The Boy, Wondering

A "Batman Beyond" fanfic by Brian Doyle.

No permission has been granted, no offence has been intended. I most definitely don't own any of these characters, but you knew that already, and no money is being made, so please don't sue!

Spoiler Warning! If you haven't watched "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker", then don't read this unless you are prepared to have several major plot points spoiled. Go out and watch the movie already, it's worth it, believe me!

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Okay, you were warned....
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This covers a part of the story we never heard about, and which left rather a gaping hole in the story IMHO. Constructive criticism accepted, feedback welcomed!
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When he opened the door, he realised he hadn't been ready for the sight of his visitor, no matter what he might have thought.

"Good God! You should have called me, got someone to drive you.... or I'd have picked you up..." He'd hoped to be more nonchalant when the time came, but self-control only goes so far.

"He called you didn't he? Let you know I'd gone and might be coming here?" It was barely a question, more a statement of fact. The voice itself was flat and slightly deeper than it had been, but it wasn't the change you might expect in a boy of his age, so much as a rasping, as if his throat was scraped raw.

Dick Grayson opened his mouth, about to say some reassuring lie, then stopped. He knew that if he lied, his visitor would know, would turn around and leave without even stepping over the threshold. He sighed.

"Yes, he did. Come on in Tim."

Barely a year ago, Tim Drake would probably have raced inside, leaping into a handstand on the back of the couch before somersaulting himself into a sitting position, just because he could. That, though, was a year - and a lifetime - ago. Now the youth in front of him, in stained torn jeans and messy T-shirt, wearing a leather jacket that Dick recognised as one he'd left behind at Wayne Manor years ago, practically shuffled forward - his shoulders were still slightly stooped and he walked with the aid of a cane, though he wasn't leaning on it quite as much as the last time Dick had seen him.

He was a little taller than Dick remembered, but that was the least of the physical changes: Sallow skin, lank hair (Which had at least grown back into its proper black colour from that hideous green), dark-ringed eyes. There was a nervous twitch at the side of his mouth, pulling one half of his face into the hint of a mirthless grin for moments at a time. All the signs told of a seriously ill young man who hadn't slept properly in weeks.

The regular updates from Leslie should have prepared him, but nothing really could, not for this degree of change. He'd heard all about the long, unbearable return to sanity that Tim had endured, and insisted he be left alone for. He'd even phoned Leslie again just after Bruce had contacted him and she had told him more than she had in the past, possibly out of a desire to spare his feelings. The mood swings from near-catatonia to violent outbursts were far less frequent now, but Tim would need yet more treatment, yet more therapy both physical and mental for some time to come.

Dick spoke matter in a matter of fact tone: "Bruce told me you'd gone and here seemed a likely place for you to come. Alfred was worried about you too."

"I'm sorry to do that to him, Alfred I mean. I'll let him know I'm okay later, but I needed to get away from things, and I can still catch a bus on my own."

"I know, that's why I wasn't waiting for you at the station."

To his relief Tim nodded in appreciation. Not checking up on the station had been a difficult choice for Dick, but Tim's senses were still sharp and if he'd caught sight of Nightwing anywhere near the station, he might have disappeared to God only knew where.

"Sit down, make yourself comfortable. Sorry, I know I haven't been to visit as often as I should but... since... You know..." Dick's tone was a little uncertain, there were words to describe what this boy had been through, but certainly none that you could comfortably use to his face.

"S'alright, I understand." There wasn't much conviction in Tim's voice and his body language was not a good sign either. He was huddled in on himself, arms tightly folded in front of him, but there was an undercurrent of nervousness that simple adolescent sulking wouldn't have carried.

A brief uncomfortable silence followed, "So? Can I get you a drink? I was about to make some tea, picked up a taste for it out in the Orient. I have soda if you prefer though?"

"Tea would be fine, no soda. I'm trying to avoid anything with chemical additives these days. Got too many still inside me."

Dick winced slightly, and couldn't bring himself to smile, especially when he saw that Tim wasn't smiling either. Instead he busied himself in the kitchen area. He could see Tim looking around the apartment from his seat with a half-interested eye and blessed whoever the god of distracting small talk was. "That's right, you haven't been here since I had the place done up, have you?"

"I haven't gotten out much lately, not since the... 'car accident'."

Dick sighed again, this promised to be a long night. The cover story had been unoriginal, but explained everything as simply as possible; Tim's sudden disappearance from public view, his subsequent long stay in a private hospital, the reconstructive surgery.

Bruce had called in just about every favour he'd ever earned to ensure Tim's privacy from the media, and most had obliged readily enough. Those who didn't had discovered the hard way that, despite his playboy image, Bruce Wayne possessed enormous political and financial influence when he cared to use it, and on this occasion he was utterly ruthless.

Of course, Commissioner Gordon's personal involvement in investigating the "accident" had also lent authority to the story. Gordon's near legendary reputation as a straight-arrow who would never betray the law, even for Bruce Wayne, meant the reports weren't questioned. Indirectly the Joker had claimed another victim - Jim Gordon.

The Commissioner's confidence in his ally the Batman, in his "friend" Bruce Wayne and in his own integrity were irreparably damaged, and he was seriously considering the unthinkable, and retiring. Dick had never been able to work up the courage even to go and see him again, what could he possibly say to him? God alone knew what it had to have done to his relationship with Barbara, but she certainly didn't talk about it.

Dick forced a light-hearted tone into his voice. "Well then, this is a special occasion isn't it? What do you think of the place?"

It was still more of a warehouse than a warehouse-conversion. The main entrance was on the second floor and suspended floors and staircases gave the whole place something of the appearance of a large-scale Escher print.

The third floor above them had a closed-off area that probably led to the bedrooms, bathroom and the like. There was still plenty of open space and, only slightly surreally, a couple of circus trapezes hung down from the ceiling.

The level they were on housed the kitchen, general living area with a wide-screen TV and stereo, and a study area containing a small library of reference books, files, and a computer terminal which was probably far more powerful than it looked.

The ground floor beneath them consisted of a gym area, with weights, bars, a vaulting horse, and a wooden sparring dummy. In the corner was a workshop area, with tools ranging from a lathe to motorcycle maintenance equipment. Next to the workshop was an equally compact laboratory.

The open layout of the place, with it's many levels, support props, wall bars and ropes hanging from the roof, seemingly at random, would be ideal workout environment for a gifted enough gymnast, athlete or aerialist and, of course, Dick was all three. Tim could imagine Dick practising getting from one level to the next, imposing all sorts of rules on himself, like not touching anything wood, or using only his left hand and right foot. It was the sort of routine Bruce had set up for all of them... in the past.

Tea was clearly not the only taste Dick had picked up in the orient, it was reflected in the whole place. Furniture was sparse and functional, but elegant. Dragon-print silk banners hung and bamboo screens stood as room dividers. Spotted throughout, though, were other more personal touches: On one wall hung a turquoise amulet whose shape was almost identical to Nightwing's emblem, on another was a framed, somewhat faded, poster for the Haly Brothers circus, announcing the debut of "Little Dickie Grayson, the Boy Wonder of the Flying Trapeze". Matching antique samurai swords (not reproduction Tim was sure) sat on a small stand of their own and a battered but lovingly maintained guitar was propped against a chair.

The whole place was fairly untidy, but in a bachelor kind of way. It was certainly clear that there were no butlers here to do the dusting. It was sort of like Dick's old "eyrie" in Gotham, but more comprehensive. Side-trips to the Batcave for training sessions or to borrow a better microscope were not an option for Nightwing anymore.

Tim made a non-commital face, though Dick could see his eyes linger longingly on the climbing ropes for a fraction of a second longer than was entirely necessary, "From Batcave, to Batgarage. Is that a step up or a step down?"

Dick shrugged, "A good layout is worth repeating, but I like to think it's a little more homely than the cave ever was. I kind of miss the giant penny and the T-Rex though." He didn't mention the other most memorable trophy, the giant Joker card. Frankly it had always given him the creeps before, and he knew he would take great pleasure in torching it if he ever saw it again.

Dick brought the tea through, and they both sat for another awkward minute, Tim clasping his cup with both hands so it wouldn't shake too much. Dick let the silence drag on, there must have been a reason for Tim coming and it was better to let him get to it in his own time.

Tim was the first to speak "Before anything else, I just want to say thank you for stopping by the clinic as often as you did back at the start. It was good to see some friendly faces... when I was able to notice."

Dick shook his head, "Anytime, you know that. After a while I thought I was getting you down a bit so I didn't come round as much."

"A lot of people were like that. I can't blame them really. Bruce never came to see me at night for the first month, you know that?"

Dick frowned "Says who?"

"Nobody, but I never saw him anywhere, I may not have been in my right mind a lot of the time, but I still noticed things."

"Tim, if Bruce didn't want you to spot him, he could jump up and down right in front of you waving his arms and you'd never notice, trust me. Bruce was there most of the time during the day, and Batman came by every night after his patrols. He was never more than ten feet away from you. Leslie had practically to sedate him some nights just to try and make him take some rest. I don't think he slept at all for the two weeks. He was just there, in the shadows. The only time he'd move was when you'd cry out in your sleep and he'd there, holding you till you quieted down."

Tim's jaw dropped, "He was there? Bruce? He never said..."

"Did you honestly think he would?". Though he damn well _should_ have, thought Dick.

Tim shrugged. "He hardly speaks to me now, or to anyone. Just goes out alone and comes back at dawn."

"That's always been his way. I'm not excusing it, but don't take it personally. And if he doesn't speak to you it's because he doesn't know how to say what he's feeling. Never has... probably never will"

"There's something I need to ask you Dick." Tim didn't look up, and Dick knew that whatever was coming next was not going to be easy.

"Sure, anything."

"I want you to be honest with me. Totally honest."

"If I can."

"Spoken like someone raised by Bruce."

"Sorry, force of habit. I'll be as honest _as_ I can."

"Fair enough.... " Tim took a deep breath and the next words came out in a rush, as if he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to say them again.

"Why didn't you come and help the others look for me?"

As soon as he'd said it Tim hung his head, as if he had been ashamed to ask.

Dick felt like someone had punched him in the gut. "What?"

"Back when the Joker... had me. The Gotham papers all talked about Batman and Batgirl tearing up the town, even if they never knew why, but there was nothing about Nightwing."

Dick found words failing him again. "Of course I helped look... I thought you knew! You really thought I didn't.. that I wouldn't ...?" He stopped for a moment to compose himself, shook his head then continued in a more controlled tone.

"Good God, Tim, we might not have been as close as we could have been, but you're about the closest thing I'll ever have to a brother. I wouldn't... _couldn't_ not get involved! ... I'd have torn down every building in that whole damn ugly city! As soon as I heard, any problems Bruce and I had went by the wayside. Bruce and Barbara were already doing everything possible in Gotham, so there wasn't much I could have added. Since I wasn't a local any more, it made more sense for me to check outside town."

"I was checking out all our known locations for Rha's Al Ghul, Bane, even a couple of the Penguins offshore holdings and a few Lexcorp bases, just in case. Everyone we could think of who had connections outside Gotham with a grudge against Batman. Superman helped too, he came as soon as he heard you were missing. Bruce didn't want Superman stirring things up in Gotham, or it'd have looked like he was panicking, but you were one of our own. We all helped look, and Superman helped me get to places I could never have found on my own."

In his mind's eye Dick could still see the look of concern on Superman's face when he'd heard Tim had gone missing, and even more his expression when he came to visit the clinic later and saw the Jokers handiwork. Growing up with Batman meant you didn't scare easily, but the cold fury on Superman's face was something no sane man would ever want to see.

Tim was just sitting there, thunderstruck. When he spoke again his voice was very small. "_Superman_ was looking for me?"

"Of course he was."

Tim paused for a moment, clearly remembering anything to do with that period still hurt. "Bruce never told me that, neither did Superman when he came by later. Neither did you." The last comment was more of an accusation.

"Superman probably didn't think he had to, assumed Bruce told you everything. Superman always was an optimist." Inside Dick was furious, Bruce's reaction to any sort of stress was to close himself off and this time had been worse than ever. Still, it hadn't occurred to him that no one else would have told Tim about what had happened.

Then it struck him: He _had_ talked about it. On the first night he'd arrived back in Gotham after Tim had been found, Dick had visited Leslie's clinic and had first seen what the Joker had done to the boy who was his little brother in all but blood. For a moment he didn't think he'd be able to control himself enough to stay, but eventually he'd just sat there, talking endlessly about his search, so that Tim, if he could hear anything, wouldn't feel alone. In the end he'd been unable to look at the twisted face any more and had to leave the room to hide his own tears, of anger (at his own weakness) and shame (at his failure to be of any help).

He realised now that he should have talked to Tim about it again when he was more coherent, but the time had never seemed right. With a feeling of self-loathing he realised that that had probably been the excuse Batman had used too.

Tim was speaking again, and Dick focussed on him again, ".. ou understand I couldn't just phone you with a question like that, I had to ask you in person, and you didn't come by for a while."

"Of course I understand, and I'm glad you did. Didn't you talk to Barbara about it though?"

Tim hung his head "I don't think she can stand to be in the same room as me anymore. Every time she sees me she gives this little smile, as if there's nothing wrong, when we both know there is, and then she leaves the room as soon as she can."

Dick had had several phone calls from Barbara recently, usually he ended up just listening to her sob down the line, because there was nothing he knew how to say that would make her feel better. She'd been badly affected too, going on patrol less and less often.

Privately Dick doubted that Batgirl would be around for much longer, in some ways he was surprised she'd lasted this long. Tim's "accident" had destroyed her belief in the role of capes and cowls in the pursuit of justice. She'd never made a new separate identity by herself, the way Dick had done, and had possibly associated even more closely with the tragedy than he had; Robin had been part of Batgirl's family too. Instead Barbara was throwing herself into her Police work with a passion. With so much intensity driving her who knew, she might even make Commissioner herself someday, in the meantime though....

"Tim, Barbara doesn't act like that because she thinks you failed her, she does it because she thinks she failed you. For not looking harder, or longer, or not finding the "vital clue". For everything that happened to you."

Dick felt his long-standing frustration with Batman welling up yet again. Given their respective pasts the Bat-family should have been well versed in dealing with a traumatised teenager, but not like this. Everyone had been either walking on eggshells around Tim, not talking about what had happened to him for fear of upsetting him, or just ignoring the problem completely, shutting out all outward sign of it. The end result had been more damage being done because Tim thought they were disappointed in him or worse yet, that they didn't care.

"Barbara helped convince Bruce to let you become Robin, and she'd promised all of us that she'd watch out for you, we all promised each other that. She kept saying that she nearly went out on patrol with you that night, but didn't because she had some research she was finishing, that you'd be okay, just like the other nights you were patrolling solo. She feels she let everyone down. That she failed Bruce, me, Alfred, and most especially you."

Tim snorted "She didn't fail, _I_ did. I was Robin, I was 'the Boy Wonder', and in the end it didn't matter, I failed, I cracked..."

His words started to run into one another as unwanted memories started tumbling out.

"I tried to fight him Dick, really I did. At first I was able to, the pain and his laughing. I used everything Bruce had taught me to shut him out, to ignore everything except what was going on in my own head. But it just hurt more and more and he wouldn't let me pass out so it just kept getting worse and in the end I told the Joker everything he wanted to know. Told him about Bruce and you and Barbara and there was a part of me that could hear myself spilling my guts to him and I was shouting at myself to shut up and he was laughing and then I was laughing but I was screaming too and I couldn't tell where the screaming inside ended and the laughing outside began...".

Tim was rocking backwards and forwards in his seat and his facial tic was more rapid now. His eyes were wide and staring, and he looked more like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car than anything else.

Leaning over, Dick clasped Tim firmly by the chin, turning his head round so they were eye to eye. He shuddered inwardly at the emptiness behind those eyes, and spoke in a low direct tone, "Listen to me Tim, there isn't a human being alive who could have tolerated what the Joker did to you. From the blood work-ups Leslie did, the chemicals alone would have killed just about anyone else. The fact you survived at all is a miracle, proof of strength, not weakness."

That was nothing more that the truth, amongst other things the Joker had pumped Robin full of a diluted version of his trademark venom. Not quite strong enough to kill him, though it would have been a close run thing with all the other drugs that he'd already forced into Robin's system. By the time they'd found him, Tim had been subjected to a longer exposure to the toxin than any living person had before, and it had caused lasting nerve damage to his face. The normal anti-toxin hadn't been enough to reverse the effect completely and it had taken months of treatment by Leslie just to restore his face to anything like normal.

As far as Dick knew Waynetech Biomedical _still_ hadn't identified all the other chemicals in the sample Bruce had given them "just for a bit of a challenge", but one was an experimental military truth serum that had been banned from testing, and at least one other was an industrial cleaner. The Joker seemed to have mixed up whatever was at hand, just to see what would happen.

As a result, on top of everything else that Tim had to go through in his recovery he had had to go through withdrawal from what were probably several designer drugs at the same time, and it had to be cold turkey because no one had any idea what to treat him with. Leslie had been at her wits end trying to think of safe medicines to use, but everything was a gamble, because she had little or no idea what might combine with the Jokers chemicals to create something even worse.

As he let go of Tim, he kept trying to get through to the boy. "There's no shame for you in what happened to you, Tim. None."

"You wouldn't have broken like I did."

Dick snorted slightly, then continued in the same firm voice, "After all that? Of course I would have, so would Barbara, so would Commissioner Gordon and probably even Bruce. The drugs alone would have had a platoon of Marines offering up every secret they ever knew, never mind... the rest of what he did to you."

Dick began to appreciate some of Bruce and Barbara's trouble. How _did_ you discuss what had happened to Tim without using words you never wanted to have to think about in connection with someone you cared about? Words like "torture", or "agony", or "madness"?

"You think?"

"No, I _know_! Leslie says that if anyone ever deserved the title 'Boy Wonder', it's you, for coming out of this sane and in one piece."

"Thanks, though I'm not too sure about those last parts."

He didn't sound entirely convinced of course, but hopefully some of that truth would get through to him.

Tim's eyes were drawn again to one of Dick's mementos. It was a gold medallion, slightly rounded and elliptical, which sat in a small trophy case on a low table. It was blank and smooth and Tim couldn't quite place it but seemed strangely familiar. But he had more pressing matters to think about.

There was yet another awkward silence, which told Dick that this conversation wasn't over.

"Is there... something else on your mind Tim?"

After a moment's hesitation, Tim spoke again. "Yes, there is. I wanted to come to see you because of the reports I've heard about, that Bruce and Barbara tried to stop me seeing, about you and some other kid superheroes?"

Dick made the connection, he should have seen this coming. "Oh... you mean the Titans"

"So it _is_ true." Tim sounded disappointed as he spoke, then his voice became harsher, not enough to indicate one of his mood swings, at least Dick hoped not, but it was certainly angrier.

"Yeah, the Titans", Tim practically spat the word out. "I've seen the pictures, some of them are barely older than I am. Some of the Press are even calling them the 'Teen Titans' like it's some sort of boy band or something."

"I know, and believe me, joining that team wasn't an easy decision, especially in light of what happened to you."

"So why did you do it?"

Dick carefully considered his answer. "Working with Superman meant I got to see the Justice League in action a couple of times. It let me see real teamwork for probably the first time. I was Batman's partner, but I was always his junior partner. I never called the shots... that's partly why I became Nightwing in the first place, but even when I came back to Gotham it was always following _his_ rules, because it was _his_ town."

"The League was different. They were open to ideas, even though I wasn't a member they listened to me and were prepared to take my advice. I couldn't be in the Justice League, they certainly don't need another leader, but I could maybe start a new team, one that would be ready for the future. Now, even after this short a time, the Titans are more than just team-mates, they're something I never really had much time for when I was younger; they're friends. Friends who can understand the reasons for the secrets we have to keep."

"And you'd risk friends in this business?"

"It's not a case of risking them, it's helping them stay alive and doing what they want to do."

Tim's voice grew slightly bitter again, "And the babe has nothing to do with it?"

To his credit Dick didn't even blush, "You mean Starfire?"

"If that's the name of the supermodel with hair down to her knees, then yes, Starfire."

Dick thought it over for a moment and decided that Tim deserved absolute honesty. "To be truthful yes, she is one of the reasons I stayed with the group, because I care for her deeply. Kory is warm and loving and generous, you'd like her a lot, and not just because of her looks. I hope that someday you meet someone who makes you feel the way she makes me feel."

Dick could see Tim was blushing a little, which was about the healthiest reaction he'd seen in him since he arrived.

"Starfire's not the reason I helped form the Titans though. She and the Titans have changed me a lot, but if we broke up as a couple, or she left the Titans, then I'd still want to be with them. "

"There are kids out there Tim, kids who are lost and alone, just like you and I were once, but they're more powerful, more potentially dangerous than we were. They can do things they sometimes can't even understand yet. Any one of them could be another Clayface, or another Parasite, but they could just as easily be another Superman, or another Flash. There are more of them every day, and maybe if I can maybe teach some of them, show them how to develop themselves _and_ work together, then they can do more good than if they were alone, and they need never feel they have to face their problems alone..."

Tim's expression had softened as Dick had continued, but interrupted him now. "What makes you think that you'd be better at training them than Batman was at training me?"

"Batman did train you well, he's the best. And you were a good student, no matter what you may think now. I don't know if I can match Bruce in that way, but the fear that I might not manage it is what drives me to keep trying. And if I feel that someone is definitely not cut out to be hero, then I'll have a greater incentive than ever to dissuade them. I won't risk someone who isn't ready, or who isn't up the job. I've got the memories of what happened when we maybe got a little bit overconfident, I know I'll never risk that again."

"It's hard work, some of these guys are really stubborn, but growing up with Bruce was good training for that, and Alfred taught me more than a few things about how to handle difficult young people too."

Tim smiled at that, and looked as if he might actually have started to laugh, but instead he started to cough, which rapidly became an uncontrollable spasm. From the back of Tim's throat came a truly grotesque sound, a gasping sound that was like a choking giggle that sounded horribly like a laugh that Dick still heard in his nightmares. Tim started to spasm but waved Dick away, pulling an inhaler from his jacket pocket, he drew deeply on it repeatedly. Slowly his breathing returned to normal.

Dick could only sit there, balling his hands into fists so hard he cut his own palms, knowing that showing any emotion that could be viewed as being akin to pity. Pity would cause more damage to his relationship with Tim than he knew how to handle.

Not for the first time, Dick wished the Joker were still alive, so he could personally beat him to a bloody pulp several times over. The Joker had committed countless crimes, taking life with careless glee over the years, but his last crime, the premeditated torture of a child with the specific intent to break him, body and soul, was surely the most sickening thing he had ever done.

Tim only looked up after another minute of controlled breathing and spoke slowly, his voice still shaky, the raspy quality more pronounced. "Sorry... residual Joker-venom, it's like nitrous oxide. If I start to laugh I can't stop. The inhaler's got an anti-toxin in it. You know the old saying 'It only hurts when I laugh."? Believe me, it's not funny when it's true."

Looking for a distraction, Dick turned to safe territory, "So how's Alfred these days?"

Tim looked grateful for even this clumsy diversion as he stowed the inhaler away. "He's been the best, as always. Always concerned, but never pitying. Always there, but never hovering. I swear I couldn't have got through Leslie's treatments without him. He's never said anything to Bruce about what happened..."

Dick knew that that wasn't true. Barbara hadn't believed it was possible for someone to express so much anger without shouting until she'd overheard Alfred's "discussion" with Bruce when Tim went missing. But on this one point he was prepared to lie to Tim. The sheer... _constancy_ of Alfred was clearly important to Tim's recovery.

"..but even so, Alfred has this way of being quiet."

Dick nodded "... that's worse than anything he could say out loud? Oh yeah, I know that side of him too. I got that treatment after breaking a few vases."

"Yeah, and Bruce gets it after breaking a partner." Dick winced inwardly, Tim was getting dangerously close to self-pity again.

Dick thought something over inside his head, then finally asked. "If you think it might be of any use Tim, one of the Titans might be able to help you. Her name's Raven, she's an empath. She can read emotions and feelings, maybe help you through some of what happened..."

Tim started so hard he practically fell off the couch, and had to steady himself with his cane. Dick would swear that for a moment, behind Tim's eyes lurked something else, something darker than Tim Drake could ever be, but it was gone in an instant and he dismissed the thought, the kid had been through a lot.

Tim sat back down carefully. "Sorry, no offence to this Raven, I'm sure she's really good at her stuff and means well and all, but I don't want my head messed around with any more. It's taken me this long just to be able to think straight by myself."

Dick shook his head. "No, I'm sorry Tim, I didn't mean to upset you. I just thought it might help. Perhaps we could find you a good professional therapist instead. You know... if you wanted to?"

"Dick, the last shrink I saw was wearing pancake makeup and coming at me with a hot pair of ..." Tim shuddered again. "...well, anyway, thanks but I'll pass."

Dick could have kicked himself for forgetting about Harley. "Sure, just thought I'd ask."

"Leslie's been helping me with a lot of that stuff... Did you know I couldn't look in a mirror for months? I was scared of what face I'd see looking back. The Joker liked to show me what I looked like in the mirror after his... treatments. He even took photos, said he was going to send them to all his friends in New Arkham, to show off his new... s-s-son." The stutter on the last word had an undertone of pain that Dick found soul-destroying.

Barbara had mentioned Batman finding a book of photos entitled "Our Family Album" when they'd gone back to Arkham to clear things up. Batman had never let her see the pictures inside and had burned the book immediately, but not until he'd made himself look at every single photo first. He hadn't moved for over half an hour after that, just stood in front of the pile of ashes, ramrod stiff, with... what? Anger? Horror? Remorse?... even Barbara hadn't been sure, but she had been scared.

Tim was still talking, "Sometimes, even now.... Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I can still see his... my... _his_ face staring back. They're _his_ eyes staring at, laughing at me, but they're my eyes too!"

Dick remembered the small figure that Tim had been on that first night in the clinic; strapped into his hospital bed to stop him hurting himself, eyes staring fixedly at nothing, bleached skin, dyed hair and that terrible, agonised smile, still giggling uncontrollably every minute or so, and felt that he could maybe understand the smallest part of the horror Tim felt.

"So how does the idea of not being Robin make you feel?" Great, more locker room psychology, but it was hopefully better than nothing and these emotions had to be aired somehow. "And if you are going to tell me, be honest Tim, like you wanted me to be to you."

Tim was silent for several minutes, during which time he repeatedly looked like he was going to say something then stopped himself. Dick just kept quiet and waited, this was the heart of Tim's problem, and he needed to face it if he was ever going to get on with any sort of life.

Eventually. Tim sighed heavily and the words sounded like they were being dragged out of him "Even though there's a part of me that wants to play the hero again, I can't even bring myself to look at the costume anymore, and I still need this stupid cane just to walk. To be honest, even if I got back to proper shape again, I'm not sure I could do it again."

He became more confident as he spoke, almost surprised that he was able to say this aloud, but as he did tears started to flow. "Since I met Bruce, being Robin was all I'd thought about being, it was everything I'd ever dreamed about, I could have adventures, make a difference, make Bruce proud of me, honour your legacy too. I was Robin, the Boy Wonder, and it _was_ wonderful. Now it's all gone, all been taken from me by the Joker, by Batman and by my failure. I don't know what to do anymore. One part of me is relieved that the responsibility is over and another part of me thinks that it's letting the Joker win and another part says it's the best thing that could happen to me and another part says its letting Bruce down and they're all mixed up inside me and I just don't know what to think anymore. I'm finally getting my head straight again and now I don't know what to do with myself..."

The tension on Tim's face dissolved as he broke down completely, not just crying, but sobbing uncontrollably. Dick could see that this must have been building for weeks. Between Bruce's stoicism, Barbara's discomfort and even Alfred's quiet fussing, Tim would have kept a brave face up, trying not to worry any of them unduly, not to disappoint them, but all the hurt was still there and it needed an outlet.

Without another word Dick went and just put his arms around Tim. He held his little brother close, and let him cry as much as he wanted to. He knew Bruce couldn't have done this, it wasn't in his nature anymore, maybe once, but not now. Barbara and Alfred would try, but Tim already felt Barbara was uncomfortable around him, and though Alfred seemed ageless, the events of the past year had aged him far more than he'd ever admit.

It was about the hardest thing Dick had ever had to do without crying too, but he had to be the strong one. If all Tim wanted for the moment was someone to sound off to, to yell at and to be a shoulder to cry on, then he'd be there for as long as he was needed. It wasn't a role he familiar with, but he knew it was what a big brother had to do sometimes.

Tim just kept repeating the same thing over and over "What am I going to do?" and then crying again. At last, after what seemed like several lifetimes of just sitting there, Dick felt some of the tension ease out of Tim and he finally looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes. Dick couldn't be sure whether Tim had started to work his problem through, or had just run out of tears for the moment.

"What _am_ I going to do Dick?" he pleaded, "With the rest of my life I mean? Bruce has said I can't ever be Robin again, and even if I was sure that he'd change his mind, I really don't know if I could do it again. What am I going to DO!"

"Well, for starters you're going to get a proper night's sleep. Tomorrow we can think over the rest of it. You don't need to be a hero anymore, you can lead a normal life, and you've earned the right to some peace a thousand times over. You can still do anything you want with your future. Maybe it's time to stop dwelling on what you can't be, on the past, and look to the future." God, this sounded trite, Dick though. "You can do something positive for the future. Go back to school, plan a career, eventually go to college. You always were a smart kid, and you know that money won't be a problem."

At once Dick felt Tim's shoulder tense up again "I'm not taking any money from Bruce. I don't want anything from him again. EVER. If he doesn't want me to be his partner, then I won't be, but I won't take half measures."

To Dick this all sounded sadly familiar, but Tim was years younger than he'd been himself when all this had come to a head, too young to deserve that much bitterness in him. "Okay, no Bruce. Let me help out instead."

"I don't want charity from anyone else, Dick. If I have to make it through life just being me again, then I'll do it on my terms."

"I wasn't offering a handout, I was thinking more of a loan. You can repay me when the time is right, just like a normal student loan. There'll be no charity involved, I promise."

Dick knew that his investment portfolio meant that he had more money than he'd ever know what to do with, but if adding legalistic strings to the deal made Tim more comfortable about taking the money, then that was just fine, it was an affirmative action at least.

"And Bruce won't interfere. You don't even need to go back to Gotham if you don't want to. You can stay here as long as you like. I'll sort it out with him."

Tim gave a grateful look to Dick, but said nothing, and Dick didn't feel anything else needed to be said on the subject.

Trying to distract himself from a rather emotional moment, Tim found himself staring at the round amulet-thing in the case beside him again. "What IS that, Dick. I know I've seen it before."

Dick cursed himself for not hiding it, then reconsidered, maybe Tim needed to see this right now. He opened the display case and picked it up from its stand. "It's a reminder, of what I once had, and what I nearly lost."

Tim blanched, he'd suddenly realised what it was. "Oh God. It's the buckle from my old utility belt? Isn't it?"

Dick nodded, "Well, 'my' old utility belt actually, but you wore it too. The first one, the one you we both grew out of almost before we'd started being Robin. It was mine to begin with so I didn't feel bad about taking it from the cave when I left that last time. I've changed it a little though. See?" It was a risky move, making him face up to his fears like this, but it might help in the long run. Dick reached out and dropped the buckle onto Tim's shaking palm.

Tim just looked at it as if it might explode. He closed his eyes, for a long minute he stood there, saying nothing, barely moving, then he opened his eyes and looked at it again. Almost against his will, he pressed the sides of the buckle as only a former Robin would know how to and it popped open.

Instead of the radio he expected to see, Tim found that it now had a photograph on each half of it, like an old fashioned locket. The first was of Dick and Bruce, Batman and Robin, standing side by side in front of the Batmobile on what might have been their first night as a team; Batman looking dark and menacing, though there was the trace of a smile if you knew where to look. Robin, however, was grinning like an idiot, giving a thumbs-up to the camera. The picture on the other side was of Nightwing and Robin on a rooftop in Gotham. Tim even remembered the night Batgirl had taken the picture, the first time all three of them had worked together on a case. What struck Tim most though, was the fact that he was standing in almost exactly the same pose as Dick had been, even down to the thumbs-up and the grin, though he was also holding a batarang in a throwing pose. Nightwing's folded arms had more than a touch of Bruce's stance too, though not as forbidding.

"Every time I wonder if I'm doing the right thing with the Titans I look at these and they remind me what we're all fighting for. I can't tell you how sorry I am about what happened to you Tim, but it wasn't your fault and we'll all keep telling you that until you realise that it's as truth. It might just as easily have been me that the Joker did those things to, or Barbara, or Bruce, or someone else altogether, a complete stranger."

"And I hate to say it Tim, but there are other people like the Joker out there. I have to try and stop what happened to you maybe happening to another kid, someone else's little brother, or father or mother, or daughter. I'd be dishonouring my parents and the name of Robin if I didn't. You don't need to keep the fight going Tim, you've done more than your fair share. But I'll do it for you, and so will Barbara, in her own way, and so will Bruce, until the day he needs that cane of yours for himself. Even then he'll probably keep going somehow. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Tim nodded dumbly, and snapped the buckle shut. He handed it back to Dick without a word.

Dick showed Tim up to the guest bedroom, but left him there alone. Tim wanted privacy he said, Dick knew some of the scars the Joker had left were still visible, Leslie wanted to wait until he was fully grown before doing any more grafts. The deepest scars, however, were on the inside and those would take far longer to heal.

He did ask if Tim was missing any medications that he might be able to get for him, but Tim held up a distressingly large bag that he said had everything he'd need. "If I thought there might be trouble about me going, I knew that if I left without these Bruce and Alfred would come and drag me back, no matter what the reason. If I keep you awake tonight, I'm sorry. The inhaler helps, but sometimes I just...." Dick nodded and didn't press any further.

For hours after that Dick wandered around his apartment, but couldn't concentrate, praying that he'd be able to ignore the sounds that came from Tim's room; the barely human giggling spasms and the moans as the nightmares recurred. How Bruce and Alfred could have tolerated it for so long he'd never know, then he realised they'd do it for exactly the same reason he would, because Tim needed him to.

When he was finally sure that his guest was resting properly, if not actually sleeping, Dick went down to the study area and logged on to his computer, using a security program that Barbara had designed especially. The call was accepted immediately, as he knew it would be.

"Yeah Bruce, he came to see me, like you said. Tell Alfred he says he's sorry for running out like that.... I _know_ Alfred understands already, but Tim needs you to tell him... Tim may be getting better physically, but his head's still in a mess at the moment. He'll make it through this eventually...he's stronger than I think any of us suspected, but he doesn't want to see anyone from Gotham at the moment and if you care for him you'll go along with what he wants...."

"Don't give me that damned stoic act Bruce, it's part of the reason that he's in this state.... You didn't talk to him, you didn't tell him anything about what happened and he blames everything on himself.... Did you even take that damn playing card down from the trophy collection...? I know he didn't ask, that's not the point. He shouldn't have _had_ to ask. He still loves you like a father, but he's furious with Batman at the moment, and that's left him very confused, and very lonely. He's having enough trouble deciding who Tim Drake is at the moment, and I doubt he'll even want to see his Robin costume again... "

"Of course I'll keep you posted on his progress, but I'll be telling him I'm about these calls. He's had enough of people not talking to him, not telling him what he needs to hear. He needs some honesty, cruel though that may be sometimes, and I'm going to do what I can to see that he gets the chance of a normal life that he deserves. Don't interfere, even if it is with the best of intentions. He'll just see it as you trying to control him, and he'd be right."

His voice darkened, "Promise me one thing Bruce, promise me you'll _never_ take on another Robin. I know you said you wouldn't, and I know you think you mean it, but I also know you might be tempted to try again, fix the mistakes you feel you made with Tim. So help me, if you do you'll have me to deal with, and remember who trained _me_."

With that he put down the receiver. He had a lot to get sorted out if he was going to have a houseguest for a while. The Titans would need to know he wouldn't be as available for starters....

The following day after coming back from the market upon finding that he had almost no food in the place, Dick found a wrapped package with his name on it sitting on the living area's coffee table. Inside was a penny and a small plastic model kit of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. A note was enclosed "Thought these might help you feel more at home. T."

For the first time since Tim had shown up, Dick genuinely felt like smiling.

The End