Jason was bored.
Not just normal bored, but like, super bored. He groaned, flopping dramatically onto the couch, his controller in one hand and his juice box in the other.
“Alfred!” He yelled, so he could be heard all the way from the kitchen, “When's Bruce gonna be back?”
“Not until day after, Master Jason,” Alfred said, “which you already know, considering that this is the third time you've asked me, today.” He wasn't quite yelling, but Jason could hear him clear as day, even though the distance from the kitchen to the living room was huge. He didn't know how Alfred did it. Maybe some trick he'd picked up as an actor.
Jason groaned again, flopping from the couch to the floor. “I'm bored,” he yelled, stretching out the vowels.
“No whining, master Jason,” Alfred not-yelled, from the kitchen, “if you are in search of activities to stimulate the mind, you are very welcome to help me with the dishes.”
Jason made a face. “Alfred, you know that's not what I meant!” he yelled back.
“No shouting in the hallways,” Alfred said, curtly.
Jason stared gloomily back at the screen. He was tired of video games. And TV. And his iPod. This sucked.
He found himself wishing that school wasn't out. Dick would have shaken his head in disbelief. “Only you, Little Wing,” he'd have said, “only you'd want to go back to school.”
Well. Whatever. Maybe he did. He liked school, okay? He had some friends there, and History and English were really fun, Math not so much though. They'd been learning about Pyramids, and Khufu's great tomb in Giza. Jason had decided when he grew up that he was going to become an Egyptologist. Like, an adventurer, finding lost treasures and secret curses. And he could ride a camel and stop evil tomb raiders. And Bruce and Dick and Alfred could come visit him in Egypt and he’d show them all the pyramids. How cool would that be?
He was still thinking about it, when the doorbell rang. Jason glanced at the door.
“Hey, Alfred?” he called out, “Are we expecting company?”
He heard footsteps coming from the kitchen. Alfred walked into the hall. He was frowning in the direction of the foyer. “I don’t believe we are, Master Jason,” he said.
“Weird,” Jason said, shrugging. He walked towards to the door, ready to answer it.
The bell rang again.
“Jeez, I'm coming, I'm coming!” he said, flinging open the door, “what's the rush, can't you s–”
It was Bruce.
Jason broke into a grin. “You're back! Like, two days early!”
“Master Wayne?” Alfred said, stepping forward.
Bruce was looking very intently at Jason. “Hello, Jay,” he said, but his voice sounded strange. Like, really rough. Jason had only heard him sound like that once before, and that had been when he'd taken Jason to his parent's grave, last Christmas.
“Is something wrong?” Jason said, wide-eyed. Bruce looked… different. There was no way to really describe it. He had this line between his brows, like he'd been frowning too much. He took a step back, warily.
But then Bruce smiled, and everything was okay again, and he looked like the exact same Bruce that had left to go off-world to the cluster worlds of Nydalleneuve three weeks ago on League business.
“Nothing's wrong,” Bruce said lightly, handing Alfred his coat and duffle bag, “other than the fact that you're dripping apple juice all over the foyer.”
Jason looked down at his juice box and swore, holding it upright. “Sorry B,” he said sheepishly.
“You're not going to make Alfred clean that up, are you, Private?” Bruce said, and Jason shook his head, standing to attention.
“No, sir, Captain!” he said, doing a mock salute. It was a game they hadn’t played in a while. Alfred was General though, and technically he outranked them all. “I'll get the mop, sir, Captain!” Jason said, grinning.
Bruce smiled again, ruffling his hair, “Good man, Private,” he said.
Jason grinned again, and ran off. He didn't notice the strange look Alfred was giving Bruce.
“I'm thinking, now that I'm back, we should go for a baseball game together,” Bruce said.
They were sitting on the couch, controllers in hand, and Jason was kicking Bruce's ass at Mario Kart. It was weird because Bruce was usually amazing at Mario Kart.
“Really?” Jason said, “but I thought you had all that paperwork to do once you got home? You told me when I called you up using the comms, remember? I th– oh hey I won again!”
Bruce only shrugged, setting down his controller. It was like he didn't even care that much. Jason narrowed his eyes.
“Did you do that on purpose or something? Cause there's no way you managed to lose to me like, four times in a row. You never lose.”
Bruce just smiled. “Three weeks of no practice in the sulphur mines of Nydalleneavue at subzero temperatures can do that to a person. And my paperwork deadline got pushed back. There's a baseball game today, and I'm sure I can call up the Gotham Knights’ manager and get two tickets. What do you think, you up for it?”
When Jason hesitated, Bruce only grinned wider. “I knew you'd be too tired to go. I guess I should have known better. Playing Mario Kart all day long can be exhausting, huh?”
Jason scowled. “I'm not tired!” he cried.
Bruce was studying his fingernails. “Really,” he said, his voice dry, “I don't know why I asked. You're still too little to enjoy the finer things in life, baseball being one of them.”
Jason pounced on Bruce, shoving at his chest. “I'm not too little!” he said, indignant, but Bruce was only laughing. He took the hits without much complaint, and wrapped his arms around Jason in an iron-like vice until Jason was giggling.
“Are too ,” Bruce said, the lines around his eyes crinkling in laughter, “you're practically a baby,” his voice was warm and oddly fond.
Jason slapped at Bruce's hands. “I'm old enough! I’m coming to your dumb basketball game!” he yelled, except somehow, he was grinning too.
“Baseball,” Bruce corrected, grabbing Jason by the arms and hauling him up. Jason squealed, trying to wriggle out of his grip. “I don't know Jason,” Bruce was saying, raising his voice a little so that he could be heard over Jason's yelling, “do you think you could handle it?”
“I can, I can! Now let me go you, big bully!” Jason said, laughing. He contemplated climbing Bruce like a monkey for a second, so he could sling himself onto his back and plan an attack from the rear. Then he decided against it. Bruce was not averse to playing dirty. An image of Bruce flopping down onto the couch with Jason still on his back filled his mind, and Jason winced pre-emptively.
“Let me go!” he yelled again, right into Bruce's ear, just cause he could. It'd serve him right.
Except Bruce didn't let go.
He adjusted his grip around Jason a little so that he wasn't quite over his shoulder and flailing around anymore, and held him in a way that was kind of like he was. . . cradling him. Like a baby. And them he bent his head, so that his ear was right against Jason's chest, like those games Mom used to play with him when he was a kid, where she used to pretend she was a doctor searching for his heartbeat.
Bruce was – Bruce was hugging him. Or checking for his pulse. One of those two.
“Lemme go!” Jason said, grinning. He tried to wriggle out of Bruce's grip but he couldn't. Bruce was too strong. And he wasn't smiling anymore, either. He was staring at Jason like he'd never seen him before. And he was still holding Jason like that, like you’d hold a little kid.
“Hey Bruce, quit it. I'm not a baby!” Jason said, scrunching up his brow. He wriggled harder this time, and Bruce finally let go.
“But you are,” Bruce said, his voice low. That line in the middle of his brow was back again. “You're so little.”
Jason huffed, sitting back down on the couch. Bruce was being so weird. “Are we going to see the stupid game, or what?”
It was like Bruce broke out of a trance. He smiled again. “Of course we're going. But only if you're sure you're think you can handle it,” he said, laughing as Jason tackled him again.
They took the BMW.
“I love this car,” Bruce mused, as they cruised down Santiago Drive. It was right in the middle of summer, and people were skating at the rink near the beach.
Jason snorted. “Of course you do. That's why you own it, boss.”
Bruce gave him a sideways smile. “I suppose you're right.” he said. There was a pause.
“What?” he asked, when he saw Jason looking at him.
“You're being all weird,” Jason said, turning up the volume to the radio. It was an rap song. Bruce didn't even say anything, or turn it down. He usually did, especially when it was rap music. Bruce was so boring that he only listened to classical music. And sometimes the Ramones .
Bruce looked amused. “Weird,” he said, in a way that was meant to be a question.
“Yeah. Weird. You're being all. . . smiley. And happy,” Jason said, narrowing his eyes. “It's creeping me out.”
Bruce shook his head. “Could be that I'm happy to see my son after three weeks of being off-world,” he glanced at Jason briefly, before he looked back at the road.
Jason blinked. Oh. They didn't really use that word.
“Think we'll win?” He asked, trying to get away from that topic.
Bruce snorted. “Unlikely,” he said. Jason grinned again. There was the Bruce he knew.
“Captain, permission to stop at Baskin Robbins?” He said, tentatively. Bruce didn't usually let Jason eat all that much junk food, but it was the summer vacation, and he seemed like he was in a pretty good mood.
Bruce's mouth quirked upwards. “Mint chocolate chip, Private?”
“Alright then,” Bruce said, turning into the next exit, “as long as this remains a classified mission. The General is not to be notified of this, you hear me?”
“Roger that, Captain,” Jason said, doing the salute.
Bruce laughed. “Jay, soldiers only say that over the radio.”
Jason scowled. “You know what I meant, Bruce. Don't be a smartass.”
“Alright, alright,” Bruce said, a pause, “Hey. Mind your language.”
“Jeez louise ! So I said ass , so what? Man, it's like I can never catch a break anymore.” Jason said, throwing his hands up.
“Yes, it must be very hard, getting mint chocolate chip ice cream and box seats to one of the biggest games of the year, and growing up in a mid-sized manor,” Bruce said, his voice dry.
“I hate you,” Jason declared, and Bruce snorted again.
They watched most of the game, until Jason started nodding off towards the end of the last inning. The next thing he knew, he was lying in the backseat of the BMW.
“I fell asleep?” he said, rubbing at his eyes.
“Mmm.” Bruce was driving. “We almost didn't lose, this time.”
“Aw man,” Jason said, lying back down, “sorry I fell asleep, boss.”
“It's alright,” Bruce said, his voice light. He reached back and stroked Jason's hair with his free hand. “Go back to sleep, sweetheart.”
And maybe Jason would have thought that it was really strange that Bruce said that, but he was so tired anyway, that he just closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
The hand didn't stop stroking, like it couldn't bear to let go.
When he woke up again, he was on a bed. His bed. He could hear faint voices, like they were coming from outside his room.
“... I am not denying that, but you must tell the boy. He certainly did not sign up to be part of this. Regardless of –” there was a part Jason couldn't hear, because Alfred's voice had slipped into a whisper.
“It doesn't matter, it's all going to be erased. Undone. The whole thing. Please Alfred, please just let me have–”
And then he heard no more. They had stopped talking. Maybe it was because he had made a sound. It was just that he had probably moved, because he'd been so surprised at the tone of Bruce's voice. It had sounded almost– it was like– it had sounded like–
Begging. It had sounded like Bruce was begging .
Bruce didn't do that.
The door opened, slowly. Jason watched, warily. He was all the way awake now.
Bruce leaned against the door, watching him. He smiled. Except now it looked like he was pretending to be casual. Like he was acting. And now Jason was noticing all the things that were different about Bruce that he hadn't noticed before, and not just the line in his brow. Even more stuff, like there were faint lines on his face, and his hair looked kind of different too. Like he had a different haircut, or something. He even looked like he was standing different. Something about his posture.
Jason backed up in the bed, until he was up against the headboard.
“Someone decided to finally wake up,” Bruce said, smiling.
“Yeah I guess I got tired,” Jason said, trying to sound casual.
Bruce sat on the bed, next to Jason. Jason swallowed.
“So,” Bruce said, “how's school?”
The bottom dropped out of Jason's stomach. “Did you body snatch my dad?” he yelled, scrambling off the bed.
Bruce looked perplexed. “ What ?” he said.
“It’s summer! School is out,” Jason cried out, “the real Bruce would know!” He leapt across the room, grabbing a batarang that he kept in one of the drawers of his study table. He held it out against the Bruce-looking imposter, his hand shaking a little.
“You're a body snatcher, aren't you?” Jason said, his voice sounded not as steady as he'd have liked it to sound. “You're some goopy looking alien that absorbed Bruce when he was off-world and regurgitated his dead body and now you've replaced him! And you're going to do the same to me!”
Not-Bruce was still looking perplexed. “Jay, I told you to not watch that movie,” he said.
“Oh my god,” Jason said, his eyes wide, “you've stolen his memories too! What did you do, suck up his soul ?”
Not-Bruce only sighed. He patted the space on the bed beside him. “C'mere, Jay,” he said.
Jason was still pointing the batarang at him threateningly. “No!” he said, his voice high, “not until you tell me what you did to Bruce.”
Not-Bruce was rubbing at his brow. “I didn't do anything to him. He's still in Nydalleneavue, and if I remember correctly, he's probably yelling at Clark about re-calibrating the Javelin's flight stabilizer without telling anyone first. And I hate talking about myself in the third person. It sounds so… what do you call it? ‘douchey’ ?”
Jason gaped at him. He closed his mouth. He opened it again. He closed it again. “You– who are you? Actually, you know what? Don't answer that. You'll probably kill me anyway, so what do I care. ALFRED! THERE'S A BODY SNATCHER IN HERE!” he yelled, walking backwards towards the bedroom door.
Not-Bruce got up, off the bed. “Jay,” he said, “I swear to you, I am not an alien. An alien wouldn't know your favourite ice cream flavour, or that you're really into Egypt right now, or that a few months later you're going to be more interested in the Aztecs. An alien wouldn't know that you sneaked out last Christmas Eve to exchange the shirt you bought for Alfred because you bought the wrong size and we almost called the cops because we thought you'd been kidnapped.”
“You grounded me. On Christmas!” Jason said. Then he blinked. Wait, Bruce had done that. Not this– not him.
Bruce knelt next to him. “Jay, an alien wouldn't know that you like to pour in your cereal before your milk, and you hate mushrooms, and that you like it when we watch movies that I like, and you pretend to like them too, even if you think they're boring, and that you want to be a writer when you grow up.”
Jason’s eyes widened. “I haven't told you that!” he said. And lots of people hated mushrooms. It didn't mean anything.
“Yet,” Bruce said. He was looking at him like that was supposed to mean something.
“What?” Jason said. He was so confused.
“You haven't told me yet , Jay,” Bruce said, and suddenly all the pieces in Jason's mind, all the little details he had ignored, started to click, like that old Kodak slide projector Alfred had from when he was little.
Jason gaped again. “Oh my god, you're from the future! And you're like– you're like evil skynet cyborg Bruce, here to kill past-Bruce when he gets home to stop him from doing–from doing something !”
Bruce had his head in his hands. “No,” was all he said. Quieter, he said, “God give me strength.”
“I heard that!” Jason said. He could hear footsteps coming up the stairs rapidly. Oh good. Alfred was here.
“Alfred, Bruce is a terminator ,” Jason hissed, slowly backing out of the room and into the hallway. The batarang was still tightly held in his grip, although he didn't know what good a batarang could do against a fricking terminator.
Still, maybe this was just a prototype. Bruce didn't look like Arnold. He just looked like Bruce .
Alfred was walking briskly up the corridor, rubbing at his temples. “Master Jason, do calm down. Master Bruce seems to be suffering from a spot of time travel, but he is, fortunately for us, no terminator. He only happens to be from the future.”
Jason stared wide-eyed at Bruce. “How far from the future?”
“Nine years, two months, and thirteen days,” Bruce said. He sounded very resigned.
“So… you're like forty?” Jason said, his voice high. Shit, being forty was worse than being the terminator.
“Forty one,” Bruce said. His voice was sad. “We need to talk, Jason.”
Jason watched Bruce.
They were sitting at the table in the kitchen, the one that they always sat at, the one Alfred always shooed them away from, because it was supposed to be the servant's table, whatever that meant.
Except Alfred wasn't shooing them away now. He wasn't even talking. No one was talking.
Especially not Bruce. Bruce was just sitting there, hunched over a cup of tea, with no expression on his face. Jason looked at him warily. Now that he was looking, really looking, it seemed obvious that he wasn't the Bruce that Jason knew. His eyes weren't as blue. They looked a little paler, more washed out. He even had a little grey in his hair– just around the edges.
He remembered his mom telling him that when he'd been a baby there had been some red in his hair, but it had darkened when he'd grown up. Jason frowned.
He didn't like thinking about his mom.
When Bruce finally spoke, Jason almost jumped.
“The league,” he said, his voice low, “came across a space-time anomaly in sector 34-a. A wormhole. It was enclosed in a gate with a two-way fractal lock. Do you know what that is?”
Jason shook his head.
Bruce was running his thumb over the rim of his teacup. “A two way fractal lock, means that it needs to be closed from both ends, to shut the gate down. And we had to shut the gate, because it was growing unstable. So,” Bruce paused, “so Clark asked the league, if there was anyone who would mind going through the gate and closing it from the other end. They'd be pulled out manually, of course, by the Flash. But provided they made it back to Earth. And provided they managed to get to a pre-discussed location, at an allotted time for the pickup.
“And they picked you?” Jason said, his voice small. His tea was growing cold.
“I volunteered,” Bruce said, his voice low.
There was a beat.
“I've been here a month,” Bruce said, glancing up at him.
Jason gaped at him. “ Why? Did you Flash forget to pick you up? Did you give him the wrong date?”
Bruce shook his head. “I have to scratch in the date and time onto the base of the cupid statue in the West lawn of the manor. He'll pick me up as soon as he sees it. I haven't scratched it in yet.”
Jason frowned. “Why the hell not, you dummy?”
Bruce smiled, a little. It was more like his lip had been pulled up, by some phantom puppeteer. Like he was hollow. Bruce only did the weird puppet smile when he was sad.
“I remembered,” he said, his voice soft, “right after I landed a month ago, that I had a son here. And his father would be going off-world in a week, and then maybe I could have him all to myself, just for a little while.”
“Why didn't you come see me sooner?” Jason asked. “I've been alone here almost three weeks. Bruce is coming back in two days. ”
Bruce shook his head. “I tried not to do it,” he said, his voice low. “I should have just gone back home. But I couldn't bring myself to scratch the damn date into the statue. Not without seeing you first.” He downed the rest of his tea, “Stupidest damn thing I've done in a while.”
Alfred, who'd been listening, set his teacup down rather firmly. “You could not visit Master Jason in your own timeline?”
Bruce was still staring at the teacup, like it held some answers in its porcelain depths, “It's complicated,” was all he said.
Jason narrowed his eyes. “What's so complicated about it?” he said.
Bruce shrugged, a slight, one-shouldered action. “Things have… changed, Jason. They're not like they used to be.”
Jason slumped back in his chair, sighing loudly. It was like Bruce was trying to be obtuse on purpose. “Look, you can just tell me, okay? Cause we all know that at the end of the day, you're gonna have to leave before my Bruce comes back, so you'll scratch your stupid date on the statue and then the Flash'll come and pick you up from like a month ago and I'll forget everything anyway and things will be hunky-dory so what's the big–”
“You died,” Bruce said, pushing the chair back as he got up. His teacup clattered in his saucer. “You died , is what happened. And then when you came back you hated me. And things have never been the same since, even though I have tried, Jason– god knows I have tried bring you back home. And sometimes I find myself sitting in my car, parked across the street from your apartment, just waiting, and trying to work up the courage to go to your door and knock and apologize for the hundreds of things, the thousands of things that I did wrong, except I can't, and I just sit there, for hours and hours and sometimes you see me from your window, and you don't even do anything, you just stand there, watching, and I just sit, like the stupid fool that I am, and then after a while you draw the curtains, and after a while, I go home. And that's what happens. And I can't live like that anymore, Jay. I can't.”
Jason stared at him.
Bruce brow was furrowed, and he was still standing, his hands two fists on both sides. “This was a mistake.” He said.
Then he left.
Jason walked up to the cupid statue in the lawn, squinting in the sunlight.
“What are you doing?” he said.
Bruce had a drill in his hand, and was etching numbers onto the stone plinth at the very bottom. It was making one hell of a racket. “Defacing private property,” he said. He took his protective eyewear off, brushing off the marble dust from an etched number.
Jason squatted down on the grass. “Hey Bruce?” he said, “if you scratch in the date from the last month, none of this'll have ever happened, right? And like, I'll totally forget all my memories from today?
“It would be a normal day for you,” Bruce said. His voice was fairly even, but he wasn't looking Jason in the eye.
Jason sat down on the grass next to Bruce, so their shoulders were touching. Bruce paused, and then he set the drill down.
“Hey, Bruce,” Jason said.
“Yes,” Bruce said.
“Think you can drill the rest of the thingy later? Cause I kind of like the idea of a no-consequences-no-matter-what-I-do kind of a day.”
Bruce looked at Jason. He had an inscrutable look in his eye. “Why,” he said, and now his voice wasn't all that steady anymore, “what do you want to do?”
Jason grinned. “Let's watch an R-rated movie.”
Bruce smiled. “No consequences to anything, and that's what you want to do?”
“Hell yeah! Are you kidding? I've been trying to get you to let me watch the Evil Dead for ages , and you won't let me! And now it can't scar me or anything, because I'll forget about it. And we can eat Cheetos and Mountain Dew and peanut butter cups and Alfred can't say anything about cholesterol or heart ventricles! This is like, our only chance. Ever. C'mon Bruce.” Jason said, sitting back and grinning.
Bruce shook his head. “Why are you doing this,” he said, after a while.
Jason's smile faded. “Because you look like shit, okay, Bruce? And I'm trying to make you laugh because I feel kind of bad for you, even though I'm pretty sure I should be mad at you because you don't just tell a twelve year old that their future self will die at some point! That could seriously scar me! Even worse than the Evil Dead . And you know what? I'm pretty sure you said something really stupid to me after I came back, because what kind of a dumbass son just watches his dad sit outside his apartment like that week after week without even throwing him a bone, unless you said something truly fucked up, right? Which, knowing you, you most probably did.”
“We had a fight. When you first came back,” Bruce said. His voice was very soft. “Words were exchanged that were– It was… not something we could come back from.”
“See? I should've gotten like, a welcome back party, you douchebag,” Jason said, elbowing Bruce's side.
Bruce smiled a little. “Alright,” he said.
“Let's watch your movie. Not the Evil Dead, though,” he said, “let's watch Alien . Facehuggers are better than demons, any day,” Bruce said, getting up, off the grass. “C'mon,” he said, offering him a hand.
Midway through the movie, around the time when the android got fully incinerated in the most metal way, and Jason had finished his second can of Mountain Dew, Bruce put an arm around him.
“I wish I could remember this,” he said.
Jason opened his mouth to crack some dumb joke about not wanting to forget this badass movie either, but then he saw the look on Bruce's face and he changed his mind.
“I took this time we had together for granted,” Bruce said. He looked so heartbroken.
Jason didn't really know what to say, so he pressed his head against Bruce's chest. The arm around him tightened.
“Maybe you're taking your Jason for granted,” he said. “I mean, isn't it kind of a miracle that he was dead and now he's not? I mean, what's the deal, is it some kind of Jesus Christ situation? Bruce, am I the twenty first century Jesus?”
Bruce laughed. Actually laughed. “Don't joke about it,” he said.
“You laughed. And I'm not the one who brought it up! I bet I have some special dead people powers. Do I eat brains?”
“No. I don't really know what you eat,” Bruce said. He paused, “once, when I came home from a work trip early, you were at home, and Alfred was feeding you Mac and cheese. And then you saw me and made an excuse to leave.”
Jason sighed. “Wow. You really messed it up, boss.” He cracked open another can of Mountain Dew.
“Jay, that's your third–”
“ You can't tell me what to do, it's no consequences day.”
Bruce only shook his head. They watched the rest of the movie in relative silence, punctuated occasionally by Jason eating cheetos loudly. When the credits started to roll, Bruce brushed a kiss onto the top of Jason's head.
“I have to get back now,” he said.
Jason looked up at him. “You could stay until tomorrow. Bruce won't be back until day after.”
Bruce smiled. “He's coming back a day early. He wants to surprise you. That's why he got so mad about the flight stabilizer.”
“Really?” Jason said, smiling a little. Okay, so that was cool.
“Yeah,” Bruce said, getting up. “Come on. You can sit and watch me drill the rest of the date.”
“Fun,” Jason said, dryly, as they left the hall, walking towards the front door. He left all the snacks sprawled over the couch, because Alfred couldn't yell at him. It was no-consequences day.
“Bruce, you basically had a no-consequences month ,” Jason said, as they strode through the grassy lawn, towards the statue, “and you wasted it. Shame on you.”
Bruce snorted. “I read a few books.”
“That's like, the worst possible thing you could've done, you know that, right? You're just gonna forget all about it.” Jason shook his head. “You suck at time travel. And Mario Kart. What's up with that?”
“Well, the kids don't really play video games with me like you used to.”
“The kids?” Jason said, his eyes widening. They came to a stop in front of the statue.
“Yes, I'm married now,” Bruce said. He squatted down to the base of the statue, picking up the drill bit.
“ Married? ” Jason said. His voice came out more like a squeak.
“We have three children. They're triplets,” Bruce said. He was screwing the drill bit onto the nozzle of the drill.
Jason stared at him for a moment, and then shook his head. “I hate you. You almost got me,” he said.
Bruce's mouth had quirked up on one end. It was probably his version of a shit-eating grin. “Alright. I'm not married, but I do have some kids. Your brothers and sister.”
“Triplets. Uh huh.”
“Really,” Bruce said. His smile had turned into a real thing, something warm and fond. He took his wallet out of his back pocket, flipping it open. “Here,” he said, taking a photograph out, “see for yourself.”
Jason looked at the photo. It was all creased and old looking, like it had been in the wallet for a while now. It was a bunch of people he didn't know, most of them teens. They were at the beach. Bruce was in the middle, his arms slung around the shoulder of another man who was–
“Dick cut his hair!” Jason said, grinning. “Fucking finally .”
“Language,” Bruce said, but he was smiling too.
“Wow, he looks older. Who's the girl?”
“Um, which one?”
“Blondie, on the left.” Jason said.
“That's Stephanie. She's not–” Bruce paused, “actually, I suppose she sort of is like my daughter.”
Jason rolled his eyes. “Nothing's changed, huh. Who's that emo looking pale kid, next to her? Jesus, he looks sick.”
“That's Tim. He was sick, during that trip. He had the flu. Threw up in the car,” Bruce said. “And that's Cass, with the sunglasses. Next to her is Damian.”
“Okay, so you weren't lying, that's a lot of kids. I'm guessing you took them all in and now they're all super ninjas. Uh, where am I, though?” Jason said, frowning. Maybe he'd been the one taking the picture, the cool older brother that he was.
Bruce's smile faded. “You didn't come,” he said.
“Oh,” Jason said.
“I'm sorry, Jason.”
“Nah, it's okay,” Jason said. “Just– I don't know. Just fix it when you get back home, okay?” he said, trying to sound casual. Except when he tried to wipe his eyes real quick Bruce saw him.
“I'll try, Jaybird,” Bruce said, his voice doing that soft thing. Then he was hugging him and Jason was trying not to sniffle into his collar. Bruce was holding him like he’d hold a little toy, some broken and fragile thing he was trying to be so careful with. Screw that.
“Scratch in the date,” Jason said, “do it. And fix it. It’s on you now. You're not allowed to forget. Okay?”
Bruce said okay.
A week later, he drives to the Narrows, and parks his car near Jason's apartment. Tim's with the Titans for the weekend, and Damian is at school. Cass is in Hong Kong again. The house is empty.
He sits there, and waits. There's something inside him, some kind of a large gaping chasm in his chest, like a cavern full of nothing but empty rocks and echoes. Some kind of an emptiness. Something he can't quite remember.
He sits there and tries to work up the nerve to get out of the car, to go upstairs and ring the buzzer. But all he can do it sit in the car. Sit and stare at his hands, like the idiot that he is.
After a while he sighs, rubbing at his brow. He should get back home, suit up for Patrol. This was a foolish thing to do. It's a foolish thing to do everything time he does it.
And yet he finds that he cannot stop trying.
He sighs again, starting up the car. He's backing out of the parking space when he hears a loud bang. The car jerks abruptly, and come to a rest, tilted at a lopsided angle. His hands tighten on the steering wheel.
He gets out of the car.
“You shot my tire,” he says, to the shadow skulking in the alley near the apartment building.
“Better than stealing it,” Jason says, stepping out of the shadows, into the liquid light of the streetlamp. It paints his face in harsh shadows and sharp highlights. All jagged angles and rough edges, nothing like the little wide-eyed boy he'd once known.
But them again, it's not just Jason who's changed.
“You could have hit the fuel tank,” Bruce says lightly. “Could have nearly killed me.”
Jason puts his hands into his pockets, his wide shoulders painting an imposing image on the sidewalk. “Bruce, I thought you knew me better than that.”
A pause. “If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead.”
“Ah,” Bruce says.
Jason looks off to a side for a second, like he's lost in thought. Bruce wants so to badly to–
He doesn't know what he wants.
“I'm getting pretty fucking tired of you stalking me like this,” Jason says, his voice matter-of-fact.
Bruce inhales. “I– I wanted to–”
“It creeps me out,” Jason continues on, like he didn't even hear Bruce, “is what it does. I spend most of my time these days making sure I'm not followed, or being assassinated, or getting kidnapped and brutally tortured. You know, just normal stuff like that. It doesn't really help that my dad is doing most of the stalking.”
Bruce looks at Jason, swallowing. Jason said that. He said my dad.
“So I was thinking, you could stop getting on my nerves by slinking around here all the time. My neighbors are starting to ask if you're a sex pervert,” He turns around, presumably to head back to his apartment, “I made chili today, and there's too much of it, so you might as well come upstairs and help me finish it off.”
Bruce just stands there, motionless. He opens his mouth, and closes it again.
Jason's back is still turned to him. There is a long pause. Then, “It's an olive branch, you dumbass,” Jason says, quietly, something strange in his voice. Something that isn't quite anger, “just come the fuck upstairs.”
Bruce unfists his hands, slowly. “I– alright,” he says.
Jason nods once, slightly jerkily. Then he walks back to his apartment, hands still in his pockets.
Bruce follows him upstairs.