There was a kid on his doorstep.
Bruce had just had to leave his son, to leave him alone, buried under a mound of dirt. And there another kid was, looking up at him, all trusting, like he could solve any of the world’s problems if he just tried hard enough.
Bruce wanted to throw up.
“Tim. You should go home,” he said tonelessly.
‘I don’t know who you are, but you’re not Robin.’ He’d said, ripping the green mask from this face. He’d known. He’d known immediately of course, once he'd gotten past the little missed beat of hope.
This was some kind of cosmic joke.
“I won’t.” The child said. He was the spitting image of Jason. It wasn’t the dark hair, or blue eyes, though they played a part in it. It wasn’t even the Robin costume he’d been wearing at the time, or the fraying red sweater he’d been wearing after.
No, it was the stubbornness shining in his eyes.
More than throw up, Bruce wanted to put the Batsuit back on. Disappear to the streets until physical pain won over the sick numbness and forced him back home.
“Batman, I only wanted to help...I care about you. I care about Robin.”
“You need Robin.” The kid added, even more determined than he’d been back then. “I won’t let you kill yourself out there.”
That was where he was headed, yes, most likely. Where he couldn’t, wouldn't, lead another kid.
“That was probably the best day of my life.”
His grip on the doorframe tightened, the tip of his fingers whitening. He was very aware of the way his bulk blocked the way into the Manor’s big halls.
Hopefully that would dissuade him.
“Go home, Tim.” He insisted softly. “This is not about what I need.”
“Respectfully disagree, sir.” Tim said, tongue-cheeked. He plummeted in a crouch, stuck a leg out and kicked Bruce’s legs from under him. Then he vaulted over Bruce, using his shoulders like he were in gym class and Bruce was nothing more than the pommel horse, and landed safely inside the Manor.
“Is Mr Pennyworth here today?”
Laughing piggyback rides up the Cave’s stairs, Jason arguing about movies over breakfast, rehearsing a presentation in front of Bruce, neapolitan ice-cream while reading quietly together in front of the fire in the lobby, fire-
Bruce closed his eyes and breathed.
“No,” he replied, after a moment. “No, Alfred’s out.”
“Oh.” Tim seemed to sag under the weight of his disappointment. How was he so small, what had his younger self been thinking allowing any of them out in the first place- No. He knew what he’d been thinking. Dick running away, twice, no less, Jason flying out to- “I wanted to thank him properly for helping me with Two-face.”
“Tim.” Bruce said again like he was some sort of broken record and not Batman. Like he’d ever managed to do more than some pitiful damage control when it came to his boys and their longing for vigilantism.
“It’s okay if you don’t want me here.” Tim tried to reassure him, earnest. Even while it was obviously everything but okay. “I’m not asking you to pretend or anything. But I’m not going to leave.”
No. No, obviously he wasn’t.
Bruce would have to make him.
Keeping Tim from putting on the costume was proving. Difficult.
“You’re not coming in the field,” Bruce said.
“I’m not,” agreed Tim easily.
In the short time since Bruce had met him, he’d learned a few things. Notably that Tim was earnest, he always meant well, but he was infuriatingly stubborn. Never so easily defeated. Bruce’s efforts to push him out of his life slid over the kid like water did over a duck. Granted, it wasn’t like he could, or would, purposely hurt the boy. Physically, emotionally. He was just a child. No, Bruce's efforts consisted of trying to avoid any kind of interaction with him. Ignore him. Limit every necessary meeting to short, distant ones.
He’d get tired of it all soon enough. (He hadn’t yet. Not once in the past two weeks.)
J- Dick would have doubled over laughing. The big bad Batman running scared from a twelve years old child.
Tim didn’t seem fazed by the distance he tried to keep. He had a tendency to pop right up where Bruce was. Idealistic in the worse ways. Every dismissal dismissed with nothing more than a bit of tension and another attempt at worming himself into Bruce’s life.
And that was another thing, the stalking. From the tender age of eight, Timothy Jackson Drake, untrained civilian, had been risking his life by following them on patrol.
Whoever was in charge of taking care of him was failing abysmally. He was much too small, much too thin for his age. On par with how Ja-
It was...good for Tim, at least, to allow himself to be pampered by Alfred during the odd few hours he stayed at the Manor. Alfred needed someone to look after. Would need someone to look after. Tim needed a few hundreds meals.
Bruce could avoid the both of them more easily if they stayed together. He could be sure the boy had someone safe to run to when he pushed him away.
“Maybe I could man the comms instead?”
There was a trap somewhere in there. Bruce needed to find it before making any kind of decision.
“I think that that is a wonderful idea, Master Tim,” Alfred agreed immediately, stealing the decision right out of Bruce’s hands. Ripping it out, then crushing it, crumbling it to dust while staring Bruce straight in the eyes.
“Really?” Tim said, then smiled brighter than the Manor’d seen in a good while. “Oh. I mean, yes! Really. Thank you Mr Pennyworth.”
“Alfred,” Tim repeated like he’d been handed something precious.
“Alfred.” Bruce grunted.
“That’s settled, then.”
“Right.” The kid nodded brightly. Bruce braced himself. Whatever the trap was, Tim was about to spring it on him. “Unless you get too hurt, or in too much trouble.”
“I meant what I said, Mr Wayne. I believe in Batman and Robin. You need a partner. I won’t stand idle if you’re in trouble.” That determined glint was back again. “And if you take me off comms, I’ll still know. I’ll follow you. I have for years, you know.” Bruce did. Bruce was painfully aware. “So you at least have to try to make an effort to be saf-”
“-e out there.”
“You’ll stay in the Cave.”
“Unless you’re in too much danger, yes, I will.”
“In. The. Cave.” Bruce growled, and strode away, barely hearing the faint "Sure" that was chirped at his back.
Tim did not stay in the Cave that night.
Or the next.
Or the one after that.
Jason’s sixteenth birthday came and went, bleak, empty. As far as Bruce knew, Tim stayed at home that night. As far as he knew, because Bruce did too, at least, and drank himself to oblivion.
Tim did not need to see that.
Though Alfred probably did not need to either.
The day after that Bruce was back out in the streets, sporting an awful hangover.
The day after that, Tim dropped behind him at the wrong time and almost got shot when Batman barely ducked out of the line of fire of a snarling henchman.
And the worst part of it all was, Bruce never had any clue whether Tim was following him or not. At least until he decided Bruce was in too much trouble and dropped down to help him.
“Enough.” He growled, that night. They were back in the Cave, Bruce was checking him over.
The shot had come too close. Much too close.
Tim set his jaw stubbornly.
“I’ve done fine so far.” He didn’t seem so sure.
He’d done more than fine so far.
But Bruce wasn’t about to tell him that.
“Enough.” Bruce repeated. Trying to get in touch with the Drakes had yielded no result. None. Whatsoever. Their son was alive. He was brilliant, he was fierce, he was clever, he was brave. Surely they cared. Surely they had something, an excuse as for why they couldn't be bothered to even check on him lost night after lost night. Bruce would have done anything, given it all up to have Jason back. To see him again, even just for a minute. To hear him laugh. Shout. To have a last memory of him that wasn't holding a barely recognizable corpse as Bruce screamed himself hoarse on the burning-
He knew enough about the system, that, despite his best attempts to clean it up, it wasn’t up to par yet. Not enough to risk Tim.
He nearly sent Tim home that night under the guise of not wanting him to miss one of his parents' phone call. He didn't in the end. Tim would have drank it all up, protecting his secret identity, protecting the mission.
The only person that would have protected would have been Bruce himself.
In truth, if there was one thing he’d become ever since his son's death, it was a coward.
A coward that drove people away. That took the slightest hint of weakness, grabbed it with both hands and drove in with all he had, pushed until they snapped and left him alone. He'd told himself it was to protect them. Clark, Diana, Selina, even Dick.
Protect them when he eventually left.
He hadn't managed to drive Alfred away yet.
Tim was twelve. He chattered during Bruce’s patrols, about everything, about nothing. He wore his weaknesses on his sleeves, bare for the world to see, and Bruce might have become a coward but he'd never purposely hurt a child.
Tim needed adult supervision, he needed a home. God knew Bruce was the least qualified person for the job, but Alfred. Alfred was good, and Tim deserved better. Better than cold stairs, empty halls. He needed someone to argue with, someone that'd see all his worth, all that intelligence of his, and challenge him.
"It's late," He told Tim. "You must be tired."
The offer not quite voiced, but implied enough that Alfred startled. The flinch, the stunned hope, barely noticeable, but there. Before it disappeared back under his proper mask.
"We have plenty of room." Bruce added, not quite sure how to word that in a way that wouldn't send Tim running to the hills. He tended to get flighty when he thought he wasn't needed.
He never thought he was needed outside of patrol.
"Right, well," Alfred said primly. "If you'll excuse me, Master Bruce, Master Tim, I'll have a room ready in a jiffy."
"I don't want to impose," Tim tried. It was half-hearted at best.
"Nonsense, my boy. You most certainly aren't."
Bruce pulled his punches the following night. He stopped Penguin from taking over a museum, and listened to excited chattering about ancient China. Tim seemed to have endless knowledge about that. That, and ancient Mesopotamia. And dinosaurs.
“Did you know that the smallest T-rex found as of yet,” Tim chattered on, as Bruce shot his grapple and climbed onto an exhibit. Not on the t-rex replica. “-only weighted about 30kg? It’s theorized that they massively gained weight once they reached 14 years of age, but-”
Endangering a civilian kid. Clark would be ashamed.
Had Bruce not thoroughly burned all their bridges, that was.
“-they could gain up to 1790 kg in the span of a year. Can you imagine?”
Bruce hummed. Seventeen men. Five armed, not including Penguin himself.
His blood sang with the need to move. To punch. To do something.
“How old would the Cave’s T-rex have been, do you think? I mean, it’s a robot, obviously-”
The day before, he’d have jumped in the fray. On any other night, he’d have chosen a more direct approach.
For the first time in months, he was careful. The last thing he needed was Tim following him out there. Again.
So he didn’t throw himself head first into the first spot of trouble he found. He worked smarter than he had in quite some time.
“23,” He replied, watching Penguin startle and start squawking orders at the sound of his voice. Watched as the four henchmen he had left responded. “-give or take 66 billion years.”
He listened to Tim’s startled puff of laughter.
Then he threw down a smoke pellet and punched Penguin in the face. Tim was still chatting his ear off about archeological digs by the time the patrol drew to an end and he started to make his way back to the Manor. Maybe a rooftop run would help him burn some of the anger, some of the restless, nervous energy he hadn’t gotten rid of tonight.
When he drove back into the Cave, drenched in sweat, panting, but sporting no new injuries other than a light graze on his cheek, Alfred was still waiting up for him.
The silence was disquieting.
He got out of the car. Walked briskly past Jason’s uniform, tried to ignore the need to just stand there and stare.
“Alfred?” He called instead.
“Master Bruce,” Alfred acknowledged, giving him a once-over. His eyes got suspiciously shiny. “Forgive me. I’m afraid I’m feeling a bit under the weather tonight.”
And didn’t that feel like a sledgehammer to his gut.
“Alf,” Bruce tried.
“I trust you’ll make sure the young master’s looked after.”
“Good night, Master Bruce.”
Tim was at the Batcomputer’s workstation, sleeping in his mock Robin uniform.
Bruce couldn’t even think about carrying him upstairs without feeling something overwhelming coil in his throat. Grief, he supposed. He’d become distant, removed from his feelings, the more time went on. Unable to reach past the cold numbness, except on some very bad days.
He tried to push past it for a good minute, then gave up, reaching out to gently shake his shoulder.
“Tim.” He said. “Time to wake up, kiddo.”
It wasn’t his place, anyway. Tim wasn’t his. He barely knew him.
As with everything else Tim did, his presence in the Cave seemed to warm it up. Make it seem brighter. A little fuller.
“Again.” Bruce said, stern, looking at the kid sprawled on the mats, trying to catch his breath. Maybe enough dull repetitions of the same drill would drive him away. Maybe training through enough repetitions would protect him.
He offered Tim a hand up.
Tim stared at it in that very same way he’d stared at the most troublesome Riddler clues. Then he took it in a hurried, disbelieving, little move.
Bruce pulled him up, and squeezed his hand once.
“Again,” he repeated.
Tim ran through the next ten drills with the softest, smallest, smile on his face. Visibly exhausted, but not complaining once.
The Manor had been remarkably… quiet in the mornings for the last few months.
It was a rainy, grey, ugly day, when that changed. It was a calm morning. The kind he used to like spending reading reports by the fire. The kind Jason used to spend curled up in the library, imagination vividly reenacting his favourite plays.
Most of his bigger injuries were healed, though the ache, the one that never quite left his muscles anymore, was making its presence known with a vengeance.
It should have been a calm morning. From all that Bruce had observed so far, Tim was quick and silent on his feet.
Maybe that was why it was so jarring to feel the Manor shake with noises not unlike what a herd of charging elephants would make.
Bruce blinked down at the ripples in the cup of coffee he held. At the liquid spilling over the side of his mug, burning a path onto his fingers.
Idly, he let his imagination run wild. Tim in the morning sounded like Bane infecting most of the city again. Like Two-Face launching another attack. No, it was too early for them to be active, he knew. They wouldn’t make such a ruckus at ten am. It was Saturday too, and even his Rogues sometimes took days off.
A small head of dark hair streaked past him. Bruce raised his coffee higher, so the blur wouldn’t collide with it and make it spill everywhere.
“Crap, crap, crap. Oh, hi Bruce,” Tim said, running past him and to one of the sitting-rooms. More coffee left his cup and Bruce took a moment to marvel at how such a remarkably quiet child could do that. “Sorry. Crap, crap, shit.”
He watched him thunder down the stairs.
Taking a sip of his coffee, he let the bitter, burning, liquid destroy his remaining taste buds.
Bruce watched him thunder back up the stairs. “Language,” he chided.
That brought Tim to a sudden halt. And suddenly, the face staring up at him, eyes widening in surprise, in fear, was older, the jaw more pronounced-
He blinked and the illusion vanished, and what was left of his mood with it. The ugly, empty, thing left in its stead, Bruce didn’t want to deal with.
They stared each other down.
“Tim,” He began, haltingly, when it was clear Tim was panicking about something. Bruce was unclear on as to when Tim had started caring about his opinion. But clearly the boy had at some point. “-Can I help you?”
“I apologize.” Tim said, small in all the ways he shouldn’t be. Adult in a way that screamed conditioning more than anything. Quiet again. Hugging his skateboard to his chest like Bruce would reach out and break it. And yet, still defiant. “I shouldn’t have used that kind of language, I know better.”
“Tim,” He said again. “Can I help you?” He repeated.
“Oh, no thank you. I’m alright.” Always quick to reassure, mask perfect. “I don’t need anything.”
Slowly, to fill it, he took another sip of coffee. Slowly, Tim’s eyes tracked the movement.
“What is it you’re looking for?” Bruce tried, a few beats later, as gently as he could. He’d been better at this, once upon a time.
“My school bag.” Tim lied quickly, blatantly, clutching his skateboard even closer to his chest.
“Alright,” Bruce replied, casually. And resisted the urge to hide behind another sip of coffee. “It’s next to your camera, I believe-” Just as he’d somewhat expected, Tim’s eyes lit up at the mention of his one prized possession. “-in the study. Where you left them ”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Bruce, sir.” Tim nodded, then fled upstairs.
Awkwardly, Bruce finished his coffee, then waited for him to come back. It didn’t take too long. He looked slightly more relaxed, too, though Bruce could not help but note that both the camera and the skateboard were now carefully tucked out of sight.
“Tim.” He tried. “Where are you going.”
That’d come out wrong. Too harsh.
Alone? Without a car, in this weather. He meant to make a light hearted remark about a date, or possible plans. Instead, what came out, was: “You’re in a hurry. Let me drive you there.”
Tim seemed just as flabbergasted as Bruce was at that one.
“I- don’t want to be a bother?”
“You won’t be.”
That’d also come out wrong. Still too harsh. The offer should have been joking, teasing, the hint of a smile.
“Okay? If you’re sure it won’t mess up your plans?”
Bruce hadn’t gone out of the house in daylight in weeks.
Bruce had done nothing of his days but wait for the night to fall in just as long. Longer, maybe.
Stepping out of the house, without the batsuit, the adrenaline of patrol, or an armada of paparazzis asking him about Jason felt… strange to say the least.
He drove with care, putting on just the slightest bit of speed when he saw the smile it brought to Tim’s lips. Tim was bright. Cheery. But he didn’t laugh a lot. Not as much as he ought to.
“Where am I dropping you off?”
“Yves's place. It’s o-” Bruce took the right turn. “-n third and- Of course you know.”
He grunted, entirely unapologetic.
Tim’s safety was his concern, now. God knew no one else was stepping up to the task.
“Thank you. For driving.” Tim said. “You didn’t have to. I know he won’t mind me coming in a little early, and-” he paused. “How early is too early? Is an hour and half early too early? Do you think maybe I should wait? He’s my friend, but I don’t want to imp-”
An hour and a half, he’d spend, what? Waiting outside in the rain like an abandoned puppy? He’d catch a cold.
“You have time.” Bruce said, the words grating in his throat.
“You need to eat.” He added, unwilling to phrase it as a question.
Tim sent him a puzzled look. It looked sickly in the pale grey light of day.
“I do? I do. I really do. I’d love to.”
At that, Bruce gave a curt nod, and changed lanes.
They pulled into some superhero-themed fast food joint. One he’d heard Tim ramble about during a particularly long, boring, stake-out.
He was consistently staying in the cave now.
Tim snorted when Bruce picked up a fork disdainfully. He’d only meant to examine it for stains, check the quality of the establishment, but the reaction the action had brought made him pause.
It would serve his cover well, in any case.
When Bruce awkwardly picked his way through a burger with a fork and knife, Tim laughed so hard he spewed soda through his nose.
Dropping Tim off at his friend’s house took next to no time. When he came back to the Manor, an hour and a half later, with a dried, sticky, soda stain on his white shirt, Alfred took one long look at him.
Bruce had expected him to remark upon it, at the very least. Or to say something about his choice of meal. Alfred despised fast food.
Instead, Alfred took one long look at the stain, and exhaled slowly, near silently.
They both pretended not to see his hands tremble when they squeezed Bruce’s shoulders tightly.
He had to pretend again, the first time he finished a full meal, and Tim cut off mid-ramble to ask.
“Alfred? Are you okay?”
Alfred waved him off.
“Quite so, dear boy. Now what were you saying?”
Tim lacked confidence. That was something Bruce discovered pretty quickly into getting to know him. How such a brilliant, stubborn, child could lack confidence, and yet still stand up to Bruce every step of the way - on the topics that really mattered, at least - was something that never failed to baffle him.
So he tried. Tried to get him to open up a bit more. He’d never been really good at that. Dick had never needed much prompting to chatter on. Jason- Maybe if Bruce had made himself more available-
Training session by training session. Meal by meal. He tried.
Tim could be brought out of shell, goaded into arguing, ranting, about subjects he cared deeply about.
But he wasn’t used to people actually listening to him, that much was obvious.
“Actually, the plates on the back of the stegosaurus could very well have been there in order to better absorb heat from the sun, and they had blood vessels, too, which-”
“It’s still a highly debated subject.” Bruce argued, monotone, but trying to keep the amusement from showing in his eyes. “Another much more plausible explanation being them acting as a defense system of a sort.”
“Plausible?” And he looked so offended that he almost dropped out of his handstand. Bruce paid closer attention to him, spotted him more carefully. “That’s not plausible. If you look at the placement of the spikes-”
“Tim. I’ve seen stegosauruses.”
And Tim did drop out of his handstand at that.
“What? When? How?”
“League mission. 153 millions years ago. Flash.”
Amazingly, Tim frowned.
“Alright, fine. Anecdotal evidence. But did you try to test what its plates did-”
“Oh, god.” Dick moaned, from where he’d just walked down the Cave’s stairs. “Are you two really nerding over dinosaur facts?”
Pure dramatics. Dick had loved dinosaurs as a child.
Still, that was all it took for Tim to turn around with the biggest grin on his face.
Dick ruffled his hair and dragged him in a hug.
“Hey, kiddo. Did you miss me?”
Bruce could safely say that they both did.
Inside his own head, at least.
“My math homework? Of course I’ve done my math homework. Did it right before training too, while you were busy working o- Bruce, what, no, what are you doing, give it back-”
“You should have seen Dick, he was so cool! A single flip and the other guy was down! It was incredible!”
“Okay, so that page is blank. But will staring at problems I already know how to solve help me any later on? No, it will not. I’m only saying that I could be using my time more productively. Trigonometry homework is not that helpful to everyday life, you know, there are studies-”
“You should have seen him, Dick, he was incredible-”
Jason’s uniform mocked him, behind its glass case. While the real memorials to his son, to the boy he had lost, were not in the cave, this one served its purpose well.
Don’t forget. Don’t forget, it’s you that got him killed. Your crusade. Your mission. Your inability to treat him as a parent would. You didn’t listen. He lapped it up, being useful. Being wanted. And what was always going to happen happened.
Three months in, it became clear that Tim had no intention to quit. None whatsoever. Not matter what Bruce tried to do about it.
Bruce’s training hadn’t kept Jason alive.
He sent Tim to learn from experts all over the world.
Tim refused to go. He flat out refused, at first.
“I can’t.” He’d said, not explaining himself any more than that.
This couldn’t be about school, or his parents.
Tim abhorred school. Bruce had to fight to make him even try at homework. It bored him, in comparison to his Robin work or his hobbies.
He even seemed to enjoy arguing with Bruce about it. A particular glint entered his eyes whenever Bruce made a remark.
As for his parents, well. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d heard a variation of “It’s fine, they won’t notice.”.
Tim wasn’t lying. They hadn’t.
Not a day passed Bruce didn’t want to punch Jack and Janet Drake in the face.
“I can’t risk it.” Tim said, looking small, and where Bruce would have grudgingly accepted a refusal before - he had back up plans for that, teachers he could ask to come over. Training he could bring to Tim. - now, suddenly he couldn’t leave it at that.
“Oh, it’s nothing.” Lie. Clearly, it was something. “Just, you know.”
A ‘meh’ motion that indicated absolutely nothing to Bruce was tacked on the end of that sentence.
“I don’t, actually.”
“I didn’t set out to be a vigilante, you know?” Tim said, and the considering tone he was using sent dread down Bruce’s spine. “I went to Dick first. But I made myself Robin. I don’t think I can give it up. Not so long as Robin’s needed.”
Bruce could understand that all too well.
Still. That answered about 0 of his questions.
Another thing he’d discovered about Tim: he was really good at deflecting.
“But that’s not what’s bothering you,” he stated.
And for a while, no matter how hard Bruce prodded, that was that.
The first time Tim talked a jumper down from a ledge was the first time Bruce hugged him.
They’d been doing a practice rooftop run over Chinatown, mere training before Bruce went on to patrol and the Batmobile brought Tim home.
Then, Bruce had turned around and Tim had been gone.
Bruce had grappled to an abrupt stop, even when it felt his stomach had continued his planned arch down. Then he’d backtracked as quickly as he’d been able to.
It took the glimpse of a black and yellow cape, the tail-end of a sentence, before Bruce could breathe normally again.
“-hard for everyone, sometimes. Batman, Superman, everyone.” Tim was sitting down, legs dangling over the edge, idly watching car lights streak by. Bruce felt himself freeze. Felt the words wash right over him.
“And when I have trouble remembering those things, I find people to talk to.”
And Tim breezed through the conversation like it was nothing, finding just the right words, just the right amount of earnestness to save yet another person while Bruce stood there, ‘I find someone to talk to’ ringing in his ears.
And the question remained.
No matter how empathetic, how could a thirteen years old kid know precisely the right things to say, the right coping mechanisms to bring someone down from the edge.
He thought he’d forgotten how to feel most things aside from whatever was left behind by his son’s death.
This new, icy, dread that had lodged in his chest proved that wrong however.
They trudged back in the Cave in heavy silence. Uncharacteristically, it was Bruce that chose to break it.
Tim’s shoulders, already up somewhere near his ears, tensed to the point it had to be painful. With that, Bruce knew he was already going about this all wrong.
But Bruce had no idea how to go about this right.
He tried again.
“Tim. If you need to talk-”
Tim eyed him warily, visibly waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Correction, Bruce was entirely botching this. And this wasn’t the hardest thing he wanted to talk to Tim about.
And when I have trouble remembering those things, I find people to talk to.
Was Tim a risk to himself? Would making him Robin be a good thing?
Benching Dick, benching Jason, had led to losing them.
Tim wasn’t his son, not really. Tim had parents.
Yet the thought of losing him-
“-you can always come to me.”
The kid’s puzzled expression didn’t abate in the slightest. Much less disappear altogether.
“Oh. Thank you? I have Dick, though.”
Bruce felt something loosen a little in his chest.
“Good,” he said somewhat gruffly. "That's good."
“I,” Tim hesitated, “-he.”
Bruce summoned an encouraging grunt. Jason would have laughed in his face at that too, bright, boisterous, compared him to a rusty, old, chainsaw, maybe. Tim smiled. It was a little thing, bordering on nervous.
“He thinks maybe I should see someone. To help.”
Thank god for Dick Grayson.
He gave a sharp nod.
“I’ll vet them.”
Tim’s eyes roved all over his face, searching.
“I am,” he paused. “-admittedly not the best at handling these situations. But I want you to be healthy, Tim. Both physically and mentally. No matter what that entails.”
Then, gently, ever so gently, telegraphing his movements and giving him time to withdraw, he drew Tim into a hug.
“You can always come to me,” he repeated. Like hell would he ever repeat that mistake. “Always.”
For the next week or so, Bruce felt the scrutiny Tim put him under down to his very bones. Every interaction felt like a test, like he were being judged. Put under a microscope.
He was fairly sure Tim was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
For Bruce to use what little he’d given against him.
It was a matter of trust. Though Tim trusted him with his life, he still had a tendency to keep most things very close to heart. He gave people large, glaring, decoy weaknesses. Things that didn’t matter to him in the end.
This was real.
Bruce had no idea how to tread around it. How to handle it. How not to mess it up. Dick had done something similar, worn his weaknesses proudly, turned them into strengths. Jason had kept them hidden well, buried deep, in hope that people would eventually believe he had none.
He’d known how to handle that, once upon a time.
So Bruce didn’t.
Inaction was damning all the same, but he didn’t bring it up again. He did the research he’d promised. Found Tim a few therapists to choose from. Printed all the information he would need in a folder, and left it in Tim’s bag.
He watched from the corner of his eyes, seemingly fixated on the half-done tuna fish sandwich he was making as Tim opened it. He focused on the light frown he was sporting when he scanned its contents, then the sheer way his face lit up, as Bruce kept pretending that spreading Nutella all over the bread was taking up all of his attention.
Tim looked up.
“They’re all vetted,” Bruce said, as he absent-mindedly added some pepper, trying to gauge his emotional state.
It was said so softly he almost didn’t hear it. Tim fled the kitchen almost immediately after that, too, citing school.
Bruce was left staring at what he now realized was an abomination of a sandwich, wondering if he’d done the right thing.
He ate it anyway.
Jason had hated it when people wasted food.
And calories were calories, no matter how badly they tasted. Bruce still had a deficit to catch up on.
If he’d thought Tim had been chatty before, it was nothing compared to when he’d finally really opened up.
With each day that passed, more anxiousness disappeared from Tim’s frame. He shared tiny bits of himself with Bruce, a satisfied, hopeful glint getting stronger in his eyes as Bruce tried his best to help, without ever using the info against him.
There were bad days. There were days the mere idea of food tasted like ash, burnt meat, and bile, days when he couldn’t move, much less get out of bed. Days the only way to forget about the pain was throwing himself back to the streets.
Tim had bad days, too. He had days he would barely talk, days the mistrust came back.
There were days Bruce spent in the Cave, staring at Jason’s uniform in silence, with no energy to move whatsoever.
He had never gotten over his parents’ deaths. With how much worse this hurt, he sincerely doubted he would one day get close to getting over Jason’s.
Alfred found him on those worse days. He helped. Bruce found Tim on his.
And there were better days, too. Days where he didn’t have to bury himself in work not to suffocate, days he could spend time gardening with Alfred, watching a movie with Tim. Days he smiled. It was weird the small things he'd never even thought about before, but that signified healing now. The first time he spent enough time outside to get sunburnt, he couldn't quite wrap his mind around it.
They made it work.
Weeks, months, passed. He’d trained Tim as well as he could, given their wildly different body-types and fighting styles. Tim picked up detective work and stealth like a duck to water, but had to fight every single step of the way when it came to being in top shape. When it came to fighting.
He was good, there was no denying that. But he needed more.
Bruce tried to send Tim to train abroad again.
Instead of flat-out refusing, Tim looked considering, troubled for a minute.
“Maybe,” he said, finally. “But not now.”
“Why?” Bruce tried, as he always did.
“My parents are coming back.” And it was only half a lie. They were coming back. It was most likely part of the reason Tim refused to go. But it obviously wasn’t all of it.
“You do realize I will not allow you out there until you are fully trained?”
Tim nodded. “I know. It’s okay.”
Tim went out anyway.
With his parents back, he spent a bit less time at the Manor, a bit more out with his friends, playing board games. It was good for him. It did him good.
Maybe that was why Bruce didn’t immediately realize he’d gone missing.
The Joker had Tim. The Joker had Tim. The Joker had Tim, the Joker had Tim the Joker hadTimTheJokerhadTim-
The Joker had a tube down his throat. It helped him breathe.
Tim was unharmed.
Tim was unharmed, he was fine, Joker was down. Tim was unharmed, he was perfectly fine, and Joker was down. Tim had decided to go after the Joker all by himself, because he had a hunch.
All of that over a hunch.
All of that because he didn’t think Bruce could handle it. Alone with Joker because he didn’t think Bruce could handle it.
And now Bruce knew why Tim refused to go train abroad too.
“Saving me.” He said. It was the first thing he’d managed to get past the desperate thing in his throat ever since a strangled ‘You’re okay.’ when he’d first found him. They’d driven back to the cave in silence again, Bruce trying to get himself under control. “Is not your job.”
“It is, though.” Tim immediately argued. “That’s what Robin is all about. The light to Batman’s darkness. The light Gotham needs. Hope.”
Had Dick believed that? Had Jason?
“No.” Bruce said, and it could have stood to be less forceful. He seemed to have left most of what made his questions questions, and sentences light behind with Jason. “No. Robin was created to give Dick an outlet. You don’t have to be anything other than who you are.”
Tim’s answering look was painfully disbelieving. Bruce tried harder.
“Robin’s reputation is… useful when it comes to victims, yes, but not at the cost of you. Never at that cost.”
“Bruce.” Tim shook his head, with a puzzled frown on his face. “It’s bigger than that.”
“What would we have left, if Robin gave up.” He shook his head again. “It’s bigger than that. Robin’s a symbol. You can’t ever let them believe they killed Robin.”
That was the start to their first real argument.
It took several more days, and a promise he’d be careful, but Tim agreed to go.
Bruce wasn’t sure he’d managed to change his mind. Yet.
He would. He would, even if he had to fail with everything else.
Tim’s parents hadn’t even noticed his absence. So Bruce tried to make his file ironclad.
The one that was on the Drakes’ neglect of their son, that was.
Life without Tim’s steady presence in the Manor was strange, after so many evening spent training him.
It was getting harder to remember that Tim wasn’t his. That Tim had parents, that Bruce had no rights to think of him as his boy.
He did his best not to automatically fall back into old habits. He tried to distract himself instead.
It was hard. There were still bad days. Some days were downright miserable.
Bruce was starting to believe there would always be bad days.
But Tim needed someone he could look to. And not just for the heroics either. Bruce sincerely doubted this person would ever be him, but still. He tried.
In what Tim had deemed a fit of paranoia, Bruce demanded regular updates. In return, he sent him pictures of things he thought would make Tim laugh. Riddler’s latest creation. Harley’s most glittery, most abominable, outfits. The worst puns he’d suffered through that night. Pictures of the result of Alfred stress cooking.
Bruce had never been very good with words. Not when he wasn’t using them as weapons, anyway. God knew he tried, but he’d always been much better with actions. Tim seemed to understand, flourishing under the attention like a flower under soft sunlight.
They kept up an intense competition in a stupid mobile game Tim adored and Bruce abhorred, and it helped the Cave, the Manor, feel a little less empty.
For the first time since the funeral, Bruce found it in him to visit Jason’s grave.
When he came back home, hours upon hours later, eyes red, puffy, his whole face feeling bloated, he picked up the folder he’d compiled for Tim. Idly, he flipped through it until he found the number he was looking for.
That day, he made the first therapy appointment since his childhood.
Bruce quite frankly didn’t know if it actually helped him any. He didn’t feel any better or worse for it. It sure felt strange to be actually trying again, though. Actively working for his future.
Mostly, the appointment left him withdrawn, pensive, until the clatter of falling equipment yanked him out of his thoughts.
There was a child in the Batcave. Well, there was a being that was more hair than child in the Batcave.
They were on top of the dinosaur. Then not. Then back to the dinosaur, only inside of its mouth this time. Then not.
There was a speedster in his cave.
He fought the urge to drop in a fighting stance.
Fighting a speedster when one wasn’t blessed (cursed?) with superspeed could be summarized in two clear-cut stages: 1) They were unaware you were fighting them. 2) You’d lost.
With Barry, Mercury, or Wally West, losing was, most of the time, fine.
With the Reverse Flash, losing meant at best a hand through the chest, ripping your heart to shreds.
At worst, he could rewrite anyone’s life at will.
Invulnerability meant nothing when someone could do a lap around the planet in less time than his opponent took to blink. Everyone had weaknesses and speedsters could quite literally find them, stop for margaritas and a bit of spontaneous window shopping on the way back, then use them while their opponent was a sitting, conveniently vulnerable duck.
Speedsters themselves only had two glaring weaknesses. Their metabolism and their environment.
Neither were exploitable in this instance.
He watched as the kid phased through Jason’s case to examine the uniform more closely.
This one didn’t seem to have any malicious intent.
Like hell was Bruce going to risk anything, Alfred, Dick, Tim, on mere gut feelings.
His best - only - bet was not get spotted, get out, warn them.
He got the chance to do absolutely none of that.
“And just what,” Alfred said, and years of ingrained instincts sent a shiver down Bruce’s spine at that tone. He watched as his father stood to the blur. “-may I ask, is the meaning of this?”
One blink, a blur, and the speedster was out of the display cases. In front of Alfred. Behind Alfred. To Alfred’s left. Examining Alfred’s coattails.
Unflappable as always, Alfred merely watched as the child poked and prodded at him.
“Young man, I do believe I asked you a question.”
The tiny speedster recoiled, halfway across the room as though stung by Alfred’s tone. That, more than anything, helped put Bruce a little more at ease.
“Language. And slower if you will.”
A simple judgemental look had him spilling everything and then some, words a mix of too slow, over-enunciated, and sped-up to nearly incomprehensible.
“The Flash doesn’tlike me.”
Bruce nearly tensed back up, ready to intervene. To jump out of his hiding spot, for all the good it would do.
“Is that so,” Alfred hummed.
“None of themdo.” And the kid was pouting. “He thinks I’m stupid. I’m not.” He insisted.
“You did find this cave. That’s no small feat.”
“That was just grid work.” A shrug.
“Still rather impressive.”
Both Alfred and Bruce watched as the speedster knocked on every storage box the medical bay held.
Alfred cleared his throat.
“Huh?” The intruder asked.
“I believe you haven’t answered my question.”
“Oh. Uh. I. The Flash hates me, he says I’m stupid, or too reckless, or a menace, but the Flashwasn’tsupposed to be W- who he is, I was supposed to meetmygrandfather instead, and I thought, well, that people had to know who he was before and what kindofperson he was like, and maybe have stories ortellmeifhewouldhaveli- ”
The piercing look Alfred used at that was painful, familiar. He’d been subjected to it enough time not to feel its weight, even when it was not directed at him at all.
“Kindly wait a moment. Do not leave the perimeter.”
Bruce thought that would have been rather difficult to do for the child, but the T-rex, then his trophy room, proved to be a sufficient distraction. Keeping oneself occupied when you perceived the world at a fast enough pace to distinguish photons had to be hellish.
Still, amazingly, the kid obeyed. He stayed long enough for Alfred to come back with enough snacks to feed a small army. That, like Barry before him, immediately got their guest to streak over. Alfred handed them over and sat on the stairs leading up to the Manor.
“You said the Flash was your grandfather, correct?”
The kid nodded, cheeks full of food like he were some species of chipmunk. He did look startlingly like Barry that way.
“Well, then. Where to start? Ah, I know. Your grandfather, barely 24 years of age at the time, having recently founded the Justice League but not any wiser for it-”
For all that he tried not to listen as Alfred filled the Cave with carefully identity-edited stories of the good old days, it was near impossible not to. It lasted a long time, too, much longer than the food supply did. It lasted until Alfred was done with a story of that time Jason had nearly-convinced Barry to help him find an alternate universe where the library of Alexandria had not burned, and Bruce had to put his foot down.
Thankfully, that was when the kid looked at the time, startled, and swore in that strange way of his again, begging Alfred not to tell anyone he’d been here. Since he had a curfew, and most certainly wasn’t supposed to sneak out to see other member of the Justice League.
“I won’t tell a soul,” Alfred replied, his lie bold, straight-faced, carefully not stealing a glance at Bruce’s position. “However. This is for you. Should you ever find yourself in a spot of trouble.”
“Oh, er, crashthanksthen. I should go.”
A streak of light and he was gone.
Alfred smiled fondly.
“You can come out, now, Master Bruce.”
He wasn’t exactly sure what he was asking. Why give the kid his number. Why pretend Bruce had not seen them, not heard any of it.
“Master Tim will need friends.”
“Tim has friends.”
“If he is to do this, and I believe that we both know he will, Master Tim will need friends that know both sides of him.”
“You’re saying he needs a team.”
Alfred’s expression grew grimmer, more pointed.
“You’re saying I need a team.” Bruce acknowledged, displeased. “And the number?”
“Just because it presents me with an opportunity does not mean my offer is not genuine. That child needs people in his corner.”
“He’s all impulse.” Bruce tried, as a last resort.
“Well, then, Master Bruce.” Alfred said, sardonically. “I suppose it will end up being a good exercise in patience for Master Tim. A useful trait to have. Mine, for example, is tried on the daily.”
Which was true enough, he supposed.
“Is that why Diana has your number?”
Alfred gathered the remnants of Bruce’s lunch and turned to the Cave’s elevator.
“I suppose I’m due to adopt a few people myself, once in a while.”
Loathe as he was to admit it, Alfred had a point. As he often did.
So Bruce started with Dick.
Nervousness was perhaps not exactly the right word to describe how he felt, standing at the door of his estranged son’s apartment, prepared speeches sitting heavy on his tongue.
He’d tried to prepare for this.
And yet, when Dick opened the door, frowning, all of his preparation seemed to dissolve, disappear, until all that was left was a jumble of words firmly lodged in his throat.
It took a minute of awkward silence for Dick to speak.
“If all you’re going to do is stare, you can go back to Gotham. I don’t have time for this.”
“Come train-surf with me?”
It was difficult, so difficult to tell Dick all he wanted to tell him. All the apologies, the words of love he owed him.
More than worth it if it meant having him in his life again, though.
They’d always understood each other better while doing death defying jumps over Gotham’s skyline.
All three of his sons were adrenaline junkies.
And little by little, Dick accepted him again. Dick came back.
It had been a while, months really, since he’d bothered to set foot in here. To do more than video call for meetings, when he attended them, and not spied on them. He’d focused on Gotham for a while and his teammates had given him the space he’d … asked for.
After how he’d treated them, he wasn’t sure exactly how welcome his presence would be.
He’d never let that stop him before. He’d never let fear stop him him before either.
Bruce strode through the Watchtower’s corridors, cape billowing behind him, resolutely ignoring the startled looks thrown his way.
From the moment he walked into the founder’s conference room, a hush seemed to overtake it. He’d timed it perfectly, of course. They were all there, sitting in their respective seats. Visibly startled by his presence. The meeting had been just about to start.
Bruce said nothing. He gave no excuses. Instead, he went to take his seat, only to find his way blocked by Diana.
His friend looked as formidable as she ever did, bathed in artificial sunlight, with her swords crossed on her back and a glint in her eyes.
She had every reason to be mad at him. He’d treated her like shit, all those months.
She drew him into a hug. One of the tightest, most affection filled hugs Bruce had ever experienced in his life.
“Thank you,” He told both Clark and Diana. “-for stopping me.”
She released him, but kept her hands on his shoulders.
“Of course. While I may disagree with your principles, you know I will always be there for you.”
“I’ve been an ass.”
“That you have.” Diana acknowledged. Then, more seriously, she added. “You’ve had reason to.”
She then let go of his arms. Bruce expected it to be that, but he was barely free before Clark was taking her place, hugging him roughly.
He’d expected his tentative return to the League to be a production of accusations. Instead, his friends welcomed him back softly with barely a question. With many shoulders pats and awkwardly mumbled “I’m sorry about Robin.” words Bruce never wanted to hear again. Still, it felt right fitting back into that role, shouldering those responsabilites again.
Bruce missed Jason like he missed his heart.
“Welcome back, Spooky.”
Tim came back.
Tim lost his mother, saw his father slip in a coma.
If trying not to think of him as his son had been difficult before, now, with him living under his roof and trying to help him through his grief, it was nigh impossible.
Seeing him climb out of that pit, fighting for every step, for every little bit of happiness, for every light-hearted moment. Was awe-inspiring.
Bruce did his best to help. He tried to provide words of reassurance, compliments when Tim talked down about himself. Physical affection Tim always seemed to melt into, no matter how much Dick or Bruce gave him.
They gave as much as they could. Hug after hug, movie night after movie night. Case after case.
Bruce quietly pushed for more homework, or for more sleep. Tim stole case files and read them in his room, under the covers. When Bruce took away his flashlight, Tim stole domino-masks, with their ingrained night vision lenses.
It was exhausting.
It was good.
Bruce had faced death many times, in many ways, during his years as Batman.
When the time came again to teach his third Robin how to drive, Bruce gripped the grab handle by the Batmobile’s door tight, and unflinchingly stared the Reaper down.
The sewers tunnel spat them out in the harbor's polluted water with little fanfare. The freezing water the nasty shock it always was, but Bruce had trained for this, trained extensively.
This wasn’t the first time he ended up somewhere in the mess of chemicals, oil, and old algae, either. He was used to the heavy drag of his cape, the impaired vision, the mind-numbing temperature.
He surprised himself with how much he didn’t want to die.
But where was Tim?
He swam to a stop, kicking his legs just enough to keep from being pulled down farther, and took a look around.
Nighttime meant very little visibility.
Not nearly enough.
He swam down a little.
Thankfully, the colors of the Robin suit were designed to be eye-catching.
Thankfully, Tim was a little way off, steadily kicking his way to the surface.
They surfaced together. Silently, to preserve energy, Bruce pointed to the shore. Tim nodded.
He helped Robin pull himself up on the pier. Pushed him out of the water, really. Then climbed up after him.
For a moment, they laid there together, catching their breaths.
With a sigh, Robin dragged himself upright, dripping murky green water. He shook, then squeezed his cape with a disgusted frown.
“Yes, we could absolutely make it through there, thank you for your positivity Batman.” He grumbled, swiping his drenched hair out of the way of his mask. He looked a little like a wet cat. A bedraggled, grumpy, wet cat.
Bruce almost smiled.
What a little-
He nearly gave Lucius an attack when he walked into WE, wearing his work suit.
Karma made it so that Tim nearly gave him an attack that very night, when he stopped responding for a solid ten minutes.
Tim froze, halfway through getting his first aid supplies out of his belt already. He’d obviously not heard him land on the roof.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Bruce frowned harder, staring at the blood. Tim’s blood.
“And I’m sure this has nothing to do with the person who’s been leaving us clues.”
Tim became awfully guarded for someone who had no idea what he was talking about.
“There might have been some... talking.”
“Talking.” Bruce repeated flatly, feeling gently at the sluggishly bleeding wound on his kid’s brow.
“Talking.” Tim confirmed with a half nod.
“Do I need to go search through the Bat-computer for evidence of said... talking?”
“You really don’t.”
Bruce checked the footage from the mask’s camera anyway.
The only new information that action gave him was the litany of: “Oh my god. I bricked Robin in the face. Robin. Brick. Face. Face. Brick. Robin. Oh my fuck-” the small, obviously freaked out figure kept up before hightailing it out of there.
There was another kid out there. Trying to help best they could. Trying to survive the best they could, too.
He still was working on being a decent mentor figure for Tim. It was not as hard as it had once been, but still. Bruce wasn’t ready to take on another charge. Not in the slightest.
“Robin. You, Superboy, and Impulse did an excellent job back there. And...and I’m proud of you.*”
Tim lit up. He always did, when Bruce praised him. His new friends seemed surprised, but proud. Impulse was eyeing his cape, dubitative.
“And I’ll see you back in Gotham.”
And damn Alfred for always being right.
Still, the least Bruce could do was try to help. From afar, of course.
Somehow, he didn’t quite know how, the very same vigilante that had hit Tim in the head with a brick was now semi-regularly eating breakfast with him, Tim, and Dick.
And then, she was pregnant. Spoiler was pregnant.
When he tried to talk to Tim about it, he got a door slammed in his face for his troubles.
The glimpse of Tim’s face he got before the door closed was so red it had to be unhealthy. The next few times he tried to do it got the same result.
The powerpoint was steadfastly ignored.
Since that obviously wasn’t going to work, Bruce then tried to get Dick to talk to Tim about safe sex.
He had to consider yet another approach when Dick nearly re-broke a rib laughing.
God he loved these kids. He loved them so much it terrified him.
When he’d calmed down enough, he patted the hand Bruce was using to press the ice-pack to his ribs, and said: “Oh, B. Don’t worry. Trust me, the baby’s not Tim’s.”
He couldn’t help but feel relieved at that, however selfish that might have been. Tim was far too young.
Bruce was never having daughters. Spoiler’s pregnancy was stressful enough as it was.
Cassandra Cain needed a safe place to land.
A place to heal, after they dealt with her father.
He wasn’t quite sure how relaxing the Manor actually was.
“Yeet.” Tim said, and jumped onto his skateboard. Onto the banister. And slid all the way down to the entrance hall.
But she seemed to like it.
Jack Drake was awake.
Bruce didn’t think he’d ever been this furious at someone recovering fully, before. He was awake, forcing Tim to quit his friends, to quit the people who cared about him, under the guise of father-son bonding.
Only there was no father-son bonding. There was Tim isolated in a house all over again while his father left for the weekend without warning, despite them having had plans. There was Tim, alone, Tim yelled at, his things broken for the slightest thing, the slightest word in protest. There was Tim showing up at the Manor’s door at two am, with his eyes red, wondering if he was even wanted, or just useful.
He could see all the progress Tim had made crumbling to dust under his eyes.
Bruce could count on his hands the number of times he’d been this furious in his life.
He put Tim’s face between his hands.
“Tim. You’re needed.”
His kid, his third son seemed to be doing his very best not to cry again.
“You’re wanted, I need you. Not because of Robin, or because you’re useful, or even because you think you can save me. You’re needed because you are you. You’re part of my family, Timothy Drake, and I’m never letting you go.”
“I can save you,” Tim said, choked up. “-I have before.”
“You have,” Bruce agreed. “But you never should have to. That’s not your role Tim. You don’t need to do anything to stay here.”
For once he felt confident he was doing something right with Tim. If the way Tim hands clutched at his back were any indication.
“You can always come to me.” He promised, into his hair. “Always. No matter what. You’ll always be welcome here.”
There was a kid on his doorstep.
The son he had to leave, to leave alone, buried under a mound of dirt. And there he was, looking down at him, all mistrust, like he should have been able to solve any of the world’s problems if he just tried hard enough.
“Look,” Jason said, all scorn. “I get that I’m probably the last person you want to see.”
Bruce said nothing, transfixed by the sight. He wanted to laugh because this was all so familiar, and please, please god let the circle start again, let Jason come home.
Whole, angry, alive.
“Look, I’m here to get some of my stuff, okay? I’ll be out of your hair as soon as I can. If you haven’t thrown them out. Give the new kid my room, yet?”
Furious, but alive.
“I mean, I did think about stealing them back, but I couldn’t do that to Alfie.”
Jason who’d come back with violence trailing in his wake, with blood pooling in his footsteps.
Who’d come back.
“Alfred’s out.” He finally replied, feeling strangely blank. Strangely distanced from it all.
He didn’t care, he realized. He didn’t care how many men his son had killed.
He would at some point.
He’d definitely have to find him help.
Bruce felt like he could burst. He felt like he could break into sobs.
“Okay. Great talk.” His son spat.
He probably ought to say something more.
“Jay,” Despite his best efforts the name tripped him up. He gripped Jason’s wrist, pulled him in a rough hug. “Jay-lad.”
“What.” Jason said, not resisting in the slightest. “The fuck, Bruce.”