It was near dawn by the time Nightwing slipped through the window of the apartment. It had been an excruciatingly long night. Maybe it was the full moon or there was something in the air, but every petty criminal in Bludhaven had been out contributing to the madness. The cops were overwhelmed, the precincts were bursting with unprocessed crooks, and Nightwing had barely managed to garner a moment's rest the entire night. He was exhausted, he was grimy, he was ravenous, and the second he stepped into his apartment, he realized he wasn't alone.
Nightwing paused before the bed and knelt down next to the figure lying fast asleep on top of the covers. Clearly, he'd been expected at a much earlier hour and he was sorry he hadn't been able to get there sooner. From the dark circles under Tim's eyes and the frown on his forehead even while at rest, he could tell the kid hadn't been sleeping well lately. And that Tim had actually managed to go through the trouble to sneak out and break his promise to his father, Dick felt even worse about not being there. Still, he was there now, and ready to help however he could.
Careful not to wake the young man, he slipped out of his costume and into the shower, cleaning off the filth of the night with the pounding of water that was almost too hot. Closing his eyes, Dick leaned against the shower wall and allowed the water carry away the night's work, briefly wondering if he should let someone know the whereabouts of his visitor, but he didn't know who to call. And it wasn't as if the kid wasn't an adult now. . . well, close enough, which really meant he should stop referring to him as 'the kid'. If Tim had wanted anyone to know where he was, he would have told them.
Turning off the water, Dick stepped out of the shower and quickly dried himself off. He wrapped a towel around his waist and walked softly into the bedroom to find the bed had been deserted. He paused and listened--there was moment in the kitchen and the slight hint of bacon in the air. Smiling, he quickly threw on a pair of sweats and shuffled down the hall.
"Morning," he yawned, sliding into a chair.
"Morning yourself. You just get in?" Tim asked, flipping over the strips of bacon in the pan before moving to stir the eggs.
"Yeah. Rough night."
"I can tell. You should have woken me."
Dick shrugged. "You looked as if you could use the sleep."
"Well, you know how tough high school can be," he said, his voice lacking any enthusiasm as he turned around to push the bread in the toaster. "And I should have heard you."
Arching an eyebrow at the self reproach in Tim's voice, Dick refrained from saying anything. He had a feeling he should just wait this one out.
"You up late studying a lot?" Dick asked, drinking from the glass of orange juice Tim set in front of him.
"That, working on fleshing out my college applications," Tim said with an indifferent shrug, "and I'm just sort of used to being a night owl."
"But I'll bet you're growing out of that habit pretty quickly."
"Yeah," he said, and Dick could feel rather than hear the darkness lurking behind the young man's response.
Tim finished setting breakfast out on the table and the two dug in. It was nothing fancy, scrambled eggs and cheese, bacon, toast, but after Dick's night, it was a gourmet feast. Tim, too, ate as if he hadn't eaten in days, and as usual, poured ketchup all over his eggs--something that for once didn't put a crimp in Dick's appetite. Consciously ignoring the mess on Tim's plate, he studied his brother's frame, wondering if Tim had gotten thinner since they'd last met. He'd certainly lost a little of the muscle tone that came with the Bat's rigorous training, but that couldn't account for all the lost weight.
"Would you like me to get you a magnifying glass?" Tim asked without looking up from his eggs, and Dick shook his head.
"Not just yet, but I might ask for some blood samples before you go. You taking care of yourself?"
"Just as much as any student. I don't know where I'd be without my constant flow of caffeine, pizza, and beer from the weekly keggers. Oh, and the occasional bong hit, but I usually reserve the pot for weekends."
Dick's eyes narrowed. He knew Tim was joking, poor joke that it was, but it wasn't anything like Tim's usual sense of humor. Maybe waiting this out wasn't the right strategy to use, not with the mood his little brother was in.
"Tim, is there something you want to tell me?"
"Nothing in particular," he said, his fork scraping a little too loudly across the plate.
"So this is just a social visit?"
"Yeah. Why? Am I not welcome here anymore?"
Dick blinked at the sudden defensiveness in the young man's voice. "Tim, you're always welcome here. You know that."
"Then what's the problem?"
"There is no problem."
"Okay," Dick said, returning to his breakfast and feeling that, somehow, he'd failed to pass his brother's test.
They finished eating in silence and Dick cleared the table, taking the dirty dishes from the table and running water over them in the sink. He didn't feel like washing them at the moment and he figured it wouldn't hurt for the dishes to sit there for a few hours.
"Thanks for breakfast," he said, watching as Tim drew nonsense designs in the ring of water left from the condensation on his orange juice glass.
"No problem. I remember how it feels to come back from patrol and be absolutely famished. Alfred always anticipated that and left a snack where I could find it, something I could grab before I went home."
"Alfred always knows," Dick nodded. "Not just with food, but with everything. I could always go to him, no matter what I needed."
"Yeah," Tim said, the shadows on his face darkening. "I used to be able to do that, too."
Dick frowned. Had Tim gotten into a fight with Alfred? he wondered, and immediately dismissed the idea. No one fought with Alfred except Bruce, and even then Alfred usually won. "You still can, you know."
The young man just shook his head. "Not anymore."
Tim stood up, the chair scraping across the floor as he wandered down the hall back towards the bedroom. "Because I don't belong."
"Don't belo--wait a minute," Dick said, rushing down the hall after him. "What are you talking about?"
Tim took a seat on the windowsill and stared up at the full moon above, its white light slowly being drowned out by the oncoming sun.
"Tim! Talk to me. What the hell is going on?"
He remained quiet for several minutes, looking at the moon. When he finally spoke, Dick had to strain to hear him.
"Is this how you felt?" Tim asked softly, haunted blue eyes slowly turning towards Dick. "When you first saw Jason, when you first realized you'd been replaced, did you feel this betrayed?"
And just that fast, Dick understood, and everything he'd thought he'd forgotten came back with a rush that nearly knocked him off his feet.
"More so," Dick said, sitting on the edge of the mattress and sliding onto the floor, his eyes glued to the hands in his lap. "Not only had I been replaced as Robin, but I'd been replaced as Bruce's son. One of the first things he did was officially adopt Jason, something he'd never done with me.
"It hurt. No, it more than hurt. The pain twisted inside of me until I couldn't see straight, until I couldn't move, until I felt as if I was going to explode.
"At first I'd thought that it couldn't be real--he couldn't do that to me, not after everything we'd been through. I'd heard the rumors, the tales, but that's all I thought they were until I saw the two of them together, Batman and Robin, but even then, I couldn't believe it because I was Robin. How could there be two of us? It was impossible, but it wasn't. There was him, and there was me, only I. . . I wasn't anyone, not anymore."
"Exactly!" Tim exclaimed, crouching down in front of his older brother. "That is exactly how I feel. And I know it was my choice. I know it was my decision to leave. . ."
". . . that it was all for the best. . ."
". . . that it was time to go on with my life. . ."
"But how could I be replaced so easily?" Dick asked, raising his eyes until he was looking into Tim's, seeing in his blue gaze a kindred spirit unlike any he'd ever known.
"Did I really mean so little to him?" Tim asked, voice laced with anger, with the sting of rejection.
"Did he even care that I had gone?"
"Was our partnership nothing to him?"
"Wasn't there an emptiness at his side?"
"The same emptiness I felt at mine? Did even he miss me?"
"That's the main one, isn't it?" Dick asked softly. "Did he miss me?"
"As much as I miss him," Tim finished, his eyes shining with unshed tears.
"Yes," Dick nodded.
"My heart told me no," Dick said, continuing with his story, "because he's the Bat. He doesn't allow himself to feel. Feelings, emotions, they're weaknesses, and he feels nothing."
"Which means I was nothing to him."
"Was never anything to him."
"Just a sidekick."
"A costume, a mask."
"Into which anyone can fit."
"So long as they meet his standards."
"Which makes me wonder," Tim said, the muscles in his legs starting to tremble, "did I not meet his standards?"
Dick nodded. "Did I fail him?"
"Is it my fault?"
"What did I do to screw things up?"
Tim bit his lip, looking away. "Is it because there's something wrong with me that I had to quit?"
Seeing the agony in his brother's face nearly broke Dick's heart.
"There's nothing wrong with you, Tim," Dick said, pulling his brother into his arms, Tim's body shaking with silent sobs as his own eyes filled with tears. "There was nothing wrong with either of us."
"Then why does it hurt so much?" he cried in defiance of his brother's words. "Why does the thought of him with another Robin make me feel as if I'm being torn in two? Why does the sight of them make me want to scream until my throat bleeds? Why doesn't he want me anymore?" Tim finally broke down, tears flowing freely down his face. "Why?"
The two former Robins held each other, crying with mutual sorrow at what they'd lost, at the feelings of abandonment, of loneliness mirrored in each other's souls. It wasn't until their tears were spent, their bodies exhausted with the force of their emotions, that Dick was able to answer.
"It's because he loves us that he let us go. It's because we are irreplaceable that he couldn't keep us around any longer. If we stayed, he might have lost us forever."
"So why another new Robin? Why not just work alone?"
Dick shook his head, rubbing his hand over Tim's back. "You know the answer to that. It's why you became Robin in the first place. It's why you made sure he had someone by his side before you left."
"I know," Tim answered, then said with a sense of hopelessness, "but. . . how can I give it up?"
"By the time I left, it was too late for me. This life had been ingrained so deeply into my soul that I couldn't escape. You still can." Dick lifted up Tim's head from his chest, brushing the hair away from his face, the tears from his eyes. "You have a chance at a normal life. Don't lose it, Tim. Take it. Take it and run and don't ever look back!"
He shook his head. "I've already lost him. I don't want to lose you, too!"
"You never will," Dick said, forcing a smile onto his face as he tried to reassure Tim, though in truth, he was more afraid of losing him than the other way around. Normal people didn't have vigilantes as friends, and he didn't know what would happen to their relationship if Tim became a normal kid. "You are my little brother in everything, in every way that matters. I love you, and I wouldn't let you go if you tried."
"And the new Robin. . ." Tim said, searching his brother's eyes, "will you. . . ?"
"No one can ever replace you in my life," Dick said, kissing Tim's forehead, then wrapping his arms around him in a giant hug. "Never."
"I love you, Dick," Tim sniffled, holding tight onto his brother. "I just. . . I don't know how I'm going to get through this. I feel so empty inside."
"I know, little brother," Dick said softly, his eyes looking towards the lightening sky. "If you're lucky, it'll pass. You'll find something good in your life to fill it up with."
"And if I don't?" Tim asked, raising his head.
"If you don't, you come to me. You will always have a place at my side."
Tim's eyes filled with a fresh wave of tears. "Thank you, Dick."
"You're welcome," he smiled. "And thank you for putting me through the emotional wringer. Just what I needed after a hard night."
"Sorry," Tim said, a slight flush crawling up his cheeks, and Dick chuckled as they climbed back onto their feet.
"I'm only teasing. I'm glad you came to me. Now, is there anything else you wanted to talk about?"
He shook his head. "No. That was pretty much it."
"Then shouldn't you be getting home? You don't want to be late for school."
Sighing, Tim nodded. "Like I'll be able to concentrate after all this."
"Try. I'm counting on you to go to college, get a degree, and do something with your life. Something different. Something we'll all be proud of."
"Even him?" Tim asked a little fearfully as he met his brother's eyes, sounding almost as if he was afraid that now he was out of Bruce's care, he was out of his life forever.
"Him most of all," Dick nodded. "But remember, you're your own man now. You don't need his approval anymore." Even though he'll always be there, Dick added to himself, whether you want him there or not. You'll never be rid of him. He'll always be watching.
"That's going to be tough to get used to."
"Tell me about it," he said with a wry smile. "Now go, so I can get some sleep."
The brothers hugged one last time and Dick was relieved to see the light returning to Tim's eyes. Maybe the kid would get through this after all. Maybe he would be the one to finally escape.
And if not, maybe it was time Nightwing considered taking on a partner. He'd just have to wait and see.
Completed May 2, 2004