Disclaimer: All characters are copyright of DC. No monetary profit is being made from the writing or distribution of this fic.
Warnings: SPOILERS for Identity Crisis. In fact, you should know right now: Boomerang was the one who killed Tim's dad, yes, but Jean Loring was ultimately behind it.
House of Lies
It was a ripple, spreading out in ever-deepening rings down through the ages, pulling under new faces in each successive generation—an ugly shadow haunting the footsteps of every Robin. Tim wasn't superstitious. He'd been joking when he'd told Bruce it was a curse. He'd been crying too, hands and feet still sticky with his father's blood. Like Dick and Jason before him, and Bruce before that.
It was just a series of bad accidents. An endless cascade of misfortune, snuffing out friends and parents and loved ones. The crucible that created Robin. That's what he'd always believed.
But he'd been wrong.
Tim's feet ground into the gritty rooftops of Gotham in perfect unison with the masked vigilante at his side—the man the world knew as Batman. The man Tim knew as partner, then friend, and most recently as a second father. Below them, the city heaved with week-old refuse and human waste under the crumbling dream of marbled catwalks and gilded spires. It was dirty and grimy and beautiful, and Tim loved it. These were the moments he lived for.
Batman made a swift gesture and Tim swung left on a line, out into the open air above the filth below, wind whistling in his ears. Everything was clearer from that angle: the city spread out like a maze, and Batman, no more than a flicker of black, shadowing the heels of another boy running along the rooftops away from them. The boy's leather jacket swung with the length of his strides. He wasn't wearing that red helmet he favored, but there was no doubt as to the identity of their target:
Tim effectively hemmed off any escape to the left, line held securely in one hand as he hung miles above the asphalt streets. Gravity eventually ended his flight, carrying him back to the right, back toward Jason, which was exactly as he'd intended. He bore down on his target, feet lancing toward that spot between the older boy's shoulder blades.
He never connected.
The leather jacket flared as Jason spun in mid-step. There was a flash of steel. Tim twisted and the blade sliced through his line instead, effectively terminating his collision course with the older boy's back. Not that he'd expected the trick to work on a former Robin. He dropped roughly to the rooftop, rolling to lose momentum—the rooftop where Jason was waiting for him.
Tim had his bo staff out by the time he came out of his roll, just in time to block the blow that would've connected with his head. It pushed him back though. Jason had the slightest of edges when it came to pushing weight around. Not that it would do him any good against Batman, and those few seconds were all it took for the man to reach them.
Jason shoved away, distancing himself from Gotham's duo.
"Thought you'd never come." Tim beamed, spinning the staff back to center, and fell into place at the man's side. "Family reunions suck without you."
Batman didn't respond. Tim hadn't expected him to. The man was all seriousness on missions, but that didn't mean he hadn't heard. There would be time to talk later, in the quiet corners of the night, in the lull between heartbeats, when it was over. In the mean time, the familiar silence was just another customary aspect of their companionship—an understanding between two people.
Batman swung right suddenly, a blur of sleekly muscled bulk bearing down on their target, and Robin echoed him to the left, bo staff whistling. The ends of that black cape flickered at the edges of Tim's vision as he whirled, dodging around and under to harry Jason from the side. They were one: a single unit comprised of two parts—each covering the other's openings. When one went low, the other took high, and when one left, the other right. Like spinning gears, they meshed with perfect precision—one a little lighter on his feet, one a little stronger, but always perfectly in sync. Teamwork like that couldn't be bought or sold or bartered. But it had been paid for. Paid again and again in tears and sweat, forged in fire and blood.
"Your relatives hate me," Tim said, as Jason nearly managed to sweep his feet out from under him. The bo staff cracked hard against Jason's ribs in retaliation and the older boy grunted. But then Batman was between them, filling in that gap left open to the right.
"Still abducting children, Bruce?" Jason dodged the fist that would have connected with his face, twisting in midair.
"You had a choice. You still do."
"Yes, let's hear your little father speech. We all know how well that works." He sprang backward away from the pair, unable to hold ground against them both. "You think you can ask and I'll just go with you and it'll make everything alright, but it doesn't work that way. We don't just go back to being a happy family."
Batman didn't let that distance increase by much before he was after the boy. Tim was an echo close behind, footsteps and the rush of wind. He twisted around Batman, between the gaps—gears grinding together in the grit and smog.
"You should get out while you can, kid. You can't trust Bats." Jason's steel-toed foot connected with his side and Tim gasped, knocked back. A familiar black cape was in front of him then, protecting him during those precious moments he was off-balance and defenseless. Black was the color of safety. Always.
Tim grounded himself with the staff, finding center before bounding back into the whirl of leather and Kevlar.
"I'll stay with Batman, thanks."
"You're such a good little Robin. So devoted." Jason glanced at Batman then, and there was something dangerous in that slant of eyes. A warning. "You must be so proud, Bruce." A modified Glock appeared in his hand, point blank. Tim's eyes went huge, but he was too close, too close, too close. The rounds hit him dead center.
"Robin!" He heard the worried cry even as he staggered backward under the force, perilously close to the edge of the roof.
"I snapped his line earlier!" Jason. Smug. Even as he pulled the trigger. He knew he'd won this one. "Better save your precious Robin."
And then Tim's foot hit empty air.
He twisted, contorting his body the way Dick had showed him during a visit in Bludhaven, vainly struggling for that ledge, that precipice of safety he was leaving behind. But he wasn't as good as Dick, and the difference was bitterly obvious even as the edge of the rooftop fell away, centimeters out of reach. Without his line, there was nothing to do but free-fall, nothing but pavement to look forward to.
And nothing to worry about.
"I've got you." Fingers stretched, caught, arms snapped straight—one reaching up, one stretching down. There was safety in that grip, a deep trust. An unspoken promise of support.
Tim trusted Dick completely, more than any brother could. But that was different than feeling safe with Dick. When they were in the thick of things, when there was no hope of escape, it was Bruce Tim wanted by his side. It was Bruce that made him feel safe.
The black-gloved hand folded firmly around his own pulled him back up to safety, but of course, by the time Tim got sturdy stone back under his feet, Jason was gone.
"Sorry, Batman. If you hadn't had to catch me…"
"Robin…" A supportive hand fell on Tim's shoulder and he turned to look into that hell-black cowl, blinking, totally unaffected by the imposing figure behind him. "Catching you is far more important than catching any criminal." The twitch at the corner of his mouth was almost a fond smile, and Tim felt it wash away the last vestiges of self-recrimination. How anyone could fear Batman, he didn't know. There was no one he trusted more. Of course, most people hadn't tracked the man down when they were thirteen. Most people hadn't fought by his side through the worst scrapes Gotham could throw at them. Most people hadn't been held in those strong arms, wrapped safely in the blackest of capes to muffle the sobs while their father's body bled out on the floor.
Tim would never be afraid of Batman.
As they headed back to the cave that night, Tim didn't think for a second about Jason's accusations.
Jason didn't know anything. Robin belonged to Batman, heart and soul.
Robin was out of the Batmobile before it had even come to a full stop—maybe not with his usual grace compliments of that run-in with the wrong end of a Glock, but with all the same enthusiasm. The night's misadventure hadn't dampened his spirits a bit. Bruce found that same fond smile pulling at his lips again as he watched the boy bounce over to Alfred, whose clinical perceptiveness immediately took in the lead shots still stuck in the Kevlar over his chest.
"Master Timothy, what…"
"Jason decided he needed extra target practice." Robin grimaced.
"Alfred," Bruce ruffled the boy's dark hair as he came up behind the pair, rewarded with a flash of that brilliant smile, "if you would?"
"Right away, sir."
There had been a time Bruce hadn't been sure he'd see that smile again. But the boy had proven his resilience, adjusting well to living in the manor after the death of his father. Like those before him, he'd taken the hand Bruce offered, reached out for that support when what was left of the world bled out on the floor.
Bruce still remembered his own experiences much too clearly. It was a void eating away at self and sanity, only held at bay by the bright smiles and antics of the boys he'd brought into his life. They broke through the oppressive gloom of the cave. There were always bright eyes looking up to him now.
Standing protectively now beside Robin as the boy stripped off his suit and shirt, it was easy to see the welts and mass of bruises decorating that slim chest. By morning the skin would turn the blackest of violets. Kevlar could only prevent so much damage.
Robin had been damaged.
"It's not so bad." Tim reached out and tugged at his hand, and Bruce blinked. There he sat, a collage of black and blue, and the boy was trying to make him feel better. Robin had always been like that.
"Maybe you should stay in tomorrow. Work on case files on the computer." The boy grimaced but nodded understandingly. Bruce appreciated the lack of complaint right just then. There were things he could afford to lose and things he couldn't. He'd almost lost the boy once already when Jack Drake found out what his son was doing. The man had tried to separate them, to take Robin away. Luckily, there had been a solution to that. Jack Drake wouldn't bother them anymore.
Catching the darkening mood, Robin's hand tightened reassuringly on his, once again drawing him out of his rumination. Robin had always been such a good boy. So perceptive. That perpetual optimism of his was infectious, and Bruce let it wash away the outward worry, let it smooth away the scowl. He returned the pressure where their hands met, but even Robin's smile couldn't stop the thoughts still swirling sinisterly under the surface tonight.
Robin had been hurt.
Jason had been given too much leeway already. Something had to be done.
Bruce would do anything to keep his family safe. To keep them together. Anything.
It was a sheer accident—it was always one accident or another—Tim found the file. It was buried under a dozen subfolders with a naming convention that would have done the Pentagon proud: u!90`d. A name that rendered it all but invisible to searches.
Tim leaned closer to the screen, intrigued. Maybe his night off patrol wouldn't turn out so dull after all.
It was encrypted, of course. Truly encrypted. His administrative privileges couldn't pry open its contents. Neither could logging in as Batman. The bloody little file required an additional password. And without the proper key, he'd be lucky to get a hit in the next six months if he poured every bit of the batcomputer's processing power into the job. Anyone else would have thrown their hands in the air and given up. Not Tim.
"Trying to keep me out, Bruce? Don't you know it's useless?" He grinned in the face of such daunting odds, fingers falling back to the keyboard. There wasn't a file on the batcomputer Tim couldn't access. Not a security measure he couldn't crack. It was just a matter of time, and it didn't take more than a minute to bring up the bot he'd set to recording keystrokes so many months ago.
If Batman had accessed that file even once…
It took some time to sort through the data, but by the end of the night he had it. A little window suddenly popped open displaying the file's contents all pristine and smug. Tim sat back, accomplished. Bruce really didn't give him enough credit. But the rows of neatly organized documents now glaring across the screen weren't what he expected. Not what he expected at all.
At first it seemed simple enough—it was information on Robin. All of them. Of course that kind of data would be encrypted. Tim had his own set of extensive files on all of them, locked down just as securely. But as he skimmed through the information, it didn't take him long to notice that something was wrong. The file creation dates were too old. They were too old.
The thrill of success that had accompanied cracking the file twisted worrisomely in his gut as he clicked through old photos of Dick on the trapeze. By itself, that didn't mean anything. Bruce could've hunted down old images and added them to the file later. But Tim had been there the night the curtain came down on Dick's last performance, the night Bruce had met his new ward, and he would never forget the date. These photos had been added before that.
Brows furrowed, Tim went for his own file then, the worry in his gut coiling ever tighter. In the end, he found what he was looking for in a psychological evaluation of one Jean Loring, again dated earlier than it should have been. That was where he stopped, fingers frozen over the keys. The pieces came together with sickening slowness. It wasn't that he couldn't make sense of it—he'd solved harder cases with less to work with. No, it wasn't that he couldn't. He just didn't want to. Perhaps it was the last ditch effort of his mind trying to protect itself.
No, please, I don't want to know.
It was at that moment Batman's large hand came down on his shoulder, and Tim jumped.
"Dick is really something, isn't he?" The man's grip was loose, non-threatening, and when Tim looked up, Batman's focus was on the screen, on the scattered images of Dick and Tim strewn there like the broken shards of a mirror, sharp enough to cut. So many accidents. In that moment Tim felt Robin pulling at him most strongly, the curse that came with the cape and mask sucking him under, until there was no Tim left.
They weren't accidents.
"You always watch the circus so closely?" There was a time the hand on his shoulder would have been comforting, would have connected them, but now it was restraining him, and he couldn't breathe.
"I've always had an eye for talent. The boy was good."
"Good enough to take home?" Tim asked.
How long have you been watching us? Does Dick know? The grip on his shoulder disappeared as Batman reached up to pull his cowl back and sighed. Like a tired parent.
"You already know this story."
"I thought I did." Tim looked up then, facing those blue eyes, staring them down. "What about Jason?" Tell me it isn't true. "His mother was already so far gone. It didn't take much, did it?" Tell me it's a lie. Make me believe you.
"Robin…" Bruce tried to reach out to him, to close the distance that yawned between them, but it was too late for that. Tim jerked away, out of reach.
He wasn't listening anymore.
"What about my dad?" Not listening at all. "What did you do to my dad?" There was nothing Bruce could have said to that, nothing to make it right. He didn't even try.
"That's enough." Before Bruce could corner him against the computer terminal, Tim darted forward, foot hitting the computer chair, first the seat and then the back in quick succession. It gave him the height he needed—height to avoid the hand that came centimeters from grabbing his ankle in the middle of the jump. Even as he twisted away though, he knew it was hopeless. There wasn't going to be any escape—not in jeans and a button-up red shirt. Not without a plan prepared in advance. Not against Batman.
Robin might have been able to do it, despite the odds. Not Tim.
He felt the man's hands close around him, cut him off before he could get more than a few feet, and he knew it was over. There were a dozen ways he could have fought that grip, and two dozen more Bruce could have used to stop him. It was pointless to resist. Rationally, he knew that. But with the scattered bits of files staring accusingly at him from the screen with Dick's blue eyes and Jason's green—with what was left of his world lying there in tatters—hopeless didn't mean anything anymore. He thrashed against the hands that held him fast, an uncoordinated and desperate assault.
Even Bruce recognized how messy the attempt was: a bare-footed boy fighting Batman. Elbows couldn't damage Kevlar. Nails couldn't pierce plating.
"Robin, stop it." The man was gentle about it, subduing him without even bumping the bruises from the previous night's endeavors, but that kindness stung worse than anything. Tim howled as he was dragged back against that broad chest, into the man's embrace. Held that way—completely submerged in the darkness, wrapped up like a child—it felt like that night with his father all over again, and it really wasn't fair it should feel so safe. Not fair that he should feel completely secure only when he was completely restrained. Not fair that a cape black as sin should block out all the terrible world. Not fair that the smell of blood and sweat should drug him so.
His traitorous body stopped struggling then.
"You're tired, Robin," the man whispered into his ear, and he was. "You're not thinking clearly." A large hand ran up the column of his spine, tracing the ridges, and Tim shuddered, burying his face into the darkness of unyielding Kevlar. It was warm there, in the man's hold, and so wrong that it should feel completely safe. "Let's put you to sleep. You'll feel better in the morning." Then those fingers hit a spot a little to the left and above the back of his skull and everything went dark.
With a soft moan, Robin crumpled, slumping against Bruce bonelessly, falling into the folds of his cape. Bruce caught him before he could fall far, sweeping the limp body up into his arms. Holding the boy like that, so unresisting, so vulnerable, brought all his parental instincts bubbling up, and he clutched the boy tighter, protectively. Robin had always been so animated. Even when holding still for hours, that body was always coiled tight, ready to spring. Bruce could count the number of times he'd carried Robin like a rag-doll in his arms, and they were bad memories. All of them. Memories of those times he'd failed. Times the boy had needed him and he hadn't been there. Like tonight.
It was a pity he'd found the file—a pity he'd had to see that. But it was largely inconsequential. It wasn't like Robin was going anywhere. He would be difficult for a while, but he'd come around.
As Bruce turned toward the stairs, the boy wrapped safely in his arms, the computer screen washed everything a sickly pastel, painting the room with images of Tim and Dick—the one shyly clutching his own camera, the other laughing as he hung upside down from the trapeze. Bruce remembered those days…
"Here again, Mr. Wayne?" The woman laughed in her patchwork suit of oranges and greens as she danced past. Bruce smiled back, the picture of a sheepish playboy. It wasn't the bright lights or the dazzling colors, not the electric current running through the crowd that brought him to Haly's night after night. It was something much more interesting than lion tamers and clowns and fire breathers. It was the boy.
One of the Graysons. Their only child. Bruce watched him, eyes riveted to that smiling face, painted with the sheer exhilaration of flying. He knew that feeling, or something close to it when the cars wheezed past and the headlights lit up the abused bricks of the alleyway, when the city sprawled before him—his city—and his blood ran hot. They were alike in that aspect, him and the boy, and oh the things he could teach someone with so much promise.
He watched as the youngest Grayson landed safely back in the waiting arms of his mother, hugging her adoringly before turning to wave. He watched, and he wanted.
As the aerialist family left the stage, Bruce's gaze stayed riveted to their son the whole way, calculating, and he anticipated that moment when he could take the boy into his arms, take him home.
They were going to be more alike shortly—they were both going to be parentless.
"I'll see you soon, Robin…"
The memories abruptly cut into darkness as the screen went black. Satisfied, Bruce turned to leave, adjusting the sleeping body in his arms.
As he carried the boy through the long, empty halls, he couldn't help but notice the bare feet dangling over one arm. It was easy to forget how quickly Robin was growing up when he noticed things like that: the boy's recent practice of walking around the manor without footwear.
That fond smile twitched at Bruce's lips again. It was the little things—Robin's odd habits, the quips, the often indomitable optimism—that made the screaming silence in the walls more bearable.
Robin was the only thing that made it more bearable.
A flight of stairs vanished away under his quiet tread and pleasant memories, the boy feather-light in his arms. Not a burden at all. Never a burden. But then he was standing at the bedroom door, and it felt like the trip had ended all too soon.
He laid the boy in the bed, shirt and jeans and all. The moonlight filtering in through the windows made that face look paler than it was. For a long time, Bruce sat there on the edge of the mattress, watching the brazen black bars of the window frame slide across the body on the bed. Finally, reaching out with one large hand, he pushed back several unruly strands of raven hair, ran his fingers through those thick locks. Like one might comfort a sick child.
"I think you'll be staying home from school tomorrow."
And then he was gone.
The sunlight beaming through the double windows was an unwelcome intrusion that morning. A wake up call Tim wasn't ready for. It wasn't like him to sleep in—usually he was up bright and early, not wasting a minute of the morning—but the previous night's discoveries still clung stickily to his memory, a pall to dampen even the cheeriest day.
Robin's story had always been riddled with misfortune, but those were the risks. They all knew them. Tim had always thought the accidents had brought them closer together. The one bright spot in a sea of tragedy. He'd lost his father, his home, his mooring in the chaos that surrounded Robin, but the tragedy had only served to cement his bond with Dick and Bruce.
"I'm like you now, Dick." He'd tried to smile, find commonality to cling to, but it was faltering, twisted with grief. "I'm like you: parentless."
"But not homeless." Dick had hugged him, ruffled his hair.
He'd traded one family for another, and maybe it wasn't an equivalent exchange, but now he had a big brother and a father-figure again—people who loved him. They'd smiled at him, hugged him, opened their arms to him…
Bruce had held him.
Tim scowled at the memory—a memory he'd always cherished before—because it hadn't been Tim the man had held that night. It had been Robin.
When he'd said it would be alright, it had been Robin he was comforting. When he'd smiled, he'd smiled at Robin. It was Robin Batman needed, not Tim.
For the first time in a long time, Tim felt lost. Like the ground beneath him had crumbled away without his noticing, and this time there was no one reaching out to pull him to safety. No Batman to save the day.
There was nowhere to go, no haven from the pitiless sun shining through the windows, but he couldn't stay curled in bed all day either. Someone would come looking for him soon enough. So reluctantly he pushed back the warm covers and pulled on a clean pair of blue jeans and a shirt, facing the inevitable.
Bruce was waiting at the dining room table, a glass of orange juice and a newspaper in hand, the picture of a normal family morning at home. Tim stopped in the doorway, hands clenching involuntarily, facing that broad back.
"Good morning." The man didn't even have to turn and look to know he was there.
"I thought you had a meeting today." Tim made his feet move forward, even though they felt like lead weights, and took a seat opposite. There was no point running. If Bruce wanted him to stay, he'd be staying.
"Isn't family more important?"
That fatherly concern after everything… everything he'd done… after last night… Tim's throat clenched tight and he had to force himself to sit still—force his mouth to work around level words.
"I have school."
"I called you in sick. I thought you might not be feeling up to it today." That was certainly true, though the thought of spending the day with Bruce, trapped at the man's side where he could be properly observed and handled, brought the sickness back all over again. At least at school he would have been away from the problem, able to pretend for a few hours that everything was alright.
"Look," Bruce continued, "I know between Bruce Wayne and Batman I'm not always around when you need me, but this family is important to me. I'm not going to give up on it."
He really was being handled. The walls pressed in a little too closely then, and it was only his Robin training that kept his breath from hitching high into hyperventilation, that kept his hands clenched firmly down on the table. He needed to think everything through, sort it out on his own. He needed some time. But Bruce wasn't going to allow him that luxury. Until he could get away, he was going to have to play along, so he forced a smile and said he understood. And resigned himself to attempting normal family activities, or whatever passed for them in the Wayne household.
Tim hit the ground for the third time that night, shoulder smashing into the cold concrete. Kuruvadi was immediately on top of him, pinning him with his muscled bulk. He should've fought. He should've struggled. But those large hands were at his wrists, pinning him as surely as nails. There was no getting out of that grip. Stronger men had tried. His heart wasn't in the fight anyway. Tim went limp, boneless against the floor, succumbing to the emptiness of defeat.
It wasn't the first, or the second, or even the third time he'd lost to the man that night. He'd been hopelessly crushed against the floor more times than he could count. But still… he should've fought.
"Only ten minutes, Robin?" Kuruvadi pulled back his burgundy hood and removed his mask in order to regard the boy beneath him with Bruce's ice-blue eyes. "I thought you were making progress."
Ten minutes. After how hard he'd worked to hold out for an hour last week, he'd barely lasted a crushing ten minutes, and that was even with the man going easy on him, purposely avoiding the mass of bruises he'd acquired from their run-in with Jason. Bruce's disappointment shouldn't have stung so much.
He definitely needed to get away—away from the crushing weight of expectations, away from the happy memories he still attached to the manor, away from the man he'd trusted more than anyone else. The man he'd thought of as a father. The man whose opinion of him still mattered more than anyone else's. Even the betrayal twisting sickeningly inside him couldn't rid him of the shame he felt for disappointing Bruce. There was still some part of him that craved the man's acceptance. But when Bruce looked at him, did he see Tim at all? Or was Tim just another guise for Robin?
He was losing himself, bit by bit becoming what Bruce wanted him to be. There was already too much of his that belonged to the man: his memories, his home, his family.
Before he could lose anymore of himself, Alfred came to his rescue.
"Master Richard's on the line, sir."
Tim wondered again if Dick knew. If he'd ever found out. If that was really why he'd left. But no, if that had been the case, Dick would have warned him.
"Robin…" Bruce hesitated, looking down at him.
"It's alright," Tim hurried to assure, sitting up. "I need a break anyway."
And while Bruce was distracted with the phone, Tim used those free minutes to gather up the bo staff he'd dropped earlier and disappear into the shadows. He didn't know where he was going. He couldn't face Dick right then. He didn't want to talk to Stephanie. It felt like everything was closing in on him, suffocating him, and all that mattered was to get away, away, away.
It wasn't until later, Robin's feet light across the rooftops, that he realized where he was headed. The only person on earth who might understand.
Bruce wasn't surprised to find the boy gone when he returned. It wasn't a problem. He wouldn't get very far, nowhere that Batman couldn't find him.
A whisper was all it took. A pebble tossed in the right direction: a thug who accidentally escaped with the notion of protection fees, an umbrella offered on a rainy day to the ex-wife of a superhero. The right words in the right ear. And the ripples spread. It was Jean Loring who ordered Jack Drake's death. It was Tony Zucco who sent men to sabotage the trapeze. But who could trace the origin of an idea?
He'd arranged the funerals. He'd had a few minutes to say his own farewells.
The empty husk of the man lay pale and still in the casket before him. He looked as if he was merely sleeping, and the expression on his face was one of peace. A far cry from the gruesome, gory crime scene he had followed Robin into: warm blood pooling across the wooden floor in a large, crimson puddle and the man's face distorted in shock, eyes glazed over in death...
Bruce looked at him now—the body cleaned and re-dressed by the coroner—and felt a grudging bit of respect for him. At least the man had realized he had been marked by death. At least he had seen it coming. At least he had tried to fight for his life, just as he had tried to fight to keep his son. Dick and Jason's parents had not been as quick to deduce their fates.
Bruce leaned down over the open casket and whispered a final farewell in the corpse's deaf ear, "Don't worry. I'll take good care of your son, Mr. Drake. He's mine now."
The man had tried to take the boy away—banned him from being Robin. But that wouldn't be a problem anymore.
Drake's boy was brilliant—a blade gleaming in the moonlight, carefully honed by Bruce's hard hands. The boy had become a living weapon and an unparalleled tactician—he'd taken down one of the most dangerous assassins on earth before she'd even thrown a punch, controlled chaos with probability. But underneath it all—under the genius and the ingenuity—he was still a boy. And that's what would undo him. That's what would ensure he came back.
Jason knew there was something wrong as soon as he reached his apartment. He froze, halfway through the window, three stories up. He could've come through the door, but there was such a convenient little ledge below the sill, and bat-training died hard. The room was choked with shadows, backlit by the moonlight behind him. Not a good position.
Sudden movement had him diving forward, into a low roll across the trash-strewn floor, only to come up, Glock in hand, leveled mid-waist. He fired twice before a bo staff whistled out of the darkness, sending the gun skittering away. He was already swearing as he tackled his late-night guest, pressing the nose of the second Glock up under the kid's chin at the same time that stupid staff slid into place against his throat.
"Son-of-a-! Robin!" He thought about turning the gun around and clocking the kid one with it—quick, out like a light—but there was that staff to consider… "What are you doing here?" Now that his eyes were beginning to adjust, he swept the darkened corners suspiciously, past the rotting remains of a couch and a rusty sink. "You didn't bring the other one with you, did you?"
"No. I removed the tracer. Hey!" The boy yelped as Jason reached down and groped his thigh, all the way up along his hip.
"Pardon me for not believing you." It earned him a stinging staff whapped across his shin for the trouble. He was considerate and didn't fire the next round up through Robin's jaw.
The kid had told the truth about the tracer at least, but that wasn't enough to stop Batman. It could've been a trap too, but if so it was pretty uncoordinated. If there was one thing Jason knew about Tim, it was that he had some serious tactical skills. It wasn't like him to be uncoordinated when he had the time to prepare.
Jason lowered his gun.
"Not that I don't appreciate you looking in on me, but I don't. What's going on, baby bird?"
"Don't…" Tim practically ripped his mask off. "Please don't call me that!"
Jason whistled. "Trouble in paradise, hm? Let me guess… it's Bruce?" That would make sense of why the kid had come to him instead of Dick. Tim muttered something and stared at him dubiously.
"You shot me 16 times in the chest."
"You were wearing Kevlar."
"And shoved me over a roof after intentionally snapping my line."
"Didn't Batman catch you?"
Tim threw his hands in the air. "Why am I having this conversation with you?"
"I don't know. Why did you come here?" Jason felt just as exasperated as the kid looked. Since when had he ended up playing older brother? He wasn't cut out for this. Bruce problems or not, wasn't Dick available?
In hopes of luring the kid out, he sat down on the couch, ignoring the lumps and the way it sagged lower than it should have. Backing off seemed to work. Tim leaned back against the dirty wall and slid down until he landed with a soft whumph on the floor, sending bits of refuse and old cigarettes scattering. He ran a hand through his hair agitatedly. Now that all the tension had drained out of that lithe body, Jason could really see how distressed the kid was. It was easy to forget, looking at Robin, who was always so confident and assured, that there was a boy underneath that mask just as vulnerable as anyone else.
He was talking to Tim now.
"I worked so hard for this." Tim stared at the black gloves covering his hands. "For Robin. To be Robin."
Oh joy. Reminiscing.
"Just remember you're replaceable." It came out in a cold growl, but Jason didn't care. He refused to dwell on those memories—refused to remember that it could be good. "If one son doesn't work out, he can always find another."
"Robin has always been replaceable." Not family though. Never family. "That was never the point. It was a place to belong, a chance to make a difference."
"Give it up, kid. He doesn't care about you. He doesn't care about any of us at—"
"You're wrong!" The outburst was so vehement, Jason straightened from his slouch, surprised to be railroaded by someone usually so polite. "Batman needs Robin. He needs Robin more than anything. That's the problem. That's what I didn't understand. Jason, my parents… he…"
Something inside him went cold at that, and he realized he had failed to catch something important.
"What are you talking about?" he asked, slow and careful. But Tim was shaking his head, not looking at him, staring at the wall and the floor.
"It's my fault. I was the one who got them involved in this. If I'd never become Robin…" The words cut off. There was no regretting Robin, not ever. No matter what the consequences, Robin was a choice none of them would ever take back.
"You should get out," Jason told him in the silence that followed.
"This is all I have left." It was a whisper. Jason had to strain to hear. "Even if it's wrong. Even if it's all been a lie. I still care about him. I still think of the manor as home. I still want his approval. I still want that." Not to mention, grueling training exercises that left sweat beaded on his skin and a pleasant ache singing through every muscle. And long nights redeeming a city that didn't deserve it alongside the man who'd taught him to fly. And…
Jason scowled, banishing those old desires from his mind.
"Forget about him." He'd tried to warn the kid, dang it. He'd tried…
"I can't." Tim curled into himself. "I can't." And he just looked so miserable… Jason crossed his arms, refusing to go over there and hug the kid like some emotional idiot—he wouldn't, he absolutely wouldn't—that was Dick's job, even if he wasn't here. Jason was the Red Hood, feared Gang Lord of Gotham, and… Arg!
"Come here." Tim yelped as Jason dragged him over a knee. It was awkward and messy, and there were limbs everywhere, and he wasn't Dick, dang it! But Tim didn't seem to care if he was getting strong-armed against Jason's chest. He struggled momentarily—who wouldn't struggle when they'd just been hugged by a Gang Lord—but when Jason didn't let go, he gave up and settled back into the awkward embrace, fingers fisted in his shirt up under the leather jacket.
"I can't forget," Tim said one last time, almost apologetically.
"Neither can I," Jason muttered gruffly, and the grip on his shirt tightened.
He still didn't know what the kid had found out that had upset him so badly, but it didn't matter. He didn't need to know. It all came down to the same thing: Bruce was a jerk.
For a few minutes, the stillness settled. Jason listened to the whine of old pipes and felt each quiet breath of the kid still trapped in his arms, felt the tension slowly leave taught muscles.
"Is this where you live?" Tim asked at length, lifting his head and taking in the sordid state of the apartment—the rusty sink in the corner and moth-eaten sheets on the bed.
"You come here and you insult my interior design? Not all of us live with billionaires."
"Sorry. Look, can I stay here tonight?"
Jason thought about telling him to find his own place, but the kid looked seriously put out, and it must've stung having to ask. He groaned. He cursed Dick the third time for not being there. Then he said okay.
Tim smiled at him—that smile almost made it worth it—and then proceeded to go curl up in his bed. Jason choked. "Hey! Wait a…"
Jason's mouth snapped closed, replaced by a scowl. He thought about hitting the kid with a lead pipe and dragging him out, but with those tired blue eyes blinking at him slowly from atop the sheets, he just couldn't do it. He really wasn't cut out for all this big brother junk, but as he watched the kid sleep and thought about their conversation, he couldn't help but feel a little protective. Someone had to do something. Someone had to keep the kid safe. He rubbed the back of his neck, not liking his train of thought. There was a Robin in his bed, and dang, it was going to be a long night.
Jason glanced back one last time at the kid sleeping in his bed, blissfully ignorant where he lay wrapped in gentle dreams, cocooned in unconsciousness. He'd be safe there. The last Robin Bruce would ever hurt. Jason was going to make sure of it. Turning his attention back to the glass, he hopped through the window, out into the shadows and the dark figure that waited for him on the rooftop opposite.
Determination laced the soft crackle of his boots across the tar and gravel.
"What do you want?" There was determination in his stride but only bitterness on his tongue—bitterness for the man he hated more than any other.
"He's safe. He's sleeping. What's it to you?"
"Robin's not feeling well. I've come to take him home."
"Like hell. I doubt staying with you is healthy for the kid." Jason planted himself firmly in front of the man. It was funny how things worked out. He'd hated Robin not so long ago. But now the kid needed him, and Jason wouldn't let anyone else end up like him. "Tim came to me. He's not going anywhere if he doesn't want to."
Batman paused, examining him, probably calculating how to get around the blockade Jason presented. If he wanted Robin, he was going to have to go through Jason's dead body. Literally.
"Jason, come home with me. It doesn't have to be like this." He almost sounded like he cared.
"Yes, it does." Jason ground the words between his teeth. They felt like shards of glass coming out. Somebody had to do something about Bruce, before he hurt any more kids. The man had made a grave error showing up there that night, in Red Hood's territory, he just didn't know it yet.
Jason was smiling as he stepped off the roof.
Tim jolted upright as the first explosion rocked the building. He was on his feet a second later, stumbling as the floor seemed to tilt violently. It wasn't his building that had been hit—if it had, it would have been raining debris—but he could feel the shock of it through the floor and in the way the windows rattled, in the deafening roar that took out his hearing. Close. Seriously close.
He reached the window in seconds, just in time to see two more explosions go off, ripping through the abandoned building across the street. Just in time to see a familiar figure, black cape billowing in the night wind, swallowed up by the flames.
Just in time to watch his world fall apart.
It took Tim a second to realize he was screaming—open-mouthed, howling into that inferno. He couldn't hear it—couldn't hear anything at all. The roaring fire, the snapping of support beams and shriek of metal—it had all been robbed from him with his hearing. He couldn't hear it, but he could feel the way the scream blistered his throat. Vertigo swayed the world, made the streets beneath him roll sickeningly. He shook his head, trying to shake off the disorientation without success, and then he was outside on the ledge anyway and scrambling into that burning hell where he'd last seen the man. Because all the things he thought he knew, all the doubts and suspicions, all the files with old dates, none of it mattered in the face of losing one of the last people he cared about. None of it mattered at all.
Robin might have been strong enough to deal with it—he'd been trained to deal with it—but Tim couldn't go through it again. It was Tim who leapt into the rubble, shouting a name he couldn't hear. Tim who pulled the man from the flames.
Behind him, discarded in a heap of tattered sheets and old newspapers in the building across the street, the Robin mask lay forgotten on the floor.
Tim woke up slowly, pulled from an exhausted sleep by the feel of fingers sifting through his hair. His face was flattened to the white sheets of the medical bed where he'd finally crashed, one hand still outstretched to the man who lay there. Exhausted as he was, it took him a minute to realize that it was Bruce's fingers tangled in his hair, absently fingering fine strands. It was Bruce sitting up in bed, that fond, almost-smile on his face as he watched over the boy who'd faithfully fallen asleep at his side.
It was Bruce, and he was okay.
"Bruce?" Tim jerked upright, eyes bright through the dark circles as the man's hand fell away. He wanted it back instantly—wanted that contact, that reassurance. Every joint in his body was sore and his clothes were rumpled, slept in, and there was a perfect print of the sheet wrinkles in his right cheek. It must've been a sight to see neat little Tim looking so disheveled.
It had been three days, and in all that time the man hadn't moved. Not once.
"You haven't been here beside me the entire time, have you?" Bruce reached up to catch the boy's chin as he nodded—not a harsh grasp, but firm—and tilt that face to see the damage. Tim reached up too, grasping the one arm that was extended to him and not covered in bandages, leaning his face into that touch, that reassurance.
Seeing Bruce awake sent a wave of relief through Tim, easing tension in his shoulders he hadn't even realized was there. The horror of watching another parent die.
This was his family now. Dick's only family. He couldn't take that away. But what it really came down to, as it so often did, was selfishness. It wasn't about Dick or protecting his brother. It was about protecting the last bloody shards of family he possessed. It was about protecting himself, his sanity. Because he couldn't lose another parent. He wouldn't. It was selfish and terrible and sick, and the only family he had…
So when Bruce hugged him, Tim buried his face in the man's chest, buried everything he thought he'd found out, erasing the contents of the file from memory and the backup memory and the whole corrupted partition. He breathed in Bruce's scent—the smell of blood and sweat he'd come to associate with warmth and comfort—and smiled…
And committed to the lie.
"I'm glad you're alright… father."
The room was dark, but it didn't bother Tim or the man beside him. They were together again, a perfectly coordinated pair. It was in the way they moved, one stopping at the exact same instant as the other, always aware of where the other was, always just out of the other's way. It was in the way they didn't have to look at each other to know what to do.
There was a sound like metal on metal from the corner of the room, just the tiniest squeak, but Tim heard it. Even without the noise, he was already headed over, crossing the room to the bed in the opposite corner and the older boy handcuffed to the frame.
"Let me out of here, Bruce! You hear me? Let me out!"
Jason had been wrong about one thing: none of them were expendable.
Jason was family now—had been family from the moment Tim became Robin, something of a rebellious older brother. Tim didn't have many of those. Family members were not replaceable. He'd lost too many of them already. They all had. Tim wouldn't let his family fall apart.
"It's good to have you here, son." Bruce sat down on the edge of the bed and reached out to pat his second-eldest on the shoulder, all fatherly concern. Tim curled up in an empty spot a little to the right, leaning easily into the safety of the man's side. At a welcoming glance from warm blue eyes, he smiled back contentedly. Then both of those gazes turned on Jason simultaneously, both with identical, concerned expressions, and it was downright eerie to watch.
"Like hell." Jason jerked on the wrist handcuffed to the bed frame, just tight enough that even dislocating his thumb wouldn't remove it. He'd been stripped of his usual clothes too—they couldn't run the risk that he might have a lock pick sewn into one of the seams. Or something worse.
"Don't be like that," Tim said, drawing his knees up to his chest and flashing Jason hurt blue eyes. "This is where you belong. We have to stick together." That was the thing about being Robin. No prints. No records. No one to come looking for them. They didn't exist. Except to each other.
"You're family, Jason. We take care of our own." They weren't going to lose anymore. Not ever again. Dick was still out and in, but he always came back when it was important, or just to see how they were doing. Tim loved those visits.
"You're insane. All of you."
"He'll come around." Bruce put a reassuring arm around Tim. Their family was together again. That was all that mattered. Jason would understand in time. After all, he was still a Robin at heart, even if he wouldn't admit it.
And Robin belonged to Batman.
"I'm your son." Those were dangerous words to say to Bruce. Tim knew all too well. The smug little brat stood there, all short-cropped black hair and blue eyes—the spitting image of the older man. Not like that mattered at all. They had no qualms about adoption.
Bruce's hand was on his shoulder suddenly, connecting them, and Tim realized his smile had slipped. He beamed up at the man.
"You have any parents?" Tim asked. "Legal guardians?" It was always better to double-check when it came to loose ends.
"The name's Damian. And Batman's my father, you idiot. How many times do I have to say it?"
"What do you think, Robin?" Bruce's eyes were all for the kid, even when directing the question to Tim. "You want another brother?"
Tim was already circling around, hemming off the boy's escape, anticipating Bruce. The efficiency with which the two carried it out was startling. Damian never had a chance. Tim's smile was brilliant.
"He already feels like family."
Author Note: It's pretty bad when Jason and Damian are the only two sane people in the world. I'll let you decide whether Bruce intentionally took that hit. And okay, I know I messed up the timeline. I pulled most of the events from Robin: Search for a Hero, but by that point Bruce is already gone. And I took the liberty of rewriting Damian's introduction, and Tim's personality is a bit on the chipper side for his 16-year-old self (let's face it—he's no fun when he's all broody). Not to mention a number of other, minor inconsistencies. Bad author. Bad.
I wish I'd found a more action-filled way of delivering the news about Bruce—that still feels a little dull—but like Bruce would leave evidence anywhere. The only way I could think to incriminate him was with his habit of storing data.
Credit goes to Schnickledooger, who wrote one entire flashback scene (I'll let you figure out which one isn't my writing), and beta-ed the entire thing. Without her inspiration and prompting, this would never have gone anywhere. She might also have been the one to convince me to post this as a one-shot instead of a 3-parter (aren't you lucky?). We might even be collaborating on a sequel to NOT tie up those pesky loose ends—what happens when Dick visits and finds Jason in the basement, or when Damian starts trying to kill Tim, and will Dick get away with being the only family member not in the manor?
Kept humming Duncan Sheik lyrics: "It's a lie, it's a lie, don't you believe it. If you're fine, then you're fine. It's all how you see it."
P.S.: If you can't figure out the file name, turn it 180 degrees clockwise.