Know me broken
August 7, 2003
Disclaimers: So not mine.
Spoilers: Big ones for Return of the Joker.
Summary: In the aftermath.
Ratings Note/Warnings: R. Content some readers may find disturbing.
Author's Note: I watched it again. This happened.
Acknowledgments: To Deb for enabling and audiencing.
Feedback: Yes, please. firstname.lastname@example.org
He doesn't know what to do.
Or rather, Bruce knows exactly what to do with traumatized (abused, tortured, don't, don't) children. There are agencies. Doctors who specialize, hospitals the Batman has dropped bruised and battered and glassy-eyed children at and lifted away without a second glance.
Children Bruce keeps an eye on, one way or another. Scholarships. Jobs for the parents with generous family leave packages.
It's just that... Tim.
They haven't told his father yet. Haven't told him that he's been found. Only the commissioner knows, and Gordon knows... everything. Too much. It had been in his eyes, in the set of his face. The wrinkles seemed deeper. He'd kept a hand on Batgirl's shoulder, and made her Barbara again, even in the uniform.
There were no more secrets with Gordon, not even the ones that had never really been secrets in the first place.
Somewhere in the city (oh, but you know the address, you know), a man is sitting alone and awake, waiting for the call, perhaps knowing in his heart that his son is dead, just another bit of rot in the city.
Mr. Drake isn't far wrong.
The anti-toxin has done everything it can. Tim's face is sore, but settled into the old, familiar lines. The corners of his mouth are cracked, and bleed if he opens his mouth too wide. He only does that to scream.
"What are you going to do?" Barbara's words, Jim's voice. Neither of them have to be here for Bruce to hear the words, and they aren't. Alfred sits with Tim in the study, a presence he can feel like an extra shadow. A bit of accidental malevolence at a distance. Not far enough.
He can't bring himself to leave the house. Bruce Wayne has taken a leave of absence. Batman no longer patrols nightly, and never for very long.
It's... he knows himself. It's something like penance to stay here, the house silent in every way that counts.
Tim doesn't run, doesn't laugh. Never talks.
Screams all night, every night.
A smile on Alfred's face last night, joyless and old: "It's not so different..."
He hadn't needed to finish the thought.
Bruce lies awake in his bed, and listens.
"Please oh God please..."
"You have to tell me what you need," he'd said to the boy.
Tim had made a sound like he was strangling, but when Bruce touched his shoulder he'd only laughed. His laugh. (That's not funny, that's not)
The weight and shadows lift, a bit. Alfred and Tim have left the study. Perhaps to eat something. Perhaps.
He doesn't know what to do.
It would be right, it would be good to simply give Tim to the proper authorities. There are... there are agencies. He would be taken care of, and everyone would know... everything. (That's right, Bruce...)
He doesn't really believe, not in his heart, that the Joker is dead.
When he sleeps, he dreams of the earth shifting beneath Arkham, of ice-white fingers tossing away clods of dirt, of laughter in the night.
He doesn't sleep much.
Alfred is a quiet, endlessly patient presence at his shoulder.
"Tim is asleep. I'm not entirely sure I can call it resting."
Bruce nods, mostly to himself, and waits for Alfred to disappear again, but he doesn't.
"We cannot help him here."
"I..." There are no protests that can be made to that statement that mean anything. "I don't know what to do." He can't recognize the sound of his own voice.
"Dr. Thompkins already knows your -- our -- secrets."
"She isn't... this isn't what she does, Alfred."
"Still.." But he doesn't finish the thought. Doesn't say another word, just rests his hand on Bruce's shoulder. Strokes his hair lightly. Leaves.
It's a cue, as much as anything else. The day-watch is done, the night-watch begun. He should be upstairs. He should be within shouting distance. Screaming distance. He needs to hear it. Everything.
And the funny thing -- and it's very obvious, because it's really the only thing about any of this that could be defined, however awkwardly, as humorous -- is that Bruce is... surprised.
Had been surprised. Not that the Joker learned his secrets, but how.
Dick, Barbara... they'd been captured any number of times. Tied up and bruised and interrogated. Hurt more for their association with him than for anything else. But it had always ended the same way. Batman to the rescue, villains apprehended and paid back tenfold for every hurt they'd inflicted on the children. His children, for all that Barbara was a woman now, that Dick had his own city to watch over, and never came back to Gotham if he could help it.
Even Tim... God, how could he be so young? How could he be so small? They'd been... Tim had been Robin for years now, but he was a child. Perhaps the only one he'd ever really known. Open and happy and in love with being a hero no more than he should be. Something... something bright.
Bruce had been... complacent. He had blinded himself to the truth of the world he lived in. Not enough to be hurt, not enough to keep him from doing his job. Just enough to leave Tim in danger.
Knowledge in Jim Gordon's eyes, yes, but that wasn't everything. Censure. Confusion.
And no one had said it, and maybe no one ever would, but Bruce has never needed anyone else to put the pieces together for him. A child, Bruce? How could you. How could you let him go alone? How could you let him wear the suit? What kind of monster...
He'd burned the films, the slides. The cameras the Joker and Harley had used.
But he'd watched everything first, oh yes.
The electrocutions, the poisonings. The endless, endless screaming laughter. The coy fades to black. As if there was nothing else that needed to be recorded. As if there was nothing else to be seen but the wide-eyed terror on Tim's face. The reaching-out hands.
A surprise, yes.
Because how could anyone do that to a child?
How could Bruce forget?
He eased out of the chair, remembering just in time to lean on the cane. He'd had worse wounds than the one on his leg, but he'd been younger then, too. He avoids the stairs that creak out of habit, and pauses in front of Tim's door. The guestroom, really, but there had been any number of "sleepovers" over the years. Lies for Robin. For him.
Closed, though he would bet Alfred hadn't left it that way.
He rests his hand on the door and listens, straining against the thickness of the wood, hoping for... he doesn't know what he hopes to hear.
Down the hall to his own room and Bruce goes through the motions of getting ready. Pajamas, the lights...
The lights. Alfred always leaves both bedside lamps on, but tonight only the lamp by the mirror is on. He tenses, cursing himself quietly for the fog around his mind and reaches for the overhead with one hand and a fireplace poker with the other.
"It's just me."
"Tim?" A stupid question, but he hasn't... he hadn't said anything in so long. Not to him.
Bruce crosses to the bed and turns on the bedside lamp, and there he is, curled under the covers and watching him with eyes that seem impossibly huge. "I just... I couldn't sleep." A shaking, terrible approximation of a smile.
It lodges something in his throat, and he has to swallow before he can say anything. "Tim..."
"I know... I know I'm too old. I mean. I just --"
It's an effort not to squeeze his eyes shut, but he manages. Sits on the bed where Tim has tried and failed to turn it down in a rough triangle. Leans back against the headboard, tossing the pillows to the floor. "It's okay," he manages. "I just... I thought you wanted to be alone."
If he pretends, Tim's giggle is nothing like the Joker's. "Alone is. Alone is bad. Bruce..."
And before he can fully turn around, Tim is pressed against his side, face hot and slightly damp with. Slightly damp. He wraps his arm around the boy's back and squeezes, feeling awkward and lost until he remembers the way Alfred does it. Did it.
He exhales against Tim's hair and strokes his back through the pajama shirt. "Is this... are you..."
Tim presses even closer and shivers. "It's good. It's... please don't let go." That last in a whisper, and Bruce.
He doesn't know what to do, but he can pretend. Presses a kiss against the boy's scalp. "It's okay, Tim."
Short, ragged nails dig in to his side and he winces, but doesn't say anything. Gradually, Tim's hold relaxes and he can breathe a little easier. Listen to Tim's breathing slow down and even out.
He doesn't snore, but Bruce can feel him fall asleep anyway. Something about the quality of touch. Less desperation, more... something he doesn't have a name for. He disentangles himself as carefully as he can and lifts the boy into his arms, absently hushing a sleepy murmur.
Takes him back to his room and thinks about calling his father.
Wonders what he could possibly tell the man.
He returns to his room and tugs a book off the shelf, opening it in the middle and reading. It takes him four chapters to figure out that it's The Scarlet Pimpernel, and by then he's blessedly, wonderfully, too tired to laugh. He falls asleep to the scent of Tim's (tears) sweat, salt on the pillow beneath his cheek.
And wakes up in the washed out light of dawn to a shadow.
Tim, shirtless and barefoot, dimly highlighted by the window. Fists balled and face... blank.
"I couldn't..." A laugh that wanders up and down a full scale before petering out into something old and strange.
"I thought... I thought you would sleep."
Something moves beneath the surface of the boy's face, and Bruce reaches out before he knows what he's doing.
Tim crawls up onto the bed and hugs him again, loosely this time. Pulls back to look into his eyes. "Please, Bruce. Let me stay?"
"I won't... I won't do anything bad. I can be good. I can be. I can be so good, just let me --"
Another strangled sound and Tim smiles, slick and fragile. "I can be quiet, too."
And before Bruce can think of anything to say to that, Tim kisses him. Soft and wet and insistent, little tongue tracing its way into his mouth and the first touch makes him groan. Slick and familiar and not, because Tim crawls up over his body and holds his face in both hands, stroking the stubble and holding on.
Bruce has to push hard to get Tim off of him. Too hard. The boy falls to the floor and crab-walks backward, mouth open (swollen, red) and eyes wide.
"God, Tim, I'm sorry, I didn't mean --"
"Please don't please don't please..." Over and over, and Tim isn't even looking at him anymore, or anything else.
He doesn't flinch when Bruce catches him by the shoulder. Doesn't stop... begging. "Tim. Tim, come on, talk to me."
He stops chanting abruptly, swallowing audibly. It sounds dry, too dry for that wet --
He shakes it off. "Tim...? Can you hear me?"
A shudder passes through the small body and Tim reaches for him. Or starts to. When Bruce tenses up, he stops and hugs himself instead.
Bruce squeezes his shoulder. "It's all right, Tim." He's heard of this, he knows, he knows. "It's... I'm here."
Tim shakes his head violently. "Not. Not here. Won't come get me. Won't rescue me. Won't keep me safe. Won't --"
He yanks the boy into his arms, feels his legs settle over his own and holds on as tight as he can. "He lied to you, Tim. They both did. I have you. You're safe. No one... no one is ever going to hurt you again."
"No one." It's not a question but Bruce decides to treat it that way.
Strokes the boy's hair. "No one."
"Bruce..." It's a whisper in something almost like exhaustion. It's a breath against his neck. "Bruce, you can't leave me alone. I can't... it's so dark."
Tim can't see him. Bruce lets himself squeeze his eyes shut and rocks the boy in his arms. "You can stay. I'm sorry I took you back to your room. I didn't... you can stay. I'll have Alfred make you up a bed --"
Nails digging into his chest. "Please."
And Tim's eyes are... so open. Wide and clear and Bruce can almost pretend none of this is happening. That Tim's sad about a bad mark in school, or some low-level criminal getting away from him. That there are no bruises, no burns. No --
"Please, Bruce. Let me..."
And even seeing the kiss coming doesn't give Bruce any time to do anything. Say anything. What can he say? What was he supposed to do?
Tim's breath is sweet, faintly milky against his face. Tim's mouth is soft and hot and careful, so careful.
He pulls out of the kiss as gently as he can and holds him at arm's length. "Tim, we can't..."
And he can't finish. Because. Because Tim's face. So close to tears, and he will never, never forget what the boy had looked like, falling to his knees and keening with loss, with so much pain.
He'd asked Tim to tell him what he needed. How can he refuse now that he has?
He strokes a hand over the boy's soft, smooth cheek. "All right," he says. "All right, Tim."
He watches Tim sleep, and doesn't let himself touch. There are tears on his cheek. There's a smudged and reddish bruise at the join of neck and shoulder. Blood just beneath the skin, and waiting for.
The bruise -- the suck mark is an accusation.
A piece of undeniable insanity in the quiet of the morning light.
He knows better. He knew better.
But... Tim is sleeping, hands curled loosely, breathing slow and even.
Bruce knows himself for a monster. Knows the weight of one more surprise and the laugh of a dead man.
But Tim is sleeping.
He closes his eyes and breathes.
When he opens them, Alfred is standing in the open doorway, holding a phone. His expression is blank.
Bruce eases out of the bed and calls Leslie Thompkins.
And when Tim wakes up and sees them, sees the phone...
Bruce can see the exact moment when the boy realizes what he's done.
And he doesn't let himself meet his eyes.
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