Chapter Eighteen: Between the Prodigal and the Apocryphal
Unconsciousness was a fading silence. Tim remembered bits of things in passing, an engine hum, a jostle on his shoulder. There was something cold and hard against his forehead, a window he realized, with beams of light from side streets burning bright on his face.
"Tim?" someone called from beside him, Tim registering the name somewhere in connection with a hand on his shoulder. The grip was firm and dimly comforting, although Tim couldn't pin down why that was before awareness whited out again, the grip fading away.
The next time Tim came to, there were two voices instead of just the one. ("…needed space…" "…it for him….""…not listening…!"). The words came so garbled and nonsensical that all Tim knew was that he'd heard them and nothing more. Everything fit that pattern, all camera flashes of sentience that faded out as fast as they came: lying supine, a vague ache on the back of his hand, velvety texture beneath him.
None of it was threatening, none of it urgent.
In truth, Tim probably could have opened his eyes a lot sooner. Could have, but definitely was too exhausted to. Even thinking felt like dragging the hull of a ship through shallows, wood groaning and splintering and split by rocks. It kept cognition from sticking. Kept his eyes closed.
The first thing that really clicked was tactile, the sensation on the back of his hand sharpening, Tim tried to move, flexing his fingers against cloth, but the pinch only tugged against his skin, pulling and pricking and concentrated like—
The thought restarted Tim like a shock. Before he'd even realized it, the world had flipped, the teenager shooting up with his breath caught in his chest. Instantly, his skin was crawling with a clammy cold, muscles tight. The first thing that registered visually was the sheen off medical equipment (Didn't get away. All dead. My fault.), and that idea alone had Tim's attention spinning, the dark sound of laughter ringing in his ears. There were rocks lining the wall like he was trapped underground still (Still?), running out of air, adrenaline. The observation only made him more panicked, because Tim had to get away. Had to warn everyone about something, make sure they were—
"Tim, it's alright!"
A hand clamped onto his shoulder. It spurred a jump out of him, head snapping to the side. Indistinct shapes danced across his eyes in multiples before converging into a familiar face.
Blue eyes. Dark hair. Tanned skin.
The realization calcined thought, burned away a protective layer like ozone. Not green hair or yellow grins. Just "brother." Safe.
Tim's vision refocused.
"There you are." Dick shot him a smile that came out broken. He was wearing his Nightwing gear sans the mask, and his hair was more disheveled than usual, like he hadn't been sleeping. "It's just me, buddy," the man asserted, gently rubbing up and down Tim's arms. "It's okay. You're okay."
Despite the words, Dick didn't look too sure. He had the appearance of someone who was handling a cornered animal, and truly, that wasn't far off from how Tim felt right then. His head was still spinning, temporals aching, and he could've sworn he'd heard laughing earlier. Maybe…Maybe he'd just imagined it, though.
It took Dick rearranging the comforter over Tim's lap to bring him back. Tim hadn't even noticed he was sitting on a mattress until then, but the touch helped ground him, helped him remember to breathe. The fabric sat soft against his skin like a fine summer sand, and it was weighted too, because these…They're the blankets Alfred always used to help someone keep calm.
Tim blinked at the fabric blearily.
Trying for another smile, Dick draped a separate blanket around Tim's shoulders, jarring his attention. "There we go. Let's get you warmed up a bit. It gets kinda cold down here, huh?"
Cold… Yeah. Tim felt cold. His clothes were gone save for a pair of compression shorts and… Tim hazily put a hand to his chest. There were strips of linen running the course of his torso and up over his collar bones.
Had he gotten hurt there recently?
He didn't think he had.
Dick looked instantly uncomfortable when he noticed where Tim's attention was. "I…I know you didn't want us to find out, but Bruce noticed the marks, and… Alfred just wanted to make sure it wasn't infected. That's all."
Tim struggled to process the explanation, letting his eyes fall closed as he tried to center himself. It felt like an acupuncturist had had a go at him and stuck needles in all the wrong places, pricked nerves that made his brain feel like he was stuck in the wrong time, a walking anachronism. There was an intuition haunting Tim, too, that he needed to tell Dick something but couldn't remember what.
"Tim, buddy…" Dick started, voice sounding like he was going to ease into a touchy subject.
A bout of shrieking cut him off. Tim's gaze shot up to follow the sound, a primal twitch of adrenaline heating his spine. It sounded like the laughter he'd heard before. Quick. Spiked.
Tim found only a fluttering hoard of shadows up above, bat wings between stalactites like snips of velour. The image would've calmed him if it hadn't summoned something else to mind.
Tim's hand hovered up over his shoulder until the pads of his fingers met a mesh of linen and harsh scar lines that rose up into his neck. It immediately registered why his back had been wrapped up, and his eyes widened in horror.
"I'm just a distraction."
"What—" Dick started. "No. Tim, you're not—"
Dick flinched when Tim's gaze flicked to him with a crazed intensity. "Where's Bruce?"
Dick faltered a second time at that, face flashing to match the seriousness in Tim's voice. "At the computers," he answered, looming closer for better leverage, concern obvious as Tim hurried to kick the blankets off himself. "Everyone's fine, so just calm down."
"I need to talk to him right now!" Tim moved his arm to bolt up only to feel the IV wrench at the skin of his hand like a shackle. Despite the knee-jerk panic at that, he immediately went to yank it out, pulled back only when Dick caught him by both wrists.
"Tim, stop! You're going to hurt yourself."
The teenager still tried to twist his arms free, because Dick didn't understand how serious this was. It'd been weeks since Tim had gotten away from Joker and all he was thinking about in that instant was what kind of damage the murderer could've set up for them within a month. "That doesn't matter right now! You don't understand—"
"Then help me to," Dick pressed, voice quiet but shockingly stern, and Tim stopped, arms still tangled in his brother's grip. His throat was suddenly dried out.
"It's…" Tim tried once, swallowing before staring down the blue symbol on his brother's chest, the glow almost iridescent. "It's me, Dick."
"No," Tim shook his head jerkily. "No, I mean it's me."
There was a too-long pause. Tim made a concentrated effort to meet Dick's eyes then, and all there was was a look of confusion, then concern. Then, perhaps, something else. "You mean..." Dick started hesitantly, the words processing, "you remember?"
Tim nodded, biting his lower lip. Nausea was bubbling in his stomach, but he had to say his peace, almost panting it out against a sudden smothering of nerves. "Yeah, but that's not important. It's...Joker. We were wrong about what happened with Joker." Tim could tell he had Dick's full attention, encouraging him to choke out the last bit. "My going missing—It was just a distraction. He's planning something else. Something bigger."
"Did he tell you anything concrete?"
A headshake. The adrenaline was fading out, and Tim's brain was starting to ache, pulsating throbs pinned right behind his ears. He dimly felt like he was on fire.
"...Okay," Dick said softly. "I got it. You did good, Tim." He must have registered that Tim had his eyes closed, trying to ground himself in touch sensations—the damp, mineral-coated air expanding his lungs, hair bristling through the cooled sweat on the back of his neck. Tim sat still, focusing on breathing and waiting for Dick to leave.
Only Dick didn't leave.
Carefully, the man settled himself more fully next to Tim, the bed frame creaking. Tim hazily reopened his eyes, staring down the comforter he'd kicked off earlier. It glowed sunset-white from the dimmed potlights illuminating the space, and even that level of brightness felt like getting stabbed in the retina fifty times over.
On a lower level, Tim wanted to yell at Dick to leave, to scream at him that this was important, but he didn't have the voice. Thoughts continued coming in. Names with faces. Fishing trips with Dad. The circus with Dick. Conner and Bart and Steph. Suspending someone over a roof and a flash of mistrust in Bruce's eyes.
"So I guess I made the right choice."
Tim pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, waiting for the flashes of fervor to go away but they only intensified. When he pulled his hands away, he realized the skin there was glistening from either sweat or tears. He had a feeling he already knew which one it was.
"I'm fine, Dick. You can go," Tim made himself say, even though every bone in his body was oversaturated with emotion. Utterly spent.
"Tim, listen to—"
"I said I'm fine, alright?"
It was louder than Tim had meant it to be, and instantly, the sheer volume hit him head-on, as if everything before had been muted and was suddenly flipped back on full-blast. The burst had given himself away, Tim knew, and he stubbornly studied the floor, as cold and solid under his feet as the ice settling in his veins.
Slowly, there was a warm touch on his shoulder, tethering him there like an anchor. Tim almost wanted to brush it off but didn't.
"Tim, your hands… They're shaking."
The teenager hadn't noticed it, but at the mention of them, it felt like each finger was suffering from the aftershock of a quake, every tremor loud and pronounced. Both hands were quickly brought together, if nothing more than to hide the trembling from himself.
Tim could still feel Dick's eyes on him, strangely terrifying.
"You remember what I told you, right?" the man spoke, voice barely above a whisper. He managed to pry apart Tim's hands. He'd thought they were stronger, really, but Dick pulled them away with ease, taking one in a hand of his own. The man's other hand remained on his shoulder, a constant in a crazy world. "I said you could always come talk to me when it got hard," Dick continued gently, and he moved his eyes to the floor too, tracing Tim's sight. "Me or Bruce or Alfred or—or anyone. We'll listen; we get it. So, don't shut yourself off, okay? Do you remember me saying that?"
Tim felt stupid for needing the man there to coach him, to sit with him and wait for him to say words he might not even be able to work out. There were probably a million other things Dick could've been doing—definitely one, at least—but Tim wasn't fine, not really, and he needed this. Maybe Dick needed it too.
The teenager nodded. "I remember."
"Yeah?" Dick encouraged quietly. "You remember what happens to me when you bottle yourself up?"
The question wasn't invasive, and a smile ghosted over Tim's face at the memory. "Your hair starts going gray?"
"That's right," Dick eased, mirroring the smile as he brushed a stray bang from his brother's forehead. "And I'll be a silver bachelor same as Bruce."
The comment laid there for a while, but eventually, Tim gave a dubious snort, weary but playful. "Silver bachelor? That's…I don't think that's a thing, Dick."
"No? Well, I'll make it a thing." Dick's grin grew a fraction, the man craning his neck so his face intersected with Tim's gaze. His voice was still soothing, like he thought Tim was liable to spook. "It sounds fun in theory, but the hair dye's expensive, and I like not being broke, thank you."
Tim let his eyes glean his friend's face. The man looked tired, older, and Tim felt guilty that he'd probably contributed to it. "I'll lend you some cash if that happens, Marcia," Tim proposed, doing his best to give him a genuine smile this time. "I hear I'm pretty loaded."
"You'd better mean that," Dick chided, and he leaned back, seemingly satisfied. He was still holding one of Tim's hands and gripping his shoulder, and as much as Tim wanted to break away on principle, he convinced himself the contact was okay; the touch was tactile courage, and Tim soaked it in like sunrays.
"I remembered," he breathed after a stretch. "Bits and pieces, but…they're there."
Dick kept quiet, mulling over the admission before asking, "Bad things?"
"When is it not bad?"
Dick hummed in grim agreement. "What about it then?" Tim felt the hold on his shoulder tighten faintly. "Was it…was it Joker or…?"
"No," Tim shook his head quickly. "It's not… I mean, Joker was bad… It was bad, but…" he shook his head again, "but it was only me, you know? No one else got hurt—no one I cared about, so… I'll be alright."
Dick didn't look convinced but didn't press it, instead shadowing, "You'll be alright but…?"
"There were happy ones too. Things I remembered." Tim tugged at a stitch in the corner of the bed sheets beneath him. "There were people…Conner and…and Bart and Bruce…my parents. There were so many names and happy memories, and then, they were dead. It was so vivid like I could touch them, if I wanted to, and it just—it sucks," he said, cringing at the understatement, "because before they were only things that'd happened, but when I remembered being with them that…that's when they became things that happened to me, you know? It's stupid but—"
"It's not stupid, Tim," Dick corrected lightly.
"But it is, Dick. It really is." Tim tilted his head back, watching the high ceiling. "I got through it all once somehow, and now I've gotta do it again. It's like…like they're not even my memories, but here I am, stuck with them anyway."
Dick looked him over silently. "Maybe you're right about that." Tim gradually tilted his head forward again to look his brother in the eye. The man seemed sad but determined, the sparse lighting shining brightly on his pupils. "But do you know why those experiences were so painful the first time?"
"…Why?" Tim echoed, too exhausted to do anything else.
"Because you always suffered alone. That's why." Dick let go of his hand, a second-long absence of touch, before pressing his palm onto Tim's free shoulder, turning him gingerly in his direction. "You're always like that, because you're too afraid to burden anyone else. But I don't think you realize that when you share things like this, it…it makes your relationships stronger instead of weaker. Your friends can shoulder some of that weight you've got, Tim, and—" There was a flicker of regret on Dick's face. "—I know I haven't been the best brother for you, but I'm willing to try too, if you'll let me."
There was a split second where Tim wanted to argue and say Dick had always been a good brother, but…he hadn't believed him at first, about Bruce being alive. Tim knew that. It was still there in the back of his mind, a dull sting that continued to throb despite distance and time. It was all Tim could do to whisper a "thank you." He hoped it sounded sincere, because it was.
Dick must have realized that, as Tim found the man had pulled him into a hug, short and sweet, before pulling away again. Tim was caught in the embrace long after it left, but when he recovered, he noticed Dick had since glanced up, and Tim followed his eyes.
A figure stood in the entryway, mask still on like armor.
It was something Tim had noted over the years, that it was easier for Bruce to be Batman when times were tense, so he didn't comment on it, just let the man look him over with a tired, clinical air. "Are you alright?" he asked after a lengthy pause.
Tim nodded, at which Bruce's attention slid to the person beside him for confirmation. Dick thinned his lips, noncommittal, and Tim could read a year's worth of conversation in the air. There must have been more to it than Tim could get, though, because Bruce simply gestured behind himself with his head, the "Come with me" to Dick going unsaid, before drifting away.
Tim breathed in, wanting to ask more about what was going on, but let the words die. He'd figure it out soon enough, he supposed.
Dick looked back to Tim, the pair sharing a moment's silence before the older of the two slipped off the bed. He carefully picked the blanket off the floor and rearranged it around his brother. "I'm gonna go talk to B quick. You gonna be okay by yourself for a bit, or do you want me to get someone?"
Tim hesitated for a moment before shaking his head. "No…no, you go. I'll be alright." He tried to put on his most encouraging face, but at the thought of being alone, he felt chilled to his core.
Dick didn't look like he'd bought it, but he left with a begrudging sigh and a, "I'll be right back," leaving Tim to his thoughts. And there were a lot of thoughts for him to sift through. A lifetime of them. At this point, Tim wasn't sure if he wanted to avoid everyone he'd ever known or call them all just to hear their voices in real life. Because it really wasn't feeling that way still—like real life. It felt like he'd watched years worth of home movies on a too-bright screen with the volume maxed out.
For the briefest of moments, Tim entertained trying to sort through all of it, that non-chronological pile of bad happenstances jumbled with the good. Just the idea of it made him feel like his stomach was trying to jump up his throat.
Easy, Tim, the teenager told himself, running a hand through his hair that was heavy with sweat. One thing at a time.
Doing his best to ignore the screeches of another round of bats, Tim groped blindly around the nearby instrument tray for some tape and gauze, trying to focus on the physical for now. The IV hurt to work out, but with all the pounding in his skull, some form of controllable pain was almost welcome. He was so riveted on the task that he didn't notice the click-clack of claws on floor until the sound stopped.
"You shouldn't have removed that."
Tim's head snapped up to see someone else leaned against the wall, legs crossed at his ankles. He hadn't even heard him come in, although looking back, Tim should've suspected that Dick would fetch someone. It didn't change the fact that Tim was struck by the surrealness of the situation, having heard rumors, lived abstracted memories, and now seeing this person again. Tim didn't know what to say.
He doubted Damian did either.
"If you get blood on the sheets," the boy offered, drifting closer with a black Great Dane on his heels that Tim hadn't seen before, "I doubt Pennyworth will spare you."
Tim squinted, only partly because his eyes still hurt. "I'll keep that in mind."
Damian hummed at that in a way that sounded scarily like Bruce, just in a higher pitch, and set to work coiling the IV line back around the stand. He looked like he'd grown maybe half an inch, eyes still quick and direct with green confidence, but Tim didn't miss the uneven cut around the tips of his fingernails. They looked like they'd been chewed at.
Tim's gaze sobered, but he decided against going there.
"Um, so…" Tim segued instead, beckoning the Great Dane closer. "Whose dog is this, and when did we start pet-sitting?" Tim rubbed at the scruff of the dog's neck, surprised by the bright honey irises that looked back at him. The folds of skin on the hound's face were so heavy that his lower eyelids drooped.
Tim flinched awfully at that, causing Damian to look politely perplexed. Tim wanted to pester him on how he'd gotten that OK'd by Alfred, when exactly this happened, because it was giving him a headache trying to remember when a pet last existed in the Manor. (His mind said "never.") Ultimately, all that came out of Tim's gaping mouth was an unimpressive "oh."
Damian obviously didn't know how to follow that up either, standing awkwardly for a few seconds before commenting, "I named him Titus, after Titus Andronicus."
Tim glanced back to the tongue-lolling dog looking up at him. His tail was wagging so strongly that his butt was wiggling a bit, clearly not the picture of violence. "You mean Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus?"
Damian nodded with an undisturbed "uh-huh," and Tim had to physically stifle the sudden nostalgia creeping up on him. It felt good to know some things never change. Tim shook his head once, trying to fight off the grin trying to peek through. "You wanna sit?" he invited, jerking his chin at the spot next to him.
For a moment, Tim thought Damian might retort with something smart, but he came without a fuss, sitting stiffly on the mattress with his hands folded in his lap.
"Does it hurt?" the boy asked suddenly.
Tim's eyebrows creased in confusion, prompting Damian to send a pointed look at the bandages peering out from where Tim still had the blanket draped over his shoulders. A wave of self-consciousness struck his chest, and Tim pulled the comforter more securely around himself, trying to hide it. "No. Not really."
Damian reached over to stroke the back of Titus' neck then. "You're a talentless liar, Drake."
Tim didn't comment on that, waiting for his brother to say something more. Damian didn't, though, just continued to pet his dog almost absentmindedly, looking out past the bend of the Cave wall leading out of the med-bay. Tim followed his gaze to see the glow of a glass case.
Jason, Tim recalled grimly, thinking back to the most recent time he'd seen the man with a newfound insight. He wondered where Jason was now, what he was doing. Truthfully, part of Tim was surprised that Jason hadn't shot him outright the other day. Yesterday now, he thought. It already felt like an eternity ago.
"...What was Father like back then?" Damian's voice echoed, interrupting the thought. "After Todd died?"
Tim refocused on the memorial case, memorizing the stitching around the R emblem with a ghostly reverence. Tim shrugged awkwardly, trying to dredge up something more about that time but coming up dry, save for the heady smell of film developer and the chirp of a camera flash. The drive to do something. To act.
"I think..." Tim tried, holding his head. "I remember feeling like he'd lost his mind. Or...just out of control. Something like that."
Damian's jaw tightened in his peripherals. "I see…"
Tim glanced back to him, puzzled as to why he sounded so lost. That was when it clicked, the last time he'd seen Damian in-person weeks ago, after Scarecrow. After Joker. His first night out. Tim had the gut-instinct to go find Dick, because in all things Damian, Tim was horribly out of his depth.
"You know, I…" Tim started, painfully aware of how startled he sounded. "I was there. That night." Damian's eyes flashed, registering what he was talking about before Tim continued. "When Bruce…you know. I... It doesn't excuse it, Damian, but he wasn't—"
"Himself?" Damian finished bluntly. He looked torn, nearly pensive. "I am aware of that, Drake. Father himself is as well, it seems; he's already apologized."
Tim almost choked. That didn't seem like something Bruce could do. Damian went as far as to provide evidence, though, patting Titus' head as if to prove something, and well, that certainly explained a number of things.
"The main reason for my asking," Damian rephrased, "is because I was curious. I was born into this life—for this life—expressly. Grayson and Todd, on the other hand, were conscripted into it. But you have always confused me. You shoved yourself into a situation where you were not wanted in the slightest."
Tim was positive that he would have bristled at that had it been two months ago. But right then, he let his brother finish. And Damian did, as much as it sounded like pulling teeth.
"In light of the past few weeks, I suppose I understand now, why it was necessary for you to be Robin at that time."
Tim leaned forward. "'At that time?'"
"Of course," Damian asserted instantly, the honesty fading into a forced haughtiness. "I'll be a better Robin than any of you. That's without question."
It took a second, Tim torn between being offended or not, before he snorted out a laugh. "I hope you do, Damian," he said good-naturedly. "I hope you do."
Damian huffed then, turning his face away. Tim suspected it was to hide the fact he was smirking. "Regardless," the boy restarted after the moment passed, "I'm glad you decided to keep your promise to me—the one from Crane's lair. It would've been troublesome to revive you just so I could kill you again."
Damian nodded, ruffling the sides of Titus' face. "You're welcome, Timothy."
A few seconds drifted by, punctured when a large "ahem" sounded that made both teenagers to look up. Dick was back, looking between them with a surprised grin. "Doth my eyes deceive me, or are we actually getting along?"
"Not even on my deathbed, Grayson—"
"You should get those eyes of yours checked, Dick. Seriously—"
If Dick's grin could have gotten any wider, it'd have ripped his face in half. "Can't blame a guy for hoping," he shrugged, strolling further into the space. The air in Tim's throat froze again as Bruce followed behind him, mask still in place. He looked even grimmer somehow.
"Damian," the man said quietly, "go get Alfred…" and almost as an afterthought, Tim swore the man added a "please."
Damian paused, glancing between everyone in the room as if to inquire why he was being excluded from the conversation. Dick shook his head sincerely, and that must have been enough, as Damian patted Titus' head once more and the dog followed as he slipped away, the boy's face marked with incertitude.
Meanwhile, Dick and Bruce had made themselves at home, Dick criss-crossing his legs in his previous spot beside Tim while Bruce lowered himself into a chair. Something about the layout made Tim feel like this was an interrogation, and he had the snap urge to bolt. That urge intensified when Bruce spoke.
"Dick said you wanted to talk to me."
It was left at that.
Tim wasn't even sure where to start, wasn't sure if he wanted to. But he had to. The teenager scratched the back of his neck, then took a moment to wrap himself as tight as possible in the comforter. Just talk like it's a report, he self-coached. You've done it thousands of times.
"It's about the night I got away," Tim breathed, surprised his voice worked. "Joker said something to me. He was planning on having me dumped off the Sprang." (Both Bruce and Dick winced.) "Beforehand, though, he hinted that he had something else planned. I don't know what, but he said I should've been able to piece it together."
"Do you think you'd be able to?" Dick asked, leaning forward slightly.
"No. I...I don't think so. I remember feeling confused then too, so I don't think it's something I just forgot."
"The M.O.'s wrong," Bruce muttered absently, soft-sold agreement. "Did he say anything in particular that you can remember?"
"I was there for weeks, Bruce. He said a lot of stuff."
"Any themes?" Dick appended with a touch more sensitivity. "Places that we should look into? Anything could be a huge help."
Tim wracked his brain, pulling his knees up to his chest to fight off a shiver. "Maybe try the French Embassy in Downtown? He was talking about Dent for a while, so I'd search the bank too, and..." Tim tongued the pocket of one of his molars, not wanting to say his next thought, the one that left him feeling like he wanted to sheer off his own skin. "...I'd check the top of the GCPD. The bat signal."
The atmosphere thickened like it'd had a burst of nitroglycerin pumped through it.
Even Dick stiffened, and Tim didn't have it in him to break the silence. No one moved until, slowly, Bruce pushed himself up from his chair. He seemed zombie-like.
"What can I do to help?" Tim asked earnestly before the man could leave, and Bruce stalled, not looking back.
Tim's eyes went wide. "What?"
"You're off this case, Tim," Bruce clarified, sparing a look over his shoulder before leaving. Tim scrambled to take after him, nearly keeling over the instant he tried to stand because apparently his balance was taking five. Dick had to catch him.
"Timmy, maybe you should—"
"You can't do that, Bruce!" Tim barked, forcing his body to cooperate as he made himself follow out of the med-bay against what Dick was clearly advising. "I wasn't supposed to survive. That makes me the wildcard here, and if you lock me out of this, you lose that advantage. You can't afford that, not with someone like Joker."
"We'll manage," Bruce growled, already half-way across the Cave.
"And what if 'managing' doesn't cut it? Admit it! Whatever Joker said to me wasn't supposed to have a shelf-life this long. I don't know what it means, but it's important!"
"And what if it's not?" Bruce probed, typing in the password to the computers without sitting down. "Perhaps it was just a ruse to give you false hope right at the end. You know as well as I that's something Joker would do."
Tim balked, staring Bruce up and down because he didn't have anything to disprove that aside from bare-faced intuition. It was a surprisingly low blow, though, for Bruce to imply that Tim had it all wrong. There was something else there.
"Wait..." the teenager pressed, continuing to bore a hole into Bruce's head with his eyes. "This isn't about Joker at all. Is it?"
Bruce didn't turn.
"This is still about Harkness," Tim argued, astonished. "That's what this is. It's been months and after all of this you still don't trust me."
"You're changing the topic."
"Well, you're not denying it—"
"YOU'RE STAYING HERE!" Bruce roared, whirling around so fast that Tim recoiled multiple steps back. Even Dick tensed audibly from behind.
The next minute that passed was perpetual, unending. Tim could hear the blood rushing in his ears, growing dimly light-headed in a way that contended he shouldn't have been standing at all, but he was too stunned to move, waiting for Bruce to say more because there was obviously something bothering him. The juncture of hostility had dissipated almost as fast as it'd come, and it left Bruce with a hand shading his eyes, clearly drained. Eventually, the hand fell to his mouth, still at odds with himself. The shift, though, allowed Tim to see that Bruce wasn't even looking at him. Not at his face, anyway.
Instantly, Tim's arms crossed around his torso in a fruitless attempt to mask the bandaging. He suddenly felt too exposed, every emotional scar on display in a raw, physical sense. He'd never felt more uncomfortable in his own skin than in that moment.
Thankfully, Bruce's footsteps broke the silence a moment later, drawing closer step by step. Tim was still taken aback when the man gently took his face in his hands, the cool smoothness of kevlar gloves a shock. Tim didn't even know if he breathed.
"...Promise me you'll stay," Bruce said weakly—begged, the cloud of the sentence warming Tim's face despite the lack of energy in the words. Tim just stood there, a mixture of unease building in him, because he'd heard Batman's voice come from Bruce Wayne before.
But never the other way around.
There was something terrifying about that, in a primal, reflexive way. Vulnerable. Tim could sense each hair rise along his arms, shoulder bones hiking like he didn't know what to do with himself.
He just...hadn't realized. The toll this had taken on everyone else.
"I…" the teenager started, feeling a bit like he was selling his soul but was unsure what else to say. "I promise."
Immediately, the mood relaxed, the air moving again. "Thank you," Bruce Wayne said, another second-long moment of sharing the same space, before the man vanished. Tim didn't know where he went or when, just knew that the presence in front of him had slipped him by like a breeze.
"You believe me, don't you?" Tim asked hopefully, turning to find Dick watching him with an empathizing expression. The man's mouth twisted in something torn between a smile and a grimace.
"Tim, if there's anything I've learned about you, it's that your instincts don't steer you wrong." He nodded tiredly. "Yeah, I believe you."
Tim exhaled in relief, but Dick wasn't done.
"I do think Bruce is right in one way, though. I don't know about Joker or what all you heard, but...maybe this is one of those things that you need to trust us to handle. Give yourself some time, you know? You've kinda had it rough lately."
Tim felt too empty to debate the point. His toes were starting to turn white from being on the cold floor for so long, and he hadn't even felt the ache of it. He appreciated it when Dick came around to stand beside him.
"I'll make sure to recheck everything myself. Reinterview Crane, go over the sewer system again. Anything I can think of to figure this out. So you just get some rest and let Alfred do what Alfred does best, alright?"
"...Alright," Tim echoed despondently. He knew what Dick was saying made sense, but he also knew to trust his gut. And right then, every fiber of him was sirening that whatever was waiting up ahead they weren't prepared for.
Not in the slightest.