Dick woke up and Jason was dead.
This wasn’t really a new thing. Jason had been dead for about two months now, but still sometimes Dick woke up and the first conscious thought he had was Jason is dead and then he would lie there, looking up at his ceiling for a long time. Jason was never going to lie in bed staring at a ceiling again. It was tiny things like that that gave Dick pause.
He got up and had breakfast and went to work, and Jason Todd would never have the chance to do anything like that again, but Dick couldn’t think about things like that in public so he put it to the back of his mind to dwell on in the middle of the night instead.
There was a photo on his wall, of him and Jason, grinning against a background of white that looked a lot more peaceful than it was. He’d stolen the kid away for a few days, to get to know him — taken him skiing and taught him how to stop and turn and not to skid and fall on his ass when getting off the lift, and it had been good. Really good. Nobody ever needed to teach the boy how to have fun.
Well, it had been awkward to start with — this kid, wearing his costume and his name and his legacy, and not knowing much of anything about it. But then over food Jason had gotten sick of the silence and dropped his knife and fork and said, “Hey, you ever see Bruce eat a burger?” while Dick was drinking.
The memory of the first time he’d ever seen Bruce take a knife and fork to a burger (in public! He did it in front of other people!) came rushing back to him like it was last week and not years ago, and he’d laughed so much he choked on his Coke.
And they were off.
Jason had laughed a lot, even when his face had been red with the cold and he had snow nearly permanently stuck to him, but they hadn’t fought much, and there wasn’t a case for competitive Robin tendencies to come out over, or Bruce and the scientific wonder of how his ability as the World’s Greatest Detective coexisted with his total inability to pick up social cues.
“We’ll do this again,” Dick had promised. “You and me and no Bruce anywhere.”
“Hell yeah,” Jason had said, laughing. “I need to get the good gossip from somewhere.”
But every time he’d tried to find a spare minute, Bruce opened his mouth or another disaster had lurked around the corner, and then it had been six months, and a year, and then Jason was in Ethiopia, and then Jason was gone and Dick would never take him skiing again.
Just after Jason had died, when Dick was back on Earth he had gone to see Barbara, and hadn’t known how to react or what to say when she said, “Oh God, Dick, I’m so sorry,” because he and Jason hadn’t been close, really. But he’d spent hours — days, really — reading news reports and gossip blogs and social media and trying to understand.
While Dick was off-world and Jason Todd was lying in the ground, there was an asshole on the internet who was saying that he’d always known that Brucie Wayne was too stupid to have custody of children, god, doesn’t the state ever look into these things?
When he was light years away from his family, and Bruce was carving a new hole into his heart that would never heal, there were people trying to dig up his own history, because they were curious, because his family was an oddity, because, well, it’s not like they’re doing any harm, right?
“I’m just saying,” because they were all just saying. “Who lets kids run off like that by themselves?”
When he was a kid, just after he’d come to live at the manor, he used to wake up screaming. He was falling, you see. Every night in his dreams, he fell, and he screamed the house down, because nobody was going to catch him. It had been awful and terrifying and humiliating, because this rich guy had just taken him in, you see, and here Dick was, waking him up every night with dumb nightmares.
But Bruce would come to his room every night he had a nightmare and wake him gently. “It’s alright, chum,” he would say. “You’re alright.”
They both knew he wasn’t alright. What he meant was you’re alive. You didn’t fall.
He would stay until Dick fell asleep again, would read him chapters from whatever book he could find lying closest to hand, and then do the same thing the next night.
Then there was a night where Dick woke himself up before the screaming started, and he’d become so used to Bruce being right there when he needed him that the lack of him was like losing everything all over again. So he’d climbed out of bed and crept down the hall to Bruce’s room, and knocked. Everything is louder in the early hours of the morning but Dick would have sworn that they could have heard that knock in Bludhaven.
“Dick,” Bruce had said when he opened the door. “Everything alright, chum?”
He hadn’t made a noise as Dick threw himself at him, just wrapped an arm around him, and said, “Okay, okay, let’s go to bed,” and had settled them both down in the huge bed. He had wrapped an arm around Dick, and put his other hand on Dick’s head, and it was so big and warm on his hair.
When Dick fell asleep that night, he didn’t fall.
After Jason, Dick kept thinking about those early days, when it was just him and Bruce and Alfred. He thought about Bruce settling Jason after nightmares, with books and one big hand on his head keeping him steady and grounded and real.
He could feel those hands now, as he read about how Bruce Wayne had always been a terrible father.
He scrolled down to look at the comments on an article about Bruce. He didn’t read them. He closed the tab and went to bed, and thought about everything he wouldn’t think about during daylight.
He hadn’t been back in so long, but nothing had changed and everything had.
The house was quiet and lonely, and Dick thought he could hear footsteps on the stair that creaked, or a closing door only a couple of rooms down from where he had grown up, but he knew he couldn’t have because there was nobody there. There couldn’t be anybody there.
Alfred was out, but he caught Bruce as he was walking down the hall, and he didn’t know who he was for a moment. He looked as if he had aged twenty years in a month. He looked as if he had lost a child.
“What are you doing here,” he said. Dick bristled.
“You haven’t been answering my calls,” he said. “I just wanted to see you.”
“I’m fine,” Bruce said. His face was hard and his mouth a straight line as he turned away, but Dick had known him for so long now and he knew the set of those shoulders.
“Fine?” he repeated. “Jason’s dead and you’re fine?”
Bruce turned back to him. “Do not,” he ground out. “Do not talk to me about Jason. As if you know anything about him.”
“I knew him, too,” Dick said.
“Knew him?” like it was something foul in his mouth that he couldn’t get out quickly enough. “He was my son. I loved him, and you couldn’t get away from him fast enough.”
“That’s not true,” Dick argued. “That’s not true. You know why I left — you’re doing it right now, you know it.”
For over a year there had been another person involved in these fights, trying to de-escalate and distract them. Jason would tell Bruce about what he’d been doing in school, and stage-whisper to Dick about how Bruce tripped over his own cape and fell into the harbor. Divide and conquer. Sometimes it had worked. Sometimes it hadn’t. But he wasn’t here now, so the fight continued.
It grew from there, escalating somehow into a vase being thrown and Bruce finally raising his voice, and Alfred standing in the doorway watching on in despair after all his attempts at interfering were ignored or refuted, and none of them knew exactly how they had got to this point.
After the vase had stopped ringing in the hall, Dick threw up his hands. “You know what?” he said. “I’m done. Fine. Rot away in the Cave if you want.”
As he walked out, furious and hurt and confused, he could hear Bruce storm the other way, Alfred talking quietly to him.
“He was my son. I loved him.”
When he was young, Bruce hadn’t said it with words a lot, but Dick had understood it. It was in his hugs, and in the way he would read to him at two in the morning, and how he would clean Dick’s wounds so gently and so carefully, and watch terrible children’s movies with him.
He couldn’t remember the last time either of them had said it.
The thing about death is that until you see the person, it’s all just — theoretical.
People could say “Jason died” as often as they wanted, but his number was still in Dick’s phone no matter how often he skipped over it and how rarely he’d messaged it before, and when he’d visited Bruce he had seen that Jason’s books and clothes and knickknacks were still in the manor, untouched, like he’d just gone out for a walk.
There was no body for him to look at.
Bruce had been great at playing games with him when he was a kid but Bruce worked a lot even when he didn’t, and Alfred was busy, so his main companion over the years had been his imagination. He had a very good imagination these days, but he still couldn’t picture how still Jason could be, after having been such an active boy — always moving, chatting, doing his work.
The first time Dick saw a dead person up close was a few months into being Robin. Nobody had let him get close enough to his parents for him to see them lying there like that, impossibly still, cooling so quickly it was like someone had thrown them into an ice bath. For days he knew they were dead and gone and not coming to get him from the home, but he kept waiting for them. A part of him had expected them to stand up from the ground and continue on with the show, smashed skulls and all.
“You don’t want to see them like that, honey,” someone told him, and he didn’t have the words then to say “Yes, I do.”
He didn’t get to see Jason. He didn’t get to say it again. He didn’t get to do a lot of things.
By the time he was on Earth, after, he had already been buried so he had gone to the grave, with its tall white marble marker. Perfectly smooth and still. But for the name on it, it could have belonged to anyone. It was nothing at all like Jason who beneath his clean and well-pressed school clothes was regularly bruised and beaten from his after school activities, and who would dig around in the dirt for the sake of Alfred’s roses.
“Master Jason is enjoying his art classes,” Alfred had said once when Dick had visited. “Though I am unsure if the project is on canvas or himself.”
The first person he’d ever seen dead, up close and in person, had been a girl. A victim of Gotham. Not it’s first, and far from its last. A girl nobody would remember. She had been left on her side, and the blood had pooled in her cheek, settling like a bruise on perfectly unbroken skin. Her half-open eyes, blue and blank, had stayed in his dreams for days.
He could still remember the report he wrote about it.
Jason had a report, too.
He could have looked at it any time in the last two months, but. Jason was out for a walk, or messing around in the garage, and if he read it, and looked at the photos, and saw what happened, then it would be real and Jason wouldn’t just be out for a walk or in the garage anymore, and Bruce’s silence that had lasted for weeks would be more painful than infuriating.
It was easier to be angry at someone for not returning his calls when they weren’t a grieving father.
In the end, he looked at it, and the world didn’t change. The earth didn’t spin backwards and undo two months, and Jason wasn’t just out for a walk.
Dick fell back into old patterns almost immediately, logic and reason prevailing when emotion wanted to take over. He took in the facts, and then he took them in again, and he started reconstructing things in his head and when he couldn’t quite do that, he created models that he would destroy.
But eventually he couldn’t look at the report for much longer without dreaming about it, so he went for a walk, with his hood up and a hat on, the brim pulled down low. He spent more time looking at his feet than at the sky, and when he finally looked up, he was on Park Row. Crime Alley.
He didn’t mean to come here, but sometimes your feet know where you should be better than your head does.
There were stores dotted along the street, windows boarded up. Someone trusted this place enough to leave a car there. They won’t be making that mistake again, he thought, judging by the people eyeing it. Bruce didn’t, even if he got a child out of the robbery.
The image of Jason — aged twelve a lifetime ago, aged fifteen for eternity — was superimposed over the streets, a ragged red sweater with more holes than fabric and a Gotham Knights cap, his shoes falling to pieces. He always wore everything until he couldn’t mend them anymore.
Dick remembered the battle that was Alfred trying to pry that sweater out of Jason’s hands. “More darning than fabric,” Alfred had said.
“Yeah,” Jason had said. “And it’s mine.”
Alfred had given in after a while, but there were still new warm sweaters for Jason. He had kept his red one, though, hidden in the back of his closet in a box with a copy of the key for a door into the manor and a set of photos — one of his mother, young and healthy, one of Jason and Bruce, both smiling, and the photo from when they went skiing.
He found a bench just beneath a tree, and sat there, leaves drifting around him, and he waited there until he could see something other than dead boys.
Dick woke up and Jason was dead.
It wasn’t unusual. But when he woke up and thought Jason is dead instead of the abstract images his mind had produced before, he had clear photos in his head, a detailed report. He could put together the last half hour of Jason’s life and he could see that it hadn’t been easy.
He saw smaller hands in place of his own, shattered with the force of the blows.
When he was very little, he had asked his mother why robins had red chests. He had asked his mother and father everything in those days, and they always had an answer. Later, it would be Bruce to have all the answers, and later still, nobody.
But he had asked his mother why they were red, and she had said, “Once, there was a little wren, and a little robin, and the wren stole fire from the heavens,” and Dick had listened, with wide eyes and an open heart as she told him how the robin had caught fire, the redbreast of the robin the remains of its burned feathers.
“Really?” he had asked, and his mother had smiled and said, “Once, there was a little robin,” and wove a story about the fires of Purgatory and the souls who were so wretched and so thirsty, and a little bird who tried to ease their pain with some water, and burned itself in its efforts.
And Dick had frowned, confused. “But how can they both be true?”
“Who says they are?” his father had said. “Why does a story have to be true?
“But one bird was brave and the other was scared,” he had said. You couldn’t be both.
“Well, then,” his father had said, pulling Dick onto his lap. “Maybe they are both a little true, then.”
His mother had called him her little robin, her brave little boy.
He thought about Jason’s little chest, in his Robin uniform. The red armor, the red blood. If anyone ever tried to tell him that Jason hadn’t been brave, he wouldn’t show them those photos, invasive and indecent and too clinical, but he would remember them, because he would always remember them.
He didn’t know if he had ever been so brave.
He didn’t think he had ever been so scared.
He stood up, and took a deep breath, but he couldn’t breathe just right. He went to make some coffee, and have something to eat, and all he could think about was how Bruce’s kid who had been so brave and so scared was never going to eat breakfast again and that that wasn’t fair.
He couldn’t quite catch his breath, so he slowed it down with old meditation habits he’d long since ditched, but it became ragged and painful, and he couldn’t see anything but a broken body, and that ruined uniform, and unseeing eyes, and Bruce’s old face.
His stomach hurt, and his chest hurt, and he couldn’t breathe. Gasping, he fell into a seat, and tried to take back control of his body but slowly, every part of him turned cold and numb and froze up, like he was being turned to marble like Jason’s headstone. He couldn’t breathe and he was going to die, and he was going to be dead and gone like Jason and Bruce was going to be alone again.
This is a panic attack, he told himself, because intellectually he knew this. You’re not dying. You can breathe, you can breathe, but he couldn’t breathe and he couldn’t stop the tears from welling up in his eyes even though he didn’t know where they were coming from or why they wouldn’t stop. They simply were. His hands were tingling and greyish, and he couldn’t move them. He couldn’t move his hands.
When he could breathe again and knew he was still alive, he picked up his phone to call someone. He scrolled through his contacts. He saw Bruce’s number and scrolled past it. He saw Jason Todd, and he put his phone away.
“It shouldn’t bother me this much,” Dick said over drinks one night. It could be hard to get everyone in one place these days, but still they managed to get a couple of beers in them before going to their own parts of the universe.
Roy and Wally looked at him dubiously.
“It’s not like we hung out a lot or anything,” he said to them. “It was only sometimes. Like if Bruce was being extra Bruce like, you know?”
“Well. Maybe that’s the problem,” Wally said.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, I mean — I guess it’s like,” he sighed. “Okay, so your dad brought a new kid home from the hospital or the alley or whatever it was, and you had this new brother—”
“Jason wasn’t my brother,” Dick interrupted.
“That’s the thing,” Roy said. “That’s what we’re trying to say.”
“Bruce is your dad,” Wally said like Dick was an idiot.
“Yeah,” Dick conceded, because how else do you describe someone who gave you a home and kept the nightmares away and made you do your homework?
“Jason was Bruce’s kid.”
“Not hearing anything new,” Dick said.
“Are you being like, deliberately thick?” Roy asked. “Person A has a parent. The parent also has another child, Person B. How would you describe the relationship between them?”
It could have been the lack of sleep getting to him, or the alcohol, or their increasingly exasperated annoyance, but there was something about the question that shattered all the light in the room, and all of the shards were focused in on Dick’s chest, on his heart, where he kept his parents and Haley’s circus and Bruce and Alfred.
“Oh. Oh,” he said to himself.
He thought of the photos hidden in the back of Jason’s wardrobe, and the photo he’d found a place for on his wall. He thought of how he’d kept trying to arrange another trip, for a year, right up until Jason went to Ethiopia, and the books in Jason’s room that Bruce had once read to him.
They had the names of three people written in the covers.
“But he wasn’t my brother,” he said helplessly.
His friends looked across him at each other, and then at him. He hated it — that they could so easily see what he needed, could see into the gaps of him, those empty spaces that he didn’t know what to do with. “No,” Roy said. “But that’s the problem.”
“He could have been,” Dick said, and Wally leaned in, shoulder a steady weight against him.
He went home again, because it was always going to be home — this sprawling old house with the trees he had climbed and the roof he had fallen off, and the bushes he had lost balls in, only for Ace to come racing back with them one afternoon six months later. No matter how long their silences or how loud the explosions, he could still come here, kicking leaves and gravel on his way up to the door.
He found Alfred in the kitchen, and didn’t bother trying to sneak up to him, just walked in and stole a couple of the cookies from the cupboard. He didn’t leave muddy footprints or crumbs. You only make that mistake once.
“You mind, Alf?” he asked, already eating them.
“The only thing I mind is that dreadful nickname,” Alfred told him, and Dick laughed and ate his cookies.
“How is he?” he asked after a moment of silence.
“I don’t know if you’ll find him easy company,” Alfred said.
“When do I ever?” Dick laughed.
Alfred sagged a little. “There was a time,” he said. But that was long ago, they both knew. A lot of time and a lot of blood ago.
“I won’t throw any vases,” Dick promised.
“I appreciate your efforts to hold back,” Alfred said dryly.
He found Bruce in his office, sitting behind his desk and staring out the window. He knocked the open door, leaning against the frame.
“I don’t have anything here for you to throw,” Bruce said.
“Already told Alfred I wouldn’t,” Dick told him. “So you’re safe for now.”
He moved further into the office. There was a gouge on the corner of the desk he could see from the other side of the room — remnants of childhoods accidents.
“Look, I just—” he cut himself off, sighed. He looked down at his shoes and tried to find the words that he had on his way here, but they were inadequate now. “I wanted to apologise.”
“No,” said Bruce.
“Yes?” said Dick. “I was an ass. When you’re an ass, you own up to it and say sorry.”
“You weren’t—” Bruce stopped himself just before Dick could live out childhood fantasies of hearing him swear, even mildly. “Dick,” he said. “You did nothing wrong.”
“I threw a vase at your head.”
“We both have a temper,” Bruce said evenly.
Dick once brought a chandelier to the ground and all Bruce had told him was “Don’t do it again.” When he was nine years old, he had painted over a priceless work of art. Bruce had told him it had never been his favourite. If he had a temper, then he had the longest fuse known to man.
“I shouldn’t have pushed you,” he tried.
A pause. “No,” Bruce said, again. “I needed it.”
“Alfred got to you, didn’t he?”
“He was rather loquacious on the topic.”
There was a moment where all they did was look at each other. Bruce looked away, back to the window.
“When did you get so tall,” he asked.
“Growth spurts, B.”
Another silence, and Dick watched Bruce watch the sunlight in the trees.
“He was my son,” Bruce said.
Dick nodded. He sat on the couch. “Yeah,” he agreed. “He was. And he was a good kid.”
“He was your brother,” Bruce said to the window.
“No,” Dick told the room. “He wasn’t. But he should have been.”