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to the red planet Mars

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“Jason,” Bruce says.

Jason ignores him. “Don’t think I don’t hear you, Cain,” he snaps. “Stop following us.”

“Jason.”

Ignore. They march into the library and Jason makes a b-line for the fireplace. He bends over to grab kindling and sucks a sharp breath through his teeth, wrapping an arm around his ribs.

“Jason.”

“I can do it!”

“I know,” Bruce says, cotton soft. “Please?”

Jason exhales slowly. He eases down into his favorite armchair, careful of his battered ribs, and Bruce starts the fire. The chair is identical to the last time he saw it, years ago now. He pulls his hood up to hide his face. It’s useless, when Bruce knows everything he’s feeling anyway, but it makes him feel less exposed.

Barely audible over the crackling fire, Bruce says: “Jason.”

“I don’t—” Jason cuts himself off, shaking his head. “I’m sick of talking.”

“Okay,” Bruce says finally. “I could read, if you want?”

Jason’s eyes burn behind closed lids as he nods jerkily. He listens to Bruce’s soft footsteps as he searches the bookcases, then settles down on a nearby couch. He clears his throat.

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine,” he starts quietly, and Jason nearly laughs. It’s Northanger Abbey. “Her situation in life,” Bruce reads, “the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.”

The familiar words, spoken in that familiar baritone, slowly ease away some of the tension in Jason’s shoulders until he’s nearly boneless, head resting against the back of the chair.

“Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome.”

Jason breathes, deep and slow, as Bruce’s voice fades into white noise.

Slowly, he falls asleep.

When he wakes up, the fire is down to glowing embers and Bruce is sleeping on the couch. The room is nearly dark, lit only by the fading firelight.

Jason watches him for a long moment, then turns to stare into the embers. He doesn’t know what a Bruce without Batman looks like. Maybe no one does, not even Bruce.

He knows what Dick looks like though, both with and without Batman. Jason prefers ‘without,’ and God knows Goldie does, too. Jason would be shocked if there were a person on Earth that wanted Dick in that cowl, after seeing it slowly suck the life out of him last time. As much as Jason had hated him at the time, he still could barely stand it. Every time he took Lian to the zoo, he made sure they skipped the avian exhibits, just to avoid seeing the grounded birds of prey with their clipped wings and slowly dulling eyes.

Jason swallows, suddenly nauseous. He and Dick have had their differences, sure, but he can’t be the reason Dick has to take the cowl again. He just can’t.

But what other option is there? Gotham needs a Batman. A shield held up not just against danger, but against fear. Against hopelessness. Batman is a symbol, not just of justice, but of hope. The possibility of redemption. Gotham’s a shithole already, but without that? Jason’s not convinced it wouldn’t just crumble overnight.

“What are you thinking about?” Bruce mumbles, still half asleep.

“Batman,” Jason answers honestly.

“Hn,” Bruce grunts.

“Are you really—?”

“Yes.” Bruce sits up. “I already spoke with Clark.”

“Why?” Jason asks quietly, still staring into the fire.

Bruce is silent for a long moment, then says, voice low: “I never meant to hurt you. It can never happen again.”

“But,” Jason says, voice strained, “Batman.

“I’ve thought it through,” Bruce says. “Batman is . . . important to me. But it was always supposed to be about helping people. Not hurting them. Not hurting my son.”

Jason shakes his head, lips pressed tightly together. His eyes are burning again, so he squeezes them shut. “You can’t do this,” he rasps. “Gotham needs you.”

“Gotham needs Batman,” Bruce corrects.

“Yeah,” Jason huffs. “That’s you.”

Bruce exhales slowly. “Maybe it shouldn’t be.”

“Who is it going to be, then?” Jason says, pressing the heels of his hands over his eyes until he sees stars. “Dick?”

Bruce just stares into the fire.

“You can’t,” Jason says, almost desperately. “You didn’t see him when you were gone.”

“He did well,” Bruce says, verging on defensive. “I know you’re upset with him, but—”

Jason shakes his head, locking eyes with the older man. “No, I’m not talking about that.” He has to understand. “It was eating him alive, B. It was like—” He growls, frustrated. “You can’t make him do that again. You can’t—”

“Okay,” Bruce relents. “I believe you.”

Jason stares for a minute, disbelieving. “Just like that?” he says finally.

Bruce is quiet for a minute, then repeats: “Just like that.”

“What are you going to do, then?”

Bruce hums, noncommittal, then says: “I’ll ask Clark to cover for me.”

“For how long?”

Bruce lifts one shoulder in a tired shrug. “I’m not sure yet if this is… forever,” he says. “If it is, I’ll figure something out.”

“But you won’t make Dick take it?”

Bruce shakes his head and Jason exhales with more relief than he can really explain. The room falls silent again and Jason’s eyes start feeling heavy. He lets them slide closed. The chair isn’t as comfortable as he remembers, who knows if it’s the power of nostalgia or just that he’s a lot bigger than he was the last time he sat in this library. Either way, he’s tired enough it doesn’t really matter. He’s nearly asleep again when Bruce breaks the silence.

“I called Harper,” he says.

Jason’s eyes fly open. “What?”

“While you were asleep. I thought,” Bruce clears his throat, “you might want someone around that you trust. I understand if you want to leave with him. But. You’re welcome to stay as long as you want. Both of you.”

Jason stares at him.

“Is that,” Bruce tries, voice faltering, “okay?”

Jason keeps staring.

“Jaylad,” Bruce says, brow furrowing. “What’s wrong? Are you in pain? Give me a number.”

“Seriously?” Jason scoffs. “Can’t you tell?”

Bruce is quiet for a second too long. “No,” he says finally. “Zatanna came by while you were sleeping.”

Oh.

The spell’s gone. And instead of kicking Jason out, Bruce was—

“Jason,” Bruce repeats, almost pleading, “what’s wrong?”

Jason just shakes his head. If he opens his mouth, he’s gonna start crying, and he’s tired of crying, he doesn’t want—

Bruce’s face twists and he shifts towards Jason, too fast, and Jason shoves himself backward so hard the armchair nearly tips over.

Whatever emotion was marring Bruce’s usually blank expression wasn’t rage, but it takes Jason, pressed back against the cushions of the chair and panting hard, a few minutes to realize that.

“I didn’t—” Bruce says, sounding heartbroken. He’s retreated to the far end of the couch, and Jason wants to snap something about it not being necessary, but he’s too busy catching his breath.

When he’s calmed back down, Jason says: “When’s Roy coming?”

“Not for a few more hours,” Bruce says, hesitant. “Would you be more comfortable in a bed?”

Jason exhales roughly. “Probably.”

“Upstairs, then?”

Nodding, Jason shifts his weight and can’t hold back a low groan. Fuck, he hurts.

“Easy,” Bruce says lowly. “Should I—I can get some meds, first—?”

Jason waves him off. “Just help me up.”

Bruce swallows hard before inching towards Jason, every move clearly telegraphed. Jason just breathes. Finally, Bruce is close enough to duck low so Jason can get an arm over his shoulders. He wraps his own arm around to grip Jason’s hip, careful to avoid his ribs. “Ready?”

Jason nods tightly. Bruce stands and Jason sucks in a breath through gritted teeth.

“Okay?”

“Yeah,” Jason manages. “Just stiff.”

There’s no way Bruce believes him, but the old man doesn’t say anything, just waits for Jason to signal he’s ready to move. Jason takes a few deep breaths, then steps forward. They make it out of the library and through the hall without too much trouble. Then they hit the stairs.

“I could—” Bruce starts uncertainly.

“No fucking way are you carrying me again,” Jason says, shoving back a thrum of panic at the thought of being helpless in Bruce’s arms. “Let’s go.”

Fuck stairs. Jason feels like he’s dying by the time they make it to the landing. By the time they get to Bruce’s room, he’s swallowing back nausea.

“B, I’m gonna—” There’s a wastebasket in his hands almost instantly, a warm hand rubbing circles into his back as he heaves.

“Done?” B asks after a while and Jason nods. “Lie down. I’ll be right back.”

Jason drifts for a bit, then surfaces again as Bruce wipes his face down with a damp cloth. The cloth disappears and Bruce starts tugging off his boots.

“Jay,” Bruce says, voice a low rumble. “Sit up for me. You need to take some meds before you sleep.”

Jason hums a vague negative but sits up when Bruce starts manhandling him. He takes the offered pills and the water to wash them down, then lies back down.

He feels the soft, probably stupidly expensive blankets settle around his ears, and then he’s out.

------

When Roy rings the doorbell at Wayne Manor, he’s psyching himself up to punch Bruce Wayne in the jaw as soon as he opens the door.

He knocks Dick on his ass instead.

“Hey, Roy,” Dick says from the floor. “How’ve you been?”

“Where’s Jay?” Roy demands, eyes searching for any sign of the big bad Bat. Nothing.

“He’s upstairs,” Dick says, still on his back. “Sleeping.”

Roy grabs an arm and yanks his old teammate to his feet, then pushes him towards the stairs, probably a little rougher than necessary. “Show me.”

Dick just nods tiredly and leads Roy up the stairs and down the hall, then swings a door open and gestures for Roy to go in.

He goes in. Jason’s out cold on the bed, dark hair mussed but clean, face bruised but tended to. No stitches, but there’s a butterfly bandage holding the split skin over his cheekbone together. There are bruises on what Roy can see of his neck. He wants to shift the blankets to get a better look at them, but Jay looks like he could use the rest and he’d probably wake up. Jaybird’s always been a light sleeper.

Actually. “Did you sedate him?” he asks Dick, voice low but hopefully threatening.

“No,” Dick says, “just pain meds. He’s worn out, is all.”

Roy huffs, turning to eye the older vigilante suspiciously. He doesn’t look like he’s lying. Dick nods towards the hall and Roy acquiesces, closing the door behind him, as silently as he can.

“Why the fuck is he here?” Roy asks furiously. “What the fuck did you people do to him?”

“That’s,” Dick swallows, “a long story.”

“Well, you better start talking, then.” Roy crosses his arms over his chest, scowling.

Dick takes a deep breath, running a trembling hand down his face. “Food first?” he asks, voice hoarse. “Alfred’s making dinner.”

Roy stares at him for a long moment. “You look tired, Dickie,” he says finally.

The sound Dick makes can barely be classified as a laugh. His eyes look moist. “Yeah,” he says, a little helpless. “It’s been that kind of week.”

“Food sounds good,” Roy admits. “Where is everybody, anyway?”

“In the kitchen.” Dick leads them back down the stairs. “The group decided I would be the least offensive to you.”

Roy huffs, glancing at the red patch on Dick’s jaw that’s definitely going to bruise.

“I was outvoted,” Dick says dryly, catching him looking.

“Sorry,” Roy mutters. “I was expecting your old man.” They turn down the hall towards the kitchen. “He in the kitchen, too?”

“No,” Dick says after a moment of hesitation. “We thought it would be better if you didn’t have to see him?”

Roy frowns. “Where is he?”

Dick shrugs. “In the cave, probably.”

Roy turns around, heading back for the stairs.

“Roy,” Dick says, jogging to catch up with him. “What are you—”

“I’m staying with Jay.”

“But I thought, food—?”

“You think I’m going to leave him alone with the Bat prowling around in the shadows?” Roy snarls. “No fucking way.”

Dick maneuvers his way in front of Roy, walking backwards with his hands held out in surrender. “He’s sleeping, Roy, let him—”

Bruce Wayne is standing in front of Jason’s door, hand on the knob.

The sound his head makes when it rebounds off the door frame is Roy’s new favorite song.

Intense blue eyes meet Roy’s, and he tenses, arms up to block—

“Harper,” Wayne sighs. He glances at Dick, then back at Roy.

Come on, old man. Just try it.

“I was just checking on him.”

Roy scoffs. “As if.”

There’s a flicker in Wayne’s expression, and Roy narrows his eyes.

He’s not hard to read, Jason had insisted once. He makes all the expressions other people do, just smaller. Faster. You have to pay attention.

That’s a flinch. Tiny, and fleeting, but a flinch.

Wayne’s gaze flicks to Dick again, face blank.

Dick doesn’t intervene.

“I want eyes on him or Jay at all times,” Roy demands.

“Okay,” Dick agrees slowly. “Bruce, you’re coming to dinner.”

------

Even the thought of eating has Bruce’s stomach lurching, but he doesn’t argue. When they get to the kitchen, any conversation that might have been happening grinds to a halt. Bruce doesn’t meet anyone’s gaze. Instead, he makes his way to the chair furthest away from the others and sits down.

When Alfred sets a plate down in front of him, it clatters harshly. Bruce winces, not daring to look the older man in the eye. There’s a disdainful sniff, then the man that might as well be his father turns his back and walks away. Tim is talking on the other side of the room, probably walking Harper through the events of the last week. Bruce stares at his plate of food, unseeing.

Time passes. The food cools. A throat is cleared nearby and Bruce flinches, blinking up at the sound.

Alfred. Lips pressed into a thin line. Brow furrowed. Bruce looks away, swallowing.

“You need to eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” Bruce says, low and rasping.

The chair next to him is pulled out from the table, legs scraping gently against the floor. The others are all gone, Bruce realizes. It’s just him and Alfred at the table.

After several minutes sitting in silence, Alfred says: “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” His voice is hard. Unyielding.

Bruce shakes his head stiffly.

“Nothing?”

The scorn in the man’s voice pierces him like a knife. He opens his mouth to say something.

I didn’t mean to.

I’m so, so sorry.

I’d rather die than hurt him again. Hurt any of them again.

But the words aren’t there. He tries to swallow and can barely manage that.

“I—” he says finally, then his throat twists closed. When he was a child, Alfred used to tell him to picture the words in his mind. Think through each sound, each movement of lips and tongue and jaw. He hasn’t practiced in a long time. Usually, he just doesn’t say anything, when he gets like this.

But this is Alfred.

“I—” he tries again. “I—I—”

Alfred just sighs, takes Bruce’s untouched plate, and walks away.

Bruce bows his head, eyes squeezed shut in a fruitless attempt to ward off tears of frustration and burning, overwhelming shame.

When the plate thuds against the table in front of him, Bruce almost jumps out of his skin.

He stares at it, uncomprehending. It’s a piece of toast, spread with peanut butter and covered in a layer of sliced bananas. One of the few things he could be coaxed into eating in the months after his parents’ murder.

“You need to eat,” Alfred says, and it’s not gentle like it was when Bruce was a child, but it’s so, so much more than he deserves.

Bruce sniffs awkwardly, brushing tears off his cheeks, then picks up the toast with a trembling hand and takes a bite. He chews mechanically, tasting nothing, and finally manages to swallow.

“The whole piece,” Alfred orders.

Stomach rolling, Bruce stares down at the toast despairingly. He chokes down another bite, then presses the back of his hand against his mouth as he gags, trying to keep it down.

He swallows hard and takes a few deep breaths through his mouth, feeling pathetic. He takes another bite. And another, and another, until, finally, it’s gone.

“A—Al,” he manages after a moment, hating the way his voice jerks and stops. He’s desperate to get the words out, though. He can’t live with Alfred not knowing. “I’m—I’m s—s—so sorry.”

Alfred exhales, leaning forward. Bruce can’t bring himself to look at him. “You will never,” the old man says forcefully, “hurt my grandchildren again. Is that understood?”

Nodding jerkily, Bruce says, too fast: “I—I’d r—rather d—d—die.”

Alfred is deathly quiet for a moment. “Is that your intention?”

Oh.

Bruce shakes his head. “N—n—no. I—I’m l—l—l—looking f—for a th—th—th—” He growls, frustrated. “A th—th—ther—therapist.”

“A reputable one, I hope,” Alfred sniffs.

Bruce nods.

“Nothing like those quacks you saw before.”

Bruce shakes his head.

“Can you look at me?”

Bottom lip trembling, Bruce raises his head and meets Alfred’s gaze.

The old man searches Bruce’s face for a long moment, lips pressed together so tightly they disappear into a white line. Finally, he says: “My dear boy,” and Bruce falls apart.

“Shh,” Alfred soothes, hand cupped around the nape of Bruce’s neck.

“I—I—I’m s—so s—s—s—sorry,” he manages. “I’m s—sorry, I—I’m s—sorry.”

“I know, my boy,” Alfred says.

Bruce buries his head in his father’s shoulder, too choked up to even try to express how much he knows he fucked up.

“I know you said,” Alfred says once he’s quieted some, “that you do not intend to hurt yourself. But you must understand that as much as you have failed them, your children still love you very much. Any actions resulting in your injury or,” Alfred hesitates, “or death would only hurt them more.”

Bruce pulls back. “I’m n—not,” he tries. “It’s not—not—not l—l—like th—th—that, I—I—I—” He scrubs at his eyes, exhaling angrily. Why can’t he just fucking speak?

“When you find your therapist,” Alfred says quietly, seriously, “you will inform them of your history, yes?”

Bruce swallows hard, nodding.

“Alright,” Alfred repeats, eyes haunted. “Until then, will you promise not to be alone?”

“I—” Bruce’s voice cracks. He shakes his head. “I don’t th—th—th—think,” he says, “I sh—should be around th—th—th—them.”

“Well, then,” Alfred says brusquely, “you can be around me.”

Bruce squeezes his eyes shut, breathing as evenly as he can. “I’ve been a t—terrible father,” he says finally, “and a terrible son.”

Alfred sighs, clasping a bony hand over Bruce’s shoulder. “You have hurt your children terribly,” he agrees, “of that there is no question. And yes, you have hurt me as well. But it is a parent’s duty to absorb the pain their children inflict. Do not ever apologize to me for that.”

“What do I do, Alfred?” Bruce manages after a long silence. “I don’t—I don’t know how to fix this.”

“You get well,” Alfred answers, gaze holding Bruce’s firmly, “you do what you can to make amends, and you pray that your children find it in their hearts to forgive you someday.”

Bruce nods jerkily, wiping at the tear tracks on his face.

After eying him for a long moment, Alfred nods once, sharply, then herds him into the kitchen proper and sits him down at one of the stools before busying himself about the kitchen. After a moment, he sets a cup of tea down in front of Bruce, thick with milk and sugar.

Another old trick to get more calories into him. Bruce drinks it slowly, shaking hands curled around the warm cup, and just breathes.

------

Jason wakes up to the smell of Roy’s cheap cologne, a familiarly muscled arm slung over his shoulders. He shifts, and Roy grunts, half asleep. Jason shifts again and one green eye cracks open to look at him.

“Hey, Jaybird,” Roy hums, voice rough with sleep.

“Hey,” Jason tries to say, but it’s more of an unintelligible croak than anything else.

Roy’s eyes flick to Jason’s throat and he’s suddenly very awake. “Oh, jeez,” he says, fingers ghosting over the thick band of dark bruising. “Fuck, I’m gonna kill him.”

“No,” Jason rasps. “M’ fault.”

“Fuck off,” Roy scoffs quietly, peering at Jason with big, concerned eyes. “You can’t insist on taking responsibility for everything the Pit made you do, then say this isn’t his fault. That’s called a double-standard, Jaybird.”

Jason grunts and flips him off, swinging his legs over to get off the bed and then—

Roy’s arms looped under his, keeping him from landing hard on the wooden floor.

“Fuck,” he grinds out, squeezing his eyes closed.

“Easy, Jay,” Roy soothes, guiding him back up to the bed. Roy sets him down flat on his back, lower legs dangling, but Jason moves instinctively, twisting sideways to curl his body around broken ribs.

“No, none of that, Jaybird, come on,” Roy says, voice low and apologetic. He manhandles Jason onto his back again, the movement punching sounds out of Jason that probably would’ve sounded inhuman even without the damage to his throat. “Here you go,” Roy says, offering Jason a pillow. He grabs it instantly, pressing it tight against his ribs and heaving ragged, panting breaths.

“Fuck,” Jason manages, voice crackling. “Fuck.”

“Open up,” Roy says, tipping something—hopefully pain meds, Jesus fuck—into his mouth, then propping him up so he can take a sip from a glass of water.

Just swallowing has Jason whimpering like a beaten dog.

“Easy, Jaybird.” Roy runs a hand through Jason’s hair comfortingly. “Meds will kick in soon. Just gotta ride it out.”

Jason clutches the pillow to his ribs and tries to breathe through it. Reality comes and goes, Jason catching snatches of Roy’s off-key humming, feeling calluses brush gently over his scalp.

Finally, the fierce, all-consuming pain ratchets down to a manageably horrifying ache.

“Back with me?”

Jason grunts an affirmative. “Need to piss,” he rasps.

“Sure,” Roy says easily. “Let’s get you upright.”

“Fuck,” Jason hisses as Roy pulls him to his feet, Jason’s arm slung over his shoulders, Roy’s hand gripping Jason’s hip. “Fuck.”

“Easy,” Roy coaches. “How we doing?”

“Left leg is locked up good,” Jason says. “Ribs are fucked.”

“Okay. Let me know when you’re ready.”

Jason takes a few breaths, shifting his weight from one foot to the other to try and loosen the muscles up. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s go.”

They make it to the bathroom, albeit slowly and painfully.

“Just like old times, am I right?” Roy jokes as they reach the toilet.

Jason just huffs. Unfortunately, yes. Any shreds of privacy he’d had left after sharing a very small spaceship with Roy and Kori was thoroughly obliterated in the weeks after he shot Penguin.

The trip back to the bed is easier. Jason frowns at his leg, probing at the muscles until—

Fuck.”

“Alright?”

“Yeah,” Jason says. “The fuck happened to my leg?”

“Bone’s bruised. They think he kneeled on it when he pinned you.”

Jason winces at the thought of all of Bruce’s considerable weight landing on his leg. “That part’s kinda,” Jason wavers a hand in the air, “blurry.”

Roy’s mouth is set in an unhappy line. “What the fuck happened, Jay? I know you can control that shit. Drake says you—”

Jason exhales in a huff. “I’m an idiot, that’s all.”

“Jason,” Roy groans, “did you actually think that asshole would be able to just rein it in?”

Jason shrugs pathetically. “I don’t know.”

“No,” Roy says, a little sharp. “You do know, and you need to tell me. Because the way I see it? Either you thought he’d throw it off, or you thought he was going to beat you to death and you just laid there and took it. Again.”

“I didn’t—”

“Don’t bullshit me!”

Jason flinches back, eyes screwed shut.

“Oh, Christ,” Roy breathes, “I’m sorry. Fuck. Are you—”

“I’m fine,” Jason says. “I’m good.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Jason insists. “It’s just the meds. My head’s just fucked up from the meds, it’s okay—”

“Jaybird,” Roy says quietly. “Come on, man. Don’t lie to me. Not to me.”

Air catches in Jason’s throat. Eyes burning, he says, voice wavering: “I don’t know, Roy. I just.” He sniffs hard, blinking back tears. “It’s stupid, but all the other times, it was—it was Batman, you know? And, in my head, if I just kept them separate, it was—it was okay. But—”

His voice cracks, and suddenly Roy is sitting next to him, an arm over his shoulders pulling him to the older boy’s side. “I know it wasn’t really him,” Jason rasps. “I know. But it was his face, and he was so angry, and I’ve never seen Bruce angry like that, Roy, not ever. He’s not—he wasn’t like that. Not at home. Not with the cowl off.”

“Jay,” Roy says carefully. “He’s still the same person, cowl or no cowl.”

Jason growls, frustrated. “I know,” he says. “I know.”

“Okay,” Roy says, and Jason curls into him deeper, pressing his forehead against the skin of his neck. “So, it freaked you out a little, seeing his face when he was hurting you?”

Jason nods, eyes closed. “Reminded me of my dad,” he admits, voice so quiet it’s barely audible. “I think.”

“Oh, Jay.”

Clenching his jaw, Jason tries to push back the sob building in his chest.

“It’s okay, man,” Roy says, wrapping his other arm around Jason. “It’s okay. Let it out.”

Jason cries, tears soaking into Roy’s red t-shirt. “I don’t,” he manages between sobs, “want to be here anymore. I can’t—”

“Shh,” Roy soothes, rubbing circles into his back. “That’s okay, Jay. That’s okay. We’ll leave, yeah? You can come stay with me for a while. Lian’s been missing you like crazy.”

Jason just nods into Roy’s ruined shirt, tears still leaking out of his aching eyes. Roy starts humming again, a tune Jason knows but can’t quite name. He’s still trying to figure out what it is as he falls asleep.

------

When Roy steps out of the room, the whole fucking circus is standing in the hall.

“We’re leaving,” he says. “Where’s his gear?”

“I will retrieve it,” the littlest one says, spinning on one heel and stalking down the hall.

“All I’ve got is my truck,” Roy says, looking at Dick. “He’ll be fucking miserable.”

“We’ve got a van,” Dick says. “The backseat fold into a bed.”

“That’ll work.”

“I’ll come with you,” one of the girls says. “You won’t be able to keep an eye on him while you drive.”

Roy narrows his eyes at her. “You’re Blondie?”

“Um, yeah. That’s what he calls me.”

“Okay, you’re in.”

“I can drive your truck,” Drake offers, “and take the van back with Steph after.”

Roy nods sharply. “He’s in a lot of pain. Don’t know if he can make it down the stairs.”

“I’ll grab a stretcher from the cave,” Dick says. “Be right back.”

“Pack up some painkillers. Antibiotics. Anti-inflammatories. Whatever you think he might need. I don’t carry that shit in my truck.”

“Got it,” Dick calls over his shoulder, already on his way down the stairs. “Cas?” The Asian girl follows him downstairs.

He turns to Blondie and Drake. “Where’s Alfred?”

“In the kitchen,” Drake says.

“With Bruce,” Blondie adds.

Okay. “Watch this door,” he orders. “Do not let anyone in there. Especially not Wayne.”

The pair nods, in synch, and Roy heads downstairs.

Alfred looks up when he enters the room. Wayne doesn’t.

Roy was planning on ignoring the man entirely, but he takes a minute to appreciate how terrible he looks before turning to the old man.

“We’re leaving,” he says. “Can I get a number he can reach you at? If he wakes up before we go, he might want to say goodbye, but if he doesn’t…”

“Of course,” Alfred says, a little shocked. He pulls out a notepad and pencil from a drawer and writes out a phone number.

“This is yours?” Roy asks, needing to be sure. The last thing Jason needs is to call expecting Alfred and have Wayne pick up. “Not the landline or whatever?”

“Yes,” he says. “That’s my personal number.”

“Right,” Roy says. “Thanks.”

“Thank you, Mr. Harper,” the old man says, full of sincerity. “For all you have done for him.”

Roy shrugs awkwardly. “He’s my friend.” He turns to leave, then changes his mind and steps right up next to Wayne.

The guy’s all puffy-faced and red-eyed, like he’s been crying, but Roy doesn’t give a fuck. “If I see you anywhere near him,” Roy says, voice flat and low, “you’ll have an arrow through your eye before you even know I’m there.”

Wayne just stares at his mug of tea.

“Hey.” Roy steps closer, all up in his personal space. “You hearing me, Batsy?”

Wayne nods once, jerkily.

“Gonna need a verbal acknowledgement, asshole.”

“I understand,” Wayne says quietly, still staring at his tea.

Roy scoffs. He has to fight back the urge to spit at him. Jay will never forgive him if he spits in Alfred’s kitchen.

He goes to leave but turns back around when Wayne says his name.

“Harper,” he says, voice hoarse and a little desperate. “If he wakes up, can you ask him if I can say good—”

Roy spits in his face.

Wayne doesn’t do anything at all, just lowers his gaze, wipes his face with the back of his hand, and goes back to staring into his cup.

Roy glances at Alfred. He doesn’t seem mad. “Don’t tell Jason?”

The old man glances at him, confused, then gives him a sad smile. “Of course.”

“Thanks,” Roy says, already halfway out the door.

------

Jason blinks awake, confused. Someone is sitting next to him, looking at their phone. He squints. “Blondie?”

Stephanie jumps. “Jason! You’re awake.”

He just stares at her for a moment, then looks around them. “Where,” he says, “are we?”

“We’re driving you to Roy’s place,” she explains. “We’ve got a ways to go yet.”

Jason grunts.

“Need anything? It’s about time for more meds.”

It feels like it, too. “I need to piss,” he says after a minute. “Where’s Roy?”

“Sorry, man, that was not English. What’s wrong?”

Jason frowns. “Where’s Roy?” he asks again, trying to speak more clearly. He’s pretty sure it still comes out garbled as fuck.

“He’s in the rest stop. Do you want something to eat?”

Jason shakes his head. “Need to piss,” he says again.

“Roy should be back any minute.”

“’kay,” Jason mumbles, closing his eyes.

“Hey, Jaybird.”

Roy. Jason makes a confused sound in his throat. When did Roy get here?”

“Come on, man. Steph says you need to piss.”

Yeah. Yeah, he does. “She a,” Jason mumbles, “mind reader?”

Roy laughs. “Nah, man. You told her while I was gone.”

“Roy,” Jason mumbles. “Roy.”

“Yeah, man, I’m here.”

Jason squints up at him. “I think I’m broken.”

“Nah,” Roy says easily. “You’re just high. Let’s get you up.”

Roy helps him up and out of the van, then half carries him to the bathroom. He’s awake enough by the time they get there to shove Roy away from the urinal so he can piss in peace. He thinks Roy laughs at him.

“You cool with Drake keeping you company for a while? He’s getting tired of driving.”

“’Placement?”

“Hey, Jason.”

Jason squints. He’s not sure when they left the bathroom, but they’re outside now, leaning against a blue van. “Hey, Timbo,” Jason says.

Tim looks disturbed. “Is he…smiling at me?”

“He’s high as fuck, Drake, just roll with it.”

Jason rolls back into the van-bed and immediately starts falling asleep.

“Hold up,” Roy says. Jason grumbles something. He’s not sure what. “You gotta take your meds first, buddy.”

Fine. Whatever. He knocks back the pills Roy tips into his mouth, then the water.

It’s fucking magic water. It flew all over his shirt.

Roy is laughing at him again.

“Fuck off,” he mumbles, and promptly falls back asleep.

------

“Dick?”

Dick doesn’t even glance up from his phone. He was hoping to avoid this conversation, but Damian’s always been a slow packer. He should’ve just driven Dami and the dog to the penthouse as soon as Roy left and come back for everything else later.

“Can we,” Bruce says, “talk for a minute?”

Dick exhales. “It’s fine,” he says, not bothering to look up. “I was already planning on wearing the cowl.”

“No,” Bruce says, and Dick looks at him for the first time, frowning in confusion. “I asked Clark to cover.”

Oh. Oh. That’s—

“I can do it,” Dick insists.

“I know you can,” Bruce says. “You did a great job last time. Batman is always there for you, if you want it.”

“But?” Dick prompts, wary.

“Jason said you don’t,” Bruce says, all in a rush. “Want it. And that’s. Fine. That’s—” Bruce exhales through his nose, frustrated. “We can figure something else out,” he says finally.

“Okay,” Dick says slowly. “Jason said that?”

“Well,” Bruce says. “More or less.” He swallows. “He said wearing the cowl was…bad for you. That it was—I think he phrased it: ‘eating you alive.’”

Leaning back, Dick tries to absorb that. Jason was locked up for a good part of Dick’s run as Batman, first in Arkham, then Blackgate. They only ran into each other a handful of times. What the fuck did he know about what Batman was doing to Dick?

“Was he wrong?”

Dick huffs a humorless laugh. He shrugs. “Not really. I don’t—” He shakes his head. “Batman doesn’t fit me. I don’t think it ever will.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Dick parrots back, incredulous.

“Okay,” Bruce repeats. “You can—” He clears his throat. “Do you want to take my place in the JLA? As Nightwing. Not Batman.”

Dick stares at him.

“Just,” Bruce hesitates. “Temporarily. Until I. Figure some things out.”

“Are you serious?”

Bruce nods haltingly. “Only if you want to. I just thought. Batman doesn’t have to be one person. If you take my JLA duties, and Clark patrols, and maybe Tim can investigate, or I could still—”

Dick tackles him in a hug.

“Dick?” Bruce says after a moment, unsure.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Dick says, Bruce’s broad shoulder muffling his voice a bit. “I’m still mad at you.”

“Alright,” Bruce says, sounding confused. His arms wrap around Dick anyway, holding him as tight as he would when Dick was still Robin.

“Like seriously mad. You really fucked up.”

“Yes.”

“But you’re really trying, aren’t you? To fix things?”

Bruce exhales, tipping his own forehead down to rest on Dick’s shoulder. “I’m—I found a therapist,” he says after a moment. “I’m going to see him tomorrow.”

“Is that,” Dick hesitates, “safe?”

Bruce lifts one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “He’s thoroughly vetted. Pro-vigilante. Takes doctor-patient confidentiality very seriously.”

“Okay,” Dick breathes, finally breaking off the hug. “I’m still mad,” he repeats, “and I haven’t even come close to forgiving you. But. I’m kinda proud of the way you’re handling this.”

Bruce just shrugs again. “I’m sorry,” he says after a minute. “I always thought being Batman was…good for me. It gave me purpose, conviction. I thought it would be good for you, too.”

Dick hesitates, then says: “Can I give you some advice?”

Bruce blinks at him. “Of course.”

“I’ve been in this game for a long time,” he starts. “Most of my life, now. And even before that, in the circus…I’ve always known it’s got an expiration date, you know? That’s what happens when you put that kind of strain on your body, day after day. So, I’m Nightwing, yeah, but Nightwing isn’t me. Not entirely. Or one day I’ll wake up and I won’t be anything at all. Do you know what I mean?”

Bruce doesn’t say anything, just looks at him blankly.

Dick exhales, running a hand through his hair. “I guess what I’m saying,” he says, “is that you’ve gotta keep an ‘after’ in mind, yeah? Like, if this isn’t the end of Batman, for you, you have to remember that there will be an end someday. One day, you’ll wake up and you won’t be able to be Batman anymore. You have to make peace with that.”

Frowning, Bruce nods slowly. “I’ll…keep that in mind.”

“Have you,” Dick hesitates, eyes searching Bruce’s face, “really never thought about it? What you’d do after Batman?”

The older man shrugs, almost defeated. “I never thought there would be an ‘after Batman,’” he admits. “Not for me.”

“Jesus, Bruce,” Dick exhales, running a hand over his face. “Really? Not even at the start?”

He shrugs again, looking helpless. “I didn’t think I’d make it a year, at the start.” At Dick’s wide-eyed look, he continues. “I wasn’t…in a good place. Before Batman. But after, once I saw I could make a difference, help people, I—” Bruce shakes his head, uncertain. “I don’t know, anymore. I thought it…fixed me. But maybe it was just a crutch.”

“Are you going to be okay,” Dick asks carefully, “without it?”

Bruce exhales slowly, then looks at Dick with a tiny, sad smile. “I guess I’ll find out.”

------

The next time Jason wakes up, he’s in a warm, soft bed. The heavy weight of Roy’s arm is resting over his shoulders. Little feet are pressed against his stomach, toes digging into vulnerable skin, just shy of painful. He blinks his eyes open to meet Lian’s huge, dark brown ones.

“Hi,” he mumbles, blinking the sleep from his eyes.

Lian’s face lights up and she giggles, voice hushed. “Hi, Uncle Jay.”

Jason smiles softly. “Missed you.”

“Missed you more,” Lian says, reaching forward to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss his cheek sloppily.

Pressing a kiss into her hair, Jason closes his eyes and breathes in the smell of Roy’s apartment. Cheap cologne. Johnson & Johnson children’s shampoo. That expensive, irritant-free detergent Roy started buying when Lian was even littler than she is now. Safety. Happiness.

Home, he realizes. It smells like home. Maybe as much as the manor ever did.

A warmth spreading through his body that can’t be explained by the blankets alone, he whispers: “You ready to get up?”

Lian nods her head against his chest. He wraps an arm around her and eases them slowly out of bed, putting weight on his good leg first and testing it gingerly before standing.

“Pancakes?” he asks quietly, tugging the blanket back over Roy. “Or waffles?” Roy sighs and shifts, pulling in the arm that had been wrapped around Lian and Jason, but he doesn’t wake up.

“Pancakes!” Lian says in quiet excitement.

“Sounds good, baby girl.” Jason closes the bedroom door carefully behind them, then pads barefoot into the kitchen and sets his goddaughter down on the countertop. She grins up at him happily, her tiny face filled with joy.

Jason presses another kiss to her forehead, then grins back. “Missed you most.”