The bomb that almost killed Jason had been at 1:11 the first time Tim had seen it. The numbers were burned into his eyelids, like the aftereffect of an explosion. Batman hadn’t even tried to stop it. He’d taken one look at the bomb, grabbed Jason, yelled at Sheila to get out, and ran.
They didn’t have that option. Tim didn’t think they’d be able to get out of the school from where they were in under four minutes, even if the doors weren’t locked, and they definitely couldn’t get hundreds of kids out.
Three times the amount of time Batman had. Three times the people. Less than a third the skill.
Tim could hear harsh breathing behind him. He could hear Steph talking, but not what she was saying. He remembered, suddenly, when she found him in the library and he tried so hard to be more than he was. He’d failed even then to convince her.
“Tim!” He snapped back to himself, eyes finally managing to break away from the countdown as Steph grabbed his arm. “Robin,” she said, her gaze just as determinedly focused on him. “Do you know how to defuse a bomb?”
“No,” he said. Why hadn’t he learned how to defuse a bomb? Why hadn’t that been the first thing he’d asked Batman to teach him after Jason had almost died in an explosion? Why hadn’t he looked it up in his own time? Studied every resource he could find?
All his planning and preparation and attempts at being the all-knowing voice in superheroes’ ears, and he was still missing the obvious.
Steph cringed, hands going to tangle in the fully unkempt hair that framed her face.
“Jason…” Tim offered weakly. Then he saw Jason, crumpled at their feet, hands over his head like he was shielding himself. His breaths sounded like a broken air conditioning unit on its last few fatal gasps.
Tim slowly lowered himself to his knees, not sure what he was doing until his arms wrapped around Jason. For a few seconds, he held Jason without any acknowledgement, some ridiculous, tiny voice in his brain, even in the middle of all of this, telling him how socially unacceptable this behavior was. How embarrassing it was all going to be later. Then, Jason’s arms slowly rose to return the hug.
“I don’t think I can do it,” Jason said, his voice breaking in a sob halfway through.
“It’s okay,” Tim said. “Can you tell me what to do? You can be my Chirp.”
Jason laughed, a rough, ragged noise that sounded like it cut his throat on the way out. “I can try.”
“That’s enough,” Tim said.
He slowly disentangled himself and stood. Steph quickly took his place, putting an arm over Jason’s shoulders. The timer now said 2:53. They’d wasted a whole minute on their mental breakdowns. He wanted to deride himself for how stupid they were, how weak. But he… he didn’t believe Jason was weak. And if Jason wasn’t, well, then maybe he wasn’t either.
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Chirp Extra - Bruce POV from Chapter 32
Way back when I was writing Chapter 32, I hit a stumbling block on the part where Jason overhears Bruce and Tim arguing. He only needed to hear a few lines from the argument, but for some reason I was having the hardest time making those lines sound natural. So I did what any reasonable person would do, and I wrote an entire 1,100 word scene that I knew would never be in the story, just to make a few lines sound right. Not all of the dialogue lines up perfectly, since I made a few changes while writing it from Jason's perspective, but this gave me what I needed to get started.
Hope you enjoy some rare Bruce perspective!
The advantage of having money, Bruce thought, is that he didn’t have any trouble arranging for half a semester of tutoring at the last minute with no questions asked. It didn’t solve anything that really mattered. It didn’t make Jason better, or catch the Joker, who was still at large, but at least his son would get an education.
The grandfather clock behind him swung open, and he was on his feet in an instant, hand reaching for the secret compartment under his desk that held defensive weapons. Nothing bat themed, nothing that would out him as Batman up here in the manor, but enough to protect himself from an unexpected enemy.
Tim came out from the tunnel carrying a bulky bookbag. “Oh,” he said when he caught sight of Bruce, like he was surprised to see him here. That was fair, he supposed. He hadn’t spent much time away from Jason’s bed since he woke up.
Actually, he hadn’t seen Tim at all since Jason woke up. He was disappointed in himself to realize that he’d barely given the boy a thought for the last week.
Tim rallied quickly, dropping the bookbag onto the ground beside him and pulling out his phone.
“The Joker’s back,” he said, without even a greeting, facing the screen towards Bruce. The image showed a man in a glass cage with a crazed expression and outstretched lips, apparently mid-laugh. Joker toxin.
“Where did you get this?” he asked. He tried to take the phone, but Tim held tight. Bruce let him. Tim had a reason to be protective of his devices.
“I went back to the apartment we were surveilling, the one with Blue Shirt and Green Shirt.”
Tim stiffened, the way he always did when he knew he’d done something he shouldn’t but was going to argue it was for the best anyway. “I tried to film it from the outside first, but there weren’t any good angles,” he said, his words clipped and precise. “I went when I knew no one would be there and snuck in to leave some better cameras. And then I found this.” He flipped through the photos on his phone. Each showed a few seconds of movement before settling on the photo. Several more prisoners. A wide-screen of the whole room. “There were canisters of gas in the hallway closet, but I wasn’t able to get a picture.”
Tim’s brief hesitation was enough for Bruce’s insides to turn to ice before he even heard the answer. “People showed up, so I had to get out.”
‘People.’ Tim didn’t specify, but there was no questioning who he meant, not with the way Tim’s eyes flicked guiltily to the side or how the hand not holding the phone pulled on his sweatshirt. He could have lost a second child to the Joker, and never even known it was happening. Not known until days later when his body showed up in the river. He needed to keep a better eye on Tim. Were his parents even in town right now? Would anyone report him missing if he didn’t come home?
“You shouldn’t have been there.” It came out harsher than he’d intended, and Tim reacted to the anger, stiffening further, his shoulders rising to his chin.
“Someone needed to look into it and you were busy. Isn’t it better that we know?”
“A little bit of information isn’t worth your life!” He didn’t understand how Tim couldn’t get that. How Tim valued his life so little. Flashes of Jason covered in blood filled his vision.
“I was careful.”
“Not careful enough. Never go out alone. Do you understand me?”
Whatever argument Tim had been about to make cut off. He stilled, his gaze falling on something past Bruce. He hadn’t heard anyone coming over the rush of blood in his ears. He turned to see Jason standing in the doorway, covered in blood.
No, the blood was in his memories. Jason was fine, wearing Robin pajamas that Dick had insisted on getting him while he was still in the coma. Said it would make him stronger. Bruce hadn’t had the heart to argue, even with the risk to their identities.
“Jason,” Tim breathed behind him. That’s right. Tim hadn’t seen Jason since he woke up. “How are you doing? Are you feeling better? You look—”
Jason wasn’t looking at Tim, his eyes boring into Bruce’s. “You replaced me?” he asked.
Bruce’s stomach fell out and Tim quieted behind him. “Of course not,” he said. He tried to unsee the blood that dripped down Jason’s skin, but it was as much a part of his psyche now as pearls scattered across an alley.
“Oh, so Tim’s not going out as Robin then?” Jason asked, sarcasm dripping heavily from every word. Guilt filled Bruce. He had never wanted another kid to put on the suit, to be in danger. He certainly hadn’t wanted to hurt Jason.
“I’m just filling in,” Tim said, his words blending together like he was trying to get as many out at once as he could. “We needed—”
“I’m not talking to you,” Jason spat at him.
There was a long silence behind him, but he didn’t turn to look, unable to tear his eyes away from Jason. “Fine,” Tim said, the anger of a few moments before back. He stalked past Bruce towards the door, his bookbag back over his shoulder. “I’ll send the information I gathered to the Batcomputer,” he said as he shouldered past
“Wait, Tim,” another voice said. Dick. Bruce hadn’t even realized he was there, and as soon as Bruce noticed him he was gone, chasing after Tim. Bruce knew he should do more, that Tim needed him too, but he couldn’t focus on that, not with Jason right in front of him, with the memories of blood still staining his face.
“I didn’t replace you, Jason. I would never replace you.” He felt vulnerable, cut open and left for vultures to eat in a hot desert sun.
“Yeah, well, that’s not what it looks like from here.” Jason twirled on his toes to go and stumbled. Bruce stepped forward to catch him, but Jason was already stalking off. His steps were unsteady, but Dick rushed by soon after and caught up to him. Dick would make sure he made it back to his room.
Bruce knew he should follow, should explain, but he’d have to leave that to Dick too. The Joker was back, and if his children were going to be safe, he needed to find out his plan and put a stop to it as soon as possible.
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