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1-800-ROBIN

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“Gotham Youth Mental Health Hotline, this is Jason speaking. Can I ask who I’m talking to?”

There’s a long silence on the other end of the line, and then a small voice says, “I, um. Sorry, I don’t know why I called. This was a mistake. I’ll just hang up now.”

“Hey, wait.” Jason drops his feet to the floor, sitting forward in his shitty cubicle. Suddenly his heart is racing and he’s not sure why, but he can’t let this kid hang up. “You don’t have to tell me your name. That’s okay. Just – why don’t you tell me why you’re calling?”

It’s two in the morning, and like always Gotham is wide awake, baring its dark and weeping soul in more ways than one. All around Jason in the hotline bullpen, the low murmur of voices rises and falls like a gentle tide, in a way that always reminds him of listening to talk radio in the middle of the night, just to hear the sounds of other humans. Usually it soothes Jason to be here, as disgusting as that might make him, but right now he feels like he’s at his other night job, on red alert, keeping control of the situation by the skin of his teeth. All his attention is honed in on the voice on the other end of the line – after a second he realizes he’s holding his breath, waiting for a response.

“Um,” the kid says at last, “I’m not really sure.”

Jason makes himself exhale. “There’s no wrong answer, kid. That’s the whole point of this. All the stuff you can’t say to anyone else in your life, you can say to me. No strings attached.”

The kid makes a soft little sound that hurts Jason’s heart. “I guess,” he starts, then stops. “I guess I just wanted someone to talk to.”

“Well, you got ’im.” Something in Jason’s chest loosens, now that he’s not in imminent danger of getting hung up on. “I’m yours for as long as you want me. What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know,” the kid says. “I don’t really talk to people that often.”

Jason musters a smile, even though the kid’s not here, can’t see him. “I guess I get to pick the topic, then. How about books? Read anything good lately?”

Judging from his voice, this kid is about eight or nine, so Jason’s expecting an answer like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson or something. Instead he says, “I’ve been reading the Crime Classification Manual. Fifth edition. Not, um. Probably not that interesting, to um. Most people.”

Jason’s eyebrows shoot to his hairline. “That’s not exactly recommended reading for most fourth graders. Are you into forensics?”

“Yeah,” the kid says. “I guess I just like mysteries.” After a beat he adds, like he has to screw up his bravery to do it, “And I’m in seventh grade, not fourth.”

“Jesus, really? You sound like you’re about six years old.”

The kid scoffs. “I’m nine.”

“Oh, you’re nine. Of course, nine and in seventh grade, that makes perfect sense. Shit, kid, you must be some sort of genius or something.”

“Or something,” the kid agrees. This, at least, he doesn’t sound apologetic about.

Jason smiles for real. “Well I’ve been reading The Once and Future King,” he says. “Maybe not as highbrow as the CCM, but you should try it. It’s one of my favorites.”

“You’ve read it before?” the kid asks.

“Oh yeah,” Jason says. “I try to only read it once a year, because I worry the magic will wear off. But I’m not too good at keeping to my limits.”

The first time he’d read it, he’d been on the streets, sustaining himself financially with stolen tires and spiritually with a stolen library card, but this kid doesn’t need to know that.

“What’s it about?”

King Arthur, Jason almost answers, knee-jerk, but then he remembers what it had been like to read the book that first time, not knowing, and instead he says, “It’s about a kid who thinks that he’s nothing, then discovers that everyone is something, and grows up to change the world.”

After a heavy second, the kid asks, “For the better?”

“Yeah,” Jason answers, chest tight at the tentative hope in his voice. “Yeah, kid, for the better.”

There’s a strange noise on the other end of the line. It sounds almost like hydraulics, a bus stopping, but why the hell would this kid be on a bus at two in the morning in Gotham – Jason doesn’t want to think about this kid being alone on a Gotham City bus right now – and then the kid says, “Okay, that’s my stop. Thanks for talking to me, Jason.”

“Anytime,” Jason rasps, oddly choked, but the kid has already hung up.

##

The short explanation to how Jason ended up moonlighting at a mental health hotline is this: he got a little too vehement with a rapist in Crime Alley, and in lieu of court-mandated anger management classes, Bruce decided to enforce his own sort of community service. He sat Jason down at the kitchen table and put a stack of company brochures in front of him and told him to pick a Wayne-funded charity to work at for the next month, instead of going out as Robin. Jason mounted a spirited and well-researched argument on the grounds of child labor laws, but Bruce just gave him a long, speaking look until Jason figured out that his argument could also be applied to vigilantism, at which point he’d shut up and chosen a charity.

The long explanation is this: when Jason was twelve he climbed up on the edge of a bridge. No one came to talk him down. No cars stopped behind him. Cold grainy wind bit his face and the waters of the bay were gray and dour far below him and the cable was a round, precarious foothold and it would’ve been very easy to tip and fall like he’d been planning. His mom had OD’d and he’d skipped out before they could put him in the system and it was very likely that no one would ever look for him – no one would even notice he was gone, just like no one in a long time had noticed he was here. Except he looked up, just for a second, and out across the water over a dirty shipyard was a billboard that said, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. It was cheesy, and cliché, and Jason was cynical enough even at twelve that it probably shouldn’t have reached him, but it did. It reached him like a hand grabbing him by the scruff of his neck, pulling him up.

When Jason handed his dad the brochure for the mental health hotline and said, “Here. I want to work here,” the look Bruce gave him was so steady and proud that Jason physically could not bear it – he’d had to say, “Fuck off,” to make himself feel better.

Bruce just put his hand on the back of Jason’s neck and said, “Language, Jaylad.”

##

Three nights after the first call, Jason’s supervisor Wendy pops her head over the edge of his cubicle and says, “Hey, so we don’t normally let the callers request specific operators.”

Jason swivels to face her. “I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

“But,” Wendy says obligingly, rolling her eyes, “Steve has a kid on the line who sounds about six years old, asking for you, and he’s so painfully polite I don’t want to say no.”

Jason’s stomach jumps. There’s no way it’s not the same kid. Most of the callers they get are in their teens, and while plenty are nice enough, there aren’t many Jason would describe as painfully polite.

“Put him through,” he tells Wendy. “I’ll take him.”

Wendy gives him one of those looks Alfred is always giving him – the one that says I can see everything you’re hiding from me – then winds back over to Steve’s desk.

A second later, the call connects. Jason says, “Hey, kid, how’s it going?”

“Um, good,” the kid sounds uncertain. “Do you – remember me? From the other night?”

“’Course I do,” Jason assures him, with a gentle smile. “Not every day I get a call from a nine-year-old in seventh grade who likes to read about crime scenes.”

“Oh,” the kid says. “I, um, I got that book you were telling me about. From the school library.”

“Yeah? Did you start it yet? You like it?”

“I finished it,” the kid volunteers shyly. “I sort of…called in sick from school for a couple days to read it.”

Jason laughs, startled. “You what? Your parents let you do that?”

“What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”

“Jesus,” Jason says, leaning back in his chair to put his feet up on the desk. “I see you’re ahead of schedule in the teenage rebellion department, too. How’d you pull that one off?”

“A magician never reveals his secrets,” the kid says.

“Very Ferris Bueller of you. Nice, I like it. But come on, really. You gotta tell me. I’d kill to be able to pull one over on my old man like that.”

The kid’s quiet for a long minute, and Jason worries he pushed too far. “Hey,” he says, “you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. Why don’t you tell me what your favorite part was instead?”

He gets another few moments of silence, and then the kid says, “The geese.”

“Oh man, the geese,” Jason says. “I love that part. You know it made me cry the first time I read it?”

“It did?” the kid sounds, oddly, like he’s only feigning surprise. Like maybe he cried too. But he asks, “Why?”

Jason knows, because he did the training same as everyone else, that he probably shouldn’t be opening up this much to a hotline caller. Clearly this kid needs help, he needs guidance, and Jason shouldn’t be unloading his own childhood issues on him, but for some reason he doesn’t feel like all the other troubled teens Jason talks to. He feels more like Dick, like Roy, like Kori. Like someone Jason might be talking to because he wants to, because he called them, and it’s definitely not a healthy or safe feeling to have for a nine-year-old he’s never met but he can’t help it. Something in him wants to talk to this kid about everything.

So he says, “I wasn’t in a good place, when I read it. My life, I mean. The world felt really small, and also scary big at the same time. I was really alone. I didn’t think anyone cared about me. And to me, geese had always just been these dumb dirty birds who made lots of noise and shat all over everything, and I guess, reading about how they had their own secret lives, had these complex thoughts and relationships and universes, even if it’s all just fantasy, T.H. White’s imagination…I guess it just made me feel like if they mattered, if geese could be important, then I could too. Then anyone could.”

Quiet follows his words. The low murmur of voices around him, the other operators on the phone, but Jason just hears the kid on the other line, breathing.

“You’re not alone anymore, are you?” the kid asks, after a minute. “You’re not – you weren’t alone forever?”

“No,” Jason says, voice rough. “I’m not alone anymore.”

You’re not either, he wants to say, but he also doesn’t want to lie. He’s just the voice on the other end of a 1-800 number, he doesn’t even know the kid’s name. No matter how much he wants to be there for him, anonymity is a line he’s not allowed to cross.

“What about you?” he says instead. “Why do you like the geese?”

“I guess…” The kid sounds hesitant, like he’s not sure whether he’s supposed to be honest, and it takes another little chip off Jason’s heart. “I guess I like that they’re all one big family. And when they migrate for the winter, they don’t leave anyone behind.”

Jason’s eyes sting. “Who left you behind, baby bird?”

The kid makes a startled little noise. “I don’t – no one. No one left me behind.” But he sounds like he’s trying not to cry as he says it, and Jason doesn’t believe him for a second. “My parents just work a lot, that’s all. I’m used to being on my own. It’s okay.”

The fact that he’s calling a mental health hotline at one a.m. on a school night suggests that it’s very much not okay, actually, but Jason doesn’t want to sound like he’s judging him, so he can’t say that. “Kid,” he starts, “how often do they leave you on your own?”

The kid doesn’t answer. Apparently, like Jason, he’s well apprised of the dangers of Gotham CPS and has elected to plead the fifth. Not that Jason would ever leave him at the mercy of the system anyways – he just called him baby bird for fuck’s sake, there’s no way he’s going to be reasonable about this. But he understands that the kid is scared, he knows how overwhelming that particular breed of fear is, and he knows that whatever trust they’re building here is new and fragile, so he’s not going to push it.

Not that he gets the chance to, anyways. The kid says in a rush, “I didn’t actually call in sick. I hacked the school system and marked myself present. Anyway hope you have a good night gottagobye.”

And then he hangs up.

Jason’s left staring at the wall of his cubicle, headset hanging off his ear, wondering why his heart has gone all in on this kid when all he knows about him is his voice.

##

A week passes without another call. Roy gives him shit about being mopey at school and Alfred has soup waiting for him when he gets home on Thursday, which means he either thinks Jason is sad about something or coming down with a cold. Jason makes an effort to be cheery at dinner, since Dick’s in from Bludhaven, but by the time he makes it to bed that strange looming dread has crept up again, like something stalking him, lurking outside his window – he spends most of the early hours of the morning, when he should be sleeping, tossing and turning, shoulders tight and neck aching, worrying that the kid is out there somewhere in danger, that he’s never going to call again, that he climbed up on a bridge just like Jason did except there was no billboard – and no, no. Jason can’t let himself think like that.

He rolls out of bed, tugs on a t-shirt and pads down through the quiet austere halls of the house to the kitchen, thinking to make himself a cup of tea.

Instead, he finds Bruce rummaging around in the fridge.

“Hey,” he says, voice thick even though he wasn’t really sleeping. “Patrol end early?”

Bruce hms without turning. Probably he heard Jason coming, even though he’s in bare feet on the marble floors. On top of being Batman, he’s always had a sixth sense for his children.

Jason hops up on the counter and leans back against the cabinets, waiting for Bruce to pick out a snack and ignoring the look he shoots him from behind his readers. Alfred’s not here to chastise him – and in the kitchen, Alfred’s justice is the only kind that matters.

“So,” Bruce says, once he emerges with a bag of baby carrots and a tub of hummus, the freak. “Procrastinate on your math homework again? Or are you having trouble sleeping?”

Jason crunches a carrot. “Trouble sleeping,” he admits. “Also, what are we – fucking rabbits?”

“Bats,” Bruce says, deadpan.

“Birds, actually. You’re a bat, me and Dickie are birds.”

“Barbara is a bat.”

“Fine, half and half. We all fly. Either way, we’re not fucking rabbits.”

“You don’t have to eat my snack,” Bruce points out. “You can get your own.”

Jason humphs and doesn’t dignify that with a response.

“So,” Bruce says again, after a few moments of companionable crunching in the light over the stove, “you want to tell me what’s keeping you up?”

Jason shakes his head, then thinks better of it. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“When you decided to adopt me,” Jason starts, “and I don’t mean when I tried to jack your tires and you decided I would be a fun project, I mean when you decided you were actually going to keep me – how did you know? What did it feel like? How did you know I was…”

“Mine?” Bruce finishes.

Jason swallows, feeling wibbly. “Yeah. Yours.”

Bruce chews for a minute, watching him, looking thoughtful. When he’s finished he rolls the carrot bag back up, replaces it in the fridge with the hummus and comes to stand with his hands on Jason’s knees, warm, squeezing. “That’s a difficult question,” he says. “First off, I was always going to keep you. I knew you were mine from the second I saw you.”

Jason blinks fast, eyes burning. This is embarrassing. He’s sixteen, he’s a fucking vigilante, he shouldn’t be this close to crying just because his dad is saying nice things to him. But he guesses part of him is always going to be that needy unloved street kid that Bruce brought home in the Batmobile that night.

“Hey,” Bruce says, voice low. “Jaylad.”

Jason feels fingers tuck his hair behind his ear. Bruce’s palm rests warm against his cheek. He leans instinctively into the touch, then pulls back, face heating. Bruce is having none of that – he bullies Jason forward until his face is buried in the crook of his neck. Jason gives up trying to seem cool and wraps his arms around Bruce in return.

“I’ll tell you what it felt like,” Bruce says, close against his ear. Jason can feel his voice rumbling from his chest. “It felt impossible to do anything but take you home.”

Jason exhales shakily. “There’s this kid who keeps calling the hotline. I don’t know his name.”

Bruce says, gently, “Jay…”

“I know,” Jason snaps, pulling out of his arms. “I know, B. But you haven’t heard him, he’s just…”

It’s just like you said, he doesn’t tell him, because it feels too big too soon. It doesn’t feel like I can do anything else, but bring him home.

Only he can’t, and it’s killing him.

Bruce regards him for a moment, face unreadable, then claps him on the side of the thigh. “Come on then. Down from the counter. You’ve got school in the morning.”

Back in bed, Jason lies awake staring at the ceiling, warm and safe under his covers in his cavernous room, his dad asleep down the hall, and wonders where his nine-year-old genius is, whether he’s cold, whether he’s alone.

Fuck,” Jason mutters. He rolls over, punches his pillow, and tries to force himself to sleep. It doesn’t really work.

##

The next day at school, Jason’s dead on his feet. Roy gives him the same look he used to give Kori once a month when he first found out about periods, then steers well clear of him the rest of the day, so Jason figures he’s got some pretty severe under-eye bags going on. He falls asleep and smashes his head on the desk in math, slams back a contraband Red Bull that he has to pay twenty bucks for in between classes (the rich kid surcharge is fucking killing him), then has enough energy to tear the everloving shit out of Tom Savini’s misogynistic interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Even sleep deprived as he is, there’s not a chance in hell he’s missing his shift at the hotline. He only has two weeks left before he goes back to being Robin, and he feels a strange sense of urgency over it, like if his ass isn’t in that uncomfortable desk chair at eight o’clock on the dot, the kid is going to slip through his fingers. And his instincts must be right, because not even five minutes after he’s sat down Wendy pops up over the edge of her own cubicle to give him a frantic elaborate hand motion that means, Answer your call, dumbass. The dumbass, Jason knows from experience, is affectionate.

He answers fast enough that he breaks the key. “Hey, baby bird, that you?”

“Um,” the kid says, sounding nasally, “baby bird?”

“Because the geese,” Jason explains. It sounds weak even to his own ears, but he can’t exactly tell the kid that he’s Robin and his older brother Dick calls him Jaybird, because on top of blowing his family’s secret identities it would also be a lot to heap on a nine-year-old he’s only talked to twice – genius-level intellect or not. “Anyway,” he says. “Doesn’t matter. How’s your day been? You’re calling pretty early.”

“I’m sick,” the kid admits.

“Yeah, I can tell.” Jason fights down a panicked wave of worry. It’s probably just a cold, and it’s not like there’s anything he can do about it anyways. That wall of anonymity is still firmly in place. “You sound like you snorted a bunch of peanut butter.”

There’s a startled laugh over the line, that turns mucusy halfway through. “Ugh,” the kid says. “Gross.”

“Hey, you snorted it, kid. Not me.”

“I didn’t snort peanut butter. I caught the flu.”

Jason winces. “Yowch. That’s been going around my school, too. Does the rounds every winter – I had it a few years back. Not a good time.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” the kid deadpans. “I think I’ve lost, like, eight pounds.”

Jason’s stomach drops through the floor. “That’s a lot.” Especially for a nine-year-old, especially for a nine-year-old who Jason suspects isn’t being fed chicken noodle soup by an attentive mother. Where are you? he wants to ask. Who’s with you? Will you let me take you home?

But instead he puts on a light tone and says, “Well, the one good thing about being sick is that you get to sit on the couch and watch TV all day. Come on, fess up. What’s your poison?”

“We really don’t have to talk about this,” the kid says, sounding uncomfortable. “You don’t have to talk to me. I’m not even feeling that sad tonight. There are probably loads of kids who need you more.”

Jason clenches his hand in a fist, then lets it out, resisting the urge to squeeze the arm of the chair, since the last time he did that he broke the chair. Who the hell taught this kid to think like that, he wants to know – like he’s a burden just for existing. Jason’s not going to kick the shit out of them, since he’s a reformed man and all, but he would like to have a chat. A vehement chat.

“Hey, it’s not a competition,” he says. “Besides, it’s a slow night. The youth of Gotham are feeling very mentally healthy.” He pauses, wondering if it’s going too far to say it, then adds, “And you’re important to me. I want to hear what you’ve been binging.”

The line is quiet for a minute, and then the kid says, in a small voice, “Star Trek.”

“No way,” Jason teases. “Who’d have guessed it, the super genius is a super nerd. Alright, lay it on me – you an Original Series man? Deep Space Nine?”

“Next Generation,” the kid says, like he’s talking out his nose.

“Of course, obviously. The nerdiest series of them all. Now tell me what episode you’re on.”

Jason keeps the kid talking for a good hour or so – he doesn’t know that much about Next Generation, but once he gets the little guy going, picking apart episode plot lines, he doesn’t need much input from Jason. Wendy keeps popping her head up out of her cubicle to give him suspicious looks, like she knows he’s still on the phone with the same kid, but one half of Jason’s hyphenated surname is on the stationery, so it’s not like she’s going to fire him. Even if she did, Jason would take the hit. He could go make up the rest of his community service at the Wayne Foundation for Sick Kittens and Sad Puppies or whatever – he’s not about to hang up on this kid while he’s got the flu.

When Wendy’s looks get to be too much, Jason takes his headset and crawls under the desk. It’s nice and cozy down here, with the dried gum and the trashcan full of Jason’s old Batburger wrappers. Jason settles in to listen to the kid tell him about Picard and Geordi La Forge and how Worf is totally underrated – the words spill out of him like they’ve been building up for a long time, and Jason remembers that first night he’d called, when he said I don’t really talk to people that often.

After a while Jason realizes the kid sounds like he’s slurring, words running together. “Hey,” he says, interrupting something about unresolved sexual tension between Riker and Deanna Troi, “you okay there, kid? Sounds like I’m starting to lose you.”

“I’m fine,” the kid says, shifting gears. “Just tired.”

“You have a fever?”

That gets an affirmative noise. “Only a hundred. I took some Tylenol. I’m okay.”

“If it’s a hundred with the Tylenol – ”

“Then it’s higher than that without it. I know, I’ve had a fever before. I don’t have to go to the ER unless it gets to a hundred and four, and it hasn’t done that.”

I’ve had a fever before, he said, but Jason can hear between the lines. He can hear, I’ve taken care of myself with a fever before. And it’s not like Jason didn’t do the same thing when he was living with his junkie of a mom, or when he was out on the streets, but that was back when he had to, when he didn’t have anyone else to do it for him, and this kid – he’s got Jason. Only he doesn’t. He doesn’t, he doesn’t, because he’s still just a voice on the other end of an anonymous phone line, and Jason knocks his head back against the wall behind him, rattling the whole cubicle in his frustration. His neighbor gives a sharp kick in return.

“You should get some sleep,” he tells the kid, when he’s gotten a hold of himself. “And make sure you’re getting enough fluids. My, uh – my grandfather says fluids are the most important thing.”

“Oh,” the kid says, still slurring. “Yeah, I guess it’s pretty late.”

“Yeah, it is.” Not for Jason, but Jason’s been running on four hours of sleep a night since he was twelve – he’s not exactly a great role model. “Hey, before you go. Can you tell me one last thing?”

“Sure,” the kid sounds like he’s about to fall asleep mid-word. “Anything.”

Jason’s heart twinges. Vaguely, he does feel sort of bad about this – taking advantage of the kid while he’s in a vulnerable state - but he’s sort of worried if he doesn’t ask now he’ll never get an answer, and he’s only got those two weeks left.

“Your name,” he says. “Tell me your name.”

“Tim,” the kid answers, without a second of hesitation. “My name’s Tim.”

“Tim,” Jason echoes.

He feels the same way he does when he’s in the suit and gets that first grip on someone about to tumble over a precipice – he’s got a handhold but it could still go either way. He still has to be careful. So he’s careful when he says, “Thanks for telling me, baby bird.”

“Trust you,” Tim says. By the sound of his voice he’s pretty much asleep. “J’son.”

“I trust you too, Timmers,” Jason returns. But the only sound on the other end of the line is snoring.

Jason listens for a minute, indulging his creepier protective instincts, reassuring the savage beast in his chest that Tim is safe, at least for the moment – then takes a deep, calming breath, thinking zen, non-creepy thoughts, and makes himself hang up.

##

After that, they settle into a routine. Tim continues to be worried that he’s taking up other kids’ time, so Jason whines until Wendy gives up the stats for the least-busy hours of the night, then passes those along to Tim so he can call in with a clean conscience. Not that Jason wouldn’t drop anything else in a second to talk to him, but he realizes that’s not a normal or sane reaction so he can’t blame Tim for assuming otherwise.

Now that he has the kid’s first name, it’s a real struggle not to run down to the Batcomputer and hellfire his way through the city’s CPS and public school and hospital records until he finds who he’s looking for. Especially the more Tim lets slip about himself.

The kid spends his nights running around Gotham taking photos, which Jason finds out because Tim calls him from a payphone and has to hang up when he hears gunshots nearby. When he calls back an hour later, Jason’s chewed his fingernails down to the quick, called Alfred – working comms back in the Cave – half a dozen times to reassure himself there have been no child fatalities tonight, and is about ready to throw out his nicotine gum and take up smoking again. He maybe raises his voice a little to get Tim to fess up what the hell he was doing in proximity to a goddamn gun, and in the end the answer doesn’t make him feel any better, just makes him want to grab Tim and shake him like you aren’t supposed to do with babies.

“Jesus, Tim, it’s not safe,” he says, at a volume that makes Wendy give him one of her looks across the room. “Do you know how many violent crimes there are in Gotham a night?”

“Well duh,” Tim says. “That’s why we’ve got Batman and Robin. It’s okay, though. I’m good at staying hidden. I’ve only ever been mugged like two or three times, and they didn’t even hurt me that bad.”

Jason, in deference to Wendy, resists the urge to scream.

He actually makes it all the way down to the Batcomputer that night, but he finds the Cave already occupied – Bruce and Barbara back from patrol, hunched in solemn consultation over a spread of crime scene photos of lots of bodies in lots of pieces – and stops dead at the top of the stairs, bats fluttering overhead, swirling in the shadows in a way that suddenly makes him dizzy. Suddenly all he can think about is how easy it would’ve been for someone to grab him, when he was living on the streets, to disappear him without anyone noticing. How easy it would’ve been to end up as a body in a photo instead of Batman’s partner – and how easy it would be for a nine-year-old running around Gotham with a camera to end up the same way.

“What do you take pictures of?” he asks Tim, the next time he calls. The kid’s been cagey about his movements since Jason went all disapproving parent on him the other night, so he’s trying a more subtle approach. “You into nature shots?”

“Nightlife,” Tim says shortly, then won’t say anything else.

Deprived of low-level thugs to take his anger out on, Jason spends a lot of quality time with the heavy bag in the Cave, whaling on it until his arms are shaking and his knuckles are shredded under the wraps.

Dick finds him like that one night – not roaring in on his bike like usual, but descending the stairs from the house, wrapped in a fluffy robe with a cup of something hot in his hand, hair still wet from the shower. Jason’d been listening in on comms when his brother took a dive in the harbor. That was hours ago, but he knows from experience how much scrubbing it takes to get the harbor stink off your skin – Dick’s fingers are pruney when he bullies Jason over to the medbay and unwraps his hands.

“Tom Savini misinterpreting Shakespeare again?” he asks, with that saccharine sympathy that would seem fake coming from anyone but him.

Jason’s not sure how to explain to Dick about Tim, so he just shakes his head.

Dick, because he’s Dick, doesn’t let it go. He’s silent for a minute – doesn’t hiss when he finishes unwinding the wraps from Jason’s hands to reveal the mincemeat of his knuckles, doesn’t berate him for binding his hands too loose, even though he could, Jason knows better and he did it on purpose. Alfred’s special salve goes on and stings for a second before cooling, and Dick rolls up the sleeves of Jason’s sweatshirt for him so that they don’t hang down and smear it, folding the cuffs carefully up to his elbows.

When that’s done, Dick plants his hands on either side of Jason’s hips so he’s trapped on the exam table. “You know,” he says, “venting all the things you can’t say to your dad is like, literally what cool older brothers are for.”

Jason gives him an unimpressed look. “Well, I sure wish I had a cool older brother, then.”

“Shut up,” Dick says, jostling him, “I’m cool as fuck. Now come on, fess up, I know you’ve got some broody little side project going on.”

Jason shoves him off. “Tim’s not a side project.”

Dick’s eyebrows shoot up. “Tim?

Jason glowers and marches past him up the stairs to the house, but Dick of fucking course is not the sort to be deterred that easily – he follows Jason up to his room and literally sticks his foot in the door, and it’s a good thing he put on slippers to go down to the Cave because otherwise Jason might’ve broken his fucking toes. “I’m obviously not going away until you tell me who Tim is,” Dick says. Alfred’s shoes are tapping up the stairs and Jason’s not quite ready to turn this into a family affair, so he yanks Dick inside and closes the door quietly behind him.

“You know how I’ve been working nights at the mental health hotline,” he starts, while Dick helps himself to a seat on his bed.

“Sure.” Dick tries to grab Jason and pull him down after him, but Jason’s not feeling very cuddly right now so he twists out of Dick’s reach and goes to sit on his desk. “I still think it’s crazy that B’s letting a sixteen year old talk down suicidal peers, but – ”

“I don’t think that’s really a can of worms we want to open, what with the vigilantism and all,” Jason points out.

“Fair. So. Tell me about this Tim character.”

“He’s not a character,” Jason snaps, tired. He’s not even that mad, he’s just – freaked, and worried, and frayed to his last nerve, and Dick’s quick forgiveness has always made him an easy target. “He’s…well, he’s this nine-year-old kid who called a couple weeks ago. It took me a long time to get him to tell me his name, actually, even just the first one. He’s…fuck, Dick.”

Jason knocks his head back against the wall, frustrated. He’s a genius, he could say. He’s so fucking reckless. He doesn’t have anyone. But none of that really sums up what he’s feeling right now, does it?

“He’s what, Jay?” Dick asks softly.

Jason shakes his head, looking away from him. “I’ve been calling him baby bird,” he admits, then laughs at himself, because it sounds crazy.

Dick doesn’t treat him like he’s crazy. He exhales, long and slow, like people exhale when they’re thinking wow what the fuck, and asks, “You’re sure?”

The question doesn’t make sense, but it does to Jason. “I’m sure,” he says.

“Okay. What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” Jason says, hollowed out. “I really don’t know, Dickie.”

##

By the time Jason’s community service stint is up, he’s in too deep to extract himself, even if he wanted to. He feels like he’s an oak tree and Tim’s a smart little squirrel that’s burrowed in to live right next to his heart, safe and warm. Which is why, on his last night, he blurts, “Hey, so I’m not going to be here tomorrow.”

There’s a long pause. Then Tim says, “Um. Well, it’s good to take a day off sometimes.”

“No, Timbit, I’m uh – it’s my last day today. At the hotline.”

“Oh,” Tim says.

His voice is tiny and sad, and it breaks Jason’s fucking heart to hear him trying to hide the fact that he’s hurt. So he doesn’t stop to think how it might seem to some kid who’s technically still a stranger, because his instincts are saying it’s the right move and his instincts about Tim have so far been spot on. “Look, kid, I want to give you my phone number. My real phone number.”

“You what?”

Jason rattles off his number before Tim can get an argument in. He knows the kid well enough at this point to know that there will be an argument, probably halfhearted and probably along the lines of Oh but you really don’t have to, I’ll be okay, which is bullshit and Jason would tell him as much if he tried it.

He doesn’t give him time to try it. “I want to keep talking to you,” he tells Tim. “But I work nights at my other job, so if you call me at two in the morning I might not pick up. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk, okay?”

“Okay,” Tim says tentatively.

“You got my number? Read it back to me, baby bird.”

“I didn’t actually write it down,” Tim admits.

Jason rolls his eyes and recites his number again, this time pausing between every digit to obnoxiously ask, “Got that? GOT IT?” until Tim is snorting like he does when he thinks something’s funny but also thinks it’s childish and doesn’t want to admit he’s laughing. Once that’s done, he reads the number back to Jason, and Jason says, “I want you to promise me you’re going to use that. At least once this week. Otherwise I’m going to track you down and make you talk to me in person.”

Tim’s quiet for a minute. Jason can hear everything he’s not saying, all the smartass remarks about Jason not having access to the NSA’s triangulation technology and Tim being a better hacker than him and all that shit, but none of it actually comes out of Tim’s mouth.

When he finally does speak, all he says is, “I promise.”

##

Tim doesn’t call that week, or the week after.

Jason checks out The Once and Future King from the Gotham Academy library. He’s got his own copy, of course, but it’s a first edition that Bruce got him his first Christmas at the manor, and Jason doesn’t even like looking at it wrong in case he cracks the spine – it’s not exactly the sort of book you can curl up with on the windowsill. The library copy, though, is beat to shit, a paperback that’s had the pages dogeared and the spine taped, so Jason feels no compunctions whatsoever about falling asleep with his face pressed to the pages. He reads the chapters where the Wart is a goose over and over, has dreams of a fluffy baby gosling squeaking alone on a rocky and forbidding shore, crying for its family, and wakes up with tears on his face and his heart twisted in his chest. They’re extraordinarily tame, as Jason’s nightmares go – usually there’s a lot more blood and broken bone – but they leave him unsettled, unable to go back to sleep, wandering the house for the few hours a day he actually gets to rest.

In the suit, he’s jumpy. He spends patrols endlessly looking over his shoulder, eyes open for malnourished nine-year-olds with cameras getting mugged and “not even hurt that bad.” Every shout for help he hears is Tim, every gunshot they respond to is Tim, and Jason wonders if this is why Bruce let him and Dick become vigilantes – so he wouldn’t have to feel the constant terror that every other parent in the world must feel, the second their child is out of their sight, because at least his children could defend themselves.

Almost three weeks after Jason finishes at the hotline, the annual Martha Wayne Foundation charity gala is hosted at the manor. It’s a whole dog and pony show, black tie and $10,000 a plate and enough caterers to launch a modest invasion of Canada, exactly the sort of thing that makes Jason hate rich people – even though he knows, more than he knows with the other charities whose galas he has to attend as one of the Wayne heirs, that the money’s going to a good cause.

Dick comes straight to the manor after work – Barbara and the other Birds of Prey will be handling the streets tonight, while the Waynes are stuck schmoozing, and Dick’s handed off Bludhaven to the Titans. Jason suspects Dick and Alfred have been scheming, because they seem to have a very concerted plan of attack re: getting Jason into a tux – he tries to hide in the Cave, but Dick finds him with a tin of pomade and a starched shirt and gets him in a head lock before he can make a break for his bike.

Three hours later, Jason’s in a giant tent on the back lawn with five hundred of Gotham’s richest and bitchiest citizens, chewing nicotine gum like he’s trying to work out his jaw and fussing with his cufflinks.

He’s tried to slip away more than once, but someone always catches him – first Mrs. Prunik, with the too-familiar pinch to the cheek that all rich old ladies think they’re entitled to, then Alfred with a message for Jason to deliver to the caterers, then Dick with an arm around his waist and a sotto voce, “No you don’t, Jaybird. If I’m stuck here with Brucie Wayne, you are too.” The time is ripe, he thinks, for a fourth attempt – just as soon as the gaggle of socialites that Bruce is entertaining near the back door move over towards the open bar. Bruce starts herding them in that direction, smile white and glittering, and Jason leaves his safe haven behind the hors d’oeuvres and makes a break for the door…

Just as Mrs. Prunik emerges, wiggling her manicured fingers like she’s itching for another pinch. Before she can spot him, he ducks around the side of the house, out of sight of the tent, where the grass is dark and the air is cool enough that he can actually hear himself think.

He leans back against the rough-hewn stone of the house. The front door is crowded with cars and valets, he’ll get caught for sure if he tries to get through there, but he’s not too far from that tree that leads up to Dick’s window. His shoes are pretty slippery but he thinks he can hack it – he is, after all, fucking Robin – and he’s just about to give it a try when he realizes he’s not alone.

“Um, hi,” the kid says, when he realizes Jason’s looking at him. “Sorry. I wasn’t – I didn’t mean to be creepy. I was just hiding from the party.”

“You’re not being creepy,” Jason promises, even though his heart is racing and the kid was sort of being creepy, sitting silently in the shadows like a ghost or something. “I’m hiding from the party too, man, I get it.”

The kid gives him a tentative smile, then holds up his plate of hors d’oeuvres in invitation.

What the hell, Jason thinks, and sits down next to him.

“So,” he says a minute later, face stuffed with something that tastes like very expensive cream cheese, “you here with your parents?”

The kid bobs his head in a nod. “We live next door.”

“Shit, really?” Jason racks his brain, trying to remember who his neighbors are. It’s something he should probably know, but it’s not really high on his list of priorities – especially considering the closest house is like a mile away. “The Drakes, right? You’re a Drake?”

“Yeah,” the kid says, not sounding too happy about it. “I’m a Drake.”

“Could be worse,” Jason says. “You could be a Prunik.”

The kid gives an elaborate shudder. Jason laughs. “Yeah, you got that right. I swear to God, someday she’s going to pinch right through my cheek with those claws of hers.”

“At least then you can press charges,” the kid points out reasonably.

“Good call.” Jason’s smiling so hard his face feels strange. He hasn’t done that in a while, not since Tim stopped calling and definitely not at one of these stuffy things. “Hey, I’m trying to blow this popsicle stand, why don’t you come with? You like Mario Kart?”

The kid opens his mouth to answer, but before he can a woman’s voice says sharply, “There you are.”

Janet Drake – now that Jason’s primed with context, he recognizes her, he’s certainly shaken her hand at enough galas – charges around the corner with her skirt in her hands. “I’ve been looking everywhere,” she snaps, yanking the kid to his feet. “Do you exist just to make my life difficult? I mean, honestly – ”

“Hey!” Jason lurches to his feet, adrenaline pumping. “Let go of him! Jesus, lady, what the hell – ”

Janet’s eyes widen, like she didn’t know he was there until he spoke. Probably she didn’t. Probably she wouldn’t have handled her son like a sack of laundry if she knew someone was watching. “Oh!” she says, hand whipping away from the kid’s shoulder, caught. “Oh, Mr. Todd-Wayne, I didn’t see you there. I’m so sorry if my son was bothering you.”

Jason’s eyebrows climb.

Before he can say anything in the kid’s defense – or tear Janet a new one for how she’s treating him – the kid steps neatly between them, hand on his mother’s elbow, and says, “It’s alright. I’m sorry I wandered off, mom. Was there someone you wanted me to meet?”

Janet blinks down at him, then pats his hand. “Yes,” she says, leading him away. “Yes, there were some foreign investors – well, potential investors, you know how it is, they’re interested in the Bolivia dig but your father’s going to have to sweet talk them a bit before they pony up the funding. Anyway, they’ve got a daughter your age and I thought you might talk to her…” She leads her son back around the side of the house, toward the tent, the kid shooting one last apologetic look at Jason over his shoulder.

Jason stands there holding the kid’s plate of hors d’oeuvres, branches of the tree whispering softly in the wind above him, and feels wrong. It takes a second to figure out where the feeling comes from – but when he does it’s clear as day.

Talking to his mom, the kid had sounded just like Brucie Wayne. Fake, too-polite, painstakingly polished. Talking to his own mother.

It makes Jason want to hit something, and that must be written all over his face, because this time when Alfred catches him on his way inside he doesn’t turn him around with a fake message about tiramisu – instead he stops him with a hand on his shoulder, just long enough to say, “Please do wrap your hands correctly this time, Master Jason,” then lets him go.

When Alfred gives you that look – like he’s disappointed in you for not taking better care of yourself but also somehow blaming himself for it, deep down – it’s pretty hard not to do what he wants, so Jason wraps his hands correctly before he starts whaling on the bag.

He’s still down there a few hours later, stripped out of his starched shirt and his jacket, barefoot in his tux pants, when his phone rings. It’s a Gotham area code but it’s not a number he recognizes, and even though he knows it’s probably a spam caller who doesn’t want him to miss his last chance to renew his auto insurance, his heart does a backflip in his chest.

Tim, he thinks, and answers, “Hello?”

There’s a sharp intake of air on the other end of the line. “Jason?”

Jason could just about burst into tears, hearing his voice. “Yeah,” he says. “Fuck, baby bird, I’ve been so goddamn worried. You promised you would call and then you just – Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry I didn’t call,” Tim says. He sounds like he’s trying to be quiet, mouth tucked close to the phone, maybe hiding somewhere. “I’m okay. My parents are in town, so I’ve been busy, and I wasn’t sure if you really wanted to talk to me or if you were just being nice.”

“I’m never nice,” Jason says. “Just ask my brother.”

“You have a brother?”

Jason sinks to sit cross-legged on the mat, phone cradled against his ear. It’s awkward to hold while he’s got his hands taped up, but he makes do. “Yeah, I’ve got a brother. Biggest pain in my ass, but you would love him. He’s a huge softie.”

“I always wanted a brother,” Tim confesses.

Jason squeezes his eyes shut, and doesn’t say, You have one.

##

It’s pissing down rain, and the League of Assassins is in town. Patrols all week have been an exercise in futility – if the League had a motto it would be Maim one ninja, and eight more shall take their place – but by the time Saturday night rolls around, they’ve almost got the problem contained. Just a few more ninjas to mop up on a forbidding rooftop while the sky flashes with moody lightning overhead, and they’ll be good to head home and crash for the next twenty-four hours.

Jason flips over a flashing shuriken, lands hard on his knees and swings his bo staff to send the next ninja star sailing back towards its owner like a baseball. It embeds in the guy’s shoulder, and the ensuing wail of pain earns Jason a chiding look from Batman, which Jason tries to answer with a look of his own that says THE NINJA FUCKING STARTED IT, but he’s not sure it comes across what with the haze of rain and blood and all.

Their little exchange distracts him for a second, and Bruce has to bark, “Robin!” to warn him there’s another projectile coming his way – Jason hits the deck, and the shuriken goes hissing through the air where his head just was.

He thinks he hears something behind him – like a sharp, pained whimper – but when he turns to look, he can’t see anything. The next roof is empty, so is the fire escape, and besides, it doesn’t make any sense that anybody would be up here this late, especially not in this weather.

Jason turns his mind back to the fight.

In short order they’ve got the last of the ninjas tied up, dropped on the Gotham PD’s doorstep for Jim Gordon to deal with, and they’re winding back towards home. Jason cranks the heaters in the Batmobile up to like eighty degrees, soaked to the bone and shivering, and when Bruce shoots him a look he says, “What? You’re not the one running around in tights, old man, I’m fucking freezing.”

The second they reach the cave, Jason makes a beeline for the showers. He stands under water so hot it turns his skin bright pink, feeling the life seep back into his fingers, his toes, feeling the fresh bruises he’s going to have tomorrow start to ache under the skin.

He’s coming out of the locker room, toweling his hair off and bundled in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, when his phone rings. For a second he stops in his tracks, staring down at the caller ID – Tim – which for some reason is not computing in his brain. It’s been a long, shitty night.

Then he wakes up, and answers. “Hey, Timmers. Burning the midnight oil, I see.”

Bruce shoots him a look from over at the Batcomputer. The madman’s still in his soaking wet suit, typing up the mission report like it can’t wait until fucking morning. Nerd.

Jason ignores him, turning his back for privacy. Tim still hasn’t answered. “You there, baby bird? Is this a butt dial?”

“N-no,” Tim stutters. "N-not a butt dial." It sounds like his teeth are chattering, and Jason’s heart drops into his stomach. “I was out taking some pictures and I got caught in the rain. Also, um, you wouldn’t happen to know how to take a shuriken out of your um, like, your hip, would you?”

All the blood drains out of Jason’s body.

The whimper. That goddamn whimper. That was Tim.

“…tried to G-G-Google it,” he hears Tim saying, as if from a great distance, “but really the internet only has stuff on knives? And this has like a b-bunch of b-b-blades, and I don’t want to do more damage yank-yanking it out? Because it really f-feels like there’s already a lot of damage?”

“You - ” Jason manages to say. He sinks into a crouch to avoid fainting, wrapping an arm around his head.

“It’s okay if you don’t know,” Tim rushes to assure him. “I just thought, since you were – you know – never mind. I can figure it out. It’s t-t-totally not even that much blood.”

“Tim,” Jason says.

But the kid has already hung up.

Jason bangs his phone against his head, too freaked to think straight. He’s Robin, he should be able to work this out, should be able to find a solution, but a goddamn nine-year-old has a throwing star in him, and he’s Jason’s goddamn nine-year-old and it’s a throwing star that should’ve hit Jason, not Tim – and Tim was so close, he was right there and Jason didn’t even notice.

Nightlife, Tim had told him. He took photos of nightlife. And what was Gotham’s nightlife if not caped crusaders, if not Batman and fucking Robin. Jesus Christ, Jason thinks. Jesus fucking Christ, baby bird.

When he swims back into his body, Bruce’s hand is on his back, rubbing soothing circles over his shoulders. “It’s alright, Jaylad,” he says. “We’re back, we’re safe. Everyone’s safe.”

Jason shakes his head, still clutching the phone. “Not everyone,” he says.

Bruce’s silence is question enough.

Jason hands him his phone. “The last number that called me. You remember that kid I told you about, from the mental health hotline?”

“When you asked how I knew you were mine,” Bruce recalls.

“Yeah,” Jason says, wobbly and spare. “Yeah, I kept talking to him. His name is Tim, and he just called to see if I know how to take a shuriken out of someone's side.”

Bruce goes very, very still. From Batman, that’s really saying something.

“I’ll track it,” he says.

Jason nods. Bruce squeezes his shoulder one last time, then returns to the Batcomputer. Jason misses the touch immediately, the solidity of his father’s grounding hand, but he knows there are more important things for Bruce to be doing right now, so he shoves the bereft feeling down, and makes himself stand.

It quickly becomes apparent that Tim’s just as smart as Jason’s been giving him credit for, and just as skittish as he suspected – he’s been calling from a burner. Not that a burner is enough to thwart Batman – he wouldn’t be much of a World’s Greatest Detective if it were – but from a kid who’s young enough to still believe in Santa it’s an alarming degree of paranoia.

Bruce sets the trace to run. Jason paces behind his high-backed chair, mind spiraling deeper and deeper into the dark caverns of What if, trying not to think about how much blood Tim is losing every second they’re looking for him, how of course he couldn’t just go to the hospital or a clinic like a normal fucking person who got caught in the crossfire of a ninja fight, how of course Jason could only love people who were reckless and unreasonable and had the self-preservation instincts of fucking gnats. Not that he had much room to talk, but he’d spent the better part of his childhood loving a mother who was dangling at the end of a very long, very thin thread, and the anxiety of every day wondering if today would be the day the thread would SNAP

“Got him,” Bruce says, breaking Jason out of his reverie.

Jason rushes back to his side just as the map expands to fill the main screen. A chill runs down his spine. “Uh, B,” he says. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s – ”

“Next door,” Bruce says. “It’s next door. The call came from Drake manor.”

“Drake,” Jason says, remembering the kid from the party, trailing along sadly after his mother, and the call he’d gotten later that night, Tim saying, My parents are in town. “Tim Drake.”

“Yes,” Bruce says, voice tight as he shoves back the chair to stand. “It would appear our neighbor is bleeding out.” He jogs for the locker room, calling over his shoulder. “I have to change – you wait for me, Jason.”

But the second Bruce disappears into the locker room, Dick comes roaring up the ramp on his bike, rain-soaked in civvies, and Jason’s heart is about ready to leap out of his chest from all this waiting around – he hops on the back of the bike before his brother can dismount.

“Whoa, hey,” Dick says, “I’m glad to see you too, Jay, but at least let me park the bike and dry off before – ”

“Drake manor,” Jason orders, reaching past him to re-start the engine. “Fucking step on it.”

Dick doesn’t ask any questions. He wheels the bike around, guiding it with a boot on the ground, and explodes back down the ramp, out into the night. The dark, waterlogged landscape blurs past them on either side. Jason wraps his arms as far around Dick’s waist as they’ll go, his face buried in the back of Dick’s neck, soaking up the familiar warmth of his brother. He feels better just to have Dick here, even though he’d never admit it out loud. Dick might be a frequent shithead and a total softie, but he’s second only to Bruce when it comes to taking care of things, to making Jason feel like it’s all going to be okay – even when it’s not.

Eventually, he lifts his head. “It’s Tim!” he shouts in Dick’s ear, as they round the bend and start climbing the hill towards Drake manor. “He’s hurt, and it turns out he’s our fucking neighbor!”

“What?” Dick shouts back. “Your kid is our neighbor?”

“Yeah, I know!”

Jason understands the surprise, he really fucking does. It’s not just the proximity – it’s the zipcode, the affluence. Jason’s not naïve enough to think that poor kids corner the market on shitty childhoods, but talking to Tim he’d had the sense that the kid was neglected, and neglect just isn’t the sort of thing you think about when a kid lives in a huge shiny mansion. Sure, the parents might prefer to do their rearing from a distance, but usually there are legions of nurses and nannies and cooks and tutors – as lonely as rich kids might get, it’s hard for them to ever truly be alone. But Jason knows Tim, and he talked to him for hours when he had the flu, he knows there wasn’t anyone there with him. And Drake manor, when they pull into the porte-cochère, looks dark and empty. It looks like it belongs in Jane Eyre or fucking Dracula – like whoever lives here should be cold and brooding and at least thirty years old, not a kid who loves Star Trek and photography and geese.

“You’re sure?” Dick says, as he parks the bike and takes off his helmet – but Jason doesn’t answer, because he’s already pounding on the door.

There’s no answer, so he keeps pounding.

"Jay," Dick says, when it's been a while.

"No," Jason says, jaw tight. He keeps knocking.

After another minute, his efforts pay off. A small voice calls out, “Who is it?”

Jason’s heart squeezes painfully up into his throat. He knows that voice. And he’s not sure how he didn’t know it before. “It’s Jason,” he calls back. “From the hotline. I’m here with my brother, Dick. Can you let us in?”

For a second, he’s not sure Tim’s going to do it. From his point of view he probably shouldn’t – he’s a kid, he’s injured and alone and there’s a stranger knocking on his door at three in the morning – so Jason just has to hope they’ve built up enough trust over the past couple months for Tim to know he’s not a homicidal maniac.

And they must’ve, because Tim opens the door.

It’s still pouring rain, like a curtain beyond the porte-cochère, and the noise makes things feel strangely intimate, like they three of them are the only people in the world. Tim Drake – the boy Jason stole hors d’oeuvres from at the Wayne Foundation gala, the boy who hacked the Gotham Academy attendance records so he could stay home and read Arthurian legend – stares out at them with a bloody dish towel in his hand and a gleaming shuriken sticking out of his side. His hair is black and his eyes are adorable and blue and Jason knows Dick’s thinking the same thing he is – Bruce is so totally fucked. The Wayne family lawyers are going to get a call about suing for custody before the sun even thinks about rising.

“You,” Tim says, sounding woozy. “Jason?”

“Yeah, baby bird,” Jason says. He crouches so he’s on Tim’s level. The kid is way too short. “Sorry to barge in on you like this, but I thought you could use some help.”

“You’re Jason Todd,” Tim tells him.

“Sure am,” Jason agrees.

Tim reaches out and touches his face, fingers feather-light on Jason’s cheekbone, where he’s going to have a real nasty bruise in the morning.

“Robin,” he says.

And then he passes out.

##

Dick accuses Jason of being more dog than man, but Jason doesn’t give a shit – once they’ve got Tim patched up in the medbay, he insists they stick him in Jason’s room. Alfred insists on changing the sheets first, which Jason guesses is fine since he’s not actually a dog, but he still lingers unhappily in the doorway while it happens, Bruce maneuvering carefully with the unconscious boy in his arms, tucked against his chest.

Once Tim’s settled in the bed, Bruce comes over to squeeze the nape of Jason’s neck. “Don’t loom too close or you'll give the poor kid a heart attack,” he murmurs. “He’s had enough excitement for one night.”

Jason scoffs, but Bruce just jostles him fondly and steps into the hall, leaving the door cracked behind him.

Quietly as he can, Jason pulls his desk chair up next to the bed. Tim looks very small under the covers, even laid out boneless and spread-eagled like he is, and Jason has to resist the urge to reach out and brush his hair out of his face. Bruce is right – he’s only barely introduced himself to the kid in person, and he doesn’t want to give him a heart attack.

Instead, he picks up the library copy of The Once and Future King from his bedside table. He’s planning to flip to a section and start reading, like he’s a heroine keeping vigil at a sick friend’s bedside in a Jane Austen novel, but when he flips to the first page he stops, startled.

It’s the circulation card, nestled in an envelope glued to the front page. And the last name, stamped above Jason Todd-Wayne, is Timothy Drake.

The answer was right in front of him the whole time, and he didn’t fucking see it.

##

A few hours later, when Jason’s starting to go hoarse from reading aloud and the sky’s started to lighten outside, Bruce knocks softly on the door and summons him into the hall.

It looks like he’s set up a makeshift command center in between the bedrooms. Dick’s here too, sitting at a table that wasn’t there the last time Jason checked, cluttered with laptops and stacks of old paper records. Alfred’s in the process of serving tea, looking grim, and as Jason steps out of his room, the butler meets his eyes, holding for a moment, and he feels more grounded than he has all night.

“Sit,” Bruce says. “Have some tea. I want you to tell me everything you know about Tim – I need to corroborate some things.”

Jason’s too numb to argue anymore, especially with his dad, so he sits and has some tea and tells him everything he knows. Combined with the research Bruce has managed to drum up while Tim’s been unconscious, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

Tim’s parents have been out of the country eleven months out of the past year, on archaeological digs in Sudan and Indonesia and – most recently and currently – Bolivia. In terms of time at home, it’s only ever a few days scattered here and there, never more than a week, and their calendar reveals they’ve spent the majority of that time in meetings, at galas, and maintaining their respective affairs – Jack’s sleeping with a personal trainer named Dana and Janet seems to be entertaining a healthy cross-section of Gotham’s elite. Their payroll reveals that they employ one housekeeper, one personal shopper who spends most of her time shipping couture to the far reaches of the globe, and a landscaping company. There are no living relatives on either side. No record of a nanny since Tim was six years old. The kid walks three miles to the nearest bus stop every morning, and lives in a house with thirteen bedrooms all by himself. He’s literally as isolated as it’s possible for someone in Gotham to be, and that’s including the sickos in Arkham solitary.

“One more thing,” Dick says, when Jason and Bruce are done. They both look at him – from the expression on his face, prematurely apologetic, Jason realizes what he’s about to say. He tries to glare him silent. It doesn't work.

“He knows who we are," Dick tells Bruce.

“We don’t know that he knows who we are,” Jason hedges.

Dick gives him an unimpressed look. “He called you Robin, Jay.”

“So?” Jason demands. “So what, you’re gonna fucking – ”

“No,” Dick says, sitting forward and looking offended. “No, Jesus, of course we’re not going to do anything to him. I’m just saying. You said he’s been running around taking pictures of us, it could be a security leak.”

“I’m not going to tell anyone,” says a voice behind them.

Tim’s standing in the open door, leaning heavily on the frame, hand pressed to the bandages wrapped around his abdomen. “I’ve known for a couple years now and I haven’t told. I wouldn’t do that. Not to you guys. You’re – you’ve always been my heroes.”

Jason’s about to burst out of his chair and make sure Tim doesn’t pitch forward into the floor, the way he looks like he’s about to. But surprisingly, Bruce beats him to it.

His hands look huge on Tim’s thin shoulders. Jason has a sudden memory of being twelve, taller than Tim but not much more substantial, Bruce crouching in front of him in the open door to the pantry, where Jason had been squirreling away food in the middle of the night. I know you don’t believe me yet, Bruce had said then, bleary-eyed, his hair sticking up all over the place, warm from sleep, but I want you to know that you’re safe here. You’re always going to be safe here. And you’re always going to have enough, of everything that I can give you. Even if you don’t believe it yet, I want you to hear me say it.

“We know you’re not going to tell anyone,” Bruce says now. “Jason trusts you, which means I trust you.”

Tim’s eyes dart to Jason over Bruce’s shoulder, wide and wondering. Jason holds his gaze and gives him a smile, trying to ignore the fact that there may or may not be tears in his own eyes. “It’s true, Timmers,” he promises.

“Now.” Bruce’s voice is gentle but firm, the same voice Batman uses when they come across traumatized kids in the field, who need gentle handling but also clear directions. “We have a lot to talk about, Tim, but you’re hurt and I think it should wait until morning. You need to get some rest.”

Tim’s eyes leave Jason. He bobs his head. “Right. I feel much better now, Mr. Wayne. Thanks for getting the ninja star out and giving me stitches and everything. I’m sure I can walk home.”

“No fucking way,” Jason says.

“Seconded,” Dick says, standing to stretch. “Unaccompanied minors are not allowed to leave this house with stab wounds, sorry. You’ll just have to stay until you’re healed.”

And longer, his eyes say, when he cuts a look at Jason.

Jason wrestles down a smile. “Come on, baby bird,” he says, standing up. “Let’s get you back to bed. Don’t want you to pop a stitch.”

“I’m not going to pop a stitch,” Tim mutters, but he lets Jason herd him back into the room and help him back into bed, poking him in the forehead until he surrenders and flops back on the pillow with a pained whine.

“Be right back,” Jason promises, then goes back to the door. Bruce is hovering, eyes crinkled at the corners in a fond, bemused smile. “So,” Jason says, pitching his voice low so Tim can’t hear, “you gonna keep him?”

“Well,” Bruce matches his volume. “That’s at least partially up to him.”

Jason gives him a long look. He’s still perfecting it, but it’s Alfred’s look – the one that says I can see everything you’re hiding from me.

But,” Bruce allows, “it does feel pretty impossible to do anything else.”

Jason smiles. “That’s what I thought, old man.”

Back in the room, he throws himself onto the bed next to Tim with an exaggerated groan. “God, I’m tired. I need some shuteye. How 'bout you, Tim, you tired?”

“No,” Tim lies, yawning. It’s adorable. “Is this your room? Did I steal your bed?”

“You didn’t steal anything.” Jason wraps an arm around his shoulders and tugs him close against his side, careful of his wound. “It makes me nervous when my brothers get stabbed. I want to keep you close.”

Tim tenses against him. “I’m not – ”

“Shut up,” Jason says. “Yes you are.” He hooks his chin over Tim’s head, determined to out-stubborn him. Jason’s a fucking professional when it comes to bull-headedness, this kid doesn’t stand a chance. “Listen. I want you to know, you’re not alone anymore. Even if you don’t believe me yet, I want you to hear me say it.”

Outside, rain pounds on the roof, sloshing against the windows. In here, tangled in the blankets, it’s warm and safe and it feels like home. If Tim hadn’t chosen to call him, if he’d just yanked the shuriken out and hoped for the best, he might not be here right now. He could’ve bled out right next door, and Jason never would’ve known. But he’s here now, and gradually, by degrees, he relaxes in Jason’s arms.

“Hey," he says after a minute, voice groggy, "can I ask you something?"

Jason hms. “Sure thing, baby bird.”

“You really did want to talk to me, didn’t you? You weren’t just being nice?”

Jason turns to press a kiss to his hair. “I told you, kid,” he murmurs. “I’m never nice.”