Damian has never understood Drake.
That’s no secret. No matter how much Grayson insists that the two of them are so similar, Damian has just never been able to wrap his head around why and how Drake operates the way that he operates. He also can’t explain exactly what the way that Drake operates is, but that seems to be a sort of tied-in problem that he can deal with later. He’d honestly rather know why the boy is simply so odd.
They don’t get along, exactly, but they’re a lot closer to it than they used to be. Damian is fourteen and Drake is nineteen; they’ve both grown up a lot since they first met and the hostility has backed off pretty significantly on both sides. Damian now openly acknowledges that he doesn’t hate Drake, and has managed, on one occasion, to get as far as telling him that he respects him. Drake has even referred to Damian as his brother more than once (and though Damian won’t admit it, he likes knowing that that’s where he stands). But it’s not like they’re close or anything. Hell, they still throw insults around at each other all the time, even if it’s more for the sake of annoying the others. Drake isn’t at the manor all that often anymore between Titans work and WE, so they see each other out of capes only about twice a month at this point.
In their capes, Drake is a useful and formidable ally; Damian has come to accept that in the vigilante world, you want Red Robin on your side. Not only does he provide substantial fighting skills and (fine, he’ll say it) remarkable and invaluable intelligence and strategic skill — he also has quite a sense of poetic irony and a very strong moral compass. Which means getting beaten by Drake — not being on his side of the fight — can mean a lot more damage than just a broken nose. Damian’s grandfather comes to mind as the immediate example for the time he tried to mess with Batman’s loved ones and Drake subsequently destroyed basically the entire League of Assassins. So, yeah. You want Red Robin on your side.
In general summary, Damian would say that he’s begrudgingly accepting of Red Robin and neutral-but-angled-towards-the-negative on Drake. But it’s still a little weird to be getting a call — a phone call, not on the comms — from Red Robin while he’s at the very end of his patrol route and just about to head home. Frowning, he fishes his burner out of his pocket and flicks it open (flip phones are for plebeians, but they are very satisfying to open and close) with a short grumble of, “Report.”
“About that,” says Drake’s tinny voice through the phone speaker, and Damian evaluates and decides that the boy doesn’t sound injured or panicked, so this is probably not a call that he’s going to actually respond to. Although he does sound kind of airy. Almost… distracted? “I think I need your help with this.”
Scoffing, Damian rolls his eyes even though Drake can’t see him. “With what? You’re pathetically inarticulate.”
Drake doesn’t take the bait, but it was hardly even bait anyway. And at this point Damian can literally feel his distraction, the way he’s definitely shuffling around and staring at something, and now that he focuses on it, he can hear a lot of… strange sounds in the background. Where the hell even is he? Damian opens his gauntlet computer to Drake’s tracker and finds him in the dead center of one of the warehouses down by the docks. He cringes involuntarily. Warehouses are not beloved by the Wayne family. For a lot of reasons, but mostly for the one that starts with T and ends with odd. He begins making his way to the side of the roof he’s standing on, planning on going to check it out with the excuse of thinking he saw a crime or something if this Drake thing turns out to be nothing. He nonetheless grapples to another building and starts swinging in the older boy’s direction. He’s not going just to check that Drake is okay. He wouldn’t do that. Nope.
“Will you just come down here?” Drake asks, but it’s the next thing he says that actually throws Damian for a bit of a loop. “You know more about this kind of thing than I do, so having you here would be a big help.”
Damian blinks. He… doesn’t know that he’s ever heard Drake ask anybody for help on account of them knowing more than he does. And now, of course, he’s blushing furiously and can’t help but be grateful that Drake isn’t here to see it. “Whatever, Red,” he snaps, though he can’t manage to put much heat behind it — probably because all that heat is in his ears and face right now. Dammit. “As long as you’re finally admitting that I’m smarter than you, I guess I’ll show up.”
“Thanks,” Drake mumbles absently, and the line goes dead. What is up with him right now?
Damian swings faster.
. . .
Damian arrives and expects Drake to be waiting for him out front, but he isn’t. Instead, he sees a pile of unconscious men, burly and broad and still a lot more roughed up than Drake would usually allow. He checks that they’re firmly bound together and unable to move before he shoves the warehouse doors open himself. The second he does, he understands why Drake called. And he almost turns around to rough up those goons some more, because he’s absolutely furious.
The entire building is packed with animals. They’re stuffed into too-small cages and pet carriers, stacked several units high and organized in some kind of system across the warehouse. The floor is strewn with dirty hay, and dark water seeps from the corners and drips from the rafters. In front of him are huskies, looking rather thin and lethargic, but he looks down the line and grows even angrier when he sees the tigers and capybaras and — oh god, that’s a giraffe. An entire giraffe. Holy shit.
He looks back at the huskies and realizes belatedly that they’re not huskies, but wolf-dogs. This is an operation for smuggling exotic animals.
Damian is about to either throw up or go break those dudes’ noses when he hears a soft voice from somewhere amid the cages. “What’s your name?”
Damian’s eyes widen and he rushes forward. There are people here too? What kind of operation trafficks animals and people at the same time? That has to be a huge undertaking — just what are they dealing with here?
He rounds a corner and finds Red Robin, sitting cross-legged in front of one of the smaller pet carriers. That’s… there’s no way a person could fit in that. Unless…
No. No. This cannot be an infant smuggling ring. Because if it is he actually might break his father’s rule.
While Damian stands there, stunned, Drake still seems to have not noticed him, which is impossible. Damian watches as the boy clicks his tongue twice and speaks more gently and kindly than he’s ever heard. “Hey, it’s okay. What’s your name?”
“No,” says a voice, clipped and scratchy, and Damian startles. Drake doesn’t look over at him but he nonetheless purses his lips, nodding solemnly and motioning for him to come closer. Damian does, and he crouches down beside Red and peers inside the carrier to see not an infant, but a bird. One of its wings appears to be injured, sticking out to the side a bit oddly.
“African gray parrot,” Drake supplies quietly, which Damian already knew, but something in his distant voice gives him pause.
“Drake?” He mumbles, trying to look at his face, and it seems to snap him out of his weird daze.
“Sorry,” the boy says, shaking his head quickly and clearing his throat. “I just…” he pauses for a long moment, his mask hiding the emotions in his eyes, and gestures all around him. He looks about as upset as Damian has ever seen him on a case.
Damian nods, although he’s surprised to learn that Drake apparently cares a lot about animals. It’s odd that it’s never come up, considering Damian’s menagerie. “Have you taken stock of what’s here?” He asks, and is surprised that it comes out as a question and not a demand. But Drake just looks… fragile. And for once Damian can’t find it in himself to exploit that, because he feels pretty damn fragile right now, too. Just the thought of these creatures being stolen from their homes and locked away to be sold at the whims of the wealthy makes him sick.
Drake hums. “In the mammals section there’s ten wolf-dogs, seven sugar gliders, five kinkajou, four ocelots, four agouti, three raccoon-dogs, three red pandas, three tigers, two hyenas, two bobcats, two capybaras, two reindeer, two fennec foxes, two galagos, two porcupines, two African wild dogs, an anteater, a polar bear, a spirit bear, a jaguar, a leopard, a snow leopard, a red wolf, a giant otter, a regular otter, a—” Drake’s voice breaks for an instant, to Damian’s shock, but he wrangles it under control. “An ibex, a water buffalo, a white rhinoceros, a hippopotamus, a zebra, a caribou, a lowland gorilla, a two-toed sloth, an elephant seal, a sea lion, and a fucking giraffe.” He breathes in shakily and clears his throat. “In the reptiles section—”
“Drake,” Damian cuts in, and instantly the boy stops and hangs his head.
“So many of these animals are endangered,” Drake mumbles, almost to himself, but then he looks over at Damian, his forehead pinched oddly. “These people could’ve wiped out an entire species and not even cared.”
Damian is suddenly overcome by a surge of protectiveness in his chest. For the animals, of course. “These aren’t people , Drake,” he hisses, but it must be clear his anger isn’t directed at Red Robin, because the boy relaxes a little bit. Huh. “These are monsters. And we’re going to undo their damage.” He looks around, noting a gorilla’s foot sticking out from a gap in the bars of a partially-hidden cage. He blinks. “...Although we may need some help.”
Tim nods, seeming to bring himself under control and back into his Detective Voice. “Right. I have contacts with some reptile and bird sanctuaries and rehab programs, but I have less pull with the mammals. You got anything?”
Damian blinks. He’s doing a lot of that tonight. Okay, he actually does have a few animal sanctuary contacts that he can pull, but not enough to cover all of these different species, although his contacts can connect him to other specialists through their network. But why the hell does Drake have reptile and bird contacts? How long has he been on this sort of thing? This bust feels pretty last-minute, honestly, which it normally wouldn’t be, considering the apparent size of the operation and the number of dangerous-looking people who had been inside. Speaking of that…
“Are you injured?” Damian says, evaluating Red’s face carefully and trying not to kick himself for not asking sooner. It only matters because Father would be upset.
But Drake shakes his head. “Some scrapes and bruises from earlier in the night, but nothing from here. I… didn’t exactly play fair.”
Damian snorts before he can stop himself. “I don’t believe such a thing. From Hood, yes. From you, no.”
A smile graces Drake’s face, finally, and Damian feels a little relieved, not that anyone needs to know that. “I can fight dirty. You’ve just never seen me do it.”
Damian doesn’t like the implication that all the reasons you don’t want to be on Red Robin’s bad side are not things that are considered fighting dirty. Another thing he’ll have to ask about later. “Tt. I have contacts I can pull for the mammals. Everyone is accounted for?”
Drake nods slowly. “Yeah, but…” he trails off and looks down at the pet carrier in front of him.
Damian frowns. “What is it?”
Drake visibly swallows and exhales hard. “African grays aren’t considered exotic pets, so I’m not entirely sure why this parrot is here. But she’s— she’s injured. And young. And she doesn’t… if she doesn’t start socializing soon she could become depressed — I’ve read studies about that — or she could just end up in an animal shelter, but grays live so long they’ll probably just kill her before anyone adopts her, and she just seems so sweet and—”
The boy swallows again and sighs. He gathers his thoughts for a moment and finally looks over at Damian. “Do you think…” he bites his lip. Damian gives him a flat look to make him hurry up. “Do you think B would… would let me…”
Damian isn’t stupid. He’s aware of how neglectful Drake’s childhood was, of how he became convinced that he was undeserving of love and that he was a burden on everyone. He’s aware of the boy’s difficulties with intimacy and touch starvation and anxiety, and especially with asking for affection and things that he wants, because he would’ve been berated for asking in the past. But this isn’t the past, and the others are always trying hard to convince Drake of that, so, in an effort to help Grayson’s cause and nothing more, Damian leans forward and places both his hands on Drake’s shoulders. The boy snaps his mouth shut and stares at him, which was the goal, so Damian presses on. “Drake. Keep the parrot. Father will be glad you are making friends.”
Drake snorts, but his face lights up to a point where the lenses of his mask almost glow. He grins wide before covering his mouth, but the grin still pokes out, toothy and giddy as he bites at his fist in excitement. He manages to hold back any noise as he turns and hurriedly opens the carrier, and Damian is about to warn him not to startle the bird, but Drake actually sits very still and doesn’t stick his hands inside, instead leaning down slowly to be closer to eye-level. Hmm.
“Hi there,” he says gently, laying his hands visibly palm-up on the edge of his cross-legged ankles. There’s a tiny bit of shuffling from inside, but no forward movement. “It’s okay. Take your time. I know you’re scared, but we’re here to help.”
Something about hearing Drake talk to the bird like she’s a person makes a smile tug at Damian’s lips. He sits down beside Drake and almost pulls his first contact, but then a thought occurs to him and he opens his messages instead.
Me: Logan, I have a job for you.
Garfield Logan: yea
Me: Do you remain connected to any animal sanctuaries? Drake and I have encountered a large exotic animal smuggling ring.
Garfield Logan: that explains the weird text he sent me
Garfield Logan: but yea i’ll call some dudes
Garfield Logan: what kind of sanctuaries are we talking about
Me: Any of them you know of. Apex carnivores, African ungulates, marine mammals. This ring was massive.
Garfield Logan: oh shit ok
Garfield Logan: i’ll get working
Garfield Logan: call you when i got somethin
Beast Boy is a prankster, but he’s loyal to a fault; he won’t flake out on this. Besides, he loves animals with everything he’s got. He’ll pull through. Just in case, though…
Me: Do you think your barn would be large enough to house a water buffalo?
Jonathan Kent: What did you do??
Me: Busted an exotic animal trafficking ring. Are you going to help or not?
Jonathan Kent: Oh woah. Do you need Dad and I to come out??
Me: No, but we might need a few of these animals to stay at your house until we can place them. You have enough space and we don’t really have to worry about them hurting you.
Jonathan Kent: Right. I’ll ask Mom and get the barn ready. Lmk when you need it!!
Me: Thanks, Jon.
Jonathan Kent: :D!!
He puts his phone away, confident in his friends (how odd it is to say that he has friends to be confident in, but he does), and when he looks up the parrot is walking slowly out the door of the carrier. She pauses to nudge at Drake’s open hands, prodding carefully and likely sniffing for discrepancy. Damian notices a slight crack in her dark beak, but the more noticeable thing in the vicinity right now is the absolute elation filling Drake’s body, visible in the glow of his skin and the twitch of his shoulders, and of course the giant, dumb grin on his face. The parrot considers him for a moment before gingerly stepping onto his left hand. The boy still doesn’t move, but his smile somehow grows, and Damian is starting to think that he’ll break his jaw if it gets much wider. Slowly, the bird migrates from Drake’s hand to his wrist and begins climbing up his inclined arm, dragging her wing a bit and pausing occasionally to headbutt Drake gently or look cautiously at his face. At one point she clicks, and Drake actually giggles, and it’s the weirdest thing that has ever made Damian want to smile. He manages to tamp that down regardless.
“Yeah, hi,” Drake says, unmoving save for his eyes looking at the parrot. “What’s your name?”
The parrot looks at him — is there always that much intelligence in their eyes? — and bobs its head. “Hi,” it says, still creaking and odd.
“Hi,” he giggles back, but refocuses. “So you don’t have one?” Drake says. The parrot clicks again and he nods seriously as if he understands. Hell, maybe he does; is parrot language a part of Drake’s skill set? “I see. Then is it okay if I call you Alice?”
The bird clicks and headbutts him, and Drake nods again. “Okay. Alice.” With another click, the bird climbs back down toward his hands and begins rubbing her head against his fingers. Tentatively, Drake scratches her gray feathers, and she makes a series of clicks and other weird sounds that make the boy giggle again. The bird giggles back. Drake giggles more. This is so weird.
And yet, Damian still finds himself fighting a smile. Maybe it’s because he’s never seen Drake grin so much at anything, or because he’s not used to seeing the boy get so excited. He looks like a child, but from what Damian knows, Drake never really had the chance to be a child, so maybe… maybe he can let this one slide.
“Why Alice?” Damian says after a moment, and Drake has to control a startled jolt, as if he had forgotten Damian is even there. Hell, what is up with this?
“Oh,” he says softly, smiling at him, which Damian is loath to admit makes his chest feel warm. “For Alice Walker. She’s one of my favorite authors, and I know she was my top favorite when I was seven and first started wanting a parrot, because I was reading The Color Purple . So I think it fits.”
Damian nods, but then sifts through the words and can’t help tweaking his head to the side. “You’ve wanted a parrot since you were seven?”
“Well, yeah,” Drake says, eyes back on the bird to starch her neck carefully. “I saw one in a pet store window one time, and it just looked… I dunno. It looked like it knew a lot of things. Like it wanted to have a conversation, kind of. And I was lonely in that house, y’know? Even talking to a bird would’ve helped a lot, I think. But I could never ask my parents because they forbade pets. Said they were unbecoming of people like them or whatever. And then when I finally moved in with B I didn’t want to ask because I was worried he’d say yes because he felt bad but he would secretly hate having a bird, y’know? And it also wasn’t really my house at the time. But maybe now…” he jolts again and shakes his head. “Uh, sorry. Didn’t mean to be a downer.”
“The larger downer is the trafficking ring, Drake.”
The boy snorts and looks back at Alice the parrot with rapture. “Fair point.”
Damian just hums noncommittally. He’s racking up a lot of questions to ask later, if he can swallow his pride enough to do that.
. . .
By the time they get enough animal specialists and police involved to sort everyone out, the sun is beginning to brush the horizon, and they’re running low on time to make their way home. Also, Drake is now fully emotionally invested in this parrot, having made a call to Father that secured her place in the house. Father had seemed a little startled, responding to Drake’s shy query of could I potentially keep a pet parrot? with a confused mumble of of… course? followed by an equally confused yet oddly delighted smile at Drake’s responding giddiness. The call was weird. This whole thing is weird. Whatever.
They’re on their way back to the Cave before dawn, making good time because they call a Batmobile (Damian refuses to ride on the back of Drake’s motorcycle) so that they don’t freak out Alice by swinging. Then they ruin their good time by stopping at the Jamba Juice drive-thru — as a pick-me-up, Drake says, although Damian can also see it for the thank-you that it is. He doesn’t mind. He likes Jamba Juice. Although Drake apparently prefers the Mango-A-Go-Go to the Pomegranate Paradise, which is an abomination, and Damian tells him as much. They debate the finer points of fruit qualities until they pull into the Batcave just as dawn is rising on Gotham.
They park and step out of the car, removing their masks and pocketing them. Damian is holding his drink with both hands and Drake holds his in one hand while the other hand is raised slightly so that Alice can perch on his fingers. Father is at the computer with Grayson standing behind him, leaning on his chair, and they both turn and pause when they see the two youngest.
Grayson blinks at Drake. “Um. Whatcha got there?”
Drake hums noncommittally, sipping his drink. “A smoothie.”
Grayson blinks again, shrugs, and walks over to swipe the cup from Drake and take a sip through the straw. His nose wrinkles immediately. “Ew, is this Mango-A-Go-Go?”
“See, Drake?” Damian says absently, joining them as he begins untying his boots with one hand. “It’s obviously the inferior flavor.”
“I’m with Tim on this one,” Father says, also joining them. His cowl is already off and apparently has been for a while, if the relatively in-place state of his hair is anything to go by. “The mango ones are always the best.” He folds his arms and peers down at Drake’s other, more relevant hand, the one holding an entire living creature. “And who’s this?”
Drake’s face instantly lights up, and now that his eyes are visible Damian notes that they’re full of a dancing twinkle that he hasn’t seen from him before. “This is Alice!” He says excitedly, though he doesn’t hold her out towards them, allowing her to keep her distance. Maybe Drake actually does know what he’s doing. “She’s— well, she was gonna stick with me for a while. I-If that’s okay.”
Grayson is grinning his dopey Big Brother grin, which was to be expected, and Father is also visibly smiling, which is somewhat less expected. “Of course she can stay, Tim. I already said yes.”
Grayson’s mouth drops open, pouting dramatically, as is his way. “What! You mean you knew Tim was bringing a friend and you didn’t tell me?!”
“Would you have handled your excitement well?”
Grayson huffs. “...No.”
Father just nods, and removes his glove to carefully reach a hand out towards the bird. Alice bobs her head sceptically, but Father holds firm, and eventually she clicks and leans forward until he can pet her feathers gently. He smiles again, which makes a lot of Batman smiles in one night. “You know, I always wanted a parrot when I was a kid.”
Damian blinks. Father almost never talks about his childhood — too traumatic — but he especially never talks about childish hopes and dreams and the like. Only ever facts, major details. Huh.
Drake beams at him, and it’s so startling to see on his face that Damian can’t help but glance at Grayson to see if something is wrong. Instead, Grayson is grinning like a moron, which Damian will take as an all-clear for now. “Really?” Drake says excitedly. “Me too! I watched a lot of documentaries about them — do you know about those monk parakeets that live in New York City? Their story is so interesting! And I remember learning about scarlet macaws from watching Diego when I was like five , but recently I read a report about—”
Drake is still babbling on about birds, but now Damian is distracted by the look of pride on Father’s face — directed at both Drake and himself. He feels a little flutter of something in his chest and is suddenly overcome by the desire for a hug , of all things, although he doesn’t act on it; Grayson will give him a thousand of them whether he wants them or not. But why is he… Damian doesn’t like hugs. He doesn’t like feeling vulnerable. So why is he feeling like this? What’s changed? Why is today so odd?
He’s pulled from his thoughts when the doorbell rings upstairs and Drake excuses himself to dash to the showers and change, because apparently he already sent for an aviary and the accompanying supplies and needs to set them up. He recruits a very eager Grayson and they scurry off with Alice, leaving him alone with Father.
Damian is about to begin the process of removing his suit when he feels a large, gentle hand on his shoulder. He turns and looks up at Father, and can’t help feeling that little flutter again as he takes in the warmth in the man’s eyes. “You did good work, Damian,” he says, smiling, and Damian suddenly can’t speak around a lump in his throat. “Both of you. That was a big bust and you handled yourself very well. I’m proud of you for your work tonight, and for taking the initiative to help your brother. You definitely earned your Jamba Juice, even if you picked a nasty flavor.”
Damian blinks owlishly. Why are his eyes stinging? And Drake isn’t his brother. But he can feel his breath catching in his lungs and, for the first time, he kind of actually wants to completely break apart and dissolve into a heap on the floor. Instead, he looks tentatively up at his father, both hoping he can somehow read his mind and also hoping that he can’t, but it seems that the first wins out because eventually Damian shuffles a half-step closed and Father takes that as his cue to kneel down and wrap the boy in a hug. Damian sniffles and hates himself for it, but his father just strokes his hair gently, and it feels so nice that he can’t bring himself to be angry. And there are tears running down his cheeks. Tears. Damian Wayne is crying. How far has he fallen?
Father doesn’t stop petting his hair. His voice is soft and gentle when he speaks, but not pitying, not condescending. Just kind. “I know tonight was hard for you, son. But you saved those animals. They’re okay because of you and Tim. You did good.”
Belatedly, Damian nods and buries his face into his father’s shoulder, deciding to allow for this moment of weakness — but just this once. Finally, he manages a shaky breath and pulls back, cheeks red but still grateful that his father is here right now. He blinks away the tears and clears his throat, forcing himself to meet Father’s eyes. “Drake told me he’s wanted a parrot since he was seven.”
Father’s face turns a bit sad, but he nods. “It makes sense that he hasn’t said anything sooner, given his abusive upbringing.”
Damian nods back, shivering at the word abusive and realizing that it does, in fact, fit Drake’s situation like a glove. If Jack and Janet Drake weren’t already dead, Damian just might’ve gone to beat them up himself. Not that he particularly cares. He’s just defending the name of the Bat, is all. That’s all.
Father stands and smiles, leading his son over towards the lockers and showers with a gentle hand on his shoulder. Damian doesn’t push it away. “And what do you think of Alice?” He asks.
Damian hums. “I suppose it is okay to admit that Drake’s taste in companions isn’t entirely objectionable.”
“A solid assessment.”
“Yes. And…” Damian pauses and huffs, quieting his voice as if afraid that Drake might hear him. “She seems to improve Drake’s morale and mental health, which will make him a better combatant. As such, Alice seems to be an asset to the Mission.”
Father’s smile shifts slightly, becomes more knowing and something else he can’t quite place. “I think she’ll be an asset, too.”
. . .
The next day, Drake returns from the veterinarian with doctor’s orders that Alice stay in a comfortable environment until her injured wing heals and until she’s a bit less traumatized, which effectively rules out any further stress for her, including moving her back to Drake’s apartment or to the Titans Tower, at least for a while. Subsequently, Drake asks if he can stay for a few months, to which Father replies that he doesn’t even have to ask, and to which Damian just offers a relatively non-negative, if annoyed, look. It’s not really positive, either, but it’s what he can give for now. Drake seems to understand, and better, he doesn’t say anything about it.
So Drake moves back in. Except moving back in constitutes him bringing exactly one suitcase with clothes, some extra Red Robin gear, and his camera bag. His backpack is slightly more interesting, Damian notes, as it bears two laptops, a bizarre tablet that’s definitely made from scratch, and a pile of metalworking and tech tools despite the fact that he has the resources of the literal Batcave at his fingertips. His old room is bare except for the standard furniture, a few scattered posters (Kendrick Lamar, Jaws, Disco Elysium) , and, now, a large black aviary taking up almost a quarter of the floorspace.
Alice is very quiet the first two weeks. She barely even clicks, and refuses to leave the aviary at all, even when Drake leaves the door open and exits the room just to give her some more space. But she begins eating more as time goes on, if the slowly-increasing size of the food dishes that Drake makes for her tell the right story. Despite her unease, the boy hasn’t lost interest in her; rather, it seems that he’s gained interest. If there’s anything Damian knows about Drake, it’s that he pours everything he has into everything he does, and that he likes a challenge. So maybe there’s something to be said for rehabilitating a traumatized parrot. Damian avoids interfering; he’s read that it’s important for African grays to bond with their primary caregiver.
Around the one-month mark, Damian is marching down the hall towards the library when he passes Drake’s door and hears music playing out loud on the other side, which is unusual enough to have him opening the door and poking his head in (without knocking because that’s his way).
Drake is sitting cross-legged on his bed, grinning wide at Alice, who is perched nearly eye level with him on the footboard. She’s blinking slowly like she’s about to fall asleep, bobbing her head semi-in alignment with the relaxed beat of the music. When Damian walks in, she startles and opens her eyes, but then she looks him up and down and cocks her head to the side. “Dame,” she squawks, and Damian can’t stop himself from freezing in place, because he’s pretty sure the bird just tried to address him directly. Is that… Can she do that? Is that allowed?
Drake’s eyes light up. “Exactly, that’s Damian!” He says. He turns and motions for him to come closer, so Damian strides over and stops next to the bed, but then Drake scoots over and pats the comforter, and Damian finds himself actually climbing up onto the mattress to sit stiffly beside the boy with his legs drawn halfway to his chest and his back perfectly straight. Drake reaches out to pet Alice’s head and she clicks happily. “I’ve been teaching her everyone’s names using photos,” he explains. He beams at Damian. “Other than mine, yours is the first one she’s gotten!”
Okay, so Damian will forever deny the odd feeling of being touched that the bird knows his name, but that doesn’t stop heat from rising to his ears as he half ducks his face. Drake doesn’t seem to notice, of course. Imbecile. “I see she’s far more intelligent than you, then.” He knows it’s kind of meaner than usual at this point, but he’s trying hard to cover his… embarrassment? Is that what it is? Whatever.
But Drake, damn him, just laughs quietly. “Hell yeah, she is. Smartest bird I know…” He throws a mischievous look at Damian. “And I know a lot of birds.”
Despite himself, Damian feels a tiny smile creeping across his face, and he fights valiantly to force it away. It probably just ends up looking like a grimace. Ignoring that, he decides to just roll his eyes and change the subject. “Why are you playing this music?”
Drake hums and picks up his phone to look at the title on the screen — Buffalo Soldier. “I was trying to find out what kinds of music she likes.”
Damian blinks. “You are searching for music… for Alice?”
“Yeah,” he says cheerfully, like it’s a totally obvious thing that one would do. “Humans aren’t the only ones who like it. Thus far she seems to be most into reggae.”
Damian blinks again, far slower this time, but no, this is still happening. He’s about to mock the boy when he remembers the way Alice had looked right when he walked into the room: sleepy and relaxed, like something had put her at ease. And the only thing new to her environment… was the music.
The words are out of his mouth before he can catch up to his thoughts. “Do you think Titus and Alfred would like to have their own music?” He regrets asking instantly — he’s not looking for help from Drake — but some of that feeling dissolves just as soon as it appeared, because Drake gives him a kind, open smile, hiding nothing behind his eyes, and it makes Damian feel heavy, like he’s… solid. Like he’s here and so is Drake, and that proves that they’re real. His companion nods twice.
“Yeah, I bet they would. We could go play a bunch of different music for them and see which kinds they like. You game?”
“I am always game ,” Damian responds automatically in defense of his honor, and then realizes what he’s just agreed to when Drake grins and stands to collect Alice and give her some time to herself in the aviary. He grabs his phone and his speaker and moves to the doorframe, waiting for Damian and his confused stare to get up and follow.
“C’mon,” he says, gesturing into the hallway as Damian gingerly slides down from the side of the bed. Why is Drake’s bed more comfortable than his? Is it because it’s older? More lived-in? Hmm. “I bet Alfred the cat is a closeted screamo fan.”
“Preposterous,” Damian huffs, but he follows him out the door before taking the lead toward his pets. He’s really doing this, then? Well… but it’s for the good of his animals. Surely having music in their lives will make them happier, and that is all he truly wants for them. He only bemoans having to spend time with Drake to do it.
Although his bed is very comfortable. And his taste in music isn’t half bad.
. . .
By the sixth week, Alice is doing well enough to move about the manor, provided Drake plays taxi. It’s a weekend, and Grayson and Todd have both decided to stay over at the same time (Todd is nursing an injured leg and has made a point to mention that he otherwise wouldn’t be staying, but he takes his place at movie night all the same). The four of them were up late arguing about the discrepancies between Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, and as a result, they’re eating something more closely resembling brunch than breakfast. Drake wanders in last, of course, looking like an extra on The Walking Dead, and shambles straight for the coffee machine. Alice is perched on his left shoulder, and her position combined with the way one of his eyes is still closed makes him look like a cartoon pirate. Damian snorts aloud and passes it off as a jab at Drake’s appearance.
“Tim-Tim,” Alice says, and Drake hums an affirmative. Alice shoves her head into his cheek. “Pet.”
Drake rolls his eyes. “You’re so dramatic,” he huffs, and then immediately starts petting the bird anyway. She tweets and clicks as he pours his coffee with his other hand and makes his way over to the table where the others are, sitting down heavily in a chair.
“Eat,” Alice says, and Drake shakes his head.
“You can eat in a few hours.”
Drake heaves a long-suffering sigh as Grayson grins and Pennyworth puts a plate in front of him, and then he begins devouring his potatoes like they’re his first meal in a year. For all that the boy eats, they actually might be, but Alice squawks indignantly and aims her head for his fork, trying to dart out and snag a bite before it can make it to his mouth. He maneuvers around her every time, and when the last of the potatoes are in his mouth he turns to look at her and chews loudly, tilting his nose up in defiance. “Get fucked,” Drake says, muffled through potatoes, and Alice, by way of response, whistles and bites the bridge of his nose.
Drake also squawks indignantly and yanks his head back, exposing his mouthful of food. Damian wrinkles his nose in disgust, scoffing at Grayson’s bright laughter. At least Todd and his rolling eyes are on his side. Drake swallows his potatoes and scowls. “I will make you into a pillow, you scrawny-ass pigeon,” he huffs, and unsurprisingly, Todd switches sides and immediately bursts out laughing at bird-species-related slander, because that’s a thing this household spends time on now.
“You earned her scorn, Drake,” Damian manages, but it falls flat again. Why can’t he put the bite behind his insults anymore? Is he losing his touch? Growing weak with this family?
Or is he just growing with this family?
He pushes the thoughts away for now in favor of watching Todd feed the bird, earning him definite points in the Alice’s Favorite category, which is something they all compete for even though everyone knows that she’s practically joined to Drake at the hip. But Damian and the others actually like the bird a lot, and the bird seems to like them a lot, and as a result, Drake has been spending more and more time out of his room to let her see them. And slowly, he’s begun spending time out of his room even when Alice isn’t with him, just to sit quietly in the same room as someone else and work, or to eat at the table instead of his desk, or to have real conversations with the people he calls his brothers.
Slowly, Damian is starting to actually get to know Drake. Slowly, he’s finding he likes his company. And slowly, they might really be becoming brothers.
All because of a scrawny-ass pigeon. Damian doesn’t quite know what to make of it.
. . .
The words have been bothering Damian for two and a half months now: I can fight dirty. You’ve just never seen me do it.
And that doesn’t make sense, because Damian has seen Drake pull a lot of stunts over the past four years that would definitely fit the normal definition of fighting dirty — stunts like hacking his way through the United States legal system, conning people out of information or signatures, and going undercover with some new alias every seven seconds. So it doesn’t make sense, and Damian has never done too well with things that don’t make sense.
He now finds himself standing outside Drake’s door as a result, debating whether or not he can sacrifice his pride enough to go in. To admit to not knowing something is to show weakness — but at the same time, Drake had been the one who requested Damian’s presence on the night of the trafficking ring bust on account of Drake not knowing something. And as much as he hates to admit it, the feeling that had sparked in his chest when he realized that Drake holds his skills in such high regard had been… bright. Warm. Something that Grayson would probably make all mushy if he knew.
To distract himself from that hellish scenario, Damian knocks on the door. He hears a great deal of shuffling inside before it swings open to reveal a disheveled Drake, blinking foggily at him as if he’s just woken up. But Drake? Take a nap? Never in a million years.
“Hey,” the boy says, running an uncoordinated hand through his hair. “Sorry, I was taking a nap.” Okay, fine, so Damian stands corrected, but this is definitely the first time in a million years. Is he feeling okay? He’s certainly been known to hide injuries, but before Damian can inquire suspiciously, Drake stretches and steps backwards, inviting him into his room with a gesture. Silently, Damian walks forward. Alice is standing on a part of a whole network of branches and bells and toys that Drake has apparently mounted to two of his walls; a complex series of perches interspersed with activities with which a bird can entertain herself. Including, apparently, a little radio that Damian would bet plays reggae music when Alice presses a button.
“What is that?” He can’t help asking, but Drake grins and considers it with his hands on his hips.
“Oh, I have end-of-quarter meetings at work right now and sometimes I have to be there in person, but I was worried Alice would get bored if I left her alone for so long. So I built this. I think it turned out pretty good.” He flicks one of the bells near his arm and it makes a pleasant little jingle.
Damian is so far beyond being surprised at Drake’s insanity at this point that he just nods and hums. “It appears well-crafted enough.”
Drake beams at him. Damn him and his ability to read between lines Damian thought he’d erased. “Thanks! It took a few days, but she seems to like it. Anyway,” he says as he turns to Damian, “what’s up?”
Damian hums again and hops up onto the edge of Drake’s bed without asking, a vague attempt to annoy the boy that doesn’t work at all and instead ends with Drake flopping down on his back beside him. Rolling his eyes and sighing theatrically, Damian shrugs. “There was something you said that night that I wish to ask you about.”
Drake stiffens, but only slightly. Just enough for a Bat to notice. “What, the night of the bust? What was it?”
Damian swallows. He’s learning to expertly read emotional body language and Drake’s right now says nervous. Which makes him nervous in turn, and he almost backs out, but he’s been turning this over on his mind for so long and he’s sick of it. “You said that I had never seen you fight dirty,” he says quickly, to make sure he gets all the words out. He looks over at his companion. “But I have seen you do many things that I think Father might consider fighting dirty. And I am… confused.”
Drake stares at him for a long moment. Damian does his best not to shift where he sits. Finally, Drake blows out his lips and sighs, sinking further into the bed, and Damian almost expects to be sent away, but then he hears a quiet mumble of, “Please don’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you. Including the family.” Damian nods slowly, but Drake gives him a hard, insistent look, and Damian understands that whatever this is, it’s hidden enough that not even Father knows. And Drake is electing to trust Damian — the boy who had tried to kill him — with this information.
Something warm tingles in Damian’s chest — that same feeling from before. Drake is trusting him. Trusting him as he would a brother. Trusting him and meaning it.
Damian won’t betray that trust. Nobody has ever given it to him before; not like this. He tries to open his face as much as Drake can open his, to make him see the honesty behind his eyes.
“I won’t. I give you my word.”
And apparently Drake trusts his word, too, because right then the boy stares him straight in the eye and says, “My parents were KGB agents.”
Damian’s mind goes blank, and he’s sure that’s preventing him from steeling his expression because Drake bites his lip and looks down. Immediately, Damian feels panic creeping into his throat — if he reacts negatively, will Drake stop trusting him with information? Will he stop trusting his word? And why does it matter so much?
Well. Because this is important. Because that trust means a lot to a person who has been fighting all his life to earn it. Because… because Drake is his… companion. No — his brother. His trust proves it. Drake is his brother, and Damian cares about him, even if he’s not quite ready to say it.
At the same time, the words that just came out of Drake’s mouth are completely bizarre. Not absurd, not unbelievable, but just so incredibly strange to hear that Damian, for once, is at a bit of a loss for words. He elects to press for more information — Drake seems relatively willing to volunteer it, anyway. “Okay,” he says, nodding and gesturing for him to continue, “but that doesn’t explain what you said.”
A tiny sliver of relief flits through Drake’s eyes, and Damian snatches it up and grounds himself in it, in the knowledge that Drake is looking for Damian’s trust as much as Damian is looking for his. The brotherhood seems to go both ways. The older boy nods, staring at the ceiling, which now partially includes Alice’s network of branches. His eyes trace along it as he speaks. “They were… high-ranking. Well, my mother was high-ranking; my father was sort of her handler more than her husband. All those times they left me alone as a kid were… they would go on these missions around the world. I never knew where they were going or what they were doing. They had Drake Industries set up by the KGB as a front or an excuse for being gone. And they’d just leave for months on end, for— I think the longest I was left alone was fifteen months, from when I was ten to eleven. But normally they’d be gone three or four months. They would only ever be at the house for about a week at a time. And when they were home, they… well, my father would hit me, sometimes, or lock me in a closet. My mother mostly just pretended I wasn’t there, which was worse. I was a little kid, y’know? I just wanted attention and love. But I grew up thinking I didn’t deserve those things, because… they told me I didn’t. They showed me I didn’t. I still have a hard time with that, honestly.” His voice is quiet and his eyes flick nervously to Damian’s, which don’t hold pity; only thoughtfulness. Behind them, though, lies horror, barely shielded by the thin lenses of his corneas. He’d had no idea that Drake was left alone for that long, or that Drake Industries wasn’t exactly a real company, or that Jack had… had physically abused him, and apparently, Father doesn’t know any of this, either. Damian isn’t going to tell him; he gave his word. But it suddenly feels… wrong… to call him Drake. Because the Drakes are the people who hurt him so badly, the people who destroyed the mental and physical health of a child — of their child — and saw no problems with it. How can Damian, in good conscience, assign that name to his brother, when it bears so much evil? How can he say it like it’s innocent and innocuous after all the harm it has done?
“My parents never wanted children,” the boy continues, and Damian nods encouragingly, focusing back on him. His thoughts can come later. “But they were informed that my mother’s position required a successor who wouldn’t betray the Agency — they were ordered to have an heir, basically. So they did, and here I am. And the only times my mother would see me or talk to me was when she was training me.”
Damian startles and can’t help the little jolt that runs through him. “Your… your mother trained you to be an agent of the KGB?”
“She was in the process of training me,” his brother corrects, nodding. His voice is mumbled, bitten off, quiet, so far from the poised, confident speaker Damian envies for his charisma in a crowd. “That’s supposed to be my purpose, anyway. Like, that’s literally the only reason I exist, is to be an agent of the KGB. I defected when my parents died because I was too young and untrained. They tried a bunch of stuff to wipe my memories — hypnosis, reprogramming, torture, y’know. I never forgot anything, but I managed to convince them that I had. I remember all the shit my mother taught me. I still have her contacts, I still know how to fuck with people, and I still have all of my tools from back then. That night, when I said you’d never seen me fight dirty?”
Damian nods evenly. His brother sighs.
“I was pissed, right? And alone. When I found that warehouse, I mean. I was by myself and the goons looked too big for me to take on all at once — sixteen-on-one isn’t great even for us. And I was pissed, because who the fuck does that, y’know? They’re innocent animals who’ve never done anything wrong. They didn’t earn a punishment and they didn’t… they didn’t deserve to be locked away.” His breath hitches just slightly, but Damian catches it, and all he can think is oh.
Oh. Of course.
This is a boy who grew up always being told he had done something wrong and never understanding what it was. But of course he had still come to believe it, to believe that he deserved that abuse and neglect, that it was justified, somehow, because that was all he’d ever known. This is a boy who was repeatedly forced into a closet like an animal locked in a cage, and now here he is, completely unwilling to let another creature undergo his torment. He was damaged and victimized by the people who were supposed to care for him and he came out the other side ready to fight for those who had been like him. That’s why he had been so upset by the animals. And that was why he had apparently fought dirty — had willingly used training he otherwise tries to forget.
And isn’t that something Damian understands.
His brother is still tracing his gaze along the branches, body slumped and stiff at the same time. When he speaks again, two full minutes of silence later, his voice is small and soft. Treading carefully. “So I used what my mother taught me.”
This time, Damian doesn’t nod, just makes sure to keep his eye contact as non-judgemental as he can. He wishes he could give more. “What did you do?” He asks, even and open. There’s no accusation, just the question, because that’s all he’s looking for.
The older boy sighs shakily. His face is full of absolute misery. Damian is suddenly struck by hatred; he hates those men for making his brother feel this way. “It’s called a taser bomb,” the boy offers quietly. He sniffles once and swallows. “I made it out of a faulty circuit breaker in the warehouse. It has enough voltage to burn your corneas and bust your eardrums. I… I don’t know if that’s permanent. I’ve never used one before.”
And there are tears tracking down his cheeks, fast and hot, and horribly, horribly silent. Damian hates those men for making his brother feel this way, yes, but he hates Jack and Janet Drake much more for making him think he doesn’t deserve to feel at all. He hates them. He hates them.
After a long moment, Damian shifts, flops down on his back, and says, “May I call you Timothy?”
His brother, also on his back, jerks and fumbles to get his elbows propped up under him, eyes blown comically wide and mouth hanging dumbly open. “Wh… what?” He mumbles, hardly even in control of his tongue.
“Tt. Close your mouth, imbecile, I’m told you’ll catch insects.” Damian squirms to get more comfortable and ends up a few inches closer to his brother — but he doesn’t really mind. Not this time. “I would like to call you Timothy. I feel that it is… unjust to refer to you by the name of the people who wronged you so greatly.” His voice crackles slightly with lightning-bolt anger at the end, and he swallows it in annoyance. Now is not the time. Rather, it is the time for him to look the older boy in the eye and show him that he’s serious, that he means him no harm, unlike the people who once bore the name Drake.
“I-I mean… you… you’re not mad? About what I did?”
Well. That wasn’t what he’d been expecting, but he can see now that he probably should’ve expected it. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says, scoffing.
“But… but we don’t know if I permanently injured someone. I might’ve broken Bruce’s code.”
“And?” Damian says defiantly. He hopes his brother can see the spark of something in his eyes, of something that says I’m here and I’m not leaving, because he can’t get the words out but he means it . The way the boy’s carefully-constructed facade suddenly cracks, begins to open, says that he sees it. Good. “You did what you had to do. You saved those animals. You killed nobody, and even if you had, do you not think we would welcome you home regardless? You are our family.” He takes in the boy’s utter shock, suddenly feeling very small, and he can’t help but tuck his chin slightly towards his chest, unable to hold eye contact. And maybe he’s a coward for that. But he’d rather get these words out at all than keep looking and be unable to say them. “You are my family. My brother. You… we care about you. You are important — to us, to your Titans, to Gotham, to the world.” He takes a shuddering breath. “To me. You are important to me. I don’t care what happened that night or any night, and neither do our siblings, and neither does Father.” Another breath — just to settle. He wants his racing heart to settle, but there’s still something else he wants more. “Now, may I call you Timothy or not?”
His brother stares at him for another long moment, and then, ever so slowly, an honest-to-goodness grin spreads across his face. “Yeah,” he says. His smile grows wider, and he laughs a little. “Yeah, you can call me Timothy. You didn’t have to ask. But… thank you, Damian.” He exhales shakily, still crying despite the smile, and sniffles again. “You’re my brother, too.”
Damian nods seriously, then hesitates. “...You are upset.”
Timothy — it does sound better that way — nods at the ceiling. “I’m just… I wish I hadn’t done it.” He swallows thickly, and more tears streak past his dark lashes. “I wish I hadn’t… I never wanted to use her training again, y’know? I never wanted to go back to the life I had before— before Bruce. Well, before Bruce started liking me.”
Damian is quiet as his thoughts whirl in his mind. All he can think about is how, when he had first arrived at the manor, he had clung to the idea that this wasn’t permanent, that his father would surely send him back to Nanda Parbat every tomorrow or the day after. He had held that in the center of his brain as long as he possibly could, because it was all he’d ever known — if you get attached to someone, they will betray you. And in his mind that had included Father and this family. Grayson had been the first one to break through, to really speak to him as Damian and not as one of his titles, but for all his kindness and empathy, there’s no way for him to truly understand all that Damian has been through. He just has no concept of that life of paranoia and distrust, no concept of existing to be a weapon and an heir, not a person. No concept of existing even though everyone wishes you didn’t when you’re nothing but a child, unaware of any circumstances — a blank slate to be scribbled with other people’s cruelty.
But Timothy — Timothy has lived that life. The life of a would-be agent of an organization he’d been born into. The life of never having choices or bodily autonomy or even free thought, and of being crushed by his parents from whom he sought only love and approval, and of being rejected by Bruce Wayne. Timothy has lived that life and has escaped it, and now, all it’s taken to convince him that he’s no better than that mindless operative is the fact that he used his mother’s training.
And that makes sense to Damian.
Humming quietly, Damian rolls onto his shoulder and curls into a ball, shoving himself against Timothy’s side in an effort to be warmer and more comfortable. “I do know, Timothy,” he says quietly. His brother is still, though clearly awake, just listening with his eyes peeled open. “I know… that feeling.” He does know it, but he’s still not great with feelings in general. He’ll give it a shot. “It is… there’s… it is painful. And it is… worrying. Concerning. To feel that you might fall into old ways.” He settles on that, ignoring the embarrassment creeping up his throat. Timothy doesn’t mention it. Damian can’t help his small sigh. He’s really not good at this. “...The others trust that we are good regardless of what we do. Maybe we can learn to trust ourselves. One day.”
Timothy’s chest rattles once, like he’s huffing a small laugh, and then an arm comes up around Damian’s back, enveloping him in the warmth and comfort he had been looking for. He can’t help but melt into the embrace; it’s full of gentleness and kindness and those aren’t things he’s terribly used to getting. “Yeah. One day.” Timothy nudges him slightly. “Hey, I’ll race you.”
Damian snorts. A race to trust themselves? How utterly asinine. And yet… “Tt. When have I ever lost to the likes of you?”
“Oh, eat my dust, gremlin.”
Independently of each other, both boys grin at the ceiling. Alice clicks from the branches, and Timothy laughs quietly again, and the room is free of tension. Damian realizes that what he said all those weeks ago is untrue.
Damian does understand Drake. He understands Drake very, very well.
. . .
The world is red.
The ground. The sky. His hands.
There is nothing else. Nothing else that could possibly mean anything because everything is red red red.
Red is the burning ache in his stomach. Red is the setting sun on the horizon. Red is the paint he uses for trees in the fall. Red is up. Red is down. Red is the Earth spinning the wrong way.
Red is everything he loves, because they’re here in front of him and they’re red.
Richard Grayson is split open and hollowed like a frog pinned to a wax tray — red. Jason Todd is beaten and utterly unrecognizable as a human save for the helmet amid the gore — red . Timothy Drake’s body is gone but his cloudy-eyed head remains — red. Bruce Wayne has a clean hole in the center of his forehead — red.
“Father,” he croaks, falling to his knees beside the man he had fought to meet for his entire life. He doesn’t need to check the pulse to know, but he does anyway. Red stillness meets his fingertips. He swallows and forces himself to his feet.
“Richard?” He mumbles, stumbling the short distance to the first person who had ever loved him. The red stillness persists, but he takes a moment to breathe, fisting a hand in the remaining fabric of his brother’s suit, clutching the Nightwing emblem. He gets his feet under him again.
He turns to the one who knows his anger, who has taken countless hits for his undeserving sake. “Jason.” One intact forearm reaches out of the heap that used to be his wayward sibling. Unthinking, he grabs it, laces his hand together with broken, stiffened fingers. They’re cold and pale and red. He manages to lock his knees and ankles one last time, to drag himself over to the end of the world.
A sob escapes him and he doesn’t care. “Timothy…” He collapses to the ground beside what’s left of the only person who ever truly understood him, the person who could make sense of his thoughts and emotions unlike any other. His— his Robin. Damian’s Robin. It’s just his head. Just the brain that had been so bright and so caring, just the eyes that had been able to clear a path to Damian’s soul, just the teeth that grinned more and more these days. All of it gone dark and red.
His hands hover hesitantly over the blueish cheeks — his mind is telling him to touch, but his heart can’t do it. His body won’t move. They had been given so little time. Three months. Just three months of growing steadily closer since Timothy had made that call on patrol that night. Just three months of getting to know and understand each other, and coming to realize just how much they had in common, just how similar they were. Just three months of truly becoming brothers.
That was the past, and it would never be that way again. Because Timothy Drake is red and Damian will never get the chance to apologize for the way they started, to make it up to him, to laugh with him about something stupid like they really know each other.
“This is what happens when you let yourself become weak, Damian.”
Damian doesn’t look up from his brother’s remains. “Mother.”
Talia kneels down in front of him. Her voice is venom and softness and it makes him want to scream. “This is what happens to people who get close to you. You hurt everyone you meet, break everything you touch. This is your fault.”
Damian takes a shuddering breath and shakes his head. His brother’s eyes are cloudy and dark in his lonely skull. “No. No.”
“Yes, Damian,” his mother says. Her teeth are sharp and jagged, hiding behind red red red lipstick and a smug smile. “They’re dead and you killed them. It is time to return to the League.”
“No…” he mumbles, standing up and pushing himself back. He takes two steps and runs into something, and the long-nailed hands that land on his shoulders have him squeezing his eyes shut and struggling to control his breathing.
“Hello, grandson,” says the familiar voice of the man behind him. “Good to see you have finally fulfilled your destiny.”
He rips himself away and falls, is forced to skitter back on his elbows until he can stumble to his feet. “No. No, no, no—”
Damian jumps and whirls around, instinctively ready to fight despite the complete emptiness and pain in his chest. There’s nothing there — Talia and Ra’s are gone, too. His eyes flicker back and forth across the horizon.
Dami, wake up.
He turns again, stumbling and feeling his throat constrict. Where is—
His eyes fly open and he scrambles to gain purchase, gasping and wildly throwing out his fists in a desperate attempt to at least distract his attacker. He hits nothing but air, and a moment later his arms are caught in calloused hands, fingers locking around his wrists and holding them in place. His face feels stretched and hot, and he can’t get enough air in through his mouth because he’s too busy screaming.
And a voice cuts through the chaos. “Damian! Dami, look at me!”
He squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head fiercely. “Dame,” squawks a different voice, and it confuses him, because it’s familiar but he can’t connect the dots. Red, red, red…
“Damian!” This time the word is firm and filled with concern, and finally, finally, it stills him enough that he can take in a deep, gagging breath. He takes another, two more, three, and then he suddenly feels the hands on his shoulders, rubbing gentle circles into the tense muscles behind his neck. “Just breathe. Just breathe. It’s okay,” says the voice. “I gotcha. It’s okay.”
He manages to lift his head enough to look, and he barely feels the shaky, disbelieving gasp that rattles out of his chest as his eyes widen into saucers. Without thinking, he reaches out and grabs the face in his hands, fingers pressing into the soft, warm flesh of cheeks and ears. He stares. After a long moment, he dares to blink. The face is still there. It’s attached to a body. It’s looking at him with worry and life. “Timothy,” he breathes out, and he crashes forward into his older brother, hands curling into the soft fabric of his T-shirt. There’s a strong beat beneath his fists. Damian breathes.
Arms, thin but solid, wrap around his body and pull him closer, and he allows it without complaint, burrowing his face into Timothy’s chest. After a moment, gentle hands run through his hair, soothing and real, and he finally allows his muscles to relax. The blood rushing in his ears dulls, and he can hear the quiet words being murmured above his head as his body is slowly rocked back and forth. “It’s okay…. It’s okay. I’m here. Shh… I gotcha.”
A few minutes pass and then Timothy hums, rubbing his thumb across Damian’s temple. “Dames? You with me?”
Damian nods. He can’t bring himself to feel embarrassed about this, somehow — he’s just too relieved to see his brother alive. To know it was nothing more than a nightmare. He pulls himself back, face puffy and tight as he searches for Timothy’s face in the darkness of his bedroom. The arms are still around him, loosened just enough to let him look, and there Timothy is, worry unconcealed in his open eyes as his eyes flicker around Damian’s expression. “Are you okay?”
Damian sniffles pathetically and nods again, but it’s only for a moment before he launches himself back at his brother and flings his arms around his neck, pressing his face into his shoulder. Timothy hugs back fiercely and says nothing. Damian appreciates that.
A while later, when Damian’s tears have stopped and his breathing has calmed, he breaks the hug and leans back again, but stays close enough that he can hold Timothy’s hand in both of his, staring at it as the first few twinges of shame begin to hit him. But Timothy must be a meta mind reader, because he gently guides Damian’s face up to look at him with a hand under his chin. “Hey. Don’t do that,” he says.
Damian frowns. “Don’t do what?”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re allowed to have nightmares, Damian. They don’t make you weak. They make you human.”
The boy blinks. Sometimes it frustrates him just how well Timothy understands. “Tt,” he huffs, but for once, he believes him, and apparently Timothy can see that, because he lets it drop. Damian rubs a hand across his eyes, playing absently with Timothy’s fingers. “How did you find me?”
It’s a valid question; Timothy’s room is in a completely different hallway than Damian’s. There’s no way he could’ve heard his nightmare from that far away.
But Timothy just laughs awkwardly, gesturing to the third occupant of the room that Damian hadn’t even noticed. “Alice was freaking out cuz of the thunderstorm, so I thought I’d walk her around to calm her down. But we came by here and heard you, and… yeah.”
“Oh.” Damian glances at the parrot, perched carefully on the footboard of his bed, and gingerly reaches towards her. Without prompting, she steps onto his hand and shoves her face against the inside of his wrist before popping back up and tweaking her head to the side.
“Okay,” she says, bobbing up and down on spindly gray legs.
Damian smiles. “Yes, Alice, I am. Thank you.” He looks back to Timothy, whose eyes are shining with something like gratitude. To whom or for what, Damian isn’t sure, but at the same time he understands. His cheeks flush bright red despite himself, but now red is okay. Red is solid. Red is safe. “Thank you, akhi.”
Timothy’s eyebrows lift in surprise, but then that dumb grin appears on his face, open as ever, and he pulls Damian into a brief squeeze, and the boy squawks at the tightness, even though they both know he feels nothing but home. “Anytime, Dames,” Timothy says, and he levels Damian with an appraising gaze. “You want me to stay?”
Damian is about to deny him. He’s about to tell him that that would be childish, that he doesn’t need comfort or a babysitter, that he isn’t weak. But Timothy knows all those things. He knows and he’s offering anyway, having decided it could help regardless of whether it’s needed.
So he nods, and pulls back the covers. Timothy smiles and collects Alice to put her back in the aviary, ducking out for a second with the promise of returning. And in a moment, he’s back, crawling under the comforter and settling down into the pillows, and Damian just burrows into his chest as the last remnants of tension seep out of his body and are replaced by exhaustion. Arms wrap protectively around him, and just before sleep claims him, he hears one last whispered phrase.
“Love you, kid.”
Damian just curls closer.
. . .
At four months, the vet says that Alice’s wing is healed and her psychological state is improving actively. She’s cleared to move back to Timothy’s apartment.
Damian is sitting on a couch in one of the living rooms, staring blankly at the inane cartoon on the television and trying to sort through exactly how he feels about that. At the beginning of this, Damian had been annoyed that Timothy was staying with them, but begrudgingly accepting for the sake of Alice. But now…
Now Damian doesn’t think he wants Timothy to leave.
That’s selfish, of course, and he isn’t about to say anything of the sort out loud. But he’s come to… enjoy his brother’s company. To seek it out. And even to seek it out without some face-saving excuse for doing so. Because why does he need to save face for something that isn’t humiliating?
And now Timothy will be gone, back to living at a distance from the family and seeing Damian only in passing. But is that really okay? Is he prepared to lose some of the only closeness he’s ever experienced? It just seems… so soon. Is he willing to give that up so easily?
There’s a rustling from the doorway, which is never an accident in a household of Bats. He pulls his eyes from the tv and looks over, and blinks. “Timothy?” He says before he can stop himself. Is it time already? Has he come to say goodbye?
“Hey,” the boy says, shuffling into the room and rubbing his eyes as a huge yawn stretches his lips. Alice is sitting on his shoulder, leaning against his cheek and clearly still half-asleep. Timothy flops down onto the big cushy chair next to the couch and curls into a loose ball of exhausted teenager, yawning again as Alice steps onto the armrest and tucks herself into a comfortable corner. Timothy’s eyes slip closed and he hums, shifting to get comfortable.
And, uh. Okay. So maybe he isn’t leaving right this second. Maybe he’s been overworking and hasn’t managed to get his things together yet? That’s worth a shot.
“Do you… require assistance with packing?”
Timothy’s brow creases and his eyes slide open. “Packing?”
Damian nods. “So that you may return to your apartment.”
Timothy blinks slowly, like his brain is still catching up. “Oh,” he finally says, sitting up a little, “Oh, uh, well, I planned on…” He pauses to clear his throat and apparently scraps that sentence. His face has fallen slightly, and Damian is running through all the reasons why it might’ve and what can be done to fix it. “I was actually thinking I would— would stay here. For a bit. But I can— I mean, I don’t want to impose, so if there’s too much going on here I can definitely go back to—”
“No!” Damian yelps, cutting him off, and then feels his ears immediately burn with embarrassment. So much for his loner reputation. Still, Timothy has gone silent, so he might as well make the best of it. His eyes flick around nervously — why is he nervous? — and land literally anywhere but his brother’s face. “Uh. No, I had— well, I had assumed you were leaving because Alice has been cleared, a-and I thought you might require assistance — but because you are staying, I, uh… I need not assist you. Because you are. Staying, I mean. Right?” He feels shame burn in the back of his mind at the hopeful tilt to his voice, but at the same time he kind of really wants Timothy to stay. He wants… he doesn’t want this to be over. Not when they’ve come so far. Not when his brother finally seems comfortable here. He stares down at his hands in his lap, unable to make eye contact. “This is our home, after all,” he says quietly, and instinctively braces himself for rejection.
Instead, there’s more shuffling, the sounds of buttons being pressed, and then the cushion beside him sinks under someone’s weight. A gray blob enters his unfocused vision, and he blinks to see Alice now standing in his lap, mouthing at her left foot with her beak. Something else enters his vision: a hand holding an old Xbox controller. He glances up. Timothy is pressing the button in the center of his own controller, a green ring of light flashing to assign him player two.
Damian looks down. The X in his hands is displaying player one. Timothy gave him player one. On purpose. His head jolts back up, mouth falling half-open, but Timothy is watching the Valve logo appear and flicker on the screen.
“Did you know Portal 2 has co-op?”
Damian blinks. He’s never heard of this game before, much less played it. The menu screen comes up and Timothy scrolls down to cooperative mode without waiting for a response. Two robots, one tall and orange and the other short and blue, run along a treadmill as the game loads. They look complex and potentially hostile.
“You’re the blue one,” Timothy explains, pointing to the rounder robot. His brother grins. “I figure it fits because it’s short like you.”
And Damian may be confused, but even he can’t allow that to pass. He snaps his mouth shut and scowls at him. “I will hit my growth spurt eventually, and when I do, I will put your coffee on the top shelf of the pantry and you will regret this mockery.”
Timothy’s eyes twinkle even as he sighs and shakes his head theatrically. “You don’t understand, Dames. You can never truly separate us. Love finds a way.”
“Tt. Show me how to play this game so I can get on with my growing.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Timothy muses, humming. “Maybe I should get a cup of coffee first…”
Damian whaps him with a throw pillow, being careful to avoid Alice, who seems to be asleep in the corner of his arm. Timothy cackles, loud and bright, and then sets about explaining the game and the controls. Apparently the gun Damian is holding is not used to shoot people; it’s used to create portals in white walls. It forces you to go through the game using ingenuity, teamwork and problem solving skills as opposed to violence.
Damian likes that idea.
They’re finishing the first section when Timothy says, “I’m staying.”
They’re halfway through the second when Damian leans against his brother’s shoulder and mumbles, “Good.”
They’re laughing way too hard about a voice line from the female robot overlord in the game and just starting the third section when Jason walks in. He’s holding a paperback copy of Julius Caesar in one hand and a plate of sliced apples in the other. He pauses in the doorway with one eyebrow raised, crunching three apple slices at the same time with reckless abandon. “Wuz goin’ on?” He says around his mouthful of fruit.
“This mechanical harlot wishes us dead!” Damian replies, utterly scandalized as he jabs his controller towards the TV, though he smiles wider at the way Timothy’s laughter intensifies.
Humming, Jason drops into the chair Timothy had once been sitting in and sets his plate down on the table. Before Damian can blink, he gently swipes the parrot from his lap, frowning at her sympathetically. She clicks and headbutts his wrist. “I know, Alice,” he tuts. “They’re too loud and annoying for me, too. You and I can just sit here and read like civilized people.”
“Don’t go filling her head with that bullshit,” Timothy says, focused on the screen and the new level they’re on. “I don’t want her thinking it’s cool to stab politicians.”
“He kind of needed to be stabbed,” Jason argues, eyes narrowed.
“Sure, but they could’ve just stabbed him, like, twice. It didn’t have to be 23 times. That’s too many times. It’s just performative at that point.”
Jason thinks for a moment, then shrugs and says, “I’ll give you that.” He shoves another four apple slices in his mouth and settles down to read, letting Alice perch on his shoulder.
Ten seconds after the apple slices are gone, Alfred (the butler, not the cat) magically senses the lack of food and materializes in the room with three new plates of apple slices — one of Honeycrisp (Jason), one of Pink Lady (Timothy), and one of Golden Delicious (Damian). How the old man had known that they’re all in the same room and exactly what their apple preferences are is beyond Damian, but he still accepts the plate gratefully and begins crunching his way through, laughing when Timothy eats too fast and ends up with a slice lying horizontally in his mouth, stretching out his cheeks like a chipmunk. From the corner of his eye, Damian notices Alfred as he smiles brightly and takes one last look before ducking out of the room.
At the beginning of the fourth section, after Jason has read aloud several Cassius quotes for no apparent reason, Richard bounces through the door, muttering and writing something on his phone. He has a tendency to say the things he’s typing as he’s typing them, which has led to no shortage of Annoyed Sibling arguments in the past, but now Damian just ignores it in favor of trying to figure out where to put his portals. This chapter adds new abilities including super jumping and super running, and it’s admittedly a mechanic that Damian hasn’t quite gotten the hang of yet. Richard looks up and stops.
“Guys?” He says.
“No, you have to— here, look.” The split screen view shifts to Timothy’s orange robot as it raises a two-fingered hand and waves. Damian frowns and immediately starts mashing all the buttons on his controller.
The buttons aren’t working. “Wait, how did you do that? Why can’t I do that?”
“You can — press right on the D-pad. It’s just a little thing they put in.” Timothy does it again. Damian tries and fails to wave, but he does end up absolutely decimating his brother in a robotic game of rock-paper-scissors.
“Wait, why’d you win? That’s some bullshit. I’ve seen The Princess Bride at least ten times, I know how to play the random chance rules,” Timothy whines.
Damian grins wickedly. “Pure skill.” Timothy snorts.
The three of them finally look up from what they’re doing. “Yeah?” Timothy says.
Richard blinks, brows slightly drawn. “Where have you guys been all day? I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Damian frowns. “What do you mean all—” He turns to check his watch, but then cuts himself off when he actually reads it — 5:45 PM. He had wandered in here at around 9:00 AM, but that felt like an hour ago, tops. Where the hell had the day gone? “Huh.”
“Been here, Dickhead,” says Jason, turning back to his book as Damian shows Timothy his watch with bafflement written all across his face.
Timothy reads it and recoils slightly, tweaking his head to the side. “Huh,” he, too, says.
Huh indeed. Because somehow, time had just completely disappeared into this afternoon and this game and this room as if it had leapt into a portal. And somehow, Damian doesn’t mind at all. He likes the portals. They’re relaxing and he likes them and Timothy is staying here.
Richard is just shaking his head. “Well, Alfred says dinner is in half an hour.” He pauses, then casually sidles up to the other end of the couch and flips over it, landing gracefully on the cushion. “So. Portal , huh?”
“Co-op mode,” Timothy says, grinning at the TV.
Richard smiles sincerely and nods, face lighting up at the grin on his next-to-youngest brother’s lips. He eyes Jason with some level of humor and some level of suspicion. “And Julius Caesar. Which you’ve read a hundred times.”
“Your point?” Jason says, not joining up. “I’m educating.”
Richard reaches from the couch to Jason’s shoulder and Alice clambers onto his wrist, clicking happily when he scratches her feathers. “Seems like you’re boring her to me.” He lifts the bird to eye-level. “C’mon, Alice. I’ll teach you to play Subway Surfers. ” He places her on his lap and pulls up an app on his phone.
Jason scoffs. “Shakespeare is timeless. I forgot that game even exists.”
“I thought they took it off the App Store,” Timothy says by way of agreement. “Y’know, since nobody has played it since 2014.”
“How antiquated,” Damian hums in a tone barely tinged with incredibly vague interest. “Portal 2 is far superior.” He hits right on the D-pad and waves for the sixth time since this discussion started.
“I’m hurt,” Richard says, and his voice is entirely unhurt as his thumb swipes in various directions across his screen. “Put a portal on the slanted wall underneath the catwalk.”
“Then I’m out of ideas.”
Timothy huffs a laugh and tries a different wall, and Damian tries another, and they work their way through the level and through the section. Damian finds himself grinning, because they solve the puzzle, and Timothy is staying, and Alice is healed, and Alfred doesn’t scold them for arriving to dinner a full hour after they were supposed to.
. . .
“Robin… I don’ know if…”
“Shut up, Red.” The words are snapped, but Damian’s voice is strained, pinched. Red Robin, leaning on his shoulder, is growing heavier by the second.
Damian makes it around a corner and checks that the coast is clear before setting his brother down and propping him against the dirty brick wall. He kneels by his side, checking over and over again that they’re alone. They won’t stay that way.
“...Yeah. Been better,” Timothy manages, and Damian counts that as a win-ish for now. The Robin suit is streaked with blood and the gloves are caked in it. It’s Timothy’s blood. Timothy is bleeding. He’s bleeding torrentially from a deep slash in his torso. And of course they’re on a goddamn island. Of course.
Damian rips open a thick gauze patch with his teeth and presses it to the wound. “Hold this,” he says pointedly, picking up Timothy’s hand and pushing his it down on the patch. He can feel a pulse through the thin skin of his wrist. It’s racing. It’s too fast. It’s way too fast. Damian bites back a curse and begins wrapping Timothy’s entire abdomen to keep the gauze in place.
Timothy is small. 5’6” and barely 135 pounds. Simply put, there isn’t a lot of blood in him to begin with, and he certainly can’t afford to lose much of what he does have. They’ve run the numbers before and found that twenty percent of Timothy’s blood is equal in volume to just thirteen percent of Jason’s — a discrepancy that ultimately puts him at a higher risk of exsanguination.
Damian knows this. He’s seen the math. He’s run the tests. He knows.
It doesn’t make things feel more okay when his brother is bleeding out in front of him.
Timothy has lost too much blood. Damian doesn’t know how much because he was stabbed while fighting, and his elevated heart rate at the time would’ve pumped it out of him faster. And Damian hadn’t even been able to get to him for a full minute after the wound was inflicted — there had been seven armed goons between them that he had to shred through first. Damian doesn’t know how much time he has. The thought makes him shudder no matter how hard he tries to suppress it.
Timothy’s eyes roll in his skull, and Damian feels panic bubbling up his throat. He ties off the bandage and hurriedly shoves himself under Timothy’s arm, his legs burning as he forces them both to their feet. Like it or not, they have to go. Timothy chokes on a gasp and stiffens — and then drags a little heavier.
“Red,” Damian says urgently.
Timothy’s voice is weak. “Here…”
Damian nods. “They will be looking for us. We just have to get off the compound and into the forest, and then I can properly tend to your wound. I need you to move with me.”
Timothy grunts and clumsily manages to get his feet under him; they move like they’re encased in concrete. Damian nods again, hoping it’s encouraging, and presses forward, making use of the decreased weight on his shoulder to shuffle them both along faster. It reminds him of that dumb game Richard had made him play once — what was it? A three-legged race? Yes, that. It reminds him of that and now Damian wants nothing more than to get back home where they do things like play stupid games and have brothers with all their blood in the right place.
Damian hears a sound and darts them around another corner, slapping a hand over Timothy’s mouth. A beat later, a goon goes by, mumbling something about playing birdie hide-and-seek into his walkie talkie. Damian lets the guy get around another two corners before he removes his hand, and Timothy breathes hard once he’s suddenly able to. It’s ragged and labored. Damian grabs his brother’s chin, tilting his face down the two inches of their height difference to get a good look at him. His eyes are distant and glassy, unfocused until they slowly meet Damian’s and recognition sparks in his pupils.
“D… Robin,” he says, forcing his voice out as if he’s trying to pretend he isn’t injured. Idiot.
Damian bites his lip. “We’re almost there. Stay with me, akhi.” Timothy nods loosely, taking measured breaths through his mouth as he allows Damian to guide (drag) him forward.
They dodge around two more goons before they make it off the compound and dart into the forest. There’s blood seeping through the bandage on Timothy’s stomach as Damian sets him down again against a tree. He feels a spear of panic stab through him when he notices his brother’s closed eyes, and he immediately moves to grab his face before realizing that his gloves are still covered in blood. He flinches hard.
There was a time when he would’ve rejoiced to see this very blood on his hands. Now he just feels sick. Like a reddened nightmare.
He peels off his gloves and jams them into his belt, cupping his brother’s pale face with one hand. “Red, wake up. Red.” The boy stirs, and Damian frowns. “Timothy.”
Hazy blue eyes slide open and Damian can’t help breathing a sigh of relief. “...Robin?” Timothy mumbles, brows creasing in confusion for a moment before raising sharply. “R… r’ndezvous… ’xtraction poin’...” he grinds out. Okay, so he remembers — that’s good. Tentatively.
Damian nods, ripping open and adding another patch of gauze as fast as he can. “Yes. Father and the others will meet us with the Batwing. It’s only four miles due west.” He searches his brother’s face. The silent question hangs in the air.
“I… I can walk it…” Timothy pants.
Damian wants to protest, but he knows it’s pointless, so he just purses his lips and nods. “Come on.” He levers them upright again, going as fast as possible to get on their feet and then pausing to allow Timothy a few harsh breaths through clenched teeth. And he starts walking.
It’s slow going. Timothy can do little more than shuffle, but his labored breathing at least means that Damian can still hear him. It’s working. Until, that is, around the fifteen minute mark, when his knees suddenly give out and they're forced to stop.
“Timothy—!” Damian hisses, gingerly lowering them to the forest floor. He growls out of frustration. He hates the idea of being this helpless, this powerless to save the people he cares about, but he doesn’t have time to hate things right now. Timothy slumps beside him, head hanging loosely and breath rasping and grating, and Damian pulls him flush against his own chest in an attempt to stop him from worsening his wound. “Timothy. Talk to me,” he says urgently, trying to force down the panic still rolling in his throat and stomach. “Tim.”
Two fingers tap deliberately against his thigh, and Damian allows himself to breathe again. “Okay,” he says, “Okay.” He’s desperately trying to draw on the things Timothy says in an effort to comfort Damian when he has nightmares, but in his fear he’s drawing a blank, so he just acts on instinct and runs an ungloved hand through the mop of floppy black hair. Just one moment — he gives himself just the one moment of anxiety before he turns and hoists his brother onto his back with his hands securing Timothy’s thighs and the boy’s limp arms hanging over his shoulders. At fourteen, Damian is only two inches shorter than Timothy, and is actually slightly heavier — carrying him is doable. And even if it weren’t, he would do it anyway, because it’s not like he’s not about to leave him behind. Timothy groans but doesn’t struggle, which Damian takes as a sign that he definitely needs to be carried. So he readjusts the weight and focuses on moving forward .
A minute passes and Damian suddenly feels a new weight fall to his shoulder, and something cold curls in his gut. “Timothy,” he says abruptly. He cannot allow him to fall asleep. “Tell me about something.”
“Hm?” The boy mumbles, but his head shifts a little, and that’s enough for Damian.
“Tell me about something. Anything. What did you do yesterday?”
Black hair tickles Damian’s neck. “Hm… went f’r a walk… with Alice…”
Damian’s eyes widen and he nods. “Yes, perfect. Tell me about Alice. Who is she?”
Timothy makes a confused sound, like he doesn’t understand why Damian would ask that, which isn’t a great sign. “Sh… m’ friend…” he mumbles, breathing heavily. He sounds like his mouth is full of cotton. “She’s… Afr’can gray. N’ she c’n talk. Knows names… you and th’ others…”
Damian hums in an effort to show interest, despite already knowing these things. “What else about her?”
Timothy is silent for a long moment — just long enough that Damian is just about to jostle him to make sure he’s still awake, but then his voice filters back through, quiet and stilted. “I didn’t… didn’t th’nk about…”
Damian perks up when he trails off. “About what?”
Timothy sniffles, and it sets Damian immediately on edge. He picks up his pace as his brother mumbles incoherently, seeming to collect his thoughts as they slip through his fingers. “Didn’t th’nk about… ’bout what would hap… happen t’ her… if I die.”
It takes everything in Damian not to freeze and crumble into a thousand pieces right where he is — every part of his body is revolting against that notion with more force that he’s capable of. He feels something rolling behind his eyes and he refuses to hate himself for it. Timothy has spent these past five and a half months showing him that he doesn’t need to hide, after all. He grits his teeth to keep his lip from quivering. “You are not going to die, Timothy. I am going to get you home and you will be fine and— and you can take Alice on as many walks as you want. Just keep talking to me. Keep talking, Tim.”
Tim shuffles around again and drags in a breath. “Mm… Dames…?”
Damian frowns. “Yes?”
“You… you take care… ’f Alice…? If…”
“That’s not going to happen.”
Damian sighs heavily, trying to ignore the rattling of his breath and the salt he can taste on his lips. “Why?”
“She… likes you,” Timothy coughs. Damian can feel his brother’s body beginning to tremble, can feel the hot wetness on his back that says the gauze isn’t holding. “Y’r… favorite…”
Damian scoffs. It comes out in two stuttered halves. “I believe you are her favorite.”
Timothy’s shoulders shift as if he’s trying to shrug, but he doesn’t get very far before he hisses and lets them fall back. He closes his mouth around what sounds like a whimper — and that scares Damian. Because Timothy Drake does not whimper. He’s just as needlessly stubborn as they all are, never wanting others to see his pain. If he’s whimpering, then he must be…
Damian forces himself to move faster.
Timothy resumes talking with a gulp of air, for which Damian is only slightly relieved. “Y’r her fav’rite… brother,” he grinds out adamantly. “N’ you… know her. Helped her… a lot. P-please, Dames…”
Damian is clenching his teeth so hard he thinks they might crack, but what else can he possibly do? “If I say yes, do you promise not to pass out?”
Timothy huffs something almost resembling a laugh. “’Ll try…”
“Fine,” Damian says quietly. “I’ll take care of Alice if she ever needs me to.” He pauses for a long moment. “Alice helped me more than I helped her.”
Timothy takes a longer pause before he whispers, “Me too.”
Damian nods. He knows this. He had said it to Father the first night they’d brought her home: Alice greatly boosts Timothy’s morale and mental health. Having something to take care of helps him take care of himself. It makes a lot of sense for someone who barely used to eat or sleep, because he needs to be both rested and fed if he wants to be able to properly care for a dependent.
“She helped… helped me… get t’ know you…”
Damian’s feet stutter and he just barely catches himself.
That’s how Tim thinks Alice helped him? Not by objectively improving his psychological state? Not by giving him love and happiness the way only a pet can? What?
Damian blinks when Timothy doesn’t keep talking. “Glad for what?”
“Glad… it happ’nd.”
He forces his tone not to waver. “I am glad, too, akhi.”
He tries to cover his worry, but Damian can’t ignore the fact that Timothy’s voice is growing shakier as he struggles to force words out. He’s getting weaker — losing his grip. Damian can’t reasonably make his body move any faster with the additional weight; he speeds up anyway. He’s still almost a mile away from the pickup point and from medical attention. Dammit, he should’ve just carried the idiot from the start! They’re running out of time now all because he let that decision slide. Damn imbecile and his stupid thick skull.
“Timothy,” he grinds out, panting for air as he tumbles gracelessly through the woods. “Tim, you are required to stay awake. Do not stop talking. Keep talking to me. Or sing a song. Sing one of Alice’s songs.” Tim makes a vague noise, and Damian grunts, searching through a frazzled mental playlist and selecting the first thing that comes to mind. He sings the first line or so of Buffalo Soldier, slowly, encouragingly, and a few long moments later Timothy belatedly picks up the tune. He’s humming and mumbling more than singing actual words, but he has the melody generally correct, and at the very least, he’s still awake. Damian knows that Tim has the lyrics memorized, and he’s banking on that making things easier — if he doesn’t have to think through what he’s saying, his speech will be more constant and less agitated. At least, that’s the theory. Damian hopes it’s a solid one.
The song pulls at Damian’s heart, making it tremble in his chest. He can’t help thinking of the times during these past five and a half months that he’s sat in his brother’s company, swaying slightly to the beat as he does his homework, or plays a video game, or talks quietly about something that happened at school that day. He can’t help thinking of Alice, of a traumatized bird slowly healing, of a bird who brought him the brother he never knew he needed and that he now deeply cares for. And he can’t help thinking of that brother, of Timothy, with all his kindness and warmth and understanding. He can’t help thinking of it all and how much he doesn’t want to lose it. He holds his brother tighter.
Timothy is nearing the end of the song when Damian and his aching legs crest a hill and spot the Batwing perched upon another. He almost cries with relief — he probably would if he weren’t already crying from fear or exhaustion or helplessness, or whatever it is. He laughs breathlessly and lightly jostles his brother.
“Sing one more song, Timothy. We will arrive before the end.”
A long moment passes. And another. And another.
Timothy is silent.
Damian feels panic rise like lava and bubble in his throat. “Timothy?” He prompts, fighting the hysterical edge in his voice. “Timothy, answer me. Answer me!”
Nothing. Dead weight.
The word makes bile roil in his stomach.
No. Absolutely not. He will not allow it. He runs harder, lungs burning hotter than they ever have. They’re so close, he’s so close, it’s just a few hundred meters ahead now! They can make it — Tim can make it. He has to.
The final stretch is a blur, partially because of his racing heart and mind and legs and partially because of the tears in his eyes. For some reason, he’s thinking about Alice, about that promise he made. If… if Timothy… doesn’t make it, how will Damian explain that to Alice? They’ve taught her to speak, but she doesn’t understand their language. She won’t be able to understand. She will spend the rest of her long, long life only knowing that one day her favorite person left and never came back, and the only one who returned was the brother he left behind. She won’t be able to grieve. Damian won’t be able to, either.
There are people in front of him suddenly, dark, familiar figures in masks, placing large hands on his shoulders and forcefully slowing him to a stop. He jerks his head up, makes out the pointed crown of his father’s cowl, and he stays on his feet just long enough for Jason to remove Timothy from his back and carry him away before he collapses forward, panting and heaving.
He never hits the ground. Instead, he falls straight into the reaching arms of his oldest brother, who immediately ducks under his arm in much the same way Damian had done for Timothy earlier. His throat is sticky and thick from dehydration and his rapid, shallow breathing, and his skin feels vacuum-sealed to his bones as it flashes hot and cold in quick succession. His legs and arms are twitching and spasming, and he suddenly notices that he feels lightheaded, which is probably what’s causing the nausea that’s churning his guts into mashed potatoes. He pauses in his panting to retch once and groan, hardly noticing when Richard lowers him down to the ground and tilts him against his shoulders in a half-hug. Hands appear, one on his forehead and one under his jaw, and then retract with a quiet curse.
“Okay, c’mon, little brother,” Richard coaxes softly, gingerly pulling Damian to his feet. “Can you walk?”
Damian blinks. It’s blurry. Is he still crying? His tongue feels fat and swollen, like he can’t get words out because it won’t move right. “Wha… What?”
His vision is clear enough that he can see Richard worrying at his lip. “You’re experiencing heat exhaustion,” the man reports, guiding Damian’s stumbling feet up the ramp of the Batwing. “You just ran four miles at a dead sprint in 95 degree weather. With 135 pounds of cargo.”
Damian huffs, even as his vaguely foggy mind connects the dots. Right, tropical island. That… makes a lot of sense, yeah. Entering the plane, Richard hands him a bottle of water, which he drinks from greedily until his brother warns him to slow down lest he get sick. Richard sets him down and helps him lie flat on the cool metal floor. It’s heavenly. He turns his head to press his cheek against it for just a moment before he blinks his eyes open and looks up at his brother. “Timothy?” He asks urgently.
Richard nods, shoulders tense and face worried. It’s not an uncommon look on him, unfortunately. “Alive, thanks to you.”
Damian shakes his head frantically. “No, Richard, he lost a lot of blood, a-and he is not… he is… twenty percent of his blood is—”
“—Thirteen of Jason’s,” Richard cuts in, running a gloved hand through Damian’s sweat-soaked hair. “But that’s why we keep extra blood around, kiddo. He’ll get a few transfusions and some good antibiotics and he’ll be just fine. Beat up, but fine. Okay?”
Slowly, Damian lets his eyes slip closed, nodding as raw tiredness creeps into his limbs. “You did good, Dami,” Richard hums, and then he’s out like a light.
When they arrive back home, Damian wakes up abruptly and makes sure that Timothy is going to be okay before he sets off to his brother’s room. When he enters, Alice is huddled into a ball at the back of the aviary, picking nervously at her toes. Damian collects her and brings her downstairs to participate in his vigil. Neither of them sleep.
A few hours in, she clicks and very quietly says, “Tim-Tim?”
Damian pets her head gently. “I know, Alice,” he says softly, staring at his brother’s pale face. “But he’s going to be okay.”
. . .
Timothy’s stitches get him benched for two weeks; he’s back in the field at the end of one. Typical.
When the boy had awoken at the twelve hour mark, Damian, in his minorly emotional state, had yelled at him for a while about acting like he was going to die. Timothy had taken it in stride — they’ve all had practice with these things — before simply tugging Damian up into the bed and pulling him close. The boy hadn’t fought it, had just buried his face into his brother’s chest and finally allowed exhaustion to fully claim him as soothing fingers carded through his hair. Alice had been set to perch on the bed rail, and Damian had felt the soft shuffling of Timothy reaching out to her as he did to everyone before they both fell asleep.
Timothy’s recovery is a bit slow going as a result of the size of the wound, the fact that the idiot won’t rest, and his lack of a spleen — it’s quite the combination of factors — but Alfred the butler says the gash is healing nicely and they’ve been successful in staving off infection. Timothy, following in literally everyone’s moronic footsteps, is out as Red Robin regardless. It’s been only a week since he was injured and the sutures haven’t even come out yet, but the boy is still definitely going to act as if he was never injured at all and has no need to be even slightly careful with hits to the abdomen.
So Damian feels an understandable twinge of exasperation when his new burner rings mid-swing and caller ID informs him that it’s his immediate older brother. He opens the phone anyway — it’s just so satisfying to flip. “Red.”
“So, uh. Might need your help again.”
Damian sighs heavily. “Which again are you referring to? Stab wound, video game, what?”
“Har, har,” Timothy drawls, flat but free of malice. A grin tugs at Damian’s lips — he’s glad that his brother can’t see it or he’d get a lot of ribbing for it later. “But no. Animal trafficking ring.”
At that, Damian startles, then has to quickly adjust before he falls out of his swing and messes up his grapple. He lands on a roof and rolls upright. “What?” He shakes his head as if that might calm his suddenly whirling thoughts. “The same one?”
“An offshoot, I think. They have their own logo, but the logo from the other ring is next to it. Must be a parent company. It looks like a bigger network than we thought.”
Of course it is. When isn’t it? They can’t just run around expecting things to go well for them, now can they? He sighs again, pinning down his brother’s tracker location. “I am on my way. What are we looking at?”
“It’s a similar spread to last time, but more focused on ungulates. Moose, camels, wildebeest, oryx, okapi, bison, gazelles, antelopes, mountain goat, wild boar, saola, hipp— what the…”
Damian frowns when Timothy trails off and doesn’t resume speaking. “Red?” He waits, but still receives no response other than some rustling and the sound of creaking metal. His nose wrinkles. “Red.”
“...Uh, yeah… yeah, sorry,” Timothy finally says, and suddenly his tone changes and picks up speed. “Yeah, actually— I have something to take care of really quick, but I’ll meet you here as soon as I can, okay? Red Robin out.”
Damian’s eyes widen. “Red, wait—”
But the click tells him the line is dead.
With a frustrated grumble, Damian continues forward, scowling the whole way. It isn’t like Timothy to just up and ditch someone like this. It must be important for him to do this — that’s how Damian is choosing to reason things, anyway. It doesn’t do much to dissuade his confusion.
He arrives at the location and finds yet another warehouse full of yet more caged animals and yet more burning anger, but no Timothy. In fact, he’s already pulled Logan and his other contacts again and is over halfway through sorting everything out by the time the older boy returns, frazzled and out of breath. Damian turns to him and narrows his eyes, arms folded expectantly as he forces away the little pokes of worry he feels in his chest. Timothy just gives him a strange grin and nods, and brushes past him as he moves to pull his own contacts. He barely speaks to Damian for the rest of the night. They don’t even stop for Jamba Juice on the way back to the Cave.
And despite himself, Damian is worried. Did he do something wrong? Is Timothy angry with him? But… no, he should be the one who’s angry. Timothy is the one who’s acting off, not Damian. So what’s the problem? What’s going on?
Why does Timothy avoid everyone when they get back home? Why does he rush upstairs and lock himself in his room?
What is Damian missing?
. . .
All week, Timothy avoids Damian.
This Sunday will be the sixth-month anniversary of the day they rescued Alice.
It will also be Damian’s fifteenth birthday.
Surely Timothy remembers those things, right? They pertain to two people he cares about, and Timothy is nothing if not considerate.
Unless… unless he doesn’t really care about Damian.
No, that’s unfair. He’s being unfair. Maybe his brother is just having a bad week. Maybe he’s just… forgetting. But Timothy doesn’t— well. He’s probably having a bad week. That’s all.
But the week drags on, and Timothy keeps avoiding him, keeps acting like he’s hardly even there. On Monday, Damian sits in the living room and plays Xbox, and Timothy just walks past the door. On Tuesday, Damian hears music in his brother’s room and knocks, and Timothy just calls out that he’s busy. On Wednesday, Damian listens to reggae in the kitchen, and Timothy just nods to him when he stops in for a cup of coffee. On Thursday, Damian ends up with a small gash that needs stitches, and his brother acts worried enough that for a moment things seem normal again — until the bandage is in place and Timothy disappears again. On Friday, Damian asks to help fix Alice’s branch network, and Timothy just smiles sheepishly and turns him away.
Damian goes back to using anger to hide his fear.
He’s afraid. He’s afraid that Timothy doesn’t actually love him, that he’s let himself get close to another person who will only let him down. He’s afraid that he’s a bad brother for not trusting Timothy, but he’s just as afraid that Timothy might’ve never actually trusted him . He’s afraid that he’s losing one of the precious few good things he has in his life. He’s afraid this is going to slip through his fingers the way everything else does.
By Saturday night, Damian can’t take it anymore. Actually, patrol is over, so it’s Sunday morning — his birthday. And nothing has changed. Timothy hits the showers and brushes past him in the Cave even more hurriedly than usual, as if he can’t wait to be rid of Damian. As if he wishes he weren’t even there. And Damian sees red. Not nightmare red, not safe red, but the familiar red of rage . It’s a shade all its own, heat and metal and lava, and it has him storming up to Timothy’s room and slamming open the door without knocking.
“What is your problem?” He growls, shoulders heaving. Alice squawks in the branch network and flaps as far from the sound as she can, huddling up quietly in a corner. Timothy jumps and whirls around in place, standing at an odd angle as if protecting something behind him. A flash of concern streaks through Damian’s mind — is he injured? — and is quelled almost instantly by his roiling anger.
Timothy’s eyes are wide. “Damian—”
“No!” The boy shouts. He hates the feeling of wetness gathering around his lashes. He wants to shove it away and he can’t and he hates it. “I have been trying so hard and you haven’t even looked at me!” Timothy’s eyes widen further. Damian can’t believe he would be startled by an outburst, but it just fuels him more. “Did you ever even care? Were you just pretending all this time? I—” his voice breaks. He hates it. “I bet you don’t even know what today is! I bet you don’t even care! And I put my trust in you! I—”
Damian snaps back to himself. He’s standing in Timothy’s room, shaking and clenching his jaw hard enough to break teeth, fisted fingers leaving red crescents in his palms. He’s standing here glaring at his brother for all he’s worth, almost crying, pitifully unable to control himself.
Timothy looks like he’s in pain. Damian’s concern increases tenfold, mixed caustically with the rage still flooding his system. For a moment, he can’t speak.
Timothy does it for him, biting down on his lower lip. Damian notices with a jolt that there are tears in his eyes. Tears. “I… Dames, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to… I didn’t…” He sighs shakily, sounding exhausted, and steps to the side, no longer protecting the empty space behind his back.
It isn’t empty.
Damian freezes. He’s staring, he knows that, and he knows his mouth is flopping open like a fish, and he can’t bring himself to care.
Because standing in front of him on Timothy’s bed is a goat.
A baby pygmy goat.
It’s tiny. That’s all his brain will process right now. The thing is tiny, thin enough to be shivering slightly in the 70-degree air. It’s fluffy and white, with little patches of brown scattered across its body — one of them rests right over an enormous brown eye like a doe’s, wide and curious and cuter than any puppy could ever manage. It’s maybe ten inches long and eight inches tall, and based on that, it can’t be any older than a week or two — young enough that it should still be with its mother. Young enough that because it isn’t, it’s being bottle fed at least four times a day.
For the first time, Damian blinks. “What…”
“I found her at the warehouse last week,” Timothy says, his quiet voice slowly working to bring Damian out of his daze. “I saw her and I thought she was dead. When I realized she wasn’t, I rushed her to a clinic — that was why I left that night — but on the way there, I thought… I thought about how important saving Alice was to me. And I thought you might… want that chance, too. And I knew your birthday was today, so I thought maybe I could start getting her healthy and taking care of her until I could surprise you, but… but. I-I’m sorry, Damian, I didn’t mean to seem like I was avoiding you, I… she was sick and I had to watch her all the time, and I was so excited to show you I was worried I would spill the secret too soon if we hung out, so I didn’t… I fucked up. I’m sorry, Dames.”
Damian just blinks again, unable to close his mouth or rip his eyes away from the tiny creature. It turns its head to look at him with those huge brown eyes and makes a little sound that almost has him bursting into tears on the spot. Instead, he manages to slowly shuffle forward and reach a hand out, and the goat dutifully investigates the new information before pushing her face into his open palm. Damian stares. He oh-so-gently brushes his thumb between her eyes, and they slide half-closed in contentment.
He exhales a shaky sigh and manages to turn to look at his brother, at Timothy, who is fiddling guiltily with his sleeve like Batman is about to scold him for something. Damian can barely think straight, but he knows that expression is his fault. He has to make it right. He can’t remember how to speak. “She…” he breathes, and Timothy looks up, meeting his eyes with a concerned gaze. Damian swallows nervously. “She is… for me?”
Timothy allows a small smile to creep onto his face. He nods. “Yeah, Damian. She’s for you.”
Damian tries to breathe. It barely works. “And you… you did this? For me?”
Timothy’s face fills with confusion, like the answer to that question should be the most obvious thing in the world. “Yes…?”
Timothy startles slightly. Damian finds himself a little startled, too, even as he turns away from him and carefully pets the little creature’s soft head once more. He lets his hands drop and slowly shifts to face his brother, finding worry written deep into his searching eyes. They stare at each other for a long, silent moment. Damian feels like he’s been paralyzed.
Finally, Timothy seems to find whatever he’s looking for, because he takes a single step forward with his open, honest face and says, “I would do anything for you, Damian. Because I love you, and you’re worth it, and you deserve to be happy.”
For the first time since he joined this family, he really, truly crumbles, truly lets the feeling of being loved wash over him. It seeps into his skin and courses through his veins, tingling at the tips of his fingers and at the ends of his hair, thrumming in his chest and expanding with his lungs. It is everywhere around and inside him, the familiar warm feeling amplified a thousand times, concentrated and given to him in unlimited quantity. Given to him freely, and by want of the giver, not by demand of him, of the receiver.
Salty water spills over the edges of his eyelids and trails down his cheeks even as he stares unblinkingly at his brother. Who, funnily enough, looks like he’s panicking. He’s kneeling in front of Damian all of a sudden, carefully wiping away his tears and apologizing over and over again, and dammit, Damian cannot let that stand. He flings himself forward and tackles Timothy, bringing them both to a crashing halt on the carpeted floor of the bedroom. His arms wind tightly around his brother’s abdomen and his teary face presses firmly into his shoulder. Hesitant hands find his back, nervous and halting.
“I’m sorry, Damian,” Timothy says again, his voice quiet and strained as if it pains him to even think about it. “I should’ve—”
“Shut up, you imbecile,” Damian cuts in, voice muffled from tears and Timothy’s shoulder he clings to his brother. He sniffles, trying to pull himself together, and leans back enough to look him in his startled eyes. “You… I don’t… I…” he exhales shakily, pupils blown wide and unable to stop staring, and he feels himself turning over his shoulder to blink at the little goat on the bed. She’s still there. She’s there. He whirls back around to his brother, mouth gaping open and closed and open. This is real. This is happening. Timothy did all this for him.
He snaps his mouth shut and swallows hard. Timothy’s eyes are round and blue and open, because that’s who he is. “...Thank you,” Damian finally manages to croak out, and then once again crumbles forward and lets his brother catch him and sweep him into a tight hug. He gathers his words. He needs to make them count. “Thank you, akhi. I… I love you, too.”
Timothy freezes, and melts an instant later, wrapping around Damian like a koala and holding him close. He can hear the grin in Tim’s voice. “You’re welcome, братишка.”
They stay like that for a while, letting Damian’s tears dry up — and he isn’t even ashamed. He feels… grateful. Or something like that, something unfamiliar that he can’t quite place but that still has warmth dancing in his fingertips. They only break apart when there’s a small sound from behind them, and Damian almost gasps aloud, flying to his feet and darting to kneel at the bedside and stare with wide-eyed fascination at the tiny creature. He hears Tim laugh and walk up behind him. He doesn’t look away, but speaks nonetheless. “...What is her name?”
“I’ve been calling her Kid, but that’s just a baby goat,” Timothy says, crouching by his side and examining the animal himself. “I figured you would want to name her. And it’s time to feed her, too, if you want to do that.”
Damian whips his head around and blinks at him. Timothy just smiles and nods, moving to his desk to pick up a bottle of formula (or the goat version of formula). He passes it to Damian and walks him through how to pick up the goat and hold her properly, and how to go about feeding her with the bottle. Damian listens with rapture and follows each step to the letter, watching in awe as the little creature eats and then slowly falls asleep in his lap, lulled by his hands gently brushing through her fur. The whole time, Timothy sits across from him, lips grinning and eyes soft.
Several minutes pass in silence, just taking it all in. It’s almost 5:00 am; the sun is beginning to peek out over the water. The day looks like it will be one of the clearest Gotham has seen all year. Alice quietly flaps her way down from the branches to land on Tim’s shoulder, and the boy smiles fondly and pets her head when she clicks for attention. For the first time since he sat down, Damian looks up from the fluffy bundle in his lap. He stares at Alice. Alice, who managed to help him change his entire outlook in just six months. Alice, who gave him his brother and kept him here long enough to stay by himself. Alice, who loves potatoes and reggae and the Waynes, and who encourages them to love each other.
Alice, a traumatized bird who helped them save hundreds of animals, including the little one in his arms right now.
“Marley,” he says.
Timothy looks at him curiously. “Marley?”
Damian nods. He’s absolutely sure about this. He feels it in his bones. He glances down at the goat. “Her name is Marley.” He refocuses on his brother, smiling lightly. “So that Alice will love her as much as she loves reggae.”
Timothy blinks for a moment, but then a huge smile suddenly spreads across his face, open and understanding and real. “Marley it is. Happy birthday, Dames.”
“Thank you, akhi,” Damian says, petting Marley the goat with diligent care. “And happy six months of Alice.”
“Happy six months of brothers,” Timothy adds, and Damian grins just as wide. Alice clicks and mumbles something rude, and both boys burst out laughing.
“Happy, indeed,” Damian says, and he means it.