It hurt. Everything hurt. His whole body ached, and the cold tiles provided a small relief, but they were already growing warm under his weight.
Tim shifted slightly, moving as much as he could bear, to rest his forehead on a fresh tile.
He had ignored the bursts of light—he had a report, he had to finish it, he would take the medication later, later, later—until the starbursts had covered half his vision and he reached for the pill bottle and realized it wasn’t there.
Fuck, had been Tim’s succinct response. Heading to the zeta—heading home, and getting the pills was his priority but he’d decided to stop for a cup of coffee to alleviate the symptoms before he took the churning journey through the zeta tube, and he’d flicked on the lights, and it had all become too much.
So here he was. Lying on the kitchen tiles. Trying desperately to summon the willpower to get up and chew on some coffee beans to tide him over until he could get to his meds.
His stomach roiled at the thought of moving. The kitchen tiles were so nice and cold against his burning forehead. Even the starbursts were beginning to fade, replaced by a growing ache in the right side of his skull.
He couldn’t stay on the kitchen floor the whole night, but right now, he wasn’t really seeing a downside.
Heavy footsteps. Stomping. The vibrations reverberated through his skull.
Tim managed to unstick his tongue from the roof of his dry mouth—too slow to be Bart’s, thank god, Tim could not deal with the speedster’s excitability right now, and too loud to be Kon’s. Cassie maybe, and he was ready to whisper a plea for her to help him back to his bed. He couldn’t go through the zeta, not like this, not without collapsing in the Cave, and then Bruce would find him and Tim was not ready to deal with that.
“Skipped ahead to the closing act, Replacement?” a mechanized voice drawled, and the small part of his mind frowning ‘who is that’ was drowned out by the larger part shrieking ‘TOO LOUD’. Tim whimpered as something hard nudged him in the ribs. “Pathetic,” they spat.
Keep it down, Tim wanted to hiss, but didn’t have the chance—the boot came back, more vicious this time, and flipped Tim over, onto his back.
Tim only barely managed to suppress the scream.
Light, bright and glaring and fluorescent, and the starbursts were fading but that meant nothing when his eyes were being stabbed by tiny needles of artificial light. There was a hulking figure standing over him, and the only thing Tim could make out as his eyes watered was a bright red full-face helmet.
No one on the Titans wore a full helmet.
A sharp flare of alarm rose up, and died down. He didn’t have the energy to be wary, not even when a heavy boot stomped down on his sternum, expelling the breath from his lungs in a painful wheeze.
“Not even going to fight back, Replacement?” the voice growled, and it was too loud, it was like spikes in Tim’s ears as the words echoed painfully, and covering his ears wasn’t helping.
“Please,” Tim whispered past cracked lips.
“Begging?” the man said, incredulous, “You really are pathetic.” The boot pressed down harder.
“Too loud,” Tim hissed, water leaking past his trembling eyelids. Closing his eyes didn’t help, and the back of his head pulsed harder, sending a minor explosion of pain through his skull with every heartbeat.
The weight increased, until Tim was half-expecting to hear a rib crack as he gasped, before loosening entirely.
“Pathetic,” the voice repeated, still too loud, but sounding more annoyed than enraged.
Tim focused on his breathing, on inhale-hold-exhale-repeat, pretending like the pain would leech out of him on every exhale. It didn’t work. Pulsing was growing to pounding, and Tim knew it was a matter of minutes before it escalated into a full-fledged inferno.
He needed to curl up on his bed and ride out the pain. Endure, blanket between his jaws, eyes screwed shut, whimpering and sobbing in a blacked-out room until the pain receded enough that he could choke down a couple of painkillers. But he couldn’t get up, not with the kitchen lights stabbing through his closed eyelids, and he needed Kon—Cassie—someone—and this guy wouldn’t shut up—
“What’s wrong with you?” the mechanized voice grumbled, sounding put out, like Tim was inconveniencing him. Tim remembered that he was still sprawled out in the middle of the kitchen, and choked out a ‘sorry’.
He just managed to work up enough saliva for a ‘please’—please what, he didn’t know, because he was oscillating between please, for the love of Superman, shut up and please kill me now—when there was a click, like the release of a latch, and something clattered onto the floor.
Tim clenched his teeth, and felt the sound echo in his jaw.
“Did you hit your head?” the voice was no longer mechanized, and thankfully softer. Tim relaxed his jaw, and only minutely tensed it when fingers grabbed his chin and twisted his head to one side. The grip was gentle, and gloved fingers patted his head with careful efficiency.
“No,” Tim exhaled out, letting himself go limp as his head was twisted the other direction. He couldn’t stop it, and the very thought of fighting made his head spit violent curses at him. He entertained the thought of telling the red helmeted stranger to please turn off the lights and let him sleep on the cold, hard tiles.
A thumb pressed down on his cheekbone and Tim didn’t recognize the danger until fingers pried open his right eyelid.
Tim did scream then, struggling away from the too-bright, not-real, please-stop knife searing through his eye and slicing through his skull like a jagged blade. His migraine exploded into full force and Tim didn’t register slamming against the cabinets as he tried to get away. It was excruciating, it was his nerve endings set on fire, it was the whine of a chainsaw in his bones and nails screeching on chalkboards behind his eyes.
Jagged gasps tore from his throat as he curled up, forehead pressed to knees as his fingers tangled in his hair, desperately wishing to curve, to crack, to split his skull open to the relieve the pressure, please, please—
An arm looped around his waist, tugging him away from the corner, and Tim couldn’t even stop them, couldn’t stop himself from gripping the arm as wordless whines scraped through his teeth—light pierced through his eyelids, light everywhere, and the grumbling was too loud and Tim kept sobbing, trying to get away from it all and weakly twisting in the iron grasp.
He didn’t know which way to turn, he didn’t know how to move, his stomach was cramping painfully, his fingers were shivering, everything was too loud and too bright and someone was taking a hammer to his skull in a discordant rhythm and Tim entertained the thought of raising his head and slamming it down on tile, over and over and over until it all just stopped.
There was a hand cupping the back of his head, cushioning it from the tile, and the grip across his waist loosened and everything hurt, it hurt so much and Tim couldn’t do anything about it, could just endure as the pain crested over him, again and again and again.
“Please,” Tim begged, “Make it stop.” It felt like his brain was melting in acid. “Make it stop.” His mind washed with fire on every ragged breath. “Please.”
Just make it stop.
“Shhh,” said the unfamiliar, rough voice, barely even a whisper, “I’ll make it stop. I promise.”
Tim clutched at the worn leather and sobbed, harsh gasps rattling his lungs and spiking the agony inside his head.
“Just breathe,” they continued, voice finally soft enough, “Shh, Robin, just take deep breaths. You can do this.”
“Hurts,” managed to slip past his gritted teeth, a pained whine as the lights bored through his closed eyelids. The leather under his fingers shifted, and was tugged away, his grip tightening on what felt like kevlar.
Something draped over his face, and the light cut out. Tim cried in relief, tears prickling down his face at the sweet, blessed darkness.
“Okay,” the hand under his head shifted, “Robin. Tim.” Another distant pang of alarm, too weak to maintain amidst the constant, searing pressure. “Do you have painkillers or medication somewhere?”
No, not here, nothing in the Tower would be strong enough. “Home,” Tim whimpered, because the rest of his medication was in his bathroom, clear across the country.
“Of fucking course,” came the rough growl, and Tim hissed as the noise grated painfully across his eardrums. “Shhh, I’m sorry,” the voice dropped back to a whisper, “We’ll find your meds, okay?”
That was a great idea, except for the fact that home was a zeta journey away, and Tim didn’t think he could survive that, not with his heart pulsing in his skull and his stomach stuck in his throat, but they didn’t wait for an answer.
They scooped him up gently, cradling his head against an armor-padded shoulder, but the change in position was enough to make Tim swallow painfully as his stomach roiled. “Please,” he tried, the words more of an exhale than a whisper, but they were already moving.
“We’ll get your meds soon,” they said—soft, but Tim’s ear was pressed to the armor and the vibrations resounded through his jaw with a spike of agony.
Tim let the tears seep through his closed eyelids and stayed limp, not daring to risk any movement that might make the raging flames worse. They were taking great care not to jostle him, steps steady and even, the cloth still carefully covering his face, holding him easily, and Tim focused on breathing, and not on where they were going, not on the quiet footsteps changing from muffled carpet to marble, the dull beeps of a key code being entered, the soft hiss of the zeta tube door sliding open.
“No,” Tim whispered, because the zeta was dizzying on a good day, and right now he felt like he’d puke if he twitched his fingers wrong, and his head was screaming just thinking about it and—
The door clicked shut.
“Batcave,” the zeta announced, “Designation: Robin-02.”
The world disappeared in a swirl of light-dark-searing-churning agony, and Tim lost his last, tenuous grip on control as his mind exploded in a dizzying array of starbursts.
Not one of your brightest ideas, a snide voice whispered in his head, in tune to the retching as Jason held up heaving shoulders from face-planting into vomit. Jason had definitely not considered that the zeta tube would interact badly with a migraine.
“I’m sorry,” Jason whispered softly, but the shuddering boy in his arms was beyond apologies. Another retching dry heave, and Jason winced, drawing Tim further away from the puddle of vomit, and into his lap. “Shhh, it’s okay, you’re okay.”
Tim coughed weakly, still trembling, and slumped further in Jason’s grasp. He wasn’t unconscious, but neither was he responding to Jason’s words, and Jason risked another quiet ‘I’m sorry’ before picking the kid up.
His leather jacket was already a lost cause, and Jason mourned its demise as he used a clean corner to wipe off Tim’s mouth before carefully maneuvering his head back against Jason’s shoulders and standing up. He’d have to clean that up, but first he needed to get the kid some painkillers.
B was really lacking in the parental department if he let the baby bird off to Titans Tower without his meds—Bruce used to insist on checking his bag each and every time Jason went off with Dick, and packed extra toothbrushes and ration bars even for a day trip.
Thankfully, the Cave was empty—shit, he’d left his helmet in the Tower, he had to go get that back before everyone woke up—and the kid was completely out of it, crying softly into Jason’s armor, so Jason didn’t need to deal with any annoying questions as he made his way into the Manor.
He was half-terrified of Alfred lurking in every shadow, but it was too early for the man to be awake, and patrol should’ve ended a good hour ago, and Jason made his way up to the second floor and the hallway with all the bedrooms before freezing.
Fuck. Why had he thought this was a good idea?
There were too many memories here—shuffling to Bruce’s room after a bad dream, sleepily wandering to bed with a mug of hot cocoa, stumbling blearily to breakfast—and his legs wavered as Jason stood stock still in the center of hallway. This was—this was home, and he’d missed it so much, and it wasn’t fair, and—
A hitched gasp trembling faintly.
Right. He could have his mental breakdown later, preferably on the streets, where he could resolve all his emotions with bullets and the green-tinted rage. First he had to get the kid some painkillers.
“Which one is your room?” Jason whispered, but was met with only quiet shivers and silent tears. The hard way, then.
Replacement, he’d called the kid in his mind for a full year, but when he twisted the door to his old bedroom, he felt like he’d stepped back in time.
“No,” Jason said, out loud, which he only realized when Tim made a soft, pained whimper. His knees wavered again, and he dropped to the floor as gracefully as he could manage before his legs gave out and he accidentally dropped the kid.
He had to force himself not to curl his hands into fists because he had a crying kid curled up in his lap, already in debilitating agony, and he needed to get a handle on himself, and his homework was still on the table, his books were still piled haphazardly on the desk, his posters on the walls, his Wonder Woman sweatshirt hanging on the back of his chair, his bookshelves, his pictures, Bruce smiling down at a beaming twelve-year-old in a Knights jersey—
“No,” Jason choked out, it couldn’t be, it wasn’t—Tim had replaced him, Tim was Robin, Bruce had gotten another child to fill his place, it didn’t make any sense, why was this stuff still here—
It—it didn’t make any sense. It—he didn’t—Jason had died and Batman hadn’t avenged him and Jason had been replaced, like he was a toy and not a kid, and—and—
A broken inhale, and fresh tears curving down pale cheeks. “Sorry,” Jason whispered, wiping away his own tears, “Let’s find your room.”
He forced himself back up, holding Tim carefully, and closed the door behind him with a click that tore at his soul. He avoided Dick’s room, and kept his footsteps extra quiet as he tiptoed past Bruce’s door—if he strained, he could hear deep breaths on the other side of the door, footsteps wavering and stilling and—no, he had to check the other rooms.
Two doors down from Bruce, the room had fresh sheets, a tablet on the desk, loose papers, some folders, and a Gotham Academy pen holder. Jason was assuming this was the right one.
He gently laid Tim on the bed, pausing to pull the covers down and tuck them around him, and carefully fluffing the pillow before sliding it underneath his head. The kid seemed to do better horizontal, and Jason left him to go find his medication.
The bathroom cabinets were void of anything but a basic medkit and Alfred’s preferred brand of toiletries, and he double-checked before running a small towel under cold water and wringing it out. He crept back into the room, keeping as silent as he possibly could, and laid the cold towel over Tim’s eyes.
The kid made a sigh of relief, and slumped further into the bed.
Jason scoured the rest of the room, checking every drawer he could—it was definitely the kid’s room, he found homework sheets with his name on them, but it was strangely barren, and there was no medication to be found.
Jason stood in the middle of the room and bit down on his lip. He knew that the Cave probably had prescription-strength painkillers, but he didn’t want to medicate the kid with those—migraines were complicated, and the last thing he wanted was to give Tim the wrong drugs. The kid had said he had meds at home, but Jason couldn’t find any, and he absolutely didn’t want to wake Bruce up, but he couldn’t see many other choices.
Maybe if he just made a loud noise and disappeared? Or sent Bruce an alert? Or maybe just stuck a note to his door and knocked loudly before running for the exit?
He still had to get back to the Tower to get his helmet, though, and he hadn’t had the time to clear all his tracks—he was sure that his face was caught on at least a few security cameras, and he was still two weeks away from his planned showdown with Batman.
The kid made a muffled whimper again, and Jason strode back to his bedside and eased the towel off. “Tim,” he said softly, “Tim.”
The kid screwed his eyes up, his expression twisting even in the semi-darkness.
“Kid, where are your meds?”
A quiet, wordless whine, before the kid opened his mouth. “B’throom,” he murmured faintly, twisting his head away from Jason with a soft exhale.
“I checked the bathroom cabinets,” Jason replied steadily, “There’s nothing in there.” Tim didn’t reply, and Jason sighed.
He sat on the edge of the bed, and gently tugged Tim’s chin until the kid was facing him again. “Where are your meds?” he repeated.
“Home,” Tim’s voice cracked, and fresh tears dripped down his face, “Please.”
“We are home, Tim,” Jason said softly, “I can’t find them. Be more specific.”
Tim cracked his eyes open, shuddering, and his gaze wandered around the room for a couple seconds before squeezing shut again. “N’t Manor. Home.”
“Not Manor?” Jason echoed, “What do you mean, not Manor? Where else—” a sudden thought struck him, the empty room, the lack of personal touches—Timothy Drake, the file had claimed, and Jason just thought that he hadn’t added the Wayne, but if the Manor wasn’t his home—
“Tim,” Jason asked softly, “Where do you live?”
One trembling hand raised, enough to point at the window. “N’xt door,” the kid exhaled, before slumping back down.
What. The. Fuck.
Jason had started the evening with a plan. It was a good plan. A solid plan. Break into Titans Tower, test his replacement, teach the new Robin and Batman a lesson about why you didn’t put kids in costumes, and leave.
The plan had been scuppered at the knees by Jason hunting through every room in the Tower only to find the Replacement lying on the kitchen tiles for some strange reason, and had pretty much been shot dead by the sight of the kid shivering and crying with his hands over his ears.
Migraines. Jason knew full well how painful they could be, and he wasn’t getting a fight out of anyone in the midst of a full-blown one, so he grudgingly shelved his plan in favor of getting the kid into bed. With any luck, the kid wouldn’t remember him in the morning, and Jason could try again later.
But if Timothy Drake wasn’t Batman’s kid, then Jason couldn’t really teach them a lesson, and—and if Bruce hadn’t replaced him—if he hadn’t—
If Bruce hadn’t replaced him, then what was Jason doing?
The Joker was still alive. Batman didn’t avenge him. Batman didn’t care.
But his room. Bruce had promised to never touch anything in his room and—
It didn’t make any sense. Jason just wanted it all to stop. He wanted to go back to comforting, green-laced rage, the righteousness, the vengeance—
Another quiet whimper, and Jason sighed. “Okay,” Jason said out loud, “Okay. You live next door. I’ll get your meds.” He briefly debated taking the kid with him, but in the end, just decided to replace the cool towel over Tim’s eyes, unlatch his body armor and take off his gear, and head out through the window. A semi-conscious teenager would only slow him down, and Jason knew what migraine medication looked like.
The walk over to the neighboring estate was a long one, nearly ten minutes before Jason swiftly scaled a tree with branches close to a window. Jason worked at a latch and waited a breathless second for an alarm, before slowly easing through the window.
The room was empty, which was good. The room looked like a den of teenage garbage, which wasn’t pleasant, but which was also good, unless the kid had siblings. Jason headed for the ensuite bathroom, and—bingo. Prescription bottles with Drake, Timothy stamped on them.
Jason studied the three bottles to find the one that worked after the migraine had already started, and breathed a sigh of relief at the name. Non-narcotic. Thank fuck. He didn’t think he could get the kid to swallow a narcotic, not without giving into the panic attack hovering at the edge of his senses.
Lifeless eyes staring up, a needle sticking out, pills all over the ground, and an expression still twisted up in agony because it wasn’t enough, none of it was enough, nothing had been enough except eternal peace.
He pocketed all three bottles, made sure nothing else was out of place, and headed back to the Manor.
Jason couldn’t believe that Bruce had just made some random kid Robin. That it was even possible to become Robin without being adopted-slash-stolen first. What, was Bruce handing out the R like it was Halloween candy? What the fuck had he been thinking?
Jason was still seething as he climbed back through the kid’s window. Stupid Bruce. Stupid kids who didn’t know how to take care of themselves. Stupid, stupid undead, assassin-trained, pseudo crime lords that apparently couldn’t leave it alone.
“Come on, kid,” Jason returned with a glass of water and tugged the kid upright. Tim strangled the scream into a pained wail, but didn’t fight Jason’s grip. “Come on,” he repeated softly, pressing the glass to the kid’s lips.
Tim drank, too exhausted to question it, and Jason waited until he’d finished half the glass before shaking out the tablet. “Here,” he said, nudging it between the kid’s lips. Something twisted in his stomach at how pliable Tim was, not making a sound of protest over taking a random drug given to him by a stranger.
Jason pressed the glass to the kid’s mouth again, and Tim swallowed down the pill with only a soft, muffled groan.
The kid slumped back against the pillow as soon as Jason let him, forehead still scrunched up, eyes squeezed shut. Jason adjusted the curtains until the room was in complete darkness before feeling his way back to the bed.
Jason knelt next to the bed—the kid did not need to wake up to some random person sitting on his bed—and stretched his hand out until he met soft hair. Tim made a soft, questing noise, clearly braced for more pain.
“I—I don’t know if this’ll work,” Jason whispered, “And tell me to stop if it doesn’t. But my—my mom always felt better when I did this.” He began running his fingers through the soft locks, a gentle pressure spreading out, careful not to get caught in any tangles. The kid shuddered, and then went limp, pushing his head further into Jason’s palm, and he continued the stroking with more confidence.
Careful, soothing strokes. Never pushing too hard. Just enough pressure to relieve, and repetitive motions to draw them slowly back to sleep.
He was in another bed, in another room, greasy strands of hair sliding against his fingers, tears slipping down his cheeks, and he wished that it was enough, that Mom didn’t have to go get drugs, that she’d stop with the needle, that she’d stop hurting—
Jason buried his face into the side of the mattress, and kept stroking as tears soaked the bedspread.
Bruce…did not know what he was looking at.
Well, no, objectively, he knew what he was looking at, he was just having a difficult time reconciling his perception with everything else.
He’d paused outside of Tim’s door, a prickle going down his spine. He didn’t know what it was—some disturbance too faint to pinpoint, or soft breathing, or just some sense that the house wasn’t as empty as it had been when he’d gone to sleep.
Tim was supposed to be in Titans Tower. Bruce didn’t know why he’d return to the Manor instead of staying in the Tower or returning home, but he was thrilled to see Tim again.
The boy curled up next to the bed, slumped against the mattress with one arm stretched towards Tim—that, that was a surprise.
Dark hair, a shock of white in his bangs, and a face Bruce could recognize anywhere, even older, even broader, even slack in sleep.
“Master Bruce?” Alfred said from the hallway, “Is Master Timothy joining us for breakfast?”
Bruce didn’t know how to answer the question. If Tim was there, then—then the boy was there too, but that—that wasn’t possible, so Tim couldn’t be there, sleeping on the bed with a towel over his face.
“Alfred,” Bruce said, strangled, “Tell me I’m not seeing things.”
“I can hardly say that without knowing precisely what you are seeing, Master Bruce,” Alfred said, joining in the doorway, “So I don’t—” he broke off with a harsh inhale.
“Al,” Bruce said. Pleaded. Begged.
Alfred was silent. Bruce stood in the doorway, unable to take his eyes off the boy—no, the young man, because the boy had died, because he’d buried him—frozen in place with the fear that if he blinked, the whole scene would disappear.
“I think,” Alfred said, a tremor in his voice, “That this is either a miracle or a very cruel trick.”
Bruce forced himself to take a step forward, past the threshold. And another. And another. And another, until he was right in front of the young man, until he could crouch and stretch out a hand, fingertips wavering right above the curve of his cheek.
He swallowed, and closed that last inch.
The boy was warm. Not cold, like Bruce had still been half-expecting, not cold in a sense other than temperature, but alive and breathing and Bruce traced his fingers down, resting them above the jugular just to feel the heartbeat pulsing against skin.
“Jay-lad?” Bruce breathed out, and eyelids fluttered open.
The first thing he registered was that blue eyes had turned a poisonous green. Lazarus Pit, something snarled in the back of his mind, tangled up with fury and hope and Talia, thank you and Talia, how dare you.
“Dad,” came the sleepy murmur, and Bruce couldn’t breathe.
Then the eyes snapped all the way open, widening with alarm, and Jason yanked back, pressing against the dresser, looking like a hunted animal. Bruce eased back, hands spread—Jason hated being cornered, he knew that, but he couldn’t move—and watched as his second son, as his dead son sucked in high, fluttering breaths as he stared at Bruce.
“Jason?” Bruce asked again—it could still be a clone, a shapeshifter, he needed to check DNA and check memories and—and—and there was the faintest chance that this was real.
Green eyes narrowed into a familiar scowl. “Bruce,” Jason snarled, voice lower and deeper but every inch that furious teenager’s glower, and Bruce never thought he’d see it again, and he was reaching out a hand and—
Jason slapped it away. Bruce tracked the flurry of movements, but he was too slow and too stunned to block any of them, and he choked as the knife-hand strike to the throat rendered him temporarily unable to breathe as Jason scrambled out of the corner.
No, every fiber of his body screamed, he wasn’t losing his son, not again, and Bruce rolled over, gasping desperately for breath, frantic to stop Jason, to—
Jason had frozen, three steps from the door. Alfred was staring at him, a tear winding down his cheek. “Master Jason?” he choked out, voice hoarse.
Jason shuddered, but didn’t move. Alfred closed the distance between them, and Jason trembled harder, but he let Alfred place a hand on his cheek as he clenched his hands into fists.
“You’ve grown,” Alfred said softly, and a loud sob cracked through the air, followed by a thud as Jason crumpled to his knees.
Bruce pushed up, alarmed, but Jason was hugging Alfred, arms tight around his waist, face buried into his vest as he shook, and Alfred was gently running a hand over Jason’s head as tears curved down his face.
“My dear boy,” Alfred said hoarsely, “I am overjoyed to have you back home.”
Jason kept shuddering, muffled gasps shaking through the air, and when Bruce finally pushed upright and crawled close enough to put a tentative hand on Jason’s shoulder, he didn’t shrug it off.
“So,” Dick said, trying not to fidget as he followed behind Alfred, “What was urgent enough to call me here immediately, but secret enough that you couldn’t chance explaining it even over a secured line?”
“It isn’t so much a secret, Master Dick,” Alfred said slowly, like he was picking and choosing his words carefully, “Master Bruce thought it would be wiser to tell you in person, and on this matter, I agreed with him.”
“Okay, now you’re scaring me, Alf,” Dick said lightly, feeling his stomach twist, “What happened? Something up with the baby bird? Bruce? Someone get hurt? Did—”
“Master Dick,” Alfred cut him off, turning towards him and putting a hand on his shoulder, “It is nothing bad. Calm down.”
Dick forced himself to take a breath. “Now I’m even more confused,” he said, keeping his tone level.
“Bear with us just a little while longer,” Alfred smiled at him, and led him towards the den. Dick was almost bouncing on his feet as he followed after him, his stomach still churning in trepidation. What could be not bad and still require a face-to-face meeting? If Bruce called him all the way from Bludhaven just to tell him he knocked up Selina or something—
“Master Dick has arrived,” Alfred announced, and the murmur of conversation in the room cut out. Feeling uncomfortably like he was going on stage, Dick crossed the last few steps to enter the room.
Tim was curled up on the couch, face wan, dark circles around his eyes, wrapped up in a blanket with a mug of tea in his hands, and Dick looked at him long enough to conclude that he was in one piece before moving to Bruce, who was standing—hovering—near the coffee table, his face striving very hard for expressionless. And then the stranger, who was a careful three feet from Bruce, just as tall and broad, white streak, face narrowed in a familiar scowl—
Face narrowed in a very familiar scowl.
Bruce opened his mouth, glanced at the stranger, and stepped forward. “I ran all the tests,” he said quietly, “I confirmed it. I—”
The stranger cut him off. “Hey, Dickiebird,” he smirked, voice lower and rougher than Dick had been expecting, “Long time no see.”
Someone should really be doing something about the lack of oxygen in the room.
“Dick?” someone asked worriedly, which was a fair amount of concern, given that Dick presently couldn’t breathe. Someone cursed as the room spun out into a dizzying blur, and separate arms latched onto each shoulder before he could do more than bruise his knees.
“Maybe you should’ve told him to take a seat first,” his little brother growled.
“Dick,” Bruce asked, “Chum, can you hear me?” Dick felt himself being manhandled onto the couch, and a warmth curled along his side as Tim leaned closer.
Dick blinked. Bruce was crouching in front of him, forehead furrowed in concern. Jason—Jason was standing a step behind, wearing a worried scowl.
Dick swallowed. “Little Wing?” he dared to breathe out, trembling.
The scowl faltered, and died, leaving behind an expression pained and raw. “Yeah, Dickiebird,” Jason said softly, “It’s me. Back from the dead.”
There were tears prickling in his eyes, a sob ripping through his chest, and Dick was flinging himself forward—there was no net to catch him, if he was wrong, if this was a trick, he would fall—and throwing himself at the blurry visage of his little brother.
Jason caught him, arms wrapping around him as Dick sobbed into his shoulder, a mix of apologies and ‘Jaybird’ and desperate, fierce joy.
Jason was alive.
His little brother was alive and home and here.
Dick detached himself enough to cup Jason’s cheeks in his hands, to stare at a face older and harder than he remembered it last, cataloguing differences and committing it to memory.
Vibrant green eyes. That strip of white hair. A scar at the edge of his jaw. A painfully soft smile teasing at the edges of his lips when Dick rubbed at the lines of his frown.
“Little Wing,” Dick said, his voice cracking, “I’m so glad you’re home.”
“Everyone is drowning me in tears today,” Jason grumbled, but he didn’t let go of Dick to shift them back into sitting on the couch.
Dick had so many questions, he didn’t know where to start. “This was what you called me for, right?” he asked Bruce, just to make sure some other surprise wasn’t lurking in the shadows, “Jason coming home?”
“Yes,” Bruce nodded—and then paused, “Actually, I had to update Tim’s medical files today. Apparently, he suffers from migraines, and I’ll give you a set of emergency medication to keep in your apartment.”
Tim turned a furious red, and slumped further into his blankets. Dick couldn’t catch all of what he was grumbling, but he made out ‘handling it’ and ‘didn’t need to interfere’. Jason clearly interpreted it better, because he scoffed.
“I found you half-conscious on the kitchen floor, baby bird, you were not handling it.”
Tim turned a darker red, and inched deeper under his blankets.
“What?” Dick said faintly, before shaking his head, “Okay, no, tell me everything, and start it from the top. When did you come back to life?”
“Hello?” Jason answered warily. Out-of-country number, so not a scam call.
“Jason,” Talia al Ghul said smoothly, “Nice of you to check in. I was getting concerned.”
“Sorry, T,” Jason said quietly, “I, uh…things didn’t exactly go according to plan and I…forgot.”
There was a stretching silence.
“Where are you?”
Jason winced again. “Gotham,” he answered.
There was a considering hum on the other end of the line. “Robin?” she asked.
“…That would be what didn’t go according to plan.”
“Do you need an extraction?” Talia asked, always straight to the point, “Or disposal services?”
“What?” Jason recoiled, “No, T, no—why would I—I didn’t go there to kill anyone!”
“You said things didn’t go according to plan, Jason,” Talia replied, “What am I supposed to think?”
“I’m at the Manor,” Jason blurted out.
This time, the silence lasted longer. “Shall I assume that everyone remains in one piece?” Talia said, her tone turning slightly acidic, “Or do I need to continue this game of pulling teeth before you answer my questions?”
“Sorry,” Jason apologized, pressing back until he was leaning against the wall, and sliding down to curl up in the corner, “I just—it has been…a very confusing day. I just—give me some time to work through it.”
“Of course,” Talia said, warmer, and Jason managed a series of deep breaths.
“I came back. To the Manor. With Robin,” Jason said haltingly, skipping the whole migraine issue and him feeling sorry for the kid—Talia had helped him, but there were things the League of Assassins definitely didn’t need to know. “Bruce was—is—he’s—he’s happy, T,” Jason said, dropping his voice to a whisper because he still couldn’t believe it, “He—he—Alfred cried and Dick—they—they actually want me back.”
“Oh, Jason,” Talia said softly, “I told you this a year ago.”
A year ago, Jason had been fresh from the Pit, murderous and furious and absolutely unwilling to listen.
“Your death broke something inside his heart. I hope now that it is able to heal.”
Jason swallowed, because his immediate urge was to deny what she was saying, but—but Bruce had kept hovering next to him, the whole time, even before they’d gotten back the blood samples that proved he was who he said he was, or dug up the coffin, or any one of the tests. Jason had snapped and snarled, reverting to the sulky teenager that had once never failed to make Bruce’s face go blank as he left the room, but now Bruce just didn’t care.
The worst Jason had done was make a seething comment about the memorial plaque on his old costume—goddamn was that creepy—and Bruce had turned pale and immediately went to remove it, and Jason couldn’t even hold on to his frustration with the knowledge that his room, right above them, had remained untouched.
Your death broke something inside his heart.
Yeah, that was becoming pretty fucking obvious.
“I—I don’t think I want to go through with it,” Jason said quietly, “The plan.” The ‘torture Bruce until he proves that he cared’ plan, only Bruce already proved that he cared, and now Jason was feeling stupid that he’d gone for such dramatics when apparently he just had to sneak into the house.
“Hmm,” Talia said, which Jason knew was concealing an ‘I told you so’. He’d known Talia had been stalling him for months, and her motivations were becoming slightly clearer. “And what about the clown?”
Jason went completely still.
The Joker. The living, breathing proof that no matter how much Bruce said he cared about Jason, he hadn’t cared enough. Enough to break his one rule. Enough to avenge his death. Enough to make sure that monster never killed anyone again.
Enough for Jason?
That was the question. None of his parents had cared enough, but Bruce hadn’t gotten himself locked up, or overdosed on drugs, or sold him out to a fucking insane lunatic who beat him with a crowbar as she watched—
“Jason? Are you still there?”
“Yeah,” Jason said hoarsely, “I don’t want to talk about the clown.”
“…Okay. And what did he say about your activities since returning to Gotham?”
Bruce had raised an eyebrow when Jason retrieved his helmet from the Tower, and sent a pinched look at his guns. He’d opened his mouth, and Jason had cut him off with a ‘not now’ because he hadn’t felt up to having a discussion with Bruce after an uneasy sleep on a wooden floor and the barrage of tests to confirm his identity.
“We haven’t talked about it,” Jason said, swallowing, “He knows I’m the Red Hood.”
“Are you concerned? I can arrange an extraction—”
“Thanks, T,” Jason said quietly, and thought about Dick crying and Alfred unwilling to let him out of his sight and Bruce’s wounded expression. Tim was the only one willing to give Jason space right now, and that was more because the kid was embarrassed and sulking. “I—I don’t think—I—he won’t—I don’t think he’ll…turn me in.”
Because the Red Hood was a criminal. Wanted for murder, especially after that duffel bag of heads. But now that he wasn’t planning on forcing a confrontation, he didn’t need to take over the drug trade and aggravate Black Mask into releasing the Joker to hunt him down.
“I don’t think he’ll let me kill anymore, though,” Jason huffed as an attempt at a joke.
“I am glad that you are not afraid. As I told you before, I am always here if you need assistance, but I am undertaking on a project that will consume a significant amount of my time, and I would like a favor from you, Jason.”
Talia al Ghul wanted a favor from him?
“Uh, not sure exactly what you think I can do, T—”
“Not a large favor. Just a conversation with your father.”
Conversations with Bruce were exactly what he was avoiding.
“You want me to give the phone to him?” Jason asked, hesitant, “Because I don’t think he’s your biggest fan right now. I told him about the Pit.”
“Precisely why I am asking you to talk to him, Jason. It is not a large request.”
Talia had helped him. A lot. Had funded his whole plan—the plan he was now throwing away completely. He owed her. “Sure,” Jason said tentatively, “What did you want me to talk to him about?”
“Do you remember my son?”
Jason squinted—he had faint memories of a scowling shrimp tagging behind Talia in Nanda Parbat, but he hadn’t spent much time there after he came out of the Pit. “Kinda?”
“I am sending him to Gotham. To meet his father.”
“Who’s his—” Jason’s brain caught all the way up, and he bluescreened for a moment. He tried very hard to remember what the kid looked like, and his likely age, and counted back on his fingers—probably before Jason had been adopted, back when Dick kept fleeing the Manor to hide with his Titans, which added up.
“Talia,” Jason said, strangled, “He’s really not going to be happy with you.”
“Alas, my Beloved is displeased with me, however will I cope.” Jason snickered, and was met with an answering chuckle. “I made my decision with full knowledge of the likely consequences. I know your father, Jason. I know he would’ve forced me to choose between my home and my son. I did not wish to make that choice.”
“And now?” Jason asked, chewing on his lip, “Because—because you know you’re not getting him back, T. Bruce isn’t going to let his kid go to the League of Assassins, not even for holidays.”
“I have had eight years with Damian. It is time for his father’s turn. When Damian is sixteen, he will make his own decision. I will love my child no matter what path he chooses.”
That was nice. Jason shoved down the part of his mind wishing quietly that Talia had been his mother, and cleared his throat. “Why now?” he asked.
“Circumstances changed. The League has drifted from its ideals, and I must stand with my father to purge it anew. It is no place for a child. He will be safe in Gotham.”
Jason frowned—he had a feeling that, no matter what Talia said about her timeline, she hadn’t decided to send Damian here until this call. Until he stopped his confrontation, and came home. “So, you want me to tell Bruce that he has another kid?”
“Inform him that Damian al Ghul Wayne will be arriving at Wayne Manor in three days,” Talia said, “If he is willing to listen, tell him that I regret the lie, but I did not see another path. I love him, but I love my child more, and he would not have let me keep him.”
It sounded like they should’ve settled their parental differences before deciding to have a kid, but what did Jason know, it wasn’t like he had to sit through an incredibly and gruesomely detailed powerpoint on safe sex.
“So you’re dropping him off in three days?” That was nowhere near enough time for Bruce to get over a sulk, but if Talia wanted to take her life into her hands, so be it.
“No, Damian will be making his own way to Gotham.”
“Talia. Talia, he’s eight.” Jason thought of the scowling shrimp he remembered, lost in Gotham, and shuddered. “Please tell me you’re not serious.”
“He knows how to defend himself.”
Jason squawked—eight! That was younger than Dick had been when he started as Robin, and Jason knew full well what his early ‘training’ had been. All cartwheels on rooftops and solving cases, not diving into gang fights or wandering around unsupervised.
“He will be fine, Jason, stop worrying.”
Send an eight-year-old into the most dangerous city in the country, sure, that sounded like a fantastic idea.
“Fine,” Jason snapped, glowering at the phone—not like he could change her mind—before a stray thought struck him. Eight years, she’d said. “Uh, T, you’re still planning to visit him, right?”
You’re not just going to abandon your kid, right?
“When time permits, yes. But I cede his training to your father.”
Oh, yeah, this was not going to be a happy conversation with Bruce.
“Thank you, Jason. I must go now. I hope you will welcome your new brother.” The line clicked off, and Jason was left with a whole lot of questions.
And apparently a new little brother.
He’d just starting getting used to the first one.
Damian pressed the doorbell, and waited, more or less patiently. He stood with his head up and his shoulders back, in a ready stance. Father was a warrior, and Damian needed to make a good first impression.
Father had three older children, which was a fact Mother had mentioned casually before his departure, like she wasn’t dropping a bombshell on his head—though everything she’d said was a bombshell after she came into his room that morning.
You’re going to stay with your father.
No, I am not coming with you.
His name is Bruce Wayne. Your siblings are Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Timothy Drake.
No, they are not his children by blood, and none of their mothers are in the picture. You are not, however, allowed to accept any cats from any woman on any rooftop in Gotham, Damian, is that clear.
Yes, you may accept cats from other locations, and having a pet is something you must take up with your father.
Batman does not kill. I need you to remember that Damian, because when you are living with him, you must follow his rules.
Damian had asked her what his other rules were, and Mother had, rather shockingly, hesitated, before admitting she didn’t know.
He will keep you safe.
Safe from what or who, she didn’t say. Why now, she didn’t say. When was he going to see her again, she didn’t say, aside from an absent murmur of ‘soon’.
Damian had been trying for three years to meet his father, but this was happening very fast.
The door opened, and Damian hastily straightened. He had only one first impression. The man who opened the door was old, older than Father, and Damian hesitated when the man opened the door wider.
“You must be Master Damian,” the man said, “We’ve been expecting you.”
Oh. That was good. Damian had gotten the impression that Father…didn’t know about him, from the way Mother had been talking, and Damian had had to rearrange his assumptions about Father to ‘man who already has three children and doesn’t know he has a fourth’.
It meant falling back on his League training. What do you do when you’re in a situation where you have no information? Observe. Survive, but observe, because strength without information was just wasteful.
“Damian,” said another man from just inside the house—tall and broad, dark hair and blue eyes, and Damian let out a shaky exhale. “Hello,” the man extended a hand, “I am Bruce Wayne. It’s nice to meet you.”
He was smiling. Damian swallowed, and shook his hand. “I am Damian al Ghul. Wayne,” he added hastily, “It’s nice to meet you too.”
“Welcome to Wayne Manor,” Father said, before introducing the others, “This is Alfred Pennyworth, who’s in charge of pretty much everything in the Manor. This is my eldest, Dick Grayson,” an older boy who was rocking on his feet like he was getting ready to jump smiled at him. “My—my second son, Jason Todd,” Father’s voice got all choked up, and the boy with the white streak rolled his eyes and shuffled his feet—Mother’s pet project, Damian recognized him. Why had she not told him they were brothers then? “And my third son, Timothy Drake.”
Drake flushed a violent red, and Grayson gave a soft laugh. Damian didn’t understand what was so funny.
“I am very glad that you’re home, Damian,” Father smiled.
Tim breathed in and out, and castigated himself for being a colossal idiot.
The problem was that he was good at ignoring the starbursts, working past them, and sure, he’d heard Bruce’s lecture about withholding medical information, and taking his medication whenever he felt a migraine coming on, and avoiding his triggers, but Tim was still waiting for the other shoe to drop and he needed to show Bruce he could still be Robin.
Especially with Jason back—Jason back, Jason alive, Jason finding him in Titans Tower and bringing him back to the Manor and finding his meds—and the new kid, Damian, showing up on Bruce’s doorstep already trained.
Tim didn’t want to go back to his cold, empty house. And definitely not after Bruce called him his son.
Tim had a chance—it wasn’t a competition, he knew that, but he needed to prove his place, and with Bruce aggressively hovering around Jason and Damian, Tim had the opportunity to get back up to date on his work.
Except the world apparently decided he hadn’t suffered enough, and hit him with a second migraine in a week.
Tim knew there was an emergency stash of his medication somewhere in the medbay, but Bruce would definitely notice if he took one from that, and Tim had planned to sneak back upstairs, take a pill, and go to bed with no one the wiser.
And then he’d gotten sucked into this case.
He kept his eyes closed—he’d fumbled his way through turning the Batcomputer screens dark, and it helped. Somewhat. The Cave was full of shadows, but the fluorescent lights were correspondingly bright to cut through the darkness, and burying his face in his hands wasn’t helping.
Tim considered using the comm to call for someone to bring him a pill, but Jason had already proven that he would snitch on him—okay, maybe Tim had puked on him and ruined his leather jacket, but that was Jason’s fault for taking him through the zeta in the first place—and Dick was annoyingly immovable on matters of other people’s health, and Alfred would definitely tell Bruce and—
“What’s wrong with you?” Clipped and child-high and too loud.
Tim gripped his head and focused on breathing, barely managing to strangle the whimper.
“Are you injured?” the kid piped up again, and Tim wanted to shove a screwdriver into his ears.
“Quiet,” Tim rasped out, “Please.”
Shuffling noises and then, close enough that Tim nearly jumped out of his skin, but much, much softer, “What’s wrong with you?”
Tim tried to work up the nerve to swallow as he pondered his options. Did the kid know what a migraine was? Tim was not up to giving an explanation right now. Finally, he decided on a succinct, “Head hurts.” And hoped that the kid would leave him alone.
Damian didn’t speak, but Tim could feel his store boring into his skull, and it was interfering with the spike of pain that called dibs, and Tim was really losing it now. He needed to get upstairs. Back to his room. Sleep.
Tim stood up, and immediately regretted that decision. His white-knuckled grip on the desk kept him from collapsing when his legs wavered, but it left his eyes defenseless against the shooting stabs of agony.
Unfortunately, tradeoffs had to be made.
Tim took short, shallow breaths until his stomach no longer felt like ejecting itself from his body, and straightened, slowly letting go of the desk. His legs considered his offer, and decided to keep him upright.
Tim took a step forward. And another, trying not to wave his hands in front of him like an idiot. He knew the layout of the Cave, he could navigate it blindfolded—he would kill for a blindfold right now, the light was searing through his closed eyelids—and he did his best to ignore Damian’s silent gaze as he struck out in the direction of the elevator.
“Stop!” Damian snapped, and Tim couldn’t help the wordless keen as the sound reverberated in his skull—he sank to his knees as he gripped his head, fingers curling in his hair as he struggled to breathe through the agony.
Fuck—how was he going to convince Bruce to keep him as Robin if it took a single shout to render him completely useless—the entire right side of his head felt like it was on fire, pain radiating through his eye socket and down his cheekbone—ragged gasps echoed around him, hitching on every inhale, and Tim lost the battle with his tears.
“You are two steps away from the lake,” Damian said quietly, suddenly next to him again.
Oh. That was…distressingly plausible, if Tim had taken shorter strides than planned. Tim considered opening his eyes, just until he reached the elevator, but his eyes expressed their heartfelt desire to not be skewered by needles of light, please and thank you.
Tim struggled back up to his feet, fighting the nausea, and wavered in place. He would take Jason at this point, the chances of him getting back to his room unobserved were now vanishingly small, and being carried was infinitely preferable than blindly wandering through a hazardous work environment.
A small hand closed around his wrist, and tugged him to the left. Tim could yank his arm away, but the very thought made his stomach churn, and if Damian was considerate enough to stay silent, Tim would gladly go wherever he was leading him.
Stumbling step after stumbling step, and the chime of the elevator was unbearably loud, and Tim had to take shallow breaths again as he covered his ears. The near-silent ride was not silent enough, and Damian had to tug on his shoulder three times after the doors opened before Tim managed to pull himself back upright.
Too loud. Too bright. Conversation in the distance—Jason’s rough voice, Dick laughing loudly, and Tim tried to stop, but Damian was still pulling him along and Tim couldn’t fight him off.
Conversation fell into a palpable hush as Tim neared, Dick breaking off mid-chuckle.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Bruce whispered, and there was a warm hand on his forehead and Tim went boneless and trusted that Bruce would catch him.
Bruce tucked Tim’s head against his shoulder, and lifted him easily. “Jay,” he said quietly.
“His meds,” Jason confirmed.
“I’ll get a cold towel,” Dick whispered.
Tim just let his head rest against Bruce’s shoulder, and made a quiet sound of relief when he was carried somewhere cool and dark.
The bed was soft and the sheets were cool and the pillow felt like heaven under his head.
“Damian,” Bruce said softly, “Thank you for helping your brother.”
A beat of silence, and then a stiff, stilted, “You are welcome.” Tim wanted to say thank you too, but he didn’t have the energy to open his mouth and force out words.
A large hand rested on his head, carding through his hair, and Tim felt his muscles unclench as the gentle, repetitive motions continued. The cold towel was bliss against his too-hot face, and Tim swallowed the pill pressed against his lips and let himself go limp as the quiet stroking continued.
“Shh, sweetheart. Go to sleep. It’s okay.”
The throbbing in his head faded on every stroke, and the darkness wrapped tightly around him.