re going to take me away from him if I keep showing up like this, and I don’t—I don’t want to go somewhere else.” Dick’s expression had grown more and more pinched, and Tim dredged up a smile. “I’m fine,” he said hollowly, “I can take care of myself.”
“Yes,” Jason muttered from where he was now leaning against the wall, “Because you’re clearly a bastion of good decision-making.”
Tim glared at him, but Dick ignored him, his gaze focused on Tim. “Tim,” Dick said, his voice still calm, still soft, “They won’t take you away from Bruce. Bruce has contingencies for—”
“I’m not giving up Robin!”
Dick blinked, and Tim realized he was on his feet, heart racing and breathing too loud. He didn’t—if this was some sort of plan to—to force Tim into letting go of Robin—he couldn’t—but he didn’t want to leave—
“I never said you had to,” Dick said slowly, “No one’s talking about you giving up Robin, Tim.” Jason, eyes hard and green, had his lips pressed into a thin line. “Baby bird?”
“You—you’re not going to tell me to stop?” Tim asked, voice cracking in tune to his breaths.
“No, kiddo,” Dick smiled, soft and sad, “Taking away Robin has never, in the history of the role, been effective. Bruce took Robin away from me, and I ran away. Bruce took Robin away from Jason and he—” Dick broke off, and both of them looked at Jason.
Jason was wearing a sardonic smile. “Ran away and died,” he said, “So you’re going to have to top that, Replacement.”
“The point being,” Dick said a little louder, “That we all know that it doesn’t work. Bruce knows that it doesn’t work. We’ll figure something out, Tim, I promise. You don’t need to leave.”
“But,” Tim swallowed, “The social worker—they—what if they—”
“Bruce always has a plan,” Dick said, catching hold of Tim’s wrists and tugging him back down onto the couch, “And if he doesn’t, then we’ll hide you on the Watchtower.” Jason snorted.
“What if,” and Tim’s voice was so quiet he could barely hear it himself, “It’s too much trouble?”
Dick’s eyes flashed, and his grip tightened on Tim. “You are not,” he said, firm and level, Nightwing’s resolute surety, “Too much trouble. You are my little brother, and nothing will change that.”
Tim swallowed. But what if, kept pressing at his mind, a hundred different scenarios where Dick turned his back and walked away, because everyone walked away, because the only thing Tim could count on was himself—
“Give it up, Replacement,” Jason snorted, “I died and became a crime lord, and this idiot still didn’t let me go.”
Dick turned sideways enough to shoot Jason a narrow-eyed look, “Yeah, well, I don’t hear you complaining, Little Wing.”
“This is me complaining,” Jason snapped, “You’re a fucking octopus leech.”
“Uh huh,” Dick said, tone entirely dismissive, and Tim was forced to duck his head to hide his smile. Dick replaced the warm compress, and his hands were at Tim’s shoulders now, pulling Tim forward until he was tucked against Dick.
The shirt smelled like Alfred’s favorite lavender detergent. Tim squeezed his eyes shut and bit down hard on his lip to hold off the prickling in his eyes.
“You’re family, baby bird,” Dick whispered, “And we never let go of family.”
Tim fidgeted in the chair and squeezed his fingers together to stop from tapping them against the chair. On the other side of the desk, Bruce stared at him, his expression solemn. It had only been a few seconds since Tim had sat down, and already it felt like an eternity.
Tim didn’t want to be here. Tim didn’t want to talk to Bruce. But Dick had promised that he wouldn’t let Bruce take Robin away, and Jason had promised—threatened?—to cause a scene and ruin the planned family dinner if Bruce was ‘being an asshole’, and Tim had reluctantly followed Bruce for a ‘talk’.
“Tim,” Bruce said quietly, “I wanted to talk to you about my conversation with the social worker and your homeroom teacher.”
Tim, on the other hand, wanted to sink through the floor. “I’m sorry,” he said to the detailing on Bruce’s desk, “I’ll be more careful next time, I swear.”
“More—more careful about what, Tim?” Bruce sounded confused.
Tim waved to the giant bruise on his face, and sank lower in his chair. “I tried,” he said, his throat swelling up. I tried had never been good enough for his father. “I—I really did, I used concealer and everything—”
“Tim. Tim, no, it’s not—” Bruce’s voice was getting closer, and Tim cracked open his eyes to see Bruce take a knee in front of him. “Tim, it’s okay. It isn’t about your bruise.”
Bruce was looking up at him, braced on his knee, a careful foot away from him, his expression all concern. Tim couldn’t detect a hint of anger, and he was very, very good at detecting anger.
He uncurled slightly. “Then what did you want to talk about?” Tim croaked out.
Bruce’s expression pinched, and then deliberately relaxed. “I had a conversation with your homeroom teacher,” Bruce said, with the kind of measured tone that suggested he was choosing his words carefully, “She taught you History the year before too, right?” Tim nodded warily. “She was worried, because this wasn’t the first time she’s seen you with bruises.”
Tim went still, not even daring to breathe. Oh god. This was so much worse than he thought. It wasn’t just one bruise he’d failed to cover up, and Tim didn’t know if Dick or Jason would be able to stop Bruce after Tim had proven himself such a failure at keeping their secret identities secret—
“Tim, did your case worker follow up with you after Jack Drake resumed custody?” Bruce asked levelly, and in his hyperawareness, it didn’t take long for Tim to follow that train of thought.
“No,” Tim shook his head with a jerk, the anxiety succeeded by a preternatural calm. He knew how to lie, he’d been taught it years and years ago, at a different parent’s knee, because above all, never where it’s visible.
The bruises. The tears. The anguish and the pain.
“There was no need,” Tim said evenly, “I was with my dad. I was perfectly fine.”
Bruce’s expression was definitely pinched now. “Tim,” he said, like Tim was a spooked rabbit, “Your teacher saw bruises on your back. I checked the date—I was away and you definitely weren’t patrolling that week.” Tim opened his mouth, but Bruce kept talking, “And despite what you told your teacher, I know that a skateboarding accident wouldn’t leave belt-shaped welts on your back.”
Tim closed his mouth. That was—he hadn’t—never where it’s visible—he’d broken the rule—he—no—he couldn’t—
“Tim,” Bruce said gently, “Did you ever feel unsafe with Jack Drake?”
Tim couldn’t answer that. He couldn’t. He didn’t—his father was dead, and he didn’t—he thought he’d never have to remember it, never be asked these questions, never have to hide again and here he was—never where it’s visible, his mother’s voice echoed stridently—and it was visible now, all of it, the burning in his eyes as his vision grew watery, his trembling fingers and their desperate grip on the chair, the way he couldn’t stop shaking.
“Tim? Bud, can you hear me?” Tim blinked, and tears slipped down his cheeks, and Bruce was visible again, a hand outstretched and wavering, like he was waiting for permission. Like Tim would ever, could ever, think that Bruce would deliberately hurt him.
Tim levered himself out of the chair only to crumple in front of his dad and lean forward to bury his face against Bruce’s shirt. “Yes,” he whispered, cracking and broken, and the tears kept falling.
“Oh, Tim,” Bruce murmured against his hair, warm arms engulfing him in a hug, and Tim couldn’t help but sink deeper. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Tim mumbled, “And he’s gone now.”
“That doesn’t mean that I’m not sorry that it happened,” Bruce pressed a kiss to his hair, “That doesn’t mean you’re no longer hurting.” Tim wriggled deeper against his side. “That doesn’t mean I wish I could go back and change it so that you never left my custody.”
Tim’s breathing hitched and stuttered.
Bruce drew away—only far enough to cup Tim’s face in his hands, to look him straight in the eyes. It was a powerful, dangerous, heady thing, to look straight into the stormy blue eyes of Bruce Wayne—not Brucie, not Batman, Bruce—and see the conviction in that steely gaze.
“You are my son,” Bruce said, quiet and firm, “You will always be my son.”
Bruce didn’t say a word at the mess Tim was making of his shirt, or how badly he was shaking, or how Tim’s tears didn’t stop. He merely held him, one hand drifting through Tim’s hair, humming under his breath.
Tim realized he’d been going about this all wrong. Whatever contingencies Bruce had, Tim would create more. He had Robin, and he had his family, and no one would take either away from him.