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in doctor's office lighting (i didn't tell you i was scared)

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Despite current popular belief, Tim Drake is in no way an idiot. He’s not. The fact that he’s out here, with a mild cold and regretting all his life choices, listening to Jason and Damian argue lightly about some movie they watched together last week, freezing his ass off, has no reflection on his intelligence.

Practical intelligence, at least. 

“--which means, brat, that I am actually Marta, because none of you appreciate me even though I work tirelessly and put myself in danger--”

“You are Ransom because, much like him, no one likes you.”

“Come over here and say that, pipsqueak!”

“Keep the comms clear,” Bruce says, though there’s an uptake in his tone, like he’s amused.

Dick snorts from his end, and Tim can see him distantly, flipping onto a closer rooftop. “And I thought you’d be arguing over the actual murder plot of a murder mystery movie.”

“I will say, they balanced the Agatha Christie feel well with the comedy,” Jason says sagely.

Damian hums, “I can concede that point.”

Tim wants to ask how Jason managed to convince Damian to watch a comedy with him, but his head is really starting to hurt, and he just wants to get home as soon as possible so he can sleep this all off. “See anything?

“You’re such a party pooper.”

“East side,” Damian says, “They seem to be dragging two bodies.”

“Dead?” Dick asks, dread in his voice.

“One is struggling, the other appears to be limp. Female. I don’t have a clear visual but it is highly likely they’re the Stone sisters.”

The Stone sisters. Honestly, if someone had told Tim last month --hell, last week-- that the Stone’s, a middle class family with two working parents, two high school age girls and a baby boy, all average and ordinary citizens, would be involved in an elaborate kidnapping, all to get Penguin’s gang up on top again with a huge sum of money, he would have laughed in their face. But as of three days ago, Hank Stone inherited a string of banks from his distant cousin, painting a big red target on his daughters' backs.

Hopefully, they’d get them out of this alive. Tim, realistically, thinks they’ll save one.

“I’m closest,” Tim says, getting up from his crouch with a barely concealed groan, “I’ll meet Damian, hit ‘em at the front. You guys can go in through the back.” 

There’s silence, obviously Bruce weighing the merit of his plan, and then he grunts, “Go. Watch each other.”

“Always.”

“That is factually incorrect,” Damian says, “but I echo the sentiment.”

Tim rolls his eyes, and they go in.

He’s expecting the sheer numbers, he’s expecting the guns. He’s even expecting the still conscious Stone sister to try and stand up, screaming for help. He slides under a hail of bullets to get to her, tackling her at the waist and tucking her behind a thick wooden crate that he hopes will shield her. He drags her sisters by the foot, props her up, checks her pulse.

He doesn’t expect it to still be there, and something beats lighter in his chest as he gives her a soft smile. “Stay down. We’ll get you both out of this, don’t worry.”

Tim expects her to nod, because he’s a bat, and almost more importantly, he’s a bird. The same bird almost every restaurant across the city leaves meals out for, the same bird the city has an official holiday for, the same bird that captured Gotham’s attention all those years ago when Dick was just a kid. He expects her to trust him, because that’s what the people in Gotham do.

They hold on to the only hope they’ve got, most days.

He expects Damian’s back to press against his as he rejoins the fray, he, begrudgingly, expects to feel nauseous when he spins a little too quickly. He expects Jason’s quip as he comes flying in with Dick and Bruce from a broken skylight.

Tim does not expect Dick’s warning cry, and the tire iron that hits him directly in the head just after.

A tire iron. Really?

The floor spins, mixing with black and white spots in his vision, and Tim hears the distinct sound of a crack that echoes around his skull. His knees hit the ground first, and he doesn’t have time to get his arms under him before his face hits it too.

Someone’s voice, either real or in his head, tells him to stay awake, so with as much willpower as he can muster, he keeps his eyes open, staring blankly at the unconscious face of a thug two feet from him. He tries to focus. Count the freckles on his face. They’re mostly covered in blood, so Tim squints, trying to see better.

It’s a mistake that sends pain so sharp across the back of his eyes that he barely registers it, gasping and finally snapping them closed.

He can feel someone drag him back up to his knees by the front of his uniform, fading noises that sound like someone is trying to talk to him. Two fingers press gently against his head, and that seems to be his body's last straw, because he passes out.

***

Tim wakes up in a dark room, on a soft bed, and when he opens his eyes, they scream for him to close them again. “Ouch.”

“Timmy?” A disembodied voice that sounds vaguely like Dick calls to him.

“If this is what being dead feels like… take it back.”

“You’re not dead,” The disembodied voice says, “Just an idiot.”

“Factually incorrect,” Tim parrots from the last conversation he remembers.

A new voice, accompanied by a hand on his arm. Oh yeah. Tim has arms. The voice sighs, “You could have seen that blow coming, Tim. If you had been at your best. Why didn’t you tell us you weren’t feeling well?”

“Can’t lecture me while I’m dead,” Tim says.

“Yeah, that’s my area of expertise,” Another voice says.

Tim widens his eyes a tiny amount, “God?”

Jason snorts, “Sure, kid.”

“Hey Bruce?”

“What is it?”

“Turn the lights on?”

Dick says, “Not now, buddy. We need to get the tests back, make sure you don’t have a concussion.”

Tim frowns. “What happened?”

“What do you remember?”

“Damian and Jason watched Knives Out without me,” Tim says with a sigh.

“What--”

“You hate movie nights!”

Dick and Bruce both hush Jason, it almost makes Tim giggle. Instead, he frowns deeper. “No I don’t. Just thought it was your thing. Y’know, brothers.”

“You’re our brother,” Jason insists, bite in his tone.

“Shut up, Timothy,” Damian says, which is somehow nicer and a lot less tactful all at once, “Obviously you would have been welcome. If you promised not to spoil the end of the movie.”

“You do that a lot,” Dick grumbles.

Tim thinks it is very not fair that he is being bullied while he’s literally on his deathbed. “Your eulogies better be nicer than this.”

“No one is dying,” Bruce says with a sigh.

“Tim isn’t, at least,” Leslie says. Tim knows it’s Leslie because she lets light into the room when she opens the door and steps inside, and even though it’s very dim, he still flinches away until she shuts it again. “Bruce. Outside, please?”

Bruce follows her to the door, and this time when it opens, Dick’s familiar hand covers his eyes for him.

“I’m in trouble, huh?” Tim says quietly. “I really didn’t mean to go out sick. I thought I’d be okay.”

He’s met with three matching sighs, and commits himself to silence until Bruce gets back.

Dick’s hand covers his eyes again when he does. 

“Good news. Somehow, you don't have a concussion,” Bruce says.

“Thick,” Damian mutters from somewhere in the room, as an explanation.

Bruce huffs, “But you do have a hairline fracture.”

There’s quiet, Dick’s hand takes his, and then Tim, very groggily, asks, “In my brain?”

“In your skull, chum.”

“My skull?” Tim almost shouts, sitting up halfway to try and look at Bruce. Dick pushes him back down a second later, and he stares at the ceiling. “I got hit with a tire iron and it cracked me like an egg.”

“Tim,” Bruce sighs.

Tim cuts him off. “If you looked in there, could you see my brain goo?”

“You broke him,” Jason says in bewilderment.

Tim snorts, and then giggles, because Jason is actually-- “Factually correct.”

Damian groans.

“He’s just out of it on meds,” Bruce says. There’s a rustling sound, like he’s picking things up. “We can take him home now.”

“Didn’t you just say his skull is cracked?”

“Hairline fracture. We’ll monitor him at home, but he should be fine in a few days, back in the field in a month.”

“Booyah,” Tim says.

He’s carted out of the clinic in a wheelchair, which would be humiliating if Tim wasn’t high on morphine or whatever the hell they gave him. Bruce keeps glancing at him as he drives home, for once letting Damian drive himself back, only because Tim had brought his bike to the warehouse and is in no state for driving.

“Throat feeling any better?” Bruce asks, which is his sympathetic way of saying ‘time to talk about your idiotic move back there, bucko’.

Tim searches frantically for an excuse, and gasps when he finds an actual valid one. “The girls! Are they okay? Did you get them out? Did they--”

“Tim. Breathe.” Bruce waits until he does, and then says, “They’re fine. Jason and Dick took them to the hospital, their parents and baby brother were waiting. No casualties, this time.”

“Except my poor brain,” Tim says as the car stops, but relief washes over him in waves. He blames the pricking at the corners of his eyes on the drugs.

When Bruce is helping him out, he’s pretty sure he mumbles, “And my poor heart.”

Alfred is waiting for them, eyebrow raised at Tim, who very much would like to jump into the cave's bat-filled abyss below them at the moment. “Hey Alf.”

“Master Timothy.”

“If you’re gonna scold me, can you at least hug me while you do it?”

Looking him over, Alfred sighs. He holds out an arm, wrapping it around Tim when he stumbles into it. “I believe lectures can wait, at least until tomorrow. I assume hot chocolate is in order?’

Tim leans against Alfred, sniffing. “I love you.”

“And I you, though I doubt you will remember this conversation in a few hours.”

“Does that mean you’ll tell me some more embarrassing acting stories?”

“My dear boy, you do not need to be injured and drugged to convince me to share tales of my acting days.”

He sits Tim down at the counter, and starts pulling out milk and cocoa and whatever else Alfred puts in hot chocolate to make it taste like heaven. Bruce leans against the counter next to him, arms crossed, but after a few seconds he settles a hand down onto Tim’s back and rubs, up and down and in soothing circles.

Tim almost falls asleep, and he’s half to it when his brother’s stumble in, Jason shoving Dick and Dick sticking his tongue out back. Jason is only kept from flipping him a more obscene gesture when Alfred turns, sensing hooliganry. Jason puts his hand down.

Damian climbs up onto the stool next to Tim, turning so he’s not facing him, leaning against his side like he’s the back of a chair. His eyes are bright and his nose is cold when Tim reaches around his head to tap it. “Have fun?”

“You should go out of commission more often,” Damian says, “Your vehicle is by far the best one to manuever.”

Tim rolls his eyes. “Just ask to borrow it, stop wishing pain on me.”

“No.”

The mug of hot chocolate is set in front of him a second later and Tim almost cries. He is so, so cold. He sniffs again, this time accompanied by a sneeze, and it’s only Bruce’s quick reflexes that keep him from slamming his forehead right into the lip of his mug.

“Can’t believe you went out while sick, moron,” Jason tells him, but there’s a chocolate mustache on his upper lip, so Tim doesn’t feel the need to defend himself.

Besides, a week, at most, and the headache and cold will be long gone.

***

It’s been a week, and Tim is pretty sure Leslie was lying when she said he wasn’t dying. He feels like he is, at least.

The skull fracture he apparently has only hurt for a few days, and after that it was just this dull ache that he could ignore as easily as his usual migraine. Then, two days later, he started to feel dizzy. Dizzy and cold and confused. Also itchy. He is very, very itchy.

He stumbles down the stairs, intent on getting-- getting something. Yeah, something. His socks slide a little on the hardwood floors and he stops to stare down at them, wiggling his toes.

“What are you doing?” Jason asks him as passes, eyebrows furrowed with an amused smile on his face.

Tim looks up, squinting back at him. “Getting something.”

“Getting what?” 

“Something.”

Jason looks like he wants to argue, call Tim obtuse and annoying, but he stops. “Hey, are you good?”

“No,” Tim says, and frowns. “I’m Tim.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Jason moves forward, putting his hands on Tim’s shoulders and pushing him down gently until he’s sitting on the stairs. “Do me a favor, Timbo, what day is it?”

Tim stares at him blankly, then, he brightens, “Oh! Coffee. I came down to get coffee.”

“I’ll be right back,” Jason says slowly, standing and turning halfway before he gives Tim a stern look, “Stay there.”

“Why?”

“Just stay.”

So Tim stays. Jason comes back a few… well, a while later, Dick in tow, and Tim frowns. “Does he have coffee?”

“See what I mean?” Jason says, and Tim frowns deeper.

Dick kneels down in front of him, bracing his hands on Tim’s knees. He smiles gently, “Hey bud, head hurting?”

Tim nods slowly, reaching up to scratch at his chest. He lifts his free hand, pressing his pointer finger into Dick’s forehead, tracing the wrinkles there, touch feather light. More lines form when Dick gives him a concerned look, and Tim traces those to. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Dick lies. He smiles again. Dick usually smiles. “Can you tell me how you’re feeling?”

“Tired. Itchy.” Tim sighs, “The lights are really bright in here.”

“Itchy?”

“Maybe it wasn’t such a minor skull fracture.”

Tim covers his eyes with his hand, “Do you guys need something? I think I just want to go back to bed.”

He doesn’t uncover his eyes, but he’s smart enough to sense the silent conversation his older brothers are having. He scratches his chest again, focusing on how nice his cool hand feels against his eyes.

Soft lips press to his forehead, and Tim drops his hand, looking up at Dick and making a face.

“Hush, I was checking for a fever,” Dick says, and then his voice drops its teasing lilt. “Which you have.”

“Thought he was over that cold? Leslie said it was a twenty-four hour bug.”

“This isn’t a cold, it’s a fever.”

“Something wrong?” Tim asks again, which might not be the right thing to say, judging by his brother's faces. Brothers. Not all of them. Tim furrows his eyebrows, “Where’s Damian?”

Jason shifts on his feet, “At school. You said bye to him this morning.”

“Oh.” Oh. Tim hums, scratching his chest again. “I think you should take me back to Leslie.”

“I think that’s a good idea.”

***

Tim stares at the wall, studying a poster about the proper way to wash hands as Leslie and Bruce discuss his “condition” by the door. He doesn’t mean to not listen, but it’s easier, just to zone out, let his brain rest, try and ignore the insistent pounding. Ignore the fear in the back of his mind, that this isn’t just some sickness.

“--fractures can sometimes open up a doorway to bacterial infections. That paired with his lack of spleen--”

“Hey,” Dick interrupts, reaching out to tap his knee with the back of his knuckles. “What’re you thinking right now?”

Slowly, Tim shakes his head, and Dick’s hand slides off his knee.

“Can he be treated at home?”

“Sure, but Bruce--”

“I demand to know why I was not pulled out of school immediately!” Damian shouts as he storms into the room, Alfred following at a much steadier pace behind him.

“Tim’s head, Damian,” Bruce chastices. 

Tim looks up at the outburst, smiling slightly, “Hey, Damian.”

Damian clicks his tongue. “At least you aren’t dead.”

Leslie gives them all exasperated looks, “Bruce, Alfred. Maybe this is a better conversation for the hall?”

If he was fine they would tell him. Tim watches the three adults file out the door, listens to it click shut behind them, and the fear at the back of his mind shifts its way to the front.

“Tim?” Jason prompts, and when Tim looks at him, eyes blank, he rolls his eyes, knocking on the side of his head, “Come on, dumbass. What’s happening up there?”

“Nothing,” Tim scoffs, looking down at his hands. 

“It’s never nothing,” Damian says impatiently, and, apparently uncaring of their older brother's decision to give him some space, jumps up onto the examination table next to him. “Though you accomplish nothing by keeping it to yourself.”

His eyes feel like they travel miles while he drags them to meet Dick’s eyes, speaking to the whole room, but mostly to him. “What if it’s cancer?”

Dick’s lips pinch, and then his eyebrows lower, and he lets out a slow, sad breath. “Oh, Tim.”

“Cancer? What’re the odds of that?”

Tim doesn’t take his eyes off Dick’s. “Like my mother.”

“That’s how she died?” Damian asks, and a second later his tiny arms snake around Tim’s torso.

“Yeah,” Dick answers for him, “but they caught hers late, Tim. Really late. You know that.”

“It’s just… look, my mom wasn’t good, as a person and probably not as a parent either--”

Both Jason and Dick scoff at that. Dick gives him a reproachful look, and Tim sighs.

“Okay, she wasn’t a good mother at all-- and I know that I live with Batman, but Janet Drake was the strongest person I’ve ever known. If she couldn’t--” Tim chokes, finally breaking eye contact with Dick, who’s glossy eyes aren’t helping him keep his composure. “I don’t have a spleen. I wouldn’t-- I wouldn’t survive cancer. I just wouldn’t.”

The arms around him tighten as Dick once again lowers himself to his knees in front of Tim, looking up at him. “It’s not cancer.”

“You don’t know--”

“Neither do you. So try and distract that big brain of yours, and stop assuming.”

Jason sprawls himself over the table, laying out behind Tim’s back, his legs dangling off the end and his face peeking out from the other side of Damian. “Innocent until proven guilty, Timmers.”

Tim’s teeth grind, the antibiotic Leslie gave him making him more lucid and more tired all at once. “What if it is, though?”

“You met Ra’s Al Ghul’s stare, and he looked away first,” Damian says with conviction. “You can beat cancer as well.”

There’s silence, and Tim sucks in a breath, dropping a hand on Damian’s head, and Dick gets up from his knees only to sit down again, this time on Tim’s other side, and he’s pretty sure he’s about to start crying in Leslie’s free clinic surrounded by his dumb, amazing brothers.

“Wait. You did that? Like, you actually won a staring contest with the Demon’s Head?”

“It was impressive.”

“Holy shit, dude.”

Tim laughs.

***

The ride home is silent, all of them packed into the sidan with Alfred driving. Tim does his best to avoid everyone’s gaze.

“So,” Jason says, because of course it’s Jason, “meningitis.”

Tim covers his face with his hands. “Fuck me.”

“Language, Master Tim.”

Dick rubs Tim’s back soothingly, furrowing his eyebrows, “How is that even possible? Isn’t meningitis airborne?”

“Exactly, Timothy doesn’t leave the house.”

“I literally hate you.”

“It can be bacterial,” Bruce explains. “Apparently it’s not uncommon for skull fractures to lead to meningitis, though the fracture is usually bigger.”

Tim nods, “Streptococcus pneumoniae.”

Jason makes a face at him, “What?”

“It usually develops into pneumonia when treated,” Bruce says. “Luckily you have the vaccine, so it shouldn’t develop into anything fatal.”

Next to him, Damian hums, “So he won’t die, but he will experience extreme pneumonia symptoms.”

Tim groans, “Ra’s Al Ghul owes me big time.”

“Didn’t you blow up all his bases?”

“Well yeah, but that’s because he kidnapped Tam.”

Dick clears his throat, “What now?”

Bruce purses his lips, glancing at them in the rearview mirror. “I’m sorry, Tim. It’s only going to get worse from here.”

“Wow. I love my life. This is awesome.”

***

Bruce tucks the covers over him, pressing his hand to his head to check his fever. “We caught it early, but there’s really no way to prevent it. The first twenty four hours are the worst, so--”

“Starting tomorrow I’m screwed,” Tim says. “Yay.”

“I know it’s not ideal. I’m sorry, chum.”

‘It’s okay. Kinda deserve it, for being stupid.”

He shouldn’t have said that. He knows he shouldn’t have said that because a second later Bruce is dragging his armchair from the corner of his room to sit by his bed. He gives Tim a stern look, bracing his elbows on his knees, “Going out with a cold wasn’t smart, we both know that. But you work yourself too hard, Tim, always have. I should’ve been checking in on you better. For that, I’m sorry.”

“What? No, Bruce, really, it’s--”

Bruce raises his hand, and Tim shuts up. “This is in no way a reflection of your abilities. I need you to remember that. We all get hurt sometimes. Hell, Dick was laid up for a month last year because he tried to do a backflip on an icy roof. He’s still one of the most capable people I’ve ever met.”

Tim wants to argue. To tell Bruce that this is different because Tim needs to be better and prove himself in a way Dick never did, but his head hurts, and the blankets are warm, and all that will come out of his mouth is, “Stay?”

“Of course,” Bruce says, and he does.

***

Dick lifts him like it’s nothing, leaving his blankets on the bed, “Come on, Timmers. Alfred wants to disinfect your room before you spend the night in there.”

“You shouldn’t be so close,” Tim mutters lamely, pushing against Dick’s shoulder unsuccessfully.

“I’ll be fine. I’ve got a vaccine and a rockin’ immune system.”

“You’re so lame.”

“You love me.”

Tim groans as they get to the stairs, “This is so lame. I’m like a sickly Victorian child.”

Dick laughs, and Tim likes the way it rumbles against his cheek. “You are not.”

“Giant manor, check.”

“Okay but--”

“Four poster bed, check.”

“Tim--”

“The plague, check.”

“You do not have the plague,” Dick says through a laugh, sitting them both down on the couch.

Tim coughs lightly, closing his eyes. “Feels like the plague.”

“I know. But after tomorrow, it’s supposed to let up a little.” Dick tucks a blanket over the two of them, turning the TV on and flipping to a documentary channel. “So just breathe through it until then, and one of us is always going to be here.”

“Smothered and dying. Hooray.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t like it.”

Tim just hums, because Dick is right. He might be seventeen and perfectly capable of taking care of himself, but it’s nice, laying in DIck’s lap, having Bruce sit with him through his whole nap. He does like it.

***

“Hurts,” Tim chokes out, his back arching, head pressing into Dick’s lap. He gasps, clawing at the couch, “It hurts.”

Dick cradles his head, trying to keep it still, which is a good idea because moving is just going to make it hurt more but Tim can’t stop the involuntary way his body tries to tuck in on himself. Dick presses soft lips to his forehead, his voice choked but clear, “I know, baby. I know it does.”

“Dick--”

His older brother hushes him gently, rubbing his thumbs in circles at Tim’s temples, “Just breath through it, Tim. In and out.”

Tim tries. He really does. He manages a few short breaths before his mind sends him whirling into panic mode, the pain in his head too intense and the pressure on his chest suffocating. Before he can try again his lungs convulse and he’s coughing, leaning away from Dick and hacking out both his lungs, and probably his liver, too. He gasps for air, trying to find some sort of purchase with his hands.

They end up being held by someone else's, but Tim can’t focus on who. He sobs, his chest rattling from the pain of it.

“Timmy,” Dick is saying, leaning so he’s whispering right into his ear. “Come on, baby. Breath with Bruce.”

His hand is pressed against a soft but firm surface, someone’s chest --Bruce’s--, and the chest inflates exaggeratingly before it deflates again.

Tim tries to copy it, but he’s interrupted by another sob and another wave of pain and he tries to shake his head but Dick is still holding it in place, rubbing gently across his hairline. Tim sobs again, “I can’t.”

“Try again,” Bruce says, his chest rumbling under Tim’s hand, his voice impossibly soft despite the clear commanding tone.

So Tim does, and he stutters and fails and sobs and closes his eyes against the white hot pain and then he tries again, and again, and again, until he’s so exhausted that his lungs finally allow him to fill them with air, and the world turns black.

***

Dick keeps his lips pressed to Tim’s forehead, long after the lines there soften and he slips into unconsciousness. His thumbs are still rubbing circles at the sides of his head, and he closes his eyes, gives himself a minute. Just one. Just a minute to reassure himself that his brother is right here, sleeping with his head in Dick’s lap, alive.

“He’ll recover,” Bruce tells him, setting one of Tim’s hands down so he can squeeze Dick’s shoulder. “He’s strong.”

“I know he’ll get better, but right now he’s in pain and I can’t--” Dick takes a deep breath and sits up, wrapping an arm around Tim’s back so he can pull him up and against his chest. “I want to take it away.”

Bruce’s hand moves from his shoulder to the back of his neck, and Dick doesn’t look at him because he knows that they’ll both start crying if he does. “I know, chum.”

Dick laughs wetly, “Remember when I was little?”

“The golden years.”

“You sap,” Dick says. He pulls Tim closer. “I love them, you know. Every single one. Whenever they’re hurting… god, being a big brother is exhausting.”

The corners of Bruce’s eyes crinkle and he stands, his knees creaking. He lends down to kiss the top of Dick’s head, and brushes the hair away from Tim’s face. “Raising you all is everything I could’ve asked for.”

“Love you too, dad.”

“Do yourself a favor and get some sleep with him, huh? You look like you need it.”

***

Tim’s bed is not comfortable. Not at all. He wants to go back downstairs and curl up on Dick’s lap again. He groans, turning to press his face into his pillow. Stupid body. Getting him sick. Making him die.

“Betrayal,” Tim hisses, clenching his jaw.

Jason snorts, his feet kicked up on the side of his bed, reading a book. “Dude. You’re supposed to be resting.”

“Read to me.”

“No.”

“Please, Jason. I’m losing my mind.”

“Then go to sleep.”

“I was just sleeping for like three hours.”

Jason looks at him, eyes wide and mocking, “Three whole hours?”

Tim throws a pillow at him, which he easily dodges. “Asshole. I’m sick. Be nice to me.”

Sighing, Jason flips to the beginning of his book, “You’re not going to like this, it isn’t science fiction or nerdy.”

“Jason,” Tim whines.

Jason sighs again and kicks him lightly in the side, “Fine. Then shut up and listen.”

Tim raises his hands in surrender, “Okay.”

Jason clears his throat, switching to his reading voce, “'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife'.”

“Ew.”

“I will throw you out the window. Listen.”

***

Damian stalks into his room, gives the empty chair next to his bed a look of disgust, and throws himself directly on top of Tim, making him huff and wince through a bewildered laugh. 

He presses his face into Tim’s stomach, fisting his blanket in both hands, splayed out over the covers. Tim snorts, “That looks super comfortable.”

“I am content.”

“I’m sure,” Tim says, but he lets it go, resting one hand on Damian’s hair and uses the other to keep playing Candy Crush on his phone.

“You can’t die,” Damian mumbles after a few minutes.

Tim looks down, blinking in surprise. “I’m not going to, Dames.”

“Meningitis has a thirty percent mortality rate.”

“Only if you don’t get treatment.”

“What if you don’t have a spleen?”

His heart picks up at that, but Tim takes a deep breath and taps Damian’s head. “Hey. Look at me.”

Damian, begrudgingly, looks up, a red mark on his left cheek. “What?”

“I’m not going to die.”

“You cannot--”

“Hey,” Tim says, tossing his phone to the side and grabbing Damian under his armpits, dragging him up until his head is propped against Tim’s collarbone, “I’m not going to die. Who would put food coloring in your toothpaste?”

“Jason, probably,” Damian mumbles, his eyelashes tickling Tim’s exposed skin. “But fine. I believe in your resilience. Even if you did get stabbed in a desert and lose a major organ.”

“You have also been stabbed.”

“But I have also stabbed. It cancels out.”

“No? No it does not.”

Damian reaches up blindly to hold a finger to Tim’s lips, poking him directly in the eye instead. “Hush, Timothy. Reserve your strength.”

Tim rolls his eyes, as best he can while rubbing the injured one, but does as he’s told, holding Damian a little tighter. His head has started to hurt again, and the effort it took to drag Damian a few inches left his joints aching. He closes his eyes, trying to relax his stiff neck.

When he wakes up, Damian is still there, snoring softly.

Tim turns his phone on and looks up meningitis mortality rates.

***

“I think it’s starting to hit me,” Tim says, eyes closed. He can hear his door creak on it’s hinges, the floorboards squeak. 

Bruce sits down beside him, and he sounds like he’s frowning. “The illness? Do you need anything?”

“No. The reality.” Tim opens his eyes, and a tear slips down his cheek as he does. “This. This getting freaking meningitis because of a minor cold and a minor head wound. Knowing any sickness will hit me harder than everyone else.”

“I see,” Bruce says slowly, like he’s trying to figure out how to comfort him.

Tim turns to look at his face, and another hot tear slides down his nose, “How much of my life, do you think, am I going to spend dying?”

Bruce reaches out to wipe the tears off his face, and then he takes his hand. “We’ll figure it out.”

“You’re Batman, not a miracle worker.”

“I’m your father, so we’ll figure it out.”

Sniffing, Tim nods. He swallows thickly, “This will happen again. And again. And again. Until one day my body won’t be able to take it anymore. I’ll be just like my mom.”

“Tim--” Bruce starts.

“Imagine that,” Tim interrupts through a wheezing breath. He laughs humorlessly, turning his eyes to the ceiling. “No big bang or blaze of glory. No grand deed. Just wasting away in a hospital bed until there’s not enough of me left to stay.”

The hand in his squeezes, the breathing in the room that isn’t his hitches. 

“I won’t let that happen,” Bruce says finally.

Tim runs a hand up Damian’s back, glancing down at his sleeping brother. He sucks in a rattling breath, “What’re you going to do? Find the cure for a compromised immune system before the doctors who’ve been working on it for decades? All to give me a cooler death?”

“To give you a better life,” Bruce corrects, “yes.”

The family picture on his wall catches his eye, and Tim believes him. He believes he’ll try.

***

Damian wakes up next to Timothy, only he isn’t sleeping soundly, or playing some stupid game on his phone, or poking Damian’s cheek incessantly to get him to wake up and engage with him.

Timothy isn’t breathing.

Not for lack of trying, his chest rises and falls sporadically, and he’s making choked noise, half turned on his side.

Damian’s eyes widen, and he does the only thing he can think of. “Richard!”

It takes Richard two and a half seconds to crash into the room, Jason on his heels. Two and half seconds too long. Richard’s eyes widen as he rushes forward, yanking Timothy up to sit. 

“Tim,” He says frantically, patting his back while simultaneously rubbing his chest, “Tim you need to wake up.”

Damian watches, eyes blown wide, half under the covers that Timothy must’ve tucked over him, Timothy, who is making the most awful noises Damian has ever heard as Richard tries to coax him out of his half asleep panic.

Timothy’s breath makes a rattling noise and he pitches forward, convulsing in Richard’s arms. His oldest brother holds his head still, pressing it against his own while one hand keeps up the steady rhythm at his back. “Come on, baby. Breathe for me. You’re right here, I’ve got you.”

Suddenly, strong arms lift Damian off the bed, pulling him against a body that starts to leave the room.

Damian squirms, trying to kick out of the grip, but he’s tired and he can’t block out the sounds of Timothy suffocating in his room and he is not at his best. “Unhand me!”

“Damian, stop,” Jason commands, arms wrapped around him. “You were starting to panic in there, kid. Be an example, breathe.”

It’s a poor excuse for a joke, and incredibly distasteful, but Damian listens all the same. He stops struggling, and after a moment, Jason sets him down in the hall. Immediately, he tries to push past him, “Richard could require our assistance--”

“He’s fine. He’s going to get through this better if he’s not worrying about too many people at once.”

“Timothy--”

“Is panicking. It happens. When his brain remembers how to breathe with his congested sinuses, he’ll calm down.”

Damian turns to glare at him, “You are an imbecile. How could you just leave your so-called brother to do all the work?”

“I didn’t,” Jason says smugly, “we split fifty-fifty.”

He can feel his cheeks heating up at that, and Damian looks away. “I wasn’t in need of help.”

“You looked bat shit terrified, back there.” Jason pauses, and then smirks, “Pun intended.”

“I’m fine.”

“Don’t do that.” Jason kneels down in front of him, hiking his pants up on his legs as he goes. “He freaked you out. That’s what’s fine. He will also be fine.”

Damian shakes his head, trying to get past Jason, “Move. I need to go back.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Get out of the way, Todd.”

“Damian.”

“I said move!” Damian snaps, shoving at Jason’s shoulders. Jason barely sways. “I need to see him.”

“He’s not dying in there,” Jason says, far too calmly.

“You don’t know that!”

“Yes. I do.”

Damian studies his face, the tightness in his shoulders, the dark circles under his eyes. His fingers twitch, and he keeps chewing at his lip, like he’s resisting biting his nails. He looks exhausted, but more than that he looks sure.

“How?”

Jason smiles wryly at him, “Because the kid’s too damn stubborn to die without getting the last word.”

Involuntarily, Damian snorts. He crosses his arms, taps his foot, tries to find a way around what Richard would no doubt want him to do in this situation. Finally, he sighs in defeat. “I apologize. For attacking you.”

Making a face, Jason stands, “You call that an attack? Damn.”

“Be quiet.”

“Jason,” Jason finishes for him, prompting.

Damian rolls his eyes, “Shut your giant mouth, Jason.”

“Aw, you love me.”

Too short to shove his shoulders again and too tired to put any effort into tackling him, Damian slams an elbow into Jason’s hip. “Can we go back now?”

Considering it, Jason sets a hand on Damian’s shoulder, keeping him there while he leans back as far as he can. He seems to have a silent conversation with someone Damian can’t see --likely Richard--, and then he nods. “Sure. Just don’t flip out. Do that downstairs, when you can actually hit me without looking like a wimp, and when we’re out of range of Alfred’s antiques.”

“You would allow me to throw a temper tantrum at you in the cave?”

“It’s not a temper tantrum, it’s your violent ass’ version of a panic attack. And yeah, I would.”

When they walk back into the room, Richard is sitting against Timothy’s headboard, said idiot is curled up in his laps, holding onto one of Richard’s arms like a lifeline. His eyes are glazed over, like he isn’t quite there.

Richard looks even more exhausted than Jason.

“Ventilator?” Jason asks quietly.

Richard nods, rubbing up and down Timothy’s back slowly. Damian realizes Timothy seems to be focusing very hard on timing his breaths to the strokes. “Alfred is bringing it up.”

“Alone? He’ll throw his back out.”

“Bruce is on his way home early.”

“Bruce is going to do it? He’ll throw his back out.”

Richard snorts, leaning his cheek on Timothy’s head, before he sighs and sits up halfway. “You’re right. I’ll go help--”

“No way,” Jason interrupts, moving forward to push Richard back down and ruffle Timothy’s hair. “Bruce is a smart guy, he’ll figure it out. You haven’t sat down all day.”

Damian listens to the two of them talk absently, but mostly, he watches Timothy. Probably sensing it, Timothy’s eyes travel over to him, agonizingly slow. He blinks, once, twice, and then he says, “I’m not gonna be the seventy.”

Richard and Jason stop talking, looking down at Timothy in confusion. Damian nods, and is horrified to find that his throat seems to be tightening.

“Save your voice, Timothy. You sound like Jason when he imitates Batman.”

Jason barks a laugh at that, but Richard still looks concerned. “If he’s getting delirious again--”

“He isn’t,” Damian assures, nodding at Timothy. “He is keeping a promise.”

***

The first twenty four hours aren’t just the worst. They’re hell. Tim spends half the time so out of it he can barely see, and the rest so blinded with pain he can’t help but cry. In front of his family. He has cried more in front of them in the past ten hours than he maybe ever has. It’s humiliating.

“I do hope you aren’t wallowing in self pity instead of drinking that soup,” Alfred says absently, focused on the embroidery loom in his hands.

Tim groans, but dutiful takes another sip from his mug of broth. “What are you working on?”

“Master Dick expressed how ‘adorable’ he finds hand embroidered name plates for bedrooms, so I am making him one for his upcoming birthday.” Alfred holds it up to show him, and Tim smiles at the name ‘Richard’ stitched in fancy lettering, surrounded by half finished birds and flowers.

“Robins?” Tim asks, pointing at one of the birds.

“Indeed.”

Tim watches as Alfred’s hand moves up and down in a steady rhythm, his eyes drooping and his head pounding to the beat of it. “That looks soothing.”

Alfred looks up, considering him for a moment, and then he stands, swatting at Tim’s leg until he gets the memo and scoots over, making room. Alfred sits down next to him, winged toed shoes, coattails and all, and wraps an arm around him. 

Tim has to lean down so Alfred can hold the loom with the arm around him, stitching with the other. He narrates as he goes, explaining quietly what kind of stitch he’s using and why it’s called a ‘stem stitch’.

For the first time that day, the pain in Tim’s head takes a back seat.

***

Tim watches as Dick beats Damian and Jason at Uno, sitting in a circle on his floor. He pulls the blankets up to his neck, and a wave of envy washes over him.

If it was one of them in this bed, he wouldn’t be allowed within thirty feet of it.

“Uno!” Dick shouts, holding up his only card.

Jason leans over to stage whisper, “He has a yellow.”

“Cheater!”

“You were the one waving your card around!”

“Precisely. It is not cheating, it’s an observation.”

“See, bat baby gets it.”

“Call me baby again and you’ll be the one who gets it.”

Eyes burning, Tim turns to look at the ceiling. He knows, logically, that he should suck it up. That it’s not fair to be jealous of his brother’s just because they don’t have to be careful about getting sick. He knows it’s not their fault that he has to weigh the dangers of every room he walks into, monitor his health and panic every time someone sneezes near him, and that they don’t.

It’s more his fault, if he’s being honest. He did get himself stabbed.

“Tim,” Dick calls to him, he must be making enough noise to draw attention, “are you hurting again? You still have a few hours left until you can take more meds.”

Tim doesn’t say anything. He blinks slowly, focusing on the way the tears feel when they pool at the bottom of his eyes, he breathes deeply and refuses to let them fall.

“Tim?”

“I’m compromised,” Tim says finally, and he presses a fist against his mouth to keep the laugh and the soon to follow sob from escaping. Someone sits down next to him on the bed, and he closes his eyes again, shaking his head. “Please go.”

Dick makes a distressed nose, reaching out to press the back of his hand to Tim’s forehead, “We can’t leave you unsupervised, and even if we could, I don’t think that--”

“Go,” Tim repeats, and he yanks the oxygen mask off the ventilator machine, pressing it over his face to prove that he won’t suffocate while they’re gone. “Please.”

“Come, Richard,” Damian says softly, and Tim would send him a grateful look if he wasn’t focusing very hard on not crying.

The ventilator does help, and he presses it firmer onto his face.

It takes a minute or two for his brother’s to leave the room, squeezing his ankle or knee as they file out. Once they’re gone, he turns to see the abandoned Uno game on the floor, and bursts into tears.

***

“I’m telling you,” Jason says, voice hushed, “this isn’t just him being sick. Something else is going on.”

Dick rubs his eyebrow, leaning back against the banister, “Sure, but can’t it wait? He’s got meningitis and I know his head is still killing him. I just want to focus on that. Getting him better.”

“Understanding what’s going on is helping him get better.”

“God, Jay, that’s not what I meant. I know something is bugging him, but he rarely talks about his issues on a good day, and this is pretty far from a good one.”

Jason sighs, because he knows Dick is right. The kid is as stubborn as Bruce. 

Damian, from where he’s sitting on the stairs, looks up tentatively, “I know what’s bothering him. He had a talk with father when they believed me to be sleeping.”

“Well?” Jason prods.

“You have to promise not to tell him I’m the one who said anything.”

That shouldn’t catch Jason off guard. Sharing secrets is a widely spread ‘do not’ among the Wayne’s. Except Damian’s tone is vulnerable, and as pleading as the brat gets. Sometimes, Jason forgets how much they’ve all really turned into family.

He sits down, criss crossed, on the wood floor in front of Damian. Slowly, Dick follows suit, sitting on the stair next to him and nodding, “We promise, Dami.”

“Yeah. Promise.”

“He is… concerned and off put by the idea that this is his life now,” Damian says hesitantly, “That he will continue to get sick to the point of near death, and one day, it will take him.”

“Take him?”

Damian scowls, “From us. As Red Robin first, I presume, then as Timothy Drake-Wayne, then as Tim, and finally, from the living world.”

“He thinks he’s dying slowly.”

Jason can’t help himself. He scoffs. “Isn’t he?”

“Jason!”

“Don’t give me that, Goldie. He got meningitis from a minor fucking head wound! Last time I was down like that, I was back in the cape three weeks later.”

“Which explains why you’re acting like you have brain damage,” Damian growls.

Raising both his hands, Jason leans back slightly, “Look. I’m not criticizing him. I’m not saying he can’t do the job, hell knows I still can, Babs still can. But especially now? It’s obvious we gotta start treating this as an actual thing.”

“What do you mean you still can?” Dick asks quietly after a beat of silence.

Jason swallows, reaching up to pinch his nose. “I get chronic pain, alright? The Lazarus pit brought me back to life but I still-- it still aches, where he beat me.”

Dick’s eyes are wide, gripping the edges of his jacket tightly. “Jay, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Babs does,” Jason says, “Alfred does. We deal with it. I have off days where I stay home. I take pills. I figure it out. Tim having a shit immune system is just like that. Doesn’t make him less capable.”

“But it is something to take into account,” Damian agrees slowly, “An… impairment.”

“Yeah, but maybe don’t phrase it that way to Tim.”

“We’ll have to talk to him,” Dick says, “About all of this. He can’t think that we doubt him, or that he’s alone. I won’t let him think that again. It’s what got us into this whole mess in the first place.”

Jason snorts, “Hop on the guilt train, Big Bird. At least you didn’t try and kill him.”

“I may as well have.”

They all sort of look away after that, because in the end, they’re Bruce’s kids. Jason decides to find the family portrait over the mantle very interesting. Dick has Jason in a headlock, while he does his best to smile at the camera. Tim is laughing at something Stephanie is saying, one of her arms slung over his shoulder and the other around Duke’s. Cass and Damian are sitting in the front, actually doing what they’re told, except Cass is looking to the side at Jason, and Damian is rolling his eyes at the lot of them.

Bruce has an arm around Alfred, looking like the proudest man in the world.

“We are here this time,” Damian says, breaking the silence, “and will be always, from now on.”

Jason swipes at his nose and leans back, bracing himself on his hands, “When did you get so smart?”

“I have always been smart.”

“Fine. When did you get so sweet?”

“Would you like me to stab you to return to normality?”

“I swear to god, you guys. We can’t have one minute.”

***

Clarity and breaks from the pain come in flashes throughout the week, and they’re usually spent with Alfred or Bruce trying to get him to eat. On the second day they give in and hook him up to an I.V, so he only really has to eat when he feels up to it. 

Most of the time, he doesn’t know what’s happening. He wakes up in a puddle of sweat, trying to find his mother, and instead Jason will be there, telling him to calm down, that he’s in the manor, that he’s okay.

Tim doesn’t feel okay.

Other times he’ll wake up to see Damian reading next to him, and it sends him into a fit of crying because Damian is dead and he doesn’t want ghosts in his room and he’s sorry that he let him die before they could be brothers, before he could grow up. Damian stares at him with wide eyes and Tim cries because he might have been an assassin but he was a child and he never should have died. He never should have died without someone there to hold him.

He wakes up sometimes, and Dick is running his fingers through his hair, and Tim will ask him if he thinks he’s good enough to be Robin, and Dick will tell him yes, and Tim pretends he didn’t take it away from him until he falls asleep.

On the ninth day he climbed out of bed and made it halfway down the stairs before he fell, and he was lucky Jason was there to catch him and Tim apologized for not being good enough to fill his shoes all the way back to his room.

In between, though, when he isn’t confused or scared or sad or angry, he’s just quiet.

The world drifts in and out of his peripheral, so loud that it all cancels out into echoing silence.

Tim feels like he’s floating, or he feels like he’s falling, and he’s terrified of what will happen when he eventually hits the ground.

***

They’re worried he’ll have a stroke, he can hear them talking about when they think he’s asleep. Tim listens and wills his body to work with him on this one thing, to just let him get over this stupid illness.

He hates being in pain, but he hates being a burden even more.

***

“Head,” Tim gasps as soon as Bruce walks into the room. He throws an arm out, and like he’s used to the routine, Bruce takes his hand, sits on his bed, and pulls him onto his lap. Tim whines, closing his eyes. “I can’t.”

“Can’t what?” Bruce asks soothingly, running a hand through his hair.

“Get through this.”

Bruce doesn’t say anything for a while, his arm snaking around Tim’s waist and pulling him close. Then he presses his face into Tim’s hair, and says, “You will. Because you’re strong, and because you won’t stop trying.”

“You think so?” Tim laughs, and then he goes silent, trying to tamp down the nausea in his stomach. 

“I do.”

So Tim holds his dad’s hand tighter, and he keeps trying.

***

They’re sitting on his floor on the fourteenth day when his fever finally breaks. Tim with his back pressed flush against Dick’s chest because Bruce is out on patrol, his arms crossed over his chest while Dick keeps them there, rocking the two of them back and forth.

He’d woken up screaming, despite his sore throat, and it took ten minutes for Dick to get him to stop thrashing, pulling them to the ground and keeping him locked in his arms while Damian and Jason stood in the doorway.

Tim thinks they looked scared, but that might have been his own mind projecting.

The nightmares had gotten worse with the illness, attacking him physically and mentally, and as the fever broke and sent him into a whirlwind of clarity, he swears he could taste the ash in the air as Gotham burned.

“You with us?” Dick whispers in his ear, still rocking, still holding him. Tim finds he doesn’t want him to let go. 

“Yeah,” He croaks, feeling like he deepthroated a chainsaw, “I’m here.”

When Dick’s hand presses over his forehead, it’s shaking. “Fever broke.”

Tim blinks, letting his head drop back against Dick’s shoulder, “What day is it?”

“Thursday.”

Two weeks exactly. Two weeks of hell while god messed with his sanity settings.

Jason sits down next to him, and Damian joins them a second later. Tim makes himself look at them, makes himself take stock of himself, how exhausted he feels, the guilt that’s slowly creeping up on him, the panic that will no doubt set in fully when he realizes just how much he needs to do to catch up on the last few weeks.

He thinks about his mom in the hospital, how she withered away and never once said she was scared, or asked for someone to hold her hand.

Tim said Janet Drake was the strongest person he ever met, but maybe he just meant lonely.

He takes a shaking breath, and says, “It’s too heavy.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Damian replies.

Dick kisses his head, and Jason squeezes his hand, and outside, Tim sees a bat fly by.

He’s not his mother. He isn’t even what she wanted him to be. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“Okay,” Tim says, and he trusts his family.