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to the red planet Mars

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Tim pulls into the cave a little after four in the morning. He parks his bike. Crookedly. Sloppily. Honestly, he’s just glad he managed to dismount without falling over.

The chair by the Batcomputer is waiting for him like an old and probably toxic friend. The report is dull. It was a slow night.

He checks his schedule, then his watch. He has a meeting in four hours.

Shit.

There’s time to squeeze in one or two hours of sleep. Not at his apartment, but he can take a nap here. To be safe, he should do it now, in case something comes up. He tries to remember the last time he slept. The unread reports stare up at him from the screen. He thinks about climbing into one of the medical cots on the other side of the cave.

He puts on a pot of coffee instead.

His domino tugs at his skin painfully as he pulls it off. He should be used to the feeling by now, but he’s annoyed anyway. Then he’s annoyed that he’s annoyed.

Groaning, he scrubs a hand over his face. Breathes deep. Counts to ten. He should be used to all of this by now.

The chair is waiting for him and he settles back into it, warm mug cradled in one hand. He pulls up the most relevant reports and starts reading.

The clock is ticking.

He’s so zoned into the screen he doesn’t notice the Batmobile roaring into the cave until the tires squeal as it skids to a halt.

Tim starts, splashing long-cooled coffee across his lap as he lurches upright. Bruce is practically throwing himself out of the driver’s seat. He stalks around to the back of the car and Tim stares, confused.

The trunk?

He calls out. “Mask?”

Bruce grunts a negative.

Tim circles the car in time to see Bruce haul something—someone out. They’re big, but not quite as tall as Bruce, clad in black Kevlar and brown leather, wrists cuffed. Tim stops in his tracks when he recognizes the man.

It’s Jason fucking Todd.


The whole fuckin’ disaster starts like this:

Jason’s casing a warehouse in New York, looking for some stolen power cells, when the Batman shows his ugly mug out of fuckin’ nowhere.

As soon as he sees the flutter of cape, Jason ducks down behind the one of the crates in the warehouse, hoping he wasn’t just spotted. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he whispers furiously. He’d be willing to trade his own left leg for a sightline, but he can’t risk moving. The Bat will see him if he moves. Every second that goes by without knowing if he’s made, his pulse pounds louder and faster in his ears. There’s blood in his mouth and he knows it’s not fuckin’ real, fuckin’ stop it.

He yanks the helmet off, suddenly claustrophobic, and sucks in a breath of unfiltered air. He takes a few lung-fuls, trying to stay calm. He can finish the job. It’s fine. He’s fine, and this is fuckin’ dumb and he can finish the job. He can.

And then he thinks: Fuck this shit.

He turns to leave, helmet in hand, and runs straight into a motherfucking nightmare.

He jerks back, blind, his pulse shooting through the fuckin’ roof. A kick and a gut punch in quick succession and he’s left wheezing, half-mad with panic, and then a heavy gauntlet is wrapped around the side of his head and—

That’s a wall.

Fuck.

That’s—

Jason swallows convulsively, his tongue feeling heavy and too-big in his mouth. The warehouse lurches psychotically and he wonders for a minute if one of the rogues managed to manipulate physics somehow, but then it settles down.

The ringing in his ears fades a bit and he swallows again, trying not to vomit. He’s curled in on himself, lying on the ground. He blinks, trying to clear his vision as the warehouse lurches again.

No, this time it’s him that’s moving.

Batman’s iron grip is wrapped around the collar of Jason’s jacket, dragging him up like he doesn’t weigh a thing. Jason gets a flash of the suit, the warehouse behind it, and then a face-full of pissed-off vigilante. He’s thrown against the wall, hard, and then Batman’s all up in his face again, armored forearm pinning him by the throat.

“I told you to stay out of Gotham,” the Dark Knight thunders, and Jason scowls. He hasn’t been in Gotham in months.

“Does this look like fuckin’ Gotham to you?”

The arm under his chin shoves up and back and Jason’s hands jerk up to scrabble for a hold on the armor as his feet stop touching the ground.

“I haven’t been anywhere,” Jason drags in a painful breath, “near Gotham. I swear to fuckin’ God.”

The Bat lets him back down, gasping, and scowls: “Then what are you doing here?”

“I’m following a lead.” Jason tries to sound placating but, Jesus fuck, aggression is his default setting. He’s pretty sure it comes out as a snarl.

The older man grunts, unimpressed. “What lead?”

“Not one from Gotham, if that’s what you’re getting at.” Jason’s trying to rein in his rapid pulse, but he’s not having much luck. There’s still blood on his tongue, but he can feel it dripping down his chin now, so it’s probably real.

“From where, then?” The demand is accompanied by a hard shake, slamming Jason’s unprotected head against the wall.

“Fuckin’ here,” Jason says, blinking stars from his eyes and cursing himself for taking the helmet off. “Jesus Christ, B.”

“Are you currently operating as the mercenary White Phantom?”

Jason stares. “What the fuck is a White Phantom?”

The older man grunts, apparently satisfied, and Jason nearly falls when he lets him go. As it is, he crashes hard to one knee, throwing a hand against the wall for balance, and nearly blacks out from how bad it jostles his ribs. By the time he’s back on his feet, his helmet is tucked securely under Batman’s arm.

Fuck.

He’s trying to convince himself not to run and leave it behind when company arrives.

“The Batman,” the man hums, sounding pleased. “I’ve been expecting you.” The man’s eyes flick down to the red helmet, then to Jason. “Red Hood, is it?”

“Not interested, man,” Jason huffs. “Looking for some missing contraband, not—” he eyes the freaky, glowing staff in his hand suspiciously, “—whatever the fuck you are.”

It’s the wrong thing to say, apparently, because the man curls his mouth into a snarl. “Then I will destroy you as well,” he vows, and levels the staff just as Batman hurls a Batarang. The man—witch? Is he supposed to assume he’s a witch?—dodges, but misses his shot as a result. Jason’s hair gets blown forward by some sort of rebound from the white pulse of probably-magic splashing against the wall. Spooky as shit.

“Hey,” Jason says, but has to pause to dodge another pulse. “This fight needs to be not here—”

The witch is standing right in front of one of the crates and if Jason’s right about their contents, that’s really bad. “Batman!” Jason yells. “We gotta relocate! NOW!”

But Batman’s not listening, stepping out of the path of another blast as he throws a Batarang. Jason tracks it as it tumbles end-over-end, headed straight for the white, glowing crystal at the tip of the staff.

Fuck, Jason thinks, and watches in what feels like slow-motion as the witch’s eyes widen comically. He drops the staff and fucking disappears, just poofs into thin air.

An instant later, the Batarang hits the crystal and fuckingexplodes, catching the nearest crate, which also explodes, and Jason thinks:

Oh, fuck, not again.


“Fuck.”

Bruce’s eyes snap open. He’s face-up, the cowl’s on, and he’s lying on a hard, uneven surface. Damage: low. Bruce lurches up—and immediately falls back, the blinding pain in his head stopping him in his tracks as easily as a brick wall.

Damage: moderate. Possible concussion.

To his left, someone’s groaning. He can hear rubble shifting as they drag themselves to their feet. A man. Large. Hurt, but moving anyway.

Red Hood.

Bruce breathes past the pain, swallowing back bile, and manages to turn his head.

The younger man is walking away unsteadily, one hand hanging limp at his side while the other trails along what’s left of the wall. As Bruce watches, he stumbles, barely managing to stay upright. He gets about fifty or sixty feet away, then stops abruptly.

The pressure in Bruce’s head mounts, his jaw clenches. Hood’s panting as he hunkers down and braces his feet like he’s walking into the wind. His next step sends him reeling backwards, crashing to the ground and clutching his helmetless head.

Bruce grunts in pain…in unison with the younger man.

…what.

“Batman,” Red Hood groans from his spot on the floor somewhere to Bruce’s left. “You alive? I think we got fuckin’ whammied.”

Bruce opens his eyes, turning to look at the younger man sluggishly.

“There’s some sort of barrier or something.” The man flails a hand in the direction he tried to walk.

Jaw clenched tight, Bruce drags himself to his feet and takes a look around. The warehouse is pretty much destroyed, the structure is heavily damaged, and all the nearby crates are burning with strange, white flames. Except there’s no heat coming from them, so…

Magical flames. Probably.

While he was taking stock of the surroundings, Hood must’ve moved, because he’s propped up against a piece of the wall when Bruce looks back his way, head tilted back to rest against the concrete and blue-green eyes watching Bruce, gaze sharp. “Stay down.” Bruce grunts, keeping him in his line of sight. “Where’s the barrier?”

Hood points. “Just past that crate.” Bruce walks over cautiously. “Little farther.”

Bruce sets his jaw, bracing for the rush of pain in his head that…doesn’t come.

He grunts, turns back to look at Hood suspiciously.

The younger man frowns. “I swear, it was right there.”

Bruce takes another step, and another, and another.

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Huh,” Hood huffs, then levers himself upright. “I’ll just be—” He jerks a hand in a vague away sort of gesture and starts jogging.

Bruce turns, opens his mouth to order him to wait, and then drops to one knee, the world whiting out as something crushes his goddamn skull.

When he comes back around, Hood is sprawled on the ground, breathing hard and ragged. After a few minutes, he starts to get back up and Bruce barks: “Stop!”

He doesn’t stop.

“Hood,” Bruce says, trying to muster the energy to get up. “Stop. It’s not a barrier, it’s a radius.”

“What the fuck does that—” the younger man cuts himself off, looks pointedly at the space between them—fifty or sixty feet—and drops his head into his hands. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” He breathes for a minute, back turned, then says: “You sure?”

Bruce grunts.

Hood sighs. “Stay put.” And he inches forward. The pressure in Bruce’s head builds and he breathes through it, dragging himself back to his feet. By the time Hood stops, he can hardly see straight.

He steps forward and the pain drops, more and more the closer he gets to the other man, until he’s only a few yards away and it’s not gone, but it’s tolerable. “A radius.”

Hood snarls, crossing his arms. “Will it wear off?”

Bruce doesn’t answer. He doesn’t know. Instead, he says: “What was in the crates?”

Hood kicks violently at a patch of the pale flames. “Some sort of energy cells. Experimental. Alien, probably.”

“Hn.”

Hood doesn’t say anything, just stomps out the patch of fire and keeps looking angry.

“We’re going to the cave.”

Hood jerks his head up. “Hell, no.”

Bruce starts walking towards the Batmobile.

“No,” Hood repeats. “No way. I’m not allowed in Gotham, remember?”

“Hn.” Bruce keeps walking, the pressure in his head building and then easing as Hood must start following.

Hood doesn’t respond, but Bruce can hear him swearing under his breath in one long, continuous stream. When they reach the Batmobile, Bruce pulls out a pair of cuffs.

“Seriously?” Hood sighs. He holds his wrists out anyway. Bruce slaps the cuffs on and checks to make sure they adjusted themselves correctly, then grabs Hood by the elbow and starts dragging him towards the back of the vehicle.

Hood must be processing slowly, because he doesn’t start fighting until they get within a yard of the trunk.

Bruce wins.


Tim taps against the desktop impatiently, eyes boring into the side of Bruce’s head.

“Bruce,” Tim says for what feels like the millionth time. “What the hell is going on?”

Bruce just grunts, typing rapidly. He sends a message to… Zatanna Zatara? He pulls up everything they have on magical boundaries. He pulls up everything they have on Jason Todd.

Tim is so confused.

“Bruce,” he repeats. “Come on, what happened?”

The older man pushes back from the computer and finally looks up at Tim. “I was investigating a warehouse in New York when I encountered Red Hood. While I was assessing his motivations, a magic-user of some kind revealed himself and engaged in combat with myself as well as Red Hood. I believe this man to be the mercenary operating as the White Phantom. One of his blasts hit a crate of energy cells, which resulted in the explosion of the warehouse. The magic-user teleported away just before the explosion. When I regained consciousness, it quickly became apparent that Red Hood and I could not be separated by more than about twenty meters.”

Tim waits for a minute and then says: “And?”

Bruce stares at him blankly. “I headed for the cave and contacted Zatanna to have her come and break the spell. She is unavailable until later this week.”

“Why—no, how, how did you get him in your trunk?”

“By force.”

Yeah, obviously. Tim gives up. “Are there any other effects?”

“Not that I’m sure of.”

“And that you’re not sure of?”

Bruce waits a moment, then says: “It’s possible there is some sort of pain transference.”

“What?”

“Hood sustained a head injury early in the confrontation,” Bruce says. “As far as I can tell, I did not.”

“But your head hurts,” Tim guesses.

Bruce grunts an affirmative.

“Anything else?”

“Impossible to say, with the explosion.”

“Fair.” Tim thinks for a moment, then decides. “I’m going to go check him over for injuries. That should help us narrow it down.”

Tim starts to walk away, but Bruce’s hand on his shoulder stops him in his tracks. “Tim,” he says. “I’ll do it.”

“No offense, B,” Tim says. “But I really don’t think you’re the best man for the job.” Not that he’s on good terms with Jason either, but, well, Tim’s not Bruce. The most likely scenario if Bruce goes in there is Jason flipping him off and playing a gleefully spiteful game of keep away with any info Bruce asks for.

“He’s dangerous.”

“He’s cuffed,” Tim counters. “What’s going to happen?”

Bruce frowns. “Stay outside the cell.”

“How am I going to—”

“Tim.”

Tim sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Fine.”

Jesus, this is going to be a hassle.

The cell Bruce put Jason in is small, but clearly designed for extended use. There’s a small bathroom area in the corner with a sink, shower, and toilet, no walls. The cells were not designed with privacy in mind.

Jason is sitting against the back wall, pressed into the corner with his elbows resting on his raised knees. Hands cuffed. Shoulders tense. Posture defensive.

Unsettlingly still. Tim can’t remember if he’s ever seen Jason Todd not move for longer than a second or two.

His head is tipped back to rest against the wall, eyes closed. If not for the tension in his shoulders and jaw, he could be asleep.

Bruce must’ve made him strip before locking him in, because he’s half-naked. His body armor is nowhere to be seen and all he has now is a pair of black joggers, feet and chest bare. Tim can see goosebumps on his arms. He’s lost weight since the last time Tim laid eyes on him, over a year ago now.

He looks like shit, Tim realizes, and immediately feels like a crap person for not noticing right away. The circles under his eyes are so dark they could pass as bruises. His skin has an unhealthy cast to it, looking nearly gray in the cell’s harsh florescent lighting.

He looks half dead.

Tim shakes his head and starts cataloguing injuries.

There’s blood smeared against the back wall that must be from the head wound. His hair’s dark and damp with something. It’s impossible to say if it’s blood, sweat, or just grease from the angle Tim’s got, but he’s gonna go with blood, considering the sheer amount of it smeared across the right side of his face. Underneath all the red, he’s got a nasty shiner forming over his right eye. His brow’s split open, still bleeding sluggishly. There are bruises all over the rest of his body, some of them obviously from a fight, others ambiguous. His ribs, though, are marked with the kind of patchy, dark red mottling that means they’re probably broken. There’s a slash across his left bicep, but it looks clean. Not too deep.

His hands are freshly battered, knuckles stained with blood and quickly forming bruises. It’s hard to tell if any of his fingers are broken, all ten of them are crooked. His wrists are rubbed raw from the cuffs, blood dripping slowly off the metal and into a slowly growing pool between his feet. Jason’s not doing a damn thing to stop it.

Tim swallows, suddenly nauseous.

He presses the button for the microphone and Jason flinches at the low hiss of static, eyes flying open.

“Hi,” Tim says. “I need an injury report.”

“That you, Replacement?” Jason says. Tim was expecting malice, but he just sounds tired.

“Yeah,” Tim says. “Injury report.”

Jason looks at the speaker, then at the wall of one-way glass. He closes his eyes again.

Tim waits.

Finally, Jason says: “Why?”

Tim doesn’t know what to say.

After an awkward minute, Jason exhales and starts talking. “Concussion,” he says. “Fractured ribs. Don’t know how many. Banged up a little from the explosion. Bruises and shit.”

Tim waits for him to continue, then prompts: “Your hands?”

Jason rolls his hands open and closed a few times. “They’re fine.”

“You’re bleeding.”

“Cuffs cut into the skin.”

“They’re not supposed to do that.”

Jason blinks his eyes open slowly and stares at the glass. “Is that my fault?”

Blood drips from his wrists in a slow plink, plink, plink.

Tim leaves.

Bruce is waiting just outside the containment area, leaned up against the exterior wall.

Tim gives him a look and he grunts, brow furrowed.

“I’m not a kid,” Tim says, crossing his arms. “You—”

Bruce is shaking his head, frowning. “I know,” he says. “I wasn’t watching you.”

Oh. “Then—”

“Headache isn’t as bad when I’m close,” Bruce admits.

Silence reigns for an awkward moment, then Tim says: “Do your ribs hurt?”

“I bruised them in the explosion,” Bruce confirms.

“Are you sure?”

Bruce opens his mouth, then closes it. He leaves and comes back in sweats and a t-shirt instead of the Batsuit, frowning even deeper than before. “No bruising.”

“Pain transference,” Tim says. He checks his watch. He has to be at Wayne Enterprises in an hour. Shit.

“Could you see all his injuries?”

Tim shrugs. “Couldn’t see his back or legs. His hands are all busted up. He’s got a head wound. Looks like at least two broken ribs. And, uh, his wrists are bleeding. Says the cuffs cut into them.”

“That’s not possible.”

“I know,” Tim says. “I designed them.” He’d have to have been throwing everything he had at those cuffs to wear that deep into his skin. They didn’t have any sharp edges.

Bruce is silent for a moment. “It must’ve been in the trunk. His wrists weren’t bleeding when I put him in.”

Tim frowns. “Is that when he wrecked his hands, too?”

The older man looks vaguely upset as he nods haltingly, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Must’ve been.”

The thought makes Tim feel sick. He must’ve been slamming his hands against the lid of the compartment all the way from New York to Gotham. “Why would he do that?”

Bruce grunts, his expression grim.

“He seemed tense,” Tim says. “But not—not that upset. He’s not raging. He doesn’t even seem angry.”

Bruce just grunts again.

Tim goes to take a shower.


Tim can barely concentrate on the meeting and while he’d normally blame it on sleep deprivation, it’s Jason that’s really distracting him. He just can’t shake the weird feeling he’s getting from the whole situation.

It was the way he talked that’s throwing him off so much, Tim finally decides. Or maybe the way he didn’t move. Looking like shit, that’s normal. Or normal enough. The lack of anger was not normal. Not for Jason. The guy sitting still and silent in that cell is wildly different from the one that came after Tim, that night at the Tower, years ago now. That guy was unhinged. Excessively violent. Terrifying, if Tim’s being honest with himself. The time Jason stabbed him wasn’t much better.

The meeting finally wraps up around noon and he heads back to the manor an hour or two later, after everything’s set up well enough to run without him for a few days.

He rushes down to the cave, feeling dumb for being so worried but unable to stop. He slides to a halt at the sight of Bruce sprawled out on a cot up against the wall of the containment area, fast asleep.

He stares for a minute, baffled, then jerks his head around at the sound of voices.

Fuck. Damian.

Sure enough, the little brat is standing outside of Jason’s cell when Tim walks in, his posture angry and threatening. Jason’s still in his corner, eyes shut, head tipped back. He’s not bleeding anymore, but the amount of red on the floor indicates that’s a recent development. “You’re fortunate that I have more honor than the likes of you, Todd,” Damian’s seething, “or I would kill you where you stand!”

“Whatever you say, al Ghul.”

The animalistic sound of rage that Damian lets out has the ungodly effect of being both intimidating and strangely endearing.

Jesus, this kid.

Tim reaches past him to shut off the mic, then says: “I’m honestly surprised you haven’t killed him yet.”

Damian glares at him for a moment, then huffs. “Father has deemed me unworthy of access.”

Time raises a single brow. “You’re locked out?”

“Hn.”

The struggle not to laugh is one that Tim nearly loses. When he gets a hold of himself, he looks up to see Jason staring right at him and nearly pisses himself.

Tim stares back, frozen, until he realizes Jason’s looking about four inches above his left shoulder. He shakes himself out of it. Jesus.

“You are a disgrace, Drake,” Damian says. He’s got a dumbass grin on his face like this is the best thing that ever happened to him.

Tim scowls. “Shut up.”

“I’m telling him,” Damian says, reaching for the mic gleefully. Tim tackles him.

Damian snarls, Tim grabs for his leg, and then they’re on the ground. Grappling with Damian is weird as hell. He’s too heavy for his short little body and it’s throws Tim off, makes him have to readjust constantly. He gets him in a hold, but it’s not going to last long. Damian’s got his arm all twisted and—

“Boys.”

Tim lets go, jerking his gaze up to see Bruce standing in the entrance to the containment area, mouth pulled into a flat line.

Shit.

“Father,” Damian says. Tim feels a burst of satisfaction that he’s winded. “Drake started it.”

“That’s a—”

Bruce drags a hand over his face, groaning audibly. “I was trying,” he says, “to sleep.”

“Sorry,” Tim mutters, levering himself upright. “Damian started it.”

The demonic midget opens his mouth to protest but is cut off by a single look from Bruce.

“I don’t care who started it,” Bruce says. He’s pinching the bridge of his nose, brow furrowed. “I just want some damn peace and quiet.”

Time exchanges a quick look with Damian. “Bruce,” he says. “You okay?”

“Fine,” he says, now rubbing circles at his temples.

Tim glances at the one-way glass of Jason’s cell. He hasn’t moved, but the tension in his jaw is worse than it was before Tim left, he’s sure. “Uh, B,” Tim says. “You might want to rethink that.”

Bruce glances up, follows his sight line to Jason. His face hardens as he lays eyes on him, making him look a little angry, a little sad.

“I’m right next to him,” he says.

“Not exactly.”

Bruce shakes his head, the hardness replaced with obvious frustration. “I can’t get any closer.”

“I mean,” Tim says. “You could.”

Bruce stares at him, expression indecipherable.

“It’s possible it’s the physical barrier,” Tim points out.

Bruce shakes his head, in disbelief or disagreement, Tim can’t tell. He’s shivering, Tim realizes. He’s thrown on a sweatshirt since the last time Tim saw him, but he’s shivering.

Oh, fuck.

“Bruce,” he groans, face in his hands. “It’s getting stronger.”

The man frowns at him.

“Damian’s not cold,” Tim says pointedly.

“You do not speak for me, Drake,” Damian hisses.

“I’m not cold,” Tim continues. He gestures at Bruce. “You’re cold.”

Bruce just stares at him uncomprehendingly.

For a genius, the man is so fucking dumb sometimes. “You’re cold,” Tim says. “Because Jason’s cold. It’s getting stronger.”

Bruce shifts backwards, like he’s taking a blow. He looks down at his thick sweatshirt, then at Tim’s rolled up sleeves. “Oh.”

There’s a long moment of silence, then Tim glances at the cell and says: “…You should probably give him a shirt.”


Jason, once let out of the cell, is just as creepily quiet. And by let out of, Tim means persuaded to leave, because it took a minute. A really weird minute.

Bruce insisted on the cuffs but took them off long enough for Jason to take a shower and put on some clean clothes. Jason just watches Bruce through narrowed eyes the whole time, like he’s expecting it to be some sort of trap.

It’s not, and Bruce is flagging within fifteen minutes of Jason’s newfound freedom.

Finally, in the greatest show of emotion he’s had so far, Jason snaps: “Go to sleep, old man. I’m not going to murder the fuckin’ kids.”

Bruce doesn’t deny that that’s what he was thinking. He checks the restraints over. He runs diagnostics. He says: “The cuffs will stop you if you go near any weapons or try to hurt anyone.”

Then he finally goes to sleep. Damian goes up to the manor, which leaves Tim.

“So,” he says awkwardly. “How’ve you been?”

Jason cracks one eye open to give him an unimpressed look. After a minute, he says: “You don’t have to babysit me.”

“I’m not,” Tim says quickly.

“Sure.” His tone is as dry as the fucking Sahara.

He’s not babysitting. He’s not. He just—Well he can’t exactly leave Jason alone with a sleeping Bruce, now can he? A few years back, it was like his mission in life to kill the guy.

Tim hovers awkwardly for a while, then pulls up some case files to look over.

“What’d you get out of the injury report, earlier?” Jason says and Tim jumps half out of his skin, hand automatically reaching to his non-existent utility belt for a non-existent batarang. “Jesus, kid,” Jason says. “Take a Valium.”

Tim breathes for a minute, then turns around, expression schooled. “What?”

Jason gives him a look that conveys exactly how much he thinks Tim’s blank expression hides. “The injury report. Is that why he let me out?”

“What?” Tim repeats, genuinely confused now.

“Cause I’m hurt,” Jason says. A statement, not a question.

Tim frowns. “Did he not—”

He cuts himself off, but not soon enough: Jason’s zeroed in on the slip in an instant. “Did he not what, Replacement?”

Tim doesn’t even try to hide it. “You’ve got some sort of transference thing going on. Magic.”

Jason’s brow knits together. “The hell are you talking about?”

“The magical radius or whatever? It had another component. You’re, like, projecting onto Bruce.”

“Projecting what?” Jason says, voice low and dangerous enough to make Tim think twice. But he designed those cuffs. They’ll knock Jason out in a second flat if he starts getting aggressive.

“Pain. Other things, maybe. He was cold, earlier.”

“Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?” Jason snarls, all the stillness from earlier gone. “Fuckin’ mind-reading?”

“No,” Tim says calmly. Stay cool. Stay cool. “He’s not reading your mind. It’s just physical sensations. Seemingly only negative ones.”

Jason searches his face for a minute and must come away satisfied, because he settles down with an audible exhale. Takes a step back. A few deep breathes. Finally, he huffs a laugh, rubbing his hands over his face. “Timbo, that’s fuckin’ hilarious.”

Tim feels himself frown. He mouths the name with distaste. Timbo. That’s a no.

“Seriously,” Jason is saying. “The first time he beats the shit outta me in, what, a year? And he immediately gets hit with some crazy stop-hitting-yourself voodoo. Fuckin’ karmic.”

Bruce what? “Jason,” Tim says. “What’d you just say?”

Jason waves him off, still looking amused.

“When you and Bruce were in the warehouse,” Tim insists. “What happened?”

The older boy frowns slightly, cocks his head like he’s trying to figure out Tim’s angle. “We were working different cases, but they must’ve been connected. Ended up in the same warehouse.”

“And?” Tim prompts.

Jason scowls. “The fuck do you think happened?”

Tim just stares at him. Why would he be asking, if he knew?

Come on, man.

“He showed up looking for a merc. Found me instead.” Something in his expression is hitting Tim as off. He looks…upset? No. It’s not anger. It’s— “Do you really need me to spell it out?” he snaps, and Tim has it. It’s hurt.

“He showed up looking for a mercenary,” Tim repeats slowly, feeling like he’s in over his head. “And you were there. So,” Tim swallows, “he assumed you were the mercenary?”

Jason sends him a scalding look. “Yeah, dipshit. Jesus. I thought you were supposed to be smart.”

Tim barely notices the insult, still trying to wrap his head around beats the shit outta me and do you really need me to spell it out. He can see it playing out, now, with a sick sense of clarity. Bruce arrives at the warehouse looking for the mercenary he’d been tracking. Big kill count. Several in Gotham. Finds Jason, armed, in armor.

That bit, sure. For the life of him, though, he just can’t picture Bruce—what, smashing Jason’s head into the wall? That must’ve been what happened. It’s a nasty head wound. There were dried blood tracks all down his back and side before his shower and he’d listed off his worst injuries and then said banged up a little from the explosion.

The concussion, the ribs, none of that was from the explosion or the witch, it was from the fight beforehand.

The fight that left Jason beaten bloody and Bruce…

“Why isn’t Bruce hurt?” Tim says suddenly.

The look Jason sends his way can only be described as incredulous. “I don’t fight the motherfuckin’ Batman. Not anymore. Do you think I have a death wish, Replacement?”

What? “You said—”

“He knocked me around a little,” Jason dismisses. “I didn’t fuckin’ fight him.”

Fuck.

“Yo, Replacement.”

Jesus. He wasn’t fighting back.

“Kid,” Jason’s saying. “Snap the fuck out of it.”

“Sorry,” Tim says absently, running through possibilities. Mind control? Hush? Maybe—

“Seriously, kid, what the fuck.”

“We’ve got to get him in a cell before he wakes up,” Tim realizes suddenly. “He doesn’t know we’re on to him. Maybe he doesn’t even know. Is that why he’s so tired? Maybe—”

“Whoa, whoa, slow down, champ,” Jason says, hands extended, palms facing out. Alarmed. “What’s going on?”

“You weren’t fighting back,” Tim says impatiently. He tries to move towards Bruce, but Jason steps into his path. “Somebody must be controlling him. Or maybe it’s not him at all. Shapeshifter, maybe. He wouldn’t—”

“Tim,” Jason says slowly. “I don’t know what’s going through that head of yours, but Bruce is fine. He’s just taking a nap.”

“Jason, you’re not listening—”

Tim’s frustration grows as Jason herds him away from Bruce, back towards the computer.

“He’s dangerous—”

“Bruce is fine,” Jason repeats. Tim thinks he’s trying to be soothing. “Everything’s fine. Just breathe.”

“I’m—” fucking breathing he means to say, but he runs out of air.

“That’s it. Come on, man. Deep breathes. Slow.”

Tim breathes. “Fuck.”

“You’re okay.”

“Fuck,” he says again, then drops his head into his hands. “Is he still out?”

“Like a light.”

Tim opens his eyes. Jason’s crouched in front of his chair, looking less and less worried as time goes on and more and more uncomfortable.

“Do you want, uh,” he says, “water or something?”

“Jason, we have to get him in a cell. For his own—”

Jason’s frowning. “Tim,” he says. “No offense, but the fuck are you smoking?”

What? Tim stares at him for a minute. “I’m not crazy.”

“Not saying you are,” Jason says. “Just…high?”

Tim scowls.

“Look, kid, I think you misunderstood something.”

“I didn’t,” Tim says. Did he? “Bruce, or whoever the hell he is, found you in the warehouse, thought you were the mercenary he was looking for, snapped, and beat the shit out of you.”

Jason’s forehead wrinkles slightly. He looks baffled. “Why are you—What are you worried about, here?”

Tim stares at him. “Jason,” he says. “You weren’t fighting back, and he beat the shit out of you.”

No reaction.

Jesus. Tim thinks he’s going to be sick.

“Listen, Jason,” he says. “I know you haven’t been around in a while, but that’s not normal. That’s not Bruce.” He gestures sharply to the other end of the cave.

Jason squints at him, head cocked. “I think you maybe need to sleep.”

Tim growls in frustration, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes. Yes, thank you, he does need to sleep, but that’s not the fucking point.

“If it were Bruce, he never would’ve kept hitting you once you were down,” Tim says slowly, trying to get the idea through Jason’s thick head. Jesus, does he think so little of them these days, that he didn’t even question it? Tim pulls his hands away to look at him and has to double take.

What the hell?

Jason is upset. He looks hurt again, under the layers of anger and irritation masking it. “Don’t fuck with me, Replacement. Jesus.”

“I’m not—”

“Stop fucking with me,” Jason repeats furiously. “You little asshole.”

“Jason,” Tim says. “I’m not fucking with you, I—”

The older boy laughs, sharp and mean and angry. He’s standing up now and Tim stands, too, to decrease the looming advantage as much as he can. “I really thought maybe this wouldn’t be so bad,” he says, the bitterness as cutting as any blade. “I thought, hey, family time, you know? Haven’t seen anybody for ages.” He shakes his head, jaw clenched tight. “Should’ve fuckin’ known.”

“Jason,” Tim pleads.

“Put me back in the cage. I’m not listening to this shit.”

“What? No, Jason—”

“Put me back in the goddamn—”

“I’m not locking you up! You’re going to stay right there and listen to me, dammit!”

Jason stares at him silently for a minute, then huffs angrily and drops himself back into his chair, shoulders hunched defensively.

“Jason,” Tim tries. No response. “Jason, come on.”

“I’m not playing your games, dipshit. Let it go.”

“Jason,” Tim pleads, eyes darting across the room to make sure Bruce is still asleep. “I’m not playing games. This is serious.”

Jason stares at Tim for a minute, then exhales, and all the anger seems to melt away. “I know he wouldn’t do that to you,” Jason says after a long moment. He’s staring at the floor. He looks tired. Sad, maybe. “Is that what you wanted? You win. Ha ha.”

“Jason,” Tim tries again, but he doesn’t know what to say, how to get through to him. It’s like he’s not listening to a goddamn word that comes out of Tim’s mouth.

“I’m really not in the mood,” Jason says, hollow. Almost brittle. “How about a raincheck.”

“I’m not—”

Jason growls, but it sounds less angry and more…wounded. Vulnerable. “What’s your goal, here? You trying to get me angry enough to throw a punch? I ain’t dumb. I know what these hunks of metal are for.”

“Jason,” Tim says. “That’s not—"

“I get it, alright?” he says. “He likes you better. Is that what you want me to say? He doesn’t hit you because—what? Because you’re better than me? Because you’re not a murderer? Tell me what you want me to say so you’ll leave me the fuck alone.”

Tim can’t stop staring. “Jason,” he says finally. “Please. I’m not trying to get you to say anything. He—He would never do that to you, do you hear me? What happened last night, that wasn’t him, that was someone—something else. We’ve just gotta—”

Jason’s face twists and he jerks to his feet. “Fuck this,” he says, turns, and just walks away.

Towards Bruce.

Fuck. Oh, fuck.

Tim goes after him, but he realized too late and—

“Wake the fuck up, old man,” Jason says and Bruce jerks back into consciousness. “I’m tired of my playdate. Put me back in the goddamn cage.”

Chapter Text

Jason goes back into the cell one sweatshirt richer than he left it and Tim goes to his old room upstairs, telling maybe-Bruce he’s spending the night.

Then, like a snot-nosed version of himself in his first year as Robin, he calls Dick.

“Hey, Tim. What’s up?”

Tim breathes for a second, collecting his thoughts. He’s not crazy. He’s not crazy.

He’s not crazy.

“Hey, Dick,” he says, shooting for casual.

“Tim? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Maybe he needs to work on his aim. “Uh. Yeah.” He clears his throat. “I’m good. There’s just—there’s just something I’d like a second opinion on?”

“Okay,” Dick says slowly. “What’s up?”

Tim closes his eyes. “I promise I’m not crazy.”

“Of course.”

Something about the way Dick says those two words lights a spark of old anger in Tim. “So you’re going to believe me this time?” he snaps.

Dick inhales on the other end of the line. “Tim,” he says, sounding so heartbroken Tim can’t stand to hear what he’s going to say next.

“Forget I said that. It’s not important. I think there’s something going on with Bruce.”

“Tim—”

“I said, forget it. We have bigger problems.”

Dick is quiet for a minute, then takes a breath. Tim can almost hear the smile getting plastered on. “What, is he moping again? He’ll get over—”

“No,” Tim cuts him off. “No, it’s—I have reason to believe he’s not acting like himself.”

“Uh,” Dick says after a minute. “I think you should maybe start at the beginning. What happened?”

“Right.” Tim exhales slowly. “I’ve got two accounts, one from Bruce and one from Jason and—”

Jason?!

“Yeah, it’s—”

“He's back in Gotham? Are you okay? Is Damian okay? Did he—"

“Dick, calm down. He hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s—Just let me explain?”

“Okay.” Dick’s voice echoes over the line, worried. “Okay, yeah.”

“Bruce says he was tracking that mercenary, White Phantom, that’s been taking hits in Gotham and the trail led to a warehouse in New York. When he arrived, Jason was in the warehouse. He confronted him, determined he wasn’t a threat, and that’s when the real Phantom showed up and started throwing magic around. The warehouse was full of crates of some sort of experimental energy cells Jason was tracking and when one of the crates got hit with Phantom’s magic, it exploded and both Bruce and Jason lost consciousness. When they woke up, Phantom was gone, but they were under some sort of spell that doesn’t let them get more than ten yards or so apart.”

“And Jason’s version?”

“The same, except Jason says that Bruce attacked him without provocation.”

“I wish I could say I’m surprised, Tim, but those two haven’t spent longer than ten minutes together without brawling in years.”

“Jason says he didn’t fight back.” Silence. “He says Bruce didn’t stop.”

“And you believe him?”

“Yeah.” Tim swallows. “Dick, Bruce doesn’t have a scratch on him and Jason looks like he went toe-to-toe with Deathstroke. And I don’t think—” Tim stops for a second, breathes. “I don’t know why he’d lie. He wasn’t trying to get anything out of it. He was acting like I was crazy for being worried about it, and then he thought I was messing with him or something, I don’t know.” Tim swallows. “I told him that Bruce would never do that, that he wouldn’t keep going if Jason wasn’t fighting back, and he just kept saying not to worry about it, that Bruce was fine and it wasn’t a big deal, so I kept pushing—” Tim exhales, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “He was angry and upset and—I don’t know, but he wasn’t lying.”

The line is silent for a long moment, then Dick says: “How bad is he hurt?”

“Pretty bad.” Tim closes his eyes. “Dick, is it possible somebody or something is controlling Bruce? Or maybe—maybe it’s not even him?”

“Shapeshifter?”

“I don’t know. I just can’t—I keep trying to picture it, trying to imagine Bruce just—just smashing Jason’s head against a wall and I just—I can’t, Dick. He loves Jason, how could he—”

“It’s okay, it’s okay, Tim,” Dick says. “We’ll figure it out. It’s going to be okay.”

“I was going to start looking into it, but I’m at the manor and—”

“Yeah, probably not a good idea to investigate a guy from inside his own house.” Dick’s quiet for a bit. “I’ll go to the Clocktower. Get Babs’ help looking into it. Discretely.”

“Okay,” Tim says. “Okay, yeah.”

“Tim,” Dick says, hesitant. “I know you and Damian—Well. I know, but can you—can you just keep an eye on him until we figure this out?”

“Yeah,” Tim says immediately. “Yeah, don’t worry about it. I’ll stay at the manor for now.”

“Thanks, Tim, that’s—Thanks.”

“Of course.”

“Be careful,” Dick warns. “Lie low. I’ll let you know when I’ve got something.”

“Got it.”

Tim tosses his phone onto the bedside table and flops on top of the bed. This is so fucked up. He’s itching to do something, but he can’t risk tipping off maybe-Bruce. There’s nothing he can do but wait for Dick and Babs to come up with something. And maybe get some sleep so he’s not useless when they do.

He pulls up the cave’s security feeds on his phone and does a quick check:

Not in the cave, so he’s probably in his room. Drawing or reading or something.

Jason’s back in position in the corner of the cell, not asleep.

Bruce is lying on the floor outside the cell door, probably asleep.

Tim sets his phone alarm to go off if there’s motion in the containment area, then passes the fuck out.


The pain in his head spikes as soon as the cell door slides shut behind him and Jason grits his teeth. He settles into the corner silently and prepares for the long haul.

Whatever the spell is, it’ll wear off eventually.

He tries for meditation but is promptly pulled out of it when the pain ratchets up a few more notches, high enough it takes his breath away.

Fuck.

A pained grunt escapes his clenched teeth, coming out raw and half-strangled.

Fuck.

And then, as quickly as it spiked, it drops again. Bruce must’ve thought better about leaving the containment area.

Whatever.

As long as there’s a wall between them, Jason’s fine. It would be a hell of a lot nicer if the door locked from his side, but it doesn’t look like that’s an option.

Jesus, he wishes he’d never agreed to track down those fucking energy cells. After this, he’s never working on the east coast again. Maybe he’ll set up in Chicago. Detroit? As long as it’s far away from Bruce and his fucking asshole kids, he doesn’t give a shit.

Just thinking about the replacement makes his blood boil. What the fuck was the purpose of that shit? He put on the panicked kid act, got Jason to get in close and drop his guard, and then bam. Straight for the motherfuckin’ jugular.

Jesus.

He hasn’t even been shitty to the kid lately.

Jason closes his eyes and tries not to think about it, but it just keeps playing in his head over and over.

Tim looking up at him, all wide-eyed and innocent. He would never do that to you, do you hear me?

Jesus Christ.

Jason’s not a nice person, he’s not even a good person, and he can’t even imagine saying that shit to someone. He must not be worse at judging people than he’d thought, ‘cause in a family full of dicks, he’d thought the replacement was the least shitty.

Maybe he’s not as over the whole attempted murder thing as Jason thought.

Fuck.

Jason knocks his temple against the wall, the burst of pain clearing his head for a second.

He’s so fucking tired, but the chances of managing more than a minute or two of sleep right now are next to zero. He’s too keyed up.

Hopefully, this dumbass spell wears off fucking quick.


Dick stares at the phone for a few minutes after the call ends, thinking.

What are the facts?

Fact one: someone beat the shit out of Jason. That’s not easy thing to do. Dick can count on one hand the number of non-metas that could manage it, and Bruce is one of them.

Fact two: Bruce is unhurt.

Fact three: Jason claims Bruce did it and Tim doesn’t think he’s lying.

Which pretty much means Bruce did it. Tim’s not easy to fool and Jason’s never been an exceptionally talented liar.

Dick runs a hand through his hair. Tim is so sure that something’s going on with Bruce, that he’s not in control, but Dick—

Well. It’s not like Bruce hasn’t struggled with knowing when to stop in the past. Just thinking about the possibility makes Dick feel ill, though. Tim’s words keep ringing in his head.

—smashing—

He doesn’t want to believe Bruce would go that far, but he can’t rule it out.

—Jason’s head—

Babs will know what happened, or at least know how to find out.

—against the wall—

Dick swallows back nausea.

He goes through the motions of the rest of his shift, taking time to get his next two covered before he clocks out and books it towards his apartment. He hails Babs on the way.

“Evening, Nightwing.”

“Hey, O.”

“Early patrol? No one else will be out for hours.”

“Uh,” Dick says. “There’s a bit of a situation. I need some intel.”

“On?”

“Is this line secure?”

Babs scoffs. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” he presses. “Who could be listening?”

There’s a pause, and then: “Now? Not a soul on Earth.”

“How about in orbit?”

“Nope, just me and you. And maybe Red Robin.”

“Not B?”

“No.” Another pause. “Why?”

“Something’s going on. It looks like Red Hood and B fought and it went south fast.”

“So, situation normal, then?”

“No.” Dick pauses. “Maybe. I’m not sure. Accessing cowl footage still sends out a teamwide alert, yeah?”

“Yep.”

"Just security footage, then. For now."

"When and where?"

“Anytime since Jason came back,” Dick exhales. “I’ll be by in a few hours. I’ll explain then.”

“I’ll see what I can find.”

“Thanks, O.”

The line goes dead and Dick accelerates into the next turn, leaning in hard. His apartment’s only a few minutes away and he can pack a bag in less than five minutes.

Then he’s headed straight to Gotham.


There’s dust in his mouth and a scream lodged in his throat. He’s rising like a thing possessed, coming up spitting, his bloody saliva staining the sand. The crowd is roaring. Above, around. They’re everywhere. There’s a man—woman—child in front of him and they’re grinning—screaming—bleeding into the sand. His hands are on her neck and she’s so young, she’s begging, and he doesn’t want to kill her but he has to, he has to, has to, has to. He can’t do it again, he can’t, he can’t, he can’t—

—his skin is painted sickly green and everything is wrong wrong wrong. His throat is shredding, he’s tearing it apart, but he can’t stop screaming, he doesn’t want this, didn’t want this. He never wants this

—do it again, so he snaps her neck, makes it quick, and the roaring grows. Is it the crowd, is it the blood rushing through his veins, pouring from his skin, staining the sand red red red, how long is it going to run red, how long can it stay red, how long until his veins rush with pale, poisonous green? How many times can he come back and still claim to be alive? How many, how many, how many, how many, how many, how many, how many, how many—

The world is the bloody sand under his feet and the roaring in his ears (red or green or red or green or green or green or green) and there’s nothing else, nothing else, nothing else

Bruce jerks awake with the taste of blood and stale panic in his mouth, head pounding angrily. He takes a steadying breath, blinking the echoes of the nightmare away. He’s on the floor, and it takes him a moment to remember why.

Jason. Warehouse. Radius.

Right.

Jason’s exactly where he was when Bruce last looked. It doesn’t look like he slept at all. It’s been hours. Bruce is hungry. He opens the door.

Jason’s gaze snaps onto him instantly, perfectly alert.

“Dinner,” Bruce grunts.

“Coffee?” Jason asks.

“There’s coffee.”

“Thank fuck.” Jason levers himself upright and steps out of the cell. Bruce gestures for him to lead and Jason’s shoulders tense. He turns his back to Bruce anyway.

He remembers where the kitchen is, Bruce thinks, and immediately pushes the thought away. Of course, he does. He lived here for years.

Tim’s at the dining room table when they reach it, typing with one hand and cradling a cup of coffee in the other.

“Where’s Damian?”

Tim doesn’t look up from his laptop. “He already ate.”

Bruce will have to check on him later. After he eats something. He herds Jason towards the chair across from Tim, but the older boy digs his heels in.

“Nope,” Jason says plainly. “No fuckin’ way.”

Bruce just manhandles him into the chair. “Stay.”

“Fuck you,” Jason spits. Bruce isn’t sure if it’s directed at him or Tim and, honestly, he’s too tired to care.

He steps into the kitchen and pours a cup of coffee for himself and another for Jason, brings them back to the table. Jason hasn’t moved, but he doesn’t look happy about it. He’s glaring at Tim like he just killed a puppy.

Bruce sets the coffee down wordlessly and goes to make eggs. For dinner. Alfred would be terrible disappointed in him.


They drink their coffee in total silence.

“Where’s Alfred?” Jason asks finally.

“England,” Tim answers carefully. “Visiting relatives.”

“He doesn’t have any relatives in England.”

Tim blinks. “I guess he’s on vacation, then.”

Bruce comes back a few minutes later with three plates of scrambled eggs and toast. Tim eyes it suspiciously. “…Thanks.”

“Hn.” Bruce gives him a tired look. “I think I can manage eggs, Tim.”

Doubtful. “Of course,” Tim says mildly. He takes a bite. Miraculously, they’re not bad. Edible, at least. Maybe Bruce isn’t as bad of a cook as Tim thought.

Or maybe he’s not Bruce.

He doesn’t take the cuffs off Jason for him to eat. Good or bad? On one hand, Bruce is a naturally suspicious person. On the other, if someone's wearing his skin, they have something against Jason.

Bruce doesn’t try to initiate conversation. Tiredness and Bruce’s poor social skills, or a lack of interest in humanity?

Impossible to say.

They eat in silence. Bruce nearly falls asleep eight times by the time he finishes his eggs, chin propped up over his elbow.

Jason says: “If you’re going to sleep, I’m going back in the cage.”

Bruce (or not-Bruce) frowns. “You don’t need to—”

“I’d rather be in there than be jerked around by your asshole kids while you take another fuckin’ nap.”

The frown deepens. Bruce glances at Tim questioningly. Tim gives him nothing.

“Okay,” Bruce says. “If that’s…what you want.”

Bruce stands to clear his plate and Tim waits for him to get out of earshot before he whispers: “Listen, Jason, I know you don’t believe me, but we really need to keep an eye on him. Something’s going on.”

Jason scowls. “I told you I’m not playing your games.”

“Jason.” Tim’s eyes dart to the door to watch for Bruce. “I’m not playing games. I promise, I’m being serious.”

“Yeah? So am I. Fuck off.”

“Jason. I’m begging you. I can’t tell Damian and Dick’s not here and there’s something wrong with Bruce. I know you guys have a rocky relationship, but I need you to listen when I tell you that this isn’t normal!”

“Fuck you, Drake.”

“Stop being so fucking contrary!” Tim hisses. “Think about the damage he could do, not just to us, not just to Gotham, but the world. The fucking universe, Jason!”

Jason stares at him for a long moment. “Are you—Fuck.” He stops, frowns. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Yes! Jesus, Jason, I’ve been trying to tell you that—”

“Fuck,” Jason swears lowly. He’s got his elbows propped up on the table, head in his hands. “Bruce is fine. It’s okay.”

“No,” Tim groans. “No, Jason, you’re not listening—”

“I’m listening,” he says, rubbing at his eyes and then looking up at Tim wearily. “You have nothing to worry about. Bruce is fine. You’re fine.”

“Fuck you,” Tim spits. “I’m trying—”

“Baby bird, did you seriously think that was the first time?”

…what.

Jason doesn’t wait for Tim to reboot. “He fuckin’ hates me.” He says it like it’s obvious. The sky is blue, the grass is green, my dad fucking hates me. “He knocks me around whenever he gets the chance.”

Tim doesn’t understand.

“Listen, kid,” Jason says. “I’m sorry if you’re having some sort of crisis right now, but you’re stupid as fuck if you never realized that. I mean, come on.”

Tim just shakes his head slowly, but it makes a horrible kind of sense. “Why?” he asks. “Why would he do that?”

Jason shrugs minutely. “Don’t fuckin’ ask me. I didn’t do it.”

There’s something on his face that looks like guilt, that looks like Jason thinks he knows exactly why Bruce would beat up his own son and Tim opens his mouth—

“Didn’t do what?”

—and closes it, flinching at the sound of Bruce’s voice.

“Nothing,” Jason says, gaze still locked on Tim.

Bruce shifts awkwardly, glancing between them. “Do you still want to go back in the cell?”

“Nah,” Jason says. “Turns out it was just a misunderstanding.” He stands, pushing his chair back, and turns to face Bruce. Whatever he was going to say, he must change his mind when he gets a look at the older man, cause instead he says: “Are you fuckin’ sick or something? Why do you look half dead?”

Bruce sighs. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

“Weren’t you just sleeping? Why the fuck are you—” Jason cuts himself off abruptly, looking taken aback. “Oh, shit.”

“Hn.”

“Are you fuckin’ serious?”

“Yes.” Bruce eyes him. “How long have you been awake? 48 hours?”

“Fuck you, old man. I’m not—”

“More than 48. 60?”

“Fuck,” Jason breathes, looking alarmed. “Please tell me you didn’t just read my mind.”

Bruce shakes his head. “Guessed. Feels like about that much.”

Tim just watches silently, struggling to understand.

“How long until we can ditch this thing?” Jason groans. “What if it progresses?”

“It already has.” At Jason’s squawk of indignation, Bruce adds: “In the beginning, it was just my head. Then my ribs.”

“And now?”

Bruce sighs. “Tired. Please sleep.”

Tim eases out of the room and heads upstairs, trying to process what the hell just happened.

Fuck.

Fuck.


Bruce leads them back down to the cave after dinner. Jason figured he’d want to sleep in a bed, but it looks like the old man is as paranoid as ever.

The bat brat is waiting for them in the cave.

“Father.” The little demon turns his gaze to Jason and sneers. “Todd.”

“Damian,” Bruce replies, sounding old as shit. “Can you not.” He ushers Jason towards the medical section of the cave.

The kid puffs up like an angry cat for a minute but shakes it off quick as he follows them. “Very well,” he says coolly. “Kent has asked for my counsel. He wishes to come to the manor to hear it.”

“You can’t hang out with Jon tonight.”

“I do not hang out with Kent, Father—”

“Damian,” Bruce cuts him off. “Not tonight.”

“Fine,” the kid snaps. “Tomorrow?”

“Maybe.” Bruce guides Jason to a seat, then busies himself with something in one of the cabinets.

“Very well.” Damian draws himself up to his full height. “Then I will retire for the evening. Goodnight, Father.”

“Goodnight, Damian,” Bruce says. “Don’t forget you have an essay due on Tuesday.”

“I will not.” The kid strides away, posture perfect. Jason watches as he disappears up the stairs.

“The fuck is wrong with your kid,” he mutters.

Bruce grunts, annoyed. “There’s nothing wrong with Damian.”

Jason rolls his eyes. “Sure, B-man,” he scoffs. “Whatever you say.”

Bruce grunts again, and Jason suddenly regrets trying to be condescending as Bruce turns his way and strides towards him. Mouth dry, he thinks: calm the fuck down, and then Bruce is right in front of him, hands reaching towards Jason’s face.

He bats them away with his bound hands, blood roaring in his ears. “What the fuck,” he snaps. “Don’t touch me.”

Bruce looks confused and Jason wonders all of a sudden exactly how much is transferring over. Is it really just pain? Or…

“Just let me look at it,” Bruce is saying, and Jason drags his brain back in line.

“Fuck no.”

The older man doesn’t react, just reaches for Jason’s head again.

Jason shoves him back, snarling.

“Hood.” Bruce is talking to him like he’s fucking feral or something, and, well, maybe he is, but it riles Jason up anyway. “It’ll just take a second.”

“Don’t fuckin’ touch me,” he threatens.

“There’s probably debris in the wound. It’ll get infected.”

“I washed it out in the shower.”

“I want to check.”

“If you’re so concerned, why the fuck did you crack my skull open in the first place?”

Silence hangs in the air as Bruce rocks back on his heels, surprise and something that looks strangely like guilt on his face.

Jason just scowls and starts to cross his arms over his chest. He aborts the motion halfway through, since it’s not really possible when he’s wearing fucking promethium cuffs.

“Jason—”

“My skull’s not cracked,” Jason snaps. “I’m fine.”

“Hn.” Bruce eyes him with a level of concern that Jason is not comfortable with. “Can I look at your head now?”

Jason deepens his scowls, then shoves away his feelings about Bruce’s hands anywhere fuckin’ near him and thinks it through. It’s not like the old bastard would, or maybe even could, make anything worse. He’d literally be hurting himself.

“Fine,” he says after a minute. “Make it quick.”

He makes himself sit still while Bruce’s fingers ghost across his skull, checking for fractures. When he reaches the wound, he jerks back, hissing in pain.

Jason looks at him bemusedly. “You fuckin’ whiner,” he says. “It’s not that bad.”

Bruce’s expression tightens and Jason thinks he looks pained, but Jason’s not feeling any worse at the moment, so who fucking knows. He doesn’t comment, though, just starts poking at the gash above Jason’s right ear.

“It needs stitches,” he says quietly. “Just two.”

Jason just grunts. Bruce shuts up and gets back to work, numbing the area and pulling out a suturing kit.

When he’s done, he sits back on the stool he pulled up in front of Jason and says: “What happened to your hands?”

Jason blinks at him. “What?”

Bruce looks uncomfortable. “Your hands. They weren’t damaged when we left New York.”

Jason stares at him blankly, trying to come up with something that doesn’t make him sound like a headcase.

“When you first came back to Gotham,” Bruce says after a long, awkward pause. “I dug up your coffin.”

Jason swallows, still staring.

“I try not to think about it,” Bruce is saying. “But. There was blood and. Scratch marks. On—on the inside of the lid.”

Jason sits there looking stupid for a minute, then lurches to his feet.

“Jason—” Bruce says, rising to his feet.

“Don’t fuckin’ look at me like that,” Jason snaps. He can’t quite loom. He’s cuffed, for one, and his height never caught up to Bruce’s, but he’s gotta be within an inch, so he gives it his best fucking shot.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Bruce says, standing his ground and still fucking looking at him. It’s not fucking fair that he can still make Jason feel like this, that he can see all of his weak spots like they’re lit up in fucking neon.

“Jason,” Bruce says, one palm flat against Jason’s chest, holding him against the cot.

Jason’s teeth are bared in a snarl, his pulse is roaring in his ears. He swears he can taste the dirt. Feel the grit of it between his teeth. He pushes against Bruce’s hand and the cuffs buzz against his wrists in warning. “The fuck is it with you and my dead body, anyway?” he snaps. “First that shit in Ethiopia, now this?”

“Jason—” Bruce says, and something in his face makes Jason wonder if he can find Bruce’s weak spots, too.

“Why do you keep asking me about this, huh? Do you like to think about it, is that it?” he pushes and there, the pity drops off Bruce’s face, leaving shock and hurt and he should stop but— “Do you stay up at night, dreaming about me dead and buried?”

“Jason—” Bruce says sharply, but Jason just keeps going, because he’s a fucking garbage person, Jesus Christ

“Finally ran out of sob story, huh?” Jason hears himself say. “Getting your parents killed isn't enough to maintain your self pity anymore? Have to picture little dead boys in miniature black suits, lying in silk-lined mahogany? Dick's a little tall, but, hey, Tim's small enough still to fit in a child-size coffin if you want to go for three out of—”

Bruce’s jaw tightens and he thunders a “Jason!” and shifts forward—

And Jason’s eyes close and his head ducks down and his shoulders hunch and the world whites out around him and—

“Jason,” Bruce says after God knows how long. He’s looking at him again, but there’s no pity. His face is blank as marble and Jason should be happy (he did it, he won, he got what he wanted), but he’s not.

“Sit down,” Bruce says. “Let me look at your hands.”

Jason sits. Bruce looks over his hands. He sets the bones that Jason broke against the inside of the Batmobile’s trunk, then shifts the cuffs up to inspect where they wore into his wrists.

Jason swallows. “I didn’t mean that.”

Bruce doesn’t answer.

Jason sits quietly as Bruce checks over his ribs, starts bandaging his wrists.

“B,” he says. “I really didn’t mean that shit.”

Bruce ties off the bandages neatly, then sighs, sounding fucking ancient. He’s silent for a long moment, then says: “Do you remember the time Alfred left us alone in the manor for a few days, and you got so angry with me you screamed that my parents hated me and it was my fault they died?”

Jason winces. Now that he’s reminded him of it, yeah. He remembers. He’d kind of tried to bury that particular outburst.

“I don’t even remember why you were upset,” Bruce continues. “Maybe I never knew. The next morning, I made breakfast and you threw it on the floor and said I was lucky I had money because it was the only reason Alfred didn’t drop me off at the nearest fire station after the funeral.”

“Jesus Christ,” Jason exhales harshly. The Pit definitely amplified some shit, but, fuck, maybe he was born an asshole.

Bruce looks up to finally meet Jason’s eyes, mouth twisting with a sort of grim humor. “I like to think I got pretty good at not taking it personally.”

“I’m not a little kid anymore,” Jason says lowly. “And it was a fucked up thing to say.”

“Yes,” Bruce says, standing up, “it was.” He puts the roll of gauze back in the cupboard, then turns back to Jason. “If we go upstairs, do you think you can get any sleep?”


“Hey,” Dick answers. “I was just about to call—”

“Dick.”

“What’s wrong?” Dick asks, alarm bells ringing at the tone of Tim’s voice.

“Dick, I was wrong.”

“About what, Tim? What’s going on?”

“Are you at the Clocktower?”

“Yeah.” Dick glances over a Babs. She raises a brow in question. “I’m with Babs.”

“You need to—” Tim takes a deep breath. “Dick, I think you need to look a lot further back than I thought. It’s not—I don’t think we’re looking at a mind control situation.”

Dick closes his eyes. “Tim.”

“I think—”

“Tim,” Dick repeats, cutting him off. “It was Bruce.”

“It was Bruce.” Tim’s voice is smaller than Dick’s heard it in a long time. “It was Bruce, and it wasn’t the first time.”

Dick glances at the wall of screens showing various confrontations between Batman and Red Hood since Jason first came back to Gotham. “Yeah.”

“I was hoping you’d say I was wrong.”

“I wish I could.”

There’s a long pause, and then Tim says: “How did we not notice?”

Dick shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know,” he says. “I never thought he would hurt any of you guys.” There's an awkward beat of silence and Dick winces, realizing how that must've—

“…But he’d hurt you?”

Jesus, he never thought he’d be having this conversation. “He’s taken things a little too far before,” Dick admits. “But I always thought… Well, I’m the oldest. I—” Dick’s voice dies on him.

Tim’s quiet for a beat, then: “He hit me, once. After Selina left him. He was angry and I was there and… Well. It’s not like I’m really his kid. Not like you or Jason or Damian. Even Cass.”

“Tim,” Dick breathes, closing his eyes. “Tim, no. We’re all—”

“It’s not the same,” Tim interrupts. “You and Jason and Damian, you were his kids first, before you were his partners. It wasn't like that for me. I was Robin. I wasn't his son.” He says it plain, blunt, like it’s true, like it’s not breaking Dick’s heart.

“Do you trust me?” Dick says.

“More than I trust anyone else.”

Not very reassuring answer. “Then believe me when I say that you are just as much Bruce’s son as any of us are. In my eyes, yeah, of course, but in Bruce’s, too. Tim, he loves the hell out of you.”

There’s a long pause. Then: “We don’t have time for semantics. We need to focus on the situation at hand.”

“Tim—”

“I can’t talk about this right now, Dick.”

Closing his eyes, Dick takes a deep breath and tries to settle his mind a bit. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Tim repeats. “So, what are we going to do?”

Dick doesn’t know. “Babs and I have been collecting evidence. We’ll—We’ll talk to him. As a family.”

“Okay,” Tim says slowly. “What should I do until then?”

“Just hang tight. Babs and I will come over once we’ve got this all compiled, and we’ll sort it out.”

“Okay.”

“Call me if they start fighting, or—Just call me. If you need to.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” Dick exhales. “I’m sorry, Tim. This sucks.”

“Yeah. I’ll see you soon.”

“Yep.”

Dick drops his head into his hands once the call ends.

“So you’re going to need those medical records, then?” Babs asks.

“Yeah,” Dick says, hands muffling his voice. “Whatever you can find.”

“It’ll take a few minutes. Looks like they were trying take a random path. Take a look at this in the meantime.”

Dick turns to the screen she gestures to and immediately wishes he hadn’t.

“Fuck,” he breathes. “Fuck, Babs, when was this?”

“After Jason shot Penguin,” Babs says, voice flat. “Which, I should also mention, was not a kill shot.”

“Babs,” Dick says incredulously. “He shot him in the face. It’s a miracle he survived.”

“He shot him in the face with a blank,” Babs corrects. “I checked Gotham General’s records.”

Dick closes his eyes. Fuck. “You’re telling me Bruce did that in retaliation for a non-lethal injury?”

“Yeah," Babs says grimly. "You should probably watch this part.”

Dick opens his eyes.

On the screen, Jason’s on his knees. Bruce is holding him up by the front of his jacket and nailing him in the face with a nasty right hook. The helmet is long gone, shattered into a million tiny pieces that are now scattered across the rooftop. Jason’s hands are at his sides. Open. Limp. His head lolls as Bruce winds up for another hit.

“Is he even conscious?” Dick asks quietly.

“Hard to say. Seems like he’s fading in and out for most of the last bit.”

Bruce hits him again. “I can’t watch this,” Dick manages. “I can’t—”

But he has to. How much has he missed, by looking away?

Chapter Text

The room Bruce gives him to sleep in is not his old one, and he can’t decide if he’s glad for it or not. It’s bigger than his old room, and right next to Bruce’s. It’s the only one within the radius.

He tries to sleep at first, but he can’t settle down. Maybe it’s the room. Maybe it’s the spell. Maybe it’s that Bruce is on the other side of his wall.

He doesn’t sleep.

Eventually, there’s a knock on the door.

Jason hauls himself up from his position in the back corner of the room and opens the door. “What?”

“If you’re not sleeping,” Bruce says, eyes barely focusing. “We’re going back down to the cave. I have a case to work.”

Jason narrows his eyes and looks at the older man critically. “Go the fuck to bed, old man. You look like you’re about to keel over.”

Bruce scrubs a hand over his face tiredly. “Can’t sleep,” he grunts.

Jason stares at him for a while, thinking, then opens the door wider and steps aside so Bruce can enter.

The older man just blinks.

“Jesus,” Jason swears, then tugs Bruce through the door. “It’s probably the distance or the wall.” He shoves Bruce towards the unused bed. “Sleep.”

Bruce stares at the bed. “It’s not going to do anything if you don’t sleep, too.” He turns to look at Jason. “We can put a mattress on my floor.”

Jason closes his eyes and huffs a breath. “Yeah, okay,” he says, and starts pulling the mattress off the bed. They drag it into Bruce’s room together, blankets and all.

By the time Jason flops down on top of the covers, Bruce is already asleep.

Jason peers through the dark at the ceiling. He dozes off occasionally and wakes up after a few minutes with his heart in his throat every time.

It’s a long night.

A couple hours after dawn, Jason calls it.

“B-man,” he says, nudging Bruce’s shoulder. “Come on, wake up. I’m starving.”

Bruce groans, but slowly blinks awake.

“B, come on. I need food.” And coffee. He really needs some fucking coffee.

“How long…?”

“Like twelve hours. You slept, like, literally the entire day,” Jason answers, impatient. “Come on.”

Bruce rolls out of the bed and scrubs a hand through his hair.

Jason has a reality-altering moment when he realizes that’s gray in Bruce’s hair. Like, a lot of it.

“The fuck,” he says softly, hands hovering awkwardly between them as he aborts reaching out to touch the gray hairs. He steps back abruptly, scowling. “When the hell did you get so old?”

Bruce just sends him a long-suffering sort of stare.

Yeah, that’s fair. “Come on,” Jason says. “Coffee.”

They trudge downstairs and Jason busies himself in the kitchen while Bruce slumps in one of the chairs. He makes a pot of coffee and starts cracking eggs for omelets. There’s not enough in the fridge to make anything else. It’s slow going, with his wrists locked together, but he manages.

When the coffee’s done, he pours two cups and sets one on the table near where Bruce’s head is buried in his arms. The smell must wake him up a bit, cause his eyes are bleary but open when Jason drops two plates on the table and slides into the seat across from Bruce.

------

They sit in silence for a while, just eating. Bruce is feeling a little more awake, with some food in him, so he brings it up.

“You probably don’t want to talk about it, but—”

Jason shakes his head. “It’s fine. Honestly, I—” He cuts himself off with a shrug, shoving a bite of egg in his mouth. “Whatever you want to ask. Shoot.”

“There’s a gap, in the timeline I pieced together. There’s the graveyard, and then the Red Hood, and nothing in between.”

Jason grimaces. “Yeah, that makes sense.” He takes a long sip of coffee, then glances at Bruce. “After I crawled out of the coffin, I went looking for you, but I was all fucked up, wasn’t thinking straight. Guess that’s what happens when a fuckin’ lunatic takes a crowbar to your head.”

Bruce feels like he’s going to be sick. “You were looking for me?”

Jason looks at him, scrutinizing. “Yeah. Was at a hospital and everything. I don’t really remember it. I know I asked for you, but I got no idea what I actually said. Bruce Wayne? Batman? Dad?” He shakes his head. “Anyway. I left eventually. Lived on the streets. The League found me after a while. Talia’s people.”

Bruce chokes. “What?

“Thought you knew that bit already.”

No.”

He shrugs, like it doesn’t matter. Picks at his eggs. “Whatever. Talia kept me around for a while, I don’t know why. I don’t pretend to understand her. Eventually, Ra’s got tired of it, or at least that’s what Talia says, and was gonna make her…send me away? Kill me? Honestly, no idea. It’s all a bit vague. Again—” he gestures to his head. “—brain damage. Plus, like, none of my bones were not broken, so I guess I was in a lot of pain. I don’t know. Anyway, Talia played along and then tossed me in his Lazarus Pit when he wasn’t looking.”

“His Lazarus Pit?” Bruce manages.

“Yeah.” Jason cocks his head. “You didn’t know?”

Bruce shakes his head, wordless. There’s something like hope blooming in his chest.

“B,” Jason says, incredulous. “How? My eyes used to glow green.”

“Not that I ever saw.”

“Well, they did.” Jason sips at his coffee. “Tim saw them,” he offers. “At—at the Tower.”

The silence stretches out uncomfortably after that.

“I’m not going to hurt him,” Jason says suddenly, “not again. It’s not—I don’t—” He ducks his head, clears his throat. “He’s a good kid.”

Bruce knows he’s staring, but he’s having trouble processing. “Why did you do it, then?”

“Honestly?” He shrugs half-heartedly. “I don’t know. I was angry. More than angry. I don’t—” Jason glances up at Bruce quick and then back at the table. “I know it’s no excuse. I’m not trying to—to excuse anything. But those first few years after the Pit are… patchy. There are whole stretches that are just…blurred.”

“Blurred?”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Jason says, forced levity in his tone. “It felt sometimes like I was in the car, but not in the driver’s seat. Like I was sort of watching the road but mostly playing with Legos in the backseat. I’m missing some chunks of time. And others are, well. Blurred. Out of focus.”

Oh. That’s—

“I remember the night at the Tower, if that’s what you’re wondering.” Jason’s gaze is fixed firmly on the coffee cup in his hands. “And the night we fought. I’m missing some details, but,” he gestures at his head, “most of it’s in there.”

“Okay,” Bruce says slowly.

Jason huffs a little, surprised, and glances up at Bruce. “Okay?”

Bruce nods slowly. “You regret it?”

“Hurting the kid? Every goddamn day.” Jason shifts in his seat, rolling the mug between his hands.

“Okay.” Bruce exhales. “You trained with the League, then?”

“Yeah, at Nanda Parbat for a while, then Talia sent me on a world tour.” Jason swallows. “Then back at Nanda Parbat, after the shit with Joker.”

“You went back to them?”

Jason’s jaw tenses. “Not exactly. Talia wasn’t impressed with my performance.”

A flash of remembered pain hits Bruce out of nowhere and a low, startled noise escapes from his throat. He looks up at Jason, concerned, but he’s already moving away, rising abruptly and heading for the kitchen with his empty mug. He looks—

Well, Bruce isn’t sure at this point how much of what he’s getting is anything Jason’s actually showing. He’s getting better at untangling the emotions from his own, but he’s unsure now.

“You sure there’s not a way to get rid of this?” he asks when he comes back, looking tired. The mug’s only half full. It must have been the last of the pot.

“Not that I know of.”

“Well, it’s in my head, right?” He takes a big gulp of his coffee. “So if I just—” he makes one hand into the shape of a gun and aims at his head. “Done, right?”

“Jason,” Bruce says seriously, horror clawing at his throat. “Don’t joke about that.”

Jason huffs a laugh, but he doesn’t sound like he was joking. He’s looking down into his cup as he swirls the last of the coffee around the bottom and something in his expression makes Bruce nervous.

“Jason,” Bruce says carefully. “Are you okay—”

Jason’s mug shatters and Bruce flinches at the sharp stab of pain in his own hands, the spike of anxiety thrumming in his veins. There’s blood on the table.

Bruce stands quickly, finding a cloth. By the time he comes back, Jason’s resting his forehead on the edge of the table, hands held over his empty plate to catch the blood.

It looks a little like he’s praying.

“It’s fine,” he says, when he hears Bruce walk in. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. Can I…?” Bruce reaches for his hands.

Jason shrugs, barely moving, as Bruce turns his bleeding hand over and starts pulling out shards. “Sorry,” he repeats. “I tried, but I can’t—”

He can’t reach. Not with the cuffs on.

Bruce pulls the last shard out and wraps the damp towel around his hand.

Jason scrubs a hand over his face awkwardly, trying not to disturb the bandages. He rubs his eyes. Bruce wonders if he’s slept at all since he got here.

He’ll ask later. Not now.

Jason sighs heavily.

They finish the rest of their breakfast in silence.

------

Jason falls asleep on the couch in Bruce’s office while he works.

He scrubs at his eyes when he wakes up, not feeling any better. He takes stock of the room and is startled to see Bruce looking back at him, work abandoned, when he looks behind the desk.

His expression is unreadable, but something about it unnerves Jason. “Fuck off,” he snaps, and lies back down, curling around so his back is facing the desk.

After a while, he falls back asleep to the sound of typing.

The next time he wakes up, there’s a hand gripping his shoulder tightly. He lashes out blindly, but his hands are still cuffed and—

Bruce grunts and lets go when Jason’s hands hit his chest. The cuffs jolt, weak, but enough to make Jason’s muscles seize for a second.

He tries to calm down, levering himself upright and keeping Bruce firmly in his field of view. “Christ, B. Don’t fuckin’ do that.”

The older man rises to his feet as Jason talks. He looks at Jason, focused.

“I’m not gonna apologize,” Jason scoffs. “That was your own damn—”

“Jason,” he says, looking pained. “You were screaming.”

Oh. “Sorry.”

“Don’t—” Bruce swallows. “You don’t have to apologize. It’s—Are you okay?”

Jason stares at him for a moment. “Yeah,” he says finally. “I’m good.”

“Okay,” Bruce says, sounding uncertain. He shifts awkwardly, then adds: “Are you hungry?”

They go down to the kitchen.

Bruce makes sandwiches and Jason doesn’t bother to ask what’s in them, just eats.

“You’ve lost weight,” Bruce says suddenly.

Jason looks up at him, brow furrowed. “What?”

“Since the last time you were in Gotham,” he explains. “You’ve lost weight. I didn’t notice before.”

Jason stares at him, flabbergasted. “Yeah,” he says. “I lost weight.”

“Are you okay?”

He can’t believe they’re having this conversation. He just wants to eat his sandwich in peace. “I’m fine.”

“Were you sick?”

“No.”

“Did you switch up your training routine, then or—”

“Jesus, B,” Jason finally snaps. “I was in the fucking hospital for a while last year. I lost some muscle mass. I haven’t put it all back on yet. Will you lighten up?”

The older man frowns, looking concerned. “Why were you in the hospital last year?”

“Bruce,” Jason says, exasperated. “Why the fuck do you think?”

------

Bruce doesn’t understand. He opens his mouth, about to ask for a real answer, then closes it.

Jason must see something on his face, because he’s frowning now, and Bruce can feel concern of all things bleeding through the link.

“B,” he says. “Are you okay?”

Bruce just stares at him. Thinks of the rooftop. Thinks of hit after hit landing. Of Arsenal appearing and spiriting Jason away. No. He was fine. He wasn’t that hurt.

“Bruce,” Jason is saying. “Come on, man, snap out of it.”

“Did he have to take you to a hospital?” Bruce blurts out.

Jason stares at him, incredulous.

“After the fight. Harper. Did he have to—”

“He took me to a safehouse,” Jason cuts him off. “The hospital came later.”

Bruce doesn’t understand. “How did you get hurt then?” Jason’s aggravation is growing, but Bruce has to know. “Who—”

“Will you just drop it?” Jason snaps.

“Jason, I need to know who—”

“You did!” Jason yells.

Silence.

Bruce swallows. He stares at Jason, hurt and anger and stop talking about this leaking into Bruce’s mind.

“Jesus,” Jason swears, shoving another bite of sandwich into his mouth. “Roy took me to a safehouse and tried to wait it out, but the medic he brought in couldn’t fix everything.”

“I would’ve known, I monitor the hospitals in Gotham—”

“We weren’t in Gotham,” Jason huffs. He’s irritated. “Roy had moved us at least twice by that point. I think the first hospital was in Arizona or something.”

“Why were you—” Bruce is so confused. “Arizona?”

“Don’t fucking ask me,” Jason snaps. “I was unconscious. I don’t fuckin’ know how he picked the route.”

Bruce shakes his head. That’s not what he meant. He— “Gotham has some of the best hospitals in the world. Why would you leave?”

Jason looks at him carefully. “Bruce,” he says finally. “We didn’t just leave. We were running away.”

One beat. Two.

From you . The unsaid words echo loudly in Bruce’s head.

“We skipped around the country while I was getting better,” Jason continues. “Then Roy went back to Lian and I…” Jason shrugs.

Bruce swallows hard. “You said the first hospital.”

Jason rubs at his eyes. “Can we not talk about this?”

Bruce wants to push, he feels strange. Unmoored. He’s out of his depth and Jason sounds exhausted.

He nods jerkily and Jason immediately goes back to his sandwich.

“Are you going to eat that?” he asks after a minute, eying Bruce’s plate. Bruce blinks, then pushes the half-eaten sandwich across the table wordlessly.

------

Jason didn’t know it was possible for someone to be this fuckin’ dense. Sure there were plenty of times Jason lost control, went too far without realizing it, but normally that was in a woke-up-covered-in-blood-with-no-memory-of-the-last-three-days sort of way, not…whatever the hell Bruce’s deal is.

Did he have to take you to a hospital?

Jesus Christ.

Yeah, that’s normally what happens when you get beaten half to death.

Ugh.

The worst thing is, there was a part of him that always figured that with all the shit that went down, there was a silver lining. Some sort of understanding.

He always knew it wasn’t the same. Tim was just a kid. An innocent, outclassed kid. What Jason did that night in the Tower was unforgivable. In comparison, Bruce beating on Jason, who hasn’t been anything close to innocent in years, was nothing.

Still, Bruce was so angry that night. There had to be some sort of realization, right? Some sort of understanding of what that kind of anger, bone-deep and all-consuming, could drive someone to do?

Apparently not.

After lunch, they head down to the cave. Bruce makes a b-line for the computer and Jason goes for the training area. There’s not a lot he can do with his hands cuffed, but he figures he can make do with some stretches and leg work.

When he gets there, though, he’s confronted by the bat brat.

“Todd,” he says coolly.

“Ibn al Xu'ffasch,” Jason answers, just ‘cause he figures it’ll piss the kid off.

He’s right.

“My name is Damian Wayne,” he spits.

“Sure,” Jason says. “Whatever you say, al Ghul.”

The brat bristles, his tiny hands clenching into fists.

Jason has half a second to think oh shit before he’s on him. He manages to block the first couple blows, but the cuffs are buzzing in warning against his wrists. He can’t go on the offensive, or they’ll take him down, but he can’t move well enough with them on to dodge all the brat’s blows. Within moments, he’s knocked down by a vicious kick to his already-aching ribs. Jason lets himself fall, rolling backwards and springing back up with the leftover momentum just in time to duck out of the way of—

“Stop!”

Jason freezes, head jerking around at the order, but the kid keeps going and—

Jason’s staring at the ceiling, blinking stars out of his eyes. Bruce is swearing somewhere in front of him. Jason starts to get up and the swearing intensifies.

“I did not know that the spell had progressed further, Father,” the brat is saying defensively. “If you had told me—”

Jason shifts, bracing himself against the mounting pain.

“Jason, lie still,” Bruce orders, and Jason obeys automatically. Bruce is there an instant later, shining a light in his eyes and muttering worriedly.

“I’m sure the traitor is fine, father, he—”

Jason doesn’t see the look Bruce gives the kid, but it must be a good one because it shuts him up fast.

“B,” Jason manages, swallowing back nausea. “I need—”

There’s a small trash can in his hands before he can even finish the sentence and Bruce helps prop him up a bit.

Vomiting makes his head hurt like a motherfucker, but it’s not like he’s got an option.

“Damian,” Bruce is saying. “Help me get him up, he needs…”

Jason loses the rest of the sentence as he’s tugged up to his feet. The cave is a dark whorl of sound and light and pain. When he finally fades back in, he’s lying on a cot. The lights are dimmed. There’re hands on his head, tugging at his scalp—

Sutures, his brain supplies.

“B,” he tries, but he’s pretty sure it comes out garbled as hell.

“Guess again, Todd,” the bat brat says. “Father is getting you clean clothing.”

Jason tries to turn to look at the kid, but he’s stopped by a firm hand on the side of his face.

“Tt. Hold still. I’m nearly finished.”

Fighting to keep his eyes open, Jason almost misses Bruce reentering the room.

“Hey,” Bruce says quietly. “Let’s get you out of that.”

Jason blinks at him slowly. “Hey, B.”

“Hey, Jay.” Bruce looks him over critically, then nudges, helping him sit up. Jason goes along with it, lifting his arms over his head so Bruce can pull his borrowed sweatshirt off like he’s a little kid. When Bruce sets it on the cot next to him, Jason frowns, reaching out to touch the red-soaked fabric.

“What.”

“You hit your head on the squat rack,” Bruce supplies. “There was…a lot of blood.”

“Oh.” Jason frowns, eyes stuck on the bloody sweatshirt.

Bruce holds out a wet cloth wordlessly and Jason starts wiping away the worst of the blood.

“Ugh,” he groans when he feels his hair. “I need a shower.”

“Wait a few hours. You were in and out for a while there.”

Jason grunts and tries to get some of it out. The stickiness against his scalp is making his skin crawl. He misses his helmet.

Finally, he gives up and pulls on the clean hoodie Bruce brought him. He starts to hop off the cot, but Bruce splays a hand on his chest, stopping him.

“Jason,” he warns.

“I’m fine,” Jason insists.

“Please,” Bruce adds awkwardly. “I—it was a lot of blood.”

Jason frowns, but doesn’t try to get up again.

And Bruce. Sets a hand. On his…shoulder?

Jason glances up quickly, baffled.

“Can I,” Bruce hesitates, “give you a hug?”

The look Jason gives him must be something, ‘cause he yanks his hand away like he’s been scalded. “Are you like,” Jason asks slowly. “dying or something?”

Bruce’s brow wrinkles in confusion. “What? No.”

“Then why…”

“You’re hurt,” Bruce says awkwardly. “Isn’t that what you’re…supposed to do? When someone is—”

“I mean, I guess,” Jason says dubiously.

“So yes?”

Jason nods slowly, feeling like he’s in the fuckin’ Twilight Zone.

And Bruce. Hugs. Him. It’s…not terrible?

It’s actually kind of nice. Jason lifts up his arms and awkwardly…pats. And then wraps and his arm around Bruce’s shoulders. Bruce shifts to accommodate, his arm moving a little higher on his back, he squeezes a little tighter and the front of the borrowed sweatshirt shifts tightens against his throat, and all of a sudden it is not nice. The panic hits Jason like a freight train and he goes stiff, his breath catching in his throat. He can’t breathe. He can’t—

The next thing Jason is aware of, Bruce is halfway across the cave, speaking softly.

Fuck.

He heaves in a lungful of air, then another. He’s not on the cot anymore. Without thinking, he grips his bandaged hand and squeezes hard, sending flood of pain through—

“Jason,” Bruce says, suddenly kneeling in front of him, pulling Jason’s hands apart gently. He sounds like he’s been crying, which is ridiculous but. Jason isn’t thinking straight enough to figure out why he actually sounds like that. “Please don’t do that.”

Jason looks down at his hands numbly, then up at Bruce and what the fuck he has been crying: splotchy skin, red eyes, tear tracks down his face.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce manages, sounding like he’s about to start crying. “I’m so sorry, Jason. I don’t—”

“It’s fine,” Jason says, then clears his throat. “You’re good, it’s—”

“No,” Bruce says fiercely and Jason flinches hard, shoving himself even tighter into the corner than he’s already lodged.

Bruce lets go like Jason’s burned him, falling back several paces.

“Jaylad,” Bruce says. “What do you need? Is it me? I can—Well, I can’t leave, but I can go in one of the cells, if that would help?”

Jason stares at him blankly.

“Please, Jay,” Bruce says, practically begging. “Please, don’t do that. Let go of your hand.”

Blinking, Jason looks down at his hands. He’s squeezing the broken one again. There’s fresh blood welling up from the cuts circling his wrist. He lets go.

“I want you to feel safe,” Bruce is saying. “Please, Jay. What do you need?”

“I’m fine,” Jason insists, levering himself upright. He runs a hand through his sticky hair and swallows hard. Jesus. He shakes himself internally, trying to bring back some awareness. “I’m gonna take a shower.”

“Jason,” Bruce pleads.

Jason heads for the shower.

He’s hoping the distance between him and Bruce will calm him down, but it doesn’t do much except make his head hurt worse. The shower doesn’t wake him up, either, just makes him loose-limbed and sleepy. When he opens the door, Bruce is there waiting for him and his head immediately hurts less. “Dick’s here,” Bruce says. “He wants to talk to you.”

Jason baulks. He doesn’t want to talk to Dick. “What does—”

“Hey, little wing.” Dick’s next to the Batcomputer, hip propped against the edge of the desk. Jason should have seen him. He has no idea how he didn’t.

Fuck. He needs sleep. “Dickface,” he says tiredly. “The fuck do you want.”

“Just want to talk.” Dick’s gaze flicks to Bruce, then back. “Privately.”

“Not really possible right now.”

“The cells are soundproof,” Dick says, and Jason flinches.

It’s stupid. He didn’t even mind the cell that much when Bruce put him in there, but this is Dick, and Dick—

Jason swallows hard, opens his mouth—

“Bruce can just wait in one for a minute.”

Oh. Well. Jason looks at Bruce. He seems okay with it. “Just make it quick.”

“Okay,” Jason says. “But we’re not locking the door.”

He gets two identical confused glances, but he just crosses his arms and scowls. He’s not backing down and there’s no way in hell he’s explaining. He’s already taken too many hits to his pride the last few days.

They don’t lock the door.

------

The thing is, Dick didn’t know Jason before he died, not really. He knows the few stories Alfred can bear to tell from the years he lived in the manor. He knows that Bruce loved him so much his death nearly killed him. But Dick only met Jason a few times when he was Robin.

The version of Jason Dick knows? He nearly killed Tim, left the kid screaming himself awake at night for weeks. He beheaded drug dealers, soaked Gotham’s streets with blood, killed men in Nightwing’s name.

His reappearance nearly destroyed Bruce, sending him into a downward spiral Dick was helpless to stop. He’s also got a hold over Bruce that no one else can match. Dick’s had half a lifetime of practice watching Bruce’s blind spots for him, and Jason? He’s the biggest one.

So, it’s a bit of a turn-around, moving Jason from the Protect-Bruce-From category to the Protect-From-Bruce category in his head. As he and Babs dig through security footage, Dick starts to wonder if, these days, for all the power Jason holds over Bruce, Bruce holds more.

There’s no denying Jason’s brutality in the first year or so after he shows up, with his encounters with Batman ending with both of them limping away to lick their wounds. But sometime after his stint in Arkham, Jason’s aggression faded away. Bruce’s didn’t fade with it.

Before they can get through all the footage, though, Damian calls.

“Richard,” he says, clearly trying to be calm but not doing a great job of hiding his panic.

“What’s wrong?”

“Father is having some sort of fit.”

“What?”

“I came down to the cave to straighten the medical equipment and he was hyperventilating. It took me several minutes to get him to regain clarity.” After a beat, Damian adds: “Todd was affected as well.”

“Are they alright now?”

“Todd has locked himself in the bathroom,” Damian says. “Father is…fretting.”

“But no one’s hurt?”

Damian’s hesitation makes Dick’s heart race. Barbara glances at him in alarm.

“Todd was injured before the incident.”

“What?” Dick snaps. “How? Did Bruce—”

“He fell,” Damian answers guardedly. “His head made contact with the squat rack.”

“He fell.”

“Yes,” Damian says sharply.

“Dami.”

The boy huffs. “We may have been engaged in some light sparring at the time.”

“Kinda hard to spar in Batcuffs, isn’t it?”

“Todd started it,” Damian grumbles. “Besides, Father has already reprimanded me. I will not fight him again.”

“Bruce was upset with you?”

There’s a beat of silence over the line. “Yes,” Damian says slowly, like he thinks Dick is stupid. “Father is very attached to Todd’s welfare.”

Well. That’s…complicated.

“I’ll be there soon,” Dick says finally. “No fighting, okay?”

“Very well.”

Father is very attached to Todd’s welfare .

Dick doesn’t know what the hell to do with that. How can he be, when he nearly killed Jason on that rooftop? It doesn’t make any sense.

“Everything okay?” Babs asks.

A humorless laugh bursts out of Dick’s throat. He shakes his head. “Everyone’s alive. For now.”

Babs frowns at him. “I can finish this on my own,” she says. “If you want to head over now.”

Dick swallows, then nods. “Yeah, I—Yeah. If you’re sure?”

Babs nods, waving him towards the door. “Shoo.”

Dick heads for his bike. When he pulls into the cave ten minutes later, Bruce is the only one there. He looks like death warmed over.

“Where’s Jason?” Dick asks before he’s even off his bike.

“Shower.” Bruce gestures to the wall he’s leaning against. “Tim or Damian?”

“Both,” Dick answers. “B, what the hell is going on here?”

“We got hit by a spell,” Bruce says after a minute. “I called Zatanna, but she’s off world. It’s going to be a few days before she can come take a look.”

Dick is shaking his head. “I know that. Tim told me that. Bruce,” Dick says, “Tell me how Jason got hurt.”

Bruce’s face goes blank as stone and Dick nearly hits him, nearly throws up, nearly smashes everything in the goddamn house.

“B,” he says instead. “What happened? I need to hear your side, I need—”

“I found him in the warehouse,” Bruce says quietly, glancing at the door. “I was looking for that new mercenary that’s been taking hits in Gotham. And he—Well.”

“He was there,” Dick says. “And you assumed.”

The blankness cracks for a moment and Bruce says, defensive: “It’s not like he wouldn’t have done it.”

“But he didn’t,” Dick says. “He hasn’t been in Gotham for months.”

“Almost a year.”

Fuck. Has it really been that long? “So you tried to take him in?” Dick prompts, but Bruce’s expression shifts and he knows he got it wrong.

“Tensions escalated.”

“Bruce.”

“We fought.”

“Bruce,” Dick says, quieter. “Tim says Jason’s injuries aren’t consistent with a fight. They’re consistent with a beating.”

“I made a mistake,” Bruce admits stiffly. “I thought—”

“It doesn’t matter what you thought, B, he wasn’t fighting back.

Bruce deflates. “I know. I don’t—” He drags a hand over his face. “I don’t know how it got like this, Dick. I never—” His voice cracks and Dick just looks at him in horror. He looks like he’s about to cry. “I never meant to hurt him,” he says roughly.

“But you did,” Dick snaps, angry. “You did hurt him. And not just this time—”

The shower turns off.

“I want to talk to him,” Dick demands. “Away from you.”

“Okay,” Bruce says sounding sad and small and young, and the knowledge that he isn’t old enough to be his father, barely old enough to be Jason’s, hits Dick in the face like a brick.

“Bruce—”

The door opens and Jason steps out. He looks rough. Dick can’t see much under the joggers and hoodie he’s got on, but he can tell he’s hurting by the way he stands, the lines of tension on his face. His eyes lock onto Bruce immediately, a little bit of tension draining away. Dick doesn’t know what to do with that. He needs to talk to him.

“Hey, little wing,” he says, when it’s obvious the younger man hasn’t noticed him standing there.

“Dickface.” The half-hearted insult slides off Dick like rain on oil-slick pavement. “The fuck do you want.”

“Just want to talk,” Dick assures him. “Privately.”

“Not really possible right now.”

“The cells are soundproof,” Dick says, and then immediately regrets it as Jason flinches. “Bruce can just wait in one for a minute,” he adds hurriedly.

Jason still looks uncertain. He glances towards Bruce for, what? Approval? Fucking permission? Dick takes a deep breath. He can’t get angry now. He has to stay rational.

“Just make it quick,” Bruce says, and that seems to convince Jason.

“Okay,” he says. “But we’re not locking the door.”

…what?

Dick wants to protest, but Jason looks like he’s ready to die on this hill and Bruce looks so worn down, Dick figures he could take him if anything happened anyway.

He lets it go.

“Jason,” Dick starts, once the door closes behind Bruce. “I’ve been talking to Tim—”

Jason groans. He slides down the outside wall of the cell Bruce is in, tipping his head back to rest against the glass. “Is this the mind control thing again? I told that kid to get some sleep.”

“He was wrong about the mind control,” Dick agrees, folding to sit on the floor in front of his brother. “But we still have a problem.”

“Bruce reached out to Zatanna,” Jason says. “She’ll be by when she can and then I’ll be out of your hair, don’t worry.”

“Jason,” Dick says. “I don’t care about that. This is about the way Bruce has been treating you.”

Jason stares at him. “He just took the cuffs off,” he says slowly. “I can put them back on if—”

“No,” Dick says, maybe harder than he should have. “I’m talking about Bruce beating your ass in New York. And after Penguin. And all the times I’m sure we didn’t catch on camera.”

Jason scowls. “What about it?”

“It’s wrong,” Dick says forcefully. “It’s wrong and it has to stop.”

“I told you I’m leaving as soon as the spell is gone.”

“That isn’t the point—”

“Dickie,” Jason sighs. He’s let his eyes slide shut. “What the fuck are you trying to accomplish?”

“I’m trying to help you,” he says. “This is abuse—”

Jason’s eyes snap open and lock onto Dick’s. “Shut the fuck up,” he snaps, pushing himself to his feet. Dick follows him up.

“Jason, this isn’t okay, he’s out of—”

“No,” Jason says, voice hard. “Leave it.”

“Jason, he—”

“I don’t care.” He’s looming over Dick now, using the few inches he has over him to his advantage. “I don’t give a flying fuck. This is,” he falters, swallows, then starts again, “this is the best we’ve been years. We’re talking. You want to help me? Then don’t fuck this up, Dick. Don’t you fucking dare.”

Dick just stares at him. “Jason,” he says. “What—”

But then the younger man’s tipping forward, falling into him, a low, strangled sound of pain escaping his throat.

“Shit,” Dick breathes and scrambles to catch him, prop him against the wall. “Is it your head, should I call Les—”

“No, it’s,” Jason pants, “the cell. The spell doesn’t,” he inhales roughly, hands gripping his head like it’s going to crack in two, “like barriers.”

Okay. Okay. He can fix that. Dick shoves the cell door open frantically and Bruce and Jason both slump like puppets with their strings cut. Dick pulls out his phone to call Leslie, but Jason pushes off the wall and bats his hands down. “Stop. We’re fine. B just needs sleep.”

“How—”

“We pulled a mattress into his room,” Jason says, ducking into the cell to help Bruce to his feet. “I—ugh, fuck, old man, lay off Alfred’s cookies.”

Bruce just mumbles something incoherent. Dick doesn’t know what to do.

“Jason,” he says, helplessly.

“Help me get him upstairs,” the younger man orders, and Dick ducks under Bruce’s other arm.

The going is rough. Dick never caught up to Bruce in height or weight, Jason’s hurting enough that he’s exhaling harshly on every step, and Bruce is barely coordinated enough to help at all. They take the elevator up to the manor, then wobble their way up the stairs to Bruce’s room. Tim appears for a minute, but Jason runs him off.

“Get lost, Replacement,” he growls. “I told you to get some fucking sleep.”

Bruce mumbles something Dick doesn’t catch, but Jason huffs back at him.

“I wouldn’t have to if he stayed the fuck out of my business.”

They make it to Bruce’s room, finally, and drop the man into his bed. He’s out in seconds. Jason wipes sweat off his brow with a forearm, then tugs off Bruce’s shoes and throws a blanket over him.

“What’s wrong with him?” Dick asks quietly.

Jason shrugs. “Nothing. He’s just tired.”

Dick hesitates. “Tim said he’s been sleeping a lot.”

“Yeah,” Jason exhales. He won’t meet Dick’s gaze, eyes fixed on Bruce.

“So,” Dick shifts, eying Jason critically. “Sleep deprivation can leak through the link, then?”

Jason’s shoulders tense. “Yeah.”

“When’s the last time you got enough?”

Jason fiddles with the cuffs on his sweatshirt, then sighs and turns to face Dick. “It’s been a while.”

He looks worse than Dick’s ever seen him. The bruises and abrasions on the right side of his face look terrible against his almost sickly-pale skin. His wrists and hands are a mess of bandages and splints. The rings under his eyes are so dark they look like bruises. He’s standing stiff and awkward, like he’s hurting, and Dick realizes he never called Leslie. He probably should.

“You need to sleep,” Dick says, as gently as he can.

Jason shrugs halfheartedly.

“Why aren’t you sleeping?” Dick tries again.

Jason curls in on himself, like he’s ashamed, and Dick doesn’t understand.

“Jason?”

“I can’t,” he admits quietly. “I can’t sleep here. Keep getting nightmares.”

“Jason,” Dick says, careful to not let any of his anger leak out. “I’m here now, I’m not going anywhere—”

Jason snarls, teeth bared. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“Jason,” Dick says, frowning. “I would never let anyone hurt—”

He barks a laugh and Dick flinches back. It’s a mean thing, all sharp edged and raw. “Big Bird,” he says. “Don’t bullshit me.”

“Jason, what are you talking about? You’re my brother. I wouldn’t—”

“Don’t fucking bullshit me,” Jason grinds out.

“When have I ever—”

“You threw me in fucking Arkham, Dick! Don’t pretend that you give a fuck.”

Dick’s stomach drops. He swallows hard, looking for words. “I was trying to help. You needed—”

“I needed what?” Jason’s starting to sound hysterical. “Shitty food and worse company?”

“Jason—”

“The Joker was five cells down, Dickface,” Jason says viciously. “Did I fuckin’ need that?”

No—Joker— Swallowing back bile, Dick says: “I didn’t know that, I—”

“So you didn’t check,” Jason snarls. “You want to know what it was like? Hearing my murderer laugh all night long, every fuckin’ night?”

Dick’s shaking his head, mind blank with horror. He didn’t know, he didn’t—

“You wanna know how much that fucked me up? How fast I broke?” Jason has him backing up now. “Huh, big brother? You wanna know?”

Dick’s shaking his head desperately. “Jason, Jay, please, stop, I—”

Jason shoves him back, hard enough to knock the wind out of him when his back slams against the wall. “You fuckin’ hypocrite,” he snarls, and it sounds like anger but all Dick sees in his face is hurt, old and bone-deep. It’s bleeding off of him. “You’re mad at B, cause, what? He knocked me around a little? So what? We get beat up for a living, Dickface. What difference does it make if he beats the shit out of me every once in a while? I’d rather break every goddamn bone in my entire body than go to Arkham. I’d rather cut off my own arm. I’d rather fucking die again. So don’t you dare talk to me like you’re better than him, like you give a—”

“Jason,” Bruce says, grabbing the younger man’s shoulder.

Jason’s teeth flash and he starts throwing punches.

Chapter Text

Bruce hurts.

Everything hurts.

He feels like he’s being torn apart from the inside, like something’s reaching inside his chest and tearing his heart to shreds.

Jason.

Bruce drags himself awake and reaches out towards his son.

To the sound of a furious snarl and a rush of pain and fear and rage spilling over the link, he falls to the ground, twin bursts of pain flaring in his hand and face.

He feels the weight drop onto his hips, pinning him. One punch lands, two, and then the weight—Jason is off him, but his ribs, oh God, his ribs

Gasping for air, Bruce levers himself up, eyes landing on his two oldest sons locked together on the floor, Dick pinning Jason. Jason’s fighting, spitting with rage. Bruce focuses on breathing, and slowly, eventually, Jason stops.

He can’t breathe. Jesus, he can’t—

“Dick,” Bruce manages. “Ribs.”

His oldest shifts and Bruce exhales, the burning in his chest fading away.

The rage is gone, too, melted away like spring snow. All Bruce is getting from Jason is pain and hurt and—

“Let him up.”

Dick looks at him like he’s insane. “Bruce, he’s—”

“He’s fine,” Bruce insists. “Let him go.”

Warily, Dick eases off of Jason’s back, but the younger of the pair doesn’t make a move. He lies motionless, forehead pressed against the hardwood flooring.

He’s crying.

“Jaylad,” Bruce says, barely keeping his eyes open. “Baby.”

Jason cries harder, wrapping his arms around his head as he shakes, blocking any view of his face.

Bruce doesn’t bother to stand, just drags himself over to Jason’s side. He cards his fingers through Jason’s dark hair like he would when Jason was sick as a boy. “I’m so sorry, Jaylad,” he murmurs. “It’s gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay.”

Jason shakes his head.

“I promise,” Bruce vows. “I promise, we’re gonna make it okay. We’ll fix it.”

Slowly, Bruce’s second son cries himself to sleep.

“Bruce?”

The older man grunts, opening one eye.

“You’re crying.”

Surprised, he swipes at wet cheeks. He didn’t realize.

“Are you—” Dick hesitates. He’s upset. “Is it you, or Jason?”

Bruce just shrugs. He’s not sure he knows. “What happened?” he asks instead.

Dick is silent for a long moment, then says: “Did you know the Joker was in Arkham when I put Jason in there? When we thought you were dead?”

Bruce frowns, thinking.

“I didn’t—” Dick’s voice cracks. “Why didn’t I check, Bruce? Why didn’t I think to check?”

“Dick,” Bruce says slowly. “Joker wasn’t in Arkham.”

Dick shakes his head, uncomprehending. “Jason said—”

“He wasn’t there,” Bruce repeats. “I checked up on all the Rogues when I got back. Joker and Jason were never in Arkham at the same time.”

“But Jason—”

“Dick,” Bruce says, locking eyes with the younger man. “You didn’t put him in Arkham with Joker.”

“Why,” Dick pauses to swallow, looking a little wild around the eyes. “Why would he lie about that?”

“Hn,” Bruce grunts. “I didn’t say he lied.”

“Can you stop with the non-answers for a single goddamn second?” Dick snaps, glaring at Bruce with reddened eyes.

Bruce watches his fingers card through Jason’s dark hair while he struggles to find the words he needs. “I’m not trying to be cryptic,” he says eventually, looking up to meet Dick’s gaze. “A week ago, I probably—” The words stick in his throat and he lowers his eyes, swallowing back a sudden and terrible shame. “I would have assumed he was lying. I’m realizing there’s a lot about Jason I don’t know.”

Bruce swallows thickly. The depth and breadth of damage they—Bruce has inflicted on Jason without even realizing it is—

It’s nauseating. It’s unfathomable. It’s—

“Does it matter if he was there?” Dick says lowly.

Bruce looks up, confused. There are fresh tears welling up in his son’s eyes.

“Arkham was supposed to help him,” Dick continues. “That’s why I put him there. But whether Joker was there or not, it didn’t help. It just made everything worse. It fucked him up, and I did that, I chose to put him there and—"

“Dick,” Bruce cuts him off, reaching out to grip his son’s hand tightly, “it’s not your fault.”

Dick makes a low, wounded sound, covering his eyes with his free hand.

“It’s not,” Bruce repeats firmly. “All of this, everything that’s happened since he came back, it never should have been yours to deal with. It’s all my fault. And I’m going to fix it.”

“How?” Dick manages.

“I don’t know.” Bruce swallows hard. “But I’ll figure it out, okay? I will figure it out.”

------

When Dick finally staggers out of Bruce’s room, Tim’s waiting right outside, trying to ignore Damian.

“I thought you were supposed to be sleeping,” Dick manages. He looks like shit.

Tim glares at him half-heartedly. “Would you be able to sleep right now?”

Dick just shakes his head, eyes red rimmed and watery. “How much of that did you hear?”

“Some. I bugged Bruce’s room after last night. We,” Tim clears his throat, “stopped watching after he stopped fighting.”

“That’s—” Dick’s voice breaks. “That was smart. The bug.”

“This is foolish,” Damian snaps. His arms are crossed over his chest. “You had no choice but to apprehend Todd. It is not your fault that he hasn’t conquered his fear of—”

“Stop,” Dick says, voice suddenly hard. “Don’t ever say that again.”

Damian stops, eyes wide in shock. Tim can’t believe it either. “Richard—”

“No.” Dick’s expression is stormy. “I’m dead serious, right now, Damian. Don’t ever say that. Jason,” he takes a measured breath, “needed help. And I thought Arkham would help him, but it didn’t, and I should have known that. I should have found another way. I should never have used Bruce’s will against him like that in the first place, I—” Dick falters, shaking his head.

“We can’t do anything about it now,” Tim cuts in. “Except figure out how to not let it happen again.”

“Babs is coming over in the morning.” Dick runs a hand over his face. “We were going to call a meeting anyway. I guess. I guess now it’ll just be about more than Bruce.”

“Dick,” Tim says, low. “That’s not fair. You didn’t mean to hurt him—”

“But I did,” Dick snaps. He takes a deep breath. “But I did. And so much of this could’ve been avoided if we’d just listened to him, so I’m listening now. And he says what I did was worse than,” Dick’s voice takes on a strangled, almost hysteric edge, “than dying. So I’m not off the hook.”

After a long moment of silence, Tim says: “I’ll text Steph and Cass. Tell them to come by around…noon?”

Dick nods.

Tim pulls out his phone to text the girls, then double checks the date. “Fuck,” he says. “Alfred’s flight gets in at five. I forgot.”

“Shit,” Dick swears. “I’ll pick him up.”

“I can—”

“No,” Dick says. “You’ve barely slept for days. I’ll get him.”

Tim pulls a face but nods. If he shows up to the airport this sleep-deprived, Alfred will kill him.

“I will accompany—”

Dick shakes his head. “I need you to stay here. If something happens, if a fight breaks out, Tim will be outnumbered. You both need to be here.”

“Tt. Fine. I will ensure Father’s safety.” Dick crosses his arms. Damian grumbles but adds: “Todd’s as well.”

“Everyone get to bed,” Dick orders. “Bruce and Jason should be fine for the night, they’re both in bed and asleep.”

Tim heads to his old room without complaint. He texts Steph and Cass on the way.

Family meeting at noon tmrw come prepared for it to get ugly

Steph sends back a: Oooh spill the tea

Actually really shitty

Don’t say anything like that to dick

Cass says: Will come. Everyone okay?

Tim stares at that for a minute, then:

No ones dead yet

Should we be worried? Steph asks.

Maybe

Tim hovers his thumbs over the screen, worrying at his lip.

Recently discovered Bs been beating up Jason on the regular

Other shit also coming to light

Looks like we mightve fucked Jason up on accident

Dude wtf, Steph sends.

Explain

Too long

Have to sleep see you tmrw

He ignores Steph’s WTF TIMBERLY and texts Babs:

Jasons pissed at dick fyi

He sends her the video of the confrontation for good measure. It’s probably a breach of privacy, but at this point Tim doesn’t give a fuck.

He takes a quick shower, then sets an alarm for 11 and crawls into bed. He’s out in seconds.

------

Jason wakes up feeling like death hungover, which, somehow, is an improvement on how he’d been feeling before.

There’s a blanket draped over him, but he’s still dressed in the sweats and hoodie he’d thrown on after showering in the cave. His head is supported by a pillow—

No. Not a pillow.

Probably Bruce’s shoulder, he thinks, and immediately wants to jump off a fucking cliff.

He realizes Bruce is carding a hand through his hair and almost starts crying again.

“Jay?” Bruce murmurs, his hand halting.

Jason tries to muster up the energy to open his eyes or move, but—

He’s a fuckin’ infant.

He lies still.

Bruce starts running his fingers over Jason’s scalp again, just like he would when Jason was a scrawny little shit.

Eventually, Bruce says: “I know you’re awake.”

Jason tenses for a moment, but Bruce doesn’t push him away, so he just grunts and shifts so the gauze on his head isn’t tugging at his skin anymore.

He hates himself so. Fucking. Much.

“How are you feeling?”

Jason grunts again, noncommittal, and tries to fall back asleep. He figures he might be able to manage it. Batman might as well not even exist, right now. B is 100% Bruce.

“We should go eat something,” Bruce says. “You’ve been asleep for nearly twelve hours.”

Jason jerks in surprise, scrubbing at his face as he scrambles out of the bed. “What?”

Bruce is looking up at him bemusedly. “It’s almost ten. You slept all night.”

“Fuck you,” Jason retorts automatically. “The hell I did.”

Bruce groans like an old man as he rises stiffly to his feet. He looks at Jason balefully. “Next time, could you fall asleep on a bed?”

“What the fuck,” Jason manages.

“I’m too old to carry you,” he says. “Even with Dick’s help.”

What the fuck.

“I’m not as young as I once was, Jaylad.”

Bruce has a soft sort of look on his face, like he used to when Jason was scrawny and little and something about it digs into Jason, biting deep.

He should’ve had this all along, he realizes. If it wasn’t for Joker, and Talia, and his own fucking self, he could’ve had this for years. But he can’t, not anymore, ‘cause he’s fucked everything up, hasn’t he? And Bruce has other kids now, so many other kids that he loves and that love him and that haven’t tried to kill him or each other, that haven’t tried to make Bruce kill, make him destroy himself, that haven’t pissed all over everything he stands for, that haven’t gone on murder sprees in his city, painted his streets red with the blood of men he thought redeemable, and some of it’s Jason’s fault, yeah, but not all of it, and it’s not fair that he doesn’t get to have this, this soft Bruce with stubble and bedhead.

It’s not fair.

And it’s fucking stupid that he’s upset about this, he’s not a little kid, he doesn’t need Bruce, he doesn’t, he was fine before all this, he’d gotten over it, he’d moved on. This isn’t fair.

There’s green at the edges of his vision. Not a ton, but more than the Pit’s shown up in a good few weeks. It’s not that bad. He barely would’ve noticed, except Bruce reels back, one hand snapping up to press against his chest, eyes wide with alarm. “Jason,” he says. “What—”

“Oh, fuck no,” Jason nearly growls, and storms out of the room and towards the stairs. No way in hell he’s having that conversation. He’s too fucking tired. He moves so fast the headache’s building by the time Bruce manages to scramble out of bed and stumble down the stairs after him.

“Jason,” he repeats. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Jason shoves his way into the kitchen. Coffee. Coffee makes everything better.

“It’s not—nothing,” Bruce struggles to find words, frustrated. Angry, probably. “I know, I can feel it.”

Jason can’t remember where the bag of coffee grounds is, so he starts yanking cupboards open at random. He dumps some into the machine when he finds it, barely remembering to put a filter in first.

“Jason,” Bruce says again, almost pleading. He’s breathing fast, hand still clutched to his chest like his heart’s about to fail. “What’s wrong? Did something happen? Is—”

Jason slams the coffee machine closed and starts it, then closes his eyes, leaning his weight on the counter, head down. He does his fuckin’ breathing exercises, feels the green recede. “Nothing’s wrong,” he says finally. Well, lots of things are wrong, but. “That just—” he exhales, dragging his hair off his forehead. “That just happens.”

“It felt like—”

“I know what it fuckin’ feels like,” Jason snaps. He starts grabbing things out of the nearly empty fridge, trying to keep his hands busy. It feels like there’s someone else inside you, clawing around in there, scraping away at your ribs and the inside of your skull, echoing all your worst thoughts, feeding all the hate you have until it’s bigger than anything else, until it’s all that’s left, until it turns outward and you spill all that hate and rage out like acid, turning everything sour and sick and burning ugly, bleeding holes through anything you ever gave a shit about.

It feels like the end of the goddamn world, is what it feels like.

“That’s the Lazarus Pit, isn’t it?” Yeah, Bruce. It’s the fucking Lazarus Pit. “Is it—is it always that bad?”

Jason starts so hard he almost drops a full carton of eggs on the floor. He turns to look at Bruce, incredulous. Bad?

“Is it always that bad?” Bruce repeats, voice quiet but urgent, like he’s worried, like he thinks—

Oh, fuck, Jason is laughing. He’s laughing harder than he has in years, arm curled around his bruised ribs. Bruce is looking at him like he’s about to implode and Jason’s head is pounding, his ribs are screaming at him, but he can’t make himself stop. “You think,” he wheezes. “You think that’s bad?” He knows it’s not funny, but—

It’s just—

“Jason,” Bruce says, like he’s hurt. Like he’s trying to help. He’s got a hand curled around his own ribs, even though it’s not his ribs that are bruised and he’s the one who fucking bruised Jason’s, but it’s his voice that pulls Jason out of it. Bruce’s voice, saying his name like it’s worth something, like Bruce cares

He shoves the thought out of his head viciously. Shoves away the image of Bruce soft with sleep, the feeling of his fingers carding through Jason’s hair. The old man’s going to kick him right back out of the city as soon as he has an excuse, most likely with a few broken bones and a never come back for good measure. Maybe this time he’ll be banned from the whole eastern seaboard, just to avoid a repeat of this incident.

Bruce knows it. Jason knows it. Everyone in the goddamn family knows it.

He grits his teeth.

The least the bastard can do is not fucking lie about it.

The green is back at the edges of his vision, creeping in, and it’s been a long time since Jason first wrestled it under control, a long time since it’s been anything other than tightly leashed, but today, today he’s going to let it go for a minute.

He’ll be fucking honest. Maybe Bruce will learn something new.

Jason exhales, and drops the leash.

Bruce makes a strangled, terrified sort of sound and staggers into the wall when it hits him. He slides down to the ground, lungs heaving, and then he roars.

The sound of pure rage fills the kitchen, maybe even the whole fucking manor, as Bruce screams himself hoarse, hands fisted in his hair, knuckles white. He screams until he’s out of air, then pants, lungs heaving for a long four count.

Jason just watches him. The Pit is thrumming in his veins, eager for a fight. Jason cocks his head. “Huh,” he says, “I thought you were better than that.”

Bruce looks up at him slowly, a feral, predatory tilt to his head.

“You want to take that out on something, old man? The Replacement makes a good punching bag, you know. Screams real pretty.”

There’s a low, rumbling sort of growl coming from deep in Bruce’s chest as he rises to his feet, wrathful gaze locked on Jason.

Jason bares his teeth in a savage smile. “If you take it slow, you can get him begging eventually. Tears and snot and everything.”

Bruce’s mouth twists, anger and hate and violence marring his usually stoic face. The growling gets louder and the hair on the back of Jason’s neck stands up. For the first time, he understands the terror he inspired in Gotham’s underworld all those years ago and it knocks a bit of sense back into him.

The Pit is urging him forward, itching for blood, but he ignores it and tries to think through the haze of rage and pain. His ribs are aching and his head is pounding and half his fingers are still splinted and, a little distantly, Jason realizes that this was a bad idea.

The coffee machine beeps, finished, and Jason shifts at the noise, surprised. In the split second of distraction, Bruce lunges.

A few years ago, Jason would’ve been completely overcome by the bloodlust, by the Pit’s harsh reminders of all the shit Bruce has pulled over the years, but not anymore. He’s older now. Wiser. Maybe just used to tuning it out. He sucks in a deep breath and closes his eyes, pulls back from the gaping chasm of green in his head.

He’s got about a second of clarity to realize that this mistake might very well be his last, and then Bruce is on him.

There’s nothing Jason can do, really, except try and roll with the punches. He’s hurting too bad, and he—he doesn’t want to hurt Bruce. Not really. Not when the Pit isn’t screaming at him. Not when this is all his fucking fault. So he just lets it happen and prays Bruce shakes the Pit out of his head before he kills him.

Jesus, he’s stupid.

Bruce grabs him by the collar and slams a knee into his ribs, once, twice, then slams his bare fist into Jason’s jaw. Jason’s hands come up on reflex, trying to protect his head, but that must piss him off more, ‘cause he grabs Jason by a wrist and throws him in an arc that ends with Jason’s ribs slamming into the edge of the island with a sickening crack.

Jason must lose a bit of time, then, because the next thing he knows, he’s faceup on the floor, Bruce’s unmovable weight pinning his hips. He rolls with the first punch, is mostly out of it for the second, and then Bruce’s hands wrap around his throat and the panic wakes him up.

“Bruce,” he wheezes. “Br—Bruce.”

He gets his hands around one of Bruce’s wrists but he’s not budging and Jason’s getting weaker by the second.

Jesus fuck, he thinks as everything starts to go blurry and gray. I’m a moron.

And then the pressure around his neck is gone, and so is the weight on his hips, and Jason’s lungs heave desperately, pulling in air as fast as they can. He rolls onto his side and tries to get his hands under him but doesn’t quite manage it. He sucks in some more air, then coughs, gags, tries to get up again, and collapses back onto the floor.

------

Bruce comes back to himself with his hands wrapped around his son’s neck, choking the life out of him. He shoves himself back in a panic, careening backwards into the cabinets as Jason— oh God, Jason, Jason, what did I—gasps on the kitchen floor. Bruce doesn’t understand—he doesn’t—why—

—there’s something blocking Jason from view?

“Tim?” Bruce blinks up at the boy and then his muscles seize and the world goes white and the next thing he knows, he’s lying on his side, face pressed against the cabinets with his hands cuffed behind his back.

He tries to shift, then realizes that his ankles are cuffed. And linked to his wrists.

This is bad. This is—

“What the fuck, baby bird??”

Jason.

“He was hurting you—”

“That was my fault—”

“Jason,” Bruce manages, trying to shift, to turn. He needs to see if he’s alright.

“Your fault? What, are we in Stockholm territory already?”

“No! Would you fucking listen to me for once?”

“Jason.” He can’t move. He’s cuffed too tight and he doesn’t have any leverage and—

“He had his hands around your neck—”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“Jason!” Bruce yells, panicked, yanking at the cuffs desperately.

“Fine. But the cuffs are staying on until—"

“Okay, okay.”

And then Jason’s right behind him. “Hey, B,” he says. “Calm the fuck down.”

“Jason?” Bruce asks, twisting to try and get a look at him.

“Yeah, it’s me, old man. Hold on.” There’s a click and the cuffs linking Bruce’s ankles release. Bruce scrambles to his knees gracelessly, banging his head against the cabinets, and then he’s turned around.

Jason’s crouched down in front of him, alive and awake, but he’s hurt and there’s a sick feeling in Bruce’s stomach that’s telling him he did this, that the marks on his son were made by Bruce’s hands.

A noise escapes from his throat that barely sounds human, a terrible keening sort of moan. He tries to reach out towards his son, but his hands are still cuffed and he moans again, eyes tracking over the bruises blooming across Jason’s skin.

“Hell of a come-down, I know.” Jason’s tone is light, but his voice is rough and painful sounding. There’s fresh blood on his face, and the cuts on his wrists have reopened. His neck—oh, God, his neck—

“What—I don’t—why—”

“Yeah, sorry.” Jason grimaces. “My bad.”

Bruce shakes his head desperately. Jason shouldn’t be apologizing. He shouldn’t—

“To be honest, I thought—” Jason cuts himself off, shaking his head. “I didn’t think it would affect you like that.”

Bruce just shakes his head again. “Jason,” he says and his voice wavers, breaks.

“Oh fuck,” Jason says and Bruce feels his thrum of panic. “Don’t cry. Jesus. Don’t—”

Bruce’s breath hitches again and he can feel the tears running down his face and he just wants to be able to touch Jason, to make sure he’s solid and real and alive.

“Replacement,” Jason is hissing. “Come on, you jackass. Look at him!”

“Bruce.”

Bruce blinks at the voice, confused. “Tim?”

Jason’s gone, and Tim’s crouched in front of him instead. There’s a hard look on the boy’s face and Bruce doesn’t understand, he—

“Why did you hurt Jason?”

Shaking his head, Bruce swallows hard, manages: “I don’t know. It was green and I was so angry and I don’t—”

“Christ, Tim, just let him go! I told you what happened. It was my fault.”

“Yeah, like you’re a reliable source in this situation,” Tim mutters, but the cuffs click and release Bruce’s hands.

He wobbles to his feet like a newborn colt and makes a B-line for Jason. His hands ghost over his skull, hovering over the fresh bruises starting to color the left side of his face, then tugs up his shirt to survey the damage to his ribs.

“Jesus, B,” Jason complains as Bruce shifts his assessment to his battered hands. His wrist is sprained, or maybe broken. There’s an outline of Bruce’s hand wrapped around it, but Bruce doesn’t remember how it got there. “Calm down. This is nowhere near the worst I’ve come away from one of our fights.”

As focused as Bruce is on his son’s injuries, the words take a second to register. When they do, his hands still over Jason’s wrist. He looks up slowly. “…What?”

Jason’s expression is hard to read, and he’s not getting anything through the link. He doesn’t look upset. Mostly just… amused?

“Jason,” Bruce says, dread curling in the pit of his stomach. “What do you mean?”

Jason huffs, pulls his hands away to cross his arms over his chest. “I mean you’ve worked me over way worse than this,” Jason says, like it’s a fact, like it’s barely worth mentioning. “Why are you being weird?”

Bruce’s eyes slip to the ugly ring of bruises circling Jason’s neck. He feels like he can see the outlines of his fingers gaining clarity every second. The dark imprints of his thumbs are already stark against the skin of Jason’s throat. He can’t have—it doesn’t—

“When?” he manages through his own tightening throat. “When did—”

“Are you serious, right now?” Jason says incredulously. “That batarang? And the night I shot Penguin?”

“That was—” Bruce swallows hard. “That was different. I didn’t—You weren’t this badly hurt. You were in armor.”

Jason’s brow creases. Bruce can’t tell the feelings apart. He doesn’t know what’s his and what’s Jason’s, there’s just a tangled mess of hurt-guilt-anger-grief-pain.

“I didn’t hurt you this bad,” Bruce repeats. “I’ve never hurt you this bad.”

That was maybe the wrong thing to say. Jason’s jaw clenches tight and Bruce feels a faint thrum of that same awful rage, roaring in his head, through his chest. “Bullshit,” Jason snaps. He jerks up his chin, exposing the soft underside of his throat. There’s a thick, ragged scar there, usually hidden by shadow. “I almost bled out that night. I couldn’t talk for weeks. Ra’s dragged me back to Nanda Parbat and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it, I was so weak.”

Bruce’s eyes are locked on the scar. He’s shaking his head desperately. He didn’t—It wasn’t that deep. He’d just—He’d just grazed him. “I didn’t—”

“What, you want to see my x-rays, then, old man?” Jason practically spits. “They had to put a fucking plate in my skull. I had six seizures. One of my ribs was broken in four places. Jesus.” He scrubs a hand through his hair, over his face. “Never hurt me this bad, my ass. The fuck are you smoking?”

“You killed Penguin,” Bruce says desperately, grasping for some sense of normality.

Jason just scoffs, crossing his arms again. “Is he dead?”

“You meant to kill him, you—”

“No, he didn’t.”

Bruce jerks his head to the side.

Dick’s standing inside the doorway.

------

“It’s all just a mess, Alfred,” Dick says after recapping the last few days. His knuckles are white against the steering wheel. “I don’t know what to do.”

Alfred is silent for a long while and Dick’s heart sinks. He can’t bring himself to look over.

“Richard,” he says finally. “My dear boy.” The old man takes a deep breath. “I am so very sorry. This should not be your burden to carry. The weight of this family should not rest on your shoulders nearly so much as it does.”

Dick swallows, blinking back tears. He can’t cry. He’s driving.

Alfred just sighs. “I daresay that if we are to have a noon meeting, we had better have a noon meal. Would you like to go to the grocer’s with me, or shall I drop you at the manor?”

“I’d love to go with you but…”

“But you’re worried for your brothers. It’s quite alright.”

Dick nods tightly, trying to even out his breathing. They’re almost home.

“You’ll be alright, my dear boy,” Alfred says softly, “and so will your brothers. You are all strong, resilient, capable individuals. No matter what happens, you will be alright.”

“Okay,” Dick breathes, pulling into the manor’s long drive. “Okay. Thank you.”

“You are very welcome.”

Dick stops in front of the house and gets out, then wraps Alfred in a tight hug.

“There, now,” Alfred says calmly, but when he pulls back his eyes are shining. “You go check on your brothers. I’ll be back in a jiff to make lunch.”

Dick nods and wipes his eyes. He pulls out his phone as he starts up the steps.

There’s an unread message from Tim, five minutes old.

Kitchen ASAP. May need to contain B.

Fuck.

Dick sprints up the stairs to the door, yanks it open—

—skids to a halt to avoid bowling over his littlest brother.

“They’re in the kitchen,” Damian says. He looks pale. Shaken. “Drake says the situation is under control for the moment and calm must be maintained.”

Okay. That’s—better than he was expecting. He pulls Dami into a tight hug. “Are you okay?”

“Tt.” The boy doesn’t pull away. “I am fine. Go to the kitchen.”

Dick frowns. “Are you—”

“I will not join you,” Damian says stiffly. “I do not desire to see Father in—in his current state. And my presence is unnecessary.”

“Okay,” Dick says softly. “Okay, Dami. It’s going to be alright, okay?”

Damian nods once, sharp. “Go.”

Dick goes. When he gets to the kitchen, he seriously reconsiders lowering his opinion of Tim’s judgement. This is not what he would call ‘under control.’

Jason and Bruce are face to face in front of the island and Dick nearly chokes when he sees the blood on Jason’s face, the darkening handprints curled around his neck. Jason’s yelling—

“—a fucking plate in my skull. I had six seizures. One of my—

—and Bruce looks like he’s about to collapse or maybe start sobbing—

“—ribs was broken in four places—”

—and Tim is staring at the scene wide-eyed. He glances away as Dick steps through the door and nearly melts in relief.

“Jesus,” Jason swears, scrubbing a hand through his hair, over his face. “Never hurt me this bad, my ass. The fuck are you smoking?”

“You killed Penguin,” Bruce says, and Dick knows that’s not true, Bruce knows that’s not true.

“Is he dead?” Dick wants to shake Jason by the shoulders, scream in his face: just tell him. Just fucking tell him.

“You meant to kill him, you—”

“No, he didn’t,” Dick says, because he can’t let this stand, he can’t let Jason keep this secret, not when it’s tearing them all further apart.

Bruce turns to look at him, eyes wide and wild. Dick ignores him, looks at Jason instead.

“It was a blank,” Dick says. “Barbara checked the records.”

“How—” Bruce sounds wrecked. Dick doesn’t look at him. He can’t.

“The important question here,” Tim interjects. “Is why? The cameras, the gun, the whole thing was set up to make it look like you killed Penguin. Why?”

“Does it matter?” Jason snaps.

“It might,” Tim says levelly.

“Jason?” Bruce asks and Jason looks up to meet his gaze for a moment, then down at the floor. “Please. I don’t—I don’t understand.”

Jason stares at the floor for a long moment, jaw working, then exhales slowly. “I was getting closer to—to being part of the team, I guess. Part of the family. And wanted—” He shakes his head, lips thin. “I needed to know if it was real. If you actually trusted me, even a little. Or if nothing had really changed and…” Jason’s shoulders lift half-heartedly, then slump.

“It was a test,” Tim says.

Jason scowls, eyes still fixed on the floor. “That makes it sound shitty. I just needed to know.”

“A leap of faith, then,” Dick says quietly, heart plummeting. And we didn’t catch you.

“A leap of faith,” Jason echoes. “Yeah. I guess. Only Artemis and Bizarro were my net and—” His voice dies. “Well. I’m lucky Roy was in town.” He shakes his head, shoulders tense. “I didn’t think it was going to go down like that. I thought—I thought it would be a trip to Arkham, and Artemis and Biz were going to get me out before I was ever even in a cell, and then we’d just—” He falls silent, shakes his head again.

Jesus.

“Jason,” Bruce manages, his voice mangled and barely coherent. He reaches out and Jason takes a swift step to the side, out of reach.

“I can’t do this,” he says forcefully. “I can’t—”

“Jason—” Bruce tries again.

“NO.” He’s shaking his head furiously. His eyes are—have they always been that green? “You don’t just get to decide to talk. I wanted to talk a fucking year ago and you tried to beat me to death instead, you psychopathic piece of shit—”

Bruce’s posture is shifting into something that sends chills down Dick’s spine. His mouth twists into a feral sort of snarl and Dick steps forward, hackles raised, but Tim pushes past him.

“Stop! Stop it! Jason, what are you doing?”

Jason flinches. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and the aggression melts out of Bruce’s stance like ice in the summer heat. He shakes his head like a dog in the rain, eyes clouded with confusion.

“What the fuck was that?” Dick asks, his voice sounding hysterical even to his own ears.

Jason just stares at the floor, jaw clenched tight.

“That was the Lazarus Pit,” Tim says quietly, eyes locked on Jason’s face. “Wasn’t it?”

Another flinch. Bruce gives one last, full-body shake, then lurches to the sink.

“Yeah,” Jason says over the sound of retching. “Yeah, that’s the Pit.”

“When?” Dick asks, feeling numb. “How?”

“Talia chucked me in a while after I woke up,” Jason says, voice clipped.

“Why?” Tim asks. He’s standing right in front of Jason, like he’s trying to get him to look up.

Jason shifts uneasily, then glances up at the younger boy. “Honestly?” he says. “Pretty sure she wanted me to kill you. And then she wanted Dick to kill me.”

“What.”

Dick’s head jerks around at the sound. Fuck. “Dami—”

“No,” Damian snaps, eyes flashing dangerously. “Repeat that, Todd. What did my mother want you to do?”

Jason’s shoulders are tense. He looks at Dick, eyes panicky. “I swear I didn’t know he was there. I wouldn’t have—”

“I am not a child,” Damian snarls, stalking up to Jason and pushing Tim out of his way. “How do you know my mother? Why did she wish for you to kill Drake?”

Jason just shakes his head, lips pressed together.

Damian lashes out faster than Dick can react to, the heel of his palm slamming into Jason’s ribs. “ANSWER ME!” he screams, and Dick grabs him around the middle, hauling him away, but it’s too late. Jason goes down hard, smacking his head against the floor.

Bruce starts vomiting into the sink again, Damian’s screaming in indecipherable Arabic, Jason’s gasping on the floor while Tim tries to coach him through getting air back into his lungs, Dick’s pretty sure he can feel tears rolling down his cheeks, and that’s when Babs, Steph, and Cass come in.

Chapter Text

“This fucking family,” Steph says, equal parts exasperated and incredulous. “I swear to God.”

“TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW!” Damian demands loudly, three inches from Dick’s ear. He nearly loses his grip as the boy writhes angrily, but Steph strides over and, faced with superior numbers, Damian mostly gives up on escape in favor of screaming incoherently, giving Dick a second to breathe and glance around the room. Jason is still on the floor, Tim is crouched over him checking his ribs, Cass is guiding Bruce into a chair, then turning back to help Tim with Jason—

“What is the meaning of this? Damian Wayne, stop that noise this instant!”

And there’s Alfred.

Damian stops screaming. Tim and Cass haul Jason to his feet. Once they deposit him into a chair, his eyes land on Alfred almost immediately.

“Hey, Alfie,” Jason says unsteadily, “it’s been,” pausing to wheeze a breath between every few words, “a while.” He’s looking up at Alfred with something halfway between adoration and bewilderment, but his eyes aren’t focusing right, and Dick feels panic welling up in his chest. How hard did he hit his head?

Alfred’s face softens immediately, and he steps over to stand in front of his injured grandson. “Master Jason,” he says, voice soft and fond and terribly sad. “What’ve you done to yourself now?”

And that’s all it takes to tip Jason over the edge. Tears start rolling down his face, his breath hitches, and his shoulders start to shake. “Alf,” he manages between wheezing sobs.

“Oh, my dear boy,” Alfred says, cradling Jason’s bruised and bleeding face in his hands, “how I’ve missed you.” He looks up at Tim. “Master Timothy, would you please ring Dr. Thompkins? I believe we are in need of her services.”

Jason’s still crying, so Alfred pulls his head forward and Jason buries his face in Alfred’s white shirt as the old man cards his fingers through his hair and murmurs soothingly.

“Leslie’s on her way,” Tim says. “She’ll be here in fifteen. Says to get him cleaned up as much as we can before that.”

“Very well,” Alfred says. “Jason,” he says gently. “I need to prepare lunch. Who would you like to accompany you to the cave for medical attention?”

“Bruce,” Jason says immediately, voice thick and muffled by Alfred’s shirt.

“Other than Master Bruce,” Alfred says, an edge to his voice that wasn’t there before. “Two others.”

“…Tim.”

“Alright. One more. Master Richard?”

Jason shakes his head, managing a garbled, “fuck no.” Dick flinches, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes tightly. A gentle hand tugs one away and laces his fingers with their own.

Babs. Dick glances at her quickly, then looks away. He hasn’t talked to her yet and he should, but he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want the way she looks at him to change, but he fucked up, Jesus, he fucked up. God, he’s so fucking selfish—

“I’ll go,” Stephanie says, interrupting Dick’s spiraling thoughts.

Alfred levels an assessing look at her, lips pressed thin. “Miss Stephanie?” he asks Jason.

The younger man shrugs nearly imperceptibly. “Miss Stephanie,” Alfred decides. “Go on, now. You must get those injuries tended to.”

Jason heaves a long, shuddering breath and then nods, pulling back. “Alf,” he croaks. “Your shirt.”

“It’s quite alright, my boy,” Alfred says, not even glancing at the blood-stained button-down. “I’ve always disliked this one.”

Jason just nods blearily, and Dick doesn’t understand why he’s accepting the obvious lie, he doesn’t—

Jason tries to stand and nearly falls over.

Jesus.

“Easy,” Tim says, catching him. “Easy, big guy.”

“B,” Jason says, a little desperately. “B.”

“I’m here,” Bruce says, suddenly right at Jason’s side.

“What’s,” Jason swallows, “wrong with me?”

“Your head,” Bruce says gently, voice thick. “You hit your head again.”

“Oh,” he says.

Stephanie ducks under his other arm to help Tim, and then they’re moving.

“Oof,” Steph huffs. “You weigh like eight hundred pounds.”

Jason mumbles something Dick can’t make out, but a startled laugh bursts out of Tim as they make their way out of the room and towards the cave, Bruce trailing after them.

“If you would be so kind,” Alfred says, pulling Dick’s attention back to the room, “to bring in the groceries from the car, I will go change and then prepare lunch. Miss Gordon, I’ve been told you have a presentation prepared? Feel free to set up wherever you believe is best.”

------

Bruce ends up carrying Jason. He’s too tall and too heavy for Tim and Steph to manage easily, especially when his balance is so off. And he’s quickly running out of oxygen.

“Thought you said,” Jason wheezes, “you were,” Tim starts looking for an oxygen tank, “too old to,” he’s going to better organize the medical area, this is ridiculous, “carry me,” Bruce sets him down on the stretcher, “old man?”

Bruce shushes him gently. “Don’t try to talk. Tim?”

“Got it!” Tim drags the tank over and adjusts the output, then holds an oxygen mask to Jason’s face.

The older boy reaches up to bat at Tim’s hand weakly, but Bruce laces their fingers together instead. He murmurs something that Tim can’t make out.

“It’s alright,” Bruce says. “It’s alright, Jay. I’m here.”

Steph drops some supplies on a nearby cart and they get to work cleaning up as much as they can before Leslie gets there.

Bruce starts cleaning the blood off his face. Steph unwraps the ruined bandages and splints from his hands. Tim cuts the black sweatshirt he’s wearing off of him to get a look at his ribs.

Christ,” Steph swears when she sees the mottled layers of bruising. “Who the fuck did he fight, Killer Crock?”

Bruce flinches hard, his hand jerking away from Jason’s bruised and swollen face. He mutters something incomprehensible and retreats to the storage cabinets.

“He fought Bruce,” Tim says, low enough so the older man shouldn’t be able to hear. “Or, well. Bruce fought him. Twice.”

“Jesus.”

“To be fair,” Tim glances to make sure Bruce is still rummaging in the cabinets, “the second time wasn’t really Bruce’s fault. And the concussion was partially Damian.”

“Jesus,” Steph repeats.

“I told you it was ugly.”

“B?” Jason mutters, brow crinkling in concern. He tries to push himself up on his elbows when Bruce doesn’t answer. “B!”

“He’s fine, Jason. Lie back down.”

“B?” He pushes against Tim’s hands, the oxygen mask pulled away from his face. “Bruce!”

“I’m here.” Bruce’s voice sounds like he’s been gargling broken glass. It’s nearly as bad as Jason’s. “I’m here, Jaylad, what’s wrong?”

“You okay?” Jason asks, slumping back onto the stretcher.

“I’m fine,” Bruce says, tugging the oxygen mask back over Jason’s face. “I’m here.”

So is Leslie. “Sitrep,” she barks as she strides through the doors.

Tim complies automatically. “Multiple blows to the head, damage to the rib cage, strangulation injuries, damage to the left wrist, and probably a lot else we missed.”

“Turn on the CT scanner,” Leslie orders. “Then get out of my way.”

Tim turns on the machine and he and Steph step back, but Bruce doesn’t move.

“Bruce,” Leslie snaps, “Out of the way.”

“Leslie,” he says, and Tim doesn’t know if he’s ever heard him sound so wrecked. “Please.”

“Tim, Steph,” she says. “Get him back.”

Bruce makes a choked noise but tugs his hand away from Jason’s and moves back. Almost instantly, Jason’s calm vanishes.

“B?” he calls out, shoving himself upright.

“Jason Peter Todd,” Leslie snaps, but he doesn’t listen at all.

“B!” he calls frantically, and Bruce is crying silently, great heaving sobs shaking his broad shoulders.

“Jason,” Leslie tries again, softer.

Jason turns to look at her. “Leslie?”

“Bruce is fine. But I need to take a look at your injuries, so he needs to step away.”

“Oh,” Jason says, voice small. “Okay. B?”

“I’m here,” Bruce manages.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay,” Jason says, a bit more clarity in his voice. “Okay. Take a nap, old man.”

Leslie presses a hand to his chest to push him back onto the stretcher and he goes down without protest.

Bruce lays down on the next stretcher over, on his side so he has a direct line of sight. “You can’t give him anything,” he tells Leslie. “We’re under a spell. Don’t know everything it does yet. Can’t risk drugs.”

“Got it,” the doctor says. “Making things difficult, as per usual.”

Tim and Steph give her more space, retreating further back and hopping up on one of the workbenches to wait.

“When you said ugly,” Stephanie says finally, pitched low enough only he can hear. “This is not what I expected.”

Tim huffs a humorless laugh. “Yeah. It’s been a shitty couple days.”

“Recap me.”

Exhaling audibly, Tim nods. He starts all the way at the beginning, from when Bruce first dragged Jason out of the Batmobile’s trunk.

“Well, fuck,” Steph says when he’s done. “You could’ve called. Cass and I would’ve come to back you up.”

Tim shrugs. “I didn’t want to crowd him. He’s tense enough around me and Damian, and he knows you guys even less.”

Steph hums, noncommittal. “He used to bring me waffles, sometimes,” she says, almost reluctantly, and Tim jerks to look at her, surprised. “Before Bruce disowned him or whatever. We ran into each other once at a diner and after that, he’d stop by sometimes with waffles if he knew I was stressed, during midterms or finals or whatever.”

“You never said anything.”

Steph shrugs. “He never stayed. Most of the time I never even saw him. They’d just be in my fridge when I got back from patrol. Everybody was always so paranoid about him, I figured you’d think he was threatening me or something, by breaking in. I didn’t want him to get hassled for it. They were good waffles.”

“Did Cass know?”

“Yeah,” Steph says. “She tried to approach him a couple times on patrol. Curious, I think. But he avoided her like the plague. Cass says he’s afraid of her.”

Cass is, objectively, terrifying, but the idea of being afraid of her still throws Tim for a loop.

“I know, right? Hard to wrap your head around. She said he must’ve spent time with the League. He called her that weird name they have for her.”

The One Who is All. Yeah, that tracks.

Leslie’s finishing up the scan. Almost done, then.

“Still hard for me to picture Bruce doing that,” Steph says, eyes locked on Jason. “I get that it wasn’t, like, really him, but. Still.”

Tim swallows. He thinks about Jason’s defensive posture, the way he said: you’ve worked me over way worse than this, why are you being weird? “I think we’re going to have to get used to the idea.”

Steph looks troubled, but Tim doesn’t have any reassurances to give her. “Looks like Leslie’s finishing up,” she says finally. “I’m going to head back upstairs. Make sure everybody’s filled in.”

Tim nods and she hops down from the bench. “Good idea. Check on Dick for me?”

His phone buzzes as she walks away. Speak of the devil.

Ready whenever

Eta?

Almost done

“No fighting,” Leslie is saying, looming over Jason. “No running. No motorcycles. If I thought for a second you’d do it, I’d tell you to stay in bed.”

“Yeah, yeah—”

“I’m serious, Jason,” Leslie says, intense. “You’re damn lucky you don’t have serious brain damage. You hit your head again before it heals? Say goodbye to higher motor functions.”

Jason doesn’t answer, but he nods stiffly and somehow that satisfies Leslie.

“Try to be careful with your vocal chords. You can talk, but don’t sing. Don’t yell. You’ve got enough scar tissue that permanent vocal damage is something to worry about.”

Jason nods again and Leslie stares at him for a second, then sighs, drops a hand onto his shoulder.

“It’s good to see you, Jay,” she says softly, and Tim feels very uncomfortable listening in all of a sudden. “Stop by sometime when you aren’t grievously injured.”

“Yeah,” Jason rasps quietly. “Yeah, okay.”

Once Leslie packs up and heads out. Jason stretches his battered body back out on the angled stretcher. He lies perfectly still, head tipped back to stare at the cave’s dark ceiling. Something about it reminds Tim of the way he sat in the cell, at the beginning of all this, covered in his own blood. The stillness had unsettled him then, and it still does, but it’s a different kind of unsettling. He looks sad, Tim realizes, when he holds still. It’s a bone-deep sad, the kind that hooks in and drags you down surer than lead. Tim wonders how long he’s looked like that, how long he’s been drowning without anyone realizing.

He wonders what it says about them, that they never even took a second look.

“We should head upstairs,” Tim says eventually, voice echoing harshly in the silent cave.

“Nah. B’s sleeping.”

Tim glances at the stretcher Bruce is lying on, motionless. “We called a meeting. Everyone’s waiting.”

Jason shifts, just slightly. “A meeting about what?” Tim doesn’t answer. Jason sits up. “If it’s about the Pit,” he says slowly. “I can control it. This morning, I just—it’s stupid, but I did it on purpose—”

“Jason,” Tim interrupts. “The meeting’s not about the Pit. It’s about how Bruce’s been treating you.”

Jason shoots him a confused look.

“Babs found footage from your fight the night you shot Penguin. Hospital records, too.”

Silence hangs heavy in the cave for a long moment. “Tim,” Jason says finally, voice flat. “I don’t want to talk about that shit.”

“That’s okay,” Tim assures him. “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to.”

Jason’s shaking his head. “This is—” Jason falters, and something desperate and scared and very, very young makes it on to his face for a second before he shuts it down. “This is the best Bruce and I have gotten along since before I died,” he says harshly. “I can’t—I don’t want—”

“Jason,” Tim says, trying to be gentle but having a hard time not leaning into incredulous. “He beat the shit out of you three days ago.”

“And?” Jason says defensively. “We’re talking—”

“Jason, Damian lives here.”

He scoffs. “Come on, he wouldn’t hurt Damian.”

“Do you know that? Because four days ago, I would’ve said he’d never hurt you. Not like that.”

“He didn’t—”

“If you try and tell me he didn’t hurt you that bad, Jason, so help me.”

Jason pauses for a moment, then says: “He knows I can take it, that’s all. He wouldn’t—”

“Jason,” Tim interrupts, feeling slightly ill, “come on. You know this isn’t right. I know it’s hard and I know you’re scared, but we have to talk about this. We have to.”

After a long minute, voice small, Jason says: “Do I have to be there?”

Tim frowns. “Well,” he says. “Bruce definitely does, so.”

There are deep lines of tension around his eyes when Jason finally nods. “Okay,” he says, so quiet that Tim almost doesn’t hear him. “Okay,” he repeats, a little louder, then takes a deep breath and eases off the stretcher and onto his feet.

“Hey, old man,” he says softly, nudging Bruce’s shoulder. “Up and at ‘em.”

Bruce blinks awake slowly, eyes settling on Jason’s face for a moment, then glancing around the cave before landing on Tim. “Meeting?” he asks him.

Tim nods. “Everybody’s ready upstairs.”

Bruce gets to his feet, scrubs a hand through his unwashed hair. “Is Alfred join—?” Bruce cuts himself off, glances worriedly towards Jason.

“What?” Jason says impassively. He’s holding himself stiffly. He must be in a lot of pain.

“Yeah,” Tim answers. “Alfred’s joining.”

“Can we just get this over with?” Jason snaps.

Bruce winces almost imperceptibly, but nods. “Let’s go.”

------

Everybody is waiting in the small family dining room off the kitchen. It’s a good spot. A relaxing spot for most of them. Tim thought that would include Jason, but he’s tense and jumpy looking when he takes the seat Dick ushers him to, nearly as far away from Bruce as possible, so maybe not.

Nothing they can do about it now. They eat in silence, tension thick in the air. When everyone’s done and the table’s cleared, Barbara hands out mismatched tablets to everyone except Jason. She must’ve figured he doesn’t need or want to look at his own medical records.

“Is everybody caught up on the current situation?” Tim asks.

“Yes,” Cass says. “Magic leash. Bruce feels Jason’s pain.”

“’Bout sums it up.” It’s the sort of line Dick would normally laugh more than speak, but his attempt at his infamous megawatt smile barely lasts a second and is more of a grimace than a grin.

Tim clears his throat. “Alright, let’s go then. Barbara?”

The redhead nods at Tim, looking just as grim as Dick. She opens her mouth to start, but she’s cut off before she gets a single word out.

“I have a question for Todd.”

“Damian—”

“No, Grayson,” the kid snaps. “I was told this meeting was called to clear up miscommunication and a lack of forthrightness within the family. Is that not our purpose?”

Tim glances at Dick and Babs for direction, but neither of them looks prepared to answer. “Yes,” Tim says. “In a sense, I guess that’s the point of this.”

Damian nods sharply. “Then I have an issue I would like to address.” He turns his head, looking down the table towards Jason. “Todd, what was the meaning of the statement you made this morning?”

Jason, who’d been fiddling with the cuffs of his sweatshirt, looks up with guarded eyes. He glances at Bruce, then Dick.

“I have a right to know,” Damian says sharply, shutting down the protest Dick was no doubt preparing. “My mother is… a complicated woman. I have understood that for a long time.” When this is met with further silence, Damian bristles in irritation, his eyes flashing. “So our purpose is not forthrightness then?”

“Listen, kid,” Jason says awkwardly. “I wouldn’t have said it like that if I’d known you were there—"

Damian hisses something in Arabic and Jason cuts himself off. He glances at Bruce and Dick again.

Before either of them has a chance to respond, Cass speaks up. “No lies,” she says quietly. “No secrets.”

Jason looks to Bruce again. The older man nods stiffly.

“Fine,” Jason says, crossing his arms over his chest. He stares at the table, brow furrowed, like he’s finding a place to start. Finally, he says: “I came out of the Lazarus Pit more than half mad. I wanted blood. I wanted Bruce’s blood.” His gaze flicks up to Damian for a moment, then back to the table. “I didn’t realize then, ‘cause I didn’t know about Damian, but Talia couldn’t risk me managing to kill Batman. She needed to get Damian away from Ra’s, ASAP, and Bruce is the only one who could keep him safe. I don’t know any of this for sure, obviously. It’s not like Talia is much of a sharer. But I’ve got two theories. Number one, she was trying to buy time. The Pit rage fades, eventually. So, she sent me off to train, tried to help me gain some control.

“She could’ve killed me, instead. Probably should’ve. But she took care of me for a long time before the Pit. I guess she got… attached.” Jason shrugs awkwardly, gaze still fixed on the table. “She stalled my return to Gotham as long as she could, but I got impatient. So, she gave me more targets. Crime Alley, first. Then Tim. It wasn’t—” Jason huffs, agitated. “I don’t think she wanted him dead. Or me, or Dick. She was just . . . desperate. She had to get Damian away from Ra’s. She couldn’t stop me altogether without killing me, but if she could tie me up brawling with Tim and Dick, she gave Bruce time to figure out how to bring me around. It was easy to get me to go after Tim first, I was already foaming at the mouth at the thought of him in that costume. I figure the Red Hood gear was to increase the chances of Dick coming after me. He’d already shown he’d retaliate with extreme prejudice when Joker and Tim were involved.

“She must’ve gambled that taking over Crime Alley would give me enough time that I wouldn’t straight-up murder Tim. She was right, but it also meant I’d lost my nerve when it came to—” Jason clears his throat. “Well. It worked out alright, in the end. I didn’t kill Bruce. Damian had family enough to protect him from Ra’s.”

After a moment of heavy silence, Tim prompts: “And after?”

Jason’s jaw clenches. “Talia wasn’t impressed with the hole I tore through Gotham, but Ra’s was. He doesn’t respect brutality like he does intelligence, but I guess he thought I could be useful. He took me back to Nanda Parbat, and Talia used the distraction to get Damian out. Ra’s was . . . displeased.” Jason swallows hard, looking vaguely ill. He looks up, locking eyes with Damian. “I don’t blame her. You needed to get out of there. The League is hell for anyone, but kids?” He shakes his head, brow furrowed. “She came back, after you were safe. That’s more than she ever owed me.”

“Why didn’t she just tell me?” Bruce manages, voice tight.

Jason huffs. “Any indication that she planned to send Damian to you and Ra’s would’ve killed her. She’s not stupid.”

Bruce lowers his gaze back to the table, eyes troubled.

“So what you said before,” Dick says slowly, “about you killing Tim and me killing you?”

Jason curls in on himself slightly, black and white hair falling over his forehead. “When Talia last saw me,” he says, “when she sent me to Gotham, I was insane. I was barely human. If—” his voice cracks, and he swallows, starts again, “If it were me, with a kid’s, my kid’s, life on the line, and I was counting on his father to protect him, I’d have taken one look at how this other kid of his ended up, and I think I would’ve tried to teach him a lesson.”

He stops, taking a few deep breathes and drinking some water in small sips. He really shouldn’t be talking this much, Tim thinks, not with the damage to his throat. But there’s no way Tim’s going to make him stop now. He looks like he needs to get this out.

“So,” Jason continues after a minute. “Theory two: Talia doesn’t count on the Pit fading. How I was when I left, I would’ve beaten Tim to death without a second thought. If you didn’t know who was under the helmet,” he says, glancing up at Dick, “and the Red Hood had dropped Tim’s mutilated body on your doorstep, can you honestly say you wouldn’t have tried to kill me for it?”

“Jesus,” Dick breathes, looking pale.

“I doubt I would’ve won that fight,” Jason admits. “So, Bruce buries another Robin. And re-buries me. And maybe when Damian shows up in Gotham, there isn’t another Robin. Maybe there’s never another Robin. Theory two is: Talia saw what happened to me and decided Damian would never be safe in Gotham unless Bruce was traumatized enough to retire Robin, once and for all.”

Horrified silence fills the room. Jason just slouches into his seat, eyes locked on the table. Bruce is frozen, staring at Jason with wide eyes.

Tim swallows. Wets his lips. “Which theory,” he asks Jason, “do you believe?”

“Depends on how shitty of a day I’m having,” Jason jokes, but he looks up to meet Tim’s gaze after a beat and admits: “The first one. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m self-aware enough to know when I’m probably projecting.” He looks back down at the table. “Talia’s not stupid, and she’s not Ra’s, either. She wants Damian safe, sure, but she fuckin’ loves that kid. She wants him to be happy, too. And that doesn’t happen if the manor’s filled with ghosts. If he’s anything like his parents, it doesn’t happen if he’s sitting around twiddling his thumbs all day, either.” He shakes his head, expression unreadable, then looks at Damian. “So. Sorry for saying shit about your mom, kid. I was having a moment.”

The room is silent for a heavy, lingering second, then Damian clicks his tongue. “You are forgiven, Todd. My thanks,” he says, voice perfectly even, “for your forthrightness.”

Jason just grunts, eyes back on the table.

“Okay,” Tim says after another, more awkward silence. “Is there anything else anyone wants to bring up, or can we get started?” More silence. “Okay,” Tim repeats. “Uh, Babs?”

Barbara clears her throat. “Right. Okay. So, for anyone who didn’t already know, this meeting was, yes, called to get everyone on the same page, but mostly on Bruce’s use of excessive force against Jason.”

A low murmur rises up from the room.

“We’ve collected footage and hospital records from various confrontations over the last few years. The tablets are synched; they’ll show evidence as it comes up. We’re going to start with the night Jason shot Penguin, as there are a few misconceptions we need to clear up. One, despite what the footage appears to show, Jason did not kill Oswald Cobblepot that night and did not intend to. The round fired was a blank. If Jason would like to disclose the reason for this choice, now would—”

Face buried in his arms, now folded into a makeshift pillow on the table, Jason flips her off without bothering to look up.

“Never mind, then,” Babs says dryly. “On your tablets, you’ll see Cobblepot’s medical records. Surface level damage only, barely nicked his skull. Next, intake photos from a hospital in Arizona, taken the day after the incident. The patient in the photos is Jason, and the recent injuries are those he sustained that night.”

Tim is suddenly very grateful to whoever made the decision not to give Jason a tablet. Nobody needs to look at photos like that of themselves.

“Next,” Barbara says. “You’ll find footage of the fight itself.”

It’s brutal from the start, but Tim was expecting that. From the sounds some of the others are making, they weren’t.

“Master Jason,” Alfred says, almost reproachful. When Tim looks up, Jason isn’t feigning sleep anymore. He’s standing at Alfred’s shoulder, instead, reaching for his tablet.

“Alfred,” he says, voice low and hoarse and a little desperate.

“I think I can handle a bit of security footage,” Alfred insists.

“Alfred, please,” Jason says, strained. On the screen, Bruce’s fist shatters Jason’s helmet, sending him sprawling. “He’s your son.”

Alfred doesn’t move.

“Alfie.” Jason’s voice breaks. Bruce’s boot slams into Jason’s side. “Please, don’t watch this.”

As long as Tim’s known him, Alfred’s always been a collected sort of man. Reserved. But he’s upset, now. There’s a terrible look on his face that’s not quite anger and not quite grief and not quite nausea, although he’s nearly green.

“Alright,” he says, eyes still glued to the tablet. Jason yanks it out of his grip in an instant, turning the screen away. “Alright,” he repeats, voice quiet. “Would you rather I go do some gardening, then?”

Jason nods once, throat working. “Please.”

“Alright,” he says one more time, then stands up, rests a trembling hand on Jason’s shoulder for a moment, and walks out.

“Whoever thought it was a good idea to let him see that,” Jason says viciously, “is a fucking moron.”

Tim swallows. He glances wide-eyed at Babs, who looks equally stricken. “I should’ve warned him,” she agrees.

Jason growls, low in his throat, but just drops into Alfred’s empty seat.

“You should’ve let him watch it.” It’s the first thing Bruce’s said since they started.

“Fuck off,” Jason snaps.

“He deserves to know—”

“No, he deserves not to have to make some bullshit choice between two people he loves.” Jason crosses his arms over his chest and mutters something in a language Tim doesn’t recognize, then says: “Get the fuck on with it, I’m ready for this to be over.”

On the tablets, Bruce is hitting a limp and unresponsive Jason. Finally, Roy Harper swoops in like a bow- and arrow-wielding angel and saves the day. His movements are rapid and disjointed as his hands flutter around Jason, checking his head and spine. He’s terrified, Tim realizes. Harper tries shaking Jason’s shoulder, but he doesn’t wake up. Harper has to half carry, half drag him out of the frame. How he managed to get them off the roof, much less out of Gotham, Tim has no clue.

When the video cuts off, an x-ray appears on the screen.

“Breaks are highlighted in red, fractures in yellow. Full body,” Babs explains. The image changes. “Chest cavity.” Changes again. “Skull.”

Oh, fuck. Tim knew it was going to be bad, it’s not like he thought Jason was exaggerating when he said they’d had to put plates in, that he’d had seizures, but knowing and seeing were very different things.

“This was not, actually, his most life-threatening injury, that would be the internal bleeding, but it was the one with the greatest potential for long-term damage. The trauma caused at least six seizures before they put him in a medically induced coma.”

Steph is crying, Tim realizes suddenly, and looks up.

“Jason,” she says shakily.

“Shut the fuck up, Blondie,” Jason snaps. His eyes are locked on Bruce. Who’s also crying, Tim realizes, but silently, gaze fixed resolutely on his tablet screen as tears roll down his cheeks. “This whole thing is against my direct wishes. Don’t fucking talk to me.”

Steph sniffs, but doesn’t say anything.

Babs continues. “There have been two other major confrontations we’ve confirmed, but don’t have footage of. One the night Jason tried to get Bruce to kill Joker.”

The photos that pop up on the tablet are from the same set as the last ones, showing Jason out cold in the same hospital bed, beat to hell. These shots are of older injuries though.

The doctors probably thought he’d been abused. The thought hits Tim with a sick jolt of certainty. They thought he was being abused, so they took photos of all of his injuries and scars in case it ever went to court. He’s sure there’s more of them, zoomed in to document every single one of Jason’s hundreds of scars, but the ones on the tablet now are of Jason’s neck, chin tilted back so the raised, jagged scar on his throat is clearly visible.

“That’s from a Batarang,” Barbara says. “It’s a distinctive shape, although I’ve never seen one on anyone’s throat before.”

The hospital pictures disappear and security footage from the cave replaces them.

“Earlier this week,” Barbara says, “there was an incident in a warehouse. Purely coincidence that Batman and Red Hood were both there. Bruce was tracking a mercenary. Jason was tracking a shipment of stolen energy cells.”

The clips Barbara picked are brutal. There’s one of Bruce dragging Jason out of the trunk, another of him shoving Jason face first against a wall in the containment area to frisk him, locking him in a cell and making him strip down to his boxers, then cuffing his wrists again and giving him nothing but a pair of joggers to fight off the cave’s chill. The shots of the head wound and the blood from it are gruesome. The blood trails down the whole right side of his body, but it’s worst on his neck and shoulder, where the caked-on layers make it look like he just stepped out of a horror film.

The worst part, though, is the obvious lack of medical care. Jason spent hours in that cell, shivering from the cold, unable to sleep, his wounds open and packed with dust and debris from the explosion. There’s a time lapse of Jason sitting in the corner, the pool of blood growing and then congealing at his bare feet as he shivers. There’s a compilation of him drifting off to sleep sitting up and then starting awake seconds later, eyes wide, muscles tense and shaking. That one makes Cass hiss angrily.

“We couldn’t find any other incidents before this week, but Tim said you mentioned something about six months ago?”

Both Bruce and Jason stiffen immediately. “No,” Jason denies at the same time as Bruce says: “Ethiopia.”

They stare at each other for a minute, then Jason huffs and looks away. “You only hit me like, twice.”

“Jason,” Bruce says lowly. “I’m sorry I brought you there, I—”

“Rewind,” Dick interrupts. “What about Ethiopia?”

Bruce opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He swallows, tries again—

“Damian was dead,” Jason says sharply. “Bruce asked for my help. I answered. Turns out he didn’t really need my help, he just—” Jason shakes his head. “Did you even get anything out of that?”

“No,” Bruce says, his voice small.

“Wait,” Steph asks, confused, “what happened?”

When Bruce doesn’t move to explain, Jason huffs irritably, then says: “He told me he needed backup to get me on the stupid jet, then landed next to what’s left of the warehouse I fucking died in in a stupid fucking plan to make me relive my death and tell him what it was like on the off chance it would help him bring Damian back.”

Silence.

“Jason,” Bruce says, sounding wrecked, “I’m—”

“You could’ve just asked, you know,” Jason snaps. “I would’ve—I would’ve told you anything you wanted to know, if I thought it would help. Do you think I liked seeing you like that? You were—” Jason swallows. “I didn’t. I would’ve told you. I would’ve done anything you wanted, if you’d asked.”

“I’m—”

“But you didn’t ask. You didn’t even warn me. You dropped it on me out of nowhere, and then you left me there. Alone and bleeding in the rubble where I died waiting for you to come save me, you absolutebastard. Who does that? Who fucking does that to someone?!

Bruce’s face is buried in his hands.

“Do you even know how long it took to forget about that shit before you made me dredge it all back up? How many years I spent with that fucker laughing in my ear every time I fucking blinked? How many times I woke up screaming your name, burning alive and still thinking you were going to save me? I never,” Jason heaves in a lungful of air, tear tracks marking his cheeks, “never stopped thinking you were going to save me. Not once. Not ever. Not until you bloodied me up in that fucking warehouse and just left.

“I’m so sorr—”

That’s not good enough!” Jason yells, voice ragged and painful sounding. “It’s done, you already did it, and you know what I have nightmares about now, Bruce? You. You, walking away and leaving me in the fucking dirt. So fuck your sorry, you asshole, you fucking bastard, you—” Jason’s voice breaks and Bruce is reaching for him, but he shoves his chair back and stands, turning his back on the table to try to collect himself.

Tim swallows hard. He glances and Dick and Babs, but they look just as helpless as he feels.

“Okay,” Jason says finally, his back still turned. “Okay. Time to wrap this up.” He turns back around, eyes red, jaw set. “Bruce need an anger management class, I need a magician to break this fucking spell, and the rest of you morons need to mind your own fucking business. We good? Good. Meeting adjourned.”

“Jason,” Bruce says lowly.

“No,” the younger man says. “I’m done.”

“Jason—”

“Jesus, you can never let anything go, can you? Just move on!”

“You’re right,” Bruce admits. “It’s time I let go.” A deep breath, and then: “I’m quitting.”

The room falls deathly quiet. Every set of eyes is locked on Bruce.

Tim swallows hard, slowly, carefully, asks: “Quitting what, Bruce?”

Bruce flicks his gaze from Jason to Tim, his blue eyes red-rimmed but steely with determination. His shoulders are back, his jaw set.

“Batman,” Bruce says levelly. “I’m quitting Batman.”

Chapter Text

“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.”