It began, or seemed to begin, with Jason.
Usually that would have meant something in the order of fire and explosion and probably at least one gunshot wound, but for once (as Tim said, sourly), it wasn't actually Jason's fault.
But that is the story getting ahead of itself. Somewhere closer to the beginning is:
Dick was home for the evening, when it started. 'Home' in this case being defined as 'in Wayne Manor, helping Damian with his homework.' Damian did not normally accept help with anything if he could possible avoid it, nor did he often have any difficulty with eighth grade assignments, but today he had (ungraciously) accepted Dick's pro-forma offer of assistance with his science research project. Dick had been almost too surprised to agree.
The project was supposed to be partnered; Damian had been the odd man out in his class and rejected the teacher's offer to attach him to a pair and make it a trio…his little brother had no interest in being friends with his classmates, whom he had long ago dismissed as imbeciles, but that didn't mean he didn't get lonely. And Dick wasn't in Gotham all that often, really; they weren't as close as they'd been during those long months Dick had been Batman to Damian's Robin and tried his best as surrogate parent, although he still tried to be brothers. To bond.
It wasn't always easy. So there was no way, if Damian was actually reaching out, that Dick would not move Heaven and Earth, let alone any competing schedule requirements up to and including a Justice League rotation, to meet him halfway.
It was half an hour past sunset, now. Batman was patrolling. Alfred was out running some sort of evening errands. (Dick wasn't sure what these were, and had long since decided to subscribe to the theory that they involved visiting vampire tailors and similar persons who could not be called upon in daylight.) Damian was in his room, fetching his tablet computer to which the assignment had been uploaded. (His teacher aspired to a paperless classroom.) Dick had set up milk and cookies on one of the library tables to simultaneously tease Damian and give them study fuel, and was actually looking forward to homework. (It helped that it wasn't his.)
So needless to say, he wasn't thrilled when the doorbell chimed. When he reached the front door and opened the video channel to see who was at the gate, displeasure turned into cold, roiling tension.
Looking into the camera was the intent, unmasked face of a very young Jason Todd.
"Jason?" Dick said cautiously, because what else was there to say?
Once, he would have been happy. Untrusting, worried out of his mind, a little frightened, but delighted to see a healthy, living Jason. Now he wasn't sure what to feel, but apart from a small, stupid part of his brain that leapt at this restoration because it couldn't understand things like context, it...wasn't joy. Because Jason had already come back.
The kid—younger than he'd been when he died, probably Damian's age, not even halfway through his time as Robin—lit up with recognition and relief at the sound of his voice from the little speaker. "Dick! Let me in, would you?
"See, I told you," he added, swinging away from the camera slightly, allowing a view of…the low-profile version of the Red Hood, brown leather jacket and red domino mask and only one visible gun, standing some ten feet back, forehead resting in the palm of his hand. There was no sign of a vehicle. "Home's still there, you creep. Even if the city's a little off, that doesn't mean I have to believe you."
Dick had forgotten just how readily Jason used to talk. Well, he could talk a lot now, too, but villain monologues were different. Red Hood had been fairly stable lately, and Dick was glad to see 'exasperation' was more his reaction of the day so far than 'murderous rage.'
"I'll buzz you in," he said, trying for something between cheerful and soothing. He managed pretty well. "So just come downstairs right away, okay?" If this came to blows in the end or the middle, as it very likely would, the Batcave could take a lot more violence than Wayne Manor could.
"What about him?" Jason, their long-lost and unreturning Jason, asked, jabbing a jaunty thumb over his shoulder. "I…kind of can't get more than fifty yards from him. I've tried. A lot."
"He can come too," Dick allowed, hoping his voice gave nothing away. "Leave your guns by the door," he added, more loudly, for the ears of the figure in the background.
The Red Hood scoffed, not looking at the camera even though he knew exactly where it was. "Not a chance, goldie," he said.
"What have you told him?" Dick asked, and got simultaneous replies of
"Nothing!" from little Jason and
"Nothing he believed," from the adult one.
"You are not me," Jason snapped at the Red Hood. The boy was in civvies, for whatever reason, a red T-shirt, and Dick wasn't sure whether that was better or worse than seeing him in the costume in which he'd died. Thinking of him as Robin would probably have helped, though; there had been several Robins since Dick first turned the name into an alias, but only one Jason.
"We can talk inside," he said, pushed the button to open the gate, and closed the video channel just as a look of unease swept across his oldest little brother's too-young face.
He darted across the foyer to the old storage closet under the front stairs, which had been converted long ago into the electronic security hub, to view both Jasons' vital stats as monitored by the gate as they passed through it (normal, both of them; the adult had a slightly higher core temperature but he also had more muscle mass to produce heat, so that was to be expected) and then to intercom up to the library. "Dami?" he asked.
"Grayson," was the flat reply. Damian had already found him not waiting.
"I'm sorry, little bird, something really weird just came up and I have to deal with it. You stay there and get the project out of the way, okay? Don't come down to the cave for a while. I'll join you as soon as I possibly can."
"I'll help," Damian stated. No complaints about being abandoned, of course, but Dick knew that didn't mean it didn't hurt. Their family was built on broken promises, it sometimes seemed like.
"No!" he said. Red Hood with his guns was never something he wanted Damian near if he could help it, even if it had been years since Jason had really tried to kill him; this was already an explosive situation, and Damian and Jason were both prone to escalation. And given how the resurrected Jason had reacted to Tim, he wanted to indefinitely postpone introducing the time-travelling-or-whatever Robin to the current holder of the office. "No, I don't want you in the middle of this if we can help it. The homework needs to get done, and I really wanted to be there but I know you can handle it without me."
"Fine," his littlest brother bit out grudgingly. He'd stay in the library for a little while at least, though it was anyone's guess whether he'd actually compile any sources on a marine mammal of his choice.
"You're a little red angel," Dick told him, and closed the channel to the musical sound of thirteen-year-old grumbling.
That done, he dashed to the study, hurried down to the Batcave, and changed into Nightwing before the Jasons could make it halfway up the long front drive. He felt more secure dealing with something like this in full kit, especially with adult Jason involved. It was a sad thing that he felt more comfortable facing his brother with a layer of body armor on and at least three weapons to hand, but things were what they were.
After opening a security-footage window in one corner of the main Batcomputer screen to track the Jasons' bickering progress toward the manor, he busied himself assembling a list of possible causes for this phenomenon, with a focus, based on Jason's comment about the fifty-yard limit, on magical phenomena and objects.
When the guests reached the study above, he minimized his minimal progress on that and closed the surveillance feed. No need to upset anyone more than necessary. He wasn't Bruce.
The secret door opened, and he turned to face both Jasons with an easy smile.
"How does he know how to get into the Cave?" little Jason demanded, shoving his counterpart in the side as he wriggled past, and bounding down the steps toward the cave floor. "How does he know about the Manor, even?"
"I told you, brat," interjected Red Hood, following him down at a less energetic pace. "I'm Jason Todd, age twenty-four."
Damn. Dick was staggered, for a second. Jason had died almost ten years ago, now. It seemed longer, but it also seemed like yesterday. He looked involuntarily toward the Robin suit where it still hung in its glass case—a memorial less painful than looking at either of the living versions. Jason's death hadn't hurt this much in a long time.
He knew both Jasons had followed his gaze. "Sorry, Little Wing," he said, watching, out of the corner of his eye, little Jason's face grow more and more strained as he took in the many changes to the Cave over the last twelve years. "He's telling the truth."
He didn't know how else to say it. Little Jason went dead white. He'd already been strung tight with enduring the weirdness-of-the-day but now his hands made fists and his sneakered feet shifted into a combat-ready stance. "This is the future?" he said, angry, incredulous. Raked his eyes over Dick, who knew himself at thirty to be very much visually distinguishable from himself at eighteen, even through the mask. For one thing, he'd grown another third of an inch by the time he hit twenty, and bulked up significantly since, though he'd never be built like Bruce. (Thank God.) For another, his suit design had streamlined.
Having taken these facts in, Jason declared, "What the fuck," which had the virtue of being succinct. "And who's he?" he demanded, stabbing a finger at the cave behind Dick.
Dick turned to look, expecting Tim to have come in through one of the tunnels and not relishing the prospect of explaining him, only to find a small figure in a Robin costume there, standing jauntily on the stone with his hands on his hips. "Dami," he began, impressed despite himself that the kid had somehow snuck into the Cave and into costume that quickly, but also very frustrated. Then he checked himself.
This kid wasn't Damian: the skin tone was wrong, the whole face was wrong; he was at least an inch shorter; he was considerably more slim, with no sign of the incredibly excessive strength training Damian insisted on working into his routine.
And, most tellingly, the Robin costume was completely wrong. Dick hadn't seen those green scales outside a memorial case in…well. Almost ten years.
"More like who are all of you," the new boy retorted, eyebrows raised, toe tapping, incredulous crooked smile pulling just a little at his mouth. "Who let you into our Cave?"
Well. That's the beginning.
As you can see, this is a Robin story (including all Robins, eventually) set in that elusive post-canon non-Flashpoint timeframe, with occasional details nabbed from the reboot 'verse. Title from Rainier Maria Rilke's 'Requiem For A Friend.' It has the potential to grow looong, depending on interest and my concomitant levels of commitment. ^^
Chapter 2: Two, Three, Go
So it looks like interest is definitely in existence! Wow. Thanks to all of you. :D I shall endeavor not to disappoint.
I'm sticking to ~2000-word chapters for now, for ease of posting speed, as I resolved to do when I started Cirque de Triomphe. So we'll see how long that lasts this time. ^^
“More like who are all of you,” the new boy retorted, eyebrows raised. “Who let you into our Cave?”
“We let ourselves in,” little Jason snapped, instantly defensive. “I’m Robin!”
“No, that would most definitely be me,” said the costumed boy, an incredulous, crooked smile on his lips. “I’ve got the suit, I’ve got the moves, I picked the name…seriously, who are you people?”
Red Hood, having stopped partway down the stairs, taking a position from which he could look down on everyone, snorted. “Dickiebird,” he said flatly, possibly in greeting.
And of course he was right. Right there, in the flesh—well, probably—stood a second Richard Grayson, maybe all of twelve, eyeballing the Hood and the gun holstered at his side with suspicion. “Nobody’s called me that in years,” he stated. “I’m not joking when I tell you you should explain yourselves before Batman gets here. I’m the nice one.”
“Good idea,” Dick told himself, and took the half-step sideways necessary to get a hand on the computer's control panel.
“Get away from tha…” Dick smirked very slightly at the collapsing command from his counterpart, who was definitely right now noticing that the supercomputer had apparently changed while he wasn’t looking. This was, what, the fourth Bat-computer in twenty years? There came a point when you couldn’t upgrade the existing hardware enough anymore. And the seventh giant monitor; they tended to get smashed.
“Batman,” the rightful Grayson said, having commed the cowl. “Nightwing here.”
“Problem, Nightwing?” Bruce asked, his growl through the speakers a little arch at the interruption of his patrol, with worry lurking where no one who didn’t know him very well could hear it—he knew Dick had been planning on cookies, milk, and manatees for the next hour. If he was on this channel, he either wished to chatter inanely about family life, or something was awry. And the professional salutation did not bode well.
“A situation,” Dick reported. “No one’s hurt, but you should probably get back here.” Partly because he was the only one they all knew.
“Batman?” said his younger self doubtfully, before Bruce could respond. Probably weighing the similarities and differences between this voice and the one he knew, in the context of Nightwing, and the Cave as it now stood, and of Jason’s stated claim to the Robin cape.
“Bruce?” little Jason called an instant later, honest distress and confusion and hope driving his voice up in pitch, so there was something more of pleading than he would normally have allowed himself. He was a kid, obviously, and he looked so small next to the Red Hood, but for a second there he sounded almost like a child.
A sharp breath sounded over the comm. “I’ll be there soon,” Batman said shortly, less of his city-ready roughness in the clipped tone now. Dick knew he was forcing himself not to ask for details even on this fairly well-secured channel.
The transmission ended, and Dick turned back to the two Robins and the Red Hood. “Time travel?” asked his tiny self, sharp-eyed and half incredulous, having apparently managed to identify his adult self in the interim. His body language had gone less ready-for-a-fight, though someone who didn’t know his moves inside-out probably wouldn’t have seen any difference.
“Seems like it,” Dick allowed. Found half a smile, spread his hands to show off Nightwing. “What d’you think, huh?”
His younger self squinted at him. “You look a lot like Dad,” he said. Not giving Dick any time to absorb or recover from that (he’d noticed it, sure, but he didn’t really notice it) he continued, “What’s the new suit called?”
“Nightwing,” said Jason, little Jason in his jeans and T-shirt, staring at the other Robin. “He’s called Nightwing. Dick?” He was apparently having trouble believing it, or maybe he’d just rejected the conclusion until he got enough data to get there on his own, since it was adult-Jason who’d first said it, and little-Jay didn’t think much of him.
“That’s me,” the original Boy Wonder agreed, apparently deciding it would be silly to deny his own name in the face of this much evidence that everyone present already knew. He looked Jason up and down again, unprepossessing in his school clothes, but smiled. “So…who’re you, who’s the guy with the gun, and what’s the big idea?”
“I’m your replacement,” little Jason snapped, making Dick himself, the adult one, wince. Not because he still minded Bruce replacing him; he’d gotten over that a long time ago, but because that word from another Jason’s mouth invoked too many bad memories, and he wasn’t sure how well he would have taken the idea of another Robin at that age, even without a word like ‘replacement.’ Though he guessed the fact that Nightwing was right here, in uniform, not apparently kicked out of the family or dead, would help balance that revelation.
“These are Jason Todd, as Robin, and Jason Todd, as the Red Hood,” he cut in. Wanted to warn himself simultaneously to treat younger Jason kindly and adult Jason warily, but couldn’t really do either in front of them. “I’m not sure why you guys are here, but we’ll figure this out.”
“So you don’t remember this happening?” his little self asked, which was a very perspicacious question that made Nightwing feel old. When he was younger, his main focus would have been on unravelling the phenomenon, too; now he was worrying about his little brothers and who’d hurt whose feelings and if this was spreading across the family, or the whole hero community, and hell, when he was thirteen he still thought he’d be married with kids by now.
“Nope,” he said. Glanced at grownup-Jason to confirm the same, and the Red Hood snorted again, apparently taking the look as an invitation back into the conversation.
“I cannot believe both of us wore that outfit for years, Grayson,” he said, jerking his chin toward Robin. The original, that was, the one in costume. He kept his eyes on Nightwing as he said it. “What were you thinking with the total lack of anything resembling pants? No wonder people think the old man’s a pedo.”
“Shut the fuck up,” little Jay snarled, before either of Dick could say anything, rounding on the Hood and stomping up three steps to confront the big armed man on the stair above him, looming even higher over him than their height difference allowed, with the same total lack of fear that marked any Robin, but especially him. Dick moved forward a little, just in case one of them lashed out and he had to step in, but he didn’t try to stop Jaybird from having his say. As long as it was just talking, it was fine. “I don’t know what the hell your problem is,” Jason spat up at himself, “and I don’t even fucking care, you cockfaced dipshit, you need to pull your head out of your reeking ass already.”
“Wow. Where’d Bruce find him?” Robin-1 murmured to Nightwing, as the tirade continued. He sounded more impressed than anything, probably by Jason’s foul mouth, and in the same spirit but with a little more melancholy Dick replied in an undertone,
Little-him made significant eyebrow movements that meant something like Oooooooh, I get it. That street did have old significance to the family, after all. He seemed to be handling the situation well—no overt objection to sharing Robin, at least, but Dick knew himself enough that he could guess his Robin-self would be dealing less well, if Jason had been dealing better. He made a wry, encouraging sort of face back.
“…and if you can’t say anything that isn’t total bullshit, you should just pull your dumbfuck jackoff vocal cords out with a bent screwdriver,” Jason concluded. It was really a lot of venom for such a brief acquaintance, but Jason had a knack for getting under people’s skin and he knew his own mind, and Dick hadn’t heard most of whatever probably-unproductive conversation they’d had before reaching the cave.
This wasn’t the foulest young-Jason could get, though. Dick had heard him get much nastier, when he was fourteen and on his one big, utterly catastrophic mission with the Titans. There was a whole separate level or two of obscenity he wasn’t touching, and he hadn’t said word one to insult his older self’s parentage. Nightwing couldn’t help but take that as an encouraging sign.
“You done?” inquired the Red Hood flatly, unmoved.
Dick’s heart hurt a little at the sight of them, his first little brother who he’d screwed up with so many times staring up so bold in defense of their father, at the enemy Jason had become.
Whose lip twisted. “Then here’s some more bullshit for you, brat. You’re never going to be good enough. He’ll get you killed before you’re old enough to drive. And then he’ll tell everyone it was your own stupid fault and get a new model on the streets a few months later.”
“It was almost a year, Jay,” Dick said, not even sure which of them he was addressing, so his voice came out too gentle for the Red Hood but not quite kind enough for Robin. He should have expected this. Jason might have held off so far, but he wasn’t exactly the type to worry about preserving timelines. “And it wasn’t even his idea. If you’d just come home…”
Jason sneered at him. “When he didn’t give enough of a damn to make sure the clown couldn’t do the same thing again?”
“The fuck?” interrupted little Jason, with no patience for their retreading old turf when he’d just been handed a conceptual bomb. “I die? Then what’s he?”
“Language, Jason,” said Dick, literally unable to help himself any longer, prompting a derisive sound from the older version. “He died, yes, and he’s…well, now he’s alive. We never figured out why. A Lazarus Pit was involved.”
Little Jason gave a sharp sniff at that, and turned back to his older self with an air of finality. “Fine. You’re a zombie. You’re not me. Go do your evil zombie shit somewhere not here. But within fifty yards,” he added in a grumble.
“He’s not a zombie, Jay,” Dick protested. Unconvincingly, even though of all the things Jason might or might not be, a zombie in any normal sense was definitely not one.
He huffed out a sharp breathy noise, half laugh and half sigh. Dealing with Jason was always headache-inducing at best, but watching the two of them together was seriously getting to him, because there was no pretending, with little Jason here, that ‘Jason Todd’ wasn’t a phrase denoting something gone utterly wrong. Bruce considered the second Robin his great failure, but Dick held himself responsible, too. He should have been around more. Should have helped Jason train, should have made sure he had the best possible chances.
It was trust that had killed him, trust and his good heart, but Dick had walked into betrayal like an idiot plenty of times over the years without dying. It wasn’t fair that Jason hadn’t had the same luck.
“He can’t be that bad,” younger-Dick broke in, with a brilliant smile for his successor, unweighted by Nightwing’s regrets. “If he’s you, and you’re okay. I guess you’re my little brother, huh?”
Dick felt disconcertingly proud of himself in an outside-perspective sort of way, because while he’d very much come around to thinking of Bruce as a second father by the time he was twelve, stretching to a thing like little brother that fast should have been hard. He was sure it had been hard, but his little self hadn’t shown a hint of struggle. And that was a circus-boy skill, nothing to do with Batman. Don’t ever let them see you flinch, that ruins the show.
Little Jay allowed that cheery overture to claim his attention, and stepped out, pivoting on his left foot so he could still keep his older self in his peripheral vision while turning to look at the other Robin—which, considering he was still in arm’s reach of the man, was not really caution enough, and showed that he didn’t think of the Red Hood as a threat, even if he called him evil. Though it was Jason, after all, risk-taker to the bone. A smirk flashed across his young face. “That’s friendlier than the first time we met, you jerk,” he replied, in a weirdly friendly way, which somehow inspired little-Dick to elbow Nightwing in the side. Ow.
“Hey!” he yelped, and frowned down at the first Robin, who looked back, unimpressed.
“Be a better brother,” his younger self commanded, like it was easy. He hadn’t tried yet.
“He does fine,” said a cool voice out of the darkness, and from the direction in which the cars were stored emerged two figures in red Kevlar and capes. They moved very much in sync, although there was a spring in the smaller one’s step that had been smoothed out into calculated balance in the other.
…I’m not even surprised, Dick reflected, entirely, utterly wry.
From the direction in which the cars were stored emerged two figures in red Kevlar and capes. They moved very much in sync, although there was a spring in the smaller one’s step that had been smoothed out into calculated balance in the other.
…I’m not even surprised, Dick reflected, entirely, utterly wry.
On the left was the slight, intent form of Tim Drake in his original redesign of Robin, with the green tights and yellow-lined cape, and his hair gelled up into that artful, bristling untidiness that he always used to treat as an integral part of the costume change; on the right the comparatively large frame of the same boy at age twenty-one, hooded in his red cowl, exposed portion of his expression eerily calm. He was the one who had spoken.
Dick rubbed the back of his neck. “Thanks, Tim,” he said, deeply aware at that moment of the many, many things Tim had chosen or learned not to hold against him over the years. Of the rift that had opened between them when he made Damian Robin, and had never completely mended. So. That made three, and three made a definite pattern. (Not that he would have bought the first two being coincidence in this particular situation. He hoped this wasn’t ‘enemy action,’ because all the scenarios where it was were fairly horrible to contemplate.)
He glanced toward the two kids they’d already had, smiled, and flourished a little with one hand toward the new arrivals. “Jay, mini-me, these are Tim Drake, the third Robin. The big one goes by Red Robin these days.”
“Hey,” said the younger Jason, whose civilian clothes were starting to look more and more out of place amid all the costumes. He tossed off a casual wave directed mostly at his new age-mate.
Little Tim’s expression brightened in response, and wasn’t that a kick in the teeth. That smile. He’d—forgotten. He knew brash Tim and stoic Tim and bland, unassuming Tim and righteously-pissed-off-Tim and dryly humorous Tim and really on the whole he knew his brother pretty well, but that Tim who’d smiled at the people he looked up to, so you’d have thought he genuinely believed they personally arranged for the planet to rotate daily…
Dick had enshrined Jason-at-his-best in his heart all those years ago, when he found out the boy had died, but somehow he’d managed to forget how much enthusiasm Tim had had in the early days, early years. He still believed pretty hard these days; even at his most cynical, Tim had conviction, but he wasn’t that whole-hearted kid anymore, no more than the Red Hood was.
Well, if you thought about it like that, neither was Dick. Hadn’t been in a long time. Kids grew up.
If he had been a normal person, he would have been freaking out by now. He still had enough contact with normalcy to realize this. However, as someone who had spent most of his life leaping from crisis to crisis, he coped best when coping, when he had something he had to stay calm to take care of. There was no point worrying about the existence of child duplicates; either they would be a problem or they wouldn’t.
What it was hard not to worry about was that his brothers, of whom he now had nearly twice the normal number plus extra Grayson, would maim one another, but he was managing, mostly. He had become a black-belt in the art of focusing on the relevant and processing contingencies in the semi-conscious before he turned sixteen. Team leadership did that to you. Being Batman had practically been a breeze after having once managed seven teenagers at once.
“Jason?” said the smaller Tim to his predecessor in the Robin cape, the awareness of what had happened to Jason a shadow in his eyes, but a shyness lurking in his too-real smile.
Dick had almost forgotten that, too. Tim had looked up to Jason almost as much as he had Dick, and had stalked him much more closely, since he’d been mostly too young to get away with going out at night to snap photographs, back while Dick had still been working in Gotham.
And Jason had had the advantage of being a fallen hero, much too dead to let Tim down. Until, of course, he had managed it anyway. More profoundly than Dick would have thought possible.
On that note, older Tim was watching older Jason like a hawk. He’d stopped advancing as soon as they were well into the area lit by the main computer-area flood, just a little too far away from the Dicks by the control panel for comfortable conversation, and either the distance limit on him and his little double was much shorter than the one between the Jasons, or the third Robin was willing to take cues from his older self, because he’d halted only a few steps closer.
“In the flesh,” little Jason confirmed, not insensible to the admiration. Dick could see him pulling back his shoulders and exaggerating the carelessness of the way he waved a hand to the man looming beside him. “And this is my undead evil grown-up double, but ignore him.” He came down the stairs again, two at a time, and adopted a confident stance near Nightwing and the original Robin. He seemed predisposed to like Tim already.
(This is how it should have been, part of Dick was saying, even though Tim and Jason had never actually been the same age so it couldn’t have been this exactly. This is how it should always have been.)
Red Hood, to Dick’s nearly weak-kneed relief, was facepalming again. This kind of stressor could definitely have set him off, but it looked like it wasn’t going to. It might actually be a really good thing Jaybird had turned up in civvies. Jason’s weakness for kids didn’t seem to apply so much once they were in uniform. And that uniform…well. Though he hadn’t actually tried to kill Damian since he’d become Robin. Dick thought he hadn’t, anyway. It was hard to say for sure what was a murder attempt and what was just violence. (Hadn’t truly tried to kill Tim until he caught him dressed as the Bat, but he’d hurt him pretty badly, more than once.)
Little-Tim pulled a raised eyebrow, and moved forward, leaving his older self behind as he approached the group by the console. He was still new enough to the costume that he moved in it like it was an honor, or a prize—or maybe that was selfconsciousness in front of the boys whose legacy he was living up to. He was so young. Nightwing met Red Robin’s eyes (after all these years none of them had any trouble telling when someone whose eyes you couldn’t actually see was trying to catch yours) over the open floor, and adult-Tim glanced at the steps where Red Hood was glowering, at the three Robins converging into a triangle, twitched a shrug, and started over to join Nightwing.
“You changed my outfit,” the first Robin teased Tim, as the other boy reached them. “Or was that you?” he asked Jason, as the possibility obviously occurred to him. Jason clearly didn’t patrol in jeans and a T-shirt.
Jay pointed at Tim, deflecting all potential accusations shamelessly. “Don’t look at me. I changed the stupid shoes a little, that’s all.”
Tim shrugged. “The R is a disguised shuriken,” he said, tapping it, instead of insulting eight-year-old-Dick’s design sensibilities or saying anything about how much more armor was worked into his suit, which would have brought them back to why. Ten points to Timmy.
Jason and Dick shared a look. Jason smiled first. “That’s awesome,” Dick proclaimed, and it took everything Nightwing had not to laugh.
Adult-Jason was starting to look painfully excluded over on the staircase, even though his expression and posture betrayed nothing but scornful irritation and maybe boredom, but it wasn’t anything he wasn’t doing to himself. He could join Dick and Tim for a grownup powwow if he wanted. Besides, he was clearly inspiring the boys to not indulge in spite and infighting like evil adult zombie Jason, so he was serving a useful function.
“The skyline’s changed,” young Tim was reporting. The earthquake, of course. Ugh. Hopefully nothing would require them to explain that.
“Anyone else?” Red Robin asked Nightwing in an undertone, tugging his attention away from the young Robins.
Dick pulled a face at the possibility. “Not that we’ve heard about. Yet. You didn’t see any out in the city—civilians?” Tim shook his head. “Just us, then.” Just them, but was ‘them’ capes, or Bats, or Robins? After Bruce got here, they could see about calling around, but if this was happening on a really large scale, someone from the League would probably already have contacted the Cave. They’d at least have sent out a mass email tagged high-priority, and there was an alert that went up on the main computer if any of those came in. One could arrive any minute, of course. He shrugged. “They could not want to try to explain it over the radio and just be coming in—I assume that’s what you were doing?”
“That, and he couldn’t raise the Cave since we’ve changed the encryptions,” Tim agreed, nodding toward his younger self, who was almost certainly keeping an ear on them while comparing notes with the Robins he’d only spied on, at least while they were still in the cape. Dick wondered if he should be offended that Tim seemed less impressed by him when he was Nightwing than as a snot-nosed middle schooler, or just stick with relieved that the third Robin had stopped making things so incredibly awkward with his intent, bossy form of hero-worship by the time he got back from that international training trip Bruce had sent him on. He was definitely relieved to see Jay unwinding.
Little-Dick seemed comfortable with both of them, and like he was taking to the role of ‘older brother’ even though they were all about the same age. Jason had needed his reassurance earlier, and Tim was deferring subtly, and hey, Dick wouldn’t deny that he’d kind of had an ego problem as a kid. “It got him worried,” said Red Robin, levelly.
Dick nodded. “We called Bruce back in,” he informed his brother. “He’ll be here soon. Cowl off?” he suggested. Red Robin had a very severe mask, even after Alfred’s redesign, and while he was used to talking to Batman’s unshifting angry face, he still didn’t like it with Tim, even after a couple of years to adjust.
“I’d rather not,” said Tim, and Dick shrugged.
“So I thought something had happened to the sun,” Jason was explaining to the other Robins, “and I was going to rush back here and get into costume to deal with it, but then he turns up…Nightwing said he was telling the truth,” he added with a frown, “but I figure that just covered the jackass being me, because 'wing wasn’t there for all of it.”
“That was all I meant,” Dick threw in, to calm the note of uncertainty and head off any unfortunate conclusions. Even as a villain, Jason wasn’t particularly a liar, but his sense of reality wasn’t strong, and he had a slight tendency to say whatever seemed reasonably accurate at the moment, especially if it served his purpose. Who even knew what he might have said, that Dick might have inadvertently reinforced.
“I didn’t lie to you, kid,” Red Hood stated, breaking his silence but not altering his grim, folded-arm stance.
“You’re a murderer,” the younger one snapped, whipping his head around to glare. (How did he know? Red Hood must have said something on the way here. He’d wanted himself to know? Dick looked grown-Jason up and down as covertly as he knew how. He’d…wanted that anger. For whatever reason. He could have tried to talk his younger self around to his point of view, but he’d alienated him, intentionally. Just like he did everyone. Dick kind of wanted to smack him and kind of wanted to hug him. It was…actually how he’d felt about Jason half the time before he’d died, come to think of it.)
“Jason,” interjected little Tim, trying for calming but a little too tense himself to quite pull it off.
“Guys,” said little Dick, doing a little bit better, mostly because he didn’t have any prior emotional investment in ‘Jason Todd,’ and therefore wasn’t all that worried about the connection between the kid in the red shirt and the man in the red mask.
“Let’s try to focus on the problem at hand,” said adult Tim, quelling.
Any action that might have been taken in response to this (admittedly sensible) suggestion was interrupted by the door into the study upstairs sliding open again, in a narrow rectangle of yellow. Robin’s patience had evidently run out.
For those not acquainted with nineties Robin, which at this point is a lot of us, Tim gelling his hair up as part of the change was totally a thing. Same principle as Superman's spitcurl, I guess.
:D So far as I know, there is no canon basis for the Justice League communicating via mass email, but in this day and age relying on realtime audio contact to pass information seems hilariously inefficient, especially since they don’t have a strong central command structure. Flash probably hits 'reply all' until his fellow heroes want to throttle him.
Chapter 4: Three...Five
So for the first and (I’m afraid) definitely not the last time, updating this took more than a week, because we got to the end of the pre-edited material. It’s longer than all previous segments, at least? The 2000-word rule lasted all of three chapters this time. ^^;
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Any action that might have been taken was interrupted by the door into the study upstairs sliding open again, in a narrow rectangle of yellow. Robin’s patience had evidently run out.
“Grayson,” came flatly from the top of the stairs. “Are you throwing a party?”
“That was one time,” Dick called back, with exactly enough injured innocence that Jaybird, Dickie, and Tiny Tim all laughed at him.
He and Wally had organized a get-together of the old Titans crowd last year, when Kori had come back from Tamaran to visit and they’d realized that with Roy back on an even keel, Garth on the surface, Wally living in this universe again, and Raven, Donna, and Vic back from various degrees of dead, they had as close to the full lineup as they were ever likely to get on one planet in one dimension again. (The brief window of resurrection Jericho had had before possessing the wrong being and devolving into insanity again had partly prompted it; Dick had barely had contact with alive-again Joey, before it was once again too late. You had to seize your opportunities where you could.)
He’d wound up hosting it at the Manor, and forgotten to warn Damian. Festivities had been slightly suspended on account of attacking preteen ninja, who’d mistaken them for a home invasion.
He squinted up at his backlit youngest brother. “There’s only one of you, right?” Damian was already in the age-range the duplicates all seemed to be hitting, and if there wound up being two identical Damians...well, there would be blood shed over who was the original, for one thing.
“Tt,” said the current Robin, descending the stairs as the clock closed behind him. He was definitely kind of mad at Dick for bailing on him, and leaving him out of whatever was going on down here. “What kind of question—” He stopped, staring down at the assemblage for a whole second as everyone else looked up at him. His attention flicked to Nightwing. “Explain,” he demanded.
He’d thrown on a domino mask before coming down, mindful of strange eyes, but was otherwise still dressed in the same loose grey pants and wrap shirt he’d had on when Dick had last seen him in the library. All the time travelers (or whatever they were) were more or less openly intrigued.
“Can’t,” Nightwing shrugged. He never actually penalized Damian for excessive bossiness, but he did drag his heels and otherwise try to give the impression that it wasn’t a good way to elicit cooperation. It was slowly bearing fruit, he was pretty sure. Damian’s default sentence structure wasn’t a command anymore, for one thing.
“So who’s he?” drawled little Jay before Dick could relent and get around to a little clarification, since it was his fault Damian hadn’t been there for the whole thing. “Alfred’s grand-nephew?”
Damian did tend to speak with a clipped, vaguely British accent, and they hadn’t gotten a good look at him yet. The question was still clearly calculated to infuriate, and Damian drew himself up in the way that meant trouble.
“Damian Wayne,” Red Robin cut in baldly from the back of the group, preempting the kid’s self-introduction because Tim could be petty like that. Though considering Damian’s ability to piss people off, it was probably for the best that he didn’t introduce himself. “The present Robin.”
“Wayne?” repeated the first and second little Robins in concert, and they turned to stare up at their most recent successor, who continued to proceed down the steps with his best look of cold superiority. It didn’t completely hide his confusion from Dick, but it would probably cover against most people who didn’t know him.
Tiny-Tim’s eyes were intent on Damian’s masked face, undoubtedly analyzing the resemblance. It was more marked every year; he was probably finding it. Red Hood was looking scornful again.
“So did Bruce actually make a kid, or did he just for real adopt this one?” little Jason inquired. Dick had known putting them in the same room was a bad idea.
“He adopted Drake,” Damian retorted, coming to a halt two-thirds of the way down the stairs so he could continue to survey the whole group. “I am his real son. What are you doing here, Todd?” he demanded of Red Hood, whose head was presently level with Damian’s knees. Damian was really good at taking advantage of the high ground to look down on people—which was Robin tradition, of course, but Dami had definitely added his own dollop of superciliousness to the art.
“He adopted me?” little Tim repeated, with the first real break in his composure. He looked toward Nightwing for reassurance for a split second, and then turned to his older self instead. Ow. “Did something happen to Dad?”
So that was happening, and meanwhile Little-Dick was scowling at Damian, like he’d just taken in that being a brother meant sharing his father, or possibly (since everyone until now had been on some form of their best behavior) that younger brothers could be utter brats.
“Little idiot I was at that age wanted to go home,” Big Jason answered Damian’s question meanwhile, waving toward Jaybird. Who was advancing toward the stairs.
“Tt. You are not welcome here.”
“Take it up with Dumbwing over there; he let me in.”
“I’m not sure I should tell you that,” Red Robin simultaneously told third-Robin, who tightened his jaw.
“If I can know about the next Robin and Jason can know about me, I can know this. My father is alive. Bruce shouldn’t have any reason to adopt me.”
Older Tim shrugged noncommittally. “It became convenient.”
Dick winced a little at that; Jack Drake’s murder had been devastating, at the time, and that adoption had meant a lot to Tim, and he still shouldered a lot of what had been Bruce’s responsibilities with Wayne Enterprises. He was probably going to take over eventually. Trust him to be blasé about it all, even if he hadn’t been under pressure to avoid contaminating the timeline. (The timeline—Tim could warn himself about the compromised identities, about Captain Boomerang. Just like they could warn Jason about Sheila. And so many things Dick could have prevented, friends he could have saved, if he’d only thought faster, known sooner. He knew better, knew the risk was too high, but the temptation was always there.) Still, Tim could handle himself. Pun intended. Dick chose the conversation where he was actually needed and moved sharply after Little-Jay toward the foot of the steps, to break things up before Damian managed to pick a fight with both Jasons at once.
Which would be a feat, given how completely opposed those two had been so far, but it was a type of feat at which Damian excelled.
“So, did Bruce knock your mom up on purpose?” Jaybird inquired snidely, just before Dick managed to get in with a,
“Hey, guys, give it a rest. Little D, don’t give the time-travelers a hard time. Little Wing, back off, cool down. I promise we don’t love either of you more than the other.”
Both little Robins and the Red Hood scoffed at that, which kind of hurt, but the fight seemed to have been headed off.
(Okay, be honest, he did love Damian more than he’d ever loved Jason. Dami was his Robin; Jason he’d resented wildly. But he had still loved him, in fits and starts, more all the time until suddenly he was gone. Bruce, Dick thought, had loved Jason at least as much as he did Damian, though. Maybe more, without the impediment of the emotional scars he’d picked up since those days, and without the same distrust that clung to Damian even after all these years, because of his upbringing and that viciousness he was probably never going to shake. Or maybe Damian had made up the difference by now. It was hard to tell, anymore.)
“Seriously,” he insisted. “You’re both my little brothers, okay?”
Damian jerked his chin, not up because from his position on the stairs he was looking down at Nightwing, but with the same confrontational pride. “Even knowing what he’ll become, you claim the gutter rat and I are of equal worth?”
Dick’s hand shot out to catch little-Jay’s fist on its way to Damian’s gut, which made Jason stumble to catch his footing since it had been a leaping punch, but Dick had every faith in a Robin’s ability to make such a landing, and he didn’t look away from Damian. Everybody was watching, now, even Tim’s argument with himself stalled out. Damian had a knack for dropping conversational nukes. “We’ve talked about this,” Dick said, every word edged thick with disappointment, not taking his eyes off his youngest brother. “What’s next, am I a thieving gypsy?”
Little-him made a funny sucking sound through his teeth, but Dick didn’t have time to worry about that. “Grayson,” Damian began, set of his chin surly though his eyes were close to pleading. Another day, when he didn’t have other baby brothers here to protect, he might have let it go at that. Dick let Jason’s hand go, and it vanished somewhere out the left peripheral of his vision. Good, little Jay was staying out of it. Adult Jason was standing over them, looming high to Dick’s right, but he didn’t seem inclined to interfere.
“I’m going to make this very clear one more time,” Nightwing told Damian, who actually flinched a little. Good. He should be ashamed. “What people are worth has nothing to do with where they come from.” It wasn’t just himself or Jason he was thinking of—Stephanie was from the inner city, too, and Cass was bred from assassins on both sides, and Helena had a mafia background, but that didn’t make them worth less than Barbara as Police Commissioner’s Daughter. Raven wasn’t her father, and neither was Rose. (No matter what Trigon and Deathstroke tried to make them believe.)
And Bruce’s blood in him added nothing to Damian’s worth, and neither did Talia’s, nor did his upbringing as an assassin give or take any. It all came down to what you chose to do with what you had.
He shook his head. Damian was better than this, usually. His best friend was an East End orphan. He’d never be completely free of his mother’s influence, but he knew how much of what he’d been raised to believe was wrong. “You’re getting too old to behave like this, Dami. It was one thing when you were a child abusing adults, but you’re a teenager now, and this Jason’s not any older than you.”
Damian had been hurt by Dick saying he loved them the same. Dick understood that. You wanted to be loved best, especially compared to people you didn’t even like, and Damian wasn’t a generous enough person to be able to repress that feeling easily. But Dami needed to understand that it wasn’t okay to hurt other people just because he felt bad.
Well. Except bad guys. Violence was their family’s standard therapeutic activity.
…He didn’t even know how to tell his Robin that, while if he was never Batman again it would still be too soon, there was nothing about being Damian’s partner that he regretted.
That didn’t mean it was okay for his baby brother to use his love as a weapon against the rest of the family. He’d noticed him trying it against Tim before this, but Tim was an adult, and he knew Dick cared about him. Whatever trust little-Jay had in them was badly shaken right now, and Dick felt a fierce protectiveness for the little brother he’d failed, a kind that even Dami didn’t quite merit because Damian had never gone and died on him.
And he had better not.
The muscles around Damian’s eyes had tightened, and Dick saw his lips twitch in the way that he knew meant he had almost said I’m sorry. But his pride wouldn’t let him actually say it in front of this audience. Dick wished he could justifiably ask them all to go look at something else without ruining the effect of the scolding, but on the other hand, giving that talking-to in front of them all was the punishment.
Damian’s eyes hardened, instead, and he sniffed.
“Tt. Well. I didn’t realize honesty was now forbidden.”
And damn it, no.
He could not let that stand, not with this audience.
“Robin,” Dick said—not in the Batman voice, both because he hated it and because if the other kids recognized it, that would probably open a different uncomfortable conversation—though come to think of it, when he’d been twelve, if someone had said something to him about becoming Batman when Bruce retired he would probably have considered the concept ‘Bruce retiring’ the only real flaw in that plan. Still.
Damian’s spine straightened just a fraction—he didn’t take being Robin as seriously as Tim had, or at least not in the same way, because he’d only wanted it, at first, as a step closer to his father, but he did understand, now, the position of trust it represented, even if he sometimes needed reminding—and he sucked in a breath and tightened his mouth, a soldier prepared for a chewing-out.
Nightwing drummed his fingers on his elbow. Where to take this. “We do not hurt friends, or allies, or family to make ourselves feel better.”
Dick shook his head. “Nothing Jason does is license for you to imitate him. And this Jason has never done anything to you.”
“Look,” Little Jay cut in then, awkwardly, unexpectedly. “It’s okay. Whatever. I mean. If he has a grudge against the zombie, I bet it’s so justified, and it makes sense he’d take it out on me.” Because we’re the same person, after all, was the obvious subtext, and dammit, Dick had definitely preferred the ‘denial’ and ‘anger’ phases. Why did kids have to process stuff so fast?
He glanced around and smiled, a little, at Little-Jason, feeling Red Hood looming barely two feet away up the steps, and wishing he could see big-Jason’s expression from here without making it obvious he was checking on it. “That’s big of you, Jay,” he said. “Thanks. But just because his reasons make sense doesn’t mean it’s okay.”
“Grayson is correct,” Damian proclaimed, with an air of magnanimity that he almost pulled off, because he imbued it with such conviction. “I apologize,” he said to little-Jay. “My quarrel is not with you.”
Dick was almost used enough to the lordly attitude Damian still resorted to whenever he was feeling especially uncomfortable, to not have to stifle laughter; his little self was not thus prepared and had to stuff his wrist in his mouth. Red Hood snorted a little but was of course ignored. Tim was looking sardonic, with the straight-line-mouth expression that made him look way too much like Bruce, and Tiny Tim was staring at Damian like he seriously doubted his existence.
“Uh,” said Robin-Jason. His eyebrows were pretty high, but all he said was, “Apology accepted, I guess. Like I said. Evil zombie.”
“Great, we’re all friends again, swell,” the first Robin broke in, fidgeting with impatience, and turned to Nightwing. “Seriously, he calls you ‘Grayson?’” he asked, grinning. “I mean, all the time, not just when he’s mad at you?”
Dick shrugged, smiling crookedly now that the issue was resolved. It had bothered him, a little, at the beginning, when he’d still been getting to know the snide, condescending brat he’d taken on, but it had been years since he’d thought of the name thing as anything but one of those quirks that made people themselves. Damian used people’s last names. It was what he did. Since no one else Dick knew except fellow cops ever had, apart from the times when Robin was problematically loose with surnames in the field it was kind of like having a nickname.
“You didn’t notice?” asked little-Tim, the corners of his mouth curling up. “He’s only used last names, since he got here.”
Little-Dick shot him a rather unfriendly look, offended by the apparent condescension, uh-oh, but didn’t say anything except, to Damian, “So, is there anybody who calls you ‘Wayne?’”
Nightwing chuckled. Iris West II did, sometimes, when the confluence of events brought Impulse and Robin together in sufficiently secure circumstances. They despised each other with such an icy complexity of rivalry and disdain that Dick was pretty sure they would wind up dating at least once by the time Damian turned twenty, if only because they lost a bet.
He doubted his youngest brother would volunteer this information, and he wasn’t wrong, but it was only at the last second that he recognized the shift in Damian’s posture that Dick thought of as the ‘stirring up trouble’ pose, which tended to presage a challenge, and insult, or some kind of test. “Well,” he said disinterestedly, “The occasional irritant calls me ‘al Ghul.’”
The reaction was everything a troublemaking brat could have hoped for. The Cave floor erupted. Five people should not have been capable of that much noise.
Little-Dick was thumping his forehead with the heel of his hand. Nightwing made out, “Holy cow, he’s Talia’s, of course he’s Talia’s—”
“Oh, come on,” Little-Jason groaned, flinging his hands up. “Really, Bruce? Really?”
Dick thought he made out a “Swear to God,” in Red Hood’s voice,and Little Tim had turned to his older self again and clearly demanded information, though you couldn’t make out either demand or reply over the general clamor. Damian was looking, to someone who knew him, very on-edge, not at all comfortable with what he had wrought.
“Everyone,” Nightwing broke in, in his best slightly-booming cutting-through-noise voice (he’d developed this version of it after his voice first finished changing, and secretly thought of it as ‘ringleader voice’). “That’s enough.”
The tiny crowd fell silent. It was pretty gratifying, even if it did have a lot to do with everyone here being conditioned to shut up when Batman told them to, at least momentarily. Ringleader voice had never worked that reliably on the Titans.
“Wait a second,” said little Jason, after a heartbeat of quiet, goggling at Damian again. “If he’s twenty-four then this is just about eleven years in the future. Which means you already exist! In my time, I mean.”
Damian blinked, and Red Hood gave a snort that was almost a chuckle. “Always wondered about that,” he said, leaning back onto his heels in a martial-artist’s slouch of unconcern—with his weight there and his arms folded, he’d be a beat behind any sudden attacker, especially with the stairs behind him meaning he couldn’t even roll, and he could barely see most of the group on the cave floor. And while the posture made glancing up toward Damian easier to do casually, Damian was also the nearest probable danger.
Standing like that could be a dare or it could be a gesture of subtle harmlessness; with Jason, Dick had the feeling it might be both. “You must’ve been, what, three, maybe four when I crawled out of my grave, but there was Talia with way more time and attention for my brain-damaged self than you’d expect with a link like that to her Beloved.”
Damian scowled, and might have been about to answer, when everyone’s attention was claimed by the familiar sound of a deep-throated engine approaching down a long stone tunnel.
I loved Talia’s characterization in Lost Days, but that element of chronology did puzzle me, because she really did not act like Damian was at all thing, and neither did Ra’s, but there’s no way, short of speed-aging. Little-Tim’s dad is in his coma phase at this point in his timeline, if that was unclear. And yeah, Dick is totally overestimating the degree to which Tim feels secure in his place in the family and Dick’s affections, and therefore how much Damian’s digs bother him, but he has always had problems understanding Tim qua Tim.
…not that he and Jason clicked all that well, but that was more a mutual resentment thing. In a very real sense, Jason died for being too much like Dick. And all the aspects of Robin that they took out to sell Tim to a more modern audience wound up in Stephanie. And then she died for it, too.
Well done getting out before we turned on you like the jackals we apparently are, Grayson.
Chapter 5: Five for Silver
Damian scowled, and might have been about to answer, when everyone’s attention was claimed by the familiar sound of a deep-throated engine approaching down a long stone tunnel.
Everyone turned, automatically, and little-Tim was the first to move, breaking away from Dickie and little-Jay, Red Robin shadowing him across the Cave floor, toward the long ramp that led down to where the Batmobile would be parked, if it were there. The other displaced Robins glanced at each other and followed, and Nightwing came along because to supervise them he needed to be near them. Behind him, he heard one of Red Hood’s boots scrape on the stone, so he was at least finding a position from which he could watch the action, and when Dick glanced back, he saw Damian was trailing behind everyone else, with his best look of haughty disinterest.
So as the Batmobile appeared in the Cave, and the lights came up automatically on the vehicle platform, they were all standing there in plain view, with the Tims in front, and Damian at the back staring balefully down over everyone’s heads, watching the car park. A breath later, the door swung up, and Batman emerged.
He had to have taken the seconds devoted to parking to look them over unobserved, Dick knew, but he still didn’t move toward the little crowd right away. Dick moved instead—both of him, actually, and Nightwing stopped working his way down between his brothers as the little Robin in his bright yellow cape dashed out in front and came to an abrupt stop some six feet in front of the Bat, and stared up at the dark, silent figure beside the vehicle. “Batman?” he said, squinting.
He meant ‘Bruce,’ of course, but when Dick had been a kid he hadn’t seen a big difference between the two forms of address beyond what information they gave anyone listening, and had generally just taken his cue off the suit.
“Robin.” Even with the entire drive here to prepare himself, Bruce couldn’t entirely hide his consternation.
And then little Jay ducked around Red Robin’s cape, made a dash across bare stone, and came to a halt just as abrupt as Dick’s had been, right behind the other boy’s right shoulder. “Bruce?” he said again. Behind him, Dick heard the faint slap of the Red Hood’s forehead smacking into his palm again, and wondered if it was an excuse to avoid looking at the little Robin in his blue jeans and T-shirt, gazing up so openly needy at Batman.
Dick’s heart was in his mouth with the fear that Bruce would reject the boy, as he rejected Tim and Damian in a hundred little ways so often—he’d have all kinds of good excuses if he did; they still had no proof the little duplicates were even real….
“Jason,” Bruce replied, and his voice broke. It wasn’t a lot—not that there was much space for breaking in those two syllables anyway—but from Batman it might as well have been a sob.
And Jason flung himself forward, past his startled predecessor and under the black cape to grab hold of Batman with white-knuckled hands—confirming his solidity, or holding him in place, or something. Bruce froze, until Jason glowered up at him and hissed something, too low for any of the Robin contingent to hear, except maybe little Dick, who stood closest. And at whatever those words were, one large hand rose and cupped itself carefully around the back of the boy’s neck.
Jason’s shoulders slumped a little, at that, and he said something else. Bruce shook his head, and Jason’s voice grew more urgent, though Dick still couldn’t make out any words.
“No, Jason,” Bruce said, just as quietly, but with the disadvantage of facing the company, and having a deeper voice which carried further because physics. “It was never your fault.”
“Don’t treat me like a kid!” Jason snarled, absurdly, in his high little voice. “I know the score.”
“You don’t understand,” Batman answered, composed and implacable. If he hadn’t been cradling the base of Jason’s skull like he’d confused ‘thirteen years old’ with ‘three months old,’ he would have seemed totally normal.
“The hell I don’t!” With that, Jason gave up his grip on the armor covering Batman’s ribs, grabbed two handfuls of the cape where it fell around the front of Bruce’s shoulders, and yanked.
If Bruce had been stubborn about it, this could have resulted in Jason’s feet leaving the floor—he had more than enough upper body strength for an impromptu chin-up, and Batman was completely capable of bearing his slight weight without shifting—but instead Bruce let himself be pulled down so that he was stooping over the boy, with his ear nearly in reach of Jason’s mouth, and they exchanged a series of whispers, Bruce calm and Jason intense.
Dick cast a look around his family. Damian was sneering, probably jealous, Tim was expressionless, little Timmy wore a slightly discomfited, slightly sentimental smile, and little-Dick had fallen back to rejoin the rest of them. He had his arms folded across his stomach like he was hugging himself, which indicated some discomfort (Dick could read himself with pretty much total confidence), but mostly he seemed impressed at this demonstration of his successor’s ability to handle the Bat. Nightwing was kind of impressed. He hadn’t actually seen them together that much; he’d spent a lot of Jason’s tenure avoiding Batman.
Adult Jason Todd had dropped his facepalm at some point and was staring really hard at Batman and Robin-Mk-2 and their whispered conference, so hard he hadn’t yet noticed Dick looking at him. A muscle jumped in his jaw.
Little Jay let out a sharp breath, suddenly, and finally let go of the cape. “Okay,” he said, as Batman straightened up. Bruce put a hand around his shoulders and gave a little, reassuring squeeze. It wasn’t quite a hug, especially not by Dick’s standards, but it was what Bruce usually used to do instead of hugging.
While little-Jay’s face was safely tucked against his side, Bruce raised his head and looked very deliberately at Red Hood.
Whose face promptly twisted into twice as much sneer as Damian’s. Dick winced and looked away. If the kids would stick to business a little more, maybe they could get through this whatever-it-was without internecine bloodshed.
“I don’t need you, you know,” little Jason remarked loudly, as he pulled away from Bruce.
“I know,” Bruce affirmed, glancing down again. The back of Dick’s neck prickled.
He edged back and to the left and put a hand on Damian’s shoulder, because Dami was the only one he could really just reach out to like that right now, without risking awkwardness, and he wanted to make sure his littlest brother knew he wasn’t forgotten in the rush, even if he’d been a jerk earlier. Damian shot him an unimpressed look, but didn’t shake him off. Possibly because he’d just seen how childish and how unpleasant the gesture looked on Jason, and knew he couldn’t make it look good.
Possibly because he really was jealous of Jason, even knowing his fate.
“Now,” Bruce stated, in the carrying voice he used to address groups, as he strode away from the car through the knot of them, scattering Robins to either side of the ramp, as if he had not just been hugely sentimental where everyone could see, “what do we know?”
“Hi, Bruce, nice to see you too,” small Grayson said at his back, pointedly, and Bruce slowed. Turned.
“Dick,” he said, in one of those careful tones it was always so hard to read. Tilted his head a little, and asked, very blandly but not in the way that said he was trying to hide from you, “Fit for duty?”
And the first Robin grinned, so that Nightwing had to blink and look again, like he might have imagined it, before the pieces slotted into place as Dickie saluted, sloppily, his whole posture going bright and springy, and replied, “Aye-aye sir.”
Because it had been a joke once, hadn’t it? Not the discipline itself, not Bruce’s insistence that he had to follow orders when it mattered or he couldn’t be trusted in the field not to get himself or someone else killed, but…Dick had half taken Bruce’s seriousness of mission and duty to heart, and half thought it ridiculous, and…Bruce had been so easy to make laugh, back then.
It had even, a little, still been a joke in Jason’s time, he was pretty sure. And then.
Tim had no more been 100% reliably obedient than the rest of them, not really. Disagreeing with Batman was practically a duty of Robin’s; Bruce was wrong sometimes, and then you had to either make him listen or make up for him. There was a reason besides pride that the word was ‘partner,’ not ‘minion.’ But after Jason…Dick still didn’t know the exact details. He’d never asked Bruce, let alone Jason, to relive that last conversation in the desert, that had led to Jason alone with the Joker, and Bruce too late. But there had been a command, unfollowed, and there had been a grave, and nothing had ever been the same since.
The change had been so very gradual, but it had also happened all at once, and both of Tim were staring at the first Robin like he was completely insane. Or like maybe they were.
Nightwing caught Batman’s eyes, for just a second, and they were masked, of course, so he couldn’t read any expression in them, but. It really used to be that easy, for the two of them, didn’t it? There’d been a time when they never misunderstood.
The good old days had definitely been a long way from perfect, and there was no way Dick would want to go back to them now, but they had just as definitely been simpler.
Batman’s attention left Dickie and fell on the stunned little third-Robin in his green mask and tights. “Tim,” he said, and gestured toward the heart of the Cave with a little jerk of his head.
Timmy didn’t light up the way Dickie had, but he did smile, and settle, like a hawk onto a glove. Or like he was made of a whole bunch of little jointed bits of steel, and Bruce had flashed a magnet.
And then they were moving again, all as group, following Batman back toward the main staging area, presided over by the main computer, and Nightwing was moving with them, reflecting that this felt like a metaphor, somehow. Jason, he saw, Red Hood Jason, had pointedly broken off from the group and was circling around through the shadows, but it looked like he was still going to wind up in the same place as the rest of them.
Little Tim cut sideways through the group as they straggled and made his way over to young-Jason, where he reached out and laid a hand on the other boy’s arm, just for a second. Jay looked at him, sharply, but not angrily, and Tim offered that narrow, intent but perfectly real smile Dick had gotten used to seeing from Robin, back then, as Tim changed what Robin meant in a thousand little ways.
“Even if you don’t need him, you know…he needed you,” he said, and Dick had forgotten that, too, the way Tim used to take it upon himself to say the things no one else would, trying to tie them together across the gulf of their silence.
It was a role Dick had taken up in recent years, family heart, maintainer of bonds, but in a lot of ways he wasn’t as good at it as Tim had been. He didn’t have the same ear for truth, maybe, or maybe he just had too much baggage—part of the reason Tim had been able to say things like that, back then, was that they weren’t his truths, just things he saw with those detective’s eyes. He hadn’t been tied in, yet, weighed down by shared history, and he’d been young enough not to hesitate over the thought of tearing at people’s scars.
Tim sometimes still put into words the kind of uncomfortable truths no one else would, but it wasn’t the same. It had nothing to do with believing everything could be fixed if people would just talk to each other, not anymore, and everything to do with truth being just another weapon.
Jason had never been too young to understand scars.
“Obviously not,” he muttered now, stalking past Tim with a meaningful sidelong glare.
Tim shook his head. “I’m just your replacement,” he said quietly, but not in a whisper, as if he didn’t care whether he was overheard or not.
Dick looked sharply over at Older Tim, who was impassive, and Red Hood, who was glowering. They had to have heard…Tiny Tim meant it, didn’t he? He’d believed that even before Jason showed up again and started saying it.
“I don’t know what happened later,” Timmy continued to little-Jay’s disbelieving look—because of course he would have had to be blind or dead to miss the undercurrents between Red Robin and Red Hood—“but in the time I’m from, you’ve been dead a little more than a year. And I’m Robin because, if someone didn’t start watching his back out there, Batman was going to die. I can’t be you, but I’m better than leaving him alone.”
Chapter 6: Sixpence
I'm back! ^^ Thank you so much to everyone who's left kudoes or feedback. If I was still just writing this for myself, I'd never have the motivation to push forward through the blocky parts of it.
“And I’m Robin because, if someone didn’t start watching his back out there, Batman was going to die. I can’t be you, but I’m better than leaving him alone.”
Little-Jason drew a little breath through his teeth, eyes narrowing from the bottom only, the way they did when someone was startled enough for them to widen and suspicious enough to try to squint, and then they were just narrow as the surprise wore off but the disbelief didn’t. Nightwing looked for Red Hood—he’d stiffened, too, fifteen feet away in the shadow of a mighty stalagmite, but Dick couldn’t read his face, or Red Robin’s, and he would be annoyed with his family for wearing masks so much when it really wasn’t necessary, except he was wearing his, too. He’d put it on with the rest of his costume and thought nothing of it.
Robin-Tim smiled, again. A little softer, this time, and only because Dick had known Tim for eight years could he see the anxiousness lurking under that old familiar mixture of brash and kind. Tim really had been so much like the Robins before him, more than Dick had realized until he saw them together, and at the same time so starkly different from either of them.
Jason had always hated Dick a little, for being what he had to live up to. He’d known that, from the start. And Damian had hated Tim a lot, for being in his way but also for setting impossibly high standards when it came to Robin’s tactical deployment and analytical skills. But, Dick realized, without real surprise because he’d sort of known this already—and maybe it was because Jason had been dead by the time it was personal for him, or because he’d been such a big fan, or maybe just because of his weird, sideways Tim way of thinking—Tim at that age could no more have resented Jason for being someone Bruce loved than he could the stars for burning. He just wanted Jason’s approval.
Jay jerked his head a little, finally, after three endless seconds, to signal message received. And with that, his piece evidently said, Tiny Tim slipped away again and went to walk beside his older self, which might be an expression of his levels of trust, or just his sense of organization. He had to be aware he was being stared at, but he was pretty convincingly ignoring it. (Damian spent three seconds trying to glare a hole through his head, and then looked away with a 'tt' of disgust, and proceeded with retaliatory ignoring.)
And…this wasn’t really the time to pursue that subject and try to unravel all these weird ideas about who was ‘just’ what, if there even was a good time for that. Besides, those were the terms Tim had become Robin on, weren’t they? ‘There needs to be a Robin, and if Dick won’t do it and Jason can’t, it might as well be me.’ At least for now.
(There’d been a time, hadn’t there, when Tim talked like he really would quit any time now, as soon as he wasn’t needed, go back to his real life. Of course, by the time that retirement had happened, at his father’s demand, it had hit like a death sentence, tearing him away from almost everything that mattered. Nightwing could hardly imagine the Tim he knew now leaving the life, not without being invalided out, or something.
And then ten to one he’d apprentice with Oracle.)
It had taken him a while to really prove himself, but Dick had started believing in Tim when he first came to the rescue, facing down Two-Face like a plucky little lunatic, after Bruce got that warehouse blown up on himself and Nightwing both.
He had done really well. Being Robin. Did he know that? He knew it now, at least, right?
If he didn’t, that was at least partly Dick’s fault.
Nightwing exchanged a look with his younger self, who for once didn’t seem to be blaming him for their family’s issues (though if Timmy had pointed out exactly why the choice had been ‘him’ or ‘nothing,’ he probably would have, because the kid didn’t understand yet what it meant to be always in Bruce’s shadow when he wouldn’t let you fly), and who waggled his eyebrows in a conspiratorial way that meant, more or less, what the hell was that?
Dick shrugged at his little-self, hopefully coming off somewhere between search me and long story, and glanced between the Tims, who weren’t giving anything away.
Don’t lecture me about him until you’ve cared for him and loved him as long as I have, he’d told Tim on that first day, gripping him by both arms the better to snarl, beyond fed up with the kid’s incredible presumption. And now…
Dick realized he honestly wasn’t sure whether Tim loved Bruce. But he cared a whole goddamn lot, even more than he had back when he was just their #1 stalker secret-keeping fan, and he’d been through hell with and because of and for the sake of Batman plenty of times. You can lecture me now, all you want, little brother, he thought, wishing Red Robin had been willing to unmask, so he could at least try to see what was going on behind Tim’s eyes.
But if there was a right time to say that, it definitely wasn’t now. Talking seriously to Tim about anything besides work was a delicate endeavor, especially when his feelings might be involved, and if you picked your time wrong broaching a subject, you might never get another chance. Tim had gotten really good at ducking out of conversations he didn’t want to have.
For lack of anything else he expected to get away with, Dick passed intentionally behind little Jason as everyone found positions in a ragged crescent around Batman. “Hey,” he said, “Jay,” and when he’d been acknowledged with a slant of blue-green eyes, the only visible pair in the room, pressed a gloved hand bracingly into the boy’s upper back, and offered a crooked sort of smile.
Wished he could apologize for being so young and angry when his Little Wing knew him, for not offering enough support, for fighting with Bruce over Jason’s head so much. He would never say it but he understood, too well, how the grown Jason felt about Tim, even if he couldn’t forgive the way he’d taken his feelings out on their little brothers. But he’d also learned by now that that point of view was wrong.
Justified, maybe, but wrong. The replacement always got the rawer end of the deal. (Except probably Damian, but his situation was different; the Batman who’d overseen the transition between Damian and his predecessor hadn’t been the one who…well, not chose him; nobody had chosen Tim but Tim. Anyway. Damian had been Dick’s first Robin, was the point, not Tim’s replacement, even once his father came back and took over as his partner, so it didn’t count. Stephanie had gotten most of the fallout from Tim’s relationship with Bruce. As far as Dick could tell, anyway. Shit always runs downhill, as the elephant keeper used to say.)
Jason had always been angry, but he wasn’t just angry, and he must not hold Dick’s barely-postadolescent jerkishness against him all that much, or maybe they’d been getting along okay in whatever month little-Jay’d been snatched from, because he smiled back at Nightwing. “Dick,” he acknowledged.
“Missed you, kid,” Nightwing said, quietly enough that hopefully no one else could hear and take it personally. It had been a long, long time since he’d actively missed Jason, of course; since he’d had one of those moments where he forgot the kid was dead or wished he could tell him a joke or a story that he’d have loved, but he had missed this Jason more than once as he fought the man he’d become. Had almost stopped believing in him, more than once. It was good to see him again. And it hurt, a little, but Dick wasn’t Bruce. He could leave something behind without pretending it had never existed.
Jason shrugged the sentiment off, but Nightwing thought it had helped. Hoped it had helped.
He wasn’t sure what else he could do.
They’d all settled into place, now, a line of them curving around Batman, with the kids mostly in front, Dick near the middle of the back where he could see everyone except Red Hood Jason (who was slouching against one of the chemistry counters with a studied look of disinterest) without too much effort. Damian was closest to his father, on the far left, on the opposite side of Tim, but Nightwing could still make out most of his face, which was locked into an expression of disdain. Then Tim shifted, slightly, and blocked the line of sight. Dick looked back at Batman.
Bruce turned his head slowly, taking in their arrangement and no doubt taking careful note of every detail. Dick wasn’t even ashamed of hoping that the Bat would see something he hadn’t, and unravel the whole mystery.
Survey complete, “Report,” he pronounced.
Several voices spoke at once; only Little Dick kept going, after all the others had fallen away, so it was his quick summary that got out first. “I popped up here and tried to kick Nightwing and the Jasons out, which obviously didn’t work. Nightwing called you, Jason got in an argument with himself, Tim and, uh, Tim turned up, and then Damian Wayne came downstairs.”
He stopped just short of imitating Damian’s voice when saying his name, but it was still entirely obvious that he felt the current Robin took himself about a million percent too seriously, and that didn’t impress him much. Damian, half-concealed by Red Robin’s cape, seemed to be outright scowling now, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. He got harder to read the larger a group he was in—like Tim, come to think of it.
Little Grayson shrugged, smiled in a wry kind of way. “We were just talking about who exists when, when you finally showed up. Slowpoke.”
The first Robin paused, watching Batman to see how he reacted to the tease, which was…not at all, really. Nightwing thought it was interesting that little-him had mentioned Jason’s argument with himself, but not the near-altercation between Jason and Damian. Probably because only the latter was likely to get either of them in trouble…Dick didn’t really remember being the kind of kid who reflexively conspired against authority figures, but maybe he felt he was protecting the others from Batman’s disappointed face? Maybe he just thought Nightwing had already handled it, so there was no point kicking up the issue again.
The kid huffed faintly at Batman’s unresponsiveness, four-foot-seven of pure exasperation, and went on: “I experienced no sense of displacement between time periods. I appeared about three meters behind Nightwing. Jason was the first one to notice me. I’ve still got all my gear, that I’ve checked. And…yekhorro kakalêstar…”
His eyes narrowed, behind his mask, waiting with much more tension than a second ago, and Nightwing felt the atmosphere go taut in reaction, three Robins and two former Robins narrowing their trained focus on the unfamiliar words. And one Nightwing and one Batman, on familiar ones. He bit his own tongue against the words that rose to it. This test wasn’t directed at him. He wasn’t even sure why it was being used now, exactly, whether it was just caution, maybe prompted by being faced with his teacher in the art of paranoia, or if the little bird felt Bruce was acting out-of-character enough to make him suspicious, but either way.
Bruce stirred, slightly, a flaring of cape and a small, just-audible breath. “…si férdi dopashin.”
His accent was even worse than it used to be. Nightwing let out the fragment of his own breath he’d been holding behind his captured tongue.
They’d never used Romani for all their passcodes—Dick wasn’t really fluent, and Bruce really wasn’t fluent, and anyway patterns that obvious only ever existed to be exploited. But they’d used it for some. Nightwing couldn’t remember, now, whether it had been his idea first, or Bruce’s, but it had pleased him either way. Like the name Robin, like his family’s colors, like his quadruple somersault, it had been something from his life before that he’d been able to carry with him into the new one.
They’d never used the language regularly enough at home for it to come as easily as English to his tongue—his Dad hadn’t spoken it well, and Mom was only willing to exclude him from conversation in the confined space of their trailer up to a point—and it had been years. More than twenty of them. Dick bet his accent if he tried now wouldn’t be that much better than Bruce’s, to be honest.
(The thing about being mixed-blood Rom raised outside the community was that you never knew who was going to accept you, consider you to ‘count.’ The thing about being mixed-blood Rom adopted by a painfully WASPy billionaire was that pretty much nobody thought you counted anymore.)
But he remembered that he’d invented this one, this old, long-defunct code for affirming that each of them was who he seemed to be, if there was some cause for doubt after a separation. He’d picked it out for Bruce, for his so-often-solemn guardian who saw symbols in everything, for his partner who worried whenever they split up and fussed almost like a mom when he got hurt, even though it was usually Alfred with the cold packs and the disinfectant.
Yekhorro kakalêstar si férdi dopashin. ‘One alone like this is only half.’
They’d stopped bothering with that kind of thing so much over the years; there were so many entities in the universe, it had turned out, who could read or copy the contents of your mind that formal recognition codes were less useful than just watching one another for out-of-character behavior, silent suspicion without warning the suspect party.
But little-Dick came from before that change in policy, and had called this one back into use. Dick wondered if modern Batman had really weirded the kid out enough to make him reassess his acceptance of the whole situation.
Timmy looked intrigued—and actually, so did Tim, he was just subtler about it—and little-Jason had frowned, obviously feeling left out of the super-secret code. Though as the one who’d gotten a hug a minute ago, he was in no position to complain. Damian was still hidden behind Tim, and Dick couldn’t decide if his silence was encouraging or foreboding.
But having gotten the return phrase, the first Robin’s face had hitched into a crooked smile, and now he swung his weight slightly on one foot, like he might flip up into a handstand in the next second just to bleed off energy. “Yeah, okay.” His smile widened, and he shook his head. “Holy Batcave, though, Bruce. I never thought we were going to wind up with a whole colony in here!”
Chapter 7: Seven Devils
So comments are completely awesome; when I posted the last chapter I had about two hundred words of this one ready; two days later it was mostly done. I mean, benefits of posting on a Friday, but. Free time’s no use without inspiration. Or the ability to concentrate.
This isn’t a particularly Father’s-Day-ish chapter, but since I’m spending the weekend camping with my actual dad, I don’t have time to write something else that is. XD In the Batfamily fandom, we write about daddy issues all year long!
But having gotten the return phrase, the first Robin’s face had hitched into a crooked smile, and now he swung his weight slightly on one foot, like he might flip up into a handstand in the next second just to bleed off energy. “Yeah, okay.” His smile widened, and he shook his head. “Holy Batcave, though, Bruce. I never thought we were going to wind up with a whole colony in here!”
“Well, we don’t hang by our feet and sleep down here,” little-Jay cracked, and then cast a glance around, with that cockeyed punch-me grin of his fixed firmly on his face. It seemed so much less annoying than it had ten years ago. (Or even now, on the adult version.) “Or is that something that started after my time?”
“I’ve slept here,” Timmy volunteered. “When I’d get back from patrol late,” he added, when the two Robins that came before him both looked incredulous. Which, considering the Cave was chilly and sometimes, despite Bruce’s cleverest engineering and Alfred’s best efforts, damp, and that right upstairs was a very comfortable mansion, made sense.
Though Dick had collapsed down here a few times, over the years, and of course all the best medical equipment was in the Cave, so the seriously injured could sometimes be kept in that subchamber for days. “If it seemed like too much trouble to go home,” the third Robin expanded, a touch defensive as the incredulity failed to wane. “I didn’t have a bedroom here, so…”
“You didn’t have a bedroom?” Dickie repeated, scandalized.
“Here’s where I want to say, jeezus, Bruce, get this kid a bedroom, you’ve got scads…! But you’re the wrong Bruce.” Little-Jay flung a hand out in a piece of theatrical mute frustration, and Nightwing couldn’t tell for sure whether the remark had bothered Batman at all. He’d cocked his head a little, sarcastically, drawing a snicker out of Jason, and really, everybody needed to take off their masks, just in the interests of communication. Though maybe they were serving as security blankets, so he wouldn’t say anything. Argh.
“I didn’t have one yet,” clarified Robin-Tim, equally exasperated.
“You don’t have one now,” Damian sneered. Dammit, Dick had known that much silence couldn’t be a sign of calm.
“I moved into an apartment in the city,” Red Robin cut in stolidly. Which was at least true. His nest wasn’t exactly homey, but it was very definitely his. But his younger self had flinched, and while he’d covered it up right away, this clarification didn’t seem to have comforted him much.
“Of course Tim still has a bedroom,” Dick said firmly. (Was rewarded with an infinitesimal relaxation in Tiny Tim’s shoulders.)
“Indistinguishable from any other guest room,” Damian retorted. Nightwing took half a step forward, putting himself between little-Jason and little-Tim, and Red Robin moved back very slightly to let Dick’s meaningful glare hit Damian directly.
That part of Tim’s movement was definitely intentional, but he masked it very effectively by making it part of turning toward the younger self who stood to his right and confiding, “Avoiding the commute is almost worth the loss of Alfred’s cooking.”
“Pennyworth came with us, when we moved into the Wayne Tower penthouse,” Damian volunteered, his eyes skating away from Dick’s look but his tone significantly subdued. Satisfied, Nightwing slid back into the second rank again, where he could keep an eyes on everyone. “The improved response time was advantageous.”
“The what tower?” said little-Dick.
“The company is building a new skyscraper to house corporate headquarters,” explained Timmy, speaking from twelve years in the first Robin’s future. And why was Dick not surprised he knew this kind of thing at thirteen, when he technically had no connection to WE yet.
Then again, even if it hadn’t been Bruce’s company building it, and even if Bruce had not been in the process of plotting to covertly integrate high-tech secret passages into the structure, to allow it to serve as a secondary base for Batman if the Manor was compromised but not his identity, a new skyscraper in Gotham would have been Robin’s business to know about, and this was Tim. He was just as information-crazed as Bruce.
“They finished it six years ago,” said Red Robin, advancing the story another nine.
“Whatever, why did you move there?” little-Jay demanded, raking his eyes from Damian to Bruce. Natural assumption. “Was the Cave infested with vampires, or something?”
“With precedents,” Damian retorted. Scoffed at the looks of uncertain comprehension, and gestured curtly toward Nightwing. “The detritus of three decades made it more difficult for Grayson to perform adequately as Batman.”
“Damian,” Dick said, halfway between rebuke and complaint. He didn’t appreciate the tone or having his psychology dissected publicly, but Damian paying enough attention to other people’s feelings to perform such analyses, even in retrospect, was a positive trend he’d been trying to encourage.
“You were Batman?” asked Dickie, eyebrows up to his hairline. As Dick had thought he remembered, he didn’t seem bothered by the idea. If anything, he was trying to get his head around becoming Batman and then stopping.
“For less than a year,” Nightwing shrugged. Eleven months, six days. But only nine months as the sole title-holder. “Bruce went missing. We thought he was dead, but he was actually stranded in ancient history. Tim figured it out.”
Red Robin’s turn to be stared at, and he gave one of those tiny twitch-shrugs of his that sent a delicate ripple all the way down his feather-patterned cape.
“No wonder you’re taking us so calmly,” said baby-Grayson, having digested that. “Lots of time travel going on these days?”
“Some,” said Taller Tim. He’d had some bad experiences with an evil potential future self a few years ago, Dick recalled abruptly. Nightwing didn’t know much about that; he’d generally tried to stay out of the way of Tim’s Titans. And of course then Superman had travelled to the distant future to resurrect Conner and Bart. Tim probably had strong feelings about time travel.
“What kind of some?” little Jason demanded.
“Hey. Story hour is boring me almost literally to death back here,” Red Hood called out. Dick noted that nobody jumped at the reminder of his long-silent presence; apparently no one had quite managed to forget that there was a deranged gunman standing behind them. Yay, training. Little-Jay did scowl deeply, though, as he twisted around to aim the look at his older self.
“What, too soon?” Jason drawled, scratching disingenuously at the lower edge of his red domino.
“Always,” said Nightwing. Red Hood snorted, but gave him a fractional nod for not being struck speechless by his razor wit, or whatever.
“Jason does have a valid point,” said Batman, speaking for the first time since he’d provided the countersign. Everyone’s attention returned to him, though Nightwing’s lingered with Jason a few extra seconds in case this registered as provocation. It seemed, though, that he’d just been kibitzing, not trying to take over the discussion. Or else Bruce taking his side had mollified him. “Can anyone corroborate or supplement Dick’s report?”
“He was almost exactly ten feet away when I turned around,” offered Nightwing.
“I was more like twenty, twenty-five feet from the zombie,” said little-Jay. “Not sure exactly, cuz he was on the other side of a bus stop. It had the Blue Lightnings’ sign sprayed over a breathmint ad in my time, and then it was night and the ad was for Viagra, and nobody’d tagged over it yet. And then he pops out.”
Somehow he managed to make it sound like there was some essential thematic connection between Red Hood and the Viagra advertisement. Dickie snickered. Everyone over the age of fifteen pretended not to notice, except Jason himself, who seemed torn between admiring his younger self for being such a little shit, and wanting to whack him upside the head for being a little shit.
“He appeared roughly two meters behind me,” Red Robin stated, almost straightfaced as he tipped his head toward his counterpart.
“Six feet, eleven inches,” said Tiny Tim. Who had the worst instinctive spatial awareness of all the Robins (not that he wasn’t still well above average) and had compensated by practicing distance estimation in verifiable contexts since long before he’d actually gone into training as a crimefighter. And could therefore spew out numbers with more confidence than those who relied on natural ability. (Dick had seen some of Tim’s old photos. It was actually kind of amazing he hadn’t broken his neck, some of the climbing he had to have done to get them, chasing after Batman and Robin when he was barely out of elementary school.)
“Witnesses?” Bruce asked.
Everyone shook their heads.
“Nobody else there. And I couldn’t see him until he talked and Nightwing moved,” said small-Jason, jutting his chin toward the original Robin to indicate the current him.
“Me neither,” said Red Hood. And added nothing provocative. He hadn’t been kidding about wanting to get this resolved. Dick wanted that too, and was carefully not thinking about what that might mean for all the little duplicates. Saying goodbye to Tiny Tim would be hard. Losing Robin-Jason all over again was going to hurt like anything.
But they’d still have their Robin. He stood up on his toes to get a look at Damian over Tim’s head. Sullen. But okay.
“Which direction were you facing?” asked Bruce. Not quite looking at Jason, tone neutral as it ever got.
“Had my back to the bus stop,” Jason replied, his own tone mostly bland. Hint of challenge. “Heard a kid swearing. Went to look. Thought somebody was trying to get a rise out of me.”
“Saw that piece of work looking at me like somebody peed in his cornflakes, tried to fall back to a defensible spot,” countered Jaybird. Which was the only sane thing to do, really, considering the figure Red Hood cut even in his current state of relatively minimal armament, and the expression he had to have been wearing when he recognized himself. Dick was still a little surprised Jason had done it, even if he had been caught in his civvies in a mysteriously altered world, but maybe they’d been doing his memory an injustice, exaggerating his recklessness. He’d survived on the streets, after all; he’d had some survival instincts. “But I hit some kind of invisible tether at a hundred and fifty-ish feet. That’s in a straight line, not over ground surface. I climbed a building.”
Of course he had. Dick wasn’t sure if the association between high places and safety was one Jason had developed as a street kid, or only later, but it was definitely one that went with being Robin. (Or a Grayson.)
“So the distance between the manifestations and the preexisting versions is a definite variable,” Red Robin concluded, clearly running through mental notes and probably itching to walk past Bruce and take over the computer.
“But each appearance was directly behind the counterpart,” said Batman. “Even in the case where line of sight was already interrupted by a physical object.”
“Suggesting the present versions are probably being used for some kind of coordinates,” agreed Nightwing. They had been situated in this time in direct relation to their future selves. They hadn’t been snatched out of their own times and deposited here in a group, or dispersed at random. The quality of ‘being Robin’ was apparently the determining factor—and unless Tim and Jason had encountered each other within a fairly recent window it probably wasn’t a directly communicated contagion of any kind, either—but the transitions had occurred on an individual basis.
“Or,” Bruce stated, with his signature ruthless lack of sentiment, “that the…visitors…are some kind of projection.”
Dick had, in passing, registered this as one of a dozen possibilities while sticking with time travel as the best working assumption. He was kind of impressed Bruce had the guts to say it out loud after the way he’d interacted with Robin-Jay, though.
Then again, Bruce was a colossal ass much of the time, in many different ways, especially about admitting he cared about people, but all the same, Dick wouldn’t really doubt that if he could somehow scoop out the remnant of Robin buried deep inside the Red Hood’s homicidal soul and give it a hug, Bruce would want to. So even if the mini-mes were just projections from within them given form by something-or-other, that wouldn’t make Bruce regret the almost-hug or the promise that it had never been Jason’s fault.
Might even make it more important to have done it. Since if that was what Jaybird was, he didn’t have a Batman of his own to go back in time to, and there wouldn’t be another chance for any Bruce to tell him.
Of course, Bruce could always tell the Jason who belonged in this time, but there was too much blood under that bridge. He’d never be able to mean it, not enough, if he said none of it was that Jason’s fault. And Jason wouldn’t be able to admit he cared.
“You think we aren’t real?” asked Little Dick. Laughing a little, chin out in challenge; you almost couldn’t tell his feelings were hurt.
“I know I’m real,” said Jason, making a fist.
Timmy didn’t say anything.
“Have we tested their structural integrity?” snarked Damian. He cast a sidelong look at Batman, and Bruce shook his head slightly. Permission to sneak attack denied.
(Dick knew it was a good thing that their partnership was getting steadily stronger, but even this long after returning Damian to his father he sometimes felt…not quite jealous, but something like it, when he saw the strength of the bond between his own former partners. It had been his decision. It had been the right and the necessary decision, for everyone’s sake and not least his own. It still hurt.
Story of his life.)
“Actually not a bad idea!” Dick’s mini-me rallied. Cocked his head, pugnacious pointy chin and friendly smile. “Wanna spar?”
Damian’s lip curled. Nightwing could tell that Damian could tell that the first Robin didn’t like him, but was trying not to be a jerk about it. Possibly because of whatever he’d managed to determine about the other boy’s relationship with his adult self, after that scolding earlier. Nightwing also knew that to Damian this kindness probably felt like pity, and was just going to encourage hostility. Then again, he wasn’t sure there was anything that wouldn’t, at the moment.
“Tt.” The Robin of today raked his eyes across all three of those that had gone before, lingering with a special dislike on little Tim. “I could take you all together.”
Chapter 8: Eight of Diamonds
Whoops, hiatus. Sorry! Too many balls in the air.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Tt. I could take you all together."
Damian sneered his challenge, and Nightwing suppressed a wince. The thing was, he might not even be wrong, depending on how good a team the other Robins made, but Dick really, really wished he knew how to break the kid of saying things like that. The older he got, the more of a handicap being a constant jerk was going to become.
Not that being a jerk couldn't be a useful tactic. And even if he got no use out of it, Dick had no expectations of 'major-league assholery' not being one of his littlest brother's dominant modes of interaction for the rest of forever—it wasn't, truthfully, as if he had the best role models on that count anyway—but he needed to learn to rein it in. He couldn't count on everyone he had to work with always growing inured to his personality and letting it roll off. Even Bruce had never been completely unbending, even if sometimes he'd gotten close. Those times had been bad times, though. Not to be imitated. And just as a rule of thumb, it should never be more pleasant to be your enemy than your ally.
Little Jason looked ready to take up the gauntlet Damian had thrown down, and Timmy was doing a funny twisty thing with his mouth that might be wry or might be judgy, and as for the tiny Grayson…
"Guess that lets you out for sparring," Dickie smiled. Cheerful, and friendly, and socially excluding Damian for being a brat, holy shit, he did not remember being this smooth an operator as a kid. "If it's that uneven. How about you?" Dickie chirped to Timtwo, turning away from Damian like he'd disappeared from existence. "You up for a round?"
(Nightwing was kind of embarrassed that from the outside it was so obvious that the other boy's admiration was enough to make Dickie like him. Red Robin was wearing a funny little smile. Okay, they were pretty cute. Just. Also mortifying. Wasn't Tim mortified? He didn't look mortified.)
"I haven't been in training all that long," Timmy demurred with a little shrug. Which wasn't a 'no.'
"Well, hey, me neither," little-Jay got in on things with a cocky little shrug. "How about you fight me, green-knees, and the winner gets to go up against Dick?"
"And I will fight the winner of that match," Damian proclaimed, shouldering his way back in.
And suddenly somehow they were holding a tournament of Robins? Nightwing glanced toward Bruce, but he seemed perfectly content to let the kids make plans for duking out their own hierarchy. Maybe because that would allow for testing the doubles' solidity in a way other than systematically harming children. Well, Dick couldn't disagree with that goal.
The problem was, with that structure, Damian would face a winded opponent and almost definitely emerge victorious, and that would be teaching him entirely the wrong lesson about interpersonal interaction. Was there a way to head this off before it picked up any more steam?
"What, you're not too good for us after all?" prodded the young Grayson. Bouncing on his toes again, and Dick recognized that look. Little him thought his latest successor needed to be taught a lesson. Hey, that was current-self's job, thank you very much. Well. Mainly Bruce's.
"Good enough to beat you," Damian fired back.
Which was true. Dick wasn't even embarrassed by it. He had been monitoring Damian's precociously self-destructive tendencies for years now, his obsessive overtraining that would have done long-term muscle damage to anyone with more normal healing rates. His entire childhood had been sacrificed for power, and while Dick would never, ever say it had been worth it, it had at least been a fairly successful exchange.
Add to that the fact that he was bothering to use intelligent tactics more and more often as he grew up, and their Robin was pretty formidable. Dick liked to think his younger self could at least give Damian a run for his money, especially because he was much better at thinking around corners, but no way could he offer him an even head-to-head fight. (Small consolation, no way could Dami take him in a race.)
"Hey, maybe you're not even gonna be fighting him," Jaybird asserted, jostling for…huh, Damian's attention. In his own right, or as an extension of Bruce? "Because I'm going to take out Timster here, and Little Dick, and you."
Damian narrowed his eyes, and Dickie let out a little huff, half offended, half laughing at the other two.
And then little Timmy wrinkled his nose and raised two fingers. "Hey, guys, point of order, are we really calling him 'Little Dick?'"
"Does that make me Big Dick?" Nightwing put in, waggling his eyebrows in a way that made Damian close his eyes in apparent pain at the idiots surrounding him.
"You are a big dick," said Jaybird promptly, which…okay, he'd been asking for it.
"Hey!" objected the younger Grayson, apparently feeling this insult extended over their whole lifespan. Whoo, self-solidarity. If one of them got in trouble and the other one came to the rescue, would that be self-reliance? Or self-defense?
(Dick gave Little Tim a mental high-five for teamwork; they had just ratcheted the tension levels down by about two hundred percent.)
"We could call the Robins by number," Red Robin suggested. There was a faint suggestion of a curl to one side of his mouth that said he was intentionally stirring up trouble while pretending to be a poker-faced model of businesslike responsibility. Dick was wise to him.
"I refuse to answer to 'five,'" Damian grumbled. "You may number the others, if you wish."
"There's only one of you," Red Robin deadpanned. "You're clear."
"I'm not going by a number either!" little Jason chimed in. Shit-eating grin, weight on his toes. Aw, Little Wing. You really needed more kids your age around, didn't you?
"No numbers," Nightwing agreed. "Although we are number one," he added, winking at his little-self, who grinned back, and then pointing at each of the duplicates in turn. "Dickiebird, Jaybird, Timmy. Nightwing, Red Hood, Red Robin. Unique designations. Acceptable?" He addressed the question mainly to Batman, assuming the boys would speak up if they had a problem. Well, obviously so would Bruce, but asking for his approval was the better part of valor.
Bruce…grunted. In an acknowledging kind of way. ('Hnh' was more communicative than it had any right to be, but that didn't mean it wasn't annoying when Batman couldn't be bothered to use actual words.)
Little-Tim didn't look thrilled about being 'Timmy,' but he clearly wasn't going to be the first to complain, either. "You can be Timbird, if you want," Nightwing offered.
"What's a Timbird?" Dickiebird inquired brightly.
"Stop helping," Dick told him.
"It's a mechanical toy," said Damian, dry as the Sahara. "It flies. They make them in France."
"Timmy's fine," that Robin interjected wearily. Aww. He was so cute looking all put-upon about a little teasing.
"Tim's the sensible one," Nightwing confided in the first two little Robins, who didn't really know him yet, though they had to be getting an idea by now. "The rest of us take shameless advantage." Red Robin snorted. Not in a disagreeing kind of way, Dick noted. He grinned; Tim smiled wryly back.
"Nightwing," Batman reproved. What, now he was weighing in?
"Aw, c'mon Bruce," Jaybird complained. "You always get so grim when Dick's around."
"When I'm around?" exclaimed little Dickiebird. He looked, distressed, toward Bruce, who was indeed being grim and closed-off in a way he'd almost never been in private when Dick was a kid. Though Red Hood's presence was really all the explanation necessary there, for anyone who didn't know he was like this most of the time nowadays anyway.
…Dick had known but maybe never really realized that the man had lightened up again around Jason, even long after things had gotten cold between the two of them. Had seen them together, when Bruce wasn't paying enough attention to Nightwing for Dick to ruin his mood. (When he'd come to see Bruce on his birthday in the first stages of a serious mental breakdown, and Bruce had managed to remember a happy birthday on his way out but couldn't stop to listen to him for even a minute.) He felt a stab of that ancient, long-buried jealousy toward his replacement, a feeling that had no place here, and was glad Red Hood was behind him so they couldn't see each other's faces. There wasn't time to think about that, though, because his younger self had only spent an instant on being upset by the implications before punching him in the arm again, much harder.
"Would you stop that?" Nightwing yelped, rubbing at it. It wasn't that it hurt that much, especially through his uniform, but it hadn't really been a playful blow, either, and he hadn't been prepared to be hit.
"What did you do?" Dickiebird hissed.
Nightwing gaped at the injustice of it. "Me? I didn't do anything! He's an ass," he jabbed a finger at Batman which, dammit, there went the levelheaded grownup image he'd been cultivating. Maybe Damian had a point about acting his age.
This was a sore point even over a decade later, though, the way Bruce had turned his back on their partnership and frozen him out, until all they seemed to do was fight. Dick had been the one to leave, and he'd felt guilty and blamed for it, but Bruce had given up on him first. They'd left all that behind a long time ago, but you didn't deal with things in this family, you just got past them, and tonight apparently there were to be very few murky pools left unstirred.
"I grew up," he amended, with a shrug. "If there was anything specific, maybe he'll tell you." He, personally, had given the question up a long time ago.
But Dickiebird turned to Batman with an expression of serious query. "Bruce?" he asked.
Nightwing winced. This younger self still trusted Bruce in a way no one had in years, not since Tim was a kid probably, and he didn't know for sure but it had to be hurting Batman on some level. Hell, it was hurting him.
"You did nothing wrong, Dick," Bruce said, without looking directly at either of them, his tone indicating they were discussing rather boring weather rather than the foundations of their relationship. "Has the distance limitation been established between either of the other pairs?"
Dickiebird looked ready to press the issue, but Nightwing laid a hand on his shoulder. Shook his head, when his younger self looked up. It wasn't worth a big scene. They were fine.
"We encountered it," volunteered Timmy, trying to be bland but coming off so sweet and eager to please Dick just wanted to hug him. Damn, could he just hug everybody? Maybe hypnotize his whole multiplying family into a group hug? Even Big-Jason, because he wasn't acting all that insane today and he hadn't hidden all that well, really, how badly it had gotten to him watching Bruce and Jaybird together. But he hadn't lashed out. He deserved a cookie, or something. There were some left, right? Yeah. Had to be. No way Damian had eaten the whole plate in the maybe twenty minutes he'd spent in the library.
"I would have estimated fifty meters," added Tim, Red-Robin Tim, doing blank much better.
"We didn't test extensively," Timmy cautioned.
"Nightwing," Bruce directed, which meant go fifty yards away and then see if you can still keep going.
Dick grumbled very slightly in his throat for form's sake, but wouldn't have dreamed of objecting. He didn't like to leave his little flock that still felt kind of like a tinderbox, but he wasn't the responsible adult in the room anymore, so he didn't have to stay, and it needed testing, and they couldn't send little Dickiebird off alone. (He ignored the fact that Robin had been sent alone into much more dangerous places than the Batcave, years younger than thirteen. Ten had felt so much older when he was ten years old.)
He decided to make for one of the lower tunnel exits, with the reasoning that he'd barely be out of line-of-sight before he reached the required distance, and between the fancy acrobatics he'd need to get to the other side of the gulf of the lower cave as the robin flew, instead of via something boring like stairs, and the more basic exertion of getting up onto the occupied level again afterward, he'd be able to work off some of this tension.
"No," interrupted Red-Robin-Tim sharply, even as Dick gathered himself up for the jump. He paused without question, and waited for the explanation.
It came from little Timmy. "It's us younger ones that are tethered. I am, at least. If Red Robin moved out of range, I was pulled after him."
"I noticed no constraint at any extension," big-Tim put in.
Dick wondered why they'd tried to split up in the first place. It was quite possible little-Tim hadn't believed his older self entirely and had wanted to confirm the situation through an outside source before accompanying him anywhere, but they were working together like such a well-oiled machine now that it was hard to picture.
Then that was pushed aside as he absorbed the reason he'd been stopped—if they were right, he'd been about to drag his little self right over the edge and into an uncontrolled drop. It wasn't a full fifty meters down from the tunnel he'd been aiming for to the nearest flat surface, either, so this mystic tether wouldn't have caught the boy before he went splat.
Even if he was only some kind of astral projection, that would be hideous.
Shut up, he told himself. He's a teenager in full gear, not a baby duckling; he'd've caught himself in time.
"Replacement's right," said Jason, adult Jason, and you could have knocked Nightwing over with a feather. Arms crossed, brooding glower, but an actual contribution. A contribution that consisted of saying Tim was right. Even just about a factual analysis.
Drawing attention to it would just lead to fuss and probably Jason regretting it, so Dick just flashed a smile and said to Bruce, "I'll stay here. Why don't you two go off and test the distance?"
"I can—" his little self began, swelling with abraded dignity, and then seemed to realize this was an opportunity to get Batman to himself and doubtless grill him with several dozen questions. "Never mind, I like that plan. Big me is a good planner."
If he didn't demand an explanation for why little Jason was Robin and not, say, 'Blue Jay,' as soon as they were out of sight, Dick would swallow one of his escrima sticks. The electrical ones. With the power pack in.
Batman inclined his head in agreement, though something in the way he looked at Nightwing said he was going to have to watch out for some kind of retaliatory manipulation, and the first Robin clapped his hands in satisfaction and did a cartwheel toward the edge. "Come on, Bruce. Bet I can beat you to the back door." Batman's grim expression softened a little, and he tilted his head slightly in the way that meant (everyone here was at least moderately fluent in Batman) 'challenge accepted.'
Before Dickiebird and his chaperone could go anywhere, though, the universe stepped in to remind them all of the futility of planning.
"This is either the worst-executed kidnapping attempt I have ever endured," said a biting, sardonic young voice from nowhere, "or I am very lost."
A number of comments have prompted me to track down and properly cite the reference to the 'happy birthday' moment. It's New Teen Titans #18, from 1986, just after the Crisis; Bruce and Jason were about to rush off and rescue a kidnapping victim whose case they'd just broken, and Bruce assured Dick he wanted to be there for him, and promised they could talk when he got back. 'Oh, and I almost forgot--happy birthday.' And then they leave him all alone. Even closer to that mental breakdown.
Bruce having a good reason to reject his request probably made it worse, really. And of course the Bat totally failed to notice how much Dick needed him right then. Alfred noticed, but Dick told him to 'mind his own damn business for once.'
Chapter 9: Nine By Nine
"This is either the worst-executed kidnapping attempt I have ever endured, or I am very lost."
All the dry amusement hidden in Batman's face had flattened at the first brittle words, and now he stepped very deliberately to one side, turning ninety degrees just as little Jason had done when trying to watch Damian and the Red Hood at once, cape sweeping dramatically aside to reveal the form of yet another dark-haired boy.
He had the clean, well-knit look of a child being brought up in wealth but not thoroughly spoiled, old enough to have shed almost all the softness of baby fat but too young to have developed the lanky, coltish build of a teenager growing into his limbs, and was wearing slightly scuffed oxford shoes, pressed trousers, a little grey vest that hung unbuttoned, white Egyptian cotton sleeves rolled carelessly above his elbows. Hair ferociously parted. His blue eyes and high cheekbones both looked sharp enough to cut.
"Bruce…" said Tim-as-Robin, utterly flabbergasted.
"Wayne," finished the older Tim, as a sort of punctuation, or possibly to keep the new boy from growing suspicious about the unwarranted familiarity.
Dick remembered to breathe in. Tim's instinct to allay suspicion was an important one. After all, unlike the rest of them, young Bruce Wayne wasn't used to supernatural or dimension-warping happenings. He also would not recognize a single face or mask among them.
He hadn't seen any pictures of Bruce at that age, himself, but he didn't question the assessment. It was Batman's cape the boy had appeared behind, and he trusted their middle child's eyes. Those two would know, after all. Of everyone here, Tim was the one who had exhaustively researched every member of the family, and Bruce's face had been in the public record with successive updates since he'd been born. (Almost literally—the Waynes had published his picture in the paper as soon as he finished looking pink and squashed, as though to prove his existence to the world. Dick had seen that one. It was adorable.)
"Yes," little Bruce agreed, rather curtly. Narrowed his eyes, scraped them over all of them. "I apologize if I'm intruding."
"Oh, don't worry," replied Dickiebird brightly, flashing a winning grin as he took a step away from the lip of the cliff, spreading a welcoming hand. "Our cave is your cave. Make yourself at home. Nice to meet you."
"Thank you," said little Bruce. Half out of a sensible impulse to remain on good terms with them if possible, and half because Alfred would have expected it, if Dick was any judge. He was tense as a high-wire, and Nightwing knew it would help if any of them could stop goggling at him, but they couldn't. Especially the Robins (even Dickie who was fronting best), who were obviously having trouble integrating the concept of Bruce ever having been a kid. Timmy and Damian, who would normally have been the staid and/or dismissive ones, were the worst of all.
He looked a lot like Damian.
…he looked like Dickiebird, too.
Batman was pretending, more or less, to ignore his little duplicate. If he'd had the cowl pulled back, he'd probably have been about ten seconds from pinching his nose to diminish the headache a little, but the mask didn't really allow for that—something which had annoyed Dick more than once when he'd been wearing it, and he wasn't especially prone to tension headaches. Not that Bruce admitted to such a weakness, but you got to know the signs.
"Yer welcome," volunteered Jaybird, slouching, his slum accent snapping particularly distinctly.
"This is idiotic," grumbled Damian. Who'd gotten to the point where he was giving a pretty good impression of not caring a whit, except that he still couldn't take his eyes off the early edition of his father.
Who raised his eyebrows frostily at Batman, and then at Nightwing, and finally at the three other kids who'd given him three different kinds of welcome. (Ignoring the other two, Damian with intent. His terrible first impression skills still at work, Nightwing noted.) "Would it be too much trouble to explain exactly why I'm in your cave?"
"Oh, God, he's actually like that," groaned Red Hood. He'd dropped his head back into his hand and was kneading at his temples with thumb and fingertips and was, unlike the rest of them, making no attempt at subtlety. "That is his actual personality. I never actually believed it before." But he was making none at clarity either, so that was fine. It wasn't like he didn't have a point. Everyone ignored him, too, and little-Bruce (after a brief, puzzled glower) followed suit.
"We aren't kidnappers," stated Batman, in that absolute voice people generally just believed.
"We didn't bring you here," Dick assured, more warmly.
"In fact," Red Robin added, and then smooth as anything his younger self concluded smartly,
"We'll do whatever we can to help you get back."
"Where do you last remember being, before you were here?" the older Tim slid back in, alert and polite, a witness-questioning demeanor no one could rebuke, except that their double act was kind of alarmingly pat. At least Timmy was smiling, although Little Bruce wasn't smiling back. Little Jason pulled a face, with Dickie right behind him.
"You two really need to stop doing that," the original Boy Wonder declared, shaking his head at the Tims. Damian scoffed, apparently on general principle. Red Hood slanted a sardonic look from under his right hand that had no right to be so expressive when Nightwing could only see about half of one eye.
"Boys," said Batman. It actually worked, on everyone but Big Jason, who smirked, crossed his arms and went back to leaning on the table.
Dick grinned. "Let 'em alone, Dickie," he chimed in. Little Bruce had relaxed, slightly, at them acting like a family, although…Nightwing also thought he had caught a flash of something like jealousy in sharp blue eyes. "They're asking the smart questions, don't have to go judging their teamwork."
The other Richard Grayson rolled his eyes, took a long step back, and folded himself up to sit on the safety railing he and Batman had been about to leap when their latest visitor arrived, with his back to the long drop. Propped his chin on his knees, and looked expectantly at the young Bruce Wayne in their midst.
That youth showed considerably less alarm at the other boy's choice of seat than an adult would have. "I was at home," he volunteered, at long last. Not trusting, but not conspicuously wary, either. Good, they were wearing him down. (Or he was faking it; this was Bruce.) He looked more like a kid now he was bristling less. "Outside. There's a hill, between the graveyard and the rose garden."
They all knew the place he meant, of course; it was down at the southwest corner of the grounds, grown with trees that screened the family cemetery apart from the rest of Wayne Manor's environs, and from it you could overlook a large swath of the property, including the graves of a lot of his ancestors. (Not his parents, though; the Waynes had been using the city cemetery since the twenties. Might be a story there; maybe somebody hadn't wanted their dead that close, but whyever they'd done it, there was most of an acre of prime grave real estate pre-purchased and waiting, in the evident expectation that the line of Waynes was going to keep living and dying in Gotham for a very long time. Hey, if Damian ever managed to find a girl willing to tolerate him for more than fifteen minutes at a time, maybe they even would.)
Probably everyone here had gone to that hill to be alone at some point. Damian could sometimes be found sulking beneath it, among the worn old headstones, showcasing his genetic predisposition toward melodrama. Dick himself used to climb the trees a lot.
"And what were you doing there?" Red Robin persisted, only his detached tone keeping him from being alarmingly pushy, and even that not totally removing the impression that Bruce would be judged on his answer.
Bruce shrugged slightly. "Avoiding my…guardian," he confessed blandly. Dick's lips twitched. Poor Alfred. "I've been suspended from school for fighting. Again," he added in an undertone, more annoyed with the idiotic school that kept suspending him than ashamed of his behavior.
Little Jason let out a yelp of laughter.
"You shouldn't have said that in front of this crowd," Nightwing informed the young billionaire, unable to keep a grin off his face.
"Why not?" Brucie replied, defensive tension in his shoulders in case they all came at him or something, now that he'd owned up to fighting. Clearly ready to give his best, if they did. Aww.
"Because if it's okay for you, they," and Dick flicked a hand toward the row of Robins, though he was mostly thinking of Damian and little Jason, to be honest, "are going to argue it should be okay for them."
Little Bruce Wayne raised his eyebrows. "I don't think I make much of a role model," he said dryly.
"Oh my god," said Jaybird, in tones of direst agony. He glanced over at Dickie on his guardrail, then turned and met Timmy's eyes, and then the three of them dissolved into hilarity. Dickie rocked back and forth on his perch until even Nightwing kind of wanted to go make him get away from the edge for his own safety, and Jay was doubled over. Timmy had buried his face in his hands and was shaking so hard it looked kind of like he was crying his eyes out, but when Red Robin, smiling faintly, brushed a gauntlet across the ends of his spikes and he peered up, he was grinning, all crooked incredulity.
Batman looked extraordinarily longsuffering, which only made it harder to keep a straight face, especially for anyone who looked from him to the increasingly irritated crinkles at the corners of little Brucie's eyes. He didn't get the joke, of course, and no one enjoyed being left out, let alone laughed at. Nightwing managed to plaster one hand over his mouth and keep his mirth contained, but it wasn't easy. His abdominal muscles ached from holding themselves still.
"Ahahahah, role model," his little counterpart got out, wiping away a few tears that had leaked under the edge of his mask. "Hahaha, you're killing me here."
"Don't be an embarrassment, Grayson," Damian grumbled at him. He had understood the joke, but seemed torn between ruffled feathers on behalf of his father's dignity and amusement at Bruce's expense, and anyway would never be the laughing-himself-sick type. Nightwing barely killed the impulse to imitate Tim and ruffle his Robin's hair. Dami wouldn't appreciate it in front of witnesses his own age. Well, he especially wouldn't appreciate it in front of them. Dick was pretty sure that overall Damian was glad to get gestures of affection, and it was definitely good for him, anyway, but appreciative would be pushing it.
"Don't be a killjoy," retorted Jaybird. And hey, standing up for Dick, sort of. Win.
Little Bruce cleared his throat for attention, which was actually kind of adorable, because even Bruce couldn't pull that off as a middle schooler. Especially one who, unlike Dami, couldn't kick out your kneecaps and use your skull for a footstool. "Does that help?" he prompted. He, of course, had no idea what they were trying to 'figure out' from the data they'd asked him for, let alone what was so funny about it.
"No," Red Robin allowed. "Not by itself."
"What about the rest of you?" asked Nightwing, bouncing on his toes with leftover energy from the burst of laughter. "Where were you, earlier?"
"I was here in the cave," his little self replied promptly, which had already been fairly obvious from his report, and his initial attitude toward the rest of them. If he'd perceived himself as teleporting, he'd have been a lot less calm and confident about confronting intruders. Not that he wouldn't have still done it, but. Attitude.
"I was on the way home from school—well, I took a detour on the way home," volunteered Jaybird. "I'd just put down my backpack where I could keep an eye on it while we played pickup soccer down on Caterby Row," a street in Priest Heights, which had been in Jason's day a middling residential neighborhood, low-income but fairly respectable, and just barely within plausible detour range on his way home. The boy looked around at Nightwing and Batman, the nearest authority figures. "What, no lecture?"
Red Hood, still at the back of the class, scoffed. "By contrast with me, you're an angel. With the little demon, too, come to think of it," he added, and it was sort of true; Damian was more disciplined than Jason had been, in some ways, but as recently proven, he could be an absolute misanthropic nightmare in a way Jason had never managed. (Or attempted, for that matter.)
Not that Dick didn't still love him to bits. His adjustment period to Damian's specific personality would probably have taken even longer than it had with Jason if he hadn't been thrust abruptly into pseudoparenting, was all.
"Just be safe," ordered Batman, in the mildly curt voice he always used when he was more interested in getting your report than discussing your conduct. Jason's little disobediences had long since faded into irrelevance.
"And then it was night and all the kids were gone and some of the buildings looked different. And I ran into him." Jaybird jerked a thumb at Red Hood and looked expectantly at the next Robin in line.
Little Timmy shrugged. "I was on patrol."
"Patrol?" young Bruce echoed sharply, reaffirming his status as the odd man out, the only one who didn't take patrol for granted. Glanced around once again at the assembled family, face creasing with frustration, eyes catching and skipping like kitten claws on muslin. Gave a little shake of his head. "What are you, some kind of paramilitary circus?"
Chapter 10: Ten Percent Inspiration
Fun metatrivia for today: Jason Todd and Nightwing were, according to Marv Wolfman, created to circumvent editorial pressure to de-age Dick out of the Titans, so the Batman writers could start using Robin regularly again. Picture that for a second.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“What are you, some kind of paramilitary circus?”
And that, quite justifiably, was the point at which Dick's self-discipline cracked.
All his repressed laughter struck back with a vengeance and brought its friends, and after a second of he just let it go. It was his fault, he knew, the ‘circus’ part; Batman’s costume had always been form-fitting, sure, but it was the Robin and Nightwing costumes he had designed that really pushed that flavor into the family style. (Although adult Tim’s fantastic wing-cape was probably helping.)
Maybe that was why going back to the circus never really stuck; he’d never actually left.
“S-Some-something like that,” he managed to stutter out between fits of mirth, holding his stomach. He’d set the others off again, too, though not as badly as before, since they’d already gotten it off their chests. He’d heard the deep voice of the Hood at the back go hah!
Both of Tim had chuckled, this time, but Damian was scowling. Damian, come to think of it, had very little perspective on how ridiculously weird their lives actually were. He took it all so seriously. He took some things more seriously than Tim did, which was pretty much by definition overkill.
(Dick was hoping he would eventually grow out of it. Some people did. Garth had gotten more laid-back as they grew up, until, well. But Dami was Bruce’s kid, and Bruce had apparently always been kind of an intense, angry little bastard himself. And had gone and mislaid his sense of humor at some point in the last fifteen years, making himself an even grimmer influence. So.)
It was surprisingly easy to read young Bruce’s emotions as they flickered across his face—faintly nettled at first by the laughter, and maybe relieved they hadn’t taken offense. Then as no one gainsaid Dick’s confirmation of his sarcastic theory he was intrigued, impressed, disapproving, dubious…maybe jealous again.
Not afraid anymore, though. They’d done the right thing, so far. “You can’t be much older than me,” he said in patent disbelief, to little Tim. Who actually wasn’t the shortest Robin present; that honor belonged to the pixielike form of the young Dick Grayson.
Puberty had been a long, steady process for Dick, resulting in a slightly-taller-than-average frame but involving no sudden growth spurts; he credited his acrobat genes. (As an acrobat, five-eleven-and-a-half was really too tall; as a fighter, he appreciated the inches.) Tim had been an average-sized child who only grew to be five foot eight; Jason’s tall genes had triumphed over childhood bouts of malnourishment and dying during adolescence, and he was the tallest of the boys, and just a hair shorter than Batman at his full growth. (Although Bruce’s little spiky ears gave him an edge, like the spire on a skyscraper.)
Probably he’d have been even taller, if Catherine Todd had lasted longer and he’d eaten more regularly throughout his early growing years. Or maybe the Lazarus Pit had somehow ‘fixed’ that, too, and this was his maximum potential size. Who knew? And Dick had a bet on with Barbara about whether stocky Damian was going to turn out to have inherited his father’s height. So far, he hadn’t sprouted. But he wasn’t really old enough for it yet, either.
“Thirteen,” Timmy answered the challenge to his age without rancor or demur, and glanced around at the other Robins and back at Bruce. “You?”
“Same,” agreed Jaybird.
“Thirteen,” confirmed the first Robin, bouncing thoughtfully on his toes and looking around at the lot of them.
“I as well,” announced Damian, who as a native of this time hadn’t exactly been asked, but if they were all his age that probably meant something, and he was right to draw attention to it. That was—interesting, actually. Thirteen. (Unlucky thirteen? Dick had thought, at first, that this was most likely to be magical. Nothing had really happened to change his mind.)
Had he really been that small at thirteen, though? Smaller than Tim?
“So?” said little-Bruce, distinctly hostile again. His fingers had curled up again. “We’re all the same age.” His eyes were flicking from one face to another around the family group again, unease showing in his expression—a more specific unease than that which came from being in a cave full of masked strangers, and not knowing how you’d gotten there.
And Dick realized, then, that it wasn’t actually that Bruce at thirteen was so bad at concealing his emotions, though he actually wasn’t as good as Tim at the same age. It was that he, Nightwing, had spent over twenty years learning to read Bruce Wayne’s faint, repressed emotional cues, and a person’s face didn’t actually change enough between thirteen and thirty for that skill to be wholly inapplicable.
Which meant he understood first of anyone, as young Bruce’s blue eyes lingered on little Jason’s only-slightly-greener ones for a second, that the boy had noticed the strong physical resemblance between all of them and himself.
There was a reason, of course, that they all looked so much alike—Bruce had seen his orphaned self in Dick so strongly partly because of it, and then Dick in Jason, and then Tim had put himself forward for the role partly because he knew he fit the casting call, and then Damian quite naturally took after his own father. But to look at the end product, especially redoubled as it currently was, one could be forgiven for assuming the whole group had been assembled systematically, based on their fitting a physical outline. A target profile.
One might assume this especially if one had recently spent a lot of time studying criminology, as thirteen-year-old Bruce had already started to do.
The specific worry forming in his mind, Dick realized, was that he had not been ‘kidnapped’ in the way a boy billionaire usually had to worry about—but that he had been drafted.
The choking irony of Bruce Wayne worried that he had been drafted into Batman’s war as a child soldier was…really not funny at all. If you thought about it.
The boy was watching Batman now, trying to be subtle about it; even though the man had said almost nothing since his smaller self had arrived, it was still obvious he was the, heh, ringleader.
“We really do want to get you home,” Nightwing said. No one had been able to respond to the challenge to explain the significance of Brucie and the Robins’ shared age, because all honest answers would either give too much away or make them look crazy, which context alone was doing quite well enough as it was. Something had to give. Nightwing looked toward his old mentor. “Batman,” he said. It was all he needed to say.
Batman sighed, frustrated.
“If Jason goes home with his memory intact, the damage is done,” Dick pointed out. Because he was absolutely certain that if this little Jason went home having been confronted by this future self, it would change a lot of his decisions.
Even if he still died the same way—and he didn’t seem to have learned many of the details of his death so far, and was not likely to become less headstrong or less recklessly loyal, so it was more than possible—his preexisting rejection of the Red Hood and his choices would almost definitely survive even the Lazarus Pit. For all Dick knew, if and when the Robins got home after this, time itself would explode. They might be required to wipe their memories before doing so.
It would be…very hard to do that to little Jason. Even with consent. Maybe harder for them than for him, even.
But they could worry about how not to explode reality after they worked out what the hell was going on, and dancing around to keep the time-travelling civilian ignorant was going to get in the way like anything. Either they could tell him the insane truth, or they could sedate him. Both the prankster and the nurturer in Dick were voting for explanations, but if Batman wanted them to sedate his tween self and stow him somewhere, Nightwing would accede. It was himself, after all. Unwritten family law enshrined the right to mistreat yourself without interference, up to the degree where it was likely to cause permanent harm. Or impair your ability to patrol.
“Fine,” said Batman.
Dick grinned at his father, and his tiny reflection jumped a little in excitement, like a much younger child. “Ooh, can I do it?”
The Bat snorted, and there was a slight smile on his face as he looked down at the little Robin. He jerked his head slightly toward little Bruce. Permission, against his better judgment.
(Nightwing found himself squirming internally. Had he really been that adorable? When Bruce looked at the kid like that—was that why everyone seemed to think he was the favorite son? Or on the other hand, since he hadn’t punctured the grimness that easily in years and years, should he feel like he’d failed somehow, along the way?
Except he had never been willing to feel guilty for growing up. Even if he could have avoided it, slid away and cheated time somehow like Peter Pan, it was his right to become his own man. Nobody could be expected to live for someone else, especially not forever.)
He shook it off, as Dickiebird bounced forward a few steps and turned to little-Bruce, who was regarding him with profound trepidation, and trying to hide it. Nightwing bit his lip so he wouldn’t laugh again.
“This is the cave under the Manor,” the first Robin explained, leaning forward. “The one your great-great-granddad used for the Underground Railroad. And we’re in the future. He’s me,” he elaborated, pointing at Nightwing, who gave a little wave.
Then, Dickie pointed at Batman. “And he’s you.”
This wasn’t the approach Nightwing would have taken, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate the effect. Grown-Tim broke into a grin at the sight of little Bruce’s expression; Timmy had a hand clamped over his mouth again to hold in his incredulity, or hilarity, or horror. Something. His eyes were dancing. Hilarity, then. Jaybird had his lips pulled together in a silent whistle. Red Hood, when Dick stole a glance back at him, was smirking like nobody’s business.
Bruce stared at Batman. Batman continued to not look back at him. (If you knew him well, it was obvious he was excruciatingly embarrassed. Dick doubted little-Bruce could tell.)
“Yes, Grasshopper,” Nightwing intoned. He couldn’t resist. (‘Kung Fu’ had been on TV when Bruce was a kid, come to think of it. Dick wondered if he’d watched it, or if he’d been too serious for goofy martial arts television shows.) “It is your fate to form, and manage, a paramilitary circus.”
This time nobody laughed, though he did set off the flickering series of grins like a collection of lighthouses again. Batman’s hand in its gauntlet did a little twitching thing that meant, variously, I want to throw a Batarang at this problem, I need coffee, and My head aches abominably, and then he turned a little further away from them all and activated one of the smaller screens attached to the Batcomputer. This might have been because Brucie was still standing in front of the controls for the Big Screen and activating it would require interacting with him at least enough to shove him out of the way. Or because he was feeling antisocial and anything he did on the main screen would be visible from more or less anywhere in the Cave.
It was getting harder and harder to tell; Bruce’s personality was going further underground every second. And when Dickie had just been getting him to open up. Nightwing squinted judgmentally at his former mentor’s back. But he was not starting an argument. They were giving the newbie space to adjust. Inasmuch as you could have ‘space’ while being watched by seven pairs of eyes, all of them making no more than token efforts at not staring.
Bruce Wayne, age thirteen, narrowed his eyes, too, and bit down on the inside of his own cheek, which was a habit he must have trained out of himself years before anyone here met him—it was a great way to wind up biting through your own face, if someone took you down hard or punched you in the chin. He turned right and studied Batman some more, then glared through both versions of Dick like he could tell by staring hard enough whether they were playing with him.
Finally he looked Nightwing in the face and said, “Who are we fighting?” It was arch, standoffish, not so much a promise of collaboration as a challenge. The hesitation before ‘we’ was almost too small to detect.
“Pfft,” said little Jason. “You have to ask? All the bad guys, of course!”
Bruce definitely liked the sound of that, but he tried not to show it. “That’s…awfully broad,” he put forward, after a second.
“We manage,” said Tim, and the smile Timmy was wearing was definitely born from a sense of irony, but also definitely looked like a smirk. Little-Bruce glared at him again, but halfheartedly. His attention was clearly elsewhere.
“We’re the best,” Dickiebird announced, cracking his knuckles and grinning sunnily, which was a combination that should not have been charming but apparently had worked for him at that age, instead of being creepy like it would be now. Huh. The things you forgot.
The baby-bat-bruce’s eyebrows were doing a polite-withholding-of-belief thing he had to have learned from Alfred. “Tt,” said Damian. “As if you would stand for anything less.” He waited until he not only had Brucie’s attention but was being looked in the eye, and then added, “‘Father.’”
His tone managed to be ironic, respectful, and faintly scathing all at the same time, conveying the idea that he would tentatively respect the other boy because he was his father, but at the same time he shouldn’t get any ideas because he wasn’t actually his father yet. Dick wasn’t sure how much of that their longest-range time traveler had picked up, with his lack of context, but the main message had probably gotten through.
Normal Bruce’s hands had stilled on the keyboard for a few seconds, but then began again. The miniature version just stared. “You…” he said. Incredulous, but not disbelieving, exactly. Damian was darker, with a rounder nose and a different hair texture, and Talia's heavy epicanthic folds over his eyes, though not her eyelashes, but once you knew to look the resemblance was very much there. “Really?”
Of course, Nightwing thought, Bruce at this age had expected not to have kids when he grew up, with even more confidence than Dickie expected that he would. But he didn’t seem horrified, or even upset, and Damian’s smirk broadened into that expression that just barely fell short of the smiles he got, when he forgot to care about his image. This was obviously going much better for him than his earlier namedrop.
Then mini-Bruce tilted his head a little and asked, “Where’s…your mother?”
If eras may be judged by TV shows, in this timeline Bruce Wayne was born circa 1960. David Carradine's character in 'Kung Fu' had numerous flashbacks to his old master, who called him 'Grasshopper;' in the time our Brucie hails from, that would be a pretty up-to-date pop culture reference, rather than a corny old joke.
Dick, you are the lamest. I don't care if knowing 'everything, just in case it's useful,' is family policy, you are still a dork.
Chapter 11: Half-Score and One More
We're back! Bruce Wayne forced into emotional vulnerability is harder to pin down than a mule made of fog, and dealing with two of him at once is not conducive to speedy writing.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Tt," said Damian. "As if you would stand for anything less." He waited until he not only had Brucie's attention but was being looked in the eye, and then added, "'Father.'"
Normal Bruce's hands stilled briefly on the keyboard, but then began to tap again. The miniature version just stared. "You…" he said. "Really?" Then, "Where's…your mother?"
There was curiosity in the question, and a painfully childlike hesitance that little-Bruce had so far avoided even when terrified half to death, and a certain trepidation that Dick was uncomfortably afraid was more oh god don't let her be dead than I hope I did not marry an awful person.
And it had so clearly totally failed to occur to him that the mother of his son might not be his wife, let alone might not live with him. Bruce could be such an idealist at the worst times.
Damian's smirk had frozen on his face, and the curl of it changed, now, less real pride and more defensiveness. He crossed his arms. "Tt. India, probably."
"India?" little-Bruce repeated.
"Or China. Or England." Damian projected unconcern with all his might. It had never been one of his more convincing fake-outs. "We haven't been in touch recently, I can't be more precise."
Brucie was frowning. "So she doesn't live here."
"Look," Nightwing broke in, laying a hand on Damian's shoulder that he neither stiffened nor relaxed under, but keeping his eyes on young Bruce. "This isn't important."
"Of course it's important!" Bruce snapped, and Batman stabbed at the 'enter' bar with completely unnecessary vehemence. "I don't—" He made a large, helpless, frustrated gesture with his left hand. Oh, kid.
"Bruce's relationship with Damian's mother is—complicated," volunteered Red Robin. He was using a sort of reassuring monotone that Dick had never been able to figure out why it worked, other than the obvious lack of emotive output to provoke a feedback loop. It did work, though, pretty often. "Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry about it," middle-school Batman repeated.
"Well, normally I'd say it's none of your business," Tim shrugged, wry little curve to his mouth, "but I don't think that really serves this time."
Brucie's lips twitched up in acknowledgment of the joke, and then flattened again. "This is stupid," he declared with vehemence. If he'd been a few years younger, he'd probably have stomped his foot. "Nothing about it makes the smallest amount of sense."
"Granted," Nightwing said, and then grinned for the kid's benefit when he looked over at him sharply. "But a lifetime's experience has taught me that being nonsense doesn't stop a thing from being true."
Little-Bruce's face flashed surprise-respect-irritation, and then he rounded on Batman, still pretending none of them existed. Dick wondered if he was actually getting anything accomplished—it was Bruce, so the odds were actually pretty good.
"You're supposed to be me," Bruce Wayne said to Batman, chin tilted pugnaciously up like the vast height difference was just a detail. "Give me one good reason to believe it."
Batman's hands froze for an instant, and then returned to work, not with furious clacking but with deliberation.
Oh my god you asshole, Dick thought, wishing he were especially surprised.
No one else said anything. He wasn't sure if they were respecting boundaries, unwilling to get in the middle, or unable to look away from the potential train wreck.
"If it's true, why don't you take off your mask and show me? Well?" Batman didn't answer. Or acknowledge. Dickiebird shifted his weight in a small flare of yellow cape. Timmy opened his mouth, then closed it again. This was not a sustainable holding pattern, but any of them stepping in to bleed off the tension now would be…
The boy's face hardened, and suddenly he looked more like himself than ever. "I'm talking to you."
Batman waited a second and a half before finally turning his head to look at his little self directly. "I noticed," he said.
"Well?" little Bruce growled, holding Batman's eyes without wavering. The line of his back said he was frightened, but his jaw said that wasn't what mattered to him right now. "Are you going to answer?"
Once again Bruce made himself wait for more than a second before replying, which was something Dick hadn't even registered as a power game until after he'd moved out, but before he could finish his withering pause and maybe actually say something of substance, Red Hood broke in.
"Holy fuck," he said, "are you seriously getting into a dick-measuring contest with yourself? I can solve this one for you." Jason jabbed a gloved forefinger at Batman. "His is bigger. Because he has gone through puberty. Holy god how is this my life."
Little Bruce's mouth had fallen open slightly as he stared at the Red Hood, like he could not believe the crudity he'd just been confronted with. He rounded abruptly toward Batman again. "And assuming you're telling me the truth, where did he come from?"
"Crime Alley." It was little Jaybird who answered the question this time, with narrow eyes and hunched shoulders. The scorn in that pronoun had gotten to him. "You jerk."
Little Bruce's look of understanding was a lot less smooth than Dickie's had been. He'd flinched a little at the place-name, as though he'd been assaulted by the concept—did he get flashbacks to his parents' murder sometimes at this age, maybe?—but he looked from one Jason to the other with a tense certainty. "You're the same person," he said. Dickie hadn't actually said that anyone besides the two of them were time-travelling, but it had become pretty clear from context. Bruce was not stupid, even when he was a moron. "And you two, obviously," he told the Tims. Timmy grinned that sharp grin of his again, apparently enjoying something about obviously, and then Brucie looked at Damian.
"I am real," Damian snipped, and Dick had a hilarious sideways flash to The Velveteen Rabbit.
"So am I!" Dickie and Jay protested, almost in unison.
"We don't know that," Timmy pointed out, and the other two time-travelling Robins looked at him like a traitor.
"Maybe you don't," said Jason. His lack of a mask allowed him to make especially expressive use of judgmental squinting.
"I exist," said Brucie uncompromisingly, half to Damian and half to little-Tim.
Who huffed out an expressive, frustrated sigh. "In the cogito, ergo sum sense, obviously," he said. "Just—" He shrugged. "Never mind."
"Let's continue to assume time travel for now," said Red Robin, apparently trying to placate everybody at once.
"Yeah," Red Hood scoffed. "Because picturing what these kids will do to the fabric of spacetime if they all get sent home at once isn't enough to give a guy the cold sweats, or anything."
"You're one to talk about other people being creepy," said...not little-Jay but Dickiebird, because okay, let it not be said that Richard Grayson was composed wholly of sweetness and light. (Nightwing was just going to ignore what it might say about him that he was relieved to see his younger self being unpleasant to people other than himself, thanks.)
"Not the point," miniBruce broke in. "None of you know why this—phenomenon is taking place?" His wording was more awkward than it would be today, or for that matter than it would have been twenty years ago, but he sounded like himself, businesslike and slightly pissy, even if his determination to get a handle on the situation was far more naked than Batman would allow himself.
"I got nothing," Jaybird shrugged.
"Sorry," said Timmy. He honestly sounded like it, too.
"We're all on the same page," Nightwing assured little-Bruce. Unless Batman had had a brainwave and was holding back, but if so it would have to be in the last couple of minutes, since he disengaged from conversation.
Brucie declined to be reassured. "Not until you explain some things to me, we're not. What bad guys, exactly, and how are all of you involved?"
"Well, recruitment used to be all, hey, I see you're an orphan, want somewhere to live? And then training when said orphan asked for it, but these days it seems to skew more hey, I see you have a paramilitary circus, I want in."
"Jason!" Dick hissed. The second half was unsettlingly accurate for someone who had been invited into the Cave once in the past decade until now, but the first half made it sound like Bruce had intentionally manipulated him and Jason into becoming soldiers, and—well, he wasn't positive about Jason, which was one of the reasons he'd been so angry at Bruce after his successor died, but in his own case he knew Robin was all his own doing. He'd been desperate for it, for a chance to fight, to help, and maybe Bruce should have put his foot down, but short of retiring Batman and declaring all vigilante activity off-limits to everyone, he'd had no chance, really.
And the fact was, Gotham really did need Batman.
Batman's face, under the mask, was tight with regret (embarrassment? remorse?); it said a lot that Nightwing was the one handing out reprimands.
Red Hood spread one hand, palm out. A gesture of harmlessness that wasn't really meant to conceal the fact that he was finally going on the offensive. "What, that's how it is. Sorry if I don't rate your newfound interest in playing happy families for the demon child above the facts."
Some part of Dick that stood back evaluating was slightly impressed. In one sentence, Jason had managed to lash out at every single person present, even if the little Robins mostly didn't have the context to know just how hard he was punching.
The rest of him was wrapped up in one suddenly trembling fist, and the closed-off look on Tim's face, and the uncertainty in Timmy and Jaybird's and even small-Bruce's eyes, and…
There had been times—no end of times—when Batman's implacable voice had filled Nightwing with rage. When his adoptive father's autocratic attitude and inflexibility and his entire frustrating personality had been unbearable. Dick had elected not to bear them, most of those times; he had his own life outside this town, and if this would always be home, well….
But right now was one of the times when the sound of that deep dictatorial tone was a profound relief. Dick was good at managing things, and he could have handled all of this indefinitely if Bruce had failed to return to the Cave, but since he was here he could damn well lead.
He'd finally turned his back on the computer altogether, and was looking down on his younger self like he was the sole source of all the friction.
Reached up, and drew back his mask, the grim slash of his mouth joined by the line of his nose—somehow no more crooked for all the punches he'd taken to the face—his sharp blue eyes, eyebrows that really hadn't changed since he was thirteen, forehead inherited from his father in every particular; stupid hair, slightly disordered by the cowl. "Acceptable?" he asked, clipped.
Nightwing tried to imagine meeting such a ridiculously intimidating older self. Dickie had mixed feelings on him, and he'd been being nice tonight. Batsuit aside, was this what little-Bruce wanted to be like when he grew up? It had never occurred to him before to wonder. Everything about Batman always seemed so totally intentional, a plan Bruce had drawn up and then relentlessly executed. But no one except Alfred knew better than Dick that a lot of the details had been made up as he went along. And if Bruce didn't want to believe that older-Bruce was him, could he be convinced anyway?
Tightly, holding his older-self's stare, the boy nodded.
Batman's expression relaxed fractionally. "We are a loose-knit group of vigilantes, operating mostly on individual recognizance, and private funding. The goal is to enforce the law and protect the innocent of Gotham, in situations where the police do not or cannot intervene."
"Because someone should be there," Brucie said, softly, almost as though he'd been hypnotized.
And…Dick swallowed. That was what it was really about, all along, wasn't it? If you stripped away all the rhetoric and the costumes and the gadgets—paramilitary circus, hah—it was just that. About the times when people, when you said, 'someone should do something.' Going on from that assertion to ask who and what.
And answering, me, this.
And doing it.
It was about how no one had been there to help when the Waynes were killed. (About how Batman had been there when the Graysons died, but not in time to do any good, so he clearly needed help. Even about how there'd been nobody to care when Catherine Todd was dying, and…maybe about the way Batman had been there to save the Drakes, and lost them anyway? Dick couldn't be sure about Tim, and Damian's determination to protect his father's legacy back when Bruce had been dead was kind of a complicated case, but.)
Bruce, Batman's, eyes flickered closed for just a moment, a little too slow and deliberate for a blink, and then with a conspicuous blankness of tone he said, "Yes."
Brucie gave another slow nod, this one more deliberative, and then turned to look over the whole crowd of current and former Robins again. "And all of you are…"
"Family. Bruce," Dick said, meaning the name just for the young version right now, and he reached up to strip his own mask off to catch they boy's gaze, because at that age he hadn't even started to learn the technique for meeting eyes you couldn't see. "We're a family."
After what Jason had said, that statement would probably have been more believable coming from anyone else, but he didn't know if anyone besides him would have said it.
"Yes," agreed Red Robin, with a smile that might have been a little sad, and Dick hoped suddenly, fiercely, that he wasn't employing those lying skills of his, that he meant it. "That's what we are."
"Tt," grumbled Damian. Muttered, in a mutinous voice, "What else would we be?"
That more than anything seemed to convince Brucie. "So traditional law enforcement turns out not to be good enough," he said, which—did he intend to become a cop at that age? No, too lowbrow; Dick remembered the way he'd reacted to Dick signing up for the Academy. FBI or something, maybe? "Which I guess isn't a surprise, and then I…adopt a circus."
Bruce's signature deadpan was already developing in those days, it turned out. Dickie grinned. "Just one member of a circus, actually," he said, and gave a little wave when he got mini-Bruce's full attention. "Hi. It's all my fault! You were all set to do the brooding loner thing forever, but then you took me home after my parents died, and like the big red jerk says, I wouldn't take no for an answer." He paused a second. "I usually don't."
"Oh. Uh, thank you, probably."
Dick's younger self laughed. "Probably! Batman, I think I like him. If we turn out to all be stuck here, can he be Robin too?"
"You didn't even ask if he wants to," Nightwing pointed out, amusement curving his mouth up as he watched both Tims' heads practically explode at the thought of a) an entire cadre of Robins and b) time-travelling child Batman becoming the sixth Robin. (Damian's baffled outrage at the idea of becoming only one of a set was adorable, and also good for him.)
Batman severed the threads of the uncertain moment in his most professional voice. "Nightwing. Our latest arrival needs time to adjust. Take him upstairs." Dick kind of wanted to ask why him, but figured he didn't need to make little-Bruce any more uncomfortable by arguing, or seeming to reject him. The updated version of his home would probably do that just fine.
"I want to stay here," the boy said firmly.
"Just come up to the house and talk to Alfred," Nightwing said. "Please."
There was a moment of struggle in Brucie's face. He still didn't really trust them, of course. Didn't want to let them talk behind his back. But if there was evidence of their claims, he wanted to see it, and if there was Alfred… He nodded sharply. "Fine. But I'll be right back." He glared at Batman and Red Robin particularly, having identified the probable masterminds. Dick wondered if he should be offended to be excluded, or if Brucie was just ignoring him because he was the escort and wasn't going to get a chance to conspire. "Don't decide anything without me."
"Spoiled brat," Red Hood muttered quite audibly as Nightwing conducted Bruce past him, up the stairs. Bruce's shoulders rose but he didn't stop to confront the man. Which was a relief, because Dick didn't even want to think about how that confrontation would go down. Jason was unpredictable. Jason had issues about Bruce. Jason was carrying guns. Bruce hated guns, and he was so little.
The adults said nothing more as Nightwing and the time-traveling child version of their father climbed toward the exit, though the Robins that weren't Damian were whispering among themselves again.
As the two of them reached the top of the steps, however, a plume of the ubiquitous bats detached themselves from the ceiling and spiraled just over their heads on their way to one of the narrow crevice exits, presumably confused by the Cave lights into getting a late start on their evening.
Beside him, young Bruce flinched. Violently.
"Oh my god," came little Jason's voice, loud and awed in the great silence of the cave. "He's afraid of bats."
I always get sort of sardonic at Batman when he talks about upholding 'the law' considering that no matter how justifiable or necessary his vigilantism is, he is sure as hell not a law-abiding citizen. But it's part of his schtick, so he had to say it.
^^ Other than that, Red Hood finally decided to get involved this chapter and then became hard to shut up, and I am so glad to be finally breaking up this continuous crowd scene. It was a writing challenge to myself, I'm glad I did it, but it has served its purpose for now.
"Oh my god," came little Jason's voice, loud and awed in the great silence of the cave. "He's afraid of bats."
The little billionaire stiffened. Slowly, he turned, the arms he had so deliberately not thrown up over his head ending in tight fists, and directed a poisonous glare at everybody on the level below. His mouth flexed like he wanted to say something, but he knew better than to deny it, knew he would only worsen the humiliation by protesting.
Dickie, wide-eyed, leaned over to whisper something to little-Jason, and Bruce's glare sharpened red-hot on that point for a second, before he turned his back again, hard. He stood in place for one more instant before he swung back into motion, climbing the stairs like they had issued a personal challenge and each one had to be crushed into submission.
(Something in the way he turned his back on the other kids, a sort of practiced settling of his own self-respect across his shoulders, Dick had to wonder—Bruce had never mentioned any friends from school, which wasn't a big surprise considering it was him, but…kids could be cruel.)
Nightwing had keyed the door open hurriedly, hoping he could get both sides of that situation separated and just pretend it hadn't happened, and now he waved the kid forward, smile sitting a little awkwardly. He'd known—Bruce had confided in him once, not long after Scarecrow's debut, when they'd been talking about fear and the fighting of it in more detail than the old tagline about cowardly criminals. If he'd ever had reason to have a similar conversation with Jason, it must have been after he was thirteen—he couldn't tell if Red Hood was surprised, but Jaybird obviously had been.
It was nothing to be ashamed of, really. That would have been the right thing to say, to a normal kid. But this was Bruce, and his standards were screwed up, and…
"Sorry!" Jason called out from the cave floor, awkward and belated.
"Don't be," Bruce tossed over his shoulder, and strode the rest of the way out of the cave with his head high.
He halted abruptly almost as soon as he was through the door, though, and Dick who'd been hard on his heels had to sharply duck sideways out of the clock, to avoid a collision.
Dick glanced down at Bruce's frozen expression as the clock slid back into place. "Hasn't changed much, has it?" he asked quietly, as the clock settled back into position. Wondered if it would be out of place to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Bruce had done a lot of shoulder-grasping when Dick first came to the Manor. But it had been a long time since he'd felt able to casually touch the man who'd raised him, and while this young Bruce was much less closed-off, he was also technically a stranger.
Bruce shook his head. "Not much," he agreed, his eyes flashing around his study—his father's study, as he probably still thought of it—alighting on the half-dozen small things that had been altered in forty years.
The missing vase Dick had broken when he was ten. The slight difference in the brocade on a pair of chairs that had needed reupholstering. The folded laptop on the desk, which had replaced physical paperwork—though last time Brucie had seen it, the desk had probably been bare, with no grown master of the house to use it for business. Dick had no doubt his charge had spotted every single difference, and was probably trying to decide if they were more likely to indicate the passage of several decades or flaws in someone's careful mock-up of the room he knew. His attention lingered on the painting of Thomas and Martha Wayne over the mantelpiece. Dick wasn't sure how long that had been there. Since before his time, at least. Didn't seem like something you put up in your own study while you were still alive, though, so Bruce was probably responsible.
"Come on," Dick said. "Alfred's probably back from his errands by now. Did he ever tell you what he does when he goes out in the evening? Because I'm pretty sure we don't actually do business with any vampires…"
Keeping up a quiet stream of that kind of nonsense, Dick chivied an eagle-eyed young Wayne out of the study and down to the kitchen. Dick had sketched out a route in his head that should keep them within a hundred and fifty feet of the Cave floor without having to go through any walls. Assuming Bruce-downstairs stayed put.
At one point, just before they reached the left turn that would double them back over Batman's subterranean head, Bruce had to shuffle crabwise along one wall of a corridor, almost knocking down a painting and crawling under a side table. The indignity seemed to get to him much less than Dick would have expected…Bruce wasn't Damian. The resemblance was tripping him up. Watch it, Grayson.
Bruce did roll his eyes when Dick suggested he finish off the sideways-movement routine with a cartwheel.
It was strange. Like a trick picture: one moment, someone he knew almost better than himself; the next, a complete stranger. Always Bruce, and yet. It was kind of a relief to be setting the route and have the little headache at his back, except without eyes on, he kept catching his brain believing it was actually Damian behind him, because that was familiar.
"So you're not at boarding school, huh?" he asked, because so far as he knew boarding schools didn't do at-home suspension, unless maybe it was for the rest of term. He'd been under the vague impression Bruce had gone to boarding school after his parents died, not right away, maybe, but for a while. He was pretty sure Alfred had once said something about having hoped some distance would help with the grieving process, ages ago, when he'd been ten or eleven, and so caught up in a case that he'd missed the anniversary of his parents' death and hated himself for it when he noticed.
"…not anymore," young-Bruce said, after a few judicious seconds. "Gotham Academy."
A good school. Bruce donated them money even though, unlike most of his other school-shaped targets, they didn't exactly need it. Scholarship money. Thomas Wayne had been an Academy graduate. Damian was going there, too. Tim never had, though Dick vaguely recalled him switching schools half a dozen times while he was Robin—though one of those would have been starting high school. The Academy started at sixth grade, so Bruce couldn't have started more than a year or two ago.
"Hey, I went there," was all he said, flashing a grin over his shoulder.
Bruce snorted. "My adult self has fantastic judgment," he said, clearly sarcastic.
"Well, I had to go somewhere. Even if school sucks, the Academy's the best of a bad lot, or something. Tim went to Brentwood," among other schools at least one of which had been public, "does that already exist in your time?"
"They regularly beat the Academy's soccer team," Bruce reported, his profound disinterest in his institution's sports woes obvious. "Debate, too," he added with a little more animation.
It occurred to Dick to wonder how the hell Bruce sold his Brucie persona to any of the local wealthy population who'd gone to school with him, if he'd once been this obvious about being a truculent intellectual snob. Maybe he'd started cultivating the image in his mid-teens? That would probably do it. Adolescence was expected to change people.
"Hah!" he said. "I…actually don't know whether they were still doing that in my day. Busy," he explained, with a hand gesture that encompassed Nightwing and continued in the direction of the Cave where his younger self was in full Robin gear.
Bruce nodded, with a tight, thoughtful expression, and didn't answer. Dick, reluctantly, let the conversation die. They were almost there, anyway.
Dick hesitated in the dining room, fiddling with the mask he'd stowed away earlier. Alfred had a strict rule about costumes in the house, but this was an unusual situation. Putting the mask back on would put him further over the rule line, but if some outsider came in, or had a telephoto lens on the kitchen windows, and saw Nightwing in Wayne Manor, that would be less of a problem than if they saw Dick Grayson, in the Nightwing suit.
Though really, their security was good; the main reason for the rule was Alfred looking out for Bruce's mental health by keeping Batman physically out of the house. (And possibly trying to keep them all at least partially civilized.)
Mask on it was.
He felt the boy's eyes on him, but didn't know how to explain, so he just pushed the kitchen door open. No Alfred. They couldn't go looking; Bruce was on a tether and Dick was not leaving him alone. The butler had agreed to carry a cell phone whenever he went out years ago, the assurance that he could be reached if he was needed outweighing his distaste for the device, so even if he was still shopping or whatever, Dick could get him here. If he was somewhere in the house, they could intercom him…had the Manor even had an intercom system forty years ago?
A soft clinking noise came from behind the pantry door, simplifying things. "Come on," Dick said again to a slightly ashen-faced but otherwise stoic young Bruce. This time he did put a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay," he said quietly, and took his hand away before Bruce could shake it off. (He had lots of practice timing that maneuver, especially since the advent of Damian.) Crossed to the pantry, knocked once, and pulled the door open. "Alfie?"
Alfred turned with a smile, another plate in his hands pilled with the same chocolate-macadamia cookies Dick had pilfered for his and Damian's study session, and abandoned in the library. "Master Ri—"
"Alfred?" said Bruce, his voice…strangely small.
The old man's eyes fell on him. The plate smashed on the pantry floor. "Master Bruce?" Alfred said, as weakly as he ever said anything. He hunted toward Dick for explanation but returned to the boy almost at once, not even seeming to take in the trespassing Nightwing costume.
Even open violence hadn't thrown Alfred this badly in years.
"Batman is still downstairs," Dick said, answering the most important question (that he had an answer to) first. Bruce hadn't lost years, merely been displaced in them.
"Alfred," Bruce said, more confident now but still incredulous. "You're old," he added, packing a huge amount of query and worry and amazement into one hoarse observation. Alfred couldn't be faked, but he must look so different. Dick was uncomfortably aware, as he hated being, of Alfred's hair growing white, and the way the joints and tendons stood out on the backs of his hands now. What would any of them do without him?
"Thirty-seven years do take their toll, Master Bruce," the old man said, his usual calm folding itself back around his shoulders. Dick couldn't help but notice he'd known Bruce's age at a glance. After thirty-seven years.
"So it's true." Bruce had buttoned up his vest, presumably while following Dick across the kitchen, and now he tugged at the lowest button, the first real nervous gesture Dick had seen from him. "It's been that long?" His voice fell slightly. "The man underground, he's me?"
"Oh, young sir," Alfred said quietly. He moved forward around the mess of china shards and cookies without even glancing down, and reached out to touch his young ward's shoulder. "I am so sorry."
Bruce didn't rebel against this contact the way he had against Nightwing's. "Does it work?" he asked. Not plaintive, almost calm, but still so young. And already calculating in terms of the mission. "Is it worth it?"
"If I didn't think his work was a positive good," Alfred answered, choosing his words with utter care and sincerity, "I would not support him in it, night after night."
Bruce pressed his lips together fiercely, and Alfred's already soft expression seemed to melt. In the next instant, he had folded Bruce into a careful hug. At thirteen, he was a good height for hugging—tall enough for the old man to put his arms around his shoulders without bending, but not so tall there was any difficulty about where to put his head.
"Alfred," he protested into white shirtfront, sounding younger than thirteen and older than thirty, so much like Damian even though he wasn't getting angry, even though the accent and word choice were so different. "I'm too old for this."
"No, Master Bruce," Alfred replied firmly. "In thirty-seven years you are perhaps too old, but at present you are most certainly not."
Dick's throat tightened, and he used all his street-patrol stealth to fade back into the kitchen. It had been a good two decades since he'd felt like an intruder in this house, leaving aside a few occasions after Jason joined, but this Bruce hadn't chosen him, and didn't know him, and Dick was not what he needed right now.
He knew Alfred loved Bruce, of course; you saw it every day, if you knew how to look. Bruce loved Alfred, too, but it was Bruce, and Alfred…didn't encourage demonstrative affection anyway, usually. Dick was pretty sure his own idea of sufficient hugs to give a kid in a week probably exceeded the number Bruce used to get in a year. Maybe even all five years so far. Alfred had propriety and professional distance and all and it made sense, even if it hadn't been his personality anyway, but still. Maybe, looking back, he wished he'd hugged more? Dick hadn't been especially shy about flinging himself up against Bruce when he wanted affection, as a kid; he maybe hadn't gotten all the hugs he wanted, but he'd gotten enough to get by.
Dick resolved to nag Alfred into hugging normal Bruce, when this was all over. Fifty wasn't too old for hugs, actually. Even if you were Batman.
Also, Bruce would undoubtedly make the funniest face, and if Dick had set the situation up, he could be on hand to get photographic evidence. Higher-quality than anything he was going to be able to lift from the security feed once this was all over.
"I'll be downstairs," he announced, knowing at least one of them would hear him enough to remember he'd said it later, and took a more direct route across the middle of the house, back into the study, and down the sweeping staircase.
Everyone he'd left behind was gathered around one of the freestanding workstations in the middle of the Cave floor, even adult Jason, posture sulky and closed-off but there, and Dick took a minute to stand on the stairs and enjoy the picture they made—the Bats weren't a small family, these days, but neither were they a close-knit one, and something about seeing all his brothers gathered around a table, something about seeing four kids just barely into their teens gathered round Batman as he leaned forward, explaining something…it was a good picture. Bruce always was at his best around kids. (Except Damian, unfortunately; Talia'd overtrained him enough and taught him such viciousness that Bruce had tended to handle him for the first vulnerable years alternately like a feral tiger and a recent parolee. Which had not helped.)
Dick's heart hurt, for a second, because he hated what-ifs and he knew how to let go of the past, but he was starting to doubt that he'd ever have children of his own. And Damian was great, in his appalling way, but it wasn't the same.
And if he did ever have kids he knew he wouldn't be able to keep secrets from them, and just picturing a truly little Grayson toddling around the Batcave harassing Gran'pa Bruce about how the machines worked and how fast did the Batplane go and if he could beat up Superman was…well. It was adorable beyond words. And terrifying. So many levels of terrifying.
He shook it off. Stripped his mask off again. And sprinted downstairs to see what he was missing.
Yay for overthinking missing details from canon! Tim really did switch schools way too much, possibly to cover up the fact that he'd been in high school for about twenty years by the time he dropped out to rescue Bruce from dead. I've read like three whole issues of the Gotham Academy series, and thus far it is my favorite thing in the Nu52; the scene where Bruce as a major donor is giving the commencement address and mentions he attended the school himself 'briefly' worked so well with my own hitherto-freestanding headcanons that I was like 'okay then.'
Chapter 13: Baker's Ill-Omen
Mwahaha posting early because how is this story almost a year old what. With this, my average posting speed is slightly higher than once a month! ^^;
Just picturing a truly little Grayson toddling around the Batcave harassing Gran’pa Bruce was…well. It was adorable beyond words. And terrifying. So many levels of terrifying.
He shook it off. Stripped his mask off again. And sprinted downstairs to see what he was missing.
What he had been missing, it turned out, could not be defined by anyone as ‘excitement.’
While he’d been gone, Bruce and Tim’s senses of order had not-unexpectedly come to the fore, and they’d started gridding all potential data from everyone involved in the phenomenon—every detail of location, before and after the apparent time travel, how far apart the pairs had been, exactly what time it had been on each end, and what point in the solar and lunar years, and how far each of the Robins was from his birthday.
None of them were the same distance past turning thirteen, surprisingly; that would have made more sense. Little Dick turned out to be the youngest, and showed no sign of intending to let that stop him from acting like everyone’s big brother. Well, he did still have the most field experience of any of the kids. Only Damian came close.
Dick helped as best he could. Most of Little Bruce’s column of the chart stayed empty, but they were able to ascertain a total lack of pattern in everybody’s timing. Bruce had been moved through space—a distance calculated to have been about six hundred meters—but none of the rest of them had. Possibly Batman’s patrol route today had completely failed to intersect anywhere Bruce had gone at the age of thirteen?
But that suggested some kind of intelligence behind this phenomenon, that could either make compromises or lose patience, or both. Which was not a comforting thought.
It was…kind of unlikely that was the reason for the translocation, too, come to think of it. The Batmobile used the normal roads most of the way into Bristol, simply for lack of other viable options. “You went into the city as a kid, right?” Nightwing asked.
Batman gave him a look, and Nightwing rolled his eyes. Everyone could see it, too, because he very purposely did not have his mask on. “When you were thirteen, I mean. At least for school.” He might have been shipped off the boarding school in the limo or private jet or something, but Gotham Academy was most efficiently reached by driving partway into Gotham proper and taking the expressway around, which he knew because it affected Alfred’s daily schedule, and also sometimes he’d driven Damian in himself. (School buses were available but beneath the dignity of most of the Academy’s student population.) “There aren’t that many efficient routes between here and downtown, so…”
“So there must have been a better location,” Damian agreed, fingernails tapping on the worktop beside the data grid as he gnawed at the problem. For a second he reminded Dick so strongly of Tim at that age that he had to do a double-take to the Robin across the table for reference.
Timmy was looking even more thoughtful than Damian, lips tightly pursed so he looked like Bruce, while Jaybird said, “So, what, it doesn’t work if you’re driving?”
“Good thing,” asserted little-Tim.
His chin went up when they all looked toward him, and then he glanced at adult-him and relaxed a little. It was subtle, but Dick hadn’t known Tim for most of a decade for nothing. (It was weird, the connection between the Tims, but come to think of it, it wasn’t that weird that Tim wasn’t at his most confident in the group context. In his time, Dick was still in his very last round of Titans membership, and Young Justice wouldn’t form for at least two more years—had he even had any team-ups with anyone his own age yet? Besides Squire?)
“There’s never much space in the Batmobile trunk,” the uniformed third-Robin expanded, looking from Dick to Bruce and back to Red Robin, and then at Dickie. “So he’d have appeared either on the outside of the car, or standing in the road.”
“Ow,” summarized Dickiebird, pulling a face. Because even if no one was driving behind Batman to run the kid over, the tether meant that Brucie would have been dragged after the Batmobile at full speed, on foot, until such a time as Batman noticed the kid in his rearview mirror, and stopped.
“Too right,” Jaybird agreed. Gave a little shudder.
“So maybe that’s why,” Timmy shrugged.
That…made sense, actually, but was ominous in its own right.
A quasi-natural phenomenon shouldn’t be able to adapt like that. An automated process could react to conditions (if result = death of child, do not activate; if time without activation > x, expand location parameter) but allowing something without intelligence to successfully identify ‘behind a car’ as a deadly place for Brucie to manifest required a lot of meticulous programming forethought, so that still wasn’t particularly comforting, because it still meant something involved was thinking, and thinking meant plotting, and plotting meant everything going to hell.
Of course, it could still be magic. Magic often acted like it was either intelligent or self-programming.
And of course, the inside of the house was closer to the Cave than the hill by the graveyard was, which meant it might have been a matter of Batman getting in range of Brucie on this end, rather than the other way around. Which brought them back to trying to find a pattern in the points of origin.
Before they had reached any further conclusions, even the most tentative, the clock slid open.
A boy in a neat gray vest came through alone, and came to a halt only a few steps down in the face of their massed attention; one hand came up to fidget with the lowest button, and then returned to his side, closed into a loose fist.
“Alfred should be down soon,” Young Master Bruce said. He’d pulled his composure back together almost seamlessly, and glanced around the group below him with a lofty air that reminded Dick of once again Damian, even though it didn’t seem nearly so calculated to offend. “He’s making sandwiches.”
“Oh yeah,” little-Jay enthused, and then stuck his chin out defensively when practically everybody looked at him. “What? It’s been, like, five hours and also eleven years since lunch.”
“You’re already having a growth spurt, aren’t you,” Timmy said, flat and dry and playing up his jealousy for comedic effect.
Jason flourished a hand toward Red Hood. “I clearly have a lot of growing to do.” He looked up at Bruce-on-the-stairs. “Hey, fellow guy-with-a-lot-of-inches-coming-to-him, back me up here. More food is always good, right?”
Brucie shrugged, noncommittal as he descended the rest of the way to the Cave floor, but he was smiling a little. “I guess. Alfred always tends to give me more food before I have a chance to get hungry.”
“Oh my god,” Jay grumbled, rolling his eyes, while Dickie laughed.
“It’s how he shows his love,” he opined, which made all the other kids (and possibly a couple of the adults) make slightly uncomfortable faces, because it was too accurate for comfort. “But I’m with Jason. Food is a plus. Come help us fill in your part of the spreadsheet; isn’t science glamorous?”
Little-Bruce looked like he might laugh at that, and came over to join them.
“The rest of you don’t need to stay for this,” BatBruce confided a few seconds later, mostly to Nightwing but encompassing everybody besides his mini-self and the young Robin cheerfully walking him through the elements of the desired dataset.
Dick’s first reaction was to be irritated at yet another dismissal, but actually, yeah, this was boring, and kind of a waste of everybody’s time at this point. Plus, Dickie had been cheated of his alone-with-Bruce time earlier, and while he wouldn’t be able to ask his hardest questions with Brucie here, it’d be something.
“Yeah, okay,” he agreed. “Hey, Damian, while we’re down here want to show me what you’ve been doing with the engines on Redbird?”
They probably weren’t going to be able to get to their planned sea-mammal-homework-bonding, but they could still spend some time together, and Damian had mentioned wanting to show off his new modifications to his Robinmobile, which would probably outdo every concept car in the industry by the time he was legally permitted to drive it, if it didn’t explode first. (Nobody had told the current Robin yet that Tim had called his car the same thing, in his day. Convergent evolution, Tim said wryly. Dick had told him great minds thought alike.) He’d undoubtedly work on it some more while he had it disassembled for showing off, which counted as a practical use of time.
Damian accepted the suggestion, with a pointed glare at everyone who wasn’t Dick to indicate they were not invited, and he and Nightwing absconded to what Dick liked to call the mechanics deck.
His littlest brother’s skill with machines just kept improving—‘It’s a hobby, Grayson. A practical one.’—and for the most part they stayed focused on the actual subject they’d ostensibly come here to discuss, which was the latest weird things Damian had done to the Redbird’s engines and why they were awesome. Bruce let him work on the Batmobile, but all his exciting experiments happened here
“Small you,” Damian asserted out of the blue after they’d sunken into the rhythm of the work, “is an asshole.”
“I thought the consensus was that I’m a dick,” Dick laughed, and Damian hit him in the shoulder with a wrench.
“Drake,” he announced, “hasn’t changed at all.”
Nightwing strongly disagreed, but wasn’t going to argue. He wasn’t totally oblivious to the way Damian still kept sniping at Tim even now, when Tim had made it very clear he was no longer a rival claimant to Robin, and it would be bad form to give him ammunition in the form of psychoanalysis.
“And Jason?” he asked instead.
Damian frowned. “About as I would have expected,” he replied, in a tone that said the opposite. “Hand me those nuts.”
The nuts were handed, the engine thoroughly explained and oohed over, and then Dick reached out to tousle Dami’s hair. His brother evaded with more than the usual intent, because of the engine grease now smeared liberally over Nightwing’s gloves, and Dick laughed. “Almost gotcha. You okay to reassemble this alone? I want to go check everybody’s doing alright.”
Damian rolled his eyes and grumbled in his throat and said of course he was competent enough to handle his own project while Grayson busied himself impersonating a mother hen. Dick grabbed a towel to get the worst of the grease off his hands and climbed the car-wide ramp.
He’d spent about forty minutes on the mechanics deck, but both Bruces and Dickie were still by the digital worktable, poking at what was presumably still the data grid. Oop, no, Dickie was demonstrating a handstand. Batman appeared to have no problem with this, so he must be done interrogating other-him. Red Hood was…cleaning his guns on one of the general-purpose worksurfaces, in Batman’s line of sight but out of hearing range.
Provocative, but also cooperative—having the guns in pieces even meant he couldn’t fire them, so this might actually be a sneaky method of making nice without submitting. Or he might just be being an asshole. Either-or. He might not know. Dick had named so many of his Batman headaches after the deranged son of a bitch, there were no words.
Having located big-Jason, the other one had to be within a certain distance, and once he moved away from the top of the ramp a little, Dick found him. He and Timmy had apparently paired up and drifted over to peer at some of the new decorations and souvenirs that had been added to the Cave since their respective days. There was less of it than you’d expect; Bruce considered fewer and fewer things worth memorializing, as time went by and he discovered new levels of jaded. Right now they were standing in front of the case that held Dick’s old Nightwing costume, the one he thought of as ‘Titans Nightwing.’
Its placement here had always been one of Bruce’s more impenetrable messages, in Dick’s opinion: He’d known, when he’d stripped off the suit and the identity and handed it to Batman, and Bruce had asked what should I do with it? that the man who never let go of anything wouldn’t take the suggestion burn it, and give it to the Salvation Army had been half a very bitter joke meant to convey I really don’t care. (Which had been a lie.) But Put it in a trophy case had been a dig, the kind of thing you said for the sake of lashing out; he’d never thought Bruce would actually do it.
He’d thought it would wind up put away in a drawer somewhere, in one of the meticulously organized lumber rooms that constituted half the Cave’s developed floorspace. Hadn’t expected to become the first in a collection of company for the haunted memorial to their dead Little Wing.
He very intentionally hadn’t offered the option give it to someone else to wear. Maybe he’d been giving Bruce a second chance to not betray him like that. Well, if so, he guessed he’d passed. Not that there was ever a clamoring line of contenders to be the new Nightwing. Or that he’d left much time for Bruce to find one before suiting up again after all.
But at this point, he’d gotten back to the place where he felt mostly good when his eyes happened to land on the old ‘wing-suit. It was a gaudy, joyful thing, like his Robin costume, and even if like his Robin costume it was slightly embarrassing in hindsight and brought up some bad memories, on the whole the memories were good. Now that he’d had some time for the pain to ease. Even if the guy who’d worn the flared collar and segmented gold chest plating was somebody he wouldn’t go back to being even if he could, that was the uniform he’d learned some of his hardest lessons in, and in which he’d sat around with his friends to eat pizza and watch awful television. In a lot of ways, he’d grown up in that suit.
(It was more comfortable to wear than it looked; one time when he’d only been Robin for a few years, one of Bruce’s old teachers, Richard Dragon, had stopped in to have a look at him, and given the advice if you can’t sleep in it, don’t fight in it. Which had seemed like a pretty harsh restriction on uniform at the time, before he’d learned just how easy it was to fall asleep when you were really, truly exhausted, down past the bone and into the marrow. He’d been fourteen.
Since then he’d taken the rule a little more seriously, because really, if it could keep you awake when you were on that kind of desperate adrenaline crash, it was probably distracting you in combat, too.)
That costume was solid nostalgia, and he smiled a little as he watched Jason and Tim confer over it. He bet they were making fun of him—or maybe just Jason was; if Timmy was still thirteen, he was new enough he might not be comfortable trash-talking Nightwing yet.
Or maybe he’d always been willing to make fun of Dick behind his back. No matter how long he had or hadn’t known Tim, the guy was a bit of a mystery.
Jason did something with his arms that conveyed ‘explosion,’ and Timmy laughed.
Shit. They were all cute.
“Makes you wonder.”
Dick didn’t jump, but he must have betrayed his surprise because Tim glanced up at him and added, “Sorry.” Accidental sneaking-up-on-people, a Tim Drake classic.
“Wonder what?” Nightwing asked, going back to looking at the kids.
“All of them…growing up together. What would turn out differently?”
Uhm. Dick glanced at Tim’s face, which told him nothing except maybe a shadow of melancholy, and back at little Jason-and-Tim. “Well, one of them would have to be leader,” he said at last.
Tim shrugged. “I never wanted to be leader,” he said matter-of-factly, “I just wanted people to listen to me.”
Dick couldn’t help it. He snickered.
“Shut up, there’s a difference.”
“I guess,” Nightwing allowed. “But in that case I didn’t really want to be leader either, everybody else just kind of expected it, and then I had to fight to make sure some of the guys respected the position so we didn’t spend all our time bogged down in power struggles we couldn’t afford.”
“Teenagers,” Tim agreed, from the lofty heights of a worldly twenty-one. But then, he’d always been an old man in a young boy’s skin, in some ways.
“And I know Jason didn’t; he spent his whole time with the Titans apologizing for not being up to snuff, even though he was better than a lot of people we’d had by then.”
They glanced at each other in silent mutual understanding. Because of the four boys in the Cave, that only left one. The one who truly, deeply wanted to be a leader, and who was at this point in their lives the least qualified for the role.
“Maybe I could do it again anyway,” Dick decided. Timmy at least would expect it; he loved shoving Dick Grayson into the boxes marked out by expectation, and he knew past-future-him as leader of the Titans.
“I could,” Red Robin allowed. “I just shouldn’t.”
Dick glanced sidelong at him, wondering what that even meant, but then Red Robin sucked in a tiny breath through his teeth, and Nightwing followed his gaze back to the kids and almost made a similar sound.
Leaving Tim behind in front of Titans-Nightwing, little Jason had meandered far enough left to finally make it to the memorial Robin case, and as Dick watched he put out a hand, and traced the lettering on the neat bronze plaque.
Chapter 14: Stations of the Case
Haha, and now three months. Will try not to do that again! The last few weeks were because of beta-reader difficulties, but before that I had to do a lot of rewriting, largely because I'd fallen afoul of DC's massive multilayered retcons regarding the Zero Hour event, and confused my Monarchs. Finally I decided screw it, if DC can swap them out that many times with that little justification, so can I. So here we are! It's a relatively long chapter, at least. ;]
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dick glanced sidelong at him, wondering what that even meant, but then Red Robin sucked in a tiny breath through his teeth, and Nightwing followed his gaze back to the kids, and almost made a similar sound.
Leaving Tim behind, little Jason had meandered far enough left to finally make it to the freestanding memorial Robin case, and as Dick watched he put out a hand and traced the lettering on the neat bronze plaque.
A Good Soldier
Nightwing gritted his teeth. Damn it.
He should have melted the thing down while he'd had the authority. Except he had no idea what he could have put in its place, especially since he'd taken up the cowl in the wake of some of Jason's worst murderous excesses to date, and he'd been unable to think of anything kind to say. That wasn't a worse lie than the one already set in bronze.
No memorial at all would have been worse.
It would have felt like punishing the memory of the boy for the crimes of the man. And even if Jason had never totally believed or appreciated it…he'd been loved, when he was here. He'd belonged. He had so very much been part of this family, in some ways had been the reason they started admitting it was a family, and not just three men with bonds of mentorship and obligation between them, even though Bruce had acted so much like a dad when Dick was a kid. Something about the way Jason had reacted to being parented.
There had been moments when Dick had wanted to wash that away, to forget all that history and treat the Red Hood as just another delusional maniac with a chip on his shoulder, but he couldn't have done it. After all, Jason…he'd made his choices. But the situations he'd been put in, that had led to them, those had never been his fault. Bruce was right about that much.
It had been better just moving out of the Cave; the ghosts of Jason had definitely been one of Dick's reasons, though just as definitely not the main one. But now he wished he'd thrown his weight around a little more.
The case had always made Jason's costume look so small, sized to fit a child, but if little Jay were to have a fit of wanting out of his civvies now, and tried to appropriate the suit behind the glass, it would be too big. Way too big.
He'd been going on sixteen, when he died. Probably he'd been about to get a serious growth spurt and need a completely new costume, and this one would have wound up in storage. Or maybe this one had been a size too small already, not a spare. Dick had thought, at first, when Bruce put the damn thing up, that it was the one Jason died in, but he'd looked at the autopsy reports later and realized that one had been shredded.
Dick couldn't tell what little Jason was thinking. Partly, that was because he only had his back to judge by, but also the kid was just…closed-in. He'd always been a loudly expressive person—he still was—and even if a lot of the time he used expressing one thing to hide another, he wasn't the kind of person whose body language usually fell silent like this. That was Tim's thing, and Bruce's.
Wait, no. That wasn't accurate. Jay's shoulders were bowing inward. This wasn't silence, this was defensiveness, small and unthreatening and almost as weird.
At the cases, Timmy's head whipped around, as he belatedly noticed he'd been left behind, and when he saw what had happened he rushed over along the row of costumes to join Jason by the lonely glass island of his memorial. He said something; Jason looked up. Lifted his hand slowly away from bronze. Tim took another step closer, still talking.
Jason smiled like his face was made of glass, and little Tim pulled back a little, but he didn't stop talking. Back then, it sometimes seemed like he never stopped talking, once you got him started.
Little-Jay shook his head, and Timmy clenched a fist inside his green glove as he spoke, sharp emphasis.
Dick should be over there by now. He knew his responsibilities. But they were handling it, weren't they? And he didn't want to be cornered alone with them. He practically bleeds a need to be accepted, he'd told Tim. Years ago, now. It had been true. It had mattered. Damian had bled that need as if from a severed artery, which truth had helped Dick push through all the terrible habits and supervillain behavioral tics and spoiled, bratty attitudes to the hero he knew his youngest brother could be.
The thing was, though, looking at this Jason and this Tim, the way they had been when they had been new Robins, looking at then through the eyes of now: so did they.
Dick was good at moving on from his failures. Learning his lesson, and not letting them drag him down—sometimes it took a while, sure, he'd had his meltdowns, but. Compared to other people he knew, even leaving Bruce aside as a statistical outlier. For a perfectionist, especially, he was really good at moving on from his failures.
Which was why he hated it so much, whenever they caught up again.
Little Tim had made his point, body language all that familiar refute my perfect logic if you can, and Jason—Jason heaved a sigh, shook his head. Punched Timmy in the shoulder, not gently but not to hurt, either.
Dick turned away in relief. He wouldn't be needed. He could stay out of it, without having to come up with a good excuse to send Red Robin over instead. Though considering the bond Tim and Timmy seemed to have forged he wouldn't really have needed an excuse. But on the other hand, they'd split up while he was hanging out with Damian for some reason, so maybe there had been an argument.
He avoided looking at Tim now, unwilling to see if he'd been figured out and was being judged for his cowardice, and instead glanced over to the main floor, where Dickie and the Bruces had been. Hopefully they hadn't noticed.
They hadn't; Brucie was looking sulky while Dickie explained something, and Batman was frowning at the digital work surface like he thought it was vulnerable to intimidation. But Dick noted that only in the background, because his attention had been grabbed by a much bigger issue, closer by, seated at a gun-cluttered table halfway between data-crunching session and costume-case powwow.
Jason was watching himself. Red Hood, fists clenched on the table disrupting the scrupulous rows of gun parts, teeth obviously grinding even from here, but absolutely still, with his eyes fixed on the two boys in front of the memorial Robin suit.
Abruptly, he stood.
He walked around the table and toward the pair of boys, and Nightwing moved too. Faintly he could hear Red Robin at his heel. He tried not to be too rushed, too obvious, that would just be provocation, but if Jason flipped his lid and attacked the kids they didn't want to be too far away. Every second could count.
Red Hood came to a stop far enough away to not present a clear and present threat, though, and broke into Jay-and-Timmy's quiet conference in a clear and carrying voice.
"Hey," he said. "Mini-Replacement."
Little-Tim looked over, frowning, but Jaybird turned again and his anger had changed. It was a banked rage now, slow fulmination. "Don't call him that," he commanded, with such a depth of loathing that Nightwing suspected Red Hood was just the easiest target for whatever he was feeling about Bruce's creepy memorial to him. "Think about what it'd be like if Dick called us that. He's an asshole, but he wouldn't go there. Why are you?"
Well, owch. Jay was aware both of him were in earshot, right?
Red Hood's lip curled. "Because I'm an asshole, and also not a liar."
"He's Robin," Jason told himself, mulish. "Maybe I don't know exactly what happened, but if he doesn't count then neither did we."
Timmy flinched. "Jason, you don't need to…"
"Robin's mine," said someone, sharply.
Little-self, of course, striding over from the workstation. (Brucie looked simultaneously intrigued and like he wanted to disappear. So much for sheltering him from their family issues.) He stopped just past the old Nightwing. "It's my name. It's my costume," and he looked up at the symbolic memorial version of it, and back at the Jasons and Timmy again. "If anyone gets to decide who's really Robin, it should be me. Did I?" He looked over expectantly at Nightwing.
They were really torturing the first-person pronouns tonight.
"Yeah," Dick said. "Of course, I did." Not right away, but he'd come around. "But honestly, I gave it to Jason, kind of. We would have asked him, if he'd been alive." Red Robin's eyes were probably burning a hole through the back of his head. Didn't matter. Only way to move was forward, time travel or not.
"See?" small-Jason demanded.
"It's not about Robin, kid." Tall-Jason sounded completely disgusted. "Fuck Robin. Seriously."
"Then back the hell off of Tim."
Timmy looked about half a second from either shutting down or combusting from combined mortification, delight, and alarm. "Jason, it's okay, seriously."
Jaybird ignored him. "Whatever Bruce did," he told himself, "whatever the hell happened, doesn't make what you're doing not bullshit. Look at you! You're only not a two-bit thug because you're so good at murdering people."
Dick remembered, suddenly, how determinedly nonchalant this kid had been most of the time. He'd been awful at it, and that was what they'd remembered best, the genuineness and strength of Jason's emotions and how little he thought before he spoke. Not the way he always tried so hard to act like nothing fazed him. The thick street-kid armor that had never been enough to hide his heart. Did the way he'd been barely fronting most of today indicate something about the kid versions being influenced by how people remembered them? Or was it just the rawness of his exposure to Red Hood?
Grown Jason bared his teeth in something Dick was hard-pressed to categorize as a smile. "You have no idea what you're talking about, brat."
"I have all the idea I need!" Jason swallowed. "You remember, second time out with the Titans, when Donna Troy went off on Hawk, almost crushed him to death, she was so mad? You remember having to jump in to stop her?"
"Yeah, kid. I do. And you know what? Donna and I ran into Hall again, a few years back. He turned into a supervillain. A real one. Called himself Monarch. Went rampaging across a couple dozen universes, building his army of evil, wiping out Earths.
"And you know, we didn't talk about it, but I think Donna couldn't help thinking the same thing as me: if I'd let her kill him back then, when he was all talk, none of those deaths would have happened. If I'd just let her crush Hank Hall to death for being a bloodthirsty asshole with no self-control or respect. All those worlds would be okay."
A hoarseness had entered Jason's voice, the bitter note Dick realized he associated with the Red Hood's most honest moments; something behind that that might be guilt.
Jason's lips twisted into a sneer. "But I did the right thing. The good thing. I saved him. And ten years later, billions of people are dead."
He jerked his chin, all challenge, the same gesture his younger self had made earlier. His fists were trembling, but Dick couldn't read anywhere in his body language a likelihood of springing forward and attacking, so he…stayed put. Jaybird was looking devastated, more than the revelation deserved—Dick had known about Monarch, more or less, the basic facts of his identity, what had become of Hank without Don to anchor his rage, but not about whatever had happened back then amongst him and Jason and Donna, while he was off being Brother Blood's puppet. (It had to have been then, the second time he left Donna to be leader and got nabbed by the Church of Blood; nothing else made sense.)
Timmy was tense as a piano wire, staring at Red Hood like he was trying to break him down into his component atoms with detective vision. Red Robin had to be behind Nightwing, still, but Dick couldn't hear anything. Maybe he was doing the same thing as Timmy. Wouldn't surprise him.
Adult Jason rolled his shoulders, too tense for a normal shrug, and shoved both hands into his jacket pockets. His grin was like battery acid. "I'd say 'welcome to the real world,' but you've seen the real world before. You've lived in it. Just because you're willing to play make-believe with the Bat doesn't mean you don't know."
Oh, God, this was getting so incredibly personal, and of course it was Jason doing this, shouting at himself in the middle of the Cave, arresting everyone's attention, making a huge spectacle of his own emotional problems because that was, at this point, what he did.
"I'm not pretending," little Jason bit out. "I have never not believed in doing the right thing! You—just because it's hard, just because sometimes you have to compromise—"
"Not just because anything, though you know full fucking well you're never going to stop being a dirty little thief, any more than the demon brat will stop being a killer, or Golden Boy can wash off the circus. Hawk wound up proving his own point. Can't win a war with half measures. You gotta hit hard, and fast, and take them out before they get the chance to do any more damage."
"Make up your mind."
It was startling, because it was Tim, little Timmers, open in the way he used to get when he was serious, voice hard and flat for confrontation, but nakedly invested. In Dick's peripheral vision Red Robin finally appeared, taking half a step forward and then pulling himself back, tamping himself down again because he knew his involvement could only make older-Jason's reaction worse. It was bad enough the older generation was standing around being an audience for him to play to.
Robin-Tim didn't seem to notice, all his attention on telling the Red Hood: "You can't subscribe to a philosophy, and then say its followers deserve to be culled."
Nightwing saw his own mini-self's jaw drop, and well might he gape because that was brutal.
Red Hood smirked. Raised his chin and broadened his body language again, hands wide, come at me bro like the person he was looking at wasn't thirteen. "Why not?"
"You are not telling us to kill you," little-Dick announced, in an audibly creeped-out and prepubescent-tenor version of Ringleader Voice, like he could make it true by declaring it.
Little-Jay was goggling at his older self in moderate horror, and even though he was being the most blatant, he was not alone. Damian looked perturbed; Red Robin looked like he'd been carved out of some particularly austere stone.
And Batman was leaning forward, one hand planted on the middle of the digital data spreadsheet with the fingers curled so if it had been paper he'd have made gouges, all mute agony.
No one but Nightwing seemed to have noticed the last one, Bruce being behind half of them and not in anybody's range of vision so long as they kept their eyes on the showdown. Dick shoved down the absurd jealousy that it was Jason who kept bringing this raw honesty out of him, out of all of them. Of course it was Jason; Jason was an open wound nobody could seem to stop picking at.
Being replaced had never meant Bruce loved you less. It had taken being Batman himself, to start to believe that.
Red Hood let out his breath in a long gust. "Nah, kid-Wing. I'm not. If you were going to start killing people to clean up the world, none of you would start with me."
He looked like he was going to say something else, but Timmy pressed, "Do you think they should, though?"
"Or finish," said Jason, and his voice was like cardboard. "Do you think they should kill off the villains and hit you last? Or you and then themselves, I guess. Since then they'd be bad guys, too."
"Or at least on their way there," Dickie added from Red Hood's back, with a tone of ruthless fairness that Dick was on some level pleased to see worked even better from outside his head.
"I guess somebody else could kill us before we go over the edge," said Timmy, "and then someone else could kill them. Etcetera."
Dickie cocked an eyebrow. "Is that what you want?"
A gloved fist clenched and unclenched. "No, you brats. That's not 'what I want.'"
This was actually kind of amazing. A trio of thirteen-year-olds had harried the Red Hood into a corner with appeals to logic, and he hadn't even tried to kill any of them yet. Maybe they should be taking notes. (Though possibly one of the fundamental techniques employed was 'be too young to have started high school.' The only kid that young Jason had ever really gone after was Damian, and only once seriously.)
When Nightwing stole a look over at Bruce (and Bruce), he looked like he'd been hit over the head (twice). The little one less so, and probably mostly because of this blatant airing of his new family's massive dysfunction. Dick wouldn't be surprised at this point if he went home swearing to never adopt any kids ever, if this was how it turned out.
Seriously, though, how were the kids handling this so much better than the adults ever had? Dick wanted to say it was because they didn't feel guilty every time they looked at the asshole, but when Jason and Tim had first met, Tim hadn't had a single thing to feel guilty for.
Of course, Jason was a lot less insane now than he'd been then. At least Little-Jay wasn't seeing himself at his worst. There was that.
"So what do you want," little Dick asked, next logical question.
"And why does it mean you have to be alone?" asked little Tim. And there was nothing kind about the way he asked it, nothing in the tone to suggest this was an offer of help or company. It was more like a verbal punch, and Red Hood's mouth twitched like he found it funny.
Or maybe that was the protective half-inch Timmy had swayed toward Jaybird, as he spoke.
"If you're going to be a giant hypocrite," the second Robin declared once his older self had declined to reply through the passage of several long, syrupy-silent seconds, "nobody has to listen to you."
Red Hood let out a huffing sound that might have been derisive laughter and might have been a fed-up sigh, and then cast a jaundiced eye across the two young boys standing between him and A Good Soldier. His lip was curled like he smelled garbage, but his actual tone was strangely neutral. "Hey, Tiny Tim. I was pissed you even existed, but…for the record, you were actually pretty cool." He jerked a thumb at Red Robin, off to the left and hitherto entirely ignored. "Don't grow up into this asshole, huh?"
Timmy accepted this directive gravely, with a slow, considering look at Jason. Older Jason, the Jason who wasn't the hero he'd looked up to at all. "If it somehow turns out I get to go home with all my memories and affect the timeline, but you don't," he stated, "I'm going looking for you."
Red Hood's mouth twisted, and his teeth grated, and for a second Dick thought they were going to have a throwdown after all, and then he snorted and looked away, over everyone's heads. "I'm probably in India," he said, with palpable disinterest that had to be false. "Don't get dead."
Which was…wow. A pretty big concession. Jason punctuated it by stride-stomping off out of sight, around a corner, presumably looking for somewhere in the crowded Batcave that was conducive to lurking without accompaniment. Since his guns were still in pieces on the table, this was much less disturbing an idea than it could have been. (Not that Dick really thought he would start sniping from the shadows, but not being able to completely rule that out just provoked paranoia.)
Timmy turned to the younger Jason with that smug little grin he used to get; there, I'm fixing it.
And there was the remote possibility he actually would. But Nightwing was afraid that even if things fell out that way, and he caught Jason at sixteen, their Little Wing would already be too broken ever to fix.
Tim did too much paying for Jason's mistakes, already.
Dammit, Jason, stop stealing center stage and chewing the scenery! XD Comics dialogue is so bad though, guys, guys, you know what Jason said to Donna to stop her, in the scene where she went berserk on Hawk? 'For heavens' sake you'll kill him!' That is what he said. No lie. Blame Alfred, I guess. Canonically, Jason's initial impression of Tim was very mixed, but he was impressed by/jealous of his friendships. I figure he would take a very dim view of Red Robin's isolation.
Step #1 in safe Red Hood family interaction is definitely shaping up as 'get his guns off him.' Since they amount to fetish objects for his grudge, this makes sense, and also just because guns; studies show their presence in a room will increase the odds of people choosing violent solutions, even to hypothetical problems which a gun could not in any way address. So even when they don't get directly involved and up the stakes of minor disagreements abruptly to second-degree murder, guns promote escalation.
More detail on my continuity decision vis-à-vis the snarl known as Monarch, for those who care: The various bad futures seen in the various storylines were obviously averted, but for our purposes Monarch/Extant from Armageddon/Zero Hour existed as published, and was later the Monarch of Countdown to Final Crisis. All Monarchs in all timelines are hereby Hank Hall, formerly the Teen Titan Hawk; none were Nathaniel Adams. Because Management's excuses for the retcon were 'Metron says' and 'because it was going to be Captain Atom in the first place before someone leaked the twist so we're just changing it back and everybody who's still mad we threw Hawk under the bus fifteen years ago can pretend it was always like this.'
What they did swapping out the reveal in Armageddon 2001 was bullshit, sure, but I like how the resulting character dynamics fall out, so I'm not interested in belated takesy-backsies. Hank's still dead in time to become a Black Lantern, and Monarch's actions remain the same either way, because he's so round the twist there's not a lot of personality in his decisions, so hah. Hah!
Chapter 15: Birds in Five Fir Trees
The dorkiest chapter title has appeared! 8-}
Note on costumes: Being thirteen and thus a newb, Tiny Tim is in his original Robin design, which means the tights are leaf-green. They turned black later, and then he cut out green entirely, and then after Superboy died dispensed with yellow as well, but he started out in the traditional four-color palette.
The levels of technology familiar to the past Robins are a mess, because my timeline says our Dickiebird is here from 1993, by which time in real chronology Tim had been Robin for four years. (Why do I do these things to myself. Ah well.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dick (in costume he’d normally think of himself as Robin but that was hard when there were three other Robins here, and an empty costume that looked like his but wasn’t) wasn’t sure what to think of Tim’s promise. He’d been trying not to keep a list of changes he had to make to the timeline if he ever got home, because when did that ever work out?
But maybe it didn’t matter if it ever really happened. Maybe it was enough to have promised at all.
He watched the Red Hood pull his disappearing act, then looked back at Jason. He seemed mostly okay, now. His smile was sort of crumpled, like a peach that somebody’d stepped on. Sort of sweet and squishy too, though. Like the peach. It was kind of hard to see him turning out like he apparently did, and maybe Dick shouldn’t try. Because that hadn’t happened. Not to this kid, not yet. It didn’t necessarily have to happen.
Maybe he should start that list after all.
He was…a little bit uncomfortable with his older self, even though he knew he’d gotten off easy compared to Jason—and, hah, Bruce. Nobody had said anything bad about Nightwing yet, not really, but he wasn’t talking enough, and Dick didn’t like how hard it was to read him. The blank thing the Tims and Bruce did sometimes was one thing, even if it was coming out way too often, but shouldn’t Dick be able to read his own face? It wasn’t like Nightwing wasn’t making expressions, they were just…confusing ones. Ambiguous. Ambivalent?
Nightwing was looking after Red Hood, right now. Red Robin, Dick had the feeling from his five years of practice guessing where Batman had his attention, was looking at him. In about half a second, the silence was going to get awkward.
Dick cleared his throat a little, ready to say something that wasn’t ‘are you sure that’s a good idea, Tim?’ although he didn’t know what yet. Then the clock slid open, and everybody turned around hard.
Dick, at least, spun filled with the absolute certainty that on top of everything else they’d been discovered by an enemy—hey, it was like seventeen years in the future and Ra’s al Ghul’s grandson was Robin; anybody could know how to get into the Cave!
It was just Alfred. Making his way down the steps with a huge covered tray balanced in each hand. He reached the cave floor and Dick dashed forward to help. Oh God Alfred looked so old. He smiled down at Dick, though, as he let him take one tray and switched to holding the other one by the edge with both hands. You didn’t usually get that smile unless Dick was really upset or recently got kidnapped or something. He caught himself thinking Alfred must have really missed him, and reminded himself that no, he’d been here the whole time, just getting older. Man. This was so weird.
They got the platters over to the others and took over the nearest workstation to the one Bat-Bruce was still pouring over. On the way, Alfred fended off attempts by both Tims to help with the remaining tray and took the opportunity to look everyone over, and said as they set things down,
“I thought the, ah, lot of you might require fortification. Pardon me for the delay.”
Alfred uncovered the trays, and the reason for that delay was immediately obvious. It wasn’t just a matter of making enough food for everyone, or getting their portions beautifully arranged on individual plates with accompanying glasses, though of course he’d done that.
He had made each of them a sandwich. Their sandwich, if Dick was guessing right. Because his was right there, milk alongside ham and muenster with really good tomato on thick slabs of fresh white bread, with that bizarrely delicious mango chutney that Alfred had hunted down the source of last year because Dick liked the Christmas sampler so much. And big-him reaching for…provolone and pastrami and bacon and tomato and red onion and some kind of weird orange cheese and avocado, and the same tangy-sweet chutney, all stacked on what looked like a ciabatta roll, which altogether was kind of like an adult version of his sandwich. (Adult self still drank milk. Healthy bones!)
He surveyed the menu options as he bit into his lunch(?), trying not to notice that the bread wasn’t quite the same. Tim got this challah-bread thing all crunchy with pickles and lettuce and…Dick wasn’t sure what else. Possibly more bacon. Which would mean all three of them were eating pig, hah. Red Robin’s sandwich appeared to contain…fish. Why fish? It was all fancy and pan-seared like Alfred always made, but it was still fish.
Accompanied by tomato juice. Ew. Why.
“Hi, Alfred,” said Jason, awkwardly, instead of diving for the food like Dick would have expected from what he’d seen of the guy so far, not to mention the way he was the one who’d been all excited at the prospect of sandwiches earlier. “I, uh, kind of left my backpack at a Priest Heights soccer game eleven years in the past?”
Alfred gave a little sniff. There was something suspiciously bright in his eyes, like the special relieved smile times ten, but he said almost normally, “Well, that was very irresponsible of you, Master Jason. I’m afraid that it won’t get you out of doing your homework.”
Jay was making another weird face. Even more squashed than the smile earlier. Dick looked away, embarrassed for him.
Little Bruce apparently liked prosciutto. Alfred handed another plate pointedly to Batman, something on pumpernickel with neufchatel (which was really just lowfat cream cheese, which Dick knew because Alfred had tried him on every possible bagel topping for the first half-year at the Manor, trying to convince him there was more to bagels than cream cheese, which why did he even care, he was from England) and roast beef. High on protein and calories; Bruce must have been pushing himself again. Ooh, iron too. Had he gotten hurt?
“Like Mrs. Stephanopoulis would know what to do with eleven-year-old homework if I gave it to her,” Jason grumbled, and ducked forward to retrieve the plate he’d identified as his own. It seemed to be a sloppy joe…no, a chili dog, and Dick wondered if Alfred had spent the last almost-an-hour making chili, or if he’d had some frozen, just in case. Bruce had learned it somewhere, after all.
It was probably the latter, Dick decided, as he realized that the only sandwich left on the other tray was an identical sub roll, full of identical stewed meat and beans, topped with identical melted cheese.
Red Hood, of course, was nowhere to be seen. The chili dog looked lonely.
Everybody else had changed their favorites since they were thirteen. This entree didn’t seem like it really matched Shouty Guns Guy, let alone the second cup of what looked to be lemonade. Which meant, if Dick was any kind of detective at all…that Alfred hadn’t had a chance to find out what Jason liked as a grown-up.
Well, that wasn’t really a surprise, right?
“Excellent timing,” proclaimed Damian The Magnificent, strolling into view at a saunter. He’d changed into his Robin costume, which was…weird. The cape was yellow on both sides, like Dick’s, but it had a hood. There were tights like on Tim’s, but they were black, and the shoes and gloves were green but instead of Dick’s lightweight things they were built for war. Even his mask had spikes. “Well done, Pennyworth.” He took the plate and cup from the tray that didn’t have a chili dog, leaving it empty, and then held up one half of his sandwich and inspected it, like he thought Alfred might have screwed up.
“And the only animal protein appears to be cheese,” he declared. “Very good.” And then he bit in, the same messy too-big hungry mouthfuls as everybody but Tim and Big Tim and Batman. “I have not forgotten the goose incident,” he informed Alfred with his mouth full. Snooty, but no table manners. Check.
Also a vegetarian? Huh.
“I never make the same mistake twice, Master Damian,” said Alfred. He sounded more tolerant than apologetic or annoyed, like being a raging jerk was an amusing quirk Damian Wayne happened to have. What the heck.
“Alfred,” Dick said suddenly.
He had the old man’s attention right away, which was kind of not great because he didn’t know what he wanted to say. “Thanks for the food,” he decided on, and grinned.
Alfred smiled back. “No trouble at all,” he said, in defiance of the evidence. Dick wished there were less people here so he could go for a hug.
Batman had already withdrawn back to the slick future computers, eating his sandwich absently in huge tidy bites spaced further and further apart as he slowly forgot it existed. Little-Bruce had trailed after him and was looking over his shoulder; Bruce was letting him.
Dick bit his lip, then noticed and made himself stop. That was the worst habit for a flier, honestly. He still really, really wanted to get Bruce, Batman-Bruce, on his own. Now more than ever, actually. He had so many questions, especially if he was going to make that to-do list.
But he couldn’t quite bring himself to walk up to Batman and demand it. He kept waiting for Bruce to look toward him, make sure he was paying attention and then tell him what he could do to make the greatest possible contribution. He’d never even realized just how often Bruce looked at him like he was the most important person in the room until suddenly—he wasn’t.
It was like he’d died, and Bruce had gotten over it. Except of course he hadn’t died, he’d just turned into Nightwing; if he’d died Bruce would probably have been just as broken up to see him as he was about Jason. But. It was just.
(He’d thought he was special.)
Fine, then. If Batman-and-Robin didn’t mean anything anymore, or at least belonged to somebody else, he was still Robin. The original. Robin was his.
“So,” Dick said, turning to his fellow Robins as Alfred whisked away the evidence that a meal had taken place, except for Bruce’s plate with a third of a sandwich still on it. “How about testing that distance limit?”
They were interested. Dick laid out his scheme.
The Wayne Heir, Jr., wasn’t actually uninvited to this project, but he wasn’t directly involved since there was still only one of him and he could go wherever he wanted. And Dick didn’t ever actually look at him, as he explained, and he didn’t come over and join in the planning session. He went over to Nightwing instead, and demanded something—Dick couldn’t make it out, and wasn’t trying.
Big-self was rolling his eyes at whatever-it-was Damian was saying. Red Robin’s poker face went especially stiff. What was up with those three?
“Are you serious?” Jason demanded, laughing slightly, and Dick wrenched his full attention back to their conversation.
“Duh! It’s a way better idea than just walking as far as we can and trying to estimate. Right, Tim?”
“Plumb lines do tend to be naturally straight,” Tim allowed.
“Okay,” Jason said. “Fine, you win. Let’s do this.”
They got another of their apocryphal pieces of data as soon as they were done plotting, though. Wherever Red Hood had stashed himself turned out to be far enough from the storage caverns that Jason had to stay behind, while Robins one and three got supplies. He seemed cheerful enough about it, at least.
Things had been pretty much completely reorganized since Dick’s day, it turned out, and Tim was only about fifty percent less lost—and Dick was pretty sure a lot of that was not so much his slightly-taller ‘little brother’ being familiar with how things were set up now, as the fact that Tim’s older self had had input on the new setup, so it made instinctive sense to him. It sure didn’t make instinctive sense to him. Stuff was organized by function but also by, like, geological epoch, and possibly also cross-referenced by the Queen of England’s birthday or something, which was not a thing he had previously believed you could do with physical space.
“Red Robin says they had to rebuild a lot after the earthquake,” Tim said, buried up to his shoulders in a deep shelf-space.
“Gotham has an earthquake?” Dick asked. That would explain about the skyline changes Tim had mentioned earlier, too. (Note for when he got home: earthquake preparedness, aiming for maybe five years out. He could look up what they did in California. Bruce would help.) He shook his head. “They are just throwing the spoilers out there like nobody’s business, huh.”
“Tell me about it,” said Tim. Dick was pretty sure that flat little grumbly voice was supposed to be funny, on purpose, so he went ahead and laughed, and the other kid slid out of the cubbyhole and looked up from under his ridiculous spikey hair with this funny shy little smile, so yeah. Ten points, correct guess.
Tim held up two handfuls of measuring tapes. Dick snorted. “Not ideal,” Tim agreed. They dove back in.
The only length-demarcated cables they could scare up in the end were from Tim’s day, and too heavy to put in the sleek modern jumpline shooting gizmos, and while Tim could have loaded it into his own, it would be experimentally unsound to use different equipment from each other, so they finally hooked the things into heavy-duty harnesses intended for much more challenging terrain or long-term rappelling, rather than the impromptu-trapeze-esque swinging he and Bruce (and apparently the other Robins) liked to do between buildings.
This would probably make Nightwing more comfortable with the exercise anyway. Dick had eventually noticed his older self going all hovery whenever one of them took a perfectly normal risk, which was annoying because a, he should remember what Dick could and could not handle, and b, he didn’t get like that over Bruce’s grouchy actual-kid. It was like he thought scowly-face was better than them.
Well, maybe he was. He was Batman’s real son, after all. But that didn’t mean the original Robin was any less competent than before. And Tim kept going all super-serious, especially when his older self was around, which it was basically second nature to mess with. Nothing wrong with being serious about actually serious things, but totally something wrong with being a sourpuss.
Some of the technology in the future was incredible—Tim reported that Red Robin said most people now carried tiny computers everywhere, and there was now a Batmobile that flew, though Bruce didn’t like to drive it. Because he was no fun whatsoever anymore, Dick guessed.
Even just Tim’s automated-gas-powered-grapple-gun-thing already nearly qualified as science fiction as far as Dick was concerned, and when he’d asked what happened if you hit a person with it Tim had flatly declared you don’t, which sort of answered the question on its own. His Batarangs had sharp edges, too, at least some of them, like the shuriken hidden over his heart, and all joking about costume choices aside, Dick felt like he could trace the development of Robin from himself, through Tim, to the new kid with his boots and his spikes and his scowl.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about it. Tim taking over Robin and then changing it, he felt like he could have complained about, except grown-up-him clearly hadn’t had a problem with it, and Tim so obviously meant well that blaming him for Scowly McGhoulpants’ decisions felt like a jerk move.
Plus, there was Jason in the middle. Tim thought Jason was great; Dick would, at least, side with him against his crazy future self every time forever. When he didn’t need rescuing, Dick wasn’t sure yet. He wanted to be, because he liked the guy, but…even if it wasn’t fair, even if Red Hood was more pathetic than scary…yeah. Maybe everybody had the potential to go evil, but with Jason it was a little too real.
When they got back out to the main cave, Nightwing had joined mini-Bruce in looking over Batman’s shoulder, and Jason was talking with Red Robin near the edge of the drop. Damian Wayne was doing some kind of drills in the open space between the workstations and the fall-off point—it looked sort of like he was holding an invisible weapon.
A mighty overhead slash suggested the imaginary weapon was a sword.
“Go get Nightwing, would you?” he asked Red Robin as he and Tim got themselves buckled into their harnesses. “You two have to be in the same place or this won’t work.”
“Your wish is my command.” Red Robin inclined his head slightly before sweeping off in a gust of red feathers to the workstation.
Dick stared after him. “I seriously can’t tell if he’s making fun of me or not.”
Tim said, “He is.” When both Jason and Dick looked at him, he shrugged. “I know how he thinks.”
Dick rolled his eyes, and Jason punched Tim in the shoulder. Tim laughed. It was an awkward little laugh, somewhere between shy and stiff, and his poker face tightened up after it. Probably embarrassed?
Red Robin came back with Nightwing just as Dick and Tim finished tying on to one of the natural limestone columns a little way back from the edge, adjusting their knots carefully so that ‘0’ was situated just where the cable left the surface of the stone.
“Alright,” Dick said, bouncing a little and tugging to test the harness one last time. “Let’s do this.”
“Jason, would you watch the anchor point for us?” Tim asked. Which was kind of pandering, considering their adult selves were required to be there, but then again technically they were part of the experiment, not supervision.
“I’ll be here too,” Red Robin pledged anyway, and he didn’t quite look at Damian Wayne, but he also didn’t not.
“I’m not going to try to kill your stupid larval form, Drake!” that Robin called, without looking over. Which was something of a wasted effort considering he’d just betrayed how much attention he was paying their conversation. Heh. Dick let himself smirk a little.
“We’re all the same age!” he yelled back. He was back to finding The Damian Wayne hilarious, which might be partly because it annoyed the guy so much, but hey. Sometimes the only way to get Bruce to loosen up and act less crazy was to pester him into it. It was looking more and more like that was a technique he was going to have to pull out regularly with this crowd. “Hey,” he said to Jason and Tim. “If we’re larvae, what do you think that makes Red here? Is he, like, the pupal stage of Batman?”
Tim laughed; Jason groaned and rolled his eyes. Nightwing made a new weird face. Red Robin broke out a grin: brief, and startlingly broad, and fierce in a way that Dick couldn’t help thinking of as cool, but also a little worrying. “No,” he said, firmly, still smiling but in a way that did not encourage questions.
Dick exchanged speaking looks with his fellow Robins, except The Wayne who was still pretending to ignore them all.
The other Robins were such weirdos. He decided this was because Bruce was weird and naturally drew in other weird people. Which was in no way a reflection on Dick himself. “Ready?” he asked his spelunking partner. Got a nod in reply.
Dick waved to his audience, and then almost simultaneously, Robins #1 and #3 went over the edge.
“So,” Dick said, when they were about fifteen feet down, because they were descending at a carefully scientific snail’s pace that was already boring him to death. “Not that you seemed to need them, but why did nobody but me use any passcodes?”
Tim shrugged. “Telepaths.”
Dick scoffed frustration, and let his head fall back, contemplating the shadowy recesses of the ceiling. “Secret codes are obsolete now? How are we supposed to enjoy our jobs at this rate?”
“There’s always comm banter,” said Tim. “Acrobatics on patrol. The satisfaction of a job well done?”
“Well. Yeah. I guess. But Bruce is being such a downer, and if he’s like that all the time now, I don’t know how anybody has any fun around here.”
Tim shrugged against his harness. “He’s under stress right now,” he offered.
Dick laughed. “When isn’t he? Or are you saying the pack of us are freaking him out?”
That look on his sorta-brother Robin might be relief at being understood. “Pretty much.”
Dick considered that for another second, then let it fall into the depths of the cavern. “When we’re done with this, wanna race?”
Tim paused. “I’ll lose,” he predicted, his tone suggesting and since we know this is there really a point?
“You don’t know that. We’re the same age!”
“And you’re Dick Grayson.”
Dick let himself lean against the Cave wall, stone cool against his cheek. Tim stopped with him. “You make that sound like such a big deal. Which is…flattering, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not that special. I’m Robin, you’re Robin.”
“We…have different specialties.”
Dick snorted a little as he got his chest-winch moving again. Forty feet. “So…what, are you saying I’m fast, the Angry Boys hit really hard, and you have your own thing?”
“What, you have to have noticed both our replacements are on hair triggers.”
“Jason’s not normally like that,” Tim demurred. Which, how did he know? “But…yes. I guess. I’m a detective. I mean, that’s my strong suit; I know the rest of you are, too.”
“Not that you could tell, the way we’ve been sent off to play. But that’s cool. Like Bruce.” He tried to sound approving; Timmy some moments seemed to ache for acknowledgement in a way that made Dick want to climb up the rope again and kick his older self in the shins, not to mention Old Bruce. It helped him make allowances for what an annoying know-it-all Baby Brother was a lot of the time.
“I figured out your secret identities,” Tim said. “When I was eight.” He looked away from Dick even before he’d finished rushing out the words, clearly already regretting it, like he thought bragging was some kind of gross indiscretion. (In which case why would he think Dick was cool, exactly?)
“When you were—” Dick glanced up the cliff again, like looking toward their olderselves would help him work out when that had been. Was going to be. Or was it already in his past? He’d have noticed, though, right? How old even was Red Robin and did he ever take his mask off. “What did you do?”
“Do?” Tim seemed surprised at the line of questioning. “Nothing. I just knew. Sometimes I followed you on patrol to snap pictures,” he admitted.
“Wow.” That wasn’t said out of obligation; Dick was honestly impressed. And slightly creeped out, not so much by Tim himself as because if random eight-year-olds could stalk them successfully, he really had to reevaluate his views on Batman and Robin’s situational awareness. “No wonder you got the job.”
Tim gave a little laugh, and payed out a little more cable to drop another few feet. “It wasn’t that so much. Jason was dead, and you and Bruce were in a fight, and I got worried because he was getting reckless out there. Like I told Jason? I convinced Nightwing to go back Batman up, at least, but then their comms went out while I was still in the Cave, and Alfred and I went to help.” He shrugged, like that was the long and the short of it, which Dick so did not believe.
“Random Kid and Alfred saved us?” It wasn’t that he didn’t believe it could happen; they’d screwed up enough times, and Tim was obviously not terrible at this kind of thing. And Alfred…well. He was awesome, and scary, but he wasn’t really….
“I borrowed one of Jason’s old suits. Most people didn’t know he was dead.”
Dead. Dick still didn’t know what to think about that. He’d known he could die, of course. He wasn’t delusional. Standing over his parents’ bodies had cured him of the childish idea that he was immune to death. But, just. The idea that he’d stopped being Robin and then the guy who replaced him died on the job—
Well, it couldn’t possibly be weirder for him than it was for Bruce, he decided. Either of Bruce.
He was actually kind of worried about kid-Bruce. He wasn’t trained or experienced at crisis management like the rest of them, and he obviously wanted to do something, something to move the investigation along or at the very least solve some kind of problem. Dick knew the feeling. When it hit and there wasn’t anything to go and do, and no real reason that he had to go find a thing to do no matter how unlikely to actually help because the problem was just that urgent, he could usually distract himself, but Bruce wasn’t good at that even as a grownup. He’d want to be accomplishing something.
Dick had sort of invited him to be Robin with the rest of them. He should maybe act like he meant it? It was weird to think, because it was Bruce, who didn’t care what people thought of him, but earlier when Jason figured out he was scared of bats, he looked kind of like…
Dick realized the straps of the harness were no longer pressing into his back, even though he was still in a comfortable rappelling posture. He bounced in place a little. Yup.
“Huh.” And with that, Dick in two sharp motions snapped himself out of his harness.
“Robin!” Tim lunged, snatching him by the wrist and bracing with both feet to take the extra weight, only a little less than his own.
It didn’t hit. Dick hung midair, suspended on nothing, laughing fit to burst. “Did you…did you really just call me Robin? You’re Robin! Too.”
Tim looked awkward, opened with visible reluctance the hand that clearly wasn’t doing anything to hold the other boy up. Dropped another couple of feet to give himself an excuse to look elsewhere. “Yeah, I am. I just…”
His posture had closed in on itself, as much as it could without abandoning his rappelling posture, and the hovering Robin frowned, the humor leaving him. “I really scared you, didn’t I? Did something happen?”
Tim shook his head, looked down between his knees, and dropped another few feet. “It’s nothing.”
Dick reached over to grab his empty harness again and used it as leverage to spin until he was sitting crosslegged against the side of the cliff, and looking down at the top of Tim’s head, so if you didn’t pay attention to the way his cape was draping over his back or his bangs hanging straight down, it looked like his personal gravity had rotated ninety degrees. “Is that a nothing kind of nothing, or the kind that’s actually something?”
Tim shrugged. “I…was there when your parents died.” Another shrug. “I was just being stupid, don’t worry about it. I know you can handle yourself in the air, better than anybody.”
“Not anybody,” Dick said, because the other option was trying to say something about the fact that Tim watched his parents die, or nothing at all, and either option involved thinking about that night and the usually-ignored fact that they’d had an audience. “Superman can fly.”
Tim’s smile was still a little weird, but it didn’t look fake and there was enough of it to show his teeth. “Okay, than anybody who can’t fly.”
“Ah, the flattery, I’m going to faint soon if you keep this up.”
“Well then,” Tim retorted, “I guess you’d just float there floppy and unconscious until your older self went somewhere.”
Dick grinned. It was a pretty funny image. “Speaking of which, my tether’s run out at—” he checked “—forty-three point one two meters, and I notice you’re a couple feet below me. So does this mean we’ve got different ranges, or that one of us grows up unable to follow simple instructions?”
Tim shrugged, and let himself drop a little farther. Then he looked up and gave an impish, crooked, slightly bashful smile. “It’s probably you.”
“Shut up. Did you just bottom out?”
“No, hang on…” he gave himself a few more centimeters, then stopped. “Done. Forty and five point seven.” He raised his eyebrows. “That’s exactly one hundred and fifty feet.”
“I.e. fifty yards. And I get…what, one-forty-one and change? So if I did wander off up there, and you didn’t, whatever-this-is works in Imperial units.”
They blinked at each other, not sure what to make of that revelation. If it was a revelation at all.
“I guess we should head up again,” Tim said, and reached for the mechanism on his chest that would winch the cable up again and take him with it.
Dick reached for his harness, then paused. His quasi-weightlessness would disappear as soon as he rose even an inch, but it was currently impossible for him to fall to his death. Unless Nightwing jumped over the cliff, and then he probably wouldn’t have an option. (What exactly would happen if his magic tether wound up competing with the harness and cable in opposite directions? Dick was pretty sure he was the most fragile part of that equation, and resolved to avoid being strapped down anywhere for as long as this lasted.)
He thought maybe he’d do this the old-fashioned way. Because he could.
Vegetarian Damian is important to me; rude Damian is a fact. At least he’s long past the stage of throwing Alfred’s food at the walls and declaring it slop.
This is a long chapter; the next one will be short, because I decided to prioritize natural breaks over standardized update lengths. Why was I even doing that to myself, it’s not like I have a comic-book or TV episode format to adhere to. On the upside, it will be soon! (This is less because it’s short than because it got largely written while I was rewriting this one to my satisfaction. But hey.) Your feedback is a wonderful thing! <3
Chapter 16: Twice Five and Six
This chapter goes out especially to Chiorikizunai88, mrpanada, checkerboardom, and most recently an anon ‘Guest,’ all of whom predicted this development.
The faint whirring of the automated mechanism that should be carrying the first and third Robins up from their spelunking excursion broke into Dick’s concentration, but he didn’t take his focus off what he was doing—which was giving Damian tips on his footwork and trying to make conversation about manatees, because he still felt bad about cancelling on him—until he realized what was wrong with the sound.
There was only one of it.
His attention went straight to the twin cables anchored around a stalagmite, but they were both as taut as ever. Nobody had fallen. His heartbeat slowed down again.
A small hand in a green glove shot over the rim of stone, and then as Dick watched the smaller Grayson hauled himself hand over hand up the cable, onto solid stone. He wasn’t wearing his harness anymore. Right behind him, using the machine, came Tiny Tim, but to judge by the determined way Dickie was climbing, his winch hadn’t malfunctioned, he’d just decided he didn’t need the thing. Which was, if Dick knew himself at all, the kind of decision he made when he wanted to burn off some emotion, or felt he’d been challenged.
So Nightwing was at least partially prepared when his mini-me was already glowering at him before he even made it over the edge of the cliff. “Really?” he demanded as he clambered. “You couldn’t stand in one place for ten minutes for us? In the name of science?”
Suddenly feeling a little more sympathy for Red Hood earlier than he’d ever expected to, Dick gave a shrug. In retrospect, Damian had probably drawn him away on purpose.
“Holy mackerel, Nightwing,” tiny-Grayson complained, folding his arms and raising his chin so he could look down his nose. “I get that you think we’re just kids who can’t do anything important, but this wasn’t a game, we were trying to quantify something!”
“How’d it go?” Dick asked, hoping to move on. Timmy was climbing up over the edge of the cliff now; he wasn’t giving Nightwing reproachful looks but he wasn’t really looking at him at all.
“Forty-three point one two meters,” Robin answered resentfully, finally vaulting over to the right side of the safety railing. “And forty-five seven for Tim. If you’d done what you were supposed to we’d know for sure whether they’re actually the same.”
“Sorry,” Nightwing said. He’d screwed up. Dickiebird was even right about the reasons—he’d been thinking about the rappelling project more as something to keep the kids busy than a serious data-gathering effort.
The Robin in pixie boots frowned. “Uh-huh.”
“Dick,” Tiny Timmy interceded, conciliatory, and not at all clear about which of them he was talking to. Which drew Nightwing’s attention to the fact that Red Robin was still standing at his assigned station by the anchor point, lips quirked, fully engaged in amusement at his expense. He’d let him wander off with Damian without saying anything, too. Spiteful grown-up brat.
And Little Jason hadn’t said anything either, which wasn’t like him and probably meant interference. Nightwing frowned at Red Robin, who twitched one shoulder in a shrug and tipped his head toward Damian. What was that supposed to mean.
Robin observed this exchange and frowned harder. “Hey, I’m talking to you. Am I already this annoying and people just haven’t told me? It’s not like you’ve contributed anything so far tonight except being a really bad babysitter.”
Well, owch. Worst part was it wasn’t totally inaccurate. Even if little-self did not grasp the importance of having a functioning babysitter in play.
“You shut up,” Damian ordered in a low, dangerous voice, and stepped closer like he was going to protect Dick from himself in an unusually literal way. “You’re at least fifteen years too early to be questioning my brother. He could take you apart.”
“Like that’s something to brag about when we’re the same person,” Little Dick scoffed. “Is that how you work? You go out into the city and you take people apart? Is Bruce okay with that?”
Damian stiffened even more at that, of course, because even as much as things had improved Damian’s idea of ‘appropriate force’ was still a recurring bone of contention between father and son. “I don’t see how it’s any of your business, Dickie.”
The little Robin’s mouth tightened, and his mask creased a little around his eyes. “It is while you’re wearing my family’s colors. Graysons have been flying in those colors for almost a hundred years. And he might’ve signed them away when he—stopped being Robin, but I haven’t. And…”
Dickie paused, here, his eyebrows knitted as he watched Damian look down at his own costume as if reevaluating it entirely, and then his mouth pulled into a hard line as Damian looked up and found Nightwing with his eyes, as though the Robin he’d just been antagonizing had ceased to exist.
“These are your family colors, Grayson?” he demanded.
Dick’s mouth felt oddly dry. Little self did him the completely unwelcome courtesy of allowing him to take the question. Nightwing did his best. “Well…yeah, I guess. I haven’t really thought about them that way in a while.” Had stopped…while Jason was still Robin, really.
It was one of the things he had let go of, putting himself back together in the aftermath of his second induction into the Church of Blood, getting past not just the brainwashing but the breakup-provoked emotional breakdown that had left him vulnerable to it, when he’d gotten back from outer space on what was still his worst birthday ever.
The Tamaraneans had dressed him in Robin colors for that entire awful visit to Starfire’s homeworld, because, way back when he’d given up Robin, before he’d adopted Nightwing, he’d talked to Starfire about the change, and mentioned the history of Robin’s color set, what it meant to him, and of course she’d remembered. She was from an old-school warrior culture; the traditions of a person’s house were of paramount importance.
And Damian had, to an extent, grown up in a similar environment. “I’m sorry,” Dick added, because he’d been upfront about his determination that Damian was his family and that he was going to teach him to be a good Robin no matter what, but asserting the bond that came from Dick’s having been adopted into Damian’s family was different from accidentally stealth-adopting Damian into his. “I should’ve thought to let you know.”
“Tt.” Damian’s lip curled in disgust, and he flicked his fingertips along the leaf-green spikes lining the opposite wrist, staring at his own glove like it was fascinating, instead of just an excuse not to look at anyone. “No. I wouldn’t have been appreciative.”
Dick felt himself melt like he usually did whenever Damian admitted to his own faults and shortcomings. It wasn’t just that it showed the kid was growing up, it showed he trusted Dick not to take advantage of his honesty. If they weren’t surrounded by other people he trusted less, the kid might even have said it without the deflection, but Dick still heard what he meant. It’s just as well I didn’t know from the start, because I would probably have hurt both of us by rejecting it, and you, and possibly even Robin. I’m glad that didn’t happen.
“Dami,” he said.
First-Robin made an annoyed little sound that might have been disgusted. “You couldn’t have stopped him from wandering off?” he asked Red Robin.
“I’m sorry, do you think of yourself as an easy person to control?” Tim answered, with a cool politeness that was surprising aimed at the little bird—but of course it was really meant for Nightwing.
“Hey,” Dick snapped, not about to take that lying down. “You could have reminded me at least.”
Red Robin didn’t bother using words to be scathing at the idea that in under a minute Dick could have forgotten he had a reason to stay put. “I assumed,” he said, “that you knew what you were doing.”
“Pretty sure you just wanted to get him in trouble,” disagreed Jaybird. “Not that I don’t get the urge, but we kind of helped screw up the experiment by not stopping him.” He looked hangdog and wretched as he turned to Dickiebird and Timmy, who was busily tidying up the harnesses and winding up Dickie’s cable, though not untying from the stalagmite. “I’m sorry, guys.”
“It’s not your fault,” said little-Dick, waving toward Red Robin. “You were just following this guy’s lead, right?” His eyes were uncomfortably piercing, and Nightwing fought the urge to squirm. “So what we learned here is I’m careless and Tim’s spiteful. Great science, guys. Well done.”
“Dick’s made it very clear I’m not to meddle in his decisions,” said Tim, the adult one of course, and if he’d been cool before he was glacial now.
Nightwing was certain, suddenly, that if he’d wandered off to do anything besides mentor Damian, Tim would have stopped him. But Tim never competed with Damian for his time. Always stepped aside. He’d thought it was just Tim being too mature for that kind of squabbling, and too self-sufficient to need him all that much. Apparently it was a matter of policy.
“Just because he doesn’t want to hear it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it,” pointed out Little-Tim. He was giving Red Robin a funny look; for the first time the two weren’t in sync at all.
Adult Tim shrugged. “Sometimes telling people things they don’t want to hear is even less popular than not telling them things they need to know.”
“If it matters, you keep saying it anyway,” argued the third Robin, so new to his costume, and Dick remembered the first time he’d met Tim all over again, insane stalker kid chasing him all over the Northeast on his spring break just to say please, Batman needs you, go home.
They’d taught him that dogged persistence in the face of rejection could get you made Robin. Of course thirteen-year-old Tim believed in being a pushy asshole.
“Sometimes that has consequences,” Red Robin shrugged. He was smiling slightly. “You learn to pick your battles.”
“And this wasn’t worth it to you?” Dickiebird demanded—not all that angry, but definitely annoyed.
“I don’t interfere between Nightwing and Robin,” Tim said.
“Oh my god,” Red Hood said, appearing from behind a stalagmite. “What is this, what did I come back to. Do we need to get Doctor Phil in here.”
“Jason,” Nightwing said—tired, and worried his craziest brother would make the mess bigger, and relieved that he was here to hopefully draw attention away from Dick’s screw-up even though he knew that was a shitty thing to think. In the corner of his vision, he saw small-Bruce give up on looking over Batman’s shoulder and move to join them. Well, that was just what this situation needed.
“I just want to understand,” the first Robin insisted. “Do you just not care? Are we just not real?”
Timmy and Jay both looked hurt at the thought, and Dick shook his head hard. “It’s not that,” he said. “I’m sorry, I messed up. It’s more like…you guys aren’t exactly my responsibility.”
“But he is.” Little-self had his arms folded and was tapping one toe as he looked between Nightwing and Damian. “He became Robin while you were Batman,” he recalled aloud. “Fine,” he decided. Gave Nightwing a look. “Don’t do it again.”
Nightwing kept himself from bristling. God, had he always been this bossy? Yes. Yes he had. Don’t lie to yourself, Dick.
Damian looked put out by Dick’s explanation of why he’d been able to make him forget about all his other obligations—good, maybe he’d be less eager to take advantage of it if he was thinking about it as ‘responsible for’ instead of ‘loved best’—but the others seemed to be chilling out, and as little-Bruce joined them he was greeted with smiles from three Robins (Dick, Jay, Timmy), though not Red Robin. Dick glanced over at adult Tim.
Tim was staring at Damian.
“Look,” he said sharply. Commanding and intent enough that everyone followed his stare at once. Dick gaped.
Behind Damian’s left shoulder, a point of blackness had unfurled. It took only a few seconds, as they stared, to go from a point to a wheel, brush the floor and go looming upward, unfolding itself until the room contained a second full-sized Batman, one who stood with his arms crossed, radiating an impression of absolute scorn.
Even the adult version of Bruce thought this was worth paying attention to—he must have been keeping an eye on them after all, or glancing after his mini-self, or maybe Tim’s command had drawn his attention too—and he slipped in beside Brucie to fill out the ragged semicircle they'd fallen into, just as their latest arrival finished appearing.
“Robin,” said the new Batman into their silence, booming and profoundly irritated and very faintly British, “if this is your idea of a therapeutic experience, be aware that your impending month of relegation to the suburban patrol route will be reduced by five days, if you end the simulation this instant.”
“Robin,” said the new Batman into their silence, booming and profoundly irritated and very faintly British, “if this is your idea of a therapeutic experience, be aware that your impending month of relegation to the suburban patrol route will be reduced by five days, if you end the simulation this instant.”
The hush lasted another heartbeat, and then:
“Damian?” said Nightwing. Because it couldn’t be anyone else, but…but. Past versions of his family members were strange and stressful enough, but even as he recognized their youngest sibling by mannerism and intonation, future Batman was infinitely stranger than any thirteen-year-old child, even Bruce. He’d known or been or at least known of all of them. This was something new.
(There went that bet. He should know better by now than to go up against Barbara. Maybe he’d just been hoping that if Damian didn’t turn out this big, it would make him less…Batman.)
The new Bat glanced at him. “Grayson,” he acknowledged flatly. His voice was even deeper than his father’s. He looked across the assembled doubled-family again, ending with his younger self, who was only just recovering from his slack-jawed surprise. Then he looked back at thirteen-year-old Bruce, as the element that most clearly did not fit the scene. “Interesting,” he proclaimed.
“Very,” young Bruce agreed. He had his arms folded in the exact same pugnacious way, and the resemblance between father and son was actually more marked and even more disturbing seen from this backwards angle.
Red Hood let out a disgusted noise. “Really, demon brat? You kept the whole con running? How old are you?”
“I’d forgotten just how much I disliked you at this age, Todd,” Damian-Batman observed, looking him up and down.
Little Dick laughed. He was the only one.
“Wait,” said Nightwing, feeling a hopeful little smile start, “does that mean you dislike him less, later?”
“He became marginally more tolerable over the years,” the adult Damian shrugged. “We might never have adequately avenged Grayson without him.”
“Me?” said the first Robin, preempting Nightwing’s (admittedly similar) reaction. Flicked his eyes from Nightwing to small Damian to large Damian, calculating relative ages and years elapsed. “…how long have I been dead?”
DamiBatman’s fists tightened. “Benjamin,” he enunciated carefully, looking at none of them, “my patience is running very short.”
“Okay,” cut in the second Robin in his red T-shirt, unmasked greenish eyes narrow, calculating, “so who here isn’t dead?”
“Me,” Damian growled. The chill of the Cave seemed to intensify.
“Two of us have apparently come back from the dead once already,” young Bruce observed, with the cool, objective challenge best available to someone with the least direct emotional involvement in the situation at hand, since everyone present was, to him, a stranger who only might exist someday. “Could it happen again?”
“We have discussed this already, Benjamin,” adult Damian responded, back to not quite addressing any of them, with the artificially loud voice of someone speaking to be overheard and a profound irritation. “Drake is not coming back.”
The older Tim, the one who actually knew Damian, twitched. Nightwing was guiltily enthralled, even as his stomach twisted. He didn’t want any of his brothers to die (again) until they were old and creaky and preferably grandfathers.
“It has been six months. You need to stop misusing the simulator this way,” Damian continued, with his bizarrely deep voice carrying an actual mentor-like tone that was completely lost on the unknown Robin who was not, in fact, listening. “Fighting his simulation was healthier than attempting to converse with it, and this particular scenario is…excessively schizophrenic. I will revoke your access codes.”
“Hey broody, get a clue,” interjected young Jason. “This is actually real. Your sidekick can’t hear you.”
“This time is not a simulation,” Red Robin affirmed, watching both Damians carefully. His little shadow was, if anything, watching even harder, but he did not speak. “I’m not dead yet.”
“Something weird is going on,” Dick joined in, since the future-Bat was still standing, looking expressionless. “And you’re the weirdest part yet. Help us out?”
“Tt,” said the grown Damian; it was a very different sound now than it had been when he was a child, or would be different then than it was now, while he still was a child, whatever the right combination of tenses was, but it was still a recognizable hard-T tut of disgust with the whole absurd world and especially the people in it. “Fine.” He fixed Dick with a very good Bat-glare. “Tell me something that neither Benjamin nor the computer would know, and I’ll consider engaging.”
Dick balked. “How am I supposed to know what you’ve told your Robin?” he protested. “I don’t even know who he is.”
“Benjamin is my younger brother. He is temperamental, manipulative, and excellent at gathering information, and if he expects to cajole any further compliments out of me in this context he is also delusional.”
“He doesn’t, because we actually exist,” put in young Tim, speaking at last and saying roughly what Dick would have, “but anything that’s stayed secret that long, do you really want Dick to say it in front of all of us?”
“Tt,” exclaimed thirteen-year-old Damian, more scornful than usual. “Don’t say anything private. Say something inconsequential.” He turned to his looming older-self and said, “I am fairly sure the vaquita porpoise will be extinct by the time I am your age, and that irritates me.”
What did you know, Dick thought, he’d actually been doing his homework.
“Uh,” he said aloud, realizing that any interaction that had happened in the Cave was out because it might lie recorded in the computer in twenty years, and he didn’t have Damian’s advantage of sharing private opinions. “That time I bought us both ice-cream in costume, when you got over being mad at me for being an idiot, you said you liked lemon better.”
“The first time we got through a joint patrol without fighting each other,” contributed Red Robin, “was the November you were twelve. Then you ruined it by trying to poison my Thanksgiving dinner.”
Bruce—adult Bruce, they really needed to hand out more names—scowled, which told Dick this was the first time he’d heard about that particular poisoning incident, too, and little Damian looked pissed at being ratted out, but Red Hood and Damian-Batman both looked amused, in their own ways. The displaced Robins all seemed somewhat taken-aback. (Little Bruce was outright alarmed. He really was the most normal person here, wasn’t he?)
“When you broke into my place with a crowbar a couple of years ago,” Red Hood threw in, with the jocular air of a man joining a party, “I told you you were al Ghul all the way.”
The time-travelling Batman raised a hand to say ‘stop,’ to Dick’s relief; that had been getting way too intense. “Very well,” he allowed. “Let us proceed on the assumption that you are not holograms. And Drake,” he added, looking toward the larger, non-time-travelling Tim with a detached dryness Dick was fairly sure was humour, though it was different from the way his Damian would tell a joke, “it’s not as if it was an especially dangerous poison.”
Read: the goal had been to expel Tim from the family meal with induced illness, not kill him; it was a sad truth that that did in fact represent an improved relationship. On that same note, it looked like Tim was going to outlive Dick, and apparently Damian’s Robin, at least, was going to miss him a lot.
Damian’s chess games with Hush came to mind, when he thought of this Benjamin kid trying to deal with Tim’s loss using some kind of futuristic holographic combat simulator, which they should totally install in the Cave yesterday. Despite that particular abuse potential. And apparently he was also the kind of kid who might plausibly spring a schizophrenic time-screwed simulation of his mentor’s dead family on him in the belief that it would be ‘therapeutic.’ (No wonder he got along with Tim.)
It wasn’t that Nightwing was entirely shocked to hear that almost his entire family was going to die in less than twenty-five years, but it still sent all kinds of chills through him. He suddenly had even more sympathy for little Jaybird, who was actually holding up really well. Well, he probably just intended to make sure this future never happened. From his perspective, it was still completely malleable.
Good attitude, really. If vulnerable to crashing and burning if it turned out he didn’t have that option after all.
Grown-Tim snorted. “I didn’t really want to test that,” he said dryly. What? Oh. Danger level of poison, right.
“Cautious as ever,” future Batman deadpanned.
Dick exchanged a look with Bruce. No, he wasn’t imagining it. Damian had sounded faintly pleased when he said that, pleased that Tim was the way he remembered him. He grinned. “You made friends!” he announced, trying not to sound too triumphant.
“Didn’t you?” he half-asked, half-challenged the younger Bat. (He was pretty sure this Damian was at least thirty-five, definitely older than Nightwing, but he was younger than Bruce, so.) Adult Tim seemed thoroughly startled by the idea, and Dami was giving his red-caped nemesis-slash-older-brother a dirty look at Dick’s suggestion. Timmy was doing a pretty good impression of an uninvolved observer, even when little Damian took a few seconds to eyeball him unpleasantly for good measure.
Adult Damian blew out an irritated sigh through his nose. “You cannot detest someone across the breakfast table for over twenty years without becoming accustomed to their presence,” he allowed.
“Aww,” crooned Dick, in a way he knew would communicate a cackle at Damian’s expense. “You haven’t changed.” He had, of course; his little hatchling was all grown up, and he felt a little bit cheated, getting spoilers like this. Then again, he was dead in the future. He’d never have gotten to see Damian at this age at all, if it weren’t for this.
“He makes you sound married,” little Jason informed little Tim, with outrageous waggling eyebrows.
“Todd,” DamiBat rebuked sharply, and then shot a really pretty good Bat-glower at Nightwing and Dickiebird, who had both snickered. Sounding entirely like himself in spite of the deep voice, he encompassed both of them in a longsuffering, “Grayson.”
Meanwhile small-Damian, who had spent those seconds gritting his teeth, now reintroduced himself to the conversation by clocking little Jason across the jaw, apparently finding the suggestion that he could ever be anything like married to Tim utterly unendurable. (Or more likely, being Damian, seizing the opportunity of the insult to take out his feelings on someone.) Jaybird hit back, targeting the gut instead of the face, and shook Timmy off when grabbed by the shoulder. Adult versions of Tim and Damian seemed content to let the boys duke it out, were both possibly smirking because they were assholes, and Bruce was just standing there. Both of Dick moved forward, but before they could interrupt the next exchange of blows, Red Hood had nipped in and grabbed both combatants by the hair.
Sheer surprise factor was the only reason adult Jason managed to conk the two Robins’ foreheads together before they lashed out at him, and then he skipped backward, out of immediate reach. “Knock it off,” he ordered, arms already folded again.
Nightwing realized his jaw had dropped, and hurriedly closed it.
“If we start fighting,” Red Hood declaimed blandly, “it’s going to turn into a giant Batman and Robin battle royale, and as much fun as that would be, I don’t really like the idea of having you magnetized to me for the next forever, kid. Talk about cramping a guy’s style. So we’re going to keep it cool and figure this out. We clear?”
He leaned back on his heels and cast a look around the cave with one eyebrow lifted high.
Without being sure where this had come from or what the Hood’s actual motives were or if he should be checking the Cave air for hallucinogens again, Dick still would bet anything that Jason was consciously banking on the fact that of all of them, only Dickiebird could possibly endure the embarrassment of coming off as a hothead compared to him.
Little Jason grumbled and folded his arms sulkily, while Dami looked lofty. “If we did devolve into general combat,” he said to his older self, “I assume you would be willing to form an alliance?”
Time-Travelling-Batman’s mouth curled in amusement. “You don’t wish to test yourself against me, Robin?”
“I would hope that I will have improved in two decades.” He shifted his gaze to Nightwing. “I trust I would also have your support, Grayson?”
Dick came closer to falling in the trap than he liked to admit, but stepped forward and ruffled Dami’s hair instead. “I’m on the side of everybody being okay, baby bird,” he said.
“Well, in light of that,” said Red Robin, suddenly brisk, “we should find out which of them has freedom of movement.”
Oh. Yeah, if they guessed wrong about that or otherwise didn’t correct for it, that could turn out potentially catastrophic, as the nightmare scenario of Dick pulling his younger self over the railing had emphasized.
“I want to rerun all the distance tests from the top,” said little Dick. “Also, can we get energy readings off that spot like now?”
He gestured to where BatDami was still standing, and this was such a good point that everyone had somehow failed to consider in the shocking aftermath of every previous arrival that it didn’t even seem weird or rude when Batman broke out of the semicircle in a swirl of cape and started issuing rapid orders. “Damian, stay still. Both of you. Red Robin, Nightwing, get the handheld scanners from cave B9. Don’t forget radiation. Jason,” directed toward the younger version, “come help me for a moment.”
It was rude and abrupt and an immense relief. Batman was bossing them around again. The world was a little less out of control.
“What do I do?” small Bruce asked. He seemed a little ambivalent about taking orders from his older self, but he obviously didn’t like not having a role.
Batman paused for a second. “Help Dick and Tim,” he directed, and strode back toward his chart. Little-Jason glanced around at his brothers, gave an expressive what-can-you-do shrug, and followed.
The episode Jason referenced, like other bits and pieces I've tucked in, actually happened in the Nu52, which this story as a whole does not. XD I am amused by all the speculation about Damian's Robin because I somehow failed to anticipate it.
Chapter 18: Thrice Six
Realized this update is late again. Whoops! Sorry. Main culprit is holidays, but just as much my vision problems are getting worse again and I have trouble using screens for extended periods, which does not look likely to improve in the foreseeable future.
Chapter 19 shouldn’t take long, though; a lot of it was originally going to be in chapter 18 before a bat got chatty. ;]
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
What Bruce wanted from Jason turned out to be taking a blood sample, then scanning him into some computer modelling software that would compare him to older data from when he’d really been thirteen. Also known, from Jason’s point of view, as the present. Jason kept opening his mouth to make a smart remark or a funny observation, and then thinking better of it. Or chickening out. Depending on how you wanted to look at it.
Bruce’s voice sounded the same as ever, if by ‘ever’ you meant ‘on days when everything sucked,’ as opposed to the good days when they could sometimes crack a constant string of jokes back and forth for hours. He didn’t sound cold or distant, really, or angry, but he did seem kind of sad.
“So, do I pass?” Jason asked at last, when the scanning seemed over, crooked smile on his face to show it was a joke.
“The computer will need to run its simulations for a while,” Bruce said, perfectly aware it wasn’t a joke and not playing along. Jason bit his tongue, hard.
He knew—he’d gotten a hug, he was officially the most reassured person here—that Bruce cared. His older self had to have hurt Bruce so bad, and he was doing it on purpose, too. Why even. Jason got pissed at Bruce all the time, admittedly, but it wasn’t like he actually thought everything in the world that was bad was because of him. “It’s not your fault either,” he blurted.
Bruce froze. Let his hands fall away from the keyboard. “Jason,” he said.
“You told me it wasn’t my fault. Maybe…you don’t even think it’s his. And I don’t know what happened, or…why it says ‘soldier,’ but….” He swallowed. “If you gave me orders that got me killed, that still isn’t your fault. I chose this. I wouldn’t let you get rid of me.”
The hands had formed fists. “Jason, I didn’t—”
“You didn’t give me orders?”
“I should have made sure,” Bruce said. “You weren’t even supposed to be there. I should have been firm. I should never have expected you to hold back for your own safety when there was someone you felt responsible for in danger. I knew you better than that.”
Oh God he’s going to cry. He’s Batman. He can’t cry. Oh God.
“Are you saying I did something stupid to get myself killed and you think it’s your fault for not making me listen? You’ve never been able to make me do anything!”
The strangled little sound Bruce made might have wanted to be a laugh. “No. I never have, have I.”
Jason nodded. “You’re actually really bad at making anybody do anything they don’t want to. Unless they’re scared. That’s why you have to trick the bad guys into thinking you don’t have any limits on what you’ll do to them.” And Jason felt a lurch in his gut because as he said it the Red Hood finally made sense to him, and he rushed on instead of letting himself get sick about that. “You do better when you’re not trying to force. You know? Just…when you give people chances. You can’t control our choices, you know? But, like, the felon employment rehabilitation program Wayne-E was doing…is that still…?”
“Yes,” Bruce said, once it was clear that Jason had let the question trail off. “It’s ongoing. Recidivism is low.”
“That’s great.” Yup, just give a criminal a steady job and he can sort himself out and go straight-arrow, seven times out of ten. Unless he gets killed. Then all bets are off. Shit, if he didn’t watch it he was going to cry. “Bruce…”
“Don’t say that. Please.”
Bruce stared into the depths of his keyboard. “What do you want me to say?”
“Something…good. Not regret. But don’t lie to me.”
Bruce turned his head to look at Jason again, then came over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Jason,” he said carefully. “I was always very proud of you.”
He let out his breath in a rush. “Thanks.” He reached up and patted Bruce’s wrist. “You too.”
Batman smiled, a little, and let his hand fall. “Would you send Tim over next?” he asked, and it was dismissal. Well, okay. Jason glanced over at where both Tims, both Dicks, and small-Bruce were splitting two people’s worth of work between five of them, fluttering around the pair of Damian. The older one was standing like a vaguely sardonic wall, but the younger version was pouting. Well. He probably considered it a scowl. Tim and Tim were of course working well together like the creepy brain-twins they were.
“Which one?” he asked, and Bruce passed a hand over his face.
Jason nodded. Hesitated. At least now he knew his death was heroic, even if it was also stupid. “Hey,” he asked. “Did you—talk to yourself, earlier? Seriously, I mean? He seemed—pretty freaked out by all this.”
Bruce frowned, but it was faint, and not particularly forbidding. “He’ll handle it.”
Jason shook his head. “You gotta stop being so hard on yourself, old man.”
He split before Bruce had a chance to come up with a retort, but he saw an involuntary smile twitch at the wordplay. That was a win, even if it had looked kind of like it hurt.
“Hey, Timmy,” he hailed as he drew close. “If you can tear yourself away from bein’ totally supernumerary here, Batman wants you.”
Bruce watched Tim come over with a touch of trepidation, but when the boy arrived he just offered his arm for the needle, then as Bruce placed a tiny bandage over the puncture asked where he should stand for the scans.
“Is there anything you wanted to ask me,” Bruce asked at last, after nearly a minute of silence except for the computer’s whirr as the bars of light scrolled across the patient Robin presenting various angles as directed. Tim had always been like this, he was remembering. His first two sons had been inclined to chatter, though rarely especially longwinded unless highly provoked. Once Tim got started on a subject he could talk almost anyone relentlessly into the ground until he felt his position adequately represented, and he quipped in battle almost as much as the others had, but if he had nothing in particular to say (and wasn’t falling over himself to make a good impression, Bruce remembered that as one of the things his third Robin had grown out of) he tended to prefer to remain quiet.
Even so, the silence felt like a judgment now. As though the young Tim had given up on him even more than the adult, and decided he had nothing to say to Bruce ever again. Bruce knew he was projecting, and doing so mostly because it had helped so much just now when Jason finally found his tongue, but he still had to ask. Offer.
Small-Tim shook his head. “I think you have enough to deal with right now,” he said, calm and already a little bit dry, even only a few months into his career.
Bruce felt a stab, because why was Tim forever trying to protect him.
“I’ll ask someone,” the boy went on, and Bruce realized that by someone he meant himself. The only person Tim had ever been entirely comfortable relying on, he sometimes felt. “If I have questions. For now let’s just focus on the case.”
“It’s not that I’m in a rush to get rid of you,” Bruce said. It came out more stiff than awkward, at least.
Tim actually smiled. “Yes you are,” he corrected. “It’s okay, each of us wants to get home, after all. And if we don’t really exist, I’d prefer to know as soon as possible.”
So he could start adjusting. That was Tim all over, wasn’t it? He didn’t expect good things to happen, but he tended to be in a hurry to start dealing with bad ones, which was its own kind of optimism. Confidence in your own success. Bruce approved and agreed, in theory, but had never had quite Tim’s dedication to the approach, not when it came to personal matters, would as easily evade and delay a reckoning for as long as he could as rip his own wounds open to get it over with.
They were so real. Even if they didn’t strictly exist, they had to be more than phantoms.
“If you’re sure,” Bruce said, because it didn’t seem appropriate to insist please, at least one question. Ask me something because I don’t know what else I can do for you.
Maybe Tim understood anyway, or maybe he just gave in to temptation. “Actually,” he said. The bars of light from the scanner flickered over his face. “Since it’s over now. And you can give a thorough review. Was I a good Robin?”
Bruce remembered Stephanie, when she had been (as they both believed) dying, of wounds that were as much his fault for negligence as hers for idiocy, asking a similar question. He’d told her yes, couldn’t have said anything else in that moment, and hadn’t truly been lying, but hadn’t exactly been honest, either. That had lain between them ever since her return, that dishonesty, the ambivalence of her place in this Cave that he’d been wrong to bring her into and more wrong to bar her from, and most wrong of all to do so ineffectively. This answer might have as few consequences as he’d expected that one to have, but he couldn’t bring himself to answer carelessly.
But for all the tension that lay between him and his third son these days, for all his niggling suspicion that Red Robin was always only a day from breaking down and throwing away everything that made them heroes, for all the failures and betrayals Tim could not forgive him, for all the distance Bruce had never quite bridged because he was used to other people doing all the reaching-out and Tim had had his own parents until it was Bruce’s fault they were dead, there was only one answer now, either.
(It hadn’t been his decision for Tim to stop being Robin. If it had been left to the two of them, Bruce suspected he never would have, not as long as he could still fight.)
“You were magnificent.”
Tim smiled, thirteen and so new to this life and asking so little, and as Bruce started the last scan he could tell himself he’d at least done something right.
Dick was relieved when they ran out of scans to take of the apparition site, and not just because Damian was getting antsy having to stand still while Tim moved around him freely and small-Tim was off talking to his father alone. Mostly because of that, though. It was the kind of antsy that meant he was going to have a total failure of judgment soon.
Damian really didn’t like the other Robins having Bruce to themselves, which was awfully possessive even for him. Was he afraid that his age was the only reason Bruce had accepted him? (He wouldn’t be wrong, exactly. Bruce had always been weak to helplessness, and for all his vicious lethality Damian at ten had been so vulnerable, once you knew how to look.) And did that mean he was afraid the time-displaced Robins would usurp him?
That was probably exactly what he was afraid of. Damian had been presented to his father as fait accompli twice over, first as family and then as partner; he might insist that being real family elevated him above them all and even be partly right, but it was also a fact that he was the only one whose presence in the Cave was not proof positive that Bruce had at some point actively wanted him there.
Realizing that Damian had the humility, or at least the realism, to see it that way had explained a lot about the way he kept trying to prove himself long after it should have been unnecessary, even after Bruce had stopped distrusting him for his mother's sake. In the present, Dick laid a calming hand on his actual-youngest brother’s shoulder as they packed up. Even if Bruce had a new favorite Robin, Damian wouldn’t lose his place in the family. Or with Dick. Nightwing knew he could be unreliable, as a person, but he hoped people at least trusted him to keep caring about them more reliably than Batman.
(Though, to be fair, he was pretty sure Bruce never actually stopped caring. He just had other priorities than whether he cared. That was more than bad enough.)
He noticed Bat-Damian looking politely away from his hand on his Robin’s shoulder with traces of a smile. He wished he didn’t notice the way Big-Tim emphatically did not pay attention to the gesture, briskly answering all of small-Bruce’s questions as he coiled the leads of the last sensor back into their case. It was so annoying. He’d never intended his choice of Robin to be a choice of brother, and he had thought Tim had come around to understanding that, accepting it. But maybe what he’d accepted was that Dick had made his choice and he’d have to settle for second or nothing. Why did people always want these kinds of things ranked?
He’d never really understood being asked who his best friend was either, as a kid. All his friends were the best, right? Best friend usually went to whoever he’d spent the most time with lately without getting into a fight. (If that person was a guy. Girls had a higher best-friend threshold for some reason?) Not that he’d often answered the question with any honesty, since the kind of people who asked were rarely the kind of people cleared to know about his actual social life.
But he’d caught his small-self looking at Bruce like a broken puzzle with pieces missing a little bit ago, and now he thought maybe he could understand best friends, in retrospect. It was the person you counted on to think of you before anyone else. He’d always had Bruce for that, for over ten years, until he hadn’t.
He wanted to stop figuring his own feelings out, please. He hated perspective. He hated emotions. Could somebody attack the city. Just a small emergency, please.
Failing that, he gave the Batcave another survey, checking up on everyone and trying not to analyze their team dynamics too much; it wasn’t his sole responsibility to catch and resolve any issues. He wasn’t even team leader here. (They were not, technically, a team.)
The place had always seemed much bigger when there were only three or four people in it. Or one or two.
Red Hood had gone back to the worksurface he’d used earlier and was putting his guns back together. Nightwing didn’t catch him loading any, and he left them lined up neatly once they were reassembled instead of hiding them all over his body, so he made the judgment call to let him have his coping mechanism, as threatening as it felt. Bruce must have decided the same thing, because no one was interfering.
Older Damian stopped by the table on his way back from grabbing a bottled water from the fridge Alfred kept stocked well away from the ones for chilled samples and reagents, but whatever he said it didn’t seem to make Jason any more tense, so that was fine.
Dickie had dragged Brucie and Older Tim to…recover the metric cables from the harnesses. Huh. Presumably he had a plan. As soon as Timmy came back, sending Dickie scampering off to get prodded and measured by Batman, Red Robin was sent to the top of the stairs to hold onto one cable at the point marked zero, which left small-Tim to stretch the cable across the Cave until he wound up at the farthest corner of the carpark zone—he had to climb on top of a Batmobile to get an uninterrupted line, but was able to call out that he was exactly fifty yards away. Data reproduced.
Brucie conferred briefly with third-Robin before hurrying over to Red Robin—right, Timmy’s comm wasn’t compatible with the current system, Tim had mentioned that. Neither would the others be—probably not even future-Damian, the system had probably changed again by then. They should deal with that now, just in case there was an emergency. He looked down at the brother who’d stuck to his side when the group atomized.
“Come help me get a set of comms set up for the newbies?” he asked.
They grabbed a box—the things got broken and lost all the time—and then sat down to program the appropriate ID codes in. Normally this was a near-instant process of cloning from the main computer, but each Robin needed their own identity for tracking purposes, as did the spare Batman, and even little Bruce since it only seemed fair to put him in the loop, too. Dick tagged him ‘Little Red Wagon’ in the system. For security reasons. And because of the face Damian made. Red Hood’s was the easiest, they already had codes for him.
The message-runner system seemed to work well enough to get the Tims through a series of tests in the meantime, and at least it was helping small-Bruce feel useful.
Apparently if Red Robin held the measuring tape flat against his chest with one hand while he reached out toward Tiny Tim with the other, the Robin on the other end of the line gained an extra sixty-eight centimeters.
Everyone in the Cave then discovered along with the experimenters that if grown-Tim reached out and let Timmy reach the full extension of the tether, then pulled back, he could yank his younger self straight off the top of the Batmobile with no more effort than it took to move his arm. If he hadn’t been watching, he wouldn’t even have known anything besides folding his arm had happened.
Timmy fell into a forward roll at the yank and landed without hurt, but he’d been ready for it. They definitely should not mess around with that distance limit. Damian gave a scornful sniff as Timmy popped up again and climbed back on top of the Batmobile.
“Pretty sure the car can take it, Dami,” Nightwing said.
“I’ve finished,” Damian answered, disconnecting the last earpiece he’d been working on from its tiny data jack.
“One second…me too.” Dick gave his former partner his best smile. “Okay, now go meet up with, uh, Brucie,” it felt stupid as hell calling him that out loud but with Dickie and Timmy already decided on it was the obvious thing, “and the two of you get these handed out. Then make sure he knows how to use his.”
Damian gave him a sour look, either for forcing him to interact with his thirteen-year-old father or for the make-work mission, but he took the box and made a beeline for his fellow Wayne heir. Nightwing looked after him, hoping this had been a good idea.
The resulting solitude didn’t last long.
It’s funny, Bruce and Dick share this problem of people being drawn to them and competing for their approval and affection and never getting quite what they want, and then resenting them for the resulting emotional pain, but they engage with the problem in such extremely different ways it doesn’t seem like a shared trait at first. Y'know?
Chapter 19: Four By Five Less One
Hah! Less than a month this time, did it!
Warning this chapter for Damian talking about religions he doesn’t believe in? I don’t think he’s particularly offensive, especially for Damian, but he definitely lacks reverence, so be advised.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Adult Damian didn’t make an effort to sneak up on Nightwing but he was soundless anyway, and if Dick had been distracted enough and looking the other direction, he might have missed him until he spoke. As it was, he had time to nod in greeting, note that he’d finished or at least ditched the water bottle, and turn into him a little to show his hugest little brother he wasn’t intruding.
(He noticed his own body language more in this moment than he was used to, because he was torn between the idea that he was reacting to Damian and the idea that he was reacting to Batman, and the conflict was getting decision-making kicked up into the front of his mind. He hoped he didn’t look self-conscious as a result, but Damian for all his training wasn’t Cass, so he probably didn’t.)
At least he’d taken the cowl down. It wasn’t that people who knew them would have actually confused the two Bats—Damian was noticeably younger, in good light, and the suit designs were different enough it didn’t take a new round of detective work to figure out who you were talking to every time—but it still helped. Damian had grown into his nose, Dick noticed; it was still lower and broader than Bruce’s but had lost that snub look that made his baby brother in unguarded moments look years younger than he really was.
“Can we talk?” this younger Batman asked. Not tentative, or plaintive, but still a question, still holding out the option of refusal when he could have demanded, and as he turned a little more toward that note of question Dick wondered why.
Future Damian was a few years older than Dick, unless he missed his guess. Mid-thirties. Somehow that made this much weirder than if he’d still been at least a little younger, or even old enough to make Dick feel like the kid. He wondered if it would have been strangest of all to be the same age exactly.
“Of course,” Nightwing answered. “Privately?”
Shrug. “This will do.”
No one was in easy hearing range, and everyone was visible. Considering they both had kids magnetized to within fifty yards of them, that probably was the best they could expect. There were soundproofed cave chambers and the Batmobiles to retreat to if it had been really secret, but apparently it wasn’t. This was kind of a relief.
Damian was looking out across the Cave, too. Not focusing particularly on anything—on the other Batman taking scans of the other Grayson, or the Tims with supervision from Brucie and Dami currently determining that little Tim’s end of the tether measured not from the nearest point on his body but from his center of mass. (If they wanted to reproduce all the tests they’d come up with on every duo for proper scientific rigor, it was going to take forever.)
“Is it different?” Dick asked, since Damian didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get down to whatever he was here to talk about.
The future Batman didn’t pretend not to understand. “A little. We’ve had to update most of the equipment. And I added a platform that runs out that way.” He gestured toward the abyss little Dick was so keen on having people jump into. “We had a tunnel-based incursion.”
He’d kept that preference for short sentences. Stacked end to end, but each one complete in itself. Every time he elaborated more, it was a little surprising, and when he stopped without giving further details, that wasn’t. This Damian was—more settled, somehow. He’d grown into more of himself than just what was destined by genes.
“I’ve been trying to remember exactly what it looked like when I was thirteen,” Nightwing told him. To get a sense of Dickiebird’s perspective, at first, but then just for the sake of it. “I’m not sure I can.”
“There must be pictures,” Damian said.
“Well. Yeah. I could find out, I don’t actually need to remember. But it bothers me, all the same.” That he couldn’t.
Damian shrugged. “Change that happens slowly creeps up on you.”
Dick grinned. “Is it weird how different little-you is?”
“A little. I’m more annoying than I remembered, too.”
Dick laughed. “Well, you did have a different perspective back then,” he pointed out. And Damian nodded.
Didn’t say anything else, and Dick wasn’t sure if he should. It had seemed like Damian had something specific to say, when he came over, but—maybe he just wanted to talk? Dick was dead, to him. He probably missed him. If his parents came back from the dead temporarily he’d want to talk to them, wouldn’t he? Even if he didn’t have anything particularly to say?
Well, maybe not. There’d be some hesitation, though he thought he’d go for it. It would hurt either way. He’d been so much younger when he lost them than Damian was even now, though; eight-year-olds didn’t have conversations the way adults or even teenagers did. It was different. The way he wasn't looking at him was—weird, though. In character for Damian trying to have an awkward conversation, except that like Bruce Dami liked to have a pretext for where his attention was instead of just not looking at you.
“I’ve studied religion,” the adult Damian remarked quietly.
Dick blinked, thrown by the non-sequitur, and Damian continued, “It’s a common and powerful motivator for many people, but it was never encouraged in any household to which I belonged. I couldn’t predict enemies I couldn’t understand. I did my reading.”
“Always knew there was a brain in there somewhere, Dami,” Dick teased the black-cloaked colossus, and Damian finally looked around, at that, met Dick’s eyes with his always-dramatic ones, like Bruce’s set under Talia’s eyelids, drama now somehow enhanced by the beginnings of crow’s-feet at their corners, and holding a not-quite-familiar expression. Amused. Bleak.
“Do you know the story of the sacrifice at Mount Moriah?”
Dick frowned. It seemed vaguely familiar, but there were so many religions in the world with so many sacrifice-related stories, and this wasn’t the sort of area his detective skills were called on for very often. He was about a thousand percent more likely to desperately need all the words to various nursery rhymes off the top of his head, than to be able to parse religious references without being able to look anything up. “I don’t think so.”
“It was Abraham’s great test of loyalty from his God,” said Damian, and oh, now Dick recognized the reference, and felt his stomach twist. Damian continued, “To sacrifice what he loved most, and make a burnt offering. The Hebrews wrote, and the Christians in turn accepted, that it was their mythical progenitor, Isaac, who was to die. Precious Isaac, unexpected post-menopausal child of Abraham’s beloved wife.”
“Can I just get a recording of you saying ‘menopausal’ and play it on an infinite loop?”
Damian leveled an actually pretty creditable batglare, to which Dick raised both hands in innocence, to show he’d stop trying to wreck Damian’s broody atmosphere. “If we are both finished being children? Thank you.”
They were both finished being children. That was…sort of the problem. But Dick shut up and looked attentive, and hopefully not like an idiot.
“Conversely the Arabs,” said Damian, with great deliberation, “especially Muslim Arabs who have the most reason to care, have maintained that the required sacrificial victim was Ishmael, their mythical forebear, Abraham’s firstborn, though born to a slave.” His eyes flicked up to Dick’s face, then cut away, to land unfocused and abstracted on the far wall of the cave. “I’ve always thought it was remarkable, that argument. Both sides wanting their blood to be the one that was betrayed, bound and laid before an altar as their father took up his knife, so long as it meant they were the chosen, the most precious, the best-beloved.”
“I thought of that. When we were all held captive by an enemy who demanded that Father choose which of us should die, to save the rest. Everyone told him to sacrifice themselves. You said you were the oldest, and it was your responsibility. Brown said she’d never really been one of his, so he ought to pick her. Cain saying me, because I’m not afraid. And Drake, keeping up a constant stream of logical arguments for why he was the expendable one. Even Todd said it was only fair if it was him because he was living on borrowed time anyway, even though anyone could hear how frightened he was that Father would throw him away.”
Damian was silent for a second, but Dick couldn’t have spoken a word at gunpoint. “I told him to choose me, too,” the Batman of the future said. “But I couldn’t think of a reason.” His mouth twisted.
“Damian,” Dick heard himself say, firm but gentle, like he was talking to his actual little brother and not this mountain of a man whose mask was locked in a perpetual glower. “There was no way it could have been you. You were the baby. In no universe was there any reason good enough for you to die in place of one of us.”
“I was fifteen. And there was no reason in any universe that it would have been acceptable for Father to sacrifice any of us.” Dick’s breath caught at the conviction Damian put into that. He’d done it. He’d succeeded, or somebody had, because here was Damian all grown up and he understood. Right and wrong weren’t unfocused concepts he made faintly bewildered and often half-hearted stabs toward anymore, feeling his way half with his heart and half by guesswork. He was good, in a real, adult way. And family was something he was comfortable extending to the whole group of them. “There was no adequate justification, but everyone managed to invent one anyway.
“Everyone but me. I couldn’t think of an argument. Only about Isaac and Isma’il.”
His brother gave a sharp huff that sounded impatient. “Father worked out a way to sacrifice himself instead of any of us, of course.”
“Of course,” Dick echoed, and his gut clenched. It was a better death than crippling Darkseid with a salvaged god-killing bullet, and a worse one, all at once, and they couldn’t lose Bruce again so soon. Two years. He wasn’t young anymore but he wasn’t old yet, not really. They couldn’t lose him again this soon.
All Dick wanted for his father, he realized, was for him to live long enough to admit he needed to retire. He’d find a way to stay relevant. If Barbara could be Oracle from a wheelchair Bruce could come up with something to do from the Cave. Especially if they could all be there for him.
Bruce wasn’t the only one who’d started taking for granted that he would die in the suit, and Dick realized abruptly that he hated it.
“I’m sorry,” said Damian, and he sounded old, suddenly, even though he couldn’t be that much older than Dick.
“Don’t be,” Dick said. “It’s…good to have some warning. I don’t suppose you could tell me who it was, or how they caught us?”
“Someone new,” Damian said, with all his father’s aggravating cageyness. “And—they could only get to us when we were alone.”
“That’s all I’m getting?”
Damian shrugged. It seemed pretty late for worrying about preserving the timeline, so maybe he’d just hit his personal sharing limit. Dick sighed, decided to let it go for now. It might not matter, after all. Future Damian might not even be real, let alone from the actual future that was going to happen. He was going to start to step down solo patrols as they approached Damian’s fifteenth birthday anyway. He’d tell Bruce why if necessary.
For now, this conversation was stalling out. Dick cocked his head. “You wanted to ask me something.”
Damian paused very noticeably. “…yes.”
“It’s a favor.”
Damian just stood there, and Dick asked after a few seconds, half-joking, “Is it that bad?”
“No, not really.” The third Batman sighed, a longsuffering sound with actual voice rather than just a gust of air. “We’ve all been brought to this time. If only one timeline survives, it’s most likely to be either yours, as the centrepoint of the event, or the chronologically earliest. The latter, if it comes to pass, will undoubtedly change our family beyond recognition, but…if it is you. Richard.”
Dick swallowed, because Damian never called him by his first name, and having Damian’s familiar eyes staring down at him with every bit of intensity they’d ever held when the boy was his Robin, simultaneously the brother he knew and a man he knew not at all, just made it worse. “What do you need?”
“Find my Robin. Get him away from my mother.” Before she can hurt him, he didn’t say but his eyes said for him.
And really, that didn’t answer many of the lingering questions about this Benjamin person. Was he Damian’s half-brother through Talia, or unrelated but adopted after being saved from her, or had Bruce managed to inadvertently give Damian a half-sibling whom Talia then kidnapped, for whatever creepy reason?
And why was Damian so certain it was still going to happen, considering his tone of voice earlier had made it clear his Robin was under twenty in his time, and therefore currently not born yet? (Which…would make it difficult for him to be Bruce’s, but not quite impossible.)
Dick wasn’t sure which of these things he should ask, but he’d need to ask some if he was going to live up to the request. “I promise,” he said, first of all, and Damian…acknowledged that with a brusque nod and turned and walked away.
If Bruce had done that, Dick would have been furious. Right now, he was just…frustrated. He’d promised. If Damian gave him no more to work with, well. He’d just do the legwork himself.
…actually, he’d make normal-Dami help. Long range vengeance on future Batman.
For now, Big Damian had walked straight over to Bruce and the Batmans were currently conferring, and little Bruce was in animated conversation with the three Robins that weren’t Damian, and Red Robin seemed to have fallen into an earnest discussion with Red Hood. Little-Damian, either abandoned by Brucie or scorning the company of the other small birds, or both, was drifting toward that last pair, which sounded like an explosively terrible addition, and it was too late to head him off before he got there.
Nightwing put some spring in his heel and headed over that way to play mediator, and wound up dragging all three of them over to the larger Robin group, which promptly fractured into a cluster of small conversations.
The present time’s Robin grumbled. “I wasn’t going to start an argument, Grayson. Just so you know.”
Dick ruffled Damian’s hair. He was too tall these days for it to be quite as natural a gesture as when he’d been ten, but not tall enough for it to be weird. Not yet.
“Yeah, okay,” he said. This kid’s grandfather had seen him as a body to be taken over. An asset to the House of al Ghul. Spare flesh. Had tried to unmake everything Damian was to live again. Their family, the one they shared, would never do that to him. Say what you wanted to about the crazy risks they took. Never. And Damian knew that.
Dick loved that Damian trusted him, trusted them. Especially when they’d had to earn it. That made it real.
“—can tell the old man is off his game because he hasn’t tried to impound my stuff yet,” Red Hood was telling Dickie, who seemed to find that logic funny.
“—think it would take to get to the bottom of the cave?” small-Bruce asked Jaybird.
“I meant to ask you,” Timmy murmured to Red Robin, flicking a glove at small-Damian’s back, “if he’s five, what happened to number four?”
Halfway across Gotham, on a tenement roof, Stephanie Brown had just whirled around at the sound of an awed gasp where no person should have been.
Finally! I originally planned to stay in Dick’s POV until it was time to switch away from the Cave at this point, but that was getting annoying, so I changed my mind. This is part of the reason it took at least twice as long to get here as it should have, but I’m not sorry.
Chapter 20: Even A Score
Halfway across Gotham, on a tenement roof, Stephanie Brown had just whirled around at the sound of an awed gasp where no person should have been.
The gasper was small and wearing a knapsack, and had two bright blonde pony-tails rising behind her head. Steph’s mouth quirked with fond déjà vu for when that had been her, slum kid with few real prospects and dreams as big as the sky, and her eyes would have gotten that delightedly wide at seeing Batgirl on her roof.
Which had been only a few blocks north of here, come to think of it.
“Omigod,” the little girl squeaked, widening Steph’s grin. “You’re really real.”
“Sure am,” she agreed. If the girl had been a few years younger she would have gone closer and crouched down a little; the impulse was still there, but she wasn’t really enough taller for it to make sense. Maybe if she…
She executed a flip over the little fan’s head and landed on the low chimney just behind her. “You’re pretty sneaky, kid,” she said, falling into a friendly crouch as the kid spun around, a grin of her own starting. Gotham’s latest Batgirl for her part was still impressed by the stealth that probably wasn’t just her failing to pay attention. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, I just—I don’t even know what I’m—Uh. I mean, I’m Stephanie Brown.”
Steph reared back. For one second she told herself it was a coincidence—neither of her names was uncommon, and there were lots of blonde girls and slum girls and Batgirl fangirls (though she’d always liked Robin better; there hadn’t actually been an active Batgirl, when she was that age; Barbara had quit a year or two earlier)—but no, she couldn’t deny it now it had been said. That was her pointed chin and her big brown Bambi eyes, and that backpack, she remembered that backpack. And that shirt, a hand-me-down from a family her mom knew whose youngest daughter was a year older than Steph, with purple flowers machine-embroidered around the collar. She’d worn that shirt roughly once a week in middle school, until the flowers started to look grey from washing and her boobs got too big to fit inside.
Squinting, she reached out and poked the little girl in the shoulder. Fabric felt like fabric and flesh felt like flesh, warm and solid, with a little give before you hit bone.
Real. Well, solidly occupying three-dimensional space, at least.
What the frigging hell, but she couldn’t spend too much time wondering that because the little Stephanie-being had not-quite-flinched at the sudden poking, and was looking nervous, in a tooth-gritted, stubborn sort of way.
Steph straightened up. “I think you’d better come with me.”
There was a chance the kid was just a really, really good solid-light hologram, but those usually had a range limit from the transmitter, and no matter what the situation really was, this wasn’t the place to deal with it.
Now the kid was clutching at her backpack strap in badly-concealed tension, jaw squared as if for a blow. “This isn’t,” she began, looking wretched.
Batgirl felt a pang. “It’s nothing to do with your father, Stephanie,” she said. It was a weird feeling, having pity on yourself, especially when you weren’t sure she was real.
Wince. “Oh. You…know about that, then.” The embarrassment was obvious, but the anger Steph remembered feeling showed around the edges, too.
Her old man had been in jail then, hadn’t he? He’d gotten out the summer before sophomore year, said he was a changed man, going straight, and she’d mostly believed him until she found out what complete bullshit it was. And then Spoiler had been born.
“Yes,” was all she said. “But don’t worry, Steph. Nobody cares that you’re Cluemaster’s daughter.” That was true, too, and until just now she’d lost sight of how much that would once have meant to her. Stephanie Brown had totally overwritten Arthur Brown; she had become the primary entry for the family; she was the important one. Her father was a sad, foolish, selfish little dead man, and Steph mattered more.
It had been a long time since she’d been the girl driven to do anything to prove she wasn’t like him.
Something to be grateful for. She made a point of noticing those.
She’d wondered once if she’d have been more or less furious with her father if he’d been less worthless at being a bad guy, but just trying to imagine being related to the kind of villain people took seriously, like Two-Face or someone, had made her kind of sick to her stomach, so she’d stick with the world as it was, thanks.
Little Steph had brightened perceptibly, though she was still wracked with nerves and trying to seem cool and collected, and Steph couldn’t help smiling at her. “Come on.”
The girl cleared the four-foot gap to the next building without difficulty, which wasn’t a surprise because she’d been running roofs in this neighborhood since she was seven. At thirteen, she could even handle narrow streets. They’d have to descend to ground level if their route took them across anything wider than Boughton, though; she was pretty sure this version of her didn’t have the technique yet to use the lights to cross that, and the kid definitely didn’t have a grapple-gun on her. Steph was hesitant to offer to carry her while there were reasonable alternatives, just in case it was some kind of complicated trap she didn’t understand, and also because thirteen was big enough to be a serious hassle to haul.
Seriously. She’d only gotten about three and a half inches taller between thirteen and seventeen, when she’d stopped growing. It was only mild consolation that Tim wasn’t that much bigger than her; most of the other guys she knew were giants. Half the women were giants. Though she’d met Big Barda once, and that really made you adjust your sense of scale.
“Call out if I’m going too fast,” Steph said, and then pulled ahead. Not going full-speed because that would be mean and, considering what a stubborn asshole she knew herself to be, possibly lead to a broken neck as li’l Steph refused to admit she was struggling and started rushing too much to be safe. But going maybe-too-fast was better than hovering, assuming the kid couldn’t handle herself, or communicate her needs. Anyway, she’d called it right, she determined. Li’l Steph was just behind her as she dropped over the edge of a roof into an alley, because they’d just hit Woolsey and there was no way her thirteen-year-old self could cross that above ground level short of sprouting wings.
She should call this in, she reflected, while she waited for little-Steph to clamber sensibly down the fire escape, just smart enough not to jump off a roof just to impress Batgirl. Give whoever she was dumping this on a heads-up.
“Batgirl to Batcave,” she radioed.
“Batcave here,” answered a friendly voice on the other end.
“Nightwing,” she said, relieved, because she and Dick had never been close but they’d never had serious issues, either, especially since he lost the cowl. “I’ve got a problem.”
“Is it thirteen years old and blonde?” he asked wryly, and Stephanie was glad suddenly that little-Steph was slowing her down, because if she’d been trying a difficult maneuver right then she might have screwed it up, where the original Boy Wonder in all his acrobatic glory could hear. (And she didn’t have a crush on him, exactly, any more than everybody did, but he was the best, the one they were all measured against, and she never forgot it, even this long after her brief ill-starred days as Robin. Because Dick Grayson.)
“What?” she asked stupidly.
“That sounds like a ‘yes’ kind of ‘what,’” Dick observed. “Which is actually a relief because if you needed help with something unrelated right now that would be pretty inconvenient.”
“So it’s not just me?” she asked.
“Not by half. Come on over, we’re pooling resources to work on it.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen,” said Steph, and then glanced at the fiercely inquisitive expression on the little girl now standing behind her. “Make it twenty.”
It was actually nearly half an hour, which was in fact really good time to make it all the way up to Bristol without a car, by normal standards, especially because the Purple Line El-train only ran twice an hour after dark. Nightwing met her just inside the mouth of the tunnel. “Hey Batgirl,” he said. Nodded to her wide-eyed shadow. “Stephanie.”
“How did you know that?” Little-Stephanie demanded. She hadn’t actually asked anything all the way here, not even ‘why are you taking me someplace in the middle of the night,’ but apparently this was her limit. “She didn’t tell you anything about me! I listened.”
Dick smiled at Steph, Batgirl-Steph, one of those big, wide, so-proud-of-you smiles Tim and Damian always soaked up like liquid caramel. “Good security awareness,” he said. “But it’s okay. She’s technically the second civilian so far, but I got the all-clear to read her in.”
“Great,” said Steph, because she could fake a cool with the best of them. “So I can lose the mask?”
“Might be a good intro,” Dick allowed. “Oracle says she hasn’t had any unexpected visitors,” he added, as Steph stripped the mask off and shook out her hair.
That was good, she reflected; thirteen to thirty-three a lot had changed for Barbara. Pretty much everything, come to think of it. Assuming they were all thirteen; maybe there was some kind of age algorithm involved and thirteen had just been the next number on the list, so Dick had taken a guess and landed a bullseye. “And we can’t raise Black Bat; we’re hoping she’s okay.”
Steph winced a little. “Ooh.” Thirteen-year-old Cass would be beyond bewildered at a sudden transposition, and you couldn’t even explain anything to her because she didn’t understand words. At least she’d be inclined to trust genuine good intentions. Hopefully Black Bat had just gone to ground, helping the younger girl feel safe. Hopefully she hadn’t had a self from one of those awful times where she’d been driven dangerously crazy materialize, and attack her. Fingers crossed.
Or maybe this was only happening in Gotham, and Cass was off-comms for unrelated reasons.
“So,” Steph said, turning with a smile toward little Steph. “This is going to sound weird, but my name is Stephanie Brown.”
She shouldn’t have worried. Ingrained Crime-Alley cynicism was swept away by the same stars that had lit brown eyes half an hour ago. “I get to be Batgirl in the future?” she blurted, a little hushed, as though a raised voice might break the spell.
A little embarrassed, Steph glanced at Dick, who grinned and shrugged. “You were a pretty smart kid, huh?” he said, and Steph decided he was her favorite, forever, period.
“Yes, I’m Batgirl and you’re in the future,” she confirmed to little-Steph. “We’ll figure out why, promise. Put ‘er there.” Little-self seemed to be humoring her, but she did return the high-five. “Nightwing?” Steph added, looking over at him. “What do we do from here?”
“Come this way and you can meet some of the others,” Dick replied to the Stephanie that hadn’t asked, gesturing up the tunnel.
The little blonde girl seemed torn between asking a thousand questions and this prospect of ‘the others;’ meeting Robin and Batman in person was simultaneously exciting and terrifying, and meanwhile she was trying very hard to look grown-up and as ‘smart’ as Nightwing had called her. God, had she really been that young at thirteen? She’d felt practically grown up. (She’d been pregnant within two years of being that age. Two years. Less than. It had felt pretty spectacularly awful at the time but was starting to look genuinely appalling in hindsight. How was this a thing? How did time work? Holy God.)
“If I’m in the future, I guess there’s no point calling Mom,” the kid said to herself—out loud to herself, but not to Batgirl. Cut her eyes toward Nightwing, self-conscious. “She’ll worry, if she gets off-shift and I’m not there, is all. I didn’t leave a note.”
Because she’d intended to be home before Mom was. Not that Mom hadn’t still known she was going out at night, ripped jeans that had been whole when she left for the night shift were hard to hide for long, and suspicious bruise patterns had been part of Steph’s life long before she got into the vigilante business.
“We can call her, if you want,” Steph said. Mom would deal with the weird, and it would probably help the kid feel better to have Mom confirm the year and all—but she shook her head.
“No, that’s fine, that’s—that’s cool. Your mom isn’t worried about me.” Awkward shrug that wanted to be cool.
“We’ll figure this out as soon as we can,” said Nightwing, in his best soothing-confidence voice. Both of Steph undoubtedly noticed him not promising to get her home before Mom had time to worry. “Now come inside, meet the guys.”
After a few conflicted seconds little-Stephanie started up the tunnel, and Nightwing swung close to Batgirl-Steph, as they followed, to allow for quiet conversation.
“She turned up right before you called?”
“About three or four minutes earlier, I guess.”
“Thanks for calling ahead,” said Dick. He seemed to mean it, and then nodded forward at the other Steph. “She’s not really trained yet, is she?”
Steph shrugged. “I’m mostly self-taught anyway,” she said. At least until Barbara took her under her wing, which had been pretty late in her personal game. Bruce had taught some useful stuff, while she’d been Robin, but he’d been pretty distracted, and also an asshole. And all her teachers had a strange habit of abruptly firing her. “But no.”
“Think you could take over day-care? I don’t mean because you’re a girl,” he clarified hurriedly, though she hadn’t actually been going to get offended. “It’s just…the Tims get along great and they’re both trained, so I’d like to get them out either looking for clues or patrolling. I was considering taking over for him, actually, since I’m kind of stuck playing peace-keeper so we can’t head out yet, but if you could take over that’d be great. Since she grounds you, a little, anyway. And B is going to want to get a bunch of data off both of you for the spreadsheets.”
Spreadsheets aside, Steph wouldn’t have been willing to take her younger self into a serious fight, it was true. She wouldn’t call herself grounded by having the kid around, though. “Why is there day-care?” she asked, with some trepidation. Was thirteen on the high end for the duplicates? Apparently Timtwo was already Robin, meaning he couldn’t be younger than twelve and definitely not daycare-eligible, so had Damian been joined by a toddling assassin, or something?
“I shouldn’t call it that,” Nightwing winced, as they approached the point where the tunnel opened out into the cave. Little Steph had already reached it, and come to an amazed halt. “It’s really just—we can’t all work on a case with this little data, but we mostly can’t go anywhere, either, so we have to keep busy, and Bruce was being himself….”
“You want to make some sense sometime this month?”
“Over here,” Dick gestured, for the benefit of the hesitating mini-Steph as well, and on her heels they swung around a stalagmite onto a narrow kind of stone path, which gave a great view of the secondary combat-training zone down toward which it sloped.
Tim, in Red Robin gear but without the mask or cape, was giving careful instruction to a kid she’d never seen before, who was wearing what she was pretty sure were some of Damian’s work-out clothes.
Another Tim, younger than she’d ever known him but entirely recognizable even if he hadn’t been the only one to ever wear that green-tights suit design, sparred intently on the next mat over with a boy in civvies that she thought might be Jason Todd as a child, under the apparent supervision of a grinning old-school Robin their own age who could only be Dick Grayson. Normal Tim called an indistinct instruction across to the trio, and they all nodded, preoccupied with the fight. He went back to correcting the angle of the mystery boy’s punch.
“Bruce observed that he’s actually the least trained of all of us, and basically demanded lessons while he’s here,” Nightwing explained as they descended, pointing to the little stranger under Red Robin’s care.
Stephanie did not freak out. It took a certain degree of effort. Bruce. Bruce-freaking-Wayne, mini edition. As soon as she let herself, she was going to have either a teeny-tiny meltdown or a laughing fit. The last straw of wtf-ness had fallen on the camel of her brain. “Red Robin stepped up,” Dick continued, as if his previous sentence had been perfectly normal, “and little Tim tagged after him, and since Timbird and Jaybird have been hanging out—Tim used to really look up to Jay, you know?”
He waved to the gloom on the far side of the mats, where a figure in the current Robin costume crouched atop a broken stalagmite, hood up for maximum melodrama. “Damian’s lurking and glaring at all of them, see there, and little me is having the time of his life—I always wished I could have other kids visit in the cave,” he explained. “And I’m good at living in the moment. So all the Robins are basically over here, plus Brucie, and once they got clustered it was in everyone’s best interests to keep them that way, because most of them are used to helping figure mysterious situations out, and this is too many people to address way too little data, and it would just get ugly.”
“So who isn’t down there training?” Stephanie checked, scanning the five boys and the young man, as her younger self hesitated to approach them, trying to read the currents of personality. They hadn’t noticed her yet, and she wanted to make a good first impression. Steph should probably go provide an introduction, but she wanted to get briefed while she had a chance.
“Basically just you, me, Alfred—who hasn’t duplicated so far, thank God—Jason, the Red Hood version that is, and the Batmen.”
“Batmen?” Stephanie repeated. Last time that plural had been relevant, Dick had been in the cowl. Dick grinned, having clearly been waiting to spring that on her this whole conversation, and scrambled up the nearest boulder, offering her a hand up after him. She accepted.
From the top of the rock they had line of sight across the open gulf of cave up to the narrow balcony-area beside the auxiliary computer, where so many briefings and debriefings took place. Red Hood, helmetless, slouched against the railing with the drop at his back, and the most-recently-sighted Batsuit was worn, cowl up, presumably by the normal version of Bruce, who had his back to them and his attention apparently on the other Batman, who faced him as he spoke, mask pushed back.
StrangerBat resembled the Bat she knew, but had a darker, rounder face, with lower cheekbones and darker, larger eyes.
If she strained her ears, Stephanie could just make out his deep, unfamiliar voice saying, “…from Allen or Gold, that you are still effectively working with an outdated understanding of temporospatial physics. Father.”
She glanced at Nightwing. “Damian?”
“Damian,” he confirmed. He didn’t seem to know whether he was proud or amused or creeped out, but he followed it up with, “and it sounds like I need to get back to them before somebody throws somebody else over a safety railing. What are you better at than Tim?” he asked.
Steph stared. He said that like it was such a natural question. “What?”
“Than Tim. What do you do better? So you can take over the lesson, and hold Jay’s attention when I steal his sparring buddy. I’m sorry I don’t know; we haven’t all worked together that often.”
Nothing, Steph thought. It had never even been treated as a serious possibility that she would do better than Tim in any area at all, ever, period. (Well, any area Batman cared about. She’d lost all her extremely arguable ground on ‘not being a self-destructive moron’ with the getting-mostly-dead thing, even. Though she’d made up a lot of it in the years since. Albeit possibly more through Tim declining than her own improvement.) It was why she had put so much effort into showing off around him and doing as well, and knowledge of the fact had just generally contributed to her adolescent dumbfuckery. It was also, in retrospect, the number one reason they hadn’t worked out as a couple, not that there weren’t a lot of those. “Falling,” she said instead. And then, with more confidence, “I do a long-drop jump more naturally; he only falls when he has to.”
Nightwing clapped her on the shoulder. “Perfect. Get some de-cels and have the others work on controlled drops into the lower cave while you cover the basics, if Bruce is as far behind as I think he will be,” he advised, and then he was leaping away toward the upper platform, ready to play diplomat between two separate generations of Batmans and the family black sheep.
He was so her favorite.
Chapter 21: Blackjack
So here we are closing out the second year of this fic, and I have not managed to keep up that once-a-month average. Whoops. Still, they keep coming; thanks for bearing with me, folks! Your patience and input continue to give this story new life. ^^ Stick around a little longer, it's actually within the realm of possibility that this will be wrapped up before we see another March.
“Perfect. Get some de-cels and have the others work on controlled drops into the lower cave while you cover the basics, if Bruce is as far behind as I think he will be,” Nightwing advised, and then he was leaping away toward the upper platform, ready to play diplomat between two separate generations of Batmans and the family black sheep.
He was so her favorite.
Out in the open, the guys on the mats had noticed the little girl hovering in the shadows near the edge of their workspace—the kids first, glancing over several times and trading mutters until little-Tim in his green tights apparently appointed himself spokesperson for the Robins. He said something, loud enough to get Red Robin’s attention but not to carry up the slope to the watching Stephanie Browns, that resulted in smallBruce(!) getting sent over to play with Dick and Jason, while the Tims left the mats to converge on the newcomer.
Tim’s eyebrows were up, deforming his cowl, but to his credit he didn’t look disbelieving. He spotted big-Steph lurking, and smiled in greeting. After dealing with Dick it looked especially stiff, but she’d known him long enough not to take that personally.
“Batgirl,” he greeted.
“Ex-Blunder,” she replied, as she strode the rest of the way into view. “It’s okay, mini-me’s been read in. Dick wants the two of you to go out to patrol-slash-investigate. Is there a reason we have to stay in pairs?”
Eyebrows up again. “You didn’t find out—? Of course you didn’t. You’ve been hovering since she arrived.”
“I’m not hovering.” Steph folded her arms, aware they were to some degree putting on a show for the littles, especially hers. It was easy to banter with Tim, though; he had always been easy to talk to, when he wasn’t being impossible.
“You haven’t tried to get more than fifty yards away,” Tim said, with even more certainty than he usually had in his deductions.
Steph raised her own eyebrows. It was an eyebrow party. “Are you saying I can’t?”
“Well, none of us can,” Tim shrugged. “You should try, at some point, but I’ll be surprised if you’re the exception. So you’re taking over?”
“Yeah. Sorry, were you having fun teaching baby Brucie?”
“He’s not that young,” Tim said, with a complicated little neck-twist-that-wasn’t-really-a-shrug. Mixed feelings, then. “Try not to sound condescending to his face, he’s obviously in the habit of tuning out most adults.”
“I know the feeling,” said Steph, and Tim gave a little amused huff that flashed brief teeth.
“Don’t we all.”
Which was true; Tim might be a suck-up but he was only obedient or submissive compared to people like her, and Damian, and (purportedly) Jason Todd. “I promise to take very good care of your Padawan-Dad,” was what she said.
Tim rolled his eyes and asked for the coordinates of the roof where itty-Stephanie had popped up. Steph gave them, though she could only get so precise before she had to resort to normal-person positional markers like ‘third building north on the block between Ullman and Renquist, across from a nail salon.’ Should've checked her GPS on the spot.
“Tim?” she added louder, glancing over at the shorter one, who was standing to Red Robin’s left about a step behind, looking weirdly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He acknowledged her with a cocky head-tilt and wow, Tim used to be such a jaunty little asshole. She vaguely remembered thinking that was hot. “You two are on patrol.”
“So I heard,” the little Robin replied. He was being entirely blatant about evaluating both Stephs, and now he turned to the smaller one to say, “Hello.”
Steph knew what it looked like when she managed to snicker instead of giggle at the last moment. “Hi.”
Little-Tim flashed one of those rakish grins he only ever seemed to use in costume. “Nice to meet you. I’m Robin, but so is almost everybody else.”
“Tim.” He glanced at Red Robin and Batgirl, might or might not have drawn any conclusions from their facial expressions (Steph was trying not to have one and probably failing because that wasn’t really in her skillset) and looked back at mini-Steph. “I’ll introduce you to the guys.”
This relieved Steph and grown-Tim of immediate observers and the responsibility to mediate, which was convenient, and Steph urged her little blonde shadow on with hand gestures when she checked with a sidelong glance that going with Tim-Robin was not a terrible idea. Tiny-Tim led her over to the mats, where the little flock clumped up in interest at their new addition. Mini-Dick was bouncing on his toes, but Steph wasn’t sure if that was excitement or just how he was.
She glanced at Red Robin. “Nightwing briefed me on the way down, and apparently we aren’t worrying about spoilers,” she said, grinning briefly at her own joke, “but have you got anything I should know?”
A shrug. Slightly wry, “Dickie and Jason both hate being ignored. You know me.”
She knew him a little later than this version, but he was right. If he’d changed, it probably wasn’t in ways he was going to be able to convey in one clipped sentence. But anyway, his mini-me was leaving with him; she wasn’t supervising that one. “And our little Demon?”
“He’s refused to participate so long as I’m in charge. Your taking over might help.”
Steph nodded. Over on the mats, Steph was shaking hands with the mini-Bruce, Jason looked bizarrely cheerful, and Damian was indeed still glowering from his stalagmite stump.
“Okay, and the lessons? What can you tell me about the original batboy besides he’s prickly, what am I working with here.”
“His basics aren’t bad. He’s been studying karate for a year and a half under a mediocre instructor, and a few months ago managed to hire a better teacher who’s studied the Bak Mei and Cai Li Fo kung-fu styles. He’s interested in judo, too, but...” Tim shrugged a little helplessly, and Steph returned the gesture.
Judo had definitely had a major influence on Batman’s style, but neither of them had incorporated it all that much—not that throws weren’t handy, but they worked better when you weren’t significantly shorter than the person you threw, and joint-locks were useful as hell, but only when you had a small enough number of opponents that you could afford to be tied down with one of them. Fighting a single unarmed, non-super-strong person at a time was a rare luxury in this business.
Steph wasn’t the martial arts buff Tim was, but even she recognized the names of two popular Southern kung-fu styles that focused primarily on upper body attacks, and had been big in the US since the advent of Bruce Lee. They made sense as Bruce's martial arts foundation, though; Batman would only be considered a particularly rooted fighter by comparison to the rest of his flock, but he did like a good solid stance, and he’d definitely punch before he kicked, given equal opportunity. Upper body of boulder, and all.
“Well, I can probably teach him a throw or something,” Steph said, and made a shooing motion. “Get hopping, Blunder, you’re keeping yourself waiting.”
That got a smile out of him, which had always been harder than it should have been but was getting really hard lately, and she waved at cute little-Tim lurking by the exit, having apparently expeditiously bid his new friends goodbye after getting Stephie introduced, and got a baffled-but-friendly wave in reply before heading over to the mats and confronting the Robins-and-proto-Batman she was now responsible for.
“Okay, team,” she said, planting her feet. “I’m taking over this training session. You can call me Batgirl, or Ultra-Steph, or Sarge. In case any of you got dropped on your heads recently, Stephanie here is my mini-me.”
“You’re number four, right?” said the kid who was definitely Jason Todd, Gotham street heavy in his vowels. Flung up a peace sign, grinning, apparently just as massive a dork as anybody else in his stupid family. “Even-numbered Robins represent!”
Little Steph blinked, glanced over the boys, and then looked up at Batgirl. Apparently this had not come up while she and Red were chatting—how would it have, think about the timeline numbnuts, only Damian knew, and he didn’t care and wasn’t talking. “You were Robin?” little-self asked.
Jason blinked, like he was surprised that was a spoiler at age thirteen, and Steph knew her smile was rueful. “For a little while,” she said. Didn’t elaborate. There was nothing more she could say that wouldn’t undermine her authority with this crowd. “Batgirl’s way better, though. Don’t let these clowns fool you. Right, Dick?”
The pantsless Robin she’d identified as Dick blinked a little, like he hadn’t expected to be put on the spot like that, and rolled up onto his toes again, and scratched the side of his neck apologetically. “Uh…honestly, this is the first time I’ve heard of Batgirl.”
Steph blinked. Barbara was…two-three years older than Dick, and she’d debuted in her mid-teens, so… “Well, I guess you’ll meet her soon,” she shrugged. Glad they had apparently long-since given up any attempts at maintaining the timeline. “And then you will learn why you do not disagree when asked to confirm that Batgirl is the best.”
“What, you’re not going to teach us that, Sarge?” little Jason challenged, and oh man. She was afraid she was going to be unable to avoid liking this kid.
“Hah. I am by far the least scary person who has ever worn this mask, and I am not even a little bit ashamed of that.” Because, by inference, her predecessors were all (well, both) terrifying. They were all smart boys, they got it. Jason snickered. It sounded supportive; he had a Batgirl of his own.
...Oh God. Shit, fuck. Barbara was going to get shot within the year, in his timeline. Should she warn him? Would it even help? Could it possibly hurt?
Later, she decided. This was not the time. Breathe, Batgirl. Keep breathing and everything will be fine, corollary of: as long as you’re still breathing, everything is relatively fine. Perspective. She forced a grin.
“Alright. You two,” she said, pointing out Stephanie and Bruce, “need more personalized attention, so I’m going to be working with you directly. Unless anyone has any objections?”
The remaining pair of Robins shrugged. They knew they were good. They didn’t even seem inclined to gloat about it.
Considering a story she’d heard once (via Cass, who didn’t say how she’d heard) about Damian and de-cel lines, she decided, based on his current glower, to disregard Dick’s well-meant suggestion and not dig out any grappling gear. She didn’t need to be the best at something to teach raw beginners, or to supervise practice, or to get people to pay attention to her. And there would be no splat-by-sabotage on her watch.
“Hey, Baby Bat-Bird,” she called over, getting his immediate attention. And a curled lip, which she ignored with the ease of practice. “You’ve been training since you were a fetus, right? You have to be qualified to give these bozos some tips. Dick, Jay," she continued over a mutter that absolutely contained the word 'Fatgirl,' since he was getting up and heading toward the mats exactly as he'd been refusing to do before she got here, "spar to three falls or surrender, ten-count for a pin to count as a fall, off the mat is out of bounds, and listen to Damian. I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
“I want to work with Bruce,” Dick piped up immediately, shattering her hopes that a tone of bright authority and bribing Damian with power over others would be enough to control this bunch. Both other boys promptly backed him up on this point, Jason with a grin and Damian with a fierce, powerful nod. Steph hadn't caught Little-Bruce's face in the first second, unfortunately, and now he'd schooled it to blandness.
“Later,” she said. It was actually a pretty reasonable demand, all things considered, and she’d been left in charge. She could allow whatever she wanted. “Assuming you three can train together like actual mature vigilantes and not a horde of angry monkeys.”
“That sounds like a challenge,” grinned Dickie. Who might actually be her favorite at this age, too. “A horde of three.”
“Each of you is worth at least seven monkeys. Try not to draw too much blood.”
Dick laughed. Weirdly, so did Jason. Damian had hopped off his stalagmite and sloped over, apparently taking the bait, and was now glowering expectantly at his new temporary subordinates. She’d have to keep an ear out for his being too awful, though she expected Dick and Jason could stand up for themselves.
That taken care of, she turned back to her personal students. Students. What in actual hell. “Okay,” she said. “You know how to fall?”
“That’s the first thing they teach you,” Bruce said, with a touch of scorn. He wasn’t anything like as obnoxious as his own son, but she wasn’t putting up with that attitude. Not from him, not at this age.
“Show me,” she said flatly. She had no doubt he fell fine; Batman did a lot through sheer strength of will, but if he didn’t have bags of native talent, he couldn’t be what he was today. He might even count as a prodigy, not like Steph would be able to tell.
Bruce had either the good form or the etiquette training to refrain from huffing in indignation before he let himself drop forward onto the mat, breaking his fall with his palms and forearms in the precisely correct manner. He let his belly touch the floor and then stood smoothly up again, defiant challenge in the set of his little chin.
“Good,” said Steph, because there was firm and then there was just being a jerk, and in a lot of ways Bruce Wayne was a better example of what not to do as a teacher than of what you should. Oracle had done a much better job, despite being unable to give demonstrations. “Now backwards.”
That was a little more likely to go wrong, but if he couldn’t fall on his butt right, she wasn’t teaching him anything fancy, let alone letting him go up against fully-trained Robins. Fuming silently, he fell backwards, rolling correctly with the force of it. Rather than swinging back up or somersaulting, he let himself roll until his shoulders hit the mat, spun his weight around his left scapula, and got smoothly up again without taking his eyes off her. Showing off, or just paranoid?
“Red Robin didn’t go through this rigmarole,” he pointed out.
“Well, Batgirl does.” She turned to her own younger self. “Okay, so, you being me I pretty much know what you can do, but let’s see you do a backflip.”
Brucie’s scowl deepened. “You too,” Steph told him. No reason to make him feel left out.
He couldn’t do a backflip. He had, Steph was fairly certain, never attempted a backflip before. Little-Steph’s wasn’t exactly Olympic-level, or worth bragging about in this company, but she was thirteen and it was a backflip, so score.
Bruce very nearly pulled off a back handspring, and well, this was what the mats were for. Also, he was indeed good at falling.
“Alright! Good job both of you.”
“Is there a point to this?” Bruce complained, clearly being very careful not to whine. Losing out to a girl might or might not be bothering him more than losing out to anyone else in front of witnesses, but sucking at things was clearly not an experience he had much experience coping with. (Not that he actually sucked. He was just behind the accelerated local curve, and had not yet realized the importance and universal applicability of gymnastics.)
“Yes,” said Steph, and didn’t tell him what it was. “Okay, so for strength and balance, do handstands.” Both children did, fairly smoothly, though her little self had a moment of heel-kicking when her equilibrium went just a little bit off. She checked, and their forms were fine; they weren’t going to mess up their joints holding these positions. “Good. Keep that up.”
“Until when?” asked Bruce, who should really know better. His martial arts instructors were clearly being way too easy on him. (He undoubtedly agreed with that assessment.)
“Until you can’t anymore,” Steph replied, not actually adding duh, or obviously, or stupid, and hopefully not sounding like she wanted to. Leaving the newbs inverted, she took the opportunity to check on her other charges.
Chapter 22: Double the Odds
Happy birthday to me, I'm a hundred and three~~! ;] Somehow managed to convince myself that updating promptly this month counted as a birthday gift to self, so here we are! <3 Thanks for celebrating with me, this is officially the most dorktastic version of a birthday party ever, but it's always nice to have guests.
Leaving the newbs inverted, she took the opportunity to check on her other charges.
Steph had been keeping her students' backs to the other kids' sparring session as much as she could, but even though this had meant having the Robins in her own line of sight she hadn't been able to capitalize on it beyond making sure nobody was blatantly attempting murder; if her students had noticed her looking they would have looked too. Multitasking, also not one of her greatest strengths.
Now she gave the boys her full attention just in time to watch Dickie jump forward over Jason's kick, leapfrog over his shoulder, wrap his legs around the taller boy's ribs from behind, and ride him to the ground.
It was a move that wouldn't have worked if Jason hadn't been on one foot and braced against attack specifically from the front, and as Steph watched the original Robin struggled to hold his successor in an effective pin without having established initial control of any of his limbs. Jason broke free on the count of eight, jammed a knee into Dick's side to separate them further, and rolled away to give himself time to get up. Dick was already leaping forward to deny him that.
Both fighters stopped cold half a second after a sharp voice said, "Hold."
Damian was standing at the edge of one mat with his arms folded and his eyes narrow, doing a really pretty excellent Batman impression. "No, Grayson-brat," he lectured, "do you never fight anyone your own size? You can take advantage of being faster than him without forever relying on gaining height."
"It worked," Dickie argued.
"It was a waste of energy," Damian retorted. "And a waste of time, often, which is even worse."
"Oh my god you sound just like Bruce," Jason moaned, not quite in a tone of objection. There was definite incredulity there, a sort of this shouldn't be a surprise but I seriously can't believe it.
Steph covered her mouth with one hand and tried not to laugh.
He didn't sound exactly like Bruce, not really. Batman used fewer words and was rarely so openly exasperated, even if you ignored that Damian's voice hadn't even started to break yet. But the likeness was there. At this point you couldn't even debate nature versus nurture because it was obviously both.
"Is that all you have to say?" Dickie asked, bouncing impatiently on his toes.
"Jump when it actually serves a purpose, yes. And try for some precision."
"Do you ever fight anybody your size?" Jason asked, propping his head on one hand like he was prepared to stay sprawled on the mat forever.
Dick shrugged. "Not really."
Grin. "Yeah, me neither." Jason glanced up at Damian. "Are the supervillains getting younger and younger, or are there actual hordes of evil monkeys in this time period?"
Damian rolled his eyes. "Some of us are raised to villainy from birth, of course, but for the most part the average age of the hero demographic is still lower. Grayson claims responsibility for the trend. Now, are you two going to get back to business, or do I have to fucking thrash you?"
Judging from the look on Jason's face, he couldn't decide if he liked Damian or hated him. That was pretty typical, actually. It was nice to see the boys were getting along.
Steph decided the Robins were fine, made a note to ruffle Damian's hair and tell him she was proud of him later, because he would get so mad but he'd be happy to hear it, too, and that was always hilarious, and went back to her students.
Both kids were, at this point, fatiguing. Lil'Steph was swaying, counterbalancing with her feet every time she started to lose position, which was pretty smooth but also going to wear her out faster. Bruce was unmoving, a pillar of marble in the form of a boy, but the muscles in his arms and hands were starting to tremble.
Finally, Stephanie fell, a roll onto her feet that almost belied the ache in her shoulders, which she started stretching out across her chest as soon as she was upright. Only then did Bruce let himself go, a messier, uncontrolled drop that he barely managed to roll the force out of as he hit, and avoid bruising his hip. He picked himself up, scowling.
Until you can't anymore was a perfectly normal expectation around here, but Steph should probably watch out for putting forth challenges this kid was going to damage himself living up to.
"What's the point of this," Bruce demanded again, while little Stephanie primly continued to run through shoulder stretches like she was making a point, and honestly Stephanie Brown in a position to smugly make a point of following correct procedure would have been funny enough if the kid acting rebellious and impatient hadn't been Bruce Wayne.
That was the question, wasn't it? The one the student always asked and the mentor got so coy about, in things like kung-fu films. Part of her was tempted to keep withholding the answer out of a petty, causality-bending sense of vengeance, but it was a very small part.
Little-self was watching, equally interested in the answer, and…looking cool wasn't worth more than setting an example of being good. "Besides me learning what you don't know, so I can teach it? Look, Bruce." That would never stop being weird. "You heard the birds want to work with you, but the worst of them could turn you to paste before you could change stance, so I'm making sure that when you go down, you don't actually break anything."
That familiar thunderous look was actually horrifyingly adorable at this age, even though he was way too old to be truly cuddlesome, and Steph bopped him on the shoulder. "Bruce, I know for a fact you've got it in you to be one of the best in the world. But the main reason you got there—main reason you got anywhere, as Batman—is you never freaking quit, even when all the sane people think you should."
Analysis and a faint smile both broke across Bruce's face as she spoke. "Like Jigoro Kano," he stated. "The founder of judo," he expanded, when she didn't react with recognition to the name. (She caught herself glancing at the third member of the conversation in hopes of a hint, except wow brilliant Steph you totally used to know this ten years ago and then forgot, that is totally a thing, so instead of a hint she got mutual incomprehension, which was also okay.) "After he first went away to school, he spent years searching for a jujutsu instructor willing to teach him."
Stephanie suddenly, and for very nearly the first time in her life, really wanted to hug Bruce Wayne. "So that's why you want to learn judo," she said. It was so obvious he identified with this Kano guy, and it shouldn't be a surprise that Bruce at this age was stuffed full of trivia and prone to volunteering it. His brain was a library of usually-useless information, and kids were generally more open, short of abuse situations or what have you.
Although that suggested Tim was going to continue his history of becoming more and more like Batman, which actually kind of stank. She really needed to figure out a useful kind of intervention for that. She had Barbara and Tim to work with; she could declare it an actual condition and diagnose them with Batman-morph-itis.
Steph grinned. Maybe Leslie would back her up. Not that Tim listened to Leslie anymore.
Oblivious to her line of thought, the little judo fan nodded. "It's also highly effective."
"It can be," Steph agreed. Grinned wider. "Though pretty much any normal judo teacher you find is going to be utterly pissed off if you use strikes anywhere but a kata or a life-threatening situation, so, you know…sport fighting. It's just not the same."
Little Stephanie snorted in agreement.
"I'm not really the kata type," Steph went on, crinkling her eyes at her little-self, "but I'm willing to teach one new move. You guys want a throw, a strike, or a pin?"
"Throw," said Bruce at once, trying to mask enthusiasm with crispness in a way that reminded Steph of Damian. And Tim, a little. Huh.
"Strike," demanded Stephanie, something bright and fierce brimming in her eyes.
"Hm," Steph responded. She hadn't thought that offer through, clearly, but she'd kind of been expecting them both to want to focus on punching. There was a tug in her chest to just go with the throw, partly because this lesson had been framed as being really about Bruce, and more because of that awful, awful way he had of making people want to work their asses off to impress him, which she'd always thought was a Batman/patriarch thing, but now turned out to be either a personal Bruce Wayne knack, or her having been pretty deeply brainwashed after all, despite being the least groupie-like of anyone wearing the official Bat emblem.
But she was not going to become another of the people who put Steph second for no reason except that she was Steph.
She tapped her chin, thoughtfully, and then grinned. "Guess you'll have to fight for it. Spar to fifteen points. A fall or a pin counts for two points, a clean hit counts for one, I'm reffing. Go."
The kids' heads snapped around on the word, sizing one another up in a way they hadn't bothered to before. Neither of them moved right away; a little of that was actual tactical caution but mostly Steph read he grows up to be Batman in the set of her own little shoulders and have never actually hit a girl before in Bruce's, which was hilarious. She realized she was looking forward to watching this.
They were about the same size, Bruce probably just shy of that first big growth spurt and Stephanie in the middle of hers. He outweighed her already, but not by a lot, and she was slightly taller.
Steph's only formal martial arts education before she'd become a cape had been mixed-martial-arts classes at the community center for $20 a session, when she'd been able to scrape together both the money and the time. Her inconsistent attendance had been abetted by an ever-changing series of instructors that brought inconsistent styles, philosophies, and levels of competence to the exercise room. About the only regular part had been the focus on moves that were usable in real-life situations; everybody in those classes had been interested in proactive self-defense, and not just the kind focused on buying enough time to run away, because that wasn't always an option. In more than one sense.
Bruce had probably spent about five thousand times more on his teachers, and was as previously mentioned a legit fighting genius, but Steph had started younger and she'd bet had been in twenty times more actual fights by this age, so that was something.
Stephanie moved first, darting forward and swinging her right for Bruce's face. She was letting her shoulders rise too high but it was a decent right cross otherwise—Bruce dodged it, and immediately Stephanie's left thudded into his ribs. Not hard enough to do any damage—the kid might have some live experience, but not so much her first instinct was to put her all into a hit when she wasn't angry—but enough to hurt, and to count.
"One," Steph sang out, keeping her tone clear and impartial as befit an umpire.
Bruce's eyes went wide for a moment as he realized he'd fallen for a feint, then narrow, and he grabbed his opponent's wrist before she could pull it back and yanked her off-balance, kicking at her nearer ankle.
The kick didn't connect cleanly, but the punch he aimed for her shoulder did, and Steph called "one!" again and then "two!" as Stephanie got Bruce in the jaw.
He grabbed the retreating arm again and threw her over his hip.
"Three," said Batgirl. She was starting to wonder if fifteen points had been too many, in terms of how likely the kids were to actually hurt each other by the time they got there, but on the other hand anything lower, it was looking likely to be pure luck who got there first. Fifteen at least had a good chance of rewarding stamina, as fast as they were going.
When Stephanie rolled back onto her feet, not visibly winded but scowling harder, she fell into a half-crouch, fists up. It wasn't a smart stance, really—Steph had knocked it out of herself not too long after starting high school—it was half instinct and half boxing, and the instinct half made for some spectacularly dumb reactions. The boxing part might actually turn out okay in this matchup, but it still wasn't great to see her own old bad habits thrown back in her face.
The kids circled again for a second, less uncertain than before, and then closed, Bruce leading with his right to minimize target area, Stephanie lunging upward from behind her upraised guard.
About half the people Lil' Steph had fought up to this point had been significantly taller than her, and she had a tendency to go for either the gut or the face. Both those things showed now, more than they had a few years later when she'd sewn herself a purple cloak and set out into the night.
Steph hoped the Robins weren't looking, but they were behind her now and she couldn't check. It sounded like Jason and Dick were still getting some sparring in, anyway.
The little girl in the cute top with purple flowers embroidered around the collar managed to hit Bruce Wayne in the side, but this time he was the one who hit her in the face—good, he was shaking off that stupid idea that hitting girls was any different from hitting anybody else nice and quick. (Batman was fully capable of hitting girls, but he tended to go easy on them anyway. Of course, with someone as fucking sad as Harley Quinn how could you not, but then there was, like, Talia al Ghul. Though when she was around Batman she tended to be kind of sad herself, probably, come to think of it. Bad example, or a pattern?)
Little Bruce tried to put Stephanie in some kind of armlock he definitely hadn't learned from his kung fu instructors—in fact, considering he did it wrong enough it didn't work, he might not have learned in from anyone. Stephanie jammed an elbow back into his gut and used her full body weight to knock him off his feet. Steph waited to see if her mini-me would get dragged into a ground grapple or otherwise end the maneuver in a way that kept her from getting points, but she shoved her way away from Bruce and managed to regain her balance while he hit the mat. "Five."
Now Batgirl kind of hoped the Robins were watching, for later vicarious bragging points.
It was a secret she didn't broadcast but still couldn't keep all that well, that she felt undervalued a lot. Not—unappreciated, hell, she was not the needy type, she didn't need to be told she'd done well or whatever.
But she did need respect, and she knew she mostly didn't get it. More than she used to, but—she was an afterthought among the Bats and an unknown practically everywhere else. That was most of why she'd wanted Batgirl, was a lot of why she'd wanted Robin before that. For the cred. The legacy and all, too, sure, and being 'in,' being accepted, having all the advantages of network and mentorship, but mostly—because those names meant something, to people who weren't her.
If she were totally secure in herself, maybe she could shrug off being disrespected, but nobody's totally secure, not like that, and she'd been undercut and fucked over enough in her life it would be weird and irrational if she was. So. This was a unique moment. Here was Stephanie Brown, her, her self, going up against Bruce Wayne, just about the last word in 'people who must be respected,' on the most equal terms imaginable.
…she was not the most fair and disinterested judge they could have, was she? Shit.
Chapter 23: Skidoo
Sorry for the epic disappearing act! Life got crazy. There’s been flooding. There have been administrative crises. I broke my foot a little. Thanks so much to everybody who hung around or turned up during the break! Never think you are not integral to this process.
Long opening redux to orient you to the sparring match I abandoned these kids to back in April.
(Also let me draw attention to the fact that awesome person LiKan is doing a translation of this fic into Chinese! Wow! Check out how much less space the same text takes up in ideograms omfg. :D So yeah, if you'd rather read this story in Chinese you now have that option. There's a link at the top of chapter one.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Bruce tried to put Stephanie in some kind of armlock he definitely hadn’t learned from his kung fu instructors—in fact, considering he did it wrong enough it didn’t work, he might not have learned it from anyone. Stephanie jammed an elbow back into his gut and used her full body weight to knock him off his feet. Steph waited to see if her mini-me would get dragged into a ground grapple or otherwise end the maneuver in a way that kept her from getting points, but she shoved her way away from Bruce and managed to stagger onto her feet again while he hit the mat. “Five.”
This was a unique moment. Here was Stephanie Brown, her, her self, going up against Bruce Wayne, just about the last word in ‘people who must be respected,’ on the most equal terms imaginable.
…she was not the most fair and disinterested judge they could have, was she? Shit.
Stephanie gave her opponent the chance to get up, instead of darting in and hitting him while he was down, and he shoved himself upright. It took them a second to clash again but they were both moving forward when they did, and the mess of deflection and near-misses of two aggressive half-trained children on the offensive required all Steph’s attention to make sure she didn’t miss if anyone actually scored.
Then Bruce faked a punch that turned into an open-palmed swipe, and he got his opponent by the wrist.
A second later, he’d managed to execute an epic judo-style over-head throw that Steph would not have thought he had the upper body strength to pull off yet, especially without expert instruction. Sure, it was sloppy, and without improvement probably wouldn’t work a second time even on an opponent like Stephanie, but it still worked. She hadn’t landed flat on her back as was required for full points in judo, but luckily for him that was irrelevant in this system.
“Six,” said Batgirl, and now he had doubled his points in just over a minute, and was one ahead.
Stephanie rolled up to kneel, her breathing slightly stuttered from the impact, and lunged forward to clothesline Bruce just above the knees and bring him down hard on his butt. She could have socked him in the gut as he landed, but passed the opportunity up—which wasn’t a surprise; Steph had had to fight a lot of people actually trying to kill her, before she started being willing to fight dirty. (Dirty by her own metrics, not anybody else’s rules.)
Did this count as a fall? Steph had not anticipated a situation where the attacker both started and ended their attack on hands and knees. Stephanie had been in control of her movements and Bruce had hit the mat involuntarily, but the ending situation was ambiguous. Should she count it? Would it be favoritism if she did? Would it be unfair penalization if she didn’t?
The moment to give points passed without her having decided, which made the decision for her. The kids were grappling now, rolling on the ground. Bruce actually had the advantage in this position, having more grappling training and a build that was showing the first signs of growing up into a slab of concrete, but Stephanie was doing her best to make up for it with sheer viciousness. If Bruce’s hair had been a few inches longer, it would probably have gotten pulled. This would have been in no way against the rules.
Stephanie managed to get her knees on Bruce’s back, twisted his arm up behind him and leaned her other hand on the back of his neck, pushing his face into the mat. “Say uncle. Say uncle!”
“That’s not in the rules!”
“So maybe we can make a new one! Hey, Batgirl, if I get him to surrender do I win?”
Steph snorted. “Sure,” she said. Like that would ever happen. She counted off the seconds in her head: five, six, seven….
Bruce made a growling noise in his throat and bucked, and Steph definitely saw Stephanie let go of his arm right before it would have torn something in his shoulder, and with that advantage gained he threw her off his back and lunged after her from the floor as she landed crouched, landing a solid punch to her right boob. Well, that was still a clean hit. “Seven.”
Stephanie might or might not have heard the point called out, her face covered in pain and shocked offense, and she brought her right knee up toward Bruce’s chin, lashed out with the heel when he managed to avoid that and nailed him in the top of the shoulder, driving him physically back. “Six.”
Stephanie sprang forward onto her feet and kicked out again, hard and sideways; Bruce got an arm up in time to stop it, hard edge of his forearm intercepting the force just above the heel, where it spread out. There might be bruising from that, but it counted as a block, not a blow.
For a second it looked like Stephanie’s unstable position on one foot was going to land her on the ground again, but Bruce used the opening to get up off his knees, instead.
And this was the one real-world experience that little Bruce absolutely had more experience with than Stephanie: threat of death. Not that it actually existed here, but he was acting like it did, now—his guard the slightest bit faster with instinct, and yet no survivable risk too great in pursuit of victory. Steph hoped there weren’t any extra, secret childhood traumas here to be flashed back to. This was bad enough already.
Stephanie was frowning slightly, a glower of concentration as she settled back into a stable stance and tried to figure out what her opponent was going to do next. He was only one point up, but she must have picked up the shift in his attitude because she’d gone wary.
She closed, a storm of rapid little punches, apparently accepting that powering through his defenses or laying out one devastating strike too fast to block weren’t reliable strategies against this opponent, especially in a match where the goal was to count coup, not to incapacitate. Took her long enough.
Bruce caught every strike until his opponent surged up abruptly under her rabbit barrage to knee him in the gut—not the lowest, most sensitive and easier target, a little higher. Still vicious. A strangled, painful noise burst out of Bruce’s mouth, but he latched onto one of her wrists again and yanked her off-balance for a punch to the jaw. Her free hand flashed back to return it, a little wilder and with less force but still a hit, and she stomped on his foot, which wasn’t a scorable blow but still a potentially good move.
“Seven, eight, eight,” Steph reeled off, and fourteen had definitely been too high. This was not the match she’d been envisioning. How had she forgotten she’d been put in charge of miniature crazy people. “And stop.”
The kids didn’t come to an abrupt hard halt the way trained Robins tended to, at least for Bruce, but they did stop. Steph waded in, herding them apart. “Come on, break it up.”
“We weren’t done!” complained Stephanie, unwilling to let go her hold on Bruce’s shirt.
“I learned all I needed to.”
“We were tied,” Bruce objected. “If nobody wins, how are you going to decide what to teach us?”
Oh, right. The stakes. A throw or a strike. Maybe she’d accidentally given them too much motivation. “Well, I guess I’ll have to teach them both.” She smiled. Both kids looked somewhat mollified, though Bruce produced an extra little flare of outrage that she assumed was about changing the rules. Tough. “But first we go over the match. I saw a lot of good stuff and a lot of fail, so I’ll just hit the main points.
“First of all.” This was definitely number one. “Bruce, don’t think I didn’t see the part where you counted on mini-me not being willing to cripple you to keep from letting her score.” He ducked his head, embarrassed. “I mean, I can give you some points for using the tools you had at hand, but I’m taking them all away again for completely inappropriate risks and taking advantage of your opponent’s sense of fair play.”
In a real fight, you took at least a little advantage of that if you found it, but in a real fight you were rarely going to find yourself in circumstances where an opponent unwilling to let you dislocate your own arm was giving you a reason worth risking it. Not never, but rarely, and it wasn’t a good sort of mindset to be in. The play spoke to self-destructive tendencies, and she wasn’t Tim but she wasn’t about to let that go unchecked, either.
“What if she hadn’t realized what you were doing in time? You’d have gotten free, but if I’d let the match keep going you’d have lost, unless she felt so bad she just stood there and let you hit her. And either way you’d have a torn ligament to deal with for the next few months. There’s no way you’re this reckless normally, you’d have wrecked your body beyond usefulness before you turned twenty-five.”
Bruce fidgeted. It was a weird gesture, both his feet planted firmly on the ground and his shoulders swiveling, taking turns being in front, while his eyes hung out near her knees. “I’m not,” he agreed.
Steph waited a second, then said as nonjudgmentally as she knew how, “Not everything that matters has to be life and death.” Maybe that was bad advice—he probably wasn’t in a place where he could accept it, and if he did it might mean whatever bizarre self-hypnosis had convinced him that being Batman was a good decision would fail, but hey. If meeting his older self hadn’t completely upended his timeline, it wasn’t likely her advice would make the difference.
“And on that note,” she pivoted to small Stephanie. “This isn’t exactly a criticism because the risks you took were pretty well matched to the situation you were in, but I’m gonna bring this up because I know from experience you’ll treat a real fight almost the same, until you’ve got a lot of experience you won’t necessarily survive the getting of.” She almost hadn’t, a lot of times until the time she really almost hadn’t.
Stephanie's face scrunched up.
“If Bruce was trying to kill you,” Steph told herself, “you’d probably be dead. If you’d been trying to kill him, he might still be alive. Not because he’s better, or even meaner,” though he might very well be both, “he’s just got a killer instinct, and he knows he’s not immortal.” She sighed a little, and grinned. “You did real good though, kid. Makes me proud to have been you.”
Even if seeing the flaws nobody would stop telling her about played out more obviously in a younger self was kind of killing her inside.
(The thing was, she knew if she failed a little less often people would tell her why her failure was her fault less, but they didn’t need to keep telling her, it wasn’t that she had a hard time figuring out what she’d done wrong she just had a hard time seeing it coming.
She didn’t actually know how she was supposed to. Tim and Dick took risks as bad as hers, Batman made the same kind of calculated sacrifice, Oracle manipulated more heartlessly than Steph had ever tried, but somehow when they did it it usually worked, or at least worked enough that what they got yelled at for was cruelty instead of incompetence. Maybe she should tell little-self that, if nothing else: Don’t try to be Batman. What works for him won’t work for you. You’re not the same kind of person.
But not in front of Bruce.)
Stephanie looked pleased with this assessment, but Brucie’s face had turned thunderous. The miniature version of one of Batman's expressions that was still pretty cute, except uh-oh look at those cracks around the edges.
“A killer insinct?” he repeated, an edge in his voice that was meant to hide how bad that had gotten to him but just made it more obvious.
…right. Batman’s rules went all the way back. They were Bruce Wayne’s rules. Murder-related trauma was the whole reason he was willing to cripple himself rather than surrender, and yet harder than average to land a lethal blow on; she knew that.
Steph let her breath out in a gust. Kids. “Look. Instinct is just instinct,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or that you’re going to kill anyone—I mean, Batman’s held onto his no-kill rule for like thirty years of fighting some pretty bad dudes, so obviously. But the reflex is there, to go as far as you have to, to win.” She’d only ever had bad imitations of that, really. Cass had it, but just as strongly the opposite instinct, the understanding of why you shouldn’t go that far that went all the way down into the wordless core of her bones. She didn't know if Bruce had that or if he'd just trained restraint into himself, and it wasn't really her business. “It’s a good thing to keep an eye on.”
She shrugged, then decided the hell with it and took the step forward she needed to get a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry I didn’t think about how it sounded.”
He shrugged the shoulder she wasn’t touching and looked away. Steph gave a little pat and then decided to stop embarrassing him. “So,” she turned to the Robin trio, standing in a row and not even pretending to be sparring, “you boys enjoying the show?”
She didn’t try to make it sound like she’d caught them peeping into a girls’ changing room, but she didn’t try to not sound like that, either.
Dickie looked very slightly embarrassed, Damian scowled. At Bruce, specifically. Jason smiled sort of awkwardly and said, “So about that tournament idea we were talking about before.”
First she’d heard of it. Little-Steph looked intrigued, so apparently same. Bruce’s jaw had gone squarer. “Single-elimination?” Batgirl asked.
Jason and Dickie both nodded. “We don’t have to,” Dickie told Stephanie.
“No, I want to.” Her hands were on her hips. Superhero pose #4. On purpose?
“Yes. I know I probably won’t make it through the first round,” Bruce said, with a matter-of-fact humility that was clearly taking an effort, but was still pretty impressive, considering. “But it still sounds fun.”
“When the Tims get back, we’ll see about it,” Steph promised. It sounded like an idea that would have either great or appalling long-term results, but either way it did sound interesting.
“I’ll win,” Damian proclaimed.
“Maybe,” little-Dick countered.
“Like I said, once we have the complete set. We’re not leaving Tim out, though,” Steph said, and everyone, even Damian, seemed to accept that. She clapped her hands, once, for emphasis. “Until then, practice! I owe these twerps two techniques. Sing out if you get to the point where snacks are a must.”
Oh my god, I’m an actual first-grade teacher, she thought, half amusement and half disgust, neatly ignoring the fact that her charges were twice the age of the average first-grader. And also that the assignments she was handing out mostly involved grievous bodily harm.
“Alfred brought sandwiches earlier,” Bruce answered dismissively. “Oh, are you hungry?” he asked lil’ Steph a second later, manners snapping suddenly into place like a well-drilled exercise, when he realized she’d missed that dining opportunity. (On the other set of mats, Damian was making Jason and Dick show each other how their punches worked, and clearly enjoying being officious about it.) “I’m sure he can fix you something.”
“No, I’m fine,” said the blonde kid, though unless she’d been sneaking midnight snacks before popping up here she was going to get hungry soon, since dinner should have been at least six hours ago. “Uh, who’s Alfred?”
Batgirl laughed. “The butler.” Her younger self pulled a slight disbelieving face, and she laughed again. “I know, right? Like, everyone knows Batman’s gotta be either rich or working for somebody who is, but it’s so weird when you see his life being basically run by his butler.”
“Alfred doesn’t run my life,” Bruce protested. “Well, maybe a little bit,” he allowed a second later. “But…I have him instead of parents.”
“Yeah, that’s a less workable excuse when you’re fifty,” Steph informed him, and Stephanie tried very hard not to laugh. She failed.
“I’m sorry,” Small-Stephanie told Bruce, who was looking affronted. “It’s so weird that you’re Batman. You probably don’t get how weird it is, you didn’t grow up with, well, you as a fact of life.”
“Everybody knows about him?” Bruce asked, intrigued right out of his pique by this new source of information. What had they even told him already?
Stephanie shrugged. “Kind of hard not to. I mean, I hear he was sort of an urban legend starting out, but I was either not born or still a baby back then. Lots of villains and even normal criminals aren’t always that subtle, so he was out in public saving the day a lot, and after a while not believing in somebody who just jumped out of the rafters and punched out a guy taking the Mayor hostage onstage during a televised award ceremony, or whatever, gets silly.”
Bruce grinned, probably both at the idea of the blatant, TV-style easy heroism involved in rescuing elected officials by punching bad guys in extremely public settings, and the goofy way Steph had described it. Not that that was not a thing that had really happened. It had, in fact, stolen ratings from her dad’s gameshow one week when Steph had been maybe five, and he’d been livid.
The show went under less than a year later. It was actually distinctly possible the grudge from that award ceremony incident was part of what had inspired Arthur Brown to go into third-tier supervillainy. Her dad was so lame.
Steph clapped her hands again. Plan first grade teacher was working out great, no reason to change. “Okay, if we’re not summoning snacks just yet, come on. Let me teach you that strike, it should be faster, and then we do some stretches and you get a new throw. I promise throws are useful, little-me. You’re never gonna be huge, using other people’s momentum against them is super useful, even if it isn’t as much fun as breaking their teeth.”
Half an hour later, they’d just finished stretching and hydrating when an interruption arrived.
“Batgirl.” It was Nightwing again, coming down the stony slope toward the edge of the mats. “Can I borrow one of you? Batman wants your data to crunch.”
“If you borrow me you have to take over my job,” Steph pointed out. “I owe Brucie here a cool hip-throw. Whatcha think, Mini? Want to go get interrogated?”
Stephanie’s mouth quirked sideways. “Pass.”
“I’ll back you up,” Bruce offered. “What,” he added, folding his arms moodily at the surprised looks he got. “Like I’d be scared of me.”
That wasn’t exactly what any of them had been surprised about, but Steph let it go. “Thanks, Junior,” she said, grinning. “I can handle the big guy, though.”
Nightwing cleared his throat in that special way that said a person was laughing on the inside. “He’s going to want to talk to both versions of you,” he clarified. “It’s just a matter of who goes first.”
“Oh, in that case…” Steph looked back at the kids. “Want to stay here and practice what you just learned while I prove he’s not going to dismember me and try to scry the future in my entrails, or head up now while I give the lads a few more pointers?”
“We don’t need your damn pointers, Fatgirl,” Damian huffed. Of course they’d stopped training to listen again. They were probably all out of nervous energy and getting tired by now, and anyway this Cave was possibly powered entirely by gossip. The generators were just for in case Bruce drove everybody off again and had to make do alone.
“Ooh, quarter for the swear jar,” hooted Jason. “He’s at a dollar seventy-five, if you’re counting,” he added to Nightwing, who blinked.
“There was…a swear jar?” he asked.
“That increments in quarters,” Steph pointed out. Bruce Wayne had been known to hand her a hundred-dollar bill or two on the way out the door with his kid, with the idea that she was buying them both lunch later. She still wasn’t sure if he honestly considered that an appropriate lunch budget or if he was using Damian’s lunch as an excuse to give her money.
It was hard to imagine Jason, as his actual adopted child, hadn’t gotten similar largesse.
“What kind of pathetic pocket money was Father giving you?” Damian snorted.
“Because he has no sense of scale, he got me credit cards with no cap,” Jason rolled his eyes—Damian looked jealous at this revelation; apparently Bruce had learned his lesson about that with Jason—“and the swear jar quarters are symbolic. If it fills up too much, Alfred starts giving me and Bruce judgmental looks. Am I seriously the only one here who got a swear jar? Feeling super singled out right now.”
“Well, pretty sure Timmy and me don’t curse much,” Dickie shrugged, “and it obviously wouldn’t work on The Next Wayne, so I guess you’re just that special.”
“I hear that’s the hardest thing about parenting,” Steph said. “Half the things you learn with one kid are the wrong lessons for the next, because everybody’s different.”
Each of the kids received this observation with their own particular expression of contemplation, as if she had dropped an important revelation on them. Well, hopefully it would help with something at some point. Being the mentor was surprisingly difficult! No wonder everybody sucked at it.
Jason's credit cards (yes multiple) appear in A Death in the Family, when he uses them to go to Israel while grounded, and Alfred uses them to track him there. There may have been some teenage gloating about Bruce's self-defeating parenting choices. The swear jar, alas, is my invention.
Does Damian still swear? I haven't really been following developments over the last few years, but I have picked up a certain trend toward his being increasingly harmless. The Gotham Academy book looked positively child-friendly, and the bits of Supersons I've been exposed to are splendidly saccharine.
Chapter 24: Two Dozens
Hello hello and welcome to the one-year anniversary of the Till-Then Hiatus! Anybody still with me? Gimme a holler if you’re still onboard with this madness train! <3 Thank you so much to everybody who’s left comments during this long content drought, you’ve kept me chipping away at this block all this time.
Particular thanks to the anon on tumblr who sent me a straightforward question about Tim in this fic! The process of answering which forced me to push through my issues regarding his character, which were a major contributing factor to this writer’s block in spite of the fact that he's not even in this chapter.
That's going up soon, I guess it'll count as a sort of sidestory. I guess I'll crosspost it here? Or you can come find me on tumblr, I'm whetstonefires.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dick wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that apparently small-Bruce was finally really bonding with someone, and it was mini-Stephanie.
Not that he had anything against Stephanie, other than the general feeling that she was accident-prone and overambitious and needed an eye kept on her, which probably wasn’t even fair considering how often everyone around here got into scrapes. It was just…the third Batgirl was distinguished among everyone who’d ever worked out of this cave for having not bonded to any significant degree with Bruce.
He’d thought they had incompatible personalities. Apparently it was just a matter of context.
“It’s just a long list of trivia questions really,” Brucie was assuring Stephie as they climbed the path. “A non-invasive physical. Oh, and a blood test. He’s hoping some correlation in the data will point us toward an explanation.”
“I figured it wasn’t really an interrogation,” said Stephie. “I mean, he is one of the good guys.”
Brucie snorted. “Has anyone told him?”
Stephie chortled. “Ooh, vicious self-burn!”
Nightwing felt very old. Damian never made him feel this old, except by almost getting himself killed, which was of course a worse feeling but very different.
“I’m always up to hear Batman roasted,” he said, “but really, we are the good guys and it’s just a bunch of data points for the spreadsheet. We’ll send Batgirl up when you’re done, and then everyone who’s turned up so far will be in the mix.”
“So far?” Bruce echoed. Justifiably astonished to hear his family was bigger than this, but not exactly in a negative way. Maybe a little spooked. “Who else is there?”
“The first two Batgirls, to start,” Dick listed off on his fingers. Though he hoped not, for Babs’ sake. She was supposed to be out of contact tonight, it was her one night off this month, but if she’d gotten a teenage self popping up and hadn’t called the Cave that didn’t bode well for how that encounter had gone.
So far everyone except Bruce who’d duplicated had been a Robin, so he was hoping this was a Batman and Robin issue, and would have stopped here. “This one guy who was Batman for a while when Bruce got hurt a while back and I was busy,” he ticked off his middle finger. Egad, he didn’t know which Jean Paul to be more sorry for in that scenario. “Batwoman, maybe.” Oh hell, thirteen-year-old Kate. He imagined she would be twice as annoying as little Bruce, and three times as hard to control.
Was she already planning to join the army at that age? Did she even know she was gay?
Well, if little Jason was managing to deal with his evil zombie doppelganger without completely losing it, Babs and Kate could probably handle their own futures. He just…really didn’t want Barbara to have to come to terms with it any sooner than she’d had to. The chair might not have been her worst nightmare the way it was one of his, but no one liked to think of losing such a huge part of themselves.
Knowing you could recover and be okay again after a loss like that wasn’t…well, it wasn’t a bad thing to know about yourself, but it didn’t necessarily make up for having to look that kind of future in the face.
“There’s a Batwoman?” Bruce asked doubtfully. Probably wondering why she hadn’t come up already.
“Yeah—we don’t get along with her that well. But she’s not bad people.”Presumably he knew his cousin Kate, at least in passing, and Dick was sort of really curious to know how they’d gotten along as kids, but come to think of it she was most of a decade younger and probably just a baby from this Bruce’s point of view. Not enough information to be gained to be worth starting that conversation. “Here we go.”
They’d reached the main cave floor where the normal large, prickly version of Bruce was standing waiting by his dataset like a goth Saguaro cactus. (Not…not actually with his arms up like that, which would have been weird. Just. Large. And cactuslike.)
Red Hood was still making himself scarce, which was smart, even if it made Dick’s paranoia twitch violently. Jason had hurt the rest of the family too many times for it to feel safe for him to be nearby but out of sight. His guns were still in pieces on the worktop, at least.
“There you are,” said the other Batman currently in the room, who was incredibly enough giving off fewer cactus vibes than his father. “Bruce, Stephanie.” Damian looked at them as he said their names, and his voice was just welcoming enough Dick assumed that was a greeting and not just verbal identification of the children. It remained nice to see evidence Damian had learned to be gentle with people weaker than himself. His eyes flicked back up to Nightwing. “Where’s Brown?”
“Looking after the Robins,” said Nightwing. “She’ll come up later." He had to ask. "Do you have a maximum age cutoff below which you actually call people by their first names, or what?”
Damian looked at him for a couple of seconds, just long enough for Dick to start feeling squirmy like is he just trying to show how stupid he thinks I am or did I just somehow trigger some kind of traumatic memory, and then back to the kids. “Father will handle the data,” he informed them.
Incremental bow and an almost flourishing gesture inviting Stephanie past him to face the grimmer Batman, and then he looked up at his brother again. “And yes, Richard, I absolutely do.”
Nightwing grinned. “I’m not that much younger than you, brat,” he said happily, as Stephie moved forward, her new friend Bruce following on her heels in clear conscious defiance of the hints that he shouldn’t. He did stop before she got into the sensor range, but continued to regard his older self with suspicion.
“Hands loose at your sides, please,” said Batman. Stephanie took them out of her pockets and stood, looking self-conscious. Her jeans looked reasonably close to new, Dick noticed suddenly, but that top was vaguely shabby. Unraveling stitches along a hem, fading of the dyes, that sort of thing. “Feet slightly further apart. Good. Hold still.”
Bat-Bruce hit a button, and the scanner array whirred to life, painting Stephie in green bars of light that scrolled up and down, mapping her in three dimensions. She squinted, clearly putting forth great effort not to squirm.
“What are we even doing with all this information?” Dick asked. Not that he didn’t subscribe to the Batman detection school that more information was always better, but he did think Bruce sometimes prioritized research over actually doing anything productive, as a coping mechanism. At the moment he declined to even look away from the screens summarizing the scanner data.
Damian shrugged. “Still looking for patterns.” He dropped his voice several decibels, though not quite enough to avoid being heard by the kids if they were really trying, even over the whirring of the scanner. “In the event that the children and I are constructs of some kind, any discrepancy in their physical data will be a significant clue.”
Damian was advancing the theory that he himself wasn’t real. Himself. What happened to cogito, ergo sum?
Dick’s thumbs twitched in a nervous tic he tried not to allow himself, and which he knew Damian had to have spotted. “…I guess we all need a working theory.”
“Your working theory is ghosts,” Bat-Damian pointed out, back up to normal volume. Almost as withering as he’d been at eleven, and much less adorable, but possibly even funnier.
“Are you going to tell me you don’t believe in ghosts? Really?”
Damian gave him a dirty look, because only an idiot would not believe in ghosts and they both knew it. “I don’t see what they could have to do with this situation.”
“It’s as good an explanation as anything right now,” Nightwing shrugged. He had been only sort of messing around when he said that. It could be, after all. “Supernatural stuff is like that, you never know what it can do until it does it.”
“Uhm,” spoke up Stephie, in that very particular way that wasn’t so much shy as pointed, like a twenty-first century version of ahem. The kids had in fact been listening in. Dick hoped not to the part about them not being real.
“You all believe in ghosts?” Brucie asked, his tone a careful modulation between not looking dumb by believing them but also not looking dumb by disbelieving them. Bless his stiff little soul.
Dick grinned. “Sure, in this line of work you run into ghosts all the time. Sometimes you have to fight them, other times they help you solve crimes. Tim actually had a ghost on his team for a few years, they called her Secret.”
“This is true,” acknowledged the original Batman, when he noticed himself being looked to for confirmation. Then he went back to the scanner.
Dick guessed it was a good thing the kids still regarded Batman as a reliable authority figure even if they were trash-talking him behind his back. It was weird, though. Dickiebird certainly hadn't been treating him much like a reliable adult.
“What’s your best ghost story then?” little Stephanie asked, rolling her weight up onto her toes and then letting herself drop again. Her mouth tugged a little to one side; she looked like she wished she had gum so she could chomp it.
Bruce made a small wordless grumble of protest as the pitch of the scanners’ humming changed, either starting over or protesting the unmappably rapid movement of her everything, and she went back to holding still, looking vaguely penitent, but mostly still looking curious in Nightwing’s direction. Brucie looked interested, too.
Dick had actually kind of a lot of stories with ghosts in them, and it was hard to choose a best one, but his favorite actual-ghost-story that was actually his was an easy pick. He glanced over at Bat-Damian, who’d folded his arms with a general air of bemused tolerance. Okay, then.
“Aw man, okay, don’t twist my arm,” he told Stephie, and launched right into his best ghost story. “It was, what, my…second apartment in New York? Yeah.”
He’d still been making a token effort then to actually unpack his stuff and move into each new place, instead of just living with the forest of boxes and his inexplicable proliferation of lamps. Not a terribly successful effort, but he'd made it.
“Been living there a few weeks. I come out of the shower one day and there’s this little girl in a fifties-looking dress just…playing jump rope in the middle of my living room, rhyming about how I’m Nightwing.”
D your name is Dickie and your daddy’s name is Brucie and you’re really known as Nightwing.
Let’s not share the exact wording, Dick decided, even if it was kind of catchy. He opened up his hands to convey the hugeness of his bafflement in the face of this apparition, which had not looked ghostly in the least.
“Turn ninety degrees,” Batman instructed Stephie. She did so, probably not in the direction he’d intended because she wanted to keep her eyes on the storyteller, but Bruce didn’t complain.
Dick grinned at her. “So I’m like ‘hey!’ and the kid with her hair in pretty ringlets runs out into the hall, and when I chase after her she’s gone, and the door locks itself behind me…” he let his hands drop in a sort of emotional semaphore of defeat, “…aaaand I’m locked out of my apartment in nothing but a towel, and I just have to stand there swearing until one of my neighbors takes pity and calls the super.”
The kids laughed, and Dick felt accomplished. He’d known vaguely, even as he was massively losing his shit over it, that it would make a funny story someday.
It had been a really small towel, and he might possibly have thrown a small fit and attempted to threaten a door into obedience, and all of his neighbors might or might not have come out into the hall specifically to laugh at him.
But somebody had also called the super to get him back inside. Which had been good, since after making such a scene he couldn’t really have then picked the lock without arousing suspicion, even if he’d been able to find anything to pick it with. Since housebreaking supplies were among the many things he did not typically wear into the shower.
Steph sucked her teeth thoughtfully. “How d’you know it was a ghost?”
“We found her parents’ bodies buried in the wall, later.” Lightheartedness gone, but hey, it was a ghost story, what could you expect. “No one ever found hers, but she stopped appearing after we solved the case.
“It was mostly Vic,” he informed Damian, who was standing there like a deeply unreactive pillar of darkness, but still the only one attending to the story who knew who Cyborg was, unless Stephie was a much bigger hero fan than she’d ever let on.
“He did most of the figuring-out, tied the ghost appearances to a recent mob hit, and his grandparents put him in contact with the right retired vaudeville people. We talked to the neighbor, a retired Russian ballerina, we talked to the super, who'd lived in the basement apartment sixty years. Place was rent-controlled, most of the tenants had been there forever.
"Keep that in mind," he counseled Stephie. "When you're renting, try to find out why the last people left." It was good advice. He didn't bother to tell it to Brucie though because if Bruce Wayne was ever renting an apartment it wasn't likely to be with his personal comfort in mind.
"Turned out the last tenants who hadn’t reported ghost problems were a trio of gangsters fifty years earlier, who all had alibis for when this nice family of three disappeared near their place, leaving pools of blood behind.”
“So they did it?” Brucie prompted. The scanners whirred.
“Nah. Their boss did it. Her ex-husband came clean to us about it or the case would have taken longer to put together.”
Dick had liked the Senator, too. He actually found it easier to forgive that the man had unknowingly had his political career launched through mob connections than that he had kept a murder secret all that time, but he’d taken responsibility so at least there was no need to hold a grudge. “Cold-as-nails lady too smart to put her name on the lease, whose accountant dropped by with his family on the way to a vacation, and looked at the papers they already had, and realized they were criminals. And then had the poor judgment to announce he was going straight to the police.”
Dick realized about half a minute too late that his audience contained a prepubescent Bruce Wayne, less than five full years out from his parents’ murder, and censored any further details about how the girl had made a break for it from between her parents’ bodies, and been chased down and murdered too.
“I guess being plastered up inside the wall trapped their ghosts, or something. Maybe it counted as being buried. We still don’t know what that crazy Queenpin did with the kid, probably never will, but her ghost just kept running in and harassing the people who moved into the place until, through me, she found the Titans, and we ripped open the wall and tracked down the murderer, and made her face justice.”
The woman had been in her eighties by that time, a shriveled bitter matriarch of crime, and had elected to turn state’s evidence on her entire organization rather than die in prison for child murder. Dick was pretty sure the girl would have preferred that, given the choice—it was the life’s work the old gangster had killed her to protect going up in smoke, after all. And breaking the power of a criminal syndicate would do more to protect other children than sticking an octogenarian in a cell.
If she hadn’t been satisfied, well, she hadn’t stuck around to complain, so it must have been good enough.
“What was her name?” asked Stephanie, after a moment of silence. Possibly attached to the ghost character; possibly trying to catch him in a confabulation. “The little girl.”
Nightwing blinked. Damn. Wracked his brain. “…Cynthia, I think. Cynthia Bannon, or Gannon, something like that.”
Victims all tended to run together sooner or later, but he probably really should remember the name of the people who’d been buried in his wall. He was pretty sure both their first names had started with M. Maybe N.
“Martha, Martin, and Cynthia Cannon,” said Batman flatly. Because he memorized things he didn’t have any business knowing—ugh, there’d been a news article about solving the decades-old murder, which had mentioned it happened at Dick’s address and the involvement of the Titans; of course he’d seen it. And noted the names of the victims. And remembered them nine years later.
He was Batman. He’d probably have remembered even if the case hadn’t involved a kid with a mother named Martha running away as her parents were shot to death, and waiting fifty years to see justice.
Brucie looked…troubled, but there wasn’t anything Dick would identify as a warning sign of deeper dysfunction being triggered, or serious emotional disturbance. Had he exposed himself to as many stories like his own as possible, as a kid, or avoided them as completely as his forensic studies allowed? Either one seemed in-character.
“If we could focus?” adult Bruce continued, tonelessly, while Nightwing kicked himself internally for not thinking to tell any ghost story but that one. “Stephanie, turn another ninety degrees and tell me the last five people you talked to today before meeting Batgirl.”
Stephanie turned, putting her back to Nightwing.
That was Little Bruce asking, and Big Bruce acknowledged the question only with, “Because,” and a gesture toward Stephanie to start talking.
With a put-out tone that seemed to Dick to be mostly about not being allowed to shrug, she started listing, with appropriate explanations that tended to get longer and less relevant until somebody stepped in to tell her that was enough, which Dick started doing after he realized what was going on.
Her dad was currently in prison, as it turned out, but his friends still came around sometimes, and gave her mom trouble. Stephie had yelled at one of them earlier today, and he’d actually left. Her mom, reading between the lines, had been more worried about Stephanie risking the potential fallout of this behavior than appreciative of the intercession on her behalf.
Nightwing kept an eye on Brucie’s reaction to finding out about his new friend’s family situation. He mostly just looked offended on her behalf. Dick let out a breath of relief. It was fine. It was all fine.
He turned to Damian to check whether the time-traveling Batman (who absolutely existed) agreed, and over that ludicrously broad shoulder he saw Jason, lurking just visibly in the shadow of one of the display cases that wasn’t his. His helmet was missing. His hands were buried in the pockets of his coat.
He was watching them, and Nightwing couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
Dick's ghost story is just a condensed retelling of the September 1985 issue of New Teen Titans. His neighbors came out to laugh/gawk at him on-panel while he threatened his door, but it's only my conjecture that they also helped him get back into his apartment. He was canonically bad at unpacking and owned a hilarious number of lamps during this phase of his life.
The fact that this chapter is unsatisfactory in terms of actual events taking place is a great part of why it took a year to arrive, so I am resolved not to worry about that any more, because the perfect has clearly become the enemy of the good.
Don’t worry! Actual things start happening again soon, and now that I’m past this sticking place maybe we’ll actually get there. >>
Chapter 25: Quartered Hundred
Haha I really thought I’d licked that writer’s block for good. Ah well. Forward! Damn the torpedoes! Happy Midwinter!
Also, as you can see this is now a series. This is because someone got me to write a sidestory about how Little Tim turned up. This chapter happens in the context of that fic, but I don't have any particular preference about which order you read them in.
Btw, because I think this makes the bit about 'only an idiot' last chapter much funnier, per the last Robin annual of Tim’s run Damian canonically did not believe in ghosts when he was nine.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The two Tims Drake were out investigating, and Robin was trying to decide if it was especially weird to be holding onto himself from behind. Weirder than the rest of the time travel situation, that was.
They could have pulled a spare bike out of storage for him—there were always spares—but it would be one of Damian Wayne’s spares and Tim didn’t want to borrow anything from him. Maybe his older self guessed that, because he’d invited him to sit pillion behind him with a gesture and Tim had taken him up on it wordlessly.
Having more freedom of movement didn’t matter much if he had to stay inside a certain radius anyway, and could potentially be disastrous if they got separated while riding and Tim was yanked off his bike by the mysterious tether at high speeds. That was definitely on his ‘stupid ways to die’ list.
They rode. It was quiet. Tim’s older self seemed to like it that way—Robin kept thinking he’d obviously spent too much time around Bruce, over the years to come. Adopted his brooding habits. He’d chosen not to ask Bruce anything because he’d known everyone would be, and claiming Batman’s time at a time like this wouldn’t be very responsible partnership, but now he was finding it strangely hard to find a good opening to ask himself anything, either. Information wasn’t the kind of thing he could just intuit because he knew himself so well, and yet…
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with silence, and so far the two of them hadn’t necessarily needed words, but there was so much he wanted to know it was hard to even choose his first question.
Shouting over your shoulder while driving a motorcycle was pretty annoying, though, he knew from experience, even with an engine tuned this well and making very little noise. And it definitely wasn’t a good way to have a private conversation, even if not a lot of people were out and about at this hour.
So Tim would watch the scenery, and let Red Robin drive without pestering.
It was easier than not pestering Dick tended to be under similar circumstances. It wasn’t exactly boring to have access to his own future self, but it wasn’t exciting the way having Nightwing’s attention tended to be, even now.
(Dick at thirty looked almost exactly the way he had at twenty-one. He seemed calmer now, though. Harder to push until he snapped. Especially around Damian Wayne.
…he guessed that went to prove Batman needed a Robin.)
The city really had changed, more than eight years should account for. Earthquake. His grip on the armored sides in front of him tightened. How could you protect your city from a geologically improbable tectonic event? Even with forewarning?
Red Robin idled smoothly to a stop as they reached the nearest non-Cave site of manifestation, Jason’s bus stop. The Viagra ad still hadn’t been vandalized yet. They got off the bike and started scanning for clues. Red Robin had some sort of dimensional instability monitoring device that Tim didn’t understand the principles behind at all yet; he-himself had a Geiger counter, among other things.
“What happened to Jason?” Tim finally broke the silence to ask, as each of them slowly quartered the street.
And maybe there was more to the silence than not having any need to speak, after all, because Red Robin was distinctly uncooperative in his tonelessness as he said, “You know what happened.”
Tim gritted his teeth. “After that.”
Red Robin frowned at his digital display for a few seconds, while in Robin’s hands the Geiger counter’s needle resolutely declined to jump. “We don’t know. I think Talia al Ghul put him in a Lazarus Pit at some point.”
“…those don’t really resurrect the dead,” Tim pointed out. Name notwithstanding.
…as far as he knew.
“Not usually,” his counterpart agreed. There was something behind that qualification, some other complicated story that Tim didn’t know about yet, and he tried not to get annoyed. “I’m fairly sure he really did die. He came back…wrong.”
“He doesn’t seem…” Tim said, because yes the adult Jason was at least half a supervillain, with guns and frothing rage and he murdered people, which was honestly awful, but…he was still Jason. Not a Monkey’s Paw horror that needed to be put down.
“He’s gotten better,” Red Robin said. “I keep trying…I’m sick to death of holding out my hand to people and having it bitten off,” he concluded briskly, and apparently the subject was now closed. “Have you found anything?”
“Same.” There had at least been energy fluctuations where adult Damian came through, even if they hadn’t clearly indicated anything in particular, and Tim was irritated with himself for not thinking to check immediately, back when they’d gotten the young Bruce. There would be nothing to compare Damian’s readings to unless they caught…Alfred, or Barbara or somebody traveling, too, and even then it would have been better to have a larger sample set, and more than one traveling from the same direction in the timestream.
Assuming they really were traveling in time.
“We’d better check my arrival point anyway,” he said. Just to be thorough.
“Mm.” Red Robin stowed his scanner efficiently away and headed back to the bike. “Steph’s first, it’s closer. Patrol along the way?”
“Well yeah,” said Tim. He was curious about this Stephanie person. She seemed nice, and he didn’t mean that in the lukewarm way it got applied when you couldn’t think of anything better to say about someone. Her Batgirl version seemed reasonably professional, and sort of reminded him of Dick. She seemed like she would be fun to work with.
He had no idea how she’d gotten involved with the Bats. She was about his age, though, so it was probably coming sooner rather than later. The first Batgirl had been sixteen or seventeen, right?
He put his scanner away, too. “Maintain line of sight and let’s try to keep to within one hundred feet, okay?”
“Pff. Teach our grandmother.”
Tim snickered at that admittedly really shitty pun, and Red Robin flashed a grin.
Working with himself was pretty fun, too.
They broke up a mugging on their way to the building Stephanie had appeared on, but other than that patrol was uneventful. Tim’s feelings on that were mixed. On the one hand, potentially-urgent ongoing recon mission, not admitting of delays.
On the other, he’d really like to hit something more than once.
You were magnificent, Bruce had said. So warm and so sad, and what did that mean? It was…almost more praise than he knew what to do with, and he couldn’t help trying to analyze it, to break it down into a more nuanced critique even though he knew that wasn’t what it was for.
It had sounded too similar to the way Bruce used to talk about Jason. Even though Tim wasn’t dead.
He’d been struggling to frame a question about it since the decision to send him and Red Robin off together had been made. Hadn’t managed it yet. Didn’t manage it during this leg of the patrol, either.
Stephanie’s manifestation point took a slight effort to identify, since they’d been given a street address rather than coordinates, and some of the streets didn’t run quite where Tim remembered they did.
Earthquake. Just how bad had it been?
“I wonder why she was here,” Red Robin said as they climbed onto the correct roof.
“Do we know that she was?” Tim replied, knowing his older self meant the younger version; Batgirl had obviously been passing through on patrol. It was kind of too bad they’d left before Bruce got the new girl into the spreadsheet, but he wasn’t actually a fan of waiting around being useless—or, in Jason’s words, totally supernumerary—and he didn’t actually wish they’d postponed this expedition. “I mean, Bruce got slingshotted a little over a quarter of a mile from up by the graveyard to wind up in the Cave.” The Manor grounds were extensive.
“Mm,” Red Robin acknowledged, as they unpacked their various sensory devices. “But her family has a house over on the far end of Priest Heights. I haven’t dug into her past in detail, but her father’s name is on the mortgage, and her mother may not have the best judgment in the world but she wouldn’t have done that after he went to prison, so they should have lived there since she was nine at most.”
“Maybe she was out on a walk,” suggested Tim. The flannel pants Stephanie had been wearing looked like pajamas to him, and she’d been wearing sneakers without socks, which suggested either a failure to do laundry or an impromptu sneaking-out. “She had a backpack. You don’t know it was night when she came from.”
“All good points. Whoa.” The needle of his unnamed device had jumped violently, and the digital readout had changed color. “Okay, dimensional distortion readings are loud. Louder than we got in the Cave.”
“Fifty-one minutes,” said Tim. That was much longer than it had taken them to get around to scanning, after the extra Batman popped up. “Do we have another one of those things at the Cave?”
“Yes.” Red Robin tapped his comm. “B? Check the landing point again for any change in the distortion frequencies. We picked up nothing at point J, but it’s clocking at 70/120 at point S.”
“Hm.” Bruce was clearly running through the same calculations both of them had. Was the distortion fundamentally greater for Stephanie’s arrival than Damian’s or Jason’s for some reason, and if so was it due to the order of the arrival, since Jason had come first? Was each new traveler putting more strain on this dimension? Or was the distortion at each point actually continuing to escalate up until the point it dropped off entirely?
Detective work wasn’t exactly science. Even forensics were a little touch and go. You couldn’t control the situation enough to do good science when you were investigating, not really. You just applied the information built up in proper scientific context to your situation as scientifically as you could.
The difference was important, sometimes. Like when there was totally insufficient precedent.
While Bruce calculated, and presumably went to scan things, the Tims were left with dead time. Robin gave Red Robin two sidelong glances before giving his courage a little zap and standing up a little straighter. He wasn’t going to get a better opportunity, so if he didn’t move now…
“Hey, me?” Tim asked, doing his best to sound casual. “What’s up with…you and Dick?”
The negative energy that kept flaring up between them…worried him. They were obviously close—he’d seen them talking between themselves a couple of times now, and there was a little of that same automatic mirroring and instant communication he always saw between Dick and Bruce, except during their very worst fights. But his older self had been outright passive-aggressive a couple of times, most notably over Nightwing’s abandoning his post during the rope mission.
It wasn’t exactly that Tim didn’t sympathize, but pointedly standing there and saying nothing while Nightwing wandered off to schmooze his emotionally unstable project Robin was a little much.
That negative energy shot up again. “Besides the obvious?”
Tim waited, because of course he meant besides the obvious. Besides Dick’s obvious habit of favoritism, which he was sort of embarrassed to admit hurt him, too. Dick had accepted him awfully easily, after the first rage was over with; he mourned Jason, even if not as soul-crushingly as Bruce did.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a kid who was actual family had become even more of a brother to him, even more easily.
Tim didn’t even know if it had been easy. Damian had to be very good, with his genes and all the training they’d alluded to his getting; he might be surly and petty but for all Tim knew he’d saved everyone’s lives five times over, with much more competence and panache than Tim had done on his first outing as Robin, and probably without needing Alfred to drive him out to the site of an emergency.
“I should be better about it,” Red Robin said, as if agreeing with his thoughts. “I am, usually. Sometimes I can’t help thinking it would help if he would just apologize, for letting Damian tell me I was fired if not for any of the rest of it. But it wouldn’t.”
Tim knew it wouldn’t. Having people apologize after they let him down always bothered him, because in his experience something you did and then pretended you hadn’t done, you were ashamed of, and might try not to repeat, the better to pretend it had never happened.
While if someone brought themselves to apologize for something, it usually meant they were comfortable enough with having done it to acknowledge it, and accept it about themselves, and make it a habit. Apologizing every time, and feeling absolved by doing so, so they saw no need to actually change anything.
He wouldn’t have thought that abut Dick apologizing, but he’d…never had reason to be actually mad at Dick.
“Have you talked to him about it?” he asked. It was obviously too late for himself at twenty-one to go back to being Robin, let alone Dick’s Robin. Just as it had been too late for Dick to go back at the same age. But pushing Bruce and Dick to make up last year had been worthwhile, even if they couldn’t just wind their relationship back like a clock, the way he’d wanted them to. It had helped both of them.
“Stop,” said Red Robin.
“Seriously talked, I mean?” Tim pressed.
“You don’t understand the situation as well as you think you do.”
“So tell me.” Red Robin of all people should know how much the need to fix this would eat at him. Obviously sometimes Tim didn’t know as much as he thought he did, but the missing pieces in this case were all right here, and—
The name cut a slash of silence across the roof.
Tim breached it. “Listen,” he began.
“You’re never going to belong.”
Red Robin’s voice was dry and cold as stone, like the markings carved into ancient tablets his dad had always loved to pore over. The inscription to follow the cartouche of his inherited name. Tim felt his stomach drop. “Wha—”
“No matter how hard you try, how carefully you plan, how much you intend to never let them down—you’ll never be perfect, and you’ll never really be one of them. Part of this family. You’ll always know that they could give up on you and send you away at any time. You’ll always be waiting for that, no matter what.”
Red Robin tilted his head a little, and the smooth cowl made him look strangely alien, in a way Batman’s long-eared mask never had Bruce. At least, not to Tim. “…that’s what you’re afraid of, isn’t it?”
Tim tried to keep his breathing steady, even as the whole world seemed to spin out into a shadowy spiral pressing down all its weight on his too-narrow shoulders at the center.
He didn’t try to argue. What would be the point? This was himself. They knew each other better than anyone else ever could.
His older self, remote and heartless, smiled slightly. The stone of him had stopped being granite and lime and instead became soapstone, the way the Egyptians carved it, dark and smooth. “You and Jason are weirdly alike for such opposite people,” he said.
Tim found his tongue at last. “‘You,’ you keep saying…stop using second person pronouns. We’re the same person.” Unless, he thought abruptly, they weren’t—unless the Red Robin he’d met tonight was a fake, some kind of magical spirit entity or reality-warping alien who was behind all of this, who’d impersonated him to himself; unless the reason they seemed to mirror each other so well wasn’t the deep familiarity of sameness but because Red Robin was in his head—
The older Tim’s shoulders sagged a little. “You’re right,” he said, and he didn’t sound ancient or distant anymore. He sounded like Dick at the end of a long, wretched, rainy week.
“Take your mask off,” Tim said. Then, realizing how harsh the imperative had probably sounded when Red Robin’s lips became a little more thin, added, “Please.” Waved a gloved hand at the surrounding roofs. “There’s nobody here to see.”
“You never know,” Red Robin said, but he stripped the cowl back as he spoke, surprisingly long hair dropping out of it, and for the first time Tim saw his own face, older.
It hadn’t changed much. Not the way Dick’s had since he was thirteen, or Bruce’s, or Jason.
Maybe he was just imagining that, picking up the familiarity in a face he’d watched change slowly all his life and knew in spite of it, and missing the differences—but no, there was his mother’s chin, gentle curve and point of jaw, and the continuing lack of any of his father’s heavy bone structure around the eyes. It was thinner, with less curve to the cheek, and it looked like he’d been getting less sun, and he had grown, but the proportions were very nearly the same.
Tim let his mouth quirk up a little. “Baby face.”
Red Robin snorted. “You’re the one who’s going to be dealing with it in eight years.” He shrugged. “I don’t mind, really.”
Yeah. The way he wore those long bangs that only softened the look of him suggested he didn’t. Tim didn’t mind either, not really. Especially compared to all the other things, the important things he was going to lose, or never gain at all. “Is it really that bad?” he asked, settling his stance. “Or were you just trying to intimidate me?”
Red Robin snorted again. “It’s pretty bad,” he said, looking away over the rooftops. “At least, bad things keep happening. I probably took some of it too personally—blamed myself for things I couldn’t control, and made stupid decisions as a result.” He glanced back at Tim, a bitter crooked cant to his mouth. “Of all the habits to pick up from Bruce.”
“Could be worse,” Tim said neutrally, and Red Robin’s mouth jumped, tasting bitterness in the joke but finding it funny anyway.
“Yeah.” Then he shook his head, not in negation but sharply, like a dog with an itch in its ear.
Tim’s comm clicked. “Distortion has fallen to nothing everywhere but at point D here. We’ll monitor continually for any spikes. Get to the final location.”
Bruce was getting more terse the longer the mob of them were there. Tim wondered if he was fighting with Dick or the time-traveling Batman, or if it was just general stress. He was probably super worried the Joker or someone would pull something huge tonight and he’d have to figure out what to do about it with a thirteen-year-old civilian magnetized to his body. They’d figure it out, though. “You got it,” he said cheerfully.
“Thank you, Robin,” said Batman, with the sort of stiffness that said he felt bad for being too no-nonsense. “Red Robin,” he added, even more awkwardly.
“Yeah,” said the other Tim, and Bruce was gone again. Working hard.
Tim was going to have to navigate them to Point T, because he'd trailed Red Robin for a few blocks before the tether had pulled him out of cover onto his face and gotten him caught.
Both of them started toward the alley where they’d left Red Robin’s motorcycle, but then Tim slowed to a stop. Rather than drag him, Red stopped too, and turned back with a question in his shoulders and the cant of his head.
Tim rubbed the back of his head. “You…okay?”
“I shouldn’t have taken my issues out on you like that.” Red Robin’s head turned away and his expression barely changed, but his voice warmed wry as he said, “Cass is always telling me lately I need to be kinder to myself.”
Tim’s mouth twitched at the pun, but he asked, “Cass?”
“You’ll meet her. Look forward to it,” Red Robin directed, and that was probably the least pained smile Tim had seen his older self produce at anything that wasn’t a joke, so far.
Utterly undignified noise, like Red Robin had started a laugh but choked on a snort of derision. “No, god no. I did date a different Cassandra, briefly, but this one is actually legally my sister. Bruce adopted her years ago. She’s not around Gotham much these days, but.” He let out a breath. “She’s one of the good things.
“And there are good things, Tim, I promise. The whole universe. The kind of friends you never even knew you wanted, that you’d rip your heart out of your chest for if they needed it.”
Tim wanted to think that he grew up morbid, but actually that ship had probably sailed. “That’s something I want?” he asked doubtfully.
He knew he sometimes struck people as the loner type, especially as Robin, but he’d always had friends. People to share games with, eat lunch with, periodically go out someplace alongside. He got along with people. He’d occasionally been wistful about the closer friendships some kids his age seemed to manage, best friends you could and would spend hours with and tell everything to, but it had never really been…well. Rip your heart out of your chest.
“It hurts,” Red Robin admitted, which wasn’t much inducement. “It’s like family. It hurts. But it’s worth it.”
Robin narrowed his eyes. He felt smaller and younger than he usually did, out on the roofs in this costume; felt uncertainty in his chest the way he never let it settle when he was hunting a clue or a culprit, when he had to stare down Shiva or punch a monster in the throat. But he was still Robin, and he didn’t let his voice waver when he asked, “Is it?”
A muscle jumped in Red Robin’s jaw. His eyes seemed to go a hundred miles down, the way Batman’s did when he was thinking about Jason, or his parents, or any of the other things that had hurt him. “Yeah. It is.” It has to be, Tim thought he could hear floating over the words.
Dick was worth it, was what Tim thought, when he tried to make it’s like family fit into something he knew. Dick who called him little brother and did his best to rile him up, and was willing to stop and just…listen to him more than anybody ever had.
Dick who was going to let him down one day.
But Dick wasn’t really his family, and it was hard to think of Mom and Dad as worth it, even if he’d never, ever have given them up if he’d had a choice. Even if he was never, ever going to let his dad go no matter how long the coma lasted, even if their stock kept collapsing and he had to take out a loan from Bruce or something to pay for the life support.
But his older self had been legally adopted into Batman’s paramilitary circus of a family, along with at least one other person he didn’t even know yet.
And Dick had picked the Wayne heir over Tim. That had been obvious in every move the three of them made around each other even before he asked anything, especially in the conspicuous berth Red Robin gave the other two when they were together, as if to say I’m not trying to compete. Tim was honestly still embarrassed on his older self’s behalf because really, what had he expected? Obviously a lot had changed over the years, for him to get so grim. So much like Bruce.
His future self had a new family, and it hurt just as much as the old one, and what had he expected?
“Even when you doubt it?” he asked. “Even when you lose them?”
“Nothing lasts forever,” said Red Robin. “And…sometimes you get lost things back. Just…make the best of the time you’re living.”
“Haven’t we always?”
“Not always,” said Red Robin, and Tim wondered.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, just a little hushed, just a little—so he knew he would know it meant, you’re scared, why are you scared, what….
He’d probably have denied it, to anyone else. He might have deflected even with himself, if he’d asked a little more outright. There was a silence, even so, but it wasn’t stubbornness, just finding his place.
“I met an older version of us,” said Red Robin. “Twice.” The abstraction from earlier was still there, but it had gone brittle and cold, like the thin sheets of ice that formed over puddles sometimes in a hard, sudden Gotham frost. Tim braced himself.
“He was Batman,” Red Robin said, and, “He was insane.” And, “At least I like to think he was.”
“What—” Tim began, but his other self was already shaking his head.
“I’m not going to elaborate. You don’t need to know. It’s probably not as bad as you’re thinking, but it was enough to make me swear I’d never take the mantle.”
Becoming Batman was frankly a weird idea that Tim had definitely never aspired to, but hearing it sworn off so grimly was chilling anyway, and made the smooth cowl over Red Robin’s head look stranger. “Do you want me to swear that too?” he asked. “You realize if I stop existing when this is all over, that’ll be redundant.”
“Mm. But if I’m the one who stops existing, while you’re off retrieving Jason like you already promised, I wanted to pass on the warning. I know you like to be in control. You trust your own judgment. That’s fine.” He sounded exactly like Bruce now, in spite of the fact that Tim’s voice would apparently never drop below a throaty tenor. “Just remember. Batman isn’t the only one who needs someone to stop him sometimes.”
Tim squinted not-that-far up at adult him. “Did the older us not have a Robin?”
“…you know, he didn’t. I wonder if that was part of why.”
“What’s the rest of it?” Tim asked, because Red Robin wouldn’t have said part of if he hadn’t already had a working theory.
“Oh, everybody died,” Red Robin said, as if that much was just obvious.
Tim squinted. “…that’s what happened to older Damian, too.”
A muscle jumped in Red Robin’s jaw, which was a tic Tim was pretty sure he didn’t have yet or one of his teachers would have told him, so he could train it out of himself. “That’s true.”
“…but he had a Robin.”
Red Robin stared at him for a second, then let his head fall back so he was staring at the smoggy sky. “How did I not think of that?” He seemed to be asking the cloud cover, or maybe the city in general. “How did I literally never think about how Batman needs a Robin and I didn’t have one?
“To be fair it might not have helped,” he went on, returning to briskness, and to looking down at Tim. “Raven had gone off the rails and was messing with everyone’s heads, and whether my best friend survived or not doesn’t seem to have made any difference, and you’d think it would.”
“You’d think,” Tim echoed. He wanted to ask who the best friend had been. So he could be sure of not missing them, mostly. But what if the way they met was so important that it would change everything; what if knowing that they were someone he could have as a best friend made him act weird and they never really took to him?
“Are they alive?” he asked instead. “Now? In your timeline?”
Red Robin smiled, and it looked like it hurt, but not because the question was a bad one. “Yeah,” he said softly, like the admission was a delicate flower he feared crushing. “Yeah, just fine. We’ve been doing a lot of work in southeast Asia together lately, with Thorn—that’s Deathstroke’s daughter, she’ll be joining the Titans…I think later this year, your time. Cass backs us up, sometimes. And some other friends. It’s good. We’re…good.”
Tim thought he could read between the lines, that Red Robin tried not to be home too often because being around the current Robin was difficult. He thought it probably said something about him, that he came home at all. He wasn’t sure what. “I’m glad,” he said.
It was really unlikely, if he had a future and it was his own, as a separate self, and not the result of having his memory erased and being replaced in the timestream to make his way back to this point in time the slow way, that he would reach exactly this place in life again. He had too many plans brewing, plans to seek out Jason and convince him not to become a supervillain, plans to find Damian Wayne as a hopefully less obnoxious toddler and expose him to better influences, plans to convince Bruce to fortify Gotham against catastrophic earthquake.
But he was glad, that in spite of everything Red Robin was okay. He grinned up, through his mask, because he was Robin, for now, and it was his job to believe in things so hard they became real. Even things as simple as, it’s going to be okay.
“I’m about to do something absolutely ridiculous,” Red Robin said. And then he stepped forward, and pulled Robin into a hug.
He grew enough, apparently, over the course of his underwhelming adolescence, that Robin had to tip his head to one side to avoid having his face in one of the crossed bandoliers that had replaced his utility belt.
Tim pretty much never felt comfortable, being hugged. Always preferred to be the one doing the hugging, when somebody needed comfort. Hugs imposed on him hadn’t happened terribly often, and it wasn’t exactly that he didn’t like them, but he always spent the entire time desperately unsure what was expected of him.
That didn’t happen this time—he didn’t know exactly why his older self was doing this, not the way he’d known how he was going to finish certain sentences or which way he was going to duck, but he wasn’t worried about doing the wrong thing, or failing to do the right one; about having a gesture that was supposed to mean affection end in being given up on, when he didn’t reciprocate the right way.
He didn’t have to worry about what it meant, or what he should do…Red Robin’s costume had awfully thick chest armor, he found himself noticing, and the arms around him were warm and strong and adult, even if the adult in question wasn’t especially tall or imposing.
“It’s so strange,” Red Robin said quietly. “How I want to keep you safe.”
Tim let out a breath and decided to hug back. The most understandable reason for hugs was always that someone looked like they needed a hug, after all. “You know you can’t,” he pointed out. There were more flexible armor plates on his sides and back, too.
“Never could,” Red Robin agreed.
Tim wondered if he looked more fragile from the perspective of what had clearly been almost nine very stressful years. Or if he looked young and breakable to everyone, and they were just—ignoring it. Because he was Robin.
“I want to help,” older Tim said, and Robin squeezed his ribs almost tight enough to hurt through the armor, and then let go.
“Well,” he said, as his older self let him step back. Cocked his head, and grinned. They were running late. “While we’re on our way back to where we started the evening, how about you tell me everything.”
“Egad.” The corner of Red Robin’s mouth pulled up almost it seemed against his will. “I don’t think we have the time.”
“Just the highlights, then,” Tim said, heading for the edge of the roof so they could mount up and roll out. “The things you wish you’d known. Either chronologically or in descending order of importance.”
If he did get to live a future of his own, he wanted to take every advantage he could get.
He didn’t have to explain that. Red Robin knew.
Tim's tendency to flail in confusion when hugged but give hugs just fine when e.g. Barbara is crying is totally canon.
Chapter 26: Twice Cursed
Happy Birthday to me! ^^ And I'm being a hobbit about it I suppose.
Special thanks to kuppatan for the lovely, emotive comic of the 'paramilitary circus' scene that really helped reignite my inspiration for this story and seems to have brought in some new readers by circulating on tumblr. HI THERE NEW PEOPLE!
For everyone who hasn't recently read the published-way-too-long-ago chapter 24, it ended with Nightwing noticing Red Hood watching Bruce interview little-Steph with little-Bruce's supervision.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dick checked that Stephie and Brucie felt confident getting themselves back to Batgirl’s training session, and more covertly assured himself that adult Damian and Bruce weren’t going to go right at each other’s throats without supervision, before peeling off to approach the Red Hood.
Maybe he shouldn’t. He should probably leave well enough alone. But it wasn’t in his nature not to poke and prod and push his luck, and Jason looked…
Vulnerable? Was that the word he wanted? That felt like an uncomfortable word to mean. It wasn’t quite right, anyway, but he didn’t have anything better besides just less guarded.
Jason’s eyebrows went up over the edge of his domino as he realized Dick was heading toward him. He slouched back, hands still in pockets, pointed unconcern drowning out anything else Dick might have been able to read into his body language. He wished Cass were here, she’d be able to tell whether he was actually mostly okay or riding the edge of a breakdown, just by looking.
“Hey,” Dick said, once he was reasonably close and didn’t have to raise his voice.
“Hey yourself, Goldie,” said Jason, as if Dick had approached him minding his own business on a Bowery rooftop, rather than lurking and staring in the family’s secret underground fortress. “What up? My guns are still on the table, come on, I’m being nice.”
Dick would be shocked if Jason wasn’t hiding some tiny holdout pistol somewhere—possibly even in those big leather jacket pockets—but he managed not to take the bait and say so. “Just checking in,” he said. “Everyone’s dealing differently, and I haven’t really seen you since Bruce and Damian got into that spat.”
“I walked off without decking either of them, you should thank me.”
Dick snorted. “They were being pretty ridiculous, huh.”
It wasn’t really surprising. Even mellowed out extremely with age, Damian was still Damian, and Bruce had hit emotional overload and was being particularly difficult. Not the worst he could get, which was somewhere past the line of actively pushing everyone away and into truly absurd levels of self-sabotage, but he had entered that stage where his emotional withdrawal tended to get people’s backs up, and anyone interfering with his doing things exactly the way he liked tended to provoke him into being an ass.
Dick used to be able to jolt him out of this space pretty easily most of the time, as a kid; these days he only rarely had the patience to even bother with the careful management it took to work with him when he was like this.
“But you’re fine?” he checked.
Jason rolled his eyes. “You really are mother-henning everybody in this whole cave?”
“Nah, I delegated a lot of it to Stephanie.” He was so glad she’d stepped up and was doing a good job. He’d delegated to Tim before that, and he’d been fine too, but he made Damian angry and a couple of the other boys a little uncomfortable in a way she didn’t. (That was only partly his fault, Dick knew; part of Steph’s luck was in reading as less of a threat by being so obviously different from the other Robins.) Huge weight off his mind.
Next time there was an opening for somebody to lead a new team, Dick should put her name forward. Even if she didn’t get picked, people would remember that kind of vote of confidence.
And she could do it, he was pretty sure, as long as she didn’t let her insecurities get to her, or goad her into trying to imitate Bruce or Barbara and dig her way into three layers of convoluted schemes that she wouldn’t be remotely able to keep up with, because she didn’t have that kind of devious brain.
Hm. He’d have to make sure to mentor her if she got a spot like that.
“So still yes,” concluded Jason. “You’ve just got hen-minions now.”
“Pfft.” Dick felt his shoulders relaxing. There was still something lurking, something hidden that he couldn’t put his finger on, something off, but Jason wouldn’t make that kind of joke if he was nearing his limits and a risk to everyone in the Cave. He wouldn’t be able to; even if he was trying to get along whatever he said would come out with a much nastier edge. Insisting Dick was a mother hen was practically an endearment, all things considered.
“You don’t have to worry, Nightwing,” Jason said lazily, in a way that totally failed to convince ten out of ten people polled that he was actually relaxed. “I’m not going anywhere; last thing I want is to drag that kid after me through Crime Alley for who knows how long.”
Dick grinned. Okay, maybe a little bit of a smirk. “I’d think you of all people would know he can handle that neighborhood,” he began, and then something irritated in the way Jason’s shoulders reset, the exasperated tilt of his head, stopped him. “No, that’s not what you’re worried about, is it.”
He paused. Considered how Jason had brought his child self almost straight here, taking into account the time noted in the big spreadsheet and the amount of time necessary for them to have established what limited initial bona-fides had been established. Even viewing that as him just behaving decently toward a kid who wanted to go home, it was remarkably accommodating. Dick would have expected a lot more bluster and redirection that worked out to stalling, before the Jason of this time was willing to walk up to the Manor gates and ask to be let in, even for someone else’s sake.
“You…don’t want to be alone with him, do you.”
Was it because he didn’t trust himself not to hurt the little Robin? Or just because he wanted to avoid him, and the crowd here let him do that in spite of the distance limit? “He really got to you with that insult stream earlier, huh?” Nightwing teased.
“Fuck off.” Jason’s hands had jammed deeper into his pockets, deforming the jacket around them. Hm, if there was a pistol in one of those pockets it was really small.
“Does it bother you?” Dick asked, more seriously. “How much he hates you?”
He more than half expected another fuck off but Jason looked away down the Cave instead, at an empty patch of shadows, his teeth showing, and muttered, “It’s not like I would’ve expected anything different.” A hand came out of his pocket—empty, gloved—so it could work itself open and shut. “There’s a lot he hasn’t learned. I’m hardly gonna teach him better just by talking about it.”
“Uh…” ‘Just by talking sounded ominous. “You’re not planning to beat any lessons into him, are you?”
“Not unless he asks for it.” Stiff, jerking single-shoulder shrug. “And let’s be real, he has half a dozen mentors here he’d prefer over me.” His head snapped around again, and he looked Dick in the face. “I’m fine. Seriously. Now fuck. Off.”
He turned and walked away, to blend into the shadows again, and Dick let him. Because keeping the peace was way more of a priority right now than breaking through Jason’s weird hangups.
Something almost always was more of a priority than getting through to Jason, though. He didn’t like that. But it was fair.
Jason was a grown-up, after all. In the end, he was responsible for himself.
When he turned back to the work area, it was to find the adult Damian had vanished and Batgirl reappeared, to get her own set of measurements taken and questions answered.
She was talking in longer bursts than answering any of Bruce’s questions seemed like it should account for, especially considering she was native to this time so it wasn’t like he required extensive contextualization of anything about her evening. But she always had been a talker.
As he got a little closer he heard, “…and Jason just kicks. All the time! So much kicking! He doesn’t do that anymore, what do you think’s up with that?”
“He got taller.”
“I mean, I guess.” She shrugged, then froze awkwardly when Batman made a frustrated sound. “Sorry! Why don’t you already have these stats for me?”
“Never needed them.”
“…somehow I don’t think of you as waiting until you need other people’s personal information, but okay. I can’t believe little you is so normal.”
“…I have to admit that wasn’t the usual reaction.”
“Bfahaha!" As soon as the burst of laughter died down she tried to stand still again, the green bars of light from the scanner flickering over her face and costume. "Oh, I bet. But congratulations, you wound up with a pack of kids way weirder than you.”
Dick found he’d stopped halfway up the path. Batgirl really didn’t seem to need his help. He wondered if she’d gotten a confidence boost from seeing her thirteen year old self befriend tiny Batman.
And if he wasn’t needed running interference for Bruce, a task he only had so much patience for anyway, he could ratchet down the list to other priorities.
Okay, number one thing he’d been indefinitely putting off: Barbara was out of contact.
She’d been out of contact all evening. This wasn’t unexpected; she’d mentioned she was taking a night off—something she had to really decide on proactively, since it was more of a production for her to go out anywhere, and her home was also her workspace, and people reached out to her there for help. There was an automated message bouncing back on all her normal lines about Oracle being temporarily unavailable and recommending who to contact if it was an emergency, a list which included Nightwing himself.
(He was kind of shocked he hadn’t had to field anything for her; maybe for once luck was kinda good, and only one problem was happening at a time.)
She was out of contact, but he was one of the people who had access to the numbers that Barbara left active in case of a real true emergency, so she could block off her normal channels if necessary without having to worry nobody would then be able to reach her if she was truly needed.
Normally, he would have respected the implied trust and not bugged her when she needed time to herself. But everybody else had had something weird happen to them tonight. Everybody.
Except Cass, who also wasn’t picking up, for no known reason. She often went off-comms for days on end, though. She needed her space.
He called another number. Not the Red Phone one—that had originally been a joke but then she’d actually gotten a bright red corded phone for it, that would ring if anyone called the Most Absolute Emergency Number.
Not that one, though. The personal one.
The phone it was a genuine privilege to even know existed.
Ring. Ring. Babs had set up for herself a ringback tone that sounded like an old dialup modem which Dick never quite got used to. Bssssssh-beeb, brrrring.
“Dick? What’s the emergency?” There was a clacking in the background already, Oracle getting online.
Damn, he’d been so focused on defending his decision to interrupt her he hadn’t planned a way to communicate that they didn’t need her to cut off her mental health day entirely. He’d hoped calling her personal phone would be enough to skip that. “No, it’s, uh. Are you alright?”
“…yes?” Babs asked, in a way that filled in ‘is there some reason I shouldn’t be?’
“It’s just you there?” Dick asked, knowing he was being unnecessarily mysterious but unable to help it. “Nobody…else?”
“Well if you must know Cassandra and I were playing Uno and painting each other’s toenails. Why? Are you missing someone?”
Dick hadn’t even known Cass was back in town. It was a nice image, and he was sorry to have wrecked it. Babs tended to get off to a rocky start with new people, even more than Dick did. He was glad she and Cass were still close, now that neither of them was Batgirl, because he thought the world of his adopted sister but had no idea how to get to know her better.
He did however have the sense of self preservation to never have called their hang-out time the Ex-Batgirl Club out loud.
‘Missing someone,’ though. He laughed a little, and it sounded slightly less awkward and more demented than he’d intended. Oh no, the stress was telling on him. “Kind of the opposite, actually.”
“Dick Grayson, if you don’t explain yourself right now…”
“Don’t cancel your night off,” he said hurriedly. “It’s not an emergency. But if a thirteen-year-old version of you or Cass pops up, don’t freak out?”
“It would be very bad to freak out at thirteen-year-old Cassandra,” Barbara agreed. “Dick? Details.”
“No, it’s fine, it’s not an emergency. You should just finish up your night off, okay?”
“I’ll be the judge of whether it can wait until tomorrow, Nightwing. My free time, my choice.”
The worst of the call seemingly over—Babs had decided he’d been right to call and he wasn’t going to get raked over the coals for it—Dick meandered over to the nearest chair-like recess and sank down, his back against the rock, to start rehashing the evening. He could spare a little more time to keep her in the loop.
The kids didn’t actually need constant babysitting, he told himself. Little-him and little Jason were Robins, and unlike Damian not the kind who were likely to try to goad anyone into starting a fight. They might let themselves be goaded, but…Batgirl wouldn’t have left them without a distracting task. It was probably fine. He hated having to hover over people.
All the same, he kept an ear out. There was always the possibility BatDamian would turn a corner too fast on the Red Hood and get punched in the face, or something.
Jason ducked under Bruce’s fist.
He’d done that before, of course—plenty of times. For the same reason, even: practice. (Like Batman would ever take a swing at Robin for any other reason.) But this time he had to duck really low, because this Bruce wasn’t practically twice his height. He was almost half an inch shorter, and sucking absently on a fat lip.
“Close!” he said, and tapped two fingers into mini-B’s lower stomach, to show where he could have punched him.
An elbow dropped hard toward the back of his neck, and he rolled away, yelping. “Jeez louise!” He got onto his feet again, now out of range. “I thought you were supposed to be all Fair Play, Chaps!” He put on a hearty, posh voice out of one of Alfred's period dramas.
Brucie rubbed the back of his wrist across his chin, which was a little weird to see because it was like the awkward Playdough version of one of Batman’s stress tics. “No that’s Bertie Wooster,” he grumbled, but he did look abashed. “I just wanted to see if it would work.”
Jason could understand that. “I’m not actually trying to make fun of you,” was all he said. “You asked for pointers.”
Bruce sighed. “Yeah. Sorry. So how could I have gotten better than ‘close?’”
Jason thought about it. “The punch was fine, actually,” he said. Batgirl had been giving mostly tips on form earlier, and honestly Jason wasn’t qualified to give those, he’d only been formally training for a year, though it had obviously been better and more intensive training than little Bruce was managing to get out of anyone. “Problem was I saw it coming. Get faster or learn to feint, I guess.”
“So how do I feint?” Bruce asked, a little irritated and trying not to show it but failing, ignoring the first part because ‘get faster’ wasn’t the kind of thing he could practice right-here-right-now. Hah, some things never changed.
“I can help with that!” volunteered Small Dick, and Jason huffed a little but had to admit he could. They were the same age, here, which was still so weird, but Dickie had already been Robin for five years.
The two of them gave Bruce extensive and sometimes conflicting advice for several minutes, until Damian Wayne either got bored blocking mini-newest-Batgirl’s punches or honestly determined she was getting too tired to improve any from trying to hit him, and called a halt to that. “My turn,” he announced, stepping into the space between the other two Robins and mini-Bruce.
“Your turn to what?” asked Dick, before Jason could say anything. It was sort of hilarious how rude he was, actually—Jason had kind of thought that was a grown-up rebellious Dick Grayson thing, but apparently it was just what you got when Dick Grayson wasn’t especially trying to play nice.
“Have a bout with—” He visibly checked himself. “Bruce.”
Little Bruce always squirmed when Damian called him ‘Father.’ This had been funny at first but eventually started to make everyone else uncomfortable, too.
Right now he didn’t look enthused—probably because Damian was being bossy, not because he was scared, because if Jason had confirmed one thing today as a constant about Bruce it was that he’d never taken getting hit very seriously—but he wasn’t going to say no and look scared, and Jason was already looking ahead to how to step in if the fight got too one-sided, because Bruce wouldn’t back down no matter what, and Damian had to know he was going to win so…
He was 90% sure from some implications people had dropped that Robin #5 had killed people before. Jason couldn’t judge that quite as hard as he would’ve before since apparently future him had a murder hobby, but it didn’t fill him with confidence in Damian Wayne’s ability to hold back.
Usually when he dragged people back from going too far it was adults who he knew would hesitate to lash out at him, and it wasn’t that he was scared of this kid but even if him weighing less would probably help with the dragging, it was kind of a different proposition. If he grabbed one arm would Dickie get the other? If not, maybe Blondie would; she was still looking pissed about her punching session getting canceled.
“And what do we have here?”
Oh good. Batgirl was back.
Robin Jason did in fact have an entire record of grabbing enraged adult superheroes by the elbows and dragging them back going "stop! you'll kill him!" Because he was a ray of sunshine in the dawning days of the Bronze Age of Comics.
Damian was probably not going to beat the shit out of Brucie, since he doesn't actually have that much anger at Bruce, but it was a valid concern on Jason's part.
Chapter 27: Still In His Prime
Oh wow I haven’t updated this since my birthday. Okay, shortish chapter, and then we really should get at least a couple more before I have to go on hiatus again. 😅
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Alfred shook out another set of linens that hadn’t been aired in too long.
It was one of the tasks that fell by the wayside when you were caring for so much space and so many people putting themselves through so much, and only had a cleaning service in to help every other Monday. There were always floors and dusting and general household maintenance to see to; getting the bedding that was actually in use laundered on a sufficiently regular basis was task enough, without keeping up regular cleaning of the spare sheets and blankets packed carefully away against future need.
Such as the sudden designation of Wayne Manor as a field hospital, or the sort of drawn-out house parties Bruce had never thrown, but his parents had.
But this evening the family had nearly doubled in size, and more beds would be called for within a few hours, when children began to drop from weariness.
The logistics were challenging. There weren’t enough rooms left in the wing where the family all slept when at home, to merely assign a spare to everyone. The pairs could only be so far apart, and so he couldn’t open up rooms outside the family wing unless he meant to put both…halves of a family member there.
He could put both of young Stephanie there, in the blue and lilac rooms perhaps, since she didn’t have a room of her own already, but putting her there alone would be an obvious snub, which he certainly did not intend. Young Master Jason might want to stay in his own room, but he might not, and the older instance of him certainly would not.
It seemed unwise to put them in the same room alone together, not because Alfred did not trust Jason but because he knew how much the boy had always needed time alone to clear his head after an argument, and that if they were alone together they would certainly argue. And so it would be most unfair to leave either with nowhere private to retreat to from the other’s presence.
Young Master Bruce might not mind being housed in the same room as his older self, but Alfred didn’t think he would welcome it either, especially not as it was the master bedroom where his parents had once slept.
And too that arrangement would deny him the comfort of other children his age. Alfred remembered what a difficult time Master Bruce had had making friends, even when very small, and how much harder it had become after the loss of his parents. Or perhaps it had not become so very difficult, and he had merely tried less often. It was…good, to see him reaching out, even in such a unique circumstance, when the bond couldn’t be expected to last.
Master Timothy at least was easy, and would undoubtedly be comfortable on a cot in his own room, where he could watch his own back. Alfred had a suspicion that that partnership was a little more strained than either of the parties allowed to become evident, but nevertheless Timothy always had known his own mind.
He was an odd one out among the family that way, rarely defiant but barely more obedient than any of the other children—certainly less so than young Master Richard had been, at that same age. Authority rarely offended him, but tended to slide off his back like water did off a duck’s, as though he thought it wasn’t really aimed at him. Alfred had appreciated the child’s tendency to avoid arguments even as the tendency to a complete lack of warning before he did something mad had made its own contribution to his greying.
Expecting the elder Damian Wayne to sleep on a cot in his own room, however, seemed like a recipe for disaster, not least because Alfred did not have any folding cots large enough to accommodate the young master’s eventual bulk. Master Damian’s own bed would serve that role, but asking the child to give up his space to his older self would be indelicate even with a child less jealous of his prerogatives, and less sensitive to every small rejection, than Damian Wayne.
Overall, it was like a massively expanded version of the problem of crossing a river with the wolf, the sheep, and the cabbage. Balancing competing needs to arrive at a harmonious solution was exactly the sort of thing a butler was supposed to specialize in, in theory, but it had rarely come up in this form in all his years at the role, even as the family grew larger again.
Alfred was genuinely considering inflating the rubber mattress set in the ballroom, providing roughly one hundred pillows and some sort of film projector, and declaring a slumber party. Anyone not in the mood for company could retreat outside the ballroom, possibly as far as ground-floor bedrooms that Alfred could then arrange for them on an individual basis.
Of course, alternately he could go downstairs and discuss the issue with his charges until he knew exactly what everyone wanted, and could address the logistics from a more informed perspective. An actual grandfather in his position probably would have done. It was the sensible thing.
But he’d been leaning on his own father’s lessons in managing a household far too long to break the habit of working to anticipate every need. It was what they expected from him. It was how he made his family feel safe. He couldn’t, in a disruptive moment like this, appear uncertain.
And he wasn’t sure his heart could take seeing so many children he’d since watched grow and strive and be beaten down by life. Not again, not just yet. He smoothed a crease out of the softness of a pale blue linen-cotton blend pillow case, knowing that really he should be ironing the lot, before making up beds with them.
He couldn’t really afford the time. He doubted any of the children would notice or care that their bedding showed signs of having been left folded for well over a year.
It would buy him more time to shuffle possible sleeping arrangements in his mind, though. Alfred turned to lift the iron off the wall, pressing the electrical plug into place, and flicked it on, before turning to lay the first pillow case across the ironing board.
This much, he could do. And then he would do the next task in front of him, and the next after that. Just as he always had done.
Master Bruce’s tears had not quite dried from his waistcoat. He did not reach up to touch them again.
Bruce was shadowing his son.
It was something he’d spent a lot more of his life doing than any normal father, between training them to pick up tails, watching over them when they didn’t want company, and the times when he was too much of a coward to start a conversation he knew needed to be had.
This was not quite any of these things, though it had a lot in common with both of the latter.
Bruce felt some awkward amalgam of pleased and frustrated that this successor Batman had—apparently, so far—failed to realize that his father was lurking in the shadows of the Cave, watching him pace out along the shadowed paths that led toward certain escape tunnels, as far as his tether to the current Robin would let him go. He hadn’t reached his limit yet.
Considering their current position, this suggested the era-correct Damian had left Stephanie’s supervision.
Since Bruce hadn’t actually ordered him to work with her, specifically so that Damian would have the option of giving himself some space rather than lashing out, Batman could hardly in justice reprimand him for that. So he wouldn’t. Easily decided.
The adult version of Damian was, against all odds, harder to deal with.
They’d argued three times already, and Bruce still felt he didn’t understand the young man (not so young, but still younger than him, which was a relief; he could hardly imagine dealing with Damian at fifty) at all.
He was Batman, indubitably, and that filled Bruce with equal parts pride and horror. And both those, especially the latter, left him irritated with himself. What had he thought would happen? He knew this was what Damian wanted. What Talia had brought him up to want. It was a terrible burden to pass on to his child.
It was an immense triumph that his son had accepted his ideals enough that he could bear his name, and not disgrace it.
(Bruce felt ashamed of having feared that Damian would. But the boy had come to him already blood-dyed and not yet ten, and unable to understand why that was a horror; had burst into his life trying to murder Tim and take his place, had erupted into his awareness an evidence of a trespass against Bruce himself that he had tried to believe, until this proof arrived, had never happened. Damian was justly terrifying.
Having felt the fear wasn’t wrong. Letting it control him had been.)
This Damian was Batman, and Bruce understood him as absolutely as if this was his own other self, instead of the ridiculous brat in the waistcoat who seemed to regard him (justly) as a bizarre sort of nightmare. And yet at the same time, the adult Damian was completely beyond his understanding, remote across the abyss of two hard-lived decades of experience Bruce could only guess at.
It was terrible.
It was nearly as terrible as having to look at the Jason who’d just come under his protection a year ago and trusted in it absolutely, contrasted against the Jason who was only now beginning to heal from all the harm Bruce had wound up causing him.
Nearly as terrible, but not quite, which was probably why this was the displaced son he was following through the far reaches of the Batcave, watching.
Trying to figure out what to say.
That they’d argued as they tried to work this case together wasn’t surprising. They argued even when Damian was a child who had agreed to take direction from him. The adult version had more self-restraint, more sense of…of the way the world continued existing beyond his immediate reach, but his pride had only been brought under his control, not diminished. If anything, it had grown, his insecurities salved by time and accomplishment.
And he was no longer used to deferring to anyone else—especially here, in this Cave that had become his, with everyone else that belonged to it gone.
Damian’s broad-shouldered figure on the path below turned a corner, and checked his next step, cape swirling about his ankles. Bruce had to push himself to the limit of his skills to dart and duck hastily through the stalactites to a position that let him see up the half-tunnel, without giving himself away.
What had given the other Batman pause, it turned out, was the sturdy little figure of a Robin, just inside the place where the path dove into rock and became a tunnel, leaning back against the stone wall, his arms folded over his chest. There was a light source somewhere behind him, one of the dim chemical emergency lights he must have activated so that there would be visibility enough to know he was there, but not enough to show him as anything more distinct than a shadow.
Even before he spoke it was obvious, even from this distance, which one it was. More thickly built than his peers, and the only one whose profile was marked by the presence of a capacious hood. He straightened, turned, a flash of shadowed face showing deep within the hood in the light the young Batman had carried down the path with him, chin stubborn and set. “You.”
“You,” the Batman returned, with a little sardonic burr of riposte and a stronger tone of affirmation to the way he said it, so that it was less ‘and you as well’ and more ‘yes, indeed: I, who am you.’
Damian had obviously been lying intentionally in wait for himself, which was impressively done—he’d stayed within the fifty-yard limit for the entire process, must have done, and neither Batman had spotted him. Or perhaps Bruce was getting old, and his son had known all along. Perhaps he’d been following his own mysterious tether this way.
“Weren’t you helping with the other Robins,” asked the older Damian after a silence had drawn out for four seconds. Calm, without any derisive edge; stepping sideways out of the power game of waiting for the other one to speak first, rather than feeling the need to break out of it violently, or letting it silence him. Growth.
Robin shrugged. “Tt. Batgirl came back and now they’re all sparring, and not being serious about it. She wouldn’t let me fight Father, probably because she doesn’t trust me not to break his bones. You don’t have that problem.”
The older Damian tilted his head carefully, the length of his costume’s ears vanishing and standing out by turns as he passed across the patches of light. Bruce began to move again, seeking a new position where he could see both their faces—or if he had to choose, due to the limitations imposed by the hood, the Batman’s face only.
He knew the thirteen-year-old better, after all. He needed less to read him.
“You want me to help you break Father’s bones?” the young Bat asked archly. Mocking. “Or are you challenging me to a bout?”
“No. I want to talk. First of all.” Damian paused for a split second, truculent hesitation, and then plunged on. “Your Robin. Benjamin.”
Future Batman watched Current Robin flatly, not answering a question that hadn’t yet been articulated, stubborn now as he had not been a moment ago until the boy cracked and settled back against the cave wall again with a sniff, to articulate his demand into a specific question. “How did he join our family?”
“In the usual way.”
“Father found him in a ditch, then?”
The grown Damian snorted, amusement just showing at one corner of his mouth and in the tuck of his jaw, if you knew how to look. It was like Damian, but equally like Dick, and Bruce thought he saw something of himself there as well. Or perhaps he only wished he did. “Mother sold him to me, actually. He never met Father.” Unspoken, Father was dead by then.
(When had Bruce died? How? He knew better than to ask. He wanted to know.)
Robin straightened sharply. “He’s related on that side?” The word ‘sold’ hadn’t even raised a flicker of interest, or dismay. Oh, son.
Damian frowned, undoubtedly aware that his older self was deliberately provoking him with his ambiguity, but apparently understanding much better than Bruce did.
What. What could that possibly…
Robin said, “He should only be ten years younger.”
As ever, if the comment section on this site doesn't suit, you can come yell at me or throw digital cookies or gloat about having guessed a thing at this discord server.╰(*°▽°*)╯
Chapter 28: A Perfect Number
Another! One month later! Which is now officially Fast for this fic. 😅 Whoops. All that great feedback last time was really inspiring! Thank you guys. 💖
(Remember this is set in a timeline branching off preboot, so Talia had been behaving fairly badly, but not reached nearly the level of doo-lally represented by organizing Leviathan mk 1, growing the Heretic huge in a whale, and killing Damian. (Also Damian hasn't died.))
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Bruce had not been dedicating nearly as much thought to Damian's future Robin as Damian obviously had been, but he certainly was now. Technically related on both sides. 'Should be' ten years younger than his youngest.
There was absolutely no way Bruce had unknowingly gotten Talia pregnant twice, let alone done it again after finding out about Damian.
He supposed he had some cousins who were technically his side of Damian's family, or on a different technicality they could have sourced genetic code from his other sons. But. Technically.
...maybe that just meant, technologically?
The Damian who was Batman stood in silence for a few seconds, but he no longer seemed to be teasing, or testing. The lenses in Bruce’s cowl adjusted in almost complete silence, zooming in and out at his command, night-vision filters flickering as he sifted the dimness for scraps of expression to decipher.
“She was in no hurry for him to be grown,” Damian said at last, his deep voice dry, with a hint of bitterness lurking. “When she lacked the time to personally oversee his education, it was her habit to have him placed in suspended animation, so that he would not pick up unwanted influences from other caretakers while she was distracted.
“Eight years ago, after Grayson was killed, she put him aside entirely until she could settle the war that came to her door in reply, and four years ago, when Drake and I brought her to bay, she offered him to me in exchange for her freedom.”
The man paused. Then, “I was unable to make her believe she should fear for her life, unfortunately, so she did not bother bargaining for it. And I…was no longer suffering from a surfeit of brothers.”
“You dealt on her terms?” The scornful dig was a reflexive response to being made to feel uncomfortable emotion; Bruce recognized the delivery by now.
The older Damian had to know that, but it didn’t entirely save him from rising to the bait.
“As she was no longer in any position to make use of him, if I had not dealt, he could easily have remained in that cave until the equipment failed, and he died in his sleep,” he ground out. His love for his mother, if it still existed—it almost certainly did—was much more deeply buried than in the Damian of today. His right hand was a fist. “Do you think that would have been a kindness?”
Little Damian’s shoulders tightened, a twitch of motion that in most children would simply be instinctive tension, but which in Damian had been the readiness of awaiting attack as long as Bruce had known him. “Fine, then,” he snapped, ignoring the question of kindness and death. “You were spared being left alone with Drake, a dire fate indeed. I assume he is at least an adequate Robin?”
“Smarter than I ever was,” the young Batman retorted, edge in his voice enough to cut, and Robin tutted with irritation.
“Tt. We should be physically identical.”
Now Bruce finally could not put off understanding, and he almost recoiled in a belated sort of shock; controlled the reaction just before he betrayed his hiding place. Talia had cloned Damian somewhere in the neighborhood of three years ago, and Damian hadn’t thought it was worth informing him?
“Hm,” the adult agreed. “But Mother trained him to think before he acted.”
The way the smaller Damian’s head popped up in offense and his glower intensified made him look younger than he was. Bruce didn’t quite understand it—his other sons usually looked older when they were angry, all cold flat planes and fiery glares—but he was used to it, and to the way a muscle jumped in the boy’s jaw as he reined himself in.
“Are you denying you’re reckless?” There was an edge there now, and not the seemingly casual withering edge of derision he’d turned against himself a moment ago. This was calculated. Targeted. A provocation that had perfectly struck its mark.
“I am not an idiot!”
“You’re arrogant.” The pronouncement dropped like hewn basalt. “You take stupid risks, and don’t stop to plan when you should, even when there’s time, because you think your first idea has to be the right one, or else you’re not good enough. You’re certain of your superiority and terrified of your inferiority, and every time Father criticizes you, you feel it as a dagger to the chest.”
The young Batman seemed to grow taller as he spoke. His deep, rolling voice was cold, his manner remote and dripping with disdain, and underneath a stifled outrage seemed to writhe.
It was everything Damian in a rage had always been, but controlled now, perfectly boxed into his chest and throat and the palms of his hands, every word deliberate and intent and far more crushing for it. Bruce had seen only the barest flash of this, when they’d argued earlier.
Damian must barely have been annoyed with him.
“And then you get angry,” he went on, implacable, “with Father, for hurting you, but you still want him to love you, so you try not to show it. You take out what you can on the enemy, or whatever other target you can find, and swallow down the rest, until it all bursts out at once and you do something especially stupid.”
Bruce felt like he’d swallowed hot coals; Damian—his child, his Robin—looked worse. The Batman on the path loomed forward, a long step swallowed in cape. “Don’t argue,” he said, more quietly. Almost softly. “I know you. Better than anyone alive.”
There was a cruelty in him now that Bruce had heard, occasionally, in his youngest son, but had somehow not expected from this older, calmer version. Which had been foolish, probably. Life rarely made anyone softer, let alone a life of war.
“You,” Robin got out, choked.
“How dare you—”
“How dare? I got Grayson killed,” Batman snarled, and the control was faltering, the rage leaking out of its careful partitioned spaces and up his arms and mouth, and probably his still-hidden eyes.
Bruce began to slip forward between stalagmites, in case he needed to intervene—he didn’t think he would, but secrecy was less important than being close enough to act, if one of his son turned to violence.
It was easier to think of that than what Damian was saying.
“If he hadn’t had to jump into an unstable situation to protect me from my own hubris, they’d never have touched him. He saved me, and I couldn’t save him, and it should never have happened.”
“And you’re blaming me for your failure?” Robin spat back, shoulders rounding forward into a crouch, trying to make up for size with coiled power.
“I am warning you,” Batman replied. Curt scorn, now, his emotions back under control.
Locked down, Bruce was sure, not gone, but the violence had passed.
“Adults are difficult,” he remarked next, oddly dispassionate. Each word enunciated just a little too slowly. “They are distant when you need warmth and intrusive when you need distance; reject you when you most need understanding, and offer forgiveness when you need to be disciplined. I remember.”
“They…aren’t always wrong,” Robin grumbled—angry enough at his older Batman self to defend Bruce against him, but unable to muster anything better.
“No,” that Batman admitted.
He looked, for an instant, unspeakably sad, an emotion the cowl did far too little to hide, and Bruce was swamped with fellow feeling. For this other Bat, with his dead family and his young ward. Damian didn’t even have Alfred to lean on.
Bruce couldn’t do this to him.
He looked at his Robin, and found his throat tight. He didn’t know when he had died, or how, but he had to avoid it. He couldn’t die again, not until all his children were grown.
(And if he successfully retrieved the clone from Talia, how long would that promise require him to last? There had been a time, long ago to him but not more than a decade in reality, when he hadn’t set his own life on the scale as a matter of course—he’d been aware he was risking it, but rarely seriously contemplated giving it up, except in the direst of straits, when he was forced to it. He didn’t know how to go back to that. Wanting to live felt like selfishness.)
He knew trying to alter the timestream was probably somewhere between futile and catastrophic, and had wished the children would stop pinning their hopes on it…but here he was. Hoping to avert a grim image of the future.
“In our mother’s family,” the other Batman said to his small self, “children are expected to grow up faster and more harshly than it’s fair to ask of anyone. And at the same time, to never to grow up at all. To always grasp at the Demon’s feet, seeking praise and validation.
“Father is kinder, and far less manipulative, but…he wants the same things. Wants us to be strong and hard enough to face the world like soldiers, and yet soft and dependent enough to cling to him like children.
“So I know what I’m asking when I tell you, grow up. Before it’s too late.”
No. Bruce wanted to step out from his hiding place and protest. That wasn’t what he wanted. That had never been what he wanted. He wanted them to grow up in their own time. He wanted them to be happy and healthy and whole.
But he didn’t know how to keep them out of his world, a world that they couldn’t survive unless they grew up too fast. And Tim and Damian and Cassandra and even Jason (in many ways Jason most of all, but in other ways Jason the least) had all come to him already too old in too many ways.
And…he hated that growing up meant they left him. He knew it was important for them to learn themselves outside his clutching shadow but he wanted to keep his people close.
He wanted to step out and argue. He shouldn’t.
He had to, because if that was what Damian believed about him how would they ever…. And now he just wanted to run.
Well, that would never do.
“Damian,” he said. And when they both looked sharply around toward his voice he let himself fade out of the shadows, threading his way through the last of the maze of stalagmites that had served as cover. “Son,” he said, and kept his voice steady and soft. “That’s not true.”
The other Batman frowned. “I beg your pardon?”
“I don’t want you dependent on me,” he said (mostly to his young son even though the adult was the one who had asked, and lid the charge) because that at least he could articulate, a difference between what Damian had implied and the truth. The other half would be harder.
“I just don’t want you to lose your childhood entirely, just because of…our mission. And I…don’t want to lose you.”
Damian’s eyes widened behind Robin’s mask, and…his youngest was also the angriest of his children, the most resistant to affection. Jason’s anger might have run deeper at the same age, maybe, but he’d only rarely given it free rein, while Damian wore his like a second cape.
Dick had wormed his way through that defensive mantle and gained a certain leeway when it came to touch, and Bruce had held his only blood-related child in his arms on extreme occasions, but even as he knew Damian found him lacking as a parent, he’d never really thought being more demonstrative would help much. Mostly, early on, it had seemed like it would shorten an already short temper by transgressing boundaries, and undermine Bruce’s vitally important and alarmingly fragile authority.
After all, Damian had been accustomed to people who loved him only as a symbol of dynasty, and to only respecting those who could force him to it. The last thing Bruce had wanted was to find himself fighting to force his child to obey him.
The first few days of knowing Dick, all those years ago, had left him certain that was not a fight that could ever be won. Not in any way that mattered.
Even now that he had trusted Damian for years not to do anything really terrible if left to himself, and could find warm words for him almost every time he thought to reach for them, some habits were ingrained. And even years and years ago, when everything had been easier, Dick had almost always reached out to Bruce first.
Dick was better at that kind of thing.
And Bruce was so much better at losing the people he loved than at holding them close.
But as Damian’s eyes widened he looked much younger than he had in a very long time, and so very much like the thirteen-year-old Jason had, when Bruce entered the Cave a few hours ago, that he was abruptly certain Damian had been jealous of how readily he’d reached out to hold that phantom. That child he’d lost what seemed now so very long ago.
Damian didn’t know what it had been like, after all, when Jason was dead.
“Damian…” he said, and belatedly stripped the cowl back.
His child’s expression was stony, distorted by some emotion but frozen in it. As though safe in the shadows of tunnel and hood he had decided to impersonate a gargoyle.
Bruce didn’t want to lose him. To death or resentment or the League of Deadly Assassins. The last thing he had ever wanted was to lose anyone, and maybe he got so lost in that that he cringed away from having them in the first place, sometimes. Often. And with Damian he’d never had a choice, and…
Once upon a time, when he first had Dick, whom he understood so well but whose world until then had been so different, he imagined it would be easier. To have a child that was really, only yours, and not shared with some other family you didn’t know, carrying assumptions you could not predict or accommodate unless he asked it of you.
Sometimes his heart broke that he hadn’t gotten to have that with Damian, that he would never have it, not with anyone, that familiarity that went so much deeper than bone.
He moved closer, past the other Batman, who was important but not his to care for the way the thirteen-year-old was. Who had already been failed by Batman for the last time, long ago.
Sank onto one knee on the stone path, far enough outside the enclosed tunnel where his Robin lurked not to crowd him. Opened his arms, enough to invite but not to make a demand. “Son?” he said.
Not so long ago, this posture had brought their faces nearly level. He’d still been a little taller than Damian even kneeling, and it had let his youngest bury his face in Bruce’s throat, the way Dick could do if they were both standing.
But Damian had grown. He was a teenager now.
So when he sprinted into Bruce hard enough that there would have been bruises if body armor hadn’t taken the impact, his arms dragged Bruce’s face into his shoulder and the crook of his neck, and his cheek landed a moment later in Bruce’s cowl-tousled hair.
“Father.” It was choked—not yet a sob; Damian wasn’t one to weep so lightly. But Damian clung to him as though it was he who had lost everyone and turned to find himself surrounded by them again, rather than the older self who stood silent, watching.
They would have to talk, sooner rather than later, about the clone. About the fact that Damian had known Talia had a clone of him and was readying it as a replacement, and not seen fit to tell his father. He wondered what the reason would turn out to be.
Did his boy feel it was his fight, to win or lose? No one’s business but his and his mother’s? Did he assume Bruce must already know? (Those replacement organs, so perfectly compatible. Damn.) Was he afraid Bruce, too, would be willing to replace him with a new model?
Was he afraid Bruce would see the clone as a thing to destroy?
He could guess, but he could not know, and so they would have to talk.
But not right now. Not just yet.