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Flesh and blood like anyone

by Te

[Story Headers]

Flesh and blood like anyone
by Te
August 17, 2004

Disclaimers: Everything recognizable belongs to DC. Everything not, doesn't.

Spoilers: Several old storylines, in an AU sort of way.

Summary: Before it was about Batman, it was about Robin.

Ratings Note/Warnings: R, NC-17 with the alternate ending. Both contain content some readers may find disturbing.

Author's Note: I spent a great deal of time staring at <a href="http://www.pamelina.com/pamelina_081.htm">this picture</a>, by Pamelina, and what sort of things would need to change to get Tim from here to (something like) there. In the end, it comes down to Jason.

Acknowledgments: To Jack, LC, and Livia for audiencing, encouragement, hand-holding, reminders to eat, and innumerable helpful suggestions.

*

He spends a week with a crawling sensation between his shoulderblades and a thick ball of lead in his stomach. The first is because he can't believe no one else sees it -- it, the most important and potentially terrible thing ever to happen to Gotham.

The second is because it's just a confirmation of everything he'd been trying so hard to think about since the blurb in the society pages about Dick leaving to attend college.

Everything he'd tried not to see in the tall, lean man in that strange, wrong costume.

Tim remembers the excitement he'd felt when he'd discovered that the local branch of the library carried all of the New York papers, that he wouldn't have to miss all of the work Dick did with the Titans even though he was -- for the most part -- stuck in Gotham.

Now it's just lead.

Because Robin had stopped going out with Batman after that last run-in with the Joker, and Dick had moved to New York, and now it's 'Nightwing' with the Titans and Robin is...

Someone else entirely.

He doesn't know for sure -- not yet -- but it's pretty clear. There had been all sorts of articles about the boy Bruce Wayne had saved (he always saves them) from a 'life of abject poverty,' and... adopted.

Not just become his guardian.

Dick is in New York, but Robin's still in Gotham.

And Robin is, apparently, someone named Jason Todd.

It's not right. The newspapers aren't even calling him anything different. Batman isn't, apparently, calling him anything different.

And he's wearing Dick's clothes and doing Dick's job and everyone is acting as though nothing has changed.

He's sure -- he's pretty sure -- that the important people have noticed. Commissioner Gordon must see them several times a week, and far closer than Tim has ever managed to get -- and his Dad had given him a very good camera, but there are still aren't many places where you can get a really good angle on the roof of Central (snipers, because of snipers and bad men and).

People like him have to know and...

Tim frowns to himself over his bowl of cereal and forces himself to think, to be a real detective.

His mother is talking about the shopping in the souks, and his father is reading the financial section of the Gazette. He has more than enough time to fix his expression and breathe and think.

The important people know, and they haven't done anything. Which means -- probably means -- that they know something he doesn't, and that it is all okay, because...

Well, because it has to.

Everyone says Commissioner Gordon is a good, smart man. Even the people at the parties his parents sometimes drag him to, and those people never seem to like anything at all. Not even Batman.

He knows there has to be a reason for all of this, because...

Well, Dick just wouldn't leave if he didn't think that there'd be someone else to do his job. Why, he has all kinds of evidence of things the Titans had had to do without him because Dick was here. (where he belongs and why did he have to move?)

Just because it doesn't feel right doesn't mean that it isn't right. He's had all kinds of needles from doctors from those times when his parents let him come on their trips with them to tell him that.

He's known that forever.

It's just...

He stares at the grainy, blurry picture on the front page of the paper. The one where it's obvious -- even if only to him -- that Robin just shrunk at least three inches and also gotten bulkier. He stares and he --

"Careful there, Tim. You keep staring at the paper so hard and you might just set it on fire like that Superman fella." His father winks at him over his own section of the paper and his mother laughs and says,

"Oh, Jack," like she's trying not to laugh. It's been a good week. They've hardly fought at all.

Tim smiles at both of them and pushes the wrong picture behind the fruit bowl.

There is a new Robin in town.

He's just going to have to see him for himself.

*

The street atlas is about ten years out of date and still smells faintly of the gas station where Tim had picked it up.

Still, it wouldn't do to use any of his parents' stuff for this, and it works well enough. This is something he learned how to do years ago, too. Because the newspapers don't report everything, and the only thing the television news is good for is the occasionally amateur video that he wouldn't have access to, otherwise.

The best possible way to track Batman and Robin's (and it still doesn't feel right to just call him that, as if it was just a title and not...) --

The best way to track their movements is just like this. He takes as much address information as he can get from the newspaper reports -- for this, at least, the tabloids tend to be the most accurate -- and he marks off the atlas accordingly.

Black for every Batman sighting, green for every Batman and Robin sighting -- and he knows for a fact that there should be more of those, but people sometimes don't mention Robin. It never made sense to Tim before, and he doesn't think it would now.

Red is for the Robin solo sightings, and there have always been fewer of those than anything else, and it isn't as though there's a lot, now, but.

Dick only moved out of Wayne Manor a year ago, and there'd only been six months -- only, but it hadn't felt like 'only,' not at the time -- between reports of Robin -- Robins working in Gotham, and now he has six little red dots, all in a cluster.

Which will almost certainly make what he wants to do, easier, but it's just another thing that doesn't feel right.

Jason Todd only just turned fourteen.

There are no other kids of appropriate coloring and build in Bruce Wayne's social circle, unless Tim knows a lot less than he thinks he does.

Robin shouldn't already be working alone.

Robin shouldn't work alone anyway, because the whole point of Robin is that he's Batman's partner and.

Tim bites his lip and closes the atlas. He has a much better map of New York City to work with, and he has a whole stack of clippings to go through about the Titans, and he's not going to figure any of this out today, anyway.

*

*The boy's smile sweeps over the crowd like a wave and everyone sighs and waves and smiles back, except for him.

He's tied up again, and the ropes smell like sugar and sawdust and wrap him up from his knees to just below his nose.

They don't taste like anything.

When the boy leaps off the platform, the audience rocks and moves in a wave, together, loving, watching, and he does, too, he always does. His mother's shoulder bumps him into his father's shoulder into his mother's shoulder --

The boy waves at his parents and the audience --

The rope snaps and his mother doesn't cover his eyes, she's too late and --

The boy's crying and the ropes dig into his arms, and his father catches him and loops a looser strand of the rope around the back of the chair.

"This is important, Tim," he says, and his mother somehow manages to nod at him seriously even though she's stuffing handfuls of cotton candy into her own eyes and he can see --

The boy kneels by his --

The boy kneels, and cries, and the Dark Knight rides past him, trampling --

Into the dirt, and the Dark Knight yanks him up, chair and all, and -- *

Tim wakes up gasping, tearing at the sheets winding around him.

It's a relief for more than one reason -- August is always nasty in Gotham. Heat and stink and storms that always take too long to figure out they're supposed to be storms, lingering and building until it feels like the air is trying to push his eardrums and sinuses in further.

He has a headache, and he isn't getting back to sleep.

He sits with his back against the headboard, and then, when it picks up the heat of his skin, he moves to sit with his back against the wall. When he turns his head to press his cheek against the cool, smooth paint, he can hear movement downstairs.

His parents' flight to Vienna is due to leave in another six hours. The limo service will pick them up in four.

The sitter will be asleep (passed out, because she) within eighteen hours.

Within nineteen, he'll be in the city. The real city.

He needs sleep.

Tim balls the sheets at the foot of the bed and lies back down, and closes his eyes.

*

The hardest part is always getting in to the real city. He can't just call a taxi in the middle of the night, because there's no telling whether or not the driver will just take one look at him and ask him where his parents are, and it's not as though there are any subway stops within five miles of his neighborhood.

But Tim has a bike, and it had rained enough during the day that it's a little cooler.

Besides, he doesn't have to ride all the way -- just far enough to where he can catch train, and, from there, the subway.

No one asks questions on the subways if you keep your head down.

Tim curls his hand around the keys for his tire chains, and looks around as subtly as he can. You can learn a lot about a neighborhood long before you get there. You just have to know what to look for -- like the fact that, by the time he's three stops away from his destination, nearly everyone in his car is either speaking Spanish, or English with an accent he's almost sure is Puerto Rican in origin.

This matches the few surnames he'd picked up from the Robin-specific articles, and he feels a weird mix of satisfaction and worry.

On the one hand, it always feel good when his theories pan out -- even the little ones.

On the other hand, the little Spanish he knows is of the traveler's variety, and has a lot more to do with the Iberian peninsula than with anywhere his current traveling companions are from.

He's going to have to do better.

It's bad enough that he looks out of place.

Still, walking up out of the subway isn't like walking into some strange new world or anything. He's never been to this neighborhood, but it's Gotham on a Friday night. He doesn't know any of the songs playing, but it's right that they're loud, and competing with each other.

He's never actually been inside a bar, but it's right that the doors are open and the sounds of people having fun waft out on beer-scented air.

There are people kissing by streetlights, and there are people just sitting out on stoops, and no one looks twice at him -- it may be late, but it's summer, and there are plenty of kids still out playing.

It's Gotham.

And he'll be --

Okay, maybe not fine so much as yanked into an alley by his over-shirt, and this is why you're supposed to keep them tucked in, but he didn't want to look like as much of a --

"Looks like we got ourselves a rich boy," says a voice from the shadows. Male. Probably not much older --

"Yeah, man, you just never know who's gonna wander in." Another male, also young. His breath smells like really good barbecue.

Tim should probably be thinking about other things than barbecue, especially because he's pretty sure the small pain in his neck and the large glitter at the edge of his vision means that there's a knife to his throat, but when he tries --

"Fuck the shoes, little bastard wears a size negative three --"

"Lookit you with the math. Just get the damned watch before he pisses on me on something."

When he tries, all he can think about is the fact that the reason why Robin has so many reported sightings in this neighborhood is that the felony concentration is extremely high.

Perhaps --

"Three library cards? Who the fuck needs three --"

"Forget the damn library cards, what about the cash?"

"Shit. Not much. Check his socks. Rich boys always --"

"Get in trouble. Man, you wouldn't believe the assholes at my school."

And Tim has time to think "third male, but his accent --"

And then the boy with his socks is spinning around -- and getting spun by the kick that hits him square in the jaw. Green boots, with the little --

"Shit! Don't try anything, man, I have a knife! I'll do this kid, I --"

"Okay, so that's both sick and lame," and the boy steps out of the shadows. Jason Todd. The line of his jaw is an exact --

"Fuck you, Boy Asshole, I got this locked!"

Robin. It's.

Jason tilts his head to the side and blows out a breath. Even with the mask, Tim is absolutely positive he's rolling his eyes. "You know, I had a knife like that. When I was four."

"Man, you're asking --"

He feels the splash before he hears the crunch, and so, for just a moment he's absolutely sure his throat has been slit. But really, he's almost positive there'd be more blood than that, and --

"Broke my fucking node!"

Node?

"I know you're probably shocky, kid, but now would be a good time for you to, like, move."

Robin's looking at him. He moves.

Not far.

The other one's unconscious body is blocking the mouth of the alley, and really, he wanted to see --

"You know, you'd think you assholes would start getting it," Robin says while he punches.

One punch after another, and Tim thinks, "Dick would've kicked more."

"This isn't your neighborhood anymore."

The muscles flex in Robin's arm. He doesn't look fourteen. He's not that tall, but --

"It's mine."

The ground is gritty beneath his socked foot, and sharp beneath his bare one. The ground is cold and sticky and he's going to be dirty when he gets home, and it looks like this punch comes from Robin's feet, from somewhere beneath the ground, and the mugger's head snaps up and back and knocks against the wall with a sound Tim's never heard before --

"Shit. I always forget to pull the uppercut."

And Robin drops into a crouch over the mugger, tugging off his (bloody, it's) gauntlet and pressing his fingers to the man's throat.

"I think he's breathing." And Tim wonders who'd said that, but then Jason turns to look at him. He's... smiling.

"Yeah, I know, kid. Batman always says the pulse is a better indicator. Thanks, though."

Tim swallows and nods, and after a moment Robin stands up and sighs, pulling his gauntlet back on and flexing his fist once. Twice.

"No help for it. Gonna have to call 911 for this asshole."

"You wouldn't do it anyway?"

Robin snorts. "Man, you're really not from this neighborhood, are you? What are you doing here?"

"I --"

"Anyway, it's good to leave skels like this lying around for other people to find. Sends a message. Do I need to call your parents while I'm getting this loser a bus?"

Bus? What's -- oh. Slang for an ambulance. He'd seen that on television, but cop shows are usually -- and the gauntlet is waving in front of his face. Green, and red with blood.

"Are you okay? You know your name and the year and shit, right? Did they beat you up?"

"No -- I. I'm fine. I just." Tim bites his lip and feels himself flushing. (There's blood in his face and Robin can see it.) "You're Robin."

Robin grins again. It isn't like Dick's smile at all. "Yeah, I am."

When he ruffles Tim's hair, the gauntlet feels rough on his scalp, ticklish and strange. Like a work-glove, only --

"Why don't you get your shoes back on while I zip these guys?"

Tim nods and does it, and then has to take the right one off again to put his other sock back on when Robin tosses it to him over his shoulder.

The mugger Jason had just kicked is snoring wetly.

The one he'd beaten is drooling, a little. The bruises on his face seem to darken while Tim watches, and -- the gauntlet's on his shoulder, and he looks up to find Robin looking at him, really looking.

"This isn't gonna traumatize you for life or anything, is it?"

He's always going to know what gauntlets feel like, now. "No," he says.

"Uh... okay? Man. Please tell me you at least snuck out of wherever you're from to go do something fun, right?"

I came to see you. To see -- "Yes."

"Uh, huh." Robin takes his hand, shoves his watch back on his wrist, and slaps Tim's wallet against his palm. "There's an all-night arcade about eight blocks that way," he says, pointing. "Out of this neighborhood. Go blow some of your Daddy's cash."

"All right."

Jason snorts again and shakes his head, and gives him a push toward the mouth of the alley.

Tim feels him watching as he walks.

*

He has to put it in order. It doesn't work if you don't, and it's always so...

Things should work.

So Tim starts at the beginning. Just knowing that Jason Todd was an orphan whose parents had been poor -- and involved in criminal activities, at least according to the Inquisitor -- simply isn't enough.

Because all of it had left him with the impression of a boy who (wasn't Dick) happened to catch the eye of Bruce Wayne. All he'd had was the inference that he'd also caught Batman's. And that had led him...

He listens to the tinny -- but still easily identifiable -- music from the sitter's headphones and tries to put it all together.

Twenty-four hours ago, he'd been picturing a short, bulky boy in clothes which didn't belong to him. In a life which didn't belong to him.

Now...

And it isn't entirely his fault. Bruce Wayne isn't just one of the richest men in the world, he's Batman. When he wants privacy -- or privacy for someone in his life -- he'll have it.

Tim had taught himself a great deal about computers when he'd (finally, and why had it taken him so long) set out to find more detailed information about the Graysons than what had been printed in the newspapers. In the end, he'd had to break a few laws (seventeen, though possibly more since that hacking law had been passed) to get it, but...

He'd had to.

And it's not like he'd been able to do anything useful with the information that the Graysons' had always paid their taxes on time, save in nineteen-eighty-six, but knowing it had let him look closer at Haly's tour schedule that year, and the hurricane that had trapped them in North Carolina, and damaged their vehicles enough that...

It still isn't information he needed.

Sometimes, he thinks about all the information he has, and it's like something yawning beneath his feet. Not the information itself, but the fact that he does need it.

He has to know.

Everything he's dreamed for years, and everything he...

He doesn't know what he wants.

He just knows that it's all wrapped up in this thing, these people who live their lives with... with meaning, and only ever go away when they have to.

When things would be bad if they didn't.

And his parents have jobs that give them all enough money to do the sort of things most of the people in Gotham never could, and the kids at school watch TV and read books about things that are made up and useless, and it just...

It feels better knowing that there are other kinds of people in the world.

And if he can know something about them, then it's almost like knowing them.

"Amber?"

"Yah-huh," she says, and flips another page in her history book. She's in college, and her father plays golf with his. His mother doesn't think she's the best choice for a sitter -- especially since she's the house-sitter, too -- but his father had said something about teaching her responsibility, and, so far, she's only thrown a couple of little parties when his parents are out of town.

She's good at cleaning up after herself. "I need to go to the library. I probably won't be home until after seven."

She rolls her eyes at the book as if he wouldn't see, or as if she doesn't care if he would. "Knock yourself out, Drake. Stay 'til nine."

"Maybe I will."

It will take at least an hour to remove all the blocks that are supposed to keep the computers at the library research-only, and the fact is that it would be easier just to use his own system -- his mother had bought the best -- but...

It feels like real detective-work to use a public terminal for this sort of thing. To be subtle. He watches Amber flip another page as he makes a show of packing books he won't actually need for another few weeks -- Tim will be shocked if it doesn't turn out he hasn't read at least a month ahead -- in his bag.

It also feels right for the work he's doing to have just a few obstacles. It shouldn't all be easy.

It should...

Tim rubs the small, red spot on his neck and goes to retrieve his bike. This should mean something, too.

*

Jason Todd goes to Overlook Boys' which is actually closer to Tim's house than his own school. Chances are, Tim will go here, too of next year. (and then they'll be in the same school and) Well, unless his father actually does move them all to Switzerland like he's been talking about since almost before Tim can remember.

He doubts it.

His father talks about a lot of things he doesn't do.

And the school... well, it looks just like his, only a little bigger. The athletic fields stretch all the way to a small stand of woods on one end of campus, while the other is all manicured-lawns and new construction on a computer lab donated by a company which only looks like it isn't owned by Wayne Enterprises if you don't know how to follow a paper trail.

He isn't actually sure why Bruce Wayne had used that company for it, but he suspects it has something to do with making life easier for Jason. One day, when he was in the fourth grade, everyone talked about where their parents worked. More of them worked for WE than DI, but not that many more.

The other kids had looked at him strangely, and then hadn't looked at him much at all.

It makes sense.

Tim has 'taken the long way' home from school two or three days a week for the past month and a half.

He hasn't been inside all the buildings -- the 'magic trick' books have a lot of information on lock-picking, but some of the buildings have good locks. They're in Gotham, even way out here in a place you couldn't really call a neighborhood at all.

He has been all over campus. He knows which tree is the make-out spot, because there are always condom wrappers, and he knows which building is the smoking spot, because there are always butts and there's always a lingering smell more like the one in Amber's guest room than of cigarettes.

He knows Jason plays pick-up basketball on the court that just happens to be on a direct sight-line from this tree.

The first time he'd seen it, he'd stayed so long that he'd only gotten home five minutes before his father. The second time, he'd made a note in his log and gone home.

He does it every day he comes to school even those days when Tim knows he was hurt the night before. Every afternoon, and Mrs. Willard has started making wistful noises about the days when he stayed behind to help out and do extra credit work.

Tim's going to have to do something about that, though he isn't sure what. He never should've had such a noticeable routine in the first place. He never...

He can't do anything about it today.

He can't...

Dick's school had been all the way across town, and Tim had only gotten to go there once. He'd seen a dark head moving through a second-floor hallway, and only the rhythm (graceful, like dancing, and) had let him be sure.

Now, here... he can see everything, even without the binoculars his father had bought for him when he'd said he was thinking about taking up bird-watching.

Sometimes Tim laughs so hard he has to cover his mouth so no one will hear, even though he's up in his room.

Sometimes he sits in the autumn sun, with his cheek pressed against rough bark, and watches Jason move. He plays like he fights. Like he's fighting. And it's playground ball, so elbows will fly -- he knows this, it's the same when he watches the boys at his school -- but it's still...

Today, there's a bandage high on the outside of Jason's left thigh, peeking out from under his shorts. From here, without the binoculars, it would be invisible, but Jason plays every day, in the sun, and he's tanned.

There are boys taller than him out there, but none of them are bigger, not really. He can see the way Jason's muscles move under the skin, even from here.

When he takes it to the basket, one of the other boys falls down.

On the next pass, Jason takes an elbow to the cheek, and everyone stops. Everyone tenses, and Tim digs his fingernails into the bark of the tree.

Jason holds the basketball under his arm, and his hips are cocked. He's saying... something.

Tim looks through the binoculars and reads something like "... play, tough guy?" and hears it in Jason's voice. Robin's voice. He can't tell whether the other boy says anything at all, but Jason throws his head back, and the sun gleams on his teeth.

Bruce Wayne has spent several thousand dollars on dental work for his adopted son.

Jason smacks the other boy on the head with his free hand, and the world starts up again.

Tim can't make himself put the binoculars down.

*

*The boy pulls Tim into his arms and onto his lap. He's smiling, and he smells like clean sweat, except for his breath, which smells like chewing gum.

His mouth moves and he's making promises he won't keep.

His mouth moves and Tim stares, and the legs of their parents shift and move around them like thick reeds. Blood spills down the other mother's legs, spills and spills until it pools in the dirt and sawdust.

And Tim says "Dick, don't" and the boy laughs and tousles his hair and Tim smiles --

And smiles, because the boy is smiling and everyone has to smile when the boy does. It pulls on his face and on something deep in his chest, and he's crying, too.

The other mother and the other father are going to die, tonight, and no one knows but him. Nobody ever knows but him.

And the boy's smile twists and sharpens and shrinks, and the hand in his hair moves down and down until it's pressed against his neck.

"There's no blood there anymore," Tim says. "I washed it off."

"You're such a little goody-goody," the boy says, and strokes Tim's neck with his rough, gauntleted --*

He wakes up gasping and sweating, even though he'd left the window open the night before. The wind brings in the smoke of the Smith-Jansons' butler burning leaves, and when Tim thinks about it, he's cold enough to shiver.

His sweat smells dirty and the room feels close, like arms around him that won't let go even though they're supposed to. Even when no one's supposed to hold him, because he's the one who knows...

Tim squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head like a dog. Sometimes the dreams stay too long.

He pets his own throat where the little red spot hasn't been for weeks and weeks.

Sometimes they don't stay long enough.

*

You can always tell what people did on their Holiday breaks. Sometimes their cheeks are as wind-burned as his own (when he skis, he thinks of flying, and stays out much too late), sometimes they're tanned, sometimes the girls have beautiful, complex braids that look completely wrong on their heads.

You can always tell, but they all still talk about it anyway, as animated and excited as if any of them did anything more important than spend money somewhere other than Gotham.

Tim taps his pen against his chin and lets it all wash over him.

In another five minutes or so, Mr. Billings will say something vague about how they should use study hall for studying, but Mr. Billings' tan is just as intense as any of the others. The back of his bald spot is still peeling, and if he's thinking about anything other than wasting time in the Bahamas, Tim will eat the pen.

And Tim feels... restless.

It's not new so much as suddenly really noticeable.

The only person that's ever been remotely interesting to talk to is Ives, and Ives doesn't even believe in Batman.

Tim had stopped trying to talk to him about it when Ives had started talking about the myths and history surrounding the story of Santa Claus. He likes Ives, and he'd kind of like to keep it that way. It's easier to talk to him about RPGs and whether or not they could synthesize cafeteria food in the labs.

Jason's best grades are in Biology.

Judging from the few, standard high-school textbooks Tim has examined, they'll probably do at least two, and possibly three dissections this semester. Batman would've trained him in the use of knives, even though they don't use them. Batman would've trained him in everything, and, for a few minutes, it's hard to decide whether to lose himself in the dream of having a teacher who really, truly knows more than he does, and not just because he or she has had more time to read more books, or to the image of Jason spinning a scalpel over his fingers.

Maybe for the benefit of the blonde girl -- probably Bethany Miller, though, if so, she'd grown a lot since last year's yearbook photo -- he seems to like.

There's another hill with an entirely different sight-line on the campus of Overlook, and Tim had curled up in his coat and watched the girl moving over Jason, on him, and watched Jason's hands in her hair --

"Midterms might be over, ladies and gents, but I'm reasonably sure one or two of you have some homework you could pretend to do."

Tim checks the clock, and -- yes. Billings is right on time. Go him.

He smirks to himself and --

"Something funny, Drake?"

It's interesting. Of the people who do talk to him at this school who aren't Ives or teachers, almost none call him anything but 'Drake.' He wonders if anyone calls Jason 'Wayne.' He looks over to find Eleanor -- Ellie -- Barnes looking right back at him.

She's doing an impressive job of looking simultaneously curious and bored, her braids have small wooden beads at the ends, and her tan is admirably even. Normally, her hair would be about the same color and style as the girl who's probably Bethany.

Her father doesn't work for his or Jason's.

He shrugs. "This is all pretty predictable, is all."

She snickers into her hand. "You're telling me."

*

For his thirteenth birthday, his mother gives him a digital camera and a hug. His father's plane was delayed by storms over the Atlantic, but Tim's reasonably sure he had planned to wish him a happy birthday before his phone call had become unintelligible with static.

Ellie gives him a card with a cartoon cat on it and a lot of teasing hints written inside about how the rest of his present comes later.

He's reasonably sure she plans to take him on a tour of the cemetery closest to her parents' house so they can lean against a headstone and drink her mother's gin while they look up at the stars.

She likes that sort of thing.

And it's...

Well, he doesn't mind it. None of the teachers make wistful noises anymore, Ives always thinks he knows why he's being blown off, and Mrs. MacIlvenne is really incredibly invested in making sure he gets all the time he needs with his girlfriend.

Which is good, because it really had seemed like a live-in housekeeper would make things a lot more difficult than he could deal with.

As it is, so long as he spends two or three evenings a week with Ellie, there's no one at all who'll say a word about the other evenings.

He couldn't have planned this better if he'd tried.

"So, little teenager," his mother says, lounging back on the couch with a travel guide to Madagascar resting on her chest. "What did you really want for your birthday?"

She's smiling at him, one corner of her mouth twisted up into something his father calls a smirk when they're fighting. Tim looks down at the camera in his hands, and thinks about the rooftops he'll visit the next time she goes away, about how much better any pictures he takes will look on his computer -- where they are, at least, reasonably safe -- if he doesn't have to scan them in first. "This is perfect," he says, and means it.

"Hmm. Good. Your father is easier to shop for than you are."

"I don't need much."

She rolls her eyes and blows out a breath. "How any son of mine got to be such a little aesthete, I don't know. Anyway, how's karate?"

"The sensei thinks I have potential. I was thinking I could join the extra class."

His mother doesn't narrow her eyes, but she doesn't look lazy or sleepy anymore. It's always really obvious when she's thinking.

And he knows what it's about, so... he smiles and raises his hands. "I haven't gotten into any more fights, I promise."

"Hm. I still don't know how you got into the one you did."

Of course she doesn't. She was in Morocco, at the time. "He said something very... offensive about Ellie." And Tim had been thinking about it for so long, and it'd felt as though the blood would burn to red smoke in his veins, and he'd wanted to see if it felt like a punch came all the way from the ground beneath his feet.

Mostly it'd felt like he'd broken all his fingers at once.

"Hmph," his mother says. "No wonder she looks at you like you'll turn water into wine at any given moment, kiddo." Her smile is both prideful and absent. "You're her knight in shining armor."

"Maybe so," he says, and eats another bite of Mrs. MacIlvenne's homemade layer cake. His mother goes back to reading.

*

Tim stops being quietly angry at his father for insisting he go with them to the charity ball when he sees that Bruce had brought Jason, too.

He usually doesn't.

When he was much younger, Tim had wished he could come up with a good reason to attend more of these things with his parents, because Dick almost always came. After three times in a row of inching close enough to hear Bruce Wayne saying things about Jason being sick or Jason just finding these things dull, God only knows why, ha-ha, Tim had stopped trying.

They are dull, in all honesty. Especially the ones like this benefit for the Children's Burn Center, where everyone shoves whatever kids they might have into uncomfortable clothing and drags them along to be photogenic.

He'd been very young when he'd realized that just because the other kids were as bored as he was didn't mean they'd stop being boring.

All of them wish they were somewhere else, and most of them don't even know where.

Tim thinks Jason knows.

He's taller than he was in the alley. Tim had known that, but it's still...

He hasn't been this close to him since then. It makes a difference. It makes the scar Tim doesn't have on his throat itch.

And it's been a long time, but there's something different about the way Bruce is around Jason, different from the way he'd been around Dick. Something in the hand that keeps migrating to Jason's shoulder, about the way Bruce's body language doesn't match the usual blandly hearty voice.

Jason has a healing black eye and one of the waiters isn't slipping him ginger ale, at all.

Jason's eyes sweep over everyone in the room with thinly-veiled contempt every few moments.

And Bruce's eyes aren't much better.

When they aren't close, Jason prowls around the edges of the room like a caged animal. When they are close, Bruce looks like Batman. Tim bites his lip and sweeps as much of his hair as he can over his forehead. He needs a haircut, so it hides his eyes, a little.

He's... he's watching them, and there's no way for them to know it -- nobody knows Tim Drake, and nobody should -- but there's a nagging feeling like hopeful dread in his stomach, just the same. They're both so well-trained, so honed for this...

They have to know someone here is watching, and seeing more than billionaire Bruce Wayne and his tragic adopted son.

And maybe, just maybe that's why they're moving like this, why they're both so watchful.

I'm here, he wants to say. I'm right here, and it's just me, and even though I'm just another rich kid playing with my shrimp cocktail, I know you. I know both of you, and I want you to know me so, so badly.

He'd never even gotten to thank Jason, not even for saving his stupid neck and his stupid wallet. Certainly not for his life. A girlfriend who gives him all the freedom he wants, and... and a reason.

He wouldn't have had any of that if not for Jason, and -- the sick feeling in his stomach is reflexive and familiar. He hasn't forgotten Dick. He never could.

It's just that Dick had never saved his life, and Dick had never... he'd always been so far. Never any closer than the other side of his camera, and now all the way up in New York City.

He would never be able to touch Dick, or be seen as anything more than a little boy he'd met on the worst day of his life. Tim honestly doesn't know how he'd ever thought any different. It all seems like some other little boy's dream.

Because it's not like Jason is really any closer -- Tim isn't even a brown belt, yet -- but still...

He's the most alive thing in this whole room. The most real. All he has to do to bring Batman to the surface is get close enough to the touch, and Tim wonders if it feels as magical to Bruce as it looks to him.

He feels himself flushing and stares back down at the shrimp cocktail, pink curls like skinned fingers scratching at the thick, red sauce. Dead and bland.

Just like everyone else in the room.

Even him.

But... he's trying.

And maybe one day he'll be alive, too.

*

The funny thing is that none of the journalists covering the story seem to have found anything odd at all about the fact that Bruce Wayne and Jason Todd had been in Ethiopia at the same time as the Joker while, coincidentally, Batman and Robin were nowhere to be seen in Gotham.

Well, no, the funny thing is that he'd thought he'd gotten used to the stunning lack of awareness of the world around him, but he really hadn't. It was still just as stunning as it ever was, really.

A lot like a hammer to the back of the head and punch to the stomach.

A lot like the fact that Jason is dead, in the ground.

Robin is dead.

Ellie says he's moody.

Mrs. MacIlvenne has taken to making quietly dire statements about the 'megrims' of teenagers to the house at large, at which his father grunts laughter and makes jokes about wishing he could call up his parents to apologize, because Lord, does he ever understand now.

His mother is still in Paris. Theoretically, she's working with their attorneys overseas on the details of the new plant Drake Industries is opening in the French countryside. The fact that she'd spent the last week before her trip not-talking very, very loudly to his father has nothing to do with it, of course.

Of course.

Tim Drake doesn't -- didn't -- know Jason Todd. He'd never so much as been introduced to the boy at a party, and, by rights, he should just be thinking of him as 'that Wayne kid.'

Just like everyone else.

Just like -- everyone else in the whole state, because -- as of last night, anyway -- Dick was still in New York City, with the Titans. There was a private funeral. There won't be a larger one. There's...

He has no reason to be at the grave.

He has no reason to go to the grave, because it isn't --

He stands up quickly. Too quickly -- the chair scrapes across the kitchen floor, and, after a moment of silence, Mrs. MacIlvenne sighs quietly and mutters under her breath. His father peers at him over his reading glasses.

"You know, son, they make mood stabilizers for kids your age, now."

His grades are good. The kid who he'd kicked last night until there was blood on his sneakers -- he needs boots -- doesn't go to his school. And he'd been trying to steal Tim's wallet, besides. Ellie gave him a teddy bear that sits, plushly obvious, on his computer desk. He has no reason. No reason.

His father is still looking at him.

The most important thing in my life is rotting under the ground, because a madman beat him to death, Dad.

His father sighs. "Right. Why don't we reschedule this heart-to-heart for when the hormones settle down, hm?"

"Why. Don't we."

He walks until he can't hear the rattle of his father's newspaper, until he's in his room, and the door is closed, and the carpet is soft-scratchy under his knees, and his face is pressed to the mattress, his teeth are pressed in the mattress, and the blanket is scraping his tongue dry and he --

No.

He grabs blindly for the stereo remote and turns it on, and cranks the volume loud. It's Jason's favorite band, judging by the credit card records, and assuming Bruce's taste in music hadn't changed dramatically.

It was Jason's favorite band.

He turns up the volume a little louder.

And then he screams.

*

Ellie still thinks cemeteries are romantic, and she dresses like an indie comic character, and her musical taste is about fifteen years out of date and full of slow, inexpertly-sung vocals and bad production values.

She'd done an excellent job with the black dye in her hair, though. It looks almost natural, and makes the eyebrows disappear from her face. She looks as ghostly as he feels.

" -- don't think 'Ellie' fits me, anymore. Why couldn't my mom have given me a cool name, like... I don't know, Raven, or something?"

"You'd hate the name 'Raven,' in five years," he says, and wonders if the real Raven ever sucks out Goth kids' angst for kicks. He leads them closer to where he wants to be.

She sighs and twists the hand she has in Tim's own, but not to get him to let go. "Yeah, you're probably right. Still. Every time someone calls me 'Ellie' I want to scream. It's not my name, and I don't even know what my real name is."

He pauses next to an incredibly phallic monument to some skeleton's successful capitalism. He...

"Tim? What is it?"

He understands completely. He looks at her, and cups her face, and her eyes widen.

"Here?"

"No. But. Eleanor. I like... I like 'Eleanor.'"

She makes a face. "It's my grandmother's name. You met her. She wears Laura Ashley For Geezers --"

"It's classic. It's simple. It's elegant. And almost no one else our age has it."

"I... oh." She blinks, too fast, and her mascara is a little uneven and a lot thick. "'Eleanor.' I like it."

Tim nods, and lets go of her face. They're almost there.

Eleanor hums under her breath, occasionally breaking into high, breathy snatches from a song on the mix tape she'd given him most recently.

"'Through the windshield we all fly,'" he says in his own, toneless voice, when it's time.

"You did listen!"

"I always do. And I like that one." The monuments are getting bigger and newer.

Eleanor swings their arms and bounces in a very Ellie way. "I knew I'd find something you liked, sooner or later. God, I've got so much more --"

"Here," he says, and tries to say something else, but... he really can't. He's been within view of the monument several times, but he's never been this close. His palm is sweating, and he pulls it away from Eleanor's and shoves it in the pocket of his jeans.

"What's... oh, hey, isn't that the --"

"Don't." She was going to say 'Wayne kid.'

"Uh... okay?" She scrubs a hand back through her hair, settling it neatly on her head. He's never been able to figure out how girls do that without mirrors. "It's a nice angel."

He would've hated it. It was paid for by Alfred Pennyworth, who had made all of the arrangements, because Bruce --

"So... why here?"

He changed everything. He was everything. I was dreaming about him before I knew what your mouth tasted like. "I..."

"Oh, man. You knew him, didn't you? You totally did. Avra said you used to hang out by the high school, a lot."

He needs to be more subtle.

"Why didn't you say something?"

Say what? He balls his hands into fists, stretching out the pockets of his jeans.

"Tim...?"

"Don't." He takes a breath. "Just... I needed to be here. Tonight."

He can feel her looking at him. It had seemed like a good idea to bring her here. It had, after all, been weeks since he'd chosen a destination for their dates, and...

And.

He didn't want to be alone. Jason isn't here. Jason isn't anywhere, anymore.

After a while, Eleanor slips her arm through his and presses close until her cheek is on his shoulder. She's got two inches on him, so it probably isn't as comfortable as it could be.

She's warm, and he isn't.

He's still alone.

"I'm not gonna try to make you talk about it, or anything."

"Thank you."

"I just... okay. I'm gonna shut up in a minute, but just listen to me, okay?"

"Hm."

She rubs her cheek against his shoulder like she's using it to scratch an itch and tightens the hold she has on his arm. "Okay, some secrets are really cool, like the fact that no one but me at our school knows that you've got a really nice body under those clothes."

"Locker rooms."

"Yeah, well, unless those rumors about the soccer team are true, I don't actually care who sees you in the locker room."

Some of them are true. More about the swim team. "All right."

She reaches down and tugs his hand out of his pocket until she can hold it again. "And also I kind of like having a secret ninja boyfriend. I haven't told anyone about your black belt, I swear."

If she had, he probably wouldn't have been able to avoid getting into fights at their school.

"It's just... this guy. Jason Todd."

Robin.

"He was your friend or whatever, and now he's dead, and you're all fucked up, and your parents just think you're going through a phase or something."

He'll never understand why people feel the need to state the obvious.

Eleanor squeezes his hand, and her palm is sweaty, too. "Look, you should talk to someone about this."

He looks at her. "I'm the one who told you how to convince your therapist you were fine, Eleanor."

She lets go and thumps him on the shoulder. He doesn't dodge. "I'm not talking about some stupid shrink, you jerk! Just..." When she scrubs her hand back through her hair this time, it's less neat. "Talk to his other friends. It's not like you're grounded or anything. You just. You should be with someone who knew him."

It's... a frighteningly good idea. She's staring at the ground, and when the wind tosses her hair back over her shoulder Tim can tell that she's blushing.

He wonders if she thinks 'someone who knew him' will turn out to be a girl.

As near as he can tell, Jason had stopped seeing Bethany quite a long time ago. And Claire, and Rachel. It's entirely unclear whether Jason had had any sort of relationship with Barbara Gordon.

He wonders if it would be reassuring to mention that the only people he's sure are mourning the boy beneath their feet happen to be adult male urban legends and the British manservant who raised them.

He looks back at the angel.

Eleanor sighs, and hugs herself on the edges of her vision. "I like the older cemeteries better. This is just too... tidy."

'Perpetual care' might actually mean something here, considering the size of Bruce Wayne's check. It is too tidy. "Let's go."

They do.

*

When he woke up the morning after the trip to Jason's grave, the thoughts and plans he'd had the night before were abruptly terrifying, and unthinkable.

How could he just go to them? He wasn't even...

He was nothing.

So he'd apologized to his father, and endured Mrs. MacIlvenne's winking comments about the benefits of young love, and he'd gone to school, and he'd focused on using the name 'Eleanor,' around as many people as possible to help Ellie with her name 'change.'

Tim Drake is a good kid, a good student, and a good boyfriend.

Tim Drake was in a bad mood, but now he isn't.

He smiles in the mirror until it feels right.

Alfred Pennyworth visits Jason's grave every Saturday afternoon.

Dick comes down from New York City sometimes. Usually, he's with Starfire, and their disguises are a reminder that life goes on, that the world goes on, because the world's newspapers are full of the news that Dick is dating a supermodel from Somewhere Exotic, who just happens to have the same cloud of 'hair' as one of the Teen Titans.

Tim Drake was okay, and everyone could see it. Absolutely everyone.

And he lasts two weeks before he's studying the newspapers again. It isn't... he had to.

Because there was an exclusive interview on the news with a man who was, actually, a paid informant for the FBI. From the hospital where he'd been comatose for nearly a month.

They didn't know if he would walk again.

And no one had actually said the word 'Batman,' but... but.

He had to.

The black dots radiate out from the neighborhood that used to be entirely red, a shadowy cluster of vicious -- imprecise -- beatings. His mother gives him pepper spray for his key chain.

His father starts talking about Switzerland again.

And Tim goes to school and comes home and walks the city and watches the people who don't believe in anything, who don't do anything, move around as though there are people watching, as though...

Once, when his father's flight had been delayed due to a blizzard, they'd watched the nature channel together for a few hours before it was time for Tim to pretend to go to sleep before the dreams reached up and pulled him back where he belonged.

It was a program about hurricanes, and the behavior of animals beforehand. How they hide, and whine, and bite.

How they know.

It isn't the first time he's wondered if Gotham was a city full of dogs who'd learned to move on their hind legs and bark on cell phones. Eleanor laughs when he says it, her breath a cloud of gin and her tongue a virulent food-coloring green with pink edges. He kisses her on the roof of the condemned warehouse, and she bites his tongue and pushes up hard against him.

Her breasts are getting bigger.

"You know this would be better with actual absinthe."

He has a few theories about where her money and a little subtlety could actually get her what she wants.

He's almost sure he shouldn't share that information.

Tim lets her snuggle against his chest, instead. She's loose enough that the height differential probably isn't making too much of a difference to her, at this point. He strokes the tangles out of her hair, and looks east and --

There.

It's strange to the see the signal light up the sky these days. The old, familiar mix of shared-secret-satisfaction and this new... this new something.

Once upon a time, Tim had thought he was restless, that the blood was rushing through his veins so quickly that it would burn itself to ash. A good run would've taken care of that feeling.

He doesn't actually know what would take care of this one.

"Your mom thinks I'm a skank."

She'd liked Eleanor better when she was Ellie. "Hm."

Eleanor giggles against his neck, and Tim represses the urge to flinch at the tickle. "I'm the only one in my entire group of friends who hasn't even gotten to third. Parents are so stupid."

Everyone is.

Everyone who can't look up and see the shadow flitting across the moon and know it for what it actually is. Somebody else's blood on the Batman's gauntlet.

Somebody else paying for a dead boy with pain. He wants --

"We could do something about that, you know."

Tim blinks, and freezes, and Eleanor's arms slip around his waist. She's still breathing against his neck, though. She hasn't looked at the signal or his face.

"I mean... I don't mind." She isn't giggling anymore, and Tim thinks, and unknots another tangle in her hair, and stares at her blonde roots, and wishes.

"Why be predictable," he says into her hair, "when you can be us?"

She squeezes him hard, and shivers a little. The depressant qualities of alcohol... Eleanor had consumed just enough tonight to slow herself down, and not quite enough to avoid being able to feel it.

Tim strokes her hair, and watches the signal shut off, and stares at the moon.

"There's this new club down at the docks," Eleanor says. "Lots of fights."

*

Having made the decision, it's just a matter of deciding how to implement the matter. His parents swallow every story he can come up with about 'pick-up basketball' and Mrs. MacIlvenne says 'boys will be boys' at least once a week.

With a perfectly straight face.

His home life is taken care of. It's just...

He doesn't want to look like just another punk when he talks to Bruce. Really talks to him. He doesn't want to be another rich boy doing his best to fuck up the expensive suit his parents had shoved him in, and he doesn't...

It's a lie.

The truth is, the last thing he sees before he goes to sleep most nights is the fading greens and yellows of Jason's black eye, and the cuts on his knuckles feel like a little boy's Halloween costume.

"I don't get it, Tim. Honestly." His father is addressing the mirror while he fixes his bowtie. "First you love to go to these things -- God knows why -- then you hate it, then you love it again. Do you think you could try to give me a little warning about these little mood swings of yours?"

"Oh, give it a rest, Jack. I've managed to convince my migraine it doesn't exist, and the last thing I need is for you to raise the thing's self-esteem again."

His father snorts and yanks the bowtie straight. "God forbid," he says and turns to lean back against the other side of his armoire. "Look, you're exactly as smart as that school I'm paying for says you are. I know I don't have to explain PR."

There's someone there I need to speak to, and I don't think I'm ready. There's something important, and I'm frightened.

His mother walks over and ruffles his hair, the edges of her new manicure scratching lightly at his scalp. "Marjorie Jameson's daughter will be there, too, you know."

Melanie Jameson's bulimia is progressing nicely, especially since he'd give Eleanor that Ipecac to slip in her Diet Coke. "I do have a girlfriend, Mom."

Her mouth twists and she looks at him the same way she looks at his father, sometimes. He probably should have said something more along the lines of 'Melanie Jameson likes her men a little closer to Dad's age, with at least as many credit cards.'

"Your mother does have a point, son. I know you like Ellie, but you're just a little too young to be this serious about her."

Or possibly not. He hasn't yet decided whether it would be a good idea to tell his parents how much he knows about the sex lives of his fellow students. "I'm just not feeling... my best. Tonight," he says, and his mother ruffles his hair again and moves back to her vanity.

"Your father promised we'd be able to get out of there by one, kiddo, and I intend to keep him to that." She winks at him. "So suck it up and take one for the team."

"Hmph," his father says, and checks his watch. "Your mother will undoubtedly make her escape at one a.m. no matter what happens. Just stay in her wake and you'll be fine."

Tim nods and goes to get changed.

The new DI facility is up in Essex county, and will undoubtedly be welcome to the two hundred or so families who'll get good, steady, and fully unionized employment. None of those families are here tonight, however, unless any of the wait staff has relatives up there.

He isn't, actually, sure why Bruce Wayne was on the list of attendees his father had left lying on his roll-top. The fact is, Bruce has skipped most of these things since... since Jason died.

For him to be at this one, when he has no one to drag with him but some coked-out debutante...

It has to be hard.

But his eyes are perfectly blank and vapid and, whenever his date tries to latch onto his right arm -- the pictures Tim had gotten had been quite explicit about there being some sort of wound there -- he simply laughs smoothly and transfers her to his left.

There are dark circles under his eyes that everyone in the room is whispering about, whenever they think others aren't paying attention. Or perhaps when they can be sure someone is, if whatever they have to say registers as clever to themselves.

He watches Bruce shake his father's hand and listens to him ask a half-dozen questions that manage to be both boring enough to drive his date away and blisteringly stupid enough to make the skin beneath his father's eyes twitch.

He's close enough to be able to smell Bruce's cologne -- it's one his father has never worn -- and he realizes that, in truth, he's not all that much closer now than he was a week before, when the only thing that had separated them was a handy wall, Tim's camera, and the fact that the Batman had been entirely focused on beating a drug dealer's teeth out.

The realization shocks him dumb, and by the time Tim can think again, Bruce is surrounded by several of his date's clones.

And then it's time for his father's speech, and then it's time to be dutifully 'introduced' to Melanie by his mother. Melanie spends the whole time smirking and saying things like 'oh, you go to my school?'

Tim spends the whole time pondering thoughts of laxatives and dietetic brownies. His mother and Melanie's take approximately six years to lose interest in the prospective love match, but...

It's worth it.

Bruce has found a corner of the ballroom that was somehow missed by the party planners and their legions of inexplicably Japanese-style lanterns. It isn't quite a shadow, but at least there's no one else there.

He walks away from Melanie mid eye-roll, before he can second guess himself and the 'flesh'-colored bandages on his knuckles.

Bruce's gaze sweeps over him twice before he gets close enough to speak. By the time he does, the man's eyes are bland again. It's like looking up at a Thorazined bear.

"Mr. Wayne."

"Hello... Tommy, is it?" He has a voice that would make a morning disc jockey on a pop radio station deliriously happy.

It's not his real one. "You're doing an admirable job of pretending, Mr. Wayne." Honestly, Tim thinks he could take notes.

Especially with the way his face screws up in a confusion that isn't -- quite -- exaggerated. "I'm sorry?"

The music and laughter feels like a wave held away from his back by the thinnest of barriers. At any time, it could crash over them both and the moment -- Tim bites his lip. He'd had a speech for this. He'd had a speech for this before it meant this much.

And he has absolutely no time to use it.

"I met Jason once, you know," he says, and makes a point of looking Bruce directly in the eye. "That wasn't the name he was using."

It's like watching an ill-made mask fall off. It's like watching a blindfold come off, because Tim can see what the real Bruce must look like, just for a moment. The man who couldn't make his own son's burial arrangements. The man who was a Bat.

And he knows -- knows -- Bruce can see him, too.

Just for a moment, and another, and Tim doesn't think he's breathing. He isn't sure why his heart is still beating. This is exactly what --

The mask slips back with devastating perfection. No, Bruce's eyes are --

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, young man," he says, and the hypothetical disc jockey sounds irritated. "Now, if you'll excuse --"

"I have proof," he says, because it would probably be rude to say 'you could've said something about me being rude, or about grief, but you didn't and I know you didn't.'

And Bruce isn't moving, not even to blink.

And the reason why Tim's heart is still beating is because it needs to race.

And the look in Bruce's eyes... it wasn't the Bat, before. This is the Bat. The one who puts people who aren't that guilty in traction, now, because. Because Robin is dead. Tim forces himself to breathe.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want anything from you. But it isn't..." What you think. What would he think? "That," he finishes, weakly.

Bruce's teeth show, white and just as ominous as they should be. "Then. What."

He didn't have a speech for this. He'd never been able to... he'd never gotten to thank Jason, or tell him... he'd never. He feels his face heat and bites his lip hard and forces himself to keep his eyes open. "I miss him. I miss him and I. I think." I think I loved him and I just need. "I miss him, too," he says again, and watches Bruce stare at him.

Into him.

Tim tightens his fingers around his glass of sparkling grape juice and Bruce's gaze sweeps over his bandaged knuckles like some kind of metal rake before scraping back up to his eyes.

And Bruce looks...

It's like being searched. It's like... he doesn't know what it's like. "I --"

"The manor. Eight a.m. You won't have school."

It isn't a question. And it's absolutely true -- most of the schools have tomorrow off for a teacher's convention. It isn't a question and it isn't a suggestion. It's an order. Tim nods and nods and has to force himself to stop.

It doesn't matter. Bruce is already moving back to the party. When he looks back over his shoulder, there's a smile on his face that makes Tim's stomach try to swallow itself. And he waves.

Tim drinks his grape juice and wishes, for a moment, that he'd taken Eleanor up on her offer to carry her flask on nights like these. He focuses on getting his breathing back to normal. On --

His father claps him on the shoulder. "Now, son, I know you're a generous sort, but it might be a little late to teach that one how to read."

He focuses on not knocking his father's hand off his shoulder.

*

There were too many dreams last night to really remember, but every step on the perfectly-maintained path up to the manor's front door feels like prodding on the mass of subconscious deja vu.

He feels like he's been walking this way his entire life.

He's irrationally positive that, were he to turn around, there'd be nothing but path stretching behind him until it met the horizon.

Or that maybe there'd be nothing at all.

The space between his shoulderblades itches, and the back of his neck feels feverish, and it all makes his knees want to shake until he really thinks about it. It's Wayne Manor. Somewhere on these grounds is the Batman's base of operations.

Of course he's being watched.

He laughs to himself, and it doesn't sound any more wrong than all the birds singing in the trees, and it doesn't feel any more wrong than the sun shining down on him.

And when Bruce opens the door before he can so much as knock... well, that's right, too.

"You."

Tim blinks, and swallows back a wave of nausea. He had dreamed of talking to Bruce before, of being invited here before. It could have -- he could have --

"Come in," Bruce says, and his voice is low and rough and not remotely related to anything that might be on a radio station.

"I --"

"Now."

Unless it's one Eleanor would listen to.

It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust, but the door closes behind them and they're already moving. Bruce's hand is big and hard on his shoulders, and the carpet beneath his feet feels as soft as the one in his own den.

"Ah, Master Bruce. I take it our visitor wasn't a salesman?"

Tim can just make out the vague outline of the man who must be Alfred Pennyworth.

Bruce says, "no. He's. A guest," and tightens his hand on Tim's shoulder in something which may or may not be a message, but feels like an attempt to make sure he doesn't go anywhere.

Tim's heart is beating too fast again.

"Hm. Then I suppose I should not have released the hounds?"

"Alfred."

Alfred comes closer and offers Tim his hand. "One should always greet guests properly. Alfred Pennyworth."

Tim raises his hand to shake Alfred's, and Bruce's grip shifts on his shoulder just enough to allow it. "Tim Drake. It's. It's a pleasure to meet you, sir." His vision is finally clearing. Alfred looks precisely the way he'd always imagined him from the few mentions in his mother's Better Gotham Homes subscription.

Right down to the completely undisguised shrewd look in his eyes, and the fact that it doesn't seem like it's entirely for him. "Drake. Why, that does sound familiar. Perhaps it was something I saw while I was doing the morning's dusting downstairs," he says, and manages to not look at Bruce in an extremely pointed way.

"Alfred." Bruce squeezes his shoulder again, and Tim can't see Bruce's face, and he doubts that there'd be anything on it, but his voice...

He sounds like he's pleading for something, and it makes him feel... it makes him feel.

"Hm," Alfred says, and focuses on Tim so sharply he wants to rock on his heels. "Master Bruce has suffered a terrible loss recently, as you are undoubtedly aware."

"Yes, I..." He has no idea how to finish that sentence.

"Today is, perhaps, not the best possible time to strengthen your acquaintance, which is something of which I'm sure Master Bruce is aware."

"If --" 'If you're sure,' is what he was going to say, but it comes out on a hiss when Bruce tightens his grip painfully. He watches Alfred's gaze shift to the hand Bruce has on his shoulder.

And it's just a small thing, but something about it seems large to Alfred, and perhaps to Bruce, too. His grip slackens again, and Alfred stands straight and says,

"I see."

And he isn't looking at Tim at all, anymore.

"I'll be serving tea in the study in fifteen minutes," and Alfred's expression is entirely blank.

After a moment's pause, a moment where Tim realizes he's close enough to feel Bruce breathing -- and Bruce wasn't before, he -- Bruce says, "That will be fine, Alfred. Thank you."

And Tim remembers the manners he's supposed to have. "Yes, thank you, Mr. Pennyworth."

The blankness slips off his face, leaving something dark and almost bleak, but Alfred only nods and moves away.

And then Bruce is leading him again, like the movies where someone taps a mule's shoulder. It's soundless and swift, and the study turns out to be what most people would call a library.

A quick look at the shelves after Bruce releases his shoulder shows all the books here are fiction, however, and Bruce is... looking into him, again.

It seems almost absurd that there had actually been ten full hours when he hadn't been. Tim swallows, and curls his hands into loose fists at his side before he can think better of it.

"You're a fighter," Bruce says, and there's a speculative question in his voice that makes Tim's face heat.

"You're Batman."

"Yes," he says, and pauses again. Or...

It's not a pause, not really. It's more a matter of the volume being turned up on the universe. Bruce is wearing slacks and a polo shirt and shoes he recognizes from the catalogs that come in with his father's name on them, and he isn't doing anything, but...

He studies, and then has to blink. Bruce's posture is only slightly different from one of the attack stances he'd learned in karate class.

It looks more efficient.

"I --"

"Is that..." Bruce gestures at his fists. "Did the two of you fight?"

The two of them. The... Tim breathes, and breathes, and realizes -- finally -- that his stance is just a different kind of ready position. He can't make himself move. "No. He saved my life. He -- there were. Muggers."

Bruce raises an eyebrow. "In your neighborhood?"

Bruce undoubtedly knows everything that has ever been written down about him, at this point. The fact that there's a lot which never has been, and hopefully never will be has never felt so...

Terrifying.

Amazing.

"No," Tim says. "I was in the Ironbound. There were a lot of... sightings there. Of Robin. I was looking for him."

"And he found you."

"Yes."

Bruce nods at him, and Tim had only thought the level of scrutiny was high before. Now... now it's hard not to look down at his shoes, just to be sure they haven't been nailed very precisely to the floor. "Were you looking for Robin... or Jason?"

"Jason. I -- I knew. When Dick left --"

"Start at the beginning."

And in all the times he'd imagined telling this, sharing this, he'd never realized how good it would feel.

How right.

He'd spent so much time, so much time imagining ways to tell the story so he wouldn't hurt Dick, so he wouldn't make Dick or Jason think he was a complete freak, but he'd never...

Bruce stands, and listens, and sees.

Because it's a story about Robin. And no one could ever know more about how important Robin is than Batman.

"... and then, when he died. I. I just."

Bruce turns away, and it feels like being torn away from something, even though he's just looking out the window.

Tim waits.

"One afternoon, I came in here for tea, and I... felt something."

"He was there."

Bruce points at the tree closest. "He was there, sitting on that branch. He was supposed to be in school."

He'd often skipped. In the beginning, anyway.

"He was grinning," Bruce says, and the rough, growling undertone feels like the one Tim had always imagined in his own voice whenever he'd considered -- idly -- trying to tell Eleanor something of what he'd felt.

"I've been dreaming about that grin for almost two years," he says, and flushes hard.

Harder when he hears Bruce gasp.

"There was no one. Who understood. Who I could tell. I --"

Bruce can move exactly as fast as he should, as silently and -- he takes Tim's hand and lifts it between them. Tim hadn't bothered replacing the band-aids, and the spring morning light is ruthless on his knuckles.

"Mr. Wayne?"

"You have at least some training in karate."

"Yes, I --"

"That isn't how you got these."

"Jason didn't use karate on the streets. I..." He frowns. "Not against the sort of fighters he was up against when he saved me."

"Not for just two of them, no," Bruce says, and he turns Tim's hand back and forth in his own, almost in the way a physician would.

Tim wonders if he'd spent much time around his father, when he was young.

"You wanted to fight the way he did."

"Yes."

"You can't."

"Not efficiently."

Bruce's hand tightens on his own, with a very specific amount of pressure. "No. You can't."

Tim blinks. "I --"

"You're quick, you're intelligent, and you have a small amount of formal training. However, unless your bones are lined with lead, you also weigh less than Jason did when I found him half-starved on the streets. If you persist in behaving like a street-fighter, there is nothing I can do with you."

"Oh. I... I didn't --"

Bruce cocks his head at him. He's blocking the light from the windows, and his eyes are black and shadowed. "You are also, quite obviously, an accomplished liar."

"Not to you."

The pressure on his hand increases. "Never to me."

"No. I -- I wouldn't."

Bruce nods, slowly. "Then tell me, Tim. Why did you come here?"

It's everything he's been waiting for.

It's everything he was afraid of when Dick moved, and everything he'd learned when he washed the blood Jason's gauntlets had left out of his hair.

It's the scar he doesn't have.

Yet.

He tilts his head up, and stands up straight. "You've been brutal out there. You've been... obvious and inefficient."

Bruce's eyes burn into him like something... like... Tim swallows.

"Batman needs a Robin. And so do I."

Bruce leans closer, and his eyes are back to being blue. Blue and wild and alive, and Tim's hand spasms in Bruce's grasp. Bruce doesn't so much as blink. "You'll always have one. Even if I don't."

Because this might get him killed. Like Jason. Tim licks his lips and Bruce's eyes smile at him.

Bruce knows exactly why that feels like as much of a promise as the rest. He knows --

"I recommend doing your best to avoid the latter. We wouldn't want me to be... inefficient."

"I --"

The first indication Tim gets of Alfred presence is the sound of a tray hitting the desk. And Alfred's deep, heartfelt sigh. "I trust the two of you will salve my pride enough to consume the tea here before running off to the Cave?"

The laugh comes out before he can help it, and he swallows back the second and blushes, but can't hold back the rest. At all.

It's not as though the bleakness has left Alfred's eyes, or that the pressure Bruce has on his hand has stopped being... intense.

It's just...

It's just everything.

"I'm sorry," he says, when he can stop gasping.

"Quite all right, Master Timothy, I'm sure."

"Thank you for the tea, Alfred," Bruce says, in a quiet voice that the sound of Alfred's footsteps confirm was as much of a dismissal as it seemed like.

In a quiet voice that just makes the feel of his hand in Bruce's own even more... more.

He twists his hand away. Because he has to if he doesn't want to embarrass himself. And because it makes Bruce's thumb scrape over three of his knuckles. Bruce's eyes on him are as avid as his feel.

"When will you start teaching me?"

Bruce rests his hand on Tim's shoulder and pushes him gently toward the tea tray. "When do you have to be home?"

*

It's something else to thank Jason for, on so many levels.

Sometimes he wakes up crying, because in his dreams he gets to say it, say all of it, and Jason's bloody gauntlets stroke his throat so, so gently.

And he says it, and Jason nods, and punches him too hard, and bounces his head off a wall that doesn't actually exist, and, when he wakes up, he remembers that it doesn't really matter that he has the words for it.

That he knows exactly what he wants to thank Jason for, because Jason is dead and gone and he'll never see Tim.

But that's only sometimes.

Most of the time...

He has parents who fully expect him to come home from 'school' late, because once upon a time Jason told him to go have fun, and he'd listened.

And it's not like Mrs. MacIlvenne expects any different from him. After all, he has a girlfriend, and young love makes the clover spring into life, and boys will be boys.

And Eleanor... well.

He's reasonably sure they are still, technically, dating.

He's absolutely sure she's also sleeping with Evan Grimes, who's a junior, and also happens to be the biggest dealer in their school.

Her grades are still adequate, and she doesn't seem to be unhappy, but... well, it really wouldn't take more than an anonymous phone call about the contents of her gym locker if something does need to be done.

For now, breaking up with her would be problematic in too many ways.

And he wants her to be happy. He owes her a thanks he can never actually give, too.

In more than his silence and acceptance, anyway.

It feels like a balance happened, somewhere. The universal equivalent of the way it feels when he's bracing himself one-handed and upside down on the balance beam, and Bruce is correcting his form for maximum stability and endurance.

And if he misses the street-fighting...

He turns a page he'd actually read sometime last week, in the time between waking up from the dreams and getting back to sleep before dawn. There's a rhythm to this, too, and it's all about timing. No one will pay attention to him, so long as he turns the pages just slow enough.

Once, he would've been lost to the absolute boredom of his little act, and to the pointlessness of it. Of a life where he'd had to expend useless effort just to keep useless people from asking useless questions.

And it had tired him out deep down where he couldn't reach, and it had left his actual, physical body just aching with the need to do something real. To feel something.

Bruce makes him feel every day.

And there are other things. Other... perquisites, like his father might say.

The Case watches everything. The Case sees everything, and the mats are on a direct sight-line to it.

When he works his katas, he's not just doing it for Jason, he's doing it with him. And every kick feels like "look what you gave me," and every punch feels like it comes from the whole Cave, from the ghosts that make more sense than anything else ever did in his life.

He's... he's so close.

And it doesn't matter that he won't be on the streets for months.

No -- it absolutely matters. It's just one more thing.

No one has ever told him he wasn't good enough, before. No one has ever told him he'd had to work for something, and showed him why.

Every bruise hidden under his clothes has a point.

Every dream that's ever woken him up tangled and sweating and alone was leading him here.

To this.

Eleanor's hand flops down off the desk and swings a little. Tim nudges her awake before the teacher can decide to be a prick about the fact that study hall was then, is now, and will always be fucking useless.

She smiles at him with fuzzed, dreamy eyes. Her lipstick is as black as Bruce's cowl.

"Thanks, Tim," she mouths.

Tim winks at her.

And turns another page.

*

He can feel that the Cave isn't empty before he's halfway down the stairs, which isn't actually strange. There are any number of times when Bruce has come home well before five from his office.

It's part of his cover.

However, on days like that, Alfred is usually very visible in the manor itself, moving around, being there for Tim -- for both of them -- to see, and know about.

Tim has his suspicions about why that might be. They're for another day.

As it is, the Cave isn't empty, and Alfred was nowhere to be seen, and Bruce had mentioned, yesterday, that there were meetings he absolutely had to attend today.

He takes the steps one at a time, and deliberately forces himself not to slow his pace any more than that. If it's an intruder, he or she wouldn't have to be armed before they got here.

But if it's an intruder, they almost certainly couldn't know half as much as he does about the weapons the Cave has to offer.

But when he gets to the bottom of the stairs and turns... it's a dark head bent at the console. And.

"I could've tapped into most of this information from the Tower," Dick says. "But some things are worth seeing for yourself. Right?"

The fact that the only possible greeting that comes to his mind is 'hello,' with a side of 'um,' is more proof than anyone could possibly need that he needs to keep his mouth shut.

Dick spins the chair around and stands. He's in civvies, and, for some reason, it makes this even harder. The Robin suit Dick had last worn would still fit him perfectly. Telling himself that Dick is Nightwing now, that Dick had left...

"I --"

"Between Alfred's phone call and Bruce's files, I now know not just every easily-discernible fact about your existence, but that you know just about every easily-discernible fact about mine." The smirk on his face is sardonic, but not entirely cruel. "So I think we can skip the introductions, Timmy."

"Tim."

He nods, more to himself than to Tim and walks closer. And keeps walking, until he's circled Tim entirely.

("How you choose to size another person up is as important as any and all information you take in.")

Bruce's voice in his mind is just a confirmation of what he already knows. This is a message. "So you're the new Robin."

And a test. "Not yet," is what he says when Dick is looking at his face again. The nod he gets this time is somewhat closer to being a response.

"I honestly didn't think Bruce would do this again."

"I came to him," Tim says, and then thinks about the fact that the lack of stress on 'again,' is just as telling as --

And Dick is laughing. "Yeah. I got that. You've been stalking us -- all of us -- since you were how old?"

I followed you. I followed you because I had to. "I was three when we went to the circus, that night."

"And none of us ever saw it," he says, and something about his posture suggests all the movement he isn't using. "Impressive."

"There's a difference between a nine year old with a camera and an adult." I followed you, and then you left.

Dick nods, and it's back to not feeling like a response, at all.

"I never would've... used the information," Tim tries, and Dick waves a hand.

"It was Jason who brought you out of the woodwork."

Part of him wants to say something about how it was his death, how Batman had been so... and Dick had been in New York. But it's pointless, and obvious, and also something of a lie.

The Case is watching.

"Yes," he says, and waits.

And Dick holds his eyes for a long moment, and then there's another where he doesn't feel searched at all. Dick's eyes are full of something that...

It doesn't belong to him. He knows it doesn't, but that had never been able to stop him from looking.

In the end, it's Dick who turns away, and moves toward the Case. He still walks like he'd rather be dancing. Even for this.

"He was a good kid," Dick says.

He was more than that. For me and for Bruce. He can't come up with a neutral way to say it, so he doesn't say anything at all.

"When I came here to meet him, I just wanted to take a good, long look at the kid Batman had replaced me with. The one who'd changed his mind about working with a partner."

He doesn't actually manage not to jump. Because... he thought...

Dick laughs and doesn't turn around. "Lemme guess. You thought I'd quit." He strokes the Case, outlining the mask in a lazy figure eight. "Thought I'd thrown a tantrum and walked away from the Mission. From Bruce." He taps the glass of the Case three times, hard. "So did he."

"I..."

"So here's my question for you, Tim. Does knowing that change anything?"

"Yes."

Dick nods, long hair sweeping, a little, over the back of his neck. "And what do you think that means?"

It's exactly like being punched. "It isn't... that isn't what I meant. It doesn't change..." What Bruce needs. What I need.

And Dick turns around, finally. The smirk is back, and still gentle. "You almost sounded like a kid for a minute there."

Instead of a soldier.

"You might consider what that means, too, not-Timmy."

Tim bites the inside of his cheek until he doesn't feel like shaking anymore. Until he can stand up straight. "I have."

Dick raises an eyebrow. "Well, all accounts say you're brilliant. So why don't you --"

"If I'd known -- if I'd suspected -- I would've come to you."

Dick frowns, and it looks like honest confusion. "Are you even hearing yourself?"

Tim resists the urge to ball his hands into fists. His straight-finger strikes are infinitely more effective, anyway. "You say you can get all the information you need at the Tower. So why the fuck didn't you know Bruce was falling apart?"

Dick's laugh is short and humorless and, again, doesn't have a damned thing to do with him. He leans against the Case and tenses. And barks another laugh. And strokes his own cheekbone in a way that isn't idle at all. "You know, that's really an excellent question, Tim-not-Timmy. That's..."

"It wasn't about you, Dick. Whatever. Whatever he did. It wasn't about you, and you know, I'm really fucking sorry about that. It was about Robin.

"And it still is."

Dick smiles lazily at Jason's mask. "Kid's got a temper, Jay. You must have been a wonderful influence. Before you got yourself beaten to death, anyway."

"Fuck you, Dick."

When Dick turns to look at him, he doesn't look lazy anymore. He looks dangerous.

And Tim doesn't give a shit. "I am smart. I'm not an acrobat and if I throw a punch wrong I break my fingers -- but I'm smart. And here's what I think: you got shot. He panicked. He dropped you. He met Jason. He -- he realized that whatever panic he felt when you got hurt was fucking meaningless next to the Mission, and how much more he could do if he had a partner at his side."

"And then Jason died," Dick says flatly.

"And yeah, then he died, and I had no one --" He growls and tries again. "Jason died, in the line of duty, and he -- Bruce fucking lost his shit. Just like he would've done if you'd died."

"And in comes... you."

"Yeah. In comes me." He takes three deliberate steps forward, until he's close enough to feel all the ways Dick isn't moving. "Because I saw what was going on, and because I needed this, and because I had every reason to believe you were still sulking with Starfire."

Dick's eyes are narrow enough that the blue is barely visible.

"And I'm here now. And yeah, there's a lot I didn't know, and a lot I still don't. I've got suspicions and theories and, yeah, my fucking temper. But I know the important things, Dick. I know what counts. What about you?"

And Dick is silent for long enough that the sound of Tim's own breathing makes him want to yank his own lungs out and set fire to them.

Long enough that he wishes Dick would just kick his ass and have done with it.

But Dick just smiles, again, with his eyes full of everything that belongs to Tim anyway.

Because he'd taken it, and now it's his. Forever.

"I know I'm going to enjoy beating the shit out you in the interests of training, kid," Dick says, and pushes off the Case, walking toward the motorcycle Tim had completely failed to notice before.

It's just another jolt, and he's had too many for this one to make a difference, really.

"Congratulations," Dick says, and straddles the bike. "Jason would be proud." He picks up the helmet and pauses. And laughs. "I hate to ruin a good exit-line, but since you're here, Bruce..."

Tim's too full to do anything more than look back over his shoulder. Bruce is standing in the middle of the staircase. There are too many shadows for Tim to be able to make even a guess about what expression might be on his face.

"You picked another good one," Dick says, and puts his helmet on. And peels out.

And doesn't look back.

And it's...

It isn't all right. Bruce is still standing there, in the shadows, and Dick is never going to be his bestest big brother, and Jason is still dead.

And nobody chose him.

Nobody...

He gives up and punches the wall next to the Case. Twice. It hurts like hell, but nothing snaps.

"Feel better?"

And he isn't actually surprised that he hadn't felt Bruce moving, but... "Yeah. I do."

"Good," Bruce says, and his voice is a weight on Tim's throat. A hand and the scar. "Hit the weights."

He does.

Because it's not all right, but it is what it is.

Nobody chose him.

And nobody had to.

end.

Alternate NC-17 ending:

He wasn't expecting a honeymoon period, and he didn't get one. For every skel who was shocked enough by a dark-haired boy in red, yellow, and green sweeping out of the sky, there were another three who saved whatever shock they felt for when they ran out of bullets.

There's a certain kind of rightness to that, a confirmation.

Robin hasn't been a name for a long, long time. Robin is a title, and a duty, and an honor.

And the world's best excuse for paying for frustration with other people's blood.

There's also a satisfaction to it, and that one's harder to explain. He just knows when he feels it.

When he...

There are people in this world, and there are animals. He's reasonably sure his definitions are somewhat different from Bruce's own, but they're the same where it counts.

Sometimes, there's every reason in the world for him to use his bo like the potentially lethal weapon it is until the animal is weakened enough -- tenderized enough -- for him to use his still pathetic fists for what he wants to.

What he needs to.

And every reason includes Bruce, of course. His eyes on him through the plausible deniability of the cowl, his want and his need and his terribly perfect understanding.

He hadn't paid enough attention to Evan Grimes.

Nobody really expects the dealer in a posh private school to be connected, not really. They get their drugs the way all the rich White kids of the type do -- huddled in scared little packs with a fist full of money for the bangers and a nice, fast car to get them the hell out of the 'hood when the deal is done.

He hadn't paid enough attention to Evan Grimes, and --

Nobody expects a kid like that to have a Dad who has a cousin with a far less innocuous last name and a garage full of the big new unapproved-by-the-FDA thing. And a great fondness for the little second cousin with the admirably entrepreneurial spirit.

He hadn't paid enough attention to Evan Grimes, and now -- now.

Not even Batman had expected it. Really and for true, and Tim hadn't paid enough attention and the night that started with the cops pulling Eleanor's body out of a Dumpster --

Pulling her -- and she was naked, and thin, and her mouth was full of --

He feels Evan's broken front teeth slice a hot, sweet line over his knuckles and he's now, he's now, he's not in the morgue, and the coroner isn't, isn't telling them about the fact that there was semen in the vomit.

He's in the now, and Evan is moaning like the pathetic little --

He's not even screaming anymore.

He pauses with his arm raised.

Normally, when this sort of thing happens, when he's back in the now and the little raped boy is good and dead, or maybe the slashed up prostitute, or maybe the Eleanor, Eleanor, Eleanor should've always been Ellie should've --

Normally, when this sort of thing happens, he doesn't make Bruce catch his wrist before he throws the punch that will drive the animal's nose back into his brain. There's no need for it; the point is made. For both of them.

For the satisfaction.

He throws the punch.

Bruce catches him, and holds him. The grip is tight, and Tim is in the now with his pulse racing fast enough that Bruce probably feels it, anyway. Even through their gauntlets.

"Enough."

"I'm fine."

If he says it again, Bruce will believe him, and let go. He bites his lip and watches his own sweat patter down into the broken mess of Evan Grimes' face. He's probably too far gone for it to sting.

And Bruce says, "Are you?"

And Tim says "Yes," and flexes his arm in Bruce's hold.

Bruce hauls him up, and looks at him with Batman's blank, white eyes and Bruce's soft mouth. "Go home."

And... he can't play the game, anymore. He can't fight it. He goes.

Bruce had wanted to give him a sweet little -- armored -- car to match his sweet little armored suit, but the bike feels even more right than usual, tonight. It hums between his legs in a rhythm he knows to the bone, and it gets him home, to the Cave, where he needs to be.

He gets the cape off, and the gauntlets.

He makes it to the Case before he drops to his knees, and he shifts and sways until the shadows fall just right.

I fucked up, he tells Jason. I didn't pay attention. Paying attention is what I do, and I fucked up.

Jason doesn't say anything. He's probably just jealous that he didn't get to throw any punches.

He manages to stop laughing before Bruce gets back. Just in time for Tim to recognize the cocoa on the tray as proof that Alfred had been and gone sometime...

Sometime that wasn't the now.

He stares at the cocoa.

"If you throw it anywhere important, I'll be angry."

The fact that this laugh has a very distinct starting and ending point will be reassuring sometime later. He's positive about that. He has charts.

"Tim."

"Yes."

Bruce pushes the tray aside and crouches beside him, and grabs his right wrist and uncurls the fist.

And then the left.

He lays Tim's hands flat against the Case, and both of them just look at the ruin of his knuckles for a while. And then Bruce says,

"Tell me what you need."

"Tell me about Jason," he says. "Just... something. Something I don't know. Anything. I just. I need."

Bruce exhales and pulls Tim's right hand away from the Case. There's a print. He has to --

Bruce's breath is hot and damp on his knuckles. So soothing it makes him wince. "Bruce --"

"He worked alone quite a bit. More than you."

Tim nods and stares at the hand print. It would be on Jason's shin.

"He came home one night -- one morning -- just like this. Just like you."

Tim closes his eyes.

"He'd just been playing. Looking for muggers. He liked that."

"Yes."

"When he was tossing the one who'd been foolish enough to put up a fight in a Dumpster, he found a little girl."

"I."

"He died before I could find the killer for him, and you weren't here. Not yet." Bruce's lips brush against his knuckles. "I couldn't give him to Jason."

Bruce would've given the killer to him.

"But I could..."

The gasp sounds like a sob, but Bruce's tongue doesn't stop moving over his knuckles, one by one. So Tim gasps again.

"His blood tasted the same as yours. So... so full."

"Oh --"

"I laid him down on the mats. When I kissed him, he bit my tongue."

Bruce's tongue slips between his fingers, thick and wet and hot.

"So he tasted my blood, too."

He opens his eyes, and watches the ghostly reflection of Bruce licking his fingertips, his palm. The reflection of his own shivers. "More."

"I stripped him. I tasted him -- I tasted him everywhere. Until my tongue stopped leaving bloody streaks on his skin."

"Bruce."

"He shivered. Just like you."

Tim's hands spasm, on the Case and in Bruce's hand, and the pain is shocking enough to make him cry out. He won't be throwing any punches for a while. He --

"He said my name, and I loved him. I loved him as best I could, until I honestly believed I'd never forget the taste of him. That I'd never forget..." The kiss to Tim's wrist starts softly and stays that way, Bruce's tongue flicking over his pulse-point over and over again.

Soft and endless.

Soft and --

He's moving, and a part of him is shocked. He didn't think he could.

"He said my name," Bruce says, and Tim's hands are clumsy and aching, but he's watched Bruce change enough times that he can get enough of the armor off, and push Bruce's jock out of the way.

He can't taste anything, at first, but the acid tears trapped at the back of his throat. So he sucks harder.

"And," Bruce's hand settle on his scalp, cracking the gel and pressing. "He did this, too."

The first rush of pre-come on his tongue makes him moan, makes him fuck his mouth on Bruce's dick, makes him...

"Tim."

He can't taste his own tears, anymore. He can't taste anything but Bruce.

"So beautiful..."

He can't feel anything but real and perfect.

"Oh, Tim..."

Perfectly in step --

"Jay --"

other end.

Please post a comment on this story.









Fandom:  Batman
Title:  Flesh and blood like anyone
Author:  Te   [email]   [website]
Details:  Standalone  |  NC-17  |  het *slash*  |  93k  |  08/17/04
Characters:  Tim, Jason, Bruce, Dick, OFC
Pairings:  Tim/Jason, Tim/OFC, Bruce/Jason, Bruce/Tim
Summary:  Before it was about Batman, it was about Robin.
Notes:  Disturbing content.

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