Chapter 1: Dick
Dick hugs like a liar. More accurately, he hugs like a performer, but Jason is not feeling charitable right now.
There are some people who can hug without considering it, he would not be surprised if most people placed Dick in that category, but Jason knows his brother well enough to have long since understood how his mind worked in that pretty head of his. In the time Jason had known him, Dick had hugged dozens of people hundreds of times. Family, friends, victims, the older man had even been known to hug criminals if he thought it suitable at the time. It was enough to make a man worry he might not be special, Jason had once joked, which had earned him a punch to the shoulder and – of course – a hug.
If one thought his promiscuity in the act meant he gave hugs away thoughtlessly though, they were less emotionally competent than Bruce himself, and that was saying something. Dick could probably write a dissertation on hug giving, with how exact each movement is. Everything from the placement of his arms to the minute shifting of his posture through the hug is designed with intent. Dick had a message to convey, and there wasn’t a part of himself he wouldn’t use to deliver it, if necessary. Each hug Dick gives is a performance, there to leave his audience however he fucking wants them without them even knowing just how scripted it is. That’s the lie here, not whatever he wants them to think – no, he’s too goddamn perfect for that, to make someone do something against their best interest, damn him – but who’s decision it is when they inevitably choose to do whatever he was leading them to.
Jason can’t stand hugging Dick.
It makes his skin crawl, how fucking helpless he feels when Dick knows exactly what he’s doing, and Jason just – doesn’t. Dick’s arms on his hips, keeping him close but not trapping him; his face pressed into Jason’s neck so it’s him who’s vulnerable, keeping Jason’s goddamn ego intact; shoulders back so his chest is exposed, and he appears open. Jason hates how he’ll relax after a few seconds, lulled by the warmth and support, and how he can count down exactly to when Dick will slowly bring his right hand to the back of Jason’s head to brush his thumb through his hair, ever so soft. It’s a sick game, is what it is, it’s just another routine Dick has memorised far too well, just another thing Dick Grayson is better at him. Despite everything, Dick is far too good at concealing his intent and Jason is always – always – caught unaware by his hugs.
What’s worse, they always work, and Jason can’t forgive himself for that. He’ll stand there, stuck in position, his face in some expression more idiotic than he cares to admit he’s capable of, and after maybe ten seconds his hands will slowly drift to his brothers shoulders and his face will lean into his shoulders and he’ll have dropped the fucking gun or knife or lamp, if it was a bad day, that Dick was against in the first place. Sometimes, he couldn’t tell what Dick was going for and that made it even harder, cause it meant Dick had infiltrated his mind, had twisted him somehow, and Jason couldn’t even be mad cause he was too busy trying to figure out what he had to be mad over.
Despite everything, you couldn’t pay Jason to want his brother to hug differently. Less, maybe, but there have only been two times Dick has hugged thoughtlessly and they’re not – his breath catches a little – they’re not times he wants to think about.
The first had been before Ethiopia. He’d still been the damned good soldier, the naïve Jason who had worked for Bruce with a smile on his face. He’d known Dick for no more than a fortnight. Dick was still this legend, this impossible ideal he was working towards, larger than life and superhuman in all he meant to the kid. But he’d been a legend who’d spat in Jason’s face and yelled at their father when he’d been introduced, and he’d broken a part of Jason he hadn’t known had survived Crime Alley. That was okay though, Jason had a home and he had a place and that meant more than the approval of some Dick, especially when the goddamn Batman was the one fighting in his favour.
He and Bruce had been on patrol, near the outskirts of the city, when they’d encountered Scarecrow. The damn bastard had been torturing a group of teens he’d run into, in an alley behind a crappy pizza place, illuminated by a single streetlight. He wasn’t even using fear gas, Crane was taking his time to personally find out what got to each of them and exploiting it. Jason knew he was gonna have to withhold from completely pulverising the creep, but he wouldn’t deny the warm swell in his chest at the opportunity to send this guy to the slammer, vigilante-style.
He’d been a second from jumping down to reacquaint Crane with the pixie boots when a steady hand on his chest stilled him. A glance to his side showed Bruce gesturing to the teen furthest from them. Was that?
His new brother’s face was drawn into the light by a sharp tug of his hair by the demented doctor himself. From where they were concealed Jason couldn’t hear whatever words were exchanged, but Crane struck the teen across the face with enough force that, even moving with the impact, Jason could see the bloody wound left across the boy’s cheekbone.
Bruce touched his shoulder briefly, and Jason followed him in two silent, deft bounds to land on the floor; Crane none the wiser from where the shadows concealed them. From closer, it was clear Dick was the only one Crane hadn’t got to yet. The group he’d been with – a few elites he hung out with for appearances, by the look of their clothes – were in various stages of a breakdown. Sobbing, shaking, they looked straight from the pictures of ‘processing your emotions’ Jason’s therapist had talked him through as if he were too dumb to know people cried when they were sad, even if he didn’t. They might be smarter than Dick though, cause they’d given Crane what he wanted; let him move on to the next. The moron’s face was stoic, above an almost concealed shadow of bemused anger in the slight curl of his lips and twitch of his eyebrow.
Jason and Bruce adjusted gas masks over their faces as Crane went back to his duffel, which he’d left beside the kid furthest from Dick, and moved through the shadows in silent unison, preparing their strike. Dick’s eyes caught his and Jason threw him a quick, shy smile before launching.
There was nothing like being Robin. Even in the few seconds it took for his starting kick to meet its target and knock the creep onto his hands, he had to appreciate just how extraordinary the filthy alley he was only to used to felt like this. The pride Robin gave him, this anchor in his chest he couldn’t ignore, Dick would not be the person to take that away from him. Robin was freedom, Robin was strength, and Robin was gonna impress the fuck out of Dick. He used Crane’s back as a pivot, twisted and hopped back onto Bruce’s shoulder as fluidly as he could manage, his partner bringing his knee into Crane’s face to force him back into a knell; sharp as anything.
Crane’s hood hid his expression but the tense line to his shoulders told Jason everything he needed to know, and he was already throwing himself forward to stop the man but – a mistake. Bruce’s fist came forwards just that bit quicker, just that bit to the left, and their arms collided before they had the chance to snatch the vial in his hands. He dropped it, and Jason almost didn’t process it had shattered until his vision was surrounded by green.
The mask, the mask, he was okay – the voice of the girl closest to Crane, previously breaking in dry sobs, became a scream, and Jason found himself slamming his boot into Crane’s face again and again and again as more voices joined cause this – nobody deserved this. Each kick was clearer in his vision and by the time the green tint was gone, his features were obscured in a blanket of blood. He let him fall to the floor, clearly unconscious, and moved his head to observe the effects.
That was when he saw Dick.
Don’t meet your idols, kids. Sometimes they’ll reject you and demand you be stripped of the only thing giving your meaning. Sometimes, though, it’ll be worse. Sometimes you’ll discover that they’re a person.
Dick was curled in on himself, pulling the cables that kept him tied to the pipe taut in his attempt to move forward, and his eyes were fixed on the ground, to whatever spectre he saw there. His jaw slack, giving his cheeks a childlike curve, and his eyes – god, they were eyes he recognised. His mother, when he’d tried keeping her pills from her once, she’d had that same look; like she’d lost fucking everything. He’d thought Dick rejecting him had broken the fairy-tale of Robin as the cure-all but this… how could a man who’d had this role fear like that?
Jason found himself moving forward, but Dick had already broken the pipe, water gushing out behind him, and had stumbled forwards into Bruce’s arms as if he wasn’t even aware he was walking. His hands were like claws into his father’s chest, certainly drawing blood if not for the body armour, and his legs gave in as Bruce scooped him into his arms. There was nothing in control about how he leaned into Bruce, manhandled into position as he was, and it looked so – so un-Grayson that Jason wanted to tear him away, force him to stand as graceful as the fucking bird he was, if only he knew that wouldn’t make it any better. A flash of silver by Dick’s neck and the boy was unconscious, no more relaxed but the antidote delivered.
Bruce looked to Jason with an unreadable expression and motioned to his brother. Bruce wanted him to carry Dick?
He did so, not letting any thoughts enter his head as he struggled to adjust to the new weight in his arms. Dick was a dead weight right now, nothing more, and he focused instead on watching Bruce as the older man administered the antidote to Dick’s friends and worked on cuffing the unconscious Crane. A gentle breath on his cheek drew his attention again as his brother’s eyes reopened, cautiously attempting to focus on Jason’s face. His mouth parted slightly as if he were about to speak, but all that came out was a pained choke, as his eyes began to dampen.
Slowly, as if fighting physics herself, Dick looped his arm over Jason’s shoulder and twisted himself further into the embrace. It took Jason embarrassingly long to realise it as the hug as what it was, to heed the soft cooing Dick was trying to ease him with, and by the time he did the only thing he could think was how deep this well of hatred for a powerless Dick went before a paramedic was lifting him from his arms, gentle as anything, and it took Batman’s firm hold on his shoulder to remember that Robin II didn’t know Richie Grayson beyond tabloids (and maybe Jason Todd didn’t either, come to think of it), so he could grapple away and watch the ambulance draw away with his mentor.
In light of who he is now, perhaps a single hug while dosed on fear toxin was nothing major, but to see Dick so dethroned – that had changed something in him, something he has no way of recovering, even to this day.
The second was, in comparison, a walk in the fucking park.
When Jason’s plan had failed, he had assumed Bruce went and told Dick and Barbra what had happened, like, immediately. Bragged about it, his traitorous mind had whispered, laughed about how fucking desperate Jason had been, bought down by a batarang and a bomb he’d planted there, smiled about how he was always such a fuck-up and how much better it’d been when he was dead, how much better Tim was – Jason stops, and loosens the fist his hand has become, takes a deep breath. No use getting het up over old news.
When he’d seen Nightwing, not two months later, he’d been expecting – something. He didn’t like to waste his thoughts on Dick, not when he had so much else to deal with, but whenever he pictured their reunion, something happened. Dick got mad at him for not going home straight away; Jason took his chance to kill the bastard for – for something, he’d figure that later; Dick started trying to kill him for killing criminals, it didn’t matter really. Blood, misery, rejection, that was the paint that filled the canvas of their relationships and Jason didn’t fancy adding a different coat at this stage in the game.
It was his civilian identity Dick caught him in. Buying groceries, of all things. Concealed carry, five guns in all on his person and enough knives that a fight turning in his favour wasn’t unreasonable. When he saw the older man – balanced like a frog atop a gargoyle, half-hidden by the stone and eyes fixed on Jason - he casually rested his hand on the butt of his favoured gun, by his hip, and completed the eye contact, awaiting Nightwing’s reaction.
A moment passed.
Right, public. If they wanted a showdown, it’d need to be somewhere Jason’s identity wouldn’t be revealed. He sauntered in what he hoped was a natural-seeming depiction of casualness, down the street and to the right – a small alley, no inward-facing windows, still in Nighting’s sight but barely – perfect. When he felt confident he was no longer in sight of the main street, Jason drew to a halt.
A heavy thump as feet met pavement meant he had company. He spun around in a mock of joviality, a witty greeting bouncing on his lips (no telling what it would be, Jason was more of an impulse buyer than a planner, it’s why he had three tubs of ice cream in his shopping bags which he could not let melt) but whatever one-liner was coming out died as Jason saw the look in Dick’s face, so unfamiliar.
Dick had removed his domino – and wasn’t that something, risking his secret identity just for Jay – and his eyes were wide with confusion, eyebrows drawn together like somebody had pulled their threads. There was a wobble to his bottom lip, not that of somebody about to cry but that which meant he had a million things to say and none were coming out. He took a step forward, left leg giving slightly and making him trip forwards, into a puddle.
His voice was hoarse and – scared? Nightwing was scared of the Red Hood? Oh, that was too fucking good to be true. Dick’s face was pale, and Jason felt a flicker of worry he might faint before any form of showdown, and then Dick was running. Arms, hair, goddamn escrima sticks. Dick was practically engulfing him, pulling every part of Jason into himself as if he could keep him forever through willpower alone. There was warmth on Jason’s cheeks and neck – tears, he realises with dull shock – and Dick kept gasping out words between sobs. This was not a hug without intent, but it was a hug without precision and the feeling was so alien Jason couldn’t bear it. A fist to the gut had Dick – Nightwing, he told himself, better to distance yourself – backing away slightly, allowing Jason to pull on his mask, not quite missing the subtle shift in the shock on Nightwing’s face, and to take off without another word.
When they met up next, he was Red Hood in whole and Nightwing’s ally, for the time being, and they didn’t share a similar moment. Surprise, he chalked it up too, Bruce being an insufferable git and not having told him who Red Hood was, or at least a hug he’d planned, designed to disarm and dissuade. The alternative – that was out of the question.
Jason is being hugged.
Jason Todd is being hugged by Dick Grayson.
They’re going through the motions. The light touch, only as solid as he needs; his own arms locked in place, but – something happens. He can’t say if it’s the memories, or the smell of blood that permeates the air, or something besides, but before he can even think to ask himself that his face is buried in his brothers chest and his arms are tight, hands gripping the shoulder blades of his suit, and Dick is adjusting himself so his left-hand cradles Jason’s head and his right runs soothingly up and down his back and maybe – maybe this isn’t Jason’s choice at all, maybe it’s Dick again, planning, performing, lying, but Jason – Jason might just be okay with that.
Chapter 2: Tim
It’s not that Tim doesn’t hug, it’s that – yeah, actually, Tim doesn’t hug. He gets hugged, pretty often if the sample Jason’s seen is to be believed, but he doesn’t hug. Since Jason doesn’t really hug either, they haven’t hugged – ever, really. Tim though, Tim gets a lot of hugs. There are the usual suspects, Dick and Stephanie, who can’t keep their arms shut for five minutes, but Tim seems to have a full-on fan club. Cass, Kon, Bart, Barbara – he suspects it’s the hair.
Or maybe they just want the kid to have more hugs in his life, cause it’s depressing as fuck to hear about his upbringing.
Catherine might have stayed with him in person, but he knows absent mums; at least Catherine could be cuddly sometimes if she was on the right stuff. If Dick was to be believed, Tim’s parents hadn’t cared enough to hug the boy the three weeks a year they were actually there and if that didn’t grind Jason’s gears like anything. What made it worse was that Tim straight up did not see the problem. The kid had been touch-starved all his life, spent most his childhood bouncing across rooftops without even having an adult-like Bruce on hand keeping him safe (not that Bruce did a stand-up job of that), and he genuinely thought he’d grown up healthy, missing spleen notwithstanding.
Jason was not gonna be the one to talk to Tim about it. They’re on better terms now, but Jason had tried to kill the boy, and that means he has a life ban on mothering him, as far as he’s concerned. Besides, Tim wasn’t like Dick. He was a better mind by far, but so, so different, and he wasn’t going to dedicate his brain to if his hand would serve better on somebody’s hip or waist, not unless it was a mission. Tim didn’t care about hugs, who is Jason to push him into giving a shit when Jason’s in a constant state of wishing he didn’t?
Only problem is, Tim really did need help, and those idiots weren’t cutting it.
Jason could not be the only person who saw how Tim acted when hugged. Not the big reaction, what he was trying to present, but what was actually going on in that brilliant mind.
When Tim got hugged, things got weird.
The first look is always, always fear. It never means anything good when a kid is scared of contact, and being Robin had to be traumatic for the kid, one way or another. He’d wondered, once, if the kid’s parents had ever raised their hand to him, but it didn’t seem likely. Bruce though – that fucker had definitely done stuff protective services ought to have put a stop to, most likely with Dick. Being Robin was a rollercoaster that went up and up till it let you fucking drop, Jason would know. This kid though, Jason doesn’t think he’s hit that point, not yet, but god does he hope somebody can pick up the pieces when it does. Not Robin then, and Jason is sort of left to realise it’s probably him.
A mangled leg, a battered face, blunt force trauma – he and Damian have tried to put Tim in the dirt multiple times, and they were just let into the family. That’s fucked up. It’s not that Jason wishes he weren’t, but Tim has to just live with his would-be killers and – damn, has Jason ever even tried winning back his trust? Even casual shit, a pat on the back, or has he – has he continued to scare him, threaten him? Jason is not liking the picture of himself Tim’s experience paints. He wants to – he wants to move on.
Once the fear passes, Tim gets this look on his face, what Jason likes to think of as his I’m-being-smarter-than-Einstein-just-to-win-at-monopoly face, patent-pending, as he tries to figure why he’s being hugged. This is when he’ll give a faux absent smile, probably lean on his hugging partner or chuckle ‘affectionately’ and ruffle their hair. How somebody so damn smart can miss the obvious is beyond Jason, but the kid’s always been harsh on himself.
He’ll get this little crease between his eyebrows (wrinkles before he’s twenty, that one) and his pupils will shift side to side, as though reading some invisible formula. It's at this stage that he’ll let himself hug back naturally, his arms relaxing into the hold and his shoulders moving up to curl into them, letting his body be cradled while his mind was a million miles away.
How many reasons could there even be to hug?
Fuck, Jason is the wrong person to be saying that.
The third stage is the real kicker, though, and that is resignation. Not resignation that he’s being hugged cause people loved him, but resignation to the idea that they didn’t. Fuck knows how, but the kid always managed to justify the hug to himself, and every single damn hug became another act of rejection, contrary little brat. They wanted something, or they wanted him in a good mood with them, or they were distracting him from something. That’s what Dick and the others never got, why they kept hugging him the exact same way, because they really believed whatever pity smile he conjured up to be genuine, and that was what Jason was so sick of.
Jason knows it would do no good to just up and hug the kid. As he said, he’s one of the reasons the kid’s so worried anyway, and everyone would think something was up if Jason were to start hugging Replacement, of all people. There needs to be some setup, something to justify what he was doing without letting the kid misplace his intent. Jason is not a planner.
Like a lot of things, Jason’s first thought is alcohol. It takes a lot to get him drunk, but if he gets tipsy enough it shouldn’t be hard to convince the kid his affection is due to lowering inhibitions, rather than some nefarious plan to Tim’s detriment. A nice hug, maybe a few slurred words about Tim being his little brother – simple, right?
Jason has forgotten something.
He’s on a rooftop in – Gotham? Yeah, only Gotham has this many fucking gargoyles. Why the fuck is Jason here? He tries to look over the city, figure out where he is, but even the slow movement of his head sends waves of nausea rocking through him and he sends a blind hand to the floor to steady himself.
Sharp pain in the hand has his elbow giving, sending him rolling onto the ground and – fuck, fuck, fuck, that hurts so bad. Jason – Jason has hurt worse than this. Jason has died for fuck’s sake. Even so, each hot pulse has his eyes watering; tears burning hot against his freezing skin. He raises his hand above his face, taking note of the shakes that ran through the limb, and though he couldn’t see it, he felt a droplet of blood hit his eye, sending his face reeling to the side. From what little he could make out from his unaffected eye, it seemed like there might be a shard of glass in his hand.
Fuck, right, he broke a bottle.
The terrifying menace Red Hood, bought low by a shard of glass, how pathetic could you get? If anyone sees him like this, he’d have to fake his own death to escape from the sheer embarrassment.
Jason becomes aware he’s sobbing, body seemingly incapable of withholding it, but the part of his brain that still feels vaguely conscious can only focus on the grit of gravel below his cheek, the sting nothing more than a dull idea that it ought to be there, the ground cold from the drizzle of rain earlier in the night, the bitter stink of beer choking him. Right, he’s drunk.
Again, the thought arises – Jason has forgotten something. There’s something right there, a duty inscribed against his skull, but his eyes are far too bleary to read it.
A laugh from the street below reaches his ears and he realises he needs to leave. He can’t stay here. If a villain catches him, he’s gonna be, he’s gonna – Jason stumbles to his feet, ignoring the steady decline in his vision and the choked quality of his breaths, and he knows he needs to go somewhere. His own flat is too far, right on the edges of Gotham, he’ll never make it, and Dick hasn’t shared any of his safehouses here yet, the manor is a no-go like this, and so it has to be – Tim.
The name calms something within him and he takes the opportunity to wipe his face – god, he’s not even wearing a domino, what the fuck was he thinking – and places himself. He doesn’t know the building, but he can see Gotham Academy to the North and that’s enough; Tim’s place shouldn’t be far. A stir of concern twists in his gut, he’s not sure it’s a coincidence the kid is so close, and he doesn’t like what that might mean.
It takes longer than it should to arrive. A stumble here, an almost miss there, if he were any less skilled he’d be nothing more than a Jason pancake on the pavement below (hah, a Jason pancake), but he does make it to his brother’s window in one piece all the same. It’s unlocked, which might ring some alarm if Jason were more coherent, and – perhaps less gracefully than he might prefer – he gets himself inside Tim’s flat. He’s in the living room, it’s almost empty bar the computer monitors that line the wall opposite him. And there’s Tim, seemingly rousing from sleep, collapsed into the chair, face lit only by the still humming monitors. He looks so precious like that, a vulnerability in the bags beneath his eyes that makes Jason want to scoop him into a hug and keep him protected, forever.
Jason’s attempt at a step acquaints his nose with the carpet; that is definitely not happening tonight.
“Jason?”, asks Tim, voice soft and sleep worn. Jason shifts himself into sitting and tries to throw Tim his trademark grin but – oh fuck, he’s crying again. Stupid eyes, stupid drinks, stupid Jason – Tim is approaching him.
Hug! He was here to hug Tim, that’s what he forgot! Tim is saying something Jason can’t quite here – hug? Oh fuck, has he been saying that out loud? A chuckle more or less confirmed it, much to Jason’s chagrin, and Tim was coming forwards and – oh.
Jason would like to clarify being wrong is not something he makes a habit of. In fact, for a certain definition of wrong he’d like to think he’s never been wrong and never will be but – but he may have been a tad factually inaccurate earlier, perhaps.
Tim may not hug often, but Tim is definitely hugging him. He’s shorter than Jason but stands above him, right arm weighing on Jason’s shoulder, hand warm as it skims his neck, and his left arm wraps itself around his waist, pulling Jason closer to hip, fingers drumming Jason’s spine as if to remind him he was there. He was crouched down and took a second to meet Jason’s eyes, soft pity apparent – fuck him, Jason does not need his sympathy – and maybe that was spoken again because Tim lets out a long-suffering sigh and sinks his weight onto Jason’s legs before pressing his cheek to Jason’s.
For a second all Jason can do is stare, try to see his brother’s face to figure out what he’s going for, but that’s all it takes for him to respond. His face leans into the kids’ shoulder; taking in the rough scratch of his denim jacket on his chin and the slight itch where Tim’s hair brushes his cheek. His eyes feel weirdly exposed, fixed on some point of the grey wall behind him, and he wants nothing more than to bury them in his brothers’ neck, but this hug is meant to be for Tim, and he can’t put that on him. His unwounded hand rests loosely on the small of his back, lightly shifting the fabric below between his fingers, and the other lies loosely on Tim’s collar, palm curled to avoid contact with the injury, but it feels oddly safe in a way Jason just isn’t used to and it feels – it feels like home.
They stay like that for what seems like forever. Jason watches absently as watermarks appear and fade on Tim’s jacket, allows his breath to steady and the blanket over his senses to gradually replace itself with the incessant groan of a hangover. There’s something in the warmth that lets Jason ignore the growing ache of his legs where Tim has cut off the blood flow, and when Tim eventually steps off him it hits him all at once. God, he must look a right mess right now, but Tim only looks fond.
“Jason, you’re injured. I’m going to get you a medkit.”
Jason is asleep before Tim has finished leaving the room.
Jason would, if asked, probably claim not to be awake. The golden blank that his mind is caught in certainly resembles sleep, if one could take the time to appreciate sleep during the activity itself, and it was enough to keep Jason from pulling his gun on whoever was nudging his leg. Now, if they could just go away, it would be perfect again…
The kicks to his leg get harder. Mother fucker.
Jason is bought into awareness of the pounding in his head, flaring as his eyes make the effort to flicker open only to be met with bright light. Somebody is saying something – Tim, right. He has a glass of water shoved into his hand and almost drops it as it sends a pulse of pain through the extremity. He got hurt, like a complete idiot, right. Right. A swig and he almost chokes as he overestimates the movement and finds himself with a face full of water. Tim is laughing at him now, the bastard, but it certainly has woken Jason up.
Tim looks well, which is odd for him. If Jason had to guess, he’d reckon that was the first full night’s sleep Tim had had that week, at least. There’s colour to his cheeks, and with his face curled into a laugh, he seems more at peace than he had with Jason as long as they’d known each other.
This was the right call.
Tim is already leaving the room, nattering on about getting Jason some breakfast, and Jason – Jason needs a shower, Christ, that drinking did not do him well. He’s been moved to Tim’s guest bedroom overnight, and he knows there’s an en suite tucked behind one of the doors, so he showers quickly and leaves to find Tim has left him some clean clothes on the bed. Replacement thinks he can take care of him, huh?
Jason finds another wave of bitterness passing him as he dresses and makes his way to his brother. This was meant to be about getting Tim to realise people hugged him because they cared about him, Jason had completely derailed that with his stupid melodrama when he got wasted, and now Tim just thought Jason needed protection and help, like a goddamn baby. Fuck, he needed a new plan, a new excuse to hug the damn kid –
“Eat up or it’ll get cold”,
“Ha-ha, very funny Replacement,” Jason said, catching sight of the bowl of Weetabix the kid had set out, receiving a roll of Tim’s eyes,
“I didn’t promise you five-star service, consider yourself lucky I have this much in the house as-is.” A frown graces Jason’s face, he doesn’t like the idea of Tim not eating, but that’s, that’s normal student-age stuff, right? “You doing okay, Hood? I didn’t exactly ask yesterday, but if you’re in trouble I’d like to know what’s going on, I can probably help.” Jason eyed his brother’s earnest face.
“Replacement, those fuck-ups in our family, they don’t say it often enough but – they care bout you and shit, okay? You don’t need to – fuck, they don’t need you to do anything for them, okay? You just, be you, and – damn, just,” Tim had gone from confused to contemplative as Jason was speaking, cutting him off before he could figure out what he was saying,
“I know Jason. But what about you?”
“What about me? Do I – do I care about you? I mean, fuck, I –“
“No Jason, I know you care about me.” The sentence rings in Jason’s ear, and he’s lost for a comeback, barely even registering when Tim continues, “I mean, do you know they care about you? I’m just – I’m a valuable asset, they’re good people, of course they care about me, but you Jason, you’re,”
Jason silences him with a touch to the shoulder, gaze meeting Tim’s head-on.
“Tim, when I said they care about you – we care about you – I didn’t mean as a resource. I mean we love you.”
He doesn’t wait for a reply, drinking the last of the milk from the bowl and taking a running jump out Tim’s open window onto the rooftop opposite.
Chapter 3: Damian
Jason has heard jokes thrown around claiming that when he first arrived at the manor, the demon brat hadn’t known what a hug was. This was a lie if only because Talia Al-Ghul would not let her son come off as ignorant to something she knew he’d encounter. Besides, Talia is the sort of fucker who uses all the physical affection she needs to if it helps manipulate those around her. He can picture it now and has to take a deep breath as he imagines a toddler version of the kid being rejected contact for failing to kill a ninja or some shit, the struggle on his chubby face to keep himself from showing distress – damn, he has to stop torturing himself like this. As he was saying, Damian has always known what a hug is.
What Damian didn’t get, was what a hug meant.
Oh, he understood it as a good thing, something you were meant to want, but to Damian, a hug had to be earned. A hug was a reward and that meant when he got hugged – it was something he should be proud of, behaviour to repeat.
What a colossal fuck-up that had ended up being.
It was maybe two years after Jason’s return, Damian was something like eleven years old (screw him if he was expected to track the brat’s age), and it wasn’t even a week after what was probably the worst fight of that year for the family. Not a full-on Arkham break out, but they tended to be disorganised; half the patients getting each other before the vigilantes even got there. This had been planned, meticulous as a fucking bat, and that’s where it had got them – not to mention Damian being a goddamn idiot.
This had been before Jason had gone back to being quite so chummy with his family, so he only knows what happened in the first fight second hand. Dent organised it, fucking monster wanted to burn exactly half the city down and figured it’d be best if the bats weren’t all up in his shit, so he hired Bane. Forty-seven dead by the time they arrived, almost ninety injured to some degree. The family had been struggling enough fighting him together, and then he’d let slip what Dent was up to – readying himself to detonate the coins he’d slipped into circulation across Crime Alley, designed to cause massive damage as they ignited the path of firelighters he’d developed, as it happened.
Of course, the death of half the population took precedence for Bruce, and Tim alone was left to take Bane. Kid was good, but compared to Bane? He stood no chance. Jason feels himself seethe just thinking back on it; they should never have let Tim near him. The kid was smart enough to stay away, leading the man through empty streets just out of reach, but fucking Bane – the guy got him within minutes. He’d have killed him, no questions about it, were that not the second one Damian Wayne’s sword skewered his arm. It wasn’t that he was that badly hurt, but it definitely got Bane’s attention and he dropped an unconscious Tim like ‘the damaged dog toy he is’, to quote Damian of the time.
Turns out, the demon brat had heard Bane was in town and decided he was a worthier opponent than any of his normal standards, so blown Alfred’s watch and snuck after his dad – in a modified version of Jason’s old suit, no less. He didn’t have much need for it granted, but it was the thought that counted, and – Jason is getting distracted. Whatever, the brat had apparently had no qualms waiting till the last fucking second to rescue his brother and reveal his presence. Bane had fought back with a fury, but Damian was doing a stellar job of obscuring himself just enough that Bane was just missing with each swing (too fucking close, in Jason’s humble opinion), though he was having no luck getting in the second hit he wanted.
It hadn’t been a matter of if Bane would get a swing on Damian, but when, and it was sooner than he was hoping. Mere minutes had the young assassin’s head caught in Bane’s oversized hand, the villain taking a second to admire his kill before pure fucking fate saved Jason’s youngest brother.
Apparently, Dent had put a bomb on Bane, for ‘insurance’ (fucking moron) and the beep of it being disabled by the rest of the family drew his attention to it. Bane threw the second Robin of the night to the ground, and the brothers were left there to be found by Bruce and Dick almost forty fucking minutes later while Bane disappeared into the night to deal with his Dent problem.
Course, when he saw his boys, Bruce hadn’t even tried restraining himself from engulfing them in a hug; Dick joining in seconds later. Damian may have only been half-conscious, half delusional from the cold, but he knew he was being hugged and he knew – he thought he knew – what that meant. It meant he had done something right, it meant Bruce was proud at him for sneaking out, and it meant, it meant – the fight was something he should repeat.
Skip forwards a week and Jason’s little demon brat decides to invite Bane to play.
Jason wonders if this is his punishment, for not staying in Crime Alley like a good little homeless kid, content to never raise in status and die alone and hungry. Three brothers determined not only to put themselves on death’s door but to fucking invite her hang-gliding. It’s practically Machiavellian, Jason should consider using it on the next gang members he needs info from – does Roman have any siblings stashed away?
He’s never asked Damian to repeat the event in full, so he can only consider events from where he entered the scene.
It’d been a bad night for Jason. Not his worst, he’d grant, but as miserable as anything in a way actual pain didn’t permit. Gotham had been choking that night, the stink of cruelty sunk deep into the woodwork, and he was beyond done with everything that humanity had to offer. He’d taken down a bunch of dicks who’d been dealing to kids but what the fuck was that gonna do? The kids were still hooked, they were gonna find their high somehow. He wasn’t gonna just let them be dealt to, he doesn’t regret putting bullets in their brains, but it all felt so meaningless. The kids certainly weren’t thanking him, and whatever family he’d left behind were probably gonna be a helluva lot worse off now. Why did he even bother?
He was moving more or less directionlessly, nothing more than the vague idea of being home before sunrise driving him, and he was still over the ‘nice area’ at the time, if you could convince anyone Gotham had one. There was a chill in the air, creeping below the collar of his jacket and sending minute shivers through his spine, but the sky was clear, and his vision was good. It was a nearby plaza he heard the fight from. Gotham Plaza: a magnificent open space lined with white marble, surrounded by towering statues that, despite being remarkable perches, loomed in a way that made one in the centre feel they were being judged as if the stone was a council of furies, readying your eternal punishment. It was daunting enough that, despite the lack of security in the area and abundance of perfect targets milling around, the square was almost entirely devoid of the hookers, dealers, and pickpockets that overwhelmed Gotham’s streets.
It was, of course, where Damian Wayne chose as his arena for the night’s fight.
Damian was the type to revel in that sort of attention, imaginary as it may be, and Jason is sure he can conjure the exact feeling that drove the brat to demand Bane there; the self-righteous burn of recognised glory, the shame from rejection after rejection after rejection; the certainty that this has to be the solution because what else was there?
It’s too fucking bad Damian hadn’t learnt just who Bane was yet, because he’d fucked himself with that location.
Jason caught sight of Damian just as the boy was all but crushed.
He’d been running, Jason could tell, presumably trying to recreate the trick that’d worked so well last time; to use his size to his advantage and keep the Bane from landing any hits, but now Bane had had a clear look at him, he could anticipate where the brat could hit him from and all Damian’s advantages were lost; a grounded fledgeling fighting a lion and nothing more.
His first solid blow on the boy was devastating alone, uppercut to the chin, enough to send the boy three metres in the air and further back, only stopping as his back hit the calf of one of the giants of the domain. The kid wasn’t knocked out – Talia must have given him a hard head – and rolled down from the blow, drawing twin blades as he did so. Even from his position above, Jason could see his left leg shake as it tried to sustain his weight, he must have fucked it up in the landing,
Damian clearly thought Bane’s broadness meant he lacked dexterity, darting to Bane’s right only to dodge the responding blow with ease, shifting to his left in an effort to get access to his back – the venom injector? – only to misjudge just how fucking broad Bane was. It wasn’t his side Damian was met with but the vast expanse of his chest and even Jason could see the shock that flared onto the kid's face. Bane made short work of the opportunity, bringing his knee into his chest, hand seizing the ridiculous yellow cape, and Jason could hear the dull thump of the impact echoing between the figures. The kid was bought to his knees, leaning forwards in dry heave, breaths nothing more than choking splutters, and Bane – almost insultingly casually – rested his heavy foot on the boy's spine.
Fuck, Jason should have stepped in ten minutes ago.
Bane didn’t know he was there, of that he was sure, the man was clever, but Jason knew how to sneak, and so he had to use his advantage well. He had two guns still loaded on him but if they would kill the beast of a man he couldn’t be sure. Besides, something about leaving the kid with another body on his hands felt – wrong, somehow, even if Bane deserved it. The kid deserved more than the familiarity with death Talia had forced upon him, Jason wasn’t going to add to that.
Non-lethal then. He didn’t need to stop the man, just get him off the kid – Bane leaned his weight forwards and all thought abandoned Jason. He launched himself towards him, taking a fistful of the monster’s mask and dragging himself backwards, ripping Bane from his baby brother as he stumbled back a few steps. He lashed his head to the side, the force enough to force Jason aside. Hitting the ground hurt like a bitch, sight turning white for a second as he slid against the polished floor, but he staggered into a stand again; he could not let that bastard near the brat again.
Bane and he made eye contact. A beat passed. And then Bane was running forwards, and Jason was drawing his guns. Wait, wait – Bane was almost at him as Jason slid across the marble, gliding past Bane’s left, and just for a second he was practically skimming the skin of his hip so –
The gun never fired. The goddamn gun never fired. Jason didn’t pull the trigger. What the fuck?
The swoop of a cape alerted Jason to Bruce’s arrival, sending Bane flying as his first kick made contact, and Jason paid the battle no more heed; only one thing mattered now.
He reached the boy in a matter of seconds, pulling him into his arms and diving between marble skirts. Let Bruce have his battle, all that mattered was the weak grip of Damian’s tiny hand over Jason’s collar. The kid’s eyes were struggling to stay open, pupils shifting in green irises as he tried to focus on Jason’s face, domino having been lost at some point in the fight.
“Todd?” he said, voice faltering just enough to break its aggressive façade. The kid's shoulders betrayed his words, leaning into Jason as he continued, “I – I had it, you didn’t need to come and ruin everything, I – “
“Fuck off kid, what the hell were you thinking? Bane – he’s a monster, you’re going to get yourself killed.” The kid’s snub nose wrinkled, chubby cheeks broadening as his mouth turned into a sneer,
“I’m not some pathetic weakling like you were, Todd, and I won’t make the same mistakes as you. This is what my father wanted – “
“Bruce wanted what?” Jason could feel rage welling up in him, voice swelling, and Damian noticed too, arms moving to cover his chest, eyes widening. Fuck, he’d scared the kid, fucking goddammit –
Jason found himself curling around the kid, one hand stroking the kid’s hair whilst the other held him up, cooing softly into the boy’s head, bouncing him slightly on his hip. Fuck, that was embarrassing, to think that they were a gang leader and child assassin. Despite himself, Damian relaxed into his hold, his hold on Jason’s top becoming stronger as he let himself be comforted.
“I don’t understand Todd. Why…”
“May come as a surprise kid, but we want you to be safe. We want to know you’re not about to fucking die – it’s this thing about family, you know,” The kid didn’t respond, and Jason let silence carry them both to sleep, lying against the marble as battle raged behind them.
He and Damian hadn’t discussed the event since. He’d woken in the manor and promptly fought with Bruce, skipping town for the next few months, and he cast the memory aside in favour of bloodier pursuits. It wasn’t until Damian became Dick’s Robin that he had discovered just how much the kid had changed
Dick had the (deserved) reputation as the hugger of the group but he had nothing on Damian fucking Wayne. The kid was more subtle about it, and he was hardly up for hugging perfect strangers like their brother, but as much as he disguised it Damian was nearly always hugging somebody. His pets seemed to receive the brunt of it (poor Alfred the Cat seemed in an eternal state of disarray), but Dick and Alfred (the human) got their fair share and – much to his surprise – Jason. No accounting for taste, but whenever he was home the brat was almost constantly manhandling him.
It had started the first time he’d entered the manor as Jason Todd since he’d been the skinny fifteen-year-old. He wasn’t there to apologise to them per se but to – to make amends. He’d hurt Dick, and he’d hurt the kids in the fight for the cowl, and that – that was something he needed to come back from. Honestly, most his time from those days is just a blur, now. Nothing had made sense, his mind becoming overwhelmed with rage for months at a time and then the lows he’d had once his mind destabilised – it’s not a time he likes looking back on. He doesn’t recall what he said to them, but he remembers what happened after.
Dick had been who he was looking at. The man was fucking tired, something bone-deep, and the resignation in his eyes was tangible. There’d been something hostile in his position, but not aggressive. He made an impressive batman, but the role was wrecking him, and Jason could see his brother falling away before him – how long could this last?
That’s when Damian had cleared his throat. The change in Dick’s expression was almost absurd; years seemed to fall away in an instant as fond eyes turned to the boy. It was the first time Jason ever got the Replacement’s assertion that Batman needed a Robin because that was something else entirely.
Damian took two decisive steps forward, placing himself between Jason and Dick, and Jason bristled slightly, anticipating some sort of retribution for all he’d done – instead, the boy held his arms aloft. Jason must have looked like some sort of demented fish, confusion written over his face, eliciting a sneer from his younger brother.
“It’s a hug, Todd, or are you too stupid to remember what those are?” Jason had no response, jaw snapping shut but otherwise not moving, and Damian took the initiative to take the final step to Jason and wrap him in a hug.
The first thing Jason had thought was that the kid absolutely fucking sucked at hugging.
His posture was something closer to a military stance, his entire body a good centimetre away from touching him bar his arms, which were squeezing his stomach like a fucking chokehold. His face was stoic, resolutely staring at the point just below Jason’s chest, where his head came up to (Jason could have sworn the kid had managed to shrink since last time they’d met). Fuck, maybe that was a form of retribution, maybe the kid was trying to kill him in a way Dick wouldn’t figure out until too late.
Before he could second guess himself, Jason had picked the kid up, pulled him up to rest his head on his shoulder and bought the kids arms round his neck. The kid's legs near instinctively wrapped around Jason’s waist, clinging on like a damn limpet, and they stayed that way for a few moments before Damian spoke.
“I can’t expect everyone to meet my remarkable decision-making skills, Todd, so I’ll ignore your slights for now. Just… don’t do it again, okay?” He sounded like such a kid for once in his life that it took Jason’s breath away, and he didn’t do anything but nod solemnly before Dick had wrapped his arms about the both of them, and Jason’s place in the family reopened.
He’d frequented the manor for a while after that, and Damian had always been there and never stopped hugging him, albeit ‘stealthily’. A tackle that lasted a moment too long, passing him something in a way that just happened to have his head pressed into Jason’s tummy, a piggyback where Damian squeezed Jason’s head a tad over what was necessary. It was, he was loathed to admit, cute, and he could let the kid think he was being sneaky if it made him more comfortable with the act.
Which is why, after months of the routine, it was so obvious something was wrong when Bruce came back.
Fucking Bruce man.
Jason isn’t an idiot; he knows Bruce doesn’t intend to have the impact he does on the kid. Bruce loves the brat, certainly gives more shits about him than he ever gave Jason, and he wants to show it, but Bruce is not a hug sort of a guy and for Damian, that was fucking devastating.
After nearly a year of readily available affection, suddenly his mentor was removed and his replacement – the guy meant to love him more than anyone else – was cutting him off from the love he needed.
It was as if he’d been flung right back into Talia’s game of chess, and he was once again the failure Talia had painted being human as. How could Bruce let this kid think he was doing something wrong, could he not see how this was hurting the boy? Damian withdrew to half the kid he’d been, and his volatility roared back full force. Almost every night ended in blood and tears, and all the progress he’d gone through was disappearing like dust in the wind.
Something about it had got in the kid’s head that he was the fuck-up, and he was denying himself affection from those offering it in favour of trying to win the attention of his bastard father. Why couldn’t any Robin realise they were never gonna be fucking good enough before it was too late? Bruce tried to do good for the city, but he was shitty at dealing with the people who actually needed him, and the kid deserved better.
Jason knew he had to do something, but he couldn’t talk Bruce into something like that. The man wasn’t gonna be able to change who he was, not even for his blood son – it was gonna have to be Jason.
The kid wasn’t Tim, and Jason figured blunt was the way to go with the youngest. It’d been a slow week, and the kid’s performance as Robin had been faltering. He’d been taking risks to try to impress Bruce, and Jason worried if he let it go on the kid would get himself hurt. He’d caught him after patrol, the kid didn’t look well. He didn’t want the kid to feel invaded, so he had him in the hall outside his room; plenty of space to run if he chose to. He’d lost weight, olive skin far too wan, and there was a drag to his movements Jason wasn’t used to.
“Demon brat,” he began, “One Robin to another, there’s some shit I think we need to talk about.” The kid looked uneasy, shifting side to side as if guilty,
“Don’t think to compare yourself to me, I’m clearly the only true Robin.”
“Sure kid,” no use having that fight right then, “and you’re a damn good Robin at that.” That caught the kid’s attention. He shouldn’t look so caught off guard to be agreed with on that, and Jason felt like he’d already failed by not telling the kid that earlier, “You were a good Robin to Dickiebird, and you’re being a good Robin to Bruce. Problem is, Bruce is pretty awful at being your Batman.”
“You think to insult my father Todd?”
“Calm down kiddo. It ain’t an insult, Bruce – Bruce is good at a lot of shit. There’s one place he isn’t the best at though, and that’s – kid, he’s not good at telling people what he thinks.” That stilled Damian, confusion blooming over his features,
“Todd, you will tell me what you mean by that.”
“Physical contact isn’t the only way to show love, y’know brat? Hugs are great for people they work for but sometimes – some people do it different ways, is all. And Bruce? Bruce is the fucking worst at it, but he has his tells. I’m not gonna make you do anything, but – just look out for it, kay kid?” A beat passes. Damian’s face squirms, and he withdraws to his room without another word. Jason let the silence wash over him for a moment and took a deep breath. He’d done something, only time could tell if it was another fuck-up to add to the list (but damn he hoped not).
Fast forwards to now, and Damian actually isn’t hugging him. Instead, he’s passing him a flash stick he stole from Bruce with information Jason needs on his case, a light blush covering his cheeks, and Jason thinks maybe it means just as much.
Chapter 4: Cassandra
Trying to pull his armchair psychology stunt based on body language of all things on his sister strikes Jason as a losing battle. It’s what Cass lives and breathes, it’s like trying to get by in France with exclusively what he learnt in primary school – and a fucking lisp. But never let it be said that Jason was one to give up a doomed fight, those are the fuckers that don’t dedicate their lives to vigilantism in the most corrupt city on the face of the planet.
He thinks he should probably hate Cass. The demon brat rubs him the wrong way just for the surface resemblance to the b-man, but nobody is cut from the same cloth in quite the same way as Cassandra; her soul sings the same tune and – well, if she’d been the one to go boom, Jason doesn’t think Bruce would have been quite so complacent. Hating Cass just doesn’t stick though, not for Jason.
He doesn’t know bodies, not like Cass, but he knows language, literature. That’s how she sees it, right? Maybe she and Bruce had the same words, just a different structure; a different beat. Hemingway and Wilde telling the same story, he knew which he'd favour.
Their first meeting hadn’t exactly been swell. A smuggling ring downtown; dozens of kids free and a dozen shots fired true when he’d seen the first shadow of those ears, heard that distinctive sweeping of the cape, he’d gone off. He wasn’t in a good shape to be dealing with Bruce, and he’d not been willing to let it get to that, so he’d attacked.
When the first punch missed, he had anticipated it. It was sloppy, over signalled, if it’d hit it’s targeted it’d have been more of a surprise. He rolled with his stagger past the Bat, turning on his heel to pistol whip the bastard’s head – should knock him, at the very least. ‘Cept, Bruce’s head wasn’t there. And then there was a sharp hit to his collar. Left leg. Stomach. Temple. He was floored before he even had a chance to notice the bat was a chick – so, probably not Bruce then. Jason was fucked.
She’d crouched before him, smaller than he’d expected from the force of her blows, and poked him in the chest, hard. The mask didn’t even show her jaw, making her seem even less human than Bruce, a feat he hadn’t assumed possible, and he’d been preparing for a killing blow when the unexpected happened; the freaky badass bat girl hugged him.
If Jason hadn’t been wearing the mask, he might have blown up the block to get rid of any video evidence of the dumbass look on his face. He sat slack in her arms as she tucked her head into his chest, little bat-ears poking into his collar. Her hands were shockingly gentle as she brushed them across his back, considering what a punch she packed, and it took her leaning away, hands shifting to his shoulders, for Jason to find his voice.
“Look girlie, I don’t know what the fuck you’re thinking, but – “, he was caught off guard for the third time in as many minutes as she began to pull her mask off. Did she give no fucks about her identity or what, why even wear a mask? She was Asian, pretty, and a grin as wide as anything – definitely not a face he recognised. So, what the fuck was up with the post-beating cuddle? Some sort of weird intimidation technique? It might just have been working. She poked him again, gentler this time.
“Brother.” Her voice was hoarse, enough that it took Jason a second to place what she’d even said.
“What the fuck?”
“You are… Jason. I am Cassandra. You are my brother.” Every part of Jason bristled, leaning as far away from her as possible, seething from under the hood. Kid looked so fucking proud of herself like she was expecting Jason to give her a gold star, and he had no idea what the fuck to think of her.
“Bruce indoctrinated another one, did he?” He tried joking, voice coming weaker than he’d intended – hopefully muffled somewhat by the distorter. “You’re a cut above his usual, must have been feeling like splurging, better quality orphan than the standard.”
The girl’s joy seemed to dissipate, eyes becoming heavy as she watched him through a new lens – fuck, was that pity? Jason felt tense again, and she relaxed her shoulders, bought her hands to her sides real slow; like he was a wild animal or some shit. Fuck that, he could hold in his temper, she didn’t know him.
“Batman didn’t indoctrinate. I chose.” Her voice was softer, but seemed unused somehow, not a quality he was familiar with.
“You think you chose girlie, that’s what we all thought – till we’re branded fucking murderers for doing what’s right.” Her face went from discontent to full-on sad, and the first bit of guilt shifted through Jason’s guilt; not for the deaths but for making the kid look like that, it didn’t fall well on her face.
“Says who, Batman?”
“No,” something shifted in her stance, hands clenching, back straightening, expression becoming resolute – she looked fucking terrifying, “I say.”
She pressed a light kiss to his cheekbone, pulled her mask back on, and left the same way she’d come. Jason’s hands brushed the spot, and he stayed staring at the vacant window until the stench of dried blood became too strong to take.
In the following weeks, he’d tried following up on her, and had found diddly-squat. She must have had Oracle or Red Robin on her side because this girl just did not exist and that – that didn’t happen, right?
It sort of became an addiction, for the time he was in the dark. Any trace of the girl he could get his hands on was another hit, but none of it seemed to lead anywhere. The corner of a cape in a photo, a snatch of a teen seen with Bruce Wayne, a whisper in shadowed corners of the bats having a meta – faster than life, they said, stronger than hell’s fury. It was enough to make a man go mad, and Jason had enough of that in his life, he needed a solid clue and he needed it soon.
Turns out, when Red Hood goes interrogating the city over a bat, it doesn’t stay as hush as he might like. Word got out, and suddenly ‘I saw a bat’ turned into ‘I heard you wanted a bat’. A smuggler even had the audacity to try selling him the ‘real’ batwoman, in the worst take on Kate’s costume he’d seen in years, bound in ropes that couldn’t have kept any bat restrained for five minutes. He should have kept a tighter wrap on his dilemma, but he was counting down the seconds for a verifiable bat to come for him once even civilians began chatting about the anti-hero’s interest.
It was to Jason’s surprise that the family visit wasn’t in the form of Bruce or Dick, ready to threaten him for daring to interact with the precious new kid, but the lady of the hour herself.
It was hard to tell if she was wearing civvies or a new costume, face uncovered and outfit unmarked but otherwise, every bit the leather-like monstrosity Bruce liked to kit up with. She didn’t seem to be very prepped for a fight, all things considered. Had she decided Jason wasn’t dangerous enough to defend against? Hell, given how their last fight had gone she wasn’t wrong, he was pretty damn pathetic in comparison.
He worked not to jump at the sound of her feet landing, a metre or so behind him on a rooftop overlooking Gotham, shooting her a faux smirk as he idly tapped next to where he sat. She paused for a second, probably sizing him up, before making her way to join him. She sat closer than he expected, heat from her calves brushing his as they both gazed over the dark city.
There was a stillness to the air, and she seemed content not to speak for the moment as they took in the sight. Jason felt himself relax minutely as he settled into the ever-present stink of piss and smoke that rules Gotham. He isn’t Bruce, he’s never gonna think his city is beautiful, but it was always his home and it’s a sort of ugly he loves. From the corner of his eye, he saw a smile break on the girl’s face, but her eyes seemed more shifted to him than the city.
“Whatcha looking at girlie?” His voice was softer than he’d have liked. She patted his shoulder, and he almost didn’t flinch as he recalled bruises that had stayed on his skin for days.
“You want to know me.” Jason flushed, chuckled, hoping to distract from the embarrassment that had pressed into his chest. He hadn’t felt so self-conscious since he was wearing the short shorts; it was not an emotion he was keen on reliving in all honesty.
“Not biblically, sis.” That was a fucked-up joke. Damn, he could not stop running his mouth right now. She let out a small puff of air – amusement? Damn, he hoped so.
“I am Cassandra Cain. Batgirl.”
“What, purple not your colour?” She grinned that time, showing off her teeth just like their first meeting. “You are my brother. You are Red Hood, Jason Todd.”
“The bat give away all my secrets or what? Sorry to break it but he didn’t he tell you, I’m not part of the family anymore.” She shot him a glare that could rival Alfred’s and pressed her small hand above his heart.
“Family.” Her voice was serious, and Jason found himself turning back to the skyline, feeling at once freakishly familiar with the newbie and more ill at ease than he did even with Bruce.
A second kiss to his cheek, just as disarming as the first, as she was diving into the shadows once again. Cassandra Cain, huh? Girl was something.
He’d worked with her several times over the following months. Never planned, least not by him, but he’d found himself looking forward to the get-togethers. The girl fought like a beast and she gave the fights energy he sorely missed. She was short on words (bastard, that David Cain) but talking to her felt right in a way it hadn’t since –
It was a funny thing; Jason had been expecting a fight, but he had not seen the hit coming – or the knife.
He’d been looking into the trafficking ring for a couple of weeks, and already finished his first few operations in taking down some of their big names. Far as he could tell, they mostly did work for bigger rings. Not the smartest, not the heaviest hitters, they got told to move some shit from point A to point B and did it, got a pretty sum and asked no questions. They mostly did drugs, so he hadn’t had reason to bring out the lead yet, but he’d heard rumours they had links to some of the worst human trafficking rings in the continent and that information was valuable as fuck. Point being, they were below his pay grade and he’d gotten cocky.
A warehouse, cause when the fuck wasn’t it, with maybe thirty people in it – and at least a few hundred kilos of cocaine. They were well-armed, but not well trained and he didn’t reckon it’d be hard to take them down with minimal casualties. Truth be told, he didn’t really like fighting guys like this. He needed the info they had, but you don’t have to be a baddie to ship drugs if you ask Jason. They needed the money; they didn’t have a say in where their shit was going, and they weren’t shipping kids or nothing, so he figured he’d go easy on them. Bit of a scare to learn what he needed, and they could all go home no worse for wear.
Jason may have mentioned, his plans like going to shit on him.
It’d started off well enough, sure. He’s been in the rafters, watching over a group of five who seemed to be doing a check on some of the goods. He’d landed a kick to the first goon, knocking him straight out and using his head as a launch to grapple the two closest, yanking their heads together – smash – three done, two to go.
Four was a big guy, didn’t look very with it but well taller than Jason, and Five seemed waiflike in comparison. Given time to figure out what was going on, they’d both gotten their guns pointed at his head and chest respectively. He was protected enough that neither would be a big deal, but best to avoid friendly fire, not to mention drawing attention, and so his leg had swept in a wide arc to disarm them. Sure enough, their guns were on the floor seconds before their heads, as he butted them with his gun in turn. Five looked almost pitiful, out like a light and seemingly no older than eighteen as his face fell into the light. He took the moment to sink to the floor, reach into Five’s pockets – and that’s when the knife had come in.
Like he said, cocky. He’d weighted his blow to take out Five’s delicate head, hadn’t considered his brutish companion’s hard head, and the hadn’t taken him out. Their eyes met before Jason even registered the blade, lodged in his lower abdomen. Man looked even more surprised than Jason felt, a guy like him wasn’t meant to get a hit on the fucking Red Hood. It wasn’t so much fear as resignation when Jason took him out – for real the second time – with a sharp head bump, but even that had Jason stumbling forwards as he began to feel the blood pump from the wound.
Fuck, he’d felt worse than this, he’d died for god’s sake, this should not be so bad. It’d been a long time since he was weak enough to be hit by anyone sides his siblings though, and they didn’t take it further than bruises those days. He could see the hilt of the blade coming out from his tummy – damn, it was buried deep. It was with a sort of fascination that he pulled his glove off, dipped his fingers into the liquid. His fingers came back hot; funny, the injury itself felt weirdly cool.
His momentary obsession wasn’t distracted when more goons filled into the room, and he felt a distant sense that he was in a fuck-ton of trouble if he wasn’t even gonna try to fight the armed guards. He didn’t feel worried, so much as vaguely dismayed. It was a pretty rubbish death, all things considered. First hadn’t been much fun but there was at least some satisfaction in it taking a supervillain to take you down; these guys were nobodies.
And then, he wasn’t dead.
A figure stood before him, steady hands putting pressure on his stomach – and oh damn was the wound hot now – and he could just about make out the black ears of the suit. He almost laughed; those funny little ears. Whenever Bruce had been lecturing him, he’d used to imagine them like a dog’s ears to keep himself entertained; one flopping forward or perking up at the sound of some cat (or, hah, the Cat). It brought a chuckle to his lips, and he moved a clumsy hand up to his rescuer's face, leaning his forehead to touch the bat’s,
His voice was slurred but infuriatingly warm, and he felt a hand gently push him back into his position, leaning against some wall. A slight groan at the loss of body heat – his face felt strangely cool – and the bat spoke.
“Cassandra.” Oh, fuck, that wasn’t his mentor’s voice. Ex-mentor. Damn, the knife must have lost him more blood than he’d expected.
“Cassandra.” He agreed, leaning back into his sister and she moved to his side. This time she seemed softer than before, one hand cradling his face against her Kevlar covered chest as the other carded through his hair. He stayed like that for several minutes, thinking of nothing but the shifting of her breaths beneath his head and the occasional change in the movement of her hands. Warmth, safety, protection – he thought it might feel like home, if he’d known what one felt like (oh wait, maybe he did, once).
Within minutes, Jason was asleep, and he’d awoken the next day at his safehouse; bandaged up and tucked in, like a fucking toddler. Cass hadn’t mentioned it again and Jason hadn’t wanted to bring it up, but it shifted something and the next time he’d seen her, the girl that fought like nobody he’d ever met wasn’t some badass Bruce had bought in anymore; she was his sister.
It actually wasn’t a fight that cemented his understanding of Cass, which was a shock if only in that fighting was ninety per cent of his life by that point, let alone hers. Actually, let him rephrase that; it wasn’t a physical fight. Mario Kart was a fucking war onto itself, and he was not gonna understate just how brutal Wayne Manor tournaments could get. He was pretty sure Tim had fractured an arm the year before (not that he’d been invited) and Jason had broken his nose back when it was just him and Dick; before the demon brat had even joined the party.
It was down to the finals. Him vs Cassandra Cain, Princess Peach and Donkey Kong respectively; Rainbow Road; final lap. He had the second place, but also a star that timed just right could definitely put him to win. He had Dick and Steph backing him; Tim and Damian rooting for their sister (see if they would get any Christmas presents, the damn brats); whilst Alfred, Babs, Duke, and Bruce were taking the ‘high road’ by remaining neutral – 100% just pissed they all sucked at the game. The room was in uproar, and Jason knew Cass’ concentration was just as high as his as they swerved around each other. Right, left – he could see the starting line – fucking star and – HE’D WON!
Take that Joker, Jason fucking Todd, first-time winner of the Wayne Manor Annual Mario Kart Tournament, what the fuck was a fucking criminal empire compared to that? He was screaming, and he’d thrown the controller to the ground, and Dick and Steph had already hoisted him onto their shoulders, cheering in unison with him. His arms pumped the air and he didn’t think his heart could beat any faster; damn, his face hurt with how hard he was grinning - when was the last time that had happened?
“My fucking crown, losers?” Scowl firm, Damian handed Cass the metal ring he’d had for the last year as Jason dismounted, kneeling before his sister, smirk still in place.
“To our glorious victor,” Comes Dick’s awful faux-English accent, “We bestow upon thee the honour of the crown of the blessed. The old King is dead,” Damian growls a bit, “Long live the new King of Mario Kart, Jason Todd!”
“Long live the king!” The room erupts in cheers, more joining in having finally ended the competition, and Jason feels his sisters hand brush his head to place the silver tiara upon it. He rises with an easy grace and isn’t even shocked when Cass jumps into his arms, tight grip around his neck as he uses her momentum to carry them into a spin. She stumbles into him slightly as he puts her down, giggling into his cheek, and as she draws back he catches sight of her face against Bruce’s.
The flush to her cheeks as her entire face lights with joy seems to beyond to a different world to Bruce’s dour sulk, shooting a longing glance at Jason. Fuck that, he was wrong, Cass was nothing like Bruce. She may be his ideal protégé but at least she didn’t need him to be somebody else, at least she wasn’t still waiting for him to become who he’d never even been again. That time, it was Jason pressing a kiss into Cass’ cheek, before pulling her by the hand to join the rest as they went for lunch. Jason had enough of a family for him, and Cass was better than Bruce could ever be.
They’re hugging now, just a greeting, and Jason knows she’s reading more into him than he ever could into her but that’s okay. After all, there’s only one thing any of his siblings need to tell him and he can pick up on that well enough. It’d be hard not to, he knows what love looks like, cause he knows his siblings must see it in him too.
Jason knows Bruce considers him a son, but Bruce is not Jason’s father. Bruce had hesitated on adopting Tim because he knew the kid had a dad but Jason – Willis wasn’t a good dad, but he had been Jason’s, and he didn’t need a sequel to that part of his life.
When he’d been a kid, he’d always felt uncomfortable calling Bruce his dad, but he’d put up with it cause – well if Bruce wanted Jason to be a son that’s what he’d be. A good soldier, a good son, it was all the same. That isn’t what Jason is, not now, and he won’t make a front of Bruce being his dad either.
Jason isn’t a liar though.
As much as he wishes death could have severed his ties to his family, Bruce undoubtedly is a part of his. Christ, Jason’s not exactly got a good reference, maybe how he feels bout Bruce is exactly how a kid feels bout his dad – but, it’s not what a dad means to Jason. Can’t Jason just have that? Can’t Bruce just be Bruce, and have that be enough? He doesn’t need a second dad, but he thinks maybe he has needed Bruce, just a bit.
He hadn’t hugged Bruce for a long time after he’d been taken in. Maybe Alfred had slipped him a booklet on dealing with traumatised kids; maybe Bruce just remembered what it was like, but he’d let Jason lead all their contact. None, for the first couple a months, as it went. But when they’d got closer and Bruce had begun to ruffle Jason’s hair or place a hand on Jason’s shoulder when he did well, it was only ever after asking Jason. Not in so many words, he’ll grant, but the brief eye contact to clarify it was okay had meant the world to him.
It took a full year before they ever actually hugged, and maybe that was on Jason too. It wasn’t that he never wanted to hug but he’d see Bruce, right after a turning point in a mission, or after they made up after a fight, and he could see the man wanting to embrace the kid he saw as his son and Jason didn’t want to – couldn’t – let it happen. He needed to push him, see how restrained Bruce could be so – so at least when the glass shattered, Jason could be the one pushing it away from him.
Fuck this, Jason isn’t going to be getting sentimental, not over this.
His siblings – getting misty-eyed over them is an embarrassment but that’s not a them thing, it’s just how siblings are. If he is gonna play like Dick and spend his time playing the loving brother, that’s his jurisdiction, but nothing has changed, and it is still Jason’s choice how much he gives Bruce and he is not gonna give him this. Bruce doesn’t get to be the main character of Jason’s story. It doesn’t have to circle back to him – every. Single. Time.
Because fuck it, Jason means more than Bruce. Bruce hugs like he’s angry at you – so fucking what? This is Jason’s life, and he and the bat haven’t exactly been making friendly in recent years. And it doesn’t matter because Jason has a family and Bruce doesn’t have to be in it.
He’d been a scared kid who had got hurt and Bruce had hugged him, and it was over and was years ago, and it didn’t make any difference cause a hug doesn’t actually make a relationship healthy. Jason’s hugs with his siblings, with Alfred, with the Outlaws – they matter. So, screw this, chapter over, it’s time for a new title.
Jason Todd knows he’s good at distracting himself. It wasn’t exactly the stellar quality that had got him the spot of Robin, but it was more him than the fucking short shorts. He isn’t dumb enough to think that isn’t what he’s doing now, focusing on clearing up the glass he broke. He could let Alfie do it – could wear his fucking gloves – but he can’t draw himself from picking up the pieces. He’s cut himself already, and there’s blood welling up from his hand, but there’s still the shimmer of shards embedded in the carpet and it wouldn’t do to let Damian – or, god forbid, Alfred the Cat – step on it, they’d never stop them whining about it.
He must look a right sight to whoever is opening the door, but they don’t make a move to stop him and he doesn’t stop, although he’s practically just stroking the carpet at this point, allowing stray fragments to embed themselves into his thumb rather than trying to fiddle with them between his nails; too dull to pierce the skin fully. He doesn’t have a bin nearby, so the glass dust is just left atop the largest shard, falling to the centre of the glass’ curve. That’s like a hug, in a way. An open embrace where the shards only hurt each other as they brush and the lack of a cover leaves the little ones thinking, hoping they can leave, forgetting they’ll never be big enough to escape. Fuck, distraction.
He’s stopped moving; just watches his blood spot the grey carpet.
The room’s intruder does move, then. A hand touches his shoulder, and he barely has to glance to recognise Alfred’s wrinkled fingers. He says nothing, and Alfred takes the opportunity to muss his hair slightly. Jason does nothing.
“I’ll have to fetch somebody to tend to your hand, Master Jason. Will your brother suffice?” Jason doesn’t rise to the bait and continues to stare absently at the extremity.
Alfred lets his hand linger for a moment, before leaving to go fetch one brother or another. What, is Jason a fucking child now? Needing a babysitter for when he has a fucking temper tantrum? Fuck off, fuck off, how dare he -
Damn, Jason has smashed the glass. Again. His fist has ground into the pieces, and what had been a pulse of blood turns into a stream, his hand pretty much mangled. He thoughtlessly brings it to his mouth, trying to stem the flow, and hisses as they make contact; drawing away again with his mouth now smeared in blood like a fucking psycho – god, he feels sick. He can almost imagine it. What if the blood is in a fucking smile? No, no, no –
He’s panicking, that’s why he doesn’t notice when he gets company until there are hands resting heavily on his shoulders, a face trying to meet his eyes, and a voice asking him to breathe, just breathe. Despite himself, he finds himself matching his brother’s pace, slowly but surely.
As air returns to his lungs, he feels a fuck ton more tired than he recalls and doesn’t even try to stop himself from crashing into his brothers open arms. Cause this, this is how Jason hugs: desperate.
He’s not crying, but he shakes with dry sobs and intelligible curses lost in his brother’s jumper, and there’s quickly more comforting hands on his back than he can account for from just Dick; he must have been joined by the rest of their siblings. Tim, he becomes aware, is talking in a low tone he can’t make out and Dick is pulling away from him gently. The air against his face feels shockingly cool, and a shiver of fear works through him as he comes to realise he’s the centre of a circle; all eyes on him.
“Jason, let me bandage your hand.” Says Tim. Jason holds it up to him, numb, and looks for – something – in his eyes. Pity, fear, disgust – something to let him give into the comfortable tide of anger, rather than rot in the vulnerability of the moment. Nothing gives, and Jason doesn’t twitch as Tim cleans his hand with the wet flannel he’d been carrying. Tim looks distinctly practical as he examines the wound, face set, and in no time he’s got it wrapped well. Doesn’t let go though. Jason doesn’t ask him to.
“I loathe to admit it, but Father was wrong, Todd.” Everybody tenses, as though expecting Jason to fucking break down and – fuck, his lower lip is quivering, but he scoffs anyway. He’s not quite sure what he means by it, but Cass’ face slides from neutral to hurt real quick and he’s swift to reach his free, unbloodied hand to his sister’s friend, gently pulling the corners of her mouth into a faux smile. She obliges, her face warming, and presses her hand over his, warm.
Damian actually catches him off guard, looping his small arms around Jason’s neck from his right and bobbing his head under Jason’s arm so he’s curled into his side, face in a resolute pout. “I mean it. I will be having words with him; this sort of behaviour is unacceptable coming from a man like my father.” The brat sounds so cocksure, as if talking the Batman down is something that just happens, it makes a little bit of Jason swell with warmth at the thought that he’d do that; that he’d care in the first place, it leaves a flush in his chest.
“Good luck getting through to that obstinate bastard, sport.” He replied, voice weak even to his own ears. Damian took a slight scowl,
“If this is about the killing, Todd - “
“I didn’t even kill anybody. Which means it’s not his fucking moral high ground, it’s just...” Just him, not being good enough. Never being good enough. He must be going catatonic again because Damian receives a sharp pinch to the side and the rest of his siblings are crowding round him again, all soothing coos and gentle hands, and his youngest brother is being shoved behind them, as if Jason couldn’t handle being reminded just how much of a black sheep he really was.
“Bruce is wrong Jason,” said Tim, “and I reckon Alfred will be chewing him out right now, even if he wouldn’t listen to us.”
“Won’t make any difference, Bruce isn’t gonna change now. He’s never gonna want me back in the family, not the me I am now.”
“Well it’s a good thing Bruce doesn’t actually chose who’s in the family, isn’t it?” That pulls a chuckle from Jason,
“He sure didn’t choose you, Mr I’m-Robin-Now, huh?” Before he can think better of it, he’s moved to hug the kid; arms tight around his shoulders. A moment passes in stillness before a whine arises from Dick,
“No fair, I wanted a Jay-hug!” He’s met with a chorus of ascension, and Jason draws back with a light laugh,
“A Jay-hug? What the fuck you all wanna be hugging me for?”
“Don’t be deliberately obtuse Todd, obviously your hugs are highly sought after – you are the best hugger.” Damian says in the haughty tone that seems more like an insult than anything, shoving Tim to the side to re-enter Jason’s line of sight.
“The demon brat’s right, you always know when we really need a hug.” says Tim, casually retaliating Damian’s attack as he speaks.
“Of course I’m right, Drake, it must be a new experience for you though.” Damian’s now pulling Tim’s hair and Tim has in a headlock and Jason thinks Dick really ought to be splitting them up by now, but he just pipes up in agreement,
“Oh yeah, whenever you hug me it feels like it really means something, y’know?”
“Don’t go getting sentimental and crap on me, Dick, you know I’d hug you as a distraction.”
“Sure,” Dick laughs, “You’re a master criminal who’s never felt an emotion, my bad for forgetting.”
“I thought I felt an emotion, once,” says Tim, currently stepping on Damian’s head as the kid seems to be trying to break his other leg, “Then I realised I hadn’t had my caffeine fix that day and it was just the exhaustion hitting me.”
“You joke but you should probably work on that, think Dickie might throw a fit if any of die again.” Cass nods, face resolute,
“No more deaths.” Another murmur of ascension settles through the group and the elder members relax into each other, watching the younger ones roughhouse.
“You always have overthought hugs Jay,” said Dick, soft enough so as to not be heard by the bickering duo, “I remember when you were a kid, Alfred had his hands full so couldn’t give you a hug and you spent twenty minutes pretending you didn’t think it meant they were gonna give you up while you bitched about it to me. And you know what?” Jason doesn’t remember that, and hums noncommittally, “I felt really bad for a while afterwards, because I didn’t feel bad for you, because you hugged me and all things considered it ranks in the best hugs I’ve ever had.”
Cass has tucked her head under Jason’s chin, and Dick’s lies on his shoulder, and their hands are both joined to his right whilst his left supports them. He has no words to come back to, but Dick doesn’t seem desperate for a response. Another moment passes, and Tim and Damian seem to be closing their fight, having shifted back to the insults and teasing portion of their arguments, and Jason finds it within himself to ask,
“What... what do you guys reckon my hugs mean?” Tim and Damian look a bit confused, and Dick seems to be mulling over how to respond, but it’s Cass who’s reply comes first. She draws away from him and faces him, eyes intent as they make contact. Her palm reaches to his heart, where it lingers.
“Your hugs mean family.”
Jason still has a long way to go. With Bruce, with himself, with the world as a whole, but if he has this family behind him? Well it’s a fucking good place to start.
Finally finished! I really wish I'd planned ahead, this last chapter is definitely a lot weaker (and more sentimental) than I was aiming for, but I hope a few of you guys enjoyed it enough. It was my first fic, but I'm definitely going to be writing more in the near future. I have some ideas in mind, but I'm happy to hear anything you guys would like to read! I'd love to hear what you guys thought of it, criticism and all, thanks for reading :)