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March Madness

Chapter Text

The computer keys are oddly loud, in the silence. Tim taps at them anyways, almost too absorbed to notice it, series of code scrolling across the screen at a near inhuman pace and wet bangs flopped low across his brow.

(Almost too absorbed.)

(Almost.)

The silence presses heavy and awkward upon him, makes the spacious living room small, makes him almost want to get up and put on some music, or even move into the kitchen so that he can hang out with Alfred and have the quiet clanking and whirring of dinner-making act as background music.

He shifts, considering for a millisecond, for a moment. It’s late. Too late, probably, the evening coming quick and fast, and by the time Tim’s transferred all his things to the dining table he’d only have minutes to spare before dinner, and monitoring patrol from the comms, and then bed.

No, best to just stay here. Best to not bother anyone. Best to just get the coding done and go from there.

Besides, he doubts Alfred would really like his company, not with the ratty pajama bottoms and ragged sleep shirt, the crisp white bandages tucked neatly beneath them. Not with the bags under his eyes and unstyled hair. Not with the mess of his existence.

Fingers stall on patient keyboard, and Tim stares at waiting code and blinks and blinks and blinks and breathes .

Steady on, steady on-

His fingers are trembling slightly, but he continues typing anyways.

They sneak up on him, the thoughts, the insecurities. They trickle down the back of neck like cold mountain rivers and whisper in his ear so quiet he almost doesn’t hear them, almost doesn’t even recognize they’re there at all until suddenly they’re screaming.

( “Been pushing yourself past your limits, ” Batman growls, pacing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, “and it makes you sloppy and that makes you a liability to the team and to yourself. Do you understand, Robin?”)

( “Severe sleep deprivation, underweight, underfed, over exertion, you’re lucky that that bullet didn’t nick your lung, we’re lucky that that sniper didn’t do anything worse than get in a lucky shot, ” states Batman, hard and cold and clipped, and Tim sits on a medical cot that feels too stark white, headache blinding and eyelids drooping and pulsating fiery pain lapping at the edges of his consciousness just beyond the pleasant hazy fog of painkillers.)

(“ God, Tim, ” says Bruce- and this is all Bruce, soft and gentle and so, so scared about being afraid, about reaching out, about holding onto other people who are so easily broken- and his big calloused hand cups Tim’s cheek, keeps him upright even as he sinks into desperately needed sleep, and rubs gently at a slowly fading scar “ what are you doing to yourself, kiddo?)

( I don’t know, he wants to say back, wants to talk about how getting out of bed in the morning is a feat he hardly manages, if he manages at all. About how the graves he has to visit keep growing, about how life is so far away even as he lives within it. About how food is tasteless and warmth and cold have just sunk into a single monotonous vague uncomfortable sting resting over his skin. About how smiles feel foreign on his face and he’s sort of forgotten the sound of his own laughter.)

(He wants to. But he’s too drained, and he’s too tired, and he’s already gone, gone, gone .)

Someone flips over the back of the couch, lands with barely a muffled thump besides him and ruffles his wet hair.

Tim rolls his eyes, bats at the hand.

“Cut it out, Dick.”

The older boy pouts, makes ridiculous grabby hands and rests an arm around Tim’s shoulders.

“Awww, but it’s so nice and clean.”

The younger lets out an exasperated- if not amused- sigh, and shifts so that he can continue typing, far too used to his brother’s antics to let it stop him from his work.

Except-

“Got something for you.”

Tim stares down at the small package suddenly resting on his lap, hesitates, and then shoves the laptop further down his knees so he can delicately pick it up.

It’s light, and wrapped in a sort of teal blue wrapping paper, and when he opens it he finds a small package of herbal tea from the fancy high end tea shop that’s opened up some blocks away from crime alley. They had taken Alfred to it for his birthday last week, and Tim had fallen asleep at some point before he had even managed to drink his own cup, crammed in some cushiony corner between Jason and the wall.

...it wasn’t one of his greatest moments.

He fumbles with the box, smiles something small and fragile, places it gently on the coffee table.

“What’s this for?”

“Well,” Dick says, somehow managing to maneuver around so that he can run his hands through Tim’s hair again, “I heard the shower running, and I knew it was you, and I was very proud and so I decided to get you something and I figured that you never managed to drink yours earlier sooo-”

He gesticulates to the tea package.

Tim swallows, throat suddenly dry, because Dick had stroked his fingers through his hair back when it was sweaty and greasy and unwashed, had cajoled him into eating and sat with him for hours and hours and hours, even though he never did anything but sleep and sometimes just lay there.

Dick had been there through the worst of it.

Dick had been there through the worst of it, and he was still there.

“Thank you. I guess. But I’m, eh- I’m on antidepressants, now. You don’t have to- to bring me rewards or whatever for basic human hygiene.”

The words come out bitter tasting, come out sour. Tim’s grip on the tea tightens until the edges crumple in a little bit, and then he breathes and loosens his fingers and refuses to acknowledge the stinging in his eyes.

Dick must notice anyway, because next thing he knows he’s being pulled into a hug, held tight and secure and safe and warm, and Tim breathes into the fabric of his older brother’s t-shirt and lets the heavy tangled knot twisting his insides unravel.

“I know,” the elder murmurs, almost like a secret, almost like a benediction, “but you smile now, and that makes me so, so happy.”

“Oh,” Tim says, just that, and it means so many things he can’t even begin to decipher, so he just lets Dick hold him, lets himself live in this quiet moment, just for second, just for a breath of air.

Alfred calls them for dinner, and Tim stands up and wipes at his eyes, letting Dick sling a comfortable arm around his shoulder and lead the way to whatever comes next.

Steady on, Drake.

Steady on.

Chapter Text

Alfred Pennyworth is getting old, now.

Oh, not so old that he is incapable or invalid, never so old as that, but-

Old.

He can feel the creak in his bones, sometimes, when he gets up or leans over. Can feel that tired brittleness sinking in.

It doesn’t bother him. Not really. He’s lived a good life, a full life, a life filled with everything and anything one could imagine: one of his weekly tasks is to clean a massive dinosaur exhibit in an underground cave filled with some of the most high tech gadgets of the world.

So yes, a good life. A full life.

Maybe, at times, too full, but nevermind all that.

He is not so very concerned of growing old, but he does sometimes worry for the future, for times when he is no longer there and this marvelous, chaotic, incredible family he has marches on without him.

(There was a time in his life, when Alfred was young and untested and alone, when he thought any hopes of family for himself vanished with two coffins being lowered into the earth. There was a time in his life where Alfred, too, vowed to make it alone, to live in the midst of it and never stop moving until he was three steps ahead, and to never look back.)

(There was a time in his life when Alfred took up a temporary position caring for a family with too much money to know what to do with it, something to keep his funds fueled and horizons opened, and then tragedy struck where it was least expected- as it always has and always will- and he was left staring at a little boy with wounds carved in his shoulders so deep they might never heal over.)

(And, well- Alfred knows what it is to be young and untested and alone, and the temporary folded into the permanent, and he stopped moving to reach a hand out and hold tight, to walk a lonely road a little less lonely, and he stayed and he stayed and he stayed, and he never looked back.)

(The grand old tales will tell you of the Bat and his Birds, about how they needed each other. They will forget about one old butler who became so much more than his station, about how he and the Bat needed each other, too.)

“Pennyworth?”

“Here, Master Damian.”

Damian pulls to a stop right outside the kitchen door, hands shoved into the pockets of his hoodie and a neutral expression on his face that Alfred has come to associate with confusion, or at least being out of his depth.

A moment of silence permeates the room. Alfred keeps right on cleaning, having long since learned to let the child have his peace when trying to figure things out.

And then-

“I...require your assistance.”

Alfred blinks.

That is not expected.

That is… almost concerning.

He stands, putting his supplies down, turning to face the boy properly.

“My assistance?”

“Yes,” says Damian, becoming more confident, now, “I require your assistance. To drive me somewhere.”

Alfred nods, peering down on the child curiously. Damian is far more likely to steal a car than to ask for a ride anywhere, but he supposes that could be changing, and if it is, it’s something he wants to support.

“Right then, where will we be going?”

Damian opens his mouth. Closes it. Frowns before saying, “I will give directions as we go. Come, Pennyworth, time is running short.”

And so they go. They take one of the less conspicuous cars, the radio playing as quiet background noise. Damian doesn’t say anything, fiddles with his phone and nods along occasionally to a particular catchy rhythm or tune, only breaking the silence to give a direction or scoff at some advertisement or another.

Alfred doesn’t mind the silence. In a way, Damian is much like Bruce when the other was a child, and in a way he is so different it is almost laughable.

But it is comfortable, and when some old song comes onto the radio and Alfred sings quietly along, familiar words falling off his tongue like coming home, the youth tilts his head towards him curiously and listens.

They pull to a stop in front of some cafe, and Alfred blinks up at the sign with a sort of unbothered confusion. A tea shop is not what he expected to be Damian’s destination, but he supposes that there is time yet to learn.

What really surprises him, however, is when Damian jumps out of his seat and runs around to open Alfred’s door gesticulating at the shop and shifting ever so slightly on impatient feet.

He gets an inkling as to what all this is about.

“Ah,” he says, “thank you, Master Damian,” and then he clambers out and comes to stand tall besides him.

They enter the tea shop, and as Alfred expected it is empty save for one large group crammed around a collected mass of tables in the corner. Jason looks up from his book, a disgruntled look on his face and just about as far from Bruce as he can be, but he offers a nonchalant wave when he spots him. Tim, bags under his eyes prominent and arms wrapped around himself as if cold, flicks him a small smile, too

Dick is practically beaming, getting up to offer him a hug and to ruffle Dami’s hair for his successful mission as the younger boy pretends not to be pleased, and Stephanie whispers something in Cassandra’s ear that makes her laugh as Barbra rolls her eyes and scoots closer to the table so she can see what novel Jason is reading.

Alfred gets to sit at the head of the table, the servers coming out and taking their orders of tea, and Damian complains about having no room but falls quiet when Dick wraps an arm around his shoulders. In the corner, Tim falls asleep before his cup can be placed before him, and Jason shrugs his jacket off and throws it on top of him, giving him the appearance of a leather jacket cocoon.

Cassandra slides a few small presents over, her eyes bright, and they drink warm tea and sing and live in the moment.

And later, later, spilled tea and chaotic chatter and happy laughter and all, Bruce leans over and places a warm hand on his shoulder, steady and strong and alive and grown, and smiles.

“Happy Birthday, Alfred.”

And Alfred looks at this family of his, this wonderful family he never thought he would get to have, and suddenly the future does not seem so worrying or dark.  Suddenly, he comes to the warm realization that these men and women are young and untested, but they are not alone. That they will never be alone, not when they have this, have each other to grow old with, to face ever trial with, to live with in these eternally passing moments.

“Yes,” he says, and sips tea and smiles slow and small and steady, “Yes. I do believe it is.”

Chapter Text

"Oh my god,” whispers Dick, and his eyes are just about as big as they can get.

“Oh my god,” he says again, and Batman besides him grunts and kneels low, reaching a patient gloved hand out.

“Nightwing, not the time.”

“But, B, he’s- he’s so small.”

And indeed, the tiny five year old in front of them is rather small, staring at them with narrowed eyes, back perfectly straight and frown on his lips.

The costume no longer fits, drooping low on little shoulders and pooling on the ground below. Damian hasn’t said a word since the transformation, hadn’t even moved the whole time it took them to knock out the villain of the day, had just watched with the same neutral expression.

Batman leans forwards anyway and murmurs, “Do you know who I am?”

A nod.

“Father.”

Dick makes something of a cooing sound at the voice, and the child snaps his gaze towards him, not necessarily angry so much as curious and suspicious.

“Do you know who he is?”

Damian, still looking at Nightwing, shakes his head.

“No.”

Batman sighs, and it sounds far more like Bruce than it has any right to be.

Of course. Okay, kiddo, let’s go.”

Dick smirks, because it is a little known secret that Bruce drops pet names left and right when he’s tired or exasperated or surrounded by small children, and the sight of Batman crouching on a dusty warehouse floor reaching out for a pint sized kid who’s staring at him completely unimpressed is sort of fantastic.

But then the moment draws out longer and longer, and the five year old just keeps staring at the open arms waiting to pick him up like they’re something foreign, and Dick feels something in his heart clench small and tight and angry, feel something in his face fall.

Especially when, after a minute of careful deliberation, the kid finally reaches out, slips his fingers in Bruce’s palm, and gives it a tentative handshake.

Something in Batman’s face must darken- and Dick wonders if the older man wants to punch Talia in the face as much as he does, in that moment- and Damian must see it, cause his face shutters off and he immediately backs up, one steps, two steps, three steps, feet bracing themselves as if readying for a blow.

(Dick really, really wants to punch Talia in the face.)

Nightwing sighs, steps forward, and- moving so slowly it would be funny, if not for the situation- reaches out for the kid and picks him up, shifting his stiff as a board body so that he could carry him comfortably, being incredibly careful to keep his own body tension free and relaxed as well.

(Ten year old Damian had been like this, too, at first, had responded to physical touch too-stiff and too-formal. Had protested loudly to being carried or hair ruffled or tickled or anything else. But he had protested. Had been loud and present and angry, and god Dick knew that growing up with the league of assassins must have been awful, must have been truly traumatic to give the now eleven year old so many issues. But it’s different, seeing him so freaking small and still expecting to come to blows over mistakes and misjudgements, and this version of Damian doesn’t even protest, doesn’t even try to avoid it, not really, just sort of stands there and expects it.)

He and Bruce meet gazes over the top of the boy’s head, and both sets of eyes are angry through the lenses.


When they get back to the cave, they run tests to make sure nothing is seriously wrong, and all the others crowd around the small child with a sort of morbid curiosity. Damian stares back with that same neutral expression, the only tell-tale sign of his bewilderment and discomfort being the way his fingers keep twitching, as if wanting to grab something.

(Dick wonders if it was a sword, and feels that angry knot tighten into something ugly in his chest.)

After determining all it should take is a bit of magic to make things return to normal- something attainable in another two days when Zatanna comes back from offworld- Bruce takes Damian up to bed, they all congregate around each other in a sort of stilted silence.

And then-

“He’s too quiet,” Stephanie says, subdued, “kids aren’t supposed to be that quiet. It’s not natural.”

Cassandra makes a small humming sound, fingers tracing patterns no one can see onto the top of a display case.

“Assassin,” she says in an almost-whisper, and it is too loud in the echoing cave, “Broken down. Pieces. Built up ugly.”

They all fall silent, after that.

 

Upstairs, Damian stands still and in position exactly where Bruce puts him down, staring up at him as if waiting orders.

(He probably is, and the moment Bruce realizes this it makes him feel very tired and very old.)

He kneels low, offers a pair of pajamas that Alfred had run out to purchase when he had gotten the call. Damian stares at them, and then at Bruce, grabs them and starts putting them on with the same efficiency of a soldier in the barracks

“Do you- ah- need any help?”

Awkward, awkward. Bruce was never good with children, not really, and he never had a child so small as this, so young, with tiny little hands and tiny little feet and a face soft and round enough to be just out of toddler-hood.

I could have had this, he thinks, and he looks at this small hurt child and something aches in his scarred beating heart, I could have helped you, I could have protected you, I could have kept you safe.

Maybe, in another life. But not this one.

In this one, Damian freezes yet again, glances at him curiously and wearily out of the corner of his eyes, shakes his head.

“No, Father.”

The boy doesn’t protest when Bruce lays him down in his bed, doesn’t complain when he tucks him in, but he does flinch when he lifts a hand to run it through soft downy hair, cut short and close to the scalp.

Thy both fall still, this time, staring at each other, and the Bruce stands and backs away.

“Good night, Damian.”

Damian doesn’t respond, and it hurts more than he thought it would.

 

The next morning, Damian is missing, and after half an hour’s worth of frantic searching Dick finds him curled up asleep in front of the false fireplace in one of the many sitting rooms.

He takes a moment to breathe in relief. He takes a moment to calm his beating heart. He takes a moment to push away worse case scenarios and potential emergencies, and then he sends a text to the rest of the family that the kid is found and in no harm.

Then he goes to wake the kid up.

Except, of course, the minute he touches Damian’s shoulder, the boy wakes up and attacks him, landing blows with a startling efficiency that leaves Dick floundering for a moment before he carefully, carefully subdues his pint sized attacker and tuck him close to his chest, restraining him.

“Whoaa, Dami, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s just me, it’s just Dick, I’m not going to hurt you, you’re okay, you’re okay, it’s just me-”

He doesn't know who you are, idiot, he thinks, but Dick ignores that part of himself and just tucks Damian closer.

(When Dick had first given Damian a hug, the eleven year old had thought he was attacking him. When Damian failed a training simulator for the first time, he had been wary and suspicious for days until Dick could convince him that there would be no repercussions. When Damian had first come to the manor, he checked his room for bugs and recording devices every time he went in.)

(“I don’t understand this,” Damian had admitted in a moment of particular vulnerability, quiet and cracking and scared and so very strong, “I don’t understand any of this. I don’t understand  y o u,” and Dick had held him until he stopped shaking and vowed that one day the kid would.)

The small version of Damian in his arms stops fighting goes stiff once more, and Dick puts him down and smiles, even though he doesn’t feel like it.

“Apologies,” says the kid, “I thought you were an assassin.”

Dick’s breath chokes in his throat, and when the words come out they come out strained.

“No problem.”

They fall into silence, older and younger, blue on blue.

And then-

“What were you doing out here, Dami? We were really worried.”

This gets an emotional response, and  Damian blinks and his eyes widen and he starts backing up again, goes, “Sorry, sorry, my room was left unlocked and I thought that meant permission was granted for me to-”

Damian is staring at him, and he’s so freaking small, and that small show of vulnerability flickers out in his eyes like a blown out flame on a candle and he goes still and emotionless once more, arms coming up to wrap around himself almost subconsciously.

“Sorry,” he says again, quieter now, slower, “I won’t do it again.”

Oh, kiddo-

“It’s fine,”  Dick says, and he doesn’t know what to do with this Damian who does not have years and years and years to build up a protective shell made of solid steel, doesn’t know how to reach him, how to get through to this five year old boy who gets woken up and assumes it’s assassins.

It makes him angry.

It makes him so, so sad.

 

Three days later, Zatanna arrives and lifts the spell, leaving a shivering eleven year old in the five year old’s place, weary and confused but no worse for the experience. Damian snaps at Dick for hugging him after tolerating it for a good ten seconds, pulls on clothes that fit just like they’re supposed to, and demands to go on patrol just as usual.

Bruce doesn’t let him, for caution’s sake, and sends him to bed.

And everything returns to normal.

Except-

Bruce sneaks into his kid’s room right before heading out, and Damian is curled up under his covers and he is still quite small and quite young, and all he can think is look at you, look at you-

I’m going to help you, to protect you, I’m going to keep you safe-

And when Bruce runs his hair through soft hair growing long, Damian does not flinch, just blinks up at him with those knowing eyes that still have a world to experience before they are grown.

“Good night, Damian, ” he murmurs, and presses a kiss to his child’s forehead.

And quietly, quietly, when Bruce is almost out the door-

“Good night, Father.”

And it is not much, but it is a start.

(It is a beginning, and it is enough.)

Chapter Text

Batman has been captured for three days, based on his internal clock.

He’s not sure how he got here, some sort of memory lapse he can’t bring back, because one moment he and the rest of the Justice League were returning from an off-world mission, and the next Bruce woke up in a sterile white prison.

There was no sign of the Justice League. This entailed either they got away, or that they were being held somewhere else in the vicinity.

If it was the former… that was a concern. Because it meant he was on a planet that the others have been unable to locate yet, or at the very least a base well defended enough to give them trouble.

If it was the latter, that meant he would have to be doubly cautious: any being capable of keeping down a Kryptonian, a speedster, Martian Manhunter and an Amazon and Black Canary is one to be taken as a threat.

The creatures are some of the strangest he’s ever seen, varied in sizes and shapes and colours, and they’re in no database Bruce has yet to read through, including that of the Green Lantern’s Corp.

They’re also incredibly smart, having stopped all escape attempts so far and stripping him of all his armour and tools, leaving him nothing more than a soft t-shirt and pants that fit oddly well for beings who don’t appear to have any clothes themselves.

(Most aliens, Bruce has learned, don’t use clothes, having developed in better ways to suit their environments. Most aliens, Bruce has learned, thus will just let him be in his costume and utility belt. This is always their first mistake.)

They speak in growls and snarls and odd barking noises that are too loud and grate at his ears- although that could be the constant headache he’s been facing over the last few days, or the fever, or the overall ill demeanor.

Whatever this sickness was, it wasn’t human in nature. There are small purple blotches going up and down his arms, and then yellow streaks on his chest. His muscles also occasionally seize up completely, leaving him paralyzed.

God, Bruce hates going off world.

He is three days over the planned allotment of time in space. He is stuck in some sort of alien facility. The Justice League may or may not be incapacitated.

And all he can think of are his kids .

He hopes his kids were okay. He hopes they aren’t too worried for him, that they are doing their homework and eating well and not in too much danger or pain. He’s supposed to be attending Damian’s art show today, and he’s missing it. He had plans to talk with Duke more, about settling in, about how things are going for him at school, and he is unable. He was meaning to go over some plans with Dick.

And now he can’t.

Which is annoying as hell.

It’s the guards who are the problem. Bruce can get out of the confinements, but in his ailing state he can’t get past the guards.

They come and go in shifts, sometimes in pairs or groups, sometimes alone. Some of them growl and snarl and some are almost entirely silent

Speaking of….

The small green one is back.

The dark vivid creature, more scale than skin and with two enormous tusk like appendages escaping its bloodied mouth and beady yellow eyes prowled closer to the enclosure.

Bruce stands, analyzes, peers closer: the creature is holding something, an occurrence that has yet to occur with this one, although the golden one often times brings in a small rectangle of odd looking… something and then proceeds to snarl at him for a consecutive hour.

Thinking about it makes Bruce’s headache increase, so he just focuses on the green one, who seems to be showing him an image of some sort, although the blurriness to his vision makes it impossible to decipher precisely what it is.

The alien snarls, and Batman stares impenetrably back, silent.

They look at each other for several moments, the quiet stretching on and on and on, and then finally there is another growl and the creature slams into the edges of the glass, whole bodied and angry and seemingly growing in size.

Batman steps back, slides his feet into a fighting position, and readies himself for anything.

But before another move can be made, the big blue one comes in, its usual languid movements replaced by quick furtive ones, and it corrals around the small green one and makes deep, strangulated noises that could almost count as crooning.

Which is… interesting. Maybe this means that Bruce is to be left unharmed.

Or maybe this means that he is to be a good specimen for something far, far worse.

The blue one turns and hisses at him, its bird like facial features contorting strangely to make the sound, and then turns and nudges the smaller green one out of the door, coarse fur shifting over muscular limbs, tail thrashing agitatedly.

There had to be a weakness. Bruce would find it, and he would get out of here.

He would.

 


 

Dick finishes wrapping bandages around Damian’s bloody knuckles, and sighs, leaning down to try and catch the younger’s eyes.

“You really shouldn’t punch the glass, ya know. It doesn’t help anybody.”

He runs his hand through Damian’s hair, and the younger boy doesn’t even respond, just stares angrily down at the canvas laying on the cot besides him.

Right, Dick thinks to himself, This is going swell.

“It’s a great piece of art, Dami. Bruce is going to love it! Really. We just have to… be patient. Clark said the disease should run its course in another week or so.”

No response: the younger boy just shrugs the arm around his shoulder off and storms away, slamming the picture face down on the way out.

The elder picks it up, turns it around and looks at the image painted there, the smooth outline of a tall man gazing at a rising sun through the large manor windows.

“This is getting real old, real fast, Bruce…”

 


 

 

The gold creature comes back to growl and snarl at Batman again, and this time brings the panther-like black and purple one with it, who sits completely still and stares at him with calculating eyes the whole time.

They only stop and leave when a yellow one comes in, one Bruce hasn’t seen before. It pays him barely any attention, comes up to his enclosure and yowls before bouncing around the other two, seemingly calling them to follow.

They do, and it leaves the Batman behind.

Alone.

 


 

 

“Any luck?” Stephanie asks, but Duke just shakes his head.

“I’ve been reading to him for days and all he does is just… stare.”
Cassandra steps ahead and turns to look at them both, gesturing back to the way they came.

“Bruce thinks….enemy.”

Duke shifts, tucks his small paperback copy of War and Peace under his armpit, and sighs.

“Yeah, Cass, I know.”

And he, too, glances behind them.

“I know.”

 


 

The creatures come in, watching his every move. Blues and blacks and purples, yellow and gold. There is one that is a fiery, angry blood red, who stops by one time, stares for just a moment, and then shifts on agitated feet and strolls back out. There is one who is a pale sky blue who almost seems to be trying to communicate with him, but what Bruce does not know.

He does not speak. He watches. He plans.

He wishes he were home.

 


 

(His children stand vigil and wait for him to realize he’s already there.)


Chapter Text

Weak.

Not ready.

Needs more training.

Pathetic.

Apprentice stays emotionless.

He will not react. He will stay still. He will not react. He will keep his face smooth and lacking of all emotion, a mask, one impenetrable and unbroken, even though he feels dead on the inside and-

Except not. His heart is too heavy to be dead. The emotions hurt- are swirling and storming and roaring and tearing him apart from the inside out- too much to be anything but life. His grief is so palpable and real that he stays still, stays still, stays stills, a porcelain china doll until someone comes along and shatters him.

But his heart is already shattered, and his hands are already covered in blood, and the storm is already raging and there will be no ending to his torment.

Slade is leaning over him, chastising, scolding, and then the fist is thrown at Apprentice’s face and he bends backwards, flips out f the way. Training, then. Pain. They will be training, fighting, until he simply can’t, and then they will fight some more, because there is no ending to this torment, there is only Slade and darkness and storms and blood dripping from his pale fingers.

He flips and twists and fights, hard and fast and the picture of elegance and grace, all smooth transitions and tight turns, body bending and leaping and swirling in movements that could be a dance if not for the violence they caused and the violence they escaped.

He remembers, once, that he used to be a dancer. A dancer of the air, flitting and flying and swinging with something beyond a grapple. He remembers when there was no Slade, no storm, but people who possibly loved him and something called a smile on his face. He remembers being Dick instead of being Apprentice. He remembers creating beauty with his movements and his grace, remembers the dance he used to dance in efforts to cause joy and laughter and excitement. Something beautiful.

There is nothing beautiful in this.

He gets knocked down. He gets knocked down and he bangs his head, and it would hurt if he could feel anything anymore beyond the storm. Except maybe it does hurt, and he’s just not registering it, because Slade tells him to stand and he can’t. He’s trying, and he can’t. His muscles are not cooperating and his vision keeps fading in and out, in and out, and somewhere, subconsciously, he registers that he feels like that one time he fell off the monkey bars and cracked his head open on the cold cement below.

His vision goes red, but not from anger- he’s too tired too feel anger- and he realizes that blood is dribbling into his eyes.

He takes a breath, stands up.

Slade pushes him back down.

“Fight. Me.”

I don’t want to fight you , he thinks, because he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to fight anyone, anymore. He’s too tired. Too torn up inside. Too broken. He just wants to curl up on the ground he is lying on and never do anything ever again, because he is far too done to deal with it all.

He spits out blood from his mouth and stands and fights, because not fighting means more pain and more missions and more storms tearing him apart. Not fighting- not listening to Slade- means that he will be pulled on a tighter leash, that he will be left alone that much less, and the trap weaved around him will rise that much higher.

He falls anyways. Again. And again. And again. He’s not fast enough. Not agile enough. Not smart enough. Not strong enough to beat Slade, and he never will be, and so he’ll be stuck doing this gig forever, and that causes something small and terrified to clench in his chest, so he tries.

He tries. Again and again and again.

But he just keeps falling. Falling and falling and falling, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

“Stand up.”

He tries, weak arms shuddering underneath him. Falls. Apprentice has fallen. Apprentice has failed.

Slade places a foot on his back, but he stays silent, repressing a grunt. Grunting shows weakness, and showing weakness means more training beyond what he had just earned the last few hours.

“More training, Apprentice. Your reaction time has improved, but you're still not ready.”

Ready for what? He wants to ask. He doesn’t. Asking is for someone beyond a measly means to an end, something that he has become.

“You have a mission tomorrow. Thievery. Seven P.M. sharp.”

Slade leaves, and he is alone on the cold cement floor, trying to breathe while blood slithers from scratches and bruises form rapidly on his everywhere. But he is alone, and so he is grateful.

Slowly, cautiously, he curls up the slightest amount into the ball he desperately wanted to form. He does not cry- he hasn’t cried in years- but he takes two deep shuddering breaths before slowly pulling himself into a standing position, leaning heavily on the nearest machine and limping away, leaving a trickling trail of blood behind him. The cleaning crew will be coming, and if he’s not in his quarters before they arrived,  he would be punished.

He slips into his rooms with seconds to spare, the door clicking shut behind him before locking itself. The cell is dull, grey walls and no decoration, only a single white cot and a rickety closet to behold. The cot contains a grey ragtag duvet and the closet room for his suit. There’s a nondescript door in the left corner, leading to a small stall of a bathroom that includes a rusty shower, a cracked toilet, and a yellowed sink.

Despite the worn down appearance, the room is kept a sterile sort of clean, the scent of cleaning chemicals still in the air. When he had first arrived, the room had been dirty, but that soon changed when Slade realized he liked drawing with his fingers on the dust covered services.

He misses the dust.

Silently, he peels off his armour, leaving behind a blank white undershirt and a pair of black leggings. He’s well aware of the camera watching him in the corner, but he ignores it, plodding silently to the bathroom and taking a brisk cold shower, wrapping his ribs and stitching cuts that needed it and slathering healing cream on the bruises before pulling his clothes back on; he does, after all, have a mission tomorrow.

You don’t miss missions just because you’re hurt.

He climbs into bed, under the blanket with no pillow to rest on, and stares at the wall.

When he had first arrived here- when he was still more Dick Grayson then he was Apprentice- he had pretended that there was a window on that wall. That he could see the most wonderful and brilliantly coloured things outside of it, things that he missed or had wanted to go to or do. Or, on days where he had felt particularly wistful, a window that he could climb out of and escape from, or maybe even have someone climb up and rescue him.

Now he stares at the chipped paint, and sees a wall. Nothing more, nothing less.

When he first arrived here, he dreamed. Of colours and circus tents and flying, and sometimes falling, and of creatures beyond this world. It was an escape, brief though it might have been in those early days, from his terrifying world.

Now he doesn’t dream at all. He doesn’t think he can even try.

Chapter Text

Kon-El throws a ball up at the ceiling, watches it fall back down and snatches it out of the air to start the process all over again.  The phone, tucked between his ear and shoulder, jabs uncomfortably at an awkward angle into his neck, but he’s too lazy to maneuver from his otherwise comfortable position.

Release. Up. Down. Catch.

Release.

“So…. how’s your day been?”

On the other end of the line, there is the sound of shifting and the rustling of blankets, and Kon-El can almost imagine Tim’s precariously balanced laptop and the semi-glazed look in his eye.

“Fine.”

Release. Up. Down. Catch.

Again, again-

Kon-El hums, tilts his head ever so slightly to catch view of the setting sun, the way it bleached the blue sky orange and pink and purple, the way the stars began their wary flickerings into life.

“You sure sound enthusiastic about it.”

Tim hums. Kon-El waits.

He knows his friend, and Tim rarely calls first when he’s not upset.

Up and down, up and down, up and down-

The minutes trickle by like dust on the wind, and the comfortable silence settles down upon them like a blanket. The only interruptions are the occasional shuffling of limbs on fabric, or the hooting or crowing of a bird outside. If Kon-El focuses, he can hear the sounds of the next town, of Gotham hundreds of miles away.

But the heat of the evening makes his brain sluggish, and the only person who needs to be heard by him right now is already on the other end of the line.

Release. Up. Down. Catch.

Again.

Finally, after an hour of quiet, Tim finally sighs, quiet and soft and tired, tired, tired.

“Bruce and I got into another argument.”

Kon-El expected as much, but he doesn’t say so, just throws the ball back up into the air and watches it come down again, just contents himself to be there, just waits and listens, waits and listens, and does what he can.

“Ah, shit, I’m sorry. That really sucks, man.”

One of those false half laughters escaped through the other teen’s nose.

“Yeah. You can say that again.”

Kon-El smirks, repeats in monotone.

“Ah, shit, I’m sorr-”

“Dude.”

“Yeah- okay.”

Silence.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down.

“Did he ban you from patrol?”

Another shift on blankets, and Tim lets out a hiss of a breath.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Up-

“No- ah- I actually got held hostage earlier today as Timothy Drake and one of the thugs decided it would be really fun to break my ankle…”

The ball falls to the ground, and Kon-El ignores it in favour of sitting up.

“‘Are you okay?”

Stupid, stupid, he should have known something was wrong, should have been there to help, should have stopped it happening in the first place because god knows that Tim goes through enough shit as it is-

“I’m fine, Kon-El. Those guys were a joke: I got out in like two hours. It’s just- inconvenient.”

Kon-El wonders how crazy their lives are, that broken bones are just an inconvenience and kidnappers are jokes. He wishes he could make Tim sound less tired, that he could take some of that burden that lies so heavy on those thin strong shoulders and carry it for him, because after all what’s the point of super strength if he can't help the people he cares about with it?

He wishes he could help. He wishes he would have been there. He wishes he could somehow, magically, make things better. That the words to make all the bad things go away would come spilling out of his mouth and plant little seeds of happiness in Tim’s brain.

But he’s not great with words, with big speeches and grand shows of affection. Never has been.

(Up. Down. Catch.)

But his friend is suffering, however quietly and astutely, and so it drives him to act.

“Give me a minute,” he says, and then he hangs up.

Ten minutes later, he appears knocking on Tim’s bedroom window. The smaller teen blinks up at him, raccoon-eyed and messied hair and light blue cast wrapped around his left foot, and Kon-El knocks a little more insistently.

For a person with an invalid foot, Tim moves surprisingly fast when he wants to.

“What are you doing here?”   the bat hisses, and Kon-El gets momentarily distracted because are those Wonder Woman pajamas? but then he gets back on track.

“I,” he announces, “am going to give you a hug now.”

And then he does just that.

Tim freezes for just a moment, but then he reaches up his arms and hugs him back, still and silent and breathing together in the dark quiet room.

(Release.)

This is the foundation of their friendship, falling and knowing the other will be there to catch, trusting in calloused fingers and the fact that they will never hold too tight, that they are only keeping you secure long enough for you to choose to let go.

This is safe. This is sacred.

This is-

“I like your pjs.”

“Shut up, dickwad.”

(This is home.)

Chapter Text

The cage was too small.

It was small and tiny and he felt that he couldn’t even breathe in it, as if he had used up all the oxygen and now there was nothing left. Outside his small cave- and indeed, that was all it was, a small hidey hole made out of stone sticking directly out of the middle of the enclosure, just large enough for him to curl up in- he could hear the voices and murmurings of a crowd, and Dick liked performing for a crowd, but not like this.

Not as an animal. As a creature to be gaped at and studied. Not as some beast.

Shuddering, he buried his head just a little farther into his tail, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to hold back tears.

He hated this. He hated this so much. And the worse part was that the whole thing had been a complete accident.

He had been swimming…. Well, racing. With Jason, who had been steadfastly stating that he would for sure win this time, even though Dick had managed to beat him ten times out of ten for the last three years. Dick had agreed, of course, self assured in the fact that he would once again reign champion. Tim had immediately volunteered to stand watch at the end of the course and Damian had scowled, mad at being left out, before saying he would start the race.

Bruce watched all of them, rolled his eyes, and went off to attend the council meeting that Dick knew he should probably attend as well, being the crowned prince, but was far too invested in the race to bother.

He wished he would have just gone to the stupid council meeting.

And so they had went off to their various positions and prepared for the race. They had chosen the cliff course this time; a three mile long precipice that stood stark in the center of a coral field and then slipped into a gorge far below. Easy peasy lemon squeezy; Dick had a short cut.

And there were no rules, only that you had to be the fastest, and so that was that.

Damian floated there for several seconds, his young face incredibly serious, before calling out the signal.

Both were off like a rocket, Jason heading one way and Dick the other, heading directly to where he knew a tunnel was several meters away.

One that lead directly through the mountain. Yeah, he was so winning this.

As it turned out, Jason would turn out to be right, and he would lose.

Mostly because he never made it to the finish line.

He swam through the narrow tunnel with speed, bursting out through the other side with a twirl for no other reason than the fact that he wanted to. Then he began making his way to the gorge, a flat mile stretch before his access point.

A pod of whales crooned above him and he smiled, taking a quick detour to swim upwards before sliding a hand down the back of the whale towards the massive head. The whale crooned again at him when he reached one of the large, round eyes, a quiet affection buried within the dark orbs.

Dick grinned, gave a quick wave, and was off.

And then suddenly he wasn’t. He hit something, clear and pale and he wasn’t even sure what was going on but his wrists were caught and as was his tale and geez what was this stuff ?  

Then he realized that it was a net, he was trapped in a net and he hadn’t noticed said net because of the whales.

His mind flashed backwards, to a time when he had been smaller, when his parents had gotten caught in nets. How the sea had been slowly, slowly sinking- the tide going out- and how terrified he had been, gripping his mother and his father’s wrists as he felt the level of water drop inch by inch by inch, hearing them telling him to go and get help, that they would be okay.

How he had believed them, how he had swum out, searching desperately for the rest of their troop- they were travellers, migrant mers- and being unable to find them.

How by the time the tide had gone back in and he had gotten back to them, his parents had been attacked, and lay dead, blood slowly seeping out of them and into the water around them, staining it red before disappearing. How their eyes had been blank and dull staring up at him.

How the sharks had smelt the blood and had come running.

And Bruce. How Bruce had seen the sharks and come running, too.

And how he had just cried. Cried and cried and cried.

He jerked at his wrists, the memories grabbing at his mind and making him panic for several minutes before realizing, wait, his pouch had a knife in it that could cut through any rope. So he reached for his side with his spare hand and slipped his shaking fingers into the soft seaweed fabric. Gripping the knife, he started hacking away at the net.

Except the net was not rope. And the knife did not cut it with a simple slash.

Still, he could have escaped if he had had a little more time to saw away at the clear strands.

He didn’t.

Suddenly the net was being yanked upwards- jerking painfully on his captured appendages- and he was yelping and scared and then there was brilliant sunlight and he was coughing at the suddenly very dry air and he thought he banged his head on the side of the boat or something, but he couldn’t be too sure, because people began shouting and yelling and they were pointing at him and he was starting to panic, starting to tug at his bonds even more fiercely to try and get out, enough that his wrist began to bleed, and then he was on hitting a hard surface and still coughing and still panicking and someone was jerking his shoulder to make him sit upright and people were touching him and he had just wanted them to stop .

It did not stop. And it had not stopped since.

The sheer terror hadn’t left either, but the hopelessness was new.

Since getting caught, it had been an endless amount of lights flashing and being too dry and too cramped spaces people talking and asking in a language that Dick could only vaguely understand but they just spoke so fast and people poking at him with small sharp needles that were like a lionfish except they were metal and people taking his blood and hair trying to get at his scales but failing miserably at it- you only got a mer’s scales when given them, or if they were dead- and that had hurt, so much, and-

And then he was here, in a too small cage that was fashioned with a few pathetic corals that were so ill and just as trapped as he was and a few horrid fake plants and structures and he felt so very small, and he missed Bruce and Jason and Tim and Damian and Alfred and-

And he just wanted to go home.

He wondered if he would ever get a chance to see either again.

He sobbed, a dry sob, small in his throat, and then pretended to himself that he didn’t flinch when someone banged on the glass.

He could do that. He could pretend. After all, no one was there to call him out on it.

He was alone.

Someone banged on the glass again.

Correction: He was alone except for the hundred of people buzzing around outside his cage and a few sickly coral.

Another bang. Someone was yelling at him to come out, but he didn’t want to. He just wanted to go home.

And then someone was yelling at someone- presumably the person banging- to stop. (The only advantage to getting trapped was finally improving on his English, something that he would have been proud of if the situation was different.) His heart jumped into his throat, because the tone of voice- even if the sound was all wrong- sounded so much like Timothy that he almost cried again.

There was a scuffle, and then a big noise, like the metal clang of a ship railing against a bar, and then silence. And then the murmur of voices came back.

Dick lifted his head, eyes on the small hole in front of him. His tail was paler than usual, he noticed, probably because he wasn’t eating much and wasn’t in the sun and that being trapped in a cage caused stress, but beyond it he could see the pale sands of his enclosure.

His tail twitched.

A part of him wanted to stay. It was the only spot where he felt unscrutinized. But on the other hand….

On the other hand, someone had been kind to him. Had defended him. And he was pretty sure it was the first time that had happened since he had gotten caught.

His tail twitched.

And then, slowly, he crept out of the cave, eyes peering for the owner of the voice.

For several moments, there was silence, and he tensed. He was pretty sure that the people were in shock to see him.

And then the shouting and flashes and yelling came back in full force and Dick could not help but flinch, expression pinched at all the noise, and turn to head back to his cave.

“HEY! You all need to be quiet! You’re scarin’ him!”

He turned back, and there at the front was a young girl, glaring at his tormentors with a light in her eyes that he swore came right out of Jason. Most were ignoring her, because she was small, but he couldn’t. That was twice, now, that she had treated him with kindness, and that deserved something .

He bit his lip, eyes drawn to his cave, and then he grit his teeth and flashed out, twisting slightly towards the end and performing a small loop so that he would end up in front of the girl- he wasn’t even showing off, he was physically incapable of maneuvering without them, the cage was that small- whose eyes were so wide that Dick though they might just explode.

Once he was there, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, just that he needed to do something.

People were shouting again and there were more flashes, but Dick ignored them. Focused on the girl.

She waved. Dick waved back.

She was a cute little thing, maybe a little younger than Tim, with big hazel eyes and brown hair in loose pigtails. In her hand was a small mer figurine, one with a blue tail and short black hair and-

Oh. It was supposed to be him.

Seeing his gaze, she lifted it up to properly show him. He saw the resemblance, sort of, except the toy was smiling and looked ridiculously happy.

Dick looked at her, suddenly gripped by this tight fear that she thought he was happy to be here. That it was his choice. That he wanted to be ripped from his family and hurt and dried up and stuffed in this tiny, tiny little cage to be gawked at. He shook his head vehemently, pointing at the figure, at its smile, and shook his head again.

She looked down at the toy and then back up at him, brows furrowed.

“Are you…. sad?”

The words were distorted through the glass, but he got the gist of it, and nodded, shoulders slumping because finally , someone got it.

She was looking at him now, really at him, not at simply the fact that was a mer. And maybe she saw how thin he was, how tired he was, how his eyes were so, so scared and so, so terribly, yes, sad.

And then she was crying.

She was crying for him.

And… and then he was crying, too.

He slipped down, tail on the artificial sand below, hand trailing the see-through glass as if he could press through it, as if there was an escape. His shoulders were shaking and his other hand was covering his eyes, and Neptune was this embarrassing, but he couldn’t stop . He couldn’t stop, and tears kept slipping off his face and landing on the cold dust, hardening and forming small tiny crystals.

More pictures. More flashes. He just cried harder.

And then he realized the little girl had placed her hand over his, on the other side of the glass, was staring at him as if he was the saddest thing she had ever seen.

Perhaps he was.

And suddenly he knew what to do.

He had talked about it once, with Bruce, about how a man on a ship had used no words, hand gestured instead. Bruce had been mad at him for going near the humans without him, but had eventually consented and told him about sign language.

Dick didn’t know much English, but he did know this.

Slowly, he brought his fingers to his chin and then down in a slow arc, and then again. He wasn’t sure if he was doing it right, but he tried, he tried.

Thank you. Thank you.

The girl did not seem to quite understand the exact meaning of the gesture, but she got the gist. She smiled.

He tried to give her one back.

The lights flashed again, and people were yelling, pointing at him with the weird rectangular boxes and their fingers and pointing at the floor, at his tears- the gems - and shoot, shoot, Bruce had warned him about this, he had, and-

And now people were moving, and there were lab coats filing into the room and guards shifting the crowds out to be replaced by “professionals,” and Dick felt his heart skip a beat at the sight of the suits.

Those suits allowed the men to come in the water and near him and these people were not nice, they were not nice at all, and why were they doing this?

His eyes flickered down, to the gems. Then up at the crowds surrounding his cage and the man preparing himself for a dive. They wanted to steal his tears.

He wasn’t going to let them.

Quietly, silently, Dick reached out and called the crystals back to him. He wasn’t very good with sorcery, but these were a part of him, so they were easy to gather.

The small gems quivered and then shifted through the water towards him, hundreds of sparkling shining solid tears landing without further ado in his cupped palms. There was more shouting and picture snapping on the other side of the glass, and a splash as the diver entered the enclosure, obviously intent on getting the gems.

Dick made sure to look directly into the visor and to hold his hands out very invitingly before smirking and closing his open palms into tight fists, the tears vanishing with a small glowing encirclement of blue, reabsorbed into himself.

For a second, there was silence, the diver hesitating in the water, his perusal suddenly without prey.

And then the shouting and yelling and screaming was back again, and the flashes were bright again, too bright, and he looked up and the crowds were trying to be led out by the officer-like people, and he caught eyes with the little girl. She gave him a thumbs up, small and resolute, but her eyes still seemed sad.

It was sort of how Dick felt.

Sure, there was a success, but he was still trapped.

He was still alone .

Chapter Text

7:00 PM

 

Jason snarls, glancing at the time before hissing a curse and placing an explosive on the side of one of the facility’s walls.

So much for the element of surprise.

Red Robin is supposed to be here, supposed to be helping him out and hacking their way in so that this precise scenario wouldn't occur. Jason even asked nicely and everything for his help! But no, no, the Replacement was a freaking no show and now he has no back up and a hell of an operation still left to do.

Where the hell is he!?

This is what Jason got for relying on others.

Stupid, stupid- should have known better.

The kid had blown him off, pure and simple. Jason remembers him mentioning at some point while going over the plan that he was having a meet up with Blondie. He wonders if the two of them are somewhere above him, watching and laughing at him.

Bastards.

Jason ducks away around the corner and doesn’t even flinch when the bomb goes off, just jumps in, guns blazing.

He’ll get back on him for this. He will.

He always does.

 


 

4:00 PM

 

Stephanie finishes her coffee, foot tapping impatiently as her eyes scan the swarms of people moving past the small cafe. She’s more than a little confused, if she’s going to be honest, because usually Tim at least tells her before missing one of their monthly catch ups, but she figures that something might have come up really short notice or he became otherwise distracted.

Maybe he got held up in a board meeting. He had mentioned that there was one coming up that was going to dead awful.

She sighs, orders a bagel to go, and walks out into the brisk winter air.


 

2:00 PM

 

Bruce glances down at his watch, and then back up at the collective groups of persons that creates the board of Wayne Industries. He smiles, lazy and charming, but inside he’s frowning because it is not like Tim to be the late and they were already past the five minute mark.

Calling the boy’s phone had been to no avail: it had rung right through without being picked up. This, too, was not normal.

One of the corporates coughs pointedly into his elbow, and Bruce sighs and stands and settles himself into a long a few hours of giving a presentation he has limited information on to a bunch of swarmy businessman.

Where the hell is Tim?

It’s only halfway through the meeting he remembers Tim saying he and Kon-El were going out to see some movie or another that had just been released. The teen had probably blown off the presentation in favour of hanging out with his friend.

Bruce frowned, and resigned himself to a talk about responsibilities and obligations later.


 

12:00 PM

 

Kon-El sighs, frowning down at the precariously balanced popcorn and drinks and then back up at the waiting cinema door.

Advertisements are probably almost over, and Tim is still a no-show.

He really, really, really just wants to go in anyways. The movie is supposed to be really good, and he’s already bought the tickets and everything, and the other boy probably just got caught up in paperwork or in writing some report or another, will call him back sometime later with apologies and reasonings and whatever else.

The awesome sounds coming from the screen inside compel him to step forwards, but instead he sighs and steps back, back, back and out the theatre. There is no point in watching the movie when he doesn’t get to trade snide or inspired comments with his best friend: it just wouldn’t be as fun.

They’ll try again some other day.

Next time, though, Kon-El is making Tim pay for everything, because this stuff is expensive and he’s not the one with the billionaire father.


 

9:00 AM

 

“Hey, Tim, I was wondering if you could help me with this one case, I-”

Dick pauses.

Blinks.

Blinks again and peers around the completely empty batcave.

Which is… odd. To say the least. Red Robin is an almost constant fixture in the cave, working on reports, finding suspects, and analyzing evidence. Dick struggles to think of the last time he came down at this time and the boy wasn't there.

He couldn't think of any other activity Tim might have had planned, not before ten in the morning, but he supposes that something might have come up.

Perhaps he’ll ask Alfred and see if the older man knows anything. For now, though, there’s a bowl of cereal calling his name.


 

7:00 AM

 

Alfred peers into the dark room before him, humming quietly to himself as he enters and pulls the curtains open to let the dawn’s slowly growing light creep in and leave rays of gold slanted on warm wooden floors.

As usual, the room is rather a mess, clothes stacked and piled together on the floor and dresser, trash from late night snacks scattered all over, bed unmade into a massive pile of sheets and pillows in the center of the mattress.

He sighs. The fact that Tim is no where to be seen is quite normal, even if Alfred believes the teen needs far more sleep. Still, he does wish he could clear things away and give the place a good thorough dusting.

But no, Tim had requested that the old butler leave his room and its messiness be, claiming that there is order in the chaos. Alfred can’t understand what could ever be organized about mismatched socks, but perhaps that is just him.


 

 

PRESENT

 

“Where the hell are you, Replacement!?”

Bruce blinks, glances up to meet Jason’s steely blue eyes, to see the fire in them. The younger man clenches his teeth and glares back, the rest of the family around the dining table looking on in varying states of confusion and shock.

Finally, after a long pause, Dick stands up to respond to the rather dramatic entrance.

“....We thought he was with you.”

Jason snorts.

“Nope. Little jerk left me high and dry. Pretty sure he’s halfway to Vegas with Blondie by now-”

Here, Damian sighs despondently, using his fork to push his beans around the plate.

“Drake can not be with Fatgirl, because unfortunately-”

“What about me?”

The family- as a single unit- turns to stare at Stephanie.  The young woman enters the room more fully, sitting back down at her spot and raising her eyebrow.

“Geez, I go to the bathroom for three minutes and suddenly it’s an interrogation scene from some second-rate soap opera….”

Jason meets her eye with a steady gaze, and everyone turns to look at him as he says, “Did Replacement tell you why he decided to ditch me at your little afternoon meet and greet?

Stephanie frowns, and everyone’s focus zooms back onto her, as if in a ping pong ball match.

“No… he, uh, he never actually showed up. I thought he might have gotten held up by a meeting….”

But Bruce is shaking his head, too, a steady frown growing on his features.

“He didn’t show up for that, either. I thought he might have been with Conner Kent.”

For several moments, silence reins, but then Dick speaks up slowly and carefully.

“So you mean to tell me that no one has seen Tim all day ?”

Head shakes all around, and when even Alfred joins in worry begins to fester.

“I”ll call Kon-El, maybe Tim’s been with him this whole time and just forgot to tell us?”

The words fall flat and feel weak at best even to Dick’s own ears, a bitter hope on a wire too thin to stand on.

He gets up anyways, pulling out his phone, and when he comes back to the dining table with expression no less worried chaos breaks loose.

“-can’t believe he’s missing-”

“How did none of us notice?”

“Where the hell could he be-”

“- only an impeccable like Drake would-”

“- have the rest of the heroes on the lookout, just in case-”

“- grab the most recent files, there might be a lead?”

“When was the last time someone saw him?”

“- figure out a cover story-”

“Would someone please-”

 

“What’s going on?”

 

The final question almost gets lost in the noise, but Stephanie’s eyes flicker to the form standing in the dining room hallway and her relieved yelp draws everyone attention.

“Tim!”

Tim blinks at them, shoulders bare under his too-big pajama top and eyes still bleary under his glasses.

“...hi?”

Dick is over by his side in an instant, careful hands fluttering all over the teen’s frame, checking for injuries and other maladies.

“Are you okay?”

The shorter boy nods confusedly, looking around his older brother to peer at the crowd gathered behind him, all staring at the scene with a sort of strange intensity.

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Bruce steps in, putting a solid hand on Tim’s shoulder, leaning down a little bit so that blue orbs could meet blue.

“We were worried: you’ve been missing all day. Where were you?”

Tim blinks up at Bruce’s relieved and concerned gaze, glances down at his rather obvious sleep wear, runs a hand through his rather terrible bed head, and then rubs at his eyes under his glasses before once more returning to peer up at Bruce, this time with a look that highly suggests he suspects the older man of being the one in need of a check up.

“I was sleeping. Are you guys all okay?”

Bruce lets out a sigh.

“Yes, Tim, but where?”

The concern in Tim’s own gaze only grows.

“My bedroom? I don’t understand why this is such a big deal…”

Jason starts muttering swear words and ramming his head into the table, creating a repetitive thumping background music. In the corner, there’s a quiet cough, and suddenly Alfred is there.

“My dear boy, I don’t believe that can be true. I’ve been in your room several times today, and never once did I see you.”

Frowning, Tim slowly shakes his head, folding his arms in front of him and once more peering around the ever growing crowd surrounding him as if checking for concussions.

“No: I was sleeping in my bed, and my alarm didn’t go off and so I sort of just…. Kept sleeping.”

Alfred’s eyes suddenly widen.

“The blankets.”

Tim just shrugs, and Bruce shakes his head in a sort of weary exasperation that comes from being the parent of far too many children.

“The whole time? You were just- sleeping?”

“Yes.”

“An entire day?

“Yes!”

“Master Timothy,  I was vacuuming.”

“...yes?”

Silence reigns.

“It’s a very loud alarm.”

Stephanie, her head cradled in her arms, snickers and lets loose an almost hysterical, “ Oh my gods-”

And then everyone’s chuckling, a sort of relieved tension escaping from their bones, and Damian rolls his eyes and escapes into his own bedroom and Bruce heads to his office to cancel some now-unnecessary calls and Dick ruffles Tim’s hair and Jason flicks him in the nose before disappearing out a window and Stephanie gives him a hug and demands to reschedule their get-together and Alfred asks Tim if he would like anything to eat.

Tim, stuck in a  sort of confused tired haze throughout the entirety of the events, sort of just runs his eyes and waves the offer off. He decides wakefulness is overrated and goes back to bed, crawling under his nest of blankets and pillows until he is invisible to the outside world.

Somewhere before he slips away into the land of dreams once more, he revels in the fact that it is nice to be apart of a family who cares.

It feels good. It feels right. It curls up somewhere soft and warm in his chest, and then it carries him away.

Chapter Text

The Signal comes to a stop the third time the same kid appears in his field of vision, obviously keeping up somehow besides the fact that they’re both ten stories up and the other boy doesn’t have any obvious grappling hook.

This can’t be a coincidence.

Right?

Right?

The kid sees him staring and waves a little awkwardly across the rooftops, shifting on anxious feet before stilling and crossing his arms, hopping up and down a bit.

Duke looks around, making sure there’s no other person that the boy might be staring at, and then swings across to stand next to him.

“Ummmm... hi?”

“Hello!” the kid calls, smile blinding, and Duke blinks because what the hell-

“Can I, uh- help you?”

The kid, somehow, brightens up even more.

“Yes, actually, I’m looking for the batcave?”

Duke blinks. Stares. Blinks again.

Thinks, shit.

What’s he supposed to do in this situation? Pat the kid on the head and tell him to go bye-bye? Knock him unconscious and interrogate him? Swing away without saying anything?

He doesn’t know, and he can’t ask anyone because they’re all- besides Damian and Alfred- on a league mission with strict radio silence protocols except in dire emergencies, and Duke doesn’t think this counts.

Think, think, what would Batman do-

Before he can come to a conclusion, however, the kid slaps himself on the forehead with a resounding smack and then reaches out to grab one of Duke’s own hands, his fingers disturbingly small against yellow armoured ones.

“Where are my manners!? I’m John. Nice to meet you! Damia- I mean, err- I mean Robin talks about you all the time!”

And, of course, that adds a whole new level of complexity to this whole thing, because why the hell does some kid in worn out jeans and dirtied up tennis shoes know Robin’s secret identity? If Damian were any other child, Duke might think that he just spilled the beans to look cool, but that so does not fit in with Damian’s personality at all so he’s left, again, in a state of general confusion and anxiety.

Think rationally about this.

Duke peers closer at the kid. Black hair and blue eyes. That seems right up Bruce’s alley, and he knows for a fact that there are some members of the Bats’ abbreviated family that he has not met, including some members from the future or alternate timelines or whacked up things like that.

Right.

So maybe this kid was one of those?

Duke didn’t even know anymore. How did this become his life?

You asked for it, he thinks, and then internally sighs.

“Alright,” he says, and John’s face lights up like a Christmas tree.

“Awesome! Let’s go!”

Great.

Just great.

So they go to the Batcave, the kid jabbering the entire time, and Duke nods and responds and internally worries because he has no idea what he’s doing, if this is the right course of action, and by the time he gets back to home base he’s on the edge of full out panic.

This is not helped when, upon arriving, Damian magically appears before him, scrutinizes Duke a little too closely for him to call it comfortable, nods once, and then flipping vanishes with John.

Duke sighs and takes off his cowl, decides that that’s enough confusion for the day and heads up to his room to watch some cartoons, because at this point anything else more complicated might melt his brain.

And that’s the end of it.

Except, you know, the point where it’s not.

Because five hours later, Duke is going through some stretches on the matts and there’s a loud yelp, and by the time Duke arrives at the right enclave - because no matter what all the other kids say the Batcave is a freaking maze- John is cowering behind Damian, who, in turn, is glaring up at his father, and Batman is watching the two of them with an unimpressed gaze while the rest of the batclan watches on behind him.

“Jonathan Kent. Who gave you permission to be in the Batcave?”

Kent. The kid’s last name was Kent.

Of course it was.

The kid lets out a nervous chuckle, and Duke internally sighs before stepping forwards and raising his hand.

“It was- uh- me, actually. I was the one who let him in.”

The collective gaze of the entire family comes to rest on him, and Duke resists the urge to finger gun because now is so not the time.

Bruce just frowns.

“Why would you think it was okay to let him in?”

Duke clears his throat. Shifts his feet. He should probably make something up, but at the same time this is Batman so he highly doubts he could get away with it.

And so, without further ado, he sort of rubs his neck and turns his gaze upwards before letting out a quiet sort of, “He, uh, he has black hair and blue eyes and I suppose I just sort of figured that, well- eh-”

Jason has started laughing, which is so not helpful, but Duke pushes through anyways.

“I just sort of figured that he was another one of yours?”

Silence settles amongst them, John looking back and forth from the two parties like it is a tennis match as the rest of the kids watching on ever growing anticipation.

Bruce just slowly turns to look at the crowd of blue-eyed, black-haired kids behind him, stares at them for a few moments, before turning back to Duke.

He nods, once.

“Fair enough.”

And then he sweeps past them all to get changed while the rest of the cave lights up with laughter.

And Duke doesn’t know quite what he’s doing. Doesn’t know quite where he fits in with this mess of a family. But Dick is ruffling his hair and Jason is in hysterics in the corner, Damian is giving him this small little pleased smirk while John continues to watch in confusion, and Tim has started crowing that he’s got it on film, and Duke…

Duke figures that if he has this, if he has this , then there’s more than enough to start.

Chapter Text

It starts, as many things do with the Batfamily, with the concept of vengeance.

 

The plastic tub has been filled, the dog shampoo has been set out, and he’s whistled three times but there are no canines in sight.

Damian frowns, peeling off the latex gloves on his fingers and going off to search the house, because Titus isn’t coming, which is very strange indeed. Titus loves baths, will sometimes nudge the hose out even when they are not required, and the fact that he is missing one is concerning.

Now, two hours later, there is still no sign of the dog, and Damian is not exactly worried but he is definitely getting there and he may or may not have his Robin suit on to go looking and he may or may not have fliers already printed, just in case, except-

Except Duke comes strolling into the batcave, pleased as can be, and Titus comes trotting along besides him, spotting Damian and running up for kisses, which he gives- because Titus is a good boy and deserves them, and is by no means at fault here - while glaring up at the older boy.

“Thomas,” he says, and Duke hums in an absent minded acknowledgement and reaches for his laptop.

Unacceptable.

“Thomas.”

“‘Yeah, Damian?”

Titus is sniffling under his chin, asking for more pets. It makes it very difficult to look threatening, but Damian glares hard enough that he’s sure he makes up for it.

What were you doing with Titus? I did not give you any permission to take him anywhere.”

This, at last, catches Duke’s attentions, and he side-eyes the younger boy with a sort of curious expression.

“There was a dog wash at the park today, and some of my old friends were running it so I just thought I would-”

Damian interrupts, glaring even harder. Titus wags his tail and gives him a wet slobbering kiss.

“You thought wrong.”

Then he stands and walks away, the over sized dog trotting along happily behind him.

“Come, Titus, we must wash the plebian off you,” he looks over his shoulder to shoot Duke one last glare, “I will have my vengeance for this, Thomas!”

Duke rolls his eyes and waves him off the minute Damian’s back is turned. He does not realize the intention behind the eleven year old’s words. He does not realize just how seriously such a claim is to be taken under this roof.

 

And thus everything spirals out of control.

 

It is a fact that Duke drinks coffee in the mornings. He puts an absurd amount of sugar in it, but it’s still coffee. He’s found himself especially dependent on it ever since he’s started patrolling, because in turn it means sometimes he’s up incredibly late with the other bat members or he is otherwise working on homework.

This is the fact that Damian thinks of when he replaces everything they have in the coffee filter and various cupboards with decaf.

The fact that Damian doesn’t think of is that Tim consumes coffee at unnatural rates.

The teen comes stumbling down to the kitchen at six in the morning, half dressed and hair a mess, and goes through the motions to make himself his usual three cups.

The first he throws back like a shot, swallowing it all in a successive three gulps fast enough that it scares even Bruce sometimes.

The second lasts a little longer.

The third he will carry around with him until he leaves to get to Wayne Enterprises.

Except-

Except that, on his first sip of his second cup- the first going down to fast for him to care about anything as meandering as flavour-   he can tell that something has gone terribly, horribly wrong.

This is not his life blood. This is an imposter.

After staring forlornly at his mug for precisely three minutes, he looks up to glare at the surrounding members of his family.

“Who the hell,” he growls, look steadily becoming more and more deadly, “replaced all my coffee with decaf .”

He peers around, looking for suspects, but the true perpetrator of the crime is not there, Damian having long since left to go to school.

Jason, however, is, and he commits himself to his doom the minute he opens his mouth and laughs.

Tim’s bleary eyes narrow in on their target.

Vengeance for this heinous crime will be served.

 

(This is where the havoc truly starts.)

 

Tim places eggs on top of the window Jason frequently uses to enter and exit Wayne Manor, except that- by some twisted turn of fate- it is not the Red Hood who uses it next but Stephanie and Cassandra, who look at each other, dripping in egg yolks, laugh, and then swear vengeance on Jason, who they believe has set the trap in efforts to deter their use of his window.

 

When Jason proceeds to wake up one day with hair a horrid lime green colour and Harper catches sight of him and begins to laugh herself silly, she then gets drawn into the fold, enlisting Cullen as her partner in crime.

 

Damian acquires Dick’s help in taking Duke down, and Duke teams up with Tim in self defense. Cass and Stephanie persuade Barbara to join their alliance, and Harper and Cullen call truce with Jason- despite the fact that their hands are dyed bright smurf blue- in order to wage war.

 

Now, this might have been fine, except for the fact that the Bat family never does anything halfway.

 

No one is safe.

 

Hair is dyed, sharpies are used, entire bedrooms are cling wrapped. Dick walks into his apartment one day and keeps bumping into everything because every individual item has been moved precisely three inches to the left. Duke steps out of the house late for football practice and no less than twelve pies splatter on top of him. Barbera hacks every one’s social media, and embarrassing stories- both real and false- are told for the whole world to hear. Every single one of Harper’s pens is rendered unusable and Cullen wakes up one day taped to his ceiling.

Damian rolls over in his bed only to realize that he’s lying on a park bench in an entire other state, with no knowledge as to how he got there. Cassandra replaces everyone’s shoes with crocs and the next day when she is on international TV a bucket of white goo is dumped on her head. Jason shows up with a scowl on his face and three closed bags of sugar all somehow replaced with salt. Stephanie trips up on a wire and is found three hours later hanging from one of the manor’s many chandeliers

It bleeds into patrol, people reaching into their belts for a batarang and pulling out tiny rubber ducks instead. Routes are altered to be three times as long and shoves into garbage cans are implemented, and there is the memorable time Tim shows up at the Commissioners with his costume dyed entirely bright neon pink.

After the third time a small explosion echoes through the manor, Bruce calls a meeting and demands the madness come to a stop, frown settling upon his exasperated shoulders.

This is a mistake: Bruce, of all people should know the power of vengeance.

The next three days, all is calm in the manor. This should have been the first sign that something has gone terribly wrong, and that he should brace himself. But Bruce, the fool, ignores it.

Which is why, on the fourth day, when all hell breaks loose in time with the rising sun,  Bruce is not incredibly surprised even if he has past the point of exasperation he has reached levels of sheer godly done-ness.

Bruce shows up to work that day in a fabulously sparkly purple suit, his hair dyed a putrid yellow, and a poorly drawn moustache made with permanent marker. He is also- for reasons beyond any of the small time workers’ imaginations-  coughing up feathers. This is only the after effects of a very long list of offences, the others of which involving nail polish, assorted pastries and frostings, cling wrap, copious amounts of whip cream, paintball machine guns, and enough sparkles and confetti that he will be finding them in random places on his person for weeks afterwards.

After a full eight hours of double-takers and the gaping mouths of poor interns taking in the sheer monstrosity that is his face and outfit, Bruce arrives home in a rather bad mood. When he turns on the news and finds every headline focused on his ‘fashion disaster,’ Bruce puts his hands together and glares thoughtfully.

Vengeance, he decides, will be mine.

 

The children tease him all throughout dinner and all throughout patrol. Bruce takes it good naturedly enough, but inside he schemes and plots and plans his reign of terror.

And late that night, when all throughout the house, a lone dark figure comes to knock on a tall standing door.

“Come in.”

Bruce does just so, pausing just in the entryway of a room caught in darkness.

“I’ve been expecting you.”

Bruce bows, resists the urge to smile.

“I can’t do this alone.”

There’s the click of a lamp, and Alfred Pennyworth spins around in his chair to face his ward, bathed in ominous yellow light.

“Then let’s get started, shall we?”

 

What comes next is three days of complete and utter mayhem that leaves each and every child of the Bat in awe and fear of the one and only true dynamic duo.

There is no mercy.

And at the end of it all, the children admit defeat. There is no defeating such an all powerful being as Alfred, and it is in moments like these they remember such truth.

And so, at last, peace one more returns to Wayne Manor, and the family gets along again in chaotic harmony.

(At least until next month, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Chapter Text

Harper isn’t sure what the hell she’s doing.

Harper isn’t sure she wants to know what the hell she’s doing.

All she knows is that it’s in the middle of the night, the rain is coming down in sleets, and Cullen is tied to a freaking stake in one of the most precarious positions of all mankind: the very edge of a coastal shelf with a thrashing ocean down below trying to swallow them whole.

The salt spray is getting in her eyes. The wind is howling in her ears. The stupid chain held in place beneath her knees isn’t stupid breaking.

And, of course, there’s a dragon coming.

The villagers- stupid, dumb, close minded people with their stupid superstitions and their stupid ideas and their stupid heads put on backwards, refusing to own up for their own mistakes and faults and problems, stupid, stupid, stupid - are all locked away inside of their homes. Come morning, they’ll wake up smiling, celebrating the dawn’s new light, saying their small town’s issues have all been fixed after paying tribute to the great beast of nature, to the dragon guardian, the dragon demon.

“No more failing crops!” they’ll call, “No more lack of trade!”  

Harper knows better. She knows that prayers and bargains have no place in the real world, no value. It just leaves this, two kids caught in a storm that rages on and on and on. It just leaves this, the desperation burning inside of her, the anger.

She pants, swipes water from her forehead, stands up completely soaked and turns again to Cullen. He has bruises forming all over, has blood dribbling down the side of his poorly shaved head. They had taken him from her, had come in to their small corner of the world- an abandoned bell tower in the outskirts of the village- and there had been too many to fight off, too many stop.

“It’s for the best,” one old woman had said to her, pity coating her pruned voice, wrinkled hands patting Harper’s hot red cheeks, wiping away angry tears, “he’s better off, anyways. He’s doing something good for our village, and you’ll be free from all that responsibility, be able to live a good life.”

Harper had tried to bite her, and she did not regret it.

Because this is Cullen.

Cullen, her little brother, her responsibility.

Cullen, her little ray of sunshine.

Cullen, who tries so hard to be good , to look on the bright side, who never stopped believing they would get out.

Cullen, who has a whole life left to live in front of him, who she was going to send off to school next year with her slowly collected coins.

Cullen, who is chained to a stake at the edge of an ocean, blood dripping to catch the smell of the monsters that hide under the bed at night, who is going to die.

Cullen, who’s looking at her resigned and tired and frustrated and so, so sad.

“Just go, Harper. I’ll be okay.”

“No.”

“You’re not going to be able to break the chain.”

Harper does not respond. She just hits the metal harder, but the sea-worn rock in her hand crumples instead of dents, and she hisses and scowls and snarls and grabs another one.

Somewhere beyond them, the warning bells begin to toll.

“Harper! Go!”

She swallows, desperate, and the bells just keep getting louder in her head.

The dragon is almost here.

The dragon is almost here.

Another rock crumples into nothing.

There’s a keen shrieking sound echoing through the air. Harper feels her hair stand on end. Above them, lighting flashes. Below them, the sea rages.

All around them, time is running out.

She lets the black shards fall from her hand, she skids to her feet and takes the few perilous steps to her brother, her little baby brother, and even though all around them the wind is howling when he speaks his words are perfectly soft and perfectly clear.

“It’s okay, Harper. Just leave. Get out and live your life. I’ll be- I’ll be okay.”

Stop trying to put up a brave front for me, she wants to yell, I’m supposed to be the one who’s brave so you don’t have to be.

But she doesn’t. She can’t. The tears are coming as thick and as fast as the rain pouring from the sky and when she places her hands around Cullen’s face he breaks down, too.

“We’re in this together,” she says, and it echoes back a thousand times, “whatever comes next, I’m going to be right besides you.”

Cullen can’t hold her, chained as he is, but she tucks him close and presses her cheek against his wet hair. She has to shout to be heard over all the wind, to be heard over the terrifying roar that is vibrating her very bones it’s so loud, but she tries, she tries, because Cullen has to know that she loves him, that he is the best little brother in the whole wide world and life was shit for the both of them but he made it worth it.

He has to know.

He has to-

A shadow looms out of the sky, making the dark night darker. The clamour is so loud it is reverberating in her very soul, and Harper wishes she could feel Cullen’s heart beat, wishes that they wouldn’t be dying cold and hungry and hurt and alone, wishes that they were leaving behind more than just a collection of coins and half-formed dreams that will never get to be fulfilled.

She hopes it will be quick.

She hopes it won’t hurt.

The dragon swoops low, and Harper tucks Cullen so close that they may as well be one person and breathes the breath she believes to be her last-

 

And then she doesn’t die

There’s a swooping in her stomach, a feeling of free falling, the snap of a chain and a shriek escaping her brother’s closed lips, and then there’s sudden shelter from the cold rain and warm darkness all around them.

“Cullen,” she hisses, reaching out, “‘ Cullen!”

Freezing wet fingers grasp her own.

“H-Harper?”

She tugs her kid brother to her side and holds him close, fumbling around with numb hands to make sure that he’s not terribly bleeding from puncture wounds, both surprised and relieved when there’s nothing.

“Were we… eaten?”

She shakes her head, reconsiders when she realizes Cullen would be unable to see, and then says carefully, quietly, “I don’t think so.”

They’re moving, though. They’re definitely moving. She can feel that swooping up and down motion, can hear the wind whistling by outside, and when she places her ear against the flat wall-like area behind their backs there’s a loud pounding that terrifyingly sounds like a heartbeat.

“It’s taking us somewhere,” she says, and her lips are chapped and her throat is dry.

“Yeah,” murmurs Cullen, his grip tightening around her hand, “but where? And why?”

And Harper has no answers, so she says nothing.

Perhaps that is answer enough.

 


 

Harper isn’t really sure what she’s expecting for when they finally stop. Maybe a massive cavern filled with treasure and bones. Lava. The shrieks of the dying and tortured.

She doesn’t know, but whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t… this.

“This” being the horn of conch shell and calls of greeting and excitement.

“He’s back!” someone cries, and then a deep rumbling crooning fills the small cavern they’re in, making them both jump.

Harper stands on wavering feet and prepares herself to fight.

She plops right back down when suddenly the walls of the darkness shift and they are exposed once more to fresh air, revealing for the first time in clear view the creature that is carrying them.

Big, Harper thinks, and then she gets stuck on that.

Because the dragon is huge. It’s tremendous. Massive. Colossal. Cullen knows more words, but oh gods this thing is so, so big. The neck spanned wider than most roads, and the two cupped claws that were making their cozy cavern were the size of one of the village houses, each.

Cullen is craning his head to get a look at the wingspan. To get such a ginormous beast off the ground…. Harper’s not sure she wants to know.

And below them are a bunch of children, waving.

“He’s brought another one!” someone yells, “someone get the blankets!”

And then they land, a jarring, sudden motion that has Cullen crashing into her and the both of them rolling until suddenly they’re off smooth scales and onto hard packed earth.

Scrambling to her feet, Harper pulls Cullen behind her and glares.

“Who the hell are you ?”

One of the younger ones, maybe her age, steps forward. He’s got bright blue eyes and dark black hair, and a lean frame. He seems a little awkward, but when he smiles it doesn’t seem anything less than real.

“‘Hi, I’m Tim,” he says, pausing to give a little wave above both of their heads, “welcome to Wayne Island.”

It’s enough to remind her about the massive beast behind her, and she whirls around to stare at the greater threat. But the creature isn’t attacking, just watching with strangely intelligent liquid brown eyes, and it huffs warm air onto her face and makes Cullen release an almost hysterical giggle.

“What’s going on, again?” her brother asks, voice pitched too high, and Harper tightens her grip around his wrists and snarls as one of the girls- a blonde one with a friendly smile Harper refuses to trust- tries to get closer.

“I like this one,’ comments one of the younger kids, maybe eleven, and his green eyes shine with a light that isn’t completely natural.

Tim ignores it all with an ease that suggests lots of practice, focusing solely on Cullen.

“That’s… a difficult question. Short version is that you were rescued, you’re safe here, and no one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to.”

Harper glances at the crowd of faces surrounding them, at all these bright eyes faces and their sun worn tunics, at the colossal dragon serenely watching the scene from the corner of its eye as it nudges against one of the other boys, making him swat nonchalantly at it.

“And the long version?”

Tim smiles a little crookedly, shifting on nervous feet.

“That, uh- might take a while.”

“We’re listening,” Cullen says, quiet and small but so, so brave, and Harper feels unsure and afraid and terribly proud all at once.

Tim just nods, gestures for them to follow, and starts off one of the many worn down paths.

“So, several years ago now, there was a travelling circus….”

 


 

“That’s him?”

Jason- whom she has learn lacks manners and tact as a matter of choice and not because he can’t exhibit them perfectly when he wants to- looks up from where he is stuffing his face and swallows noisily.

“Yup, that’s Dickiebird alright. ‘S been here longer than any of us. Personally, I think he’s a little insane, but then again, aren’t we all?”

Harper hums non-committedly and peers closer at the tall figure who is resting on the dragon’s giant head and giving the scales there gentle scratches, seemingly having a one way conversation.

Cullen finishes his drink, brows furrowed.

“Okay,” he says, “let me get this straight. … Dick’s parents died in a freak accident, he got kidnapped by some crazy dude intending on selling him for the slave trade, and the dragon capsized the ship and rescued him.”

“Right.”

Cullen nods, slowly.

“Okay. And then, in the face of a creature that is quite literally over a thousand times his size, he decided to call the dragon…. Bruce ?”

The dragon swings his head to look at them, making an inquiring cooing noise.

Jason stuffs more food in his face and gives a wave.

“Yup.”

“Great,” says Harper’s brother, sounding sort of faint, “glad we could sort that out.”

Harper pipes up, gesturing to the kid on the other side of the cavern they’re sitting in, the one with the eerie green eyes.

“What about him? Something’s… off.”

Jason snorts.

“That’s Damian, Bruce’s son. Don’t ask for details.”

Harper blinks, blinks, looks between the massive living giant and then to the tiny boy mock wrestling with one of the girls.

“What the hell do you mean Bruce’s son-”

The older boy just shakes his head.

“Magic. Bruce was human for a while: it was the weirdest freaking thing. You really don’t want to know.”

 


 

The days past like quicksand, warm and fast and all at once. Harper bathes in waterfalls and eats fresh fruit and cracks up when Duke gets absolutely soaked upon accidentally teaching Bruce how to cannonball. She and Cullen get new clothes, and she doesn’t think she’s ever seen her younger brother smile so consistently since before they were on the streets.

And she’s still weary. Still on edge. This is too good a life to not have drawbacks. There has to be a trick, a trap, a lie.

There has to be, and Harper desperately doesn’t want there to be.

Barbara catches her scrutinizing Bruce as he ‘grooms’ Stephanie, snuffling her hair and making the young woman shriek and yell and complain but never pull away.

“You can leave, you know.”

Harper blinks.

“What?”

The red head shrugs, coming to stand besides her, hazel eyes catching the warm glow of the dying fire and making them seem almost as inhumans as Damians.

“I’m just saying that, if you want, Bruce can take you pretty much anywhere. However his brain works, he seems to be able to know how to read maps, or at least recognize the general directions. He’ll mope about it and insist on spying on you for a few weeks to make sure you’re settling in okay, but he’ll take you.”

The younger girl glances at the massive black frame before them, the leathery wings that span horizons and the coal black scales of steel.

“How the hell could a thing so big ever successfully ‘spy’ on anybody?”

Barbara just shakes her head, smiling small and real.

“You’d be surprised. Think about it, okay?”

Days bleed into weeks, and weeks into a month, and Harper can do nothing but think about it.

Where would they go? What would they do?

She doesn’t know, but Dick assures her they have resources and she catches Cullen laughing more often than not and this place seems so safe, giant dragon be damned, but she’s so scared of embracing it.

And then, one day, Cassandra pads silently up to sit besides her on the island’s tallest peak. The fierce climb had left Harper panting for breath, but the other girl isn’t even winded, just watches the sun is rising in the distance with a sort of serenity she doesn’t think she’ll ever manage.

After a long silence, Cass suddenly snaps a hand out and grabs a single dandelion fluff by its tail. When Harper looks up in confusion, there is more meaning in the other girl’s eye than she will ever know what to do with.

“You,” the girl says, quiet and strong, and the others told Harper once that Cass was raised to be a dragon killer and suddenly it is not so hard to believe, “know only flying. Running”

She places the small seed in Harper’s worn and calloused palm.

“It- it is okay,” the words come out stilted, “Roots. It is okay.”

And then Cassandra smiles and leaves. Harper watches that sunrise far after it has risen, and when Cullen finally joins her and comes to sit besides her, a lifetime ahead of him for new decisions and paths and loves and interests and everything else, she swallows hard and takes that small dandelion seed and plants it in fresh green earth, and decides to begin anew.

Chapter Text

The weeks leading up to the incident, Tim was… off.

He didn’t sleep much- well, he didn’t sleep much even more than usual, at least- and he would get up and stand and wander around their camping grounds every couple of hours, the dull pale glow surrounding him making him seem like a ghost.

He wouldn’t really eat, either, picking at whatever rations handed out to him and then sharing out the leftovers after one or two meager bites. He was jittery and anxious, jumping at shadows and flinching heavily back whenever someone even lightly brush past him.

And normally, if it was one of the others, Dick could figure it out. There would be nightmares or something, a particularly bad session of strained powers or something of that sort. Jason would be feeling guilty again. Damian insecure again. Heck, sometimes even with Tim it was easy, a glance revealing that the younger was just positively bored and in desperate need of stimulation to put his big brain to work.

But, most of the time, when Tim was off like this… it was never that easy.

Most of the time, when Tim was off like this, it meant that he was picking up in something in the future that was coming upon them, something that was very much positively bad.

And usually there was very little Dick could do about it.

And very little he could do to help Tim.

On the first night Dick had woken up to a shift in the cold air, the slightest rustle of leaves alerting him of movement and making his wings bristle with adrenaline. Besides him, curled up under his arm, Damian shifted, murmuring something in a language Dick couldn’t understand before settling again against his chest, breaths falling even and still once more.

Across the dull red of the dying campfire, he could spot Jason, sleeping like a log, utterly unaffected. Very little had changed when it came to the younger’s sleeping habits, even if everything else had.

But Tim… Tim was standing, tensed like a startled dear and eyes blown wide, so luminescent they almost seemed purple in the fading glow of the fire. His breaths were puffing up like silver clouds around him, his fingers rising ever so slightly into the air tracing timelines that no one else could see.

He had been glowing then, too, pale in the half moon.

“Tim?”

His voice had been dry and cracked from sleep, but the younger boy didn’t waver in his staring contest with the beyond.

“Tim, c’mon, time for sleep. We’re fine.”

Tim’s brows furrowed, and he shook his head.

“We won’t be soon. Something’s coming, Dick. I don’t like it.”

Dick tensed.

“Right now?”

The fae blinked, eyes jerking towards at the sudden intensity of his voice, and then Tim was just Tim again, no glowing purple orbs or mysterious gazes, just a tired lanky twelve year old with heavy bags under his eyes, far too many smarts for his own good, and in need of a good meal or two.

Dick reminded himself to get him a double ration for the next couple of days. If he could see the kid’s shoulder bones, he was doing something wrong.

(Sometimes, Dick was tired. Tired of waking up in the middle of the night and tired of never having enough. Never enough food, never enough materials, never enough clothes, never enough supplies or cover. Dick was never enough. He was sixteen. Sixteen, and taking care of three other lives that looked up to him and depended on him. And he could never be enough for them.)

“No. No, not right now… soon, though.”

And Dick had nodded.

“Alright. We’ll deal with it tomorrow, then. Come here and get under a sleeping bag before you get sick.”

Tim blinked again, moved, falteringly, and then stronger, taking his outstretched hand and reaching a foot out to claim his abandoned sleeping bag, scooching it closer to Dick.

Besides him, Damian shifted again, eyes flicking open ever so slightly. Dick simply hummed, quietly, and then the youngest of their small group was out again.

Tim snorted, Dick grinned, and his teeth flashed ever so slightly in the dark night.

“He looks like a baby kitten, curled up to you like that.”

Dick made a reprimanding shushing sound, but he could tell that Tim could tell that there was a smile breaking at the corners of his mouth.

“Shhh, you’re gunna wake him up, and then he’ll kill both of us.”

Tim laughed again, softly, and then settled on Dick’s other side, head resting on Dick’s bicep. Dick hummed, curling his wing around the younger boy in efforts of providing a little extra warmth; Tim was always the one he worried about getting too cold, as the rest of them all had their own natural built in heat regulators.

“G’night.”

Dick tilted his head back, glancing at the stars. Jason mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, “Taco butts; you can never trust ‘em,” and Damian sighed, Tim shifting ever so slightly into a more comfortable position.

There were times where Dick wished he could just fly away. Where the pressure and responsibility was too much and it felt like he was going to collapse from the sheer weight of it all. There were times.

But he never left.

“G’night, Tim.”

And quiet moments like these were the reason why.

But the next day wasn’t so quiet. Nor the next. Or the day after that. It was constant movement, constant shifting from one location to another. Every time, Tim would settle and relax for an hour, maybe two, before suddenly straightening up like a puppet on strings, tense and jerky and glancing around as if an ear splitting siren had suddenly gone off in his head.

And then he would look at him, eyes shining violet and face far too pale, saying “Dick, Dick, we’ve gotta move. It’s coming again.”

And so they moved; Dick had already learned the consequences of not listening to Tim once, and he would not be risking it again.

Chapter Text

Tim shows up at the tower more asleep than awake and in the wrong sort of suit.

Bart zooms into the room, crashes into him for a quick hug that Tim gladly returns, continues past, screeches to a halt right before exiting the room, and then speeds back to do a double take in the span of about five seconds.

“Dude…. What’s with the tux?”

Tim looks down at his navy blue suit and sighs, running a hand through his mess of hair, and then looks back up, sort of shrugging.

He’s at a point of exhaustion that he’s not sure he cares. He has a report to write up, and Wayne Enterprises has left him with far too much paperwork to be completely natural. He’s just gotten out of a five hour meeting that seemed to drag on for ages and ages, and in the end hadn’t even concluded anything helpful.

So he just sort of- flops his hand and starts walking to get to his room.

“Board meeting.”

Bart blinks, peering down the hallway after him.

“Riiiight….”

 


 

Cassie is braiding his hair, calloused fingers running through short dark locks and somehow managing to get them to strand together. Tim just ignores it, lets her do her thing, squints at his computer screen to make sure there’s no stupid typos on his keynote presentation.

He’s far too used to Dick to be bothered by such a simple distraction.

They’ve been sitting there for over three hours now, Tim cross legged on the floor and the young woman above him on the couch. He’s not sure how many braids she’s managed to fit onto his head, hasn’t really been paying enough attention to the soft tuggings and pullings to really count, but he’s sure he looks ridiculous.

It’s bordering three in the morning. Tim has to be up at six.

He still hasn’t changed out of his suit, the jacket laying frumpled on one of the arm chairs while the rest sits sort of raggedly on his frame.

He’s going to have to have the seam taken in again. Alfred is not going to be pleased and will probably start trying to force feed him again.

Which…. isn’t the problem here.

Right.

He sighs, takes a moment’s pause to rub at his eyes. Above him, Cassie hums softly.

“You’re working yourself too hard.”

Tim closes his laptop, leans his head back so that their eyes can meet, and smiles tiredly.

“Yeah, probably.”

She raises a brow at him.

“You’re gonna keep driving yourself to the bone, anyways, aren’t you?”

He stifles a yawn and tries for a smirk, repeating himself.

“Yeah, probably.”

Cassie hits him with a pillow.

“C’mon, dumbass,” she says, “sleep time.”

And they head down the hallway to their rooms, but before he can disappear into his own she pulls him into a hug, tucks him close and rests her chin on his shoulder.

And these arms around him could break his ribs without much of a second thought, but all Tim can feel is safe. He knows these arms, knows their limits and knows their strengths. It’s been hell, but this is someone who stayed stubbornly by his side anyways, through funerals and revelations and battle after battle.

Tim has come to appreciate a good hug.

He sort of has to.

You never know which one will be your last, in this business of theirs.

 


 

“Pretty please? With a cherry on top?”

“No, Garfield.”

Beast Boy huffs from where he is koala hugging Tim, shifting moodily into another position and jutting his bony chin into the older boy’s shoulder. Tim just keeps checking his emails and walking out of the tower.

“C’mon, man, you never hang out with us anymore.”

The boy wonder maneuvers around the other’s frame to tug at his tie so it’s not choking him quite as much, although having his airways completely free feels almost impossible at this point.

“I do too! I’m at the tower all the time.”

The green teen rolls his eyes, flipping off Tim’s back to walk besides him.

“Yeah, working. That doesn’t count. We’re gonna watch Star Wars! It’ll be fun- you can geek out and go over how they make all the special effects and stuff. I’ll even get the nasty kettlecorn stuff you like!”

And it’s tempting. It’s really tempting. Tim hasn’t rewatched the Star Wars films in ages , and it would be really nice to have something other than ramen for a change…

It would be really nice to be with his friends. To hang out. To crack jokes with Kon and make fun of Cassie and her Star Trek.

Tim can’t remember the last time he’s gotten out of a suit. Can’t remember the last time he’s slept a full eight hours. Can’t remember the last time he’s relaxed.

But no. No. Meetings to attend, business ventures to sign and deliberate, paperwork to do and reports to be done. Bruce is depending on him. People are depending on him. He can’t just- disappear for a day. Tim holds it together and works until things are okay again, it’s what he does. It’s how he lives in this world that seems determined to make him break.

( Bart, Kon-El, Bruce, his dad- so many graves to visit and so much responsibility and so little time. It’s better now, better, Bart’s back, and Kon’s back, and Bruce is back, but gods things still aren’t easy and Tim is no longer struggling so much to keep his head above the water but that doesn’t mean his foot can’t slip from it’s rickety base and leave him drowning if he’s not careful.)

Garfield is looking at him expectantly, and Tim breathes deep and keeps it together.

“Sorry, Gar. I’m just- busy.”

Beast Boy doesn’t look convinced.

Tim doesn’t know what else to give him.

 


 

“So this is the place, huh?”

Tim throws his suit jacket onto the back of the couch and sighs, running his hand through his hair.

“Yup,” he says, popping the ‘p’, “home sweet home.”

Kon-El looks around the studio, running his hands along the walls and poking his head into the kitchen. Tim lets him do his thing and heads to the bathroom to grab his meds, to splash water on his face and convince himself- for the umpteenth time- that yes galas are things he has to attend and that no, he cannot just skip the next one, even if the company present is always less than stellar.

At least Kon was with him this time: his friend’s presence always did make things a little more bearable.

When he comes back into the kitchen, the other teen is waiting for him, tapping little patterns onto the back of the sofa, his own suit still in place.

“It’s, uh, nice.”

Tim raises a brow.

“What, you don’t like it?”

Conner frowns, shifts, peers around again.

“I dunno. It’s just very…. sparse.”

Tim doesn’t need to look around to know that’s the truth. The place was an old theater, once, renovated into a studio apartment. It’s a big, airy space, and he had hired a decorator to come in and furnish it and everything. It’s a nice place. The furniture is new, the walls streamline and modern and stylish, the kitchen and applications top of the art and-

And-

And it’s nothing like him.

He clutters, he gathers all his stuff all around him in great hoards of collectibles. He’s notoriously messy with the Titans, his room there a mishmash of a hundred different TV shows and movies and books and posters and bobble heads and whatever else might have caught his fancy. Beast Boy once called his quarters a “literal bird’s nest” and then had laughed at his own pun for five minutes straight without stopping.

Not that this matters. Not that this is relevant.

Tim compartmentalizes and pushes forwards, sits down on the couch that may as well be brand new for all the use he gets out of it, rubs at his temples and laments inaudibly for the headache that has refused to leave him all day.

Out loud, he says, “I dunno. I like it.”

It comes out very monotone. It comes out not very believable, and Tim almost winces for that truly terrible bit of acting.

Kon-El comes to sit besides him.

“I’m just saying…. for a person who, eh, likes their apartment you spend an awful amount of time at the tower.”  

When the other boy speaks his voice is very cautious and delicate, and Tim wants to tell him to stop treating him like he’s broken and he wants to tell him that it’s been so, so hard without him and he wants to tell him that sometimes late at night when he can’t sleep he blasts music on the stereo because he doesn’t know what to do with all the silence.

But he doesn’t have the words, so he just swallows antidepressants with fingers that just ever so barely shake and breathes and breathes and breathes, and his tie is off but it still feels like the air isn’t getting all the way through.

“Well,” he says instead, “you were gone.”

And isn’t that the heart of it all? Because the tower had been full of ghosts those terrible months where Kon-El and Bart had been wiped off from the face of the earth, and everywhere Tim had looked all he could see were the places his friends were supposed to be and weren’t. Every room had just been some sick reminder of the fact that they were dead, and how the hell was Tim supposed to live with that? How was he supposed to function in a reality where he kept expecting to hear Bart’s laughter or Kon’s one liners only to remember- oh, right, two more graves to visit now, right, right, r i g h t-

 So he had moved. He had moved and left every reminder behind him, even if he could never escape the silence.

Kon-El sits very still besides them, and Tim rubs at his temples and refuses to cry and refuses to break, and he’s so tired and this was supposed to be a fun night but now he’s messed it all up again and they’re here .

And then, finally-

“Well,” says Conner, voice quiet, “I’m back now.”

Tim knows that, too. But he’s been pushing forwards at breakneck speeds to avoid all his ghosts and now that the spectres have start coming back to life he doesn’t know how to hit the breaks.

He swipes at his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m really glad for it.”

The taller boy nudges his ribs with an elbow.

“You better be.”

And Tim laughs, voice catching, and Kon laughs with him.

 


 

The next morning, Tim wakes up with Kon’s suit jacket over his shoulders and Garfield’s face way too close to his own for comfort.

He yelps, instinctively lashes out, and sends the kid flying.

He’s up in moments, helping the green teen to his feet with a spew of apologies on his lips, but Garfield is laughing his head off while Bart snickers and Cassie rolls her eyes, and Kon buries his head in his hands and goes, “Oh my god, Tim-”

He blinks, blinks.

“Wait- what the hell are you guys all doing in my apartment?”

Bart starts pushing him towards his bedroom.

We,” he announces with a sort of maniacal glee, “are going hiking.”

Tim blinks, turns his neck to try and catch the eye of one of his more sane team mates, but all of them are just nodding.

“Wait- wait- I have work, though-”

Shaking her head, Cassie interrupts.

“Nope- Kon’s called Bats and he’s given you the day off.”

Kon flashes him a thumbs up right before they disappear around the bend, and then Bart is shoving him into his bedroom.

“Now get changed!”

Tim blinks.

“What?”

The younger boy gestures flippantly at the dresser tucked away into the corner of the room.

“Change into hiking clothes. C’mon, man, a tux is so not fit for climbing mountains.”

The door than gets slammed in his face, and Tim just blinks, blinks, and blinks.

He takes off the suit.



The closest mountain is nearly a two hour’s drive, and Bart and Garfield sing out of tune romantic broadway duets the entire time, Cassie occasionally calling out scores from where she’s stretched out in the backseat, or otherwise pretending to be Simon from Britain’s Got Talent and making them all laugh. When Hamilton comes onto the shuffle, they all get really into it, and it’s basically a cacophony of screaming but it’s great.

There is no tie around his neck, just a loose t-shirt Jason had gotten for him ages ago with some sort of chemistry pun on it, and Tim feels like he can finally breathe.

Bart zooms up and down the mountain roughly twenty times with impatience before the rest of them get to the top, but then they’re there and the air is fresh and clean and the food somehow tastes better when it comes off a picnic blanket.

And when the food is gone, he thinks they’ll be heading back, but Cassie proves him wrong by swinging around the duffel bag she has on her back and placing it reverently on the ground before them, unzipping it to reveal roughly ten different cheap plastic light sabers from some dollar store or another.

She takes one, phwips it out so that it’s fully extended, and points it at him with every dramatic severity just about when he cracks up and starts laughing.

From there, it devolves into an epic battle of the ages, a mad scramble for weapons and teams, stupid monologues everywhere and random battle scenes and false tragic deaths.

It’s childish. It’s stupid. But Tim’s side is cramping from laughing so much and he can hardly keep a straight face while reenacting the final scene between Luke and Darth Vader with Kon-El, and when the other teen wails over dramatically in fake despair Cassie actually snorts, which sets the rest of them off again.

The sun starts fading to deep oranges and reds by the time they finally hike back down again, and every last light saber has somehow met its unfortunate end.

And Tim doesn’t know what’s coming next. He does not know when the next tragedy will strike. But Conner croons along with some country song on the radio while Garfield and Bart seem intent on winning against Cassie in a game where you can only speak in questions, and Tim closes his eyes for just a moment and listens to the chaotic ramble of his friends.

He doesn’t know what’s coming next, but he knows this, he knows this, and he memorizes every sound and texture and smell and tucks it away somewhere warm and safe for colder days when the sun doesn’t quite shine.

He knows that those cold days will come. They always do.

But he’s learning that the warmth will always creep back in, too.

It’s just a matter of time, and so he breathes and breathes and breathes, and learns to savor every moment.

Chapter Text

“This is stupid.”

Bruce hums in quiet acknowledgement, finishing off an email on his phone before turning to face his youngest.

“Just give it a chance, Damian. You may like it.”

Damian just scowls harder.

“But it’s childish,” he says, not at all childishly.

The older man runs a hand through his hair.

“Damian-” he starts, only to get interrupted when Alfred pulls to a stop by the curb.

“We’re here, Master Bruce.”

Damian considers not getting out of the car. He considers getting out of the car and then disappearing into the crowded streets and going out to patrol, a worthy use of his time. He even considers just making a big enough scene that Father never takes him out on these stupid little excursions Grayson had insisted on ever again.

But Bruce opens up the door and offers him one of those strange smiles that says he’s trying, the ones that say he has no idea what he’s doing but he’ll go for it, if it will help, and Damian is not stupid. He knows he is troublesome and bothersome to this absurd family of his, he knows that his Father does not approve, that Father thinks he will mess it all up, he knows that-

He knows that-

Damian pulls his hoodie up and stuffs closed fists into his pockets, and swallows down the bitterness in his throat and tells himself that such petty thoughts are for lesser people, that of course Father loved him, that Grayson said so, that- that-

Who are you fooling? he thinks, and then vows that he will prove himself worthy. He’s not going to make a single misstep.

So he gets out of the car, comes to stand besides Bruce, and does a quick survey of the terrain. Gated community, but in case of emergency he’s gotten over worse. Plenty of noise and bright coloured moving things, so good distractions if he is ever in need of a quick getaway. Plenty of smells, too, and-

And-

There are… lots of civilians.

Crowded, packed to the brim. They were everywhere, and Damian closed into himself and refused to budge an inch, because perhaps it was…. uncomfortable and loud and bright and smelly and awful but he is an Ah Ghul. He is a Wayne.

This weakness, too, would be overcome in time. And until then… no one has to know.

All this and more filters through his thoughts in the space of a second and, then he sighs and hisses out hot breath through his teeth before saying, slowly, carefully, and stilted.

“Fine. Let’s go.”

Bruce tries to take his hand, Damian stiffens and glares and then carefully relaxes every finger, ignoring how the contact makes unpleasant fire ants crawl up and down his skin.

This is Father. This is what Father wants. Damian will endure.

He is going to be good.

Damian marches into Gotham City Zoo like a man heading towards the front lines, and Bruce sighs and awkwardly holds his kid’s hand and wishes Dick hadn’t been so insistent that he be the one to initiate contact.


 

Damian is leaning over a wooden fence.

Damian is leaning over a wooden fence and petting a sheep.

Damian is not… altogether displeased about this.

The texture of the wool is almost rough, and definitely springy, and the sheep brays and butts his head for more food and, well, the creature is most certainly hungry and who is he to say no?

He gives the sheep another piece of kibble, and its lips tickle his palm and he very carefully does not smile.

It’s more quiet, here, away from the chaos of the main zoo, with just the animals roaming and the bored teenage staff member keeping a lazy eye on the happenings. Damian likes it here, the quiet, the lack of distractions, but when Bruce checks his watch Damian tenses up and slowly retracts his hand.

“Which animal would you like to see, Father?”

(Look at him, making way for others. Look at him, being good. Dick would be proud.)

Father blinks at him, surprised, shifts and glances at the little map one of the volunteers had given them.

“Would you like to see the tigers?”

Stilted, stilted, everything between them is stilted, but Damian nods and straightens his spine and they go anyways.

It’s not that the big cats are not very cool.

It’s not that.

In fact, they are quite majestic, the powerful muscles straining under their thick hides, the almost lazy grace of their long limbs. They yawn, and their sharp teeth glint in the light, and Damian knows a fellow survivor when he sees one, knows a fellow killer.

He wonders if the tigers feel that same strain in them, that same urge for survival with nowhere left to go. He wonders if they feel his same loss of purposeness, his same confusion at the sudden influx of things that are theirs, at the people who so freely give food and comfort and safety.

(Sometimes, late at night, he wonders if he is trapped, just as them, if this new strange family of his gives so that they can gwack at the spectacle, so that they can keep him contained in secret. He wonders, and does not know, and laments because at least when he was with his mother the bars were of a physical kind, and he could know whether or not they were there.)

The great tiger in front of him prowls up and down its cage, and Damian watches, and if this were the finality of it he would be fine.

But it is not fine, because it is not just him and the tiger. It is him and the tiger and a hundred other people. It is the baby crying and the salesman yelling for people to buy balloons and the whizzing of stupid toys and bright popping colours of signs and the crowd jostling into him again and again and again.

It does not help that people recognize Brucie Wayne when they see him, that they point and speculate and mutter and stare, some even having the audacity to lift their phones and take pictures.

It has his teeth grinding. It has his nerves on edge. It presses too close and almost too much, and it has him stepping ever so slightly closer to Father, just to get that much more of a barrier.

But he withstands it. Breathes in and out, in and out, and tries to narrow in his focus on just the big cat in front of him and nothing else, to hide his winces and irritation, because he does not want to displease Bruce and the older man wanted to see the tigers, so they would look at the tigers and Damian would be good and then they could go home to peace and quiet and Grayson.

Bruce leans down to ask if he wants to see chimpanzees.

No, Damian thinks, I want to go home, but on the outside he just nods.


 

When Bruce says he’s stepping away for a moment to get ice cream, Damian doesn’t think much of it. It is actually significantly calmer by the monkeys, and the way they flip and chatter and swing around reminds him of Grayson, and their little interactive information center is completely free and actually has some things he does not know, so he just nods and presses another button to read the highlighted words.

All this is fine.

What is not fine is when he turns to see what is taking Father so long and he’s suddenly surrounded by seven men and women in various states of professional dress and several recorders and cameras shoved in his face, all of them asking questions, and enough flashing lights to leave after images every time he blinks.

He scowls, shoves his hands into his hoodie and tries to get past them, the impecables, because that is what Grayson coached him to do and because they’re loud and bright and pressed in so close that it’s getting hard to think straight and-

And-

And that plan goes out the window, because they’ve barricaded him into the corner, and really, it would be so easy to just- knock them all out. They’re obviously untrained. But he’s being good and so he grinds his teeth together and looks for Bruce.

Bruce, who is nowhere in the general vicinity.  

Right.

“Can you answer some questions?”

“Damian Wayne, what are you thoughts on-?”

“How has it been adjusting to your new-?

“From what affair did-?”

“What do you think of the recent-?”

( It’s loud, it’s too loud and they’re too close and Damian hates this, he hates this, he hates the solid ball of steal sinking in his stomach and the way the crowd is gathering around them, the way people are muttering, the flashes are playing with his head and this was a stupid idea and he needs to leave, now now now now now-)

Do not lash out, he thinks, do  n o t  lash out.

“Let me through,” he states, and his voice is completely flat.

( Now, now, now now nownownow-)

They do not let him through, and Damian does not breathe in raggedly because he does not get to be ragged, he is an Ah Ghul, he is not weak, but-

But-

DO NOT LASH OUT.

One of the guys grabs his arm, tugs it to get his attention, to get a better picture, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know , but he does know that the texture of the guy’s sweaty palms jabs into him like daggers and makes him wrench his forearm away, makes him almost instinctively slide his feet into a defensive stance, and when one of the cameras zooms in on him for a close up Damian doesn’t think, can’t think , and his fist is up and swinging and the lens makes a satisfying crunch beneath his fingers.

And for just a moment, all is silent except the ringing in his ears, and Damian looks up and somehow spots Bruce coming closer through the gathered crowd,  ice cream cones dropping to the tarmac and an angry expression on his face.

( Idiot, he thinks, idiot. Now look what you’ve done.)

The ringing goes away, and all there is loud and bright and too much, too much, too much, you’ve disappointed Father again and all this is too much-

Damian runs on instinct. It keeps him alive.

Right now, his instinct is telling him to get the hell out .

He’s pushed past the reporters and disappeared into the crowd long before Bruce even manages to get close.


Bruce finds him two hours later tucked into some alcove of the reptile house, where it is cool and dark and quiet . His hood is pulled low and his whole body has been effectively tucked away into his jacket, his bleeding knuckles already neatly wrapped with some tissues he had stolen from the bathroom and tape from a reception desk.

He has not been crying, Ah Ghuls and Waynes do not cry, but he has maybe, maybe, possibly been sulking.

Just a bit.

The first thing he says when the older man approaches is, “I’m not apologizing.”

Bruce pulls short, blinking.

“...I’m not expecting you too.”

Damian opens his mouth to protest, to argue, to explain to- something, but then his brain catches up to what his father actually said.

“What.”

It spills out without a hint of inflection and Bruce pushes a hand through his hair and sighs, looking up at the false cave ceiling before carefully scooching a bit closer to his kid.

There’s not a lot of space. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. It’s almost ridiculous.

They make it work, anyway.

“What that man was doing was... not okay. And while I don’t condone violence in response, necessarily, I…”

Bruce pauses, words fumbling, and Damian watches him.

“I’m happy you got out safe and unharmed.”

Damian shakes his head under his hood, suspicious.

“You were angry. I saw. I failed you.”

Bruce winces, reaches out and then thinks better of it, lets his hand fall uselessly between them.

“Not at you, kiddo. I was angry at the vultures. Promise. You haven’t failed anyone.”

Damian just stares, those eyes that are so much like his own seemingly x-raying him, and Bruce does his best to stay calm, to remember what his eldest told him about Damian, about how to get through to him.

( It should be easier than this, he thinks, but trust is a thing that is not freely given when one grows up with a sword in one’s hand instead of a rattle, and Dick had stared tiredly up at him and told him to have patience, Bruce, c’mon, I know it’s hard but he’s there and you can’t just ignore him, c’mon, Bruce, c’mon-)

And then, finally, after nearly ten minutes of utter silence, Damian very quietly and very carefully asks if Bruce would like to go back to the petting zoo portion of the exhibits.

“Okay, chum,” he says, just as quiet and just as careful, “okay. We can go.”

And they do.

Bruce watches Damian reach up to smooth his small calloused hand against the long nose of a pony, an expression on his face that would almost count as content.

He wonders if the boy would be interested in getting a cat….

Chapter Text

Wally West was on top of the local CVS Pharmacy roof, beneath a giant monster, and about to get eaten. His trusty splintered bat, the Flash, was in hand, but the beast was huge, and he didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver, and the creature’s maw was heading down towards him rather fast and rather concerningly terrifying with its hundreds of rows of sharp teeth.

His only consolation was that, as endings went, dying by monster attack was a pretty cool way to go.

And he had been doing so well, too.


 

It had been six weeks since the start of the end of the world.

Six weeks since the monster attacks had started. Six weeks since the zombie apocalypse had begun. Six weeks since Wally West lost his status as soley that one kid who had moved in with his Aunt Iris and Uncle Barry at the start of the term because of… reasons, and became instead a true hero, slayer of monsters and expert survivor.

Technically, it had been forty three days, but who was counting?

Well, he was, but that was only because there was only so much one could do during the end of the world, and that included counting how long said end was going to last.

And, as it turned out, scavenging in the remains of a CVS shop for an eyeglass repair kit, the kind that dads buy when their glasses break, only to end up heading to get the lenses replaced at a professional’s anyways.

It was a lame thing to need, but Wally needed it, because he had a very fancy phone that would connect him to a very important person that very much needed to be fixed, and so he had left his hide out and had headed over to scavenge for it in what was supposed to be a quick, easy trip.

Nothing was quick or easy at the end of the world.

Nothing.

However, it was possible to be lucky.

Just as Wally was saying his last goodbyes to the universe- lamenting the loss of awesomeness that would occur upon his death- something rumbled, and the roof caved in, the enormous monster’s weight finally cracking the support beams. The sudden shift threw the beast off target, and instead of a tasty Wally snack it recieved a mouthful of cement and brick.

Wally cheered, stood up on wobbling legs, and positioned himself. His bat was gripped in his fists, not too tight, not too loose - just like his Uncle Barry had taught him while they were playing baseball in the backyard.

Except, he wasn’t trying to hit a baseball. He was trying to slay a monster.

Yippee.

The cement underneath him wobbled, and he yelped loudly and took a flying leap. He was going to do this- defeat the monster and garner eternal glory or something like that.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

The monster reached out its giant fist and gripped him- tight- around the chest and stomach, his trustee bat out of commission due to his pinned arms. Wally looked into its eyes and felt terror well up in his throat, because those eyes were not mindless or animal like, not like the other monsters he had faced so far, they were intelligent .

They were evil.

And now the creature was sniffing him, examining him, and none of the other creatures that Wally had faced in the past forty three days had done this either, not a single one, and he felt a little bit like a lab rat in the midst of an experiment, especially when the giant fist began to squeeze around his chest.

He yelped again, trying to draw in breath, but the mouth was looming upon him once more- And GOD it smelled so bad- and he had no time to worry about silly things like air or breathing. No, he had to struggle, to try and get free, it was the only way-

The teeth were growing closer, and Wally really hated to do this, he did-

But he had no other choice.

And so, bracing himself for the disgust, Wally tilted his head down and bit the creature on it’s thick, slimy skin. Hard.  And when the monster roared and threw him into the air he didn’t feel much like victory, for that was truly one of the grossest things he had ever done, and he had done a lot of gross things-

Wait, focus. The monster’s big head was looming once more, and he had an excellent chance to bring the beast down. He couldn’t waste it.

So he raised his battle sword- well, battle baseball bat, but that wasn’t the point- and drove the shattered end into the beast’s skull.

The creature roared in agony, a massive BLARG sound so loud that Wally’s ears felt like they were bleeding and it… didn’t… die.

A direct blow to the head. And it didn’t die.

Not good. Not good at all.

Time for Plan B, then. Run.

Wally West wasn’t good at many things, but he was good at running.

He placed his two sneakered duct taped feet on the monster’s thick skull and yanked out his weapon, dropping down the hole in the roof to the pharmacy below, only just managing to roll upon landing on the sticky, wet floor.

He stumbled to his feet and looked around, because he had to be quick, because he had to get away, but first he had to catch his bearings. He was covered in some sort of sweet smelling liquid- Fanta, if he had to guess- and there were lots of different brightly coloured packages, strewn everywhere and falling off shelves, and right in front of him was an open thing of Oreos.

The fast food aisle. He was in the fast food aisle.

He reached out and grabbed three of the cookies, stuffing them into his mouth as fast as he could even as he began to move down the maze of junk food. The Oreos were incredibly stale- the flavour ever so slightly off because of it- but they were still Oreos, and good snacks were hard to come by.

Besides, since the world ended, everything had essentially been a free for all, an everything for the taking kind of situation, and there was no way Wally would let such a treat pass him by, giant monster and all.

But as delicious as Oreos tend to be, he needed to focus. Analyze his predicament.

A single foot of the monster’s covered almost the entire store. A toe was jammed in the baking aisle, another in the school supplies one, and yet another in the shampoo and conditioner asile.

Wally gritted his teeth, took a deep breath, and scrambled up the side of the foot, dashing over to the other side. He was almost at the door when he spotted it.

DELUXE EYEGLASS REPAIR KIT.

He hardly had a moment to glance at the package and make sure the itty bitty screwdriver was there before he had to swoop it up and shove it into his jacket pocket, and then he was running again.

Not a moment too soon.

Massive clawed fist smashed through the roof above his head as if it was mere paper and snatched at the air where he had just been standing. The ceiling (Which Wally was honestly surprised by how well it held up, the architects behind the building- if they were still alive and not zombified- totally deserved to be rewarded or something.) began to collapse around him as he sprinted for the exit.

He bursted through the door just as the walls finally completely gave out and smashed to the earth around him, and he would have loved to stay a while and catch his breath, but the monster was still on his tail.

So he continued running, past a crumpled up car and through an overgrown yard, finally sliding to a stop beneath a caved in porch of an abandoned house.

He took one deep breath. And then another. And then he pulled out his camera, zoomed in, and snapped a picture of the giant monster in front of him.

His uncle had given it to him, explaining his job at the lab and how having good recordings of everything that happened was crucial for effective research and analysis. Wally had listened and handled his new camera with awe, fingering one of his first ever proper gifts and promising to himself that he would be the best researcher in the whole world, his head already filled with ideas of new scientific discoveries and awesomeness.

He was pretty sure that when Uncle Barry had given it to him, he hadn’t been expecting him to use it to study monsters and the undead.

To be fair, neither had he.

But hey, photographing every beast he came acros helped him find consistencies and patterns, and more importantly could help him figure out the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents: he was just one kid facing the end of the world after all, and any advantage he could get was good in his books.

It also helped him keep track of the names, because of course a hero couldn’t head off and fight bad guys when the bad guys only had lame names…

Speaking of names….

The creature roared, loudly, another ear shattering “BLARG” echoing throughout the otherwise silent square.

And, well, Blarg did have a ring to it.

Suddenly, there was a sound like a wrecking ball smashing through something, and Wally could only watch as the CVS was smashed down into further itty bitty pieces as Blarg stomped through the wreckage, standing tall and upright- reaching at least forty feet in the air- on legs as thick as trees and with heavy, wet tentacle like things hanging from its body and massive clawed hands swinging angrily around it.

And then the monster lowered its head to the ground and began to sniff.

Wally tensed, hardly daring to breathe. Blarg… it was searching. It was hunting. It was trying to find him. It was surveying its surroundings, eyes scanning the ruined debris and eventually falling upon the very porch Wally was hiding under.

He didn't breathe. Couldn’t breathe. Could only squirm backwards and scooch himself further into the shadows, his baseball bat clenched hard in hand. Surely, it couldn't see him. Surely…

After several long, intense moments- in which Wally could feel individual beads of sweat forming and dripping down his forehead and the back of his neck- the monster finally looked away, tipping its head back in an utterly terrifying howl of anger and frustration.

It didn't see him. He was safe.

He was covered in soda, Wally remembered. That probably was the only reason he was alive: his scent didn’t match up with the one that the monster had smelled earlier when he was gripped in its tight fist, and therefore couldn’t locate him.

Blarg turned and stomped away from the ruins of the CVS and down the street, sniffing along the ground like a bloodhound as he went. It was still hunting for him, still trying to catch his scent…

Which wasn’t good, but there was nothing that Wally could do about it now. He had what he came for, and he had survived. That was what mattered.

(A small part of him wanted to freak out- because that had been close, because that had been too close, because that had been super way dangerous close- but he refused to give in to the urge. It was the end of the world, and he was getting used to super way dangerous close at this point, or at least he was hoping he was.)

He had to get back to home base, back to the treehouse and to the safety it offered, but most importantly back to the phone that he had left laying on his work desk, broken and in desperate need of repair.

That was his way of communication. That was his way to not being alone anymore. That was his way to his best friend, and he wasn’t about to give it up.

Besides, Dick would be pissed at him for breaking the thing in the first place. Perhaps, if he fixed it, he wouldn’t be as angry.

In all honesty, Wally would almost rather fight Blorg again than face his best friend when he was angry.

(Almost.)

Chapter Text

It’s supposed to be an easy night.

But, then again, when have things ever been easy for their little family?

Bruce sighs, pulling a hand through his hair and resisting the urge to groan.

 


 

Patrol is almost over, the bad guys are put away and gear is all accounted for, and Bruce is just about to call it a night when suddenly there’s panic over the comms.

Shit-” and that’s Dick, that’s Dick, Dick only swears when there’s reason to panic and Bruce is already pinpointing their position and moving in by the time his eldest says, “ we need back up, we need backup now- Magic Users in one of the warehouses and they are not happy campers.”

And then, of course, there’s Damian’s clipped tone.

Black Bat has been hit. Currently trying to locate.”

Batman does not stop, but inside his chest something turns leaden, because getting hit by a magic user is never good, no matter the circumstances.

Various calls of affirmation echo over the comms, and then the differing ETAs. Tim gets there first, and then Jason, and finally Duke.

Bruce moves, moves, and only just prevents himself from wincing every time he hears one of his kids release a grunt or a yelp or a call for another to get out of the way!

One down- three to go!”

“Red Robin’s down!”

Fu- Signal! Assist!”

“Nightwing!”

“Nightwing’s been hit- I need someone to guard my flank-”

I have brought another one of the assailants down, but the others appear to be highly volatile-”

“I have eyes on Black Bat- she’s getting back up-”

“I require assistance -”

“Shit- Robin!”

“Robin’s down-”

Batman does not butt in on the fast exchange, he knows that it will only distract instead of help, but with every word he can feel his heart pounding in his throat, and with every name that’s being marked down as wounded or out of the fight he can only push himself harder and pray he’ll get there to help.

He can hear the battle before he even reaches the warehouse, can see it, flares of colour and light bursting out of every seam of the poorly made building in some chaotic display of false fireworks.

Gods, he hates magic users.

Red Hood suddenly starts swearing across the line.

The remainders are going supernova- retreat- retreat- shit- retreat!

Bruce is five rooftops away when the building explodes.

For a moment, he panics, because not again not again not again- but then he realizes that there isn’t any smoke or any heat, just clouds of colour and flashing lights, and he breathes and fishes his gas mask out of his belt, suiting it over his mouth and nose and diving into the remains of the warehouse.

Black Bat and Signal meet him just at the entrance. She has a slim gash cutting through the helm around her scalp to reveal a tuft of black hair and slowly trickling blood, and Red Robin slung over her shoulder, unconscious but breathing and seemingly otherwise unharmed. Duke’s cradling his arm to his chest, but nothing else seems immediately wrong.

“The others?” he asks, voice muffled through the air ventilator.

She gestures with a tilt of her head back into the warehouse.

Bruce doesn’t bother responding, just dives right in.

The Magic Users are nowhere to be found, but he finds Damian crumpled on the ground, flung out by the blast right into one of the steel structural bars. He’s alive, alive, but he will definitely have bruises all over his back come morning, and even when Bruce picks him up as gently as he can the boy lets out an unconscious muted whine of pain.

Jason is disoriented, but awake, and he finds Batman before Bruce finds him. He walks with a slight limb, but when they find Dick half buried in some ruble he does not complain, instead hefting his older brother up with a slight grunt and a confused frown.

“Damn, ‘wing,” he mutters, “you’ve been puttin’ on weight?”

The elder boy, unconscious, does not answer.

They manage to get everyone into the Batmobile- which, as the years have gone by and more and more people have joined the crusade, is now more of “Batminivan” as Jason likes to call it- and then Bruce goes back in to look for clues as to where the magic users might have gone.

But there’s nothing, nothing and he has a car full of kids injured and possibly seriously affiliated in some way with magic, and they’ll always be more important.



Bruce detests magic.

Mostly because he can’t do anything to alleviate the effects except set up searches for the criminals who did this, because with Zatanna and Dr. Fate off world….

He splits time between his affected charges. Jason and Duke- thankfully- are unaffected, but everyone else…

Not so lucky.

He checks on Dick, first, still laying on the manor floor where he was placed the first night, his breathing coming in and out laboriously. He would place the boy on a cot, but he’s already broken through the first two, and at this point he’s pretty sure the younger man is actually physically too heavy to lift.

Dick rasps slowly, tries for a smile through the pain in his eyes, and lifts a hand in a wave terribly slowly, as if it’s being pressed down with some great weight.

It probably is, because as far as Bruce can tell, gravity has completely inverted on his eldest son, and there are upwards several hundred pounds of pressure being pressed down on him at all times.

(Everyone always says that Dick somehow made a deal with the universe that leaves him free of gravity’s constraints, that leaves him flying, and to see his kid in such a reversal of positions makes something go dark and angry in his chest.)

Bruce runs a hand through the young man’s sweaty hair.

“How you holdin’ up, chum?”

And Dick laughs, sounding pained, and closes watery blue eyes and when he responds, it’s almost silent, the gravity pushing down on him hard enough it takes away his breath.

“Besides… the fact- that… I feel like… there’s a truck- on my- chest?”

Bruce hums, runs his hand through sweaty bangs once more.

“Just- dandy .”

Alfred appears behind him, and Bruce winces in sympathy as his eldest suddenly tenses up and grunts when every muscle in his body clamps tight and spasms with over exertion.

Dick’s raspy breathing fills the cave.

“Alfred is here to give you some pain killers. For your ribs.”

The prone form laughs, then winces, then tries for something that might have been a reassuring smile in another lifetime.

Y-ay.”

Bruce leaves to check on the others, and Alfred kneels to speak in quiet tones, needle in hand.

 

When he peaks into Cassandra’s room, she has her head on Jason’s lap, eyes closed. He’s reading to her- The Odyssey, he thinks- and Bruce catches his eye over the cover and makes a small gesture to her.

The intention is clear.

How is she?

Jason just shrugs, turns the page and continues right on reading. Bruce knows that  the girl is probably awake, but at least she looks peaceful. Comfortable, almost.

Well, as comfortable as one can be when one’s lower half is made out of stone.

(When she shows up that first morning, one leg solid granite and a grimace on her face as it grates across the ground with her every step, Bruce feels awful. Because Cassandra is born to move, born to disappear and reappear like a flicker of shadow, and so much of her now is built on the fact that she is free.)

(How terrifying it must be, he thinks, to no longer have that, to be slowly made into nothing more than rock, to know that you might soon be trapped in your own body with no ability to flee.)

She’s handling it remarkably well.

Bruce still worries.

Jason turns another page, voice low and soft and flowing, and he can see the anger in his boy’s shoulders, the frustration of being unable to do anything, and he feels that same struggle under his own skin.

Because gods, these are his kids, he should be able to help. He should be able to do something. They were depending on him and all he could do is tell them they’ll figure things out and have no clue where to actually start.

Bruce hates hates h a t e s magic users with a passion.

 

Bruce sighs, presses his palms against his eyes. He’s tired. It’s been a stressful few days. He’s worried, and he’s frustrated, and now is really not the time to start seeing things.

Focus, he thinks, and he does, heads up to knock on Damian’s door.

Just as it has been for the past five days, there is no response.

He sighs, rests his head against the door and frowns at the plate of lunch food down by his feet, untouched.

“Damian.”

Nothing.

Bruce supposes he can’t blame him.

 

The first night with Damian is one of the worst, if only because it is so terribly off-putting to see his kid so out of control, alternatively screaming at him and then crying and and then letting out pained little giggles and then falling deathly still and deathly pale, curling into himself like he’s about to hurl.

More than once, he actually does throw up, a mess of tears and spit and bile, and Bruce keep asking,  “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” and Damian just trembles all over and heaves and shakes his head and heaves again.

He finally gets a clue when the kid shoves him away when he comes close and utterly screeches at him to “Stop panicking! Stop panicking!” breathing harsh and cheeks red and eyes watery.

Control, control, it is so important for his youngest that he is always always in control, and to suddenly have half of Gotham’s emotions filtering through leaves him with a terrible lack of it.

After three hours, just about when Damian has worked himself up to actual hysterics- a combination of his own panic and the panic of everyone in the cave and then just the general panic of an average Gotham citizen is prone to be at three in the morning in the city with the highest crime rates in the world- Dick finally manages to calm him down enough ( C’mon, Dami, you have to breath with me, you have to breathe, c’mon kiddo, I got you, I got you, you’re gonna be okay you just have to  b r e a t h e - ) that Bruce can sedate him.



When Damian wakes up the second time under several comforters in his own bedroom, he gets up, locks the door, and then proceeds to have a panic attack under his bed, refusing to open up even when Bruce asks him to.

He thinks the kid spends most of his time sleeping or throwing up, the sheer amount of emotional turmoil making him actually physically ill and feverish. The fact that he’s trapped in a manor in such a high-stress situation probably is not helping in either regards.

Bruce does not think he is the most calming presence to be around right now.

Which is why he is very surprised when Damian actually opens up the door the tiniest crack when he knocks the third time.

The boy looks horrible, eyes red and fingers shaking, hair an utter mess and scratch marks on his arms from where he probably tried to ground himself with pain. He opens his mouth, laughs a little instead of talking, freezes, frowns, looks like he might cry, then closes his eyes and lets out a shaky breath all within the span of about three seconds.

He says, exaggeratedly slow and calm, “Father, you should go check on Drake. He is… not good.” Then he slams the door shut, as if one more second without the barrier might actually result in serious harm.

Bruce thinks of all the turmoil tying him up in knots inside, and figure that that might not be too far from the truth.  

So he sighs, tells his boy to eat something, and heads downstairs to check on Tim.

 

That first night, Tim disappears sometime after Damian begins screaming and does not emerge again.

Bruce finds him in the nuclear bunker down in the deep recesses of the manor, fine trembling encasing his every limb, curled into a fetal position with his palms pressed tight against his ears.

“Tim,” he says, but the teen just shakes his head.

“Tim, what’s wrong?”

More trembling, panting puffs that escape slow and breathy and not quite healthy sounding, and Bruce reaches out a hand to comfort, to something, but Tim just flinches back and shakes his head again harder, not once looking up.

This is the difference between his two youngest. Damian, when under pressure, pushes it all out. Tim pushes it all in.

“Tim-”

“Shut up.”

He blinks, retracts, wonders what the hell is going on to have the kid react so strongly as to act like that, and then just breathes another rattling breath and goes, “Bruce, you think too loud. Go away,” and the next thing he knows he’s halfway up the stairwell.

Because of course Tim would have telepathic abilities.

Of course he would.

 

Tim doesn’t let anyone down into the bunker for three days, not even Alfred.

Which means he’s not eating.

Which, of course, is rather concerning.

It’s at this point that Bruce finally manages to get hold of Martian Manhunter, and the alien sits with his second youngest for a solid four hours developing some basic shields against all the mind battering against his head, because it’s one thing to keep things from being pulled out and quite another to prevent thoughts from pushing in.

(When they’re done, Martian Manhunter speaks in low tones about how, with Tim having a sudden surplus of a thousand other people and their daily thoughts filling his head, it’s a wonder he didn’t go insane.)

Tim doesn’t emerge, but he does let Alfred come in with food, and he does accept the piles of blankets and books that they hand over, even if he seems to majorly ignore them, instead just focusing on keeping everyone else out.

 

So it’s a surprise, to say the least, when he comes down to visit him after Damian’s words of warning, only to find him not there.

Bruce blinks, frowns, and heads to the kitchen to see if Alfred would know where the teen was, only to come to a complete stop in the face of Tim, a blanket wrapped around his thin shoulders like a cape, and approximately four ibuprofen in hand.

For a moment, there’s a stand off.

And then, staring Bruce directly in the eye the whole time, Tim slowly lifts the pills to his mouth and swallows them all down dry.

He clears his throat.

“...headache?”

Tim stares at him, blinking blearily.

“.. .yes?”

Bruce nods. His second youngest nods back.

They stand together in an abandoned kitchen, terribly awkward.

“I’m going to go now,” says the other after a minute of utter baffled silence, shuffling away with blanket trailing behind him and- without the slightest hint of hesitation- reaching out to snag the full pot of coffee on the counter, “Goodbye.”

Letting his eyes trace the slow moving form as it disappears from the corner, Bruce rubs at his eyes.

Tim must be feeling a little bit better, to be acting so normal.

 

(Duke, PB&J raised halfway to his lips as he sits at the breakfast bar, is completely ignored this entire exchange. Once he is alone, he lowers his sandwich, buries his head into his hands, and murmurs, very quietly, “What the hell?”)

 

Zatanna finally shows up after a solid week, and Bruce has never been so relieved to see a magic user in his life.

The stone has reached Cass’ chest, and when Zantanna undoes it with a snap of her fingers and lowly muttered incantation, she sticks her head between her legs and breathes deeply for the first time in over two days.

Jason rubs her back, staring off into the middle distance.

(Bruce does not think about what might have happened if they had had to wait longer, if the stone had taken over her heart, her whole entire frame.)

Dick is next, and the second he’s free from gravity’s confines his every muscle relaxes and he chokes on a laugh and rests his forehead against the cool cave floor.

“I think I’m actually going to just- lay here. For another week. That sounds really great.”

Bruce helps him up into a bed anyways, Duke eagerly popping up to take some weight, but he can feel that Dick is no more heavier than it should be. So he pats his eldest on the shoulder and then takes Zatanna to see Tim.

The boy grunts out a greeting and takes a long slurp of cold coffee, the bags under his eyes utterly massive. Bruce wonders if the teen has slept at all, this past week, with all the noise in his head.

Looking at Tim now, he highly doubts it.

Still, the magician puts fingers on his temples, and Bruce watches as Tim’s shoulders slump in relief and then his eyes roll up to the back of his head, body collapsing.

He catches him, of course, catches him and pulls him close to his chest, stands up and glare at Zatanna who winces and apologizes and he’ll be fine, B, really, the strain of the magic in his system was just a lot-

It’s not Zatanna’s fault, but his kids have been suffering while she was off world and it makes him agitated, makes the frustration burn bright and angry under his skin.

But there’s only Damian left, so he drops Tim off in his room and goes to knock on his youngest’s door, the magician’s heels clipping on the wooden floor.

Damian opens the door before his hand ever connects, scowl present and spine utterly straight with tension, and his eyes are bloodshot and his fingers ever so finely trembling.

Glaring, the boy doesn’t say anything, so Bruce gestures Zatanna forwards to do her thing.

The minute it’s over, Damian sags, breathing in a choked breath and closing his eyes, resting his forehead against the cool metal of the door handle and inhaling and exhaling in a shaky manner that is almost concerning.

But when Bruce reaches out to check on him, his shoulders hunch up angry and protective and embarrassed, and he backs away again into his room and slams the door shut once more with a scowl.

Bruce just sighs.

“Thank you, Zatanna.”

The woman pats him on the shoulder, turning to make he way out.

“It’s no problem, B. I’m sorry for taking so long.”

He doesn’t respond. Just nods and runs a hand through his hair.

He’s going to have to check in on Dick again, to make sure he didn’t manage to hurt himself with all that pressure exerted on him. It would be a wonder if he didn’t have cracked ribs. And Cassandra- she’s excellent at hiding such things but he has to at least try to see if she’s actually doing okay. And he and Tim will have to have another talk about how taking more than the recommended pills is really not okay and Damian will have to be reassured that his emotional turmoil will be by no means taken as a weakness and the scum who did this still have to be caught and-

And-

And it was a lot. It always is. But Bruce can hear Duke crack over one of Cassandra’s jokes while Jason complains that it doesn’t even make sense and Dick moans that he’s trying to sleep, c’mon you guys, please, and he knows that Tim will wake up come time and Damian will eventually open up, too, he just has to have patience.

It’s a lot. It always is. But they’re alive, they’re alive and living, and that’s enough to keep him pushing onwards, one foot after another.

Chapter Text

Duke hates his life.

Legitimately.

He hates his life.

Life is cruel. Life is stupid. Like is ironic in the worst of ways.

Life is… Damian, in full Robin costume, crouched down before him with his gloved hand outstretched, kitty nibbles in his palm and patience etched into every brow.

Kitty nibbles, because Duke is a cat.

A cat.

Him.

This is his life now. This is the mess of existence he has to deal with. Where magic users can transform you into animals just because.

Focus, Thomas.

Duke hisses, because he knows Damian’s not supposed to be out, the kid has a broken arm and a sprained knee: he really, really shouldn’t be out. But he is, and Duke has the sneaking sensation the boy is looking for him.

It’s been two nights, after all. The family must be getting pretty desperate. He’s pretty sure they passed right over his head a couple of times, but how the hell is he supposed to get their attention like this? Meow?

Not going to work.

He’s been working on slowly making his way back to the manor, but Duke considers Damian’s outstretched palm and sighs.

He may as well. Life can’t get any more embarrassing than being a stray tabby.

So he goes and he eats the kibbles- because it has been two days and he’s hungry. This is to be expected. What he doesn’t expect is Damian, who- quite literally- coos at him, and Duke stares for a moment and suddenly realizes that his predicament means he is in the perfect position to gather blackmail.

Bright Spots: they’re such great things.

Damian scoops him up in his good arm- incredibly gentle, so very gentle, and Duke knows that Damian is a good kid at heart but when the boy does stuff like this it manages to surprise him every time- and makes his slow way back to the manor, definitely wincing whenever he jars his bad knee.

Idiot, Duke tells him, but the kid just shushes him and goes, “I know, I know, we shall be there soon and give you the care you require, I know.”

So Duke sighs and tucks his head under Robin’s cape, and laments the stupidity of little boys with too much fight in them to know what to do with it in silence.

 

When they get into the cave, Damian immediately gets changed and then marches off with Duke in arm to the affirmed portion set aside for the animals. He sets Duke down besides him- gently, gently, this kid is so freaking gentle to his pets it’s kind of crazy- and then turns TO face the crowd of happy beasts of various sizes before them, giving them many reassuring pets and murmured terms of affection and Duke just sort of stares in complete awe because this is such a 180 it makes his head spin.

Finally, though, he picks up Duke, stares him in the eye, and says the most horrifying things he has ever heard:

“I shall call you Milo.”

And then he begins introducing Duke to his army of animals.

“Milo, this is Batcow, Alfred, Titus, Goliath, Jerry, and Monkey. Batcow, Alfred, Titus, Goliath, Jerry, and  Monkey, this is Milo.”

A couple of them give a few assorted noises, Duke feels a headache building- how, he is a cat , how is he getting a headache- and decides to just go with it, because he may as well, and meows.

I hate my life, he thinks, and then sighs when Damian takes him to give him a bath and feed him, because this obviously needs to become more embarrassing for him. Of course it does.

Of course.



Later that night, Damian storms out when all the others get in from patrol, and demands to know if they found Duke.

I’m right here, he says, batting the boy’s leg, but it comes out as a meow.

The others are all wearing different degrees of tiredness, disappointment, frustration, and worry on their faces, and Dick steps forwards and places a heavy hand on Damian’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, kiddo, no luck. We’ll go out again to look for more clues in a few hours.”

Duke- knowing full well it’s pointless- screeches again I’m right here!

All it does is bring attention to him, and Bruce blinks and goes, “Is that a new cat?”

Damian sticks his chin up, glaring defiantly.

“Yes, I’ve named him Milo.”

The older man looks like he’s about to protest- which would not be good because Duke kind of needs to be in the house to convince everyone that he’s, you know, not dead and actually right freaking here- but Dick minutely shakes his over Damian’s shoulder and Bruce aquiences.

Bright spot, Duke thinks, and then Tim comes close to give him a small scratch behind the ear.

“You should name him Fluffy.”

Damian looks scandalized.

“I am not naming him Fluffy. Milo is a cat of standards.”

Duke sighs.

Something tells him this is going to be a long few days.

 

He’s not wrong.

It’s been two days, so far, and his every attempt of getting his family to notice that he is not a normal cat has failed.

You’d think, as a group of literal detectives, they’d get a hint.

You’d be wrong.

 

He knocks over a box of cereal and tries to spell out his name with the cornflakes at breakfast. It has Alfred scolding Damian on letting his pets on the table.

Trying to type a message onto Tim’s computer has the teen yelping in pure horror and then swooping him up to his chest.

“Fluffy, c’mon, you can’t do that.”

Not my name, Duke tells him, and then stares very imploringly in hopes he might somehow psychically connect.

But Tim just shakes his head and sets him gently down.

“Sorry, buddy, no can do. It’s important- I’m looking for my brother and I so do not need you messing up the research right now.”

Duke stares up at him.

I’m right here!

But the other boy just turns away, murmuring about how he should really get more coffee is he’s going to be talking to animals like they might actually understand him.

Because of life and its cruel, cruel irony.

 

Bruce marches him down to the animal cave and locks the door behind him when he finds Duke on his bed. Dick pets him for a solid three hours and never once takes notice that Duke is meowing in morse code. Cassandra and Stephanie sees him in the mud- trying to spell his name- and coo and awe and then pry him away to give him a bath.

 

And meanwhile, Damian coddles him.

Duke’s never seen anything like it.

But nope, the pint sized assassin is incredibly soft with all his animals, sleeping with them, talking with them, brushing them and bathing them and loving them at such an extent it sort of gives him whiplash. Titus is basically a living pillow, Alfred can be found on his lap at almost any given time, the monkey perches itself on his head when he is doing reports, and Batcow gives massive slobbering kisses that Damian actually tolerates without complaint.

Duke laments all the wasted blackmail and feels so so bad because the kid keeps getting left behind everytime the rest of his family goes out to search for him, becoming increasingly more stressed out and worried every time they return empty handed, and Duke doesn’t know what to flipping do about it.



He’s curled up on one of the living room couches, trying to plot out a new plan of action, when Alfred comes in and starts dusting.

Except-

Except the old butler sits down.

Duke stares, because whoah, Alfred is actually sitting, but then calloused hands are picking him up and placing him on black trousers, and Duke blinks up because Alfred is petting him and he’s not sure what to do about it.

“All the young masters are terribly upset, Milo, and I’m not sure what to do about it…”

The man gives him a crooked half smile, the crow lines by his eyes scrunching up.

“I don’t suppose you know where he is?”

Duke freezes.

This is his chance!

Slowly, and very carefully, looking Alfred in the eye the entire time, Duke bobs his head up and down.

Alfred stares.

Duke thinks please please please-

And then, carefully-

“Master Duke?”

He meows, bobbing his head up and down enthusiastically.

Success!



And so Zatara gets in and Duke finally gets back into his actual body. Everyone teases him for getting turned into a freaking cat, and Tim apologizes for calling him Fluffy, and there are plenty of hugs and all’s well it ends well

Except-

Damian comes running in three hours later, face tugged into a deep frown, and demands help because he can’t find his cat and Milo is m i s s i n g -

This is about the moment Duke realizes that Damian was never actually informed which cat he had been. When he very carefully does tell him, the boy shoots him a look that says he clearly would have preferred it if the he still had four legs and a tail.

So Duke clears his throat, awkwardly, ignoring how Dick is snickering in the corner, and places both hands on the younger’s shoulder.

“We could go to the shelter and get a different cat for you?”

Bruce opens his mouth to protests. Alfred shoots him a look and he falls silent.

Damian squints up at him.

“I… suppose that will be acceptable.”

Absoluetly nobody is surprised when they return with three cats, two dogs, and a small mouse that perches on Damian’s shoulder.

Bruce just sighs while Dick pats him on the back, smirking.

“You can’t be too upset, B. You know he gets it from you.”

Bruce frowns.

“What?”

All the different children that have been collected into this home of theirs trade glances and hide smiles, and Duke laughs and pets one of the new puppies.

“Oh,” says Dick, “you know, collecting strays.”

And while Bruce protests that he has never brought home a single animal in his life, thank you very much, and the rest of the group makes fun of him, Duke catches Damian’s eye and winks.

It’s good to be back , he thinks.

It’s good to be home.

Chapter Text

Bruce blinks blearily at the report in front of him.

The report, which is marked up in bright orange and neon green pen.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with this. Technically, Bruce can still sign on the lign without trouble. Technically, everything is a-okay.

But-

(And there is a but, in this instance.)

But, it’s seven in the morning, and he only got back from patrol at four last night, and he still hasn’t had any coffee, and the colours are hurting his eyes.

He hits the intercom button, winces when the new interns preppy voice echoes back over the line in greeting.

He cuts her off as politely as he can manage with a migraine building slowly but surely at the back of his mind.

“Angela?”

“Yes, Mr. Wayne? What can I do for you?”

Bruce rubs at his eyes.

“Would you please tell Todd to use a different set of pens for marking.”

An immediate, bright response.

“Sure will, Mr. Wayne!”

And then the intercom goes off with a click.

He sighs.

Tim would never do this to him. Tim is a good kid. Tim understands that neon is not an acceptable shade of ink so early on in the day.

Not that Jason is a bad person. Bruce is sure his estranged son is a good being under several layers of resentment and trauma and anger management issues. Jason probably even gets why neon is not a colour to be used in the mornings!

… This is probably why Jason is using such pens in the first place.

Still. Still. Jason is a good kid. Jason is his kid. Jason even volunteered to cover for Tim when the younger boy came down with hypothermia after an unlucky encounter with Mr. Freeze. Jason does incredibly sweet things, at times. Jason is really good with literature. Jason is actually a very good cook. Jason is….

Jason is trying to do Bruce’s head in.

First, there was the suit the younger man showed up in. He’s not sure where the kid managed to get such an appealing shade of baby blue, but he did, and the fact that he dyed his hair some strange shade of magenta to complete the look really didn’t help.

Then, there’s the stories. Everytime someone asks who Jason is, the young man cuts in before Bruce can explain with more and more extravagant tales. In the brief period of walking up to his office alone, the older man overheard Jason call himself his gardener, his personal stripper, a bodyguard to protect people against aliens, a hitman, and his secret gay lover.

After that, Bruce tunes him out. He doesn’t want to know.

And now there’s this. This. Bright neon orange ink and no freaking coffee.

If Tim was here, he would be in Bruce’s office by now, with an ever blesses silence and even more blesses caffeine, and they would get the job done and then go home.

Instead, he gets Angela showing up with a brand new stack of papers, a cheerful grin on his face, and every last page is marked in bright neon pink.

Bruce laments and just resists the urge to slam his against his keyboard.

 


 

Tim is staring at him with wide, slightly hazed eyes. It’s been several hours, now, and the teen’s lips have finally lost their blue tint, even if he’s still giving into the occasional shiver.

“Did it go okay, today?” he asks, voice slightly slurred.

Bruce looks at his second youngest. His favourite suit jacket is covered in pie and his migraine is screaming at him. Jason, behind him, is doing his very best not to snigger.

Bruce wants to say that things are about three hundred percent more efficient when Tim is there. He wants to say it has been a very, very long time since he’s been this fully and thoroughly pushed past his limits of exasperation.

But if he does say that, Tim will insist he should come to work tomorrow, hypothermia or no.

So Bruce smiles, runs a hand through the teen’s hair, and says it went just fine.

Behind him, Jason laughs so hard he snorts hot cocoa all down his front, and Bruce doesn’t let his internal satisfaction at the karma induced bit of revenge show on his face as Tim blearily blinks up at him and then rolls over to go back to sleep.

Tomorrow, Dick will be covering for Tim, Bludhaven work or no.

For now, however, for now…

For now, Bruce plans on posting Jason’s baby pictures online with some sort of over exaggerated saddened tribute, all in neon blue font, just because he can.

Chapter Text

It begins, as many things do in this family of theirs, with a boy in a cape and too much energy to know what to with it.

It’s patrol. It’s a slow night. A few muggings. A few bank robbers. Petty crimes for petty people, and Robin shoots quips and kicks bad guys while doing the splits, and Batman follows a silent shadow.

And so they’re on a rooftop, and Dick’s small booted foot is tapping in impatience, and then a mischievous smirk that he will soon become known for slips onto his face.

He turns to face Bruce.

And then, with no hesitation at all, he gets up and clambers onto the man’s back, leans in close that he can whisper a single and very crucial word, one that will leave an impact for years to come.

“Tag!”

Then Robin slams a hand on top of the cowl and pushes off the older man’s back, flipping around and taking off at a run, laughter ringing high all around them.

And Bruce blinks, because what, and then he realizes that Robin is running away from him and that that is probably not safe for a nine year old, and so he chases after him.

This is the first.

It will not be the last.

(Batman will always follow his Bird.)

The rest, so they say, is history.

 


 

When he first introduces the idea to Jason, the kid laughs in his face.

Loudly.

Bruce endures it, blank expression under the mask, and Alfred’s scolding eyes and disapproving lecture still rings in his ears.

He is not just a soldier, Master Bruce. And he is not Master Dick. He is a child. Your child! Act like it!

Bruce says, “It’s good for training. Learning to maneuver in Gotham and traverse across rooftops is essential.”

It’s also surprisingly fun, but Bruce won’t say that.

Then he reaches out, and very, very gently with gloved and calloused and scarred hands, reaches out and taps his Robin on the shoulder.

“Tag. You’re it.”

And then with a flair of his cape, he’s gone.

“Hey!” yells Jason, “No freaking fair!  I wasn’t ready!”

In a flash of yellow, the younger boy is after him, a competitive grin on his face. And Bruce doesn’t laugh, not really, not anymore, and definitely not in the suit, but when Jason finally throws himself at him in a full blown out koala bear attack and a crow a victory, he almost wants to.

 


 

 

Bruce doesn’t even think of tag with Tim for the longest time.

Batman is grim. Batman is brooding. Gotham drips corrosive black ink that is sinking into his skin and making every jarred hurt broken and new with every passing moment, and it bleeds with the blood of a Robin murdered.

(Batman always follows his Birds.)

(He did not follow closely enough.)

But Dick, grown and tired and still so bright, stands by them on patrol one day, the silent space between them somehow louder than any words. Bruce wants to apologize. He wants to be angry. He wants to talk about Jason, about that fierce boy who was snuffed out too soon in a world he was so eager to fill with his light.

But he doesn’t.

But Dick does not need his words. Never has. And Tim lets out an almost awed sounding laugh when Nightwing does a quadruple flip. When the young man comes back up to their rooftop with that same old mischievous grin Bruce knows what is coming.

Robin blinks confused when the older teen reaches out and gives him a gentle nudge, crying out, “Tag!”

The younger boy looks tentatively at Batman.

“Aren’t we patrolling?”

And Bruce-

Bruce shakes away afterimages of another child who stood before him, who was rash and brave and true, and gently responds that it’s a slow night before turning and running away, making Nightwing cackle and Robin blink wide eyed.

An hour later, the rain is coming down in sheets, and Batman can’t help but tense when suddenly there is a small weight balanced on top of him. But Tim leans down into his line of vision, hair sopping wet and cape hanging upside down to reveal its gold underbelly, and ever so gently places two fingers on the bridge of Bruce’s nose.

When he smiles, its tentative and nervous and bright.

“Tag,” he says, “you’re it.”

When he takes off running, Bruce does not hesitate to follow.

The rain comes pouring down.

(It washes the streets clean.)

 


 

He never gets a chance to play with Stephanie, when she is his Robin.

Batman does not get to say he is sorry, or that he was wrong, or that she deserved so much more than a legacy of traffic light colours he refused to give her. He definitely does not get to say You’re it.

Stephanie dies before he gets that opportunity, holding his hand too tight, breath rattling in her chest and blood staining her every bright colour almost black, and when she slips away she goes somewhere even Batman cannot follow.

 


 

Damian stares at him expectantly.

No, not quite right-

Damian occasionally, when he doesn’t think Batman is paying attention to him, slips him a look of slight anticipation. At first, Bruce has no idea why, but then he realizes it’s a slow night and that Damian has been Dick’s Robin far longer than he has been his own.

His kid is too stubborn to ask, to initiate. Probably too afraid in case it backfires.

And so he clears his throat. When Robin looks up at him, he boops him on the nose.

For a moment, Damian is so very clearly entirely confused and scandalized by the action he is completely still.

And then Bruce opens his mouth.

“Tag.”

He jumps off the building and lands on the next, taking only the briefest of moments to spot Damian’s growing maniac grin and the child leaping after him in a splash of colours and a wavering hood before he lets himself turn and dash off into the shadows.

 


 

It dissolves into chaos, from there.

His family grows, and the city’s caped heroes grows with it. They are brave and true and fighting, they are terribly human and terribly alive, and not a single one of them has ever taken a no for an answer.

But sometimes, sometimes nights are slow and there are no supervillains to defeat and no nightmares to cage, and on these nights…

On these nights….

“TAG! YOU’RE IT!”

On these nights, the game is on.

Bruce sighs. Harper is smirking at him from the rooftop she’s just landed on, Bluebird costume almost spotlighted from the luminescent street lamps, a successful fly by tag completed. When she fist pumps, she puts her whole body into it, sticking her tongue out at him before putting a finger to her comm.

“C, please tell me you got that.”

Cullen huffs out a laugh from where he’s watching in the batcave, and Bruce listens to him as he compliments her technique.

And then he moves, grappling hook out and swing completed before the young woman can even blink, and when he pokes her shoulder and she turns on him wide eyed, complaints spilling out of her mouth like a waterfall, Bruce just shrugs.

“Tens seconds is up,” he says, and then he swan dives off the twenty story building.

Bluebird groans, and dashes off to find a new victim.

 

Slow nights are chaos.

 

Duke nabs Tim just as policemen arrive to arrest some muggers and then takes off with a whoop, and Tim swears quietly under his breath, shouts at the officers about the tied up men even as he chases after him.

 

Dick catapults out of a window mid interrogation because RedHood decided to try his luck against him, his laughter spilling into the night air even as Jason swore up a storm in front of an incredibly confused and incredibly terrified criminal.

 

Cassandra appears before Stephanie in the time it takes to blinks, smiling sweetly before over enthusiastically plastering a neon pink sticky note on her forehead with the words you’re it! written in dark blue ink.  

Stephanie takes the note off her head, reads it and looks up incredulously.

“Seriously?”

Black Bat just shrugs and dashes off, Spoiler close behind her..

 


 

Then of course,  there are the times where they don’t just play normal tag, but variations.

Because nothing can be simple with their family, apparently.

Nothing.

 


 

There are still images circulating on the internet of the time they played Infection Tag and  Duke was the sole remainder, a sort of lively panic painted on his face as he ran away from the entire group of Bats chasing after him, all of them with various levels of competitiveness, amusement, and complete determination on their faces.

(Dick still maintains that the only reason the younger boy lasted so long was because he had Oracle’s help. Barbera did not affirm this, but neither did she deny.)

 

Tim actually goes still mid fight when one of the goons accidentally brushes past him, thinking it a freeze tag from one of his siblings. When he gets a hit to the head right after, he starts moving back up again, but after that there is a ‘no-gaming-while-fight-in-process’ rule implemented on the nights.

 

And then, of course-

 

Jason manages to get him right before he can disappear after a conversation with Gordon.

So he just stands there. Awkwardly.

And bends his left hand up to his chest to be freed.

Commissioner Gordon jumps when he turns around and the Batman is still there.

“Um,” he says, because this is unprecedented, “don’t you have places to be?”

The man in black, face completely emotionless, shrugs.

“I’ve been tagged. I can’t move.”

Silence falls upon them, and Gordon squints at him from beneath his glasses and then pinches his nose.

“Right- right- do you want to explain to me just what-”

He gets interrupted before he can finish his sentence, Damian’s thick boots slamming down onto the rooftop and comes running up to him, cape unfurling behind.

The young boy ignores the commissioner, just looks right up at Bruce.

“Do not worry, Father, I shall free you.”

And then- his face an expression of complete seriousness- Robin pushes down on the Batman’s arm lever and makes flushing noises .

The ten year old then turns and marches off again, calling over his shoulder that they had to hurry and ‘flush’ the others, as the Red Hood was quickly amassing victims.

Commissioner Gordon is staring at him in complete befuddlement.

Bruce gathers up all the pieces of his shattered dignity and nods at the grown man besides him, following his Robin off the closest rooftop in order to free his other kids in the face of Jason’s manic strategy.

Toilet Tag, he decides, will be removed from the list of acceptable versions immediately.

 


 

“Tag,” says Dick, smile bright and warm from behind the mask.

It’s a slow night.

He can see all his kids as they straighten up with anticipation in their various perches. Damian and Jason are grinning and Tim has quickly pulled up a map of the city to determine his best hiding spot. Harper is laughing, jumping up and down on her toes, and Cassandra has carefully started tracing new you’re it sticky notes to be used in the game. Stephanie is smiling, grappling hook at the read, and he can hear Duke’s fond exasperated groan.

“One,” Batman counts, “two, three, four, five…”

All of his children take off into the night, their capes and flashes of color spreading like wings preparing for flight.

And Batman…

Well, Batman will always follow his Birds.

This time is no different.

“Ready or not,” he says, and he thinks he can hear someone laugh, “here I come."

And when he takes off into the coloured night, he is smiling, and all he feels is warm.

Chapter Text

It happens before anyone can blink.

One moment Damian is flipping across the expanse of a warehouse, and the next he’s flat on his back and breathing shallowly, breathing shallowly, the air coming stilted into a body that screams with a sort of endless pain.

Gun shots. Three landed bullets. Sniper. Six roofs to the right, twenty fifth-story. This is all calculated before he even hits the ground.

His vision is going grey.

His vision is going black, black, black like the night sky, black like Batman’s cape, black like the feeling in his chest every time he fails to please Father like he should.

(He was told he was the perfect specimen, the perfect vessel. It never occurs to him that the term ‘specimen’ and the implications he is less than human is anything to be angry about, does not occur to him until years and years and years later.)

Damian can hear Nightwing cursing over the comms, can hear Bruce shouting for backup, and the assassins descend upon them while Damian stares at the sky and his every breath rattles in his lungs.

He should get up. He should move.

He is Robin. He is an Ah Ghul. He is a Wayne

He has endured a thousand tortures and trained almost every day in his short life. He loses his innocence before he loses his first tooth, and physical contact will always be associated with violence before he considers affection.

He should be better than this.

He is better than this.

It is time to fight. There are people around him, League of Shadows descending upon their prey now that it has been downed, and it is his duty to battle them with every ferocity of a Bat.

But he can’t. Can’t, there is fiery hot red pain in his chest and he curls his fingers dyed red with his own blood into fists and he refuses to cry even as his eyes grow wet.  

He blinks, blinks, time warps and Grayson’s masked face is looming worriedly above him. Damian wants to tell him that this is fine, this is okay, that Damian has never been afraid of dying, not really, there is no need to be upset.

(Because surely this must be what dying feels like, this rattling pain that shakes and shivers up his every vein and leaves him falling apart from the inside out.)

Or maybe that’s not true, not anymore. Maybe, before, Damian has never been afraid of dying because he has never had anything to live for. And now he has this, this, Dick’s hand cupping his cheek and hugs and ice cream, he has Titis and Alfred the Cat. He has his Father’s occasional rare smile and family movie nights and music and books. He has Alfred’s curries and Duke’s jokes and Tim’s petty arguments and Cass’ silent reassurance and Jason’s pancakes and warm soft hugs that surround him and somehow make him feel safe.

There is a hundred and one other things he never even considered as feasible back when all he had was his mother’s hidden form somewhere behind him.

It’s a startling realization, that he does not want to die.

Grayson is yelling, yelling, Damian can’t hear it through the ringing in his ears, the pounding of his heart that seemed to be growing ever louder and faster, as if in determination to make every last failing beat count.

Ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump-

Alive, it seemed to be saying, alive, you are alive.

Not for long, Damian thinks, and when his throat rattles dry and he coughs, all that comes up is a splattering of blood that seems far too distinct and present on the red of his uniform.

All around him, there is movement, and when someone picks him up and places him on a gurney Damian cannot resist the high-pitched, cut-off screech that escapes his mouth, the way his breath escapes him in heaving shaking breaths and too fast pants the moment he is settled once more, the way his eyes screw up. Grayson is soothing his hair back, wincing, telling him it’s going to be okay, Robin, it’s going to be okay-

Movement, movement- all around him- movement-

The sky transitions into the ceiling of the batplane, and someone is tearing off his costume and calling out preparation for emergency surgery. Damian can just barely make out the prick of anesthesia through all the pain, and he rattles through every bloody inhale and every bloody exhale, drowning from within his body and not from without.

There is so much noise. There is so much pain. It paints the inside of his eyelids every colour of the rainbow. It paints the inside of his eyelids red.

He did not realize he closed his eyes.

Grayson is keeping a steady mantra of words, and Damian wishes he could hear them.  Damian wishes he could tell the older man he is sorry, that Titus and Alfred must be cared for, when he is gone. He wishes he could ask Father if he loved him. He wishes he could ask Grayson if he was good Robin, ask if he was good.

He wants to say, I don’t want to die.

He wants to say, I’m scared.

But all this is so far away, and Damian breathes blood that will never be anything less than human, and the blackness is pressing in on him from all sides.

Stay with me, Dami, someone is saying, c’mon, kiddo, you’ve got to stay with me-

He is no longer listening, can no longer even try.

Damian breathes blood and the blackness swallows him whole, and all the colours merge into bright light until all he is shattered and scared and gone, gone, gone.

Breathe, someone tells him.

He does not hear them, and there is no air left.

Chapter Text

“There.”

Her fingers points clear and unwavering, and Duke squints his eyes up at the night sky, the distant stars twinkling, and Cass waits patiently besides him.

They are several miles away from Gotham. The tent has been set up and the smores and hotdogs have been eaten, and beneath their backs the grass is cool and the ground almost too bumpy to be comfortable, but not quite.

It is quiet, here, and there is no one to bother them but the crickets.

“That one,” Duke begins, the words falling from his lips like water over stone, “ is Orion. They say he was a great hunter, who travelled the lands in search for all the wild animals. They say, too, that he was favoured by Artemis, who loved him dearly. One day, however…”

Cass listens, listen, listens of great conquests and great battles and loves. She listens of heroes and she listens of tragedies, and all these legends emblazoned in the skies above.

There is a whole wide universe up there, and Cass blinks and blinks and breathes it in.

She has never done this, has never had the chance. Her world, when she is young, is dark and blank and cold, and her every purpose is simply to serve and to kill and to diminish.

Gentle , people call her, graceful as if in a dance. They do not realize she carved that gentleness into her bones and muscles and skin through pure determination and bloodied fingernails and the grit of her teeth. They do not realize that this will never be anything less than strength.

Her hands are not clean. They are not pure.

But they are hers.

She is reduced to a weapon and she builds herself up despite every strike of a whip and every broken bone. She stares up at blank ceilings and makes beautiful things appear on them. She lives, she proves to herself she has worth and paints that value onto her skin like a blanket.

There is a whole universe up there, but she proves to herself that there is a whole universe inside of herself, too.

And there is, there is . There is a milky way across the planes of her stomach and meteor belts scattered with every freckle, and when she smiles new life breathes itself into existence. Every time she closes her eyes old gas giants explode into nothing and every time she opens them new stars form from the remains. Her tears are comets raining down and the scars that refuse to fade have always been nebulas all to their own.

There is a universe hidden in her chest. She makes herself believe it and refuses to fall down, and the next time she is assigned a target she does not hit her mark, she just looks at those too-big, too-frightened eyes and convinces herself that there are universes hidden there, too.

She is made to diminish. She chooses to grow.

This is a strength.

(Never forget that this is a strength.)

She is endless and unlimited. She is terribly mortal and terribly helpless.

She is human.

She will never be more than this. She will never be less.

Cassandra lives in a world where people paint universes for her to see with every minute movement. She lives in a world where the words she speak come out stilted and broken and always so brave and determined and here . She lives in a world where pillows are a luxury and never an expectation, and the first time she receives one it feels like the softest thing existence has ever known.

This is her world, this world where Stephanie laughs and applies her makeup for the first time, the world where Dick shows her athletics and training that will never hurt and is only for fun, where Tim does her hair up like ity has never been before, where Barbera teaches her to read patient and slow and sure, where Bruce takes her to see ballet and there are people who do not need words to communicate, either, who say with their bodies every pain and hope and passion.

This is her world, where when Duke hears that she has never been camping, his eyes go wide with shock and he insists that this is something to be remedied, right now, they’re getting a tent and heading out this weekend, no exceptions.

(She has never done any of these things. She has never had laughter or love of fun. It is unfamiliar and strange, and she approaches it as if it is a black hole and still has the courage to let it pull her in.)

This is the universe, and it is not gentle and it is not kind.

This is life, and it does not care from where she comes from or where she goes.

But this is her, and she has chosen to care, to try, to choose her own path and walk it through the straight and narrow, to make a destiny of her very own and have it be never alone.

You cannot form a constellation out of a single star.

Duke points out another, and Cassandra listens to him talk about legends and lives of beings long gone and long dead. She watches that ever changing sky, and paints her every humanity into the glowing dots, just as she painted that distant glow into her skin and bones.

Limited. Limitless.

This is the key to the universe: it is always expanding.

It’s restrictions will always decrease with every inch it grows.

Cassandra grows, she grows , and the universe grows besides her and inside her and out. In Duke, too, it grows, and in everyone else.

When he smiles at her she smiles back.

“There,” she says, and points.

Duek speaks. Cass listens.

All around them, their worlds expand, and everything everywhere is nothing more and nothing less than eternally limited and limitless stars.

Chapter Text

Damian wakes before the sun rises.

The air is crisp. It is clear. It fills his lungs with a sort of morning freshness one only finds at the very brink of dawn, and he lets it fill him up, lets it find his core and shake something alive in it.

By the time the first rays have lit up his bedroom, he is long gone.

 

He wanders.

The streets are full of people, today. They go to their classes and to their offices and to their homes. They run errands and they visit nieces and nephews and they buy out the last of the fresh vegetables in market stalls.

They are living their lives.

All around the world, people are just living their lives.

Damian watches them. His hoodie is pulled low and his shoelaces are tied tight, and he walks among the people and feels separated by an icy barrier, walks among these people who are simply living and simply alive, and thinks of a time and place where he made them less than that, less than simply human.

All around the world, people are just living their lives. All around the world, people are bowing their heads in silence and light candles in hopes of beating back the darkness. They take a moment’s pause to remember, to regret, to grieve for people who will live their lives no longer.

This is a day of mourning.  This is a day of death.

Fifty people, Damian thinks, and it feels sour on his tongue, fifty people and they are all just gone.

Damian watches. Damian wanders. All around Gotham, groups come together in vigil, and Damian comes close and stands besides them, hands buried deep in his pockets and ears wide open.

They are telling stories. They are telling hopes and dreams. They are telling of lives not yet lived, because those lives have been lost, and those people these stories belong to can no longer tell them

A mosque is holy ground, and Damian knows when the call to prayer fills the air it resonates through his bones far louder than any bell. It is human. It is sacred. It is alive.

He stares at fifty prayer rugs spread out on the grounds of a national park, and as the woman speaking breaks down all he sees is bodies lying out bloodied and broken and breathless.

Names, names, they run through names of victims and Damian memorizes each one, carves it into his heartbeat and listens about these men and women and children who still had so much to give, who were called dependable and kind and determined. He listens about these men and women and children who have left so many people behind.

Old men who never stopped being welcoming all the long years of their live. Young women who had so many dreams left to fulfill and finally a degree in their name to get started. Young teenagers who call their mothers with hearts in their throats and gunfire in their ears and moments to say I love you, I love you-

Three years old, someone says, and their voice chokes up small in their throat and Damian’s breath chokes up small with them.

Prayers from the Koran, head scarves, and salt watered faces. A mosque is holy ground, and it has been desecrated with blood and pain and tears. People see this and stand vigil, and make the earth beneath their feet holy ground with their pain and tears and love.

I’m so so sorry, people say. My thoughts are with you, my prayers are with you, my strength is with you. Damian listens and grits his teeth because it’s not enough, but what can be, in the face of this? What could be enough to alleviate a crime of fifty dead and more injured, to somehow fix this?

Nothing, nothing. No hero can save the day, here, not this time.

Damian is angry. He is so, so angry, that this is the world that people live in, that this is a world where people can dehumanize someone so much for reasons so stupid that killing them en masse is nothing more than some stunt for attention. He hates how people hurt and bleed and shake, how others move on with their day as if this is nothing, as if there is not fifty more lights snuffed out, as if the darkness has not just closed in that much more.

These lives were never yours to take, he thinks.

Angry is easy, it is simple and familiar. It burns in his veins red hot and he grips that familiar strength and snarls and clenches his fists and  punches a wall with no regrets between silences and respects and list of names of people who are people and never anything less. He is so, so angry.

(He is so, so sad.)

 

There is a hand on his shoulder, and he looks up and Dick looks down, smile tired and melancholy and there, and hands him a candle.

He does not say anything. There are no words to be said.

The sun is fading, now, and his feet are weary and his eyes are red, and Damian breathes deep and remembers names and hopes and dreams that do not belong to him, and thinks about fifty lights have been snuffed out and for everyone hundreds more have been lit in remembrance.

It is not enough. It can never be enough.

But it is what is there.

Damian breathes, breathes. The air tastes like incense, it tastes like home.

Damian breathes and lights a candle to hold up against the darkness, tears run thick and fast down his face and he refuses to feel ashamed, and then he makes holy ground all to his own.

Chapter Text

Look.

Look.

Kon-El is a good guy, okay? He’s good at sports. He helps out at the Kent farm. He’s super strong and super fast and he’s a super hero, and he’s saved the world a bunch of times. He is a good guy.

He is by no means a stalker. And even if he maybe possibly occasionally sometimes does exhibit some stalkerish tendencies, he has good intentions.

Really.

And that means, sometimes, when he’s bored or tired or listing in and out of attention, he likes to listen to his boyfriend’s heartbeat.

That said, this is by no means his fault.

He’s just laying in his bed, having a good time, following that steady beating rhythm, letting it lull him to sleep, when suddenly it spikes up and becomes erratic and thready, and listen, listen, Kon knows that Tim is perfectly capable and perfectly smart and probably a better hero than him in any feasible way, even with all his powers…

But he also knows that Red Robin functions out of Gotham, which is incredibly dangerous, and that Tim has no shortage of enemies that would like to kill him or hurt him or kidnap him or torture him or any number of things.

So Kon hears that spiking, jumping heartbeat and his first instinct is not to be like oh, he’ll be fine, but in fact to be like, oh shit oh no that’s my boyfriend out there and he might be in trouble I should go to him and check.

So, obviously, he heads over to Gotham.

Just in case.

This is his first mistake.


When he gets there, Tim’s heartbeat is resonating from the Batcave, not some dreaded alley or gutter, and it’s actually slowed down to a semi moderate pace. And when he actually gets into the massive cavern, Tim’s fine, glasses askew on his nose as he squints at a report in his Wonder Woman pajamas, legs crossed beneath him. He’s maybe a bit sweaty and agitated, but seemingly no worse for wear.  

Alright, Conner thinks, obviously he is A-Okay- best be going before the big bad Bats sees me and gets out the kryptonite.

And he has honourable intentions. He was going to go. Really.

But-

But Tim stiffens and then turns to face him, and when the shorter boy spots him and raises an eyebrow while suppressing a smile, well- how could anyone say no to a face like that?

So he approaches instead of retreating.

This is his second mistake.

“Kon? What are you doing here?”

He sounds exasperated. He sounds tired. He sounds a sort of subtle fond, but Conner has learned to tell the distinct difference between I am legitimately frustrated with you right now and holy hell this human is a massive dork and I love him.

‘Tim-Speak,’ Bart likes to call it. Kon is the reigning champion at it.

So he just smiles and pulls the teen into a hug, resting his chin on the other’s shoulder.

“Your heartbeat spiked. I was… mildly concerned.”

The shorter snorts.

“Yeah. ‘Mildly’ enough you forgot to put on a shirt?”

Kon clears his throat.

“...yes?”

“Heh.”

Pulling back, the Kryptonian does a once over on the other.

“Okay, but seriously, are you okay?”

Tim waves him off.

“Don’t worry about it: Jason decided it would be really funny to surprise attack me, I thought there was an intruder in the cave, it turned into a sort of rather intense spar where I wasn’t actually really sure if he was trying to land hits or not, and then Dick got a bloody nose.”

He shrugs, turns back to the computer. Kon-El blinks, processing.

“So you just… attack each other? For funsies?”

“Yup.”

“...right.”

Because that was totally normal.

Right.

They lapse into conversation, after that, and Tim works on his case reports and and Kon rests his crossed arms on the other’s head just to be annoying, and he should really, really go, but he doesn’t, because in all honesty his boyfriend is the best and they haven’t had a lot of time to hang out recently and so, well-

Well-

Well it’s a while later when Kon finally decides he really needs to get back to the Kents, so he leans down absentmindedly to give his boyfriend a peck on the lips.

This is the mistake that leads to his inevitable doom, because this is the moment where he hears the distinctive shutter of a camera, turns around to investigate, and comes to awareness of the fact that the entire Bat family is just standing there, watching.

Batman is glaring at him so hard he instinctively takes three wide steps away from Tim, who in turn has his shoulders hunched up high and red flaring in his ears, and Kon would find it adorable if he wasn’t so terrified for his life.

Batman is going to kill me, he thinks.

Then, No, wait, Batman doesn’t kill.

And then, Batman’s going to kill me anyways.

Nightwing is staring at them with an exaggerated look of fondness, chins tucked under his chin with a massive shit-eating grin. Jason is quietly cackling to himself, apparently amused by taking incriminating pictures. Damian is scowling, Harper and Cullen are wearing matching smirks, Stephanie is either doing some sort of victory dance or a voodoo ritual to wipe him off the face of the earth- he honestly can’t tell. Alfred is doing his best to not look amused and succeeding and Duke is trying his best to do the same thing and failing. Cassandra is wiggling her eyebrows and Bruce…

Bruce is still glaring.

Kon-El gulps. Tim buries his face in his hands.

“I hate you all. So. Much.”

“Love you, too, Baby Bird!” Dick calls, and Tim just sticks up a finger.

Batman snarls.

Kent. Follow me. Now.”

Conner has just enough time to think, well, I’ve had a good run, when Tim interrupts, standing and stepping forwards-

“No, wait- B- C’mon! We weren’t even doing anything!”

This is why his boyfriend is amazing.

The Batman glares. The young adult with too big reading glasses slipping down his nose and Wonder Woman pajamas glares back. A minute of tiny shifts and eyebrow movements later- and Kon is fluent in Tim not in whatever the hell that was- Tim seems to acquiesce, grimacing, and he pats Kon on the back.

“I’ve done what I can,” the shorter boy murmurs, so low only super ears can hear, and Kon gulps and stares wide-eyed as Batman sweeps off into the shadows and indicates for him to come after.

 

He blocks the ensuing conversation deep within his subconsciousness. But he does know that it involved things being said like no metas are allowed in Gotham, and there are things worse than death and Red Robin is a valuable asset to my family and you will not hurt him.

He’s also pretty sure it involved a tour of the Batcave’s deeper levels, where the kryptonite just so happened to be stored.

He’s also pretty sure that when the Batman asked him what his intentions were towards Tim, he somehow managed to fit in three accidental innuendos in his response and finger guns.

One does not know true terror until one faces Batman and finger guns him while shirtless in the middle of an interrogation.

Kon buries his face into his pillow, somehow alive and back on the farm.

He’s doomed.

He is so, so doomed.

 


 

Tim has the audacity to laugh at him over the phone.

Kon groans.

“No, Tim- you don’t understand- I am so, so dead.”

“Awww, poor baby. Did the big Bat scare you-

Conner has no hesitations in responding completely honestly to the joking tone.

YES.”

It sets the other teen off again, and that- for some reason- sets him off, and soon enough they’re both laughing.

“Okay,” says Tim, “okay, but seriously, don’t worry too hard. You’re gonna be fine. I swear the worst is over.”

And Kon takes this reassurance to heart. Goes to school next day ready to face the world again without fear of an avenging bat.

But Tim is wrong.

He is so, so wrong.

 

It starts when he opens his locker and finds a length three page note from Stephanie talking about how happy she is for his relationship with Tim, about how long the other boy has been pining, about some nice things that he could do for the other teen that most people don’t know the other likes if he’s ever running low on ideas.

It’s sweet, if not a little creepy, because Stephanie did somehow find his school and locker number.

But that’s too be expected.

So Kon is reading it, going aw, how sweet, and then suddenly gets to the last line.

If you ever hurt him, I will hurt you ten fold, and I will not hold back. :)

It’s the smiley face that scares him the most.

 

(It only elevates from there. )

 

He’s walking around and someone points out he has a sticky note on your forehead, man, do you know that’s there?

Conner didn’t know that was that there. He is a Kryptonian. He has super senses.

Someone managed to sneak up on him and place something on his person anyways, and if that is not a threat he does not know what is.

The sticky note is bright green. On it, there is a little symbol for Black Bat.

He puts into his pocket with shaking hands.

 

He’s on his computer and suddenly it goes blank and a series of words flash across it, with some rather sensitive and incredibly specific information. Kon stares in a sort of dull horror until the screen returns to normal, and then he slams the lid shut.

 

Kon is in one of his favourite perches, on top of the tallest buildings in Metropolis, when a bullet whizzes out of nowhere and lands two inches from his foot and buries itself in the ground. When he picks it up, it stings, and inside it are flecks of green.

He drops it rather quickly, after that.

 

He’s talking with Nightwing, casual catch up and how you do’s, and suddenly he’s pressed against the wall and the air is as cold as ice and the older manis glaring at him even scarier than Batman.

Do not hurt him. Clear?”

Kon nods frantically.

Dick immediately lets him go and starts chatting amicably again, but the teen can not bring himself to forget.

 

Traps and notes and vague warnings. There are eyes everywhere and Conner walks around and it seems to him new threats to his person in every direction. Normal boyfriends have to deal with Dads with shotguns and maybe a serious talk about responsibility. He has to deal with all this.

 

He walks into his room later that week and on his bed is what terrifyingly looks like Superman’s cape, shredded into pieces and covered in what suspiciously looks like blood.

Staring at it, Conner picks up his phone and hits speed dial.

“Tim,” he says, “I think Robin wants to murder me.”

The shorter teen hums nonchalantly, typing away at what sounds like some sort of essay or another.

“Demon brat?  He wants to murder everybody. You’re not special.”

“No, Tim,” says Kon-El, and he very slowly backs away and heads back down to the kitchen, “I don’t think you understand. All the Robins want to murder me.”

The typing stops.

“That… might be a problem.”

“You think?”

Maybe he’s sounding a bit too panicked, because he can hear Tim wince over the phone.

“Sorry, Kon, I’ll tell them to knock it off- I mean- I know - Sorry.”

“Hey,” he says, “hey. Don’t talk like that. I’d go through so much worse to get a shot at being with an awesome guy like you.”

Tim is silent for several moments.

And then -

“Oh my gods, you are so corny.”

Kon smirks.

“Ah- but you love me for it!”

And Tim laughs and goes, sure, Kon, sure, and Conner just listens to his boyfriend laugh across the line and thinks he would go through a hundred thousand death threats each and every day if only he got the chance to hear that sound forever.

Maybe he is kind of corny.

But it makes the other teen laugh. It makes him smile, and Kon can't even bring himself to imagine a world where that doesn’t make everything worth it.

Chapter Text

Jason wakes up, and he is immediately aware that something is incredibly, terribly wrong.

The sheets are two soft. The duvet is too heavy. His safe house doesn’t smell like remotely nice and it sure as hell doesn’t smell like lemons, and the last time he kept his curtains closed while he slept was before he died.

Also, this isn’t his freaking body.

It’s way too small and way too unscarred- even if whoever owned it had a decent collection of their own, nothing held up to the kind of scarring you got when you’re blown up and brought back with the lazarus pit- and he’s almost tempted to say he’s been reverted to his younger self, except that’s not right either because Jason has never been this freaking pale in life.

Jason grits his teeth, sits up, and looks for available weapons and potential enemies. He curls his lips in disgust, because the room he’s in is giving him an actual literal headache with how messy it is.. It’s messy enough to be Replacemen’t room, which is really saying something, and-

Oh.

Oh no.

Oh hell no-

He gets up and stumbles to the mirror, scowls at it, and smashes it into a million pieces before sticking his middle finger up at the ceiling because someone up there obviously hated him if they were going to put him in his replacement’s fricken body- .

He’s going to kill whoever did this.

And if it was Bruce who did this…

Well, then, that would be a bonus.

Jason slams the bedroom door open.

“B! You better not have anything to do with this!”

 


 

Tim wakes up before Alfred comes in and forces him to enter the land of the living, which almost never happens.

He blinks blearily, once. Twice.

Coffee, he thinks, and then he stumbles up and goes to find some. If his body is especially uncoordinated for some reason, he doesn’t notice, and if the route to the manor kitchen is unusually short today, he also doesn’t notice.

Tim has a mission, a goal, a purpose to live in this life, in this hour. That purpose’ name is coffee, and he has always been a man of honour.

He finds the coffee on the top shelf. Makes a whole pot, grabs a random mug and fills it to the brim before swallowing it in a few gulps. For his second cup, he sits on the counter and drinks it slightly more slowly, staring blearily at the mustard coloured kitchen cupboards.

By the time he’s sipping at his third mug, he comes to the subtle realization that Alfred wouldn’t let that colour in his kitchen if someone threatened him with deadly intent.

Slowly, Tim looks up at the top shelf which he had grabbed the coffee bag.

Takes another sip.

Blinks.

Frowns.

...He shouldn’t have been able to reach that top shelf with such ease.

Right, Tim thinks, and continues to drink his precious liquid for several more minutes.

It’s only when he’s almost done with his fourth cup that he realizes wait, shit- this body is not my body this apartment is not my apartment what the actual h e l l  is going on-

He gets his answer when he finds a mirror and Jason Todd’s face stares back.

Okay, Tim thinks, okay-

Make a plan of action.

He’s going to call Bruce, first. And probably Stephanie, too, because they were supposed to meet up and he has probably accidentally blown her off. He’s going to find where the hell he is. He is going to use that information to get back to the manor, get his body back, and then shower for a very long time.

He’s going to-

He’s going to-

Tim blinks blearily, rubs at his eyes and breathes deep.

He’s going to make himself another cup of coffee.

He’ll figure everything else out after that.

 


 

Zatanna comes in shortly after Jason manages to get his hand on a gun.

He’s angry. He’s defensive. He doesn’t like being here, in this stupid house and stupid  Bruce, he doesn’t like how Alfred is staring at him just a touch mournfully, how his skin itches up and down his skin with all its wrongness.

This is unsafe. This is infuriating. This makes the pit madness drag at the edge of his consciousness, and it has him clenching his teeth.

He doesn’t like it here.

But he doesn’t have many options

So the minute the magician gives the word that all it takes to reverse the spell is a simple touch between the two mixed up in it, Jason storms down to the batcave, steals a bike, and leaves with a screech of tires and a crude gesture.

When he gets to his apartment thirty minutes later, the little bastard has the audacity to shoot him a tiny awkward wave with his body in his clothes while sitting on his couch.

(Some part of him, the part that’s buried deep deep down, thinks Christ this kid is small because looking up at his own body from this body really gives some perspective, but he waves the thought aside and pushes the guilt down and doesn’t think about nights fueled with pit madness and little broken birds.)

Jason, frowning, storms right up and makes to throw a punch.  The kid blocks, of course, but the moment they make skin on skin contact they both go flying.

He scrambles to his feet- his feet, h i s  feet, not Replacement’s, thank gods, thank gods, a minute longer and he might have actually started screaming- and leers down at the smaller teen, who is looking up at him with cautious eyes as he gets up much more slowly.

Jason clenches his fists, shoves down the angry, bloodthirsty thoughts of the pit, and snarls, “Out.”

The kid wastes no time after that, shooting hima  curious glance before vanishing out the door, and Jason grinds his teeth, breathes deep, and storms off to his room to grab his bag.

Time to move safe houses. This one was no longer secure.

 


 

Tim stands awkwardly on the sidewalk in only his superman pajama pants and a too big shirt his dad had gotten him with a star wars pun on it. He’s barefoot, and kind of cold, and doesn’t have a phone, but he’s alive and unharmed and that’s good, right?

Progress, he thinks, and it is. Slow and unsteady and unsure and grueling and a thousand other things he cannot name, but Tim looked at Jason, this man who he only knows through stories told and expectations placed on his young strong shoulders, only knows through a single night of breathless pain and hurt and rope burns on his wrists and madness in unfamiliar matching blue eyes, and thinks that snarled words and an escape route is a start.

Gravel shifts under his feet.

He breathes, breathes.

Right.

Steady on, Robin.

Steady on.

 

One awkward conversation later, Tim has a stranger’s phone and Bruce is on the other end of the line, and half an hour more a sleek black car is pulling up and he can finally get away from the cold and the stares.

“Thanks,” he says, rubbing his toes.

Bruce isn’t looking at him, when he responds, just staring at the rundown apartment building they’re parked in front of.

“No problem,” he says, and he sounds almost distant and he sounds almost sad.

Sorry I’m not him, Tim wants to say.

But he doesn’t.

They drive home in silence.

Chapter Text

Cullen crashes to the ground.

Again.

He breathes. Once, twice.

Three times.

And then he is up again, springing to his feet and running, running, always running. His knees are stinging and his lungs strain with every breath. The night air seems too thin to get a proper lungful, and it is drying the sweat glistening on his forehead cold.

The next rooftop seems miles away, the jump far too large to make, but he has no time, he is out of time , and to leap is his only option.

He leaps. Smashes into the side of the wall and scrambles over it, breath hitching as his bruised ribs protest to the sudden impact. He isn’t trained for this, isn’t made for rooftop chases and bruises and pain. He doesn’t want this, but he doesn’t really have a choice. His left leg is beginning to really burn from the graze it had received but half an hour ago, and he can feel the aftereffects of a concussion pounding through his head.

A batarang unfurls out of the dark and cuts his right temple, blood now dying his vision red.

Cullen swears, slamming his way through a door that led down into the apartment building he was on top of, and then forces the door shut behind him, locking it.

For a moment, he freezes. He should keep running. He has to keep running. A locked door doesn’t keep the Batman back for long.

But running is what he would be expected to do, and Cullen isn’t going to survive this if he does what is expected.

So, instead of dashing down the hall, Cullen ducks himself underneath the small space beneath the roof-access stairs, just big enough to let him press himself all the way back and be completely hidden in the shadow.

Not a moment too soon.

The door comes flying open with a slam, and he holds his breath as heavy feet come storming down the steps above his head, the pounding footsteps dashing down the hallway and eventually disappearing.

Cullen doesn’t breathe. Doesn’t move a muscle. He knows Batman can move without a sound, too, if he wants, and if he gets found here there will be no escape.

Finally, after five minutes, he slowly emerges, trying not to feel like a rabbit peeking its nose out of its den in the face of a fox attack. He goes back up to the roof, leaps ungracefully to the next one, and then clambers down the fire escape until he finds an open window to slip inside of, his heart in his throat the entire time.

The apartment is empty. Thank gods.

With shaking fingers, Collin reaches into his pocket and pulls out a comm unit with a stylized R on it, fumbles with it until he figures out how to turn it on, and then jams it into his ear.

( “It’s a Robin comm,” Tim told him, eyes strangely solemn and when Cullen tells him, confused, that Bruce already gave him one, the older teen grimaces and insists he takes it.

“This one,” he said, “Bruce doesn’t have access to the frequency.”

Cullen frowned.

“Why?

“Just in case.”)

He never thought he would have to use it.

But then again, he also never expected for Bruce to walk back into the cave- alone when he’s supposed to be with the rest of the group, covered in something that suspiciously looks like blood- and to start attacking him.

And look where he is now.

He breathes, breathes-

“H-hello? Anyone there?”

Silence. Cullen feels his heart sink.

( Blood, blood, the cape had been covered in blood and what the hell does that mean-)

But then-

Duke’s voice. Duke’s voice. A little shaky and a little distorted through the link, but definitely there.

“C? That you? Please tell me you’re still you and not gone crazy homicidal, because I have had more than my share of that for the night.”

“Yeah. Yeah. It’s - uh- it’s me. Is Har- I mean- is Bluebird okay?”

The hero name falls off his lips all wrong. But he has to know, he has to know, that’s his sister, his sister, and she has to be okay because otherwise he won’t be.

But Duke’s going fine, fine, she fine, I promise she’s fine, and Cullen breathes and breathes and breathes and gives quiet conformation when the other teen tells him Nightwing is closing in on his position.

Right.

Right.

Cullen watches shadows with his heartbeat somewhere in his throat, and when Dick finally crawls into the window, smiling reassuringly even as his muscles are tensed and ready for any surprise attack coming their way.

What comes next is a convoluted mess of turns and side alleys, a sort of deep quiet permeating Gotham air in an almost unnatural manner.

And then they make it to the safe house.

They’re all crammed in tight, and the bed is taken up by Jason’s prone form, oxygen mask down his throat and bandages all around his chest. Cullen sees blood seeping through the pure white and pointedly looks away, feeling sick to his stomach. Tim, from where he has his foot elevated in a makeshift cast on the couch, offers him a little wave with a smile that is definitely more of a pained grimace.

The rest of the injuries are less terrible. Damian has a gash on his arm, a swollen black eye, and several small scratches on his face from some sort of shattered glass. Dick is already complaining about how black and blue his back is going to be in the morning while Duke gingerly favors his left arm, the left having been pulled from its socket and popped back into place. Stephanie’s jaw looks like she rammed it against solid concrete, and Cassandra’s ribs are apparently bruised and-

And-

Harper, Harper, his sister, she’s laying on the second bed, knocked unconscious to a blow to a head, and Cullen hates how still she is, how quiet. Hates how he can’t do anything to help.

This is what happens, he thinks, when the person you’re supposed to be able to trust with your life suddenly turns on you.

“What the hell is going on?” he asks, and ignores how his voice is three pitches too high

Damian, from where is staring sullenly at the floor, answers.

“Father has been possessed by a demon that Grandfather summoned to possess me,” he kicked at a loose bit of carpet, “apparently, any Wayne blood was good enough for the possession to occur.”

Cullen blinks, thinks what the hell have we gotten ourselves into, Harper, and then slowly nods.

“And why is he attacking us?”

Duke shrugs.

“As far as we can tell? That was apart of the pact Ra Al Ghul made with it.”

Cullen nods, thrums his fingers up and down his thigh, he is nervous and thready and scared, adrenaline wearing off and leaving him jittery and panicky even though this is so not the time.

He never wanted to fight. He doesn’t want to be involved with this, this life where the people you love can become the people you have to hurt.

He curls his hand into Harper’s limp fingers.

It doesn’t look like he has much a choice.

“Okay… what do we do now?”

Cass looks up sharply.

“Fight demon. Save Bruce.”

Cullen tightens his grip, and everyone else nods in grim affirmation.

 

It’s not that easy, of course. It’s hard to win a fight against someone pulling back no punches when you felt the need to lessen your every hit.  It’s hard to fight when alien words that don’t belong your parental figure’s mouth keep coming out cruel and sharp and damaging. It’s hard to fight against someone who is admittedly one of the most dangerous men in the world, even without the magical chaotic power reigning from the inside out.

The capable fighters act as a distraction to the demon while Tim, Cullen, and Duke pour over ancient documents and try and figure out what ritual was used to bring forth the demon, and thus what ritual could be used to banish it.

They manage to get in contact with Oracle, who is in her own secure bunker with Alfred by her side, and things go much faster from there.

Still, by the time they have a plan in place, Damian has come limping back to them with a batarang wedged into his stomach and Stephanie has broken her arm.

Cassandra will tell him later, however, in her quiet way with so few words, what had happened. How Dick had managed to get in close enough to make contact with the Demon to say the right incantation and burn the right incense, had caught Bruce while the vile thing inside of him had fled screaming into the ashy night.

The first thing Bruce did was to ask if Jason was okay.

The second was to ask after everyone else.

The third was to apologize. Again and again.

But that night, in the Batcave, Batman comes up to him with his cowl down and Bruce’s tired grim eyes clear to see, and Cullen very carefully does not flinch, very carefully does not think of a raving Bat and his skinned knees, the blood matting his sister’s hair.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he says, and Bruce stares at him with tired grim eyes before surveying the room around them, a cavern full of injured young men and women who were all put in such states fighting someone who was supposed to protect them.

When he looks back, there is no belief in his eyes.

Cullen signs, rolling his eyes at stubborn Bats and their guilt complexes, and wonders if this is how Alfred feels all the time.

Then he reaches up and pulls Bruce down into hug, fierce and present and here .

“Stop feeling guilty.”

And emotions don’t work like that. Cullen knows they don’t. But he can hear the older man’s near silent amused huff as he reaches up to gently, gently, gently hug him in turn, and he thinks that this is a process, just like everything always is.

They will come to healing in time.

For now, though, Cullen has Bruce’s strong arms and the joy in his chest that he feels when Harper finally opens her eyes, and it is enough.

Chapter Text

They are sitting on a park bench, and the stars are bright and the moon is shining, but Kon can only focus on Tim’s smile.

The glasses are sitting oddly on his nose and around his ears, new and strange and ‘identity keeping,’ as Clark had called it. Kon’s not really buying it, and by the way Tim is snorting, he’s not either.

“Is he serious? Is he actually, really, serious? Like- they’re just- glasses. They’re just glasses-”

And Kon’s laughing too, and their soft conversation is filling the night air. The swings next to them are swaying softly in the wind, and the stars keep twinkling, and Kon can’t stop smiling.

It’s nice, some heavy weight off his shoulders. Tim keeps chuckling, and Kon keeps chuckling with him, and there are no capes or masks or threats or violence. Just them, together, and it feels nice. It feels good. It feels right. He feels, for once, like he’s normal.

Like being normal might be a good thing to be.

Tim had been nervous and flighty at the beginning of their date, some six hours earlier, sunglasses over his eyes and hands shoved deep in hoodie pockets as he stepped out of the subway station at Metropolis. But then there had been the museum, and then the movie, and then driving over to Smallville for dinner with the Kents, and then they had gone out and gotten ice cream and now there’s this, and Tim is shining brighter than any star, blue orbs free of shades and hands wrapped around his stomach in laughter.

When the younger boy finally manages to stop heaving, he looks up and he grins yet again- and Kon wishes he was always like this, carefree and happy, not weighed down by stress or tiredness or pain- nudges shoulders and says, “For what it’s worth, they don’t look half-bad.”

And Kon can’t stop his own mouth from turning upwards in a smile, and he’s leaning down and pressing a tiny smattering of kisses all over Tim’s face, and Tim’s is laughing and weakly shoving at his chest, asking about What if someone sees?, but they’re out in the middle of nowhere, out in a tiny local playground in Smallville, and really the idea of some crazy guy hiding out in the bushes and taking pictures is ridiculous enough that it makes Kon laugh into the younger teen’s mouth.

 


 

Kon wakes up to his cell phone ringing.

Groggily, he picks up and swipes right, pressing it to his ear and muttering a half-asleep, “‘ello,” without even really thinking about it.

Tim’s voice is swearing in his ear, and then apologizing, and Kon is suddenly quite a bit more awake.

“-o sorry, Kon, I thought that we were alone and I told you that someone might see and-”

Kon blinks up at his ceiling. It’s painted sky blue, sort of like Tim’s eyes, and he is confused.

Finally, he manages to get out a, “What?”

Tim’s voice pauses, freezes mid word and he lets out a small, nervous breath. Kon instantly tenses, because that’s not right, Tim shouldn’t ever feel nervous about him ever.

“You haven’t seen it yet?”

Kon’s mind flashes to a dozen different possible things his boyfriend could mean, but it only just results in a big ball of confusion.

“...No? ‘s like, eight thirty in the mornin’…”

“Geez, you’d think as a farm boy you’d be the morning person in our relationship.”

The Kryptonian almost wants to snort. He is the morning person in their relationship: once he’s up, he’s up, it just takes him a minute to get there. The only reason Tim is so awake is because he probably never went to sleep in the first place.

“‘s not mornin’, ‘s time to sleeep…”

Tim laughs, a little high, a little incredulous. It rings in Kon’s ear, and he smiles a little lazily, eyes closed. With Tim laughing like that, it’s almost easy to ignore the sounds of yelling reporters and camera flashes outside-

Wait, what?

Kon’s eyes snap open, and he’s out of bed and squinting through the blinds in milliseconds.

There’s a herd of reporters outside the house.

Kon blinks. Takes a step back. His hand finds the phone and he brings it to his ear.

“Tim,” he says, “ Tim.”

And then-

“It’s not paranoia when they’re really out to get you.”

There’s silence on the other end of the phone for a half a moment, and then Tim lets loose another snort of a laugh. It’s a real laugh this time, the one he only lets out when he’s honestly amused and content, that little soft puff of air that escapes in a quiet chuckle out of Tim’s throat.

It’s a good sound. Kon presses the phone tighter against his ear and backs away from the window, steps out of his room and goes to find the grandparental unit in their bedroom. He knocks, gets no answers, heads downstairs.

His hair is a mess, he’s wearing only a too big tank top that he’s pretty sure used to be Clark’s and a pair of boxer shorts. He stumbles down the worn wooden steps, careens down the narrow hallway corner, and stumbles into the kitchen.

Jonathan and Martha Kent are sitting at the dining table, mugs of coffee in hand. There are homemade cinnamon rolls on the stove top and warm welcoming smiles on their faces, and Jonathan gives a wave with a quick glance away from the morning paper and Martha indicates he should sit down, and so he does.

The sounds of the reporters are even louder down here. Tim can hear them through the phone speakers, and Kon can practically sense the cringe in his boyfriend’s voice as he asks, “Are they crowding around your house? Wait- why am I even asking that- of course they’re crowding around you house. Oh my gods, Kon, I’m so sorry-”

Martha vaguely gestures in the direction of his phone, her other hand busy separating three of the rolls from the rest and onto a plate.

“Is that your boy?”

Kon nods, waits for Tim to stop rambling. At this point, he knows that interrupting isn't going to get him anywhere. Best to let the younger get it out of his system and then work through the list of concerns and problems and battle strategies. It was just the way Tim worked.

“So basically, the first newsfeed started reporting on us at roughly 5:30 this morning- some sort of tiny business that was small enough that even Bruce’s technology wasn’t considering it as a threat. You were being featured as my ‘mysterious gay lover,’” and Conner wasn’t sure how, but he could definitely hear the quotation marks in Tim’s voice, “and everyone was screaming about how I was gay. Around six, the bigger companies caught hold of it, and one of your classmates- who chose to be anonymous in print but screw that, I hacked the company’s mainframe and it’s Dave Parker- he identified you and apparently also gave away your address. The git. I was going to let him off easy and just clog all his emails with spam and prevent him from logging into his Steam account, but that was just an asshole maneuver so now I’m also going to send his parents an email about his subscription to a porn account and let him suffer.”

There was a few moments of silence, the impossibly long rant finally pausing as Tim took a moment to breathe. There was also, however, the distinct clacking of keys as the younger teen typed furiously away at something.

“Wait,” says Conner, because no way, “you’re not doing all this on the bat computer, are you?”

Tim snorts.

“Of course I am. We are in a very precarious situation: I think you are highly underestimating the danger here. We are in crisis.”

...Kon El can imagine it. Tim, downing his however-many pot of coffee, Stephanie’s Wonder Woman pajama bottoms low on his hips and his massive sleep shirt- the blue one he stole from Dick ages and ages ago and is only just now starting to not look like an ill fitted dress- hanging off his shoulders. The bags under his eyes are probably enormous, and his legs have probably fallen asleep from where he has crossed them underneath him on the big monitor chair.

He probably looks like a mess. A sleep deprived, greasy haired, overworked mess if a human being.

…...He probably looks adorable. Kon is sort of tempted to fly over just to take a look.

But no, no, bad idea, especially with all the people and cameras parked right outside the door.

He doesn’t think Tim would take to being called adorable well, either.

To distract him from the bad thoughts, Kon shoves a roll into his mouth, chews on it, speaks around it. Martha gives him glare for that, smacking him lightly on the back of the head with her spoon.

Smiling sheepishly at her, he swallows, and then tries again.

“You just like using the big monitor, ya nerd. It’s not that big a deal. I mean, it sucks, obviously, but like- we’ll get through it. No biggie.”

There’s a groan of complete despair on the other side of the phone, more worthy of a full out alien invasion than a relationship reveal, but Kon doesn’t say anything about that, either. Just sort of hums and piles on the butter, grabbing another roll to keep the half remaining on his plate company.

John Kent turns to the next page of his newspaper. Martha washes dishes. Outside, reporters are screaming in a clashing sort of harmony with the usual morning bird song.

You don’t understand,” Tim hisses through the phone, and the typing is louder than ever, “I have worked, very, very hard in avoiding any sort of public reputation whatsoever- it was perfect. I never did anything to draw any attention and so the media always ignored me because I was boring, especially in contrast with like, the little demon and my gods, Dick, and it’s only going to get worse as more people wake up and see the headlines and-”

Suddenly, the other teen falls silent. Kon waits long enough that he begins to grow concerned, before he hears it.

In a near silent, completely horrified whisper, Tim speaks.

Shit. I’ve become the problem child.”

And Kon- laughs. Can’t help it. Yes, it’s a bit unnerving that there are a bunch of people outside who all want to get into his business and will probably respect no boundaries doing so. And, yes, it’s probably going to be trickier going incognito now with his face plastered all over the news. But hearing Tim flip out about it through the phone- hysteria fueled with sleep deprivation and probably way too much coffee to be healthy- and sitting in the calm of the Kent farmhouse kitchen, he’s not too worried, can’t even bring himself to try.

On the other end of the line, Tim is complaining about him being a horrible boyfriend and about the entirety of his life in general- “The internet is flipping out. Tumblr is- actually, no, no- I don’t want to know about Tumblr. But they’re calling me gay, Kon, I’m not even a homosexual, I am bisexual and this is so unfair, this is biphobia, this is bi erasure- would you please stop laughing?”- and then moves on to swearing up a storm again because, “ Shit, shit, shit- what do you think Bruce is going to say? This is so not how I want to come out-”

That gives the Kryptonian a pause.

“Wait a second- doesn’t Bruce already know we’re dating?”

“...Yes? Probably. I never explicitly told him but he knows? It’s the principle of the thing- stop laughing-”

Ten minutes later, breakfast is winding down, and so is Tim. The other teen seems to finally be calming down after cycling through a massive assortment of topics and worries and a long list of insults that Kon knew he didn’t mean.

But then Tim says, “Seriously, though, seriously,” and he knows that, for all of the Boy Wonder’s joking, there are actual underlying concerns and repressed fears that need to be addressed, “What are we going to do?”

Kon hums, phone pressed between his ear and shoulder blade as he helps Martha wash up.

“Well,” he says, scrubbing at a particularly tough spot on the plate, “do you have any ideas?”

“Hmmmm… I suppose we could turn off the security protocols at Arkham for an hour: breakouts always get great news coverage and it would distract all the reporters from zoning in on our love life-”

….Maybe he isn’t at quite a serious headspace as Connor thinks.

“Tim.”

“Okay, okay- It was just a joke. Sort of.”

And there, there, a nervous little tremor, practically nonexistent if you aren’t really looking for it, coating over his boyfriend’s tone. He feels almost honoured, the fact that he’s gotten to a point in his relationship with the other hero that Tim allowed the vulnerability into his voice at all. Quickly, Kon excused himself back to his bedroom and sat on his bed, thankful for the slight decrease in noise from the outside world.

“I’m not going anywhere, you know. We’ll get through this, just like we got through everything else. I mean- we’re not that interesting, right? The press will move on from us eventually.”

He can hear Tim breathing, breathing, in and out, in and out.

“Right. Right. This will all blow over. I’ll put out a statement, we’ll lay low for a little while, something more important will distract them and then everything will go back to normal.”

“Right.”

A moment of silence.

Then-

“Kon, what if Bruce tries to give me The Talk? Shit, Kon, Batman, he’s Batman, Batman might want to talk to me about the Birds and the Bees, Kon-

He struggles to keep a straight face, stares up at the blue ceiling, and says, in his best proximity of Batman’s voice, “They’re disappearing at an alarming rate.”

It’s all it takes, and Conner can hear Tim’s laughter coming from over the line, and he just closes his eyes and laughs with him.

Chapter Text

They’re only an hour in, and Bruce thinks he’s going to bang his head against the dash.

A five hour road trip to the local resort, and Bruce loves Dick, really, but the eight year old has the sort of energy levels Bruce doesn’t think he could manage with a full week of sleeping and ten pounds of caffeine in his system.

It doesn’t help, he thinks, that they have been awake since the wee hours of the morning, and that Bruce did extra patrol last night to make up for his future absence.

He almost regrets it now.

And listen, listen, Bruce can deal with many things. He can deal with the fidgeting and the talking and the open windows and the small pings and beeps of the kid’s game. He can deal with all of that with ease.

But, for the life of him, he cannot deal with the singing.

And Dick, apparently, really, really loves the singing.

Eighty three bottles of beer on the wall, eighty three bottles of beer. Take one down and pass it around, eighty two bottles of beer on the wall!”

“Dick,” he says, carefully- because this whole parenting thing fits oddly around his young shoulders and Dick is a precious human who is so easy to break- and turns around in his seat to peer at the boy, “it was fun for about the first ten rounds, but now it’s getting a bit stale. Do you mind stopping, kiddo?”

Alfred besides him and driving in his calm and stately manner, hides a smile.

“Oh, shush, Master Bruce, let him be. He is simply singing: it is not all that bad.”

Sixty seven bottles of beer on the wall, sixty seven bottles of beer. Take one down and pass it around, sixty six bottles of beer on the wall!”

“Dick- seriously. Not funny anymore. Please stop.”

“I admit this is a bit...ah… extensive, my dear boy.” Perhaps try to finish soon?

They stop for gas and he and Alfred switch drivers while Dick cackles over candy and eats an entire bag of sweets in roughly two seconds flat. Bruce doesn’t even understand how so much candy can fit in such a small body so fast.

He thinks that maybe the kid will forget. He thinks he might be able to immerse himself in blissful, precious silence.

But then-

“Forty two bottles of beer on the wall, forty two bottles of beer. Take one down and pass it around, forty one bottles of beer on the wall!”

Master Dick, if you would please-”

Dick , you’d better stop right now or I am going to pull over, get out, and go back there and sit on you.”

Alfred’s reprimanding gaze turns on him while the young boy bursts out laughing, and Bruce just sighs and keeps his eyes on the road.

Thirty five bottles of beer on the wall, thirty five bottles of beer. Take one down and pass it around, thirty four bottles of beer on the wall!”

“If you stop right now, I will literally give you three entire bag of gummy worms. Please. My headache has a headache.”

Nineteen bottles of beer on the wall, nineteen bottles of beer. Take one down and pass it around, eighteen bottles of beer on the wall!”

Jesus-”

“We may as well let him finish, Master Bruce. He is almost done, now.”

“No more bottles of beer on the wall, no more bottles of beer. Go to the store and buy some more, ninety nine bottles of beer on the wall! Ninety nine bottles of beer on the wall-”

NO. Dick Grayson, you are not allowed to sing that song in my presence ever again.”

For a moment, the blissful sound of silence.

And then-

“Sorry.”

Bruce sighs, grip on the wheel tightening. He lost his temper. He shouldn’t have done that. Now he’s made Dick feel bad and everything’s all messed up.

God, he’s awful at this.

Why the hell did he think it would be a good idea to take a kid on again?

Then, of course, because the universe decided that Bruce hasn’t suffered enough at the sound of Dick’s usually bright voice sinking so low and small, the boy hunches up in his seat, and says, very quietly-

“Me and my parents used to sing together. When we were moving. At the circus.”

And well-

Well, Bruce thinks, oh, shit-

He really is so, so awful at this.

Bruce clears his throat, glances at Alfred for help but the man simply gives him a stern look.

He’s on his own.

He’s on his own, and Dick’s doing that little withdrawing thing he does when he’s sad and doesn’t want to make a big deal of it, and oh no those were tears in his kid’s eyes and he was doomed.

Think, he thinks, and tries not to feel like a moron, think. You’re  B a t m a n - you’re better than this.

But Bruce is coming up empty.

Desperately, frantically, he reaches way wa back to some of his earliest childhood memories, to some of his own long roadtrips stuck in the back seats, and starts out on a faltering, almost forgotten melody that sticks to his throat and brings up concepts of warmth and his mother’s soft alto.

I like the mountains.

He sings, but it comes out almost more of a sentence,

I like the rolling hills.

Alfred, besides him, has a smile slowly spreading across his face, his far superior voice joining in.

I like the flowers.

I like the daffodils.

Dick, he can see through the rear view mirror, has perked up curiously, held tilt in that peculiar manner of his.

I like the fireside when the night is cold.

Boomdeyada. Boomdeyada. Boomdeyada.

Boom.

I like the mountains...

The words come easier now that he’s gone through them once, and by the third repetition Dick has the lyrics down and has made their little duet a three part harmony. Bruce isn’t sure how the hell they’re doing that, but he just focuses on keeping his own melodies right and lets them have their fun.

From there, Alfred introduces some of his old theater songs, and Bruce isn’t especially fond of singing but he can manage this kind fine, the one that is not pitched directly to annoy him, that is not trying to be repetitive without meaning or beauty.

He even finds himself enjoying it.

And after an hour, they fall into comfortable silence, and he closes his eyes for just the briefest of moments, letting it sink in, enjoying the long empty road before him and all those futures he can see coming his way with this little boy who sings like a bird, and it is good.

And then-

“Found a peanut, Found a peanut, found a peeeeaanut last night- last night I found a peanut, found a peanut last night!”

Bruce slams down on the brakes.

 

Chapter Text

The thing they don’t tell you about being a hero, the thing that seems to slip everyone’s minds with all the fighting and action and dramatic close calls, is that a lot of it is waiting.

Nobody tells Damian this when he first signs up.

But it is. It is, a lot of the time, simply that. Waiting. Waiting to talk with the commissioner. Waiting for a drug shipment so they could bust it. Waiting for the right moment to strike. Waiting by a victim’s side for the ambulance to arrive. Waiting by a thug’s side for an ambulance to arrive when things get rough and the men downed get left behind.

Waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

At first, Damian is confused. He doesn’t get it. Doesn’t think he ever will. He’s petulant and angry and he just wants to do something, anything. He doesn’t understand why Grayson insists that they stop. Doesn’t understand why they are wasting so much time.

But he’s also still unsteady on his feet. Uncertain of his place and uncertain in his role, standing in a uniform- in a symbol- that suddenly feels too big for him when before he had been so sure he was worthy. Father is dead, but Grayson has chosen him, and so Damian follows.

He doesn’t understand, but he follows.

(He would follow Grayson to the end of the earth, and this scares him more than he could ever say.)

They save a woman. She’s young, maybe mid twenties, and her hair has been poorly dyed a dark orangish colour that hurts Damian’s eyes to look at. She’s wearing a skirt and a neat blouse, except the blouse has been ripped open and the man who did it is knocked out cold, zip tied to a metal railing with a broken nose, curling protectively into himself in a way that suggests something else is broken, too.

The woman is crying, and it’s pathetic- Don’t cry. Don’t show weakness. Showing weakness is what gets you dead- but one sharp look from Grayson, from Batman, keeps Damian quiet.

Grayson reaches into his utility belt, silent, and pulls out one of the large simple black t-shirts that Alfred always somehow manages to fold into small enough packages to fit them into their belts.

One of these days, Damian is going to learn how to do the same. He’ll make sure of it.

The woman pulls the shirt over her ruined blouse, and her fingers are shaking the entire time. As soon as the article of clothing is settled firmly around her, reaching mid thigh, she throws herself at Batman and sobs.

Damian doesn’t look, but he knows Grayson is tugging the woman close in a gentle hug, can hear his soft, growly Batman voice, words of reassurance filling the night air even over the woman’s wailing.

Grayson gives very good hugs. He knows what to do when someone wraps an arm around him. He doesn’t jump and slip into a fighting stance, or growl or threaten. Not like Damian. Grayson cares. He cares and he’s like sunshine, and he somehow makes everything somehow better as if life really truly is a fairytale, the stories Damian has just begun to explore where the good guys get their happy endings and the bad guys never win.

And he gives good hugs.

So Damian doesn’t look. He knows looking somehow translates into wanting in Grayson’s strange world, so he very purposely stares at the fire escape across the street.

…. Damian looks.

The woman has calmed down, some, her sobs quieting down to shaky breaths and jittery limbs. Grayson is helping her sit down on the curb and dropping down besides her, and when she grabs his hand he doesn’t protest, even though he probably should.

Grayson is Batman. Batman doesn’t hold hands.

Grayson’s Batman does though.

And Damian is frustrated, his eagerness to do something itching under his skin- Because fighting, at least, makes sense, even if he can no longer end the battle with a killing stroke - but he’s also been trained well, and he won’t disobey an order, even the stupid ones, until he’s sure that doesn't mean getting sent away.

And maybe because he respects Grayson the tiniest bit, but this he won’t say out loud.

Somewhere, in the distance, the sound of sirens begin to wail, and the woman finally looks up, her eyes wide and startled, and Grayson murmurs to her, quiet and gruff and reassuring, and she settles.

They wait.

Always waiting, waiting, waiting. It’s hard, harder than Damian could ever believe, but it could be harder.

Only at the last possible moment, when a pair of police officers begin to pile out of their cars- two females, Damian notes, and he wonders how Grayson got them on the case, if he has them on speed dial- do they disappear into the shadows. Damian breathes deep, something like relief in his sigh, and he settles, too, like that woman had upon realizing she was finally safe. The shadows are safe. Familiar. Damian knows what to do when he’s here, how to hide and blend and move with silent feet. There are no sudden weights on his shoulders or confusing responsibilities dragging him in a million directions, there’s just him.

Just him, and Grayson.

And as the Batman glides silently ahead, only to pause a moment and flash a smile backwards, a hand coming to settle quietly on Damian’s shoulder in wordless confirmation of a job well done, Damian doesn’t smile, but he sort of feels like it.

He ducks his head under his hood, and pretends that he can’t hear Grayson’s quiet chuckle as the man moves on to the next rooftop. And only when he’s sure no one’s looking does he allow his own lips to twitch upwards, and then he runs and he leaps, and he follows

 

Chapter Text

The crystal has been placed. The ground has been gauged with finely interwoven magic, and Klarion cackles as he looks at his companions, as they raise their arms up together and begin their steady chant, filling the world with malice, filling the world with chaos, and his eyes glowed red and the realities of time shifted and shook and-

And-

And then they split in two, and Klarion was left with Teekle’s happy meow and something that felt significantly like utter mayhem thrumming in his non existent heart.

This, he thinks, is going to be fun.

 


 

So look, look-

Tim is new at this whole Robin thing. He’s got a year under his belt, and he can hack like nobody’s business, and according to Bruce he’s really been improving on at his bowstaff lately-

But he’s not good at the whole- emotional aspect. The whole ‘light spot to Batman’s dark side’ and everything. And like- he’s trying, but there are some times when the older man just stands in front of Jason’s old Robin costume for hours, silent and brooding and haunted by memories that Tim doesn’t know how to help with.

Luckily, Dick’s usually there, too.

Except-

Except something’s been off about his pseudo older brother lately as well, some sort of tension around the corner of his eyelids that doesn’t belong there.

Tim doesn’t like it.

And of course, Bruce is now off world, so he’s no help, and in all honesty Tim has really no idea what to do.

But-

But-

He can do this. He can make Dick laugh, make him smile, recount something Garfield had done on their last mission and get his older brother to relax, even for just a second.

Which is good. Very good.

Except, Dick opens his mouth to respond, hand already raised to give his customary hair ruffle, and Tim blinks and then he’s gone.

He blinks, glancing around the suddenly empty cave

“...Nightwing?”

No response.

Not good, he thinks, and heads upstairs to find Alfred. He doesn’t know if there is a protocol for this, but his brain is already going a mile a minute. Time travel? Magic? Speedster of some sort?

But Alfred isn’t upstairs, either, dinner half cooked on the stove top, sauced up wooden spoon splattered on the ground.

Tim looks around the big empty manor and tries not to think of the Drake household.

Right, he thinks.

Okay.

He tries calling Batman. No response. He tries calling Nightwing, just in case.

Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

But when he gets online…

Online is chaos.

All people eighteen and older have gone missing. Kids are in panic. Cars have piled up in massive wreck along all major roadways. Shit- there must be so many children in the back seat stuck in those car crashes, so many kids mid way across the Atlantic on a plane that is suddenly careening into the ocean, so many injured, so many dead-

Focus-

Tim breathes harshly through his nose. He needs to get to the bottom of this. He needs to figure out a way to bring them all back.

It’s instinct, at this point, to put on his suit and run for the zeta beams.

Time to regroup with the rest of the team.


 

Garfield is not panicking.

Really.

He’s not.

Well-

He sort of is. Maybe. Because one second M’gann is here, with him, laughing as she makes cookies float onto their various plates to be handed out to the team, and the next she’s gone and it’s raining dessert and Beast Boy can’t read minds or levitate or anything on that level, but he does have this tingling in his head when M’gann is around, this sort of steady hum of familiarity, and it hardly ever goes away ever, and now it is very very clearly not present at all.

And he’s not a little kid. He can take care of himself. Really.

But-

But the last time he lost track of someone close to him so abruptly, the next time he’s seen them they were in a car sailing over the edge of a cliff and then they were dead, so he does feel a little bit justified.

But then everybody starts showing up, yelling and calling for order and freaking out because what the hell do we do, Cassie and La’gaan and Jaime and Bart and Robin and-

And then no one else.

Garfield doesn’t think he ever realized how many fully grown members they had on their team until suddenly they were all gone and all that was left was them, six teens with not much to work with and no real experience of collaborating together without older hands to guide them.

“What do we do now?” he asks, and he hates how his voice sounds small.

Cassie straightens her shoulders, narrows her eyes and crosses her arms.

“We do what we always do: we help.”

It is a call to arms. It is a goal to strive for, and Garfield breathes a sigh of relief even as Robin murmurs about possibly getting a video out to the general populace to try and stop the allconsuming panic and chaos that is spreading across a world with no adults.

“Someone… else might want to do the talking, though,” the Boy Wonder says, shifting, and everyone who had been half paying attention- otherwise busy with splitting the world into different ground areas to help out in- all sort of collectively pull faces and nod.

Robin is many things. A competent fighter and a competent leader and an incredible hacker, but he is not the most socially adept human being, oftentimes coming off as awkward or otherwise silent, too many thoughts crammed into his big brain to really focus, and when it came to a bunch of scared little kids…

Yeah. Probably not the best option.

So while Robin uses his freaky tech powers to hook them up with screens across the planet, Garfield glances around then shrugs, raises his hands in a little wave.

“I’ll do it! Just tell me what to say.”

The others agree, and start going about their self-assigned tasks, and Beast Boy latches onto the distraction like a lifeline, memorizing rattled off words as Robin says him.

He always had wanted to be on TV….


 

“Attention all teenagers and children of Eart h. We are using Justice League technology to broadcast this to every TV, radio, and smartphone on the planet."


 

Tim grits his teeth and taps away at the halo computer. On one screen, he has communication lines up with all the current teenage supers he could get his hands on. He’s informing them of the situation, of their plan, given them access to the aps and encouraged them to make use of them, promises them help as soon as their team can get to a more global level of assistance and sends thanks to those who promise their own services once their own chaos is under control.

He needs to work on his Farsi. It’s rusty as hell. When this is all over- when, when, never if- he’s going to make Dick practice with him.

On the other screen, he has scans pulled up, searching for anomalies and from where this occurrence came from. Bruce loves his tech, and it is good, but it’s still in the early stages when it comes to its capabilities of detecting magic and dimensional interference.

It’s still better than nothing.

The third screen has the video he took of Garfield and a couple of the others, the program steadily running to have it playing on a loop in as many countries  as possible, translating it into almost every language under the sun. It’s not the perfect solution, but it is hopefully a good enough start.

Finally, on the fourth screen, he has a world map with a bunch of quickly spreading little red blinkers, interspaced with blue and purples ones. Each red, he knows, represents a stranded kid. Each blue, a place to drop off kids. Each purple a set up med space.

It was a lot, but Tim would manage.

He would figure this out.

He has too.


 

"You must stay calm. We’re doing all we can to bring the adults back.”

 


 

Cassie pulls a careening school bus off the side of a bridge, the little kids inside gasping and shaking in relief, spilling out immediately afterwards with shaking limbs, coming to grip her tightly with tear streamed faces, and she knows there’s a shelter set up a few miles away.

She looks up: there’s still three quarters of a bridge to go through, to check for kids and help the injured.

And then there these ones, too, little second graders, and she can’t just leave them alone.

“Alright, kiddos,” she says, and picks up the four clingiest ones, “we’re gonna go on a little walking tour, okay? If you see anyone who’s stuck in a car, you tell me, and we’ll get them out too.”

The kids nod, some looking determined and some looking scared and some still crying, and Cassie keeps the smile on her face up even though it feels strained in all the wrong places.

By the time she’s made it to the center, there’s a small parade of children- luckily not all little seven years olds- and she’s awkwardly balancing four different babies, another one strapped to her back.

The two sixteen year old boys who are manning the shelter look kind of manic when they see her little army of children, but the minute one of the babies in her arms starts crying the one with what must be like, eight piercings in his ear immediately softens and reaches out to take the little tyke.

“We’re going to need some more diapers. And food. Can you...?”

Cassie nods, sets down her precious burdens.

“I’m here to help.”


 

“For now, however, the oldest amongst you must step up.


 

There is a plane in the water.

La’gaan clambers awkwardly on the side of a plane, reaching the emergency exit and slamming it open. There are random kids and teen everywhere, their eyes shuttered and scared, more than one heavily bruised and unconscious.

He has rallied as many Atlanteans as much as he could.

There are so many downed planes, though, and not all that much he can do to help.

Some of them manage to get onto the life crafts themselves, and by the time he gets to them they are floating wearily at sea, eyes wide and panicked but at least not in a sinking metal aircraft.

Sometimes, though, it is more like this, with kids bloodied and unconscious and in shock, and La’gaan tries to look kind and tries to look like a hero and tries not to not flinch when some of the smaller ones begin crying in earnest at the sight of him.

“Come on, small humans, come on, onto the flotation device. I promise you it’s all going to be okay.”


 

“Take care of the people younger than you. Protect them.”


 

Bart is in charge of hazard work.

He’s going through the cities, methodical, zooming into houses to turn off stoves and taps and blow out candles. He’s there to peep into cars and rooms and anywhere else he can get into, to find kids in immediate danger and get them out, get them medical attention, and slap tracers on kids who can stand to wait for another to come and help.

Robin’s released some sort of app, he thinks, available to the public, and it can follow the trackers and locate any and all of the daycares, safe houses, and medical spaces available

A little girl sobs, her leg twisted ugly and wrong, and Bart reaches out and goes hey, hey, hey, you’re going to be alright I promise I promise I promise and tries not to worry about how much this feels like a distraction, how wherever the grownups are, the Reach are probably too and-

That’s his family out there. That’s Wally and Great Grandpa and Great Grandma and Grandpa and Grandma and his unborn mother and father and-

He came back to this time to make it so he never had to be the last speedster on earth ever ever ever again. He came back and yet somehow this is where he is, ash on his tongue and flames from an overturned car and heartbeat too loud in his ears.

“You’re going to be okay,” he says, and he picks her up as gently as possible and rushes off to the closest medical check up point they have set up.

He breathes, breathes, closes his eyes and tries not to retch. He’s gone through four states, so far, and it’s only been a couple of hours.

One of the young woman, she must be seventeen, comes up and shoves a box of granola bars into his chest.

He blinks at it. Blinks at her.

“What?” she says, defensive, “don’t Flashes have to like, eat a ton?”

Slowly, Bart nods, and starts cramming the bars as fast as he can, before she can change her mind.

He will never get over how easily people just-  give up their food, in the past.


 

“You must help in anyway you can.”


 

A young man with his hair dyed bright pink rubs at his eyes.

Superheroes. Child superheroes. On his screen. They’re talking about taking care of the younglings but they’re the ones that seem so freaking small.

“What can I do?” he asks, completely rhetorical, and gets an answer anyways.

“I don’t know. Do you have a pilot license?”

He leaps out of his freaking chair, minor heart attack already in place, and meets the eye of another teen grinning back at him.

“Hi,” says the stranger, “I’m Billy. And it’s really important that I get across the U.S. to Happy Harbour.”


 

In the end, some things are different.

It’s five hours later and everyone’s exhausted, and most of the team is gathered for a quick recap because Tim is pretty sure he has the anomaly narrowed down to a specific region. Billy Batson still shows up, and his grin is wide and face determined, and when he says he’s Captain Marvel everyone believes him on the basis of Robin going, “Yep. He’s in the data banks,” with the sort of casual assuredness that comes with having access to the Batcomputer.

But Dick is on the other end of the line, not Batman, and the first question that comes through is whether or not the team is okay, if anyone is hurt?

It’s such a Nightwing thing to do that it makes them all relax, if only a little, and they go from there.

They have no magic user on their end, but Zatara assures them that the anomalies Robin had been following lined up with what they had on their end, and so a plan was formed to strike fast and together and hopefully disrupt everything enough that the two worlds will come back together once more.

In the end, some things are the same.

They fight Klarion and evil mages and magicians, a two fronted attack that by all means should work, and it does, it does- but-

But-

But both teams are out of shape. It’s been chaos. Children missing and parents missing and fear and worry and stress all over. The Justice League is missing some heavy hitters, and the covert group is missing their leaders and guides, and one thing leads to another and Zatanna places the helmet of Fate upon her head, an old relic abandoned to gather dust for years instead of months.

The barrier falls. The crystal is destroyed. Suddenly, the people in the tree-filled cove has tripled. Nightwing lets out some ragged sound of relief when he spots his team, safe and whole and alive. When he spots Robin, pulls him tight to his chest and ever so barely trembles.

Beast Boy scrambles for M'gann’s arm. Impulse speeds over to his grandfather and crashes into him with a hug. There is reassurance in this. There is relief.

In the end, there is a world saved and whole once more.

In the end, there is still this, a father who loves his daughter far more than he will ever love himself, and a bargain that is made to save her.And Zatanna is older, now, not a young girl she might be in some other timeline. But it does not stop her pain, the ache.

Fate’s helmet slides down and covers Giovanni’s view, making a great man something more and something so incredibly less.

He is lost, he is lost-

He is misplaced.

Chapter Text

It starts like this.

Bruce is a young man, and he has this kid, this kid, this little ray of sunshine who for some reason has decided he likes him enough to stick around, who smiles and laughs and sings and fills up this empty manor of his with something that feels like home.

Bruce is a young man, and there is a child who is depending on him, who is hurt and angry and scared, who reflects his own sorrowed heart and blackened burdens but is so much better, who is so incredibly amazingly determined, and-

He is terrified. Terrified of messing this up, up messing Dick up, of making things worse and not better. His kid deserves the world and it’s not something Bruce can give to him, but one day they’re sitting in the living room, reading, and Bruce thinks may as well go for it and reaches into his pocket.

Dick peers curiously at him, scooches closer to look, and Bruce clears his throat and nods, awkwardly, and refuses to acknowledge how much this feels like a stupid idea.

“B? What’s in the bag?”

Bruce grunts, shifts, extends the little black pouch and pours it into Dick’s cupped calloused palms, those hands that are still growing and still so steadily strong.

Dick opens it, coos at the small silver chain that lays inside, a pendent of a robin in flight, breaking free from ice blue stone, and then offers him one of his thousand kilowatt smiles.

“Aww, B, what’s this for?”

Bruce shrugs, looks away at the wall to hide his awkwardness. He has no idea why he lets Alfred talk him into these kind of things. No idea why, when told to pick something nice out for Master Dick, he decides to choose a freaking necklace of all things.

Dick is twelve, and Bruce has bought him a necklace.

“I saw it and thought of you, I suppose.”

Dick glances down at the chain, then back at Bruce, then back down. There’s a shit eating grin splitting his face and Bruce already regrets this so much.

(That’s a lie. Dick knows this. Bruce knows Dick knows, and Dick knows Bruce knows he knows.)

The smiles is complete, and his ward collapses on top of him in a relaxed hug, and then sing songs, “I am so totally gonna tell Wally you’re an utter sap, ya know? He’s not going to believe me, but now I have proof.”

Bruce rolls his eyes, says, “Oh, be quiet, you,” but he does not pull away.

 

The necklace becomes a common sight around the household, a staple of Dick’s attire and a thing to comment about in the papers, and whenever Alfred finds it he drops it off on the young master’s desk with a sigh and a fond smile, and they go from there.

It’s a common sight around the household, and it means family and it means home, and then one day years later there’s a chasm between them that Bruce does not even know how to start crossing, and Dick pulls the jewelry off his neck with something wet and something fierce in his eyes and snaps the chain in two.

By morning, Dick has vanished into the night, and all the halls rings with silence.

 


 

Jason gets his after some gala or another, and the boy is upset and the boy is angry, and there are snide remarks still echoing and Bruce doesn’t have the words to say you belong, you belong, you belong-

But late that night Bruce comes in with a small white box, and he ignores the young boy when the kid rolls his eyes and sarcastically asks if he’s proposing, instead choosing to open it and spill the finely threaded gold chain into the youth’s lap.

At the end of the chain is an owl swathed in ruby flames, claws poised to attack and something smart in its deep set eyes, and Jason does not laugh and does not smirk. He picks up the jewelry like it is fragile and precious, admires it in the dangling light and says, so quietly it hurts something in Bruce’s chest, “This is for me?”

Bruce nods, nods, and Jason goes, oh and then he goes quiet, and they sit together not quite right but not quite wrong, and Bruce thinks of new beginnings and past endings and little boys who have too much fight in their hearts and entire futures ahead of them, and maybe he has no words but maybe this is enough.

Jason wears his necklace everywhere, too, but he keeps it hidden and tucked away, folded neatly under the collar of his shirts like it is a secret.

Perhaps it is.

 

And later, later, there will be the Joker and a crowbar an explosion and death. There will be mourning and anger and the sickly green glow of the pit, of coming back to life, and there will be fighting and pain and grieving of an entirely other form, and there will be this, just this-

An owl pendant tucked away in a small wooden box, unworn but not unforgotten, in an apartment where a young man lives beyond death and truly has come to every wisdom by trial of fire.

 


 

Tim gets his necklace on top of the roof. It is an apology, maybe. It is acceptance, perhaps.

It comes too late, either way, and Bruce wishes he could swipe away the guilt, that he could avoid wishing that this young teen besides him was another black haired blue eyed boy, wishes that he was better than this, stronger than this.

But Tim understands the need for a Robin, dove head first into the ocean just for a chance of learning not to drown, looks Bruce in the eye and sees far too much, and how can he ignore this?

Tim is sunshines. Tim is living and breathing and here, and he’s done so much and thinks so little of himself, and Bruce presses eye hawk diving into deep navy blue coloured stone into his Robin’s gloved hands and pretends his own gauntlets do not shake.

“What’s this?”

Bruce closes the teen’s finger’s over metal and stone, over chains that hold themselves together by linking tight and linking close, and says, “Tradition.”

He does not say anymore than that, but by the way Tim smiles he is quite sure he does not need to.

 

Tim does not wear his. Not really. He is not a necklace sort of person. But sometimes, when he is thinking and absent minded, he will pull it out of his hidey hole and wrap it around his fingers and let it fall free again, a habitual movement of an endless fidgeter told to never fidget, and Bruce will spot that flash of deep blue from the corner of his eye and smile.

 

Later, later, Tim will hold that stone close to his chest and whisper promises that no one else believes, one that says he’ll bring a man lost in time back to life, back to here and now, back to home.


 

Stephanie receives hers long after she finishes being Robin, finds it hanging from her bedframe one late night after college courses and patrol.

She stares at it, blearily, reaches out and picks up a simple chain, peers at the fierce teal eagle perched on amethyst vines that stretch up and surround in strange, beautiful patterns.

This is not an apology. If it is, it is not enough.

But it is something, and Stephanie will always be more than a legacy she was denied and torn away from, will never stop being this fierce strong woman who carves beauty into her every bone through sheer power of will, and this is just how it is.

Perhaps this is recognition, of that, and she will never be the girl to wear jewelry but when she does she more often than not finds herself reaching for the pendant of a bird who survived every danger and has since learned to soar.


 

Cassandra receives hers some late night after patrol, coming up besides Bruce before he can call her over.

The man smiles at her. He is tired. He is hesitant. He is unsure. His body is asking for rest, has not quite released the adrenaline, is straining from a long night.

But he is smiling.

Cass smiles back.

Her feet are bare, and the floor is cold, but this only takes a moment. There is a shelf stacked high with miscellaneous items, and no matter how many times Alfred comes to clean it people always end up loading more random items on top, be it chapstick or batarangs or shoes or capes or homework or anything else.

In this case, Bruce reaches out and grabs a small simple silk pouch. Cass blinks, curious, and takes it from him eagerly, pulling it open and peering inside.

There is a hummingbird, there, mid flight. It is encased in what looks like a yellow sun, and it is a thousand colours and bright and pure.

Cass knows what this is. She knows what it means. She has seen these necklaces hanging from her family’s necks and wrapped around their fingers and shoved away in their hidden collections. So she smiles, and lets Bruce put it on her, her bare toes curling up happily on cold ground.

Acceptance, she thinks, welcome.

She is not wrong.


 

Bruce is not there when Damian receives his charm.

Bruce is, supposedly, dead.

But Dick is there.

Dick, who repaired those broken chains one day with nimble fingers and tired eyes and a heart that has never stopped shining for all its scars.

Bruce is dead and Damian is angry, and every cruel word he spews is a defense mechanism for a lifetime of teachings that told him showing emotion has and always will be a weakness.

But he does not look so emotionless, now, eyes wet with tears that refuse to fall and knuckles gripped so tight they are almost white, and he’s screaming at Dick, yelling, and this is a tantrum and Dick is so tired and he doesn’t know what to do, and he desperately, desperately wishes that Bruce was here, that Bruce could help, that Dick wasn’t left alone with this small human who depended on him so much, because this is terrifying.

It takes two hours for Damian to calm down, and the boy hisses and heaves and then comes to the horrible realization that he had just yelled at the person in charge of him and-

And then he vanishes.

Dick finds him three hours later, on top of the roof in only a pair of shorts and a t-shirt in the winter air. He wonders if this was a part of his training, enduring extreme temperatures, and it makes him sick to think of some version of Damian even smaller than this one being forced out into the cold.

“You’re not in trouble, ya know,” he starts, and Damian doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even respond except for the slightest shifting of his shoulders.

Dick tries again.

“It’s okay to- to be upset here, ya know? It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to tell me these things. I’m not going to judge. You’re not going to be punished.”

The smaller boy’s grip on his knees tighten, and so Dick sighs and says, “I’ve got something for you.”

That, at least, gets the youth’s attention, and the elder sees a flicker of green eyes before they focus once more on the white earth below.

It does not deter Dick, and he reaches out and takes one of Damian’s small calloused palms, spills an old silver chain into it and watches as the boy peers curiously down at the pendent of a robin breaking free from blue stone.

“And what’s this supposed to be, Grayson?”

A smile. There is a lifetime in that charm. There is a man he will sorely miss and a feeling of home.

But Dick does not say this.

Instead, what spills out is this, just this-

“A promise.”

And it is. It is a promise of something new. It is a promise of beginnings.

It is a promise that this enough, that they are enough, or that someday, at least, they will be.


 

It’s morning, and the sun has just started to peeks it’s shining face into Wayne manor’s windows, and Duke is sitting at the breakfast table trying to not feel awkward and Bruce- who has a business meeting and is decidedly not an early bird- drinks coffee and stares at him as if he is trying to understand the innermost workings of his soul.

It’s the kind of look that’s unnerving before 7:00AM. It’s the kind of look that’s unnerving anytime at all.

It doesn’t help that, whenever Duke tries to implement conversation like a normal person, Bruce just sort of- grunts. The teen is sure the older man is trying to say something, that he might even think he is making sense, but in reality all that is coming out is a bunch of nonsensical monotone one syllable noises.

Bruce is on his third cup of coffee. He is still this incoherent. It is kind of terrifying to behold.

Duke is concerned for this families caffeine intake. Has been ever since he came down into the kitchen only to have Tim look him dead in the eye and take a large swallow straight from the pot, and then sort of just- walk off with it.

The pot was full.

This is not natural.

He is distracted from his musings, however, when Bruce grunts once more and slides something across the table to him.

He picks it up.

“Is this, uh- for me?”

A non committal hum.

“I… am going to assume that’s a yes.”

So Duke opens the pouch up, and inside is a necklace. Which is a little weird, but not like- awful, and actually now that he thinks about it he’s pretty sure he’s seen Damian and Cass wearing ones of a similar design.

Except his pendent is a swallow, wings stretched in mid flight, dancing across an expanse of gold.

“Oh,” he says, and there is something warm in his chest, “oh, um- thank you. Thank you, Bruce. It’s beautiful.”

He fumbles with the clasp and gets it around his neck, and when it settles it feels warm against the press of his t-shirt.

Bruce is smiling at him, or at least is doing something with his face that is close enough to count, and Duke smiles back.

And then the man pours himself a fourth cup of coffee and Duke starts plotting about switching everything to decaf, because what the hell-


 

Harper and Cullen sit on the couch before him, and Harper is scowling and Cullen is shrinking, and Bruce sighs and thinks this could be going better.

But he is nothing if not a stubborn man, and so he tries.

“Harper,” he says, “Cullen.”

More glaring. More shrinking.

Congratulations, he thinks, tiredly, you have established that you know their names!

They fall into awkward silence, and Bruce has never been good at this, has never been able to get what he wants to say out in the way he means it, but these two kids, these wonderful children who are just so- tired and young and scarred, and he wants them to feel safe, here. He wants them to feel no alone, to feel welcome and unjudged and free to simply be and-

And-

And Bruce sighs, reaches into his pocket and pulls out two little black boxes.

“I know,” he starts, stops, and then starts again, “I know that you both have had some bad experiences with family.”

Cullen is so curled into himself that he seems to be almost nothing at all, and Harper’s nails are digging into the material of the couch.

Bruce pushes on.

“And I know that- this family is more than a little dysfunctional.”

Silence, silence, c’mon, Bruce, you’re better than this-

“But- if you would like- if you would want it, it’s yours.”

He slides the two boxes over to the teens, and leaves so that they feel no pressure. He wonders if they will like them, if Harper will admire the shining falcon emblazoned in a turquoise sky, if Cullen would appreciate the weaver bird peeking its head out of a nest of orange.

He wonders. He hopes.

When they start wearing the necklaces in the upcoming months, he smiles.


Look.

Look.

Bruce knows that this life of his is not perfect. He knows that with every inch of his, has it written in his very heartbeat. He knows that there is pain and suffering and torment, that there is evil and cruelty and so much that is so terribly wrong.

But Bruce sits in the midst of his crowd of children. They are squabbling about what movie they want to watch, and Harper is shoving Damian off the couch to his indignant cry, Cullen laughing and leaping on top of Duke’s back to stop him from retaliating.

Jason is tucked away in the corner, as far away from Bruce as he can get but definitely here, Stephanie besides him with her legs resting against his thighs and hands thrown out wide in exasperation of some sort of rant or another.

Tim is going on a mile a minute about some theory about some TV show to Cass, who is nodding studiously with wide eyes, looking like she almost wants to start taking notes. Dick is chatting with Alfred, gesticulating wildly and grinning that thousand kilowatt grin and-

And-

And listen, Bruce knows there is bad in the world. He knows that this is not perfect, that they are still struggling and learning and growing-

But this is his family, here, his flock of birds that he gathered close to him, who he loves, and they are here, here, all around him, shining and content and-

And-

And Bruce closes his eyes and lets it all sink in. There are no words for this in any of the languages he has come to known, this happiness in his bones, this peace in his heartbeat. It is acceptance and welcoming, it is a promise and laughter and safety and so much more.

This home, right here, right now. This old manor filled with life.

Bruce sinks into it and feels like he is breaking free from stone encasing, feels like he is flying off into an ever distant sunset, and all there is are colors of a thousand names.

Chapter Text

This is a story.

It is a story about grief, about pain, about a thousand things that went wrong and broken, about the things that do not heal and burn somewhere in the cavity of your chest long after the wound has been dealt.

But it is not only that.

This is a story: there will always be something more below the surface.

This is a story about growing, about making mistakes and moving past them. It is about laughter and friendship and family, about fragile fingers reaching out and finding hands to hold. It is about happiness- about building it and finding it and embracing it.

This is a story. There are promises kept and promises broken. There are days where the world comes down empty and days where it comes up full. Do not make it more than this. Do not make it less.

Stories do not end. They do not begin.

(Or perhaps they are always ending and always beginning. Who is to say?)

Listen, listen, this is a story about a Bat and his Bird, about how they found each other, and everything that came after that.

This is life, written into heartbeats and carved into bone.

Listen, listen-

Can you hear it singing?


When Bruce first sees Dick, he is laughing, caught in a ray of sunshine and just about to leap into the air as if gravity could catch him. Bruce looks at him and smiles, suddenly feeling a little less bothered by all the noise and colours and the life that surrounds him in every which way.

Their relationship is captured in this moment, captured in a ringing sound of joy and a halo of light, captured in a heartbeat and a breath and a young man who no longer feels so alone.

When Bruce first talks with Dick, the boy is shaking into a thousand pieces, and there are two dead bodies on the ground and a thousand words he cannot say, but he looks at this boy, at this child, and Dick looks back with eyes that speak of a thousand heartbreaks and a thousand pains, of a lifetime pivoted by one crucial snap of a wire.

Eyes that speak of suffering. Eyes that speak of strength.

( Carved into his bones. This is a moment that is carved into his bones, and it will never truly heal.)

Those blue orbs stare out at him and Bruce looks into them like he is looking into a mirror, and he thinks, hello, hello, I see you, I see you, I understand-

I found you.

He thinks, I found you.

It does not mean much. But Bruce remember what it is to be lost, to be broken, to be stuck somewhere in an abyss so dark and deep it seems to be breathing your every breath. He knows that fragile strength, that determination, and this boy has no one, no one, and Bruce is looking in a mirror and how could he ever let this kid go?

He can’t. That’s the answer.

He can’t.

There is too much fight in that boy’s eyes to ever let it diminish.

It takes weeks. It takes months. It is a lifetime made of broken parts, of nightmares and tears of frustration, of a little boy who stares up at him with face pulled into a snarl and anger in his chest and a promise of vengeance, of pain-

It is a boy who runs away one night and comes back with a peace that hurts, who did not deal the final blow, who wears a family’s colours and calls out a promise of justice, of hope-

It is Batman, captured and alone, and Robin stumbling into his prison with blood on his brow and determination in the whites of his masks, and he says , “I found you, B, I found you-”

Nonsense words that do not mean much. Nonsense words that mean the world.

Fragile fingers reach out, and they find a hand to hold.


This is a story. This is life.

It is singing. It is ugly. It is bruised.

It is  h e r e .

Does that not make it beautiful?


Jason stumbles into his life with the smell of gasoline in his nose and his fists raised to fight before Bruce can even get out a word.

This, too, says more about their relationship than Bruce cares to admit.

But listen, listen-

This is a story that has so much more to it. This is a story of a boy who is lost and alone and struggling to survive, of a boy looks to the future the same way one might look at a hungry bear.

Jason, who struggles and shakes and breaks and builds himself back up. Jason, who loves to read and criticizes movie adaptations and when Bruce asks if he wants to go to school, agrees with wide excited eyes and one of the brightest grins he’s ever seen. Who laughs at inappropriate comments and throws back insults that belong in a Shakespearean play, who never hesitates to help cook dinner with Alfred, who is bold and brash and so, so scared.

Bruce looks at this boy and thinks I found you, I found you-

And listen, listen, being found does not mean you can not be lost.

This, too, is Jason: a little boy who grew up without him. A little boy who died, alone and scared and alone, who has a memorial in the cave as both a reminder and a threat and a warning .

Because this is Jason, who Bruce was not fast enough to save. Jason, who Bruce fears he will never be fast enough to save.

Jason glares at him from behind a mask, gun raised and face tensed, and life is not so simple as to give anyone a clear person to blame.

“Found you, B,” he says, and then he pulls the trigger.

Bruce does not die that night. His story does not end.

Or maybe it does. Some small part. He drips blood like he drips heartbeats. He  takes his failings and he carves it into his bones.

Life does not explain. It does not play by the rules. Life is a thousand coins being flipped all at once, and we do not get to call heads or tails.

Seconds and minutes and years. Jason stares at him from behind a pair of glasses, throws his head back and laughs, and Bruce puts down a pot of burned pasta and hides his smile as he starts to scrape away at the ruined meal.

He does not know this young man before him, but he is willing to learn, willing to find him in all these little moments, willing to let himself be found.


This is a story. This is life.

Happiness is something that plays a role in both. Happiness is something that we all grasp for with fragile fingers, wanting to be held.

Happiness is found amongst our every shattered ruin, and where it is not it is  b u i l t .


Tim stands before him shaking and pale, and he does not back down.

Batman needs a Robin, he says, and he is not a wrong.

And listen, listen, Bruce does not want this. He has a thousand regrets weighing heavy and a mantra of too late, too late, too late carving itself into his bones.

But Tim stands before him and there is determination in the set of his brow and too much fight for the world to know what to do with, and Bruce looks at those blue orbs and he sees a mirror and he sees a reflection and he sees someone who is desperate not to be alone, and his heart thrums with a familiar tune that goes you found me, you found me, y o u   f o u n d m e-

Perhaps Bruce is not ready to be found. Tim sets aside a camera filled with captured moments and insists on finding him anyways.

This is Tim, who was so alone and so so sad, and Bruce stands in front of him and then besides him and then behind, and he watches this boy grow into his own. Watches him land his first punch and laugh, watches him form friendships and set himself upon the world with a sort of ravenous hunger to learn.

He watches this boy work himself too hard, watches him break down and live through the grit of his teeth and sheer power of will, watches him shake himself apart in front of gravestones filled with people taken from the world far too soon.

(It is always too soon.)

Bruce watches, and he has little control, but he reaches out and holds fragile fingers and holds them close, and perhaps it is not enough but he is here, he is here, he is here.

I found you, he thinks, I found you.

You found me.


This is a story and it is a battlefield.

This is a story and it h u r t s-

This is a story, and it does not begin and it does not end.


Stephanie flares into his life like a firework, and dies out just as quick.

Except this is a story, and that will never be enough to truly explain.

This is a girl who grows up fighting, who will always be more than a bloodied legacy of a Robin dead and gone, who laughs in the face of fear because otherwise she would never stop shaking.

Stephanie comes to him when he is angry and alone, takes his every broken heartbeat and staples upon it her statement that he has been found, like it or not . When Bruce tears out the staplers she just grins too sharp and too quick and holds on tighter through the grip of her fingernails.

Stephanie eats her pizza cold and cackles at her own jokes. She wears eggplant and makes games of seeing how often she can make Bruce’s eye twitch. She goes through thoughts and feelings so fast that sometimes Bruce cannot even start to follow.

Bruce did not want to be found, did not want to find, but she writes herself into his heartbeat and carves herself into his bones, and she has never stopped fighting, not even once, and he has never learned to really say no.


Listen, listen- haven’t you learned?

Life is a story and we’re all just trying to be heard.

Life is a story and we’re all just trying to be found.


Cass laughs with her whole body. She makes no sound.

It is a graceless thing, muscles spasming and face scrunching up. Her cheeks turn red and her eyes watery, and she oftentimes slaps the person sitting closest to her hard enough to bruise through sheer amusement.

Cass lives like she laughs. She is soundless. She is here, leaving bruises and smiles in her wake.

This is a game of survival. This is a lesson carved into her bones. Cass stops playing that version of the game somewhere along the line and picks up a new one that tells her life is a choice, life is infinite, life is yours.

Live it.

Bruce watches this young woman pull pranks and learn to read. He watches her dance, the way her face lights up. He watches her eat an entire pound of gummy worms and throw it all back up.

She chooses to find.

She chooses to be found.

She chooses to live.


Make mistakes and break promises. Laugh until you’re sick to your stomach and drive a hundred miles without a map. Go to school, read, write, listen to music and create some. Cry. Shake. Hold someone else together and whisper a thousand endearments into their skin.

Learn how to bake a cake and eat it no matter how bad it tastes. Jump off a swing and scrape your knee. Hold a baby and think of all the things they might do one day. Look at a stranger and think the same. Dance under a thousand stars and sleep for two days straight just for the hell of it.

Do something that makes you scared.

Do something that makes you brave.

L i v e.

That’s all you can do, in the face of all this.

L i v e.

Build yourself up with a every moment you make your own. Write a story you want to tell, and then carve it into your bones.


 

This is a story.

It is not always kind.

Bruce holds shattered parts together and carves regrets into his bones. There are a thousand scars all over his chest and they will not heal. He has weeped and bruised and hurt and raged .

But it is not only that.

This is a story: there will always be something more below the surface.

Bruce grows, he makes his mistakes and he learns from them. He has laughed and he has helped and he has loved so fiercely it is a wonder he has not died from it.

This is a story. Do not make it more than this. Do not make it less.

Promises kept and promises broken. Days the world comes down empty and days where it comes up full.

And what can he do, in the face of all this?

Bruce is built from all these little moments. He is built from Jason’s excitement the first time he returns home from school with an ‘A’ on his English paper. He is the pain that comes from Cass’ tears as she shakes apart and has no words to explain why. He is Dick’s laughter when Batman tells his first joke in costume. He is Damian’s furious cries when Tim swipes the boy’s feet out from underneath him after telling him, “You’re shoes are untied.”

He is Duke, learning how to make waffles in the kitchen and silently panicking whenever Alfred is not looking. He is Stephanie, insisting that they watch Lord of the Rings for the fourth time this week. He is Harper, showing off a piece of art she’s made for one of her classes and trying not to look like she cares too much about his opinion. He is Cullen, screaming and yelling and ranting for everyone to hear, finally embracing the fact that it is okay to be angry at a world that pushed him too far.

He is this, all this.

He is so much more.

Stories are always ending and always beginning. You can not capture an entire lifetime with words on a page.

But listen, listen , this is a story about a Bat and his Birds, about how they found each other, and everything that comes after that.

This is life, written into heartbeats and carved into bone.

( I found you, I found you-)

Listen, listen -

Can you hear it?

It is singing.

(And you found me.)